Articles in World
Christmas in Kerala, that sunny tropical strip of southern India along the Arabian Sea, is a somber festival with more faith and religious fervor than mere celebrations. It is observed as a religious holiday and Kerala Christians all add the flavor of their native culture, be it in the music or food or spirits.
Churches are decorated with candles and flowers, and service is held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christian families of all denominations, often dressed in formal clothes, go to church for the midnight mass. Christmas Day is celebrated with feasting and socializing with family and friends.
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Rituals vary by region so the menu for the Christmas feast differs by village and household. Even though the feast often includes roast duck and mincemeat dishes, palappam, which is made with rice and coconut and served with meat or chicken stew, is also popular. Sweets such as rose cookies and diamond cuts are usually homemade like cookies in Western countries.
Christmas dinner, especially among Kerala Catholics, is not complete without a glass of homemade sweet grape wine and a piece of plum cake — a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices.
In old times the ritual of making wine at home would begin in October. Though tropical Kerala does not have the ideal weather for winemaking, it is a longstanding tradition for Christmas. These days, many depend on store-bought wines and Christmas cakes, but a few still make wine at home.
These wines are very sweet, and most often spiced, and belong to the dessert wine category. Traditionally, wine is made in a pale brown ceramic jar called cheena bharani or simply bharani, which is a remnant of the ancient Indian Ocean trade with China.
The recipe for sweet grape wine is a typical wine recipe, but the fermentation is much briefer. The process is stopped before all the sugar turns into alcohol. The recipe also uses equal amounts of grapes and sugar, resulting is a very sweet wine.
Grapes aren’t grown in Kerala, but winemakers can get Bangalore Blue, Anab-e-Shahi, Gulabi and Bhokri variety grapes from neighboring regions in India. The variety isn’t particularly important, however, as any dark red grape will do.
The red color of this wine is from the red pigment in the grape skin. Grapes give the flavor, sugar adds sweetness, yeast is for fermentation and spices impart aroma. The strength of the wine depends on the amount of wheat or barley used, which also acts as a clarifying agent. Egg white is used to make the wine clear.
It is essential to begin with a sanitary environment and absolutely clean equipment before starting the process of making wine. Used bottles, in particular, should be sterilized before they are used again.
Homemade Kerala Christmas Wine
Makes 16 cups
2¼ pounds sweet dark grapes, washed and stalks removed and wiped dry
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2¼ pounds sugar
18 cups water, boiled and cooled to room temperature
¼ cup wheat kernels
1-inch cinnamon stick, crushed
1 egg white
1. Clean and dry a glass or ceramic jar.
2. Crush the grapes thoroughly and place them in the jar.
3. Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water and set aside for 10 to15 minutes. Then add the proofed yeast, sugar, water, wheat and spices to the crushed grapes. Stir well, until the sugar is completely dissolved.
4. The contents should fill only ¾ of the jar. During fermentation carbon dioxide is formed and released. It is ideal to cover the jar with a piece of clean cheese cloth and tie with a piece of kitchen twine. Keep it in cool dark place to ferment.
5. For the next two to three weeks open the jar once a day and stir the contents well using a clean dry wooden spoon. Initially the crushed grapes would be floating in the liquid, but after a couple of weeks these will begin to settle at the bottom of the jar.
By the end of the third week, the mixture would stop foaming. Depending on the weather conditions, it may take more or less days for the fermentation process to stop.
6. When the fermentation stops, strain the liquid through a clean cheese cloth into another clean jar and discard sediments. Keep the wine in a glass container for two or three days, closed and undisturbed for the finer sediments to settle down. Drain the clear wine to another bottle and discard the remaining sediments.
7. Mix the egg white into the wine and leave it in the container. Keep the container closed for a few more days. The wine will become clear. Drain the wine once more to remove any remaining sediments.
8. Bottle in dark bottles and store in a cool, dark place.
Top photo: Christmas wine and Christmas cake in Kerala, India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Hearty stews are one of the universally appealing slow-cooked foods that you can find in many parts of the world. When it comes to stews, Japanese cuisine has a large repertoire, one of which is nishime, a stew made with chicken and vegetables cooked in a dashi stock and seasoned with soy sauce, mirin and sake.
Unlike many Western stews, it doesn’t use any flour or butter for seasoning or thickening. You can eat it cold or hot, and like all stews, it improves in flavor as the days pass.
Nishime is eaten throughout the year, but it is a particularly popular Japanese holiday food. At year’s end, the cooks in my family gather around the kitchen table to prepare a large pot of nishime to last several days, so there is something to eat for family and friends who may decide to drop by at the spur of the moment. The dish has regional differences, but for the most part, it features chicken; root vegetables; konnyaku, a non-caloric, jelly-like food made from potato that is enjoyed mainly for its texture; and snow peas or green beans.
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I make nishime for the holidays, but I also make it for my husband when I go out of town so he has something of sustenance to eat. I do give him some credit because he actually tries to do some cooking on his own during my absences; he stocks up on cabbage, green beans, carrots, frozen cooked shrimp and cans of mackerel. How he cooks them is a mystery about which I don’t care to know too much. But I can tell you that most of the produce ends up shriveled in the fridge. Things can get uglier, as they did recently when I found a whole case of instant Cup Noodles ramen stashed away in his studio cabinet. It couldn’t be returned because he had already opened the plastic wrapper and begun to work his way through. Call me a snob to deny my husband Cup Noodles ramen, the world’s favorite convenience food, but I gave him an ultimatum. His solution was nishime.
More than one style of Nishime
You can cook nishime in a variety of ways. The meat and vegetables are cut in uniform, bite-size pieces. I bevel the edges of potatoes and carrots so the shapes remain clean and intact while simmering in the dashi stock, which can be made with bonito flakes, konbu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms, or any kind of stock you have on hand.
Japanese home cooks make nishime by cooking all the vegetables and meat in one pot from the start. The more refined way of making it is to cook each vegetable separately in stock and then combine them for only a short time so the individual morsels of food maintain their own flavors. For example, if you combine burdock and taro potatoes together, the earthy burdock will season the potato. Some vegetables, like lotus root and the potato-derived konnyaku, have a bland flavor so they need to be cooked a long time in a seasoned stock or with other vegetables to become flavorful. Some green vegetables, such as snow peas, cook fast and turn unappealing in color if you leave them in the nishime stock for too long. To combat that, precooked greens are added at the last minute to brighten the earthy holiday stew. However, you can try making the all-in-one-pot version to see how you like it.
Nishime (Chicken and Root Vegetable Stew)
Serves 4 to 6
1 piece of konnyaku (optional)
6 taro potatoes, peeled and beveled
1 burdock, peeled
1 medium lotus root
12 snow peas, veins removed
200 grams (about 7 ounces) cooked bamboo shoots
6 fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated and with stems removed
½ teaspoon salt to cook the snow peas
1 pound boneless chicken thigh
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups water
3 ounces light-colored soy sauce (Usukuchi soy sauce)
3 ounces Koikuchi soy sauce
6 ounces mirin
2 ounces sake
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6-inch piece of konbu seaweed
1. Blanch the konnyaku in boiling water for a minute. Drain and discard the water.
2. Peel and slice the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root and konnyaku into bite-size pieces, about 1½ to 2 inches wide.
3. Blanch the snow peas in salted boiling water for a minute. Drain and set aside.
4. Bring a medium-sized saucepan full of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Blanch the potatoes, carrots, burdock, lotus root, bamboo shoots and mushrooms in the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and set aside the vegetables in a bowl. Repeat the process with the chicken pieces.
5. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, konnyaku and the blanched vegetables (except the snow peas) and sauté for 5 minutes.
6. Add water, the soy sauces, mirin, sake, sugar and seaweed and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken, potatoes and carrots and set aside. Continue cooking the vegetables remaining in the saucepan for another 15 minutes. You can make the stew up to this point and leave it overnight in the fridge. Reheat before serving.
7. Garnish with snow peas before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Top photo: Nishime, a Japanese stew. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
Sara moves around the large kitchen with laser-like focus, filling a tea glass of water to add to a heaping pot of saffron rice with one hand while sautéing a pan of tart, red dried berries, walnuts, raisins and slivered almonds with the other. The resulting dish, zereshk polow (barberry rice), is a popular one in Sara’s home country of Iran, but not so easy to make in neighboring Turkey, where she is living as a refugee.
“Iranian basmati rice is longer than Turkish rice and the grains stay separate better,” Sara says through a translator. (She did not want her last name used while her application for asylum is pending.) The rice has been imported from Iran, along with the barberries, saffron, lentils, dried lemons (limoo amani), dried mint and other ingredients for the traditional Iranian feast she’s preparing for a few hundred curious Istanbul residents.
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The meal, co-hosted recently by the International Organization for Migration’s Turkey office and the food website Culinary Backstreets, was organized as part of an annual event celebrating the culture and cuisine of migrant communities in Turkey.
Food is “a way of [creating] communication among communities and understanding of each other,” says Nil Delahaye, a project assistant at IOM-Turkey, which works on emergency refugee assistance, resettlement programs and other aspects of migration management. While raising awareness about the challenges facing migrants, the organization also hopes to help create a more “positive image of migration for both hosting countries and migrants,” she adds.
According to Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets and a longtime Istanbul expat himself, “Refugee communities in Turkey are almost invisible even though some have been here for years. Organizing these events with migrant cooks is a statement, a way to say that migrants are here and have something to offer.”
‘Migant Kitchen’ events
Before the Iranian feast in November, Culinary Backstreets had organized “Migrant Kitchen” events with IOM last year that brought unfamiliar tastes from Cameroon, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to Istanbul palates. They have also exported the concept to Athens, Greece, where Nicolas Nicolaides, an Istanbul-born Greek who’s working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Athens, has helped organize a lunch series of free meals cooked by Ghanaian, Congolese and Egyptian migrants.
The financial crisis and high levels of unemployment in Greece have “created new tensions; racist incidents and xenophobic extremism have been steadily increasing recently,” Nicolaides says. “We felt that at a difficult time like this, these [lunch] events provide a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.”
Though both Greece and Turkey see large inflows of migrants, foreign cuisines — other than increasingly global foods such as pizza and sushi — are not well known in either country. But for the migrants themselves, foods from home are a lifeline.
“We talk to members of migrant communities about what they do when they get together and it’s always about food,” Mullins says. African migrants in Istanbul’s Kurtuluş and Feriköy neighborhoods have created informal restaurants and supply chains in order to enjoy foods they couldn’t otherwise get in Turkey. “It’s amazing how well organized the food connections are here,” Mullins notes. “When we were putting together the Ethiopian meal last year, the cook made a call and 15 minutes later we were off to buy seasoned, clarified butter [niter kibbeh] and other key ingredients from a mysterious spice vendor who had carried them to Turkey in a suitcase and sold them to us through the window of a taxi cab.”
Sara adds slivered almonds from Iran to the zereshk mixture. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Sara bought many of the ingredients for her Istanbul meal at an Iranian supermarket in the city’s Aksaray neighborhood where, she says, “the prices are twice what they are in Iran, but you can find anything.” The pickings are slim, however, in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where she and her husband, brother and two young sons must live while waiting for their asylum request to be processed. (Turkey requires refugees and asylum seekers to live in “satellite cities” spread around the country, rather than in major hubs such as Istanbul.)
There are no places to buy Iranian food in Adana, and little if any support or opportunities for refugees, Sara says. A group of 20 to 30 Iranian families — all Christians like Sara, who says she left Iran because of her religion — meet each Wednesday for a prayer service that rotates among members’ homes. Afterward, that week’s host serves an Iranian meal for everyone. “I cook different things every time, whatever I have the ingredients for,” says Sara, who hopes someday to open a restaurant and write a book about Iranian food.
Asked what foods she most misses from home, Sara rattles off a long list — reshteh (thin noodles), kashk (a drained and dried yogurt), and the coriander, leek chives and fenugreek harvested in Iran’s mountains and used to make ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew. When her parents came to visit her in Turkey last year, she says, they brought along two bags of hard-to-find ingredients.
“People can be eating on newspapers on the floor, but they’ve got to have those preserved lemons that give the dish its kick,” Mullins says. “Even for migrants in desperate circumstances, some things just can’t be replaced or sacrificed.”
Top photo: Sara prepares zereshk polow (barberry rice) in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.
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I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.
Caribbean Christmas tradition
For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.
Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.
Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.
I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)
In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe
In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.
I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.
Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.
A note about equipment
Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.
However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.
Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes
For the fruit mixture:
1 pound prunes
1 pound dried currants
1 pound raisins
1 pound maraschino cherries
¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)
4 cups Port wine
1 cup white Jamaican rum
For the cake:
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1 pound butter
1 pound of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)
¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing
1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.
As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.
2. Heat the oven to 300 F.
3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.
4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.
5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.
6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.
7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.
8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).
9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.
Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust
Alex Cruz of Quebec retailer Société Orignal isn’t sure which language to use. The Montrealer and I have been e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks, trying to finalize a time that works. Our correspondence has taken place in English and French. That’s the way things are in Montreal, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
But Montreal and the province of Quebec, Canada, are not known for “a little bit” of anything when it comes to all things culinary. For the longest time, food in Quebec was viewed as cuisine grand-mère: heavy, carb-laden foods made to fill bellies for long days of physical labor. But over the past decade, grand-mère has seen her cuisine turn haute. The province of Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is a city now populated by appetites who still seek full bellies, but with a more refined touch. This is the land of poutine with foie gras, and where salted fatback is no longer seen as a poor man’s food but a gout-inducing luxury.
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Enter Société Orignal.
At first glance, it appears to be just another high-end online retailer of tasty fine goods. But it’s a company on the edge: the edges of history, the edges of the collective palate, the edges of knowledge. First, there is that name, Société Orignal, which is a play on words. “Société” in French is, of course, society, but “Orignal,” the French word for moose, is only one letter away from original. “We wanted to come up with a word that focused on the words ‘society’ and ‘moose,’ because the moose is one of the most imposing creatures in North America,” Cruz says. “But it is imposing by itself, not because it wants to step on anyone.”
Société Orignal’s small but dedicated staff
Société Orignal could hardly be viewed as stepping on anyone, but it is a force to be reckoned with, let alone admired. It has a small workforce; Cruz does research and development, while his friend Cyril Gonzales takes care of sales in the province of Quebec. Gonzales works with another sales agent who takes cares of national and international sales, while Cruz has his own assistant. Together, they sell pantry items you may not recognize but desperately want to know what they are. A perfect example is a product known as Raw Laurentian honeydew. According to its website, “Honeydew is tree sap that has been gathered and transformed by insects and then foraged by bees. It comes from elevated hives diligently placed high in the trees of the forest surrounding the village of Ferme-Neuve.” Another example of their products would be their riff on caviar: cured wild lumpfish eggs, made from the roe of a fish that is known among Quebecers as poule de mer or sea hen. And then there are the ingredients presented in a manner different from what you may be accustomed, such as immature elderberries, salted and preserved in vinegar.
The list of products offered by Société Orignal teeters on the edge of recognizability, a gastronomic palimpsest. Juniper berries are cultivated immature and brined. Herbal teas are made of clover and balsam fir. For Cruz, it’s about pushing the limits in as many places as possible — from the farmer or forager who provides the raw materials to the chefs who plate it up all the way to the consumer who tastes these flavors.
“What we want to do is push barriers in every culture,” he says. “People freak on Thai food and Indian flavors, but we have things we want them to try and to concentrate on, what you think is maybe forgotten or neglected.” But Cruz isn’t some hubris-laden entrepreneur. During the conversation, he is excited by the unknown possibilities available to him in his native province. “We don’t know everything, so we want to do research and development. It’s not just cool, it could be representative of cooking 100 years from now.”
That devotion to research and development isn’t just a question of good business sense, it’s a responsibility to his customers and his clients. “We are a bridge: On one side you have farming and the other the restaurant businesses,” he says. “To have this bridge you need to maintain it. One day we are searching for ideas in restaurants, the next day on farming and figuring out how things grow in both places.”
Société Orignal seems to be able to do both by cultivating close connections with the farmers and foragers who gather the products it sells. “We see that farming is a great business and way of life, once you start to understand it,” Cruz says. “Trying to express the creativity of agriculture is an important factor we like to share.”
Part of that expression comes in the form Quebec’s terroir. This summer, Société Orignal distributed the Laval melon, an heirloom variety from the Montreal region. “For us, it’s trying to find ingredients that grow well in the soil. What is important is to know how (these things) grow. So it’s trying to understand all those features.”
Cruz’s feet are firmly planted in Quebec’s soil, gastronomically and financially. “(We want) to be able to achieve what we want and keep our independence. We don’t want help from large corporations or government, we just need to keep up distribution of the product we create. We want to have a good time and keep our goals.”
Top photo: Honeydew available from Société Orignal. Credit: Courtesy of Société Orignal
I’ve been exploring Mediterranean food for decades and written books about it, but only recently have discovered the phenomena of Greek yogurt, which was perplexingly unfamiliar.
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I didn’t know what Greek yogurt was, a term that first surfaced quite recently. I consulted other Mediterranean food experts and they were baffled, too. So I figured that it was one of two things: yogurt from Greece or a slick marketing term devised by American food companies to sell yogurt as a health food. Well, it’s certainly the latter.
More importantly, I have figured out that what marketers call Greek yogurt is none other than what I’ve been writing about and eating for 40 years, that is labna (also lubny or labneh or labne), which is strained yogurt.
Labna is the Arabic term, and it was only in Middle Eastern markets that you could find strained yogurt until quite recently. It is also called strained yogurt, kefir cheese and yogurt cheese. I had to laugh. For those of us who write about Mediterranean food and who eat it, hearing someone talk about Greek yogurt was like listening to a little kid marvel over a jack-in-the-box.
Yogurt in Greece and around the Mediterranean
Until the mid-1990s when high-quality yogurt became available I simply made my own because it’s ridiculously easy and there should be no hype about yogurt. Yogurt, a Turkish word (yoğurt), is a semi-solid cultured or fermented milk containing the bacteria Bacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These organisms present in the “starter,” given warmth, will ferment whole or skimmed fresh milk overnight.
Yogurt may have been known by the ancients Greeks as pyriate. Andrew Dalby, who wrote an important study on classical Greek gastronomy, wrote about the Greek physician Galen, who related this older term, pyriate, with the oxygala familiar in his own day, which was a form of yogurt and was eaten on its own or with honey. The first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called “Divanu lugati’t- turk” compiled by Kaşgarli Mahmud in 1072 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East.
Yogurt spread rapidly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but it hardly penetrated the western and northern Mediterranean. The use of yogurt was first recorded in France in the 16th century, when it was said to have cured the ailing King Francis I. The yogurt was administered daily by a Jewish doctor who had traveled on foot from Constantinople accompanied by a flock of sheep, and that was the last France saw of yogurt until the 19th century.
Make your own Greek yogurt
The Turks are far more picky about yogurt than Americans, and as a result one finds very high-quality yogurt in Turkey. Most yogurt is made from cow’s milk, with some made from sheep’s milk, while goat’s milk yogurt is rare in Turkey. Yogurt is a staple food in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous in the United States. Making your own is easy and after straining the yogurt I still call it labna.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons whole plain yogurt
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to make sure you do not scald the bottom of the pot. Once the milk is shimmering on the surface, simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and let cool until you can keep your little finger submerged in it to a count of 10.
2. Stir a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the yogurt and then quickly stir this back into the hot milk. Cover the bowl and leave overnight inside a turned-off electric oven. The next morning you will have homemade yogurt that will keep for a week. You can save some of this homemade yogurt as your starter for the next batch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, or “Greek yogurt,” pour the yogurt into a linen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, tie off, and hang from a kitchen sink faucet to drain overnight. In the Middle East strained yogurt is used as a breakfast spread for Arabic bread, served as a dip for hot foods, or eaten plain with some olive oil or honey.
Top photo: Greek yogurt. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
For the last eight months, I have been growing vegetables on a 323-square-foot plot of land rented from a Chinese perma-culture farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing. The farm, organized by a community-supported agriculture nonprofit called Shared Harvest, was based in Changping district nearly 25 miles north of Tiananmen Square.
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“Perma-culture” or “circular farming” integrates animals (pigs, lambs, chicken, fish) and their waste into the ecological loop of growing fruits and vegetables, which in turn feed the animals as well. From the crops I gathered each biweekly visit, I was able to almost entirely sustain myself, minus the tofu, starches and seasoning I continued to purchase from supermarkets. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, my first experience managing agricultural land left me feeling ever more thankful. Thankful for the increased knowledge of how food is grown and thankful for the friendships I’ve developed, as well as a renewed appreciation of the difficult work farmers do, worldwide.
Escaping the city for community farms
Just as the back-to-the-farm movement has been picking up speed in the United States, in China there is a similar trend with community farms. I had been receiving food deliveries from the CSA and when they began to rent plots of land, offering to train and provide all necessary tools and seeds, I took the opportunity.
Turns out I was the only foreigner to jump at the chance to lease the land. All the other “gentlemen farmers” were upper-middle-class Chinese, who would drive out each weekend in their luxury vehicles and SUVs with their three-generation families and work their plots together. I, meanwhile, would get myself out there via a crazy combination of bike, subway, bus and foot, commuting up to 2½ hours each way. Still, I remained committed. Many of the other casual farmers, like me, enjoyed the chance to get out of the concrete eyesore that is Beijing, though the air quality was rarely better out there than in the city center. The region’s smog is partly attributed to industrial coal burning around Beijing. Similarly, we plot holders were all looking to ensure a source of safe food for ourselves amid a slew of adulterated food cases in China. In many cases, though, there was a deeper desire to “get back to the farm” where so many Chinese had lived and worked in earlier generations.. In the rush to urbanize, modernize, and become wealthy, many had been left feeling spiritually or socially lost.
It took me months comparing my ugly, unruly first-timer plot to the well-tended ones around mine before I realized that many of these nouveau riche had previously been farmers. It didn’t hurt that they also came with several laborers ready to work: grandparents, their children and then grandchildren all toiling together. While they all played and laughed in groups, I at first went out solo and learned to appreciate the kind of slow, wearying, physically-demanding labor that accompanies manual farming. As a single foreign female sweating and struggling over a plot of land that could easily feed a family of four, however, it meant I was a curiosity who attracted the attention and help of the others on the farm. Generally, this meant the two families of farmers who were hired to live on the land and oversee farm management, focusing especially on the animals, the larger plot, which grew food for CSA delivery, and the kitchen where many groups would eat lunch after a long morning of work. These incredible people taught me the basics needed to grow food.
There were also scores of young Chinese volunteers from universities or recent graduates who came to community farms from around the country looking for a mission to trumpet, seeking a change of pace from exhausting city life, or just hoping to learn a new skill until they found the next job.
Cooking up the bounty
From these two groups — farmers and volunteers — I learned an incredible amount. For one, I had a chorus of Chinese chefs indicating to me how best to cook each surprising new vegetable that would emerge, week by week, from the soil on my plot. For example, radish leaves work well as a leafy addition to a miso or any other soup; and green beans, if the pod skins get too old, can simply be removed and then blanched briefly before getting a good stir-fry with rice.
Additionally, I began to memorize the “qi” quality of each ingredient: those that cause the body to heat up, and those that cause the body to cool. Most intriguing were conversations about the role food plays in our lives, and how modernization has moved humans away from direct access to safe, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner.
In that transition, our knowledge about soil, plants, seasons and how food is grown was replaced by other types of information: food brands, advertising campaigns, famous restaurants and chefs. Deep into these conversations, while weeding the soil or furrowing the field in preparation for sowing seeds, I came to feel united with a certain group of people in our commitment to learning about our food from its source. It didn’t matter that we were speaking Mandarin in Beijing’s rural districts. It could have been any farm on the outskirts of any city, be it New York, Rio de Janeiro or Paris.
Top photo: Manuela Zoninsein and friend Gigi Peng take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein
Everyone knows the holidays are steeped in culinary traditions, but who says you can’t steal from others? Pickled herring from Denmark, for example, defies the usual U.S. holiday fare that goes something like this: Roast a plump turkey for Thanksgiving. Simmer a pot of cranberries for Christmas. Chill magnums of champagne for New Year’s Eve. What happens, though, when you cannot bear the thought of doling out another spoonful of moist cornbread stuffing or pouring another round of cinnamon-dusted eggnog?
When I reach my limit with tried-and-true seasonal dishes, I look to what people in other countries make and eat during this festive period. Considering that my friends’ and family’s backgrounds are an amalgamation of different cultures, I don’t find it a stretch to include a taste of Scandinavia, Great Britain, the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia on my holiday menus.
Over the years, I’ve incorporated English mince pies and plum puddings; meringue-based Norwegian garland cakes; and the anise-flavored Greek bread Christopsomo. I’ve also introduced the Portuguese Christmas Eve staple buddim do bacalhao, or baked salt cod, and the Czech custom of eating baked carp on Christmas. This year, thanks to Danish friends and a recent stay in Denmark, I’ll add pickled herring to the holiday buffet table.
Pickled herring long a part of Danish culture
A staple of Danish cuisine, pickled herring dates to the Middle Ages, when fishermen caught and preserved massive quantities of small, oily-fleshed, saltwater fish known as herring. The fish became a valuable commodity for Denmark, one so important that it garnered the nickname “the silver of the sea.”
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Herring, particularly pickled herring, remains popular in Denmark. You will come across it in markets; at sidewalk food stalls; on koldt bords, the equivalent of the Swedish smorgasbord; and in tony restaurants. Dinners frequently begin with a herring course, and no smørrebrød platter would be complete without pickled herring.
If you’ve not tried this seafood specialty, you’re missing quite a treat. Velvety soft and delicately sweet, it almost melts on your tongue. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in contaminants and garnering an environmental “eco-OK” rating from the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s tasty, wholesome and relatively guilt-free. Even the most diehard herring skeptics must concede that this is one delectable fish dish.
Pickled herring begins with salted herring fillets. The fillets are soaked in cold water for six to 12 hours to remove the saltiness. They are then placed in a marinade, where they usually steep for at least 24 hours.
The basic marinade consists of vinegar, sugar and spices. However, Danish cooks have crafted countless recipes featuring such ingredients as sour cream, chives, mustard, dill, sherry and tomatoes.
For ardent home cook and culinary hobbyist Gilad Langer, no dish tops karrysild, or curried herring. Here curry paste is combined with mayonnaise, sour cream, sliced apple and spices such as crushed coriander and mustard seeds. The herring macerate in this mixture for at least an hour. The mildly spiced fillets are then served atop a piece of lard-slathered dark rye bread with optional slices of hard-boiled egg.
“For the holiday meals, people typically spend some time on making special marinades, while the everyday meals are kept to the common recipes, red [vinegar and sherry], white [plain vinegar] and curry herring. In any case, Christmas lunch and parties always have pickled herring,” says Langer, a former longtime resident of Hillerød, which is 30 minutes north of Copenhagen.
It’s said that a shot of Danish aquavit should be drunk alongside pickled herring and that it aids in digestion, washing the herring down into the stomach. “The aquavit, which means ‘water of life,’ really brings out the fishy taste and is an important part of the social etiquette of the traditional Danish lunch,” Langer says.
Along with aquavit, the fish marries well with a variety of ingredients. Cold, boiled potatoes, sliced onion, egg, tomato, apple, chopped pickle, chives, crème fraiche and a good, cold beer all complement its smooth taste.
Pickled herring is a common filling for open-faced sandwiches, or smørrebrød. For these sandwiches, cooks typically use rye bread as the base. However, rye crackers and flat or whole-grain breads are delicious alternatives. While some Danes swear by lard, others employ the less-controversial butter as their smørrebrød spread.
I encountered the following pickled herring recipe at a heritage festival in the eastern Danish city of Helsingør. Famed for its 15th-century castle Kronborg, which served as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Helsingør will also be remembered, at least by me, for its extraordinary herring offerings.
For the first marinade:
1 pound skinless, salt-cured herring fillets
8 ounces white vinegar
3 ounces water
1 tablespoon salt
For the second marinade:
8 ounces granulated sugar
20 white peppercorns, crushed
20 whole allspice, crushed
1 large white onion, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf, crushed
1 small bundle of fresh dill, chopped
1. Soak the herring fillets in cold water for six hours, changing the water once or twice during this time. When finished, pat the fillets dry with a clean cloth.
2. For the first marinade, whisk together the vinegar, water and salt. Place the herring fillets in a shallow baking dish and pour the liquid over them. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
3. Remove the dish from the refrigerator and drain the marinade into a bowl. In another large bowl, stir together the original pickling liquid and the sugar, peppercorns, allspice, onions, lemon zest, ground pepper, bay leaf and dill.
4. Alternating between layers of herring and marinade, fill a lidded glass jar or container with the fish. Make sure the herring is neatly packed and not floating about. You may need to drain off or withhold a bit of liquid. Don’t skimp, though, on the onion, spice and herb mixture.
5. Seal and refrigerate the container for at least 24 hours or up to three days before serving.
Photo: Pickled herring. Credit: Kathy Hunt