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.

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

Cold Tofu with Pidan

One of my favorite ways to enjoy 1000-year eggs is as part of a cold-tofu salad.  This presentation of pidan is enjoyed all over China this way as well as in Taiwan, Japan and Korea.  It is served as an appetizer or as part of a meal with many dishes eaten at the same time.  For western cooks, it is simple to make, exotic, nutritious (full of protein) and welcomes an endless array of variations to suit almost any taste.  It also works well as a snack or a light meal

The secret to this fabulous dish is in the dressing.  It is salty, savory, sour and a bit sweet all at the same time.

Cold Tofu with Pidan
Cold Tofu with Pidan

It can be served as a mixed melee as I have done in the photo above, or it can be served Japanese style, like a hiyayakko, where each ingredient is placed separately on a platter and diners can pick only those ingredients that they want.

Cold Tofu with Pidan

Ingredients
Salad
8-10 ounces of silken tofu
2 1000-year eggs
1-2 tablespoons shredded bonito
1 large spring onion, minced
1/3 cucumber, peeled and minced (or cut into a small dice)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
1 red chili pepper (optional, but good)

Dressing
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon black vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar (I use demerara)
1 teaspoon sesame oil

Method
Place the tofu in a serving dish or bowl and slice into cubes; keep the cubes together in a single unit.  Quarter one of the 1000-year eggs and place around the base of the tofu.  Roughly chop the second pidan and set aside.  Place shredded bonito on top of the tofu, then place the roughly chopped pidan on top of the bonito.

In a small bowl mix together the spring onion, cucumber, garlic, ginger and chili pepper.  When well mixed, place on top of the tofu and other ingredients.  In a small cup or bowl combine the ingredients for the dressing and mix until blended. Pour dressing over tofu and serve immediately.

Variations:  This dish is really flexible and can be easily changed to suit your tastes.  You can substitute pork floss for bonito, or omit the meat flavors altogether for a dish more suitable for vegetarians.  If you enjoy the flavor wallop of Chinese pickled mustard, add a tablespoon to the vegetable mix. If you don’t like the sometimes overpowering flavor of sesame oil – use less, or omit completely.  If you prefer it more sour use only black vinegar.

_____

Over the next week or two, I hope to post a bunch of recipes for pidan from around Asia. Check back soon for more great food! (Words, recipe, and photos by Laura Kelley).

Curry Through Foreign Eyes #5: Japanese Curry

The next stop on our exploration of Indian Curry Through Foreign Eyes is Japan.  Curry came to Japan by way of British sailors and merchants in the mid-19th Century.  This happened sometime after Commodore Matthew Perry landed at Kurihama in 1853, and opened Japan to the world after centuries of isolation.  The first recipe for curry in Japanese was published in 1872 by the renowned writer and satirist, Kanagaki Robun, in his Western Food Handbook or Seiyo Ryoritsu.  The recipe is for a mixed-seafood curry with large quantities of fresh ginger and a little butter, salt, and curry powder.

First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)
First Japanese Curry Recipe (1872)

Following the publication of the first recipe, Japan went curry-crazy.  In 1877, the Ginza Fugetsudo Restaurant first listed curry rice on its menu.  Despite being almost 10 times more expensive than noodles, curry quickly grew in popularity.  The first domestic curry powder went on sale in Osaka in 1903, sold by the company that is now Bee Foods, and the first curry shop – a restaurant devoted solely to curry dishes – opened in 1910, also in Osaka.

Curry took Tokyo by storm in 1927 when the Hankyu Market Restaurant started to serve curry.  Demand for curry dishes was so high that a direct farm-to-table supply of ingredients was secured to feed the 25,000 customers a day (65,000 a day on Sundays) who ordered curries.  The modern age of curry was ushered in 1950 when Bell Foods started selling curry powder mixed with flour in a chocolate-bar form, now called curry-roux. All home-cooks needed to do now was to break off a few squares of spice and add them to whatever they wanted to “curry”.

Ad for Bon Curry in 1960s

Concomitant with its increasing popularity in the general public, curry rice and other curry dishes also became mainstay meals in the Japanese military.  In addition to feeding the troops in the field and at mess, this also allowed conscripts from all over Japan to experience curry – facilitating its further acceptance.

From its humble beginnings in 1872, curry has become one of the most popular of Japanese dishes. Over the years, curry has been adapted to Japanese tastes and cooking methods, and today there are over 80 different kinds of Japanese curry, from curried rice, and curried udon or soba noodles, to bread with curry sauce or kare pan, and tonkatsu cutlet curries.  Press surveys report that the ‘average’ Japanese person eats curry 84 times a year – or more than once a week.

Japanese Curry Rice
Japanese Curry Rice

Today’s Japanese curry has little in common with its Indian ancestor. It is almost uniformly sweeter than any Indian curry I’ve had, and often has apples and honey added to it to tame the sharp edges of the spices in the curry–roux mix.  In general, there also seems to be a lot more sauce in Japanese curries than in Indian ones.  There are also special dishes representative of the areas they come from, like Sika-Deer Curry from Hokkaido and Natto Curry from Ibaraki Prefecture.

What strikes me as very strange is, if curry is so popular in Japan, why is it so under-represented in Japanese restaurants in the west? We have a few large Eastern Asian markets in our area that have food courts, and some of the food stalls serve a couple of Japanese curry dishes. Other than that, there is no Japanese restaurant from Baltimore to DC that has Japanese curry on its menu. Most offer sushi and the Japanese-American food-theatre known as hibatchi (which is really teppanyaki-style cooking). Although I haven’t done a thorough survey of Japanese restaurants in the US, I suspect that Japanese curry is difficult to find on most menus.

So, on to the first Japanese curry recipe.

The First Japanese Curry (1872) 

Ingredients
1 raw cibol, finely-chopped (Allium fistulosum)
1/2 ginger race, minced
1 piece of garlic, finely-chopped
1 tablespoon butter
shrimp
oyster
sea bream
reddish-brown frog
1 teaspoon of curry powder
appropriate quantities of salt
2 tablespoon wheat flour, mixed with water
270ml water

Method
1. Heat butter in a pan and cook raw cibol, ginger, garlic 2. Add 270ml water, shrimp, sea bream, frog and boil 10-20 minutes 3. Add curry powder, salt and boil 1 hour 4. Add water-mixed flour and stir.

_____

There were several issues with the original recipe that required interpretation and/or revision. The first issue was deciding how much ginger was in a “race.” Luckily I got some assistance on that matter from Kathleen Wall of Plimoth Plantation who shared with me the amount considered a “race” by the cooks interpreting recipes at Plimouth. Half a race still seemed like a lot of ginger, but that is what I used. The next issue I had was that I needed to add more water than called for, because more moisture was needed to create a curry sauce from the spring onions, garlic and ginger. The next problem was what seemed like excessive cooking times for the fish. I opted to add the fish and shellfish after the curry sauce had been made and only cooked them for a few minutes. This is the method I generally use for modern curries with similar ingredients.

One thing that continues to vex me about trying to re-create this recipe is that to a large degree, a curry is made by the masala, the mix of dry spices used, or in the ingredients in the commercially prepared curry powder. In the original recipe, there is no information given about the make-up of the curry powder. I did some research, but had little luck finding information on what might have been used. Ultimately, I had to resort to a modern product and so chose the turmeric-laden S&B Oriental Curry Powder. If another product were used, say some break-off squares in a House Foods – Vermont Curry block, the taste would change according to the makeup of the product used.

Lastly, I had to omit the red frog. I simply didn’t know what species it might be, and didn’t want to take any chances. The resulting recipe follows:

First Japanese Curry (1872) (Interpreted)

Ingredients
1-2 tablespoons butter
1/2 ginger race (slightly more than 1/2 cup), peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, finely-chopped
1 small bunch of spring onions (about 6 stalks), chopped
2 cups water
3-4 teaspoons of curry powder
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 – 1½ cups medium shrimp (10-12 shrimp), peeled and deveined
1 sea bream (porgy), cleaned and chopped
1 cup oysters, chopped
2 tablespoons wheat flour, mixed with water

Method
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the spring onions for about one minute over medium heat. Then add the ginger and garlic and sauté for 2-3 minutes or until they start to color. Add water and stir well until warm. Let cook for 3-5 minutes and add the curry powder and salt and stir well. Cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes over medium-low or low heat, stirring often until sauce begins to form.

Add fish and cook for 3 minutes, then add shrimp and oysters and cook for another 3-4 minutes until shrimp are pink and curled. As fish and shellfish are cooking, mix the flour and water together until smooth. When the mixture is smooth, stir it in a bit at a time to thicken the curry sauce. You may not need to use all of the mixture. Cook for a few minutes to banish the “raw” flavor of the thickening mixture.  Remove from heat and serve with rice.

_____

The First Japanese Curry
The First Japanese Curry

______

The taste of the curry is very good. Although very much influenced by the ratio of ingredients of the curry powder, the mingling of fish and shellfish flavor with the curry powder is delicious. There is also an interesting, almost buttery flavor to the curry, which is surprising given the modest amount of butter used in the recipe. Lastly the large amount of ginger used cooks down nicely and adds a light gingery taste to the curry without being bitter. The garlic and spring onion, while adding depth to the curry are undiscernible as individual ingredients.

The first Japanese curry also differs a great deal from modern Japanese curries, which come in several distinct commercial varieties.  These range from “spicy” Java curry to sweet Vermont curry, with Torokeru and Kokumaru falling in between the other two.  Golden curry is a muted, less distinct alternative than the other types.  To complicate the situation, most Japanese curry cooks, both at home and in curry shops, blend the curry-roux blocks to make distinctive or signature flavors for those enjoying their dishes.

There seems to be a movement amongst younger Japanese cooks to try to make curries from “scratch” – by creating their own mix of spices.  Sometimes these recipes are both good and interesting and offer a mix of standard curry spices.  At other times, recipes simply add a lot of garam masala to the pot, replacing one commercial spice mix with another highly variable spice mix.  Interestingly, almost all of these new recipes use some sort of roux (cooked tan or brown) with spices to thicken the dish instead of the white-wash or slurry of flour and water used in the first Japanese curry recipe.

There are also a wider variety of vegetables used today than in the first Japanese curry recipe.  For example, a seafood curry recipe from the House Foods website has several yellow onions in it, some white wine and uses a Kokumaru curry-roux block.  Other recipes I’ve seen include a mix of vegetables, such as zucchini and eggplant in addition to the onions, still other add potatoes or carrots.  So you see, even though a commercial spice mix is at the heart of modern Japanese curries, there is a lot of variation still to be experienced in the dishes, with the results depending upon the imagination of the individual cook.

(Words, recipe interpretation and cooking by Laura Kelley.  Photo of Seiyo Ryoritsu text taken from a PDF of the manuscript by Laura Kelley, photo of Bon Curry advertisement borrowed from the Kikkoman website, photo of Japanese Curry Rice by Torsakarin@Dreamstime.com, and photo of The First Japanese Curry by Laura Kelley.  Special thanks to Mr. Hiroo Watai who found the first Japanese curry recipe for me and translated it.)