(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘cuisine

“I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day”*…

The social centrality of sweets…

Each country finds its own way to get its sugar fix. The crackly burnished sugar on top of a pot of crème brûlée in France. The grainy buttery sugar of a slab of Scottish tablet. The caramelised, milky sugar of dulce de leche, slathered on toast or pancakes. The intensely processed sugar of the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens the chocolate drizzle, ice cream and brownie chunks of an American sundae.

A taste for sweetness makes sense in evolutionary terms: sugary foods are a quick and easy source of energy. But despite its universal appeal, says Anissa Helou, a Lebanese-Syrian author and chef (whose surname means “sweet”), Middle Easterners seem to be particularly enamoured by sugar. Five of the top 20 countries that consume the most sugar per person are in the Middle East.

Why is the region so enchanted by sweet stuff? Sugar was widely available in the Middle East long before that was true in the West. Helou also points to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, which in other countries is used as a celebratory treat, luxury or distraction (though the ban on drinking is observed to varying degrees across the Muslim world). If you can’t do shots in Dubai, you can belly up to the milkshake bar and get a high from guzzling a chocolatey ice cream concoction. After dinner, sweetened tea takes the place of an aperitif. Juice and sugar-cane stalls replace pubs and bars on street corners.

Across the Middle East and Turkey, bakery shelves heave with a variety of syrup-soaked pastries. You can find diamonds of basbousa (which in Arabic sweetly translates as “just a kiss”), a cake made from semolina and drenched with syrup scented with rose or orange blossom. Coils of m’hanncha, an almond-packed roll of pastry, curled to look like a sleeping snake. Kunafa, shredded pastry filled with a creamy cheese or nuts and doused in yet more floral syrup. Znoud el-sit, which literally means “women’s upper arms”, crunchy, plump little cigars of filo pastry, stuffed with cream, fried and steeped in syrup or honey. But the best known by far, at least in the rest of the world, are sheets of fine filo pastry filled with nuts and bathed in syrup and butter: baklava.

Versions of layered, nutty pastries may have been made as early as the eighth century BC by the Assyrians, but it was the Ottomans who perfected the sticky glory of baklava. The imperial kitchens of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul were said to have turned out trays of the stuff in the 15th century. Most notably, on the 15th day of Ramadan, when the sultan would visit the hirka-i-serif (a relic believed to be part of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad), baklava was given to his janissaries, an elite group of soldiers. It was a food of occasion, so much so that even today there’s a common saying in Turkey: “I am not rich enough to eat baklava every day.” (Boxes of baklava regularly feature as carry-on luggage at airports in Turkey, especially around the holidays, both religious and secular.)

In 2013 the European Commission bestowed a “protected designation-of-origin” status on baklava from Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city – the first Turkish product to be recognised in this way. Bakers across Greece, the Middle East and beyond may challenge the Turks’ claims on baklava, but whether their versions pre-date the reach of the Ottomans or are the result of their expansion, baklava pops up everywhere from Morocco to Iran. The shapes differ, the nuts vary and the spices change but the syrupy richness does not.

Even without the sultans and their acolytes, baklava still evokes a sense of ceremony. Feast days, religious or otherwise, to celebrate both the living and the dead, are occasions for baklava. So, too, are visits by friends. Claudia Roden, a grandee of Middle Eastern cooking born to an Egyptian-Jewish family, writes that baklava (along with other sweets) is associated, for her, with “feelings of well-being, warmth and welcome, of giving and receiving, of crowds of people smiling, kissing, hugging and showering hospitality”. Whereas Christians often forgo foodstuffs such as sugar during the 40 days of Lent, Ramadan brings a nightly feast in which sweets play an important role. In Turkey, Eid al-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, is known as Seker Bayrami, the feast of sweets…

In the absence of alcohol, sweet treats unite the Middle East: “Go nuts: the multilayered history of baklava,” from Josie Delap (@josiedelap) in @1843mag— with a recipe!

* traditional Turkish saying

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As we lick our lips (and our fingers), we might spare a thought for Chapin Aaron Harris; he died on this date in 1860. Trained as a physician, he specialized in matters of the mouth. He helped found the American Society of Dental Surgeons (ASDS), the first national dental organization in the U.S., and founded the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (now the University of Maryland School of Dentistry), the first dental college in the U.S. (and, it’s believed, the world).

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“Food is an important part of a balanced diet”*…

In your quest to eat right, are you an a nutritionist or an essentialist?

Nutrition science began with the chemical description of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the 19th century. The field didn’t seem to hold much medical import; the research was mostly aimed at cheaply feeding poor and institutionalised people well enough to keep them from rioting. Germ theory, on the other hand, was new and revolutionary medical science, and microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur were demonstrating that one disease after another, from cholera to malaria to leprosy, was caused by microbes. But at the turn of the 20th century, nutrition science suddenly arrived as a major part of our understanding of human health…

In 1911, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk announced that he’d isolated the beriberi-preventing chemical, which he thought to be a molecule containing an amine group, and named it ‘vitamine’ – a vital amine. The next year, Funk published an ambitious paper and book arguing that not only beriberi but three other human diseases – scurvy, pellagra and rickets – were each caused by a lack of a particular vitamin. Within a few months, the English researcher Frederick Hopkins published the results of a series of experiments in which he fed animals diets based on pure proteins, carbohydrates and fats, after which they developed various ailments. He posited that the simplified diets lacked some ‘accessory food factors’ important for health. Those factors and many others were discovered over the next three decades, and researchers showed how these vitamins were critical to the function of practically every part of the body. Ten of those scientists, including Eijkman and Hopkins, won Nobel prizes. At the same time that physicists laid out the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, describing fundamental laws that governed the Universe on its smallest and largest scales, chemists discovered the laws that seemed to govern the science of nutrition.

[… which, over the last 100 years, has exploded…]

[Gyorgy Scrinis, a professor of food politics and policy at the University of Melbourne] argues that the field of nutrition science is under the sway of an ideology he dubbed ‘nutritionism’, a mode of thinking about food that makes a number of erroneous assumptions: it reduces foods to quantified collections of nutrients, pulls foods out of the context of diets and lifestyles, presumes that biomarkers such as body-mass index are accurate indicators of health, overestimates scientists’ understanding of the relationship between nutrients and health, and falls for corporations’ claims that the nutrients they sprinkle into heavily processed junk foods make them healthful. These errors lead us toward food that is processed to optimise its palatability, convenience and nutrient profile, drawing us away from the whole foods that Scrinis says we should be eating. He says the history of margarine provides a tour of the perils of nutritionism: it was first adopted as a cheaper alternative to butter, then promoted as a health food when saturated fat became a nutritional bugbear, later castigated as a nutritional villain riddled with trans fats, and recently reformulated without trans fats, using new processes such as interesterification. That has succeeded in making margarine look better, according to nutritionism’s current trends, but is another kind of ultra-processing that’s likely to diminish the quality of food….

While Scrinis cites the growing body of scientific research implicating modern food processing, he also supports his critique of nutritionism with appeals to intuition. ‘This idea that ultra-processed foods are degraded – we’ve always known this,’ he says. ‘Our senses tell us whole foods are wholesome. People know this intuitively. The best foods in terms of cuisine are made from whole foods, not McDonald’s. It’s common sense.’

Even as nutritionism pushes us to believe that the latest nutrition research reveals something important about food, we also hold on to a conflicting concept: the idea that natural foods are better for us in ways that don’t always show up in scientific studies – that whole foods contain an inherent essence that is despoiled by our harsh modern processing techniques. ‘It’s a general attitude that you can break foods down that is the problem,’ says Scrinis. ‘It’s showing no respect for the food itself.’ This idea of respecting food reveals an underlying perspective that is essentialist, which, in philosophy, is the Platonic view that certain eternal and universal characteristics are essential to identity. Science is usually thought of as the antithesis of our atavistic intuitions, yet nutrition science has contained an essentialist view of nutrition for almost a century.

Most of us carry both ideologies, essentialism and nutritionism, in our minds, pulling us in different directions, complicating how we make decisions about what to eat. This tension is also visible in nutrition. Many government public health agencies give precise recommendations, based on a century of hard research, for the amounts of every nutrient we need to keep us healthy. They also insist that whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the best ways to get those nutrients. But if you accept the nutrient recommendations, why assume that whole foods are a better way of getting those nutrients than, say, a powdered mix that is objectively superior in terms of cost, convenience and greenhouse emissions? What’s more, powdered mixes make it far easier for people to know exactly what they’re eating, which addresses one problem that constantly vexes nutritionists.

This kind of reflexive preference for natural foods can sometimes blind us to the implications of science. Even as research piles up implicating, for instance, excessive sugar as a particular problem in modern diets, most nutrition authorities refuse to endorse artificial sweeteners as a way to decrease our sugar consumption. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time with artificial sweeteners, and I cannot find any solid evidence there’s anything wrong with including them in your diet,’ says Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist who has been writing about nutrition for more than 20 years. She says there’s some evidence that low-calorie sweeteners help some people lose weight, but you won’t hear that from nutrition authorities, who consistently minimise the positives while focusing on potential downsides that have not been well-established by research, such as worries that they cause cancer or scramble the gut microbiome. Why the determined opposition? ‘Because artificial sweeteners check lots of the boxes of the things that wholesome eaters avoid. It’s a chemical that’s manufactured in a plant. It’s created by the big companies that are selling the rest of the food in our diet, a lot of which is junk.’ Haspel says that nutritionists’ attitude to low-calorie sweeteners is ‘puritanical, it’s holier-than-thou, and it’s breathtakingly condescending’. The puritanical response reflects the purity of essentialism: foods that are not ‘natural’ are not welcome in the diets of right-thinking, healthy-eating people…

Our arguments over food are so polarised because they are not only about evidence: they are about values. Our choice of what we put inside us physically represents what we want inside ourselves spiritually, and that varies so much from person to person. Hearn uses food, much of it from a blender, to hack his body and keep him well-fuelled between business meetings. Scrinis looks forward to spending time in his kitchen, tinkering with new varieties of sourdough packed with sprouted grains and seeds. Haspel lives in Cape Cod, where she grows oysters, raises chickens, and hunts deer for venison – and also drinks diet soda and uses sucralose in her smoothies and oatmeal, to help keep her weight down.

Nutritionism and essentialism provide comfortingly clear perspectives about what makes food healthful. But an open-minded look at the evidence suggests that many of the most hotly debated questions about nutrition are impossible to answer with the information we have, maybe with the information we will ever have in the foreseeable future. If we isolate nutrients and eat them in different forms than they naturally come in, how will they affect us? Can processed foods be made in ways to approach or even surpass the healthfulness of natural whole foods?…

Human bodies are so fascinating in part because they are so variable and malleable. Beyond some important universals, such as the vitamins discovered a century ago, different people’s bodies work differently, because of their genes, behaviours and environments. The food we eat today changes the way our bodies work tomorrow, making yesterday’s guidance out of date. There are too many variables and too few ways to control them…

Maybe the reason that diet is so difficult to optimise is that there is no optimal diet. We are enormously flexible omnivores who can live healthily on varied diets, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors or modern people filling shopping carts at globally sourced supermarkets, yet we can also live on specialised diets, like traditional Inuits who mostly ate a small range of Arctic animals or subsistence farmers who ate little besides a few grains they grew. Aaron Carroll, a physician in Indiana and a columnist at The New York Times, argues that people spend far too much time worrying about eating the wrong things. ‘The “dangers” from these things are so very small that, if they bring you enough happiness, that likely outweighs the downsides,’ he said in 2018. ‘So much of our food discussions are moralising and fear-inducing. Food isn’t poison, and this is pretty much the healthiest people have even been in the history of mankind. Food isn’t killing us.’

Food is a vehicle for ideologies such as nutritionism and essentialism, for deeply held desires such as connecting with nature and engineering a better future. We argue so passionately about food because we are not just looking for health – we’re looking for meaning. Maybe, if meals help provide a sense of meaning for your life, that is the healthiest thing you can hope for.

Vitamins or whole foods? high-fat or low-fat? sugar or sweetener?… Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat? “The Food Wars,” from Amos Zeeberg (@settostun)

[image above: source]

* Fran Lebowitz

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As we scale the food pyramid, we might send birthday greetings in oyster sauce to Joyce Chen; she was born on this date in 1917.  A chef, restauranteur, author, television personality, and entrepreneur, she parlayed a successful Cambridge, MA restaurant (where she’s credited with creating the “all you can eat Chinese buffet” to perk up slow Tuesdays and Wednesdays) into a collection of restaurants, a cooking school, a series of cookbooks, and a PBS series (shot on the same set as Julia Child’s show).  She is credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in America.  Chen was honored in 2014 (along with Julia Child) as one of the five chefs featured on a series of U.S. postage stamps.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2021 at 1:00 am

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese”*…

Well, one strategy, embraced by dictators worldwide, is to declare one of them the official national cheese…

It always surprises me that more people don’t know that pad Thai was invented by a dictator. I don’t mean that the authoritarian prime minister of Thailand, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, got creative in the kitchen one day. But he made pad Thai—then an unknown noodle dish without a name—the country’s national dish by fiat.

Phibunsongkhram was a military officer who took power in a coup and liked to compare himself to Napoleon. Establishing pad Thai as Thailand’s official food was one of many reforms he pursued to unify the country under his leadership. And it was remarkably successful.

The Thai leader is not the only authoritarian who took an active interest in his country’s cuisine. When successful, dictators’ food obsessions can change how a country eats and drinks for generations. Here, we explore the fascinating but unnerving world of dictator food projects…

Authoritarian food obsessions can have a lasting legacy: “The Dictators Who Ruled Their Countries’ Cuisines,” from Alex Mayyasi (@amayyasi), with a Q&A with chef-turned-journalist Witold Szablowski, who published How to Feed a Dictator, a book that tells the story of five chefs who worked for five terrible rulers.

* Charles de Gaulle

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As we contemplate comestible coercion, we might send comforting birthday greetings to Dorcas Lillian Bates Reilly; she was born on this date in 1926. A chef and inventor, she worked for many years in the test kitchen at the Campbell’s Soup Company– where she developed hundreds of recipes, including a tuna-noodle casserole and Sloppy Joe “souperburgers.” But she is best remembered for “the green bean bake”– or as it is better known, the green bean casserole— a holiday staple in tens of millions of households every year. While her recipe made good use of her employer’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, she believed that the French’s crispy fried onions were the “touch of genius” in the dish.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 22, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer”*…

The tacos estilo Matamoros at El Ultimo Taco Taqueria, in Brownsville

Tacos Estilo Matamoros: a beef and cheese taco that originated in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico

A nod to the Rio Grande Valley’s cattle ranching heritage, tacos estilo Matamoros are made up of small, oily corn tortillas, a beef filling such as bistec or mollejas (beef sweetbreads), and crumbled or shredded queso fresco, and they usually come three to five in an order. Although they are wildly popular in Brownsville, they get their name from the sister city of Matamoros, where El Último Taco: Los Originales claims to have invented the style…

An excerpt from your correspondent’s favorite Holiday wishbook– and your guide to the many types of tacos– José R. Ralat, Texas Monthly‘s Taco Editor‘s “Tacopedia.”

* Tom Robbins

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As we lick our fingers, we might send wriggly birthday greetings to Pierre-Joseph van Beneden; he was born on this date in 1809. A zoologist and paleontologist, he discovered the life cycle of the tapeworm (Cestoda).

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 19, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Have you ever bitten a red hot ice cube? That’s curry”*…

 

curry

Sir Joseph Paxton, “Capsicum ustulatum,” Paxton’s Magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants, 1838

 

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the entire world changed: slavery, war, disease, colonization, and an immense transfer of wealth to Europe. And with that wealth too came New World nightshades—potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, peppers of all kinds. It took some time for these fruits and vegetables to plant themselves into European cuisine. The tomato, for example, wasn’t widely used in Italian cuisine until the eighteenth century. But what about food further out from Europe? What about India?

Soon after Columbus’ first expedition, the treaties of Tordesillas and Saragossa divided the oceans of the newly-known world. The Portuguese effectively took the Atlantic and Indian oceans, while the Spanish took the Pacific. With that, the Portuguese established forts and trading posts along India’s Malabar coast. In time, aloo (potato), tamātar (tomato), and mirchī (chilies) were available on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent. Later, the English set up their first trading posts in India in the eastern Gangetic plain, bringing these same staples into North India.

So what was curry like before Columbus? Well, curry didn’t exist…

The pre-history of one of the world’s most– if not in fact the world’s most– popular family of dishes: “Curry Before Columbus.”

* Terry Pratchett

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the Hollywood Bowl opened (after a few years of operation, in a less-finished state, as the “Daisy Dell.”  It’s shell-shaped amphitheater set into a hill, against the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills and the famous Hollywood Sign to the northeast, it has been the summer home of the L.A. Philharmonic and host to hundreds of other musical events each year.

300px-Hollywood_bowl_and_sign source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

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