Archived entries for history

Hawaiian Heritage Plants

This is the time of year when times seems to stand still. Winter feels like it will never end. Dreams of tropical flowers and soft breezes start to become more prominent in my mind. So a book on Hawaiian heritage plants looked like just the thing to get my imagination going.

This isn’t an entirely soft and dreamy post. The lush beauty of Hawaii has a number of somewhat dark historical facts related to its plants. Other plants were and still are vital to the local economy and food chain. Here’s a list of some plants that are important to the history and culture of Hawaii.

Similarly to hibiscus, plumeria is a lovely addition to many leis, but is actually native to Mexico, Venuzuela, and Central America.

Plumeria image available from Calyxia Design.

Sandalwood: (‘iliahi)
The background on sandalwood on the Hawaiian islands was the most surprising out of all the plants I read about. For thousands of years, sandalwood has been of great importance because of the strong, seductive scent that originates from its heartwood. One of my favorite descriptions of use by the Hawaiian Islanders was that some young women would take sandalwood powder and mix it with coconut butter to create a wonderful body balm.
What I didn’t realize was that many of the native islanders were exploited by their own leaders to sell the vast sandalwood forests to outsiders looking to make a profit.

Hibiscus: (koki’o ‘ula or koki’o ke’oke’o)
I find it interesting that even though there is such an emphasis on encouraging use of native plants, in reality the plants that have really shaped many cultures are often transplants from other areas of the world. Take the hibiscus. The hibiscus is a native to Southeast Asia, yet it is now Hawaii’s most famous emblem as well as the state flower. In spite of its recognition, many varieties of this plant are endangered.

Taro: (kalo)
The taro needs growing conditions similar to rice, in that it likes to have a shallow amount of water all around it to flourish. Taro has been a staple of the Hawaiian diet for centuries, and is commonly called “poi” when the taro root is pounded and fermented.

Wild Ginger: (‘awapuhi)
A plant with gorgeous blooms, its thick sap can be easily used as a hair shampoo and conditioner.

Noni: (Indian mulberry)
Noni is frequently hailed as a modern day cure-all, especially by noni juice companies. Its effectiveness isn’t conclusive, and in the days when the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i was used a leper colony, noni was sometimes used without any positive result. It is supposedly good at treating lice!

For lots more on this subject, pick up Angela Kay Kepler’s “Hawaiian Heritage Plants”.

Week 2: Peppercorns

This week I read about and explored pepper, the constant companion to salt on many tables around the globe. The sneezy spice. The best flavoring to add to almost any savory dish.

My birthday’s at the end of May, so my sister bought me A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine as a gift. There are numerous historical references to specific spices and flavorings as used by ancient peoples, through the Renaissance, and right up to today. Since pepper has almost always been an important seasoning, the book lists a few interesting points regarding its history and use. For example, in 1606 a fellow named Joseph Duchesne wrote :

“The great piquant or piercing quality of pepper, which one perceives in the taste and burning sensation it leaves on the tongue stems from what chemists call an aronic slat, which is subtle and penetrating and therefore cuts into, attenuates, and dissolves the tartars and viscidities of the stomach and other parts, and this is why the ancients found it to be good for the treatment of quartian fevers and various other maladies.”

In other words, pepper is good for digestion.

“Pepper, the favorite seasoning of the Roman soldiers, also became very popular among the Germanic troops who joined the ranks of the Roman army. When Alaric, king of the Goths, besieged Rome in 408, he demanded as his price for sparing the city a ransom of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pound of silver [...] and 3,000 pounds of pepper.”

So, pepper was valuable. Finally,

“One of the things that distinguished the delicate cooking of La Varenne and Bonnefons from their French predecessors and their Italian, English, Spanish, and Central European contemporaries is that few of their recipes for savory ingredients called for sugar or spices other than black pepper.”

Even the French like pepper with their food, so there’s no way you’re leaving pepper out of the kitchen.

Enough with history, on to the Dinner Menu!

  • Steak au Poivre
  • Spinach with cream
  • Fried potatoes
  • Pavlova with fruit and cream

I was the most excited about the Poivre sauce for the steak, as it involved lighting cognac on fire. Sadly, in spite of almost 10 minutes of conversational planning with Mike, we had an epic failure. After 5 matches and much dancing about and shouting, we were unable to light the cognac. Quite surprising, as we were using an iron pot, and iron retains heat very well. I’m happy to report that even when you fail to actually light the sauce, it still turns out delicious. I decided that the sauce that covers the steak would be awesome on its own for various other applications, so I’m listing a variant here.

Pepper Sauce (used in Steak au Poivre)

  • 2 tablespoons whole peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/3 cup Cognac, plus 1 teaspoon
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Heat pan on medium-high, and melt butter and oil together. Add the coarsely crushed peppercorns and cook to release flavor about 5 minutes. Take pan off the heat, add cognac and hopefully light on fire with long match. Once flames die down, put pan back on the range. Add cream to the pan and bring to a boil. Gently simmer while stirring constantly about 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Stir in tablespoon of cognac and add salt to taste. Spoon over heartier foods such as steak, or if you’re a vegetarian over seitan or tempeh.

I don’t have a picture of the steak, as to be honest, I don’t like the food porn aspect of juicy, hot meat. This may be the karma of my former vegetarian guilt rising up inside me, but it’s possible that I just wanted to eat the expensive tenderloin while it was still hot. I can’t sacrifice everything for my art.

One of the more interesting facts I learned while researching peppercorns is that the pink peppercorn is actually from an entirely different plant called Baies Rose plant. I found an interesting dessert that calls for pink peppercorns, but after finding out my local Whole Foods doesn’t carry them, I decided to just leave them out. The Pink Peppercorn Pavlova with Strawberries, Vanilla Cream, and Basil Syrup we tried sounds complicated, but it’s rather simple to make. I didn’t know what a pavlova dessert was before yesterday, and found out that it’s a dessert that was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. It’s simply a meringue stiffened with cornstarch and baked at a relatively low temperture, and once cooled it’s topped with tart fruits and some sort of cream.

Who takes black and white photos of strawberries?

Mr. Alan Turing watches over a pavlova

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