I’ve been teaching a friend how to make a few dishes (which is not at all the same as teaching a date how to cook — I’ve retired from that field). The prep time for our dinners affords me plenty of opportunities for my favorite pastime of pontificating about food culture. Recently, as we simmered green beans and potatoes in a spicy broth of tomato, ginger, and cumin, she patiently allowed me to hold forth on how the word curry doesn’t really mean anything specific, it’s basically a catch-all word for the genre for spicy stews and seasonings. For this reason, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about “authentic” curries; it’s a word that in English is used to describe a vast array of dishes that have their own names and traditions in the parts of the world that created them.
Curry powder, on the other hand, might be said to be authentic–at least, authentically British. British cookbooks have listed curry powder as an ingredient since at least the 18th century. What was in it? Who knows; probably half a dozen spices that — grown and shipped from lands far away — were too expensive to buy individually, so they were combined and sold as “curry powder” to a public eager for a taste of the country’s distant colonies. In any event, here is a 1747 recipe for curry made with curry powder, sour apples, and milk.
Along similar lines: it turns out that fashionable North Dakotans enjoyed sushi in 1905, long before the California roll was invented in the 1970s. I’ve only read little about turn-of-the-century trade and travel between Japan and the U.S. (mainly while studying Miss Nume of Japan, an 1899 novel written by a Chinese-Canadian woman) and I really enjoyed the clippings and historical detail included in this long read at An Eccentric Culinary History.
Still hungry for sushi history? Lucky Peach has an informative exploration of the standard sushi accompaniments (pink ginger, green wasabi, and plastic grass). Spoilers: the ginger we eat is not naturally pink and the green paste we’re familiar with is not really wasabi.
I visited a couple of friends last week who urged me to watch The Search for General Tso on Netflix. As they described the documentary, I realized that it is the source of a mysterious gifset I’d seen on Tumblr which observes how little Chinese cuisine and culinary labor is valued in America compared to, for example, French cuisine. The American perception that Chinese labor is worth very little is a very old one which appears again and again in food history; in fact, Americans undervaluing Chinese culture is also addressed in the Eccentric Culinary History linked above.
I definitely plan to check out the documentary, but in the meantime, I dug up this 2008 Ted Talk by journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, whose research provided the foundation for the film. In particular, note the history and etymology of “chop suey”–another dish, like curry, with decisively intercultural roots.
At The Toast, some mouth-watering magazine-style descriptions of exotic dishes such as hot dogs (“a type of taco”) and potato dumplings (“charmingly known as ‘tater tots’ in the regional dialect”). And while you’re at The Toast, here’s a recipe for black and white cookies. As a non-native East Coaster, the appeal of black and white cookies has always eluded me–especially since I see them most often at Starbucks, where they tend to be large and flabby like the mushroom cakes in The Silver Chair. But I did love the description of how many different and very specific strategies people take for eating them. Do you eat chocolate first or vanilla? Or do you try to get equal bites of both? They are Rorschach cookies.
Finally: sign me up for more food- and art-related puns.
The linked article is quite short but worth the click. Like meat pearls and human cheese, the yeast paintings do not yet augur changes in the food we eat (as the blurb points out, there isn’t enough yeast in beer or bread to turn it purple) but whenever a scientist plays with their food, it opens up conversations about the possible. My new favorite science blog, Nautilus, suggests that the possibilities will have more to do with manufacturing valuable compounds than making our food change color–but I’m just happy that “bio-pointillism” is now a thing.