Autumn Means . . . A Bounty of Pumpkins and Squash!

I love this time of year! I love the blustery days and the chilly evenings and snuggling under blankets to keep warm. I love the cacophony of colors offered up by the deciduous trees, and of course, I love the panoply of fall produce – my favorite of which are pumpkins and squash.

They are just so beautiful – all the shapes: round, oval, flattened, tubular, and fluted like an amber bead, or goose-necked, with bumps and warts and all. And the colors – warm shades of orange, ochre, yellow and deep earthy green – some striped, some with a gradation of color fading from one into the next. Such variation in color and shape – and flavor! There are so many ways to prepare pumpkins and squash, that it seems unfortunate that we generally relegate these vegetables to pies or soup. All too often with the familiar triumvirate of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and more often than not – too much sugar.

Autumn Pumpkins

By themselves, many pumpkins and squash are already quite sweet and don’t need much sugar to make their flavors really shine. My two favorites – the Butternut and the Kabocha – are amongst the sweetest. I often use them to temper dishes with sour flavors offered by pomegranates, sour grapes, lemons, or limes.

Across the Asian continent there are a myriad of ways to prepare pumpkin and squash. As main dishes, many cultures stuff them – with rice, or a combination of meat and grains. They appear mixed with curries, stews and braised meat dishes. They are layered in casseroles, topped with sauces, curried, stir-fried and coated with spices and baked. However they are prepared, they are another gift of the New World to the Old and have been dearly embraced since their introduction only a few hundred years ago.

In Western Asia, they can be stuffed with marigold petals or pomegranate seeds in Georgia, layered in an Armenian casserole called Ailazan; baked with eggs in an omelet called a “kuku” (after the Persian work for egg) or braised with fowl or lamb in a delectable cardamom and pomegranate sauce in Iran, used as a stuffing for pastries or prepared with tomatoes and sour grapes in Afghanistan.

In South Asia, pumpkin and squash are curried in rich ginger and garlic-laden sauces, baked and pounded into dips with or without yogurt, used in rice pilafs, mixed with pulses for dals, mixed with seed spices (such as fenugreek, onion, mustard and poppy), cumin, a handful of chili peppers and lemon juice in sweet and spicy dish, and sweetened with coconut cream.

The Central Asians use squash in casseroles like Damlyama flavored with copious amounts of cumin and black pepper, stuff them with their own pulp flavored with tarragon and lemon or nuts, sour cherries and nutmeg and pepper or baked with cinnamon and black pepper, or cooked with tamarind, fenugreek leaves and garlic.

In the Himalayas, the Bhutanese have delectable pumpkin fritters spiced with cumin and use squash or pumpkin layered in their biryani, the Nepali have their Tarkari curries with garlic, ginger and lots of cilantro, the Tibetans coat squash slices in chickpea or lentil flour spiced with chili peppers, star anise, lots of black pepper and some cinnamon and fry the slices until golden, and the Burmese have make a stew of them with shrimp and soy sauce, lime juice, ginger and garlic and lots of pungent peppers. And in the Indo Pacific, one of the most common ways to prepare them are using a tomato-based sauce flavored with sweet soy, vinegar, nutmeg and pepper.

Pumpkin Curry

In the far-east, the Korean’s have their black-peppered squash cooked with soy, ginger and garlic and garnished with sesame seeds. The Japanese cook them similarly using sweet soy or a soy-ginger sauce, and in Southern China there is fish-flavored eggplant named after the method of preparation with brown bean paste, fish sauce and rice vinegar, often used to cook fish. In Thailand, pumpkins or squash are used to flavor the rich spicy curries and are used with a variety of meats or cooked rapidly in a stir-fry with lots of spicy Thai basil, or cooked with crushed black peppercorns, lemon juice and fish sauce to form a rich sour sauce around a sweet kabocha squash. The Cambodians use squash in mixed vegetable stews and stir fries, and use them with in stews with beef, coconut milk, and their ginger-spice paste called Kroeung, the thick fish sauce tuk prahok and lots of Kaffir lime leaves. And lastly in Vietnam, squash and pumpkin are sometimes enjoyed with stir-fried with lemongrass and peanuts, and roasted and pounded into a dip with lime juice, fish sauce and basil.

Certainly not an exhaustive list of Asian pumpkin and squash recipes, but ones that reach far beyond the familiar flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and too much sugar, and all of which are available in the Silk Road Gourmet volumes already published or yet to come.

So enjoy our seasonal bounty of pumpkins and squash, but think outside the box and try an unfamiliar recipe or two. You may discover a favorite vegetable you’ve never tried before – like the Sri Lankan curry posted below. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Autumn Pumpkins by Haywiremedia @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of Pumpkin Curry by Sarsmis @ Dreamstime.com. Recipe in Silk Road Gourmet Volume 2).

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Curried Pumpkin in a Ginger-Garlic Sauce

This curry is sour, sweet, and hot due to its curry leaves, vinegar, coconut milk, sugar, and ground chili peppers. Blended together, these flavors make this dish quintessentially Sri Lankan, but it also complements a wide variety of other cuisines as well.

Ingredients
1 medium butternut squash or small kabocha pumpkin, peeled, sliced and seeded
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds, ground
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon chopped chili peppers
10 curry leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar

Method
Preheat oven to 375°. Place sliced squash or pumpkin on an oiled or sprayed baking sheet and when the oven is hot, bake for 20–25 minutes. Remove from oven, cool, and slice into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the slice.

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, and mustard and stir for a couple of seconds. Add the garlic, ginger, coconut milk,
chilies, and curry leaves.

Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar and bring slowly to a boil. Add the squash or pumpkin pieces, stir, and simmer on a low heat for 5 minutes until the pumpkin is warmed.

A Taste of Burma in Downtown DC

Burmese Stupa

Morning mist rises above the stupa like diaphanous tendrils from the forest floor as the sun warms the earth.  Birds of all shapes and sizes clatter in the treetops proclaiming their territory, and in the village, dogs bark the dawn like town criers.  Until recently, those of us in the US and Europe had to travel half a world away to get Burmese food.  But now, Burmese restaurants are popping up all over, often replacing closed Chinese or Vietnamese eateries.  Washington DC and its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland now have at least three Burmese restaurants that I know of, so I thought it high time I started sampling them.

I have wanted to try DC’s Burma restaurant for a few years now, but for one reason or another, never managed to get there when they were open.  It sits right in the heart of Chinatown on 740 6th St NW (off of H street),  on the second floor above a Thai eatery.  When a colleague suggested we go out to lunch recently to discuss an upcoming project, I jumped at the chance to try the restaurant that had so long beckoned me.

Green Tea-leaf Salad

We’ve been having what can only be described as monsoon rains here in the DC area, and on the day we dined at Burma my colleague and I both got drenched on our way to lunch.  The decor and atmosphere of Burma are plain and unassuming with a few paintings and crafts to decorate the walls, and on the day we went, there was no climate control.  We were wet, and the restaurant was hot – so it was quite like dining in Southeast Asia that day.  But, authenticity is a good thing, so we didn’t mind.

We sipped Burmese sweet iced teas while perusing the menu which cooled us down a bit, and started with the pickled green tea leaf salad  which was simply delicious.  It was astringent from the the flavor of the tea leaves and just a bit sour from the pickling, but had peanuts, sesame oil, ground shrimp and fish sauce to round out the edges and bring it back down to earth.  As prepared that day it was a great deal less fishy than salads I’ve had in Asia, but it was still quite good. It was the sort of dish you just want to keep picking at – this desire, of course, helped along by the glutamates in the fish sauce.

Tamarind Fish

Our main courses were Tamarind Fish and Mango Pork.  The Tamarind Fish was another winning dish with the lightly spicy and sour tamarind and onion-based brown sauce teasing the full flavor out of the fish – in this case salmon.  The dish was much less hot and sour than I remember, and I found the choice of salmon a bit puzzling – a big, fat, hunk of meaty catfish would have been more authentic, but nevertheless it was good.

The Mango Pork was mild and delicious.  The mango was more sweet than sour and lacked the bite that pickled mango often has, but the pork was slowly cooked to perfection and was juicy and buttery.  The tamarind and lemon added to the rich brown sauce of the dish, but were not overly sour or otherwise obtrusive.  A gentle alternative for those not liking too much spice or heat in their food.

Mango Pork

We alas only sampled these few dishes, but were generally pleased with the results.  In a metropolitan area simply glutted with Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Malay restaurants, the growing presence of Burmese and other Asian cuisines is welcome.  Burma DC offers good, simple, homestyle food that we enjoyed (especially the tea-leaf salad).  If I have a criticism, its to be found in what feel like muted flavors – less heat, less spice, less sour than the authentic Burmese food I remember.  Still, I hope to return to sample a few more dishes.  There are a few, such as pickled mustard leaf and sour bamboo shoot (each with choice of meat) that I’d like to try as well as a whole array of noodle dishes, a couple of kebabs and of course the great fish-soup, mohinga.  So, yeah, I’ll be back.  (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photo of the Burmese Stupa © | Dreamstime.com.  Other images borrowed from Google images).

Burma on Urbanspoon

Burma Restaurant on Restaurantica

Culinary History Mystery #4: The Origins of Tea in Burma

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river . . .
And she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China . . .

I grew up hearing Leonard Cohen croon these words over and over. Telling perhaps about my age and background, but important as an introduction to the history of tea as well. As a global drink, that came out of Asia and is now enjoyed in different forms worldwide, the history of tea is important to the Silk Road, and to understanding the history of Old World trade in general. And everyone – including Leonard Cohen – knows it comes from China, right?

Well, it turns out that the answer to that last question is really a lot more complex than it seems.

There is so much scholarship on the history of tea. And yet, almost all of it omits an important part of the story, namely that wild tea, or the closest thing that we have to it today is native to Burma.

Tea Leaves – Freshly Picked

The common belief is that the Chinese invented tea brewing around 2700 BCE when leaves drifted on the wind into a cup of hot water near to where the legendary Emperor Shen Nung was sitting. He drank the liquid in the cup, took a liking to it, and tea-drinking began. This is a myth – the sort of exotic tale that traders used to tell about the dangers of the spice harvest to drive up the price of goods. There is little evidence to support this story as the origin of tea brewing, and lots of information to refute it. In 1200 BCE there is another reference to tea-drinking at the royal court of King Wen, but no information about what sort of leaf, flower or bark was used to brew the tea – at best, a shaky data point with more interpretation than information value associated with it.

Around 350 ACE we have two solid pieces of information to document the use of tea in China as a medicine. The first is in an update of an ancient Chinese dictionary known as the Erh ya revised by Kuo Po. In this the drinking of tea as a medicinal beverage is clearly described as are the details about the plant and leaves. Geographical information about where the plants grow is also offered and lovely touches like how many men’s armspans the tea-tree trunks are. Clearly, this is tea and not a brewed beverage made from some other sort of plant. Slightly later in that century, there is documentation about the transport and planting of large numbers of tea plants from Yunnan to Szechuan Provinces – the likely beginnings of mass cultivation. Tea drinking as a medicinal beverage and the use of its flavor for culinary use grew in popularity over the next few centuries in China until Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (Ch’a Ching) is published in 780 ACE. So, there is a solid, documented history of tea drinking in China for at least 1700 years.

I’ve always been the sort to peek behind doors and curtains when I walk into a room, and yes, I always surreptitiously opened my gifts before Christmas morning when I was a kid. So for me, the less documented part of the tea-use story is the most fascinating part. If there is a mystery, I love to get digging.

It turns out that indigenous peoples in Burma and Assam (northeast India) pick young tea leaves and brew them, and they have done this for as long as anyone can remember. In other words it is not a learned activity from the neighboring Chinese or from western colonists. On a small scale, before the colonials, these same indigenous people also engaged in cultivation of tea with each family group growing subsistence levels for personal consumption. Additionally, many of these peoples carry tea seeds with them when moving from one settlement to another – indicating the importance of the plant to them.

Pu’er Tea Brick Tang Horse

Burmese cuisine also claims six flavors: sour, bitter, salty, astringent, sweet and spicy. And yes, you guessed right if you knew that the principal “astringent” flavor was represented by tea.

In addition to drinking brewed tea leaves, the Burmese also eat the pickled leaves as a vegetable. Their Laphet Thote which some of you may have enjoyed is a “salad” of fresh fermented tea leaves, lime juice, peanuts, sesame seeds, chili peppers, pounded shrimp and a bit of sugar. Bok choy or other vegetables are often added to extend the dish, or it can be eaten prepared en seul as specified above. Flavorwise, the ingredients read much like Burmese Tamarind Leaf Salad, but the tea leaves add a tremendous pucker factor to the dish that tamarind leaves do not offer – hence its importance in the Burmese flavor pantheon as an astringent. According to state statistics, pickled tea for use as a food (not a beverage) accounted for almost 20% of all tea consumption in Burma in 2006-2007. Laphet thote also has great ceremonial significance in Burma and as such is an important part of food for festivals, holidays and weddings.

Ground or pulverized tea leaves or the use of tea-beverage itself are also used as flavorings from China (tea eggs, to flavorings for soup, vegetable dishes and spring rolls) to Pakistan (a flavoring for chickpeas and other pulses). But to my knowledge, the direct mass consumption or fresh fermented or pickled tea leaves is uniquely Burmese.

Tea leaves are also chewed for a stimulant effect (not unlike betel, tobacco and coca) in Burma, Laos and Thailand and miang production is an important rural industry. Leaves are steamed, wrapped into individual bundles then packed into containers and weighted down. They are then covered with banana leaves. Young leaves are fermented for a few days to a week and mature leaves are fermented for as long as a year.

Pu’er Tea Medallion

So, a survey of other indigenous and national practices in the countries bordering western China’s Yunnan province – popularly noted as the birthplace of tea – show us that tea drinking and the eating or chewing of tea leaves takes place in nearby Burma and Laos and also is evident in Assam and in Thailand. What this suggests is that tea drinking and eating is probably ancient across the entire region and not something that is uniquely Chinese.

Modern molecular systematics also suggests an ancient regional use of tea. A study done by a team of researchers from China and Japan (Phytochemistry 71 (2010) 1342–1349) have used the phytochemicals in tea to create a “family tree” of different tea species and varieties called a dendrogram.

Backtracking a bit about species and varities, Camellia sinensis is the plant that modern tea is harvested from. This has two modern subspecies or varieties, var. sinensis and var. assamica. As you may have guessed, var. sinensis is found mostly in China, with some spread to bordering areas to the west and south, and var. assamica grows from Assam through Burma and into western China where altitude and precipitation favor its growth.

The earliest large-scale production of tea in China was in the form of easily transportable tea “bricks” and was made from C. sinensis var. assamica leaves. Pu’er tea is still made from the same plants and sold in brick form to this day. Chemosystematic analysis of several of the polyphenols from almost 100 tea species or varieties by the Chinese-Japanese research team indicate that the closest “wild” ancestor to these assamica leaves comes from the area near Dali, China and is often referred to as Dianmien tea. The tea species this represents is Camellia irrawadiensis – which is native to Burma, Laos and western China.

So a history of tea is indeed complex and made more so by the repetition of myths and legends. But there is also the value of indigenous practices versus mass cultivation and consumer trade to consider, and the importance of the value of oral history versus the published word at play as well. Modern science is throwing its hat into the ring and is helping to unravel this tangled skein of tea tales. More stories from the Tea-Horse Road and the “discovery” of tea by western colonialists will follow on a periodic basis. (Words and research by Laura Kelley. Photos of modern Pu’er tea bricks borrowed from Google images).