January 30, 2008

Olla Podrida

The New York Times contains a brief article entitled One Pot describing the Spanish dish known variously as cocido or olla podrida literally "rotten pot" According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, podrida may have an admiring connotation, similar to the use of "filthy rich" in English. Curiously, instead of the correct olla podrida, the article gives the name of the dish as olla poderida, which it explains as a derivative of poder "strength", because it gives you strength.

Reader Jim Gordon wondered about this and emailed the author of the article. Her response: she and her consultants and editors were aware of the correct name and etymology but thought that some readers might be put off by the notion of rotten food, so they changed the name a little and made up a fake etymology. It seems clear that they were not trying to deceive anyone with evil intent, but I am still taken aback that a respectable newspaper would make up a fake name and etymology.

I also wonder how many readers would really be put off by the use of the word "rotten" in the name of the dish, especially if informed that in this context it really means something like "really rich". If you think about it, we eat many foods that are "rotten". Some of them are, admittedly, rather exotic for most people. Here in Carrier country we have ʔʌk'undʒʌt "rotten fish eggs", which by other names is eaten by other native groups as well. To make it, you just let the eggs sit until they have a slippery feel and squeak a little when you rub them between your fingers. There is some risk in eating ʔʌk'undʒʌt because you never know which bacteria will take root. Now and then somebody gets sick or even dies from eating bad ʔʌk'undʒʌt.

Another "rotten" food from this part of the world is what in Carrier is called sleɣe (except in the Southwestern part of the territory, where it is called tl'inaɣe), in English usually just "grease". It is made from the eulachon fish Thaleicthys pacificus, an anadromous fish similar to smelt. Eulachon are also known as candlefish because they are so oily that when dried they can be lit like candles. I am partial to smoked eulachon. Grease is made by digging a pit, pouring in a lot of fish, and leaving them to rot for a couple of months. Then you pour in boiling water and skim off the oil that rises to the top. The oil is extremely nutritious and has just the right fatty acids. It is used as a condiment: people dip bread or dried fish into it. Grease is made by the coastal people who live along the rivers where the fish run, such as the Coast Tsimshian and Nisga'a, but for hundreds of years has been traded into the interior along the routes collectively known as "Grease Trails".

In China people eat pickled tofu 豆腐乳 made by air-drying cubes of bean curd under hay and then letting them ferment due to the action of airborne bacteria. I always have some in my pantry. A cube or two adds a nice flavour, somewhat like that of Limburger cheese, to fried rice. I don't think I've ever seen it in a restaurant, but it is often on the table in Chinese homes. Another "rotten" bean curd product is stinky tofu 臭豆腐, which is fermented in a kind of brine.

In Japan nattoo 納豆 is made by steaming soybeans and then fermenting them under the action of Bacillus subtilis natto.

There are some exotic "rotten" foods even in Europe. One Icelandic delicacy is hákarl, produced by burying a shark in the gravel for a few months in order to get rid of the uremic acid. I've never had this, but apparently even Icelanders consider the consumption of hákarl a sign of machismo, so it must be pretty bad. In the Faroe Islands they eat ræst kjøt, half dried mutton that is then allowed to rot, and ræstur fiskur rotten half dried fish. I am told that these too are an acquired taste.

In England pheasant is hung for some time to age before it is eaten. True connoisseurs reportedly hang it for several weeks, until the body separates from the head. This is the result of a combination of bacterial and enzymatic action.

It isn't necessary to look for exotic foods to find examples of "rotten" food. Sour cream is made from cream by the action of bacteria that produce lactic acid. This is also how most cheeses are made. Some cheeses are then allowed to rot after they are formed. This is how blue cheeses such as Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola, are made, as well as such soft cheeses as Camembert, Brie, Limburger, and my beloved Liederkranz, which is no longer made.

If you drink alcohol, you are consuming something "rotten". Most alcoholic beverages are produced by fermentation with yeast, a fungus. By the same token, you consume "rotten" food if you eat leavened bread. What makes bread rise is the growth of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The resulting alcohol is baked out, but the carbon dioxide generated as a waste product inflates the dough.

In fact, then, unless you are a strict vegan and teetotaler who never eats leavened bread, you almost certainly consume "rotten" foods.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 30, 2008 11:34 PM