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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 4/15/2017 |



A few years back, I had chanced upon an article written on the science and art of cooking. I no longer remember who the author was or the exact content of the article. All I remember is that it introduced me to Harold McGee and his masterpiece “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”. “Simply put, it is the Rosetta stone of the culinary world” holds Alton Brown, the famous host of the TV series “Good Eats” that has been viewed by foodies all over the world. Harold McGee quotes Nicholas Kurti, a physicist and food lover at the University of Oxford in the introduction of his masterpiece who lamented in 1969 “I think it is a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés.” McGee’s book was published in 1984 – and since then, as the author puts it, “Science has found its way into the kitchen, and cooking into laboratories and factories”. McGee’s book is a reference for scientific understanding and preparation of food and has radically changed the way we look at cooking now – a combination of science and art, each equally important. I think that McGee’s book inspired the modern generation of great chefs who transformed cooking to a performing art, judging by the large number of television shows dedicated to the art of cooking all over the globe.

As we all know, Julia Child was the pioneer who brought the domestic kitchen on American television with the ‘French Chef’ in 1962. An instant success, Child’s program continued for more than 10 years and can be considered as the mother lode of the myriads of cooking programs and shows both on the radio and the television. Food and cooking became an important topic for all types of media, with chefs and food journalists joining the fray with frank enthusiasm and enjoyment.

But then, this is a relatively recent phenomenon - cooking and kitchens have been central to human life since prehistory. Once man discovered fire and learnt to keep it alive – all ancient civilizations had designated ‘fire keepers’ – the process of cooking started. Anthropologists think that the discovery of cooking might have been totally accidental, like a lot of other discoveries that came later. As human societies started forming, cooking evolved from its primitive stage - that of searing the flesh of hunted animals to other processes – cooking wheat and barley and other types of roots gathered by the tribes. Happy accidents kept happening – unintentional fermentation of honey, grapes or barley made man discover mead, ale, wine and beer. Before long, the early human settlements – typically small villages with not more than 300 people - started evolving into cities where thousands congregated to live and labor. The ancient cities grew around big rivers - the Tigris and Euphrates in southwest Asia, the Nile in Egypt, the Yellow River (Huang He) in China, and the Indus in India. Historians believe that cooking for survival became ‘cuisine’ at this period – ‘a self-conscious tradition of cooking and eating with a set of attitudes about food and its place in the life of man’ as defined by historian Michael Freeman. The ancient Gods were offered food, several times each day, following strict rules of sacrifice and preparation. Only the priests had the right of preparing these divine meals. They were the first Chefs in the history of mankind. Humans learnt the art of animal husbandry and that of preserving food by drying, salting, covering in oil and so it was not necessary to hunt for food any more.

As civilization progressed in different parts of the world so did cooking. Cooking techniques evolved, as did the ingredients. By the first millennium B.C., Mesopotamians had become adepts at sumptuous banquets with elaborate menus. Since writing was invented in Mesopotamia, actual ‘written’ accounts exist of these regular feasts. The Egyptians discovered how to make leavened bread (another happy accident, it seems) and started the art of baking. The artworks in the pyramids clearly depict the food eaten by the Pharaohs that included a wide variety of meats, fishes, fruits and dairy products. At the other end of the world, the Chinese were already producing food grains, mainly millet, harvesting salt and making noodles that we find in almost every corner of the world today. ‘I Ching’, the ‘Book of Change’ attributed to Confucius mentions 44 vegetables and herbs used in Chinese cooking during that period. The thriving Indus Valley civilization, at the crossroads of East and West, harvested grains and fruits brought by the migrants from what is now called the Middle East and China. Indus valley civilization gave the world many a new thing, notably sugar and a large variety of pulses and fruits that were extensively harvested in the valley.

Although the term homo economicus was used for the first time in late 19th century, I think the roots were already visible in the ancient civilizations of Asia. Trade caravans and itinerant merchants travelled the trade routes extensively. They not only ensured the flow of goods, but also of culinary knowledge and traditions of the lands they came from. Spices from India, olive oil from Greece and many other commodities travelled along these routes across the Asian landmass and into the continent of Europe – into Greece, really, that would become the epicenter of European civilization. All the important philosophical, moral and political concepts and art forms that prevail in the human society originated in ancient Greece. Greece embraced the diverse influences from the different parts of the civilized world that made its own civilization rich and unique.

By this time the different civilizations were already interacting with each other through trade, but also through wars and conquests. Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world as it was known at that time. His empire stretched east through Persia (modern-day Iran) and Iraq to the Indus River on the western border of India, north through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and south into Africa. Thus was born the Hellenistic culture, a fusion of Greek, Persian, Indian and Egyptian cultures, which had important and perceivable effects on cuisine in this vast area as well as in Greece. New ingredients, new forms of cooking and preserving food were introduced and adopted by Greece. All this would eventually be inherited by the Roman Empire and spread all over the old world.

As the Roman Empire spread over Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East, Romans controlled a vast area that produced not only grains but also a whole range of exotic spices as well as rich fabrics like silk. Roman Emperors opened up different trade routes by land and sea – the Silk Road to China and sea routes to India and Africa. The rivalry between the European nations would be centered on the control and supremacy of these routes at a much later date. Spices like white pepper, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon were now indispensable for the rich Romans. Lavish banquets were organized regularly by the rich, offering a wide variety of exotic food coming from different continents, washed down with generous quantities of fine Italian wine. Cooking had already become an art form. Allegedly the first ever cookbook was written by a man called Apicius in 1st century. He recorded 468 recipes that shed a lot of light on the food habits of the Roman aristocrats, the ingredients used and the methods of cooking. Unsurprisingly, nothing much was written about the food of the commoners other than the fact that bread seemed to be their staple diet. As Rome grew in power and its Empire continued spreading, Epicureanism was at its peak, draining the Empire of financial resources though the majority lived on ‘bread and circuses’ that the Emperors provided amply to keep people happy and away from dissent. In a desperate measure to save the Empire, Emperor Constantine split the Roman Empire, making the old city of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, his capital. The Eastern part of the Empire continued to thrive while the Western part didn’t. The repeated attacks by the Barbarians - Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals, shook the foundations of the Roman Empire. The mighty Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D and started the Middle Ages in Europe that would continue for the next 10 centuries. As the Roman trade routes broke down and became unsafe, Europe’s interaction with the outside world came to an end. Europe entered the dark middle ages. The only semblance of power in a continent torn apart by internal strife and external aggression was the Christian Church in Rome, which gradually took control of every aspect of life of the people across Europe.

While Europe entered the dark ages, a formidable force was growing in the East – the Muslim Empire, based on a new religion – Islam. Transported by religious zeal, the Muslims soon conquered much of the same territory as the erstwhile Roman Empire – Spain in Europe, a large part of North Africa including the Sahara Desert, and the east coast along the Indian Ocean. In Asia, they controlled what had been the Persian Empire - Iraq and Iran, and western India. Baghdad, the capital city, became the new Rome, a center of trade with a population of almost one million. Muslim ships sailed across the Mediterranean and Arabian seas and the Indian Ocean; camel caravans traveled the Silk Road into China and across the deserts of Africa. The strict dietary laws of Quran gave rise to a very special type of cuisine – cooking meat in covered vessels (tagines) on very slow fire for hours, with an impressive array of spices, nuts and fruits that made the sauce deliciously rich & creamy. Saffron was used for the delicate colors. The exquisite dishes were perfumed with water distilled from rose petals or orange blossoms. Milk was made into yogurt or cheese. Vegetable and pulses were made into purées and mixed with salt, lemon juice, crushed garlic and sesame paste. Most of the middle-eastern cuisine uses the same methods and recipes even today.

In 1526, Babur, a prince from Afghanistan seized power and laid the foundation of the great Mughal Empire in India. For almost two centuries the Mughal Emperors ruled India and left a lasting influence in all domains – art, culture, architecture, music and above all, in cooking. Indian cuisine, as it is known today all over the world, is definitely of Mughal origin, though the regional cuisines in India are all rich in tradition. They introduced the exotic spices, nuts and fruits to India, as well as new techniques of cooking. Persian delicacies of Spit-roasted chicken with herbs, koftas of different kinds, lamb cooked in the tandoor and also the Persian Pilau or Pulao had arrived in India with the Mughal kings and thrives to this day. Colorful accounts by Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the court of Emperor Jehangir bear witness to the fine dining that took place in the Mughal Courts.

I have chosen to talk about these historical events because they are directly linked to the chosen topic – explaining the origin and evolution of different cuisines as we know today. History of food is directly linked to the history of mankind since the pre-historic days. I have tried to recount the origins and evolutions of different types of cuisine and why cooking has always been and shall remain an integral part of human society. The journey that began with the discovery of new ingredients and spices, almost always to please the palates of the rich and the powerful – Emperors, Kings, Nobility or Clergy – have fashioned ancient and modern history. The rivalry to control spice routes or find new ones led to the great maritime expeditions in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus discovered the New World that started a process of annihilation, destruction, looting and colonization by European nations like Spain, Portugal, and Netherlands, which would continue well into the 20th century. Over time other commodities joined the spices – tea, opium, coffee, chocolate, silk, sugar, rum, tobacco etc. Goods flowed into Europe at much lower prices now, especially sugar and spices. Huge sugarcane plantations grew up in the Caribbean, owned by white men and operated by slaves. Slave trade became one of the strongest pillars of mercantilism. The New World had a whole lot of exotic vegetables and fruits that slowly made their way into Europe too –potato, tomato, peppers, vanilla, chocolate, coffee and different types of beans while the conquerors transplanted the different varieties that grew in the old continent – to use the Western Hemisphere as a huge plantation that would supply the European markets at much lower prices. Food habits and cuisine in both worlds – Old and New, changed considerably.

However important cooking was or is in the life of humans, it was not considered as either a science or an art, not deemed important enough for systematic documentation. For a long time the secrets of the recipes stayed in the kitchens, safe with those who cooked the meals. This is most aptly epitomized by the story of the great French Chef Vatel, Maître d’hôtel of the Duke de Condé. The King of France was to visit the Duke and Vatel was given the responsibility of organizing a massively extravagant sea food feast. On the fateful day, no supplies arrived from the fishmongers. A desperate Vatel, sure of having destroyed the political life of his Duke and his own professional life, commits suicide by falling on his sword. As he lies dying, the procession of fishmongers and suppliers start arriving. But Vatel had left no instructions to anyone about how to prepare the different dishes. History does not recount how the feast ended. But that is not the point, really. The point is that in spite of a lack of documentation, we still find age old ingredients and dishes being cooked in modern kitchens almost in all countries of the world. Because food habits and cooking are part of the culture we all grow up in and imbibe both consciously and subconsciously. In our own homes we pick up kitchen lore and myths and tips and tricks that have sometimes been handed down over generations. Many old ingredients and dishes are today being revived by well-known chefs as well as by ordinary people. In France, major food companies are digging up old recipes that went out of fashion for some reason and using them to propose new products to their consumers. At the other end of the spectrum new ingredients are being experimented with: mostly organic in nature, new types of sugars, plant and animal proteins are making important inroads into the world of healthy eating and cuisine. Food is no longer a simple necessity – it has become a luxury as well.

I would like to classify cooking as scientific art or artistic science or simply an art form like all others. In ancient India, cooking was one of the art forms that accomplished women mastered, along with singing, dancing, painting, writing poetry etc. The division of labor that started with the prehistoric man where men went hunting and gathering while women prepared food persists even today, which in many patriarchal societies relegated women to the kitchen with the arduous task of cooking several meals a day for the entire family. They had little or no role to play in matters masculine other than feeding their men. This I think is the main reason why cooking is considered to be a menial task by a lot of men and women, a drudgery or a chore. ‘I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas…’ Hillary Clinton had said during an interview that made a lot of ink flow. While her intentions might have been totally honorable, the statement was judged inappropriate and condescending. What is wrong with baking cookies, asked a lot of people. And does it prevent women from getting to positions of power? Obviously those who took umbrage didn’t think so. Neither do I. There is no contradiction between being a successful professional woman and an accomplished cook. I have a lot of women friends, maybe not in the limelight like Mrs. Clinton, but successful in their own chosen professions all the same, who are excellent cooks and enjoy cooking. Except that, although majority of the top Chefs today are men, the ordinary day to day cooking is still largely left to women. There are exceptions, of course. But I am talking about the rule. A hungry child or an indifferently cooked dish is the perfect weapon for blackmailing women and making them feel guilty. Many a tear has been shed by women and continue to be shed to this day over food cooked in the household kitchens. Still these brave women continue to cook, out of a sense of obligation and duty but also for pleasure. They are the lore keepers of every society, transferring knowledge lovingly and selflessly to preserve traditions that run in the family in particular and society in general.

I would like to end this article with a poem by Dame Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate of United Kingdom. Up to my readers to judge its pertinence.



“Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.”
(Valentine)


[APARAJITA SEN]

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