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Culinary Chronicles: Unveiling the Timeless Art of Traditional Cooking Styles

From ancient tandoors to earthy pits: A journey through millennia, exploring the rich history of traditional cooking methods

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25 Jan '24
8 min read


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Every  December, my anticipation peaks as I eagerly await the opportunity to return to my hometown in Rajasthan, where cherished family traditions come alive through the joy of winter cooking. Hailing from a proud Rajput family, my fascination with the culinary heritage passed down from our noble ancestors has only deepened over the years. 

Among the treasured recipes we lovingly recreate is Khaad Murg, a dish inspired by the traditional Indian hunter's fare once relished during the era of Rajput kings. 

Khaad Murg's distinctive cooking technique intrigued me. In keeping with its ancient origins, a hole is carefully dug out of the earth. Nicely wrapped in thick rotis, the marinated chicken—now a fitting replacement for the game of old—creates a delectable cocoon. This rustic, leaf-decked container is then placed inside the pit and cooked under charcoal.

This is just one cooking method. This is when you realise how the world is a simmering pot, a fragrant tapestry woven from diverse threads of history, language, and, of course, food. Each culture adds its spice, its own twist of the flame, its own story whispered in the sizzle of a pan.

That’s what this article does. It delves into the rich tapestry of global cooking techniques. There is a connection that reflects the universal nature of human inventiveness in food preparation, despite geographical differences. 

From the fiery depths of Jamaican Jerk Chicken to the ancient clay ovens of Tandoori cuisine, each method tells a story of tradition, culture, and innovation. Let’s explore a few. 

Jerk Style (Jamaica)

What is it?

Jerk cooking is characterised by coating the main ingredient, usually chicken but also beef, pork, goat, boar, seafood, or vegetables, in spices and slow-cooking it over a fire or grill made of green pimento wood that is placed over coals. The flavor of the dish is greatly enhanced by the smoke that results from this process. 

According to some reports, the word "jerk" originated from the Spanish word "charqui," which refers to dried pork strips that resemble jerky today.

Origin

Jerk is ‘one of the enduring legacies of the fusion of African and Taíno cultures in Jamaica,’ according to renowned Jamaican literary researcher Carolyn Cooper. 

The Taíno, Arawak people, were the first indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean. Columbus arrived in 1494 and named the island Xaymaca. The Spanish introduced slave labour and used it as a commercial hub. In the 17th century, a conflict between England and Spain led to a British invasion, forcing the Maroons to escape. The British increased their influence by importing slave labour from Africa, which became the sugar economy's backbone.

According to archaeological evidence, Maroons refused to be slaves and demanded independence in the island's hilly interior. They resided among the indigenous people, who had survived the shock of the ‘discovery,’ continued Cooper. Their culinary customs were similar. One of the customs was jerk.

Jamaican Jerk Meat

Jerk Style Recipes: Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Wok style (East Asia)

What is it?

The preparation of Chinese cuisine is always fascinating, with the lively interplay of flames, tossing, and quick frying adding a dash of excitement.

While Chinese food in restaurants is delightful, many often wonder why attempting to recreate the same flavors at home doesn't yield the same results. For instance, the classic fried rice. It looks easy to recreate as there aren't many components. But the finished product makes us think about what went wrong.

The ‘wok’ is the deciding factor. This  circular cooking pot with either two tiny riveted U-shaped handles (Cantonese wok) or one long cylindrical handle (Mandarin wok) is a common sight in numerous East Asian nations 

Its concave shape and sloping sides, facilitate efficient heat distribution, making it perfect for stir-frying. This technique entails swiftly cooking small, evenly cut ingredients over high heat, all the while stirring continuously to preserve the vibrant colours and textures of the food.

Origin

The first records of the wok's existence date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), in ancient China. Woks were originally made from simple materials like clay but the design and material changed over time. The wok became a Chinese kitchen mainstay due to its versatility very rapidly. 

The unique shape of the wok, featuring high, sloping sides, enables versatile cooking methods such as stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling, steaming, and even smoking.

Its versatility made it popular across China and its culinary tradition, further extending its use throughout Asia and other parts of the world as Chinese groups moved there. 

Egg Fried Rice

Wok Recipes: Egg Fried Rice

Tagine (Morocco)

What is it?

tagine is an essential component of Moroccan cuisine and has been part of the culture for centuries. The word tagine has two meanings. First, it refers to a form of North African cookware that was typically composed of clay or ceramic. The bottom of the tagine is a broad, shallow circular dish used for cooking and serving, while the top is formed like a rounded dome or cone.

It also refers to a savoury and aromatic stew cooked with meat (such as lamb, chicken, or cattle), vegetables, fruits (such as apricots or dates), and a spice blend consisting of  cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and saffron. Then it’s slow-cooked in a tagine pot, enabling the ingredients to melt together, yielding a rich and savoury flavour profile.

The tagine pot, crafted from clay, is designed to enhance steam condensation, ensuring the dish remains moist and flavorful. The conical lid circulates the condensation, directing it back into the dish, which aids in meat tenderization and flavour infusion. 

This ancient Moroccan cooking method has gained international popularity due to its ability to produce delicious and aromatic one-pot meals.

Origin

The tagine originated in Berber and Moorish cuisine, and evidence suggests that it was used as early as the eighth century. The Berbers, an indigenous North African ethnic group, are credited with creating the tagine as a practical and functional cooking vessel that met the region's culinary needs. Its cone-shaped lid is believed to be inspired by the necessity to conserve moisture in the arid atmosphere, facilitating the slow cooking of difficult cuts of meat and the creation of luscious, savory dishes.

Lamb Tagine

Tagine Recipes: Lamb Tagine 

Pit Style (Polynesia)

What is it?

Pit cooking, a traditional Polynesian culinary practice, makes use of an earth oven called an ‘imu’ in Hawaiian culture. This method has been used for millennia throughout the Polynesian islands and is an important element of their cultural legacy.

Pit cooking normally begins with excavating a pit in the earth, usually lined with stones. The pit is subsequently heated by inserting fuel or hot stones, forming a bed of extreme heat. When the stones are sufficiently heated, the wood is removed and the meal, which is sometimes wrapped in leaves or other natural materials, is placed on top of them.

The 'imu' method, frequently employed to cook meats such as fish, pork, and chicken, involves slow-cooking the food in its juices, resulting in tender and flavorful dishes.

Origin 

This method has extensive historical roots, ranging from Native American tribes' traditional habits of using earth ovens for slow cooking to Polynesia's famed imu, where communal feasts revolve around food cooked in pits. Archaeological evidence demonstrates its pre-historic origins, demonstrating early human communities' skill in using natural resources for nourishment. 

Pit cooking, in its different incarnations such as the Maori hangi in New Zealand or Latin American barbacoa, has served as both a practical means of preparing food and a cultural cornerstone, creating communal relationships and honouring the rich tapestry of culinary heritage around the world.

Pit Cooking Recipes: Palusami

Bamboo Style

What is it?

Bamboo-style cooking, originating in several Asian nations such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asian countries abundant in bamboo, utilizes the versatile plant for its natural qualities, imparting distinctive flavors and textures to various cuisines.

You have different types as well. Bamboo shoots are widely utilised in Asian cuisine for their crisp texture and good flavour absorption.

Meanwhile, its leaves are also used as wraps for traditional dishes. Chinese kitchens often feature bamboo steamers, crafted from interwoven bamboo slats, essential for steaming dumplings and various dishes.

Origin 

The origins of bamboo-style cooking can be traced back to ancient culinary practices in numerous Asian nations, each with its adaption of using bamboo in different cooking methods. 

In China, bamboo steamers boast a rich history, where bamboo baskets are stacked to steam dumplings and buns, a method now synonymous with Chinese cuisine.

Similarly, bamboo leaves have been used for millennia as natural wrapping for foods such as zongzi and tamale-like products in Japan.

Bamboo Biryani

Bamboo Cooking Recipes: Bamboo Biryani

Tandoor

What is it?

Tandoori cuisine is a bright and aromatic culinary tradition that originated in South Asia and is profoundly rooted in our familiar tandoor, the traditional clay or metal oven. The term ‘tandoor’ refers to both the cooking procedure and the oven itself. This cooking method is distinguished by the use of a classic tandoor oven, a cylindrical construction dating back thousands of years. 

Originally fashioned of clay, the tandoor has a circular bottom and a thin, tapering top to maximize heat absorption. The cooking method begins with preheating the tandoor with a wood or charcoal fire, resulting in a scorching environment. 

The tandoor's high temperature allows quick cooking, locking in liquids and imparting the food with a characteristic smokiness. 

Origin 

The traditional cooking method can be traced back to the Harappan civilisation where archaeological remains resembling clay ovens were found.  

Over time, the tandoor evolved and became the central element in South Asian kitchens, playing a significant role in royal feasts, celebrations, and everyday cooking. Its ability to reach high temperatures quickly made it apt for baking bread and roasting meats, among others. 

Tandoori Chicken

Tandoori Recipe: Tandoori Chicken


Each technique, with its unique origins and flavours, serves as a testament to the rich diversity of global gastronomy, connecting us through the universal language of food.

What unique methods or family traditions make your culinary experiences truly personal? 

Share your stories and cherished recipes in the comments below.

 

Category : Food and Cooking


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Written by Deepali Singh