A slide show of some of the must-eat-at restaurants in Asia. Stunning photography by David Hagerman, David Lett, Carla Capalbo, yours truly (me) and others. The restaurants I included were, Hua’s Shimao Mansion in Beijing’s Central Business District, Mirza Bashi in Khiva, Uzbekistan, and in Western Asia, Pheasant’s Tears Tasting Room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. Check out the lovely photos of some great restaurants and the people who prepare the food. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
Natto, or fermented soybeans, are everywhere in Japan. There are natto burgers, natto bruschetta made with heaps of natto mixed with melted cheese or tomatoes on toasted bread, and even natto curries and sushi. But the most common way Japanese people eat natto is for breakfast over steamed rice with condiments, such as pickled fruits and vegetables. To me, one of the most interesting things about Japan’s beloved, traditional natto is that there is nothing uniquely Japanese about it. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
This bowl is a fine example of pinched-glass craftmanship. It is of Roman (possibly Byzantine) origin and is believed to be dated to the 5th Century ACE (based on the age of the tomb which is from the Hunnu period.) It is also proof of the power of the Silk Road on both trade and politics, because it was found a few years back in the tomb of a Mongolian noble family. In Tuv province, not too far from modern Ulaanbaatar, the tomb of a wealthy, noble family yielded two similar bowls that were unfortunately broken. Also found in the same tomb was a jade seal of the Xiongnu Emperor.
Scientists are undecided as to how the bowl came to Mongolia. Some believe that it could have come through trade routes, and other believe that it was such a special object that it was probably a present from a Roman noble family to a Mongolian family in the Far East. The style of ribbed glass work was all the rage in Rome from the 1st C BCE to around the 1st C BCE, so it may have been a precious object of the Mongolian family for several centuries before it became part of their grave goods. It is difficult to know. Treasures tell no easy tales.
(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Roman Bowl from the Mongolian Tomb borrowed from Ulaanbaatar Post.)
I saw you green, then
Turning red as you ripened.
Pleasant to look at and tasty in a dish,
But too hot if excess is used
Savior of the poor, enhancer of good food.
Fiery when bitten, this makes it difficult
Even to think of the good Lord himself!
– Purandara Dāsa, 16th C. Indian Poet
Potato, papaya, pineapple, cassava, and chili peppers, all were brought from the New World to the Indian subcontinent by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century or in the case of the potato, in the 17th century. All of the plants grew well in the hot climate of the south Asia and were adopted into local cuisines, but only the chili pepper spread across Asia like wildfire.
In fact, the speed of its spread across India from the late 15th Century to the mid-16th Century was so quick that several European botanists (notably Fuchs (1542), but also later writers such as Dodoens (1554) and Gerarde (1597)) described chili peppers as part of the native flora of India. Dodoens writes:
The Indian pepper is hot and dry in third degree. Indian pepper is used in diverse places for the dressing of meats, for it hath
the same virtue and taste that the usual pepper hath. Furthermore, it coloreth like Saffron, and being taken in such sort it warmeth the stomach and helpeth greatly the
digestion of meats
The same doth also dissolve and consume the swellings about the throat called the King’s Evil [scrofula], all kernels and cold swellings, and taketh away all spots and lentils of the face, being laid thereunto with honey.
It is dangerous to be used in too great a quantity: for this pepper hath in it a certain hidden evil quality, whereby it killeth
dogs if it be given them to eat.
This is good evidence that by the mid-16th Century that at least some of the culinary uses of the capsicums were well-known within the monastic and academic communities of Europe, even if they were confused about the geographic origin of the genus. Although brief, these early botanical references to the use of chili peppers in the kitchen are important because they predate formal, published, European recipes by more than 100 years.
One of the earliest European cookbooks containing recipes for dishes with chili peppers is Domingos Rodrigues’ Arte de Cozhina, published in 1680. This book, in fact, contains several recipes that use different types of chili peppers, so the knowledge and use of the differing flavor and heat of chili peppers was fairly sophisticated in this early reference. Rodrigues was the cook for the royal household of Portugal, so we can be certain that at least the royals like their dishes hot. (One of Rodrigues’ recipes.)
Indian scholar, KT Achaya, has claimed that the 17th Century ayurvedic text, the Bhojanakutuhalam, contains the earliest published recipes for chili peppers. However, my detailed read of the text finds only three brief mentions of chili peppers that ascribe some ayurvedic qualities to them. The Bhojanakutuhalam contains no chili recipes. This leaves the Portuguese reference as the earliest published culinary reference for chili peppers I have been able to uncover – at least so far.
In 15th and 16th Century India, the rapid adoption and naturalization of chili peppers is a result of a perfect storm of hospitable climate, rampant poverty, and the high nutritional value of chili peppers. According to the USDA, 100 grams of cayenne chilis contains 318 calories, 2000 mg. of potassium, 293 mg. of phosphorus, approximately 150 mg. of calcium and magnesium and 76 mg. of vitamin C. Not only would this have boosted general caloric intake, but the impact of the micronutrients of overall health status would have been significant. Thus, the addition of chilis to the diet of India’s undernourished poor, would have been nothing short of a nutritional windfall.
Interestingly, many of the medicinal uses attributed to chili peppers by Fuchs and Dodoens (following Brunfels (1531)), such as the use as a treatment for scrofula, were actually attributed to black pepper by Discorides. So, for more than 1500 years, western knowledge of the medical uses of pepper remained virtually stagnant. When chili peppers were brought back from the New World, some of the medicinal uses long described for black pepper were simply transferred to chili peppers. Much the same thing happened in the Ayurvedic system, when chili peppers were introduced to the subcontinent, as witnessed in the pages of the Bhojanakutuhalam.
In the Ayurvedic system, chili peppers are classified as pungent amongst the six tastes, are used to restore balance to an unbalanced kapha-dosha, and should be avoided by those with a diagnosed excess of pitta-dosha.
Today, modern scientific and medical communities are rediscovering the medicinal uses of chili peppers. Accepted uses today include use as a treatment for neuropathy, neuralgia, and back pain, as well as treatments for some digestive disorders and use as an anti-clotting agent. Research is also underway to look a chili peppers as anti-cancer treatments (pro-apoptotic) as well. Congruously perhaps, many of the researchers doing this work are in India, or part of the great Indian scientific and technical diaspora around the world.
(Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photographs of Fuchs chili pepper plate from the Missouri Botanical Gardens manuscript, and photograph of the cover of the Bhojanakutuhalam by Laura Kelley.)
One of the difficulties in understanding history and historical works, is to imagine the world truly differently than it is today. We are so confident that our senses provide us with the, “truth,” that many of us cannot really fathom that the world of the past was different from the present. Modern audiences recoil at the anti-Semitism expressed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and laugh when Fletcher’s Jacobean women demand, “liberty and clothes,” from their estranged husbands in exchange for sex. Moving beyond the text, though, is difficult, for the worlds these works were written in were so very different from our own.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting things that has happened in the world of food recently has been the publication of a website devoted to the cuisine and food culture of North Korea. It has hundreds of recipes indexed by regions, events, and main-ingredient categories and is well illustrated. In short, it is fascinating. I have spent many hours there delving into the information and recipes.
But North Korea is a, “socialist monarchy,” with almost one-third of its population in military, para-military, or reserve service! There are periodic famines! People are starving! This is what our senses tell us about North Korea today. To a certain degree, these impressions are correct. However, what the site tells us is about the food culture of the northern peninsula, before partition and war, and even before (or during) Japanese occupation. It also sheds some light on what the elite and prosperous of the north – those who are not starving – might eat today.
Be prepared to be surprised. The recipes I have tried are all interesting, and some of them are truly delicious. Regional specialties from Pyongyang include soups with mullet and soft-shell snapping turtle, rice in chicken stock stacked with mushrooms and pickled daikon, and cold buckwheat noodle soup stacked with condiments of sliced meats, kimchi and tofu – a summer dish that is cooled with ice cubes.
I’ve been experimenting around with game recipes from the site that include ways of preparing venison and wild boar as well as grilling fish and eel. One of the most delicious of these I found so far is pictured above. A spiced venison fit for Kim Jong-il, that is to say, North Korean style.
Spiced Venison North Korean Style
(Adapted by Laura Kelley from North Korean food website)
1 pound venison (I used tenderloin)
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup meat stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 spring onions, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1 cup mountain yam (Dioscorea Japonica), peeled and roughly chopped
Optional garnishes for yam (bonito flakes, soy sauce)
Slice the tenderloin into ¼ – ½ inch steaks. Tenderize slightly by hitting meat with the back of the knife. Place slices in a small bowl and season with salt, one-half of the pepper and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate or place in a cold place for several days. Stir a few times a day to ensure even coating of the meat with the spices.
When ready to cook, spread flour thinly out onto a plate and lightly dredge meat. When all of the pieces are coated, heat the oil in a sauté pan and when warm, place deer meat into pan. Cook about 3-4 minutes per side, depending upon the thickness of the pieces. When done, remove from pan and drain on paper towels briefly and then set aside in a bowl or on a plate.
Peel and chop yam. If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to wear gloves while doing this, because chemicals in the skin of the yam can irritate some people. Alternately, if gloves are not your style when cooking, soak the yam in a solution of weak vinegar and water for about 15 minutes to neutralize the offending chemicals. Also, the meat of the yam is very slimy when sliced. Better quality and younger roots have less slime, but this is normal. After the yams are chopped, rinse well with water and let drain in a colander. Yams are served raw.
Make the sauce for the venison. In a small sauce pan, combine meat stock and soy sauce and heat over medium flame. Add the chopped onions and garlic and stir well. Bring to a boil and reduce heat till stock simmers. Cook for 20 minutes or until it reduces and starts to thicken. Add red pepper flakes and corn syrup and stir well. Cook for another 5-10 minutes until a thicker sauce emerges.
Plate the venison and the yams. Spoon sauce over the meat, but not the yams. If desired, crumble some bonito flakes over the yams.
Serve with rice or noodles. I used Korean corn noodles which are regional specialties in Pyongyang and in the mountainous areas of the north. I seasoned these with just a touch or sesame oil and soy. The garnish was a hastily cut up separated and cooked egg, sliced red bell pepper, and spring onions. (I had to work quickly, the troops were hungry! That’s my excuse for the sloppy presentation.) For those that read Korean, the original recipe follows. I did adapt from the original a bit, mostly because the directions were so vague, but I did try to cook as specified.
기본음식감]노루고기 1kg[보조음식감]참마 200g, 고추 20g, 밀가루 10g, 조청 5g, 후추가루 0.5g, 양파 20g, 소금 6g, 마늘 10g, 간장 20g, 기름 20g, 육두구가루 2g, 국물 200g
- 노루고기는 도톰한 편으로 썰어 소금, 후추가루, 육두구가루로 재운다. 2. 국물에 잘게 썬 양파와 고추, 다진 마늘, 간장, 조청, 소금, 후추가루를 두고 양념즙을 만든다. 3. 재운 고기에 밀가루를 묻히고 기름에 지진 다음 양념즙을 두고 졸여서 접시에 담고 참마볶음을 옆에 놓는다.
So, how does this dish taste? Well, I served it a few nights ago, and both my husband and I found it quite good. The venison was tender and wonderfully gamey and the red pepper sauce was an interesting foil to the natural flavor of the deer meat. We both found it quite mild when compared to many south Korean meat courses we have had, so don’t be afraid to try it if spicy or hot foods are not your thing. I found that the strong undertones of nutmeg and pepper further help make this dish unusual and delicious. We both voted it, “a keeper,” and will welcome it to our table in the future.
Honestly, neither of us loved the yam, which was more texture (but healthy for you) than flavor, even with the bonito crumble on top and a dip in soy. For those a bit sensitive to spice or heat, however it will provide a gentle rest for your palates between bites of spiced venison.
The corn noodles, on the other hand, were really good. Even in the wide spectrum of Korean noodles – where noodles can be made from acorn starch or fern shoots – corn noodles are rare. They are mostly enjoyed in Pyongyang and in the mountainous regions of the north. Like a mild millet, they bring a gentle, but savory taste of corn to the dishes they provide a ground for. In the case of the spiced venison, they worked nicely and gave a depth of flavor that would be lacking if white rice or if plain rice, egg, or wheat noodles were served. Other North Korean uses of corn include small corn pancakes – sort of like the hoe-cakes found here in the southern USA, only thinner, and cornbread topped with corn meal rubbed with sesame oil until it forms flakes.
An interesting thing that I noticed about the ingredient list is that only the smallest amounts are used, and there is little wasted. A South Korean (or western) recipe might use more liberal amounts of flour for dredging and have lots of leftover flour on the plate. Similarly, more oil would probably have been used. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but economy often fuels adaptation.
So, this North Korean food website opens a window into the world of food from the northern peninsula. In terms of my speculation about the site offering information about what the elite might eat, we have, in the past, been treated to information about Kim Jong-il’s gustatory excesses by his personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. Fujimoto has the unusual honor of defecting from North Korea back to his native Japan, and then being invited back for a two-week visit ten years later by Kim Jong-Un.
Although he has since become something of a spokesman for improvements in living conditions in North Korea, after his defection, he told the world of Kim’s cellars stacked with rare wines and liquors from around the world, and of traveling widely in Asia on behalf of the Great Leader to procure unusual ingredients for the leader’s meals. His travels to buy food for the first family included trips to Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar, Western China for Hami melons, Thailand and Malaysia for durian, papayas and mangoes, and Japan for sea urchins, other fish and seafood, and rice cakes filled with mugwort. European trips were also made to the Czech Republic for beer, Denmark for pork, and France for Kim’s favorite Hennessy cognac.
Another Fujimoto tidbit of interest to foodies is how Kim’s rice was prepared. Each grain of rice inspected before it was cooked, and that only, “perfectly shaped,” grains were permitted. Then the rice had to be cooked over wood gathered exclusively from the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu.
I hope that some of you will explore the website and try some of the recipes. But I just wanted to warn you that it is almost exclusively in Korean and that Google translate leaves a lot to be desired. More often than not, it offers comical translations that have little to do with food. For example, direction number one on the Venison Bamjim recipe (not the one featured in this post) is written in Hangul:
- 사슴앞다리살은 토막으로 썰어서 기름에 지져 색을 낸 다음 밤, 버섯, 은행, 동글게 깎은 홍당무우, 생강을 두고 푹 찐다
Google translates this to read:
- Forelegs deer flesh colors to embellish the oil and then sliced into pieces JESUS night, mushrooms, banks, dongle to Clippings hongdangmuwoo, hooked steam with ginger.
I keep hearing Stephen Fry ironically reciting the bit, “dongle to clippings hongdangmuwoo,” in my mind and continue to foolishly chuckle. The actual translation of this is, “Slice the carrots,” but somehow this eluded the great machine.
Another warning is that the site is often down and that it is simply impossible to connect at those times. If neither of those obstacles put you off, good on you. The site is fascinating and it is interesting to see what dishes and recipes are shared with the south and what are uniquely northern or influenced by neighboring countries. (Words, recipe adaptation and photos by Laura Kelley.)
Its been a few months since I put up my salted eggs, and over the holidays I noticed that the water they were in had turned a rusty brown from the spices used in preservation. This meant that it was time to harvest them.
I carefully removed a few raw (but preserved) eggs from the jar. A gentle shake of the egg allowed me to feel the hardened yolk inside the shell, but just to be sure they were done, I broke it over a bowl and watched the solid, dark orange yolk spill out of the shell. A lovely site for anyone into preserving and fermenting foods!
There are many ways to enjoy salted eggs, but an omelette of mixed eggs is a great way, and one of my favorites. I hardcooked a couple of salted eggs by cooking them for 3 minutes in rapidly boiling water, and set them aside until they were cool enough to handle. Then I peeled the eggs, and chopped them for inclusion in the omelette.
I beat a few, “regular,” eggs, diced some spring onions, and ground a dash of white pepper. Combine the salted and the unsalted eggs and stir to mix. Now, salted eggs are salty. No strike that, they are EXTREMELY salty, so I recommend using one or two salted eggs per 3-4 regular eggs per omelette. A higher ratio of salted egg to unsalted egg, and the resulting dish may be to salty to enjoy.
On the subject of salt, some recipes flavor salted eggs with copious amounts of soy sauce. I recommend caution on this because of the saltiness of the eggs. One option is to serve a bit of soy sauce in dipping bowls as part of the meal so diners can dip a bit of omelette into the soy sauce or sprinkle a bit over their portion. Other ways to introduce flavor is to add a bit of minced shrimp or other shellfish, some minced and pickled mustard greens for a bit of pucker, or some fresh or dried ginger for a bit of sweetness. Be creative – think outside the salt box on this one – you’ll be happier if you do.
Just heat a tablespoon or two of sweet butter in a pan and saute the spring onions and any other ingredients you wish to add over medium heat until they are mostly cooked. Add the eggs and the white pepper and stir quickly with a fork to evenly distribute the salted egg pieces and pepper. Cook as usual and, if desired, finish under a preheated broiler. When done, loosen the omelette from the sides and bottom of the pan and invert onto a serving plate. Serve with condiments: minced spring onions, minced pickled mustard or ginger, soy sauce, or even lavender flowers. It is especially good when served with a selection of steamed Chinese sausage. If you have a larger group to feed, you can make this dish along with the Eggs with Shrimp and Pidan for some variety of egg dishes at the meal.
Salted eggs in one form or another are eaten all over eastern and southeastern Asia, from China and Vietnam to the Philippines in the east and Sri Lanka in the west. (Geographically, Sri Lanka is part of south Asia, but so much of its food culture is influenced by southeast asian cuisines that I’m including it in this list.) The process to make them in the Philippines is a bit different and is more like the pidan-making process than the Chinese method of preserving eggs in salt. In the Philippines, they mix salt with a thick, clay-based mud and coat the eggs with it to salt-cure them. Other ways of salting eggs that are sometimes confused with this type of salt-preserved egg are eggs marinated in soy mixtures that make the egg taste salty, but do not preserve them. (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley.)
On the subject of Georgian winemaking, I recently found these incredible old photos depicting various aspects of wine making and drinking. I found the photos on the British Library’s Endangered Archives Project website, but they are originally from the National Archives of Georgia. The first three were taken by the photographer, Constantine Zanis, probably in the late 19th or early 20th Century. The are of a man tending grapevines, Men crushing grapes, and a line of qvevri – the traditional vessel used for Georgian winemaking – along the side of a road.
The next is a photo of a fantastic pair of drinking horns set in silver. It was taken by the photographer, Dmitri Ivanovich Yermakov, and is dated 1880.
I’ve never enjoyed wine from a drinking horn, but imagine that it would somehow taste more . . . heroic.
The last photo is interesting because it shows men sampling wine out of a qvevri. The photograph is entitled Sampling Wine in Armenia. Although the oldest winemaking vessels are from Georgia, the practice was traditionally more widespread across the region – the term for qvevri in Armenian is karas. That said, it is not clear where this photograph was taken. I wonder whether it is in part of the territory that Georgia lost to Armenia during Sovietization, but clearly, the fashions seem to be Armenian. The photograph is by Gertrude Beasley, and is date 1923.
This is an essay that is long overdue. It’s been well more than a year since I ate delicious food paired with fantastic wines at Pheasants Tears tasting room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. The dishes and the wine were wonderful and remain vivid in my memory, but they were also matched by the hospitality shown to me by the people of Pheasants Tears. My apologies, Gia, Tamar, Alex, and all of the other great folks I met that day. I hope that this post expresses how grateful I am for the time we spent together.
From the moment one steps through the elaborately carved doors of Pheasants Tears, you know that this isn’t just another tasting. You can feel the difference in the dusky pink stones and bricks that line the walls of the tasting room and you can see it in the smiling and laughing faces of the guests. There is LOVE here. You are surrounded by people who love what they do and who are anxious to share it with you.
Visits usually begin with a tour of the tasting room and its modest winemaking museum. A centuries-old carved, wooden basin for holding grapes for processing hints at old the art of vintning is in Georgia’s eastern Khaketi province. Sighnaghi is a few hundred miles from Areni-1 cave with its Copper-Age wine production site (dated 4223 – 3790 BCE). In between these two points lies Shulaveri, Georgia where the oldest domesticated grape pips have been dated to eight-thousand years ago. So clearly, viticulture, vintning, and wine drinking in Georgia are amongst the most ancient in the world.
Traditional Georgian winemaking is done underground. Large earthenware vessels called qvevri are coated with beeswax to make them less porous and to provide a near neutral pH surface for the wine to ferment in. The qvevri are then sunk into the ground or buried below a cellar in a wine-making facility, and usually left to season or age before first use. Then, the qvevri are filled with partially smashed grapes and their accompanying liquid, and pounded some more to fully macerate the grapes. The contents of the qvevri are stirred several times a day to push the skins of the grapes down into the wine The only yeasts used to ferment the grapes are the natural yeasts that come in on the grapes. After a week or two of stirring, the qvevri are sealed with stone caps and clay for months or years as the wines mature.
I was lucky enough to be greeted and toured around by the brilliant man who makes the food at Pheasant’s Tears tasting room as unique and as unforgettable as its wines – Chef Gia Rokashvili. His culinary creations meld the freshest Georgian herbs and produce with modern, healthy, preparation methods and deep knowledge of both traditional Georgian and French cuisine. He calls this his, “fusion,” style. I call it inspired and delicious.
A large party of Russian tourists were in mid-meal when I arrived, so after my tour, Gia gave me into the care of his wife, Tamar who is the maître d’hôtel and manager of the tasting room and a visiting American vintner named Alex Rodzianko. As Gia went to oversee the kitchen, Alex and I began tasting – and eating.
We started with a light white Chinuri – a great summer wine – with a floral aroma and a crisp finish, and moved on to an amber Rkatsiteli (my husband’s favorite), another light wine with a surprisingly full body given its color and aroma. As we tasted, a parade of light dishes began to flow from Gia’s kitchen to our table. A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers was first up, followed by some heavenly roasted eggplant with garlic, walnuts, and herbs. Last up was a Georgian specialty called jonjoli which is a seed pod of a bladdernut (Staphylea colchica) that tastes something like a caper, only Georgian’s prepare them with the tender, young greens attached. Lightly tossed in safflower oil and a bit of seasoning, its not to be missed.
After the Rkatsiteli, Alex offered me a delicious Tavkveri, a full bodied red with hints of cranberry and hibiscus. It has an incredible floral aroma that fills the senses and hints of the wonderful flavors to come. We closed with a glass of chacha to aid our digestion. Chacha is technically a grape brandy, but it is very strong (like grappa on steroids). It is a traditional homebrewed liquor that can also be made from other fruits such as figs, mulberries and tangerines, that is now being made by professional distillers. By the time we got to the chacha, my driver walked into the tasting room for the third time and began glowering at me with a smokiness that only a Georgian can muster. He also had his ample arms crossed across his chest. Subtle though he was, I got the message. Reluctantly, I had to leave. Thank yous and hugs all ’round and a few bottles to bring home and I was on my way.
If your own travels take you to Georgia, do pay a visit to the Pheasants Tears tasting room. It is a wonderful place with great wine, delicious food, and wonderful people. A great place to spend a day, or two, or three, and feel the love that they bring to their work. In the car ride back to the city, I began to understand why people return again and again, and some, never leave. (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley)
I grew up in a very closely knit Italian-American community in the suburbs of New York City. Nearly everyone I knew as a child was related to me by blood or marriage. It was a world of cousins. There was an Italian-American club where old men played bocce, crazy car-horns that played the tarantella, and there was the great, carnival-like Summer Festa, that seemed to bring the whole town out to Saint Anthony’s school to gamble, play games, and, of course, eat. Food was everywhere, and people loved eating – not just at the Festa but in everyday life. Sunday dinners were serious business, and you didn’t skip them without a really good excuse.
So, when Sasha Martin, of the Global Table Adventure, asked me to participate in her Feast of Seven Fishes event, I had to pause and wonder how I had missed out on this wonderful Christmas-Eve tradition growing up. A little research and I found out that it is specifically an Italian-American Christmas-Eve event that is practiced by people who came from southern Italy. (That would rule out my ancestors who were from an area between Bologna and Ravenna.) It also is a relatively new concept that has been quickly growing in popularity since Mario Batali and other Food Network stars started demonstrating recipes for special Christmas Eve fish-only dinners. There are even restaurants that now offer special menus for people wishing to celebrate the Feast.
The seven fishes that either stand for the seven sacraments or the number of days that it supposedly took God to create the universe. Sometimes, there are more than seven dishes – nine for three times the holy trinity, or 13 for the apostles plus Jesus. No matter the number of dishes, there always seems to be an effort to couple them with an element of religious symbolism. A Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner. It must be an American concept. Americans love theme dinners.
On to my own recipe for Sasha’s Feast: Sweet and Savory Eel – Chinese Style. What is a Chinese dish doing at an Italian-American feast? Well, Silk Road, Marco Polo . . . it fits, in a loosely-tight sort of way. Actually, Italians of all varieties love eel and eat it when they can, and there are loads of wonderful recipes for it from the Mediterranean and beyond. Its my job to focus on the beyond. So, Sweet and Savory Eel. This recipe is adapted from a Chinese homestyle recipe, generously shared with me by my friend Dimon. It is delicious, easy to prepare, and well worth the effort of handling the slimy beasts. Lots of ginger and garlic form the base of the savory brown sauce with tangerine peel, maple syrup, and a few chili peppers providing the grace notes.
Sweet and Savory Eel
1.5 – 2 pounds fresh eel, cut into 1.5 inch sections
Tapioca flour as needed (for dusting)
3-4 tablespoons of corn oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small bunch (4-6) spring onions, chopped
2 -3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Peels from 2 tangerines, dried and thinly sliced, or minced
3-4 dried red chili peppers, diced (I use Japones)
2 cups of brown rice wine
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or a mix of dark and light)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup water or fish stock
1 sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced
Dust the eel slices with tapioca flour, and tap on the edge of a plate when done to remove excess flour. Heat corn oil in a large sauté pan until smoking hot. Add the coated eel slices and sauté until golden. Remove eel from the pan with a slotted spoon and let cool on a plate.
Drain off most of the corn oil and add sesame oil to sauté pan and warm it up. Add spring onions and sauté until they start to soften. Then add the garlic and ginger slices and cook on low-to-medium, stirring often, until the ginger colors or the garlic swells. Add the tangerine peel and chillies and cook well, adding part of the rice wine to moisten as needed.
Add the rest of the rice wine and heat to almost boiling. Reduce the heat, and immediately add the eel slices. Cook on a low-to-medium simmer for five minutes, then add the dark soy sauce and the maple syrup, cover, and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add water or fish stock to moisten the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Add the sliced peppers, then cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the eel is beginning to soften. Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes or so until eel is soft, and peppers are cooked. Depending on the desired consistency of the sauce, you may cook uncovered if you want a thicker sauce.
Serve with rice, tangerine slices, more spring onions, or the condiments of your choice.
NB: To be authentically Chinese, the eel should be a river eel or swamp eel. The salt-water eels often used in other cuisines would offer a much sharper flavor and change the recipe significantly. The right type of eel are usually sold live at larger Asian markets. You can ask the fish mongers to cut and clean the animals to order, to minimize handling them. This is an important bit of advice to consider, because when eels get stressed (like when a fish monger reaches into a bucket, grabs them), they get even more slimy than usual. If you ever taken a graduate genetics lab, and know what its like to handle stessed hagfish – this is exactly the same.
The Feast of Seven Fishes undoubtedly has its roots in the traditional Italian vigil feast, which is celebrated all over Italy. However, unlike those feasts, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a fish-only extravaganza with the number of dishes symbolically tied to Catholic themes. At a traditional vigil feast, for example, one would be unlikely to find meat dishes (at least in a strictly Catholic home), but you would find meat-based soups (like a chicken broth with tortellini or “cap-lets” as we grew up calling them), sauces with meat stock or broth in them, butter, cheese and eggs – all meat products.
Also, how the Church has defined, “meat” over the years is really fascinating. Generally, the prohibition extends only to terrestrial mammals and birds; whereas aquatic animals of all types were allowed. At different times in history, the Church has also allowed Catholics to eat mammals that spend a lot of time in water during lent and other no-meat fast and vigil days. This means that Catholics in Quebec ate beaver and Latin Catholics ate (and still do eat) capybara on no-meat Fridays or in times of fasting. Likewise, reptiles and amphibians are on the Lenten or fasting menu in places where it is traditional for the secular populous to eat them.
What I suspect is the Feast of Seven Fishes was a tradition in a very local part of Southern Italy – probably somewhere deep in the foot of the boot – that immigrants brought with them. It spread within the neighborhoods they emigrated to and is now being projected back as broadly, “Italian,” by their descendants and others who have adopted the practice.
Although I am a stickler for detail, to me its wonderful and interesting that the Feast of Seven Fishes is taking on a life of its own in the New World of the 20th and 21st Centuries. It is the birth of a new food tradition, right before our eyes! And another example of how cuisines are constantly evolving. Whenever you try this recipe, whether for the Feast of Seven Fishes or at some other time, prepare it and share it with loved ones – now, that’s Italian!
Expand your Feast of the 7 Fishes menu with these delicious ideas:
Salt Cod Tomato Sauce with Linguine by Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure.
Sicilian Citrus Shark Filets by Amanda Mouttaki, MarocMama.
Whipped Salt cod | Baccalà Mantecato by Deana Sidney, Lost Past Remembered.
To read more about Italy on the Silk Road, check my earlier posts.
Lots of other great Silk Road fish recipes here on the site, including a Bhutanese curry of Fish and Oranges
(Words by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pete serving food at the Festa borrowed from a St. Anthony of Padua newsletter, photograph of Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel by Laura Kelley.)
Autumn on the Silk Road means pickles, and one unique kind gives garlic a chance to stand out on its own. One of my favorite Silk Road pickles is Pomegranate Pickled Garlic enjoyed in the Black Sea countries of Georgia and Armenia, and down into Azerbaijan and Iran. . . [MORE HERE]