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

Yak Snack Attack

Wild Tibetan Yak
Wild Tibetan Yak

I love yaks. I have many times admired their hulking, hairy majesty on the plains and hills of Western China, Tibet, and Nepal. Yaks are survivors – free-range animals manage to survive on some of the poorest pasture the world has to offer. Yaks are beautiful – from their natural flowing-haired glory of the wild to their domesticated cousins adorned by their humans with colorful blankets, saddles, or bells and ribbons on their tails or horns. Yaks command respect – you try staring down a line of cars on the Karakorum highway and see if they simply wait until you decide to move off the road. Not counting the successful modern Russian effort to domesticate foxes (as companion animals), yaks are also the last mammal to be domesticated by humans.  This was accomplished about 4500 years ago by the Qiang on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Brave people, those Qiang.

Yak of Tartary - Stubbs
Yak of Tartary – Stubbs

Yaks were ‘discovered’ in a big way by westerners in the late 18th Century when British Captain, Samuel Turner admired them in Bhutan and sent a pair back to his cousin Warren Hastings in England.  One of the bulls died, but the other survived to sire several calves with Hasting’s cows and was dubbed, The Yak of Tartary before he was painted by George Stubbs in 1791. Almost 100 years later, the first yak arrived in North America for exhibition at New York’s Central Park Zoo, and by the turn of the twentieth Century, the National Zoo in Washington DC had several healthy yak on display. In the next couple of decades, yaks moved from the curiosity and educational circuit to the agricultural chain and small herds were established in the American and Canadian west. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s farmers and researchers experimented with yak breeding and meat quality, until several thriving ranches in the US and Canada now sell yak meat to consumers who enjoy their sweet, flavorful meat.

Tibetan Drinking Yak-Butter Tea
Tibetan Drinking Yak-Butter Tea

In Asia, I have enjoyed yak meat in stir fries, stews, curries and kebabs and found it a delicious, lean and sweet meat. Depending on the cut and the age of the meat, yak can be tough and tenderizing or marinating is a must. One of my favorite recipes is a stew I had again last year in Tashkorgan in which Yak meat is paired with bell peppers, onions, lots of garlic and chilies, and cooked in a ginger and star-anise rich sauce. Served on a bed of rice, the dish is pretty because of the strips of multicolor peppers, savory, a bit hot, and delicately sweet all at the same time.

In contrast to the sweetness of the yak meat, yak dairy lends a sour blast to beverages and dishes that produces a delicious pucker. Yak butter or cream in tea is a survival standard throughout the Himalayas and Pamirs, and the cheese, sometimes made as a wind-blown-in bleu, lends a unique tanginess to meat, vegetable and even fruit dishes throughout the region. I have a mind-blowingly delicious recipe from Bhutan combining tomatillos or tamarillos (or any ‘tree tomato”) with yak cheese for a salad with a real zing – but I digress.

Yak Jerky Package
Yak Jerky Package

My favorite way to enjoy yak on the fly is with yak jerky. Available fresh at markets and bazaars and processed and packaged every Chinese airport shop I’ve ever been in, yak jerky comes in three general varieties, sweet, sweet and hot with lots of chilies, and sweet and tangy with Szechuan pepper. There are a lot of variations in between, usually found in markets, but these three are the ones I’ve encountered most frequently.

The beautiful, multilingual packaging has a handle for easy portability, a description of the contents, and a picture of a few Yaks in the pasture. Inside, there are smaller, identical packages filled with the most delicious sweet and hot jerky you’ve ever had. I know there are lots of jerky afficianados out there, so I am aware of the gravity of my pronouncement that this yak jerky is the best, but I stand by it.

I have spent countless hours trying to reconstruct the recipe for both sweet, and sweet and hot yak jerky and think I finally have gotten it right. I hope you think so too.

Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky

Ingredients
1, 2-3 lb top or bottom round roast
4 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
2 cups shaoxing wine
1 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 yellow (not sweet) onions, peeled and minced
6 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
¼ cup jaggery or cane sugar
2 tablespoons sea salt
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, roughly ground
1 tablespoon roasted peanuts, crushed
10 finger-hot chilies, crushed
Peel and juice of 1 orange, (dice peel)

Method
Slice the meat crosswise in 1/8 – 1/4 inch slices. An excellent way to do this is to partially freeze the roast to make it firm and easy to cut. Trim the fat from the slices and pound lightly with the handle of the knife to thin out the meat. When slices are mildly translucent, slice again into strips for jerky and set aside.

In a non-reactive vessel, such as a plastic, glass, or ceramic bowl large enough to hold both marinade and meat, combine marinade ingredients. Place meat into marinade and make sure it is completely submerged. Cover bowl and let sit for at least 24 -48 hours in a cool or cold spot (not freezing). Check on the marinade and stir occasionally to make sure that the meat is evenly coated.

When meat is finished marinating, remove from the marinade and arrange on baking racks set into baking sheets with some space between the slices. If using a conventional oven to dehydrate the meat, line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil and preheat to 150 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you run out of baking sheets, the meat strips can be placed directly on the racks in the oven.

Place cookie sheets with meat strips in the oven and keep the oven door ajar with a wooden spoon or crushed can and cook for 2 hours. Flip strips and cook for another 2-3 hours or until done. The amount of cooking that it takes to dehydrate the meat will depend on the thickness of the slices, the amount of time marinated and the the innate moistness of the meat. To determine whether the jerky is done, take a piece or two out and let cool for 5-10 minutes then test the pliancy of the jerky. It should bend without snapping and not appear too red or raw on the inside.  When the jerky is done, remove from oven and let cool – then enjoy!  Store in a paper bag.  Keeps for several months.

Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky
Sweet and Hot Yak Jerky

Yak is available online from a variety of ranches which will send the meat FedEx like Hoopers. There are other ranches that sell to farmer’s markets, but will do special orders for yak-by-mail like Grunniens. In case you can’t get yak to try the recipe, it works well with boar, beef or horse as well. (But the sweetness and unique flavor of yak is worth the trouble.) If you already own a dehydrater or a convection oven, please by all means use it to dry the meat. You’ll have to adapt the drying times accordingly. The marinade can also be used to flavor meat for stir fries and other dishes with delicious results!

I hope you enjoy trying yak meat, and think on their wonderful attributes while dining. Yaks are Kings of the Karakorum, Lords of Ladakh, and in Latin they are Bos mutus (wild yaks) or Bos grunniens (domesticated yaks). However you choose to name them, I just call them, “Boss”.

(Words and recipe reconstruction by Laura Kelley. Photo of Wild Tibetan yak by Kptan@Dreamstime; Photo of the Yak of Tartary by Stubbs from Google Images; Photo of Tibetan Drinking Yak Butter Tea by Rai-Mai@Flickr; Photo of Yak Jerky Package by Laura Kelley; Photo of Yak Jerky from Google images.)

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.

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).