Truffles.

Truffles aka tuber melanosporum are one of the most highly sought after and valued foods in the world.  Top grade truffles retail for more than $3,000 per kg, making them one of the world’s most expensive food crops. And them white truffles? Up to $10,000 per kg.

The research

Any history?

The first mention of truffles appears in the inscriptions of the neo-Sumerians regarding their Amorite enemy’s eating habits (Third Dynasty of Ur, 20th century BCE). In classical times their origins were a mystery: Plutarch thought them to be the result of lightning, warmth and water in the soil, while Juvenal thought thunder and rain to be instrumental in their origin. Cicero called them children of the earth.

The origin of the word truffle appears to be the Latin term tūber, meaning “swelling” or “lump”, which became tufer-.

Where are they from?

A truffle is a fungus that grows underground. They can grow on a number of tree roots, but most commonly hazelnut and oak. Here in Australia the roots are inoculated with truffle spores before being planted. It takes up to 5 years after planting before a well trained dog or pig might locate the first truffle. Truffle season is winter.

The most expensive and exclusive type of truffles are white Alba truffles that grow mainly in Northern Italy. They have a very intense aroma and can grow up to 12 cm.

Do they have any health benefits?
Truffles are said to be high in protein, but you might need to spend the equivalent of a Sydney house price to get any real benefit.

The flavour

A good truffle has an addictive musky, earthy scent. It’s a flavour enhancer.

What do they go with?

Although it is expensive on a per kilo basis, you don’t need a lot of it, and you don’t want to put it with any other fancy foods, otherwise the sublety of it is lost. It’s best with light flavours like scrambled eggs, pasta, and roast chicken. So spend on the truffle, save on the accompaniments 🙂

And here are some tips from the Agrarian Kitchen in Tasmania:

  • Truffle and dairy work because the dairy’s lactic acid unlocks the truffle’s flavour.
  • Black truffle in dessert is worth exploring – it tastes almost like vanilla and cocoa.

The fun fact

Australia is now the world’s fourth-largest producer of truffles. There are about 250 truffle growers around the country, with most in WA and the rest in Victoria, Tasmania, NSW and the ACT. We produce about 10 tonnes of truffle each year, about 85 per cent of which is exported.

AND Napoleon ate truffles to increase his masculinity ie as an aphrodisiac. Apparently the gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said in 1825:

“Truffles, as soon as the word is spoken, it awakens lustful and erotic memories among the skirt-wearing sex and erotic and lustful memories among the beard-wearing sex. This honorable parallelism comes not only from the fact that this esteemed tuber is delicious, but also because it is still believed to bring about potency, the exercise of which brings sweet pleasure”.

The rant

Apparently most ‘truffle oil’ does not contain ANY truffles. Harumph. They are mostly olive oil flavoured with some kind of synthetic agent. Honestly! Vanilla essence with no vanilla, truffle oil with no truffles. Who do you trust, friends? Who??

Mashed, smashed and pulled.

And other random acts of violence against food.

Technically this isn’t about a particular ingredient. Even non-technically actually. And pretty much this entire post is a rant, so no subheadings are required. Oh OK, if you insist:

The rant.

Those of you who know me will be familiar with my general ambivalence toward the current practice of pulling every kind of meat there is. I don’t really understand it, particularly when it comes to chicken. There are very few ways of getting chicken off a carcass that do not involve some kind of pulling activity, so referring to any kind of chicken as ‘pulled’ is just the worst kind of food wankery.

But when you start thinking about it, there is quite a lot of violence against food appearing on menus all over town.

There is the millenial favourite: smashed avo*.

There’s smashing and mashing and shredding and pulling going on all over town.

I understand food preparation is basically the act of taking a group of items nature has delivered to us and turning them into something else. This process obviously requires some level of manipulation and breaking down of some bits to make brand new deliciousness. But what’s with the violent terminology?

We could call it delicately detached pork. Gently flattened avo. Smooshy potato. Do they sound kinder, friends?

*And when did we start dropping the ‘cado’? Is that just an Australian phenomenon?  Oh, here’s a word that has waaaaay too many syllables so let’s drop a few off the end and oh joy, it already ends in an ‘o’ so we don’t have to add one’ like we do with every single man’s name ever.

Photo credit: Photo by FOODISM360 on Unsplash

Sugar, specifically caramel.

I decided to make creme caramel, something I am fairly surprised I haven’t attempted before. I went for the ginger infused variety, and the one large variety rather than individual ones, just FYI. If you haven’t done it yourself (ie you are the only other person in the universe who hasn’t), you first make the caramel and put it into a tin/dish where it sets hard, hard like toffee-hard. Custard is then poured over the top, a long slow bake till it’s jelly-like in consistency, and then you pop the whole thing in the fridge. For days. At least one, but preferably more. And somehow, miracle of miracles, the toffee turns back into a sauce! In the fridge! This just seemed so counter-intuitive I had to find out the why. Down the internet rabbit hole I went. And here follows the results of my investigations into the science of caramel.

The research.

What is it?

Caramel is sugar. Simple. There might be other Fakey-McFake Face versions, but suck it up, people: caramel is sugar and that is why it is delicious. Caramel can have other things added – often protein like milk, cream, butter (which may, just quietly, enhance it’s deliciousness), and of course salt for the ubiquitous salted caramel. But at it’s heart it is sugar.

Heat causes sugar (sucrose) to break down into its component sugars, glucose and fructose. Then they break down into other molecules that react with one another to create hundreds of new compounds, such as bitter-tasting phenols, fruity-smelling esters, and others that taste buttery, sour, nutty, and malty.

The caramelisation process starts around 160 deg, when the sugar melts into clear molten sugar. Around 175 deg the color changes to light straw or pale caramel brown. It’s at around here that you can make spun sugar and those cool brittle strands you see on a croquembouche, for example. Around 180 deg it goes a medium brown and will still be hard. When we head toward 190 deg it gets very dark and will cool to a softer, stickier texture. This is the point at which things like cream are often stirred in. 195 deg is where the caramel continues to darken quickly and at 210 deg it’s known as black caramel or baker’s caramel, a less sweet and more bitter-tasting browning agent used to colour a heap of things including soft drinks.

There are two types of caramel: wet and dry. Dry caramel is made purely with sugar… spread it across the bottom of a pan and heat until it liquefies and browns. This requires careful attention, as the sugar tends to darken quickly (this can be verified by me. See *) and less evenly.

Wet caramel involves mixing the sugar with a bit of water. The water dissolves and distributes the sugar to promote even browning. Because the water boils off as the sugar caramelizes, the wet method also prolongs the total time that the sugar is heated, allowing more complex flavors to develop. And since the sugar browns more slowly, it’s easier to create a light or medium caramel instead of a dark brown one. However wet caramel is more prone (proner?) to crystallisation, which is why recipes often tell you to keep basting the edges of the pan with a damp brush. And also to minimise stirring, as the edges of the pan and a stirring implement is where crystals often form and they will multiply quickly.

The flavour.

Sugar, or sucrose, has no smell and a simple taste-sweet-but when heated, it melts and darkens, developing complex aromas and flavors that taste decreasingly sweet and increasingly toasty.

Caramel can range from being light (and sweet) to darker (and verging on bitter). Personally, I am a big fan of taking it to the edge – getting it as dark as I can without burning it*.

*This predilection has resulted in many pans of burnt sugar being scraped in the sink. MANY.

The fun facts.

Nearly forgot to explain why the caramel ‘melts’ in the fridge when you are making creme caramel… it is because sugar is hydrolitic. It absorbs moisture from the things around it – in this case the custard. So it turns into that delicious runny amazingness that runs all over the dish when you invert it. Cool, huh?

The rant.

It’s not really a rant, more an observation and a bit of a sigh. All the quitting sugar (and in fact any demonisation of one ingredient or food group) saddens me. We should all just eat a wide range of things, and cook a lot more food ourselves, and the world would be a better healthier place. Focusing on one thing as the cause of obesity or the demon that is ruining our lives deflects from what I see as the big issue: when we eat processed food or food that has been prepared somewhere else by someone else, we have no idea what is going into our bodies.

My food hero, Michael Pollan, said there is a single change we could make that would exponentially improve our health.  And that one thing is… (drum roll) cook your own food. I guarantee this would reduce the amount of sugar, fat, salt, goopy preservatives and mysterious chemicals going into our temples (bodies).

Even if we baked and ate our own biscuits every single day we would not be taking in nearly as much sugar as we do drinking a bottle of soft drink.

Cook your own food. Everything in moderation. Rant over 🙂

Remember, as (rest his soul) Anthony Bourdain once said:

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

Japanese kewpie mayonnaise.

Who has heard of Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise? For shame if you haven’t. It’s a big thing in Japan (obvs) but also with chefs the world over. So here’s the lowdown for you.

The research

What is it?
Kewpie is a brand, not a type. It is the most readily available and distinctive of the Japanese mayonnaise family. You will see it drizzled across everything when you go Japanese eatery-ing. And you can find it in the supermarket in its cute little packaging and a ready-to-use nozzle and no glass container to break!
Most mayo uses whole eggs, but Kewpie uses only the yolks. It also has rice vinegar rather than distilled. It has no sugar, and adds MSG (horrors!) which gives it the significant umami, that thing chefs love to bang on about. The handy packaging leads to many Japanese people carrying it around with them so they can slap some mayo on whatever food appears before them.
Where’s it from?
In the years following WW1 Toichiro Nakashima founded the Nakishamato Corporation. He had worked in the Japanese Department of Agriculture and Commerce and decided to start a food production company called Shokuhin Kogyo Co. In the early 1920’s Toichiro headed to the US and returned with a box of mayo. He adapted the product to Japanese tastes by increasing the amount of egg yolk and then launched the Kewpie brand.

The flavour

The flavour of Kewpie mayonnaise is very… umm… mayonnaise-y. Truth. It is richer, sweeter and tangier than Australian mayo. Apparently David Chang calles it ‘the best mayonnaise in the world’. You heard it here first, good people.

What does it go with?
Everything you would put mayo on and more. I am not a fan of everyday mayo, but Japanese mayo I love. Don’t ask me why this is so. I am a conundrum, even to myself.
Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash

Rosewater.

I fell back in love with rose water over the lovely long Easter break. Although I am not sure I ever fell out of love with it. Maybe I should just say we got reacquainted.

I made a semolina pistachio rose water cake (from my favourite Sweet). And then served it with rose water crème fraiche. It was popular* – it is a very complex cake with lots of flavours and just a joy to eat. Not too sweet. Nutty. Rose-water-y. Divine.

Anyway, it led me to thinking about rose water. It is one of those things that I think you either love or hate. Some people liken it to eating soap. Or a bath cube**

However, I think if it is used correctly and in the right quantity, it can make your whole life beautiful. It is strong. STRONG. So you need to be judicious. Otherwise you will end up in the aforementioned soap-eating place.

*disappeared, crumbs only remained.

** OMG do you remember bath cubes? They were quite the thing to buy your mother if you needed to get her a present and you only had a dollar. You could get three in a box.

The research

What is it?

Rose water is simply water flavoured by steeping rose petals in water (fancy scientific term for what happens when you steep any fresh flower, fruit, plant in water = hydrosol). Other common hydrosols include orange blossom water and lavender water. The gorgeous floral flavoured water is what remains after the essential oils are extracted (for things like perfume).

You can make your own rose water (if you are one of those people who has roses in their garden and has managed to keep them alive).

The Persian word for rose water is golāb. In India, Iran and other places on the sub-continent it is called gulab (gul = flower, ab = water).

Rose water is used for culinary purposes, cosmetics, medical preparations and religious purposes throughout Europe and Asia.

Where is it from?

The cultivation of fragrant flowers for perfume may date back as far as Sassanid Persia (and here we are talking around 200-600 AD – so like, heaps ages ago).

It is said that the ancient Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians considered rose gardens to be as important as crops and orchards.

Mass production of rose water through steam distillation started in medieval Islamic times, which then led to more lucrative trade. Rose water became a staple ingredient in the aromatic cuisines of the Middle East as well as North Africa and North India.

Does it have any health benefits?

From a holistic perspective, rose water is known for its healing properties – for example add it to tea to soothe a sore throat. Some people use it for relieving stress – I would defy anyone not to take a big whiff of it and instantly feel calmer and happier!

It’s also believed to promote healthy skin, so you often see it mentioned as an ingredient in face creams and the like.

The flavour

The flavour of rose water is pretty… ummm… rosey. Haha. Seriously.

What does it go with?

In sweet world, it can go anywhere, really. It is particularly good combined with vanilla. It is good with fruit-based things, particularly fleshy fruits. And creamy things like panacotta or ice cream. It adds depth to jams.

Add it to your boozy concoctions as it will cut through bitterness. Or as a spritzer… maybe make it into a rose syrup for some extra delectability.

When rose water is baked it changes and becomes more subdued (wouldn’t you become more subdued if you were subjected to 200 deg temperatures?). So it then comes into its own as a savoury additive. It will complement aromatics like cardamom, coriander, ginger, saffron. Anything in the Middle Easter/Moroccan/African kind of area and you are firmly into rose water’s happy place. I haven’t cooked this roast chicken with saffron and hazelnuts but it looks like something we all need to try.

The fun fact

Rose water is frequently used as a halal substitute for red wine and other alcohol in cooking.

The rant

I am really not sure what is going on in my life, but I seriously have no rants to give. NONE. I can sense the disappointment 🙂

Rica rica.

The sad news about this week’s ingredient is that you probably won’t get to taste it outside Chile. Oh no, readers groan. Another travel story. Stay with me! Rica rica is such a cool little plant and worth knowing about, just because it exists.

Rica rica, also known as acantholippia deserticola lives only in the Andes highlands north of Chile and into Bolivia, and is prevalent in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama is a high altitude desert and either the driest place on earth or close to it. It depends on your definition of ‘dry’ apparently. Anyway, the Atacama is pretty dry, evidenced by the disappearance of approximately 20 litres of moisturising cream into my skin on a daily basis during my visit 🙂

Back to the rica rica: it is one of only a handful of plants that survives in the Atacama. It is a member of the same family as lemon verbena, and has a similar thyme-y, minty, piquant taste. And it is SO fragrant. When you squish the leaves between your fingers and inhale: aah. Bliss.

It is known to treat an upset stomach as well as problems of the heart, kidneys, altitude sickness and circulation of the blood. But my favourite medicinal use of rica rica is in a Pisco Sour, the go-to drink of both Chile and Peru*.

Rica rica makes the BEST Pisco Sour. Unfortunately this little ingredient is not available to purchase anywhere that I can find and I am KICKING myself that I didn’t purloin a packet or two while I was there.

So not much in the way of recipes or suggested uses for this one… I just love it’s hardy nature, it’s pluck, in surviving such a harsh environment.

The fun fact.

* There is some crazy ‘who owns Pisco’ stuff going on between Chile and Peru to the extent that, when you enter Peru the customs form asks you specifically if you are carrying any liquor labelled ‘pisco’ that was not made in Peru. Haha. I love that.

Vanilla.

Is there a baked good in the entire history of the universe that wasn’t enhanced by a bit of vanilla? Answer: no. As a baking fiend my pantry is full of different varieties – the pods, the paste, the essence – and all of them get a pretty good workout. But up until researching this post I didn’t really know too much (aka anything) about this gorgeous tasting and divinely fragrant little gift to the world. So…

The research.

What is it?

Vanilla, along with cardamom and saffron, is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is found in the seeds of the orchid vine vanilla planifolia which is native to Mexico. Obtaining true vanilla is a lengthy process, as the beans are slowly fermented then seeds extracted and ground. Pollination is also difficult as specific conditions are required. A method of hand pollination was developed in Reunion in 1841 – the variety of vanilla grown there and in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla, after the island’s former name.

The vanilla flavour (from the vanillin) is easily chemically synthesised from clove oil, waste material from the paper and wood-pulp industries and petrochemical products – YUM!! This artificial vanilla is very close to the natural flavour and so the export of real vanilla is in decline. About 97% of the world’s supply of vanilla is now synthetic… so if you want to be sure of getting the real deal, get the pods people!

Where is it from?

It is native to Mexico but is now grown in Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia. Tahitian vanilla is said to be fruity and spicy, Madagascan the most common, Mexican spicier and richer.

Any health benefits?

When vanilla became popular in 17th century Europe it was used for a huge variety of things – stomach ulcers, sedation and seduction – yes, it has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac.

The flavour.

The flavour comes from the seed pod – the bean, if you will. All beans contain thousands of seeds – those little black grains you see in anything that has been made with true vanilla pods eg vanilla bean ice cream*

Vanilla is rich, full, aromatic and powerful and highly fragrant. Check out some ideas for vanilla’s best playmates.

*If I was an ice cream manufacturer who wanted to sell shedloads of ice cream to gullible consumers, I would sprinkle any old black dust into it and call it ‘vanilla bean’. Cheaper to make. Sell at a premium. Make lots of lovely money. Lucky for you, dear readers, I am not in the ice cream business.

Ideas for vanilla:

Vanilla will enhance every fruit. Every fruit. Think apples, raspberries, apricots… whatever. Vanilla and chocolate – this was its only role back in Incan times: to flavour chocolate. It is a standard addition to cakes, biscuits, pies, anything sweet.

But how about some savoury ideas? I would think about trying a pairing with its close partners anise and cardamom in some dishes – tomato-based things in particular (tomato being a fruit).

Aside: did you know that Galliano has vanilla and anise as its core ingredients?

The fun fact.

The word ‘vanilla’ derives from the Latin word ‘vagina’. In ancient Rome, vagina meant ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. The rascals over in Spain adapted that word to ‘vaina’ which then resulted in the diminutive form ‘vainilla’ meaning ‘little sheath’. As the vanilla pod resembles a sheath, vanilla got its name. Now try eating vanilla ice cream without thinking about that. Ha.

Photo by Cel Lisboa on Unsplash

Kampot pepper.

In the middle of a surprisingly amazing holiday in Cambodia (not surprising that we had a good holiday, just surprising that it was SO great, SO interesting and SO much fun) we got in a tuk tuk and travelled for a long time over quite* bumpy dusty dirt roads to the pepper farms of Kampot. We went mainly because we wanted a day out in a tuk tuk and didn’t expect to be quite so blown away by pepper. Yes, pepper.

I had never given much thought to pepper. It was just one of those things I used every day and it was small and black and required a grinder. Depending where you were, this grinder was either easily slotted into your hand, or big enough to substitute for an artificial limb (I’m looking at you, Sydney Italian restaurants in general).

But at the Kampot pepper farm I learned that pepper is so much more. And infinite in variety. Red, white, green, black. Round, long. They were all here for our edification and education. Kampot pepper has AOC certification. That means it’s like champagne that can only come from the Champagne region of France. I love champagne. But I digress.

*very extremely maximally 

The research.

What is it?

Kampot pepper is a cultivar of piper negrum and has been a certified appellation of origin (AOC) product since 2010.

Where is it from?

Uh… duh! KAMPOT!

Specifically the foothills of the Elephant Mountains, where the quartz content of the soil apparently helps to give the pepper its unique terroir.

Kampot pepper first came to world attention in the 13th century. Production in the modern era was initiated under French colonial rule in the 1870s. By the 1960s there were 1 million pepper poles in Kampot, but this drastically declined during the civil war. Production is now increasing again but is not at the pre-war level yet.

There’s a bit of argy-bargy about deforestation occurring due to the increase in production. I find it hard to know where to land on this issue. On one hand I am a big fan of trees and protecting the planet, it being the only one we currently have. But on the other, who are we as rich white Westerners to tell these people, who are trying SO hard to emerge from a terrible war and destruction and poverty that they can’t try to make a quid any way they can?

The flavour.

Kampot pepper is so fragrant! And so full of flavour. It has helped me to see the pepper light and recognise that, like so many things, there can be the regular workaday variety that you don’t think much about, and the supremo version that can change your life.

What does it go with?

I have only three words for you: Kampot. Pepper. Crab.

OK, I have more words: anything you put pepper on.

The fun fact. 

Black peppercorns are green when harvested but change colour during drying. White peppercorns are black ones without the skin. Red peppercorns are green ones left on the vine for an extra four months.

The rant.

I am reading a lot about Cambodia and its government. Again. I don’t really want to say too much as I would love to return and preferably not be thrown in the clink, but those beautiful people deserve so much more and so much better. They are extraordinarily resilient, kind and peaceful people, and this oppression – that has been tolerated by Western countries and even rewarded with aid – is yucky (understatement). Watch the movie ‘First They Killed My Father’ if you want to spend a harrowing night at home with the popcorn.

Star anise.

Let me start by telling you that I love star anise. It can do no wrong in my eyes, and there is pretty much no place it doesn’t belong… sweet, savoury, slow cooking, quick baking. It is a star (see what I did there?).

Anyway, it is potentially my favourite spice, although it’s likely as we continue on this food blogging path that I find at least another twenty favourite spices. I’m quite a commitment-phobe when it comes to food and flavours – I want them all.

The research.

What is it?

Star anise (scientific name Illicium verum) is sometimes called Chinese star anise. Here’s something I learned while researching it: there is also something called Japanese star aniseIllicium anisatum, which is highly toxic. So probably best not to mix them up, OK? Good.

It is star shaped (who knew?), with between five and ten pointed boat-shaped sections, about eight on average. These hard sections are seed pods. The fruit is picked before it can ripen, and dried. The stars are available whole, or ground.

Star anise is not related to anise as we know it in the Western world (which is anisum vulgare). It was first introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century (or the sixteenth – the jury is still out). The oil, produced by a process of steam extraction, is now substituted for European aniseed (because its cheaper) in commercial drinks like absinthe. I love the mythology around absinthe, and the dangerous feeling around it.

Where is it from?

Star anise is the fruit of an oriental tree, related to the magnolia, that grows pretty much exclusively in southern China, Japan and Indo-China.

Does it have any health benefits?

Star anise is reputed to assist with fungal infections, joint pain, sleep disorders, to aid digestion and ease a cough. The Chinese have used it to support pregnant women and new mothers in modulating hormone function.

The flavour.

It is a strong spice – a little bit goes a long way – and it is licorice-like in flavour. It is one of the key elements of Chinese Five Spice powder. There are four others – ha – which are, most commonly, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, fennel seeds and Sichuan pepper.

Ideas for star anise:

Obviously the Chinese use star anise a lot, mainly in savoury dishes. Stocks, soups, meat (particularly duck – I love duck) nearly always contain it.

I have read that star anise makes an excellent pairing with tomatoes, which makes perfect sense when you think about its flavour – that licorice hint is close to both fennel and basil, which are classic accompaniments to tomato. So next time I make a tomato sauce or bolognese, I am throwing a star in.

Star anise is great in all sorts of baking. Over Christmas I made a lot of shortbread and fell in love with the orange and star anise shortbread recipe from Sweet (the latest recipe book from Yotam Ottolenghi in collaboration with Helen Goh – who is originally from Australia – go Goh). The star anise gave it such a lovely depth of flavour and something a bit different.

The fun facts.

 About 90% of the world’s star anise crop is used for extraction of shikimic acid, a chemical used to make the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. This led to shortages of the spice in both 2005 and 2009 (swine flu time).

The rant.

Thinking about star anise led me to thinking about recipe books. Let’s talk about recipe books and my addiction to them. OK, let’s not talk about the addiction, but let’s talk about the quality of some offerings. There are many many fabulous books where every recipe you try works exactly as it should, the measurements are correct, the oven temp is pretty spot on and the cooking times are accurate. This may sound like a ‘duh, what did you expect’ kind of statement, but I have recently purchased a few books which are chronic non-workers in the recipe department and this makes me a little bit twitchy. If you are going to ask people to spend their dollars on your book, test the recipes. In domestic ovens. In different conditions. The waste of ingredients when recipes fail annoys the crap out of me!

Merken.

I first discovered the deliciousness that is merkén when we were staying in the Cascada EcoCamp in Chilean Patagonia. See? I warned you about the annoying ‘I’m such a global traveller’ references! Anyway, back to the merkén. The food at the EcoCamp was really something else, especially considering the remote location. I can’t imagine the logistics involved in delivering such quality and flavour to tables three times a day in such a place.

Dinner always included a vegetable soup and the first night I was offered merkén to spice it up a little. Given that I rarely pass up an opportunity to give any type of food some extra sock-it-to-me, I readily accepted. That was the moment merkén and I fell in love and we have been together ever since.

The research.

What is it?

Merkén is made from the aji cacho de cabra, or goat horn pepper, which is dried, smoked over a wood fire, and then ground in a stone mortar with salt, toasted coriander, and cumin or oregano. It is a slow process involving fire, smoke and air – I love things that take time and care to prepare. I guess (but am hoping it ain’t so) the traditional process is changing now merkén is becoming more recognised, more widely available and more in demand across the world – sad face.

Where is it from?

Merkén was brought to us by the Mapuche of South America. The Mapuche are the largest Indian group on the continent, making up about 10% of the Chilean population. The Mapuche are famous for determined and ongoing fending off of various invasions, most specifically the Incan and then the Spanish. What is with those Spaniards? I love Spain, absolutely to my core – the place, the food, the people, the language, the wine – but jeepers they were quite into conquering and invading and all that blokey ‘rape and pillage’, weren’t they? I digress. The Mapuche decided this Spanish invasion was not for them and organised themselves like the best kind of union, despite being an agrarian society and quite diversely spread. They developed some killer fight-back strategies and managed to keep those nasty Spaniards at bay for about 300 years. Go you Mapuche!

The flavour.

The taste of merkén is unlike anything else but if I had to give you a reference I would say a bit smoked paprika, a little chipotle.

Ideas for merken:

Merken goes very well with all sorts of grains and potatoes. The smokey flavour with a bit of chilli (not too hot) gives plain bases a real depth, and it still remains fairly friendly to sensitive heat-phobes. Aside: I don’t understand the heat phobia myself – I think chilli fixes everything. In food and life.

Use merken as a rub for red meat and also with seafood dishes (sparingly, unless the seafood is robust in flavour. It is excellent in ceviche – I used a variant of this recipe for New Years Eve dinner and it was amaze. Swap the smoked chilli for merken, used ocean perch not dhufish and also threw in some avocado and used lime juice instead of finger limes (which are hard to come by in our neck of the woods).

I throw some merken into mayo often. Can’t go wrong with that. And am thinking if you sprinkled it on pita to make toasts for dipping it would be PDG. Give it a go and tell me how it turns out.

Where to get merken? I got mine in South America (obvs) and the only place I can find it in Australia will only sell in boxes of 24 packets. Stay tuned – I will be on a serious hunt when my current supply runs out.

The fun facts.

Merken was not recognised in food circles for an eternity, due to the age-old perception that spicy food was for the poor, the underclasses. This was quite a thing for a long time. French food! Oh so la-di-dah and what one must eat if one is having a gourmet experience. Mexican, Thai, Indian? That’s for takeaways, not for upmarket restaurants.

Luckily this has all changed. Spice is IN! And there is a burgeoning pride in Chilean and Peruvian cuisine, evidenced by the number of South American restaurants now included in World Top Restaurant lists. Places like Central in Lima (watch Chefs Table on Netflix for the lowdown on this intriguing spot and other South American chefs). Having experienced Astrid y Gaston and Fiesta in Lima personally (because I am a woman of the world and global gal), I can attest to the incredible pride and interest in food there, and particularly indigenous cuisine.

The rant.

Of course ultimately history, people, conquerors, and the usual scenario played out for the Mapuche. People forced from native lands, increasing poverty and disadvantage, you know the drill. What is it with us humans? We really are the most appalling species. And we NEVER LEARN.

There’s lots more to know about the Mapuche if you are interested.