Category Archives: Food and Drink

A Roti by Any Other Name Would Taste Like Home: Food Culture in the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of the Early 20th Century United States

By Haritha Govind

The South Asian diaspora has made its way throughout many parts of the world –bringing along cuisines, opening restaurants, and familiarizing the world with dishes like naan and lassi. These are immigrant stories that have a strong continuity even today. But what about Indian immigrant stories that were a snapshot in time, creating a unique culinary culture in a community that, unfortunately, did not sustain the same continuity? This post introduces the fleeting Punjabi-Mexican community of the early 20th century in California. It explores how a unique set of socio-political circumstances created an environment for two cultures that unknowingly shared similar food to forge a distinct culinary history.

How did these two communities meet in California? In the mid-19th century, farming families in the Punjab region of India started sending their sons abroad, including to the United States, to help supplement their family incomes. These men were accustomed to physical labor, and many found themselves being hired at mines and farms throughout California and other southwestern states. Meanwhile, many Mexican women from migrant laborer families found themselves working on Californian farms after being displaced by the Mexican Revolution. With the Immigration Act of 1917, Indians and other Asians were restricted from entering the United States, and those who were already in the country could not leave easily. This created a unique situation where Punjabi men found it comforting and legally advantageous to build family units by marrying Mexican women. Interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time, but both communities could circumvent this issue by identifying as “Brown.”

A Punjabi-Mexican American couple, Valentina Alarez and Rullia Singh, posing for their wedding photo in 1917.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
http://www.sikhnet.com/news/punjabi-sikh-mexican-american-community-fading-history

One might assume that, in these Punjabi-Mexican households, the dinner table was awash in fusion food. Afterall, there are many similarities between Punjabi and Mexican cuisine: the use of spices such as cumin and red chili, the practice of eating flatbread or rice with a broiled stew or curry, and the importance of flavor boosters like onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro. Punjabi men found the corn tortilla to be unfamiliar to their palate, but its resemblance to the roti, an Indian whole-wheat flatbread, was not lost on them. Although children in these families had a mixed cultural identity, and their names, such as Kishen Singh, often reflected their unique cultural disposition, food in the home did not see the same hybrid transformation. Mexican wives learned to expertly prepare Punjabi dishes and would feature them at the dinner table, but Mexican foods were never Indianized, or vice versa. The two culinary traditions remained separate and intact in their serving bowls: a dish of butter chicken could sit next to a plate of tamales at the dinner table, for example, but one would be hard-pressed to find a butter chicken tamale.

Cumin seeds
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cumin_Seeds.jpg

In this sense, the Punjabi-Mexican community disrupts the conventional expectation that diasporas naturally create hybridized or creolized cuisine in the home. Why might this be? Within these multiethnic families, the language spoken at home was usually a mix of Spanish and English, as the mothers would teach their children their native language. Punjabi fathers, by contrast, shared their culture, history, and religion but were more intent on their children easily integrating into Californian society, thus sparing them from the racial and cultural discrimination that came with being mixed race. It is in this childrearing phenomenon that the lack of culinary fusion begins to make socio-cultural sense: the mother’s influence on food and culture was dominant in the family. This line of argument is intertwined not only with the role of women in the early 20th century but also with the role of women of color: would creolization have occurred if both men and women immigrated from Punjab to California, or would this hybridized community never have emerged?

Hypothetical questions aside, there was one setting outside the home where fusion cuisine was indeed featured for a short period of time: Punjabi-Mexican-owned restaurants. The Rasul family’s restaurant “El Ranchero” opened in 1954 in Yuba City, frequently advertised in the Appeal Democrat newspaper for its roti quesadilla. This was the main fusion dish on the menu: it had melted cheese, onions, and shredded beef inside a paratha (whole wheat flatbread), and it came served with a chicken curry dipping sauce, as well as salad or rice and beans. The restaurant successfully served the Punjabi-Mexican community for four decades, providing a place where Punjabi men and their families could share a taste of home with each other. This suggests that fusion was more prominent as a business venture than as an element of everyday lifestyle.

More recently, Punjabi-Mexican fusion cuisine has become a popular phenomenon in modern food truck culture and among food content creators. Its impetus, however, does not come directly from the Punjabi-Mexican community that existed in the early 20th century but rather from increasing connectivity through travel and social media. The roti taco or quesadilla, which some Indian children are familiar with eating, is one such example of a culinary coincidence across time rather than a direct nod to the Rasul Family and their restaurant menu at El Ranchero. Despite this historical tension between hybridization and preservation, modern culinary fusion has fostered a new interest in exploring multiethnic cuisines of the past to investigate how food and community interacted.

Early Modern Research with Britain’s Favourite Organic Producer

By Grace Palmer

In the spring of 2023, I undertook a deep dive into early modern British (and some European) recipes for a project with Hexhamshire Organics, an organic farm near Newcastle in the North East of England, focused on creating short sentences on the historic uses of herbs, fruit and vegetables, designed to pique their customers’ interests by examining how their favourite produce was consumed in the past. Within this project, I focused on using domestically-produced receipt books – which were often collaborative family books carefully curated by multiple generations to create unique recipe collections – and horticultural texts, produced as instruction manuals for gardeners, providing information on the multitude of plants that were cultivated by early modern Britons. Admittedly these sources were produced by and for the upper- and middle-classes, however they are a fascinating route to understanding how food was enjoyed in the past, and do provide some insights into the culinary habits of ordinary Britons.

Pages exploring ‘mountayne Radish’ and ‘Carrottes’ in Rembert Dodoens (trans. Henry Lyte Esquyer), A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, (published in England- 1578), pp 600-601


Perhaps especially because our audience for this project was consumers interested in organic, locally-sourced produce, I was struck by the similarities some recipes held to many present-day dishes loved by modern Britons. For example, many recipes including carrots described the vegetable being enjoyed grated and baked with a variety of spices, reminiscent of a modern carrot cake. Similarly, by the 18th century, recipes instructing how tomatoes (a ‘New World’ discovery for many early modern Europeans) could be made into ketchup were more commonplace. It was fascinating to see how some of my favourite and regularly consumed dishes had such long-reaching origins. While early modern recipe books often contained the spectacular, documenting exceptional meals that were not eaten on an everyday basis, I was struck by the variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were clearly dietary staples. Explorations into the New World expanded the origins of commonly eaten produce: potatoes, the Jerusalem artichoke (named the “potato of Canada”), and peppers (initially viewed with some suspicion, but were quickly cultivated by poor farmers as a cheap alternative of expensive, imported black pepper) were often included in recipe collections, alongside spices from across South and Eastern Asia. Contemporary cooks displayed a clear interest in the presentation and taste of their dishes. A variety of herbs and spices were used – including dill, savory, chillies and sorrel – to add depth of flavour. Recipes describe the various innovative ways produce was used as a garnish, instructing the reader to pickle red cabbage to enhance its purple-red hue, or to finely chop brussels sprouts, to make dishes more visually appealing. I found that my research challenged pre-existing conceptions I myself had about potentially “backwards” culinary habits from the early modern era as the recipes instead showcased the diverse and rich culinary traditions from the period.

Early modern people assigned a fascinating array of medical uses to almost all plants. While some seem to make logical sense to the modern reader, many seem incredulous. (Giant) mustard leaves were often placed like a plaster on a patient’s head to help prevent vertigo. Spring onions were made into an ointment to cure dandruff, and lettuce was eaten after supper to prevent drunkenness, imagined to stop alcohol vapours (widely believed to cause drunkenness) reaching the brain. One early modern writer even used globe artichokes as a deodorant, believing the vegetable helped reduce the smell of his armpits. The huge variety of medical uses assigned to various herbs, fruits and vegetables is a testament to the ingenuous inventions of contemporaries, showcasing how they innovatively used all aspects of different produce to understand the world around them. Many medicinal recipes for common ailments and diseases were passed between generations, adapted and improved through experimentation over time. Much of the way early modern people understood their diet was influenced by humoral theory, often dictating the imagined medicinal cures behind plants and even the combination of ingredients set out in recipes. For example, sorrel was often paired with meats or eggs for its perceived cooling properties, imagined to aid digestion. Similarly, “hot and dry” horseradish was commonly eaten with fish, believed to counteract the negative associations of the “cold and wet” nature of fish. The humoral properties of produce meant some recipes came with warnings for future readers: cooks were advised against serving raw onions, imagined to induce headaches and dull the senses, and readers were warned about the overconsumption of spinach, believed to cause nausea. While sometimes comedic to the modern reader, early modern cooks used commonly consumed produce in innovative ways to understand the world around them, a testament to their ingenuity and invention.

Overall, this was a fascinating project, which taught me a huge amount about early modern recipes, diets, and consumption habits more broadly. While this project focused on highlighting the spectacular and sometimes comedic aspects of early modern food habits, I was struck by the many similarities to modern recipes and gained a deeper understanding of the rich history behind British cuisine. I hope this project will help inform Hexhamshire Organics’ customers on the fascinating interplay between early modern and present-day uses of their favourite produce, and perhaps even provide historic inspiration for unconventional and thrifty ways to make the most of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Grace Palmer is currently studying for her MA in history at Durham University, having recently completed her undergraduate studies there. She is writing her dissertation on poisoning as a method for resistance by enslaved men and women and white fear of poisoning conspiracies in plantation era America. Outside of academia, Grace is a keen foodie and enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes. She is also an avid sports fan and shares a season ticket to her local football club with her brother. 

Food for Thought: A Medieval Experiment with Ale Pastry

By Florence Swan

Whilst digging through medieval English cookery collections for my thesis I came across a curious fifteenth-century recipe that suggests using ale to make pastry short and supple:

‘Yf ye will have your past short and sopill that ye bake with, knede hit with good ale and it will be short’.[1]

Intrigued by what appears at first to be an early English recipe for shortcrust pastry, I thought I’d give it a go. I am partnered with Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle for my PhD, working with their team of chefs to develop medieval culinary recipes with the hopes of better understanding their form, function, and taste balances. I discussed the recipe with Blackfriars’ pastry chef, who was hesitant about the extent to which ale would make pastry short, but wondered if it might leave a beery aftertaste.

Jug with Horseshoes, 13th century, orig. Derbyshire, England, 16x13 5/8 x 13 1/16 in., The Cloisters Collection, 2014.280, The Met.
Jug with Horseshoes [used for making and storing ale], 13th century, orig. Derbyshire, England, 16×13 5/8 x 13 1/16 in., The Cloisters Collection, 2014.280, The Met.

Before experimenting I therefore had to address some key questions: is this pastry simply ale and flour, or is it suggesting adding ale to enriched fatty pastry? What does it mean by short and supple? And why ale? Most medieval pastry was made from just flour and water, a simple case to contain looser fillings whilst they cooked, keep hands tidy whilst its contents were eaten, and often disposed.[2] There were more refined pastries for consumption such as Payne Puff which used fats like cream or egg yolks, rarely butter or lard, to enrich them, however we have limited recipes for both basic and refined pastry. Preparing pastry in large wealthy households was typically a separate job carried out by pastry chefs, not the senior cooks who appear to be the primary audience of culinary recipes, and it was such a basic function in the kitchen that, like bread, it appears to have been unnecessary to provide detailed recipes. In the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there emerged what we might consider shortcrust pastry recipes, that incorporated fats such as oil or butter to make ‘sotille’ pastry, as quoted from Libro per cuoco.[3] That the term supple or soft is used to refer to pastries with shortening in other collections might suggest the ale pastry recipe of interest is intended to be made with fat, however because it simply does not say, I made pastry both with and without shortening.

Searching the Middle English Dictionary confirmed that the recipe is alluding to a crumbly pastry because ‘short’ is defined as meaning crumbly or friable, and ‘sopill’, or supple, as soft or pliable. Supple is also defined in the MED as meaning ‘a mixture containing eggs’, however I am not convinced by this definition and would be wary of suggesting this alone implies the use of eggs in this recipe.

Finally, why ale? My first thought was that is it used for its yeast content, a leavening agent creating a flakier pastry as is the case with Danish pastries or croissants. The question then follows, why not just use yeast? Although it is possible that the ‘good ale’ means use yeast derived from ale, I believe it is referring to the beverage because yeast is typically directly called for in medieval recipes, such as in Bastons in Yale Beinecke 163, which says add ‘a lytll yest of new ale’.[4] In their recreation of a seventeenth-century biscuit recipe that also uses ale, Elisa Tersigni and Jack Bouchard note that ale was historically more yeasty as it was not pasteurised (compared to modern ale that is typically pasteurised), thus it was likely to act as a leavening agent.[5] Furthermore, using ale instead of just yeast was probably efficient for making large quantities of pastry as it was readily available and meant they would not have to use another liquid to wet it, but it might also suggest the ale’s alcohol is important, as it might evaporate whilst cooking to create a crumbly pastry. Most medieval ale was made using a mixture of grains, however hops were used in its production in the late fifteenth century, from which the ale pastry recipe dates.[6] Furthermore, that the recipe calls for good ale suggests it is not a small ale with low alcohol but has a reasonable ABV. Hence, there are a multitude of factors in play when considering the nature and purpose of the ale. In this initial experiment I used a modern local brewery’s hopped ale, however I will continue to experiment with different types of ale in the future.

I first tried a lard shortcrust to see how the ale worked with a pastry I am familiar with – lard, butter, flour, salt, and a little ale. It was thoroughly tasty, crumbly and soft with a slight hint of a beery, yeast flavour. I then made two simpler pastries, one containing flour, salt, liquid, and egg yolks and one with just flour, salt, and liquid, of which I made water-based versions to serve as a control, and then ale-based variables to compare (four total). Prior to baking I found the ale-based pastries more pliable and easier to work with. After baking there was no dramatic difference between the water and ale pastries, however the ale versions were slightly crumblier. Where I noticed the greatest difference was in taste. The eggless ale pastry had a noticeable yeasty bread taste, and the pastries made with egg yolks had a rich egg flavour that was enhanced and more complex with ale, both of which I believe was the result of the beverage’s yeast. Yeast has a fermented umami flavour that complements egg, and this yeasty flavour is synonymous with bread, which is what I believe I could detect in the eggless ale pastry.

The results were not dramatic, but ale pastry is certainly easier to work with, crumbly, and the ale imparts a yeast flavour well suited to pastry, so the recipe’s advice holds true. I will continue to experiment and use ale with higher yeast content, which, I anticipate, will yield crumblier pastry. Ale appears to complement fats in pastry which might suggest it is to be used in conjunction with them to enhance the shortness of the pastry, but the recipe appears quite open and applicable to whatever ‘your past’ might be. But what is most pertinent is the culinary creativity and knowhow exhibited by the use of ale to achieve shortened pastry, and the apparent desire to make a commonplace and typically disposable foodstuff tasty; food for thought for my thesis and for those interested in medieval taste. Modern cooks are advised to take the recipe’s advice and add some ale when they next make pastry for a flavoursome result!

Florence Swan is currently studying at Durham University, where she is working on her PhD titled ‘The Transmission of Taste’, which examines food, recipes, and taste in England c.1200-c.1400. Collaborating with Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle, her archival research is complimented with the practical knowledge of culinary science and recipe development from the restaurant. Although a food historian, her research interests encompass a variety of topics from medieval horticulture to London urban life in the twelfth to sixteenth centuries.  

Instagram: transmissionoftaste       
Twitter: @florence_swan


[1] London, Society of Antiquaries, MS 287, f. 99v, printed in Constance Hieatt, A Gathering of Medieval English Recipes (Prospect Books, 2009), p. 136.

[2] Peter Brears, Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2008), p. 125.

[3] Barbara Santich, ‘The Evolution of Culinary Techniques in the Medieval Era’ in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. by Melitta Weiss Adamson (London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995), pp. 61-81 (p. 72).

[4] New Haven, Yale University Library, Beinecke MS 163, f. 69v <https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2003060> [accessed 19/01/2024].

[5] Elisa Tersigni and Jack Bouchard, ‘Savory biscuits from a 17th-century recipe’, 2018 https://www.folger.edu/blogs/shakespeare-and-beyond/savory-biscuits-from-a-17th-century-recipe/?_ga=2.80100119.1212766997.1707746077-1857904347.1660288475 [accessed 14 February 2024].

[6] Judith M. Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 9.

Orality and Multi-Sensoriality: the Secret Ingredients of Food’s Longevity and the Power of Memory

By Elisa Pastorelli

The uninterrupted transmission of knowledge of oral traditions, of gestures, of words, of the practices that characterize and give significance to food and eating culture has enabled its deepest tangible and intangible foundations. By taking part in practices and knowledges related to food, people recover from the complexity of contemporary times, reconnecting with the past and collective memory[i] of their community. In the following, I aim to highlight how this has been made possible by two interconnected factors that characterize the memory power of food and food practices: multi-sensoriality and orality.

As readers of the Recipes Project will know, cookbooks — the most ancient of which is De re coquinaria, allegedly written by Apicius in the 1st century AD — primarily spread, especially during the early modern period, in noble and bourgeois contexts. In other environments, recipes were part of an oral tradition of words and gestures that reiterated and ritualised the knowledge shared by a community. Even during and after the rise in literacy through the modern era, knowledge and practices connected to food continued to be handed down orally — and refunctionalized and re-signified — especially in “lateral areas.”[ii]

The preference for orality as a means of spreading and passing on to future generations is due not only to sacred, social values but also the sensory skills involved in preparing and consuming foods, which are sometimes simplified and ignored in writing. Le Breton defines eating as a “total sensory act,”[iii] but he refers to the consumer product, which is seen, smelled, touched, and, in the end, tasted. Heldke highlights how the senses are also central to the procurement and preparation of food, skills  that are “‘contained’ not simply ‘in my head’ but in my hands, my wrists, my eyes and nose as well.”[iv]  Cooking is thus a bodily practice that, as pointed out by Bourdieu, is the result of the way bodies are informed by a series of habits instilled in a shared environment and articulated in movements and gestures that are part of that culture.[v] We must also consider how cultural factors—along with biological, psychological, and social ones—are central in processes defined by Fischler as “formation du gout,” whose phases largely involve and depend on the senses.[vi] As cultural and social environments change or evolve, so too does the interactions between the senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell — and the food world. Nevertheless, while cultural and social environments change or evolve, the senses still remain etched in the memory of those who move or survive against changes. As Le Breton notes, “The best taste is a cultural prism projected onto food, a filiation of childhood or special moments.”[vii]

 
The preparation of a particular arbëreshë fresh pasta (fuzjiet) represents the bodily knowledge and practice used for preparing food. In particular, the iron spindle used to prepare it must not only moving but also making a precise sound. Image credit: Elisa Pastorelli

 

When a sociocultural environment varies, this “best taste” is assessed through the involuntary memory of the senses. In his Remembrance of Repasts, for example, Sutton focuses his fieldwork on the Greek island of Kalymnos on the reasons why and how food triggers the memory in powerful and effective ways. Food experience mostly evokes memories that concern not the action of eating itself, but the emotions and the relationships related to a past moment.[viii] Since these experiences are not just cognitive but also emotional and physical, food builds “embodied”[ix] memories that preserve past moments which can be lived again through senses. Aromas and flavors, and especially the senses that characterize them, generate nostalgia and activate involuntary memories that bring the taster back to previous times and places.

During my fieldwork in the Arbëreshë communities of Molise, for example, my older interlocutors always connected the bitter taste of chicory, dill, and wild turnip—which are still jarred in oil—with nostalgic moments of the past, when the great majority of people were poor but happy to stay alive together, eating these wild herbs and corn every day. Similarly, when talking about homemade sweets featuring almonds, honey, figs, and cooked wine that are still prepared during celebrations, they nostalgically told me about how and when, as children, they received those treats during past feasts.

Rooted in cultural memory, food is particularly useful for migrants to return home—at least for a while. Mankekar highlights how Indian-Californian customers go to Indian grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, not only to shop but also to engage, through smells and aromas, with representations of their homeland.[x] Food often returns people to an imagined homeland, shaped by the “armchair or imagined nostalgia” as defined by Appadurai.[xi] Another example is offered by the Sicilian community of Silkwood—which migrated to North Queensland starting in the late 1880s—that makes, eats, and shares Sicilian food during the Feast of The Three Saints to feel connected to Sicily, even if younger generations had never been to Italy.[xii]

Multi-sensoriality and orality sustain knowledge and practices connected to eating culture, allowing them to endure over centuries. In this way, food is a means of self-representation and self-celebration, which is profoundly connected to processes of identification and construction of extensive “imagined communities.”[xiii]

 

 

[i] See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[ii] I’m referring to Bartoli’s Law of Lateral Areas, according which innovation spreads from a center to peripheral areas. See Giulio Bartoli, Saggi di linguistica spaziale (Torino: Vincenzo Bona, 1945).

[iii] David Le Breton [1953], Sensing the World. An Anthropology of the Senses (New York: Bloomsbury Academy, 2017), 185.

[iv] Lisa Heldke, Foodmaking as a Toughtful Practice, in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, eds. D.W. Curtin and L.M. Heldke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 218.

[v] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979).

[vi] Claude Fischler [1990], L’Homnivore. Le goût, la cuisine et le corps (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2001).

[vii] Le Breton, 198.

[viii] David E. Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

[ix] Jon Holtzman, “Food and Memory,” The Annual Review of Anthropology, 35 (2006): 365.

[x] Purnima Mankekar, “‘India Shopping’: Indian Grocery Stores and Transnational Configurations of Belonging,” Ethnos 67.1 (2002):75-97.

[xi] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 76-78.

[xii] Franca Tamisari, “Working for the Saints. Food, Memory and the Senses in the North Queensland,” Queensland Review 2 (2023): 70-83.

[xiii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Londra: Verso, 1983).


Elisa Pastorelli completed her joint bachelor’s degree in European Literary Cultures at the University of Bologna and Strasbourg in 2020 and recently received her Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology, and Anthropological Linguistics from the University of Venice. Her thesis, which investigates heritage and reinvention between feasts, senses, and gastronomic lexicon from past to present in the arbëreshë communities of Molise, will be published as a monograph in the Il Mondo in Tavola Series. Combining an ethnographic method with the heterogeneous collection of studies offered by the anthropological but also sociological, linguistic, and semiotic perspectives, Elisa uses food as a lens to investigate how particular forms of food production, distribution, and consumption are culturally and socially framed and valued through discourses of ‘heritage,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘identity,’ especially in contexts of migration and multiculturalism. She collaborates with the scientific Journal of Agriculture and Gastronomy edited by the International Library “La Vigna” (Vicenza, IT).