Five Friday Reads 17.04.2015

Vienna

  • What it Really Means to Eat a Big Mac in the Arctic Circle‘ from Eater. When McDonald’s is far away, the food conveys a sense of normalcy that makes any interaction with the product a memorable experience.
  • The Right Wine to Drink with a Sandwich‘ from The New York Times. Fancy wine and low-brow sandwiches sound like an odd combination? Eric Asimov presents myriad inspired, surprising pairings that force you to reconsider what it means to eat a sandwich and drink wine.
  • ‘Turbulent Calm: Dispatches from the front line in the war against distraction’ from Good (33). Living in the present and being mindful are the keys for a happy life, right? This refreshing article argues that focusing on mindfulness can sometimes feel all too mindless.
  • My Saga: Part Two‘ from The New York Times. It may have taken me more than a month to read it, but I loved the second part of Knausgaard’s journey through America.
  • Breaking Tradition‘ from Monocle (82). In a country known for their history and traditions, Milan stands apart for seeking innovation, even in struggling industries such as print and media.

Authenticity Is Trending: What Indikitch’s Salads Reveal about American Taste

Paneer tikka feast, Indikitch

 

If the perfectly engineered food juxtaposes crunchy and chewy, soft and crisp, spicy and cool, this modern meal reaches its acme as a saag paneer salad from Indikitch, a fast casual Indian restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. At $9.50, tax included, it’s one of the area’s bargain meals and, with salad and spinach and onions, ranks among the neighbourhood’s healthier lunches as well. And, while there’s no doubt that the meal contains a multitude of less-than-virtuous oils and preservatives, these unpleasant ingredients don’t reveal the keys to the dish’s success. For that, it’s the trends that illuminate salient truths on how to transform a routine meal into a memorable dish.

News outlets of every sort routinely announce Indian food’s eminent likeability. Packed full of juxtaposing and complementary spices, Indian-style dishes present an unprecedented range of flavours in each bite. While some argue that Indian food hasn’t saturated the market sufficiently to be labelled a trend, the recent rise in Indian restaurants suggests that Indian food is increasingly accepted as a way to get one’s ethnic food fix. Thus, a budding group of Americans embrace Indian fast-casual restaurants, pre-packaged curry sauces and pillow-y naan as a means for interacting with popular contemporary flavour.

Despite its appealing flavours and growing visibility, Indian food must shake off its reputation as dirty and unhealthy to conquer lunchtime. To battle these notions, Indikitch prepares all hot mains to order in front of the customers and includes a salad on their menu. Combining New York’s chopped salad mania and India’s sauce-y curries, Indikitch’s so-called Live Fire salads seem custom designed to appeal to image conscious New Yorkers. The salad begins with a bed of chopped lettuce —romaine hearts from an off-brand bag — and shredded red cabbage. To this a lemon-y coriander dressing added, giving the salad a much-needed dose of creaminess. On top of this one of the hot, made-to-order, mains adds a chewy textural contrast and the requisite punch of Indian flavour. A dusting of crunchy chickpea chips gets sprinkled on top, completing the crisp-chewy-crunchy trinity. Fully composed, the salad recognizably belongs to New York’s health-conscious mania, but boasts sufficient tweaks to masquerade as an ethnic, desirable fast food dish.

Despite the salad’s cleverly crafted cravability, it’s blatant pandering to New York tastes complicates what it means to eat Indian in the city. Shouldn’t good ethnic eater — those astute culinary colonisers — order an ostensibly authentic meal to honour Indian food tradition? Perhaps a Feast Plate with a side of daal and carrot salad or a dosa filled with Goan fish curry. Yet, proclaiming to adore Indian food is a statement as misguided as swearing to love Italian food; regarding each country’s respective cuisine as a cohesive entity is an unabashedly foreign construction. Just as canederli and sfogliatella remain marked as Northern and Southern respectively, a more accurate picture of Indian cuisine would reflect the different sub-groups present in one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. If so-called Indian food was consumed without engaging in culinary colonialism, menus would list Punjabi tandoori chicken and Tamil uttapam. But this doesn’t happen. Consequently, representations of Indian food in the US suggest that Americans are eager to interact with foreign cuisines only when they possess recognizable elements.

Crunchy, chewy, creamy. Sweet, sour, spicy. These combinations build a magnetic sphere of attraction around a specific dish. They make irresistible crisp potato chips dunked in creamy sour cream and legendary salty-hot French fries plunged into thick-cool milkshakes. If creating a trendy food requires finding the pre-existing market niche into which a new product can fit, Indikitch presents Indian food as cravable as a plate of nachos or pile of General Tso’s chicken. In order for a dish to dominate lunchtime, it must easily integrate into the area’s culinary lexicon; it’s easier to sell a new type of sandwich to a population that already consumes sandwiches than it is to convince the sandwich-eaters to adopt the thali.

Manufacturing the aura of healthiness through salad helps. Although eating at Indikitch allows the diner to indulge their ethnic food curiosity, the salad, as a recognizable token of New York healthy, ensures culturally agreed upon virtuosity balances mouth-watering flavour. Indikitch isn’t limited to an authentic portrayal of Indian cookery because the diner already possesses an inkling that the country’s cuisine is too diverse to be elegantly articulated in through a choice of six dishes. But don’t say Indikitch’s Live Fire Salad isn’t authentic; it is. The salad is an accurate portrayal of what it means to consume a quick-trendy lunch in New York in 2015.

Image credits: Flickr via Garrett Ziegler

Five Friday Reads 10.04.2015

Helsinki

  • Book Review: Christina Tosi Climbs to the Top of Cool Girl Mountain with Milk Bar Life‘ from Eater. Christina Tosi, the genius mastermind behind Momofuku Milk Bar and blueberries and cream cookies, released her second cookbook this week, Milk Bar Life. Whereas her first cookbook focused on the unique techniques and recipes that helped the Milk Bar earn its reputation, this book puts Tosi at the centre, for better or for worse.
  • When It Comes to Reading, Is Pleasure Suspect?‘ from The New York Times. I was thrilled when Bookends featured Anna Holmes and Benjamin Moser discussing the relation of the reader to pleasure. My view? After endless judgement values from teachers on the books I read or didn’t read, I enjoy reading it all: from the relentlessly pleasurable to the intellectually gratifying (which isn’t to say the two are mutually exclusive).
  • A Passage to India‘ from The New York Times. In 2008, The New York Times convinced food studies scholar Krishendu Ray to visit Indian restaurants around the city and analyze what they revealed about eating ethnic.
  • The Rise of the Mile-High Building‘ from New York Magazine. Architects, engineers and dreamers have long fantasized about building cloud-reaching sky scrapers. But this new mile high building wouldn’t look like it’s predecessors.
  • The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. If you, like me, enjoy De Botton’s highly crafted language that attempts to change our perspective on a host of everyday peculiarities, you’ll enjoy his exploration of the working world, from humble fisheries to big city accountancies.

Chokladboll: Sweden’s no-bake favourite

Chokladboll

 

One bite and Sweden prevails. Maybe you taste punschrulle, the marzipan log with a chocolate cap. Or possibly you sample a slice of princesstårta, the ethereal layer cake piled high with whipped cream and topped with a regal rose. Most likely, you eat chokladboll. One bite of this sweet, chewy, chocolate-y oat-based truffle and you realise that Sweden contains more than just Ikea, Larsson and meatballs. It contains everyday life the same as everywhere else.

Chokladbollar are Sweden’s generous coconut-dusted contribution to the no-bake sweets pantheon. Made from oats, butter, sugar, cocoa powder and a splash of coffee or whiskey if you’re preparing them for adults. The recipe resembles a child’s project: pour, stir and shape the resulting mess like you used to make Play-Doh cookies. Although they’re easy to make at home, chokladbollar dot café pastry displays, 7 Eleven sweet cases, and grocery store check out queues. They are the ultimate fika, coffee break, companion; less sticky and more satisfying than a cloying cardamom bun.

While Sweden proudly displays their love for chokladboll, no-bake sweets are an international language for which each country possesses a unique dialect. America talks rice krispie treats; the UK banters rocky road; Italy expounds salame al ciccolato; France discourses roses des sables. While these desserts occasionally appear in bakeries, the home kitchen is their true domain. But not in Sweden, where chokladbollar are as common at the grocery store as in the fridge. This isn’t surprising. After all, chokladbollar pair well with dark winter skies and look meticulous enough to please Queen Sofia. If each country has their own no-bake, super-rich dessert that reflects their nostalgic tastes, Sweden’s chokladboll demonstrates the nation’s paradoxical combination of austerity and opulence.

Fortunately, chokladboll are easy to make in your own kitchen and taste regal alongside your non-Swedish coffee. So let’s go: grab your oats, about a cup or so will do — we only need a small batch. Then get your butter, cocoa powder — the good stuff only, please, no Hershey’s here — and coffee (because we can). You’ll need some sugar, grab it from the out-of-the-way shelf it lives on in your pantry. Now, combine. Rub the butter into the oats and pour in the sugar and the cocoa powder. Toss them with reckless abandon into flaked coconut or pearl sugar if you’re fancy. It’s messy; you might want to grab an apron if you haven’t done so already. But they’re good. They’re oh-so good. Not right now, of course. Like all no-bake treats, chokladbollar need to rest so that the oats become soft and chewable. Slap the formed truffles in the fridge and wait. Listen to Robyn, read about Max Burger, ogle pictures of the royal family. By now a few hours should have passed. Go to your fridge, get your cookies, brew some coffee and eat.

Sweden’s refined treats may woo the palate with delicate textures, interesting flavours and plenty of sweetness, but it’s their no-bake chokladboll that effortlessly negotiates borders, allowing anyone with a mixing bowl to understand better understand this Nordic nation. There’s a reason they dominate pastry cases in the country: they are a simple comfort, small enough to be enjoyed frequently and rich enough to steel you against the dark winter. Their ubiquity only makes them more appealing, a reminder that you’re never too far away from the comforts of home. In Sweden you can rest assured a chokladboll is only a few paces away and, along with it, is the warmth and the reassuring taste of nostalgia.

Note: Looking for a proper recipe? I’ve had good luck with this recipe from Food.com. I also like She Simmers’ idea of using instant oats.

Five Friday Reads 03.04.2015

Brussels

  • Who needs creme eggs when you can make your own creem eggs?‘ from The Guardian. Is there a better way to say happy easter than a large, sticky-sweet Cadbury creme egg? Yes, a homemade Cadbury-inspired creem egg.
  • 1892: Times Square, Illuminated‘ from New York Magazine. Taylor Swift might not find Times Square’s 24/7 high-wattage lights blinding, but it seems safe to say that the residents who saw the first lit up with 1,457 lightbulbs exceedingly brilliant.
  • State of the News‘ from Monocle. Whether you continue to call it Burma or agree that it’s Myanmar now, it’s interesting to examine the country’s struggle for democracy through its state-funded TV news channel.
  • With Sugar on Top‘ from New York Times Magazine. Montenegro isn’t exactly known for its desserts — nor for its fine cuisine in general. But Francis Lam’s article on sampita argues that even less popular cuisines deserve their share of the spotlight.
  • Photographic Notes from Underground‘ from The New York Times. Sunday morning is a magical time on public transportation. Don’t believe me? See Nick Frank photos of European metro stations on Sunday morning. Beautiful.

Curry Powder, Culture and History

Saag salad from Indikitch

Pep, spice, and zing together in a handy container: curry powder is the Western cook’s shortcut to bold Indian flavour. But there’s more hiding in the little jar than just turmeric and ginger. Although curry powder imparts an Indian aura onto ingredients, the spice blend is a recent Western invention born from the home cook’s desire to add a dash of exotic to an otherwise routine dinner. Curry powder shouldn’t be regarded as a relic of colonialism. Cultural adaption has integrated curry powder into Western culinary tradition, allowing chefs and eaters to appropriate the ‘other’ through a nation’s widely recognized dishes and emblematic ingredients.

Curry powder is a pre-packaged blend of spices, leaning heavily on turmeric for colour, cumin for flavour, and dried chillies for heat. Since the introduction of the first British-produced curry mix in 1780, manufacturers have added and subtracted spices for a profile that suits their nation’s current cultural taste and goes well with the most popular dishes. While the mix should taste noticeably ‘Indian’, throwing some seasonings into a jar and labelling them curry powder is a distinctly Western habit, absent in India and other curry consuming countries. Whereas an English recipes call for varying amounts of curry powder to make Butter Chicken and beef curry, Indian recipes list the specific spices required to flavour a specific dish. When an Indian cook reaches for a spice blend, they’re likely grabbing garam masala: a combination of peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices.

Curry paste

In the same way that the notion of curry powder is uniquely Western, ‘curry’ as a term for a soupy, stew-y main is absent in India’s culinary lexicon. Curry is likely an Anglicism of kari, a southern Indian Tamil word indicating a spiced sauce for meats or vegetables (and, possibly, spice tree).[1] Evidence suggests that dishes resembling the modern curry have been cooked in region surrounding modern India for approximately 4,000 years, making curry one of the longest continually prepared dishes.

Curry’s European history is shorter, but not without its mysteries. Portuguese traders may have brought the dish from their colonies in Indian to Europe during the 17th century. Others argue that curry was an English invention, dating to the 1747 when Hannah Glasse included a recipe for a rabbit or fowl stew with coriander and black pepper in The Art of Cookery (later editions included ginger and turmeric as well). The term has existed in English since 1390 when Richard II commissioned The Forme of Curey, with ‘curey’ coming from French cuire, to cook, and referencing a stew-like dish. In a 16th century account of a trip to India, a Dutchman describes a sauce-y fish recipe as a carriel. Given the dish’s varied origins it makes sense to examine curry as a Western dish largely independent of Indian tradition. This perspective removes the tricky notion of authenticity, allowing each curry-infused dish to exemplify a European way of interacting with foreign cuisine.

Chicken Tikka Masala

As a uniquely Western product, curry powder communicates exoticism by subtly shifting the flavour profile of a common ingredient from a given country’s culinary lexicon. Take Coronation Chicken, a curry-infused chicken salad Rosemary Hume created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. While the dish has earned a reputation as an unwelcome lunchtime intruder, it epitomised worldly Britain when it was introduced. In The Constance Spry Cookbook, Spry remarks on Hume’s deft manipulation of curry powder to produce a sophisticated taste that wouldn’t alienate coronation attendees, ‘I doubt whether many … detected[curry powder] in a chicken dish which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nutlike flavour in the sauce.’ Spry juxtaposes curry powder — and the curry it evokes —with ‘delicate’ and ‘nutlike’. Spry depicts curry powder without the creamy, sweet trappings of Englishness as strong and brash, qualities that are not to be associated with the young Queen.

Nevertheless — aside from its garish yellow-orange hue — coronation chicken rarely assaults the palate. Hume’s inclusion of familiar ingredients — mayonnaise, raisins, Worcestershire sauce — mollifies British tastes, filtering exoticism through a veil of familiarity. In Coronation Chicken, curry powder signifies mid-twentieth century sophistication, marking potentially threatening foreign flavours as acceptable through secure, English ingredients.

Coronation Chicken Sandwich

Using curry powder to safely re-identify a familiar food as foreign is not solely an English phenomenon: German currywurst pours curry powder over cultural culinary touchstones such as sausage, chips, ketchup and mayonnaise, diversifying what it means to eat German. Invented in 1949 by Herta Heuwer and consumed almost exclusively as fast food takeaway, currywurst stands dot German cities. Like in Coronation Chicken, curry powder and sauce covers the protein; however, currywurst makes fewer gestures at exoticism, highlighting Germany’s traditional sausage. As currywurst remains noticeably German, karrysild — a popular smørrebrød topping of pickled herring in a creamy curry sauce — remains noticeably Danish. Unlike garam masala, which Indians use to complement a dish, Western cooks use curry powder to juxtapose their cuisine’s unmarked, normal, ingredients, permitting them to integrate the other into their cultural discourse while maintaining their culinary identities.

Certain commonalities arise among the use of curry powder in Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild: the spice blend marks the dish, covers a protein, is mixed into a smooth sauce. The contrast between firm protein, smooth texture and curry spices emphasises the dishes’ non-native aspect. In English, German, and Danish cuisine, chicken, sausage, and pickled herring respectively appear in non-sauced versions. If curry is a Western catchall phrase for a sauce-based Indian dish, a creamy, stew-like texture is required to mark these curry powder flecked dishes as Indian-inspired. Whether chicken korma or chana masala, a curry combines a spicy sauce and a protein. Not only do Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild use curry powder for an exotic experience, the dishes combine tastes, ingredients and textures in a similarly marked manner.

Currywurst mit Pommes

Curry powder mania isn’t limited to creamy preparations or Indian-influenced dishes. Cooks enjoy curried squash soup, Thai curry and Japanese curry, but these variances are not integrated into Western culinary vernacular to the extent of the canonical dishes cited above. When a recipe calls for curry paste or curry roux cubes, the country of origin must be specified: green curry paste is Thai green curry paste, curry roux cubes are Japanese curry roux cubes. Curry powder, on the other hand, implicitly connotes Indian food; a recipe doesn’t call for Indian curry powder, the Indian flavour is implied. Although other countries’ curry traditions — along with alternate uses for curry powder — are becoming increasingly common in Western gastronomic tradition, these preparations remain highly marked against Indian-influenced uses of curry powder.

Although curry powder may mark a dish as Indian, the exoticism is superficial, subtly altering the flavour of a familiar texture, condiment or ingredients. The generic blend of spices speaks more to the Western palate. Curry powder doesn’t only create a Westernized vindaloo, it creates explicitly European dishes. Whether Coronation Chicken, currywurst or karrysild, including curry powder in a creamy sauce covering a country’s preferred protein marks a known dish with a subtle, unintimidating, exoticism. With the expanding usage of curry spices in Western preparation and increasing influence of alternate curry traditions — such as Thai and Japanese curries — it is possible that curry powder’s reputation will shift. Instead of being a shortcut for highly marked flavour, curry powder may transform itself, becoming an ingredient that brings back memories of cleaned-up versions of foreign culinary traditions. Curry powder may demonstrate the West’s attempt to dominate the Other, but as the spice blend integrates in Western cuisines, it becomes less exotic, shifting the dynamic between known and other from domination to coexistence.

[1] There is much discussion over the translation of the word ‘curry’. For more information on its Indian equivalent see here, here and here. It seems evident that the word is an English creole as opposed to a true Indian term.

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Image Credits: Me, Sally Crossthwaite via Flickr, Stephen Rees via Flickr, Chris Poole via Flickr, Jessica Spengler via Flickr

Five Friday Reads 27.03.2015

Atomium

  • How Britain got the hots for curry‘ from BBC News. Curry is an Indian food that’s quite popular in the UK, right? Wrong, it’s much more complicated than that.
  • How to make the perfect saag paneer‘ from The Guardian. Chana saag is probably my favorite dish, ever, but nearly impossible to make a truly crave-worthy version at home. I can’t wait to give this version a go, with or without the paneer.
  • The Forme of Cury‘ via Manchester University’s library. The Forme of Cury was a later fourteenth century cookbook commissioned by Richard II. Manchester University has digitized a selection from the book, making for a fascinating afternoon of browsing.
  • The Bean Doctor‘ from Orangette. Ever since reading about these creamy, simple beans on Orangette, I’ve been thinking about when I’ll be able to make myself a pot. I think I’ve found my new post-work staple.
  • Face of a Nation‘ from Monocle. From Hello Kitty to Doraemon, the Japanese are known for their cute and kooky mascots. Monocle takes an in-depth look at what, and who, makes these carton characters come to life.