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.)

Early 20th Century Georgian Winemaking

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.

Man Tending Grapevines

Man Tending Grapevines

Men Crushing Grapes

Men Crushing Grapes

Qvevri Along the Roadside

Qvevri Along the Roadside

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.

Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)

Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)

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.

Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923

Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923

Garum – Its not as Roman as You Think!

Roman Fish Mosaic

Roman Fish Mosaic

I had the pleasure recently to be a guest on Eat This Podcast with Jeremy Cherfas. On the show, Jeremy and I spoke about the fish sauce garum, how to make it, its origins (not Roman), and its many uses in cooking and as a table condiment. I hope you enjoy the show and consider making some garum for yourself! I also hope that you continue to listen to Eat This Podcast Its a great source of eclectic information about food and cuisines.  Jeremy writes:

Garum is one of those ancient foods that everyone seems to have heard of. It is usually described as “fermented fish guts,” or something equally unappealing, and people often call it the Roman ketchup, because they used it so liberally on so many things. Fermented fish guts is indeed accurate, though calculated to distance ourselves from it. And garum is just one form of fermented fish; there’s also liquamen, muria. allec and haimation. All this I learned from Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet. Unlike most of the people who opine on garum, and who offer recipes for quick garum, she painstakingly created the real deal. She is also convinced that it isn’t really Roman in origin. We only think of it that way because history is written by the victors not the vanquished.  And then there’s the whole question of the Asian fish sauces, Vietnamese nước mắm and the rest of them. Independent discovery, or copied from the Romans?

Other interviews I’ve done are available on the sidebar MP3 Player as well.

“Asian” Food in Colonial America

When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats. What most people don’t realize is that settlers in colonial America had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America. . . [MORE HERE]

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Pomegranate Symbolism for Spring

Pomegranates have been used as symbols to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence. Read more about pomegranates on Zester Daily – HERE.

Pomegranate Spring

A Review of the Viking Cookbook, An Early Meal

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

An Early Meal by Serra and Tunberg

Raiders… conquerors… fierce in battle and strong in family. These are the images that the world has of Vikings. We know where they lived, and to some degree how they made a living. We know which gods they worshipped and how. Yet the bulk of our knowledge consists of broad brush strokes that omit the nuances of everyday life. The Vikings recorded many things, from The Sagas to business transactions and personal letters. But beyond a brief and occasional mention, two of the many things they didn’t write about were what they ate and how they prepared their meals. The Vikings left no recipes.

Read the rest of my review of the Viking cookbook, An Early Meal on the EXARC (Experimental Archaeology) website.

The Silk Road History of Rhubarb in Zester Daily

Everything you wanted to know about rhubarb’s Silk Road history, from its origins in Tibet and early use as medicine to its adoption as a food, in Zester Daily. A great recipe for savory lamb and rhubarb stew included! Read all about it HERE.

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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.

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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.

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The First Japanese Curry

The First Japanese Curry

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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.)

Rice Omelets, Yōshoku, and A Little International Understanding

2014 began with our family hosting a Japanese college student for a brief homestay.  A Facebook friend of mine had a daughter studying in the United States; she had some time on her hands over the Christmas break, and she decided to spend some of it with us.  Despite the arctic cold front that hit the area and talk of, “polar vortexes,” moving through the area, we toured around some of the monuments and museums of Washington DC that week, and also visited the beautiful aquarium in Baltimore and George Washington’s estate Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.

During Hiyori’s visit we ate a mish-mash of Asian and European food.  On a couple of mornings I made a nice Japanese breakfast with homemade miso soup, rice, natto, baked fish, and some other small dishes which she loved and ate heartily.  There were also some good steaks, some kimchi chigae, tandoori chicken (which she also loved) and my husband bought her a hot dog from a street-cart outside the Smithsonian on a cold afternoon.

Knowing how it feels to be away from home for a long time and to simply want the comfort of the familiar, I told Hiyori that if there was some type of food that she really wanted, to let us know and that we would try make it for her.  She got a serious look on her face, thought about it for a little while, and declared that what she really wanted was an Omu-raisu (オムライス) a Japanese rice omelet.

Japanese Rice Omelet

Japanese Rice Omelet

For those of you unfamiliar with rice omelets, they are simply omelets stuffed with rice and flavored with ketchup.  The rice is often leftover from other meals, and a variety of other fillings can accompany it, such as vegetables (especially onions, carrots and peas), chicken or pork, or fruits, like tomatoes and mushrooms.  They are a mainstay of Japanese homecooking as well as a menu staple in casual restaurants and diners.  Variations include using tonkatsu sauce or demi-glace in the place of ketchup for a slightly more high-brow taste.

For a dish so simple and unassuming, it is steeped in history.  Rice omelets first started to be made in Japan around the turn of the 20th Century, but they are part of a much larger trend of the introduction and adaptation of western dishes to Japanese tastes that began during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s.  At the beginning of this period, Japan’s national seclusion was eliminated, and the Emperor declared Western ideas central to Japan’s future progress. As part of the reformations, the Emperor lifted the ban on red meat and promoted Western cuisine, which was viewed as the cause of the Westerner’s greater physical size.

The first curry recipes, which entered Japan via English sailors, appeared in 1872. Within a decade, curries proved so popular that they were on the menu at several Tokyo restaurants. Katsu, beefsteak and Hayashi rice are other examples of western dishes that were introduced during this period that have since gone on to be known as a subset of Japanese cuisine known as yōshoku (洋食) or western food.

To us, it was fascinating to discover that the one dish our Japanese guest wanted above all others was an omelet.  How very western, we thought.  But that’s just it, because it turns out that these omelets have become so integrated into modern Japanese food culture that they are as Japanese are cherry blossoms.  Here is the basic recipe.

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Japanese Rice Omelet

Ingredients (for 1 omelet)
1 onion, minced
2-3 tablespoons oil
1½ cup precooked Japanese rice
1 cup of ketchup
2-3 eggs, whisked until frothy
Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Oil a medium sauté pan with 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onion over medium heat until it becomes translucent and starts to color.  Then add rice and the ketchup and stir well.  Allow mixture to cook for a few minutes and then remove from the pan and set aside.

In a cleaned or fresh pan, add the remaining tablespoon of oil.  Pour in frothed eggs, cook over low-to-medium heat until the bottom is firm and only a little bit of moisture is left on the top. Take care not to burn the bottom of the omelet.

Place the onion and rice mixture on a line down the center of the eggs, leaving at least ½ inch from both edges. Mound the mixture as best as you can and fold the edges of the omelet over the filling.  Slide the omelet out onto a plate.  Garnish with extra ketchup and serve leftover filling as a side dish.  Often served with cucumbers or pickles and shredded cabbage dishes.

N.B.  If you have a seasoned omelet pan, use it.  You will need less oil if you do.

Variations: As noted above, additional ingredients can be included. These are added after the onion cooks and before the rice and ketchup are added. It is also fine to use seasoned rice in the omelet. I usually use a shiso seed-based furikake on my rice. This works fine as filling for the rice omelet as well.

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One of the nice surprises about rice omelets, besides the fact that they are very easy to make, is that all that ketchup is not as “ketchupy” as you might think.  Somehow all that Heinz 57 cooks down a bit to taste more like a semi-sweet tomato sauce.  Also, if folding omelets is something you find challenging, acceptable modern presentation of the dish in Japan include lightly-set eggs set onto the top of rice mounded on a plate.  No folding and breaking, or filling falling out with that method.  Not quite an omelet, perhaps, but the taste of the egg-topped rice is virtually the same.

So much a part of Japanese food culture, the rice omelet was featured in the 1985 foodie movie, Tampopo. In the movie, a hobo father breaks into a kitchen after hours to cook a rice omelet for his son. In the movie, the hobos are the master chefs from whom Tampopo learns how to really make soup. It is a fabulous movie, that tells a number of food-related stories. It also uses camera cuts to create what seem like accidental changes in he narrative. These “accidents” are really sophisticated visual choices on the part of the director and are simply brilliant. But I digress.

In addition to being Japanese, rice omelets are also important parts of Korean and Taiwanese cuisines. They were introduced by the Japanese in the early 20th Century in those countries, so that the roots of the recipe as Japanese may have been forgotten.

Fancy or plain, the modern Japanese (or Korean or Taiwanese) rice omelet is a result of west-east cultural connections that enriched both groups. The Japanese have made it a popular dish in their own cuisine, and westerners are rediscovering it and making it their own once again. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Japanese Rice Omelet from iStock; and video excerpt from Tampopo from You Tube.)