Eight Flavors: Punjabi-Mexican Cuisine and the Roti-Quesadilla

A roti quesadilla with a side of curry sauce and refried beans.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book–so I’ve decided to include it on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

Out of all the flavors I included in my book, the one that puzzled Americans the most was the inclusion of curry. Most cooks I talked simply didn’t think of it as an American flavor. But Anglo-American women were cooking with curry as early as the 18th century, and early Indian immigrants were arriving as far back as the 1880s. The arrival of immigrants from India sparked a national debate about immigration, and restrictive immigration laws were eventually passed. But at the same time, a curious new culinary culture evolved: Punjabi-Mexican cuisine.

The Culture

By 1900, Muslims from Bengal were settling on the East Coast, and Punjabi Sikh immigrants were making a home on the West Coast. The Punjab is on India’s northwestern border, and was conquered by the British in 1848. Under the Raj, the Punjab was subject to land inheritance laws similar to Ireland in the same time period: the land was divided equally between all sons, as opposed to being inherited by the oldest son. This law resulted in farms too small to sustain a family. Debts drawn to support a living added to an increasingly dire situation. A family benefited by sending a husband or son to serve in the British military, or to find well-paying work in America. Many military men served in the British port of Hong Kong, a port of transit to America. News of work in the U.S. was passed along by returning countrymen, and encouraged other Sikhs to make the trip themselves.

The San Francisco Chronicle said of the first Sikh arrivals, who disembarked in 1899, “…The quartet formed the most picturesque group that has been seen on the Pacific mail dock for many a day…They are all fine looking men, Bakkshifed Singh in particular being a marvel of physical beauty. He stands 6 feet 2 inches and is built in proportion…All of them have been soldiers and policemen in China.”

They came to the West Coast to work in lumber yards and railroads; many of them were agricultural workers, migrating as the crops ripened. Cheap labor from Asia was integral to food production in California. These laborers aspired to own their own lands and farms.

Sikh immigration was a trickle, a novelty, until about 1910. In January, 1910, 97 “Hindoos” were admitted to the United States. The term was used to designate all immigrants of Indian origin, despite the fact these immigrants were Sikh. By April, 80-100 Indian Immigrants were entering the country every week. Between 1899 and 1914, nearly 7,000 Indians immigrated to California.

The local papers wailed about the “Hindu Horde” descending upon the country. Those that were anti-South Asian immigrant claimed that the incoming Indians were all …“racially unassimilable laborers who competed unfairly with white workers and sent their money home.” H.A. Millis, the superintendent of the U.S. Immigration Commission, said “..the Hindus are regarded as the least desirable, or, better the most undesirable, of all the eastern Asiatic races which have come to share our soil…

By 1917, a national law made South Asians officially excluded as a group. In reaction to increasing racial tensions on the West Coast, congress passed a law banning immigration from India. The act–known as the Asiatic Barred Zone–used degrees of latitude and longitude to slice out a portion of the world America didn’t want immigrants from, with India right smack in the middle. Special provisions were made for tourists and highly skilled workers like doctors. For the men who were already in California, they could stay; but would not be allowed to bring over their wives and children.

Prevented from marrying outside their “race” by California miscegenation laws, many Punjabi men married local Mexican women. The Mexican Revolution was pushing families to migrate across the border; many ended up working on cotton farms run by Sikh men. On their wedding certificates, both of their races were listed as “brown,” but sometimes they could be listed as black or white. As long as their skin tones were similar, they could be married; however, should one partner be considered “too white,” the marriage license would be denied. There were at least 378 of these unions, and as a result, a unique Mexican-Indian culture was created.

The Cuisine

The wives wanted to cook food to please their husbands; the husbands, as best they could, communicated what food they liked back home in India. Both cultures used similar spices in cooking, like cumin and chili; tortillas seemed like a sister to rotis, the Punjabi flatbread made from whole wheat flour.

Moola Singh of Selma, California, married three times in his lifetime, to three different Mexican women: “I never have to explain anything India to my Mexican family,” Singh said. “Cooking the same, only talk us different…I went to Mexico two, three times, you know, not too far; just like India, just like it. Adobe houses in Mexico, they sit on floor there, make tortillas (roti you know). All kinds of food the same…” (source)

The two cuisines blended, not just in the home, but in the local restaurants. In Yuba City, California–which today has one of the world’s largest Sikh populations– El Ranchero was a Mexican restaurant serving Indian food, founded by the Rasul family. Tamara English, whose Indian grandfather and Mexican grandmother started the restaurant, remembers working there with her family:

“There for over 30 years we served Mexican food, along with curried chicken, lamb and roti. We were most famous for our Mex-Indian combo, the Roti Quesadilla, (the roti being Indian and the quesadilla of course being Mexican) which was most often served with a side of curry sauce for dipping…Just to round out the flavor I would add a side of refried beans to my plate.  (source)

 

The Recipe

Roti Quesadilla

You may have to head to an Indian specialty store to find roti, but I’ve also seen them in the frozen section of my local grocery store. I’d recommend a spicy curry sauce, which you can find in jars—the brand I used was “Patak’s.” After assembling this meal, I discovered nothing tastes as good as curry sauce over re-fried beans.

 

2 rotis
½ cup shredded cheese–cheddar, Monterey jack, or queso fresco
1 tablespoon butter
Curry sauce, for dipping
Re-fried beans

  1.      Heat a small skillet—not much larger than your roti—on medium-low heat. Add butter.
  2.      Once the butter has melted, place one roti in the skillet. Spread shredded cheese evenly over roti then top with second roti. Toast until the bottom roti begins to brown, then flip and continue to toast until cheese is melted.
  3. Cut into quarters and serve with beans and sauce.

 

Further Reading: Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans

Traditional Chinese Pastry Isn’t Baked–So What’s Up With Chinatown “Bakeries”?

An assortment of Chinese pastries. All photos by Dressler Parsons.

I’m so excited to share this post by my lastest intern, Dressler. She’s launched a blog called Bitter Butter: The Unsweet History of Pastries and you can also hire her for all things copywriting.

“That’s $12.50,” said the woman behind the counter.

Sarah and I exchanged a look. We had just spent the last several minutes poring over the long glass pastry cases in her neighborhood Chinese bakery, scrutinizing the fluffy rolls and imagining all their possible fillings. In the end, we’d selected 10 pastries, hoping to cover all our bases. We carried the goodies back to her apartment in paper bags.

“$12.50 wouldn’t get you ten pastries anywhere else,” I remember saying. “At a French bakery, it would get you, like, two. Maybe three.”

Sarah shrugged. “That’s one great thing about Chinese bakeries.”

But once I started digging into it, “Chinese bakery” started to feel like an oxymoron. Historically, Chinese pastries weren’t baked–they were steamed. But all the treats in our paper bags had definitely seen the inside of an oven. So if traditional Chinese pastries aren’t baked, what are these pastries and where are they coming from?

A baked pork bun.

Chinese baking (or traditional lack thereof)

Even today, there are a ton of blog posts and forum answers warning you (or, primarily, American expats) that ovens in Chinese kitchens are hard to come by–because Chinese cuisine gets along fine without ‘em. All the cooking can be done on a stove top: frying, braising, boiling, and steaming.

This 1917 Chinese Cook Book, for example, has an English-translated recipe for a “Meat Biscuit” that’s definitely a pork bun–and it’s steamed. The two other desserts it lists are also steamed, not baked. A Popular Science clipping from 1922 sings it again:

Most Chinese pastry is steamed rather than baked. Thick wooden covers that serve as heat insulators are placed over the mouth of the boiling pot. Where the food is to be steamed, a circular wooden frame like a small barrel six or eight inches deep is placed over the stove opening.”

The bakeries in New York’s Chinatown, where Sarah lives, are technically Hong Kong-style, even though they’re referred to broadly as “Chinese bakeries.” And Hong Kong has felt, firsthand, the strong grip of Western influence.

 

Hong Kong’s colonial history

Jeremy Pang says it best in Hong Kong Diner when he says food leaves a trail by which you can trace a history of cultural invasion, interaction or occupation. Specific to Hong Kong, he adds:

“Even the specialist breads from the local bakeries bear a considerable resemblance to the French brioche, just with the addition of spam, barbecued pork or coconut custard on the inside or a good old British crumble on top instead!”

Hong Kong was under British rule beginning in 1842, but in the 1980s, China decided they wanted to take Hong Kong back. A pretty reasonable request. Geographically, Hong Kong isn’t exactly Britain’s neighbor. The main reason why this was even a debate was–like many things–purely political. China was/is a Communist country, and even though they laid out a plan to keep Hong Kong a sovereign state, Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was all I don’t know about this one, and But HOW will I explain this to the children colonized people of Hong Kong?

Regardless, China did take Hong Kong back, and Thatcher figured out some way to explain the ensuing Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which announced that Hong Kong would slip away from British rule and run back into the arms of China beginning July 1, 1997.

If you’ve heard of the “brain drain” of Berlin, this was Hong Kong’s version. Unsure about their future with China, roughly 250,000 Hong Kong citizens emigrated overseas. They aimed primarily for Canada, because it was easier to get into, but New York saw a huge increase too, fueling and expanding what was, at the time, “the nation’s largest Chinatown.” (Currently, the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens claims that title.)

The history of British rule alone at least partially accounts for the baking. After all, we know the Brits and their love of baked goods.

 

But what about the bread itself?

If you’ve never been to a Chinese bakery, go now, order any roll, and then come back. I’ll wait.

The bread has an usual texture, yes? This soft, gummy, chewy bread is bizarrely fluffy, intriguingly addictive, and has even been scientifically studied. And the source of this texture is called a tangzhong starter.

The tangzhong starter is also sometimes called a “roux starter,” which basically means that instead of the traditional bread-baking process (mix together flour, water, salt, yeast; knead it, let it rise), you add an extra step in, where you heat flour and water in a saucepan and whisk them together until they form a paste. Once it cools, you add it to the rest of the ingredients, and your little roux works its magic. It’s called gelatinization, and I think it’s a fascinating process.

The type of bread that uses tangzhong starter tends to be called Hokkaido Milk Bread, after a region in Japan known for its dairy products.

If you’re curious to try out this tasty, tasty bread, here’s a basic recipe from Yi of Yi Reservation.

A good example of milk bread from a Hong Kong style bakery.

So where is Hokkaido milk bread from?

Guess who was under Japanese rule for a hot second? Hong Kong! This was during WWII, from 1941-1945. The tangzhong starter technique is allegedly Japanese, which means it could have entered Hong Kong’s culinary lexicon during this period. And the technique having a Japanese origin tracks; after all, Japan has also had its fair share of western culinary influence.

In the 16th century, Portugal made contact with Japan and opened up trading ports (and started a slave trade). Japan traded exclusively with Holland (and China) from 1641-1853, and then opened up trading ports to the rest of the “Western World” in 1859. The Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce also meant that American merchants were settling into Japan, so some manner of culinary exchange was definitely taking place.

Also, Japan definitely has its own breadbaking technique called Yudane. It’s not an exact match–Yudane is a mix of flour and hot water, but they’re not whisked together into a roux. Instead, boiling water is poured over the flour, the mixture is chilled overnight, and the rest stays the same. It’s not clear if Yudane is older than Tangzhong, or a more modern adaptation.

If the tangzhong technique truly is originally Japanese, it might have been popularized in China by Taiwanese baker Yu Fen Chen. Taiwan itself was colonized by the Dutch and later controlled by China, Japan, and then China again until 1975–so they’re pulling from a familiar cauldron of influence.

As far as Chen goes, she wrote wrote 65℃ Bread Doctor, referring to the temperature at which the roux works its gelatinous bread magic. It’s a little unclear what, exactly, the timeline was for this book. It seems like it was published in 2014, but it’s possible that Chen was spreading the technique before her book was published. She’s certainly enough of a celebrity chef now to appear on TV and teach pastry lessons.

The Chinese book title gets translated into “65 Soup Kind Of Bread” when put through the Google Translate wringer, which could be read as a deep mistranslation–but I don’t think it is.

This is because cookbook author Peter Reinhart refers to the “Chinese soup seed technique” in his Whole Grain Breads book, which suggests that “soup bread” or “soup seed” is another possible name for tangzhong starter. And that might sound weird, but it’s actually not–since a roux is the basis for most cream-based soups, it’s not a “leap” so much as the next logical step.

Dan Tats!

Most importantly–how tasty were those pastries?

Back in Sarah’s apartment, we studiously cut up, photographed, and took notes on the pastries–trying to eat the warm ones first, but aware we were fighting a losing battle.

The pork bun was the first pastry I tried, and my favorite–I grew up on barbecue, so there was something kind of homey about the chopped pulled pork smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce, in a roll that tasted almost like a Hawaiian roll. But fluffier. I liked it so much I legitimately forgot we had 9 more pastries ahead of us, and would’ve finished it if Sarah hadn’t leapt to my rescue.

But as we moved into successive pastries, most of the rolls with intriguingly varied names and designs were just…bread. Extremely delicious, fluffy, chewy bread, but still. That being said, it amazed me how these pastries quietly painted such a complex history of colonial rule, trade, and immigration. The fluffy “Danish Milk Grape” and “Swedish Roll,” and the cookie top on the Pineapple Bun and Lemon Bun (neither of which were filled with their names, bee tee dubs) all speak to trade routes and occupation, to colliding culinary influences.

It was a little overwhelming, later that night, to think about the full journey of these pastries–their ingredients, techniques, and recipes. In a sense, they had made their way from Japan, through Taiwan, to Hong Kong, to Manhattan. And finally, they were in my apartment in Brooklyn, where I wrapped a leftover bun in a damp paper towel, stuck it in a microwave for 20 seconds, and enjoyed the warm, spongy bread with a pat of butter.

 

Beaver Butt, Chili Powder, and MSG

Dried castoreum on display in a museum. Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

This summer was a whirlwind of food activity! I’ve got a new piece up on Mental Floss about the history of a vanilla substitute found in the glands of a beaver’s butt, and why you shouldn’t be that worried about it sneaking into your vanilla ice cream.
“In September 2013, popular blogger “The Food Babe” released a video proclaiming that beavers “flavor a ton of foods at the grocery store with their little butthole!” Since then, the internet has been crowded with alarmist posts saying that beaver’s butts are used to flavor everything from soft drinks to vanilla ice cream. The culprit behind this scare is a flavorant called castoreum—but what exactly is it, and is it worth all the fuss?”
Read the full article here!
I also appeared on Gravy, chatting about chili powder and the man who invented it; William Gebhart, a German immigrant. Listen here or below–
“I love this part of the story because it deals with what I think we feel is a very modern concept; tourism. After the Mexican-American War, people were really excited about a new part of the United States! There were local street-food vendors that, before the wave of tourism, had fed the soldiers that were coming in and out of San Antonio. They were families, and it was usually that grandma and grandpa made the food during the day, and it was one of their unmarried daughters that would be on the market with the family selling the food, and the young women who were put forward as the stars of the show, they were known as the Chili Queens. After you had gone out and had a couple beers, you would go out and get some chili con carne, or some tamales or mole–it was the thing to do. You went to San Antonio, you saw the Alamo, and the next thing to do is go try some chili.”

And last, I’ve got a video up on Extra Crispy, talking about one of my favorite topics–MSG and WTF it is.

“People are scared of MSG, right? It’s this dangerous powder that’s gonna make you have all these terrible maladies. Well, the truth is, there’s no science that supports that. I can tell you what it is, and how we ended up being scared of it, and how restaurants like Mission Chinese are battling those stereotypes.”

Watch the rest above or here!

Eight Flavors Book Club Discussion Questions!

If Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine is on your summer reading list, then here are some very official discussion questions to help you along!

 

  1. Lohman mentions omitting certain prominent American flavors from the book, such as chocolate and coffee, because of the wealth of existing coverage and research on them. Why else do you think she specifically chose to feature these eight flavors? What other quintessential flavors in American food are not featured in this book?
  2. Lohman profiles the individual histories of each of her eight chosen flavors. Which flavor’s story did you find to be the most engaging or interesting? Why?

  3. Which of the eight flavors did you feel you learned the most about? Which did you have the most prior knowledge of?

  4. What was the most surprising thing you learned from this book?

  5. Lohman argues that American cuisine is “the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet.” Do you agree with this statement and why?

  6. Think about how you personally define the term “American cuisine”, and how Lohman defines it. When does an ingredient imported from another part of the world become “American” and part of “American cuisine”?

  7. How has this book changed the way you think about American cuisine; how it is defined, where it comes from, etc?

  8. Having read this book, would you consider reading more about the topic of American food history (or food history more broadly)?

  9. Has reading this book influenced or affected your tastes in food? For example, do you find yourself wanting to further explore a specific cuisine or more likely to eat or make a certain food than you were before?

  10. Consider the examples of MSG, which Lohman describes as unfairly receiving bad press, or vanilla, which became more widespread with advances in production techniques. What other factors influence how a specific ingredient goes up, or down, in popularity? What gives a foodstuff “staying power” in terms of how popular it is?

  11. In the final chapter of the book, Lohman speculates where the flavor trends of American cuisine might lead us in the future. What do you make of her predictions? Have you noticed other flavors or ingredients rising in popularity that might become the stars of American cuisine next year? What about five, ten, or even twenty years in the future? Do you expect that the flavors depicted in this book will remain enduringly popular?

Podcast: The Science Enthusiast

I recently appeared on the The Science Enthusiast podcast, talking FOOD SCIENCE, natch. Tune in to hear me chat MSG, GMOs and much more. But don’t listen if you don’t like cussing, we do that a lot.

The History Dish: “Barida,” A Medieval Arab Recipe with Ancient Roman Roots

Barrida, an herby-chicken dish.

This is a special guest post from Intern Andrew! We just wrapped working together for the past five months, and as a result, he’s launched a new blog: Pass The Flamingowhich focuses on ancient cuisine. Read on to learn more about a unique recipe from the Islamic world.

Over its long history, the Arab world has become a unique crossroads, the site of centuries of influence and exchange between cultures indigenous and foreign. One example of this influence is in foods like barida: an Islamic-era chicken dish that carries on the traditions of Ancient Rome.

Much of what we now call the Arab world was at one time also the Roman world. In the third century BCE, two great rival nations stood on opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea: the Roman Republic and the kingdom of Carthage. A century later, Carthage was no more and Rome had overtaken its territory in Spain and North Africa. From there, Roman power would swiftly circle the coastline as the Romans conquered first Syria, then Egypt, then the Levant. By the first decade of the first century, the Romans ruled every land touched by Mediterranean waters.

Wherever Roman power extended, so did Roman culture. The Romans introduced their gods, language, laws and food to every land they conquered, while also picking up new habits and customs from the people of those lands. One of the ways this history shows itself most clearly is in food. Reading the book Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali (2009), I was struck by the various similarities between Ancient Roman cuisine and the cuisine of the medieval Arabs, Berbers and other North African and Middle Eastern peoples.

One of the most central ingredients in Roman cuisine is the fermented fish sauce garum. Savory, salty and rich in B-vitamins, garum is used in almost every Roman recipe. Zaouali describes a fermented sauce called murri as essential to medieval Islamic cuisine. In its role in cuisine as well as its flavor and nutritional profile, murri is identical to the garum of Ancient Rome, except for one key difference: garum is made from fermented fish, and murri from fermented barley (although Zaouali also records a variant made with grasshoppers). Some scholars believe murri evolved directly from Roman garum, connecting the name to Latin salmuris, which means “brine”, or to muria, one of the byproducts of garum production. Zaouali connects both sauces to a common origin in the ancient Middle East; perhaps analogous to soy sauce and fish sauce in Asian cuisines, which also diversified from a common point of origin.

The first Arabic-language cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ (The Book of Dishes), was written in 10th-century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Sarah has made several dishes from this book, including a chicken wrap, a lamb stew, and a roast chicken with a savory pudding. You can read about them here. The Book of Dishes features a number of recipes for barida, chicken or fish topped with a complex sauce of spices and herbs that is prepared separately from the meat. Al-Warraq traces barida to the 8th-century ‘Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, but the distinctive techniques and combinations of ingredients are far older, with roots in Roman North Africa and other places with a long history of cross-cultural exchange.

Typical ingredients in the sauce poured on barida include Roman favorites: dates, caraway, cumin, coriander/cilantro, asafetida, rue, pomegranate and pepper, with murri standing in for garum. The spicy-sweet-bitter flavor profile as well as the serving and preparation call to mind the 3rd-century Roman cookbook Apicius, including one of its most memorable entries, a recipe for a whole, roasted flamingo. When I recreated that recipe for my ancient food blog (which takes its name, Pass the Flamingo, from that particular experiment), I had to compromise by using a duck, but I managed a pretty faithful interpretation of the main element of the dish: a thick sauce of many ingredients, sweet and intensely spiced, prepared separately from the meat and poured on top for serving.

It’s worth noting that many of these ingredients popular among the Romans are actually native to the Middle East and North Africa (including flamingo itself). Although the influence of Roman cuisine on later Medieval Arab cuisine is apparent, it is less clear with whom these recipes and techniques truly originated. Was it Romans who adopted foreign influence into their diet, or non-Romans who adopted Roman influence–or both?

The Recipe

Out of several barida recipes in Zaouali’s book, this one caught my eye largely because it includes the herb elecampane, which I had never had the opportunity to use before (more on that below). Zaouali includes a translation of al-Warraq’s 10th century original:

Cold Chicken With Spices and Herbs

Take some vinegar and murrī and in them macerate coriander [seeds], Chinese cinnamon, pepper, dried and fresh thyme, cumin, caraway, fresh coriander [cilantro], mint, rue, celery, the pulp of a cucumber, and elecampane. Put everything in a grinder, mix, and pour over the grilled chicken.

Some notes on the ingredients:

  • I inferred that the recipe calls for celery leaves, which are often used as an herb in Roman recipes. They have a similar flavor to the stalks.
  • Per Zaouali’s suggestion, soy sauce will substitute for barley-based murri. The flavor is said to be similar, but I also noticed strong similarities between the process for making murri as described by Zaouali and the traditional process for making soy sauce. In both cases, a cooked grain is shaped into cakes, allowed to air-dry and rot, and then sealed up with water and salt to ferment. A lot of modern soy sauce brands even contain barley or wheat.
  • I wasn’t quite sure which part of a cucumber constitutes “the pulp”–just the flesh? Just the seeds? I decided to go with both.
  • “Chinese cinnamon” is an old name for Cinnamomum cassia, the species commonly called “cinnamon” in the USA.
  • Elecampane is a species of sunflower with an edible root. It has many other names, all of which make it sound like it belongs in a Shakespearean witches’ brew (horse-heal, scabwort, elfdock, yellow starwort, etc). I managed to find some of the dried root at Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, my go-to stop for spices and herbs from around the world. In case you were wondering, elecampane tastes extremely bitter and smells like wood chips, specifically those wood shavings you put in the bottom of a hamster cage. The package I bought says “not been evaluated by FDA.” I think it was meant to be made into tea.
  • Rue is another bitter herb that was popular in ancient times. I have some dried rue that I ordered online and have used in many Roman recipes. It’s worth being cautious about, as some people are allergic. Dandelion leaves would be a good substitute for both rue and elecampane.

Below is the recipe according to the procedure I followed:

Ingredients:

4 chicken legs (skin on)
Pinch of salt
½ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into chunks
About ½ of cup each of the following fresh herbs, loosely packed:
Thyme
Cilantro
Mint (any variety)
Celery leaves
½ teaspoon each of the following:
Black pepper
Dried thyme
Cumin
Cinnamon
Coriander seed
Caraway seed
Dried elecampane
Dried rue (Substitute a couple of fresh dandelion leaves for the elecampane and rue, or leave out)

  1. Season the chicken legs with a little salt on both sides and cook them on a stovetop grill over medium-high heat. When they are finished, remove and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind all the dry ingredients into powder. Then add the other sauce ingredients and continue to grind until you have an even green paste.
  3. Spoon the sauce over the pieces of cold chicken and serve.

The Results

Barida is explicitly described as an appetizer served cold. At first that sounded unappetizing to me, but I can only guess that the low temperature is necessary to keep the herbs in the sauce from being cooked by the heat of the chicken. In the end, I was really pleased with how this recipe turned out. The sauce has a bright flavor from all the fresh herbs; the soy sauce provides all the necessary salt, and the pureed cucumber balances out the acid from the vinegar. There are so many other ingredients that I couldn’t taste each of them individually, and I’m still skeptical about the inclusion of both dried and fresh thyme, which I’ve never seen in a recipe before.

The bitterness of the elecampane is hard to shake, and it was the last flavor I tasted in the sauce. Bitter as a flavor seems to have been much better-appreciated in ancient times than today. If the bitter ingredients were taken out, I wouldn’t be surprised to find something like this on a modern menu.

The History of Garlic: From Medicine to Marinara

Garlick, from The Herbal by John Gerard, 1597.

I’ve got a guest post up on Books, Health and History,  the New York Academy of Medicine’s blog, based on  Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. I’ll be speaking there on Monday, June 5, about the whole history of garlic (to read more about this lecture and to register, go HERE.) But in the meantime, this post is all about garlic’s connection to medicine:

Ms. Amelia Simmons gave America its first cookbook in 1796; within her pamphlet filled with sweet and savory recipes, she makes this note about garlic: “Garlickes, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” In her curt dismissal, she reflected a belief that was thousands of years old: garlic was best for medicine, not for eating. To add it to your dinner was considered the equivalent of serving a cough syrup soup.

You can the entire post, including some of garlic’s more dubious medical claims, here.

Mental Floss: Why Early America was Obsessed with Nutmegs

I’ve got a post up on Mental Floss, unwrapping the mystery of the wooden nutmeg!

Although today we’re primarily familiar with nutmeg as a powder that comes in little plastic bottles, it’s actually the pit of the fruit of a tree native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Throughout the 18th century, the Dutch controlled the Banda Islands, keeping nutmeg scarce and prices high in international markets. In America, where nutmeg was a popular flavor in 18th and early 19th century cooking, the spice was extraordinarily expensive—so expensive, unscrupulous vendors allegedly tried to replicate nutmegs in wood.

Read the whole story here!

And below, a visual step-by-step of  making a wooden nutmeg.

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Photos and nutmeg by Douglas Strich.

Origin of a Dish: Steak au Poivre

Black pepper-crusted steaks. Photo by Alan Tran.

While writing my first book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, I researched the eight most popular flavors in American cooking: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. When I dived deep into each of these eight topics, I often found fascinating new information and recipes–some of which didn’t make it into the book. So over the next few months, I’ll be publishing this exclusive content on my blog! If it whets your appetite to read the whole book, make sure to get your own copy here.

When we cook a steak, we often cover it in a thick layer of cracked peppercorns and salt. A simple, but flavorful, preparation. This generous crusting of pepper is often credited to a trend born of the 1960s, with a dish called steak au poivre. But the roots of this classic steak preparation may go back much further.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is a manuscript collection of recipes, gifted to Martha on the occasion of her first marriage to Danial Custis. The recipe book– copied from recipes of her in-laws–includes recipes that date from the late medieval era to the early 18th century. One in particular caught my eye: a roast of venison crusted in black pepper.

To Season a Venison

Take out ye bones & turne ye fat syde downe upon a board. yn take ye pill of 2 leamons & break them in pieces as long as yr finger & thrust them into every hole of yr venison. then take 2 ounces of beaten pepper & thrice as much salt, mingle it, then wring out ye juice of lemon into ye pepper & salt & season it, first taking ye leamon pills haveing layn soe a night. then paste it with gross pepper layd on ye top & good store of butter or muton suet.

Here’s a rough translation of the recipe: De-bone a roast of venison. Take the peel of two lemons and cut it into finger length strips, stuffing them into any holes left from the bones. Let the meat sit overnight, and remove the lemon peels. Take two ounces ground pepper and six ounces salt, mixed with the juice of one lemon, and season the holes the lemon peels previously occupied. Crust it with cracked pepper and butter or fat.

Sounds like the great-great-granduncle of a modern steakhouse dish, doesn’t it? This pepper-heavy treatment of venison was recommended through the 19th century to offset the strong, gamey flavor of the meat. The salt and fat would also serve to keep moist what was a particularly lean, dry meat. By the end of the 19th century, this dish evolved to have a creamy, pepper sauce, or sauce poivrade, and became known as “Steak a la Diane,”named after the Roman goddess of the hunt. The renowned Auguste Escoffier gave us a recipe for pepper sauce intended for venison in Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903.

Sauce Diane

Lightly whip 2dl [about 2 cups] of cream and add it at the last moment to 5dl [4 1/2 cups] well seasoned and reduced Sauce Poivrade. Finish with 2 tbs each of small crescent shaped pieces of truffle and hard-boiled white of egg. This sauce is suitable for serving with cutlets, noisettes and other cuts of venison.

His sauce was comprised of three other sauces and stocks, each one slowly simmered from finely diced vegetables and joints of meat to add levels of deep flavor, and finished with slices of truffle. The entire dish, rich with pepper, would have taken an army of kitchen staff days of preparation before it finally landed in front of a restaurant patron.

French chefs simplified the dish after the turn of the century, calling it “steak au poivre” for the first time. Venison steak was replaced with crushed peppercorn-encrusted beef, which was pan seared and served with a brandy, butter, and (sometimes) cream-based sauce. The dish was often cooked table-side because when the brandy was added to the hot pan it resulted in an impressive tower of vaporized alcohol flames.

In the 1960s, American home cooks were introduced to the cuisine of France by Julia Child. Child’s longtime friend Jacques Pépin remembered her in the New York Times as “… almost a foot taller than I and her voice was unforgettable — shrill and warm at the same time.” They loved to disagree and debate proper cooking techniques and ingredients; “I like black pepper and she liked white pepper,” he recalled. According to Pépin, Child’s style of cooking meant “a simple meal made with great care and the best possible ingredients.” Her strong opinions on food come through in her recipe for steak au poivre. Child’s 1961 recipe for steak au povire in Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the first to be published in America, but she speaks to her readers as though the recipe was a familiar one, a nod to its pre-existing popularity in restaurants.

Julia Child.

Steak au poivre can be very good when it is not so buried in pepper and doused with flaming brandy that the flavor of the meat is utterly disguised,” Child writes. “In fact, we do not care at all for flaming brandy with this dish; it is too reminiscent of restaurant show-off cooking for tourists. And the alcohol taste, as it is not boiled off completely, remains in the brandy, spoiling the taste of the meat.” As a rule, she felt “there was too much flaming in table top cookery.” In Child’s recipe, after the steaks are seared a sauce is made with leeks and crispy cooked bits left in the bottom of the pan, as well as vegetable stock, cognac and a lot of butter.  The peppercorns crisp into a crust, and the dish is served with potatoes to soak up the rich sauce.

Through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, steak au poivre entered the American mainstream and set the precedent for how we prepare beef; a perfect example of Julia Child’s tremendous culinary influence. The dish is also key in shaping our modern identity of pepper. Steak au poivre treats pepper not as just another spice to be shaken into every dish, but as an ingredient with a bold flavor all its own. Steak au poivre today influences how most Americans cook their meat: crusted in salt and pepper, seared and served. The most basic cooking technique, and perhaps the most delicious.

Steak au poivre. Photo by mmmWolf.

Steak au Poivre
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 2011 reprint, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck

2 Tb of a mixture of several kinds of peppercorns, or white peppercorns
Place the peppercorns in a big mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.

2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak 3/4 to 1 inch thick
Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crush peppercorns into both sides of the meat with your fingers and the palms of your hands. Cover with waxed paper. let stand for at least half an hour; two or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.

A hot platter
Salt
Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter as described in the preceding master recipe. Remove to a hot platter, season with salt, and keep warm for a moment while completing the sauce.

1 Tb butter
2 Tb minced shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock or canned beef bouillon
1/3 cup cognac
3 to 4 Tb softened butter
Sauteed or fried potatoes
Fresh water cress

Pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots or green onions and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock or bouillon and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two more to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter and half-tablespoon at a time. Decorate the platter with the potatoes and water cress. Pour the sauce over the steak, and serve.

 

 

Lapham’s Quarterly: Mild, Medium or Hot?

Curry powder illustration by Peter Van Hyning

I’ve got a new piece up on the Lapham’s Quarterly blog, all about how Americans went from adventurous eaters to plain janes—and then back again.

Much of what we view as American identity is English: pilgrims and Plymouth, pumpkin pie and pot roast. It’s seasoned with at most a few herbs, perhaps a few imported spices. It’s from this English heritage that much of our stereotype of being lovers of bland food comes from. But by the early nineteenth century, American cookbooks had begun to move away from pure British cuisine, reflecting America’s multiculturalism with increasingly fiery food. One of America’s earliest cookbooks is also considered one of the most influential: The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, published in 1824. As food historian Karen Hess points out in her introduction to the 1984 reprint, Randolph’s recipe selection illustrated “an elemental change in palate” from somewhat tame English dishes to highly spiced regional cuisine. Randolph’s book contains half a dozen curry recipes and a homemade curry powder that uses a full ounce of cayenne pepper, as well as turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and mace. The recipes reflected not only her British forebears’ love of curry (which also bucks the bland-food stereotype) but also a common trait of American port cities: a love of spicy cuisine from the Far East. Indigenous American foods are reflected in the recipe “To Barbecue Shote”: the origin of barbecue is the native word and cooking technique barbacoa, and in this recipe a “fat, young hog” is dressed in a sauce that includes garlic, black pepper, and highly seasoned mushroom ketchup (a soy-sauce-like concoction made from salted fermented mushrooms and spices). Enslaved black cooks brought dishes and spicy seasonings from the Caribbean like pepper pot, a tripe soup that includes whole dried chilies in Randolph’s recipe. Based on The Virginia Housewife, it would be safe to say that America in the first half of the nineteenth century was a very spicy place.

Read the full article here!