A Rarefied Treat That Offers a Delectable Education in Australia’s Ecology

Stirred into tea or spread on toast, T Australia puts some of the rarest and most delicious varieties of local honey to the test.

Article by Fred Siggins

Fresh honeycombsFresh honeycombs. Image courtesy Adobe Stock.

Australia is home to a dizzying array of honey styles, from the cheap supermarket stuff of questionable origin to brands with eye-watering price tags and a catalogue of health claims. We are lucky to have several well-protected unique species of bees and the flowers they love, making our corner of the world one of the great honey havens. Here, T Australia puts some of the rarest and most delicious varieties to the test.

Island Beehive, Spring Flora Honey

Ligurian honey bees, which originated in the Italian region from which they take their name, are regarded as one of the best honey-producing species thanks to their industry, fertility and gentleness. But as they were introduced to new environments, they bred with different bee species, exposing them to disease. Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, is home to what is thought to be the last purebred and disease-free colony of Ligurian bees. The most traditional-tasting honey on this list, Island Beehive’s Spring Flora has a light, pleasant sweetness and a floral bouquet, making it perfect for everyday use. $4.90/80g, island-beehive.com.au

Nature’s Gold, Native Bee Honey

Australia’s native stingless bees produce some of the world’s rarest honey, generating about  one kilogram per hive per year, and they thrive only in the country’s tropical north. This honey is like no other, with a bright and citrusy-sour  smell that’s somewhere between kiwifruit and grapefruit, and an underlying red gum earthiness. Light and balanced, it’s the least sweet of this bunch and would be fantastic in a cup of Earl Grey or on crepes with lemon and sugar. $25/50g, naturesgold.com.au

Spilt honey. Image courtesy Adobe Stock.

Heritage Honey, Fennel

Tasmania might be best known for its lavender honey, but they do things differently at Heritage Honey in Hobart, where they make a variety of flower-specific products that allow each plant’s unique character to shine. Options include a funky leatherwood and milder stringybark, along with others made from the nectars of native plants. Arguably the most interesting is the fennel honey, which has a richly aromatic and herbal palate of toasted fennel seed that will turn a cup of tea into a serious flavour experience. And at just $0.024 per gram, it’s an absolute bargain. $6/250g, heritagehoney.com.au

Biosota, Exquisitely Unique Manuka Honey MGO 2000+

Sellers of manuka honey in Australia and New Zealand have long touted its healing abilities. Biosota’s MGO 2000+ is certified organic and has the highest level of MGO (methylglyoxal) — a compound shown to have antibacterial properties — that we could find. The company claims the product can help boost the immune system and even aid in conception. As this reviewer is not currently trying to get pregnant, I’ll leave that up for debate, but the honey itself is incredibly dark and rich, with a jamlike texture. The intensity of flavour — a rich fruitiness balanced by a lovely pithy bitterness — means that a thin scrape on toast is more than enough. $129/70g, biosota.com.au

Honey For Life, Super Active Jarrah Honey

Honey For Life measures the purported healing properties of its products not in MGO but in  TA (Total Activity), which is apparently “the measurement of the honey’s antimicrobial quality”. Super Active Jarrah Honey comes from the jarrah forest in Karragullen, just outside Perth, and has a TA rating of 50+ (the highest of all the company’s products). It gives off a deep eucalyptus smell, like the bush in autumn, and has a wonderful lingering woody sweetness that’s as Australian as a magpie’s warble. $25/260g, honeyforlife.com.au

On Strawberry Fanta and Other Treats Imbued With Divine Status

Whether because of religion, fad dieting or Instagram, humans have long made food offerings in the hope of connecting with the sublime.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

food shrineA trio of eggplants bejewelled with crystals and grey pearl pins. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.

Here is a bottle of strawberry Fanta, candy red and gleaming like a liquefied Ferrari. Pop the cap and the fizz is brief, bestowing neither blessing nor enlightenment. Yet in Thailand, this soft drink — descended from a concoction of apple scraps and whey, improvised in Nazi Germany during the Second World War as a substitute for Coca-Cola — is one of the most popular offerings to make to the spirits who walk our world, only occasionally glimpsed by human eyes. Bring a bottle, unsipped, to a little spirit house, any of the countless across the country perched on sidewalks and outside homes, beauty salons and McDonald’s alike, and leave a straw poking out. The spirits will come, and maybe they will be pleased and protect you.

Note that there is no difference, ingredients-wise, between the Fanta in the fridge at the 7-Eleven and the Fanta of the spirits. And yet this soft drink, this corporate, engineered product that brings in more than a billion dollars in sales each year, has been transformed. It is no longer something merely to be consumed; it has brokered an encounter with the beyond.

This shift from the profane to the sacred is at once astounding and utterly ordinary. Throughout history we have turned repeatedly to food as perhaps our most favoured form of communicating with the sublime. Four thousand years ago, the Sumerians baked date-syrup cakes for the goddess Inanna; the early settlers of Ireland buried pots of butter in bogs, possibly to placate supernatural forces, in the fifth century B.C. In Brazil, acarajés, black-eyed pea fritters split and stuffed with shrimp, are traditionally sold by followers of Iansã, the orisha (deity) of war, winds and lightning, and many vendors to this day set aside nine fritters for her on their platters, as recounted by the Brazilian religious studies scholar Patrícia Rodrigues de Souza in “Candomblé’s Eating Myths: Religion Stated in Food Language” (2018).

Sometimes, consecrated food is eaten by those who’ve offered it, as in India, where batashas, featherweight crisps of molten sugar dropped in a pan, are first presented to the Hindu gods and then “consumed by the worshiper to bridge the gap between mortality and divinity,” the Bengali American food historian Chitrita Banerji writes in “The Hour of the Goddess” (2001) — adding that, in her childhood memory, even the most familiar of foods “somehow became extra delicious” once sanctified. Other times, it is enough simply to invoke the celestial before a meal, as with the saying of grace, which whether phrased as an imperative (“Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts”) or a milder, less demanding thank-you lends the food a spiritual aura by acknowledging that its origins, like the origins of all things, lie in a higher power, without whose sanction we could not eat.

In 1979, a group of classical scholars and ethnobotanists writing in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs proposed a new word, “entheogen,” meaning that which brings the presence of God within us. The term was specific to the kind of mind-disrupting, naturally occurring pharmaceuticals used in a religious context to yield cosmic visions and flay the soul, such as the crimson-capped fly agaric mushrooms consumed by shamans along the Arctic Circle and ayahuasca, a pulpy Amazonian brew of vines and bark that in recent years has drawn seekers from Brooklyn to Silicon Valley into a liturgy of vomit and tears. Science tells us that these visions have an earthly cause: compounds that block or trigger certain neurotransmitters, sending our brains into overdrive.

How to explain, then, the exaltation that comes with ingesting substances that have no such chemical profile — that are endowed only with our perception of the divine? From around the 18th to the early 20th centuries, Catholic pilgrims in Europe would eat small devotional images of the Madonna, Jesus or a saint printed in sheets like postage stamps, long preceding avant-garde chefs and their menus of edible ink. Since at least the 14th century, Buddhists in Tibet have observed a practice of swallowing tiny scrolls containing mantras that might be written in a paste of turmeric, frankincense or camphor, according to Frances Garrett, a Buddhist studies scholar in Canada. In Tanzania, as recorded by the German social anthropologist Hanna Nieber, healers inscribe verses from the Quran in saffron-hued ink on a plate, then rinse it and give the water, now rich with the holy word, to their patients as medicine.

food shrine
Lamb bones atop a plastic grocery bag and a vintage brass platter filled with sand, next to a stone vessel with barley and a twisted candle. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.
food shrine
To accompany this article, T created deconstructed shrines containing gustatory (and other) offerings such as, clockwise from top, a strawberry soft drink, a candle, a red silk scarf, a crystal bowl, oranges and marigolds. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.

These are not marginal rituals. When, at weekly Mass, many of the world’s more than 1.3 billion Catholics, about a sixth of the global population, eat a wafer of bread that has become the body of Christ — not in symbol but physical fact, through the mystery of transubstantiation — they are literally bringing God within. (The Aztecs who came to power in 14th-century Mesoamerica consumed their deities, too, shaped out of a dough of maize, amaranth and black maguey syrup, scandalising friars newly arrived from Spain in the early 16th century, who saw this as a subverted sacrament.) So urgent is the Eucharist to Catholics that in 2018, when Venezuela was in economic free fall and suffering severe food shortages, neighbouring Colombia donated to the predominantly Catholic country a quarter-million communion wafers so that people could properly celebrate Easter.

The British religious studies scholar Graham Harvey has gone so far as to suggest that religion “ought to be defined not as believing but as eating.” Food has always been central to the way we articulate our sense of the cosmic order and, through it, our identities as individuals and peoples. We eat this, not that; we share a meal with you but not them; we feed on God or let God feed on us. Food is a basic necessity, profane in function, serving to sustain our instinctual, animal selves. It only becomes sacred when we believe those selves are worth sustaining.

A quartet of cucumbers, bejewelled with pins, in and around a vintage ceramic goblet. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.
food shrine
A bowl of maize atop a linen napkin and a vintage twig nest, next to a sage green Loewe candle. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.

What do you feed a god? A bull, thought the ancient Greeks, its horns gilded and its neck draped in wreaths, signalling its glorified status. They led it gently to the altar and coaxed it to bow its head, as a sign of consent, before the slaughter. Then they butchered it, swaddled the great thighbones in fat and burned them, so the gods could feast on the smoke, the immaterial and thus everlasting part of the animal. It was the humans who took succour from the flesh — who, as the French classicist and anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant has written, ate the part that had been merely cooked, “softened and weakened to enable the puny forces of the human body to assimilate it.” This meal, almost the only occasion on which the Greeks would eat meat, was at once a moment of connection between the gods, in their timelessness, and humans, defenceless before death, and a reminder of all that divided them.

To offer an animal to the gods was to offer life itself, and a life approximate in size and power to one’s own. Some peoples took this a step further, like the Aztecs, who smeared the mouths of their stone idols with the blood of humans, many of them enemies captured at war, but also figures chosen from their community who are believed to have accepted the fate as an honour. The victims were relieved of their still-beating hearts with obsidian knives at a rate, historians estimate, of thousands (maybe tens of thousands) a year. Those left among the living occasionally offered their own blood in tribute, drawn with thorns plunged into the ears or tongue.

But spilling blood has not always been a prerequisite for worship. To the Nuer, cattle farmers for centuries in what is today South Sudan and Ethiopia, an ox was a suitable gift for the gods, but so, too, the small prickly fruit known as Cucumis prophetarum, or globe cucumber, green striped when young and ripening to a sunny yellow. The fruit was blessed, then “slain by the spear,” as the British social anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard documents in “Nuer Religion” (1956): cut in two, with one half (the bad part) discarded and the other half pulped and rubbed over the worshipers’ skin before being stashed in the thatched roof of a byre, or hut. This was no lesser a sacrifice, for the cucumber was understood to be the ox, to become it within the context of the rite.

The cucumber stands in for the ox, which stands in for the human: a life for a life for a life. “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls,” the Inuit elder Ivaluardjuk told the Danish Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen, as cited in Rasmussen’s “Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos” (1929). The earliest societies of hunter-gatherers had no known tradition of ritual slaughter; even what was considered the necessary killing of animals for food was “not viewed as a desirable or laudable act but as an encroachment into a nonhuman realm, forced upon man by the struggle for sustenance,” the German ethnologist Adolf Ellegard Jensen has written. Instead, the hunters of old downplayed the deaths of their prey and even attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility, blaming an errant arrow, say, or the wrath of the sun.

Only with the emergence of herding and farming communities — when we stopped living alongside nature and started imposing our will on it — did ritual killing become the anchor of many religious ceremonies. Scholars believe that the ancient Greeks never sacrificed wild animals, only domesticated ones, often reared expressly for this destiny, befitting the artifice of the ritual as a staged realisation of the violence that underlies our interactions with the world. The Maori scholar Te Pakaka Tawhai once wrote that the purpose of religious activity in his culture was “to seek to enter the domain of the superbeing and do violence with impunity.” There is violence in hunting animals but arguably also in uprooting plants, for in both cases we turn other living things into objects for our use, as if they were subordinate to and existed only for us.

In “Food, Sex & Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life” (2013), Harvey argues, “It is possible that religion began as a kind of interspecies etiquette — especially when members of one species needed to eat members of another.” No wonder, then, that in Genesis the story of humanity’s fall from grace is framed around an act of eating, sinking teeth into the fruits of the earth.

food shrine
Water and wine in glass vessels atop a brass bowl and crochet-trimmed handkerchief, next to a coriander-scented Loewe candle. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas.

Today, the majority of us have been liberated from hunger. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, although it’s not distributed equally and hundreds of millions of people cannot always count on the next meal. With privilege has come distance from the origins of our food and the labour required to harvest it. In industrialised countries, some encounter food only at the supermarket: meat trapped in plastic, vegetables scrubbed of dirt. There is little suggestion of violence, of scrabbling for survival. Death stays in the wings. The Canadian classicist Margaret Visser writes in “The Rituals of Dinner” (1991), “Sacrifice, because it dwells on the death, is a concept often shocking to the secular modern Western mind — to people who calmly organise daily hecatombs of beasts, and who are among the most death-dealing carnivores the world has ever seen.” For our ancestors, to perform a sacrifice was to come face to face with death, but also to cheat it, to make a pact with God: Take this life in my stead.

Yet whoever said that God wanted a life in the first place? Omnipotent and omnipresent, God already possesses everything — depending on your cosmic perspective, God is everything. “God gets the life,” Evans-Pritchard writes. “But what advantage is that to him? All the beasts of the field are his and the cattle on a thousand hills. So he gets nothing.” This notion of a hungry god: Maybe it’s just our own sense of guilt over what we have to do to survive, projected onto the only kind of superior being we can imagine, one who shares our likeness or at least our clamorous wants. For if we resemble God, that’s another hedge against death, a promise that the divine, with its promise of eternal life, already dwells within us.

It is a banality of the modern day to say, “Nothing is sacred.” In fact, the opposite is true: Secularism has not banished the sacred but made it infinite. Unmoored from religion, we flail for meaning and seek new forms of exaltation. We turn ordinary objects into holy grails, making pilgrimages to restaurants ranked among the world’s best (and helmed by chefs not so jokingly compared to gods) or stand in line for hours for breakfast burritos, barbecue or matcha crème brûlée doughnuts, then post pictures on Instagram as proof of our devotions. Marketing strategists use the term “sacred consumption” to describe how customers can be taught to revere products and brands as totems, and to imagine that buying things is the way to satisfy a longing for ritual and community.

If this seems indulgent, that’s a moral judgment. Indeed, what we eat reveals what we value. Some of us refuse meat, eggs or even honey, restrict ourselves to ingredients available within a prescribed radius or reject processed foods, in the name of stopping the exploitation and abuse of animals, protecting the environment, fighting capitalism or just sticking it to the man. Others see the body as a temple and allow only the purest of foods to breach its barrier, whether organic, macrobiotic, raw or gluten free (even without an allergy), in pursuit of quelled anxiety, an immaculate complexion or eternal youth — another way of cheating death.

Why does food still hold so much symbolic power? Consider that it was once a form of capital and exchanged as currency. Over 5,000 years ago, Mesopotamian workers were paid in beer; more than half the cash income of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907) in China came from the production and sale of salt. Today, incarcerated people in the United States barter packages of ramen noodles. The ancient sacrifice of an ox was more than simply spilled blood: A farmer’s oxen were a measure and generator of wealth. A 2019 paper by the Canadian archaeologist Amy Bogaard, the Italian economic historian Mattia Fochesato and the American economist Samuel Bowles presents evidence that the use of oxen as specialised traction animals was the beginning of economic inequality, enabling some farmers to cultivate more land than others.

So there was something wanton, even brazenly wasteful in sacrificing an ox to the gods — a loss of not only the animal’s life but the potentiality it represented for human success and survival. The French philosopher Georges Bataille notes in “The Accursed Share” (1949) that in a world given over to “profitable activity,” in which objects and beings are recognised only for their use value, food that is given to the gods is “consumed profitlessly,” an act that effectively short-circuits the system. If, as the French social scientist Émile Durkheim has written, “work is the pre-eminent form of profane activity” because “it has no apparent aim other than meeting the secular needs of life,” offering food to the gods is wholly unproductive. It is almost a renunciation, as if we could cede the part of ourselves that relies on fleshly sustenance so that only the essential remains.

When we treat food as sacred, whether in the ways of old or in accordance with a personal code, we are still, in a sense, being wanton. We are saying no to a tidy vision of life in which we are ever progressing toward a material goal, ever accumulating more goods, ever consuming. We are not saving for tomorrow, or thinking about tomorrow at all. We feast on the present, on not what is possible but what is. We eat as if this were our only meal.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 24 of T Australia with the headline: “The Sacrifice”

Round-up: Gourmet Icy Poles

The nostalgic zing of a classic icy pole on a scorching day is hard to top, but a new wave of gourmet brands is elevating the experience with all-natural ingredients, Instagrammable shapes and even alcohol infusions.

Article by Besha Rodell

Australian icy polesT Australia’s food critic tests five frozen treats that have afternoon refreshment licked. Illustration by Col McElwaine.

There are many reasons you might want an alternative to the old-fashioned icy pole. Perhaps you’re looking for something a little more natural for your kids. Maybe your tastes have evolved and you want some real fruit in the mix. Or perhaps you have a big event planned — a signature upscale icy pole could be just the thing, especially if it’s boozy.

I’ve taste-tested some of Australia’s best gourmet iterations to help you find the brain-freezing delicacy that’s right for you.

PURE POPS

Made by best friends, Pure Pops have been going strong since 2011 when the creators, Alice Storey and Georgi Larby, took a freezer load to Bondi Farmers Market to test their theory that the beaches of Australia needed a freshly made, slightly more sophisticated take on the icy pole. Now you can find the pops in small grocery shops around Australia (many IGAs and Coles Local stores carry them) and at David Jones, plus they can be ordered for special events. They come in ultra-refreshing flavours, like Passion Fruit Quench and Watermelon Berry Mint, and they’re still made by hand on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

FLYIN’ FOX

I stumbled upon Flyin’ Fox in the freezer section of my local organic food mart, and I’m so glad I did. This range of natural icy poles from Murwillumbah in New South Wales is gluten free, has both low- and no-added sugar options, and uses marine-safe, compostable packaging. But the thing that impressed me most was the flavour. The watermelon version, in particular, tastes exactly like the sweet, cold fruit yet still captures the magic of eating a frozen treat on a hot day (in other words, it doesn’t feel like you’re eating an iced fruit salad).

JUICIES

Juicies come from New Zealand and are mostly sold at schools (made with 99.9 per cent fruit juice, they’re easier to swallow for parents and educators than the sugary concoctions found at the local milk bar). The Tropical flavour is now also available at Woolworths, offering an alternative to mass-produced brands. But of all the pops I taste-tested, these were the most obviously child-friendly — their main draw is that they’re a natural option for kids, not an adult version of a childhood snack.

POPS BY LAUNCH

I couldn’t resist including at least one boozy icy pole in the mix, and there are plenty to choose from these days. Pops by Launch is one of my favourites, not just for the fun flavours, including Gin & Tonic, Mojito and Pina Colada (which doesn’t taste even a little bit like sunscreen), but also for the gorgeous packaging that will suit the aesthetic of just about any pool party or hens’ event — and at only 0.4 standard drinks per pop, they’re a reasonably responsible way to day drink. Pops by Launch are available at a few retailers, but the easiest way to get your hands on them is to order directly from the website.

POPSTIC

The Melbourne-based company Popstic also makes alcohol-infused pops (as well as a dizzying range of ice cream creations), but what won me over is the adorably shaped sorbet icy poles. The Raspberry Sorbet pop is (somewhat incongruously) shaped like a pineapple and is just slightly creamier and more tart than the classic Peters Raspberry Icy Pole. And, OK, if you must (you really must!), go ahead and try the Mandarin Cumquat Gin Icy Pole, made with Four Pillars gin and shaped like a toucan.

Illustration by Col McElwaine

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 34 of T Australia with the headline:
“Pole Position”
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The Thrilling Dare of Scorched Rice

When browned on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, the grain is transformed into a complex delicacy, one prized by food cultures around the world.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

An abstracted view of a Koshihikari rice plant. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.

It takes nerves to scorch rice, to get a proper crust at the bottom of the pot, that layer of grains cooked past their time, bronzed and crisped but stopped just shy of burning; to go almost too far. You can’t see what’s happening. All that’s visible if you lift the lid is the soft, yielding rice on top, fluffy and preening. But don’t lift the lid, and don’t stir.

Maybe you tuck a towel around the rim for a tighter seal to catch drips of condensation; maybe you flick the flame up high, lean in to hear the last rustle of water boiling off, then shut down the burner and let the pot be, sitting there ticking in the fading heat. You have to rely on your sense of smell to recognise when the gorgeous scent of roasting is near its peak — when it hits that note of popcorn just bursting to life, kernels turning themselves inside out, or of hot chestnuts from street carts in winter, tossed in woks with tiny black stones and shucked of their sleeves — to save it before it ends in bitterness. Your reward: rice’s dark side, its alter ego, grains gone hard and sealed together, chewy and crunchy and sublime.

Almost everywhere in the world where rice is eaten, as a staple and an inheritance, people have names for this prized crust, among them xoon, tahdig, com cháy, socarrat, pegao, nurungji, hikakeh, graten, kanzo, guoba, concón, cocolón, okoge, raspa, kerak nasi, bun bun, tutong, dukot, cucayo and bay kdaing. Some of these names are derived from, variously, words for the location of the rice (in Farsi, “tahdig” is literally “the bottom of the pot,” and in parts of Africa, English has been co-opted into the terms “bottom pot”and “underpot”), the tenacity with which the rice clings to the vessel (“dukot” comes from a Cebuano verb meaning “to stick around too long”) so it must be taken by force (the Cuban “raspa” is from the Spanish “raspar,” “to scrape”) and the act or state of burning (“socarrat” is believed to have roots in the Basque sukarra, or “fever”; “com cháy” is commonly translated from the Vietnamese as “burned rice”).

The language of burning is poetic license, or should be: No one wants to eat rice that’s actually been burned. Andrea Nguyen, 52, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based chef and writer whose most recent cookbook is “Vietnamese Food Any Day” (2019), notes the distinction in Vietnamese between com cháy, which is literally “rice on fire” — rice in the process of burning, not yet having succumbed to the flames — and com khê, rice wholly burned, giving off an acrid whiff of ash, beyond edibility.

Traditionally in Vietnam, people would grow their own rice and thresh it, some boiling it in a clay or metal pot over a fire of leftover rice straw. “Our pots were thin and our fire was uncontrollable,” she says. Under such conditions, it was difficult to cook rice evenly, however attentive and skilled the chef. The crust that formed at the bottom wasn’t a delicacy or an aspiration; it was a mistake, one that people had to live with, especially if they couldn’t afford to let any food go to waste.

So while com cháy may now be beloved, it’s also a reminder of how easily rice, and even a whole meal, can come to ruin, and how much effort, historically, it has taken to placate our hunger — to keep ourselves alive. “Once it was this almost inferior thing, second-class rice,” Nguyen says; you had to rake it out of the bottom of the pot (“more like pry it out”). It was a food whose place on the table spoke to limited resources, like French bouillabaisse, a stew that fishermen once made of scraps they couldn’t sell at market, and coq au vin, a recipe originally devised not to showcase a plump, juicy hen but to soften up an old, sinewy rooster (as well as to use up lesser wine, not worthy of being drunk).

Both dishes now appear on fine-dining menus. American barbecue has humble roots, too, as a means of handling cheap, tough meats, smoking them for hours, then grilling them until they capitulated, grew trembly and shredded to the touch.

A still life inspired by Puerto Rican pegao, the scorched grains that are offered as a treat (often to the man of the house) atop regular rice. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.
A Korean dolsot (“stone pot”) used to make nurungji (“scorched rice”), seen here alongside cooked long-grain white rice. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.

But automated electric rice cookers have eliminated the risk of burning and made it possible to cook rice practically without thinking. (When the first such machine was under development at Toshiba in Japan in the 1950s, Japanese women told traveling salesmen that they viewed cooking rice as a harder chore than washing clothes, since they had to wake up at dawn every morning and spend much of the day monitoring the kamado, a traditional stove fueled by wood or charcoal; as the London-based Japanese studies scholar Helen Macnaughtan has written, some of the company’s executives — in keeping with mores of the time — reportedly didn’t entirely approve of making a machine to save all that time and labor, believing “that a woman who wanted to sleep rather than cook rice was a failure as a wife.”)

With today’s rice cookers, you fill water to a preset line, instead of dipping in a finger and measuring to the first knuckle, and then you can forget about it, leaving it to quietly steam in a corner. Most cookers automatically include the necessary rest time, when the heat shuts off and the rice just sits, untouched, in that last bit of warmth, the moisture continuing to absorb and settle, until every grain emerges identically polished and swollen: beautifully, eerily perfect.

What you lose is the contrast, the shock of that crunchy pot bottom against the soft, impeccable grains above, and the hit of bittersweet that comes from browning. In a number of Asian cultures, bitterness is seen as essential to the balance of life, to teach both perseverance and an appreciation for sweetness. Rice is usually reassuringly bland, the gentle backdrop that allows for the intensity of other foods, but scorched rice has a darker, more complicated character, with kinship to the thick, malty crust of a loaf of bread. (Both are a result of the dramatic transformation that happens when amino acids and sugars meet at high heat, known as the Maillard reaction.)

To get that texture and flavour, Vietnamese cooks crisp the rice after the fact, scooping it from the rice cooker and tamping it down into a disk in a skillet. Some rice cookers even offer a scorch setting, although it’s not infallible and demands a certain amount of tinkering with the controls to achieve enough gilding.“Nowadays, we get pots of perfect rice,” Nguyen says. “We miss that burned rice.”

The origins of rice cultivation are uncertain. West African farmers living in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River in what is today Mali turned one species, Oryza glaberrima, into a domesticated crop more than 3,000 years ago. This was the rice carried to the New World by enslaved peoples and planted in the American South before the arrival in the late 17th century of Oryza sativa, a fast-growing, high-yield species from Asia, which now dominates the globe.

Of the history of Oryza sativa, researchers have found charred grains on the Upper Gangetic Plain in northern India that date back to at least 6400 B.C.; rice phytoliths, microscopic silica structures from the original plant, in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in southeastern China, from around 8000 B.C.; and rice husks in the peaty soil of the Paleolithic site Soro-ri in South Korea, whose age has been radiocarbon-dated at around 12,500 years, although some have questioned whether the rice was grown there or transported from southern regions.

A trio of Koshihikari rice plants. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.

By the 12th century B.C., Oryza sativa had come to Mesopotamia, and from there it spread through the Fertile Crescent and what would become Persian and Arabian lands. The Arabs in turn brought it to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century A.D., and so the Spanish “arroz,” a cousin of the English “rice,” is a borrowing from the Arabic “al-ruzz”— and the most famous of Spain’s rice dishes, saffron-scented paella from Valencia on the Mediterranean Sea, has roots in the ancient Persian polo, the fragrant golden rice that became a favoured meal of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., who lingered for months in Persepolis after conquering the Persian Empire, luxuriating in saffron baths and drinking saffron tea, and afterward made sure to take Persian cooks with him on his future campaigns.

From that golden rice comes the crust called tahdig, which, in Persian cuisine, is an entire genre. Potatoes cut thin, flaky lavash, leaves of lettuce, tart quince or a whole fish: Any of these might be laid at the bottom of the pot, under the rice, to crisp. But rice tahdig is the jewel, according to Naz Deravian, 49, an Iranian-born actress based in Los Angeles and the author of “Bottom of the Pot” (2018).

Her advice: First, parboil the rice in well-salted water and drain it; prime the bottom of the emptied pot with oil and butter; pat down a layer of rice, maybe mixed with egg yolk and yogurt if you want tahchin, which can be softer than tahdig; then return the rest of the rice to the pot and let it steam.

“Tahdig is moody,” she says. “You have to know your pot and your heat source.” When she was growing up and her family had guests over, “there was always this nervous energy of how the rice would turn out.” Part of the drama is the fabled flip: You put a platter on top of the pot and invert in one swift move. “I tighten up my abs,” she says. As the rice falls, “you hear an audible swoosh,” and then comes the reveal — an immaculate dome topped with a broad yellow sun, or wreckage. But no matter. If some of it sticks to the pot, it’s acceptable to serve the tahdig on the side, broken up into pieces, for everyone to fight over. Or, as is the prerogative of the cook, you can just hoard it for yourself. Deravian remembers her mother standing at the stove, snacking on the stubborn scraps still left in the pot: “The crackliest, oiliest, tastiest bits.”

In West African dishes like thieboudienne in Senegal, a one-pot glory of rice, fish and vegetables, and party jollof rice in Nigeria, sunset red from tomatoes and red bell peppers, stung by habaneros and simmered in caldrons to feed a crowd, the underpot gains extra flavor from the presence of other ingredients cooked with the grains — palm oil, earthy and lush; fermented seeds, with their thrilling funk; tomatoes breaking down, their juices jammy and thick; onions browned so long they faint in their own sugars; the memory of brine in smoked fish.

“Anyone whose taste buds are alive knows that the bottom of the pot, that part that experiences the full blast of heat, gets the best marks for flavor,” the Nigerian essayist Yemisi Aribisala writes in her “Longthroat Memoirs” (2016). She decries the advent of the nonstick pan, insisting, “If the food sticks, it tastes better.”

A preparation of nurungji.Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.
A Koshihikari rice plant. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.

“Xoon,” sometimes spelled khogn, is the Wolof word for the pot’s “dregs,” as the Senegalese-born chef Pierre Thiam, 56, slyly calls it in his cookbook “Yolele!” (2008) — noting that this humble debris is, in fact, “the cook’s prize, a fitting reward for a hard day’s work, which she may or may not choose to share.” For Thiam, who splits his time between New York (where he runs the restaurant Teranga, with locations in Harlem and Midtown), the Bay Area and Dakar, nothing comes close to the xoon achieved by cooking over fire, when the grains at the bottom go beyond gold to near black. The singeing makes the xoon not just a veneer but an ingredient in itself, changing the rest of the dish, as the smoke settles into the rice, whispering its way into every cranny.

In Senegal, people with modern kitchens will almost always keep a wood-burning stove around, in the backyard or on a rooftop, “even if they live in a high-rise,” Thiam says with a laugh. When he was a child, he was told, only half-jokingly, that xoon was reserved for grown-ups. Puerto Ricans have a traditional hierarchy, too: Von Diaz, 39, a journalist based in Durham, N.C., and the author of “Coconuts and Collards” (2018), recalls from her childhood that the pegao (from pegado, “glued,” and also slang for dancing close together, skin to skin) was always offered first to her father, as the man of the house.

Later in life, she found herself doing the same for a boyfriend from Colombia, handing him a plate of arroz con pollo with the rice scooped out — the spoon plunged all the way to the bottom, to get it all, the scorch and the softness — and presented so that the pegao was on top, where he could see it. He knew. “There was this intercultural understanding,” Diaz says, marvelling, “that this was a gift.”

During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, panic sent the price of rice soaring. In India, the world’s largest rice exporter, a spike in infections kept mill and port workers home, while lockdowns disrupted the annual trek of hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers who venture north every year to plant the rice paddies.

Other major rice producers, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, limited exports to ensure that they had enough supply to feed their own populations. Since then, for the most part, exports have resumed and the price has stabilised, but the unsteadiness pointed to the dangers of treating food as a commodity when it is also an urgency: a basic human need.

In some countries, you might eat rice every day — “sometimes three times a day,” Nguyen says — and not always by choice. Scorched rice, then, may be a delight simply because it’s different, rice in a less common incarnation; rice that defies the rules. Many cultures have found ways to eke out rice’s charms: Grains might be roasted long and slow, then ground to a powder, as with Thai khao khua, for a sift of crackle in a savory dish; pounded and left translucent, like tiny angel wings, as with South Asian poha and Cambodian ambok; or flattened and toasted into a crunchy confetti to scatter over desserts and top off drinks, as with pinipig in the Philippines.

So-called broken rice, com tâm in Vietnam and riz brisé in Senegal — shifted by the French from one colony to the other in the first half of the 20th century — consists of the grains that fracture when run through the mill and was once disdained and sold on the cheap. Now, it’s treasured because the smaller size of the grains and jagged edges make it cook faster and offer more corners for sauces to pool and catch in.

A stack of finished nurungji. Photography by Anthony Cotsifas. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Set design by Suzy Kim.

Burned rice itself can be repurposed. The Filipino American restaurateur Nicole Ponseca, 45, who runs Jeepney in Miami, remembers how her father would scrape the tutong out of the bottom of the pot and save it to eat like crackers with sinigang, a soup of lancing sourness, tempered by the nutty bites of scorched rice; or to put in arroz caldo, a rice porridge, as a through line of crunch amid the gooeyness. She never thought of tutong as a treat, exactly. “It’s part of the cultural attitude,” she says. “To make do and not to waste.”

This holds true in Japan, as well, where even the loftiest of meals — the elaborate, formal kaiseki — will come to a close before dessert with the near-burned bits, okoge, presented in a bowl to be filled with tea or dashi, then topped with pickles. You’re meant to clean the bowl, to finish every grain. In Madagascar, this is taken a step further, with boiling water poured directly into the crusted pot, to loosen the grains and make ranovola, a tea to be drunk hot or iced, tasting less of rice than as if the water itself had been roasted.

To turn a mistake into a virtue, to recast dregs as bounty, to make a gift, an honour, of something that would once have been cursed at and cast aside: Is it possible that this says less about resilience and more about the sheer perversity — and generosity — of human nature, which leads us so often to seek the good in the bad, to favour the damaged, to love the flaw?

Cooking has always been, on some level, a matter of trial and error, a game of chance. It’s in the ragged edges that we most clearly see the hand of the cook, in the stray drops of oil and butter and scattered char that we see the work. Someone had to learn to do this, to wield knives and fire, risking scars and burns, to coax flavour out of whatever’s left in the larder.

Modern technology holds out the promise of a world without error, where every outcome is predictable and assured, where even the amount of scorch at the bottom of the pot can be calculated to the second by a fuzzy-logic rice cooker. But we take our chances; we dance with ruin. Maybe we are not so interested in perfection and its sedations after all.

 

Food styling: Young Gun Lee. Set design: Suzy Kim. Retouching: Anonymous Retouch. Digital tech: Lori Cannava. Photo assistants: Karl Leitz, Scott Barraza. Food stylist’s assistant: Brianna Horton. Set assistant: Sophia Kwan

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A Fork In The Road for Remote Eateries

After two years of travel restrictions, restaurateurs from Peru to the Faroe Islands are questioning the viability of their gourmand outposts.

Article by Bridget de Maine

With its ichu grass roof, the restaurant Mil is a dramatic sight upstaged only by the neighbouring Inca ruins at Moray, Peru. Photography by Gustavo Vivanco.

By the time Covid-19 put an abrupt halt to international travel, our collective fetishisation of food had reached its zenith in destination dining. Chefs had collected the kind of clout previously reserved for Hollywood actors, while landmarks were being scrubbed from travel itineraries, the “must-see” replaced with the “must-eat”. We had fallen in love with fine dining and would go to the ends of the earth to get a taste of it.

By 2019, the global culinary tourism market had an estimated value of $1,538 billion. For some of the world’s most remote eateries, it presented previously unimaginable opportunities.

Take Peru’s Mil restaurant, stationed 3,500 metres above sea level at the end of a winding, 45-minute drive from the city of Cusco (a 1.5-hour flight from Lima). Its Moray location, overlooking an Incan ruin atop the vast Andes, is no gastronomical gimmick.

Designed to bring diners closer to the cultural heritage of Mil’s head chef, Virgilio Martínez, the location is one aspect of his mission to preserve and elevate under appreciated Peruvian produce

. “One of our main challenges was to find somewhere you can immerse yourself into our culture, so that was one of the reasons we created this place,” says Martínez.

Along with the serving of high-altitude spoils (including lake algae, wild Andean mint and ancient kañihua grain), Mil and the attached lab and research centre, Mater Iniciativa, are the site of painstaking cultivation and careful cataloguing of hyper-local produce — a kind of edible celebration of the landscape. About 20 per cent of the site is dedicated to the restaurant, the remainder to research work.

The very existence of Mil confirms the lengths diners would go to in order to savour something singular. Indeed, those from abroad represented 90 per cent of pre-Covid-19 reservations at Mil.

But in March 2020, all three of Martínez’ restaurants (including Central and Mayo, both in Lima) were forced to close. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Pía León, who he runs Mil with, weren’t sure “if restaurants would even be necessary in this new era. They were the worst times that we’ve had in our life.”

Koks, on the Faroe Islands.Photography by Claes Bech-Poulsen.
Lake Leynar, the site of Koks’ hjallur. Photography by Claes Bech-Poulsen.

In the case of Koks, one of the world’s most northerly Michelin star recipients, it isn’t just the eatery that’s isolated. The entire archipelago of the Faroe Islands, which forms part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is wildly remote. Floating between Greenland and Norway, this self-governing clutch of 18 jagged islands is distinguished by its dulse-coloured cliffs, emerald blankets of treeless terrain and an abundance of wind, rain and sheep.

Set on a turf-tiled tuffet near Lake Leynar, Koks is pioneering a reimagining of the local cuisine and is a stellar salute to the scarcity of the islands and the ingenuity of its residents. Isolation is nothing new here. Rhubarb and a few root vegetables are the extent of the Faroese harvest and traditional fare centres on foodstuffs that have been fermented, a process known as ræst. Meat and fish are stored in partially open huts (hjallur) where they are whipped into rot by the sea breeze and then served with sauerkraut or turnips.

Previously located at the southern end of the island, the fine diner was moved to its current post, a remote 18th-century farmhouse, in 2018. Like life on the Faroe Islands, the operation of Koks is never straightforward. Weather here is so erratic, the tourism board disseminates advice about the benefits of packing a raincoat.

“Being out here is a logistical nightmare,” says the head chef, Poul Andrias Ziska, with a laugh. “The house is off the grid: we have no water supply so all the water that we get is from the mountains around us here. If it’s raining too little, that will affect our water. If it’s raining too much, cars can’t drive up.”

Despite its position in a windblown crater about 25 kilometres from the capital, Tórshavn, Koks is generally booked to the brim for the summer season as much as six months in advance. Of those bookings, almost 90 per cent are from visitors living abroad. But since March 2020, Koks has experienced a turbulent run of careful reopenings and sudden closures, including a shutdown just weeks into the sell-out summer of 2020 when one of the chefs tested positive.

“We closed down for two weeks, then we opened up again,” Ziska says, adding that he was also forced to close earlier in the season than usual. “It was not a very good year.”

Dishes at Mil hero local produce.

That said, Koks has been relatively lucky. Danish travellers were allowed to visit the islands, which was a life jacket for Koks, along with a combination of government support, being part of a larger restaurant group and the eventual mobilisation of staff to a pop-up eatery in Tórshavn. Ziska’s “moveable feast” approach kept the business afloat until Europe began cracking open in 2021.

“From mid-June, we’ve been fully booked,” he said in September. “It seems like all of Europe is really opening up again.”

But where the Faroe Islands experienced notably high testing rates and extensive chunks of Covid- free life, Peru has grappled with the world’s highest fatality rate. Although research and farming has recommenced at the Sacred Valley site, and some staff and produce have been redeployed at Central and León’s restaurant, Kjolle, Mil has been closed since March 2020. Martínez is hopeful it will reopen by year’s end.

“We are in so much debt [with Central and Kjolle] now,” Martínez says, laughing. “But what is magical about Mil is that the owner of the land, my partner who provides me the land, is not pushing me to reopen.”

Although Martínez’ Lima eateries are now experiencing a revival (on the day of our call, the evening’s bookings included diners from America’s East Coast and Europe), challenges linger. Mil’s farm lost countless crops and, of particular concern to Martínez, his businesses had to let go of valuable staff. For a time, he was without answers.

An inside view of Mil restaurant. Photography by Beinta Á Torkilsheyggi.

“Maintaining leadership was a big, big issue,” he says. “You see how young chefs are getting disappointed about life, how they stop dreaming.”

He wanted to set an example, to show his workers he was coping well under the circumstances but, he says, “they couldn’t get a good answer from me. For me, that was really, really sad because I couldn’t respond in a few situations with what was the right thing to do.”

While some might become bitter at the near impossibility of their restaurants’ survival, it isn’t the case with Martínez and Ziska. For the former, the pandemic hasn’t hampered his desire for explorative work in food preservation and research into the natural ecosystems of his homeland — it’s just set new limits.

“Why are we doing things and what for? That’s one of the most important questions,” Martínez says.

For him, the restaurant has never been about money, trends or ego; instead, he says, it has always been about creating “a good expression of what is rooted in Peru’s landscape and our culture — which is now even more important to preserve”.

As for the future, he says, “There’s not much to change. There’s probably more direction now and probably the path is clearer.”

Ziska is similarly resolute, especially with the threat of collapse still fresh in his memory. “It’s just brought a lot of clarity in terms of what I believe in,” he says. “Often when it’s raining and you find yourself in a situation that’s not so pleasant — because of the snow, or the wind, or the rain, and you have to run between your car and your house — it’s good to have that in the back of your head: remember when you almost lost it?”

A Tasty Bolivian Turnover Recipe from Virgilio Martínez

The acclaimed Peruvian chef’s latest cookbook takes readers on an historical journey of Latin America.

Article by Rachael Fleury

Bolivian-Style Turnover. Photo: Jimena Agois

While most of us are familiar with the most iconic dishes from Latin America, namely tortillas, arepas, or quesadillas, renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez’s latest book, “The Latin American Cookbook” ($65, Phaidon) takes a deep dive into the lesser-known specialties such as Goat Stew, Ecuadorian Easter Soup or Chilean Sandwich Cookies.

“This book shows the pride that we “the Latinos” have for our culture, we have all been part of this book, we are many people,” he explains.

To properly represent the vast region of Latin America, Martínez spent years researching and consulting with more than 60 village elders, home cooks, anthropologists, and traditional cookbooks to produce over 600 local recipes from 22 Latin American countries.

He also brings with him substantial pedigree himself, having worked in around the world before opening his flagship restaurant, Central, in 2013. Described as an “an ode to Peru” the Lima restaurant made it to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in its first year and has since been named the number one restaurant in Latin America multiple times. You might also recognise him from Zac Efron’s 2020 series “Down to Earth” and also the series “Chef’s Table”, both found on Netflix.

Martínez’s passion for celebrating “food of origin” began while travelling and it was the thrill of exploration and finding something undiscovered that propelled him to where he is today. But as he quickly points out, it’s also the people that he has met along the way that really tell the story of this new publication.

“I have gained many friends [by creating this book] and I have many friends who have supported this project,” he explains. “I feel that it has been a surprise to find how each one sees their region and is involved [with this book] without receiving anything in return. It’s this act of sharing which is the purpose of the kitchen and that connects us in a positive way,” he says.

Coupled with beautiful photos from Peruvian food photographer Jimena Agois, “The Latin American Cookbook”, celebrates the cultural vibrancy of Latin American people as inextricably linked to food. Recently, Virgilio Martínez spoke with T Australia about the endless appeal of Latin American food, what the pandemic has taught him about cooking and which countries in Latin America produce the best recipes.

“The Latin American Cookbook” by Virgilio Martinez, published by Phaidon, $65, phaidon.com

What is your earliest memory of food?

“My passion for “food of origin” came from the trips I made around Peru and around the world when I was young. I think that the idea of exploration and the passion to know something new was always resulted in new products, new flavours, food, new cultures, and that for me got me hooked on food.”

How do you describe the appeal of Latin American food?

“There is a very deep historical legacy of other cultures [in Latin American food and culture] and because of that there is a very interesting miscegenation that has taken place since the meeting of the Americas with Europe. Then again later with the arrival of Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Arabs, more Europeans, France, Italy… That miscegenation is still evolving today in our culture and in our food.”

Which Latin American country is your favourite for its culinary offerings?

“I don’t have a favourite country. In some countries for example you get a lot of depth and a lot of information in their food, for example I cannot deny that in Mexico you find an impressive culinary legacy in favour of their culture, but I would also like give some recognition to the lesser known food of countries, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, a country so big with so much to offer.”

What is it about Bolivian Turnover that appeals to you?

“I think Bolivian turnovers are a result of the history of that country. The taste speaks to the varying flavours across the regions of Bolivia and the recipe is repeated in all regions of Latin America and around the world. There is this wonderfully tactile sensation of having something like these turnovers in your hands and a comfort that you can find them in the most of humble of places.”

This recipe is for Bolivian turnovers, how do they differ from Argentine empanadas?

“Well, Argentinean empanadas are fried and Peruvian and Bolivian turnovers are baked, plus the dough is different. Also the way Argentinean empanadas are finished off generally looks nicer, while the Bolivian ones look rougher but are more spicy and have more varied fillings. The Argentinean ones tend to have a more intense flavour and are closely linked to the asado (barbecue).”

Peruvian Chef Virgilio Martínez. Photo: Ken Motohasi

Bolivian-Style Turnovers (Salteñas)

Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Makes: 12

The flat-bottomed salteña, with its stewed interior, is like the soup dumpling of empanadas. Despite its name, which refers to the Argentine city of Salta, this baked empanada actually has its origins in Bolivia. During the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas in the nineteenth century, a writer named Juana Manuela Gorriti, from Salta, was exiled to Potosí just over the border in Bolivia and came up with the recipe as a way to make a living. People in Potosí would often say go and pick up an empanada from “la Salteña”, the woman from Salta. The nickname stuck and eventually the form left Potosí and spread around Bolivia, with many regions creating their own versions.

To add to the confusion, the city of Salta is also known for its empanadas, which in Argentina are generally referred to as empanadas salteñas. The fillings are more similar to the Bolivian version than they are to other empanadas in Argentina and it’s served with a spicy sauce similar to the Bolivian hot sauce llajua, though the dough is quite different and the repulgue (seam) is usually on the side rather than the top like those in Bolivia.

For the dough

5 cups (650 g) all-purpose (plain) flour, plus extra for dusting
2 tblsps sugar
1 cup (250 ml) melted butter
2 egg yolks
1 ½ cup (120 ml) warm water with ½ tsp salt added
1 whole egg, beaten, to glaze

For the filling

½ cup (120 ml) melted lard
2 white onions chopped
1 fresh ají amarillo (spicy yellow pepper) chopped
450g ground (minced) beef (or shredded chicken)
5 cups (1.2 liters) beef stock
1 gelatin leaf, soaked in ice-cold water
3 tblsps parsley chopped
6 peeled and boiled potatoes, cut in small cubes
1 cup (130 g) cooked peas
1 tblsp spicy yellow pepper paste
salt and ground pepper

1. Heat the lard for the filling in a large frying pan until very hot. Sauté the onions and fresh chile for 8 minutes or until soft and brown.

2. Add the beef, cook for 4 minutes then pour in the stock with the squeezed-out gelatin and let it simmer for about 35 minutes.

3. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat.

4. Add the potatoes and peas and place in the refrigerator until needed.

 

This is an edited extract recipe from “The Latin American Cookbook” by Virgilio Martinez, published by Phaidon, $65, phaidon.com