Monday, December 21, 2015

Getting Medieval on the World's Tastes

The format of medieval cuisine has waned over the centuries but if you squint hard enough, you can still see its antecedents reflected in modern food.

Medieval cuisine — at least in the European sense — was characterized by its use of exotic spices and ingredients. Meat was expensive with game being even more so. There's heavy use of black pepper, saffron, cardamom and ginger and a reliance on a sweet-sour taste. Nuts make their way into most dishes either in the native form or as a thickener – almond milk is practically a cliché.

Most cooking was hard not just from the point of the expense of ingredients and firewood but labor as well. There were no modern conveniences. Everything was done by hand. When we talk about "medieval cuisine", we end up inevitably talking about the nobility because that's what's documented and they're the only ones who could afford to do so.

The modern conception finds some of these dishes to be strange. Meat cooked in sugar syrup or honey is relatively alien to the modern palate – even though it tastes terrific. Our tongues are still the same but our trained response seems to be a little off-center. (You can still see it in dishes like pork chops with apple sauce except the sauce is now served separately.)

Even the format of the meal is a little strange. The stomach needed to be "opened" with an apéritif (literally from Latin: aperire - "to open"), then followed by vegetables, then "heavy meats", then "closed" with aged cheese and a digestif.

If you recognize the above as the slightly modified format of a classic French meal then you will understand the medieval roots of modern eating. (The placement of the salad has been moved around a few times by the French and Italians – and the Americans – but that's fodder for another post.)

Medieval cuisine in its traditional sense but with New World enhancements is most clearly seen today in Persian and Indian cooking. Indian is not that surprising because most spices originally came from India and classical Indian cooking borrows heavily from the Persian format so they are joined at the hip. In fact, most cooking styles borrow heavily from the Persian format given that they were the original Empire spread over vast swathes of modern-day Asia, Africa and Europe. You can see the same formats spread with the medieval Arabic Empire over Northern Africa into Spain and all the way to Sicily.

The point is that these cooking styles have still maintained their "medieval nature" — there's heavy use of spices, saffron, black pepper, ginger, nuts, and a marked preference for sweet-sour tastes.

A slight detour must be made at this point about why spices lost their use in Europe as opposed to modern-day Iran and India where they are still as popular as they were a millenia ago.

Most spices were imported from India to imperial Europe. The spices were a province of the nobility and both Constantinople and Venice were founded on the basis of taxation of the spice trade. In modern economic terms, the middlemen made the spices expensive. This was the whole basis of trying to find a new sea route to India – disintermediation – a way to bypass the taxation. Once these routes were found, and the New World accidentally discovered, the price of spices went down precipitously because of the lack of taxation and the fact that alternatives were found to grow spices in the newly discovered Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), various islands in Indonesia, etc.

After that we come to a cliché of human nature. Anything that the hoi-polloi discovers is anathema to the upper-classes just like the old money on Fifth Ave. would disdain the Brooklyn hipsters. And so, spices fell out of favor with the upper-classes in Europe in favor of a "purer cleaner taste" — reverse snobbery at its very finest.

The critical point is that these ideas never did fall out of favor in the places where the spices were grown where the distinction between "expensive" v/s "cheap" simply didn't exist. Spices were always cheap across the growing areas and the swathe populated by traders traversing routes that were not subject to taxation. Places like Sicily are more like the lands that "time forgot" — they had no strategic value and they kept the formats even though their neighbors did not.

This is what explains meats cooked in cashewnut milk with heavy spices in classical Awadhi cuisine even though the cashews are New World – they would've been almonds originally — or the love of almond granita in Sicily. Sicilian dishes like sardines cooked in a sweet-sour sauce or the very Persian "Jeweled Rice" (javaher polow) are all modern-day embodiments of medieval cooking.

The past bleeds into the present — and in a very aggressive format. It's just hard to see until you squint just right.

No comments: