Ranjan here, curating my favorite food writing.
For the second Margins' Thanksgiving Week Link Dump, I figured I'd honor the holiday by pulling the best food-related articles I've devoured over the years (easily found thanks to my favorite reading tools: Instapaper and Readwise).
From Rendang to Peking Ravioli; from Pizza-Hut helping bring down communism to Kashmiri geopolitics and saffron prices; from the economics of the lobster market to British cuisine and globalization; and of course, fried chicken. Enjoy!
The Top Picks
How an outrage over crispy chicken united South-East Asia: Contrary to the title of this BBC piece, it's not about fried chicken, but rather Rendang, the Southeast Asian slow-cooked meat. Great food writing is the kind that every time I cook or eat the meal, conjures up a very specific mental image. Even though my current incarnations of Rendang are made in a very modern Instant Pot using a pre-packaged spice paste, I always think of these "wandering" men:
Gusti Anan, professor of history at the University of Andalas in Sumatra, explains how the Minangkabau tradition of merantau (voluntary migration) resulted in the spread of rendang to neighbouring countries in the Malay Peninsula*.* This tradition of wandering is a version of migration that is unique to the Minangkabau people, which research suggests is connected to its matrilineal tradition where men are considered ‘guests’ in their wives homes and ancestral land is passed to women not men.
Men (and also some women) chose to migrate hoping to gain life experience as well as better financial opportunities. They travelled to places like Malaysia and Singapore on foot or by river, and finding food was often a struggle. Anan said, “To solve this problem, they would bring food from their home… and food that could last a long time in good condition is rendang.” Wrapped in plantain or banana leaves, they carried it with them to sustain them on their journey.
The Story Of Peking Ravioli: I'm a sucker for stories about immigrant adaptation of cuisine. I guess it's because it represents my own assimilative upbringing and my perception of the American Dream.
I never really understood how "regional" the "Chinese Food" I ate growing up in Boston was, until I left for college in Atlanta. Items like Chinese Chicken Fingers or Peking Ravioli didn't exist, at least in name. This Lucky Peach article taught me the history of the very specific cuisine of Boston Chinese Food, and its matriarch, Joyce Chen.
Note #1: I found this in my Instapaper archive, but the original, published in Lucky Peach, has disappeared from the internet. Luckily it was re-published on another food blog).
Note #2: I have a really weird obsession with Chinese Chicken Fingers, which might require an entire post one day. Most friends think they're just sweet and sour chicken without the sauce, but to me they represent the perfect intersection of fried chicken and the immigrant struggle.
To delve into their name, though, is to get a glimpse of Boston’s culinary past. And as with much of the Chinese food in the area— from moo shu and Peking duck to scallion pancakes and the all-you-can-eat buffet—it all starts with Joyce Chen and her seminal Mandarin restaurant, Joyce Chen Restaurant, which she opened in Cambridge in 1958.
Gorbachev's Pizza Hut Ad Is His Most Bizarre Legacy: This article came out this week and it's a beauty. I had seen the Gorbachev Pizza Hut ad circulating over the past few years, and this was an incredible geopolitical examination of what it meant for a transition from a bipolar to an unipolar world.
Hot Chili Peppers, War, and Sichuan Cuisine: A wonderful history of how the chili pepper took over the world:
“The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” declared Mao. “And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.’ ”
Maine Is Drowning in Lobsters: A fascinating look from Justin Fox at Bloomberg on the economics of the Maine lobster market. It's not just a simple question of supply and demand:
All in all, it's a fascinating tale of adaptation, marketing and lobster logistics. There is one big catch, though, beyond the vague fears that the lobsters can't be this abundant forever. It's that the bait used to lure the lobsters into traps -- herring -- isn't as abundant as they are. Herring stocks along the Maine coast haven't collapsed as some other fisheries have, but the catch has fallen in recent years, to 77 million pounds in 2016 from 103 million in 2014 and more than 150 million some years in the 1950s and 1960s.
The finest Chinese delicacies — duck’s tongue, fish maw and chicken’s feet: I eat everything and anything, a trait that certainly helped gain a baseline acceptance among my wife’s Taiwanese family. But intestines. And duck’s blood. And other offal-y, tripe-y things that look like this, I always had a hard time with. That’s until I read this one FT piece that introduced me to the concept of Mouthfeel, courtesy of the author Fuchsia Dunlop.
It completely changed the way I approach anything chewy and tough, and now I’m the first at the table to toss the tripe into the hotpot:
Probably even more important, however, is the Chinese delight in the textures of food. In Chinese gastronomy, pleasure is derived from the total sensory experience of eating, and “mouthfeel” (kougan) is inseparable from aroma and taste. The Chinese (like the Japanese) have an exquisitely developed appreciation of texture, and enjoy a far greater variety of mouthfeels than those commonly understood in western cuisines.
The World’s Most Expensive Spice Is on the Verge of Disappearing: The first time I cooked with saffron was not in an Indian dish, but rather an attempted Paella.
I guess it doesn't really appear in Bengali food, or maybe it was more economic, and it was simply price-prohibitive for my parents (it coincidentally appeared in my kitchen once my undergrad student loans were paid off). In light of recent political developments in the Kashmir region, this Eater piece feels incredibly relevant.
As the farmers have begun to say, “the red-gold is turning to gray.” Due to ongoing regional violence, droughts, and the still-unfolding effects of climate change on the land, Kashmiri saffron has slowly begun to disappear. “I tried to grow apples here on this land a decade ago,” Mir says. “But they didn’t fruit! This land is meant only for saffron. Without it, it means nothing.”
How globalisation created British cuisine: If I were to read a full-throated intellectualization on the unseen grandeur of British cuisine, I'd certainly want it to be from The Economist:
“People talk about how good British food is in relation to how terrible it used to be,” says Mr Brown as he washes down his pie with a pint of Barnsley Bitter at the Old No 7 pub down the street. “My contention is that it didn’t use to be terrible at all.”
The claim carries a taste of parochialism. But Mr Brown’s argument is built around globalism. His defence is not that a full English bests a croissant (though it obviously does), but that the virtue of Britain’s cuisine lies in the country’s historical openness to the world. The country has long been what David Edgerton, a historian, calls “the hub of an extraordinary gastro-cosmopolitanism”.
Everything we love to eat is a scam: For every fellow bougie food-trend following consumer, just remember that just like our news and our commoditized Amazon purchases, everything we consume now, is fake:
Fraudulence spans from haute cuisine to fast food: A February 2016 report by Inside Edition found that Red Lobster’s lobster bisque contained a non-lobster meat called langostino. In a statement to The Post, Red Lobster maintains that langostino is lobster meat and said that in the wake of the IE report, “We amended the menu description of the lobster bisque to note the multiple kinds of lobster that are contained within.”