Taste and Food: why we like the food we do and as for umame…


spice_1 (Photo credit: srqpix)

Chicken Makhani, murgh makhani, or "Butte...

Chicken Makhani, murgh makhani, or “Butter Chicken” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My daughter was telling me about a young woman she knows who has ever only been to a Harvester restaurant when going out for a meal with her family [for those who don’t know of them they are a chain of steak-type houses with a salad cart and various other meat and fish dishes]. Her ability to taste foods etc however is intense and conditioned by the fact that she has autism. In fact it is possible that her taste buds are so refined that she could be a coffee or tea taster and yet they have not been trained by anything other than bland.

I pondered this as I looked through my recently re-catalogued, sorted and cast-off file of recipes that I have collected over the years.

Every few years I go through all these loose cuttings and my recipe books – hard cover – and make sure that they still reflect my current interest. In my file I have divided it up into sections: cakes – many low-fat, some I have cooked many times, some never, several unusual eg courgette and carrot, different versions of clafouti from plum to fruit almond to low-fat; soups – non-meat of course but the odd fish; fish – all these recipes are spicy I find except for one; vegetarian – and here we see a great variety of vegetable and tofu curries or otherwise spicy dishes; and finally other – which is mostly taken up by two significant booklets – 1. Thai vegetarian, and 2. Punjabi vegetarian cooking.

Interesting how often spice is somewhere in so many of these recipes – not necessarily chilli of course. The two words seem synonymous these days although most spices do not have any ‘heat’ associated with them or in them.

Spices used to be used to enhance food and change the flavour of the base food – or to disguise it – in a similar way to herbs but from a different part of the plant – more usually the berry part (as a nut is technically a berry) and often dried and ground – think pepper, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, coriander.

Curry leaves. Their taste differs vastly from ...

Curry leaves. Their taste differs vastly from curry spice mixes.. français: Feuilles de curry (caloupilés). Ils ont un goût très différent de la préparation d’épices de curry.. scientific: Murraya koenigii. Hindi: कड़ी पत्ता (kaRī pattā), मीठा नीम (mīThā nīm). Tamil: kaRivEmpu, kaRivEppilai, karuvEppilai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spices thus required humans to have a minimum level of technological artefacts ie a pestle and mortar – even if only a dip in a stone – or grinding quirms before they could be used, whereas herbs, which were fist used when humans started cooking (think wild garlic and other wild flowers as we now know)are merely plucked from where they grow and need no more than to be torn to be used and thus could be used earlier in human history.

The other major difference between herbs and spices of course, is where they originally grew. All climates have some plants which can be used to flavour foods in their fresh and growing condition but only some, limited, climates can grow the spices that humans desire. And a true desire it has been too for so many years. Once western Europe discovered the spices that could be obtained further afield and the difference they made to food then trade and armed warfare followed.

I have two excellent history books on the story of curry which also talk about the spice trade. What initially surprised me was 1. How long the English have been eating curry; and 2. That curry is a corruption of the word gray and thus indicates a sauce – not necessarily spicy; and 3. That chilli are not endemic to Asia especially India, but were brought there from Southern America by the Portuguese.

The books: Curry by Lizzie Collingham and Curry by Shrabani Basu would, you might expect have covered the same items but they are very different in how they tackle the subject. Collingham’s book is a ‘tale of cooks and conquerors’ and begins by writing a chapter on the history of each of the main dishes that you would traditionally find in a curry house. So it starts with a chapter on Chicken Tikka Masala and there is one on Korma and Vindaloo and so on. Each accompanied by a recipe.  Chapter 6 is the story of curry powder and the first curry house in England which opened in London in 1811. Curry recipes were already in circulation among the people who had gone to India with the military and trading companies and although hot food was thought to incline one towards a ‘hot humour’ or being too angry etc yet he spices were often used to produce stews of less good meat or to provide a sauce for cold meats – as in Mrs Beeton’s recipe book.

Basu’s book however stats with the spice trail and discusses how the Romans traded in spices and brought them to England and wherever they settled but because of the monopoly of trade that had been established with the East and that Venice had in the early Middle Ages, spices were extraordinarily expensive. We hear now of a peppercorn rent and think it means a very low rent, but in 12th century London, the book informs us, a pound of pepper could buy several sheep. Pepper was even used to pay taxes and debts.

Basu then discusses the wars that ensued over the spice trade and the search for the Spice Islands and eventually of course, the establishment of the East India company which although a private company had its own army and took over India by military might and political guile and brought the spices back to the West at a cheaper but still expensive, rate.

Basu also looks at how the various cuisines came to the UK and why Bangladeshi restaurants were the first established and even explains that Biryani is a Persian dish and came to India with the Moghul conquest, was re-invented and then came to Britain. She tells us about the various families that have established themselves in the curry trade – making the sauces for general use, the supermarket ready meals, or running the various restaurants in various cities. Looking at their dynasties and how they were established.

The favourite curry that I make is paneer (the Indian cheese which I can make but what a faff – I prefer to buy from a supermarket) and spinach – fresh of course – and tomatoes. It turns out slightly different each time I make it but the base is onions and garlic and ginger well cooked, some chilli, dried cumin and coriander, curry leaves, asafoetida (supposed to help with the digestion), garam masala, black pepper and a little salt. I add other ingredients according to my ‘feel’ – what seems appropriate or not on that day – my tacit knowledge as I sniff and smell the flavour rising. Often a little black onion seed or yellow mustard seed and yes, a little turmeric – not too much as it is bitter. I also have some mango powder which adds a interesting depth to curry. simmer for around 30 mins and you have a delicious meal to serve with rice. It’s interesting that people think that paneer is very limited. I have 3 recipe books for paneer and there were 6 in the series and probably more still that I brought back from India a few years ago. Of course, it is even nicer if you get the paneer from the Hindu temple in Neasden that is flavoured with seeds and spices etc….

So if you want to more about the spice trade and its link to curry and how the chilli became so ubiquitous then read both books. And as for umame – well that’s Japanese and I am not sure quite how you know it when you taste it!

Oh and if you want to know where to eat the best curry in the UK, then check out the list here : http://britishcurryaward.co.uk/index.php/award-winners-2013/


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