Barbecue Ribs

The Song Dynasty of Medieval China was a turning point in food history. As farming productivity exploded, cities rose to dominance, and populations dramatically increased, so too did the quality of life and the quality of cuisine follow.

To put it another way, people had access to not only more food, but better food. Even poorer commoners tended to eat 3 meals a day and occasionally some snacks. Most remarkable though, was that for one of the first times in history, meat was being consumed across social classes. With prices low, and restaurants and street stalls serving conveniently sized and priced portions, everyone could afford some animal protein now and then.

And the most popular of all the meats? Then and perhaps now as well… Pork. So. . . we’re havin’ ribs.

I’ll admit, this recipe is inspired by the style of ribs you can get with Chinese take out in America. But taking all historical factors into account, that is the rise of meat and pork, the authentic black soy bean sauce, the dry rub spices made possible by recently opened trade routes, as well as the popularity of grills and barbecues for street food in Song cities, I see no reason to call this recipe inauthentic! I’ll stand by the assertion that these ribs could totally have been served from a stall on the Imperial Way, centuries ago.

The charcoal grill is of course the best way to go, but these ribs are delicious in an oven as well. To get started, we’ll need to whip up a couple things first: Some homemade Chinese Five Spice for a dry rub, and some Hoisin style, black bean sauce for a marinade. After that, all we need is ribs and fire.

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HOF Episode 17: The Power of Tradition (China revisited)

What makes humans special? What makes us rise above all the other animals across the planet, to discover and make great things? Before you answer with the obvious, ” our big brains and intelligence”, take a listen to this episode, for the surprising truth behind humanity’s success.

In short, it’s not smarts that drive us, but our rituals, myths, and superstitions. We find evidence for this in society’s all across the planet, but one place shows it better than any other. Come with me back to the far east, as we take a tour through the cities and restaurants of Medieval China, to explore the true power of our culture and traditions.

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Guzheng music for this episode performed by   musician Bei Bei in Los Angeles, California and by Sound of China Guzheng Instruments

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Hearty Dark Rye Bread

How the times change. Today, this rye could be an expensive artisan loaf in a high end bakery. In dark ages Europe, it was food for peasants.

This is a true Middle Ages commoner’s bread, as there is no wheat flour involved. It’s almost all rye, but cut with a little barley and oats which were the only grains many serfs across Medieval northwest Europe would have had on hand. It makes a dense, chewy bread, whose texture still manages to be pleasant, that’s healthy for a carbohydrate, and packed with tangy rye flavor. It’s also very easy to make, with no kneading required, just many hours of waiting time.

Though be careful where you get your rye from. You don’t want to contract St. Anthony’s Fire like poor old Waigulf from the other side of the manor. Ate a bad loaf and was dead soon afterward, ‘e was.

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HOF Episode 16: The Dark Bread Ages (Medieval Europe)

In Late Antiquity, without the Roman Empire around to control everything, forest and wilderness reclaimed Europe and its people went local. Start with that, then stir to combine with a rising Catholic Church, and you’ve got a recipe for a brand new culture, one that just might be the foundation of the modern western world.

Let’s get into the Early Middle Ages.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Food: A Cultural and Culinary History, lecture by Ken Albala

Life in a Medieval Castle: Medieval Food

The Food Timeline

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne, John J. Butt

Ghee and Chonk (tempered clarified butter)

Clarified butter, known in Hindi as “ghee”, will be our foundation, the base from which all the coming Indian delights will spring. Especially when we temper spices in the ghee when its hot and make “chonk”, it’s almost like magic is being performed. Flavor magic.

What does it mean to clarify butter? We’re going to separate and remove the milk solids from regular butter, leaving behind pure golden butter fat that preserves longer, and can handle sauteing at high temperatures.

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HOF Episode 15: Princes of Flavor (India)

Which ancient civilization made the most flavorful cuisine?

Perhaps you could make a case for any of the cuisines and civilizations we’ve covered thus far, and no doubt each one has been best at something. But when it comes to pure, impact of flavor? Nobody beats India.

Thanks to its geography, history, and available ingredients, as well as some impressively advanced cooking techniques we’ll cover in depth, the story of South Asian civilization is the story of spice, rice, and flavor. Oh, and of vegetarians too!

WARNING: side effects of this episode may include getting very, very hungry!

Music for this episode sampled from the late, great Ravi Shankar

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HOF Episode 14: People of the Book

In what capacity can food serve a spiritual need?

The answer is a whole lot! A little over two thousand years ago, the way people thought about themselves and the Universe was beginning to change. Ancient gods, pagan rituals, and beliefs were going out of style, no longer compatible with new, more modern ways of thinking. These beliefs would transform into new religions that would create, and last into the modern world.

And of course, nothing reflected this era of Spiritual transition more than what people ate, or in this case how much of it. Listen today for the origin stories of Christianity, Islam, and their parent religion Judaism, the three new monotheist faiths and their “one true god”, known colloquially at the time as “people of the book”.


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Ancient Persian “Brunch”

This one was a real treat to prepare and to eat: a classic spread of Persian inspired dishes for a late breakfast that will also satisfy you through lunch and beyond.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s a literal translation in Farsi or any ancient Iranian language for “brunch”, but the classic early meal of an egg dish with lots of bread, and an assortment of spreads, jams, and garnishes to graze and pick over certainly fits any interpretation of the concept.

We’ve got a home cook’s version of classic SANGAK bread, cooked on hot pebbles to give it a grooved surface perfect for some sour plum and pomegranate jam, stewed figs and spices, and some freshly made KAYMAK, or what the English call clotted cream. To balance those sweet flavors, we’ve got some salty and briny garnishes on the side, as well as a a dish called NARGESI, a sort of frittata made from fried greens and onions.

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Kaymak (Clotted Cream)

How had I never tried this stuff before?

You could file this luxurious dairy recipe under the nomad section, but the Persians carried it with them into civilized life, and called it Kaymak. Pure, heavy cream is cooked low and slow overnight to separate the milk fat. The resulting product is like a cousin to butter, only creamier and a deeper, toastier flavor from the oven.

The technique  takes some time, but is ridiculously simple and easy. Clotted cream is most famously put on Biscuits, scones, and bread but why stop there? Use this spreadable, dairy delight in anything you  butter on or in! Continue reading “Kaymak (Clotted Cream)”

Persian Cucumber Salad

The cucumber used to be more than it is today.  Oh, there are still cucumber lovers out there (myself among them), but in the ancient world, this was more than just a favorite salad topping.  The cucumber was considered the pinnacle of refreshment, its crisp, crunchy, watery bite being the ultimate tasty oasis in the hot climates of the near east, the way we might think of a cold glass of lemonade today.  No wonder cucumbers were used to flavor water and combined with yogurt, two other pillars of refreshment

Here is an original recipe that celebrates the cucumber as its feature. I came up with it using ancient Persian ingredients and trying to imagine ancient Persian tastes. Quick and simple, the resulting dish is sweet and peppery, with its combination of pomegranates, dates, and black mustard seeds. And of course, it wouldn’t be right if this cucumber salad was not also packed with fresh herbs.  

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