Desperately seeking bulgur wheat and cocoa

Bit of a gripe, bit of a rant … I was after bulgur wheat and cocoa powder. Not for the same dish, I hasten to add. I thought both would be relatively easy to find in one or other of my two local supermarkets. I was wrong. Totally wrong. Neither had any bulgur, let alone a choice of fine or coarse. They had pre-mixed combinations of grains, gluten-free this and that, packets of seeds, quinoa, flavoured cereals and rows of so-called health bars—but no bulgur. Yet bulgur is a staple of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, used in salads, stuffed into capsicums, made into pilaf, and much more.

It was the same story with cocoa. A pantry essential for anyone who bakes. On the shelves six, seven, eight varieties of drinking chocolate—whose main ingredient was sugar—but 100% cocoa powder was nowhere to be found.

I live in Pyrmont on the western edge of downtown Sydney. An area of about one square kilometre it is one of, if not the, most densely populated suburb in Australia. We have two supermarkets: Coles and a Woolworths Metro. Until recently we had an excellent IGA supermarket that as well as the big brands, also carried lines from smaller and independent producers. The Woolworth’s Metro that’s replaced the IGA is, to be blunt, a pretty crappy supermarket. Heavy on instant salads and ready-meals and low on single ingredient foods.

As I stood in the supermarket aisle, I realised that the kind of shop I wanted was one that no longer seems to exist. Wholefood stores and food co-ops with their sacks of loose beans and chick peas, lentils, buckwheat flour weighed to order, organic sultanas and unadulterated peanut butter, have gone. In their place shops selling canisters of vitamin supplements and protein powders.

Kurdish style pilaf with tomatoes, thyme and capsicum

A lot of what’s marketed as health food is heavily processed. Vegan ‘meat’ is an obvious example, but check the fine print on the back of products in the ‘health’ sections of supermarkets and see what that low-calorie, no added sugar snack actually contains. There’s a great article about the rise and rise of ultra-processed food in The Guardian: How Ultra-processed Food Took Over Your Shopping Basket by by culinary journalist Bee Wilson. Highly recommended.

‘Ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed—and on sale in supermarkets everywhere.’

BTW I did eventually obtain both products. I ordered Dutch cocoa powder online and bought bulgur wheat from Harris Farm in the nearby Broadway shopping centre. I wanted the cocoa for chocolate and almond ricotta to accompany poached pears, and the bulgur for a Kurdish pilaf with tomatoes—a recipe I picked up forever ago from an anthropologist friend who’d done fieldwork in eastern Turkey.

Ginger crunch, smoked tomatoes & cookbooks for singles

The beginning of this month I made a research trip to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. It was primarily fieldwork for a new script, but along the way I sampled some of Southland’s and Otago’s culinary offerings—and acquired a couple of local cookbooks. In Queenstown I bought a copy of the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book, described on page 4 as ‘a constant, reliable companion in Kiwi kitchens for over 100 years’. First issued as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908, a promotional tool for Edmonds’ baking powders, it’s been revised multiple times since and is now up to its sixty-ninth edition.

From one of Invercargill’s many charity shops—I’ve forgotten which—I purchased Food for Flatters. Another Edmonds publication. I bought it to add to my growing collection of (mostly retro) cookbooks for students, singles and small spaces.

In the 1960s and 70s the patterns of the past were changing. More young people were moving out of the parental home, not because they were all getting married, but because they were off to university or off to the city in search of independence—especially the freedom that was difficult to have with Mum and Dad in the adjoining bedroom. Bachelors, it was always assumed, led racy, carefree lives. Spinsters, by contrast, were objects of scorn or pity. That changed—well, sort of. Singledom became an adventurous lifestyle choice—for women as well as men. Cookbooks cashed in, and a subgenre emerged: the singles’ cookbook.

It’s worth noting however, that before Katharine Whitehorn (Cooking in a Bedsitter, 1963) and Helen Gurley Brown (Single Girl’s Cookbook, 1969) appeared on the scene, Marjorie Hillis was providing ideas for solitary suppers and budget-friendly entertaining to ‘bachelor ladies’ in Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner (1937). Joanna Scutt’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It colours in the social context and is an absorbing read.

I confess a soft spot for Cooking in a Bedsitter with its Shrimp Wiggle (page 168 in my 1974 Penguin edition) and its ghastly casseroles assembled from condensed soup, mince and a tin of celery. Just as well then that in 2020 it’s more likely to be Jamie Oliver accompanying sons and daughters to halls of residence or share houses.

When I got home from New Zealand, I discovered that about a quarter of the pages had been ripped out of Food for Flatters. Hmm. Disappointing, but look, it only cost $2, the money went to a good cause, and I wasn’t buying it for its recipes. Of course I wasn’t. Crumbed sausages or cheese rolls made with packet soup mix are not appealing. Although I was told several times that cheese rolls are a regional speciality, I wasn’t game enough to try them. Cheese scones, on the other hand—when I could find them without bacon bits—were invariably delicious.

Some of the meals I ate in New Zealand were excellent. Fish pie and Sauvignon Blanc on the terrace of a Queenstown pup, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Discovering the delights of smoked tomatoes thanks to the fabulous Batch café in Invercargill. And on the snack and treat front, I reacquainted myself with that classic NZ slice: ginger crunch. A slightly crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread base topped with a thick layer of ginger icing.

According to the Edmonds Cookery Book New Zealanders have always been partial to slices and squares—a taste that continues if the number of bakeries and cafés selling them is anything to go by.

This recipe for ginger crunch is based on the one in Edmonds Cookery Book.

For the base
125g butter softened
½ cup caster sugar
1½ cups plain flour
1 x teaspoons baking powder
1½ x teaspoons ground ginger

For a thick layer of icing
110g butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 x tablespoons golden syrup
4 x teaspoons ground ginger

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin.

Mix dry ingredients, rub in the butter, then lightly knead the mixture until it comes together. It will be fairly dry and crumbly at this stage. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and press it down.

Bake about 20-25 minutes until it’s a light, golden brown.

While the base is cooking put the butter, golden syrup and ginger into a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the butter is melted. Add the sifted icing sugar and mix it into the melted ingredients. Once everything is satisfactorily combined, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the icing over the slice as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cut into fingers and leave to cool before indulging.

Gone to marzipan

It’s that time of year: bushfires, barbecues, shops window-dressed with tinsel, fairy lights and fake snow, with chocolates, glacé fruits and marzipan. It’s the season for marzipan. I’m not a fan of white icing, but a festive fruit cake without marzipan is missing something essential. And I can’t imagine Swedish princess cake without its distinctive, green-tinted coat.

The story starts in the Middle East, probably in Persia. Traders or maybe returning crusaders brought the confection west to Europe. One of marzipan’s many origin stories claims it was born in Venice during a great famine. Without flour to make bread, Venetian bakers used ​​ground almonds instead, adding sugar and honey to their dough. Presumably—despite the famine—there was no shortage of nuts or sweeteners? Or is it a case of never let logic get in way of a good legend?

Another marzipan story, very likely apocryphal, takes place during the Wars of Religion (1562-98). Huguenot leader, Gaspard II de Coligny, loved marzipan and the day before an important battle he over-indulged in his favourite delicacy. This gave him such terrible indigestion, he was unable to lead his troops, and the Protestants were defeated.

Marzipan also gets served up in literature. It’s mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Act I Scene V opens with a bit of domestic business:

‘First Servant:
Away with the joint-stools, remove the
court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save
me a piece of marchpane …

And, à la recherche du massepain … Food and the rituals of the table play a large part in the work of prolific, nineteenth-century writer Honoré de Balzac. (As well as fiction, he co-edited a collection of gastronomic texts.) It was during a stay with friends that Balzac, collecting material for his 1842 novel La Rabouilleuse, discovered Issoudun’s famous marzipan:

Elle tirait d’une armoire une fiole contenant du cassis, une liqueur de ménage faite par elle, car elle en avait eu la recette de ces célèbres religieuses auxquelles on doit le «Massepain d’ Issoudun. Le gâteau d’Issoudun est l’une des plus grandes créations de la confiturerie française et qu’aucun chef d’office, cuisinier, pâtissier ou confiturier n’a pu contrefaire. M. de Rivière, ambassadeur à Constantinople, en demandait tous les ans d’énormes quantités pour le sérail de Mahmoud.

Out of copyright, La Rabouilleuse is available (in French) online. This is my translation of the above passage:

She took a flask containing her homemade blackcurrant liqueur from a cupboard; she had obtained the recipe from those famous nuns to whom we owe credit for ‘Issoudun Marzipan’. This local sweetmeat is one of the greatest creations of French confectionary and one which no chef, cook, pâtissier or confectioner has been able to copy. Monsieur de Rivière, our ambassador in Constantinople, would order enormous quantities of it every year for Mahmoud II’s harem.

Not long after the publication of Balzac’s novel, an enterprising Parisian distributed leaflets announcing that he’d opened opened a shop a selling Issoudon marzipan. His circulars  contained what purported to be an extract or endorsement from Balzac. It wasn’t, but the PR plot paid off. Rumours spread through the capital that Balzac had become a pastry chef and people flocked to the shop on rue Vivienne.

The production of this sweetness flourished across the cities and regional towns of Europe. Eventually spreading further afield to the Americas, Australasia and elsewhere.

Recipes vary. In India marzipan is sometimes made with cashew nuts which are cheaper and more readily obtained than almonds. But the majority of recipes contain three basic ingredients: almond meal, sugar and egg or egg white.

The Green and Gold Cookery Book published in Adelaide in 1923 and reprinted multiple times since, has this recipe for what it calls ‘almond icing’, a term you find in a lot of older English language cookbooks:

One lb. icing sugar, 6-8 ozs. almond meal, yolks of eggs, I tablespoon sherry or orange flower water, 2 tablespoons strained orange or lemon juice. Sift the icing sugar and add it to the almond meal. When well mixed add the yolks of the eggs, the orange flower water, or sherry, and sufficient of the fruit juice to form a firm paste. Turn onto a board well sprinkled with icing sugar and knead it thoroughly.

For me, marzipan is all about the almonds. So I don’t find fruit juice, orange flower water and sherry appealing additions.

Marzipan became a speciality of the German Baltic ports of Lübeck and Königsberg (now Kalingrad and part of Russia). As port cities they were trading hubs with ready access to the necessary ingredients. My preferred marzipan is the kind that comes from Lübeck. It’s made with more almonds, less sugar and no egg.

Yet another origin story says marzipan was invented in Lübeck at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Again during a famine when the only foodstuffs available were sugar and a handful of almonds. Another story that speaks of the hunger and scarcity that haunted medieval life.

Unlike a lot of home-made versions, German (and Danish) marzipan is generally made with the meal of sweet almonds—and a tiny amount of bitter almond, which deepens the flavour.

Almonds come in two kinds, sweet and bitter. Bitter almonds aren’t eaten like the regular nuts, they’re used as a flavouring, more like a spice. In amaretti biscuits, in amaretto liqueur and in a number of traditional dishes. In Australia we grow sweet almonds along the Murray River in Victoria and South Australia. Vast irrigated orchards of densely planted trees. Seas of blossom and stormy debates about water allocation to farmers. Long before the wellness industry seized on all things almond, thereby encouraging a thirsty monoculture, marzipan was a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions.

Botanically speaking, the almond is a peach in disguise. And bitter almonds contain a form of cyanide. Although cooking destroys the poison, the nuts’ sinister reputation persists. Fuelled in part by crime fiction. All those scenes where the detective points out the odour of bitter almonds on a murder victim’s breath.

Back to Lüback where there’s a Museum of Marzipan. Its display includes life-size figures made from marzipan, including one of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann who was apparently very fond of the confection. Madame Tussauds eat your heart out! Who wants wax figures when you can have edible ones? Now, would Thomas Mann miss a finger or two … ?

Risotto rant

I missed the beginning and it’s quite some time ago, so unfortunately I can’t tell you either the name of the radio program or the specific project it was reporting. I can tell you it was a story from a town in northern England about a public education scheme to encourage disadvantaged residents to improve their diet. When I tuned in the group was being taught how to cook risotto.

Ah, risotto … The cook teaching them was adamant that the stock be kept at a steady simmer, and that said stock should be home-made from scratch. No supermarket shortcuts. After the class, the radio producer asked the participants if they would be making that risotto again. The responses were a polite but unequivocal No. Why not? Because it was fiddly and involved a lot of preparation.

Risotto is one of my go-to, quick suppers. This probably makes me sound a bit OCD, but I once road-tested two versions of the same mushroom risotto recipe. One made adding stock kept at a gentle simmer, and one version where I added the same stock but cold. Perhaps I have an unsophisticated palate, but I couldn’t taste any difference. If that cooking teacher had offered her class a simpler option would the participants have tried making risotto at home? Maybe.

It was reading Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton & Sinikka Elliott that reminded me of that risotto episode. Pressure Cooker is a survey of home cooking and it’s a fascinating and engaging read. The book tells the food-stories of nine families, and draws on the researcher-authors’ interviews with over a hundred-and-fifty mothers and grandmothers living in North Carolina. The women were mostly working-class. Time-poor mothers and just plain poor mothers—not the people who generally feature in books about the delights of home cooking and the honeyed past. When housewives spent their afternoons baking and set the table every evening. A past, as Bowen, Brenton and Elliott so deftly point out, that was never one-size-fits-all.

That’s one of the things I particularly like about Pressure Cooker: the way it debunks popular myths, exposes gastronomic magical thinking. Family dinners aren’t a panacea for social ills. Ditto cooking healthy meals at home. Yes, it’s great if we all learn to cook cheap, nutritious dishes, learn to grow our own herbs and shop for in-season vegetables. But let’s not overlook the deeper issues of inequality. There are people who struggle to afford any food, let alone whole ingredients, artisan bread and organic fruit. Not everyone has access to a workable kitchen. How do you prepare supper for your kids with only a single hotplate? What about people working shifts who don’t have control over their schedules? Whose only shop within walking distance is a convenience store selling chips, chocolate and close-to-expiry-date yoghurt?

OK, home cooking alone won’t solve our problems, so what else can we do to improve things? Pressure Cooker’s authors are clear: ‘We need collective solutions that will benefit people across the income spectrum.’ Community gardens, food co-ops, local canteens where you pay what you can, food rescue projects (like OzHarvest), free cooking workshops and more.

Which brings me back to that risotto they were making on the radio and my simmering stock comparison. An experiment that proved—to me at least—that you can make a risotto easily and simply using a single pan. The method may not be chef-approved but you still end up with a dish that’s tasty, inexpensive and not too time consuming.

Working to bring about true food justice starts by trying to understand people and communities … what works for one neighbourhood may not work for another.’

No scones for us

No scones for us—sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, doesn’t it?

A bright idea came into Alice’s head. “Is that the reason so many tea-things are put out here?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it,” said the Hatter with a sigh: “it’s always tea-time … ”

Wednesday afternoon in downtown Sydney we were after a pot of tea and scones. Neither a difficult nor an unusual quest. But it was not to be. At the Westin in Martin Place the only way to obtain a scone was to order their set afternoon tea at (a minimum) $54 per person. Unimpressed with their brazen upselling, we left the Westin and tried the Sheraton on the Park where we’d had tea and scones before. But we were out of luck there as well. Although scones were on the menu, there were none today. The waitress told us we should have phoned ahead. For a pot of tea and a scone at 2:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon! What’s going on here? Isn’t peak scone-eating time 3:00-5:00 pm? How long would it take to rustle up a batch?

That’s the thing about scones. They’re easy to make, quick to cook—and cheap. Recipes for scones are in every beginners’ cookbook and older cookbooks frequently offer several recipes—plain, date, fruit, savoury, pumpkin and other varieties. When I make them I use a recipe from an early edition of The Australian Women’s Weekly Basic Cookbook. I don’t do a lot of baking, but if you follow the instructions, there’s not much that can go wrong with scones.

The scone is described in culinary references as a quick bread (i.e. breads and bread-like products leavened with agents other than yeast or eggs—namely baking powder or bi-carbonate of soda.) Quick breads are popular with cooks because they can be made quickly and reliably. Unlike traditional yeast breads which involve a measure of waiting.

Traditionally cooked on a griddle, the scone is thought to have originated in Scotland and migrated south. That may be true. Who knows? What we do know is that, as Elizabeth David wrote in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, ‘once you start on scones, where do you stop?’ She recommends anyone interested in such recipes consult The Scots Kitchen (1929) by Miss F Marian McNeill which devotes some fifteen pages to the subject.

Oatcakes, puftaloons, Australian damper—there’s a huge range of breads and scone-like cakes made without yeast.

Whatever its origins, the scone has become the quintessential afternoon tea accompaniment, perfect with a cup of Assam or Darjeeling. I like my scones hot from the oven with butter and either a thin slice of cheese or a generous dollop of jam—blackcurrant and blackberry are my go-to preserves when it comes to scones.

On the Indian-Chinese food trail

It started for me with Meera Sodha’s chilli tofu recipe in The Guardian. Moved on to Tangra Chilli Garlic Prawns at London’s Darjeeling Express before expanding into Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, and my own memory of visiting Kolkata in the late 1990s when my partner was a guest of the Calcutta Film Festival and I tagged along.

It’s crisp, it’s caramelised, it’s spicy and slightly sweet—it’s Indian-Chinese food, a.k.a. Indo-Chinese or Desi-Chinese. It’s the food created by Chinese immigrants in Kolkata that blended Hakka culinary traditions with the fire and vegetables of Indian cuisine.

Chinese migrants arrived in the late eighteenth century, initially as sugar mill workers, then later as leather tanners, carpenters and other small traders. They pulled rickshaws and made shoes and soon became an integral part of the city’s multicultural fabric. The majority were Hakka from what is now Guangdong province, and it’s easy to imagine Kolkata’s Chinatown echoing to the clop of sandals and the click of mah-jong tiles, as workers congregated in local eating houses to swap news and eat dishes that reminded them of home.

Tangra Chilli Garlic Prawns at Darjeeling Express

I like it not only for its hearty taste, but also because it challenges notions of ‘authenticity’. It’s neither echt Chinese, nor Indian as we know it, but something else. A relatively recent cuisine, a kind of culinary fugue, a distinct variety of Hakka cuisine adapted to the Bengali palate. (A fugue is a compositional technique in which a musical theme introduced by one part or voice is taken up by other parts and successively developed.) I wouldn’t call it fusion—which often involves cheffy flourishes and out-there combinations of ingredients—it’s more akin to home cooking. And I’m thinking here of the way home cooks adapt to changed environments and unfamiliar produce, deal with scarcity or glut; the way they use what’s available (and affordable) and make it into something they recognise.

Originally served up to cater for its own community, it wasn’t long before the Indian-Chinese menu found widespread popularity. According to Amit Chaudhuri:

‘Chinese food has long been Calcutta’s favoured foreign cuisine: it belongs to the eternal, and now paradoxically lost, childhood of the Bengali middle class. Its bottles of soya sauce and Han’s chilli sauce, its minutely chopped green chillies swimming in vinegar, its chicken sweet corn soup … ’

(Amit Chaudhuri is something of a favourite writer; his 1993 novella-cum-meditation, Afternoon Raag, is a book I re-read an a regular basis.)

Cities taste of their culinary histories and Sydney is no exception. A quick Google and I’ve located two Indian-Chinese restaurants in the Parramatta/Harris Park area. Already I’m off thinking noodles and fried rice loaded with garam masala and green chillies. Gobi Manchurian, chilli paneer, the kick of cumin and black peppercorns …

Kolkata’s Tangra or Chinatown is apparently changing as younger generations move on. While plans to turn the neighbourhood into a tourist district may slow the exodus, the popularity of Tangra’s unique cuisine continues to grow apace.

I like this Indian-Chinese amalgam it because it remains me that a cuisine is never fixed for all time, that tastes and dishes evolve—and are meant to evolve. And that flavours and cooking techniques change not only because of migration, but for a host of other reasons too.

Sustainable seafood—my correspondence with Coles

Although I prefer to buy my fish fresh, I do like to have some backup options in the freezer. With this in mind I bought a 1 kg pack of Coles Southern Blue Whiting Fillets in early June. I did the usual checks:

Certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—tick.
Wild caught—tick.
From New Zealand—tick.

One bit of small print I didn’t notice until I got my shopping home was ‘Packed in China’. So on 7 June I wrote a ‘please explain’ letter to Coles Customer Care:

So, the fish is caught in New Zealand waters, sent to China where it is packed and then returned to Australia to be sold in your supermarkets. Why isn’t it processed and packed in this part of the world, in either New Zealand or Australia?

While the actual fish may indeed be sustainably sourced, how does transporting it to China and back constitute an environmentally sustainable practice?

A fortnight later I received this reply.

Coles responded to questions I hadn’t asked—about the quality standards of their supplier’s facility in China—while ignoring the questions I did ask. So I wrote another letter on 24 June asking them to address what I was actually asking. How do all the additional and unnecessary air or sea miles involved in transporting the fish to China and back again contribute to environmental sustainability?

A month later I received a reply. Word for word the same letter they had already sent me. Even the date was unaltered.

On 28 July I wrote a third letter. I reiterated my questions. Pointed out that they were (again) supplying information I had not requested. Asked them not to disregard my query, and to please not send me another form letter.

It’s now the middle of December and I have yet to receive any response from Coles to my third missive. I suspect I won’t. All up, a frustrating and totally unsatisfactory exchange. Coles twice ignored my questions and when I persisted, chose to ignore my letter altogether. Doesn’t say much for their customer relations, does it?