Friday, April 16, 2021

the mysterious leaf

The best discoveries in life are accidental.

At least they are for me. And it is almost always true for food.

The leaves in the photograph are a perfect example. There are several trees of this variety growing around town.

That is not surprising. Even though it is native to the Caribbean, the tree had taken root in Mexico and Central America before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

Maybe it is just age. Maybe I do not pay attention to details as well as I once did. But, on my walks, I have passed these trees without paying much attention. That changed earlier in the week when a friend put a name to them.

It is an allspice tree. Its true identity is given away by bruising the leaves. They give off that distinctive aroma of a combination of nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon that is associated with the tree's fruit. The English named the fruit "allspice" because it seemed to combine all of those spice scents in one tiny peppercorn.

Northerners and Europeans use the dried fruit of the tree primarily as a spice for desserts. But the spice is used around the world for far more than a flavor booster for pumpkin pie.

If you have eaten any Jamaican jerk dishes, you have eaten allspice. Allspice is what gives the seasoning its taste-shifting characteristics. Some foodies believe the Arawak developed the seasoning. Others attribute it to Africans who were enslaved on the island. The truth is probably a combination of those stories.

Allspice is also a major cooking component in Mexico -- especially, in Yucatan and the southern states. That may be because the spice is associated with the Maya and the fact that they took root along the Mexican Gulf coast. It shows up in fish, meat, and vegetable dishes along with moles and salsas. Allspice is a prime ingredient in adobos. Most of us have experienced its magic in traditional chiles en Nogada.

But, like most seeds that are cooked whole, allspice finds its cooking home in India. Allspice, tomatoes, and chilies are so much a part of Indian cooking that is is easy to forget that all three came from the Americas -- the last two from Mexico.

Somewhere in my research, I found a reference that allspice leaves may be substituted for bay leaves. But only fresh allspice leaves; drying the leaves destroys their aromatic character.

I wanted to use the leaves quickly because they remain fresh for only a day or two. So, I started thinking about Indian dishes that rely on bay leaves for flavor. The most obvious choice was chicken biryani with its yogurt-marinated chicken, basmati rice, and panoply of whole spices, all centered around an onion-chili mixture.

Chicken biryani is like the potato salad of India. Every region has its version and every family within the region has its own variation.

In the 1970s, I took an Indian cooking class from Virginia Plainfield in Portland. She told her students if they wanted to cook dishes that always came out consistently, they would be frustrated with Indian cooking. The dishes would always be delicious, but they would not be the same each time because of the variation in the spices.

Over the years, I have modified each chicken biryani I have prepared. The primary substitution this go would be the fresh allspice leaves. But I also left out saffron in favor of a star anise. Fortunately, Hawaii had boxes of Indian basmati rice. There is no substitute there.

When I was done, I combined the biryani with a raita I made from locally-available ingredients. Because I was too lazy to cook my own naan, I warmed up a pita as an understudy.

With all of those spices and seeds, was it possible to taste the allspice leaf? Absolutely.

When done right, Indian food is not a stew of flavors. The flavors should be layered. And they were this time. (I have failed this basic art of layering many times with Indian dishes.) The experiment worked. Omar and Ozzie both gave it a Mexican thumb-up.

While I was writing this essay, it occured to me how much the food supply system has changed in Mexico. I doubt that I could have written that sentence in 2009 when I made my final move to Mexico because back then I could not find sufficient ingredients (even with substitutions) to do justice to a chicken biryani.

We all can now. I just did.

And it all started with one leaf that I did not bother to identify on my walks.

No comments: