KARACHI DIARY: Culinary myths —Irfan Husain
A baker is supposed to have discovered a Turkish tunnel under the city’s walls, thus averting a breach. As a reward, he was given a royal licence to produce pastries shaped like the crescent (hence ‘croissant’). But sadly, Davidson debunks this romantic legend
It’s been a dull, quiet week: the kind of week that deserves no mention in this diary. Sundry body parts have taken to protesting after years of abuse, and I have been undergoing a series of tests and medical examinations. Boring stuff.
The one bright spot came when I was presented with a copy of The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson. When this splendid book first appeared in 1999 to rave reviews, I postponed its purchase, thinking I had more than enough books on the subject. In any case, I was deterred by the price (£40) and waited for the paperback edition. So ever since I finally got my hands on a copy a few days ago, I have spent hours browsing through its thousands of alphabetical entries.
This is a monumental work, covering everything from ‘aardvark’ to ‘zuppa Inglese’. Everything that grows, walks, crawls, flies or swims finds an entry, provided it has been, or can be eaten. Shakir is sure that prolonged perusal of the Companion will make me even more insufferable. But how can I not share the gems I have already collected? For instance, did you know that a ‘Bedfordshire Clanger’ is a “tube-shaped pastry ... [with] one end containing a savoury filling, the other a sweet filling”? Neither did I.
Over the years, many of us foodies have fallen for culinary myths, and I’m afraid Davidson is no exception. For years, MSG, or monosodium glutamate, to give it its full name, had a bad reputation as over-use was supposed to lead to something called ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. According to the author, this was manifested as ‘a combination of discomforts in the head and chest’ which soon passed. We believed so firmly in this theory that we invariably asked waiters at Chinese restaurants to make sure we were getting no MSG in our food.
A few years ago, Jeffery Steingarten, food editor of the Vogue in New York, debunked this myth pretty comprehensively. Given the widespread use of MSG in China, he asked why weren’t there a billion Chinese people with headaches? He then went around relentlessly researching the theory in his characteristically thorough way, and came to the conclusion that MSG, taken in normal quantities, was perfectly safe.
In his section on culinary myths, Davidson has questioned the efficacy of searing meat to seal its juices. I must confess that this iconoclastic view came as something of a bombshell as I have been searing steak for years. The theory is that you heat up a frying pan until it is nearly smoking, and then place your steak on the surface, turning it over quickly. This searing effect is traditionally supposed to seal in the meat juices which would otherwise escape, leaving the steak dry. According to Davidson’s heresy, this technique actually loses more juices than if you had cooked the steak normally. Oh well, back to the chopping board...
Another myth he has cruelly dispelled is the origin of the croissant. Many of us who take an interest in such arcane matters had been gullible enough to believe that they were first created in Vienna when the Ottomans were at the gates. A baker is supposed to have discovered a Turkish tunnel under the city’s walls, thus averting a breach. As a reward, he was given a royal licence to produce pastries shaped like the crescent (hence ‘croissant’). But sadly, Davidson debunks this romantic legend and informs us that in fact, the first reference to croissants did not appear until 1891, more than two centuries after the siege of Vienna.
Next, Davison cites Gillian Riley to rubbish the notion that in the Middle Ages, spices were used to “mask the flavour of tainted meat”. Indeed, in pre-refrigeration days, we had assumed that the role of spices and heavy sauces was to conceal the fact that meat had spoiled. Riley makes the valid point that in those days, spices were far too expensive to be used for this purpose.
And finally, here is a myth I was not aware even existed. According to urban legend, the all-pervasive ‘chop suey’ first made an appearance when a cook in a Chinese restaurant (located in California) was told to produce a meal for a group of drunk miners (or cowboys, political bosses, etc) at a late hour. He quickly threw together some bits and pieces (hence ‘chop suey’, or ‘odds and ends’ in Chinese), and produced a dish that became famous around the world. But according to Anderson, quoted by Davidson, chop suey is a local dish from Toisan, a rural district south of Canton. In Cantonese, its name is tsap seui, meaning ‘miscellaneous scraps’.
Although I am now better informed (or ‘insufferable’, according to Shakir), I would rather have stuck to the old stories.
The writer is a freelance columnist