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.

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

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.)