Food & Fragrance: 165 posts

Articles about the gourmand pleasures, flavorful cooking, scent and taste experiments and tested recipe ideas

Ukrainian Borscht Poltava Style : My Family Borshch Recipe

You can spell it borscht, borshch, or borsch, but by any name, it’s the dish that embodies the essence of Ukrainian food culture–colorful, rich and vibrant. To call it soup wouldn’t be correct, because Ukrainian borscht is a dish more like minestrone, pot-au-feu or cocido in its heartiness. Every region of Ukraine has different varieties of borscht. There is no one authentic recipe, although there are classical versions. Borscht in Lviv in the west of Ukraine is ruby-red and includes small mushroom-filled dumplings; it’s an essential Christmas Eve dish. In the south of Ukraine, borscht is made with fish. The Central Ukrainian-style borscht–the most popular variation–is famous for its sweet-sour flavors. Borscht can be made with beef, pork, chicken, duck, beans, and even fish. It can be vegetarian. It can be soured with tomatoes, beet kvas, vinegar, sour cherries, rhubarb or red currants. It can be flavored with mushrooms or dried plums. It can include white beets and be pale in color. It can be spicy with paprika or suave with sour cream.

Outside of Eastern Europe, borscht tends to be associated with Russian cooking, since people tend to label everything from the former Soviet Union as Russian. Borscht in different variations is also enjoyed in Poland (barszcz), Lithuania (barščiai) and Romania (borş). Nevertheless, if you think of borscht as soup with beets, cabbage and tinted red with tomatoes, then it’s the Ukrainian version that you have in mind. According to the Russian food historian, Olga Syutkina, that version became popular in Russia at the end of the 18th century, when this dish was introduced on the tsarist army’s menu. Originally, borscht was the food of the peasants, because it was easy to cook in advance and was nutritious enough to be served as a one-dish meal. With the immigration of the Ashkenazi Jewish community to North America, borscht–the English spelling gives away its Yiddish roots–became popular in the New World.

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Dungan Spice Blend and Summer Salad : From Bishkek Via Brussels

Last weekend I had a cooking class with Zulfiya Ma Tian Yu of Dungan Food. Zulfiya lives in Bishkek, Kyrgystan, but we managed to overcome the Bishkek-Brussels distance by a combination of video and WhatsApp. Thanks to  modern technology, I’ve learned the basics of this ancient cuisine. The Dungans are a community of Muslims of Arab-Chinese descent living in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Originating from Western China, where the Dungans are known as Hui, this community has a distinctive identity, amalgamating various cultural influences. Its cuisine is likewise diverse, vibrant–and different from the cuisines of their immediate neighbors.

Imagine the sophisticated seasonings of Persian cuisine, intricate Chinese techniques and the robust Central Asian palette–and you get an idea of what Dungan food is like. There are noodle dishes served with an array of dozens of salads and sauces, dumplings filled with lamb and pumpkin, and paper-thin crepes for wrapping stir-fries of garlic chives and pepper. Each meal is served with plenty of vegetables, and everything is cooked just enough to enhance the natural flavors.

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Rubbish to Gems : A Tale of Javanese Tea Wedang Uwuh

While driving around the Indonesian countryside, especially in Sulawesi and Java, you see sheets of tarp spread along the side of the road with cloves or scrolls of cassia drying in the hot sun. The archipelago produces most of the world’s nutmeg and clove, spices over which wars were fought and nations colonized. Most of the produce drying on the plastic sheets is intended for export; the higher the quality the better the price farmers would fetch. Yet, no part of a spice tree is wasted, be it cassia, nutmeg or clove. Javanese tea, wedang uwuh, is an example of this philosophy.

Uwuh means rubbish in Javanese, and the tea uses all of the refuse from the spice production–nutmeg leaves, clove branches, cassia foliage and stems. (Another theory is that the tea is so called because the bits and ends floating in the liquid look like garbage.) Either way, garbage it is not, and one legend credits the Raja of Mataram with the discovery of wedang uwuh.

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Cooking by the Nose

This article appeared as Cooks, Follow Your Nose in Zester Daily in 2011. The great Marcella Hazan complimented me on it, noting that she also cooked using her nose. Unfortunately, the magazine has since been revamped and the article no longer appears online. In tribute to all of the cooks who follow their nose, I’m reprinting it here.

The best way to find a perfectly ripe tomato has little to do with its shape, color or size. It is the unmistakable scent of salty caramel that demonstrates a tomato is at its peak. While green tomatoes can be reddened with ethylene gas, furaneol, the compound that gives tomatoes their distinctive aroma, accumulates only when a fruit is allowed to fully mature on the vine. Strawberries and mangoes share the same compound and other fruits contain analogous aromatic molecules when fully ripe. But how often do cooking shows and magazines describe how produce should smell? Though we learn how to make colorful compositions on the dinner plate, when do we learn how to use our nose to explore food combinations? Understanding the role of aroma and the power of our nose is essential for eating well.

Our sense of smell comprises a comparatively large fraction of our genetic makeup. We use more than 1000 different sensory receptors to analyze a smell, each receptor with its own genetic code. The ability to distinguish subtleties among smells is enormous and was of great importance when our prehistoric ancestors relied on hunting and gathering to survive.

Though supermarkets have obviated the need for daily foraging, scent, closely linked to our sense of taste, is a cornerstone of our food enjoyment. The process of chewing food releases aromatic compounds that are detected by the olfactory receptors in the nasal passages. While we are likely to comment on how food tastes, we are making the judgment based on how it smells. Yet, our supermarkets are deodorized to the point of sterility, our produce is often hermetically sealed in plastic wrap, and our cookbooks read like IKEA design guides. Moving past visual appeal to explore other sensations associated with food opens up new horizons and leads to a richer culinary experience.

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Pumpkin Rice Pudding with a Millet Variation

The fall market in Ukraine is all about pumpkins–the delicate yellow squashes that resemble melons, orange rounds large enough to become Cinderella’s coach, elongated butternuts, green pebbly varieties with white flesh, and so much more. In the customary fashion of a Ukrainian market, the sellers offer small pieces of pumpkin to prove that theirs is the sweetest, the ripest and the most fragrant.

Sampling pumpkins at the market in Poltava, I realized that many varieties taste of violets. This floral-fruity note makes pumpkin an interesting ingredient in sweet and savory dishes. I like to roast pumpkin cubes tossed with garlic, chili and cumin as well as coated in honey and sprinkled with walnuts. I make minestrone with beans and bacon–or use pumpkin in delicate pureed soups with pears and cardamom. Its flavor is subtle, but it’s surprisingly assertive.

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  • Klaas in Rhubarb and Roses in Cuisine and Perfume: We grew rhubarb in our garden when I was a kid. We used to eat the stems, raw, dipped in sugar. It was a real experience, the extreme sourness of… April 14, 2021 at 5:11pm

  • Sarah in Rhubarb and Roses in Cuisine and Perfume: Love the Hermes parfum. Bought it in Montreal. It is nice je of my favorite during the summer. Caramelized rhubarb pie is a delight. Unfortunately I am the only one… April 14, 2021 at 4:36pm

  • Silvermoon in Rhubarb and Roses in Cuisine and Perfume: When I visited relatives in Germany as a child, I remember being served rhubarb compotes or similar for dessert. Always liked it, but considered it oddly sour for a “dessert”.… April 14, 2021 at 3:28pm

  • OnWingsofSaffron in Rhubarb and Roses in Cuisine and Perfume: Ah, delicious! I cooked one batch of rhubarb with sugar, a bit of salt and vanilla as a compote. The second batch was blanched very shortly for a Persian-ish khoresh… April 14, 2021 at 11:51am

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