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.
This is the first post of a new series in which I investigate food-related questions that pique my interest. While I plan to conduct research to look more deeply into these subjects, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m not a scholar, just a layperson with a sense of curiosity.
Feel free to comment with additional resources, information, or suggestions for future food questions. Here we go!
Today’s question is born from an offhand comment by Clarissa Dickson Wright (one-half of the British cooking duo, the Two Fat Ladies, who greatly shaped my curiosity and appreciation of food):
“Catherine de’ Medici, who taught the French how to cook”
Who the heck was that? Is that true?, I wondered as a young adolescent. Clarissa made the statement with such unquestionable authority (or maybe it was the British accent), I always considered there to be a kernel of truth.
Now living in France, I have the great privilege to be able to taste and investigate French gastronomy for myself. I can learn firsthand about French food tradition, so refined and richly delicious.
Of course, French cooking techniques transformed the way the Western world sees food, and it is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for a reason. That said, there is, without a doubt, there is a profound stink of arrogance and hoity-toitiness that can be off-putting. The endless fascination and reverence can be alienating to a dabbler such as myself. I’m not in a position to denigrate this grand tradition, but come on. French cuisine can come across as elitist, and there is an insufferableness with which enthusiasts genuflect before it, and sniff at “less refined” cuisines.
The idea that the culinary juggernaut of French cuisine didn’t spontaneously generate in a vacuum, dreamed up by a pompous French moustache-twirler, is sexy and intriguing. The question of Catherine de’ Medici’s influence is one that has been scratching my ear ever since I moved to France, and began to learn to appreciate the rich complexity of French food tradition.
The question that sits at the heart of my fascination, be it in in food, history, folklore, psychology, or otherwise is: What is the origin story?
Where did this achievement in human excellence and creativity stem from?
Let’s dive in.
14th-century French cuisine was known for quantity, without the same refinement and quality we associate with it today. Imagine large free-for-all banquets where people ate with their hands. How terribly unelegant. But with the beginning of the Renaissance, alongside the same ol’ innovations we all read about in history class, came another important cultural offshoot: the development of food preparation techniques.
Ah, the Renaissance. It’s difficult to talk about it without mentioning the Medici, a powerful Florentine dynasty that held a 300-year-influence that spanned through the Renaissance, and who notably financed great artists and thinkers like Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli. And like any dynasty, they married their children off to foreigners to solidify their power.
Enter Catherine. A woman whose story unfurls more and more mystery, intrigue, and drama, the deeper you dig. Married to Henry of Orléans, later King Henry II, who snubbed her in favor of an older woman, Diane of Poitiers. (That said, even if her husband wasn’t exactly thrilled by her, they still conceived ten children, nine of which she outlived. Her last remaining son, Henry III, died in the same year she did.) A woman with a deep appreciation for good food, Catherine held a fascination with the occult and astrology. Widowed into power, she was the reviled Italian-born Queen of France, quelle horreur!
23 October 1533. 14-year-old Catherine arrived in Marseilles, in a grand display of finery, with procession of horses, accompanied by twelve demoiselles, clad in silk of gold and silver. The great finery in her trousseau included a lavish collection of silk and lace, precious gemstones and opulent jewelry.
She was married to Henry of Orléans the following day, and thereby became a royal duchess. It is said that the excessive displays of decadence extended to the great banquet held after the wedding, and the masquerade ball-turned-orgy after the teenaged couple’s departure to their nuptial chambers.
Hey, they knew how to party.
Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, had brokered her marriage to Henry, promising an alliance with King Francis, along with a certain amount of land and a sizeable dowry. Unfortunately, a year after the wedding, the Pope died, having only paid part of her dowry. Effectively, his death left Catherine with no political value to King Francis I.
Not known for her looks, nor her political clout, she had to appeal to her father-in-law’s strong appetite for beauty. It’s said that she made up for her lack of looks with her charm, wit, intellect, and skills in dancing and hunting. She’s credited with bringing the side-saddle to France, supposedly to show off her well-shaped calves. She’s also said to have introduced pantaloons as undergarments, so as to preserve her modesty under a footman’s roving eye while descending from horseback.
Later, she was known for her enormous appetite for rich food–a 16th century gourmande, she was. Perhaps it was an overindulgence in artichokes and puff pastry that gave her that double chin later in life. Legend has it that when she was presented with tobacco from the New World in 1560, she crushed into a powder and found it intriguing enough to introduce to the French people. Other innovations allegedly popularized by Catherine de’ Medici include the folding fan and the handkerchief.
Overall, sources seem to be conflicted on the precise list of novelties that Catherine brought to the French. From what I’ve read, it’s safe to assume that she brought the fork with her to France and popularized its use. She also brought a team of fine Italian cooks and master pastrymakers who probably showed those French cooks a thing or two. With respect to crediting her introducing ingredients to France, such as broccoli, lettuce, and spinach, and savoy cabbages, there is more doubt.
It’s also known that along the French Riviera, individual Italian dishes crossed over, but not an entire style of cooking. The Greeks introduced the olive to Provence, and perhaps even the famed Marseillais dish, bouillabaisse.
It’s not possible to conclude that Catherine de’ Medici “taught the French how to cook,” but her influence seems to be one factor that catalyzed a push toward culinary refinement. Her arrival in France coincided with several other important revelations at the time, notably the flood of new ingredients coming in from the New World.
I’d like to think that we have Catherine de’ Medici to thank every time we crunch into spinach-and-artichoke filled puff pastry triangles at a cocktail party, sipping fine wine and hoping things pick up and get spicier. And after someone kills their fifth glass of Cab, takes their shirt off and starts howling at the full moon, we smile and remember that life is here for us to savor.
Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. Phoenix, 2003.
O’Neill, Molly. “Quel Shock! The Italianization Of French Cuisine.” NYTimes.com. Published 5 October 1994. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Oulton, Randal. “Catherine de Medici.” CooksInfo.com. Published 01 August 2005; revised 17 November 2012. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Root, Waverly. The Food of France. Vintage Books Edition, May 1992.