Homemade 1000-Year Eggs Unveiled

We harvested the 1000-year eggs and are finally getting around to preparing and eating some of the crop.  The color is right, and a few of them have the pine-patterning that their CHinese name suggests on their dark, amber-colored flesh.  They taste good, but are MUCH milder than some of the Pidan I’ve had in China.  They are also missing the strong ammonia-like scent that accompanies some commercial century eggs I’ve had.

For those of you who are just tuning in to this culinary adventure of mine, check out this post to see how the eggs were transformed.  This is how they looked the morning I harvested them:

Freshly Harvest 1000-Year Eggs

Freshly Harvest 1000-Year Eggs

They didn’t look particularly appetizing at this stage.  But swim on, I told myself, the results will be worth it.  I cleaned them using a bit of water and some elbow grease, but I had to be very gentle so as to not crack the shells.  The shells are rather delicate by the end of the process, because they have been permeated by the chemical brew of tea, salt, ash and lime.

Closeup of Freshly Harvested Eggs

Closeup of Freshly Harvested Eggs

Some of the shells had a bluish tinge to them and some of them were a mottled off-white as shown above.  When the first crack revealed a solid amber flesh, I was overjoyed!  All of the eggs were transformed, but some were a bit runny in their forest-green centers.  After cleaning, I let them dry completely and then placed them in the refrigerator until I could prepare them.  I was very pleased with the results:

1000-Year Eggs with Pickled Ginger and Soy

1000-Year Eggs with Pickled Ginger and Soy

This is one of the most common ways to serve them – simply as a snack, or appetizer, or part of a large collection of dishes that might also include pickled diakon radish and pickled carrots, some sliced abalone or some and barbequed pork.  The presentation pictured here is most like the Cantonese way of eating the eggs – simply wrapped in slices of pickled ginger.  Elsewhere around China and Taiwan people enjoy them with tofu or as a flavoring to omelets made with fresh eggs.

My eggs were creamy but still a bit sharp, sort of like the sharpness of a very pungent cheese.  So don’t blindly believe all of the macho videos out there that show nervous boys choking them down.  The flavor is strong, but enjoyable.  In the preparation I made, the ginger works nicely to modulate the flavor of the eggs, and the soy dipping sauce is completely optional in my personal opinion.

Other ways to prepare them that I am set to explore soon include using them to flavor a congee (rice porridge) along with bits of pork (皮蛋瘦肉粥), and perhaps one of the recipes with chilled tofu – so stay tuned for more 1000-year eggs. (All words and photos by Laura Kelley.)

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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

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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.

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Listen to Laura on Taste of the Past

Listen to an interview with me on Heritage Radio’s Taste of the Past about spring rhubarb and some historical and modern Silk Road food topics. Also included is a discussion about foods, like rhubarb, that started out as medicines. Linda Cook Palaccio hosts the discussion.

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Rhubarb’s Silk Road History 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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Areni Winemaking – Ancient and Modern

Last year I had the pleasure of visiting the Areni-1 cave in southern Armenia.  Many unique and noteworthy artifacts have been found in the cave, including leather shoes; fine linen fabric, woven reed mats, and pottery vessels of different styles and periods.  In addition, preserved within the cave is also the site of the world’s oldest known winery.  When the archaeologists studying the site announced this in 2012, I knew I just had to see it for myself.

Mouth of cave Areni-1

Mouth of cave Areni-1

The cave is situated overlooking a winding road that slips through a valley along the edge of the Arpa River.  Small cafes and vendors dot the roadside.  We pulled into one of the cafes that had grapevine canopies over tables that straddled side branches of the river.  I thought we were just stopping for lunch, but when I looked up, we were also right at the base of the cliff where the Areni-1 cave was located.

The earthen path to the cave was well worn, but very steep and without steps or rail, so it was a bit of a trudge get to the mouth of the cave.  It was also a hot, late spring day, and the sun, although welcome after several days of clouds and showers, beat down on us as we climbed. As we neared the mouth of the cave, a dog ran by us at breakneck speed, making me wish for a few less years on my own personal pedometer.

The view into the valley from the cave mouth is spectacular.  The hills across the access road are low and one can see for many miles to the north.  Presuming a similar lay of the land in the recent past, the cave would have provided excellent protection for occupants and as well as the ability to see animals or people headed their way at a distance.  It was the ultimate early room with a view.

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Just to the left of the cave mouth is the main occupation area. Although the cave was inhabited on and off from the Neolithic to the late Middles Ages, the bulk of the habitation was in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age in the late 5th to early 4th millennium BCE. This area has yielded hearths, grindstones, clay storage bins, and numerous goat and sheep bones (mostly goat). In addition to their provenance, the bones themselves show signs of processing for harvesting meat and marrow as well as cooking, indicating that cave occupants were eating animals on site and probably living in proximity to them as well. Areni’s famous leather shoes were found in this area. Also found here were obsidian and chert tools. The obsidian is interesting because there are no deposits of it in the Arpa valley within 20 kilometers of the cave, indicating that cave inhabitants were either getting it themselves at a greater distance, or trading with others who had ready access to the material.

When I was in college I worked for a summer at the Tautavel caves in southern France.  The material used for some of the tools at that Neanderthal site came from several hundred miles away.  So trade at a distance for Areni’s much more modern inhabitants is no surprise. It is important to remember, however, when considering the flow of information, such as that concerning the domestication of plants or ways of processing them for food and drink, or for the ability to trade wine, say for obsidian, perhaps?

Although the cave has electricity, the day we visited, it was out. In fact, we were told it was on before our climb, but it seemed to fail especially for our visit. I don’t know how many of you are spelunkers, but as you enter a cave, the light falls off rapidly. Just a handful of feet inside the mouth of the cave and we were in near darkness that became pitch as we made our way deeper inside. Someone had a half-dead flashlight with them, and that was the only light we had to guide us. The photos in this post are a credit to my trusty Nikon and its ability capture and amplify light, because it was impossible to see a few inches beyond the weak torchlight with the unaided eye.

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

To the left, in the darkness of the cave, was the main wine processing area. This area has a shallow clay tub, the center of which is occupied by the mouth of a large jar. Archaeologists think that this basin was for the pressing of grapes or berries, and that the pressed juice flowed into the mouth of the large jar. This interpretation is bolstered by the discovery of desiccated grapes, grape seeds and skins still attached to pedicels, and even grape stems in close proximity to these jars. Morphological examination of the Copper-Age grape remains found here suggest that they are an intermediary between wild and domestic fruits, so it is possible that grape domestication was in process at Areni-1. The presence of large storage jars around the pressing installation may even indicate that secondary fermentation took place there. Plastering of jar mouths would have created an airlock, protecting the wine from oxidation. Carbon-14 dating of the grapes in this area places them between 4223 – 3790 BCE, making this the oldest wine-producing assemblage yet discovered. There are older jars with sediments that have been identified as wine known from Georgia and Iran, which indicates the consumption of wine in those places, but Armenia has the claim as oldest site for wine making.

In addition to grapes, the remains of many other fruits, drupes, and nuts were found in the cave, including plums, pears, hackberries, silverberries, almonds and walnuts. These could have been for consumption as food items, or some of them (notably plums and pears) could have been used in the production of mixed-fruit wines. The presence of the walnuts are also notable because there is very little data on when humans started to domesticate (purposely plant and harvest nuts) from these trees. Areni-1 offers remains and a firm range of dates when inhabitants were eating these in the Caucasus. Charred grains such as emmer, early wheat (Triticum cf. aestivum), naked and hulled barley, lentils, and grass peas were also found in the cave.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

We trudged on slowly towards the rear of the cave, feeling more than seeing our way forward towards an area where the skulls of three sub-adult human skulls were found sealed into large pottery jars. One of the skulls had well preserved brain tissue within. Also around this area, several adult leg and arm bones with evidence of carnivore chewing (probably a dog) were also found. All of the human remains predate the winemaking by several hundred years. Beyond the fact that their heads were severed from their bodies, archaeologists do not know how to interpret these remains. They are being called, “burials,” but it is not clear whether these tweens and teens were sacrificed, or whether they died from natural causes and their heads interred in ritual remembrance. The largest skull has evidence of new bone formation on the inside of the skull, but no evidence of fracture or deliberate penetration into the cranial cavity. This suggests an inflammatory response to an infection as can occur in the encephalidities, meningitis, and osteomyelitis. However, because the adult long bones were chewed by a dog, and some of them were found sealed in pots, I suspect that these kids may have been victims of rabies. We know that rabies was a problem in the Old Babylonian Period of ancient Mesopotamia because they had spells to try to counteract it  Although Areni-1 is much older than the earliest known evidence of rabies in Mesopotamia, It is not too far flung to imagine that these kids died after an infectious bite from a rabid animal.  Whatever the cause of death, my money is on ritual remembrance of these children, not sacrifice or ritual cannibalism as some have suggested.

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

As we made our way out of the cave, the return of the light felt like emerging from the world of the past represented in the artifacts and assemblages.  I imagined the sounds of people chatting while they worked, animals bleating, some meat cooking on the hearth, and people making and tasting the old Areni-1 vintages.  Imagination is a powerful thing, because not two minutes by Jeep from the base of the cave is the Areni Wine Factory.  Despite its Soviet-sounding name, the wines they make are good and the people who make it are knowledgeable about their wines and wine culture beyond their borders.  That day, they were tasting some mixed fruit wines.  I sampled the grape-cherry and grape pomegranate both of which were very good.  A quick tour of the cellar ended the day and we got back in the Jeep to find some beds for the night.  As we drove, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the coincidence of modern winery so near to the world’s oldest known winery, and wondered how similar (or how different) the people of the Arap Valley are to those who lived in Areni-1.

(Words and photographs by Laura Kelley.  Recording of rabies Incantation borrowed from the London SOAS website).

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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.)

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The Secrets of Umami in Zester Daily

My first post for the great publication, Zester Daily, was released today. Go on over and read all about The Secret to Umami’s Magic by yours truly!

Uzbek Samsa

Delicious Uzbek Samsa

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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.)

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Culinary History Mystery #6: Tomato Eggs

Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes

Chinese Tomato Eggs

Tomato Eggs is a home-cooked Chinese dish that reminds students, travelers, and those living abroad of home.  Just a whiff of this cooking and folks will tell tales of sitting in or near the kitchen as a kid as a parent made this dish – and how good it tasted!  it is simple, elegant, and savory, and less than 10 – 15 minutes from wok to table.  Chopped green onions are almost always used. Sometimes garlic or onion is added, and often there is a blast of shaoxing, rice vinegar, or even oyster sauce to add flavor.  Some recipes also add sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes, but the memorable taste of the dish usually just comes from the combined flavors of the fresh ingredients.

The form of the dish can be dry, like in the picture above, or is can be moist with a thin tomato sauce, or even soupy. It is often served over or with rice or fresh noodles. My travels tend to make me think that presentation varies mostly by individual preference and not by geography, because I have had both dry and wet forms in a number of different places.

I’ve enjoyed this dish all over China, from Beijing and Xian to places much further west and south.  Although the Chinese regard this as a quintessential Chinese dish, my favorite thing about tomato eggs (蕃茄炒蛋/西红柿炒蛋) is that it is probably Arab in origin.

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshouka

Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka

The Arab dish that Tomato Eggs most resembles is Shakshuka. This dish is eaten all over the Saudi Peninsula, North Africa, and the Levant. Turkey even has its own version called Menemen. Although the form varies a great deal, from the dry, Saudi version pictured here, to poached eggs over a spiced tomato sauce as in Egypt and Israel, to a complex ragout of vegetables (with lots of tomatoes) and sometimes bits of meat or sausage bound together by eggs.   It is almost always served with pita bread or naan.  Onions are almost always used and sometimes garlic is as well.  Spicing can be just salt and pepper with a little bit of chopped parsley or cilantro as in Oman to a dish flavored with cumin, or dishes with oregano and other herbs.  Chili peppers or ground chilies are often added, but I have never had a Shakshuka that I could call hot.  These days, cheese is sometimes added, but that is a modern addition and not found in traditional recipes for the dish in any of the cultures that now enjoy it.

A comparison of the Saudi and Chinese recipes show that the recipes are nearly identical, although the Chinese use a two-step cooking process:

Saudi Shakshuka
Chinese Tomato Eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small white onion, minced
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
4 eggs

Heat oil in a small-to-medium sauté pan. Add onions and garlic until tender. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and cumin and stir well. Cook 2-4 minutes until tomatoes soften.

Break eggs over mixture and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until done. Stir with a spatula to mix or slide onto a plate and serve.
3 tablespoons cooking oil
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon shaoxing wine (optional)
3 dashes white pepper powder
8 oz. fresh tomato (cut into thin wedges)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
Some chopped green onions
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil (garnish, optional)

Break the eggs into a bowl and use chopsticks to beat the eggs until they break thoroughly. Add salt, sesame oil, shaoxing wine, white pepper powder, and lightly beat to blend well. Set aside.

Heat up a wok with 2 tablespoons cooking oil. Add the egg mixture into the wok, and use your spatula to spread the eggs. Keep stirring until the eggs form lumps. Gently break the lumps into smaller pieces. As soon as the eggs are cooked, dish out and set aside.

Clean the wok and heat it up again with 1 tablespoon cooking oil. Drop the tomato wedges into the wok and do a few quick stirs. Add sugar and water into the tomatoes. Cover it with the lid and let it cook for about 30 seconds. Transfer the eggs and chopped scallions into the tomatoes, stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, dish out and serve immediately.

The main reasons why this is probably another west-to-east spread of a recipe is the commonality and variations of the dish in the Muslim Mediterranean, Suez and Persian Gulf,and the unusual nature of the dish in China’s litany of egg recipes. Another reason why it is likely a dish with an “Arab” origin is that Muslim people took to the tomato very early on in its introduction in the Old World. While the Europeans were generally skittish about eating this member of the nightshade family, and raised them as curiosities or ornamental garden plants, the Muslims dove right in and cultivated them as food early on in their arrival in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Spanish were the only Europeans who generally took to eating the tomato in the 16th Century. This is probably because they saw them being cultivated and eaten in the New World and knew that they were not harmful.

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

Apples of Love (Tomatoes), Gerarde, 1597

The Spanish were said to particularly enjoy them with cooked with oil, salt, and pepper as a sort of stew, and also to make a sauce out of them with vinegar added to the ingredients above and to use that sauce on their meats (Gerarde, History of Plants, 1597). Gerarde also notes that tomatoes or “Love Apples” grow well in warm climates like Spain and italy. Of interest, perhaps, is that Gerarde describes both red and yellow tomatoes.

Although there is mention that the Italians also ate tomatoes in 17th Century botanicals, this is repetition of incorrect information. The original citation says that the Italians ate, “Eggplants”. This, even in historical documents became misreported as, “tomatoes”, and the error continues to proliferate today.

Evidence for the early Arab love of eating tomatoes can be found in John Parkinson’s 1629 Earthly Paradise, in which he reports that tomato plants grow well in hot climates like those in, “Barbary and Ethiopia”. Parkinson’s 1640 Theatrum Botanicum expands this range of growth in the Old World to, “easterly countries such as Egypt, Syria and Arabia.” His 1629 work notes that tomatoes are much eaten in the hot countries where they grow well.

Lancelot Addison’s 1671 work, An Account of West Barbary, notes that tomatoes are eaten raw with oil along with other, “salads.” In 1710, Dr. William Salmon’s Herbal notes that the Spanish ate tomatoes boiled in vinegar with pepper and salt, and served up with oil and lemon juice (possibly a poached tomato); and that they also eat tomatoes raw with oil, vinegar, and pepper.

Red Tomato

Red Tomato

By comparison, the earliest European mention of tomatoes growing in Asia (Malaysia) can be found in Georg Rumphius’s 1747 work Herbarium Amboinense. Rumphius notes that the natives cultivate two varieties and that both are used in cooking. In 1790, a brief mention of tomatoes growing well in the fields and gardens of Cochin, China is found in Louriero’s Flora Cochinchinensis.

So, from all this information, we can infer that the Arabs were eating tomatoes in the 16th century – at least the Morisco’s in Spain were – and possibly so were people across a broad swath of the Muslim World from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and into the Levant. More evidence for Tomato Eggs having Arab roots. Tomatoes may have been eaten in Ming China, but the earliest evidence I can find in a language I can read comes from well into the period of Qing rule. That said, however, we know that the Chinese were trading with the pre-Islamic Arabs and that trade between the peoples only flourished after the adoption of Islam, with the influence of foreign Muslim peoples in China reaching its peak probably in the Yuan Dynasty.

What I love most about Culinary History Mysteries like that is that hundreds of years later, the history of the interaction between the Chinese and the “Arabs” lives on in the foods people eat. Another enduring testament to the power of the Silk Road in the lives of the people.

(Words and recipe analysis by Laura Kelley. Photo of Chinese Eggs with Tomatoes by ppy2010ha@Dreamstime.com; Photo of Saudi Tomato Eggs: Shakshuka by Noor AlQahtani. Recipe for Saudi Shakshuka from Noor’s site, Ya Salam; Recipe for Chinese Tomato Eggs from Rasa Malaysia)

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