(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Food

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”*…

Fuchsia Dunlop in praise of the multifaceted, deliciously-diverse Chinese cuisine…

If you visit a Shaoxing wine factory, you may walk past a stack of crumbly bricks made of some rough, pale, porous material. You’ll probably assume it’s debris left behind by negligent builders. But these bricks, this stuff, so unprepossessing to the eye, is one of the most important Chinese ingredients. You won’t see it in your bowl; you won’t smell or taste it directly; yet it’s an invisible presence in almost every Chinese meal. It is not merely an ingredient, but a ​­pre-​­ingredient, the progenitor of some of the most vital components of Chinese edible culture. Like a genie, it brings Chinese food and drink to life.

The bricks are made of what is known as ​­qu—which sounds like “choo,” but with a lovely ​­softness—a sort of coral reef teeming with des­­iccated microorganisms, enzymes, moulds and yeasts that will spring into action in the presence of water, ready to unleash themselves on all kinds of foods, especially those that are starchy. The Japanese, who learned about qu from China, call it koji ; it’s sometimes translated into English as “ferment.” When awakened, all these microorganisms will magically transform cooked beans, rice and other cereals, unravelling their ​­tight-​­knit starches into simple sugars, then fermenting the sugars into alcohol, meanwhile spinning off a whole aurora of intriguing flavors. It is qu that converts soybeans into soy sauce and jiang. Qu is the catalyst for fermenting alcoholic drinks from rice, millet and other cereals, as well as grain vinegars. It’s no exaggeration to say that qu is one of the keys to what makes Chinese food Chinese…

More kitchen secrets in this excerpt from her new book, Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese FoodThe Marvels of Qu: What Makes Chinese Food and Drink Unique,” in @lithub.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin


As we investigate identity, we might send tasty birthday greetings to Edwin Traisman; he was born on this date in 1915. A food scientist, he developed the process for freezing McDonald’s french fries that allowed for their standardization, developed Cheez Whiz for Kraft Foods, and researched E. coli.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 25, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”*…

… Indeed. But, as T. W. Lim writes, palm oil has become so much more in our consumer economy…

My family used to take road trips to Malaysia when I was growing up, and I can clearly remember the first time I noticed the oil palms. They were unlike anything else in the landscape, which up to that point had been a patchwork of jungle, paddies, billboards, and the occasional roadside stand selling steamed sweet corn. The palms were distinctive, their dense crowns dark and heavyset atop sawtooth trunks, but what caught my eye was how these trees, unlike the other trees, had obviously been organized. When I asked my parents what they were, they said, “these are oil palms, which people plant to make money.”

This was the 1980s, and the rapidly developing country was agog at the miraculous versatility of palm oil – and the world’s seemingly endless appetite for this primordial goop, from which a whole new way of life could be coaxed. Looking back, I’m struck by the optimism. I have no way of knowing if conditions on palm oil plantations then were any less brutal and exploitative than they are today, but they were certainly less publicized. Maybe we’d still be optimistic if demand for palm oil hadn’t done a hockey stick.

But even in Singapore, situated between the two largest palm oil producers in the world, we didn’t think much about what problems the plantations might have brought. The first sign of trouble was the haze, which first came in the mid-90s. Smoke from massive forest fires in Indonesia hung over Singapore for days on end. It hung pale gray in the sky, turning sunsets red. The Indonesian government claimed it was due to indigenous tribes practicing slash-and-burn farming, but even the middle schoolers knew it was for oil palm. The haze has since become an annual event, varying only in its severity. 

I’ve been thinking about palm oil for the same reason Spencer’s been thinking about rubber. These two agricultural commodities both emerged from the same systems of colonialism and forced labor, and together they shaped much of modern material culture. Much as rubber replaced spices and coffee as the cash crop of choice for the planter-barons of Malaya in the late 19th century, palm oil replaced rubber in the late 20th, capturing in two brushstrokes the transitions into the age of the internal combustion engine and the age of the global consumer. And just as rubber explains car culture and contemporary transportation systems, palm oil explains household consumption – and they both reveal the manufacturing systems, labor relations, and corporate structures that lie beneath.

As troubling as I find the systems that produce it, there’s an undeniable elegance to palm oil. Like fossil fuels, palm oil represents a technological shortcut to a wide variety of highly useful chemical compounds. Palm oil contains more saturated fat (50%) than other common edible vegetable oils, so it can be separated into a large number of fractions, each with different physical properties. An ideal palm oil derivative can be found for nearly any product that requires fat – soaps can be made foamier, hobnobs crisper, and ice creams more luscious. In industrial settings, palm oil derivatives are used in mold-release agents for concrete casting and to replace petroleum products in polymer production. Palm oil became integral to the tinning process almost as soon as tin cans were invented, and people were still filing patents for tinning oils based on palm oil in the 1950s. Palm oil was so plentiful, so cheap, and so well suited to the purpose, that tinned steel became obsolete before we bothered to find a better oil for tinning.  

Because palm oil is still predominantly used in consumer packaged goods, especially in processed foods, it can seem like a luxury commodity – something used to make inconsequential things. It’s reasonable to think our civilization is less dependent on hobnobs than on the pneumatic tire. But hobnobs and road transport both embody larger social systems, and whether we choose to change our relationship with palm oil might depend more on social systems than physical ones. Trying to imagine a world without palm oil is almost like trying to imagine a post-consumer society, which is precisely why it’s an interesting subject.

Read on for a fascinating consideration of a seemingly universal ingredient, the first in a series: “A Technological Shortcut,” from @the_prepared.

* Chinua Achebe


As we interrogate ingredients, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that Baptist minister Elijah Craig distilled the first bourbon whisky from corn (another universal ingredient– gift article). Craig, who is also credited with many other Kentucky firsts (e.g., fulling millpaper millropewalk) is also said to have been the first to age the product in charred oak casks, a process that gives bourbon its brownish color and distinctive taste.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

“No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”*…

… and now two beverage giants are turning their attention to Europe:

Coca-Cola and Pernod Ricard plan to debut Absolut Vodka & Sprite as a ready-to-drink pre-mixed cocktail in early 2024, the companies said in a statement.

The pre-mixed cocktail will be available in versions with Sprite and Sprite Zero Sugar, with the initial launch planned for select European countries, including the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.

Coca-Cola has brought several of its most popular brands into the alcohol space during the last two years through partnerships with booze companies such as Molson Coors and Brown-Forman…


The inimitable Walt Hickey reacts…

Coca-Cola and Pernod Ricard have cut a deal to produce a ready-to-drink mixed cocktail that is literally just Absolut vodka and Sprite. Legendary adwoman Peggy Olson once quipped that “You need three ingredients for a cocktail. Mountain Dew and vodka is an emergency,” and that wisdom certainly holds here. The idea that a company could charge a premium to mix together Absolut and Sprite is an insult; as we all know, cheap vodka mixed with Sprite is an innovation of desperation, the mixture one creates when all other options have been exhausted, the kind of drink that you have when you’re 17 and new to the whole thing. This is the kind of beverage that is exclusively made at 2:45 in the morning in a college dorm because the bars closed and we can’t get mixers at Wawa because the line was too long. An Absolut and Sprite is the official drink of a CYO party. An Absolut and Sprite makes a Jack and Coke look like a Sazerac. That it is being combined in a ready-to-drink offering is an insult to the aluminum that went into that can. Given that the ready-to-drink category is projected to grow by $11.6 billion from 2022 to 2026 alone, I can almost guarantee it’s going to be amazingly successful and I already hate it.


[Image above: source]

* H. L. Mencken


As we ponder progress, we might recall that today is observed (by some) as World Tripe Day— a celebration of the culinary delicacy known as tripe (the edible lining from the stomach of various farm animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats).


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The public health, ecological, and social impacts of fish meal—which were a consequence of its cheapness as a feed ingredient—were largely invisible on the other side of the world”*…

Fish-meal manufacturing takes small fish or offcuts and processes them into a protein-dense powder used to raise animals like pigs, chickens, and other fish

… Those deleterious effects were largely missed in the mid-Twentieth Century, when fish meal became important to the rise of industrial-scale farming, and– as Ashley Braun explains– are still, as fish meal use is again growing…

The dirty yellow powder’s underwhelming appearance belies its influence. Fish meal—an unassuming yet protein-dense powder of dried, cooked, and pulverized fish—has fueled South American oligarchs, fostered slums, reshaped ecosystems, and fed Europe’s agricultural industrialization. Fish meal propelled the global production of meat and eggs, all while spurring public health crises, pollution, and unrest. The precipitous rise and fall of this humble commodity in the mid to late 20th century, writes medical and environmental historian Floor Haalboom, offers lessons for today as fish meal’s star rises again…

How cheap protein fueled the Global North’s agricultural expansion and destabilized the Global South: “Boom and Bust, All at Once: The Fraught Modern History of Fish Meal,” from @ashleybraun in @hakaimagazine. Eminently worth reading in full.

Floor Haalboom


As we ponder pulverization, we might recall that it was on this date in 1837 that John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, a pair of successful Worcester chemists, began manufacturing Worcestershire sauce, a savory flavoring that capitalizes on umami. Their condiment, which was broadly available to the public the following year, faced down scores of imitators to become the dominant brand, which it remains.


“Hot, Hot, Hot”*…

Chili peppers thrive in hot and dry conditions. But, as Katherine J. Wu explains, even they have their limits…

For more than a year, life for many sriracha lovers has been an excruciating lesson in bland. Shortages of red jalapeños—the key ingredient in the famous hot sauce—have gotten bleak, in particular for the ultra-popular version of the condiment made by Huy Fong Foods. Grocery stores have enforced buying limits on customers. Bottles on eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon are selling for eye-watering prices—as much as $50 or more. A few Americans have grown so desperate for their flavor fix that they’ve started pilfering the sauce from local restaurants.

A big part of the shortage can be blamed on Huy Fong’s fragile supply chain. The red jalapeños that give the sauce its citrusy-sweet heat are finicky about temperatures and are usually laboriously picked by hand. A huge portion of the peppers are also grown in particularly dry parts of northern Mexico, where many fields are irrigated with water from the Colorado River—itself a strained and highly contested resource. But all of that was just a teeing up, experts told me, for a final climatic blow: the punishing drought that has gripped Mexico in recent years, draining reservoirs so low that even water destined for agriculture has largely been cordoned away.

The sriracha shortage is hardly the worst crop crisis that’s being fueled by climate change. For years, Michigan cherries have been suffocating in too-high temperatures, while Florida citrus have been obliterated by hurricanes; India’s wheat crops have roasted, while rice around the world has been double-teamed by floods and heat waves. But to now see peppers in peril is its own special burn. Bred in some of the world’s warmest regions, chilis have long been a poster child of heat tolerance. They, more than so many other plants, were supposed to be okay. Now, though, as temperatures get more scorching and droughts continue to parch the planet, “I think we are going to see this more often,” Guillermo Murray-Tortarolo, a climate scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told me. Sriracha’s troubles may turn out to be a bellwether for even more flavorless times to come…

The Sriracha Shortage Is a Very Bad Sign” (or here), from @KatherineJWu in @TheAtlantic.

* Buster Poindexter (David Johansen)


As we savor the sauce, we might note that today is National Fajita Day.

… The term fajita means “little band” or “little belt”. The meat was probably labeled this way by a butcher who was selling skirt steak and, because this cut is typically rather tough, it was precut into small strips. But the way this little cut of meat made its way into the heart of Tex-Mex cuisine culture has an interesting background story.

Probably created around the late 1930s, fajitas were introduced by vaqueros and Mexican workers on ranches in the Texas Rio Grande Valley. These workers were often paid their wages in meat, sometimes the less wanted parts of the animal. So these workers learned that if they marinated the meat in certain juices, it would become more tender and flavorful, and could easily be eaten on tortillas.

Probably due to convenience, the popularity of fajitas increased in the 1940s. It developed into a sort of backyard, easy to eat, on the go dish that was passed down from one generation to the next.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that fajitas began to make their way into restaurants. One of the first may have been in 1969 when a meat market manager at a grocery store set up a fajita stand at a summer festival. Fajitas gained even more traction in the 1970s and the recipe changed a bit, using finer cuts of meat. With the launching of On the Border, Chili’s and other chain restaurants in the US that boasted Tex-Mex cuisine, the idea of the sizzling fajita served on a grill platter right at the table became an attractive – and delicious – experience…

National Fajita Day


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 18, 2023 at 1:00 am

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