Sunday, January 06, 2008

Curried Kidney Beans, and the Mobile Food Chain

I didn’t study science in school and do not work in a scientific field – maybe that’s why I so admire books that make science accessible to us commoners. Jared Diamond can work this magic, as can Natalie Angier. I am currently reading Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones, a bio-archaeologist. Jones’ prose isn’t as approachable as Diamond’s or Angier’s, but his topic – the history of the meal – is so fascinating that I am willing to read, and then re-read, as many paragraphs as necessary.

In each chapter of Feast, Jones describes a particular archaeological dig and, drawing upon the dig’s findings, envisions and narrates a typical meal-time scene. I just finished reading his exploration of a meal near a lake in Israel 23,000 years ago and a feast 11,000 years ago in the Euphrates Valley of Syria.

There are signs of weaving at the site in Israel – a new invention that allowed us humans to capture fish, small mammals and birds and to gather seeds, grains, legumes and nuts more effectively. As a result, we became much less dependent on men hunting large animals for our survival. By the time the scene in Syria happened, there were basically no men left whose main occupation was hunter.

(I promise all of this background will get to a recipe, eventually!)

Many things struck me about the meal Jones describes in Syria – the huge variety of grains, legumes and nuts consumed, including a cake flavored with ground mustard seeds, and the fact that the seeds had been cracked and soaked – similar to the preparation of tabouleh in the Middle East today. The meal takes place in a permanent settlement, something novel for us humans at this point in our history.

The climate was changing like crazy 11,000 years ago at the time of the meal in Syria, forcing plants and animals to continually chase their preferred habitats. In the past, people would have moved with them. But now, after constructing their permanent settlements, they didn’t want to move. Nor did they want to give up eating their favorite things. So, humans began modifying the environment around their favorite plants in order to mimic the places where these plants thrived – an early step towards agriculture.

(Really – a recipe is on its way….)

Another interesting feature of that meal 11,000 years ago is that it was prepared in a new physical human space – the kitchen. Instead of food being cooked and eaten around a fire, the meal in Syria was prepared in an area separate from the dining location. And there is evidence that all of this cooking – grinding, pounding, soaking, washing – was done by women.

Says Jones: “The meticulous study of the bones…indicates that in the ancient Euphrates at least, a very significant role in food preparation was played by women. All this evidence of back-breaking women’s work raises the question of what the men were up to.”

So, what were the men up to, especially since their hunting skills were not being called into action? Jones argues that the “surplus” men in the community became travelers, visiting settlements near and far. There emerged a tradition of welcoming these visitors into settlements with food and shelter, and of the visitor himself offering gifts of thanks, which included cultural artifacts, plants and animals. Soon, the number of migrants, and the number of new permanent settlements, began to grow.

(I know you don’t believe me, but a recipe is coming!)

Jones describes this movement of people as creating a “mobile food chain.” “It [the mobile food chain] did not spread by bulldozing flat the competition, but by leapfrogging from favored site to favored site…each new settlement taking with it many elements of the food chain, the styles and the beliefs of its parent communities.”

It would seem, then, that for many thousands of years we have had a tendency to prefer the foods and preparations we are accustomed to, and to take these customs with us wherever we go. I know I do this. Every time I travel to the States, I bring back with me black beans, pine nuts, granola bars, and walnuts. I can live without these items, of course, but I don’t want to. On the weekend before Christmas, I made minestrone soup, just like my mom does, even though I had to make a couple substitutions. With these actions, I am mimicking a human tendency that has spanned millennia – migrants bringing their favorite foods with them, and modifying their cooking to fit their new environments.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many people of Indian descent in South Africa, and they’ve brought with them styles and ingredients of cooking that have, over time, become just as South African as they are Indian. It is this combination of people developing cuisines in their “permanent” settlements and migrants sharing their favorite foods with new neighbors that has contributed to the amazing variety of dishes we humans have created.

One of these dishes is Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry. The red kidney bean comes from South America, but is now quite common in South African cuisine. Take this traveling bean, combine it with Indian migrants, and you have a curry prepared in a Gujarati style, with a South America bean, in a southern African country.

Do like your ancestors would and share this meal with friends and family. Feast!

(And, finally, the recipe!)

Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry
From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail
Serves 6

1½ cups / 300 grams dried red kidney beans
3 tablespoons / 45 milliliters vegetable oil
3 whole dried hot red chilies
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole cumin seeds
Generous pinch of ground asafetida
10-15 fresh curry leaves, if available
3 medium tomatoes, grated
¼ teaspoon / 1.25 milliliters turmeric
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground coriander
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground cumin
1-2 fresh hot green chilies, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters sugar
1½ teaspoons / 7.5 milliliters salt

Cover the beans generously in water and leave to soak overnight. Drain the next day, put in a medium-size pan, add 6 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Partially cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for 2-2 ½ hours, or until the beans are tender.

Meanwhile, pour the oil into a medium pan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the red chilies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and asafetida. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the curry leaves and tomatoes. Stir once, and then add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, green chilies, garlic, ginger, sugar, and salt. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 5 minutes.

When the beans are tender, pour the spiced tomato mixture into the pan with the beans. Bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, on a very low heat, for 20 minutes.


MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Carolyn, I was very happy to wait for the recipe as the book sounds fascinating. I'll be looking at my library.
The beans look wonderful!

Mrs. W said...

I was riveted to this post. I'll be hunting this book soon. The recipe sounds great, too!

Ali la Loca said...

I love the idea that I am participating in a tradition thousands of years old when I bring back canned green chile, powdered red chile and mexican vanilla from New Mexico. This is all so that I can make the food I crave from my home-state, with the necessary modifications, of course, to fit life in Mozambique. :)

Love this post!

Jeanne said...

Great post - and a fascinating book bu the sound of it.I love the mobile food chain idea - it's exactly what happens wvery time I visit South Africa and bring home a suitase of food. And my Mexican and Austrian friends living in London to the same...

Recipe was well worth the wait - I love red kidney beans!

Carolyn said...

I am so glad you all found the post interesting - I was worried I was getting a bit boring there! The book is not the easiest of reads, but is truly fascinating!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a fascinating post. And I can't wait to try out your recipe!