Saturday, May 20, 2017

Compost 20 May 2017

[This edition's pic Invasion of the Omega Fatty Acids 2015 52x42 cm paper collage, pencil, ink. Max Dingle]

This edition of Compost has several articles I have come across in the last month that talk about the lack of diversity in food writing and dining.

I haven’t put my usual commentary with them because I find the area both confronting and problematic to discuss. What they say has long been something I also see and feel. They speak to something deep within the structures of, for want of a better word, Anglo foodways which cannot but help replicate the deep discriminatory structures within Anglo cultures. So, redressing what these writers observe is not as simple as having diverse voices in the food media or diversity in more than the dish pig end of the kitchen. It involves deep questioning of the ways we construct our worlds and complex strategies at the personal and the structural level to reconstruct those worlds.

King Lear is the play above plays for me full of insights and challenges. One the comes to mind, and the word ‘insight’ is apposite to what I have been saying. The play is very much about seeing, with a beautiful pairing of Gloucester’s physical blindness and Lear’s more troubling psychological and moral blindness. In Act 1, soon after Lear has exiled Cordelia, Kent urges: ‘See better, Lear’. I think this is the challenge in its deepest meaning that these articles ask of us, and by seeing better to act, to be better.

Eat insects and fake meat to cut impact of livestock on the planet – study
‘Globally, twice as much land is used to raise cattle, pigs and other animals than is used to grow crops. Furthermore, a third of those crops harvested are fed back to livestock. The new research is the first systematic comparison of the environmental impact of various sources of food, and found that imitation meat and insects are vastly more efficient than raising livestock.
The work, published in the journal Global Food Security, found that if half of traditional animal products were replaced by imitation meat or insects the land required to produce the world’s food would be slashed by a third.’

It’s ironic that the very diets that many of those in African and Asian countries are moving away from are those that are being promoted as important components of sustainable foodways for the future.

The Struggles of Writing about Chinese Food as a Chinese Person
“Of the 263 entries under the "Chinese" recipe filter on the New York Times food section, almost 90 percent have a white person listed as author in the by-line. Only 10 percent of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers.”

This article raises many of the dilemmas and frustrations I face as someone who writes about South Asian cuisine in Australia. I don’t hold that only South Asians can write about South Asian food, as Wei also does not hold that only Chinese can write about Chinese food. But I reckon if I did a count of who gets their recipes for South Asian food into mainstream food media in Australia, I’d find an analogous situation. The non-Anglo-Australia voice does not get heard outside of a very small number of exceptions. But lest this sound like wog pleading, as I was working on this Compost I chanced to see a promo for Gardening Australia where Costa said that next week, he would be showing how to use native produce. Now, I haven’t seen the ep yet, and I trust Costa will have an Indigenous provider or cook on as well, but he gave no indication of that.

Highlights From Our Interview with Kusuma Rao of Ruchikala
‘So when I see other people that don't have that moral conflict of selling something they didn't have a lot of personal experience with, or marketing for food businesses that use a lot of religious imagery of brown people to sell makes me wonder what it would have been like for them to have had the experience of being the "other," and how that would changed how they market what they do.’

The Calls Are Coming From Inside The House
‘This post reminded me of a conversation that I had at a dinner with a manager of one of the top restaurants in Boston. I mentioned that I would love to see more people of color at hospitality events. He responded with, ‘well, maybe those kinds of people don’t care about hospitality.” My jaw dropped. Then I felt angry. Then I felt embarrassed as I looked around at my fellow restaurant workers, managers, chefs, all of whom were white, and realized that none of them were challenging him in this assertion.’

BD Wong teaches you how to eat a chicken wing
And here I thought all I had to do was put it in my mouth and scrape it against my teeth 😊

Which oils are best to cook with?
‘He thinks the ideal "compromise" oil for cooking purposes is olive oil, "because it is about 76% monounsaturates, 14% saturates and only 10% polyunsaturates - monounsaturates and saturates are much more resistant to oxidation than polyunsaturates".’

Has this mob ever tasted a Sri Lankan curry cooked with olive oil? It’s shite. Can we just get on with using oils appropriate to the cuisine the oils are supposed to serve and stop endlessly imposing a problem which developed within a  - I hate to use the term but I can’t find another – Western, market driven high fat content per se diet and the neo-liberal individualistic solutions that this article and others like it promotes?

Plot 29: A Memoir by Allan Jenkins review – childhood trauma and the solace of gardening
‘The garden cannot cure Jenkins’s fragile state of mind, nor stop him having vicious dreams of men with knives, but it does at least allow him a space to breathe, a “chemical-free” form of medicine. When he buys seed packets, he feels he is “collecting hope – at £2 a packet”. Those of us who are not so green-fingered sometimes make the mistake of thinking that gardening is a bland activity, but Jenkins shows that it can be a meaningful and muddy sort of stoicism: an acceptance of the way things are. This haunting memoir offers a reminder that after the digging, sometimes all you can do is plant.’

Thanks Helen for putting me on to (a) this review and so (b) the book which I look forward to reading.

What comes first: the free-range chicken or the free-range egg?
‘When we asked shoppers what they look for in terms of products that promote animal welfare, the most common answers involved free-range or cage-free eggs. We then asked people why they chose these products. A strong theme emerged: many shoppers preferred these types of eggs because they viewed them as higher quality, having better taste and colour, more nutritious, and safer than eggs produced using other methods such as barn systems.’

I’ve just finished Dan Jurafsky’s the Language of Food and this is an excellent example of what he discusses so genially and powrfully  - the persusasive power of words.

War on waste: Recycling shells from your plate to benefit the ocean
‘But for the last two years, restaurants and seafood wholesalers in Geelong, south-west of Melbourne, have been donating their shells to a local shell recycling program.
The donated mussel, oyster and scallop shells are then used to form a reef foundation, in the hope of restoring the once abundant shellfish reefs of Port Phillip Bay.’

I love a good food waste recycling venture and this one is a beauty which not only does good by waster but also by a social enterprise.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Pol Sambol

Pol Sambol

It’s ubiquitous, delicious and has as many permutations as there are Sri Lankans. I think I can say without challenge that it is one of the dishes that defines Sri Lankan cuisine. It’s certainly one that is a taste memory as evocative for expatriate Sri Lankans as Vegemite is to expatriate Australians, a buttery croissant is to expatriate French and a MacDonald’s hamburger is to States-siders. 

Pol sambol is usually a go-with as are all sambols, but as a kid a favourite way to eat it was as a topping on a slice of bread and butter. 

So, what makes a pol sambol?

The oldest codified recipe I have found for it is in Hilda Deutrom’s classic 1929 Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book, though she calls it Goda Sambol.

½ a coconut (scraped)                                             1 tablespoonful sliced red onions
10 dry chillies                                                          juice of one lime
1 dessertspoonful Maldive fish                              salt

Pound together the chillies, Maldive fish, onions, and salt, then add the coconut and pound lightly. Moisten with the lime juice and mix well together.

N.B. – Instead of being pounded, the ingredients may be lightly ground.

I’ve eaten many a pol sambol in my 60plus years and I have strayed from this recipe in ways that Deutrom may not approve. But as I said in the intro to this, pol sambol is a dish that encourages and, indeed, invites variation. I asked Sri Lankan Facebook friends how they made theirs, wondering what everyone saw as the non-negotiables and how widely they ranged. All agree that if you don’t have grated coconut (derr!), dried chili (double derr!!), lime, onions and salt, you are not even in the square outside of which to think .

Unstated is that the coconut is freshly grated, though one person did say that their mother used rehydrated desiccated. I conducted an experiment and can report that this will give you quite an inferior sambol; it can’t quite escape the powderiness of its desiccation nor has it the light oiliness of fresh grated.  Using frozen freshly grated coconut on the other hand I found quite acceptable if you are not in the happy position of having a coconut palm in your backyard or be within easy distance of a specialist Asian grocer who has a reliable source of reasonably recently plucked coconuts or happen to be in an area where the big generalist grocers have cottoned on to the changing demographic of their customers and has started stocking coconuts.

On the chili front, there is variation as to whether they need to be fresh or dried or both. I confess that I am not above using chili powder, which gives the sambol a more orange colour which is pleasing. Some also use both red and green chilies, with the latter either ground along with the red or sliced fine and tossed through when the basic paste is made.

The type of onion again usually goes unstated, but were it being made in Sri Lanka, it would most likely be the fingernail sized red onions. These are very hard to source in Australia but what are now being sold as shallot onions are a good alternative, and your average brown onion will also do.

Were you making the sambol in Sri Lanka there is a high probability you would be using sea salt, but any table salt will do. Lime juice preferably fresh, but if not, then a good quality pre-juiced is fine. Lemon doesn’t work: lime juice generally is more acidic and it’s what you want in this dish.

Now, about the Maldive fish. As far as I can discover, this is something particular to Sri Lankan, Maldivian and Tamil food. It’s tuna – skipjack, yellow fin, little tunny – that’s been skinned, eviscerated cut into lengths, then boiled, smoked and dried till it is as hard as a piece of wood and looks not dissimilar. In Sri Lanka you can buy it in large ‘fillets’, but it is most often sold as small chips, like wood splinters, which have to be pounded further before being added to a dish. The intensity of its fishiness and its strong odour can put people off. It has the kind of depth of flavour of dried prawns or shrimp which can be substituted in the sambol. Also, it can be left out if you are averse to dry seafood of any kind, or are a non-piscatarian vegetarian or, of course, a vegan.

Form here, you can add what takes your fancy but you will drift further and further away from the essence of the sambol. Some of my correspondents add garlic and/or ginger and said in their family this was then called Lansi sambol, where Lansi apparently means Burgher which is interesting as it suggests it is seen as not authentically Sinhalese but an adaptation by Dutch/Portuguese. Some add curry leaves, one suggested adding a little sugar, another adds a little pineapple, another adds lime pickle. One added Marmite, a distinctly British brown salty paste that is a yeast by-product of beer making, on the suggestion of a tradie doing work on her premises and says it worked well.

What makes this simple combination of ingredients so tasty? First and foremost is its umami base, the ‘fifth’ taste, usually described as mildly meaty or just savoury. Coconut, chillies, Maldive fish and onion are all umami. This contrasts with the sharpness of the salt and the bitterness of the lime.

Then there’s the heady aroma released throughout the process, intensifying as the ingredients are pounded to release their odorants - the menthol of the coconut, the aldehydes in the lime, the intensely ammoniac scent of dried fish.

The mouthfeel, too, is part of its attraction. As I said above, Deutrom calls the dish goda sambol. This indicates that she intends the dish to be made on a miris galla (literally a chili stone), a combination of a large flat stone and a cylindrical stone grindstone.  Grinding releases the water in the onion and adding salt extracts more. Combining this with the powder formed from pounding the Maldive fish and dry chillies forms a paste. The grated coconut is fibrous and also a little oily (you can feel this with your fingers, just the hint of viscousness). It’s a combination of wet, rough, smooth, oily that gets your tongue sending exciting complicated messages to your brain about the shapes, textures and feel of the sambol.

When the astringency of onion and the burn from the chili hits the pain receptors of your tongue, it’s like firecrackers exploding in the finale of the sensory fiesta that is a pol sambol. 

My thanks to the following for sharing their pol sambol secretes with me: Anne-Marie Scharenguivel Kellar, Suzanne Therese Paiva, Natalie Punchihewa, Trudy Kern, Honorine Misso-Ludwick, Hugh Karunanayake.