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Don’t Let It Spoil Your Appetite

From Babette's Feast

Ever try adding a pound of sugar to that roasting chicken? Modern trends in cooking are blurring the boundaries between dessert and dinner.

We tend to think of sweet stuff as a snack or a dessert, and savory stuff as a “real” food. This categorization of savory as “good and essential” and sweet as “extra” is so deep-rooted that it's almost subconscious, and it's also somewhat supported by nutritional studies; we have heard the expression, “empty calories”, meaning that quite a few sweet things we like to eat, such as cereal and cookies, let alone candy and soda, have no nutritional value -- just calories that make us fat.

Nonetheless, we've all experienced pigging out on sweets to the point that we had no room left for a "real" meal. But now, as certain fine restaurants would have it, we can enjoy the "sweet stuff" as the main course.

There's a growing trend of pastry chefs venturing into establishing their own restaurants where the savory courses include the artistry of their pastry techniques and sweet ingredients. P*ONG (New York), by Picher On, formerly of Jean-George, comes to mind. His menu has three categories: "savory", "sweet", and "savory and sweet", and includes delicious fare such as blue fin tartar with olive custard, crab salad with green apple mousse, and Berkshire pork with watermelon vinaigrette.

Graffiti, by Jehangir Mehta (also New York), serves pork dumplings with grapefruit confit, and foie gras with raspberry crostini. While the main impetus of this trend seems to be that pastry chefs are weary of their traditional position under the executive chef, and providing what people eat after most of them are already awed and full, some of these chefs also want to stand on their own, have more freedom to experiment and, of course, make a profit. It is certainly very exciting for diners to taste a dish made of "opposites" combined to form a surprising and delectable concoction.

We're growing accustomed to the "sweet" of fruit being used in savory dishes, and savory ingredients applied in desserts. For example, in my two years of working in fine-dining restaurants in New York, I have served foie gras terrine with huckleberry jelly, lobster salad with dried melon, tuna tartar with slightly sweet basil sorbet, and grilled pork tenderloin with cherry infused sauce. And these days, we find recipes for lemon and thyme sorbet, langues de chat (thin cookie) sprinkled with Maldon salt, and candied carrot strips in cooking magazines.

While all this mixing of the "sweet" with the "savory" might strike one as rather novel and exciting, this trend is actually not new. What is most striking about Medieval cooking instructions is the often massive use of sugar in what seems to be otherwise savory dishes. An example from Le Ménagier de Paris, French recipes from the 14th century reads, “Take capons or chickens killed the appropriate length of time before…cook them in pork fat with water and wine. When they are through cooking take them out. Take almonds, peel and pound them and add some of the cooking stock from the chicken…Strain the almond stock mixture. Then take pared or peeled white ginger and grains of paradise moistened as above, and put the mixture through a fine strainer. Mix with the almond milk. And if it is not thick enough, add starch or boiled rice. Add a little verjuice and put in a great deal of white sugar…”

While a modern-day cook might easily accept almond as a typical Medieval means of thickening sauces, the "great deal of sugar" might cause some hesitation. In Libro di Cucina from the 14th century Italy, a recipe that uses four chickens calls for a pound and a half of sugar, and in Viandier de Guillaume Tirel from the 15th century France, a dish with one suckling pig requires a pound of sugar. Sugar was used not only as an ingredient to be melted within a dish -- it was often also sprinkled on top of the finished dish. A 16th century French court physician remarked that they use at least as much sugar as salt. Plantina in late 15th century Italy declared that sugar could spoil no dish.

Persians learned about sugar cane and sugar-making technology from Indians in the sixth century. Using sugar in dishes was considered a great sign of wealth and prestige. Arabs, who conquered Persia in the seventh century, spread sugar cane as they conquered Northern Africa, Sicily, and Spain. Western Europeans were introduced to sugar through the Venetian sugar trade. It was used to coat bitter medicine in order to make swallowing easier. Indeed, sugar was considered medicinal in its own right, as well.

Physicians followed the teachings of Galienus (2nd century CE), who thought of one’s health in terms of the balance of the four humors: hot, cold, dry, and wet. Food was one means to achieve the balance, and different foods were thought to have some of these four qualities. Sugar was considered to encourage warmth and moisture in the body, the ideal Gallenic state, and was therefore highly regarded. On a more practical level, a sweet taste was necessary to counter the strong acidity of verjus (juice of unripe grapes), another common ingredient of the Medieval period.

While the amount of sugar in Medieval dishes surely strikes a modern cook (or diner) as excessive, it may be worth noting that at this time in early history (and well into the 17th century), the distinctions between "savory" and "sweet", and that between "main course" and "dessert", were non-existent.

In the course of 17th century, the colonization of the Caribbean and establishment of sugar cane plantations caused the price of sugar to drop and therefore, become more accessible to the average classes. In this context, a need to separate "sweet" and "savory" dishes grew (perhaps to prevent everything from tasting sweet and ordinary?), and the categories that are so familiar to us today were born. From then on, sugar would be used in larger quantities but in fewer dishes; namely, dessert dishes.

Botanically speaking, the boundary between sweet and savory is not so clear-cut. One might think of fruit as something sweet and therefore as something we eat as a dessert or find in cakes and pies. One might, on the other hand, think of vegetables as savory and as ingredients for a main course.

However, a lot of “vegetables” are actually fruit. Fruit, technically speaking, is the ovary that surrounds seeds. By this category, a lot of “vegetables” are "fruit", as well: tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers and squash, to name a few. So, in this sense, a simple roasted pumpkin not only tastes like dessert, but is indeed a dessert.

Speaking of ambiguous ingredients, cocoa is another good example. In Mesoamerica where it originated, cocoa was consumed as a drink -- never as candy. Even as a drink, it was more often without sugar, although it was sometimes mixed with honey. Mayans and Aztecs had imaginative ways of flavoring and diluting the drink (since cacao beans were very expensive), with spices and additions such as maize, vanilla, black pepper and ground chili. While the addition of black pepper and chili pepper might strike one today as odd, cacao powder adds depth to stew or chili, and there are also mole recipes that call for some chocolate.

If we look more carefully at the food we consume today, we find quite a few sweet elements incorporated in ostensibly savory dishes, or vice versa. This combination is often a manifestation of the ideal of balance, which is found in many world cuisines. One of most popular Sichuan dishes, sweet and sour pork, comes to mind.

It is often said that the ideal of Thai food is the balance of salty, sweet, sour, hot, and pungent. In our favorite Thai dish, Pad Thai, we add brown sugar or palm sugar to counteract the acidity of the lime or tamarind paste, the pungency comes from the fish sauce, and the heat from the Thai pepper. We also often find something sweet served along with spicy food; Indian food and chutney on the side is a good example. Consider common dishes such as apples combined with pork products, and cranberries with turkey.

Inspired by the spirit of medieval cooking, on these cold winter evenings I might try making roasted ham with reduced Chai syrup drizzled on top, and for a dessert, chocolate sponge cake with a kick of black and cayenne peppers. Or, I may be able to get away with sitting down with a nice cup or tea, and a big slice of zucchini and carrot cake with a nice, thin icing on top, and calling it "dinner".

Bon Appétit!

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