Monday 2nd October
Something vs. Nothing: globalisation, migration and food
What are you having for dinner tonight? Indian? Italian? Thai? Mexican? We are lucky in the UK that we have access to a vast array of cuisines, whether at a restaurant, as a takeaway or cooked ourselves from a recipe. However, can you really recreate an “authentic” dish if you’ve never even been to its country of origin? Just because you can go down to the local supermarket and buy pomegranate molasses to make that exciting new recipe by Ottolenghi, doesn’t mean that you are engaging fully in the origins of that cuisine or making a truly Middle Eastern meal.
On the other hand, maybe “authenticity” doesn’t matter so much, and the creation of new hybrid dishes reflects the diverse and multinational population of the country. If someone of Indian heritage cooks a Spanish dish in an English household, the finished plate of food is likely to express the different aspects of their culture, whether in the choice of ingredients, methods of cooking or ways of serving and eating.
Today we looked at how globalisation and migration have influenced our eating habits. Ever since the start of the Silk Route around 300BC, goods and people have moved all over the world. Foods and food cultures have travelled from one country to the next, resulting in rich and diverse diets almost everywhere in the world.
We looked at a modern example of a new cuisine reaching an audience distant from its origins: the pizzaioli (pizza-makers) of Japan. This business developed after many Italians were left in Japan after the war, and now it is seen as a well-respected career. Many of the restaurants have VPN (Vera Pizza Napolitana) certification to prove their “authenticity”. Another example is the arrival of McDonald’s in Beijing, which changed the way that locals socialised. Previously, women could not be seen in restaurants alone, but the establishment of these clean, bright spaces with no hierarchy, meant that people from all walks of life could meet or eat alone without judgement.
In the afternoon, we visited a restaurant and a delicatessen on Leith Walk, to find out about their history. First, we ate a spectacular lunch in Punjabi Junction. Run by Sikh Sanjog as a social enterprise community café, it provides training and employment opportunities for minority ethnic women, whilst promoting Sikh culture in Edinburgh. We were treated to a wonderful array of dishes including poppadums, chickpea and potato curry, Jeera rice, chicken curry, fish curry, chapattis, and tharka dal, before a colourful dessert of barfi (a milk-based confectionery), gulaab jamun (milk ‘cakes’ in syrup) and sweet rice.
After mopping up every last drop of curry, the manager of the restaurant explained to us how the business has developed during the seven years that it has been running, particularly after its rebranding three-and-a-half years ago. Customer demand has led the restaurant to stay open six days a week and for longer hours. Although many of the dishes are recipes passed on through the generations, hybrid dishes have been created for the British audience, including haggis pakoras, and mince pie samosas for Christmas.
Next, we headed to Valvona & Crolla, a family-run Italian deli that has been serving carefully-sourced produce for over 80 years. The business is now owned by Philip Contini, the grandson of the co-owner, and his wife, Mary, who kindly spoke to us during our visit, about the beginnings of the company and how it is run today. It was interesting to hear about the Italian community that came over to the UK, with many of those from the town of Picinisco, in the Lazio region, ending up in Edinburgh. Initially, Alfonso Crolla travelled around Scotland, selling to other Italians, before starting up a small café in Newhaven, next to which Raffaele Valvona opened a continental warehouse. The families created a partnership and began trading as Valvona & Crolla in 1934 on Elm Row, Edinburgh.
Mary said the shop opened at the same time as the launch of a Sainsbury’s, which then provided an exciting new way to shop, sourcing all your goods in one location. Now however, the deli provides a shopping experience that customers are currently craving, going back to the custom of visiting specialist shops to buy your food. The deli now sells an impressive range of food and wine, sourced both locally and from Italy, where they buy direct from the producers. They have customers all over the world, including in East Asia, where there has been a recent boom in sales, linking nicely to our study earlier in the day about pizzaioli in Japan. The openness of the EU market has been an important factor in the business and the way they source their goods, so it will be of huge interest to them, as well as to many similar food sellers in the country, to find a solution in the coming months to maintain this free movement, so that we can retain access to this incredible produce.
Tuesday 3rd October
Despite what you may think a Gastronomy course involves, this was in fact our only cookery class of the year. As part of ‘Food Transformation’ within our Science of Food module, we looked at a range of ways in which to cook food, taught by alumni Scott Fraser, now Group Innovations Manager at Dawnfresh Seafoods Ltd.
Why do we actually cook food at all? It is one factor that distinguishes us from animals, and involves both scientific benefits, such as increasing nutritional levels and aiding digestion, and social benefits, as we gather together to cook a meal and feed one another. Food science has been around in some form since cooking began, however in recent years, in particular with the rise of molecular gastronomy and appearance of celebrity chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, it has become a ‘trend’ within the culinary world. It has also become an area of serious study for writers such as Harold McGee and Hervé This, dispelling myths and old wives’ tales about the cooking of everyday food. For a development chef like Scott Fraser, a knowledge of food science offers up solutions to creating new products for the consumer market; the practical side to a very creative role.
We discussed several physical changes that can occur in the transformation of food, before watching these changes happen in our practical experiments in the afternoon. First, we investigated flavour reactions when cooking Brussels sprouts three ways: boiling, grilling and sautéing. In Britain, we seem to have developed a tradition of boiling sprouts, but it was clear to see and taste that this created by far the least appealing option out of the three. Due to the vegetables undergoing both caramelisation and the Maillard reaction (simply put, the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars to give browned food its aromatic flavour), the grilled and sautéed sprouts had far more flavour than those that were boiled. Definitely something to bear in mind this Christmas.
We also looked at gluten, an experiment that involved washing the starch out of a mass of bread dough to show the strong, stretchy structure of the gluten.
Next, we dispelled the common myth that chocolate and water do not mix, by making a chocolate Chantilly, a basic chocolate mousse, out of chocolate and (you guessed it) water. We heated the two ingredients together before whipping them to an airy texture and cooling in the fridge. The result was a light, tasty and healthier version of chocolate mousse…which we didn’t have much trouble devouring.
Other groups tested steak marinades for tenderness, and five ways of preparing salmon, from poaching to salt curing. This was a great, hands-on way of getting to grips with different cooking techniques, and showed us what we can gain from preparing foods in a range of ways to suit our tastes.