Culinary Anthropologist


  1. Indian spices

    Leave a Comment

    Some nerdy facts about some of the spices used in Indian cooking, such as in this delicious tarka dal

    Nigella seeds, otherwise known as ‘black cumin’ despite being nothing to do with cumin, are from a flower closely related to love-in-the-mist.  The Egyptians were some of the first to cultivate it, and must have valued it highly as some seeds were found in Tutankhamen’s grave.  Two teaspoons of crushed seeds taken twice a day is said to boost the immune system.  (Didn’t seem to work for young Tutankhamen though.)

    Fenugreek seeds come from a bean plant.  In some countries they are cooked up as a staple like dal or used to make a milk substitute for babies.  Tutankhamen liked them as well, apparently.  Used as a spice fenugreek has a distinctive aroma – a sweet savouriness reminiscent of maple syrup.  In fact, it’s used to flavour artificial maple syrup.

    Cumin seeds crop up in all sorts of recipes all over the world, from North African tagines, to Indian curries, East European soups, Mexican burritos and a few European cheeses and breads.  The ancient Greeks loved it so much they kept it on the dining table in its own special box.   

    Fennel seeds are anise-flavoured, like the stems and leaves of the plant.  Star anise is chewed in China, and fennel seeds in India, to ‘sweeten the breath’ – literally – the distinctive chemical compound common to both spices is 13 times as sweet as regular sugar, by weight.

    Asafoetida powder, charmingly nick-named ‘devil’s dung’, is made from the sap of the root of a member of the carrot family.  The sap is aged until resinous, sometimes in goat or sheepskin to enhance its naturally sweaty, sulphurous, stinky cheese scent.  Don’t let this put you off, some claim the smell reminds them of white truffles.  The vegetarian Jains in India use asafoetida in place of onions and garlic, which they avoid as uprooting them kills the future plant and disturbs the little bugs in the soil.  

    Cayenne powder is derived from the Cayenne variety of chilli pepper, which is approximately 3 times ‘hotter’ than the Serrano, at least 15 times hotter than Paprika, and over 100 times hotter than the Bell pepper (in Scoville pungency units).  So beware how much you use.

    Turmeric powder comes from the dried rhizome of a plant in the ginger family.  It has been used since prehistoric times to colour skin, clothing and foods yellow, for ceremonial purposes and as a medicine and preservative.  It’s still popular today – India produces some 350,000 tonnes each year. 

    Mustard seeds are usually added at the end of cooking as prolonged exposure to heat reduces their pungency and leaves behind a generic cabbage-family aroma.  Black mustard seeds are the strongest, then brown, then yellow.  On the global scale of trade, black pepper is the only spice to outdo mustard in monetary terms.  The word ‘mustard’ comes from its use in the popular condiment – ‘must’-‘ardens’, ie ‘piquant must’, as prepared mustard used to be made with grape must. 

    Curry leaves come from a small citrus tree and are used widely in Indian and Malaysian cuisine.  ‘Curry’ probably hails from the word ‘kari’, which means ‘spicy sauce’ in many languages in those regions.  Most local names for the plant include the word ‘kari’, however there are no kari leaves in the usual curry spice mixes, and ‘kari’ can also mean ‘black’ it seems, referring to the colour of the leaves of a similar looking bush.  Which would mean that the stupid Brits just called them ‘curry leaves’ because they heard a word that sounded similar – ‘kari’.  To complicate matters further there is some evidence that the word ‘curry’ was used for stews in Britain before the first traders arrived in the subcontinent.  A great etymological mystery that I will assign to my linguist husband for further research…  Anyway, the leaves are usually added whole to dishes, like bay leaves, and often fried briefly in butter before being added, as in this recipe.  They’re much better fresh than dried, and can be stored in the fridge or freezer for a week or two before they lose their flavour.  Buy them on the branch if possible.  It’s antidiabetic qualities are supported by scientific research.

    On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, 2004
    Food Plants of the World, Ben-Erik van Wyk, 2005

  2. Pasta


    smpastafactoryitaly07080002.jpgSome notes on that store-cupboard staple we take for granted…

    There are over 800 different named pasta shapes.  Some of these are just regional names for pretty much the same thing though.  Some of their names translate as ‘small bulls’, ‘little muffs’, ‘scruffy hats’, ‘pot bellied’, ‘little worms’, ‘bridegrooms’ or ‘little moustaches’.

    That Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China is a plain fabrication.  Nobody knows who first made it.  The Ancient Romans, Greeks and Etruscans were enjoying pasta long before Marco came along, and the Arabs probably invented the kind of dried pastas we are used to today.  They are thought to have introduced it to Sicily in the 12th century.

    smpastafactoryitaly07080001.jpgBut pasta was not commonly found on Italian dining tables until the second half of the 19th century.  Its proliferation then seems to be due to a combination of factors – Neapolitan influence carried north by Garibaldi’s returning army, new strains of wheat becoming available, and the industrial revolution which mechanised production.  And it was in America that the idea of pasta as a main course developed.  Italian immigrants generated the demand in the US which fuelled the mechanisation back home in Italy.

    The word ‘noodle’, sometimes used to refer to pasta, comes from the Latin nodellus (‘little knot’), describing the tangles of pasta on the plate.

    Contrary to what some say, pasta cooked al dente is better for you than well-cooked pasta.  If it’s slightly tough you chew, which breaks the pasta down and mixes it with digestive enzymes in your saliva. 

    My favourite brand for dry pasta, fairly commonly available, is De Cecco.  Look out for the blue bags and boxes.  Their pasta is made using bronze die-cuts, which have irregular surfaces.  The defects in the bronze make loads of minuscule cuts in the pasta, leaving the surface rough and able to absorb sauces better than that left smooth and shiny by nylon moulds.  De Cecco also dries their pasta at low temperatures which leaves the pasta better able to retain its shape and strength during cooking.


  3. Argan oil

    1 Comment

    smarganland0001.jpgArgan oil is only produced in Morocco, the only country in which the ancient argan tree grows. 

    The region from Essaouira to Agadir and inland, particularly the Souss Valley, is full of scrawny, wild, drought resistant argan trees. 

    Families have collected, cracked and ground argan nuts for their own homemade oil for centuries.


  4. Jerusalem artichokes

    Leave a Comment

    Jerusalem artichokes are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem.  It seems their name is a corruption of ‘girasole’, Italian for sunflower, as the plant is indeed a relative, complete with bright yellow flowers and head-turning properties.  They originated in North America and first arrived in the UK in 1617, via France.  Their flavour is distinctly artichokey, which probably explains the first half of their name.  In the United States now they’re called ‘sunchokes’, which, as much as I hate invented conjoined abbreviations, is probably a more sensible name.


  5. I can’t believe it’s butter

    Leave a Comment

    Smbarnabysmen0001.jpgToday Barnaby went up into the High Atlas mountains – way up into the hills, past the Todra Gorge and everything.  He found his way to the village of Aït Hani, where he met some very knowledgeable women, Rabha and Hadda, who taught him all sorts of interesting things about vegetables and couscous and lots lots more.

    But the most exciting part was when he came across an old earthenware pot.  By the smell, he could tell it was cheese – and quite strong, old cheese at that.  It reminded him a bit of his adventures back in Munster, in fact.

    So he was quite taken aback when the women assured him that it wasn’t cheese at all: it was butter.  No ordinary butter, though – this was the famous aged rancid butter they call smen.  It’s kneaded (sometimes with herbs and spices), cooked (although not always), salted and then kept for years until it gets just the right taste.  They gave him some with some couscous to try, and he thought it was very interesting.

    Four hours later, he still thought it was quite interesting, although he also still thought it tasted quite like he’d been sick in the back of his mouth.

  6. Duck across the border

    Leave a Comment

    Smmerceduck0001.JPGWhen I think of southwest France I think of duck.  Unctuous legs of confit de canard, perhaps nestled in some cassoulet.  Yum.  Having only spent one night in southern France on our way down to Spain, and sampled just one very third rate cassoulet, we thought we’d missed our chance to gorge ourselves on confit de canard.  How wrong we were…


  7. Slow food

    Leave a Comment

    smsnailtoothpick0001.JPGCatalunyans seem to be good at slow food.  There are lots of rich savoury stews, traditionally cooked in wide, shallow earthenware ‘cazuelas’ over a low flame, slowly.  And people know how to take their time over a good meal together.


  8. Fish forever

    Leave a Comment

    Smbacalaopiquillos0001.JPGWith our tummies full of ducks and snails, we moved on to Barcelona, where Pedro and Arantxa took us to what must be one of the city’s best neighbourhood restaurants – Cal Boter, in Gràcia – luckily unknown to the hordes of tourists down by the seafront.  Here we sampled more Catalunyan specialities, including one of their classic ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ dishes – this time wild mushrooms with prawns.  And we had bacalao – salted and dried cod – about which I suspect you could write a thesis as it appears in all sorts of countries, is used in all sorts of ways, and reflects all sorts of interesting historical connections…


  9. It’s tops in Galicia

    1 Comment

    Smcaldogallego0001.jpgIt really is.  We loved Galicia so much we nearly bought an abandoned farmhouse set in the most stunning location amid steep vineyard-covered valleys, looking down over a bright blue gorge and out to a mountainscape not dissimilar to Scotland (with more sun).  Here, in the tiny little stone villages clinging to the mountains people are making excellent wines, cheeses and cured pork products.  And they’re growing turnips…


  10. Octopus on board

    Leave a Comment

    Smpulpogallego0001.JPGRivalling caldo gallego for our favourite Galician dish was pulpo gallego, another local classic, this time found mainly in the towns and villages round the miles and miles of wrinkly coastline.  What makes this dish Galician is the way the octopus is cooked and served…