Thursday, June 25, 2015

Notes from an Oyster Shucker

So the CC decided to learn how to shuck his own oysters and here are the notes from that.
  1. It's harder than you think. Way harder.
  2. Safety first. The CC cannot emphasize this enough!
  3. Equipment matters. Please invest in the following:
    1. a "serious" oyster shucking knife,
    2. a set of chain gloves — it's basically chain-mail for the other hand,
    3. a rough scrub-brush, and
    4. some cheap towels.
  4. They are filthy. Epically filthy. Hence the scrub-brush. You will be spending a lot of time scrubbing to prep them so get a good one.
  5. They are seriously jagged. Hence the chain gloves.
  6. It's hard to pry them open in the first place. Hence the chain gloves. Dunking them in water (to warm them up briefly) moves along the process.
  7. Take a look at videos online on how to severe the "adductor muscle". The CC thought this would be hard but it's actually the easiest part.
  8. It's way way harder than you think. Practice makes perfect.
And yes, they are exactly as amazing as ever to eat.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Les huîtres v/s かき (Kaki)

It's always very entertaining when two great food cultures have diametrically opposed views on a subject.

For starters, it doesn't happen very often because the human palate is pretty consistent. What's left behind is the purest form of the arbitrary nature of culture.

The point in contention here is the nature of oysters and how they are best consumed.

First the similarities — both the French and the Japanese agree that oysters are amazing and worth consuming in spite of the incredible effort involved in opening them.

(The CC would like to point out that oyster middens are some of the oldest sites involving ancient humans. Clearly, our ancestors agreed with both the French and the Japanese!)

What they differ on is how.

The French, from whom we've obtained some of our biases, insist that the ideal way to eat the oyster is raw where it "tastes of the sea".

The Japanese are equally insistent that the ideal way is that it be cooked (either grilled or fried) where the "juices are concentrated".

(Frying and grilling are precise ways of concentrating the meat by removing water.)

One would ordinarily have expected the Japanese to be enthusiastic about the raw oyster but they are adamant that oysters are best consumed cooked. There is no "oyster sashimi".

The CC will leave this open as a "striptease" but his views on these subjects tend to be relatively clear.

Weigh in on the subject in the comments.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Trapped (?)

This is pretty much the epitome of a "First World problem" but the CC feels trapped by the fact that he has too many amazing dishes in his repertoire and that the seasons change so fast.

Basically, there are too many dishes that the CC loves with seasonal ingredients with no room for anything else. It had to happen eventually with the CC's obsessive nature.

Two parts of the CC's brain are going to war with each other:
  1. Love it. MAKE IT!!!
  2. Novelty is amazing. Let's make something new.
It's a straight-up function of age. The obvious interpretation would be that there are only so many rounds left on the merry-go-around but the CC is young! It's not that.

It's more to do with how do we hold on to that original sensation when we knew nothing, and the entire world was afresh with the sense of discovery, and how we discover it and make it our own.

The only empirical evidence the CC has about this is that every time he has had this absurd feeling (and he's had it about four times now), there's always been a new breakthrough waiting in an unexpected direction.

Let's hope the empirical truth comes through a fifth time.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Weekend Menu

Just one "fancy" meal on the weekend with an old classic on Saturday. Recipes to follow.

The first meal is classically Italian, of course, but the ingredients came from a Japanese store. They have higher standards of quality.

The correlative in the Japanese meal is the blackness. It comes from the black rice which is representative of squid ink but there's none of that in the rice. The "toban djan" is Chinese in origin but it's amazing how the Japanese have converted the quick stir-fry to their own tastes. The "burdock salad" has mayonnaise but Japanese-style which is much much lighter and once again umami-laden. Okra is emphatically not Japanese but once again their love of slimy substances (natto!) means they've made it their own. There's very little "Japanese" about the second meal except that they have taken all these influences and converted them into a coherent Japanese meal.

The CC has said this many times but he'll say it again. One of the pleasures of cuisine is to be able to see the world through a different pair of eyes. We're all stuck with our origins but we can surpass them with imagination and empathy.

Cuisine is the fastest and easiest way to get there.

Pasta with mushroom sauce

Japanese meal

Three-taste mixed rice (white, brown, black)
Okra ohitashi
Burdock salad (ゴボウサラダ)
Squid toban djan
Miso soup
Smashed-cucumber pickle (タタキキュリ); Myoga

† This is the 1000th post. No need to get all misty-eyed. There will be many more to come.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Weekend Menu

Semi-annual Japanese shopping trip. Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Pav bhaji

Japanese meal

Bamboo-shoot rice w/ fried tofu
Clams with ponzu and garlic chives
Gobō & carrot kinpira
Miso soup with horseradish shoots
Pickles (lotus-root amazuke, carrot shiozuke, myōga)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Soufflé with snails, tomato sauce & chinese chives

Japanese meal

Fresh bamboo-shoot rice w/ sanshō
Okra ohitashi
Scallop sashimi
Miso soup
Pickles (lotus-root amazuke, carrot shiozuke)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Hunanese meal

Poached cod with fermented black beans
Bok choy with garlic & ginger
Carrot Pickles

Indian (Konkani) meal

Malvani-style clams
Stir-fried sprouted channa with kale
Carrot raita
Basmati rice
Fresh green mango pickles

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Epitome of Simplicity

The name of Ferran Adrià will forever be linked to molecular gastronomy but very few know that is a passionate advocate and practitioner of the simple perfection of Catalan cooking.

The freshest of ingredients, minimally touched, delivering magic on the tongue.

Here's one of his simplest recipes (and the CC paraphrases):
Scrape a vanilla seed into a bowl. Heat up some heavily salted water. Put fresh tagliatelle and cook for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, heat some unsalted butter in a pan, put in the vanilla scrapings at high heat. Add a splash or two of the pasta water. Drain the pasta. Toss with the sauce. Add with a lot of grated parmesan.
Some of you might have spotted the sleight of hand behind the simplicity. Fresh pasta takes some effort and it has to dry out for a few hours.

The rest is actually in the traditional sense of the word "simple".

However, the CC can attest that this recipe indeed is magic. Vanilla which is only seen in a sweet context takes on the starring role in a savory context.

Do make this. Even if you have to use dried pasta. This is ethereal.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Kale-stuffed pasta-shells in tomato-sauce

Japanese meal 
Miso soup with clams
Tuna sashimi salad
Bamboo-shoot rice
Sweet lotus-root pickles; Salt carrot pickles

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Weekend Menu

Three meals. Recipes to follow.

Scallops in XO Sauce
Collard greens stir-fried with garlic

Duck Salami
Scrambled eggs with snails


Filipino Meal 

Pancit Molo
Guisadong Mais (w/ kale & lotus roots)
Rice (w/ garlic bits)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Weekend Menu

Three meals. Recipes to follow.

"Shirred" eggs with snails, persillade & tomato paste
Filipino Meal 

"Guisado" with bamboo shoots, dried shrimp & kale
Umami rice
Salt pickles

Sautéed pea-shoots with garlic & soy sauce
Lobster ravioli in vanilla butter sauce

Friday, March 6, 2015

Poached flounder with baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes & olives in saffron-tomato broth

This is one of the dishes that is extremely simple provided you have the ingredients on hand.

Please read the notes and follow the instructions carefully.


(serves 2)

2 fillets of flounder
8 baby potatoes
12 cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh peas
1/4 cup carrots (sliced into thin batons)
1/4 cup French beans (sliced into 1" length pieces)
1/4 cup black olives

2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup tomato purée

2 sprigs tarragon (chopped)

large pinch of saffron

parsley (finely chopped)

black pepper



  1. You absolutely need both chicken broth and the tomato purée. The umami is a big factor in this recipe. If you don't have chicken broth then you must either make a quick fish broth, or a Japanese-style dashi. This recipe will not work otherwise. The tomatoes and the broth function in tandem.
  2. Tarragon can be overpowering. Use in moderation. Substitute by fennel seeds.
  3. Saffron is non-negotiable.
  4. Obviously, you can use any combination of vegetables you have at hand but use neutral ones. Cauliflower is great as would be some beans. There is considerable leeway here.
  5. You can use any white fish. Cod is great too. Poaching time depends on the fillet thickness.

Bring the chicken broth and tomato purée to a gentle rolling boil. Add salt and black pepper. Add the baby potatoes and cook for 12 minutes. When this happens, foam will come to the surface. Skim it.

Add the cherry tomatoes, peas, beans and olives and continue to cook for 4 minutes.

With a slotted spoon, fish out all the vegetables and put them into two serving bowls which can hold liquid.

Bring the liquid to a boil again. Add the saffron and tarragon. Poach the fish in the liquid till it is cooked through - typically 3-4 minutes per fillet. (The CC had to poach them individually but if you have a large enough pan, you might be able to do both at once.)

Lift out the fish and place it gently on top of the vegetables.

Pour the broth over the fish and the vegetables. Sprinkling of parsley and if desired, more black pepper on top.

Serve with some crusty bread.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two weekend days. Four meals. Recipes to follow.

Strata with caramelized onions, kale & gruyère 
Poached flounder with baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes & olives in saffron-tomato broth

Mushroom ravioli in garlic, rosemary & mushroom sauce 
Japanese Meal 

Nori rice with winter vegetables
Miso soup with clams & wakame
Squid tempura
Scallop sashimi (with calamansi)
Sweet lotus-root pickles (蓮根甘酢け); salt pickles (塩漬物)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On the Delusions of Men

From the Guardian:
Carlo Cracco has cooked alongside Alain Ducasse and earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant in Milan, where the city’s elite feast on dishes such as lemon risotto with anchovies and cocoa, and marinated salmon with foie gras. 
But the chef’s professional pedigree did not stop the local council in Amatrice, a town two hours from Rome, from publicly denouncing and ridiculing him.
Cracco’s sin? The chef confessed on national television that he used unpeeled, sautéed garlic as the “secret ingredient” in his amatriciana, one of Rome’s staple pasta dishes.
According to officials in Amatrice, there are six ingredients that make up a real amatriciana: guanciale (pork jowl), pecorino cheese, white wine, tomatoes from San Marzano, pepper and chilli.
The town’s deputy mayor, Piergiuseppe Monteforte, denied that officials were being too strict. “Use one ingredient for another, it changes not only the flavour of a dish but also the history of it,” Monteforte told the Guardian. “If you use ingredients like garlic or onion in an amatriciana, it means you are ignoring a pastoral tradition that is almost 1,000 years old, passed down from generation to generation.”
Anyone spot the error?


A pastoral tradition with 1,000 years of tomatoes and chili peppers in Italy?

Pass the bong, baby! Don't bogart it.

Italy has only used tomatoes consistently since the late 18th-century or the early 19th century. Chili peppers are also New World. This complete lack of historic perspective is typical for people steeped in a particular tradition. Thankfully, chez CC, we aspire to higher standards of truth.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Adaptation & Appropriation of Dishes

The CC really wanted to include this article under that of The Naming of Dishes but there was a lot more to be said about this subject than just the naming portion so he decided to spin it off into its own little post.

The world has always been global.

We've had traders and merchants traveling the seas trading across countries and continents. It's not uncommon even today to find Roman coins in India when land gets dug up for some new project. The largest collection of gold artifacts in the world was discovered in Surigao in the Philippines in 1981 as part of an irrigation project. Its connections to ancient India of the 10th century is quite well established (Source: Ayala Museum.)

Along these trade routes flowed something else besides spices, grain and gold — recipes and techniques for recipes.

The most famous of these routes is undoubtedly the Silk Road over land but equally important were the three sailing routes. One across the Mediterranean from Alexandria (modern-day Egypt) hopping counter-clockwise, hugging the coast, all the way to Rome and also from Cyrene (modern-day Libya) and Carthage via Alexandria to Rome. The other was the route from the modern-day Gulf of Eden hugging the coast of the modern-day Middle East all the way down the western coast of India to Calicut (modern-day Cochin). And finally the extension of this route around the southern tip of India hugging the eastern coast of India to Burma and from there on to Thailand, Indonesia and the far East.

The most powerful of impulses that the traders appealed to was that of the "exotic". Anything remotely exotic is lapped up by any population as long as it is not too far off from their own conception. Whether these are colorful clothes or dishes or spices hardly mattered to the traders just as long as it could be sold for a profit.

Not knowing anything about a foreign culture — remember travel was hard before the last 75 years or so — local dishes with some exotic ingredient are just the ticket for a sharp businessman with a marketing strategy.

Exoticism sells. Nobody from emperors to laymen are immune.

This is not just a theory. We have evidence.

Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India in 1876 and the British went crazy over "anything Indian". There were "Indian-themed" parties and "Indian food" marketed by the East India Company. This is also the birth of the infamous curry powder — a non-existent concept in Indian cooking. This powder marketed globally is now ubiquitous in such far-flung places as France, Thailand, Singapore and Japan all thanks to the marketing of the East India Company.

In the 1950's and 1960's there was a worldwide craze of "Hawaiian". Needless to say the folks from Italy and India and Vietnam or even most of the United States for that matter had never been to Hawaii but "Hawaiian Salad" was all the craze globally. The exotic element was pineapple. Take a typical salad with a mayo-based dressing and toss in some pineapple to get the afore-mentioned dish. Needless to say this had about as much to do with Hawaiian cuisine as chalk has to do with cheese. There were "Hawaiian cakes", "Hawaiian cocktails", you name it! All with pineapple. It was all marketing, of course. (Yes! The "Mad Men" had their hands all over this. We have the ads to prove this.)

The relatively recent movement towards "authenticity" is not more than about 30-40 years old. Sure there were pioneers even in the 1930's towards an honest and detailed assessment of global cuisine but its mass adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon.

This trend towards exoticism isn't relegated to dishes. Ask yourself if you really know what entrée means. It means "appetizer" in French from the verb entrer — to enter. Same goes for hors d'oeuvres which means "first course" in French but has taken on the meaning of "appetizer" in English. (Appetizers would be des toasts — "nibbles" in French.) Clearly some things got lost just getting across the English Channel and if that's the case, you can just imagine how much got lost when recipes migrated longer distances in older times.

Every culture appropriates dishes. Whether it is the Sicilian adaptation of Arabic eggplant recipes or the Malaysian appropriation of Indian recipes (roti canaicanai probably comes from Chennai but the concept is, quite likely, from Kerala), or the Japanese versions of "spaghetti" and "ma po tofu", it's universal. You also have wholescale adaptations like the Hakka-originated "Indian-Chinese cuisine". Not to mention chop suey and the like which are American adaptations of Chinese dishes.

Italian cuisine is a particularly special case. There's the Italian-American branch but that, at least, can be understood as the reaction of new immigrants to a foreign land and its native resources. What no Italian would recognize is Japanese "spaghetti napolitan" (sic) or Filipino "spaghetti" (made with banana ketchup!) or even Indian "masala spaghetti".

It's lost in translation but why?

To truly master a cuisine, you must first internalize its grammar. And every cuisine has an unmistakable grammar. A set of rules, techniques and ingredients that work in a specific set of combinations and in a very narrow context (historically) to create a meal. Only after you know this grammar backwards and forwards can you truly break free into true creativity. Science helps.

Needless to say, mastering different grammars is insanely hard work. It's far easier for cooks to get a superficial understanding of some foreign cuisine, just use the local grammar of cooking instead of mastering a foreign one, and make something vaguely in that style. It would've been even more the norm in older times since travel and authenticity were so hard. In time, the dish gets appropriated into the local cuisine and becomes "native".

So how does one distinguish incompetence at rendering a foreign cuisine from a slapdash effort from a  deliberate rethinking/reworking?

The answer lies in a similar one from the world of art.

In order to break the rules, you first have to understand and master them.

Not many people know that Picasso was a master draftsman and painter. His early paintings where he copies the classical works and even the Impressionists and out-flanks them are not well known. It's only after complete mastery of older techniques that that he broke new ground both aesthetic and technical. The same goes for Matisse.

It always pays to master different grammars. Picasso "borrowed" shamelessly from African art, and almost all painters of that era borrowed extensively from Japanese art. So it goes with any artistic endeavor.

The bias should be towards mastery of grammar and technique. The "going beyond" follows as a natural consequence.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Kale Me, Kale Me Now!

The culinary world, like the world at large, is subject to the ebbs and tides of fashion. Things come and go, they fall in and out of vogue. The seasons change and so does the culinary world.

Anyone that thinks this is a recent notion should be disabused of it rather quickly.

"I hate everything Egyptian", said Goethe once. He can't have been too familiar with Egypt never having been there what with travel being so difficult in those days. He was responding to the aftermath of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria which set off a fad for all things "Egyptian". (There may have been more than a trace of anti-French attitude given the nationalistic times but the point stands nevertheless.)

In the same age, Byron, the hedonist poet of his age and burgeoning metrosexual, who was so terrified of his figure that he weighed himself compulsively, advocated a diet of vinegar and rice and thanks to him being the male Beyoncé of his day, not only did women (and men!) throw themselves at him in disproportionate proportions but also did they submit themselves to the regular bouts of vomiting and diarrhea that came with the dietary territory.

Fun times.

America has always been the land of food fads. What with Fletcherism ("chew your food 100 times in a minute before swallowing") to Kellogg who invented cereals as a "cure for masturbation" (sic) to low-carb diets and the low-carb backlash (Atkins), there has always been room in a new country for a new mechanism to reinvent yourself.

Not that the old world is exempt. Almost all of the modern ideas derive in one way or the other from the ideas of Galen (29 A.D.) The notion of things as "hot" and "cold". There are competing systems in India ("Ayurveda") and China (食疗).

All of which are completely bogus, of course.

The latest fad seems to be kale but most people don't know how to work with the vegetable. It seems to be a "cure all" but nobody in the 19th century would've considered it so. It was peasant food because you have to work to make it edible. It's natural form is not given to tasting good.

Tasting bad is, ironically "mostly universal".  It tastes bad because we have evolved a mechanism whereby something that tastes bad is probably poisonous or rotten and our senses are steering us away from it. Except that we humans, are insanely inventive. We invented cooking which neutralizes these poisons. And we're risk takers so that when we taste something bitter (bitter melons, brussel sprouts, beer!) and survive, it's like a roller coaster and we want more of the same.

This leads us to a digression. If you are going to make something that "tastes good", it takes considerable ingenuity to make it so.

Kale is undoubtedly "good for you". It also undoubtedly sucks in taste in its native form. We've had millennia to figure this out. The rational response has always been to pair it with a completely irresistible umami flavor and whether you did it via meat, mushroom, tomatoes or cheese is irrelevant. We have recipes from across the globe that do this.

There are a few things that need to be done. Firstly the tough central rib must be removed. They would've been fed to the animals on the farm. Secondly, with winter kale, you must massage it vigorously with your hands. You are breaking up the cellular structure. You will feel the kale go limp in your hands. After that, let the umami begin!

The recipes here are not only "good for you" but also "waste very little" and it will also make you roll your eyes back in pleasure.

Kale & White Bean Soup with Parmesan Broth


1 bunch kale
1/2 cup white beans

1 large onion (chopped coarsely)
4-6 cloves garlic (chopped)
2 parmesan rinds
6 cups water

olive oil



First make the parmesan broth. You need to have saved some parmesan rinds. They function like the "bones" in the broth.

Fry the onions and garlic in the olive oil. Add the rinds and the water, bring to a simmer and let it simmer for an hour at a low temperature. Strain the broth through a strainer retaining the liquid.

Meanwhile, make the beans. Simmer in water and salt until just below tender. This depends on the age of your beans. Separate the beans and the liquid and retain both.

Prep the kale. Remove the tough stems, and cut into a chiffonade.

Combine the broth, the beans, the bean liquor and bring to a simmer. Add black pepper to taste (the CC likes to amp it!). Adjust the salt. The parmesan is already salty so you may not need much. When it simmers, toss in the kale leaves and let wilt for 3 minutes.

Serve at once preferably poured over stale bread.

Kale Salad with Buttermilk Dressing


1 bunch kale
4 radishes (sliced paper thin)
1 carrot (sliced paper thin)

4 tbsp.. shaved parmigiano-reggiano (or more!)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tbsp. sherry vinegar
buttermilk (read below - exact proportions are hard)

salt (to taste)
black pepper


Note: When the CC refers to buttermilk, it means real buttermilk. When cream is whipped, it separates out into butter (the fat) and the liquid (the non-fat). The latter is the buttermilk. It has a smooth complexity thanks to the lecithin. Commercial stuff called "buttermilk" is not really buttermilk. It'll still taste good but you will have to thin it with water.

First prep the kale. Remove the tough stems and cut into thin strips. Do the massage thing. They will wilt. (This is important otherwise you will be chewing like a cow and cursing the CC. Not recommended!)

Meanwhile, make the dressing. Add the parmesan, olive oil and vinegar. Slowly pour in the buttermilk while whisking continuously. You will need more than the conventional 3:1 ratio because the parmesan is adding heft to the dressing. Thin till it has the consistency of a dressing. Add the salt and black pepper to taste.

Mix everything together. Let sit for at least 3 minutes. Dig in!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Potato Chronicles

Have you ever had an experience where you ask yourself why something so obvious is so completely unknown?

The CC is going to discuss roasted potatoes and French fries and what they have in common.

It's a well-known fact among connoisseurs of the humble potato that the best way to fry it is in various versions of animal fats. Goose fat, duck fat, chicken fat and horse fat. Expensive but mind-blowingly awesome.

What also makes the perfect fry is that the surface is crispy and brown (tastes come from the Maillard reaction) and the insides perfectly soft and creamy. It's the contrast that makes it work. Here's a refresher to the science.

The potato has been a staple in many cuisines once the New World was discovered. It rapidly spread across the globe. Roasting it aside the meat which shed its fat was a common and delicious idea.

The innovation which surprised the CC last night was simple. Instead of letting the potato roast, the chef took a medium-sized potato, peeled it, sliced it vertically into thin sections that were still attached at the base — leaving the potato whole —  and roasted it. It's simple knife-work. This thin slicing meant that the edges of the potato were completely crispy while the insides were completely creamy. The potato was clearly roasted with some goose fat and served with the roasted goose giving the dish a coherent feel.

It's such a simple idea and yet so radical.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rules of Buying Cookbooks

Over the years the CC has amassed a pretty large trove of cookbooks. Even more importantly, he has disposed of a vast quantity. Much money, time and energy has been expended over the problem so before you fork over your hard-earned money, read through the following:
  1. Never buy a cookbook for the pictures. In fact, never look at the pictures because most of the "styled" pictures are not even food. They are make-believe just like magazine covers.
  2. Never buy a cookbook that is too broad (Great Recipes of the World, Fish Cooking, Splendid Soups) or too narrow (Grill Cooking, Oysters, Biryani).
  3. Never buy a cookbook on vacation. The fantasy clouds your judgment. You'll never cook from it ever again.
  4. Most cookbook authors just like novelists only have one book in them.
  5. Don't give up your classic cookbooks when the author recycles them for an "anthology". This means they have run out of ideas.
  6. Rarely should you buy "celebrity chef" cookbooks. Remember, you pay for their talent at their restaurant not for a shittier home-made version thereof.
  7. Books that teach technical skills are worth their weight in gold. (The exceptions to the "celebrity chef" rule are ones that are technically engaged.)
  8. Always gauge how long an author has engaged with a culture before buying a book. The longer they have spent time, the more authentic the cooking is likely to be. The CC has made this mistake in three entirely separate languages. It's universal. The categories below are the only ones that should be purchased — they are in no specific order.
    1. A cookbook from someone within the culture.
    2. A cookbook from a first-generation immigrant of that culture.
    3. A cookbook from someone who has spent their life understanding that culture.
  9. Conversely, if an author seems to flit about cultures, all the books are crap.
  10. Shamelessly sell, donate or recycle. Cookbooks are worse than cars. They depreciate to zero the moment you buy them (with some rare exceptions.) So dispose them off if they no longer serve a purpose.
Happy Holidays!

† Frequently, the first one is a masterpiece. In fact, the greater it is, the more skeptical you should be about the second. ("They poured out all their energy on the first one. There's nothing left.")

‡ The people living within a culture and first-generation immigrants are not necessarily the best judges of their own culture. In fact, their logic tends to be faulty or filled with superstitions and half-truths. It frequently takes an outsider to write cogently and analytically about something.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Lynchpin of Logistics

The role of logistics in cooking is axiomatic to trained chefs but it seems to be unknown, unheard of, and unrecognized by regular folks cooking daily meals.

Let us first define the goal. It would be to make nutritious, interesting meals daily, or at least, most evenings. This is what chefs do daily in exchange for money. The home cook tries to do it and, more often than not, fails. The blame is placed on the our harried lives and the "demands on modernity" never mind the fact that we have more instruments (blenders, food processors, dishwashers) that do all the hard work for us than in the bad old days of yore.

The failure can be attributed to the failure of logistics or to put a positive spin on it, the secret to success in the culinary arts lies in logistics.

Great cooking on a regular sustained basis is closer to mobilizing a military campaign than it is to the airy-fairy world of recipes, tastes and thoughts. Creativity, knowledge and technical mastery all play a role but these are pre-requisites in almost any domain of human endeavor. The logistical aspect of cooking gets short shrift from most, particularly cookbook writers, who assume that the audience will pick it up by practice and osmosis.

Importantly, this skill is not ethereal vapor. It's objective and it can be taught and one gets better at it just like the classic Carnegie Hall joke. ("How do you get to the CC's kitchen? Practice, practice, practice.")

There is a skill to the logistical aspect of things and the CC could walk into most people's kitchens and gauge their culinary ability within a minute or two just by observing the organization of their pantry and tools. There would be no role for conversation. A simple cursory observation would do the trick.

The biggest juggling act that a cook must master is managing the pantry.

One of the problems of juggling a pantry is that you must "know yourself". You need to be absolutely crystal clear about your strengths and weaknesses, your desires and hatreds and more importantly, the loves and hates of your target audience. (All cooks have an audience whether it's the paying kind or the not-so-much-paying family and friends variety. If you want to get really technical then all cooking has a serious element of theater in it as well. We, the cooks, are performers.)

Mastering your own pantry and knowing its contents is hard work. It requires you to juggle a ton of variables — long-term stuff (pickles, preserves), frozen stuff (vegetables, preserves, sauces), fresh stuff (herbs, vegetables, meat, etc.)

This is painstakingly difficult work and its complexity must not be underestimated. The price of failure is clear. You toss the waste out but if you want to keep this to a minimum then you must juggle this information either in your head or via a spreadsheet.

You can easily appreciate how important this aspect is in a professional kitchen since it is first and foremost a business. Any wastage accrues directly and negatively to the bottom line.

Planning is also needed in the shopping aspect of things. If you want the best and you want it on a budget then you must juggle all the various ingredients and their locations and their costs. This is something that needs to be learnt and is particularly true of most places in the world that still have separate grocers, butchers and fishermen. (New York is one of the few places in America along with older cities like Boston that still have these supply chains still intact.)

Remember the comparison with military campaigns? The CC was not kidding.

The military has always considered this aspect to be of importance. Now you too can appreciate what Napoleon meant when he said that "an army marches on its stomach" and why the role of quartermaster has always been performed by a relatively senior officer.

The same level of planning goes for the actual execution of the dish. Professional cooks always have a mise en place — French for "putting it in place". All the ingredients are neatly chopped up, arranged and organized in bowls so that the actual cooking is swift and mistake-free. This is particularly important for dishes that require ingredients to go in at a rapid pace e.g. Chinese wok cooking where speed is of the essence and there is no time to dilly-dally with chopping and the like.

Planning extends to cleanup as well. Great home cooks clean as they go and for those with dishwashers, stack as they go. The same goes for professional kitchens where the space is not only cleaned during the execution of dishes but there's also a final cleaning at the end of the night where everything is scrubbed down. Most good cooks will have a clean workplace before the first dish even hits the table.

Traditionally, these skills were under the purview of a course in "Home Economics" since the relationship between money and logistics has always been very clear. This was considered so important that the English classic "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" has never been out of print since 1861 (although it has been revised by successive generations to keep up with the times.)

The book represents everything that is positive about Victorian England — its progressive, rational, Enlightenment-seeped nature. The preface by Isabella Beeton says it best:
I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.
We can excuse Mrs. Beeton for her sexist assumptions which were typical of her time but the progressive sentiment of "teaching the skill of household management" jumps out with etched clarity.

This is never going to be a popular subject because there is no "market" for this. Could you imagine a modern-day book that teaches you how to shop for food or how to organize your pantry? Even worse, are we talking about a Japanese pantry or an Indian one since the needs are so different? What if you wanted multiple pantries like the CC?

The greater your ambition and the wider the net of your daily cooking in terms of multiple cuisines, the larger the role of logistics looms. If it's hard enough to cook a single cuisine daily then it is even harder to manage the pantries of multiple cuisines with conflicting demands and juggle everything so that nothing goes to waste.

Somewhere somehow these skills have gotten lost in the modern shuffle but they are absolutely critical if you want to make amazing food on a regular basis.

To blatantly rip off Napoleon, "a great chef marches on his organization."

† No sexism is implied. As any legal textbook might tell you, "his" includes "hers" as well as "theirs".

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blackberry Picking

Summer is over and the CC does (occasionally) go picking wild berries (and mushrooms) and he can personally attest to the sentiment alluded at the end of the poem.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

-- Seamus Heaney

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lasagna with Cod & Zucchini

There is no sugar coating this one. This recipe is "heavy".

It's absolutely rock-solid and amazing but the CC only recommends making this if you have like 8+ guests who are dining. Seriously. We're talking small portions because of the sheer heft of this recipe.

This recipe is great for making ahead of time. When your guests arrive, just pop it in the oven and let it bake while you enjoy a nice de-stressing cocktail. It also really helps if you've made the tomato sauce ahead of time.

It's heavy on the prepping time and the oven time so you might want to make it in the waning days of summer when the ingredients are in copious supply and it's not so hot that you want to kill yourself.

Now that the negative juju's are out of the way, this recipe is killer. And heavy. And a heavy-killer!

So onwards and upwards.

There are just five components here all easily available or made in summer — cod, zucchini, tomato sauce, béchamel, and herbs. The CC will not judge you if you use commercial lasagna sheets. In fact, they might even be preferable since it's summer and this is not a delicate dish.

The steps are classically Italian. Waste not, want not. Each step goes back into the previous step to enhance the dish and waste nothing of the flavors acquired so far.

Why not step back right now and try and guess the recipe like a crossword puzzle?


package of lasagna sheets

1 large piece of cod
3 zucchini (cut into large rounds)

4 cups tomato sauce
fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, oregano

1 cup milk
4 anchovies
1/2 cup flour

2 cups parmigiano-reggiano

olive oil

black pepper


Take 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce and add water and bring to a boil. Poach the cod in it till medium done and lift out. Flake the flesh in a bowl and separately strain the broth. Discard the solids and reserve the broth.

Meanwhile reheat the tomato sauce with the fresh herbs. Set aside. It should be thick and glossy so that you can layer it with the lasagna.

Heat up some olive oil in a pan and fry the zucchini. Do it in batches until they are limp and have given up most of their moisture. This is important. If you do not do this, you will have a very soggy lasagna. You can bake it but it's simply not the same. Set aside.

Make the béchamel sauce. Pre-heat the milk in a pan. A microwave works great here. Heat up some butter in a pot. When bubbling, add the flour and let it fry at a medium heat until it is golden in color but not dark brown. Add the anchovies and let it fry a little. Add the hot milk and stir. When the milk is fully denatured, add the fish broth from the cod above and let it reduce to a thick sauce. (If you add it earlier, the milk will curdle.)

Assemble the lasagna. Grease the dish. Add the sheets to the bottom. Layer it with the zucchini, the flaked cod, topped with the béchamel; then more sheets; then with the tomato sauce; then more sheets. Keep repeating the layers until you use up everything. Top with some tomato sauce and the cheese.

Bake covered in a 400°F for 20-25 minutes and then uncover. Bake for an additional 10 minutes till the top is browned.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Creativity and Radish Salad

What does creativity mean?

Creativity doesn't exist in the void otherwise babies would be creative geniuses which they clearly are not. They are a pile of mewling and shitting neuroses.

Creativity works in a context. You take what has come before you and you push it further. Edgier, more vibrant, more in tune with the society of today and tomorrow not yesterday.

Whether scientist or artist, creativity lies in pushing the boundaries outwards in different directions and not in the trivial way.

It's straightforward to make an Indian dish with a non-Indian ingredient like fava beans but true creativity comes from reimagining something that is a classic for good reason in a radically different context.

The triad of radish, salt and butter is a classic one. Radishes, cold butter, sprinkle of salt, sprinkle of herbs. Not exactly rocket science but a potent combination that has gotten many a French housewife and her English counterpart in the 19th century through a dry spell on the table.

Today that butter would be cultured unsalted butter but once upon a time that's all that was available. The defaults have changed so we have to work with the times and specify it.

Why does something so simple work? First off, you have the pungency of the radishes particularly in late summer that is cut down to size by the fat of the butter. The salt is necessary otherwise you wouldn't taste any of the herbs at all. Fatty, pungent, fragrant and salty. Your tongue and nose are loving it.

This combination is well known across the world. There is a classic Persian salad platter consisting of radishes, feta, and herbs. They are just piled onto a dish side by side and the eater can pick or choose as they please. The herbs can be more than one — parsley, mint, tarragon, pepper cress, flat chives all work. Paired with a flat lavash and tucked in, it's as simple as it is delightful.

It's the same combination of pungent radishes, salty fatty cheese, and herbs.

The CC is a big fan of the chef April Bloomfield. She's best known for her "nose-to-tail" eating philosophy which is ironic because she made her name cooking vegetables. Her vegetable dishes are beyond superb.

What's presented below is her version of the classic salad above. Note the care with which she reworks the classic combination and adapts it to an entirely different medium. You still have the same four ingredients — radishes, herbs, salt and fat.

Her description of how to make the salad is a little bit romantic but there's logic there. You can't make this without engaging your hands. You need to knead it to make it work.

This is not a salad you can make ahead of time. You have to serve it at once because you are smashing the basil with the salt and the aromatic component will be lost otherwise. You can prep most of it ahead of time though just there's a last minute component which is quite easy.


15 radishes (cut irregularly into large pieces)

1 cup basil leaves
Maldon sea salt

parmigiano-reggiano (cut into irregular chunks - some large, some thin)

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (your best!)
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 cups arugula


In a large bowl, combine the radishes with the basil and 3 healthy pinches of salt. Using your hands, grab handfuls of the mixture and sharply press the basil and salt against the radishes for about 30 seconds to release the basil's aromatic oils.

Add the parmesan and mix again with your hands until some of the cheese is creamy, some is in little chunks and some is still in larger dime-sized chunks.

Combine the lemon and olive oil into a vinaigrette. Toss with the arugula, and the mixture above and serve at once.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


In today's absurd New York heat, the CC could really go for a halo-halo right about now.

The CC is not a big fan of desserts as many of you might have noticed but this one is different. It's textural complexity and visual delight lead many into temptation.

Two entirely different renditions demonstrate how generic and "meta" the recipe really is. The second is made with one of the best renditions of classical flan that the CC knows — remember that the Spaniards ruled the Philippines for almost 400 years so they've had a lot of practice.

Little House on the Prairie

Well, it's that time of the year again in the large city. 40 pounds of tomatoes all bubbling away on the stove into tomato sauce that will be preserved.

What's sauce for the summer is sauce for the winter, as they say.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stracci con Ragú di Pesce

This recipe is serious work so it's not for everyone.

This recipe requires access to the freshest seafood and that means a local fisherman not a supermarket!

This recipe isn't here to feed your pathetic little palate. It's here to ensure the perfection of your soul.

It only works in summer when you have access to fresh seafood, fresh tomatoes and basil but what a recipe!

If you don't understand why tomatoes, you should read this.

The CC is also assuming that you have made the tomato sauce ahead of time. It's always there in the CC's kitchen in summer but if not you will need to make that as well.

So get cranking!

Stracci con ragú di pesce

(serves 2)

Note: This is the rare recipe that pairs fresh pasta with seafood and tomatoes. It's the exception that proves the rule. The idea is that both the tomatoes act as an accent. They are definitely not the main show here. The fresh seafood is.


Fresh Pasta

1 cup 00 flour (substitute by sieved all-purpose)
1 egg

Ragú di pesce

6 scallops
2 squid
12 clams

8 cloves garlic
1 dried red chili
16 cherry tomatoes (half yellow, half red — cut in half)

1/3 cup white wine
1/2 cup tomato sauce

2 sprigs basil

pinch of saffron

olive oil
sea salt
black pepper

few basil leaves (cut into thin ribbons with scissors)
basil (ripped by hand into rough shreds)


First, make the fresh pasta. (If you don't know how, you're probably going to need something a little more precise than the instructions below. Ironically, it's one of those things that's trivial to demonstrate and hard to write about.)

Dump the flour in a bowl. Make a well. Crack an egg into it. Add some salt. With a fork whip the egg, incorporating the flour as it goes by. Do NOT add water. Use your hands when it looks mixed in. Knead the dough to a silky mass adding only the tiniest amount of flour to make your hands not stick.

Set aside for at least 20 minutes.

Using a pasta maker, crank the dough repeatedly through all settings down to 5.

(Pasta machines have a scale from 1-8. One is coarsest and eight is finest. The reason to not crank it down to 5 straight away is that each pass through "kneads" the dough correctly to make it smooth and uniform. So you need to go through 1-2-3-4-5. Experienced chefs even repeat the 1 and 2 folding the dough into "threes" if they want a particularly refined pasta.)

Do not make it too thin. Cut into long thick ribbons and lay out on a tray to dry for at least an hour or even more in summer if it is humid. Two to three hours is preferable. The dough must dry out substantially otherwise it will fall apart.

(Yes, the CC knows that this is not stracci which refers to "rags" — irregularly cut pasta. You can cut the thick ribbons into irregular pieces. To make a true stracci, you'd have to hand-roll the pasta. If your spirit is willing and your flesh not weak, go for it!)

Then make the fresh seafood ragú.

Put the clams in a pot with half a cup of water. Heat them at high heat till they open. Fish out each one as it opens. Shuck them making sure to retain the liquid. Pass the liquid from the clams as well as the liquid from the pot through a paper towel (to eliminate the sand) and retain the liquid.

(The reason to shuck the clams is so that the shell doesn't tear the delicate pasta. With dried pasta, the clams are tossed with the shell to good effect but here we're working with fresh pasta and the clam shells would tear the pasta into shreds which we don't want.)

Heat up some olive oil in a pan. Add the garlic and red chili and let it fry for about 6 minutes at low heat. Make sure the garlic doesn't burn. Add the white wine and the clam juice from above and let it reduce a bit.

Toss in the cherry tomatoes and let cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and basil strips and let cook till it is reduced somewhat.

Now make the pasta. When the water is boiling, add the pasta and let it cook. 3 minutes no more.

While the pasta is cooking, add the raw seafood, cooked clams and the saffron to the hot ragú. Do not overcook. You can even turn off the heat if the sauce is hot enough.

Drain the pasta and toss everything together. Add the torn basil and black pepper. Serve at once.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dark Side of Tarragon

Beckett's famous play, Waiting for Godot, has as one of its two principal characters by the name of Estragon.

This is not a real name that people actually have. It refers to "tarragon" in French.

What's not so obvious is that tarragon had an association of being "dragon-like" or "serpent-like" most likely because its anise-like flavor will overpower any dish.

Estragon is definitely serpent-like in the play and "earth-bound" as opposed to the intellectual and "air-bound", Vladimir. Beckett explicitly calls for instructions for the actors to be fat and squat versus tall and skinny respectively. He also has Estragon continually near the ground while Vladimir is always standing up.

Estragon is repeatedly willing to compromise to get his way (serpent-like?) versus the more idealistic Vladimir who will not until the end of the second act when he has a brief moment of panic.

Did Beckett intend this? Almost certainly. The name doesn't exist so what else could it be other than a form of association?

Unfortunately Beckett's (very copious) notes leave no indication about this part of his imagination so we will just have to contend ourselves with conjecture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Science and Art of Indian Cooking

Indian cooking is synonymous with its use of an immense array of spices. In fact, that's what makes Indian cooking unique. The sheer amount of technical apparatus that is brought to bear on the subject of spices.

Chez CC, we tend towards the obsessive and completist bent so let's expound on it.

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start — as Julie Andrews once sang.

What constitutes a spice?

It's a dried seed, dried root, dried bark, or dried vegetable/fruit whose primary role is for flavoring food. They rarely have nutritional value although most spices have considerable anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties which are an important reason that they are so heavily used. The other reason would be pleasure, of course.

There are at least 20-25 spices in the Indian repertoire and that's just what the CC can think of off the top of his head. There are at least 20-25 relatively more obscure ones. (Obscurity, needless to say, being relative.)

Simple combinatorial mathematics tells us that the number of combinations of these spices is going to be vast§ particularly when they are combined with other ingredients like nuts, souring agents, oils, etc.

There are eight basic techniques (and a bunch of auxiliary ones) that you need to master to really get a feel for the complexity of the subject.

On the first axis are the state of the spices. They can either be:
  • Whole, or
  • Ground.
On the second axis are things we can do to the spices. We can keep them:
  • "As-is".
  • Dry-roast them.
  • Fry them in oil.
  • Soak in liquid overnight.
You can do the combinatorial math yourself: 2 x 4 = 8.

Classically speaking, if you were to take a class on Indian cooking, there would two techniques that would be emphasized — bhunaao and tadka (a.k.a. chaunk, baghar, etc.)  Except that both of these are best understood as variations of exactly one of the eight. They are whole spices fried in oil. We'll come back to a discussion of these important techniques but it's useful to point out right now that both the two classical techniques fit into exactly one of the eight categories. Whole spices fried in oil.

There's seven more that we need to discuss in detail and that's even before we get to the variants of one of them. (Brevity only works if the subject can be distilled down into a brief summary.)

The biggest distinction is whether the spices are left whole or ground up into a powder.

When they are left whole, they will flavor the dish but they are meant to be left at the side of the plate when eating since they turn inedible. They give up their flavor to the dish but they are disposable. Smaller spices like cumin, caraway, sesame, etc. are edible but the larger ones are not. They won't do any harm just that it's not fun to chew them.

There is a reason that spices are stored whole. Spices mainly consist of a vast array of aromatic molecules which  is what we love about them. The moment they are ground, we are increasing the surface area by an incredible amount and the volatile molecules start escaping. Even worse, the complex organic compounds start oxidizing. That's why pre-ground spices basically taste like dust. All the good stuff is long gone. There are a few exceptions like ground dried green mango (aamchur) and ground chili peppers (laal mirch) but they are the exception not the rule. (Really experienced Indian chefs will tell you that fresh red chilies have strong citrus notes but the dried and ground ones do not.)

The greatest gift of modern times to the art of Indian cooking is the simple coffee grinder. It makes easy work out of the hardest part which was pounding the living daylights out of spices in a mortar and pestle to get them to a powdered form. (Ironically, we lazy-ass modern-day soft-as-silk cooks can make far superior food compared to our rugged "hard-working" ancestors. Take that, bitches!)

Whole spices as-is generally apply to the smaller spices — cumin, caraway, nigella (kalonji), ajwain, sesame, fennel, etc. You get the taste the spice as it actually is.

Ground spices as-is is a common occurrence in desserts e.g. cardamom, nutmeg, etc. You will get a much stronger hit of the spice because of the surface area. You also see this in savory cooking with spices like dried ginger (saunth)  and dried green mango powder (aamchur).

One of the two great techniques of Indian cuisine is dry roasting the spices. It intensifies their flavors. You dry roast the spices on a skillet in the order of size in order to prevent them from burning. As each spice is done, you set them aside to use individually or together as the case may be. This is a complex transformation and changes the nature of the spices. Cardamoms take on an intensity beyond the normal. Small seeds like cumin, caraway (shahjeera), and fennel will turn darker and far more intense. Black pepper will puff up and become even more aggressively black-peppery and cloves change shape and take on a dark fierceness. Mace (javitri) and dried cinnamon leaves (tej patta) turn pale brown and stronger in flavor.

The CC can't think of any dish that just uses the dry-roasted spices (but his knowledge is not infallible.) They are almost always ground to a powder. Almost all the masala's that you get commercially follow this pattern. They are dry roasted and ground. Learning how to do this in the right proportions is the single most important feature of Indian cuisine.

Soaking spices in liquid and using them is another technique. Traditionally, there are only two soaking agents — water and milk. Soaking mellows out the more aggressive notes of the spice and gives them a very subtle and rounded flavor. The milk used is almost always full fat since a lot of the compounds will dissolve in fat but not in water. The grinding is mostly done so that the larger more inedible spices can actually be eaten. (Yes, technically speaking, this is a paste not a powder. The CC gets it but the classification still makes sense.)

The same technique is used for nuts which while not technically spices are frequently treated by Indian cooks as being under the same umbrella. Both soaked nuts and soaked finely-ground nuts feature heavily in Indian cooking.

Why do the spices and nuts transform? Many of the spices and nuts are actually seeds so when you soak them in liquid, you are starting out the sprouting process which is a complex transformation and you get a different set of complex volatile compounds to work with.

While the spices soaked in milk would be ground with the milk, the nuts soaked in milk e.g. walnuts are drained and the milk discarded. The milk takes away the more aggressive bitter notes of the walnuts and makes them sweeter and more rounded.

One of the great technical pastes is that of poppy seeds soaked overnight in just a bit of water. The resulting paste is just absolutely superb. Stir-fry with a few other spices (cumin, whole red chilis) and almost any vegetable and you have a rocking dish.

The second great technique of Indian cuisine is to fry the spices in oil or ghee. Two things happen when you do this. You get the same effect as dry roasting because of the way frying works. In addition, the volatile compounds, which are generally soluble in oil, make the oil intensely flavored. When the dish is cooked with water in it, the emulsion of the oil and water brings out the spice flavorings. (Note that this would not be possible with just water because the organic compounds are typically insoluble in water.)

This complex change in chemistry means that this technique has a bunch of variants. One is to pan-fry the spices in the barest minimum of oil and then grind them to a powder. These various powders can be stored but not for long because the oil has a tendency to go rancid in the intense Indian heat. However, it will store in a dry cool place for about a year or the refrigerator which is the typical usage pattern of these ground masala's. (You will often see the use of nuts or dried coconut all ground with spices in masala's of this nature.)

The second is to pan-fry it with some oil until it just starts to stick and brown. This is the classical technique of bhunaao which is one of the most important arsenals in the repertoire.

Classical bhunaao is tricky. You use both whole spices and powdered ones. Generally speaking, the powdered ones are also dry-roasted first although this is not a given. You need high heat at the start to get the oil really hot but then you need to turn it down when the powdered stuff goes in and you need to stop right before the mixture burns by adding wet stuff. Experienced chefs add either a tablespoon of water to make it stop burning or wet ingredients like chopped onions. It's not as hard as it sounds but it does take some experience.

The last technique is to intensely heat up a small amount of oil in a specialized ladle. Whole spices are added to it and when they fry the entire mixture is plunged into a pre-made dish which is generally quite watery. This means that there's this wild theatrical aspect to watching sizzling oil and a hot metal ladle go into water which can be quite dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. This is the classical technique of tadka. The spices sizzle and pop dangerously in the oil but the final dish will be intensely flavored by the spices and the oil.

These techniques are not mutually exclusive. Many complex dishes rely on combinations of these three techniques. You may first fry a few whole spices in oil then cook the dish, and add some dry-roasted ground spices when cooking and finish off the dish either with a tadka or with more dry-roasted ground spices. The complexity of the layered flavoring comes from the interaction of these simpler techniques.

Indian cuisine has a seemingly infinite aspect to it because of the sheer number of spices, combinations and techniques. However, almost all of it is reducible to just these eight ideas. The number of combinations is vast mathematically but it's possible to get a handle on the subject by approaching it in analytic fashion.

† The CC was sorely tempted to title this post The Eightfold Way but he refrained.

‡ All the other techniques of drying, roasting, frying, grilling, steaming. boiling, par-boiling, and baking are universal. These eight techniques were already enumerated in classical Sanskrit literature. The complex usage of spices is what sets Indian cuisine apart from the rest of the world.

§ Not kidding. We're looking at something like 240 (= 1012) combinations. Not all combinations will be tasty but even accounting for that we're looking at something like 109 combinations.  As long as you live for a million years eating Indian food thrice a day, you'll get to try them all. Even in a practical way, there are at least a thousand combinations which will take you three years to get through. The "vast" part is not being exaggerated.

¶ Obviously, it can't be infinite.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Naming of Dishes

How are dishes named? What are the mechanisms by which they get the name?

The CC is going to talk about naming but only within the context of "traditional" dishes. "Traditional" is a loaded word and chefs these days give all kinds of fanciful names (which is also traditional) but we'll keep it relatively well-known.

The classification of naming depends on the language in question but the type of structures are definitely universal in that there are similar ideas in every cuisine.

Descriptive Names

This is the easiest category and also the largest. This describes the vast majority of dishes in almost all cuisines. The titles are self-descriptive and anyone who understands the grammar of a specific cuisine could with high probability just reproduce the dish without even looking at a recipe.

Fanciful Names 1 (Metaphor)

The older the cuisine and the greater the level of Imperial involvement, the greater the chance you are going to have metaphors do the heavy lifting for the dish.

The Japanese tatsuta age (竜田揚げ) refers to the river "tatsuta" where the leaves in autumn float down all brown and beautiful presumably. The dish is diced chicken deep-fried. Presumably the brown-ness of the perfectly fried chicken is the correlative.

Chinese cuisine (especially of the Imperial derivation) is particularly adept at this level of poetic metaphor. It's extremely hard to know what the dish is even if you read Mandarin fluently. If you already don't know the answer, you are not going to figure out that "desert boat sails on greens" refers to "camel's foot with hearts of rape".

The Japanese oyako don (親子丼) refers to "parent and child in donburi (bowl)". The parent is the chicken and the child is the egg. It's a rice dish topped with chicken and eggs.

We as a species have been this for a while.

Distilled alcohol in Latin is acqua vitae ("water of life"). Then translated into Gaelic we got uisce beatha which when rendered in English became whisky. (That's how the first word is pronounced.)

Lest this sound all too poetic for words, let us observe that even the "Bloomin' Onion" falls under this category.

Fanciful Names 2 (Euphemism)

Rocky Mountain Oysters.  (Prairie oysters in Canada.)

They are fried bull calf testicles with the obvious parallel to fried oysters. The euphemism makes the dish go down easy (pun intended!)

Chicken feet are "phoenix claws" in Chinese. Bottarga refers to the dried and salted ovaries of the red mullet.

And restaurants regularly feature squab because few people would eat it if it just said young pigeon which is exactly what it is.

One of the most common ways euphemism is executed is by substituting a foreign word or phrase for a concept that would be unpalatable locally. Escargots (French) instead of snails. Calamari (Italian) instead of squid. Boudin noir (French - black sausage) instead of "blood sausage", etc.

Euphemism is a large part of human food naming. It's pretty global. We find new and innovative ways to disguise certain blunt truths about our omnivorous eating habits.

Fanciful Names 3 (Alliteration)

We humans are suckers for alliteration. This is one of the figures of speech that exists in almost every language in the world.

The examples are endless — Rump Roast, Crispy Chicken, etc.

This concept goes hand in hand with the next one — that of onomatopoeia. Rendering the sound is nice but adding in the alliteration (typically via repetition) makes the name of the dish really memorable.

Fanciful Names 4 (Onomatopoeia)

The CC's favorite example is that of biángbiáng noodles from China's Shaanxi province. The kanji for "biáng" is not even standard. It refers to the slapping sound of the dough on the table when the noodles are made in the traditional way.
Another example is the Japanese shabu-shabu (swish-swish). This is Japanese hot-pot where you cook the meat and vegetables yourself in the hot boiling broth at your table. The "swish" refers to the sound that you make while swirling your food in the broth while it's cooking. (Note the importance of onomatopoeia because while shabu-shabu refers to the food just mere shabu is Japanese street slang for heroin. You don't want to confuse the two.)

Fanciful Names 5 (Parallel Association)

The dish Carpaccio specifically referred to raw beef because the paper-thin slices of raw beef resembled the pinks used by the painter Vittore Carpaccio. It only dates to about the 1950's when refrigeration made serving of raw beef possible. The origin is from Harry's Bar in Venice.

Today it refers to any thinly shaved meat or vegetable. Hence you have "tuna carpaccio" and "salmon carpaccio" and "zucchini carpaccio" even though the colors have nothing to do with it any more.

The association jumped from the color to the thinness of the shaving of the ingredient.

This sort of association is a weak form of metonymy in which the concept got so strongly linked to some aspect of the original dish that it jumped out as a generic descriptor.

Country Names

As a general rule, if the dish contains the name of its own country, it's origin is likely to be somewhere else.

This is counter-intuitive at first but logical on closer examination. You don't need to label something as "native" if it were actually native in the first place. Only if you wish to convince someone that something from the "outside" is really "inside" then you go about naming it after your own country.

Pad Thai is emphatically not Thai. The stir-fried noodle dish is unambiguously Chinese in origin even though the sauces and tastes are very much Thai. The government was heavily involved in promoting this dish as "Thai" in the 1930's and 40's.

Local Names

This is the wild card in this list. It could go either way.

Buffalo Wings probably did originate in the city of Buffalo. The Black Forest Cake is an English translation of the German Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. (Note: The German does refer to the "Black Forest" but it's also more precise that it's a cherry torte. The original dish is using a metaphor of the Forest for the black chocolate but the English treats it like a place of origin which it is not.)

Worcestershire Sauce is almost definitely not from Worcestershire. There's a bit of dubious branding (read below) going on. It's based on the ancient Roman garum (fish sauce).

Baked Alaska was invented in New York at the famous Delmonico's in 1876 to commemorate the acquisition of the territory.

And the various "chowders" floating around the East Coast originated no more locally than the CC originated in Siberia. They are all variants of ancient cooking styles even if the strong regionalization is a matter of preference and tradition.


This list is really endless particularly in the 19th century. Flattering your patron whether it's a king, the king's courtiers, or the modern day version - movie stars is always good business even if the idea is mostly recycled.

The list can either be of the originator (Caesar Salad, Fettuccine Alfredo - see next section on "branding") or that of the some famous personality - mostly opera and movie stars (Peach Melba, Melba Toast, Turkey Tetrazzini).

The famous Auguste Escoffier, codifier of French haute cuisine was a master at this game and he learnt it from his teacher Marie-Antoine Carême. He played this game shamelessly with everyone from kings to composers to theater personalities (the movie stars of their day).

Please note modern day examples like the "Shirley Temple" and the "Baby Ruth" candy bar.


This is largely a 20th-century American thing but it would be remiss not to mention it even if just in passing.

Brands have entire units to promote their ingredients. Everything from Coca Cola to Heinz have entire research units pumping out recipes for their ingredients and have had them for at least the last 70 years. The purpose is to "support" the brand. Examples abound.

This is not limited to companies. The "Can" in Canola oil refers to Canada. It didn't sell very well as rapeseed oil ("raped oil" anyone?) but when they changed the name euphemistically to the country that was promoting it, it became popular and then generic. That's what it's called all over the world now. (Note: Canola didn't originate in Canada. The rule of countries applies. They just branded it.)


Do dish names matter? The CC would argue that they do.

A great dish with a memorable name will turn into a classic. Even a so-so dish with a catchy name has a great shot.

Just like rhyme and assonance gives a sort of memorability to poetry, the same set of rules lend a mystique and power to the names of dishes. It has more to do with humans and language that it has to do with cuisine but it's just as important.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Panha (Green Mango Drink)

In this insane heat, you need a drink to cool you down. This is a classic Indian drink found all along the West Coast of India.

The two spices added (cardamom, fennel) are quite cooling. The salt is needed to balance the sweet-sour taste and also to act as a restorative in the insanely hot summers when you're sweating out all that salt.

The recipe below basically makes a concentrate. You add ice and dilute the drink with some cold water and drink it. Even though it's not traditional the CC really loves to add seltzer water instead of ice water.

The saffron is non-negotiable. You need it for both the taste and the color. The drink should be this really beautiful yellowish-orange color.


2 raw mangoes (frozen is fine)
1 cup jaggery (substitute by brown sugar)

2 tbsp. cardamom
1 tbsp. fennel
1/2 tbsp. black salt

1 large pinch saffron

Recipe (Panha Pulp)

Note: Raw mangoes are found in the frozen section of most Indian stores.

Cut up the mangoes if you have fresh ones. Otherwise combine the frozen mangoes, the jaggery (or brown sugar) with some water and bring to a boil. Cook for about 12 minutes at medium heat until the mangoes are tender. (You'll only need about 6-7 minutes for the frozen ones).

Meanwhile, combine the cardamom, fennel and black salt and grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder.

Take the mangoes off the heat and add the spices (including saffron) to it. Let it sit for about 2-3 minutes.

Put the mixture in a blender and blend really fine.

Pass the pulp through a fine sieve and store. This will easily last 2-3 weeks in your refrigerator. More if you freeze it.

Recipe (Panha)

Take 2-3 tbsp. of the panha pulp and combine with ice and cold water. Mix thoroughly and consume. You can add some more salt and/or sugar to taste.

Pigs in English

It's pretty astonishing how many animal words in English are derived from pig — hedgehog, guinea pig, porcupine (thorny pig), porpoise (pork fish). warthog, aardvark (earth pig).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Golden Beet & Beet Greens Soup

This is the ultimate meta-recipe for a simple soup based on the barest minimum of ingredients.

The modern-day conception is unmistakably French although soups of this nature undoubtedly floated all around Europe before the codification of national cuisines in the 19th century.

They rely on only a handful of ingredients for flavoring and they can be tailored to both the seasons and the occasion. The soup can be made limpid and elegant or hearty and robust using just a few tricks.

The recipe at its heart is simple. Onions and/or related alliums — leeks, garlic, shallots are sautéed in olive oil till they are golden. Then water (or a clear broth) is added and the mixture brought to a boil. To this are added some vegetables which are cooked until tender. The vegetables (typically root vegetables) add their own flavor to the broth. At the last minute, finely chiffonaded greens are added and the soup is taken off the heat and served.

The recipe is so extraordinarily simple that naturally the CC needs to explain it in copious detail.

Simplicity frequently belies an underlying deep complexity.

The allium family, of which onions are a member of, are rich in volatile sulfur compounds. This is what causes their pungency and all the tearing. Only a small amount of molecules make their way to your eye but it's enough for you to start crying. It's a defense mechanism to prevent them from being eaten by animals but, of course, we humans figured a work around.


The flavor is coming from the sautéeing of the alliums. The sulfur compound that causes the tearing (1-propenyl sulfenic acid)  converts in the presence of heat into another compound (3-mercapto-2-methlylpentan-1-ol) that is strongly present in meat broth. This is perceived to our tongues in the presence of salt as a very strong savory flavor. We're using alliums but our tongues and stomach are screaming  "MEAT!!!".

This is why many cuisines worldwide use onions as the base of any recipe. It also shows how strongly the evolution of our tongue and diet has relied on meat, the last few thousand years of modern-day vegetarianism notwithstanding.

The addition of vegetables to this broth increases the savory quotient and results in an intensely flavored broth. The greens add complexity, nutrition, textural and visual interest.

The vegetables are almost always paired with their corresponding greens. Beets and beet greens. Turnips and turnip greens. Carrots and carrot fronds. Potatoes and dandelion greens (weeds). You get the idea.

This recipe is clearly a peasant recipe that got refined and passed upwards into the nobility. It's origins clearly betray the fact that it was meant as a recipe that doesn't waste anything. You use the beets and the greens that come up with the beets. The entire plant and no wastage. Something that should appeal to the present "back-to-the-past waste-not-want-not" movement.

Heft can be added in one of four different ways:
  • Broth instead of water.
  • Cooked beans which add more protein.
  • Soup poured over stale bread.
  • Sprinkling of parmesan on top (more umami.)
The plainest recipe works superbly as a first course in an elegant meal. The recipe with all the bells and whistles performs perfectly as a light but nutritiously complete one-pot meal. It works particularly well as the ideal light lunch.

For the record, the CC once made the lightest alternative for his mom as part of a three-course lunch and he was greeted with, "I want a second helping."

This is a meta-recipe that clearly belongs in the Pantheon of the Greats.


(serves 2)

2 small golden beets with greens attached
2 onions
1 head spring garlic

3 cups water

sea salt
black pepper (lots!)

1/2 cup white beans pre-cooked (optional)
4 slices stale bread (optional)
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano (optional)


Note 1: The recipe is made with golden beets because it respects the "clean" broth look that this recipe entails. The water has a light golden color. Regular beets would work but they would color the broth pink. The recipe has a clear limpid texture even though that's not obvious in the picture above.

Note 2: For a more elegant presentation while adding heft, make some parmesan toasts.

Separate the beets from the greens. Cut out the central stem of each frond retaining just the leafy green part.

Peel the beets and chop into flat medium-thick rings.

Chop the onions into quarter rings. Chop the garlic into slivers.

Sautée the onions and garlic in some olive oil at medium heat. Add the black pepper. When they are golden (but not colored) add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down. Add the beets and beans (if using) and let cook covered for about 6-7 minutes at medium heat until the beets are done.

Taste the broth for salt and add as much as necessary.

Once more bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Add the greens and turn the heat off. Let them sit for 1 minute.

Serve at once over bread (if using) with parmesan (if using).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Anchovy School


This is cool.

Is it wrong that it also makes me hungry?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rouz Jerbi (Riz Djerbian, Tunisian Spinach Rice)

This is one of the strangest yet most awesome recipes that the CC has seen.

When the CC first encountered it he was mystified. Wouldn't 50+ minutes of steaming turn the vegetables into mush? Was he getting something wrong?

No, he was just forgetting something.

Rice is deeply hygroscopic.

It will absorb moisture like nobody's business so you need to store rice in a humidity-free environment. In fact, it is so hygroscopic that if you ever drop your cellphone inside water and it doesnt' work, first dry it out and then put it inside a sealed bag filled with dry uncooked rice. Chances are it will work in a few days.

The CC has given this advice to quite a few people and they were just baffled. The CC argued, "What do you have to lose? A few cups of cheap rice, right?" Right down to the last man and woman, the smartphones have come back to life. One friend whose young daughter had mastered the art of grabbing his smartphone and throwing it in the toilet particularly appreciated the CC.

Science. It works, bitches!

The recipe is from the island of Djerba in Tunisia. The CC has provided the French spelling as well since Tunisia was a French Protectorate and you are more likely to encounter the dish under that name.

In this recipe, a mélange of dry rice, spinach, parsley, vegetables, chickpeas, optional meat, and a ton of spices are steamed for about 50 minutes. The rice does most of the absorption (including the liquid given off by the spinach and vegetables) and what you get is a perfectly steamed mixture that is intensely flavored and smells magical.

The dish can be extremely spicy but you can control the heat with the amount of harissa that you add to it. It has a slow burn.

It's not a hard dish in the least. You could do the prep in 30 minutes but you will need to endure two phases of steaming with by a precise interlude where you turn everything over and recommence.

Just think two de-stressing cocktails because minus the prep and the tiny amount of the interlude, you're not exactly working very hard. Even the prep is easy.

A steamer works perfectly here but the CC improvised since he has none in his apartment. The recipe is quite forgiving.

You absolutely need a long-grained rice. Short varieties are not going to work in this dish.


1 1/2 cups long-grained rice (e.g. basmati)

2 large onions (chopped fine)
4 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
1 large potato (cubed into large pieces)
1 large carrot (cubed into medium pieces)
1 large tomato (chopped into fine pieces)
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup peas

2 large bunches of spinach (chopped into fine slivers)
1 large bunch parsley (chopped fine)

chicken/lamb/beef ‐ (optional) ‐ cubed into small pieces

1/2 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup olive oil

1-2 tbsp. harissa

4 tbsp. coriander seeds (roasted and ground fine)
1 tbsp. caraway seeds (roasted and ground fine)
1 tbsp. turmeric
2 tsp. red chilli powder (or to taste)


First, toss the rice with the tomato paste and olive oil and mix thoroughly. The goal is to coat the rice with the oil to make sure that each grain remains separate. This is the aesthetic hallmark of Arab cuisine which you will see everywhere from Northern Africa to Iran to India.

Then you just add all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix them thoroughly.

The mixture must then be steamed in a tightly-sealed steamer for about 25 minutes. At that mark, you must pull it out into a bowl, very gently mix everything together and steam it again for about 20-25 minutes. (Add more water to the bottom if necessary.)

The length of the second steaming depends on the age of your rice. The older it is, the less you will need to cook it.

Rouz Jerbi