Ah! Oriental food. Don’t you love something exotic on your plate now and again? Of course, there is always the question of authenticity, but let us not get into a long debate on that right now – let us just enjoy the idea of strange and exotic foods from far distant climes.
First, let us clarify that the Orient is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:
“That part of the world situated to the east of a particular point; eastern countries, or the eastern part of a country; the East …Originally used with reference to countries lying immediately to the east of the Mediterranean or Southern Europe (i.e. east of the Roman Empire); now usually understood to mean East Asia … ”
I guess that most of us in the Occident are pretty familiar with the food of the Orient nowadays, and although this familiarity has not led to contempt, it has surely reduced its excitement level. One of the first English language cookery books to invest a significant amount of space to the concept of Oriental Cookery was A New System of Domestic Cookery (1808) by Maria Rundell. Here is what she had to say on the topic:
Owe of the great characteristics of Oriental cookery is the mixture of acids in all savoury dishes. Besides the lime, which answers to our lemon, the natives of Asia possess the juice of pomegranates and of tamarinds, for which we have no equivalent; and also in Persia a seed, the sumach, which, when dried and pounded, is employed in dredging the kabobs, and imparts to them a fine acid flavour. Curds are also another ingredient very extensively employed, while the general fault, at least in India, is the quantity of oiled butter which is allowed to appear in the gravies when not wholly absorbed by the rice. The Turkish and the Persian mode of cookery far surpass in excellence that of Hindostan, though occasionally they are a little strong: such, for instance, as a dish of finely-sliced onions fried in butter, and saturated with pomegranate juice, and sent to table with eggs fried in the same butter and placed on the top. Garlic is often allowed to preponderate rather distressingly, but in other cases it is managed with great delicacy, the Delhi cooks perfectly understanding the French method, and boiling it in different waters until it is as mild as almonds. It is then placed whole in the Chetney. A mixture of sugar, curds and raisins, in savoury dishes, is also a peculiarity of Oriental cookery; and Lucknow, especially, is celebrated for its sweet pickles. In the native cookery of India, the Mohammedan, generally speaking, far excels that of the Hindoo, in which the absence of meat is too abundantly supplied with ghee (clarified butter.) The Madras Brahmins, however, are famous for their vegetable curries, and Europeans soon acquire a taste for the butter and onions, which form so essential a portion of all. The following receipts are those which have been adapted to English tables by gastronomes of eminence. As a slight deviation in the ingredients, in dressing of a curry, makes an amazing difference in the flavour, many receipts, bearing great names, are given, which can be well authenticated as genuine. Several of the polaos or pillaws have been brought to perfection by the officers of Gardiner's Horse, a native corps of irregular cavalry, in which the few Europeans who are attached to it, live very much in the Mohammedan fashion. The author has, in her possession, a book of receipts, translated from the original Persian, written out expressly for her use, by the khansamar of the late King of Oude, but not being suited to an English table, they do not appear.
Note.—An exception has been made in favour of pickled lemons, which is worthy of a trial, being very good in India.
I want to add a little more to this story tomorrow, but in the meanwhile, I give you Mrs. Rundell’s recipe for pickled limes or lemons, which, as she says, is certainly worthy of a trial.
The Lucknow Receipt for Pickling Limes or Lemons.—E. R.—Bruise the limes or lemons on a stone, then throw them into water, and place them afterwards in an earthen vessel, covered with salt, for two or three days, shaking the vessel frequently; take out the limes when they are soft, spread them on a cloth, and let them dry; the open air,is sufficient in India, but in England they must be placed at the side of a stove. When dry, add vinegar and the juice which came from them, when in the earthen vessel.
A New System of Domestic Cookery (1808) by Maria Rundell.