Showing posts with label Ingredient of the week. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ingredient of the week. Show all posts

Aug 29, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Cloves, Laung, Lavang, Grambu

Originating in the Moluccan Islands of Indonesia, cloves have been used as a spice and traditional medicine for thousands of years. Cloves are a unique spice with their fiery, sweet, aromatic flavor enhancing beverages as well as sweet and savory dishes. Because of their exceptional versatility and intense fragrance cloves have always been held in high esteem in the cuisines of Asia, Europe, and North Africa.

The name clove ultimately derives from the Latin word clavus meaning nail in reference to the nail-like appearance of the spice. The Hindi word for clove is laung, the Kashmiri word for clove is rong, the Gujarati word is lavang, the Bengali word for clove is  labango, and in Tamil the word for clove is grambu. All of these South Asian names have no discernible etymlogy in the Indo–Aryan or Dravidic languages.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of a twenty-four to forty foot evergreen tree in the myrtle family, Syzygium aromaticum. They are grown commercially in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. The flower buds of the clove tree initially have a pale green hue and are grouped in terminal clusters. Just before the buds blossom they turn a brilliant pink, at which point they must be harvested immediately. 

Cloves are harvested at one to two centimeters long and consist of a long calyx that terminates in four spreading sepals and four unopened petals that form a small central ball. One adult tree yields about a seven-pound harvest.

The freshly picked cloves are spread out to dry on mats in the sun until they turn a deep brown hue. They are then hand sorted for size and perfection. Cloves from Sri Lanka are considered the best in quality.

Eugenol is the oily the compound most responsible for the distinctive aroma of cloves. Although eugenol has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties it is toxic in relatively small quantities. For example, a dose of 5–10 ml has been reported as a near fatal dose for a two-year-old child. Eugenol or clove oil can also pit or dissolve plastic so it is best stored in a glass container.

Although cloves are native to Indonesia they do not play a major part in Indonesian cuisines. However, Indo­nesians are the main con­sumers of cloves and use nearly half of the world’s pro­duction.  In Indonesia clove flavored cigarettes called kretek are extremely popular and enjoyed frequently by nearly every Indonesian male.

In South Asian cuisines cloves are mainly valued for their heat and aromatic sweetness in savory dishes. Nearly every variant and regional blend of the spicy mix garam masala contains powdered cloves. Cloves are often used whole in sabut or khada masalas along with peppercorns, cassia bark, and cardamom to fragrantly flavor curries, biryanis, and pulaos. my morning & afternoon cuppa!

My favorite use of cloves is in the traditional spicy milk tea called masala chai. A single clove and two green cardamoms per tablespoon of Assamese black tea leaves is my favorite chai blend for Spring and Summer. Although cloves work well in sweet dishes there aren't many Indian desserts that feature them. Most Indian desserts that do contain cloves are Mughal inspired such as the carrot based gajjar ki halwa, the fragrant rice pudding kheer, and the creamy vermicelli noodle dessert seviyan.

Helpful hints:
Use cloves sparingly, their bold flavor can quickly overpower a dish and will intensify the longer they are cooked.
Store cloves in a non plastic container as their volatile oils can dissolve plastic. Be careful when grinding cloves as their oils and sharp edges will pit and score a plastic top on an electric grinder too.
Equal amounts of allspice is a good substitute for cloves.

Aug 22, 2016

Ingredient of the week: Cashews, Kaju

A native of Brazil the cashew tree was brought to India in the sixteenth century by Portuguese traders. The actual cashew nut or seed is inside a kidney shaped shell that is attached to the bottom of the edible cashew apple. Delicately sweet and somewhat buttery in flavor, cashews are used in cuisines world wide.

The cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale) is evergreen and thrives in tropical regions. It is in the same family as both mango and pistachio trees, It grows to around thirty to forty feet in height and prefers well drained soils. One of the reasons Portuguese traders introduced cashews to coastal India and Mozambique was to prevent erosion of the sandy soils. The English word cashew comes from the Portuguese word caju which is derived from Brazilian indigenous peoples'  name for the seed acajú, literally meaning "nut that produces itself."

Cashew trees flower and set fruit during the dry winter season in tropical climes. The flowers are produced in a panicle up to ten inches long. Each flower pale green at first, turning reddish or pink upon opening.

The part we know as the cashew nut forms first as it is the seed. The cashew apple is not a part of the plant ovary like most fruits and is actually just the swollen stem of the fruit.

The cashew apple turns from pale yellow to an attractive red as it ripens. Cashew apples are quite sweet and juicy with a bit of an acidic, astringent, hesperidic, and slightly peppery mango-like flavor. Unfortunately their skin is quite fragile and does not travel well so unless you live in the tropics don't expect to see them at your local grocery store.

The pulp of the cashew apple can be eaten fresh, canned in jams or chutneys, or used for juice. The sugary juice can be fermented into vinegar or distilled into an alcoholic drink called feni, fenny, uraak, or arrack.

The seed or part that we call the nut is encased in a leathery, kidney-shaped shell at the end of the cashew apple. The leathery shell contains the caustic substance anacardic acid. Anacardic acid is similar to the uroshiol oil found in  poison ivy and can produce severe skin lesions with the merest contact. 

Cashew nuts will keep well in their shell for up to two years. Because of the toxic oil in their shells processing cashews is a complex and difficult process. To neutralize the anacardic acids the nuts must be heated in their shells. Unfortunately the toxic oil is quite volatile making the fumes from this process extremely irritating to skin, eyes, and lungs also. Probably why cashews are so darned expensive. If you'd like to read the misadventures of an American who tried to open a raw cashew nut with his hands and mouth you may do so here.

Kaju Katli
Cashew nuts are called kaju in South Asia and are prized for their buttery and sweet flavor in Desi cuisines. They often appear in delicious and delicately flavored sweets like the famously fudgy kaju katli or baked into biscuits. Ground into paste or powder cashews can also be utilized to decadently thicken and enrich curries. Cashews are used whole even as simple yet elegant garnishes on both sweet and savory dishes.

Helpful Hints:
Now that we know cashews must be processed by heat we also know there's no point in paying extra money for those "raw, unprocessed" cashews sold at health food stores.

Aug 1, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Star Anise, Chakra Phool, Badian, Anasphal

This beautiful star-shaped dark brown pod is the heady aromatic spice known as star anise. A native of China and Vietnam this spice's sweet and complex licorice-like flavor can be found in many cuisines worldwide. It's highly fragrant oil is valued for it's scent in perfumery, cosmetics, and toiletries.

An evergreen tree, star anise is closely related to the magnolia family. It's important to distinguish the edible Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) from the Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) as the latter is poisonous.

The star anise tree grows to about eight meters tall preferring sheltered shade or low light. It's leaves will burn or scorch in direct sunlight making it an excellent houseplant. The fruits are gathered when green before fully ripening in March or May and allowed to fully dry to a rusty brown for use. 

Star anise's unique flavor comes from anethole which is the same compound that flavors the distantly related spices anise and fennel. To me, star anise is much stronger in flavor than anise or fennel with not only licorice-like pungency but also a little bit of a warm, sweet root beer or sassafras note. Cineole is a cinnamon-like flavored compound also found in star anise giving it a spicier and more nuanced taste than fennel or anise. Interestingly, star anise is also a good source of shikimic acid, a precursor in the pharmaceutical synthesis of the dubious yet oft prescribed anti-influenza drug oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu).

In South Asia star anise is known by the names badian, chakra phool, or anasphal. Badian is from the Persian and can refer to both star anise and fennel in Kashmiri. Chakra means wheel and phool means flower or bloom in Hindi so chakra phool translates to wheel flower. In China star anise is very popular and is an ingredient in the famed Chinese five spice blend and is used in the technique of red braising. In Vietnam star anise embues the favorite beef noodle dish pho with it's rich flavor.

Star anise plays a rather limited role in Desi cuisines. My favorite way star anise is used across India is in the flavoring of many versions of masala chai (spicy milk tea). Every chaiwalla has their own special blend. In Northern India and Pakistan the warm aromatic flavors of a few petals of star anise often perfume the layered rice of the many regional renditions of the royal Mughal dish called biryani.

The garam masala mixes of South India often include star anise as it pairs brilliantly with chili, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves, cassia, fennel, garlic, and ginger. Perhaps as an influence of Chinese traders star anise is favored to flavor to many meat dishes in South India too.

In my own Scandinavian background I can recall star anise's familiar and distinctive flavor in the Christmas cookie pfeffernüsse, stewed fruits, and pickled beets.

Star Anise is certainly one of the most versatile of spices working well in sweet as well as savory dishes and spice mixes. Be sure to use it sparingly though as a few petals can lend dimension to a dish but too much can be overwhelming. It's quite inexpensive and if kept in an airtight container will last for at least a year.

Helpful Hints:
1 whole star anise = 1/2 teaspoon ground star anise
A good substitution for 1 whole star anise would be: 1/2 teaspoon anise plus a pinch of allspice

Jun 27, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Mangos, Aam

"Aam" is the Hindi and Urdu word for mango and this is definitely mango season! This juicy stone fruit is one of the most economically and culturally important tropical fruits across Asia. Mangos were originally found in the the foothills of the Himalayas, Burma, and Bangladesh. The mango was domesticated thousands of years ago and are now grown in most tropical and subtropical countries worldwide. Mangos are the national fruit of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines as well as the national tree of Bangladesh.

A young mango tree in full bloom.
Mangos are a member of the cashew family, Anacardiaceae, and grow into huge evergreen trees which can grow to ninety feet tall and thirty five feet across. They are also particularly long lived as some specimens still produce fruit after 300 years.

The flowers are borne in multi branched panicles and are both male and bisexual. The flowers are small, creamy white or light yellow and have a mild fragrance reminiscent of lily of the valley. 

Depending on growing conditions and variety the irregularly rounded or somewhat oval shaped fruits can be up to eleven inches in length and weigh up to five pounds each. Mangos are attached by a pendulous stem on the broadest end of the fruit. A mature mango tree can produce 2,000 to 2,500 fruits per year and some cultivars produce a double crop yearly. There are well over a thousand named cultivars of mangos in the world today. The flavors and textures vary from mild and peach-like with buttery flesh to harsh and fibrous with a resinous or turpentine-like taste.

Alphonso mangos
The most popular mango variety for eating fresh in South Asia is the "Alphonso" cultivar you see in the above photo. The Alphonso mango's skin is a distinctive rich yellow with a peachy blush and it's flesh is very pulpy and sweet. The most common commercial cultivar you'll see in western countries is called "Tommy Atkins."

My favorite variety are these little unnamed mangoes they bring up from the southern region of Nepal called the "Terai" and the northern Indian state of Bihar. We have friends who live in Terai and they send us crates of these from their trees when they ripen in late Summer. They are small, fitting in the palm of your hand and range in color from blue green to brilliant red. Despite their small size they have that fruity-floral nectarine flavor I love and the perfect balance of tart to sweet. Their flesh is firm but buttery.

Mangos they are enjoyed many different ways in South Asia. Green mangos are made into spicy, sour, and hot pickles with are a favorite accompaniment to meals. I've already talked about "amchur" which is a souring agent made from dried green mangoes. Good old American Tang even comes in a delicious mango flavor in South Asia too. Mangos are used to make chutneys, lassis, kulfi, a form of preserves called "murabba," curries, and all sorts of goodies. Mango jams are quite lovely and dried or frozen mangos are fine but I'd recommend avoiding canned mangos. Like lychees, mangos do not can well and lose all their fruity floral flavors in the process.


Jun 19, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Lychee, Lichee, Li Zhi, Litchi

These beautiful fresh fruits are called lychee, litchi, liechee, liche, lizhi or li zhi, or lichee. Lychees are native to China but now cultivated in tropical and subtropical climes all over the world. Fresh lychees are a common summer sight in markets all across Asia. Their juicy white pulp is famed for it's floral fragrance and delicately sweet flavor. 

Lychees have a history of cultivation going back to 1059 AD in China. Fresh lychees were so prized by the Chinese Imperial court they formed a special courier service utilizing the fastest horses to deliver them from the country side. Lychees were first described and introduced to the West in 1656 by Michal Boym, a Polish Jesuit missionary who drew the above print. 

The lychee tree, also known as Litchi chinensis, is an evergreen member of the Sapindaceae family. It thrives in warm, frost free climates with high summer heat, abundant rainfall, and intense humidity. The tree can grow as high as sixty feet and prefers slightly acid yet well drained soils. Their are a wide range of lychee cultivars available to suit warmer and slightly cooler temperature ranges.

Lychee trees have distinctive laurel-like leaves to help them shed water easily. The blossoms grow in clusters of ten or more and are distinctively fragranced. Fruits mature in 80–112 days depending on climate, location, and cultivar. The fruits' bumpy, leathery inedible skin is green when immature, ripening to red or pink-red. The skin turns brown and dry when left out after harvesting or when placed in refrigeration.

Fresh lychees are really unique in flavor. They sort of taste like a blend of fresh peach, kiwi, strawberry, mango, and a light floral note I can't quite place. Some people say they taste like grapes. While they do resemble grapes in texture lychees are unlike any grape I've ever tasted. Unfortunately, when canned they lose their lovely almost perfume-like fragrance and flavor and don't really taste like much of anything.

Other than eating lychees fresh out of hand, Pierre Hermé's signature "Ipsahan" macarons are my favorite way of enjoying lychees. Early in his career the famed French pastry chef came up with this divine combination of lychee, rose, and raspberry for the upscale boutique Ladurée.  Ladurée still sells this amazing combination of pink macarons sandwiching rose buttercream and raspberries with a single fresh lychee in the center. The velvety red rose petal with a single dewdrop aside a single perfect raspberry still adorns the top of this culinary icon. Pierre Hermé continues to experiment with this amazing Ispahan flavor combination in cakes, ice cream, parfaits, and even a buche du Noel. Bibi tried making a recipe for an Ispahan flavored poundcake with fresh lychees and raspberries folded into the rose infused batter. Bibi regrets to inform you that lychees do not bake well either. They collapse into viscous, beige, and bland puddles which unattractively ooze out of your poundcake when sliced. I guess I'll just have to fly to the nearest Ladurée or Pierre Hermé's to get my next Ipsahan fix. Paris, Dubai, or Tokyo?

Jun 12, 2016

Ingredient of Week: Dates, Khajur, Khajoor

The familiar fruit known as dates are called "khajoor" or khajur" in Hindi and Urdu. Dates have been a staple food cultivated in the Indus Valley as well as the Middle East for thousands of years. Dates have deep significance in many cultures as they are mentioned over fifty times in the Christian Bible and twenty times in the Holy Koran. Fossil records show that the date palm has existed for at least 50 million years.

The date palm is also known as Phoenix dactylifera and is a flowering plant species in the palm family, Arecaceae. Reaching a height of seventy to seventy five feet date palms grow singly or form a clump with several stems from a single root system. The date palm is dioecious, having separate male and female plants and is naturally wind pollinated. In traditional oasis horticulture and in modern commercial orchards date palm are all pollinated manually. Manual pollination is done by skilled laborers on ladders or by use of a wind machine.

The English word "date" derives from the ancient Greek word "dáktulos" meaning "finger." Dates ripen in four stages, which are known by their Arabic names kimri (unripe), khlal (full-size, crunchy), rutab (ripe, soft), and tamr (ripe, sun-dried). 

Agricultural experts estimate that there are more than 3,000 varieties of dates worldwide. In the southwestern United States only two varieties are predominantly grown: "Deglet Noor" a small, drier date primarily used in baking and the Moroccan "Medjool" which is prized for eating out of hand because of it's large size, succulence, and rich caramel flavor.

The date you'll most commonly see served at festivals and holidays in South Asia is called the "chuara" or "chohara." This type of date is grown primarily in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

Chuara or chohara dried dates
Chuara dates are picked when not quite fully ripe then boiled with a yellow dye. After being boiled, the dates are spread over straw mats and left to dry under the sun for at least for six days. The result is a rock hard and rather flavorless but sweet date. They are very inexpensive and seem to keep indefinitely.

We also have many premium quality dates available here in South Asia that I'd never seen in the United States. These "Dabbas" dates are from the Emirates, they are small but very soft, flavorful, and sweet. That box is a full kilogram (or about 2 lbs) of premium dates for $7USD - can you believe that price?

These are "Barari" dates from Tunisia. They're still on the stem in the box and a bit drier, larger, and less sweet than the Emirati dates.  My personal favorite is a hand packed variety called "Miriam" from Iran that tastes just like caramel.

 "Wet pack" dates of unspecified varieties are always available at a modest price too. The bag on the left is 500 grams or about a pound for $2USD. These wet pack dates are great for cooking and baking. Date syrup as you can see on the right usually shows up in the markets around Ramadan here too. I like date syrup over vanilla ice cream.

In South Asia dates are often made into laddoos, halwas, and kheer for holidays and festivals like Diwali, Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr, as well as weddings. One of the chutneys frequently served with chat and samosas is made from dates, tamarind, and dry ginger/soonth.

The brown chutney is made with dates and red is tomato.
Most often dates are eaten alone as a simple snack or sweet in South Asia. In fact, a certain someone in our household likes to eat dates on the front porch and toss the pits in between the flower pots which has resulted in this:

Our own baby date palm!

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