Gluttons and Gourmands: Yuan Mei

March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Like many of his Enlightenment-era contemporaries in France and England, Yuan Mei (袁枚: 1716 – 1798) was an ambitious polymath, by turns a civil servant, renowned poet, teacher, and gastronome. Born in Hangzhou, China, during the height of the Qing Dynasty, Yuan Mei quickly passed the scholarly examinations that ensured advancement in China’s rigorous civil service system.  (The recent hue and cry over the impact of standardized testing might make you think that this is a recent issue, but anxiety over testing and educational outcomes dates back thousands of years to the imperial examination system.)

Though he passed his first exam at age 11 and earned the highest academic degree (chin-shih) at age 23, his rise through the Qing bureaucracy was ultimately stifled by his failure to learn the Manchu language of the dynasty’s leaders. However, he apparently did well enough as a magistrate in the Jiangsu province to retire at a relatively young age to pursue his multitudinous set of interests from a cosseted place in his new home, a garden in Nanking known as Sui-yüan, or the Garden of Contentment. In Chinese antiquity, gardens were idealized as recreations of the natural world designed to foster self-cultivation and refinement, and Yuan hosted literary gatherings, students, and visits from leading thinkers and artists of the day at his estate.

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In his Garden of Contentment, Yuan lived the life of a celebrated scholar-gentleman, displaying a curious and far-ranging mind; he was a leading poet of his day, traveled widely, wrote ghost stories, painted, authored funerary inscriptions to ensure a comfortable life, and despite his reputation for hedonism, was an early proponent of expanded educational opportunities for women. But in addition to his more widely known individualist poetry, Yuan’s name now lives on as a food critic and arbiter of cooking technique.

Despite the fact that he never cooked dishes himself, Yuan created a cookbook, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan Shidan), that remains a curious and wonderful mixture of epicurean philosophy, opinions on ingredients and techniques, and a treatise on the proper approach to cooking. For more than 40 years, he collected recipes from his travels across China and recorded in sometimes too-meticulous detail the finer points of a lifetime of banquets and dinner parties. Upon tasting something that tickled his fancy, Yuan would quiz the chef and try to tease out the cook’s secrets. In spite of a world of rich and complex dishes available to a gentleman of the era, Yuan’s tastes tended toward simpler, sometimes even ascetic pleasures.

I always say that chicken, pork, fish and duck are the original geniuses of the board, each with a flavor of its own, each with its distinctive style; whereas sea-slug and swallows-nest (despite their costliness) are commonplace fellows, with no character – in fact, mere hangers-on. I was once asked to a party by a certain Governor, who gave us plain boiled swallows-nest, served in enormous vases, like flower pots. It had no taste at all…. If our host’s object was simply to impress, it would have been better to put a hundred pearls into each bowl. Then we would have known that the meal had cost him tens of thousands, without the unpleasantness of being expected to eat what was uneatable.

After such opulent feasts, Yuan later wrote, he preferred returning home to dine on a homely meal of congee, his appetite sated at last.

Western writers from French Orientalist Camille Imbault-Huart to British author Fuschia Dunlop have described Yuan Mei as a Chinese Brillat-Savarin. And his epigrams and careful instructions to the chefs and readers that followed him are biting but apt, much like the Frenchman’s Physiologie du Goût (The Physiology of Taste).

Thanks to more recent efforts to bring his gastronomical wisdom to a wider audience, his writing offers pearls of wit as well as impassioned entreaties to use fresh and locally sourced ingredients.

“A dish’s seasonings are like a woman’s clothing and jewelry. Even the most beautiful of women will look ugly when dressed in rags.”

“Foods are like people. They all have their own characteristics, and these must be embraced.”

“There are five flavors under heaven. Don’t bore your guests with just one.”

“A table of good food is 60 percent chef and 40 percent the person who bought the ingredients.”

“The more you pay for an ingredient, the more of it you should use.”

Some have placed Yuan Mei in a pantheon of the four great gastronomes of classical China. (The other members of the quartet—Su Dongpo (1037-1101), Ni Zan (1301-74), and Xu Wei (1521-93)—were also part of the learned, literati-scholar class.) But despite the long view of history, his pithy insights and reflections about cooking, and especially about the importance of appreciating the pure, natural flavors of ingredients, ring as true today as they did at the height of the Qing Dynasty.

If on a Winter’s Afternoon

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The sign may have changed at Gamja Gol, but the song remains the same. Since opening in the mid-1990s, the restaurant has specialized in a soulful, rustic elegy to pork neckbone soup, gamjatang. Just around the corner from Seoul Park, the restaurant has proudly raised the banner for gamjatang (or gamjajungol, as I believe it’s known when served from a larger pot as a shared dining experience) for a couple generations of Koreatown diners. In one of the most competitive restaurant neighborhoods in the city, Gamja Gol has championed a staunchly traditional dish through fried-chicken infatuations, sausage fads, and the popularity of AYCE barbecue joints. While the place once attracted an older clientele, today’s crowd features Korean grandfathers attired in out-of-fashion-but-still-natty suits as well as table full of college students, all in search of nourishment at a gut level.

Most of the tables at Gamja Gol sport large, communal bowls of the signature gamjajungol, a dish that Linda Burum speculates may date back to cheap meals cooked for Korean railroad workers in an earlier, pre-high-speed Internet era. Though the large sign hanging on a wall notes that single-serving sizes are available, most the clientele seem to opt for larger sizes, the smaller of which at $24.95 can easily feed two or three souls. After ordering, the waitress brings out the bowl, filled with the spiny and angular pieces of neckbone that sink into the bubbling cauldron of soup like a fossil emerging out of the La Brea Tar Pits. The soup is topped by perilla leaves, crushed perilla seeds, green onions, and a pair of whole potatoes that soak up the meaty soup juices while the dish cooks at your table. (The dish gets its name from the Korean word for potato, gamja, and the new sign features a jovial, cartoonish spud beside the restaurant’s name.)

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Once the gamjajungol reaches boiling, diners are free to start plucking the serrated bones from the soup and awkwardly ferret out  healthy morsels of meat and tendon held between small nubs of bone. Sometime this is a matter of a deft touch with chopsticks; other times, the only relief to be had is to noisily slurp at the neckbones, head craned to get a better angle at the tender prizes wedged in small, bony crevices. Of course, this is hardly the dish for fussy eaters or those looking for simplicity. A loin, fillet, or chunks of pork belly would doubtless provide much easier work, but the close-to-the-bone pleasures of neckbone meat provide tantalizing inducements to savor rich, umami heaven.

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On a near-frigid winter’s afternoon, with rarely seen Artic gusts slicing their way through awkwardly bundled pedestrians, Gamja Gol provided the deep, soul-pleasing tastes that only long, slow cooking can offer. Like certain types of American Southern cuisine, gamjatang elevates a lowly cut of meat into a sublime and hearty meal. The spicy soup is more than just an afterthought. After savoring the life-giving broth and meal, diners may be treated to one final act. Waitresses will heat up the soup, boiling off some of the stock before frying cooked rice in the remnants. There are other dishes on offer—pancakes, bebimbap, and even naengmyun for sweatier summer months—but stick with your gut instincts.

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Gamja Gol
3003 W. Olympic Blvd., No. 107
Los Angeles, CA 90006
11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily

From Glendale With Love

December 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Just by glancing at the scene in Taron Bakery, it’s easy to see why the Glendale strip-mall bakery pick-up counter is a Vast Morsels favorite. To start, a line of customers usually stretches out the door of the eatery in eager anticipation of freshly baked treats. But unlike other bakeries in Glendale and beyond, the menu here is ruthlessly efficient: lahmajeune, tahini bread, manakeesh, and a few different varieties of the empanada-like beoreks (spicy, spinach, cheese, and beef). Teeming lines combined with a single-minded focus are a good sign that titillating tastes are afoot.

lahmajoun

lahmajoun

The most popular of offering here is the lahmajoun, a thin flatbread topped with a mixture of spices and ground beef or lamb. The oval-shaped bread is a popular snacking staple throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, as well as with the substantial diasporic Armenian population in Glendale. Many claim Taron’s lahmajoun is the best in town, which is no idle boast considering the many Armenians in the area with Syrian and Lebanese ties.

fresh from the oven

With the unstinting popularity of the lahmajoun, the operation at Taron might bring a smile to the face of a free-market economist. Thanks to the steady stream of customers or perhaps because of the fierce competition in Glendale, where a bakery never seems to be far off, the price of a single lahmajoun clocks in at less than a buck at 90 cents. The breads are hustled straight from the oven on large pizza shovel onto a table behind the register, where cashiers bag them up and sell them to customers by the dozen. As a result, nearly every time you enter, a warm lahmajoun or beorek is at the ready.

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The bakery’s no-nonsense approach may be unsettling to those seeking more narrative to their snacks. The cashier will probably barely acknowledge you, and don’t bother holding up the finely tuned process of lahmajoun delivery for niceties or a chat about an Adiss Harmandian sighting. But the lahmajouns are worth the usually short wait. Spread evenly to the edges of the bread, the paste-like mixture has that particular herby taste that evokes the breezy pleasures of an evening out in Beirut—the fatty trimmings of meat mingle with zaa’tar and parsley with just a slight hint of red pepper tickling the tongue. While Armenian pizza seems to be the default description for lahmajoun, Taron’s prizes avoid the doughy fate that plagues many other renditions around town. Instead, the flatbread has just the perfect amount of crispy char to go along with toothsome chewiness. A wedge of lemon is available on request, and the tart tang ties it all together into an irresistible snack.

The beoreks and sweet tahini breads are excellent, but it is the lahmajoun that wears the crown here—fast, cheap, and out of the control.

Taron Bakery
1117 S. Glendale Ave.
Glendale, CA 91209
 

Crying BING-O in Monterey Park

October 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

The most popular crossover dish in the San Gabriel Valley might be the formidable beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. The justly famous Shandong-derived snack has served to open many hearts and minds to the range of Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley. For the uninitiated, it may be strange to encounter Chinese food without rice, much less a bready creation that with the comfortable heft of a burrito. But the fist-sized package of sesame-seasoned beef and cilantro rolled up with chewy bread has spearheaded a wave of northern Chinese-style food popularity, some of it outside of the usual confines of the San Gabriel Valley. (Later this year, a gastropub featuring northern Chinese-style eats is slated to open on Spring Street downtown, and owners promise that a pair of chefs from Tianjin and Hong Kong will bring SGV-level of quality to one of the city’s high-profile dining districts.)

The beef roll is hardly the only transcendent northern treat to lurk in the warren of suburban strip malls in the San Gabriel Valley. The menu at Beijing Pie House offers a short survey of northern-style mainstays, including noodles, dumplings, and pancakes, but what’s worth a trip south of Valley Blvd. is its collection of bings, or pan-fried pastries. The meat pies known as xian bing are the justly famous stars of the show here. Roughly the size and shape of a swollen hockey puck, the round pastry is fried to a crispy, golden crust and yields easily once you set your teeth into it. Your first bite, if you’re not ready for it, can be alarming—a gush of hot broth seasoned by the lamb or beef fillings. Fortunately, the waiters recite a well-rehearsed warning of injury before they set down an order of four xian bing on your table so you’ll avoid an awkward scalding. Eating a xian bing is not unlike noshing on a xiao long bao, or soup dumpling, but the experience is a lot less delicate. After the initial messy explosion of juices, the combination of savory meat and bread is still a satisfying and hearty repast, even without the bitter chill of a Beijing winter.

House special xian bing aside, there are more bings than meet the eye here. While it doesn’t nostalgically remind me of home and hearth, the homeland meat cake (or jing dong rou bing) is as addictive as anything I’ve eaten in recent months. Resembling a scallion pancake in its long, thin shape , the homeland meat cake is fried until the dough reaches a perfect crunchy-chewy texture, which expertly contrasts with the thin alternating layers of pork and chewy pastry inside. The pork inside is reminiscent of a particularly satisfying wonton filling, pork moistly marinated with soy sauce and ginger to full lip-smacking effect—a taste of a homeland I’m eager to make my own.

Sweetly steamed on top of carrot slices, the soup dumplings at Beijing Pie House are good enough, though with orders of xian bing stacked high on every table, it’s easy to get lost in the dumpling shuffle. The wisdom of the crowd rules at this small and cramped spot, as it does at most Chinese restaurants. The popular prizewinner here—the robust and luscious xian bing—is already comfortable in the limelight.

Beijing Pie House
846 E. Garvey Ave., Ste. 3A
Monterey Park, CA 91755

A Rotten Tale

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

As a lover of fermentation and its mythology, I loved this anecdote from renowned cookbook author and memorist Fuschia Dunlop:

Shaoxingers explain their predilection for stinking foods by recounting an appalling legend. Two and a half millennia ago, when Shaoxing was the capital of the state of Yue, it was defeated in battle by the neighbouring state of Wu, and its king was taken there as a slave. During his three years of captivity, so they say, the Wu king succumbed to a mysterious illness. No one could work out what was wrong with him until the Yue king offered a diagnosis after tasting his captor’s excrement. And so the Wu king was cured, and in his gratitude he released his prisoner. But when the Yue people heard about the disgusting task their king had been made to perform, they wept bitter tears, and decided they should eat their rice with stinking foods to mark their humiliation.

The story is from a wonderful Financial Times article about a restaurant dedicated to fermented foods in Shaoxing (yes, the birthplace of the rice wine), where rotted amaranth stalks (mei xian cai gen) are one of the house specialities. If you haven’t read them yet, check out either one of these essential Dunlop cookbooks and guides to cuisine.

Making Miso: A Step-by-Step Guide

June 27, 2012 § 4 Comments

The first in an on-going series of home fermentation projects. An oft-repeated legend from Japanese history holds that the gods bequeathed miso to the Japanese people, a blessing that would ensure health, longevity, and happiness. While some might describe those gods as mere myth, one must admit that they might have been right about miso. A fermented paste of soybeans, salt, and grains, miso has strong health benefits thanks to lactobacillus acidophilus, the same healthy bacteria found in yogurt. Like other “living foods” such as cheese, yogurt, and wine, the fermentation process transforms the soybeans into a nutrient-dense food product that can be used in soups, stews, pickles, and marinades. Depending on the ingredients used, the length of the fermentation process, and how the ingredients are processed/mashed together, miso can exhibit a wide range of textures, colors, and flavors, from the ochre tones of shiro miso to the dark brown hue of hatcho miso, which might resemble your Oaxacan abuela’s chocolate mole at first glance. But all types of miso are aged through the fermentation process, a period that ranges from six months up to three years. As a result of this aging process, the protein-rich paste has a deep and complex taste with wonderful benefits for digestion and health, as the gods would tell you. Some studies have claimed that miso and other fermented bean pastes can fight some forms of cancer and heart disease while others suggest miso is a powerful agent to counteract aging. Miso was first brought to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th centuries, part of the same trading network that brought Buddhism and tea to the Land of the Rising Sun. Nurtured by Zen Buddhist monks, miso quickly spread across Japan and in the process evolved away from the Chinese style (chiang) and into its present incarnation. Until fairly recently, a large chunk of the production of miso (and in Korea, its close cousin, doen jang) occurred at home, especially in more rural areas. However, Japan also has a considerable tradition of different regional styles of miso, which originated in the Edo period as people flocked to urban centers. Now, of course, there are many easily available miso options, ranging from several different kinds usually on offer at an Asian supermarket or, if you happen to be lucky, more tasty artisanal varieties in specialty shops. However, making miso at home is a reasonably easy task if you can set aside some time over the course of a couple days. Of course, this is hardly something that you might make in time for the next morning’s bowl of miso soup; letting the lactobacillus bacteria and other micro-organisms do their work in the fermentation process takes several months. But if you can manage the wait, the resulting miso will be a robust tasting experience, full of the complex range of flavors that fermentation brings forth.

Dried soybeans

Under the tutelage of miso mentor J.M., I made my first batch of miso, using a simple recipe. Really, miso is just three simple ingredients, soybeans, salt, and koji, one of the reasons that it is a salubrious addition to your diet. For those who are unfamiliar with it, koji, or koji-kin, is rice (or another grain) that has been inoculated with spores from the aspergillus oryzae mold, the same fungus that helps to create sake and soy sauce. In a traditional miso-making process, two different fermentation processes are actually at work. Rice is soaked overnight, drained, and then gently cooked. After it cools down to room temperature, the cooked rice is mixed with a strain of the aspergillus mold and left to ferment in shallow trays for a couple days in a humid room. For many artisanal miso makers, the cultivation and harvest of a specific koji mold is crucial to establishing the unique flavor profile of their misos, and some have guarded their koji strain for generations. (This piece from the archives of the Los Angeles Times gives a fascinating account of the work of a fourth-generation koji master.)

A tub of koji

Koji still resembles rice but has a puffed-up, almost jagged appearance, like oblong grains of salt. Once added to the soybeans, the koji is the active element that breaks down the proteins, starches, and fats in soybeans and through the wonders of kitchen alchemy, transforms it into miso. Fortunately for miso makers, koji is available at most Japanese markets. (The one I used came in a plastic container that looks like the ones used to sell yogurt.) Ingredients

  • 369 grams of dried soy beans (though of course fresh ones would be quite tasty)
  • 1 tub (567 grams) koji
  • 200 grams of salt
  • Quarter cup or so of cooking wine or soju

Step One Start with the dried soybeans, which should be available in most Korean, Japanese, or Chinese markets. Wash the dried beans several times, until the water runs clear after soaking the beans in a new bath of water (much like rinsing rice). Put the soybeans in a large pot, and fill it up with water several inches above the beans. One recipe calls for adding three times as much water as the weight of the beans, though the important part is to make sure the beans don’t dry out. Soak the beans for 18 hours, checking at a couple of intervals to make sure the beans are absorbing water and expanding, and that the water amply covers the beans. Step Two

Cooked soybeans

Once the beans have expanded, drain the beans and add them to a large pot. Add water until the beans are covered by more than an inch. Bring the beans to a boil, lower the temperature, and then cook for four hours. (You can also cook the beans with a pressure cooker, in which case the beans can be cooked in about 20 minutes.) During the cooking process, the beans will emit a protein-rich foam, saponin, which can be skimmed off for another use. Once the beans become soft enough to squeeze between your fingers, they are ready for the next phase. After draining the beans, you can refrigerate them and continue the process the next day, or once the beans have cooled, move on to the next step. (Be sure to let the beans return to room temperature; if the beans are too warm, they may kill the koji.) Step Three

Mashing soybeans

Mash the soybeans into a paste using either a grinder or a food processor. The degree of mashing is left up to the discretion of the miso maker; some misos are chunkier than others, though a miso that has larger bits of soybean may take longer to ferment. For this miso, we used a few whirs of the food processor to chop the beans before crushing it into a mostly fine paste with a potato masher. Step Four In a large bowl, mix the salt and koji together. Take particular care to distribute the salt well so that the koji will ferment as evenly as possible Step Five

Mixing the koji-salt mixture into the mashed soybeans

Add the mashed soybeans to the koji-salt mixture, taking care to mix the two well, kneading and folding it several times to distribute the salt and koji throughout the soybeans. Step Six

Forming the mix into balls

Once the ingredients are thoroughly combined, form small balls with the mixture. Take special care to squeeze as much air out of the balls as possible: the fewer pockets of air in your miso container, the less opportunity for miso to grow unhealthy mold. Step Seven

Wiping glass jar with alcohol

Find a container to ferment the miso. A wide-mouth ceramic jar is preferable. Avoid potentially toxic plastic or metal containers that may affect the taste of the miso. Although miso should be strictly shielded from the sun (to prevent its rays from killing the lactobacillus bacteria), we both decided to use glass jars to better observe the ongoing changes in color during fermentation process. Before adding the miso balls, lightly spray the already sterilized jar with the rice wine or soju. This step adds another layer of disinfectant that will discourage the formation of harmful germs during the fermentation process, especially the ones that might grow in corners. You can also dust the bottom of the jar with salt for the same result. Step Eight

Pushing the balls into the jar as tightly as possible

Add the miso balls to the jar, pushing them hard against the jar. Again, the goal is to remove as much space in the miso paste as possible to prevent the growth of mold. Once all the miso is in the jar, press the mixture down several times with your hands, packing it as tight as you can. Even out the top of the miso, making sure the surface of miso is mostly flat. Step Nine

After packing the paste into the jar, flatten the surface.

Spray a little bit of the alcohol around the sides of the jar and across the surface of the miso (or a light dash of salt for similar effect). The presence of alcohol or salt will discourage the growth of harmful mold on the miso. In addition, I lightly soaked a paper towel and draped it across the top of the young miso paste. The towel functions as a disinfectant and also provides a way to sop up the thin layer of moisture that will occur during fermentation. Step Ten

Pouring salt into a bag on top of the miso paste

Before sealing the jar, place a weight on top of the miso. A suitably heavy stone would work or in this case, I poured salt into a plastic ziplock bag placed on top of the miso. The plastic bag filled the space in between the miso and the top of the jar, packing most of the remaining space (the goal being to provide as little area for mold to grow as possible). Once the jar is stuffed as full as possible, seal the jar with a top and then some thick packing tape if you want to secure it.

Finished jars of miso, ready to ferment for many months

After the jar is prepared, stow it away in a dark place and let the fermentation commence. Depending on the season (warmer temperatures will accelerate the process), fermentation can take anywhere from six months to a year, though a longer wait may be rewarded in a more full-flavored and delicious miso. Though research is scarce on the topic, J.M. recommends conversations with your miso. Regular bon mots will help develop a strong relationship with your new fermenting roommate, and loving care and attention can only help improve the taste. Miso Resources There are loads of recipes floating around, from the ones featured on cooking blogs to the instructions that come with a tub of koji. For more information about the miso-making process, including several different recipes, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s magisterial Book of Miso is an absolute treasure trove of information about miso.  Now in its third or fourth edition, the book has all sorts of wonderful tidbits about the science, production, and history of miso, including recipes for miso and miso-related food (such as miso pickles) and fascinating digressions, such as an illustrated tour of the Japanese farmhouse miso tradition and a peek at a modern, mechanized miso factory.

Gluttons & Gourmands: Ziryab

June 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

A former slave of unknown origins, Abu al-Hasan “Ali ibn Nafi,” aka Ziryab, was the most visible hipster in the early Islamic world.  After arriving in Córdoba in 822, Ziryab took the court of the Arabic Umayyad dynasty by storm, impressing Abd al-Rahman II with his virtuosic lute-playing and nearly unlimited repertoire of songs, both classic and of his own invention. His musical reputation had preceded him before he arrived at Córdoba from Baghdad, but Ziryab was also a multi-talented renaissance man who changed how Europeans would eat, dress, and appreciate culture.

The ruling Umayyad emirate governed medieval Spain (known then as Al-Andalus) and a large swath of North Africa from Córdoba, which had just begun to develop a reputation for its prosperity and culture. However, Córdoba and the rest of world still lagged behind Baghdad in terms of arts, science, and trade; stories of the opulence and sophistication of Baghdad were famous throughout the world (and continue on in the dusty pages of Arabian Nights). Ziryab was already an acclaimed musician at the court of Baghdad’s Abbasid caliphs, and he studied under the celebrated royal court musician Ishaq al-Mawsili.  He developed many new song styles and, most famously, added a fifth string to the lute, an instrument that would later evolve into the oud and guitar. However, like some ancient tale of tragedy, Ziryab’s talents aroused the anger and jealousy of his mentor, al-Mawsili, and he was forced into exile, never to return to the Round City and its Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom). (More information on Ziryab’s fateful performance in front of the legendary Harun al-Rashid can be found here.)

With his guitar slung over his shoulder, Ziryab arrived in Córdoba, at that time perhaps the most populous city in Europe. In addition to his prowess on the lute, Ziryab quickly set about establishing new standards for beauty, style, and food, which would have a lasting effect on not only Islamic Spain but all for Europe for centuries to come. He is credited with, among other things, introducing toothpaste, encouraging the shaving of beards, and popularizing hairstyles like bangs. His courtly manners, breadth of interests and education, and sophisticated conversation made Ziryab the darling of the court and inspired imitation at the court and throughout the land.

But maybe Ziryab’s most lasting achievements came in the culinary arena. The emir turned over the management of the royal kitchens to Ziryab, and he revolutionized the way Europeans would eat. Instead of the rather crude dining style of the time, inherited from the Visigoths and Romans, Ziryab introduced the multi-course meal, starting with a soup or appetizer followed by a main course and sweet dessert dishes, an innovation that not even the gourmands of Baghdad had imagined. Crystal glasses rather than the clunky metal goblets became the norm, and Ziryab is said to have introduced leather cloths to be draped over dinner tables instead of the bare tables preferred in Roman times.

Inspired by the inventive haute cuisine of Baghdad, the musical gourmet popularized new ways to utilize the rich bounty of Spain’s local and seasonal food, and he championed the asparagus, bringing that vegetable into the kitchens of Europe to the continued delight of epicures. Robert Lebling, Jr. writes that some of Ziryab’s delicacies continue to this day. Restaurants in the city of Zaragoza still serve a dessert of walnuts and honey in his name, and in Córdoba, his ancient stomping grounds, Ziryab is memorialized with a dish of roasted and salted broad beans called ziriabí, which was a dish he created for an Umayyad emir according to legend.

Though he mainly circulated in the rarefied world of the Umayyad court, Ziryab’s innovations spread across different religious groups and trickled down to the merchant and artisan classes before reaching even the peasantry. While the era of Islamic rule in Spain ended long ago, Ziryab lives on from the delicious expanse of the dinner table.