Welcome to the third installment of Food Questions, where I investigate food-related subjects to satisfy my curiosity. Check out my previous posts on Catherine de’Medici and the history of arroz con gandules and Jollof rice.
Biting into a mature cheddar that crumbles into jagged shards, giving way to the irresistable firm cheese. Tiny white pinpoints tucked between the large firm curds tightly crunch, releasing that characteristic sharp flavor.
The tastebuds deep on both sides of my tongue tingle and light up, making my mouth water. A throb of pleasure radiates from my gums to the base of my spine. The shudder of furry pleasure is nothing short of orgasmic.
Nestle a morsel of that cheese into the pillowy crumb of a fresh baguette, and that rich texture with the tight crispness of the brown crust… This is one of my very favorite bites of food. The definition of deliciousness.
That sharp cheddar cheese is so damn good because it tastes salty and umami.
Umami is the mysterious fifth flavor, after salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. I remember hearing the news in 2001 that American researchers confirmed that we DO indeed have the ability to taste a fifth flavor–something the Japanese had first established nearly 100 years earlier. I was a teenage girl with food eternally on the mind, and was curious about this flavor. Through my clunky understanding of it, I got the impression that it was a just a “deeper” version of salty.
Today’s food question dives into the specifics of umami.
What exactly is umami?
Dipping crispy-fried potato wedges into tomato ketchup
Shaving a soft mound of Parmesan cheese over steaming, screamingly hot freshly drained pasta
Dabbing (or bathing, for some) your sushi in a dish of soy sauce
Adding salty anchovy fillets that dissolve into your rich puttanesca sauce
Using dashi stock (either bought powdered, or simmered from bonito flakes and kombu kelp) to give your miso soup the backbone of its heartiness and warmth
…If you’ve ever enjoyed any of these taste sensations, you have tasted umami. It is the umami flavor that gives these dishes their depth and richness of flavor, and what makes them so luscious and satisfying.
A dish without umami is one that makes you tilt your head and think “There’s something missing.”
Umami is a flavor that is not recognizable enough to know which ingredients contain it, but one that is sorely missed when absent.
The discovery of this flavor is credited to Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda after realizing the seaweed in his miso soup was the key ingredient to its tastiness.
Ikeda called this flavor “umami;””umai” is yummy/tasty; adding the noun ending “-mi” makes “umami” loosely translate to yumminess/tastiness.
This flavor is a bit slippery to describe, but it’s often called meaty, brothy, savory, and rich. Ingredients with umami are special add-ins that create an explosion of flavor.
It’s found in aged foods, like cured meats, fermented products, and ripe (often stinky) cheese. It’s also present in fresh foods like ripe tomatoes, milk, mushrooms, and even breast milk!
It’s the amino acid glutamate that’s responsible for this yumminess.
Umami can be created through using umami-rich ingredients, or by using heat to brown your food. This is called the Maillard reaction: when an ingredient is heated under the right conditions, carbohydrate molecules react with amino acids, which break down and produce a browning effect, giving birth to complex, meaty aromas. Imagine the difference in flavor between a sad, floppy boiled chicken breast and a juicy piece of meat carved from a crisp, roasted whole chicken.
Here are some more umami-rich ingredients, grouped into various cuisines sorted by country:
Glutamate came to be isolated from proteins in wheat gluten, distilling it into its purest form, called “aji no moto”–the stuff of flavor. It quickly came into commercial production in Japan and was sold as a flavor enhancer, much like salt and sugar.
Nowadays it’s mass-produced by growing bacteria that excrete the substance into liquid, from which MSG powder is produced.
Some of you may be skeptical about using MSG powder in your food. But as for the purported negative side effects of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (sweats, headaches, upset tummy, increased heart rate), research doesn’t seem to back it up.
That said, I never use it. While cooking, I have a distaste for relying too much on salt, sugar, or MSG–it feels like I’m cheating, grabbing an easy fix to make up for flavor I failed to cultivate during the cooking process.
I’m more in favor of coaxing in umami flavor on my own terms: browning meat bones, using mushrooms, roasting tomatoes, grating Parmesan into my risotto, using fish sauce in my seaweed soup…
So, the next time you’re scratching your head in the kitchen, thinking your dish isn’t quite right, resist the urge to grab for salt. If you think it needs a li’l extra somethin’, pump up the umami.
Welcome to the second installment of my Food Questions series, where I investigate the stories behind food, just to satisfy my curiosity. (Find installment 1 about Catherine de’Medici here.) Remember: I’m not a historian or food expert, just a hungry, curious blogger asking questions.
People move, taking their customs and ideas with them. Language, culture, music, and food are among the cultural artifacts that that people bring with them in migration.
It’s a story that has repeated itself since the beginning of history.
Italy didn’t have tomatoes until the 16th century, when explorers to the New World brought them from Peru to Europe. Pizza was born in Naples during the 1700’s, and it wasn’t until 1889 that the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil combination wasn’t dubbed the Margherita, after the Queen. Neapolitans took the creation with them to the United States in the early 1900’s, where it exploded in popularity. Thus, in the grand scheme of food history, the ubiquitous pizza is nothing but a baby.
On the other side of the world, tempura (or classic Japanese deep-fried goodness) was originally introduced in the 1500’s by some poor lost Portuguese sailors who found themselves in Japan on the way to Macau. 300 years later, the British found their way to Japan and introduced a dish from one of their imperial colonies: Indian curry. The dish has been reworked to better suit Japanese tastes, and is now one of the country’s supreme foods.
Today’s question is about the influence of cooking traditions and the evolution of those dishes that travel. Specifically, the possible relationship between the Puerto Rican dish, arroz con gandules, and Jollof rice, a West African specialty.
Let’s start with an introduction to arroz con gandules.
Rice (arroz in Spanish) is a staple in Puerto Rican cooking, as it is in many other world cuisines. In her childhood, my grandmother remembers her mother cooking rice dishes as a way to stretch what little meat they had, be it pork, chicken, or seafood. Rice dishes are the bread-and-butter of the Puerto Rican table. Arroz con gandules (“Rice and pigeon peas”) is a dish that is especially important during the end-of-year festivities. As with any classic dish, every home cook has their own spin on the dish, and their own jealously-guarded secret ingredients.
Gandules are pigeon peas, a legume originally from India, which was later brought to Africa, then to the New World. They are small, pert beans that are soft and creamy in the inside. When combined with rice, you have a meal that provides a complete protein.
For my version, I start by rendering the fat from smoked lardons in a heavy-bottomed pot, adding a touch of additional olive oil. Next, homemade sofrito (the base of all Puerto Rican cooking) goes in to bubble with minced garlic, ground coriander, oregano, bay leaf, green olives, tomato purée, and sazón until powerfully fragrant. At this point, I tip in my rinsed gandules, followed by rinsed medium-grain rice, along with enough water to cover by about 2cm. Once the cauldron of lusciousness has simmered to evaporate much of the water, I stir once before tightly covering, lowering the heat, and letting the rice steam itself to completion.
The resulting dish is fluffy grains of fragrant rice that maintain their textural integrity. It can be enjoyed on its own, or served alongside simmered beans, gently fried sweet plantain strips, and fresh avocado. A fantastic comfort food.
I like mine to be a deep red color, from tomato purée and achiote (either from my own infusion of annatto seeds in oil, or in powdered form, as part of any commercial sazón mix).
For another take on this dish, check out chef Meseidy’s version at The Noshery. She features lovely photos, a detailed recipe, and an ingredient breakdown and additional cooking tips.
Today’s food question came to mind when I came upon an article on Jollof rice, a West African rice dish, fluffy long-grain rice seasoned in various manners, over which several countries claim to have perfected, between Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, among others. A dish originally made with barley, which was swapped for rice in the 19th century. Traditional ingredients include thyme, scotch bonnet peppers, stock cubes, and curry powder. Drooling over the pictures, I noticed quite a few similarities with my beloved arroz con gandules.
I got to thinking: Could it be that arroz con gandules, the ubiquitous Puerto Rican dish, evolved in tandem with the iconic West African Jollof rice?
Let’s look into the story of Jollof rice. There seems to be some debate as to where the dish originated, but many sources (including this lovely infographic on the food blog Kitchen Butterfly) point to Senegal as the starting point for this dish. The name Jollof comes from Jolof, a ruling center of the empire of the Wolof, in Senegal and the Gambia, from the mid-1300’s to 1890.
During this time, Portuguese trading posts were operating at the Senegal River. This region came to be called the Grain or Rice Coast, for (unsurprisingly) its prolific grain cultivation. Tomatoes came in from the New World, and it is conceivable that the birth of this dish followed thereafter.
Now, to address the slave trade and its role in global movement. This document from the UNESCO archives, written by the late Cuban professor José Luciano Franco, details European slave trade in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Spain and Portugal started importing slaves from West Africa to their soil in the 14th and 15th centuries. After Columbus’s discovery of the New World, as early as 1501, they were quick to move in establishing a transatlantic slave trade, thereby increasing the efficiency with which the New World territories could be exploited. There are records of the Spanish slave trade continuing through the late 1800’s.
At first, African slaves were transported from Spain and Portugal to the New World, but this tactic proved problematic. The Wolof people were specifically mentioned in Professor Franco’s report, as a group who quickly developed a reputation for instigating uprisings and revolts. In an attempt to put the kibosh on those pesky slave uprisings, the Spanish began transporting slaves directly from the African continent to their colonies. The King of Spain even declared that no slaves who had spent more than 2 years in Spain or Portugal were to be transported there. Thus, slave traders ramped up activity in the ports of Guinea, where the trading posts dealt in foodstuffs and human flesh.
Meanwhile, back in Boriken (the original Taíno name for Puerto Rico), the native population didn’t stand a chance. Most of the Taíno were decimated shortly after the arrival of the Spanish–if not by brute human force, then by disease. They themselves left behind no written records. The population of Puerto Rico now consists of the biological remnants of indigenous peoples mixed with European, West African, and Asian ancestry. Starting from the early 16th century, Puerto Rican cuisine was left open to interpretation; ingredients from both the Old and the New Worlds were left to mix with the various cooking methods belonging to the new multiethnic population.
Looking at modern Caribbean cooking, we clearly see other dishes that trace the complex history of transatlantic movement. For example, bacalaítos (delectable seasoned fritters with bacalao, or salt cod) are very similar to Haitian and Trinidadian accra and French-Antillean accras de morue, which seem to share ties with fried bean fritters called akara in West Africa, known as acarajé in Brazil. Indeed, it is a tangled web of food history–perhaps a grand family food tree is needed to give order to it all!
I’m venturing to claim that the connection between jollof rice and arroz con gandules is like that of not-so-distant cousins. They share roots, and evolved in slightly different directions over time. At the heart of it, you’ve got two dishes that start with an intensely flavored tomato-based sauce; add rice that’s been either generously rinsed or parboiled; cook in a tightly-covered vessel, stirring infrequently to ensure the final product is soft and fluffy. Both are also commonly served with fried plantains.
Food is not simply sustenance, but living culture. Our multiracial heritage was born from centuries of European colonization. It has left an indelible mark on our physiognomies, the tongues we speak, the food we eat, and the cultural practices we observe.
Arroz con gandules, a Puerto Rican culinary staple, represents a legacy of our storied past.
Let’s chew on that during this holiday season.
Carney, Judith A. “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas: Chapter 1.” Harvard University Press. Accessed 12/21/2017.
Franco, José Luciano. “The Slave Trade in the Caribbean and Latin America from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century.” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 28 February 1977. Accessed 12/1/2017.
Sokoh, Ozoz. “An Infographic: A Brief History of Jollof Rice.” KitchenButterfly.com. Published 17 August 2017. Accessed 12/20/2017.
“Part 1: A Short History of Jollof Rice.” Published 19 November 2014. Accessed 12/20/2017.
“Part 2: #Jollofgate – In Defense Of Our Traditions.” Published 20 November 2014. Accessed 12/20/2017.
Sokolov, Raymond. Why We Eat What We Eat. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1991.