December 13, 2013
Food for thoughtSunday, October 27, 2013
The sweetest pleasure of all?
Milk is the most versatile of all foods and we can say it is also the most widespread, even if large portions of global society — such as the Chinese and large south-east Asian communities in particular — anchor themselves outside its limits. The fact that all foods — including milk — possess water to some degree makes this argument superfluous.
Milk is not an invented or created food but an adopted one. It is hard — impossible, in fact — to imagine a time when milk in one of its many forms was not nurturing humans and animals alike. The fact that both incorporate a private milk factory in their bodies for the purpose of providing food for their young is proof enough of that. What can be questioned, however, is when and how the uses, types and qualities of milk were recognized and that knowledge applied in an orderly manner. The oldest known evidence of animals being kept in herds for milking dates back to a series if Libyan cave paintings in the Sahara, that can be traced to at least 5,000BC, and most probably before that. The Sumerians have left evidence going back as far as 3,500BC proving that they were active in milk usage, most importantly in cheese making as well as other types of curdling. Not far behind came the Egyptians, who were equally active.
Many people consider it odd than the Chinese and many other south-east Asians ignore milk almost completely when one analyzes the subtlety and complexity of Asian cuisine. The reason goes much further than mere personal rejection but bases itself on the more complex issue of bodily functions where the inability to digest milk — known as lactose intolerance — plays a leading role. But not all milk rejection can be laid at that door. Large areas of Africa can be distinguished as "”milkless” and, curiously, until the Americas were opened up by the Spaniards, milk was ignored completely. With the passing of time, the importance and versatility of milk was revealed and much used in different ways. The enormous number of different milk products were discovered and developed: pure, as cheese, yogurt, condensed, dried and many more giving rise to one of the vastest and most important industrial activities in the world. Many countries have developed their economies thanks to the work of milk; others are known almost exclusively because of their milk and milk industries. Ask most people to name the most important milk consuming countries and their answers will be varied but almost certainly wrong. France, Switzerland, Holland, Argentina and the US all get a vote, but the country which figures as the world's premier milk-producing country is… India!
Milk consumption in India does not revolve around liquid milk but around reduced milk called rabadi. This is milk reduced to a quarter of its original volume and is the base upon which the cuisine of millions of Indians subsist. In addition, it is also a major component of a great deal of traditional Indian cuisine, usually in the form of buffalo milk, cheese or clarified butter (ghee). It is not out of place to claim that no Indian chef feels at ease unless he is incorporating some variation of rabadi in his dish. Forget those fancy Indian cookbooks with their fancier recipes prepared for Westerners; Indian cuisine — the sort that Indians consume daily — is another matter.
All this — and much more, indeed — bears heavily upon the origin of our national dessert-sweet — dulce de leche. In Hispano-America the reduction of milk plus sugar gives birth to this sweetest of all delicacies, but it does not authenticate its origin. In the Middle East they reduce buffalo milk and call it eishta. It is white and solid, but when sugar is added to the milk, in turns brown and spreadable. This was being done before Columbus reached America. In the US — and in Argentina, too, as I can attest, it is possible to obtain dulce de leche by boiling a tin of condensed milk for 50-60 minutes We used to do it at school way back in the 40s to supplement our school fare.