At the Smithsonian Folklife Competition, the abundance of meals and flavors brings individuals collectively. Spices have been central to the United Arab Emirates program’s foodways, from espresso to barbecue, and it was clear that these flavors and aromas have been carefully linked with tales and recollections for the visiting cooks. Experiencing flavors with others brings again recollections however can even launch new culinary journeys.
My personal culinary second of inspiration got here in a small packet of sumac, a part of a kabob meal I used to be given whereas working on the Competition. I had tasted the spice in Center Jap dishes earlier than, but it surely by no means occurred to me to seek out out what it was. Initially, I solely dipped a little bit of meat in it out of curiosity, half-expecting to be stung with the warmth of different powdery crimson spices like paprika or chili. As an alternative, I used to be met with a aromatic trace of sourness that enhanced the opposite spiced and roasted parts of the dish. My mind struggled to understand the flavour as I proceeded to dump all the packet into my meals.
I ultimately landed on two explicit flavors from my homeland of Taiwan: plum powder, which I appreciated with string beans rising up, and hawthorn sweet, which my grandmother used to offer me after a visit to the Chinese language medication retailer.
That nostalgia rapidly changed into curiosity: how correct was my reminiscence? How related are these flavors, actually? I got down to go to just a few Asian markets (barely) reachable by public transportation from Washington, D.C.
My first vacation spot was Eden Center, a big Vietnamese American strip mall and neighborhood middle in Falls Church, Virginia. The most important grocery store within the advanced, Good Fortune, had an exquisite produce part the place I discovered contemporary guava, which might turn out to be useful later. The remainder of the mall felt surprisingly conversant in occasional crimson and gold spring couplets hanging from the ceiling and an abundance of rice, crimson bean, and mung bean treats stacked on store counters. I found a brand new love for pandan rice truffles and jellies and acquired to discover quite a lot of inexpensive and scrumptious Vietnamese dishes.
Two days later, I went to H Mart, a big Korean-focused grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia, in addition to Nice Wall, a smaller Chinese language-focused grocery store close by. I had enjoyable in H Mart purchasing across the part devoted to completely different sorts of kimchi and in addition discovered an amazing collection of sashimi supplies. Nice Wall had a snack and soup base aisle that just about made the air scent like winter and Chinese language New Yr. There, I discovered hawthorn flakes and different snacks I hadn’t had since leaving residence for faculty.
I didn’t discover plum powder in any of the markets, and ultimately I ordered it from a store known as Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry, which shipped it from New York. I additionally double checked that the additional pouch of sumac from the Competition was nonetheless within the pantry. So, all three flavors of curiosity have been efficiently acquired by the tip of the week, and my little taste-test experiment was practically prepared.
However first I known as my dad to refresh my recollections of plum powder. I initially thought it was solely used on fruits and often added to some vegetable dishes. Nevertheless, our dialogue and a fast search on-line revealed that, very like sumac, individuals will put it in something and all the things. My mother was apparently an exception, as she didn’t actually like bitter issues and largely used plum powder solely with string beans.
A number of days after studying that one of my core childhood experiences wasn’t as common as I assumed it was, the style take a look at lastly commenced. I dug out my outdated bamboo chopping board and set out my unfold.
From left to proper:
Hawthorn sweet (仙楂餅) is a candy produced from the crimson berries of the Chinese language hawthorn tree (Crataegus pinnatifida). It may be served as a snack or used to counter the bitter style of conventional natural medication, therefore the affiliation with Chinese language medication shops.
Sumac spice (سماق) performs a considerable position in Center Jap delicacies. It’s produced from the dried fruits of Rhus coriaria, one of many many species of sumac crops. Extremely suitable with each greens and meat, sumac may be discovered within the well-known za’atar (زَعْتَر) spice combine and well-liked dishes akin to fattoush and kebab.
Plum powder (梅子粉) is a condiment produced from a mixture of preserved Chinese language plum (Prunus mume), sugar, salt, and licorice powder. It appears extra broadly recognized in the states as Li hing mui powder, and it’s generally used on sweet (significantly in Hawai‘i) and fruits. In Taiwan, it’s also utilized in quite a few family dishes (although this varies by desire) and in road meals akin to fried rooster cutlet and popcorn rooster.
It was immensely enjoyable to have associates and acquaintances taste-test these flavors. I served the sumac on hard-boiled eggs and the plum powder on items of the guava from Good Fortune, a mixture I additionally hadn’t had shortly. Making ready it felt like layering two of my worlds on high of one another, simply sufficient to disclose the variations. The guava regarded a bit misplaced among the many tomatoes and peppers I acquired earlier that week. I discovered the plum powder in the back of the mailbox as an alternative of in my mother’s picket pantry. The hawthorn sweet got here in skinny flakes wrapped in paper and set in a tough plastic shell as an alternative of flower-shaped chunks in skinny orange wrapping buried on the backside of a hand-labeled bag of natural soup base.
It felt a bit surreal to journey and seek for nearly per week to piece collectively a family snack—one which took 5 minutes to assemble again in Taiwan—and share it with individuals overseas as one thing new. The overall response appeared to be that the plum powder was good, however the taste was arduous to explain. The hawthorn flakes, however, acquired attention-grabbing comparisons to a subtler model of Skittles or Smarties.
In my side-by-side tasting, it was very clear that these spices tasted completely different, however I had plenty of bother distinguishing how. (On the time I’m typing this, I’m nonetheless periodically dipping my finger into the leftovers to refresh my reminiscence.) Each begin out with a pointy, vibrant tang. Sumac is extra aromatic, whereas plum powder leaves a fruity aftertaste. I’ve been having fun with experimenting with them each on completely different meals.
When I first ripped open that packet of mysterious crimson powder, I didn’t anticipate to enter a culinary journey crammed with nostalgia, reconnection, and delighted confusion. Opening your self to different cultures and experiences could lead again to new discoveries about your individual, and meals is an effective way to start out.
Stephanie Chen is a former intern who labored with the 2022 Folklife Competition’s United Arab Emirates program group. She is a linguistics grasp’s pupil at Georgetown College specializing in language and communication. Initially from Taiwan, she enjoys illustration, journey, and making an attempt meals with intriguing names and elements.
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