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What Did 17th Century Food Taste Like? (resobscura.blogspot.com)
71 points by benbreen 12 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

I've noticed food evolves in a particular way when it arrives to a new country. It's logical that food needs to be adapted to the country taste in order to get popular, but what it intrigues me is that it usually becomes more "complex", a lot of new ingredients are added, and the original refinement is missed.

A good example is pizza, I'm from Mexico, so I was get used to pizzas with a lot of different ingredients and a specific shape: https://tinyurl.com/y7wd7hl6

So I was really excited to taste the real stuff in Italy and then I got shocked when I noticed how simple one of the most popular is: https://tinyurl.com/nqcdhah

Something similar happened to onigiri.

What I know: https://tinyurl.com/yanlww6b Original: https://tinyurl.com/yaaw7f9k

And it seems like this is not something particular to Mexico, it happens the other way around too:

Original taco: https://tinyurl.com/yb8456mf American taco: https://tinyurl.com/y8vsuaxs

Original burrito: https://tinyurl.com/ycknpbyb American burrito:https://tinyurl.com/yb84p8lq

I think this just applies to the commercialized versions of those foods in the foreign countries. The pizza you linked to from Mexico looks like something you would get from any fast food pizza place in America and the Italian one looks like a margherita slice from any half decent pizza place in NYC. Same goes for the tacos. The "American" one just looks like something you get from Taco Bell while the "Original" looks like something I would get from a local taco truck.

The burrito is an interesting case. I do think that's evolved a bit in America to the point where everyone is copying Chipotle and Qdoba and trying to make the biggest burritos.

In many parts of the United States, well into the nineties, there were no Taco Bell tacos. I didn't get to try Taco Bell until 1995.

Growing up, Burritos were these frozen bean-paste wraps, with "meat" included sometimes, that you got from the super market and microwaved in multiple passes, until years later when Taco Bell appeared. Then after The Year 2000, some truly incredible Big Burrito shacks started popping up, with these gigantic, incredible 1.5 pound burritos, right before Chipotle began its massive expansion.

Otherwise, there were some rare Spanish restaurant chains like Meson, Olé! (still around), which were sit down affairs, with what seemed like (nearly extravagant) gourmet foreign cuisine, when stood next to the frozen burritos. Their freebie table nachos were these amazing and decadent snacks as a kid.

Pizza looked like neither, and gambling on pizza beyond the New York tri-state area was certainly taking a chance. I remember eating a pizza in Pennsylvania in the late 80's on one occasion, and it was hard/crunchy, almost stale-ish, cardboard-style flatbread, with "sauce" and "cheese" on top. That's the most memorable incident, but the prevailing wisdom was true: don't get Pizza outside of New York. Plain cheese brick oven pizza comes close to what people view(ed) as New York style pizza, even if you might find lots of the "original" example in NYC. Otherwise, mass produced Pizza Hut or Little Ceaser's were the only two consistent regional options for a long time, and while edible, each was a variation of "pizza" and not Pizza.

> ... with these massive, incredible 1.5 pound burritos...

This is the "Mission-style Burrito" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_burrito). I first encountered them in San Francisco in 1997, where I found them to be quite a novelty, even though I was coming from Texas and had a more than passing familiarity with burritos.

Chipotle has now popularized them nation-wide, of course.

I personally love the burrito variations up and down California.

I grew up on Mission burritos in SF. With Taqueria Cancun being a personal favorite.

But - holy moly - San Diego burritos are out of of this world. Burritos with meat, avocado and french fries. Heaven.

All food which is being sold is "commercialized". Don't try to smuggle in the "small companies are good, big ones are bad" premise. If you believe that, state it honestly.

All food which is being sold is "commercialized".

c'mon. It's really hard to talk about anything if we can't use shorthand at all. We all know what he means.

I don't like dishonesty and smuggled premises.

No dairy at all in real tacos? That's a surprise. That said, my friend's wife (from mexico) made made offal tacos once (kidney & tongue I think) that were dressed exactly like that^. They had sour cream on the table though.

Anyway, I think you're onto something! Internationalizing^ food does seem to go hand-in-hand with more ingredients and complexity. Maybe this is like how very knowledgeable people can give simpler answers, really well designed products have fewer features. The "didn't have time to write a short letter" effect, for cuisine.

I think it's harder to mess things up with more ingredients. Add enough ingredients and you just end up with the statistical average "food." You're international versions of onigiri, tacos, burritos and pizza are remarkably similar to one another. The originals are more distinct.

*rockostrich blames commercialization which makes sense too. It's hard to pick that apart from Internationalisation though, since the two are so intertwined.


> really well designed products have fewer features.

Well-designed products have more effective features, because they allow users to add features.

But that's probably too far afield for the people here.

I find original tacos and burritos available in the states often on the same menu where they are available in other manners. Maybe it's a regional thing, places where there is a large Hispanic community?

When you take the food out of it's original context I think there's a freedom to experiment because there are fewer expectations.

Also, Americans do this with everything, especially our own food. Like the recent proliferation of hamburger joints that do all manner of things to the burger, stretching its very definition.

>Also, Americans do this with everything

A lot of Indian restaurants and street food vendors do it too, ha ha. E.g. Gobi Manchurian (a cauliflower version of Chicken Manchurian) is a real dish you can get in "Chinese" restaurants, or rather restaurants serving (Indianized) Chinese food in India. And Chinese Bhel (a made-up "Chinese" version of the Indian snack bhelpuri [1] - a sort of reverse adaptation, is found at street food vendor's carts or stands).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhelpuri

The picture of an original burrito looks more like a quesadilla. Quesadillas in the U.S., even at Taco Bell, are still similar to the Mexican quesadilla. In California you can also get quesadillas stuffed with meats and vegetables, and they're definitely _not_ considered burritos even though you're most likely to find such an item at a burrito shop.

I think the burrito is a Mexican-American invention. A few restaurants in the San Francisco Mission District claim to be the inventor. There are obvious similarities to traditional Mexican food, but it's not derivative of anything in particular. When I stayed in Guadalajara I had something called a burrito at a festival, but like the "burrito" I had in Ecuador it seemed like a really bad imitation of the American food item. Indeed, I found no actual authentic Mexican food in Ecuador whatsoever, so it was telling to me that the burritos I had in both Mexico and Ecuador were nearly identical and also both horrible--basically knock-offs of American microwave burritos.

The "typical" American taco is probably meat, lettuce and cheese in a U shell. Sour cream and extra vegetables is "deluxe" or whatever.

I guess most grocers devote more shelf space to uncooked tortillas these days than to the shells though.

This is definitely the case with "Chinese food" in different countries. Its interesting to see how it has evolved though:

* In the US, its more sweet and spicy stuff, like Orange chicken, General Tso chicken and such

* In India, there are incredibly spicy variations of all kinds of Chinese food e.g. Chicken Manchurian, Chicken Lollypop etc.

So I agree; chefs and cooks probably add their own spin on foreign foods to make it more palatable to their clients.

I remember hearing somewhere that the US had a large influx of Chinese immigrants earlier than the UK, so the Chinese food in the UK is a more modern Chinese cuisine compared to the US.

I suspect this happens because what makes the original dish special is the delicate balance of local ingredients, expert skills, and local taste which evolved together over centuries. Take the dish to a new context, with different quality of ingredients and less skilled cooks, and you lose that balance. You then have to compensate by piling on other flavors – ideally popular local ones – to make the dish interesting again.

So your thesis is that experts are local, then the dish moves non-local, where there aren’t any experts, so they just pile on local ingredients to make up for it?

This comes across as kind of a silly view.

How can folk dishes require "expert skills" if everyone makes them?

Could be because the locals making them are experts, having made them for centuries - not the same people living for centuries, obviously, but the skills transferred from parents to children over many generations, and refined as years go by, etc.

Italian food is simple in general. Purchase the best ingredients, allowing the flavors to emerge. A general rule, if a dish has more than 6 ingredients it probably isn't Italian, and if it has more than 10 ingredients it certainly isn't Italian.

I think what you are seeing is that American food has a the same bunch of generic ingredients added to lots of dishes, since USA is a large country with good food-transportation infrastructure, and that Mexican pizza is American-inspired.

That version of onigiri looks pretty delicious, would love to try it.

"as time went by, a dish tended to become sweeter, spicer, and more complicated."

Feature creep!

The original requirements were for bread and meat. With an optional drink of water if there was time and it came in under budget.

one of the truly frustrating things about renaissance and medieval recipes is that they are shorthand notes, not detailed instructions. Think inferring documentation from commit messages, basically.

i found a 15th century recipe for a particular kind of soup that started “make soup as normal;in addition add ...”

You don't have to go back to the middle ages for that. I have a recipe book with recipes from my grandmother and her contemporaries which are often just lists of ingredients. Knowledge of how to assemble them is assumed. Even some of the ingredients already aren't what you think. "Sour cream," for example, is naturally soured (spoiled) cream, not the stuff we now buy in the grocery store.

Just a little correction, naturally soured cream isn't spoiled but is fermented by lactic acid bacteria that occur naturally in raw milk. To sour pasteurized cream you don't let it spoil, but introduce the right kind of bacteria.

Yes, I know you are correct. I choose the word "spoiled" as a shorthand for the fermentation process. It is "spoiled" in the same sense that yoghurt and cheese are "spoiled" milk. Not entirely accurate, but perhaps more descriptive to those who don't know what it is.

In retrospect, I should have used "fermented" rather than "spoiled."

If you want to further understand the evolution of dairy - and the history of many other foods - I would highly recommend the book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen". It's long but utterly fascinating for food nerds.

You will be surprised in how many modern recipes lack of critical details (My mom is chef and try to replicate many!).

Contrary to belief, is not about quantities. The procedure is more critical

> Contrary to belief, is not about quantities. The procedure is more critical

Indeed - in cooking, technique is supreme when it comes to to creating great food. So many new cooks get hung up on precise measurements but don't consider time and temperature and don't ask themselves why they're doing certain things at certain times. With time you begin to acquire a bit of an intuition about how much of whatever it is you might use and you learn quickly that you can always add more, but you can't often take something away.

You should also be able to answer why each ingredient is being added - what is it trying to add, complement or remove if it wasn't added. And also remember that you can season and spice as you cook. You should always taste while you're cooking - it's a simple thought but so many people don't and once you find discipline in tasting while you cook, you hit a new level.

Now baking - yeah you better get your measuring cups and scales out!

E.g. intuitively grokking the Maillard reaction, fond, deglazing, etc.

In my experience with beginners - the number one error they make is not understanding their heat source and pans. For example, they'll put oil in a thin pan, turn on the burner and drop in a chicken breast right from the fridge and wonder why its not done in 6 minutes.

My advice to beginners cooking on stove tops: get a cast iron skillet - treat it with love and kindness. Let it warm up for a bit before you start cooking.

Good advice considering cast iron is super cheap to buy. You need heavy cookware that can hold heat and it's super important to get the pan hot first and as you said, let the meat sit out for 30m-1h before cooking it. Dry the meat as well and salt a good 45m before cooking to draw moisture out of the thin surface areas and then sear in a hot pan.

I usually use Falk copper cookware (but have some cast iron too when I want a ton of heat that stays hot) since it gets super hot but also has the added ability to change temperatures quickly. So when cooking, I have control and can start hot and take it off the burner to rapidly get the pan temperature down and then back up if I want to start creating a sauce from the fond, deglazing, etc.

But I wouldn't recommend someone spending $300-$500 per copper pan when they're getting started! Cast iron is a great place to start - and if taken care of, will last you forever.

My daily mix is a couple of cast iron skillets and all-clad stainless steel saucepans. The combination is perfect for me.

Just looked over the Falk line - absolutely beautiful. I've never considered copper cookware. What benefits do you get? How much time in maintenance do you spend? Do you have to clean and polish the copper bottoms of your pans weekly? I periodically pull out BKF and polish my all-clads - but it isn't necessary.

Yeah, the Falk stuff is pretty top notch. They actually produce the copper for other major brands too.

All-clad is great stuff. The copper stuff distributes heat a bit more evenly and also has more temperature control. It reacts a bit faster to changes in temperature and is more precise in holding a temperature and not creating hotspots. Very useful especially when making sauces or trying to keep precise temperature on something like a reduction that you don't want to boil.

In terms of maintenance I clean the insides with BKF (the most magical cleaner on Earth) which is a thin stainless steal lining and I don't really polish the outsides - just soap and water. I prefer the patina look and because Falk doesn't polish the outsides and uses a brushed finish it really looks nice after many, many uses IMO.

This is exceptionally true. Half of cooking is understanding that (with the exception of baking), most of what you're doing doesn't have to be terribly exact, but the technique is really the key of what's happening. Like any other skill, it just takes a bit of practice to catch on to what's going down, and some people catch on more quickly than others.

My great-grandmother's recipes include instructions like "use more coals than normal for oven."

this is an interesting youtube channel related to this


That's 18th century, which I think is just as interesting, but I think the main point of the article is, "what the heck did people eat before they discovered the Americas, and how did that change as American foods spread?"

Personally, if you took tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, strawberries, blueberries, peanuts, chilis, turkey and - most especially - chocolate, out of my weekly diet, I'm not sure what I would eat.

I was going to post that even though it's a century off, but it's still entertaining and one of the most entertaining hosts on YT, next to the hot wing guy.

I love this channel. Watching John and his pals get utterly confused trying to make these recipes while wearing their period garb—I feel like I'm watching people really enjoying their hobby.

A 17th century whisk is a bunch of small sticks :).

Like animal whiskers still look.

Huh... I just assumed "whisk" was an onomatopoeia. whiskwhiskwhiskwhiskwhiskwhiskwhisk...

You assumed right. The cat's whiskers were named after the whiskwhiskwhisk whiskers.

Was hoping for a little more concrete research or recipes. I work in the food industry and history is one of my favourite topics as well. My grandmother was Ukrainian and lived on a farm, and her cooking was based 100% on ingredients that came from very close to their farm, as well as processed in a non-industrial setting (cabbage fermented in a barrel, natural sour cream, farm animals that were killed behind the barn, etc...). The taste was certainly different than industrial foods. Now going back in time there were no gas or electric ovens, people mainly cooked on wood fired hearths, which would have given a different flavour. Not to mention lack of refrigeration would mean more salted and cured meats and less fresh meat. It is certainly an interesting exercise to try to recreate old tastes, but not really possible. I'd guess we can come close though.

If you like this, I can't recommend the BBC's "Supersizers" enough. The pair is super funny as they re-create and re-eat historical foods.


More Claret!

The author unfortunately concludes at the bottom that it's impossible to know what the foods really tasted like:

> These early modern foods are culinary false friends. They seem like they'd be the same as our familiar correlates. But we can't be sure that they tasted the same.

> Like so much in history, they're so close, yet just out of reach.

There are several reasons, probably the most important being that the cultivars of plants they used at the time were so different that we can't know what they tasted like. Heavy selection and breeding over the course of 500 years changes a lot.

Apropos: Wikipedia has articles on topics like Ancient Roman Cuisine, Ancient Israelite cuisine, etc.

What do they mean by "squash" (on the map)?

The cucurbita genus of vegetables: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucurbita

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