Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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On the food trail

Cooking styles have travelled seamlessly from place to place often leading to the emergence of different cuisines and flavours25 Mar 2017 | 2:12 AM

Food trends have travelled through the ages across borders though in today’s globalised world, people would think it’s something new. Food history often displays cuisine styles from different lands churning in the cooking pot. Take for example, Istanbul.

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Ranjita Biswas

Food trends have travelled through the ages across borders though in today’s globalised world, people would think it’s something new. Food history often displays cuisine styles from different lands churning in the cooking pot. Take for example, Istanbul. The aroma of kebabs slowly grilled over fire immediately brings a whiff of homeland to Indians reminding of tandoori chicken or mutton kebab. Naturally, since this cooking method entered the country with the Mughals.

Walk on the streets of cities in Spain, especially in Andalusia in the south, and the Paella will invite to be tasted from food joints. At first, to an Indian, it would look like khichdi, a mix of rice, dal and vegetables, but a closer look would show that there is no lentil involved and it’s full of seafood, and sometimes chunks of vegetables. The colour that gives the rice grains the yellow tone comes from saffron, which was introduced by the Moors from Morocco. The Arab Moors from across the Mediterranean Sea ruled the Iberian Peninsula for around 800 years. Naturally, they left behind many cultural influences, including on food items. Many fruits, like pomegranate, orange, etc. were introduced here by the Moors, as also rice.

Pasta from Italy is today popular all over the world, along with the ubiquitous pizza. It is widely believed that spaghetti is a version of Chinese noodles, which was introduced in Italy by 13th century Italian traveller Marco Polo from Venice. He traversed all the way to China (and also India, though it’s little known), and even became close to Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.

However, many food historians contradict this belief today. This could be because food trails are often lost since they were not written about; it was part of lifestyle, or taken for granted, which academics try to unravel today.

Take, for example, India’s North East. In the Brahmaputra valley, a conglomeration of many ethnic cultures bamboo shoot as an ingredient in food items is common. In Assam, the pungent khoricha pickle is a part of the traditional thali. The tribes, both in the plains and hills in this region, use bamboo shoot widely. So also, sticky rice. In Assam, it is called bora chawal; it is often used as a full meal, boiled and mixed with milk or to make the traditional pitha snack during the harvest festival, Magh Bihu. Both bamboo shoot and sticky rice are extensively used in South-East Asia. As the North East has seen human migration from this region for ages, it is not difficult to find the connection.

The savoury Scotch egg is a popular number from British cuisine. This item — hard-boiled egg encased in spiced minced meat, covered with bread crumbs, fried and then halved to be served sunny side up — is a delight to food lovers. But to Indians, it would look like the Nargisi kebab or kofta.

Food writer Annette Hope (author of A Caledonian Feast) thinks that it is an Indian export in the early 19th century, along with curry and kedgeree. Hope finds ‘an odd similarity’ between the two savouries.

But there are also theories that the Scotch egg originated in the Whitby area of Yorkshire in the late 19th century. Originally, these were not covered in meat but fish paste. Their name those days was ‘Scotties.’ Another theory says, it came from North Africa. The technique made its way to Britain via France and was first recorded in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.

All this proves that cooking styles travelled seamlessly from place to place and trying to establish a ‘pure recipe’ is often a misnomer.

... and thus came the paella 

The name ‘paella’ actually refers to the cooking pan itself, and not the dish. It perhaps got the name because it is served on the grid itself. Valencia on south-east coast of Spain is supposed to be the original home of paella. The word comes from old Valencian language. Some say it comes from the Latin patella meaning pan. Still others suggest that the word is derived from the Arabic word baqiyah, which means ‘leftovers’. According to an old story, Moorish kings’ servants created rice dishes by mixing the leftovers from royal banquets in large pots to take home. Paella is the perfect union between two cultures of Spain — the Romans, for the pan and the Moors, that brought rice.

A gift from China 

Traditionally Italians use the term pasta to describe Italian noodles. This particular variety, unlike others, is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. Durum wheat is high on gluten and low in moisture making it perfect for long storing.   In his extremely popular Medieval book, The Travels of Marco Polo, which was actually dictated to a fellow prisoner when Marco Polo was caught in an internecine war between Italian states, a passage mentions a plant that produced flour (possibly a breadfruit tree). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, and there could be many new versions, scholars say that as pasta was already popular in Italy during the 13th century, it is unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta in Italy. Noodles actually existed in Asia long before Polo’s trip to China. Archaeologists believe that central Asia is most likely the first area to have produced noodles thousands of years ago. From Asia, it travelled westward.

On the food trailScotch eggs
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