woensdag 24 december 2014

Chef Watson: reciparrhea

Earlier I wrote about IBM's attempt at computational gastronomy, finding it a bit of a trainwreck. Recently I have been accepted as a Beta-tester for their Chef Watson, an online program that helps you create novel recipes calculated from ingredient relationships culled from 1000ands of recipes. The exact mechanisms are kept under wraps. Every time I read their description of it as "a system that could reason about flavor the same way a person uses their palate by capturing tens of thousands of existing recipes through natural language processing techniques to understand ingredient pairings, ingredient-cuisine pairings and dish composition" I can't stop giggling like a second rate Jonathan Creek but still, I can't help being fascinated.

Here is how you start, let's see what we can do with broccoli.

Watson suggests matching ingredients, dishes and cuisines. It seems that the style is optional but the dish mandatory to proceed to the recipe. Notice that these suggestions are in classic mode and the top matching ingredient is butter. Open the creativity notch a bit and the suggestions change with it:

What happens I think is that it works on frequency counts of ingredient pairs. Whatever you do with your broccoli it will involve butter at some point making it the most associated ingredient and therefore the most classic. It begs the question if butter really is an ingredient you would use as a key component of a dish. Further proof of Watson selecting ingredients on frequency comes when we are selecting for 'surprise' as much as possible:

Now there is some weird vinegar at top but look at the second one: first it was black pepper and now it is black peppercorns. This is the same ingredient but named slightly different which eludes the program. Mustard will be used in conjunction with broccoli often but rare are the recipes suggesting Dijon mustard and consequently it becomes a novelty ingredient for experimental chefs. If you would force all these variations into one the number of possible recipes would shrink enormously. I have checked if these suggestions are explainable by foodpairing based on aroma compounds and the answer is: no. So this based on recipe predominantly.

While you are selecting the ingredients, styles and dishes Watson gives you plenty of info, as you can see.

Add a few more ingredients and generate the recipe:

This is not all, the steps go on after the screenshot. It is a lot of text and by changing the slide at the top there are a number of variations of this recipes (50? 100?) to be explored. I think you will need the patience and the free time of a monk to evaluate them all and that is just for one set of ingredients. Wisely IBM has added the following disclaimer:

"Remember that Chef Watson eats data, not real food. The ingredients and steps are suggestions, so be sure to use your own judgement when preparing these dishes. And, give us feedback to make the Chef smarter."

If you want a bit of fun it can create recipes for things like: Indian lemongrass bouillabaisse, Korean turnip stroganoff cheesecake and French almond milk tiramisu pancake. The biggest problem with Chef Watson is that food is not about data but about memory and place, company and good times. It generates data but it fails to translate into an experience. It only goes to show that every Watson needs a Livingstone.

dinsdag 16 december 2014

Nature Printing

Nature printing is a special technique for representing plants on paper that was developed in the 15th century (according to Wilfrid Blunt) in Germany and its last prominent user was Henry Bradbury who worked in the middle of the 19th century. It works by blackening a plant with soot, then pressing it between two soft leaves of paper, and rubbing it down with a smoothing bone. It is a laborious task that destroys the plant but the result has beautiful texture hard to reproduce by hand as you can see by consulting Bradbury's most famous book The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1857).

maandag 15 december 2014

Polynesian navigator sketching Lobster exchange

Tupaia, Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator, sketched a Maori man exchanging a large, live spiny lobster for a piece of cloth when the Endeavour landed in New Zealand in 1769. (VIA)

donderdag 27 november 2014

Chef Livingstone: Food Memory Generator

Food writers write no more and generate your food memories and your recipe introductions with Livingstone.

Foraging in Southern Italy my favorite, slightly eccentric, aunt explained to me how to prepare tomato sauce, it takes food to a whole new dimension. Drizzle with olive oil.

When I was studying in this tiny curry place in Jaipur a toothless fisherman showed me how to cook regional lentils, it takes food to a whole new dimension. A glass of red wine will completely finish it.

When I was a student in Thailand the great-grandson of the Moghul of the Punjab explained to me how to prepare offal, it brings back so many memories. Also delicious with bread or rice.

The months after my divorce in a place not mentioned in any guidebook a very experienced chef made me understand how to combine spicing and Yorkshire pudding, it brings the cuisine of Southern France to your kitchen at home. Yummy.

When I was in the Canadian wilderness the South-African mother of my best friend showed me how to cook regional cabbage, is has that sharp richness you normally associate with China. It is tender and juicy.

I was looking for inspiration in a teahouse in Jakarta the great-great-granddaugther of Napoleon's cook showed me how to combine Ethiopian flavors with rabbit, it tastes like nothing else. Add ginger for extra punch.

dinsdag 18 november 2014

The #FungiVerse [updated]

Recently I read Cynthia Bertelsen's compact but dense 'Mushroom, A Global History', a book on the cultural and gastronomic history of the mushroom. My favorite chapter deals with the domestication of the mushroom, it argues that large scale exploitation of mushrooms is a very recent phenomena and that much is still being done to bring new species under domestication. To see if I could reproduce this observation I turned to the 'What's on the Menu' dataset hosted and created by the New York Public Library. One of their files (Dish.csv) contains the first and last occurrence of over 400.000 dishes. I searched he names for all these dishes for the occurrence of a number of different mushrooms. This resulted in the following image that clearly shows how new fungi other than the common white mushroom still are for American restaurant visitors. Enoki, ceps, shiitake and even chestnut mushrooms are all recent additions. The file used gives titles and not actual ingredients. But I would think that it catches at least every use of the truffle as they are too expensive to use without telling. Click to enlarge.

This image shows with what other ingredients the mushrooms were combined with. 

Could we by combining the data behind these 2 images in order to say how the use of mushrooms has changed through the years? I wish you luck if you want to find out. You will need it.

vrijdag 14 november 2014

The Columbian Exchange in Three examples

Example one:

Bernal Diaz, author of the only eye-witness account of Cortez' conquest of Mexico writes:
"I sowed some orange pips near another of these temples ... The trees came up very well, for when the papas saw that these were different plants from any that they knew, they protected them and watered them and kept them free from weeds. All the oranges in the province are descendants of these trees." 
Interestingly enough Diaz scratched out this passage from his manuscript thinking it was of no consequence.

Example Two:

From Cynthia D. Bertelsen's book "Mushroom, A Global History" I quote from page 44: 
"Ethnographic studies indicate that many of the ancient cooking practices can still be found in isolated Italian villages... where the older woman within the community fry field mushrooms with sweet green peppers"
A sweet pepper is of course in the capsicum family, a plant from the new world. 

Example three:

Below is a table copied from William Balee's fabulous book on Ka'apor ethnobiology "Footprints of the Forest". The Ka'apor practice swidden agriculture in the Eastern Amazon, the kind of people often portrayed as isolated and living according to ancient ways. Here is a list of the old world plants and trees in their gardens, 22 in all.

The Columbian exchange is final and has touched even the most obscure corners of this planet.

woensdag 12 november 2014

Gary Snyder & Julia Martin: Nobody Home [review]

This is proving to be a good year for us fans of Snyderiana. Earlier this year the correspondence between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (my review here) appeared and now there is 'Nobody Home Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places'. It is a beautiful slim volume that fits perfectly in the side-pocket of your backpack, the perfect format for all books. It collects three interviews with Gary Snyder and the correspondence (1983-2011) with the interviewer Julia Martian, a South-African academic and Buddhist. The interviews are nice but hardly surprising, Snyder as a writer and thinker has a one-track-mind that amtraks towards the next station at his pace and without room for deviation. A near 100% of his output sits on a continues line of what he wants to say and for his steadfast reader these letters allow you to get a ever closer look on the minutiae of his intellectual development. Compared to earlier volumes you do get a little closer to Snyder as a man of teaching and travel, and there is also slightly more shown of the emotional events in his life. The real star of this book for me is Martin. I never heard of her before but we get to know her in her students years writing long overbearingly intellectual letters from the isolation of South Africa to her self-chosen teacher. As the years go by you follow the way she matures and comes into her own. At the background are the great events of her countries recent history: the fall of apartheid, the presidency of Mandela, the normalcy of violence, the presence of deep history and nature. A better title for this book would have been: "Growing up with Gary Snyder".

At the end of the book letters turn into email and this changes the entire tone of the correspondence, less formal, more kindhearted and also quicker, shorter and more pragmatic.

Not once does the word beat or beatnik fall. 

I like seeing Snyder with one of those 1980's pen holders. I always wanted one when I was a child but the only thing I could do was try to make one with toilet paper rolls. And he had one: lucky bastard.

dinsdag 21 oktober 2014

How to read Cookbooks

Here are two interesting papers on how to engage with historic cookbooks by historian Barbara Wheaton. One is called: A Structured Approach to Reading Historic Cookbooks, the other is Finding Real Life In Cookbooks: The Adventures Of A Culinary Historian.

She especially has my attention when she writes about how to approach ingredient-lists and what questions can be asked about them:

Cookbooks tell us more about the repertory of ingredients than anything else. An inventory of the foodstuffs called for in a single cookbook can be compared with a list of commonly used Western foods. Thus, one can get a sense of how much variety in the diet there may be in the course of a year, and how opulent or impoverished the kitchen addressed by a particular work may be. When seasonal availability is taken into account, even a long list of ingredients may not be enough to prevent inadequate variety in the depth of winter, or in the *starving season* of springtime. The list may well begin to reveal how the food is obtained. Some books are plainly rural, while others are urban. Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery, begins her discussion of peas with recommendations about what varieties to plant, while Eliza Acton, writing in her Modern Cookery, is concerned with helping the housewife not to be cheated by her greengrocer. Urban cookbooks are much more likely to measure food quantities by price -take 3d. worth of salt fish- or -a punnet of strawberries- rather than by amount. The rural kitchen is supplied by a flock of poultry in the barnyard, by the kitchen garden, by barter with local people, and by hunting, fishing, and foraging. The urban kitchen is visited by a multitude of ambulant vendors who sell seasonal foods, and herd flocks of goats (ready to be milked at the door), as well as meat pies and other baked goods. Street markets, covered markets, and shops bring a much wider variety of ingredients to the city dweller than to his or her country cousin. It must be added that, by the nineteenth century, there is a much greater concern with the adulteration of foods in the cities. A more general question must be asked: What proportions of the most commonly-used foodstuffs are obtained within and outside of the
cash economy?

The ingredients repertory displays economic and geographic patterns and raises questions such as: What are the points of origin of different food plants and animals? How long have they been present in the region represented by the cookbook? Which are the luxury ingredients, which are the staples, and which are the foods of the poor, or famine foods?

Here, I should point out a caveat: the mere mention of an ingredient does not guarantee its availability. In the past, as today, some cookbook writers seem to feel obliged to call for esoteric ingredients to demonstrate how recondite are their tastes. By the nineteenth century, the repertory expands: canal transportation, then the railroads, and finally steamboats greatly improve the selection of foodstuffs available in most parts of Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America. Pineapple and coconut, for example, are featured in Eliza Leslie's cookbooks published in Philadelphia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By shortening the time spent in transit, the railroads in particular did much to improve the quality of foods sold in urban markets.

woensdag 8 oktober 2014

The 'Sioux Chef' on the Map

A nice piece came my way via Twitter: "The 'Sioux Chef' Is Putting Pre-Colonization Food Back On The Menu" about Sean Sherman, cook and student of the ethnobotany of his own Oglala Lakota tribe. I like projects like these. Map your Recipe, a website that can find the fruits and vegetables in a recipe and show where they were domesticated, was created with the intent of analyzing exactly such things. I do not have Sherman's recipes of course but using the gallery page from his website it is possible to get some of his ingredients. Here is what happens when you put them on the map:

The graph on the right shows that for these few ingredients as many are native to the new world as are native to the old world. The second thing that is immediately clear is that most of these plants were never domesticated at all.

But what does this mean in regard with the claim of Sherman cooking food from before pre-colonization? As I have been saying all cooking is fusion cooking and the origin of an ingredient has nothing to do with authenticity (the pizza is no less Italian for using the South American tomato). In this case it is even more interesting because it is perfectly feasible for a 17th/18th/19th century non-colonized prairie Lakota to eat plants brought to the continent by European invaders. This is the point made by Alfred W. Crosby in his book Ecological Imperialism. A plant like the humble dandelion was preparing the ground for the European onslaught long before they themselves got that far west.

My great plains anthropology is sketchy but it is to be remembered that this was a way of life made possible by the horse, a European animal. The various nations (or even empires) of plain Indians who learned how to re-domesticate (and later breed) feral horses in order to live out on the prairie are among few recorded examples of formerly sedentary people becoming nomadic. Their way of life was a creative and successful response to new pressures and new opportunities. It makes sense that this creativity would also act on new plants. It is part of their genius. The map is a way to show this.

zaterdag 4 oktober 2014

AEAR (Average Etymological Age of a Recipe)

One can take a random recipe, like Jamie 'proper delish' Oliver's rainbow salad wrap, and look up the year each ingredient entered the English language. It would result in the following etymological timetable:


With this data you are able to calculate the AEAR or Average Etymological Age of a Recipe. As the word 'average' says it is derived at by dividing the grand total of years by the number of ingredients. For Oliver's salad wrap the AEAR is a respectable 1329. It is bogus, of course, but it is a way to add a metric to recipes (or entire cookbooks) that few will have experimented with. With good reason I hear you say.

The following graph shows the AEAR of 77 historic cookbooks published between 1390 and 1936. In those 546 years the AEAR went up with only 220 years. The vertical line is for AEAR, horizontal is for year of publication of the cookbook.

For the period after 1936 cookbooks within the public domain are scarce but for with a little help from our friends from the Pirate Bay we can add Nigella Lawson's Express (2007). The trend line does not move visibly but the book is way above the trend. She scores a AEAR of 1359. Between 1390 and 2007 (so between the Forme of Cury and Nigella Lawson), a period of 617 years the AEAR went up 326 years. These numbers one could once again compile to calculate relative growth rates per decade or century but this I will leave to a PhD with the time and the inclination who can than proceed to theorize about punctuated etymological equilibriums. 

The challenge is this: who can find the newest and the oldest recipe as measured by AEAR? 

Can you beat the AEAR of this recipe for "Teriyaki tofu wrap with macadamia roasted garlic spread" which is an impressive 1461?!

Map your Recipe can calculate.

zaterdag 20 september 2014

A foraging poem by Seamus Heaney

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. 

Seamus Heaney (1960ties)

zondag 24 augustus 2014

Omnivorous animals are faced with a dilemma, or a paradox [why eat spices]

"... Omnivorous animals are faced with a dilemma, or a paradox. One the one hand they are equipped to try new food sources and have a vast range of choices, which enhances their chance of survival; on the other, any strange food is potentially harmful and may cause discomfort, even death. The omnivore's capacity for eating nearly everything, then, is tempered by an innate distrust of novelty.
Culinary tradition is a guarantee of safety, and usually of nutritional wisdom: if it worked for your parents, it will work for you.
Cuisines are also given to characteristic flavorings, which are most often their most distinctive aspect, and, which have little, if any, nutritional significance... These flavorings are usually carefully maintained among immigrant groups whose normal staple foods may be unavailable in their new home, and suggests an analogy to the well-known habit of animals of 'marking' their territories with their own scents. Strong distinctive flavors mark our food as familiar and so acceptable, and may help ease the introduction of new staple foods into the cuisine. And, on the other hand, the shared preference for certain flavorings can help reinforce a sense of social solidarity, a feeling of community. The popular interest in exploring novel, exotic cuisines, so evident in the current variety of restaurants and cookbooks, is a development only of the least three or four decades. "

On the topic of why we eat spices (see Darwinian Gastronomy earlier) we can rely on Harold Mcgee's 'On food and Cooking' to provide the extremely sensible argument above. It's based on research done by psychologist Paul Rozin. It gives a complete new meaning to the notion of edible geographies. One word though: this is copied from my old edition of the book, not the updated one in which I have not been able to find it.

dinsdag 19 augustus 2014

Some words on Darwinian Gastronomy

'Darwinian Gastronomy: why we use spices' (1999, PDF-link) by Sherman and Billing is a nice and early example of an attempt to use statistical analysis of cookbooks to reveal deeper patterns about what we eat and why. The paper theorizes that there is an evolutionary benefit to eating spices: "by cleansing food of pathogens before consumption, spice users contribute to the health, longevity and fitness of themselves, their families and their guests." There is more disease in the tropics and this is also where most spices are added to food, or so the paper seems to argues. Personally I think the argument runs the risk of putting the horse behind the carriage. Spices predominately grow in tropical areas and it makes sense to expect that this is where they eat them most.

There are some very nice graphs showing spice-use in 36 countries and I can easily appreciate how much data (93 cookbooks) went into making them. But we are never told what those books were. How can someone who knows about these things ever make a judgement on how soundly food traditions/cuisines are represented? A cookbook is not a neutral source, but a vehicle of someone's dietary ideology. Something advertised as traditional may be less than a week old, something advertised as national may be produced by a radical fringe. What and where is the baseline? The paper, in its conclusion, recommends cookbooks "from different eras" as "a written record of our coevolutionary races against foodborne diseases." This I seriously doubt: the history of cookbooks is not old enough to pick up deep evolutionary changes. If we do eat spice as an antidote to unclean food we, in the West, could do without them, our ever growing love for spicy food shows the reverse.

A related paper explains why "vegetable recipes are less spicy" (PDF-link) from which we learn a debatable assumption made in the other paper: it treats fish as a meat.


maandag 28 juli 2014

Comparing Asian Cuisines using food pairs

One of the great things of Rachel Laudan's Cuisine and Empire (the New York Review of Book has a very good synopsis/review) is that she offers hypothesis on the history of food that can be tested. Most writers look at cuisines as black boxes, almost magical entities that come and go without underlying logic. Laudan positions them on a continuum of a few dietary philosophies. Why eat what or not? what makes health? what makes good food? There are local influences at work of course but much she explains by what degree competing philosophies left their mark. Two of my favourite episodes from the book are those in which Laudan describes how the various culinary philosophies (Confucian-Taoist in China, Buddhist in India, Islamic coming in from the Middle East, with earlier sacrificial systems remaining present at the background) met and mingled on the Asian continent. Would it be possible to look at major Asian cuisines as they are today (Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Indian) and compare and cluster them for their similarity? And would that confirm the clusters of shared influence Laudan's theory predict? If have not a clue.

The above graph takes as input four Chinese and four Indian cookbooks and compares each of them with all others. The result is  a cluster of Indian cookbooks matched with each other (to the right, high similarity), four Chinese cookbooks clustered in the middle and the Chinese/Indian books have least similarity. Having established that cookbooks of the same type of cuisines will be more like each other than others (read: having established that comparing foodpairs is perhaps a way to compare cuisines), we have turned them into one big file representing a cuisine. There are six cuisines present here, derived from 24 cookbooks.

These 'cuisine' files were all compared with each other and this resulted in the following:

The horizontal line gives similarity (a 27% similarity between Vietnamese and Chinese food pairs) and the horizontal lines gives the total number of unique foodpairs present (7005 for Vietnamese/Japanese). All cuisines compare least with Indian cooking and that is how theory would predict it (India undergoing most influence from the Middle East) and Chinese and Vietnamese are most alike as I would have predicted it, without any theory to back that up. All the others are roughly equal.

It remains a big question if cookbooks can stand for anything but clumsy representations of the real thing for English-speaking markets. But what are you to do.

zondag 27 juli 2014

All Cooking is Fusion Cooking


Ingredients: Allspice, corn, tomatillo, chiles, tomato, chocolate, peanut, thyme, cumin, onion, garlic, raisin, cinnamon

Areas of domestication:

South Mexican and Central America:
Allspice, tomatillo, chilli
South America (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile):
Tomato, chocolate
Brazil, Paraguay:
The Mediterranean:
Thyme, cumin
Northwest India, Afghanistan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan:
Onion, garlic, raisin
India, Bangladesh, Myramar:
Source: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/mole-sauce/

There is no cuisine in the old world that has not completely absorbed several food crops from the new world. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, chilli peppers, peanuts and tomatoes, to name just a few, are now staple foodstuffs across the world but they are originally all from the Americas. The national cuisines of the Americas themselves are dominated by old world flavours and ingredients like onion, garlic, coriander, black pepper, rice, wheat, beef, pork and chicken. The European discovery of America and the 'Columbian exchange' that followed, the term was coined by Alfred W. Crosby in 1972, is an ongoing process of biological levelling. Isolated Amazonian tribes are still succumbing to what are to us harmless childhood diseases, plants and animals are still finding ways to become invasive elsewhere, the craze for quinoa shows that there are still Andean crops to be integrated in the global food market.

In her book Cuisine and Empire (2013) Rachel Laudan writes about the bedazzlement that overcame the Mexican poet Octavio Paz when he travelled to India in 1962. He could not make-up what had happened, how it could be that such different countries had such a similar cuisine. Was the Mexican national dish Mole “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is the curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce”. Unable to explain the shared love for chilli peppers and flat bread (the chapati and the tortilla), taking note of the fact that the chilli could only have been introduced to India from Mexico in historic times, he concluded that “the two cuisines share a position that can only be called eccentric: they are both imaginative and passionate infractions of the two great canons of taste, French and Chinese cuisine.” A strange and incredulous conclusion. What made Mexican and Indian cuisine look and taste alike should be understood, Laudan argues, as a consequence of the spread of Islam as the dominant religious and political power from India to Spain. Columbus himself was only admitted to the Spanish court to plead his case after King Ferdinand II had conquered the last Moorish stronghold in Southern Spain. Only with the Moors gone could resources be allocated to speculative journeys of exploration. What the Spanish ate was however still a local rendering of the same style of food that the Mughal empire brought to India. Chiles spread almost everywhere almost as soon as the Europeans discovered America. India and Mexico share the right climate for the plant and its taste found a niche that nobody in the old world knew existed until they tasted it. Mexican cuisine is an old world cuisine developing in the new world.

Map 2: Mulligatawny

Ingredients: Chiles, tomato, black mustard, cumin, coriander, lentil, onion, garlic, lemon, coconut, black pepper, ginger, turmeric, plum

Areas of domestication:

South Mexican and Central America:
South America (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile):
The Mediterranean:
Black mustard, cumin
The Middle East:
Northwest India, Afghanistan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan:
Mustard, onion, garlic
India, Bangladesh, Myramar:
Lemon, coconut, black pepper, ginger, turmeric

Link: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Classic-Mulligatawny

From the perspective of the ingredients one conclusion is inescapable: at a deep level all cooking is fusion cooking. From the perspective of culture this is blatant nonsense. Food is something to take pride in and claim as your own, on personal level, on family level as well as on ethnic, religious, political and national level. On these different scales of food, the local and the global, the temporary and the historic, the cook makes her or his choices.

A fusion cook, someone who mixes tradition with alien elements with the intention of creating a novel effect or flavour is always making a statement about the importance of identity and tradition and experimenting with how far diners are willing to go in their loyalty to them. It is easy to sympathize with the Indians of the 18th and 19th century, who, with bewilderment, must have taken note of the 'Indian' food that the English in India were concocting and sending back to Europe. A dish like Mulligatawngy, a soup, became popular throughout Europe as an example of an exotic cuisine. In reality is was as novel to the Europeans as it was to the Indians: the concept of a soup was unknown on the South-Asian continent. The anglicized curry was a form of culinary imperialism, yet another example of a regime taking its own prejudices for reality, misunderstanding the food as much as they did the continent, a further humiliation of a subjected people.

The mulligatawny is a European food-monument of that time and recipes for it are included by major cookbook writers like Mrs Beeton and Escoffier. Jane Austen ate 'currees' and liked them. William Thackerey wrote 'Poem to a Curry', a recipe inside a poem proscribing a way of cooking a curry that was purely European. Thanks to google books we have easy access to publications like the 1830 issue of the 'Arcana of Science and Art, Or an Annual Register of Popular Inventions and Improvements, Abridged from the Transactions of Public Societies, and from the Scientific Journals, British and Foreign, of the Past Year' and the 1840 edition of the 'Magazine of Domestic Economy'. The food snob is a thing of all ages and these pages show a lively interest in the proper ways of cooking Indian food. This excitement for a new food perhaps explains why it was in the end good for Indian morale. The mulligatawny has been naturalized and is now claimed by Indian food writers such as part of Indian food heritage. Curry-Bible author Madhur Jaffrey uses it as an example of the baroque turns food can make without losing its own identity. You can take the curry out of India, you can't take India out of the curry. Culinary change is not a special circumstance but part of its nature.


Ingredients: Parsley, celery, thyme, fennel, rosemary, bay leaves, oats, mustard, onion, shallot, garlic, carrot, almond, walnut

The Mediterranean:
Parsley, celery, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves
The Middle East:
Northwest India, Afghanistan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan:
Mustard, onion, shallot, garlic, carrot, almond

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/snailporridge_74858

Mole is Mexican no matter how much Moorish-Iberian prestige cooking was transported to it. The pizza wouldn’t be less Italian if the tomato was brought to it from outer space instead of from South-America. Both foods can however only exist as a result of larger historic circumstances that made local crops global. Map your Recipe is a website that turns any recipe into a map showing where the fruits and vegetables that went into it were first domesticated. It does not explain the historic processes of what events made what dishes possible, but by translating recipes into maps it can perhaps make visible patterns in cuisines and dishes that can only be seen from a distance. When applied to individual chefs distant cooking a recipe can reveal unspoken biases. Heston Blumenthal is at the forefront of molecular gastronomy, a way of cooking inspired by the latest developments in food science. The idea of 72 sautéed snails in oats-porridge is not immediately attractive to most people, even if they are French. The challenging nature of the main ingredient is probably explained by the environmental benefits that could be had by an increased use of non-mammalian proteins. But when putting Blumenthal’s snail porridge on the map the result is not just classical but geo-conservative. There are no ingredients here that were not available in the Middle Ages.


Ingredients: Chilli, cashew, olive, chicory, coriander, pomegranate, onion, spinach, sesame, lime, ginger, soy, cranberries, mint, watercress

Areas of domestication:

South Mexican and Central America:
Brazil, Paraguay:
The Mediterranean:
Olive, chicory
The Middle East:
Northwest India, Afghanistan, Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan:Onion, spinach
India, Bangladesh, Myramar:
Sesame, lime, ginger
Old world, but not exactly known:Mint, watercress
Link: http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/turkey-recipes/asian-inspired-turkey-salad-and-pancakes

Jamie Oliver has sold more than 10 million books and it suggests that his type of food is accessible to many people. The map showing the origin of domestication of the ingredients in his Asian style turkey dish with pancakes is very different from Blumenthal's food sourcing. In this one dish Oliver manages to use resources from around the globe with what can only be called pan-globalist promiscuity. But his recipe does not contain anything out of the ordinary and all his ingredients can be purchased in probably all supermarkets in the developed world. Map your Recipe has as an inbuilt feature which tries to guesstimate the cuisine of a dish based on its ingredients. Using his distinctive wide ranging choice of ingredients this function will also try to determine if a recipe could be from Jamie Oliver.  


By analyzing historic cookbooks for the origin of its ingredients it might be possible to put in perspective the food diversity that we find taken for granted in Jamie Oliver. The above charts have been produced from data obtained from 46 out-of-copyright cookbooks, published between 1390 and 1935. The earliest is the Forme of Cury (1390), its unknown authors cooks to King Edward II. The latest is the Sunset All-Western Cook Book (1933) an all-purpose cookbook with “Recipes Included for Favorite Regional, and Foreign Dishes Peculiar to the West “. In between there are classics like the Art of Coockery by Hannah Glasse (1747), The Book of Household Management by Mrs. Beeton (1859), A Guide to Modern Cookery by Auguste Escoffier (1907) as well as a titles like The Curry Cook's Assistant, or, Curries, How to Make Them in England in Their Original Style by Daniel Santiagoe (1887).

Some observations:

- In the early part of the 17th century the number of ingredients available increases sharply.

- A second sharp increase happens 200 years later in the beginning of the 19th century.

- It takes to about 1650 when produce from the Americas are significantly introduced to the larder.
-American crops on there own are not enough to explain the increase in the 17th century.

All the early cookbooks used to create these charts were intended for use as mnemonics at royal courts. The modern cookbook was only created in the 18
th and 19th century and written for the emerging middle-classes. The abundant use of small game birds in the royal medieval kitchen however would get any restaurant recreating them into problems with animal rights activists. We hear much about how people's diets across the globe are getting more similar. Calling globalization a melting pot is however a faulty metaphor. Culture is not a can of paint, there is a plenty of room on the plate. Travel and migration, curiosity and surplus are creating chaotic gastronomic exchange routes on which a million mulligatawngies can emerge without hurting anyone's feelings. Global food culture is literally, filling the map and connecting the dots. Eat well.

With gratitude to Rachel Laudan for clarifying some details.
Reay Tannahill - Food In History, Penguin 1988.
Brothwell and Brothwell – Food in Antiquity. John Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Alfred W. Crosby – The Columbian Exchange, Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Greenwood Press, 1972.
Madhur Jaffrey, Ultimate Curry Bible, Ebury Press, 2003.
Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Vintage, 2012.
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire, Cooking in World History, University of California Press, 2013.

vrijdag 25 juli 2014

Weeds and Aliens

Weeds and Aliens (1961) by Edward Salisbury (the man had more honorary titles than I have teeth) is the absolute classic book that pioneered the modern study and appreciation of wild plants in a globalized, man-made environment. I have not completely read it but you only need to read 10 pages to understand that this book is fundamental to a way of looking at plants (and the world) that is still edgy. Everything Richard Mabey has ever written is a mere footnote to this book. Peter del Tredici, Emma Marris and the entire novel ecosystems/anthropocene line of thinking should cite Salisbury's book out of habit.

Weeds and Aliens was published as part the same New Naturalist series that included the Fitter book on the Natural History of London. Where biology has now moved into the ivory tower of DNA-sequencing this is still old school and everything Salisbury did every plant spotter or gardener can do. It is experimental science with everyday materials. He collects data on seeds, soil and distribution but Salisbury does it with an intelligence and memory that few people can match. It is a tough book to read, its scope is encyclopedic but not with a desire to collect all the knowledge of the world but out of desire to share with his readers the excitement of the versatility of plants and the geographic narrative of a industrializing world they tell. It is old fashioned and refreshing at the same time to meet a writer who does assume his readers to be idiots and expect them to want to know everything to the last detail. How else can he excite if the facts themselves are left out? 

Weeds and Aliens is a book for nerds. Maps, lists, raw data. drown in it and be happy.

zondag 20 juli 2014

Food Pairs 101

What follows is a brief explanation of what our work with foodpairs is trying to do.  

Foodpairing is the theory that foodstuffs go well together if they share key chemical compounds. The ur example is Heston Blumenthal's combination of caviar and white chocolade that both contain high levels of amines. Some work has been done to turn bodies of recipes into frequency lists of foodpairs, creating an informal hierarchy of good taste. 

Here we don't buy into the theory of foodpairing, which is culturally specific anyway, but we are using its concept of a 'food pair'. Our interest is not culinary but historic: can the way cooks and cuisines combine ingredients, now and in the past, show affinities and differences. Can it illustrate larger historic explanations of how cuisines have developed.

The foodpairs for a Aloo Gobi recipe look like this:
A diagram of it looks like this, a network with all nodes connecting each other.

Here is a graph of the same aloo gobi but combined with those for a Lasagna recipe. They share an ingredient but have no foodpair in common.

When graphing foodpairs for a larger body of recipes, a cookbook, some combinations will be more common than others, this is expressed with line-width and distance as this graph of a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook shows:

It seems reasonable to suggest that different cuisines will each have a preference for certain ingredients and when they use the same ones they will combine it differently. It also seems reasonable to expect that cuisines that developed together will differ less than cuisines that didn't. This is what we want to verify.

By combining the foodpairs of the Jaffrey book with a Mexican cookbook we get the graph below. It gives some information about their commonality but without context nothing definite can be said.
To make some real sense of the ways foodpairs show affinity across the culinary scale we need a metric. The Jaccard index is a simple way to calculate similarity in data-sets. When comparing two sets that are exactly alike (comparing the foodpairs of a book with the foodpairs of its unchanged reprint) it will score 1 -> 100% similarity. If they are completely different the score is 0. 

Using the same Mexican and Indian cookbook as above we can calculate the Jaccard index as 0.11- > of the 8135 unique foodpairs the books together yield, 11% are present in both books. Without context it is a useless number but now look at the graph below that compares the foodpairs from the Jaffrey cookbook with 13 other cookbooks covering a number of styles (national cuisine and celebrity chefs). 

The Jaccard index (in whole percentages) is mapped horizontally. The vertical scale gives the total number of unique foodpairs in both books. 

That Jaffrey compares most with another Indian cookbook gives us some comfort that we are not generating random data. Jaffrey comparing least with Rene Redzepi's NOMA cookbook feels right too. The theory that Mexican and Indian food share the same middle eastern influence is hard to corroborate with this, but it could be informing that it finds more commonality with Middle Eastern food (and Greek) than with anything else.

The next graph compares the Mexican cookbook with the same books. The highest similarities found are with a book by Nigella Lawson and with a book on Hawaiian food. Notice the position of the two Chinese cookbooks in the left corner for both graphs.

Note: saying that we are comparing cuisines is obviously not true. We are comparing English language cookbooks written for an audience of English speaking home cooks, explaining them the things they expect to be explained and with ingredients that can locally purchase. Which brings us to the unanswered question what a cookbook really represents. 
In any case: the problem of meaning here is endless and this stuff will explain nothing.