All posts by Joshua Schlachet

Cha (ឆា):The Remarkable Role of Stir-Fries in Khmer Gastronomy and Healing

By Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam

Within the grand, yet nebulous universe of what food and culture writers deem as “Asian” cooking and gastronomy, there is a deep love and affinity for the stir-fry. In a hot oily pan, various combinations of vegetables and proteins are tossed and transformed into something wonderful. The simple act of tossing becomes momentous – a way to incorporate flavours and aspects of a cuisine’s eccentricities with chosen ingredients in an endless number of ways. To say that the stir-fry “belongs” to as specific culinary tradition is contentious at times. While the origins of stir-fry, as a cooking technique and dish, originated in China, many cultures across the Asian continent and beyond have embraced it within their own cooking traditions.[1]

Growing up in the Khmer diaspora of the United States, my family and friends have had many conversations about what truly constitutes “Khmer” food and cuisine. More often than not, a joke about Cha (ឆា) would be made. Typically referencing how our moms would throw together whatever vegetables were floating around in our fridges with slices of random meats to feed us on small budgets of both time and money. To spruce up one’s cha,  additional clumps of garlic, onion, chili peppers, and or ginger were fried and immediately dashed with soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.

A plate of cha trakhoun (morning glorywith chicken and rice

These core ingredients, with their strong and savoury aromas, constantly perfumed our kitchens. We ate cha for lunch, for dinner, at family potlucks, and when we were sick — to the surprise of many. Stir-fries as being curative cuisines, or the foods you consume (and lean on) when you’re unwell, is not a common association. In what reality could an oily and heavily spiced dish facilitate healing?

These were just some of my initial thoughts when I began my doctoral research in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Khmer traditional and folk food-medicines used in response to changes brought forth by seasonality, maternity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the interviews and conversations that took place, the consistent mentioning of a number of Khmer dishes which defined my childhood arose, with several types of cha being the most common. As I listened to each study participant’s reflections on food-medicines and/or curative cuisines, the actions and rationalities of my mother began to clarify intensely.

Whenever my sister or I were sick, she’d encourage us to eat chili peppers, limes, black pepper, ginger, and garlic in excess. Her rationality was that I needed to “warm my body” and that these ingredients would do that for me. Alongside bowls of borbor (rice porridge) and snau (soup), she’d prepare us some cha kgneuy (ginger stir-fry). This orientation of rice, soup, and stir-fry embodied the characteristic spread of Khmer cuisine — a little bit of everything: rice, soup, a fresh vegetables and herbs plate, and cha to bring it all together.[1]

A typical Khmer meal spread with rice, cha, vegetable/herb plate, snau (soup), and grilled fish

In both traditional and folk Khmer medicine, health and wellness are partially reliant on the balancing of bodily humors. Under the humoral theory of medicine, the body is made up of four distinctive humors (blood, phlegm, black/yellow bile) which correspond to specific organs and well as conditions (hotness, coldness, wetness, dryness). When these humors are pushed out of balance for one reason or another, illness ensues. To address this, both traditional and folk Khmer medicine approaches feature consumable remedies that shift one’s humoral orientation back into alignment.

In traditional and folk Khmer food-medicines, cha is a ubiquitous remedy because of its versatility. The ingredients of the cha determine its humoral qualities and impact. You can humorally “cool” or “warm” your body by eating a specific kind of cha. During pregnancy, cha trakhoun with oyster sauce (stir-fried morning glory) or cha mereh (stir-fried bitter melon) is eaten to cool and soothe the humors. In contrast, during postpartum as well as for COVID-19 prevention, cha kgneuy (stir-fried ginger with slices of meat) is used to warm the body and increase immunity.

A plate of chicken and chili pepper cha and sour snau soup

 In combination with other nourishing Khmer dishes, as well as the occasional medicinal decoction, cha dishes act as core components of the traditional and folk Khmer food-medicine healing regiments. In this way, cha blends together processes of eating and healing within certain contexts. The importance of cha to Khmer culture is exceptional, no matter how you frame it. Walk into any restaurant in Cambodia, and you’ll be sure to find one on the menu!


References

[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/26142.htm.

[2] In, S., Lambre, C., Camel, V., & Ouldelhkim, M. (2015). “Regional and Seasonal Variations of Food Consumption in Cambodia.” Malaysian Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 21, pp. 167–178.

Danny Bowien’s Post-Authentic Asian America

By Leland Tabares

In a recent interview, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Danny Bowien admits that if he were to create authentic diasporic Asian food, he would be making “Hamburger Helper” and “buttery canned vegetables.”

A Korean adoptee of a white middle-class family who grew up in Oklahoma, Bowien shows the relationship between food and diasporic identity to be messy when it comes to authenticity. For instance, he never tasted Korean food until he left Oklahoma for San Francisco at the age of nineteen and never formally trained to cook Chinese food prior to opening his now famous Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Discourses on authenticity do not readily account for ethnic narratives like Bowien’s. Indeed, he considers himself “the least authentic chef.” Influenced by his unique background, Bowien sees the current culinary world as what he calls “post-authentic,” defined more by “credibility” than “heritage.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic becomes legible through a recent collaboration with the Arizona Beverage Company. The New York-based company, known for their AriZona Iced Tea line and intentionally gaudy 1990s aesthetic, partnered with Bowien to create a special one-time menu using AriZona beverages as the primary ingredients. This brand deal was organized in 2019 as a pop-up event held at the Brooklyn outfit of Mission Chinese Food.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

The “Great Buy” menu—a reference to AriZona’s “Great Buy! 99 Cents” tagline—featured two entrées, a dessert, and a cocktail. They included, respectively: Mucho Mango Fried Rice, Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles, Grapeade Ambrosia, and Green Tea Ginsenger. The 99-cent price point for the dessert paid homage to the tall 99-cent AriZona Iced Tea cans popularized in the 1990s and early-2000s.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

To many in the culinary establishment, the notion that a chef would monetize his menu is antithetical to the profession’s values around creative freedom. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Michael Symon, and Marco Pierre White have partnered with brands like Coke, Lay’s, and Knorr. But none had brought a sponsored product into their restaurants. Famed food writer Pete Wells of The New York Times equated the event to Bowien selling a brand “access to [diners’] heads.” Bobby Flay publicly condemned Bowien, saying that he would “never take a product and force it into [his] menu” because such an act desecrates the “sacred” nature of a chef’s menu.[i] The backlash to Bowien’s collaboration would appear to have damaged his credibility, a devastating irony for a chef who places credibility at the forefront of the post-authentic. But Bowien remains as popular as ever.

What the collaboration makes visible has less to do with Bowien and more to do with the culinary establishment. It reveals how industry norms gatekeep minoritized chefs who prepare nontraditional foods, demonstrating how access to credibility is unequally distributed. As I have written elsewhere, Bowien represents an emerging generation of misfit chefs whose nontraditional approaches to professionalism literally and symbolically mis-fit within the industry. Acts of mis-fitting expose how industry norms render some chefs unfit for professional belonging. Professional norms thus play direct roles in the formation and regulation of culinary authenticity and identity. Bowien realizes as much when, in response to the criticism, he explains, “I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic then does not do away with identity, as if identity no longer matters. In fact, he indicates that identity is essential to the post-authentic: “Identity definitely interests me. I feel like today it’s all about identity.” Rather than using terms like inauthentic or nonauthentic, terms that might signal a refusal or avoidance of engaging with authenticity, Bowien employs post-authentic to highlight the important (and often damaging) ways that the restaurant industry’s professional norms—norms that place value in Western Anglo-European food traditions—not only contribute to the production of authenticity but also commodify and exploit minoritized cultures in the process.

By monetizing his menu, Bowien asserts control over the means of commodifying his Asian Americanness. In the fashion world, streetwear culture popularized brand collaborations between industry elites and smaller independent businesses. Bowien draws inspiration from these collaborations because they challenge the ideologies that separate so-called high and low culture. “Look at fashion,” Bowien explains, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: you have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game [in the food world] and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”[ii]

Bowien’s collaboration with AriZona turns the tables back on the culinary establishment to insist that a menu composed of mass-produced commodities and branded content not only emblematizes an authentic contemporary American dining experience, but also illustrates the degree to which culture industries—from fine dining to advertising—produce and regulate notions of authenticity. For Bowien, the post-authentic is a critical accounting of these processes of cultural regulation by capitalist industries. Rather than refuse to participate, Bowien leans in to assert his own agency and individualism amid the system: “I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.”[iii]


References:

[i] Qtd. in Wells, Pete. “This Menu Is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” 7 May 2019.

[ii] Qtd. in Birdsall, John. “Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal,” 10 May 2019.

[iii] Ibid., Birdsall.

Cherries Galore in a Cesspit

By Merit Hondelink

As an archaeobotanist, an archaeologist specialised in studying plant remains found in archaeological excavations, I aim to reconstruct and interpret the relationships between humans and plants in the past. Archaeological plant remains, also known as subfossil plant remains, help us to reconstruct the former landscape and inform us how humans exploited it and even transformed the vegetation. Archaeobotanists do not necessarily study one time period, nor a specific region or topic. They can study plant remains from the Palaeolithic or the 20th century, and everything in between. They can focus on one specific site, work across the country or continent, and even work worldwide. They can delve into topics such as natural vegetation, forestation, domestication, trade, food consumption and much more. The one thing that all of this has in common is the link between humans and plants. But most archaeobotanists do specialize, most notably in the plant parts they study, such as fruits, seeds, pollen, wood or phytoliths. And most archaeobotanists have a beloved time period, favourite region or topic that they find most intriguing. In my case my research focuses on early modern Dutch urban food consumption.

I study what people ate in early modern Dutch cities, and how this changed through time. The best way to study what people ate in the past, is to look at their excrement and kitchen refuse, both of which can be found in the archaeologists treasure trove: the cesspit. These latrines were used to empty one’s bowels, but also served as a place to discard kitchen refuse and household waste. The content of a cesspit consists of organic remains from plants and animals, inorganic (culinary) material culture such as earthenware, glassware and ceramics, but also wooden cups and plates, as well as (decorative) objects, personal belongings and much, much more.

Figure 1: A selection of faunal and floral items found in a late medieval cesspit sample from Groningen. Photo: Dirk Fennema.

The content of an archaeobotanical cesspit sample consists of, among others, floral remains in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). The items are sorted with the use of a microscope (Figure 2) and identified on a species level (and sometimes even on the level of species variety) by using a reference collection (Figure 3). The Groningen Institute of Archaeology offers a wonderful digital, open access, reference collection, see https://www.plantatlas.eu/.

Figure 2: A peek through the microscope. Visible is a fragment of text and different seeds and fruits, taken from an early modern Delft cesspit sample. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

When the content of a cesspit sample is analysed, sorted and identified, the interpretation begins. What can these plant remains tell us about past human-plant relationships? Most plant species are interpreted in a standardized way: wild plants inform us about the vegetation composition, make-up of soils and hydrology, whilst agricultural weeds in particular inform us about the crops grown and their local, regional, international or even global provenance. Wild but poisonous or toxic plants inform us about potential medicinal applications. A majority of plant species found in cesspits are classified as economic plants, grown as a food crop or cultivated for other useful purposes, such as fibres for textiles or seeds for oil. Identifying edible plants helps us better understand what plants people used for food and which parts people consumed. It also helps us better understand how food was prepared in the past, as preparation marks can be left behind on seeds and fruits.

Some preparation marks are easier to identify than others: nuts need to be cracked to get to the seed; apple seeds may be sliced when cutting up an apple, cereals can be ground, resulting into fragmented bran. But sometimes the archaeobotanist finds fragmented plant parts that, at a first glance, do not make sense.

Figure 3: A small selection of the tubes from the archaeobotany reference collection housed at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA) at the University of Groningen. Photo via GIA.

I have come across dozens and sometimes hundreds (or even more) cherry stones and plum stones in a single cesspit sample. No surprise there, cherries and plums were grown in local orchards, sold in the market and consumed with gusto. Most of these stones will have been discarded in the cesspit as a result from eating the fruits and spitting out the stones, or after de-pitting the fruits for dinner preparation. Only a small percentage is assumed to have been accidentally swallowed and secreted as excrement. Still, archaeobotanists find many fragments of cherry and plum stones (Figure 4). This is something that raises questions when you think about it. Why would these sturdy fruit stones be fragmented? A more pressing question when you are aware that the Rosaceae family, among others also including almond, peach, and even apple, contains – to varying degrees – hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide and sometimes called prussic acid. The seed coat and fruit wall protects the consumer from digesting this acid, which can be poisonous when consumed. So why would someone break the stones of these fruits?

Figure 4: Two fragments of cherry stones found in an early modern cesspit in Vlissingen. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

To test the assumption that cherry stones were fragmented intentionally, and not through, for instance, pressure, an experiment was devised. Cherries were bought at the farmer’s market and taken to a physics lab to measure the pressure required to fragment the stones. After a number of tests, the calculated force to fragment a cherry stone averaged 23,9 kg or 239 Newton (Graph 1). This makes it more plausible that the stones were intentionally fragmented, as opposed to – for instance – fragmentation due to soil pressure.

Graph 1: Force needed to fragment a cherry stone. On the vertical axis the force (N), on the horizontal axis the elongation (μm). The point where the line falls is the moment the cherry stone breaks (max. force – max. elongation).

Consulting early modern cookbooks provided me with a list of recipes requiring the cook to de-stone cherries for the preparation of jams, sauces, syrups and tarts. Delicious experiments ensued, but I did not manage to fragment cherry stones whilst cutting and de-stoning, pressing through a cloth or colander, or by just baking the fruit with stones in a tart in the oven. Working a batch of cherries with a mortar and pestle did the job, though. But than you would have to pick the fragmented stones from the mushy cherries: not ideal at all. Picking up the eighteenth century encyclopaedia compiled by Noël Chomel gave me the hint I needed. In the Dutch version of his Dictionnaire œconomique (Algemeen huishoudelijk-, natuur-, zedekundig- en konst- woordenboek), he mentions different recipes for preparing cherries. Two recipes for cherry liquor instruct the reader to fragment the cherry stones by using a mortar and pestle (Figure 5). The fragmented fruits, including the stones and (I assume) the seeds are added to the brandy (Dutch: brandewijn) and, after closing the bottle, the mixture is put in the sun to infuse. Adding spices such as cinnamon, cloves and sugar is optional, according to the author.

Figure 5: How to make a pleasant cherry liquor (Noël Chomel, 1778).

So, it is plausible that the fragmented cherry stones found in early modern cesspits are the result of the domestic production of cherry liquor. Other fruits, such as plums and peaches, are also used to make a fruity liquor according to Chomel’s encyclopedia. However, what happens to the acid contained in the seeds? That requires further research. It might be that the prescribed infusing in the sunlight helps denature the acid into harmless molecules, leaving only the (bitter) taste behind. This line of research will be undertaken come summer with the aid of a brewer and some chemical analysis. In the meantime, a cherry and cinnamon flavoured lemonade is my poison of choice. Bottoms up!

A Roman Vegetarian Substitute for Fish Sauce

By Edith Evans

Roman cookery has been one of my research interests since the 1980s; I’ve accumulated a large repertoire of ancient recipes and usually do at least one live demonstration a year.  Most of the recipes include garum or liquamen – fish sauce – as a taste enhancer, providing salt and umami. Whilst finding fish sauce is fairly easy nowadays in Britain (the Romans used the same techniques to make it as the modern Thai and Vietnamese), using it at demonstrations disappoints vegetarians who would otherwise like to sample the plant-based dishes.

I found the answer to this problem in a Late Antique agricultural treatise:

Liquamen from pears: Ritually pure liquamen (liquamen castimoniale) from pears is made like this: Very ripe pears are trodden with salt that has not been crushed. When their flesh has broken down, store it either in small casks or in earthenware vessels lined with pitch. When it is hung up [to drain] after the third month without being pressed on, the flesh of the pears discharges a liquid with a delicious taste but a pastel colour. To counter this, mix in a proportion of dark-coloured wine when you salt the pears.
– Palladius: Opus Agriculturae 3.25.12

Liquamen castimoniale must have been required for people observing certain religious strictures (castimoniale means ‘to do with religious ceremonies’). Why would ordinary liquamen have been thought unsuitable? Was it the fish? (Pliny the Elder writes of a special fish sauce for Jews (Natural History 31.95) that he calls garum castimoniarum, although he’s obviously got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to Jewish food laws because he says it’s made using fish without scales). Alternatively, was it because liquamen was the product of fermentation? Fermentation was often considered a form of decomposition, which might have led it to be regarded as ritually unclean.

This has a bearing on how we interpret the recipe. Although Palladius tells us the ingredients to use (whole pears and salt, plus optional red wine) he does not give any information about the relative proportions. This leaves us with two possible techniques. Either you use a high proportion of salt and effectively create a brine utilising the juice of the pears, or you use a low proportion and promote a lactic fermentation by incubating the mix a suitable temperature (although Palladius doesn’t mention this). When used to flavour food, the product of the first method adds a strong taste of salt but no umami. The second would add some umami but also acidity, but a much lower amount of salt. However, if the problem was the fermentation itself, the second method would have been as unacceptable as standard fish sauce.

I’ve had a go at the lactic fermentation method, using 2% of the weight of the pears in salt, but when I tried it, the mix went mouldy before fermentation had a chance to take hold.  I’ve had much more success with the first method and have repeated it enough times to get a consistent product. The best pears to use are juicy varieties with very tannic skins, like Williams (also known as Bartlett) and Comice. I mash up the pears – stalks, skins, cores and all – mix them with 25% – 50% of their weight in coarse sea salt (I don’t bother with the wine), and leave them at the back of the fridge in a glass jar with the lid only lightly screwed on. At the end of two months (unlike us, the Romans counted inclusively), the pulp has started to separate out. The heavier elements form a pale layer at the bottom of the jar, whilst the top part of the mixture is more liquid and is a pale pinkish-brown. When drained through a nylon sieve, the colour of the resulting liquid is a very pale version of the colour of fish sauce. 

I’ve tried various proportions of salt, and found that, if you use 50%, you seem to get more liquid, probably because the mixture doesn’t draw in moisture from the air to the same extent.  But a smaller percentage of salt allows more of the delightful pear flavour comes through – I find it much more difficult to detect in the 50% version. Stored in a clean bottle it will keep for months without refrigeration.

Figure 1: The pear liqumen is in the flask with dark blue trim

I’ve only had a problem once, when spots of mould had appeared on the surface of a batch six months after I’d made it. As I was due to give a Roman cookery demonstration in a few days’ time I had to quickly rustle up something I could use, so I cored and cut up a pear, boiled it with 25% salt and a little water, removed the peel and pulped the flesh in the blender. It was much too pale, but the taste was the same and I decided it would be a useful method for someone who couldn’t wait two months – in fact that’s what I recommend for my Roman Cookery School videos (https://m.youtube.com/user/GGATArchaeology and https://en-gb.facebook.com/GGATarchaeology/).