Spring on the Silk Road Means: Black Locust Blossoms

Black Locust Blossoms
Black Locust Blossoms

Spring has finally come to the Central Atlantic and all the leaves have opened out into a sea of green. In our area, dairy cows graze and suckle their young in fields of buttercups and the first cascades of wild roses are blooming on the edge of the woods. This time of year also means that the fleeting blooming of tree flowers is also upon us. My favorites to be had in abundance here are the black locust flowers (Robinia pseudoacacia) that bloom in off-white grape-like clusters. Just pick, clean, prepare and enjoy a bit of nature’s sweet bounty.

I was introduced to eating locust flowers when I was a little girl. My Austrian grandfather would gather them from the trees around his house and make them into pancakes or fritters that he then dusted with a bit of confectioner’s sugar or a dash of honey. The flowers themselves have no taste, but the pea-like base of the flower is lightly sweet and crunchy. They are sweetest when the flowers are barely opened, so if you live in more northern climes than we do, keep your eyes peeled for the blooms and pick them as soon as you can.

Black Locust Leaf
Black Locust Leaf

The trees themselves have deeply crenulated light-grey bark that is easy to slip your hands into sideways. This gives even younger trees an aged appearance. The leaves are pennate, or arranged like feathers around a central stalk and sway gently in a fern-like manner with even a light breeze. If you are relatively confident that the flowers will be pesticide free, I recommend that you NOT wash the flowers before preparing as this will rinse away some of the fragrance and flavor. Instead, pick thru the blossoms by hand for insects or other impurities.

Most European recipes I have come across over the years emphasize the sweet nature of the flowers. Many different nationalities make fritters or pancakes, doughnuts, or if harvest is bountiful, they can be used to flavor custards, jams, and syrups, and other sweet foods. The Italians add a bit of cheese (usually ricotta) to the fritters for an added flavor.

On the other hand, many Silk Road countries prepare them in a savory or spicy manner, or use them to add sweet flavor to dishes that are otherwise not sweet. Some cultures in the Eastern Europe/Western Asia area also make flavored sodas with the syrup.

In India, people lightly saute the flowers with whole spices (a couple of cloves, black pepper, some cumin (not too much) and coriander, and serve the flowers over rice as a seasonal delicacy. In the north and in some areas of the Himalayas, star anise is used as a the dominant flavor. Since they are a wild food with a limited season, the spicing of the fritters or sauteed flowers is very variable. Because whole spices are used, the flavor is a bit milder than if the spices were ground. This allows for the natural sweetness of the flowers to shine through. In an Ayurvedic diet, the flowers are also useful as an antispasmodic and laxative, and poultices of them can be applied to speed the healing of some skin lesions – like chickenpox.

Eggs with Locust Blossoms
Eggs with Locust Blossoms

The black locust is a common tree in China, and is often called ( 洋槐 “yanghuai”), or Foreign Scholar Tree, as both the tree itself and the flowers can resemble the Scholar Tree (Japanese Pagoda Tree Sophora japonica that is native there. Two common ways of preparing them in China are as rice-flour fritters that are then served with a rich and savory brown sauce, or as an addition to chilli-pepper laden scrambled eggs. In the latter, the sweet flowers add both texture and a light flavor to the otherwise spicy eggs.

Further east in Japan and Korea, bunches of flowers are cooked in a tempura batter and eaten with a variety of dipping sauces, or in a “dry tempura,” flowers can be broken off the stem, rinsed, mixed with small chunks of tofu, sprinkled with tempura batter, and lightly fried. Likewise the individual flowers can be parboiled, and lightly pickled (1 week or less) in rice vinegar and sugar and eaten as a condiment or light snack. In Vietnam, locust blossoms are used with mint, chopped vegetables and shrimp to flavor summer rolls which are then dipped in a peanuty chilli-garlic sauce.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to enjoy locust blossoms beyond fritters and pancakes. I hope this inspires you to get out there and pick them during their fleeting season. Since my post only listed a few Asian recipes for locust blossoms, if you would like to share some of your own recipes, please do so in the comments.

Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photograph of Black Locust Blossoms by Fotodietrich @ Dreamstime.com; photograph of Black Locust Leaf from Wikimedia; photograph of Eggs with Locust Blossoms by Laura Kelley.

Spicy Asian – Authentic Szechuan in Ithaca

Wherever I go, for work or for personal travel, I like to hit a good restaurant during my trip.  If that restaurant can be a Silk Road restaurant, all the better.  I had the chance this past weekend to find a little gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.  Spicy Asian restaurant is a small place on Elmira Road, that delivers a knockout of a great dinner.

The restaurant has two menus.  the first is packed with Chinese-American standards like General Tso’s Chicken and Orange Chicken as well as Egg Rolls and Wonton Soup.  The second menu, and the reason I chose to dine there, is a menu filled with authentic Szechuan specialities featuring sour cabbage, tripe, frog, pig trotters, and fish prepared in a myriad of different ways.

Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY
Meal at Spicy Asian in Ithaca, NY

I started with a couple of appetizers I just couldn’t resist: peanuts in black vinegar and a tea egg. The peanuts were boiled to perfection and mixed with black vinegar, Asian cucumbers and spring onions, and the tea egg was fragrant with star anise and cinnamon with a gentle flavor of strong black tea.

For the main course, I chose the Sliced Fish with Sour Cabbage. The fish was tender but firm, and easy to eat with chopsticks, in a savory and lightly sour brown sauce. The cabbage was sliced into long ribbons that provided a strongly sour accent to the mild white fish.

I sipped green tea throughout the meal and afterwards got to chat with the owner’s mother and beautiful young daughter. I wish I had more time to spend with them and their little gem of a restaurant, and I have only one regret – that I wasn’t dining with a group of people to sample more of their wonderful food.

If you are in Ithaca and looking for some really good Szechuan specialities, Spicy Asian is highly recommended.

(Words and photo by Laura Kelley.)

A 1675 Vindaloo Roast Chicken

Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675
Cover of Wellcome MS 4050, 1675

Move over Hannah Glasse. Your published recipe for butter chicken that is widely hailed as the first English recipe for curry, has an English contender. In a 1675 anonymous manuscript full of recipes and potions in the Wellcome Library in London (Wellcome Manuscript 4050) is an English recipe for a vindaloo-flavored roast. In the recipe, cloves, mace, and lots of black pepper form the spice base. This is then mingled with some minced sweet herbs and mixed with vinegar for a marinade and baste for the roast. Not a vindaloo stew or braise like we are accustomed to today, but a recipe for vindaloo-flavored roast hen, mutton, or lamb. A proto-vindaloo, if you will.

Of course, there is an earlier published recipe for a curry than Glasse. The recipe entitled, A Curry for any Fish can be found in the 1680 edition of Arte de Cozhina by Domingos Rodrigues.  But because it is in Portuguese, it is often passed over by people writing about the spread of curry into Europe and the Americas.  Like the 1675 recipe, Rodrigues’ recipe is not in the form of a stew or braise, but rather it is a thick sauce to be ladled on top of a poached fish.  The recipe specifies that it is also good for meat, but not for seafood.

Older than either Glasse or Rodrigues, however, is the recipe for vindaloo-roast in the 1675 Wellcome manuscript. Tucked unassumingly onto the bottom of a page with recipes for hare, venison, and mutton (along with some recipes for pancakes and jelly) is a recipe entitled: “To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb the Indian Way.”

Recipe for Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050
Recipe for a Vindaloo Roast in Wellcome MS 4050

The recipe reads:

To Dress a Hen, Mutton or Lamb ye Indian Way

Take a hen and cut her down the back and wash her from the blood and dry her, then take salt, pepper, cloves and mace and beat the spices very well, then take also sweet herbs and some shallots and mince them very small with lemon and mingle all these well together; then rub up the hen all over with these things and lay it flat in an earthen pan and cover it with some vinegar and let it steep two hours; then roast it and baste with this liquor—when it is enough, set the liquor a cooking, take off the grease, and pour off the hen; dissolve anchovies in it and heat it with beaten butter. So serve it up.

A more modern presentation of the recipe prepared with a chicken would read:

Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675

Ingredients
1 small 4-4.5 pound chicken
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1½ teaspoons mace
6 shallots, peeled and minced
Leaves from two sprigs of rosemary
¼ cup minced parsley
¼ cup minced cilantro
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
Zest from two lemons, minced
2 cups of white wine vinegar
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 handful dried anchovies
½ teaspoon cornstarch to thicken gravy (optional)

Method
Wash and dry the chicken and split it down the back. Flatten the bird by pressing it down with a heavy saucepan. Grind the cloves and the peppercorns and mix them with the salt and 1 teaspoon of the mace. Add the minced shallots, the rosemary, parsley and cilantro. Grind the fennel seeds and add them to the herb and spice mixture. Add the lemon zest and mix well.

Coat the bird on both sides with the spice mixture and then lay it as flat as possible, skin side down, in a ceramic or enamel baking dish. Add the vinegar around the edge of the bird, and spoon some over the bird without washing the herbs and spices away. Cover and let marinate for at least 2 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. while the bird is marinating.

When ready to cook, lift the bird out of the pan and place it on a plate. Then pour the marinade into a bowl. This will be used to baste the chicken as it cooks. Place a rack inside the ceramic or enamel pan and place the bird on it skin side up. Place into preheated oven.

After about 20 minutes, place the pats of butter on the chicken and place back in the oven. Lower heat to 350 degrees F. Every 10-15 minutes throughout the baking time, baste the chicken with the marinade. After about ½ hour, flip the bird over so it is skin side down. Cook this way for about 15-20 minutes and flip it skin side up. Total cooking time for a 4-4.5 pound bird should be about 1.25 – 1.5 hours. While you bake, mince the anchovies. I left the head and spine intact, and strained them from the sauce later.

When the bird is done, remove it from the pan and set aside in a warm spot. Pour the mixture of marinade and cooking juices into a small saucepan, and if you desire, skim the fat from the top. Then add the anchovies. Heat, but do not boil, and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly, to mingle the flavors. Then strain the solids from the gravy. I used a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth.

Return the strained sauce to a cleaned saucepan and reheat for another 5-10 minutes, watching that it doesn’t boil. Add the remaining mace and mix well. If the gravy doesn’t thicken enough as it reduces, take about ¼ cup of the sauce and put it in a teacup or small bowl. Add some cornstarch to the cup and whisk or mix well with a fork to break up the cornstarch. Whisk the sauce in the saucepan and drizzle the mixture of cornstarch and gravy until the gravy thickens up to your desired consistency.

Carve and plate the bird and spoon a small amount over the chicken. Serve the remaining gravy on the table for diners to add at will. I did not reheat the bird, given the tendency for people in the past to eat dishes warm or cooled, but not hot.

Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675
Vindaloo Roast Chicken, 1675

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The bird was really delicious. The sauce made with the mace and vinegar was fantastic! Although I was a bit skeptical about this recipe being a proto-vindaloo based on the ingredients, it very much tastes like I would expect and early European version to taste. If that seems a bit convoluted, just think how the butter chicken recipes of de Peyster or Glasse in the 18th Century compare with modern versions of the recipe. Minus the tomato sauce in many modern versions, the taste is different, but it is clearly an attempt to recreate Indian flavors. Likewise, this recipe from Wellcome manuscript 4050, is definitely an attempt to recreate the flavors of an Indian vindaloo.

The major difference between my version and the original recipe was extra mace added in the sauce to balance out the overwhelming taste of vinegar. In fact, I think that there was such a tendency for the vinegar to overpower the herbs and spices used on the bird, that I would use much less of it in subsequent preparations. One way to do this would be to use about 1 cup for the marinade. Another way would be to skip the vinegar in the marinade, and just baste the bird with ¼ cup of vinegar in addition to the butter and cooking juices. Minus the vinegar, I would also let the herbs and spices sit on the bird for a longer amount of time, perhaps even overnight.

Another change I made was to put the butter on the chicken as it was roasting rather than add it to the sauce as it is being reduced after cooking.

As with many modern recipes from the Silk Road, this recipe gives a lot of freedom to the cook to alter amounts of ingredients or even whole ingredients.  In this early recipe there is the direction to, “then take also sweet herbs.”  I chose parsley, rosemary, and cilantro with a bit of added ground fennel seeds.  Different choices would lead to different flavor, especially with less vinegar in the mix.

_____

For me, cooking this recipe and enjoying the dish with my husband on our 20th wedding anniversary was a wonderful experience.  It was like time traveling with a delicious twist.  Eating a dish that was cooked when Charles II was restored to the throne of England was fascinating.

Think about 1675 for a moment.  Subcontinental flavors were creeping into European cuisine, and interest in eastern cultures that wasn’t purely economic was on the rise.  The importance of science in society was taking a more modern shape as the cornerstone for the Greenwich Observatory was laid, Leibnitz was demonstrating integral calculus, and van Leeuwenhoek was opening doors to the microcosm.  All in all, the globalized world that was beign created by the the massive trading corporations was smaller than that fueled by Silk Road trade.

From a European perspective, however, the world was also more diverse and complex place than ever before.  New species were being discovered on a nearly daily basis, and early travelogues and anthropologies added faces and customs to the people from far-off lands.  Sea monsters began to disappear from maps as man gained greater mastery over the seas, and science replaced mythology and folklore with anatomic description.  Europe was on the doorstep of The Enlightenment, and this is what at least one English family might have been eating.  (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photographs of Wellcome manuscript 4050 from the Wellcome Trust.  Photograph of Vindaloo Roast Chicken by Laura Kelley.)

Phoenician Dining on the Silk Road

Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.

Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE
Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE

In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.

Center Detail - Man Battling a Lion
Center Detail – Man Battling a Lion
Snake Detail
Snake Detail

The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)

Silk Money from the Silk Road

Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C. ACE
Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C, ACE
From cowrie shells; and iron, copper and silver coins; to various kinds of paper, many different materials have been used by merchants and customers as credit or legal tender. Bolts of silk measuring roughly 22 inches wide and 41 feet long were also used as a form of currency by the Chinese, especially in foreign trade or as gifts to foreign lands. The silk used as currency was of lower quality than that used for luxury goods or tribute. Generally it was a plain basketweave (one thread above, one below) and both undyed and undecorated, as in this photograph of a silk bolt used as payment for the expenses of soldiers at a garrison in Loulan (Korla) in the 3rd or 4th Century ACE.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, that people actually began to print money on small pieces of silk and use them as banknotes. This use of silk money was usually a temporary thing, fueled by a local or regional government’s need to raise money quickly, or by a shortage in paper, or both.

In 1918, Khorezm (now in far western Uzbekistan) was seized by Junaeed Kurban Mamed when he invaded Khiva. Mamed executed the legitimate ruler Asfandiyar, set Asfandiyar’s younger brother, Seyeed Abdulla, up to rule in his place. This invasion and coup threw the economy of the state into chaos, and the new government started printing banknotes to raise money. Lacking sufficient paper resources, they started to print and circulate currency on small pieces of silk.

Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ
Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ

Unlike the presses used to print paper money, the designs and official seals on the silk currency were applied by hand with wooden (probably elm) stamps, with separate stamps used for each color. The dyes used were traditional and derived from local plants and fruits with oak-apple (dark brown to black), pistachio leaves (green), madder root (red), and the Japanese pagoda tree flowers (cream to yellow).

The notes were printed with Arabic, Uzbek, and Russian text. The notes were issued in 200, 250, 500, 1000, and 2500 tanga denominations. At the time of issue, the value of 5 tanga was approximately equal to one Russian ruble, so the 250 tanga note was valued at 50 Russian rubles.

April 1920, on the territory of the Khiva khanate the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (KPSR) was established, and more silk money was printed. In 1923 an even exchange of the silk banknotes and soviet currency was established. Despite this, many people held on to the silk banknotes and up until the 1950s and 1960s homemade quilts and suzani in the Khiva region could be found incorporating the banknotes as part of the design.

A little Silk Road History for a warm January day. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Silk Currency Bolts from the British Museum (Collection Image AN00009/AN00009325_002_l.jpg); Photo of Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ by Laura Kelley.)

Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Afghan Cardamom Cookies
Afghan Cardamom Cookies

Today I’m cooking for a holiday get together with friends we’re having this evening, but wanted to share a delicious recipe with you that is just perfect for this time of year.

These Afghan cardamom cookies are spicy and savory, and deliver a blast of cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth.

They are also really simple to make, and take no more than a half-an-hour from sifting, to cooling rack, to table. Try them to add a different kind of Silk Road spice to your holiday dessert spread.

Ingredients
1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup whole milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts, plus a few whole nuts to press into cookies

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°. Sift together the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Roll the dough into 1-inch round balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.

Remove from the oven and press a whole pistachio into the center of the cookie as it cools. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.

(Makes about a dozen-and-a-half cookies.)

Variation: Substitute some lard or other animal fat for all or some of the butter for additional savory, umami flavor and mouthfulness.  Life is hard in Afghanistan, and in lean times women will even use corn-oil to make these cookies.  They turn out fine every time.

Natto in Japan and Beyond

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]

Homemade Natto on Rice
Homemade Natto on Rice

A Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Tomb

Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Noble Tomb (5th C ACE)
Roman Bowl from a Mongolian Noble Tomb (5th C ACE)

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.)

The Introduction of Chili Peppers to India

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.

Capsicum longum, Fuchs, 1542
Capsicum longum, Fuchs, 1542

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.)

The Bhojanakutuhalam
The Bhojanakutuhalam

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.)

A Meal Fit for Kim Jong-il

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.

Spiced Venison, North Korean Style
Spiced Venison, North Korean Style

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)

Ingredients
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)

Directions
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.

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노루고기편졸임

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

  1. 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.

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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.

North Korean Corn Noodles
North Korean Corn Noodles

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.

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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.

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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:

  1. 사슴앞다리살은 토막으로 썰어서 기름에 지져 색을 낸 다음 밤, 버섯, 은행, 동글게 깎은 홍당무우, 생강을 두고 푹 찐다

Google translates this to read:

  1. 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.)