If cookies go a few weeks without getting eaten, they turn weirdly soft or dissolve into fine dust. If cookies go 1,300 years without getting eaten, they get carefully preserved in a case at the British Museum.
In the winter of 1915, the British-Hungarian archeologist Marc Aurel Stein opened a tomb in Xinjiang. Known as the Astana cemetery, these gravesites were where residents of the nearby oasis city of Gaochang buried their dead, roughly between the 3rd and 9th centuries. As the membrane between Central Asia and China, and the path to the Middle East, Xinjiang has been fought over for centuries (a fight that continues today, as China uses an iron fist to control it as an autonomous province). Gaochang, meanwhile, lies in ruins. But the Astana cemetery, with more than a thousand tombs preserved in the dry heat of the Turpan Basin, tells the story of the once-prosperous ancient city.
The Astana cemetery shows how Gaochang was once a prominent stop on the Silk Road, especially for Sogdians, a people from Eastern Iran who often traveled across Eurasia as merchants. Opening the tombs, Stein found heaps of evidence pointing to Gaochang’s role as a place of “trade exchange between West Asia and China.” Though the vast majority of the dead at Astana were Han Chinese, Stein saw corpses with Byzantine coins in their mouths and Persian textiles included as grave goods.
But inside one tomb, Stein found neither of these things. Grave robbers had emptied it of everything, “except [for] a large number of remarkably preserved fancy pastry scattered over the platform meant to accommodate the coffin with the dead,” he recalled later. Stein was taken aback by the beauty of the cookies and their wide variety of shapes—flat wafers with elaborate designs, delicate, lace-like cookies, and “flower-shaped tartlets … with neatly made petal borders, some retaining traces of jam or some similar substance placed in the [center].” In the arid earth of the cemetery, the sweets managed to survive to modern day.
Today, the pastries are owned by the British Museum, as part of what Stein described as his “haul” of artifacts sent back to the United Kingdom. During his expeditions, Stein also helped himself to priceless cultural objects, such as the first-known printed book. Stein’s plundering of the Diamond Sutra caused vociferous protests in China. In 1961, the National Library of China released a statement saying that Stein’s book theft was enough to cause “people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” The cookies, in comparison, are regarded more as curiosities. A 1925 article in The Times of Mumbai, describing an exhibition of Aurel Stein’s finds in New Delhi, noted how “the most remarkable of all the objects are the actual pastries deposited with the dead as food objects,” with the author writing that they closely resembled “the ‘fancies’ of a modern confectioner’s shop window.”
Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.
Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.
Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.
The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.
“This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium,” said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.
Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.
(Needs the real coca leaf.)
When we were litle kids, back in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, we found this plant abundantly present on waste ground. We referred to its fruit as “Inkberries.” They were believed to be deadly poison. Childhood folklore held that you only needed to eat a single berry to die. So we picked lots of the fascinating berries, crushed them in containers and dared each other to try eating “Inkberry soup.” No one did.
It never occurred to us to do anything with the plant’s ordinary, boring green leaves, but Abby Carney, in Saveur, tells us that Poke salad is really a long-time staple of Appalachian-cum-Afro-American rural cuisine, valued for its flavor as well as regarded as having medicinal properties.
All we did was pick the berries, make poison with them, and throw them at each other.
Despite the fact that the kudzu-like Phytolacca americana sprouts up all across North America, poke sallet, a dish made from the plantâ€™s slightly-less-toxic leaves, is a regional thing, popular only to Appalachia and the American South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to cook out their toxins, and, as aficionados will tell you, itâ€™s well worth the extra effort.
But if pokeweed is so toxic, why did people start eating it in the first place? In a word, poke sallet is survival food.
According to Michael Twitty, historian, Southern food expert, and author of The Cooking Gene, poke sallet was originally eaten for pure practicalityâ€”its toxins made it an allegedly potent tonic. “Back in the old days, you had a lot of people who walked around barefoot,” Twitty said. “They walked around barefoot in animal feces all the time. Most of our ancestors from the Depression backwards were full of worms.” So then, poke sallet acted as a vermifuge, a worm purger.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center cites research showing that raw pokeweed has medicinal properties that can help cure herpes and HIV. That said, there are no clinical trials that support the use of the cooked dish as such, or as any kind of medicine, but its devotees swear by its curative qualities. Pokeweed remains a popular folk medicine, but it hasn’t been widely studied, so its healing properties remain, officially, purported.
Li Ziqi, young Chinese girl, has become a huge celebrity through her videos which demonstrate beautifully the preparation of traditional Chinese foods.
R.A. tells her story.
Li Ziqi said in an interview, â€œI am shooting about my imaginary life in the future.â€ In an elegant traditional Hanfu, she appears in a place like Utopia, surrounded by a landscape with an old-fashioned attractiveness, all natural ingredients, simple and practical cooking utensils, traditional yet retro cooking steps that fascinate her audience deeply. It helps to relax a lot of people who are living a busy urban life. Her videos with an ancient style are very eye-catching, just like being washed by a chilly wind. The word “traditionalâ€ describes her videos the best.
All by her own effort, Li Ziqi has explored a whole new area of short videos – making delicious meals in an ancient style. Watching her videos may make you feel like traveling in a time machine, as if a versatile beautiful lady from ancient China has come to the modern Internet world. Her videos have also made her audience dream of â€œTaoyuan Mengâ€ (the dream of Utopia) as well.
Alex Halberstadt in Saveur:
Writing about the food of Japanese monks and nuns for a magazine like this one presented a conceptual difficulty. From the Buddhist perspective, cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces nourishment to prepare the body for hard work and meditation. Unlike, say, Memphis barbecue or the cuisine of Lyonnaise bouchons, shojin doesnâ€™t have a whole lot to say on the subject of pleasure. Shojin has bigger fish to fry. Its goals are nothing less than permanent enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society. It does not fit easily into the hedonistic, novelty-addled world of food journalism.
Before every other restaurant extolled the virtues of seasonal produce, there was shojin ryori, a Buddhist cuisine reimagined by monk chef Toshio Tanahashi.
I chanced upon my salvation, journalistically speaking, in the person of Toshio Tanahashi. Heâ€™d practiced the art of shojin as a Zen monk in a rural temple near Kyoto and then did something unprecedentedâ€”he opened a restaurant in Tokyoâ€™s chic Omotesando neighborhood that presented vegan monastic cuisine in a fine-dining context. The restaurant, Gesshin Kyo, became both successful and influential. Reviewing it for the New York Times, author and culinary authority Elizabeth Andoh described it as a â€œsecular space imbued with a spiritual respect for food.â€ It was a spiritual respect that nonetheless made room for distinctly un-Japanese elements like tomatoes, mangoes, and white bordeaux. Freed from temple kitchens and its role as nourishment, shojin dazzled Tanahashiâ€™s diners with its unfamiliar and subtle beauty. The Zen monk had become a famous chef by reimagining monk food.
Tanahashi closed Gesshin Kyo after 15 years, in 2006. Along the way he wrote two books about shojin ryori and came to see it as a corrective to the worldâ€™s restaurant culture, which he believes to be addled with costly, scarce, and unhealthy ingredients. …
[S]hojin [is] world poised between the rigorous simplicity of spiritual practice and its often exquisite trappings. Consider the tools found in a shojin kitchen. On the day we met, Tanahashi brought me to Aritsugu, renowned as a shrine among the international brotherhood of knife fetishists. The family-owned shop has been in continuous operation since 1560 and once supplied swords to the Imperial House of Japan.
At the modern-day shop in Kyotoâ€™s enclosed Nishiki Market, we shimmied past vitrines of eye-wateringly expensive sashimi blades to a back room, where a soft-spoken manager showed us the principal tools of the shojin chef. There was an adorably petite vegetable cleaver called a nakiri-bocho; a one-sided grater of tinned copper trimmed in magnolia wood and deer antler used for working with lotus root and wasabi; and a strainer-ricer made of the braided hairs of a horseâ€™s tail bound with a band of cherry bark. These utensils, made by hand, were remarkably beautiful.
â€œThings that are made by humans for humans are good for the spirit,â€ Tanahashi declared. He explained that shojin kitchens forbid plastic and machinery. Taking care of oneâ€™s tools, he added, turning the cleaver in his hand, was in itself a form of Buddhist meditation.
Over the next several days, Tanahashi led me on a breakneck tour of shojinâ€”not the grand theory behind it, but the myriad building blocks. He referred to it as my â€œeducation.â€ At an antique lacquerware shop called Uruwashiya, behind one of those dimly lit Kyoto storefronts that always look closed, Akemi Horiuchi, the elegant proprietor, showed us the most important dishes used in serving shojinâ€”several attractively worn red bowls and a matching tray. Red is the auspicious color of the temples, she explained, and the trayâ€™s raised edge indicates that it encloses a sacred space. Shojin must be served in handmade vessels, and few are as painstakingly handmade as theseâ€”delicately carved wood covered with layer upon layer of urushi lacquer, making the dishes supple, lightweight, and resilient. The lacquer on the bowls Horiuchi showed us had faded in placesâ€”a prized quality, she saidâ€”because they were made nearly 500 years ago, in Sen no Rikyuâ€™s lifetime.
Every detail inside the out-of-time barn carried hidden meaning. There were flickering candles elevated on spikes, all thinly spread out to help workers navigate the blackness without fear of treading on the prized crop. There were shadowy hoes propped against the brick walls to help mulch the earth. There was the outline of gas propane heaters, and a sprinkler system to intensify the heat and humidity in the dark. There were around half a million buds â€“ all cultivated in rows and all making groaning sounds as they germinated at an unnatural speed. It was a riveting exhibition of Mother Nature at work, yet a display teetering on the edge of the surreal. And one all-the-more glorious for rarely being seen by outsiders.
Come to West Yorkshire during the rhubarb harvest in mid-winter and you can expect to hear tales of this strange agricultural ritual. Here, land gathers into a swathe of greenbelt that points to the cities of Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield. Some 23 sq km in area, the realm is punctuated by the odd cathedral and castle and framed by plunging dales to the north and the gently sloping foothills of the Pennines to the west. But it is also a pocket of frozen, flinty soil with high rainfall where one of the worldâ€™s most complex vegetables grows in abundance. And it would be a peculiar place even without the name â€˜the Rhubarb Triangleâ€™. …
â€œRhubarb has been called â€˜Godâ€™s great giftâ€™,â€ said Oldroyd Hulme, who is also known as the â€˜high priestess of rhubarbâ€™ for her knowledge on the subject. â€œWatch and you can see the plants shooting towards the light â€“ just as we would warm our hands on a fire.â€
A notoriously fickle vegetable to harvest, Yorkshire forced rhubarb is anything but easy to grow. It thrives in the countyâ€™s cold winters, but if the soil is too wet, it canâ€™t be planted. If the temperature is too hot, it wonâ€™t grow; and 10 or more frosts are needed before a farmer can even think about forcing it. Only then can horticulturalists remove the heavy roots from the field, then clean and replant them inside the forcing sheds where photosynthesis is limited, encouraging glucose stored in the roots to stimulate growth. It demands patience, expertise and good fortune, and, ultimately, it is engineered for maximum taste: once deprived of light, the vegetable is forced to use the energy stored in its roots, making it far sweeter than the normal variety.
Last month, a challenge from Durham University spurred bakers to whip up a soul cake, a bygone bun once integral to a medieval tradition of feeding the poor and honoring the dead. But, in the spirit of competitive baking reality shows, there was a catch: Nobody really knows how, traditionally, it was supposed to be baked.
We know generally what soul cakes looked like, and what was inside of them. We know that bakers crafted them into small, round, square, or oval bunsâ€”garnishing the top with currants in the shape of a cross. And we know its purpose: Giving a soul cake to someone in poverty allegedly freed a departed soul from Purgatory. But weâ€™re still in the dark about its intended taste and texture, and exactly how to go about concocting a soul cake in true medieval fashion.
â€œWe have a recipe from a household book from 1604 compiled by a certain Lady Elinor Fettiplace that includes a recipe for a soul cake,â€ says Dr. Barbara Ravelhofer, a professor of English literature at Durham University and facilitator of the soul cake challenge. â€œHowever, it doesnâ€™t give us the quantitiesâ€”nor does it tell us how long to bake it. So you have to work out for yourself what to do with the ingredients.â€ Spearheaded by Dr. Ravelhofer and the Records of Early English Drama North East team, the Great Northern Soul Cake Bake doubles as a competition and crowdsourcing project. By challenging the public to decode the bare-bones recipe, the research team hopes to understand and resurrect the original soul cakeâ€”as well as the tradition that surrounds it.
Soul cakes are connected to Britainâ€™s early Christian celebrations known as All Saintsâ€™ Day and All Soulsâ€™ Day, Halloween-like festivities commemorating the recently departed. On November 2nd, beggars would weave their way through the chilly darkness, rapping on wealthy homeownersâ€™ doors in exchange for a soul cake. But obtaining it was no cake walk. To successfully soul, one had to sing for sweets.
Whether it be musical or theatrical, souling required performance in exchange for a cakeâ€”a tradition that looks a lot like modern-day trick-or-treating. And, though itâ€™s impossible to definitively claim souling as the progenitor of tricking and treating, Dr. Ravelhofer says theyâ€™re certainly connected. However, she points out, there are key differences. â€œA soul-caker was somebody who did something to obtain something,â€ she says. â€œWhereas trick-or-treating strikes me as, â€˜Give me something or else Iâ€™ll do something.â€™â€
Demanding candy door-to-door, she posits, is a â€œslightly degenerated, commercialized formâ€ of the All Soulsâ€™ Day transactions of medieval Europe. Souling, Dr. Ravelhofer adds, also had a strong connection to charity and memoriam. The act of doling out freshly baked goods, while thinking of a â€œpoor, departed soul,â€ filled two needs with one deed, giving to the hungry and freeing a soul in question from Purgatory in one fell swoop.
While vestigial remnants of this practice can still be found in some parts of England, the tradition of souling, and the cakes that came with it, have since disappearedâ€”until now.
To more fully understand the history and tradition of All Souls Day, Dr. Ravelhofer and her team devised the bake off. The technical challenge (the first of a series of three) called for readers to recreate a successful iteration of the festive bun using only Elinor Fettiplaceâ€™s 17th-century recipe, which reads:
â€œTake flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them or fruit.â€
Folks from across the globe responded, submitting recipes, photographs, and anecdotes via email, Facebook, and Twitter, with results ranging from wild successes to valiant flops.
â€œWe had proper food archaeologists who really got into the spirit of things, and then we had candidates who tried to microwave it,â€ says Dr. Ravelhofer.
David Petts, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Durham University, posted about his soul cakes on his personal blog, likening them to â€œslightly dense hot-cross buns.â€ Another participant found that using a ruby or dark ale gave the cakes a soft, chewy texture. Yet another made a successful stoneground cake by adding rye, theorizing that medieval bakers may have used additional grains.
But cataloguing the failed cakes, Dr. Ravelhofer says, has been just as informative as admiring the more edible ones.
Understanding what doesnâ€™t work, and why, allows historians to do detective work when it comes to understanding what the recipe may or may not have looked like.
Picking, cooking, and eating flowers and wild herbs was once a common practice across rural Italy. From Naplesâ€™ sciurilli (deep fried courgette flowers) to Venetoâ€™s frittelle di fiori de gazia (acacia flowers doughnuts), most regions have a dish whose key ingredient is flowers. But after World War II, industrialization and urbanization led to the abandonment of this ancient tradition. Now, one woman is trying to bring it back.
Elena Rosa, whose last name literally means â€œRose,â€ is growing flowers, wild herbs, and rare vegetables in a two-hectare farm nestled between the wheat fields of rural Piedmont, about 30 miles from the snowcapped peaks of the Cottian Alps. Rosa grew up in Turin, Piedmontâ€™s main city, but spent summers with her grandparents in Ceresole Reale, a mountain village inside Gran Paradiso National Park. Thatâ€™s where she first learned about foraging.
â€œAs a kid, I loved helping my grandma picking vegetables,â€ she says. â€œI used to go out into the woods to look for wild caraway to make grappa.â€ Now, some 30 years later, sheâ€™s delivering flowers to the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. …
Common recipes included soups and frittatas made with luppolo (hop flower), jams and infusions made with rosa canina (dog rose), and dumplings filled with tarassaco (dandelion). Flowers were also a key ingredient in popular herb digestifs such as Serpui, a grappa seasoned with wild thyme, and Genepy, a spirit made with eponymous genepy herbs.
â€œWild flowers and herbs are rich in vitamins and minerals, and they were especially important during time of famine, disease, or war to provide sufficient nutrition to the population,â€ says Alessandro Di Tizio, a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo who works as a professional ethnobotanist. …
â€œAfter World War II, many young people left rural areas to look for work in cities, and were no longer interested in foraging,â€ De Tizio explains. â€œAnd those who stayed could often do without foraging thanks to newly available industrial products.â€ …
Two years ago, Rosa purchased abandoned farmland in Gemerello, a rural area at the foot of the Cottian Alps. After years of job-hopping, from sous-chef in a top restaurant to manager in a construction business, she was looking to start her own organic farm. The initial plan was to grow to grow regular crops, but her foraging sessions with â€œgrandma Irideâ€ inspired her to start what she calls an â€œancient seed farm.â€
She now grows roughly 200 different seeds, ranging from rare vegetables to wild plants and flowers including nasturtium, cornflower, and dahlias. â€œI have learned that flowers are very nutritious and can be used for a vast range of recipes,â€ Rosa says.
â€œTake bright-orange Nasturtium flowers. They are rich with Vitamin C and each of their components can be [used in different food preparations].â€ Nasturtium seeds, for example, can be ground to make pepper, blossoms marinated to make vinegar, and petals eaten raw or sautÃ©ed with butter. The velvety white leaves of begonia semperflorens are particularly interesting: They taste just like citrus fruit and can be used to season seafood dishes instead of lemon.
Flowers of Blitum virgatum, commonly known as leafy goosefoot (left), and a rare breed of calliope eggplant grown by Elena Rosa (right). Elena Rosa (left) and Vittoria Traverso (right)
But starting an ancient seed farm was not easy. Italyâ€™s byzantine bureaucracy was in the way. â€œLocal health authorities donâ€™t know how to rate flowers,â€ Rosa explains. â€œI got a mix of surprised and skeptical reactions when I explained you can actually eat them.â€
[D]espite bureaucratic obstacles, her products are slowly taking off. Last spring, Rosa brought a sample of her produce to Michelin star chef Christian Milone, who runs the family-owned restaurant Trattoria Zappatori in the nearby town of Pinerolo.
When Milone was a kid, wild flowers and herbs were a staple ingredient in his parentsâ€™ kitchen. â€œFrittatas with luppolo (hop flowers) were one of my favorite dishes,â€ he says. Tasting Rosaâ€™s sample was like re-discovering long-lost flavors.
A month later, Milone was serving dishes prepared with Rosaâ€™s herbs and flowers. One such floral creation is crostino con erba ostrica, a bread crouton topped with Mertensia maritima, a wild herb known as oyster leaf due to its oyster-like taste, and garnished with violets, daisies, and cornflower petals. â€œItâ€™s like an oyster for vegans,â€ Rosa says.