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Unusual Foods for the Culinary Arts Instructor

Aug 17, 2007
Of course, your pupils have already been put through their paces with ordinary fare by now. They've got braising down pat by now. They aced Safe Hood Handling 101. Your challenge to hand-roll sushi is met with casual yawns. They made a Hollandaise sauce that was so embodied that it could have stood up after dinner and delivered a speech. When the challenges are gone, try one of these challenges to give your students' culinary wits a real workout!

Milkfish
The fish is a national symbol of the Philippines, where it is called "bangus". Because milkfish is notorious for being much more bony compared to other food fish in the East, deboned milkfish or "boneless bangus" has become popular and common in stores and markets. Pangasinan, particularly in the town of Bonuan is the main source where you can buy the most delicious variety of milkfish. To cook it from scratch, one method is to gently pound it with a mallet to pulverize all the tiny bones, extract the meat through the hole in the neck, blend it with other stuffing ingredients, and stuff it back in - without breaking the skin!

Cassava
The cassava, also known as manioc, is extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions for its edible starchy tuberous root, a major source of carbohydrate. It is widely used as an accompaniment for meat dishes made into purees, dumplings and gnocchi, soups, stews, and gravies in South America. The root cannot be consumed raw, since it contains free and bound cyanogenic glucosides which are converted to cyanide in the presence of linamarase, which is a naturally occurring enzyme in cassava.

Curry
Oh, what precious few have tasted actual curry powder in the West! Half of the English speaking world which thinks it has tasted curry actually hasn't. We're talking a fresh-made seasoning, here, before we decide what to make with it. Most recipes for curry powder include coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek in their blends. Depending on the desired flavor, additional ingredients such as ginger, garlic, fennel seed, clove, mustard seed, green cardamom, black cardamom, nutmeg, red pepper, cinnamon and black pepper.

Quinoa
Quinoa is a species of goosefoot grown as a crop primarily for its edible seeds. It's a grain crop, and is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, as it is not a grass. Its leaves are also eaten as a leaf vegetable, much like amaranth. In its natural state quinoa has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it essentially unpalatable. Processing is needed to remove this coating. It is commonly served as a rice or lentil substitute.

Hummus
A staple Mediterranean food, the hummus you get in the store is a poor shadow of fresh hummus made right. While the process doesn't sound hard, the technique of getting the chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, salt, olive oil and garlic to be balanced in perfect proportion makes this a challenging dish to get just right. Too little is bland, too much will blister.

Vegemite
Vegemite is the registered brand name for a dark brown, salty food paste; mainly used as a spread on sandwiches and toast and occasionally used in cooking. It is popular in Australia and New Zealand and is known as one of Australia's national foods, but has recently been banned from import in the United States. Vegemite is made from leftover brewers' yeast extract and various vegetable and spice additives. The taste is difficult to describe but is extremely salty and slightly bitter, and malty as you might expect, similar to the taste of beef bouillon. Why not whip up a batch from scratch today, with a native Australian on hand to judge the results?

Ginger Beer
Yes, I know, a little outside the chef trade, but I thought I'd toss it in. You hear of all kinds of exotic fruits to make country wine with and of course we all know about mead and sake. But ginger beer is sure to be one exotic experience, both to brew it and to taste it. If it burns all the way down, you did it right.

Rambutan
This list wouldn't be complete without at least one spikey fruit bizarre to Western eyes. The Rambutan is a medium-sized tropical tree native to southeast Asia, and the fruit of this tree. It is believed to be native to the Malay Archipelago although its original natural distribution is unknown. It is related to several other edible tropical fruits including the Lychee, Longan and Mamoncillo. Red and spikey outside, pale white fruit with a black seed inside, used in jams and jellies. The fragile fruit must ripen on the tree, and is easily bruised and has a limited shelf life.

Tofu
No, it's not challenging to get. Not even that challenging to make or to cook with. But it's a grueling struggle to get this wimpy, gelatinous blob to actually stand up and be something! Scour the Earth for a decent recipe, apply it to tofu, and get something that actually tastes like food; get your picture in the Sunday paper.

Fruitcake
This last is an impassioned plea. Once upon a time, I once tasted fresh fruitcake. It was everything that traditional fruitcake was not. It was not hard, stale, sticky, caramely, or tasting like cheap candy but was made from scratch by somebody who'd candied the fruits on her own. Please instruct your students that fruitcake is popular for a reason and if done right it is actually supposed to be pleasurable to consume. This, I feel, is the great forbidden secret of fruitcake. It might not even be too far to go to instruct your minions to go around every Holiday season and picket the stacked, pressed, concrete bricks which are painted to look like fruitcake and sold in grocery stores every twelfth month. Perhaps even knock those pyramids down, bulldoze them to the curb, and ignite them in a protest bonfire. Tell them to stop giving fruitcake an undeserved bad name!
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