Dog Days Are Not Over

The timeless and mutually rewarding bond between humans and canines.

Article by By Helen Hawkes

Photo by Madison Inouye / Pexels

People have become so unpredictable post-pandemic. Relationships have strained under the weight of differences in opinion about vaccinations, politics, geopolitics, climate change and even the price of groceries. Not dogs, though. Dogs have remained delightfully, well, doggy.

Dogs don’t care what you think about Covid, whether you recycle or whom you vote for. A conversation with a dog is unlikely to end in a regrettable debate. Dogs are goofy and quirky and non-judgemental and, although most will take pats or treats from anyone, their promiscuity is more endearing than an unacceptable fault.

They are clowns in fur clothing unafraid to look foolish; a simple answer to the question of who really cares when the odds are not stacked in your favour. They are assistance dogs, not only for the physically challenged, but for the emotionally vulnerable who crave a view of the world that is less jaded. Dogs, no matter whether poodles or Rottweilers, are simply, and have always been, pure, slobbery, unconditional love.

Ask Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, who often slept with a pug named Fortune on her bed rather than with the emperor. Yes, it’s true that not all scientists agree“love” is the right word to describe the bond dogs enjoy with humans. The psychologist Clive Wynne, the author of “Dog Is Love”, prefers to describe canines as having “an excessive capacity to form affectionate relationships”.

But while dogs may not be able to intellectualise love, research shows oxytocin hormone spikes on both sides of the relationship when dogs and humans regard one another, adds Wynne. In fMRI scans, dogs’ reward centres light up when they sense their owner nearby, not only when they’re promised sausage. Who can argue with that? Not Australians, whose rate of dog ownership has increased from an estimated 5.1 million dogs in 2019 to 6.4 million in 2022.

Nor the French, who boast 17 dogs for every 100 humans and are, historically and currently, firmly in the doghouse. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, a French bulldog was the chicest accessory of Parisian sex workers, while Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI all doted on poodles, ensuring their pooches got prominent positions in court paintings.

Parisian canines are allowed on the metro, commuter trains and buses; to dine in restaurants, cafes and bakeries; and are admitted to the swankiest hotels. At the Hôtel Pont Royal in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, small pets are welcomed as members of the family. At the Hôtel de Crillon they can not only stay but be accompanied for walks. You’ll see dogs in the Palais-Royal Garden, the park of the Palace ofVersailles, the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Champ de Mars, as well as accompanying diners at theMichelin-starred Le Grande Véfour.

I have dined in Cannes and St Tropez while canines peeked from under linen tablecloths and, in my own home, lived with and loved West Highland terriers and, most recently, a golden labrador. My life is poorer for the loss of both but, as wisdom dictates, you give a dog your heart to break it. The actor Bill Murray is famously quoted as saying: “I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person.” An increasing number of us are of the same school.

More expert Culture coverage from T Australia:

Adam Liaw Joins Gullivers and Silversea for Culinary Cruise Around Asia

The “MasterChef” winner is inviting gourmands to cruise around Japan and South Korea with him in September.

Article by T Australia

Silversea's Silver Muse cruise ship will sail around Japan and South Korea. Photo courtesy of Silversea

Acclaimed chef Adam Liaw will jump aboard Silversea’s luxury cruise ship “Silver Muse” in September to host a culinary voyage through Japan and South Korea hosted by Gullivers travel group. 

The former lawyer turned “MasterChef” winner will join guests for 11 days, from 26th September to 6th October, 2024, as they set sail from Tokyo and head onward to Kobe, Busan in South Korea and back to Japan and the ports of Kanazawa, Hakodate, and Yokohama (Tokyo). 

The dining experience at La Dame, on board the Silver Muse. Image courtesy of Silversea
Breakfast at The Grill, on board the Silver Muse. Image courtesy of Silversea

“Throughout the journey, I will share insights, tips and recommendations on what to do and eat in each port,” says Liaw, whose legion of fans know all about his enthusiasm for Asian flavours. “Having extensively explored Japanese cuisine, I consider it a joy and an honour to impart this knowledge and engage with our guests in this personalised setting.”

In Kobe, guests will indulge in sake and kobe beef tastings, while in Busan an excursion to the Jagalchi Fish Market will enable participation in a bulgogi cooking class. 

The immersive luxury travel tour offers a rare opportunity for foodie adventurers to expand their knowledge of Asian cuisine alongside one of Australia’s most respected chefs

Fares begin from AUD$10,550 per person. gullivers.com.au

The Nostalgic Appeal of Mung Bean Desserts

Asian American pastry chefs are making something new of the humble legume.

Article by Wei Tchou

Vietnamese bánh đậu xanh trái cây (fruit-shaped mung bean treats).Vietnamese bánh đậu xanh trái cây (fruit-shaped mung bean treats) made by the New York City-based food stylist and chef Thu Pham Buser. Phillip Le; food stylist: Thu Pham Buser.

At the Malaysian pastry shop Kuih Cafe in downtown Manhattan, the baker Veronica Gan, who’s in her mid-50s, sells ang ku kueh, a piece of pliant, toothsome ruby red mochi molded in the shape of a tortoiseshell. Mochi itself has little flavour — its pleasures are textural — but bite into the confection and you find that it’s stuffed with sweet mung bean paste. Starchy, subtly nutty and slightly sweet, it lingers on the tongue.

The mung bean (Vigna radiata) was likely first domesticated in India around 4,000 years ago, before spreading from South Asia to Southeast Asia, then north to China. Each bean is about one-fifth of an inch long and grows from the plant in thin, hairy pods that develop from yellow (or sometimes purplish) flowers resembling orchids. In Asia, the mung bean — whether boiled, sprouted or milled into flour — is as fundamental and versatile as rice. It’s used in dishes both savoury and sweet, although it’s particularly beloved in traditional desserts such as Indian moong dal halwa, a buttery porridge often spiced with saffron and cardamom, and Korean injeolmi, glutinous rice cakes rolled in crushed nuts.

Pan de monggo (mung bean bread) from the Long Beach.
Pan de monggo (mung bean bread) from the Long Beach, Calif., vegan Filipino pop-up San & Wolves Bakeshop. Photograph courtesy of San & Wolves.
The baker Lauren Tran’s take on bánh da lợn, a chewy rice cake
The baker Lauren Tran’s take on bánh da lợn, a chewy rice cake made with layers of bright green pandan and yellow mung bean batters. Photograph courtesy of Bánh by Lauren.

Although it’s common across the continent, the mung bean has been slow to catch on in the West — particularly in its sweetened form. Part of this is a difference in taste: Asian confections tend to be less sweet and favuor dense, chewy ingredients — adzuki beans, chickpeas, lotus root — that Westerners generally associate with savoury food. Now, though, a new generation of Asian American chefs are creating novel interpretations of traditional mung bean desserts that they ate as children. Thu Pham Buser, 32, a New York City-based food stylist and chef who grew up in Ho Chi Minh City (whose old name, Saigon, remains in popular use), remembers bánh đậu xanh trái cây — thimble-size candies shaped like oranges, mangosteens or cherries, molded from mung bean paste and painted with food colouring — as a fixture of her youth. While riding on the back of her father’s motorbike, she says, “sellers would position themselves at the red lights and try to make eye contact, because they knew that kids just can’t resist.” Buser began making them and posting photos on her Instagram as part of her mission to promote Vietnamese delicacies to a wider Western audience. She plans to serve them at her pop-up Vietnamese dinner series, Ăn Cỗ, this spring.

In Long Beach, Calif., the vegan Filipino pop-up San & Wolves Bakeshop, founded by Kym Estrada, 32, offers pan de monggo, a soft milk bread stuffed with yellow mung bean filling that substitutes cow butter for a homemade coconut oil-based one. Last fall, Rachel Lo, 33, a chef who shares Chinese American recipes on TikTok, posted a recipe for snow skin mooncakes: She updated the Chinese classic, which is usually served in autumn for the Moon Festival and made of white glutinous rice wrapper filled with mung bean paste, for a version with a marbled pastel exterior and pandan-flavoured mung bean filling.

Lauren Tran, 34, a baker who runs the Vietnamese American pop-up Bánh by Lauren in New York, is developing her take on chè bưởi, a clear pomelo rind soup thickened with tapioca starch and topped with a coconut sauce, in which steamed beans are suspended like stars. She also makes a five-tier version of bánh da lợn, a sticky rice cake created by steaming glutinous layers of bright green pandan and yellow mung bean batters. She remembers the cake from her childhood in Seattle, where it was sold in strips on Styrofoam plates at Vietnamese groceries. Eating it was a pleasurable, sticky mess. Tran, however, wraps bite-size portions of the cake in cellophane so that they resemble bonbons. “It’s very nostalgic to me,” Tran says, but “you don’t have to be Vietnamese, or fluent in Vietnamese, to relate to it.”

The Hyperreal Wonders of Glacé Fruit

A time-consuming, glossy confection beloved by 16th-century royalty is making an unlikely return.

Article by Alexa Brazilian

glazed over_1An assortment of glacé citrons, clementines, figs, green cherries and orange slices from Frank and Sal Italian Market and Sahadi’s, both in New York City, and the specialty food company IfiGourmet. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada.

Inside a gilded Rococo room on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris, candied fruits dangled from winterberry tree branches. Hand-sewn to the limbs with waxed twine by the food artist Imogen Kwok and her team, the sugar-confit-dipped pears, clementines and cherries resembled orbs of glass and were clipped off by guests with bonsai scissors for an interactive dessert course. 

That event was for the fashion house Loewe, but candied fruits are a signature for the Sydney-born, London-based Kwok, who trained in the Michelin-starred New York kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Kwok incorporates them frequently in her work: she has arranged candied kumquats in the pattern of fish scales atop salmon fillets for an afternoon tea hosted by Prada and filled 17th-century vessels with heaps of candied clementines and yellow cherries for a Sotheby’s fete. “I positioned a spotlight over the cherries to make them really light up; it was like looking at a jewel,” says Kwok, who holds a master’s degree in art history and was inspired by the Dutch golden age painter Adriaen Coorte’s hyperrealistic renderings of produce. “Candied fruit is so luminous; it has this ethereal quality when the light hits it.”

Kwok isn’t the only one bewitched by the properties of candied fruit these days. “Just like in fashion or design, in food there are aesthetic trends, and they’re always a reaction to what’s come before,” says the New York artist Laila Gohar, who served glistening candied peaches, plums, clementines and green shishito peppers on simple white plates at an Hermès party in Milan in April. “The mid-2000s was very rustic. But now we’re inspired by something that might be found in the court of Marie Antoinette.” Growing up in Cairo, Gohar watched her father candy oranges and grapefruits in the kitchen. The process involves preserving a fruit by replacing its water content with sugar and is laborious and time-consuming. One first cores the fruit if necessary, briefly blanches it to soften the membrane of the skin and then repeatedly heats, cools and reheats it in an increasingly sugary syrup each day for weeks until it appears semitranslucent, while retaining its flavour. 

“From Persia to France, everyone has their version and tradition,” says Gohar and, indeed, candied fruit goes by many names across cultures, from glacé fruit to sweetmeats to fruits confits. The practice dates to the ancient Romans, who preserved the summer’s bounty of dates, pears and grapes for the winter in jars of honey. In 16th-century Elizabethan England, conspicuous displays of sugar, a pricey commodity at the time, became the ultimate boast, and banquet tables gleamed with candied fruits. “That was really one of the first ways people consumed sugar,” says Camilla Wynne, the preserving expert and author of the book “Nature’s Candy” (to be published in 2024), about the methods of preserving fruit. Sucket, as candied fruit was called in the Tudor era — the name is derived from the French succade and the Italian succata — was consumed with special silver forks, she says: “They had two prongs on one end to spear the flesh and a spoon on the other to ladle the syrup.” 

Refrigeration and the global produce trade may have obviated the need to preserve fresh fruit, but the British baker Stroma Sinclair, the former head pastry chef at Spring in London and the current cake maker at Leila’s Shop in the city’s Shoreditch district, says the process makes her more mindful of Europe’s growing seasons and the rhythms of nature. She preserves Pursha limes, pomelo, Tarocco blood oranges and kumquats each winter and uses them to adorn her confections throughout the year. 

The London caterer and creator Marie Cassis, of the @aromecassis Instagram account, which features evocative images of her Old World recipes, returns each spring to her family’s farm in northeast Cairo to candy their small, thin-skinned clementines. “It’s a very long and difficult process but, at the end, you have this beautiful object that looks like stained glass,” she says. Her annual pilgrimage is a tribute to her Greek grandmother, who makes clementine and apricot glyko tou koutaliou, or “spoon sweets”, a homemade Greek dish of fruit — typically sour cherries or citrus — preserved in syrup and served in a spoon with coffee. Cassis recalls her opening jars of shiny globes of citrus that had been candied the spring before in the middle of winter, when fresh fruit was scarce. “She always talks about honouring the fruit and the beauty of keeping it whole,” Cassis says. “That’s what I find so special about the process — the result is something that’s completely transformed yet has also kept its original shape. You work so hard to achieve it, but it makes you feel good.”  

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifteenth edition, Page 80 of T Australia with the headline: “Glazed Over”

How the Chilli Became Hot

Why did the consumption of hot peppers — after centuries of cultivation and global migration — come to confer status and sophistication?

Article by Ligaya Mishan

Chilli_1A still life featuring, from left, orange habanero and poblano chillies, arrayed with Sichuan peppercorns and dark chocolate. Photograph by Patricia Heal.

In 2007, a mysterious cloud, more scent than smoke, bloomed in a small corner of the seedy turned swanky Soho district of London. People started coughing and tearing up. The fire brigade was summoned, buildings evacuated, roads blocked. For three hours, firefighters — equipped with compressed-air tanks and lung-demand valves, to protect them from noxious gases — scoured the neighbourhood for the source of the potential bioterror attack. Finally, they broke into a Thai restaurant and emerged with a nine-pound pot of charred chillies. The chef had been interrupted while making nam prik pao, a jammy, earthy-sweet chilli paste that may be deployed as a condiment or a dip, or spread straight on toast.

Chillies are fruits, borne by plants of the genus Capsicum and the family Solanaceae, popularly known as nightshades and often demonised for their supposed inflammatory effects on the human body. There are thousands of varieties of chillies: They are smoky, musky, grassy, woodsy, dark and brooding, tart and bright, with notes as wide-ranging as chocolate, liquorice, tobacco, raisin, lemon, cherry and blackberry. But such nuances of flavour are sometimes lost in cultures that have no history of cooking with chillies and see them primarily as torture devices — vehicles of fierce, punishing, even mind-melting heat. (Not all chillies are that hot, nor does everyone register such heat in the same way; within the Thai culinary canon, nam prik pao, typically made with spur chillies, is considered strong in flavour but mild.)

Archaeologists have found evidence that chillies were harvested from the wild for cooking about 9,000 years ago in what is now Mexico and by 4100 B.C. had been domesticated for regular use in meals. Yet these peppers, indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and later embraced in Asia and Africa, were long treated as outsiders in North America and much of Europe — what we call the Western world. Although they arrived in Europe and were cultivated there beginning in the late 15th century, little trace of them may be found in cookbooks before the 18th and 19th centuries, when the elite allowed them into their kitchens, as chronicled by the French anthropologist Esther Katz.

For that matter, it’s only in recent years that Americans have begun to come around. Consumption per capita in the United States more than doubled from 1980 to 2020, according to a study published in Agronomy last year, with those who make chillies a regular part of their diet more likely to be nonwhite (a sign of the country’s changing demographics) and younger than 65, and/or to identify as “food explorers”: those who pride themselves on their interest in and knowledge of “top-notch” or “unique, gourmet, new or exotic” ingredients.

This portrait of the archetypal American chilli eater might suggest that peppers, while perhaps coveted by sophisticates or as the objects of cult fascination, have not yet fully entered the mainstream. But in the first year of the pandemic, sales of hot sauce in the United States surged by 24.6 percent, as tracked by Nielsen data. With restaurants closed for indoor dining across much of the country, many Americans had only their own cooking to fall back on. They needed “a shortcut to flavour,” says Jing Gao, 35, of Fly by Jing, an American company whose marquee product is Sichuan chilli crisp — a spicy, crunchy condiment of dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns (berries from a shrub of the Zanthoxylum genus) — and which grew tenfold in size in 2020. 

That April, The New York Times ran an article titled “Your Quarantine Cooking Needs Condiments,” highlighting Fly by Jing. Gao sold out half a year’s worth of inventory practically overnight. For the next four months, while negotiating supply-chain issues, the company maintained a waiting list of more than 30,000 potential customers. In a time of distress and isolation, when meals had become a retread of the old and familiar, that touch of heat was a small salvation: a flicker in the pulse, a smack of the jaw, a call back to life.

Technically, heat is not a flavour but a sensation (likewise the cooling brought on by menthol). A chilli’s ferocity depends on the presence of the chemical compound capsaicin and its associate capsaicinoids, lurking in the flesh and pith. Since 1912, this concentration has been measured according to the Scoville scale, which was originally based on the amount of sugar water required to dilute an extract of chilli before a tester detects not a hint of burn; today, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography. Although conventional wisdom holds that removing the seeds before cooking reduces the heat, the seeds, in fact, contain no capsaicin. Theirs is mere guilt by association, as they may take on a coating of the compound in their proximity to the pith. 

Capsaicin triggers TRPV1 receptors, the same ones that are primed to recognise temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a baseline that may qualify as a brutal summer day but is not quite hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk or literally burn you. (In 2016, a case was reported of a man whose esophagus ruptured after he ate ghost peppers, among the most ferocious of chillies, but doctors determined that this was caused by retching and vomiting in response to the pain brought on by capsaicin, not by the capsaicin itself.) Scientists used to describe this effect as “irritation,” which seems a slightly dismissive word for the trembling sweats caused by too many habaneros (100,000 to 892,700 Scoville Heat Units) or the near-death experience of the Carolina Reaper, known to reach as many as 2.2 million S.H.U.s — more potent than some pepper sprays — and certified by Guinness World Records as the hottest chilli on earth. Since 1990, our sensitivity to such substances has been called, less chidingly, chemesthesis. 

But how can we properly describe an experience that is essentially a trick of the mind, a false cry of fire? It’s only an illusion of heat, and still we weep. After one significantly capsaicin-heavy meal, “I had to lie down because I felt high from it,” the American flavour scientist Arielle Johnson says. (Her book, “Flavorama: The Unbridled Science of Flavor and How to Get It to Work for You,” is due out next year.) The blessing is the aftermath, when a strange euphoria can set in, akin to the flooding of endorphins. Maybe eating chillies is a kind of catharsis, voluntarily putting ourselves through suffering in order to come out the other side, to restore our faith in a happy ending. 

Notably, the more chillies we eat, “the less it hurts,” says Johnson, 35. Our minds stop insisting, “This is pain,” so we can pay more attention to actual taste, noticing, maybe for the first time, all the other flavours chillies bring to a dish, relegating flame to the backdrop.

From the perspective of evolution, capsaicin is a weapon, enabling chillies to thwart predators. The British cultural critic Stuart Walton, writing in “The Devil’s Dinner” (2018), points out that the hotter peppers are less vulnerable to fungus, which likely made them attractive to our primal ancestors as a food that stayed fresh longer. (It helped that chillies turned out to be vitamin rich, as well.) And because birds are unaffected by capsaicin, they could blithely eat chillies and then unknowingly disseminate the seeds, supporting not just the peppers’ survival but their proliferation — and, eventually, their conquest of the world.

For unlike the coveted spices of old like cloves and cinnamon, chillies didn’t require tropical environments to flourish. They weren’t anchored to a place that had to be pillaged and controlled; instead, they grew easily in their new homes, which meant they couldn’t be reserved for the rich or monopolised by traders as a high-priced rarity. So chillies never conferred status; rather, they eluded the capitalist system of value. A food of the people, they were adopted by commoners in Asia and Africa who ate them perhaps simply because they liked them. 

In an added benefit, some cultures viewed chillis’ fervent properties as curative. Traditional Chinese medicine has long advocated ingredients that evoke heat, to help you sweat out and expel dampness — the fog that settles within, obstructing blood flow and leaving you achy and lethargic. And what have we lived through the past two years but a time of dampness, of blurred, soul-depleting days and stasis? Could chillies be the prescription for our age? “What is culture,” Johnson asks, “but a sensory experience you share with people around you?”

Chilli_2
A trio of cayenne chillies with crushed cherries. Photographs by Patricia Heal.

At Chintan Pandya’s fast-casual restaurant, Rowdy Rooster, which opened in New York’s East Village in February, fried chicken is offered at five spice levels, each an escalation on its predecessor. The penultimate, No. 4, is ravaging. Conversation ceases; gulps of Limca, the Indian-made lemon-lime soda, are required. No. 5, in comparison, is more rounded, with deep, earthy flavours that muffle the heat — or so it seems: Give it half an hour and your mouth goes up in flames.

Pandya, 42, only put three spice levels on the menu at first: Rebel (Hot), Rogue (Extra Hot) and Rowdy (Crazy Hot). But the majority of his customers insisted on ordering Rogue, to their regret. “One guy said, ‘It hurts my ego if I have to eat at the lowest level,’ ” Pandya recalls. So he added Rascal (Mild) and Ruffian (Medium), to frame Rebel as a reasonable but still daring option. It’s also the level he chooses for himself: “If I eat a 4 or 5, I find it difficult to taste anything else.” 

The machismo of wanting to eat the hottest food possible — and to breed ever-hotter chillies to sate that desire (the Carolina Reaper entered the market in 2012) without necessarily caring about how they taste — is a fairly recent development, spurred in part by the YouTube phenomenon “Hot Ones,” which premiered in 2015 and earns millions of views per episode. The show is structured as a celebrity interview, but the real mission is to test, torment and humiliate the guest stars by making them eat chicken wings doused with a series of increasingly traumatising hot sauces. You can hear the gleeful cackle in the episode titles: The victim of the day “Has a Tongue Seizure While Eating Spicy Wings,” “Sets His Face on Fire,” “Cries for Her Mom,” “Fears for Her Life.”

Gao credits the belated American passion for chillies to “the effect of globalisation and all the heat in food coming from immigrant cultures.” Chillies landed in Virginia in 1621, courtesy of a British ship from Bermuda and identified only as “red pepper.” Eventually they wound up in some recipes for barbecue, a tradition that emerged from enslaved people. Mexican salsa made its way to supermarket shelves nationwide in the approximate form of Pace Picante sauce, created after the Second World War by David Pace, who, although not of Mexican descent, wanted to replicate the kind of hot sauce he found at taco shops in San Antonio, using locally harvested jalapeños (and even trying to grow them himself), as recounted by the architectural historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George in “Pearl Sets the Pace” (2020). In 1965, in the midst of a countercultural uprising that was questioning dominant narratives and seeking to expand consciousness of other cultures and cuisines, Pace decided Americans were ready to see Picante sauce not as a specialty ethnic product but as simply a condiment. It was a long bet that paid off: Campbell Soup bought Pace in 1995 for more than $1 billion. 

By 1991, salsa was outselling ketchup in the United States, although the mass-produced jars still tended toward the affable and unthreatening. Today, corporations are looking for more febrile investments: McCormick & Company, the world’s industry leader in spice production, headquartered north of Baltimore, bought Frank’s RedHot Louisiana-style sauce (a cayenne-spiked collaboration between a Cincinnati spice merchant and a Cajun pepper farmer from the end of the First World War) in 2017 and Cholula (a hot sauce of arbol and piquín chillies, made in Jalisco, Mexico, from a recipe passed down through generations) in 2020.

But Gao suggests that America learned to tolerate heat thanks to the tempering sweetness of a different hot sauce, this one dating back to 1983: Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha, a concoction of red chillies, vinegar, sugar and garlic that is the colour of a dying sun and sold in a now-iconic green-nozzled bottle. Its maker, David Tran, named his California-based company after a run-down freighter that in 1978 rescued more than 3,000 refugees — twice its passenger capacity, with Tran among them — from Vietnam. Two decades after its quiet, unadvertised launch, Sriracha became a household name, popularised by Asian American chefs, including David Chang in New York and Roy Choi in Los Angeles, the latter of whom squeezed the sauce over his kimchi-topped hot dogs, part of a brash new idiom of Asian cooking that simultaneously celebrated and flaunted tradition.

By 2019, Tran’s brand of Sriracha, despite imitators, commanded nearly 10 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion hot sauce market, and his factory in Irwindale was producing 12,000 bottles an hour. Nevertheless, in 2013, in an echo of the London nam prik pao incident, neighbours complained of noxious fumes. A lawsuit was filed — leading to a brief, partial shutdown — but eventually dropped. Still, the incident revealed that suspicions of chillies linger; the battle has not been wholly won.

There is an irony to the misgivings that greeted chillies in Europe in the late 15th century. Europeans have clamoured for spice — for piquancy, something to enliven the dullness of their food — since at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Arab traders bringing cinnamon from some unknown land, collected (or so the Greeks were told) from the nests of giant birds. The age of exploration, the first global corporations: Spice was the treasure on the far side of the map, a goad to invasion and domination. Christopher Columbus was hunting spice when he crossed
the Atlantic in 1492 and observed chillies in the Caribbean (to him, the West Indies). Eliding botanical differences, he determined that the chilli was not only a type of pepper but a worthy rival to black pepper (the unrelated Piper nigrum), “more abundant,” he wrote in his diary, adding, perhaps wishfully, “and more valuable.” 

“Chilli” is a borrowing from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, but as the French sociologist Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in “A History of Food” (1987), the name that first took hold in Europe, as a result of Columbus’s attempt at marketing, was “pimiento,” a stronger “and therefore grammatically masculine” version of “pimienta,” black pepper. It was reportedly the Dutch who, after rising to dominate the black pepper trade in the 17th century, promoted the Nahuatl “chilli,” wanting to protect the name and singularity of their product.

Seeds brought back from the Americas were soon bearing fruit in the monastery gardens of Spain. Still, while Europeans may have been intrigued by chillies, some found their potency vexing. The English herbalist John Gerard, author of the magisterial “The Herbal, or General History of Plants” (1597), detected in the pepper a “malicious quality, whereby it is an enemy to the liver and other of the entrails.” Some cooks tried to tame the peppers through a complex method of drying, chopping and mixing them with flour and yeast, then baking and finally crushing them, all in hopes of diminishing the heat, which was seen as an “inconvenience” when eating, in the words of the Italian friar Fra Gregorio da Reggio, the reigning chilli expert of the region, as cited by the Hungarian historian Ottó Gecser in “Some Like It Hot: Piquant Taste Between the Middle Ages and Modern Times” (2019).

One notable exception to chilli resistance was Hungary, where the peppers first appeared in the 16th century — gifts from Spain, according to written records, although some historians propose a secondary source: the invading Ottomans, who themselves are believed to have adopted chillies from India, introduced there by Portuguese explorers whose specimens were descendants of those grown in Spain from the first seeds taken from the Americas. In the 18th century, Hungarians created their own blend of chillies, named after the paprika peppers used to make it. The seasoning gained unexpected notoriety this past spring, when Dracula Daily, a Substack newsletter, began posting piecemeal (for the second year in a row) the entirety of the 1897 novel “Dracula,” by Bram Stoker. The book opens with Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, en route to Transylvania — “leaving the West and entering the East,” he confides to his journal — to meet a new client, Count Dracula. After eating a paprika-suffused stew, he suffers a restless night of “queer dreams”: “It may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty.” 

His turmoil confused some contemporary readers: Paprika as we know it today is harmless and sweet. The hashtag #paprika started trending on Tumblr as some mocked the hapless Englishman for quailing before such innocuous spice. But others argued that when the novel was written, there was no sweet paprika; only in the early 20th century did plant breeders in Hungary start taming and denaturing chillies through hybridisation. In fact, milling techniques introduced in 1859 that expedited removal of the hotter parts of the chilli had made sweeter blends widely available by the time innocent Harker would have encountered it. (More feverish versions persist, like one made with heirloom Szegedi 178 chillies from Hungary’s oldest paprika-producing region, sold in the United States by the spice company Burlap & Barrel.)

“Dracula” is fiction, but history intrudes. A plant that for thousands of years fed one people, in one part of the world, is now claimed by many, and not despite its heat but because of it. If the chilli’s fire was once disdained as immoderation and effrontery, violating the propriety of the table, now that response is revealed for what it always was: You’re not curious, brave or tough enough. You just can’t handle the heat.

Why Is Chamomile Suddenly Everywhere?

The humble flower has come to captivate the worlds of fashion and food.

Article by Hetty Lui McKinnon

CHAMOMILEBrooklyn-based Joshua Werber is just one of the floral artists looking at once-humble chamomile in a new light. Here, he used three different cultivars of the flower to add layers of texture to a dramatic free- flowing cascade inspired, he says, by the work of the early 20th-century British florist Constance Spry. Photography by Kyoko Hamada.

In ancient Egypt, chamomile was considered a gift from the divine. Offerings of the flower were made to the powerful sun god Ra as a form of worship; King Tut’s sandals were decorated with the bloom’s likeness; and the plant’s oil was used to anoint the dead, including the body of Ramses II. The ancient Greeks and Romans, too, were enamoured with chamomile, named — for its fruity aroma — from the Greek chamai, meaning “on the ground,” and melon (“apple”).

Practitioners in each culture considered chamomile medicinal, using it crushed and in teas to treat skin conditions and other ailments. A few millenniums later, the herb is considered a natural sedative — possibly due to a compound called apigenin — and has been studied as a remedy for generalised anxiety disorder. 

Perhaps it’s that promise of calm that explains why chamomile is suddenly ubiquitous. The flower is showing up on wedding cakes, in cocktails and mocktails and at restaurants in dishes both savoury and sweet. Its image has appeared in runway prints, and its leaves and flowers are being used to make natural dyes. The flower is even trending on TikTok: In August last year, Vice World News reported that Nepalese chamomile farmers — the flower, which is hardy and adaptable, thrives in both warm and cool climates around the globe — are apoplectic about social media creators trampling their crops in an effort to find dreamy, bucolic backgrounds for their videos. 

Part of the appeal of chamomile — the name actually refers to many different species within the Asteraceae family — is its modesty. With its tiny, daisylike blooms, feathery foliage and untamed stems, it has an old-fashioned back-to-the-land look that, according to the New York-based floral designer Emily Thompson, answers our collective longing for simpler times. “Chamomile has a charming, nostalgic identity,” says Thompson, who likes to pair it with daisies or zinnias.

Chefs are attracted to the flower, as well, for its mild, honeyed perfume and gentle, herbaceous flavour, which is why it’s long been used in teas and tisanes. Rae Kramer, the executive chef at the New York restaurant-cum-flower shop Il Fiorista, serves a burger with chamomile aioli and uses chamomile mustard as a condiment for speck. She even adds the flowers — along with lemon and other herbs — to her turkey brine, noting that the bud’s subtle sweetness pairs particularly well with poultry. The pastry chef Natasha Li Pickowicz says that chamomile has a place in home kitchens, too. She grows the plant in her Brooklyn garden and uses it to marinate pork shoulder and stuff whole fish before roasting. The petals are “so small,” she points out, “that you’re mostly tasting the rich yellow pollen, which is dusty and thick and soft.” 

The Brooklyn-based baker Aimee France uses chamomile to flavour batters, buttercreams and jams but, for her, the flower’s appeal is also aesthetic. France has decorated her wedding cakes with both fresh and dried versions of the plant, which she forages from her home state of New Hampshire. She’s particularly fond of its long, twisty stems, which, she says, “add a delicate, whimsical look” that feels especially modern in contrast to stiff fondant or sugar flowers.

But the flower, says Liz Spencer, the owner of the Dogwood Dyer in Southern California, isn’t just for eating (or drinking). Spencer, who has tinted textiles for eco-focused brands like Jungmaven and Outerknown, grows an organic dyer’s variety of the plant, which she uses to make botanical prints on fabric. The leaves, petals and pollen, she says, impart hues ranging from “straw to vibrant yellow, and almost orange to green.” A bonus: The process smells lovely, making it a plant for all eras — and, indeed, all the senses, too.