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.
I’ve said this before when making soup back in the Neolithic, but lentils do NOT get enough love. When prepared right, these earthy, creamy, protein-packed legumes are truly delicious, which is why lentils, or Dal, are consumed and beloved by all cultures across India.
There are uncountable ways to cook them, and all sorts of things to add to make a unique dish. But to honor that tasty tradition, of one of the only ingredients to unite all of Indian cuisine, I wanted to make something I could call the “ultimate” Dal, while mostly keeping it pure and simple, with no superfluous ingredients. Just onions, garlic, spices, and lentils. Five kinds of them in fact.
I know, it’s final form is not the most appetizing looking thing ever to be cooked on Anthrochef, but the flavor? I promise you it will blow your mind.
Note: This recipe is more of a guide than a specific set of instructions. Feel free to substitute any amount or combination of lentils, and the same goes for whatever spices you want to use!
Which ancient civilization made the most flavorful cuisine?
Perhaps you could make a case for any of the cuisines and civilizations we’ve covered thus far, and no doubt each one has been best at something. But when it comes to pure, impact of flavor? Nobody beats India.
Thanks to its geography, history, and available ingredients, as well as some impressively advanced cooking techniques we’ll cover in depth, the story of South Asian civilization is the story of spice, rice, and flavor. Oh, and of vegetarians too!
WARNING: side effects of this episode may include getting very, very hungry!
Music for this episode sampled from the late, great Ravi Shankar
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We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.
The specific dish Falafel was officially invented barely a thousand years ago, probably either in the Levant or in Egypt. Some food historians, however, believe that the concept of ground chickpea balls, deep fried, goes back to more ancient times.
The same goes for babaganoush In its official conception? A more recent invention. But eggplants were grown since neolithic times. Are you telling me no one ever roasted and mashed one over all those thousands of years? Whose to say they didn’t add onions, garlic, and sesame paste for flavor.
The point is, I think you can make an argument for these dishes in some form go back much further than their official, modern incarnations. Especially in the Bronze Age near east, when trade networks enabled ingredients to spread, and improved metallurgy enabled deep frying to go widespread, even to poorer people, who could now get their daily chickpeas and lentils in delicious fritter form, possibly as a street food.
We’re leaving the Peruvian coasts and traveling upwards. Inland to the east, the land immediately rises into the Andes Mountains, where a more diverse array of crops could be grown, among them avocados and chili peppers. Travel even higher, and you encounter the pseudo-grains, most prolifically quinoa, which was grown together with maize in the same field.
So I put all those ingredients in a salad. This quinoa and corn was actually purchased in Cusco, Peru.