The Missing Stink

The missing link.

“I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart on pornography

About currywurst, umami and ancient Roman cuisine.

Roman coin with an image of the plant Silphium. To me it also looks somewhat like the Roman fasces of authority, the bundle of sticks carried by the escort of magistrates but without the hachet. (From which the words Fascist and Fascism.)

Since WWII currywurst has become the most popular food or menu item in Germany, though perhaps Turkish gyros or whatever they are called in Germany are making a move up the ladder of consumption. The legend is that a woman in Berlin increased her street cart sales of bratwurst by adding a sauce made combining two favorite condiments of the occupying troops, GI ketchup and British curry powder, though it seems to me that chutney might also have been a factor. I believe that with currywurst sauce there is no evolutionary constraint, it’s not a path or history dependent product. To each his own currywurst sauce.

Yesterday a local church held a benefit Oktoberfest dinner of sausage, sauerkraut, purple cabbage and German style potato salad. Especially since two years ago when I was embargoed by the medical authorities at the Frankfurt airport with a respiratory infection that deteriorated on the LH flight which stood on the runway in Warsaw for 40 minutes with jet exhaust permeating the cabin before takeoff… I never took the beta blockers or digitalis the doctor prescribed and I did not fill the prescription for Lasix diuretic, but during the two days stuck in Frankfurt I recovered by drinking tea made from cayenne, curry powder and ginger. Several times I looked for currywurst as another source of those same healthy spices.

The church supper authorities did not know about currywurst. I threw something together on my own to try it out. As Francis Okie wrote in his gemetria and Revelations-inspired poetry, “to presuppose and put it to the test.”

I started with chipotle salsa, added some ketchup, horseradish, turmeric, curry powder. Thinking that British curry powder could well have something different from US products, curry powder being a British invention based on the myriad Indian masalas, and remembering that curry leaf is used in some masalas or curry powders but not all, I looked for something similar. I had a bottle of asafoetida (hing) with dry garlic and pine nuts set out as a curry leaf substitute but did not use it; instead I added methi, fenugreek leaf.

The sixth taste, or is there a seventh?

The first five are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and metallic according to the Wikipedia entry. Metallic is one that is usually avoided in foods. Supposedly Japanese scientists came up with the name umami for the distinctive flavor or taste resulting from protein fermentation. Some say it is primarily associated with the amino acid glutamate (not the same amino acid as glutamine). Fish sauces and their Buddhist/vegetarian substitute soy sauce are everywhere in Asian foods. Cheeses and dry/aged sausages are also foods whose taste and identity result from fermentation of proteins. Is it so simple as that?

By the way, Chinese Five Spice is a mistranslation. It should be Chinese Five Element Spice since there is not a canonical formula but the five spices should respresent the five elements of Chinese tradition and medicine.

The incomparable, the priceless, never-tasted food…

So the sign in the local Norwegian-owned pizza joint proclaims for their lutefisk pizza. You could also say the same about the herb Laserpithium, Laser for short, the Greeks called it silphium, so valued and irreplaceable in ancient Roman gourmet cooking that it was hunted and harvested to extinction in the reign of Nero. Asafoetida and garlic may have some similar but not equal properties. Asafoetida, from which we derive the word fetid for stinky, is a relative of Laser, another of the fennel plant family. At the time asafoetida was said to be much inferior to Laser. Laser grew in North Africa, the region of Carthage, now Libya. Unfortunately it was an herb which was not domesticated and could only be used when harvested wild in the seventh year (according to the contemporary Roman sources of information.)

Fish sauce called garum, with particular names for special varieties, was ubiquitous in the ancient Roman kitchen and cooking. Some say that the taste intensifying properties of fermented fish sauces were need to overcome the reduced sensitivity to taste that plumbing induced lead poisoning caused, Recipes from that period include garum in almost everything. (Any connection between Roman garum and garum masala in Indian cooking? The Silk Road led to cultural exchange dating back before the age of Alexander the Great.) If Laser was simply another umami food according to our scientific analysis, why was there no adequate substitute or replacement?

Comparing the descriptions of the flavors of asafoetida, Laser, and curry leaf, I see the common adjectives such as earthy, rich, aromatic, divinely stinky, delicious, strong but good. Names for asafoetida in various languages cover the range from devil’s dung to food of the gods. Makes me think of the Asian fruit Durian. Do they stimulate something beyond umami? Are they like catnip to a cat? Epazote is another stinky herb, also called skunkweed, wormseed,  used in Mexican cooking especially to enrich the flavor of beans and refried beans.

It would be exciting in a good way if a modern plant geneticist would take time off from creating Frankenfoods, plants bioengineered to withstand higher and higher levels of toxic herbicide and pesticide chemicals that end up in our food along with the unusual genes, to  recreate Laserpithium.

For now, I am going to look for curry leaf in the Thunder Bay Great Canadian Superstore Indian foods aisle. Penzeys probably has it and combinations in the USA. Or grow some at home! This page has a tip, might work for other indoor herbs as well, fertilize and water simultaneously with diluted yogurt.

Let them eat shit!

I read that MSG added to dogs’ food eliminated coprophragy, shit eating. Years ago I bought a pound, something I would never use and try to avoid in cooking at home or restaurants, though some is inevitable in fermented foods. Not sure I ever used it. Maybe I should improve their diets, maybe the behavior is not a symptom of any problem. And there is the coffee called Kopi Luwak made from coffee beans eaten by Civets. Poultry and rabbits are most healthy when they eat their own feces. Dogs love to eat human, cow and horse feces. I sometimes ferment grains to add to dog food. When dogs’ diet is too high in commercial food the dog yard smells unpleasant,  a penetrating, nauseating sour smell that I don’t think they like. More fresh meat is a cure but adding a liter of steamed rolled (hull removed) oat grouts to the dog food changes the smell to what is more pleasantly like a horse barn or horse manure.


2 thoughts on “The Missing Stink

  1. Pingback: Feel The Burn | My Family's China History With Socialist Characteristics

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