Everyone knows the saying about what the world’s “oldest profession” is, but you will find a very close runner up in the kitchen. The history of those who cook professionally to make their living goes way, way back to the origins of civilization itself.
It’s another epic journey across the ages, this time with a focus on my own chosen profession and day job. This is the long, ancient history of chefs (and restaurants).
Is good cooking defined by ingredients, skill in preparation, style of cuisine, or is it something even more fundamental and deeply human?
We left out of Africa all the way back in Episode 1, and rarely looked back, but in this episode we finally return to the vast continent, specifically south of the Sahara desert, where more than any other qualities, feeling full and satisfied are what make a great meal, and a great chef is one who can evoke that feeling the most.
Come listen for this and other perspectives on food and dining we so rarely hear about in western history.
Here in this classic dish we have two essential elements of Japanese coming together: Soy and the Sea.
I couldn’t say I did any historical Japanese cooking if I didn’t make something with Dashi, the ubiquitous broth of dried seaweed and smoked fish flakes that’s essential to so many dishes. The unique flavor of Dashi is said to be that of the Sea itself.
And tofu, originally invented in China, was a vital source of protein for Buddhist monks abstaining from meat, but of course other people enjoyed it too. Tofu gets such a bad rap these days, but when its treated simply, fried up perfectly to be crispy on the outside and creamy within, it’s really tasty!
Both of those things come together simply and deliciously in Agedashi Tofu, a dish still popular today but some version of which must have been eaten for many centuries in Japan. Shallow fried tofu in Dashi, or “ocean stock” if you like, garnished with some nice veggies.
How did Europe get out of its dark ages? It’s not a wholesome story, as the secret to their success was mainly the conquest and plunder of other peoples’ luxury goods, namely their foods and spices. Classic Europe.
Would it surprise if I told you that the Black Death did a lot to help as well? Come take a culinary journey through the High and Late Middle Ages, and see why.
The Song Dynasty of Medieval China was a turning point in food history. As farming productivity exploded, cities rose to dominance, and populations dramatically increased, so too did the quality of life and the quality of cuisine follow.
To put it another way, people had access to not only more food, but better food. Even poorer commoners tended to eat 3 meals a day and occasionally some snacks. Most remarkable though, was that for one of the first times in history, meat was being consumed across social classes. With prices low, and restaurants and street stalls serving conveniently sized and priced portions, everyone could afford some animal protein now and then.
And the most popular of all the meats? Then and perhaps now as well… Pork. So. . . we’re havin’ ribs.
I’ll admit, this recipe is inspired by the style of ribs you can get with Chinese take out in America. But taking all historical factors into account, that is the rise of meat and pork, the authentic black soy bean sauce, the dry rub spices made possible by recently opened trade routes, as well as the popularity of grills and barbecues for street food in Song cities, I see no reason to call this recipe inauthentic! I’ll stand by the assertion that these ribs could totally have been served from a stall on the Imperial Way, centuries ago.
The charcoal grill is of course the best way to go, but these ribs are delicious in an oven as well. To get started, we’ll need to whip up a couple things first: Some homemade Chinese Five Spice for a dry rub, and some Hoisin style, black bean sauce for a marinade. After that, all we need is ribs and fire.
Indian food, both ancient and modern, has always been about those sauces and condiments. Contrary to the jarred preserved stuff westerners think of as “chutney”, the real stuff in India is almost always made with fresh ingredients.
There will be one more classic chutney in the next Indian recipe, but here are three to get us going: cilantro, mango, and tamarind.
All very simple, very basic, very DELICIOUS recipes.
Clarified butter, known in Hindi as “ghee”, will be our foundation, the base from which all the coming Indian delights will spring. Especially when we temper spices in the ghee when its hot and make “chonk”, it’s almost like magic is being performed. Flavor magic.
What does it mean to clarify butter? We’re going to separate and remove the milk solids from regular butter, leaving behind pure golden butter fat that preserves longer, and can handle sauteing at high temperatures.
The answer is a whole lot! A little over two thousand years ago, the way people thought about themselves and the Universe was beginning to change. Ancient gods, pagan rituals, and beliefs were going out of style, no longer compatible with new, more modern ways of thinking. These beliefs would transform into new religions that would create, and last into the modern world.
And of course, nothing reflected this era of Spiritual transition more than what people ate, or in this case how much of it. Listen today for the origin stories of Christianity, Islam, and their parent religion Judaism, the three new monotheist faiths and their “one true god”, known colloquially at the time as “people of the book”.
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The cucumber used to be more than it is today. Oh, there are still cucumber lovers out there (myself among them), but in the ancient world, this was more than just a favorite salad topping. The cucumber was considered the pinnacle of refreshment, its crisp, crunchy, watery bite being the ultimate tasty oasis in the hot climates of the near east, the way we might think of a cold glass of lemonade today. No wonder cucumbers were used to flavor water and combined with yogurt, two other pillars of refreshment
Here is an original recipe that celebrates the cucumber as its feature. I came up with it using ancient Persian ingredients and trying to imagine ancient Persian tastes. Quick and simple, the resulting dish is sweet and peppery, with its combination of pomegranates, dates, and black mustard seeds. And of course, it wouldn’t be right if this cucumber salad was not also packed with fresh herbs.
Here is a modern Persian recipe, for one of the national dishes of Iran, that could have been and surely was also cooked in ancient times. Ghormeh Sabzi is a flavorful stew of LOTS of cooked herbs, with meat and a legume. The final texture resembles an Indian Saag or cooked greens dish, but this Persian version made entirely of herbs is a bit more tangy and pungent.
My version of Ghormeh Sabzi combines lots of parsley, coriander (cilantro), mint, and green onions, Goat meat, and chickpeas, to substitute for red beans which are usually found in the modern version, but were unavailable in the Old World. A stew fit for a King of kings!