Happy Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Traditional Diwali Lamps

Yesterday was the first day of – Diwali – The Festival of Lights for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs around the world. This means that for the past few weeks, women have been working overtime in kitchens throughout the subcontinent and diaspora communities to prepare traditional foods for the five-day long celebration.
Many things are celebrated on Diwali, but the overarching reason for the holiday for Hindus is to commemorate the return of Lord Rama from his long exile and his triumph over the demon-king Ravana. To welcome Rama, people clean and decorate their homes and businesses, dress in new clothes, perform religious rituals (puja), and feast on sweet and savory snacks and light firecrackers to frighten evil spirits away.

Although traditions vary by geographic location and ethnicity, generally speaking, on the first day, Hindus celebrate the return of prosperity to the earth. In many places cows and calves are worshipped or given special consideration, and for many Indian businesses, this is also the first day of the new financial year. Today (the second day) commemorates the birth of Dhanvantari, the Physician God and is an auspicious day to make certain purchases. Tomorrow, the third day, celebrates Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura and in preparation for a Krishna/Vishnu puja, oil lamps are lit and elaborate ritual artworks called kolams or rangolis are prepared. These rangoli can either be simple decorations of powdered rice or grain or elaborate mandala-like geometric patterns made with multi-colored sand or flour or even flower petals. People often get up before sunrise to bathe under the stars and after worship, feasting, and visiting family and friends begins.

Simple and Complex Rangolis

On the fourth day, the Lakshmi puja celebrates the Goddess Lakshmi and the God Ganesh and renewed prosperity is once again celebrated. The fifth day is day is celebrated as Govardhan puja or Annakoot, and is celebrated as the day Krishna defeated Indra and by the lifting of Govardhana hill to save his kinsmen and cattle from rain and floods. In some places on this day, mountains of food are piled up and decorated symbolizing the earth lifted by Krishna. The day after Diwali is a special celebration for brothers and sisters, with the women and girls traditionally making and serving their brother’s favorite foods and receiving gifts from their brothers in return.

For Jains, Diwali has a very different meaning. It is celebrated as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Jain prophets of this era, attained nirvana. To the Jains, the name for the celebration, Dipalikaya roughly translates as “light leaving the body”. Hence the thousands of lamps lit during these holidays are seen as “souls” to the Jains. The Jain New Year begins after Diwali celebrations conclude.

For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. Having been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir, the guru was to be released but begged for clemency for the 52 princes that had been imprisoned with him. The emperor declared that only those princes who could hold onto the gurus cloak could leave with him. In a brilliant ruse, the guru made a cloak with 52 pieces of string to allow all the princes to grab onto the cloak and exit with him. Today, the Sikhs celebrate the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting their Golden Temple and other Sikh places of worship around the world.

A Selection of Diwali Sweets

The many sweets enjoyed at this time of year are called mithai* and are made from a ground of chickpea flour, rice flour, semolina, various beans, lentils and grains, squashes, or carrots, thickened condensed milk or yoghurt. These ingredients are then pounded together or cooked and flavored with cashews, almonds, pistachios, or raisins. Other ingredients can include fragrant spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or cumin or kewra (pandan leaf essence). The most fancy of the sweets can contain silver or gold leaf design elements as well. Households cook and exchange elaborately decorated boxes of these sweets with family and friends as part of the Dewali celebrations.

Savory Snacks for Diwali

The savory snacks enjoyed at this time are made from chickpeas, rice, lentil and several other varieties of flours, sesame seeds, fresh fenugreek leaves or coconut, and pounded into assorted shapes and usually deep-fried or in these health-conscious days baked. Sometimes different snacks are combined with nuts and flavored in special ways to make special snack “mixes”. Small breads, such as puris and pakoras fried in ghee are also enjoyed as savory snacks at this time.

Recipes for Diwali snacks are available in the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One in the Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka chapters and include:  Pastry in Sweet Milk and Rosewater (Ras Malai), Sweet Milk Squares with Cardamom, Cinnamon and Almond Custard, Semolina Squares with Saffron and Cardamom, Sweet Split-Pea Pudding and Sweet Coconut-Cardamom Balls.  Additional recipes will be available in the next volume of the book as well.

(Words and Photo of A Selection of Diwali Snacks by Laura Kelley; photo of Tradtional Diwali Lamps by The Final Miracle@Dreamstime.com, and photo of Savory Diwali Snacks by Ashwin Abhirama.  Individual images for the photo simple and complex rangolis are from Wikimedia Commons.)

*Please notice the root “mith” as in Mithras (or Mithrandir for fantasy fans) to denote the connection to fire and light as in zoroastrianism.

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food # 3: Cloves

“And somewhere near India is the island containing the Valley of the Cloves.  No merchants or sailors have ever been to the valley or have seen the kind of tree that produces cloves:  its fruit, they say, is sold by genies . . . the islanders feed on them, and they never fall ill or grow old.”

Summary of Marvels  (Ibrahim ibn Wasif-Shah, ca. 1000 CE)

From Indonesia’s Moluccas (Maluku) Islands to the rest of the world come the tiny but powerful flowerbuds we know as cloves.  More accurately, cloves are flowerbuds from the Syzygium aromaticum tree that are picked before opening and dried in the sun until they resemble the little reddish-brown batons used in most of the world’s cuisines.  Mentioned in the Indian Ramayana by the 5th or 4th century BCE (but possibly as early as the 10th Century BCE) and in later Sanskrit medical texts (Charaka Samhita) from the 1st Century BCE wherein they were recommended along with nutmeg to freshen the breath, these little blasts of bittersweet peppery flavor that we know today for their ability to energize other spices was first used for its aroma and as a medicinal ingredient.* **

Cloves Dried and in Flower

Maluku natives and other Indonesians smoked cloves and used them to treat stomach ailments, but did not use cloves in cooking.  These medicinal and aromatic uses were exported as the clove trade began in antiquity.  The Han Chinese used it as a breath freshener to mask the scent of tooth decay and halitosis and used cloves in perfumes and incense.  Additional medicinal uses in China and India included chewing cloves as a dental anesthetic or using an external rub of clove oil as a general analgesic or to lessen the pain of rheumatism.

Aromatic and Medicial Uses of Cloves

It is unclear when cloves started to be used as a culinary spice.  It is used in modern five-spice powders and garam-masalas, but there is little but unreferenced and contradictory information about the antiquity of its use in these culinary mixtures.  In the west, by the time of Pliny the Elder, the clove was still used as an aromatic perfume (NH 12.15), and there is also no mention of the culinary use of cloves in the 4th century ACE Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome.  In the 6th and 7th century Byzantine writings of Kosmas Indicopleustes and Paulus Aegineta, cloves are still used for their scent and clove oil used topically as medicine.

There are intermediate uses of cloves as both medicine and culinary spice in 9th Century Europe at the Carolingian monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, where monks used cloves to season their fasting fish (Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions, 1877; viii, 121) along with pepper and cinnamon and several other indigenous plants and herbs.  In the 10th Century, Andalusian traveller Ibrâhîm ibn Ya`qûb notes that the burghers of Mainz (Germany) used cloves to season their food.

Ingredients for Baharat

Also in the 10th Century, it appears in The Book of Dishes by Ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, listed as an aromatic along with musk, ambergris, and rosewater.  In this 10th Century tome, it is used along with purslane in a peach drink and in a relish of crumbs, raisins, vinegar and spices.

By the 13th Century, the acceptance of cloves as a culinary spice is widespread. In the 13th Century Andalusian Cookbook translated by Charles Perry, cloves are used in Ahrash, a type of lamb-burger, Mirkâs a cheese-based sausage; Sweetened Mukhallal a meat stew topped with beaten eggs; Madhûna, a baked chicken dish, a stuffed lamb breast; and an egg-based sausage, as well as several other dishes.

Also in the 13th Century, in the Book of Dishes by al-Baghdadi, cloves are used in the recipe Hummadiyya to flavor meatballs and the broth they cook in along with cinnamon, coriander, ginger, and pepper.

Kyrgyz Bal

Although I cannot yet prove my suspicions, my intuition tells me that that Arabs might have been the first to use cloves as a culinary spice and that this was spread to Europe with the conquest of Andalusia and Catalonia in 711 and throughout the known Islamic World during the Abbasid Caliphate, beginning in 750.

Called kutakaphalah in Sanskrit, qaranful in Arabic or karyphyllon in ancient Greek (as well as cengkeh in North Moluccan Malay), it is now hard to imagine the culinary world without cloves.  What would any of the eastern Asian five-spice powders be without cloves, or the subcontinental garam-masalas, not to mention Arab baharat, Moroccan Ras-el-hanout, Tunisian gâlat dagga and Ethiopian berbere?  Thailand’s Massuman Curry is also clove laden as are the many spice rubs used on kebabs in central and western Asia, and cloves are a major constituent in my favorite Central Asian spice tea bal.

Bal
Bal is a ubiquitous Kyrghyz hot drink served to welcome guests, with meals, and almost any time in between. It is a hot peppery tea made of boiled spices sweetened with honey that is delicious – especially on colder days. Although not enjoyed cold in Kyrghyzstan, it also makes an exotic iced tea drink as well.

4 cups water
2 teaspoon ginger, peeled grated and minced
1 stick cinnamon, lightly crushed
10 whole cloves, lightly crushed
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons honey

Boil water until it has reached a rolling boil. Add spices and return to a boil. Lower heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes then remove from flame and let steep another 10-15 minutes. Strain into teapot or serving vessel. Stir in honey until completely dissolved.

In today’s world, we primarily use cloves in the kitchen, but still have medicinal and aromatic uses for them. In Indonesia, they are still used to flavor kretet or clove cigarettes. Interestingly, modern science is also investigating cloves for their antimicrobial properties (Yukawa et al., 1996; Kurokawa, et al., 1995) and finding that cloves have both good antiviral and antifungal activity in vitro. In antiquity, empires were built on them and men were enslaved and died for them. Remember that and more the next time you throw a bag or a bottle of cloves into your basket at the market. (Words and Research by Laura Kelley; Special thanks to Charles Perry for pointing out the use of cloves in the 10th and 13th Century recipes.  Photo of Dried Cloves from Wikiemedia; Photo of Clove Flowers by Timothy Motley; Photo of Kyrgyz Bal by Baby Kato).

Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #1: Orchids
Flowers that Have Changed the World of Food #2: Saffron

* (Some claim that archaeological evidence of the use of cloves has been found at ancient Mesopotamian sites. This evidence (a jar purported to contain cloves) comes from excavations at the ancient city of Terqa, Syria (modern Ashara) on the middle Euphrates that dates to 1760-1600 BCE. However, the scholarly community is divided about whether the contents of the jar is actually cloves. With multiple trading “middlemen”, it is not out of the question that ancient Mesopotamians could have used cloves. Their presence in a scribal area could be for purposes of initial or early description. Until definitive evidence is produced, however, such as mass-spec or other type of constituent analyses, I am hanging back on saying these are cloves.)

** (Older scholarly documents (IH Burkill etc) and the internet are awash in references to a 3rd Century Chinese text that mentions cloves, but my perusal of Shen Nong Bao Cai Jing and several other turn of the millenia medical texts finds no mention of cloves at this time).

Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

The phrase, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” was coined by Johnathan Swift’s punster Mr. Neverout in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues published in 1738. When quill touched cotton, the phrase was used to refer to the strange character of Sir John. Mr. Neverout uses it to proclaim that Sir John, being of low birth, is not a proper Duke and deftly goes on to disparage his character. Although this turn of the phrase is still in play, it has over the years also been used to discourage ingenuity and inventiveness or to encourage people to accept things as they are – in other words, to not rock the boat.

This month’s 5-Star Foodie Makeover Challenge was Junk Food. Specifically, we were asked to use junk food or a favorite snack in a real dish of our choosing. I really hated this idea at first and didn’t want to do it, I thought of telling the group organizers that I was unable to participate due to illness, overwork or travel – something – some excuse NOT to participate.

Having selected my junk food and prepared my dish, I think it was a great challenge and although I am new to the group, I hope that future challenges will be so . . . well I’m not sure whether thought provoking or emotion inspiring is the right phrase, but there it is. I used bar snacks: Beer Nuts, 5-Alarm Chili Peanuts and Planter’s Creamy Peanut Butter to make delicious Malaysian Chicken Satay that we all loved – even the kids. What’s not to like about that.

I suppose the there was a bit of artful dodgerness in the selection of junk food – its not really junky. I mean, come on, its not a Twinkie right! That said, I never use processed or flavored peanuts in my satay sauce, and despite the millions of recipes on the web for peanut sauce from peanut butter, I have never used it before the challenge for that purpose. So the challenge forced me to abandon my habits and preconceived notions and to try something outside of my food box – which, covering the continent of Asia, is generally pretty big.

Junk Food used in Challenge

This recipe is a wonderful example of how meat is eaten all across the Indo-Malay archipelago. It is marinated for hours in a sweet and spicy paste, then barbequed on a grill and drizzeled with a rich and flavorful peanut-based sauce. Feel free to substitute beef or shrimp for the chicken and adjust the cooking times, or make a mix of all three meats and allow diners to mix and match flavors.

Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce (Satay)

1 lb, chicken, chilled and cut into thin slices

Marinade
8 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, sliced
2 tablespoons ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt

In a food processor, or blender, make a smooth paste out of the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and water (using water ½ cup at a time). Set aside.

In a wok, dry roast coriander seeds over medium heat until they become fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and empty into food processor or grinder and blend into a fine powder. Mix dark soy sauce and salt with the ground coriander and then add to the lemongrass paste.

Rub paste mixture into both sides of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin powder over the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature. If you wish to marinate overnight – cover and refrigerate.

When almost ready to cook, prepare the peanut sauce (see below) below and set aside. Thread seasoned meat on to fine metal or soaked bamboo skewers. Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under hot grill 3 minutes per side.

Chicken and Beef Satay

Spicy Peanut Sauce (Satay)
5 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, thinly sliced
¼ cup lime juice
Water (as needed to make a thick sauce)
2/3 cup beer nuts
1/3 cup Planter’s five-alarm chili peanuts
2 tablespoons Planter’s creamy peanut butter
6 dried red chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar

In a blender, grind shallots, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice into a fine paste – adding water as necessary. Add ground peanuts and peanut butter and grind until blended. The key to this recipe is not to add too much water too soon, so use a gentle hand.

Heat oil in wok or saucepan and stir fry peanut paste for 3-5 minutes. Lower heat and cook covered for another 5-10 minutes until lemongrass softens.

Add chili peppers, ginger, salt, and sugar and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes till sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. The sauce will darken considerably as it cooks.  Cool peanut sauce and serve with barbecued meat.

———-

Even made with junk food, this recipe is a winner.  Unlike a lot of satay sauces it balances the peanut flavor with the flavors offered by the other ingredients.  What I like most about this recipe is the strong gingery flavor that the marinade and sauce combined offer to diners.  The recipe for the sauce makes a lot, so either cook a lot of meat or do as I do – save the sauce for later use.  It can be reheated and used on meats and vegetables or used cold as a dip for veggies.

Sows Ear Purse

In closing I’d like to attest that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – both figuratively AND literally. In the first sense, it is possible to use salty snacks that one would pop back while watching TV or enjoying a drink to create a great chicken satay. In the latter sense, well . . . I think you all understand what literally means.

It seems that in 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. Little was tired of hearing Mr. Neverout’s discouraging phrase, and set out to prove him wrong. He instructed the scientists and engineers working for him to make a silk purse out of “pork by-products”. From a meat-packer they obtained a form of glue made from the skin and gristle of sows’ ears. Taking an amount roughly equivalent to one sow’s ear, he had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. This glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse shown here, the kind of item carried by Medieval ladies.

Silk Purse Made from a Sow’s Ear

If you would like to know more about this interesting tidbit from the History of Science, click on Suki’s snout on the picture above for a full period description of the effort. I think its ingenious and charming and I absolutely adore the subtitle: A Contribution to Philosophy. To all who encounter a Mr. Neverout from time to time. Take a look at this every time you start to feel discouraged. It won’t last long.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Chicken and Beef Satay by Btktan @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of purse and pamphlet on creation of a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear from MIT Archives and Special Collections; 5-Star Foodie Challenge Hosted by 5 Star Foodie & Lazaro Cooks!)

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere: Five-Spice Mixtures

Many chefs and cookbook authors spend their careers touting the unique aspects of the cuisines they cook and write about.  I’m different from most.  I look around and see nothing but commonalities and connections between the major Asian cuisines and spice mixtures.  In The Silk Road Gourmet Cookbook, I write a lot about how ingredients and dishes swirl in patterns across Asia and tell us a lot about relationships between countries whether through trade, diplomatic relations, cultural or religious connections.

A Masala

One of these patterns in ingredients is found in the makeup of the major spice powders. Whether used as a pickling spice, an advieh, a masala, a curry powder, a spice paste or a five-spice powder, the same spices, with some variations in amount, preparation, use, or local addition of ingredients swirl across the continent from Armenia to Indonesia.

Take for example a relatively familiar Northern Indian garam masala: 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cloves, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 2-inch cinnamon sticks, ½ nutmeg corm, grated, 2 tablespoons cardamom seeds.  Moving west of India, the first three ingredients are also found in most Pakistani garam masalas, which tend to omit cinnamon and nutmeg, and substitute black cardamom for the green cardamom found in the Indian masala.  The same ingredients as those in the Indian masala can be found in an Afghani char masala – minus the nutmeg and also replacing the cardamom with black cardamom as in Pakistan; and in Iranian advieh  – this time with the addition of coriander seeds and Persian lime powder.  A commonly used modern Armenian pickling spice share four ingredients with the Iranian advieh but adds bay leave and the New World allspice to the mix.

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East of India, many Nepalese masalas have the same ingredients as the Indian masala mentioned here – only they tend to add black cardamom to the mix.  One important difference between Indian and Nepali masalas is that Nepali masalas are often roasted, whereas this is an option in Indian cuisine.  Sri Lankan curry powder has the same ingredients as the Indian garam masala except that it adds coriander and fennel seeds and omits nutmeg.  Several additional spices and herbs (pandanus) are also added that are not related to the five or six spice base in most of the other mixes.  Like Northern Indian spice preps, the spices in the Sri Lankan curry powders are sometimes roasted and sometimes not.

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Masala Ingredients

Tibet’s masala adds coriander seed and bay leaves to the Northern Indian base and Khirgistan’s five-spice mix omits black peppercorns from the Indian recipe all together.  Sichuan peppercorns replace black peppercorns along with the addition of star anise and fennel in varying degrees in Mongolia, China and Vietnam.  Like Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s curry paste uses many ingredients not related to other spice mixes around Asia (candlenuts, laos etc), but still it shares the core of spices (black peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and coriander seeds) with several of the other powders mentioned.

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A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there and the proportions of the spice mixtures change – but the ingredients remain the same – to some degree across the entire continent.  Likewise, we may be different ethnicities or different religions, but to some extent, the foods we eat are part of the cultures we share – all of which have been shaped by the Silk Road (Words and pattern analysis by Laura Kelley).