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Hilde Lee: Cuisines of India, Islamic world had lasting influence

Hilde Lee: Cuisines of India, Islamic world had lasting influence

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For a number of columns, we have focused on the development of food and its traditions in Europe and the Middle East. However, there is more to this world of food. Where shall we go next? India, China, the Far East, or to that land far off — the Americas? I’ll admit that when I started this idea of a series of columns, I did not realize what a vast subject I had gotten into.

With the current focus on Asia and Afghanistan, let’s see what ancient Persia and India have contributed to world cuisine and maybe move a little further into China. After all, Marco Polo went there. Did he bring Italian food ideas to China or vice versa? Because of India’s diversity of ingredients, population and cooking methods, its culinary history and influence have established different food customs.

While Europe was sort of buried in what historians call the Dark Ages, a new religion and way of life arose in what is today called Saudi Arabia. This was Islam. It spread quickly and brought with it a new way of thinking about food. Islam first arose among nomadic people — the Bedouin of the desert regions of Saudi Arabia.

These nomadic people had a very rugged life. They did not own property and herds. All were owned communally. The tribes found pasture wherever they could — wherever there was water. Thus, the tribes moved from oasis to oasis. Between these oases there were a few cities; one contained a holy shrine, which was Mecca.

Like many religions of the early 600s, Islam had some food restrictions, which still exist today. As in Judaism, pork is forbidden. Animals must be slaughtered painlessly, with a prayer being said over them. There is a prohibition against alcohol. But in some regions, grapes are grown for winemaking.

Muslim customs, rather than law, dictate that people eat sitting on the floor for the evening meal, especially during Ramadan (the holiest time of the year). The food is served on individual trays and is eaten with the right hand.

Some foods associated with Islam take on a kind of semi-sacred status. Lamb is the most important meat. Fat from the lamb’s tail was considered to be a delicacy.

As Islam expanded, it took over regions of the Greco-Roman Empire. The Muslims adapted many of the customs of science, medicine and technology of the time. Much of this newfound knowledge was translated into Arabic. It was not a one-way street, however, as the Muslims exchanged ideas with both Jews and Christians.

The dominant style of cooking in the Islamic world at that time (sixth to seventh century AD) was that of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. Young meats were favored. They were usually roasted or fried in butter and cut into small pieces that could be handled easily with fingers. Meats were marinated in sour sauces prior to roasting. They also were cooked with some sweet syrup.

Probably the most important food that was used from one end of the Islamic world to the other was rice. It was cultivated in Spain for the first time around 900 AD, when rice was brought there by Muslims. Spinach and eggplant were the dominant vegetables.

The Muslims initiated a new irrigation system, which enabled them to cultivate a variety of fruits and vegetables. It took several centuries for this system to be adopted by Europeans.

After the Crusades, Europeans came into contact with Mediterranean civilizations that were far more sophisticated and wealthy than their own. They were intrigued with the spices and dried fruits, which were prevalent in the Arab world. Sauces were based on pounded herbs, mixed with breadcrumbs and vinegar. Pounding and straining became a new technique for cooking.

The earliest medieval cookbook, “Libellus de Arte Coquinaria,” dates from the 12th century. Although the original was lost, some of the recipes were copied in the 13th century in different languages. The cooking at that time was primarily done in pots over a charcoal fire. Food was cut into small pieces and often pounded into a smooth puree. Spices were added to most meat recipes. Many of these customs are still followed by the tribes of central Asia today.

Let’s spend a little time on India and its foods. It is such a vast subject, but a very interesting one. The recent Smithsonian TV series on train trips, “Mighty Trains,” had an enticing train trip from New Delhi to Bombay. I almost went to a craft fair in India several years ago, but canceled when I found out that the 200 people who had signed up for it would be staying in one big tent with portable toilets on the outside. But, I still would like to go when the political situation in Asia stabilizes.

India is really a world apart — a land almost unto itself. From the Vale of Kashmir to Cape Comorin, it encompasses as much land as Western Europe. The sacred earth of “Mother India” has more human beings than in Western Europe. With so much land and so many people, it is no wonder that there is a diversity of foods.

The foods of India and the Indian ways of serving them have evolved over thousands of years. By contrast, true French cooking dates only back to the 18th century. Indian cuisine has such a great variety and subtlety that it is only rivaled by the Chinese and some French cooking. And, no, Indian cooking is not just based on curries.

Some say that curry is not really Indian and that Indians do not use ready-mixed curry powders. The word “curry” appears in both north and south India. To the Indians, it means a dish of vegetables or meats with a spicy sauce, not a dry dish. The claim that Indians never use prepared curry powder is probably true, since the curry mixtures are ground fresh and leftover powder is stored for future use.

Curry powders vary greatly in strength and taste. Generally, the Indian powders are hotter than the ready-made ones we get in our stores. (The ones purchased here in a store specializing in spices are more authentic.) All of the Indian curry powders contain the same six ingredients: Coriander, turmeric, cumin seed, fenugreek, back pepper, and cayenne or chili pepper. As in India, portions of each spice vary from home to home. Usually, more coriander is used.

After these basic six ingredients, there are at least 20 other ingredients used in the curry powder mixture. These include mustard, anise, poppy, celery and caraway seeds.

Now, that I have your taste buds tingling, I’ll leave you wanting to know more about Indian and Asia foods until next week.

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At the time, medieval cooking was much closer to the Indian cuisine we know today. It made great use of herbs, which were considered partly medicinal. Dozens of sauces were based on pounded herbs, bread crumbs, and vinegar — very much like pesto or mint sauce.

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