[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Browned butter is pretty impressive stuff. A little heat transforms butter’s coy and fresh flavor into something that’s dominating and nutty, perfect for adding depth to butternut squash risotto and complementing the natural sweetness in roasted Brussels sprouts. And luckily, this delicious […]
Month: January 2018
[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Just like browning butter, browning cream transforms the dairy’s fresh, grassy flavors into nutty butterscotch and toffee. Cooking cream low and slow gives it all the subtle flavors of browned butter, making it perfect for adding to delicate purées, soups, and ice […]
Biscuits and Gravy–flavored Lay’s may have been the first bag of novelty potato chips I really hunted. I’m not going to say exactly how many stores I went to in search of a bag; all I’ll say is that it was more than one and fewer than five, and part of that sentence is a lie. I finally found them, quite by accident, on a family trip in the middle of Missouri. I bought a few bags. I won’t give you an exact number. Again, it was more than one and fewer than five. Again, part of that sentence is a lie.
Since then, I’ve searched big-box stores and pharmacies, sandwich shops and gas stations, looking to score potato chips that lay claim to the flavors of everything from chicken tikka masala to chicken and waffles. I sit down with a bag, a bottle of seltzer, and a notepad, and I take detailed tasting notes, as if a bag of Lay’s had a terroir. Sometimes, the flavors fizzle. When they pop, though, there is a shock of recognition, an alignment of idea and execution that amounts to a sort of magic, capable of inspiring a sense of childlike wonder. It’s like licking the wallpaper alongside Willy Wonka—the snozzberries really do taste like snozzberries.
Novelty potato chips walk a difficult path. Their task is not merely to taste like the thing, but to recall the Platonic ideal of the thing. Biscuits and Gravy potato chips ought not to taste like the biscuits and gravy I actually ate growing up, or the version you ate. Those versions might differ in myriad ways, and yet the chips must capture both, and all others as well. In order to succeed, a simple bag of chips must attain some quiddity, a –ness. Biscuits and Gravy–ness, Fried Green Tomato–ness, Crispy Taco–ness.
Those last two are among the newest crop of Lay’s novelties, rounded out by Everything Bagel With Cream Cheese, which isn’t worth your time. The Crispy Taco flavor, on the other hand, does everything a novelty potato chip flavor should do. The smell gets you first: It’s savory, filled with toasted corn and vague meat smells and the memory of the fourth-grade lunch line on Tuesdays. With novelty potato chips, the smell is often what gets you the most, like the spirit of the thing rising up and announcing itself directly in your brain. This is certainly true of other foods, but here, it can be a sort of bait-and-switch dividing line; the smell grabs you, the flavor shrugs you off. The best examples offer full olfactory embrace.
And that’s exactly the case with Crispy Taco Lay’s: the smell is a bear hug. And after that initial scented salvo, the individual, layered flavors of seasoned ground beef, crunchy corn shell, and prefab shredded cheese unfold in your mouth like Violet Beauregarde’s gum courses. “This is okay,” you think to yourself. “I can kind of see where they’re going with this, and it does taste kind of like a ta…”—and then it hits you, like a sucker punch to your sense memory: The strangely specific flavor of shredded, slightly oxidized iceberg lettuce rushes your sinus cavity, a bit of olfactory trickery that functions somewhat like a particularly effective Magic Eye poster. Holy shit, there’s a sailboat.
Of course, this phenomenon and its appeal are not limited to potato chips. Many of the currents of modern cuisine can be traced to the same sense of wonder, the same sense of discovery at finding that a thing is another thing entirely. Names like Adrià, Achatz, and Dufresne built legacies, at least in part, on the delight of unexpected recognition, the making of one thing into something else, and the toying with our ideas of flavor and of reality itself—Adrià’s spherified olives, Achatz and his edible campfires, Dufresne’s inside-out eggs Benedict.
If you’re not comfortable drawing a direct line between cappuccino-flavored snack foods and some of the greatest chefs in the world, then consider the humble jelly bean. I think it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for Jelly Belly, the jelly bean would occupy a space in the candy hierarchy just above licorice: esoteric, the favorites of oddball aunts and grandparents, but scorned by right-thinking children and adults. Instead, the humble bean occupies approximately 600 square feet of my neighborhood grocery store, where admirers load up on lever-released avalanches of Piña Colada– and Buttered Popcorn–flavored confections.
As with my beloved chips, the jellies are judged by the degree to which they capture the –ness of their subject. Even when they veer to extremes, dodging into the shock-factor territory of Potterverse flavor lotteries, the “success” of a flavor depends on uncanny likeness: Earwax-flavored beans that get the job done trump Earthworm-flavored beans that do not.
That said, one man’s Earthworm jelly bean is another man’s Crispy Taco potato chip. That’s why threading that needle, finding the right cues to recall a flavor for so many different palates and experiences, is key to the idea of novelty flavors in general.
This issue becomes even more apparent when you venture outside the idea of “mainstream American flavors.” When the snacking public has fewer samples for the flavor being attempted, the question of accuracy becomes murkier. Whose idea of “Chinese Szechuan Chicken” (vaguely offensive “Asian” font implied) becomes the defining flavor for a bag of potato chips marketed to a general American audience? If the chips manage to capture the numbing/tingling character that many consider to be the determinative element of the namesake cuisine, does that create Sichuan-ness, and for whom? Do diners raised on Americanized Chinese food determine the rubric for such a thing? Do novelty potato chips have to be “authentic”?
As with many things, the answer likely depends on perspective. The world of novelty chips is wide, weird, and wonderful. It extends far beyond the provincial bounds of a Kroger, even when that Kroger offers the highly sought-after Brazilian Picanha flavor. Oceanic treats that resonate for taste buds steeped in squid and shrimp paste might ring hollow for audiences predisposed to preferring flavors like Bacon Mac & Cheese or Mango Salsa, and vice versa. Beauty, as it were, is in the eye of the bag-holder.
Which brings us back to –ness, and to snozzberries. If you recall, none of the visitors to Wonka’s chocolate factory had ever tasted a snozzberry; they hadn’t even been aware of the existence of such a thing. The other wallpaper taste sensations played their parts and were well received, while the snozzberries get a salty response. In order for an ideal to resonate, it has to have been conceived of: You can explain a chair to someone who’s never sat, but you might find yourself hard-pressed to give them a concept of “chair-ness.” You can tell a man how to fry a green tomato, but you can’t convey to him the essence of “fried green tomatoes.”
I would argue that the essence of a food is a summation of sorts. A summation of all the fried green tomatoes you’ve ever eaten, yes, but also a summation of your thoughts about them. A summation of your memories of them, when and where you’ve cooked them, the people with whom you’ve eaten them. It is a personal history of taste and experience, and that is a powerful bit of magic indeed. It finds an echo in Sam Sifton’s wonderful and insightful Pizza Cognition Theory, but it’s developed over the entire span of your life.
It’s not just that first plate of biscuits and gravy that resonates in a well-tuned novelty chip. It’s the time you ate biscuits and gravy at your aunt and uncle’s place, before your uncle drove you through the central Texas hills on his Kawasaki, your 11-year-old heart beating through your chest. It’s the first time you made the dish on your own, scorching the roux a bit, but still proud. It’s the countless plates you’ve eaten at greasy spoons and fancy brunches, each one ranked and measured against the ones before, and serving as a measure in turn for the ones to come. It’s that, multiplied by everyone else who opens that bag, inhales deeply, crunches a chip, and sees a sailboat pop into view. It’s magic.
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, J. Kenji López-Alt] I spent a lot of my life intimidated by baking—I’d happily make elaborate breakfasts of eggs and potatoes and the like, but when it came to baked goods I left it to the professionals. Eventually I got over my […]
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Cream pies are an American tradition dating back to the early 1800s, when they were invariably served in a flaky pastry crust and topped with meringue—the eponymous “cream” referred to the dairy in their custard filling. I’ve gone over the logic behind […]
For the Filling: In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt and mix until smooth, then whisk in eggs, lime zest, and lime juice, followed by milk. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly but gently, until hot to the touch, about 5 minutes.
[Photograph: Courtesy of Resy. Spicy Spring pizza photograph: Vicky Wasik] When Resy‘s Ben Leventhal, who has been involved in at least five food-related start-ups, speaks about entrepreneurship, I am all ears. Here are just a couple of the pearls of wisdom that came out of […]
[Photograph, video, and GIF: Natalie Holt] If you were a dim sum cart, what would you see? It’s a question we asked each other idly one afternoon, only to find ourselves increasingly obsessed with uncovering the answer. There’s an element of spectatorship that comes with […]
“The Japanese, who are probably the world’s greatest culinary aesthetes, don’t hesitate to serve a greenish-yellow glutinous mess over their rice and label it ‘curry.'” And thus Madhur Jaffrey, in An Invitation to Indian Cooking, cut down Japanese curry with the swiftness of a samurai sword.
To be fair, Japanese curry was just one of her targets. She directed her broadside equally at British, American, Chinese, and French renditions of curry, all of which feature a generic and often stale blend of Indian-esque spices. At the root of her disdain was the question of curry itself, and what it is. That’s a topic worthy of a deeper discussion, but we can briefly say that “curry,” as the term is used outside India, does not have much meaning there. There is no Indian or South Asian spice blend known as “curry,” nor a dish that goes by that name. In the south of India, there’s kari, a saucy preparation that’s often identified as the source of the English word, but, according to Raghavan Iyer in 660 Curries, even that is open for debate.
What we can also say with some certainty is that at some point in the 18th century, the British began to incorporate an Indian-inspired spice blend that they called “curry powder” into their cooking. By 1747, curry had made its first appearance in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It’s this more generic conception of curry, and the powdered convenience product that fuels it, that leads us back to Japanese curry.
Now, I won’t go as far as Madhur Jaffrey in condemning Japanese curry. She was on a specific mission at a specific time when she tore it down. Her goal was to introduce a more nuanced idea of Indian cooking to people whose familiarity didn’t go far beyond a dusty old spice tin. But, given Japan’s love of its version of curry—or kare, as the Japanese call it—it can’t just be dismissed. It’s one of the nation’s most popular comfort foods, belonging to a class of dishes called yoshoku—Western foods that the Japanese have adopted, and have at times heavily adapted, but still don’t consider to be inherently Japanese. I will admit, though, that I was less than impressed with my first tastes of Japanese curry. To me, they were as perfectly tame as curry could ever be, which is to say, perfectly forgettable.
That changed after I visited the country last year. I’m always out to prove myself wrong, so one of my goals on that trip was to find a Japanese kare that could make me truly love it. My conversion came at a narrow lunch counter called Kitchen Nankai in Jinbocho, a Tokyo neighborhood famous for its bookstore-lined streets. There, the cooks heaped rice and shredded cabbage on a large plate, set a sliced fried pork cutlet on top, then ladled a black lagoon of steaming curry sauce all over it.
It was an entirely different Japanese curry from ones I’d had before: darker, more bitter, and spicier, without the sweet and soft easiness of so many others. It was a curry that made itself known, its chili heat lingering until well after I’d left the restaurant.
I didn’t leave with just burning lips, though. I also left with a new sense of just how much of a range of flavor is possible in Japanese curry without betraying the essence of the dish. I knew I could make my own, from scratch, calibrating the spices exactly as I wanted them and deepening the flavor as much as I pleased.
My mission upon returning home was to make a Japanese curry that had all the classic trappings—tender morsels of meat, chunks of silky potato, sweet bits of carrot, and green peas—in a sauce that was warm and gentle, cradled in a subtle sweetness, but barking with freshly ground spices, edged with bitterness and prickling heat.
The Spice Dissection and Resurrection
The first and most important step in coming up with my own recipe for Japanese curry was to develop a spice mix. My biggest clue came on the side of a tin of S&B curry powder, one of the most popular Japanese brands.
These days, you can buy S&B and other Japanese curry products in a number of forms. The most basic is the spice powder, which requires the home cook to make their own sauce from scratch, save for the spice blend itself. The next level up in weeknight-dinner convenience is trays of the spice blend set in blocks of solidified roux—cook the meat and vegetables, add water or broth, then melt the blocks into it until a thickened, flavorful sauce forms. Beyond that, you can go for full-blown space-food ease in the form of premade curries packed in NASA-style retort pouches: Simply heat, then squeeze the contents, often already studded with cooked vegetables, onto rice. I ate a whole bunch of these in the service of writing this article.
The ingredient list on the tin of S&B was the most enlightening for my endeavor. While it didn’t show exact quantities, it did at least list the spices in order of quantity. I could see that turmeric made up the largest portion of the mix, followed by coriander seed and then fenugreek—the spice used to flavor artificial pancake syrup, famously responsible for New York City’s mysterious maple syrup odor about 10 years ago. As you can see, it’s a spice profile that leans light, floral, and sweet.
Another helpful resource was this breakdown of Japanese curry spices that I found on the Japanese food site Just Hungry. It mostly confirmed what the S&B tin was already telling me, though Just Hungry had found a Japanese-language source with the approximate percentage of each spice used in S&B, which they translated into English. (The link to the original source in Japanese is no longer working.) Those percentages underscored even further just how mild these Japanese spice blends can be, with upwards of 90% of the spices in the mix made up of the mildest ones.
For my blend, I decided to mirror the S&B breakdown only insofar as turmeric was the number-one ingredient, but I punched up the cumin for more funk, added significantly more black pepper for warm heat, and included a more generous dose of chili pepper for more robust spice. Instead of ground ginger, I opted for grated fresh, to deliver far more zip and zest. Beyond that, I rounded it all out with a range of spices and flavorings, from dried orange peel to star anise and cinnamon.
The most important thing to remember about this spice mix is that you don’t need to replicate mine exactly. That’s what’s so great about making your own. You could simplify it by paring down the number of components, or change their proportions to suit your tastes. It’s this customization that makes the homemade version worthwhile. If you’re not interested in that, you might as well grab a tin of the premade stuff off a Japanese-market shelf.
Some recipes for Japanese curry call for cornstarch as a thickener, but many others use a classic roux of flour cooked in butter or another fat. The advantage of a roux is that you can toast the flour to whatever degree you want, altering its flavor more and more the darker it gets. I’m not sure what tricks Kitchen Nankai uses to get their curry sauce as dark as it is, but I suspect a deeply browned roux is one of the keys.
I make my roux in a small pot on the side while the rest of the stew cooks—because this is a stew at heart. Once the flour has reached a deep caramel brown, I add my spice blend. As mentioned above, I dry-toast the spices in a skillet first to deepen their aromas. Frying them in the roux helps develop their flavor even more. Cooking spices in a fat is a technique that’s sometimes called “blooming,” and not only does it make the spice flavor more complex, it also infuses the fat with the spices. That’s a useful step, given that some of the flavor and aroma molecules in spices are fat-soluble.
The Broth and Add-Ins
The final components of the stew are the broth and all the vegetables and meat that go into it. I opted for chicken here, using boneless, skinless thighs, since they handle prolonged cooking much better than the white meat does. You could just as easily use beef, selecting a cut that’s suitable for stewing, or even pork. The basic technique would be largely the same, except for the cooking time, which would be longer for beef or pork.
The first step here is to sear the meat until it’s browned, then transfer it to a plate while you sauté the vegetables. I use a simple combo of diced onion and carrot, leaving out the celery and garlic that often join those aromatic vegetables, since I decided I didn’t want them in this particular dish. There’s no right or wrong here; they’re just not flavors I tend to associate with Japanese curry. (That’s not to say no one in Japan uses them in their curries—I’m sure plenty of people do.)
Once the vegetables are tender and beginning to turn golden, it’s time to add the liquid. Water is one choice, but it’s a missed opportunity to reinforce and deepen flavor. Chicken stock is a better idea, but I wasn’t satisfied with it alone. The holy grail in this dish is a combination of both chicken stock and dashi, which together add a meaty richness and also an unmistakable Japanese essence to the dish. The finished curry doesn’t taste like dashi in any obvious way; it just tastes more Japanese.
At this point, I cut up the chicken and add it back to the pot, along with pieces of potato and finely grated or minced apple. The apple, or another sweet component like it, is something a lot of kare recipes call for, and it’s partly responsible for that accessibly sweet flavor that’s so common to Japanese curry. Given that I had pushed my spice profile in a more aggressive direction, that base note of fruity sweetness was even more important here.
Bringing It Together
To finish the curry, simply stir in the roux, then simmer until the broth has thickened. Green peas can go in right at the end, just long enough to warm them through. The most popular way to serve it is spooned into a bowl with a generous mound of warm short-grain rice, making what the Japanese call kare raisu, “curry rice.”
Is it real Indian food? Clearly not. But when you take all the components into your own hands, it’s a kare with enough flavor and personality to silence any doubters.
[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Japanese curry (or kare, as it’s called in Japan) is one of the nation’s most popular convenience and comfort foods. Most renditions come straight from a package, but by making it from scratch at home, you can get better, fresher, and bolder […]