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Food&Mythology: The significance of food and booze on St. Patrick’s Day

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Irish stew (via bbcgoodfood.com)

It’s that time of the year again, and if you’re not having fun from sun up to sun down, you’re doing it wrong. Within the midst of all this partying, however, it’s easy to forget why we celebrate this holiday the way we do. Because believe it or not, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day has nothing to do with St. Patrick at all (nor does it have much to do with green shamrocks and leprechauns, though if you run into one don’t place a bet on gold).  In fact, he wasn’t even Irish!  St. Patrick was a Roman living in Wales when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders. He escaped and later returned to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity.

The feasting, the drinking, and the dancing all has to do with pre-Christian Irish custom and the wonderful St. Bridget.

“Hospitality was enormously important in pre-Christian Irish civilization. Even today, if you get lost, in the countryside in Ireland, and you knock on someone’s door and you tell them you’re lost, they will invite you in for tea. There is no such thing as hospitality in Ireland without food,” says Professor Maud McInerney, a medieval studies specialist at Haverford College.

She goes on to explain how in Irish mythology, a lot of miracles have to do with producing mass amounts of food, which brings us to St. Bridget.

St. Bridget’s Story

Now, it’s important to know that there was a saint named Bridget, but she was certainly almost tapping into a pre-existing Irish pagan deity who was known for providing food.

Professor McInerney adding Guinness to butter for a Guinness cake

“There is one legend about St. Bridget,” says Professor McInerney, “in which she was bathing when suddenly her maid runs in and says, ‘Bridget! Bridget! All the bishops in Ireland are here and they want to have a meeting (Bridget was also a female bishop). But there’s no food in the house and I have nothing to serve them!’ Bridget immediately replies, ‘Well here, give them this!’ She jumps out of her bath, and turns the bathwater into beer.”

St. Bridget is also known for giving food and butter to the poor.

There is also another myth of one Irish saint whose student, while fasting, suddenly exclaimed he couldn’t stand it anymore, and wished for food. The Irish saint, whose brother was the king of a nearby area and was having a feast, prayed to God for food. Instantly, the dishes at the king’s feast leapt up and danced their way down the road so the saint’s student could have a bite.

Want a bite to eat? Learn how to make a Guinness Cake. 

So if St. Patrick didn’t have much to do with food at all, why do we celebrate his day like he did?

The Irish Saint 

The simple answer is, because he’s the patron saint of Ireland. But because Irish culture is so invested in feeding people, all the things that have to do with food have become a part of his image. And as for the drinking, well, it’s a way to give thanks.

“In early times the Irish only had two types of alcohol,” says Professor McInerney. “They had beer and meade. If you look at their early mythology, drinking is usually involved. It’s an important part of their culture, like in Greek culture. In the Iliad, for example, you see the characters drinking wine and slaughtering cows (to appease the gods). In Irish mythology, you see the same, except they’re drinking meade.”

Tastebuds are tangy for that Asian Sensation

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It’s a trend that’s not unfamiliar to sprawling metropolitan cities across North America, especially in ethnically diverse cities such as Vancouver and Toronto. Ten years ago, Lebanese and Greek cuisine were the “It” foods in Halifax. Today, thanks to celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and the increasing number of international students from the East, “It” is Asian cuisine.

Simon Thibault, journalist and foodie, explains.

“People in general have become more food savvy, or at least, are becoming more cognoscente of what is out there,” he says. “Both food television and food-based internet sites have come to give people access to knowing about what’s big in food around the world… There is also the aforementioned point that there are now more Asian students and families living here, many looking for a taste of home.”

Kimbap aka "Korean sushi." Image via lovethatkimchi.com

Liz Smith, owner of Indochine Banh Mi, a Vietnamese-fusion bistro, can attest to that. Though her bistro is a hit with university students now, it wasn’t always that way before. “[My first customers were] mostly young professionals, a lot of whom had traveled quite a bit or had lived in cities where Vietnamese food was popular.”

But why East Asian cuisine, of all things? Why not Mexican, Scandinavian, or Ethiopian? While it’s true that these cuisines have not received the same PR Thai or Japanese has from famous food lovers and critics, they are as equally exotic and as tasty. After all, how many people have tried Ethiopian flatbreads with stew?

A balancing act

The answer may lie in the balance of flavours East Asian cuisine offers; a unique trait that differs from region to region. Thai food, for example, is an amalgamation of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy. A good Thai cook would always have garlic, lime, fish sauce, oyster sauce, coconut milk, palm sugar, and chili at hand. In China, the balance is focused between “hot”, “cold”, and “neutral foods”– many dishes are often eaten only in particular seasons. They are labeled this way not because of their temperatures at serving time, but because they have properties that either heat or chill the organs. Likewise, a Korean dish should contain a balance in Taoist elements, which are represented through colour.

There’s also what cookbook writer and restaurant owner Chef Craig Flinn, in a recent lecture at Dalhousie University, calls “the crunch”. It’s the buildup of layers and textures that someone eating may not detect directly, but it can make or break a dish. He too is a newcomer to Asian cuisine, but already understands some of the complexity involved.

“My love for sushi is relatively new,” he says. “I have learned to appreciate rice more and sushi, as most experts will say, is about the rice, not the fish. I also really enjoy Thai food. Only recently I commented on how Thai and many Asian dishes are really just simple stir frys but with incredibly intense flavours in their marinades and sauces. The variety is endless.”

But whether there’s a spiritual philosophy in this balance of taste and texture or not, the truth of the matter is that it works. People love the combinations. In fact, one could say that the balance is addicting. It’s hard to resist a sandwich when instead of the usual lettuce-cheese-tomato-ham combo, one can have lemongrass chicken or pork meat ball seasoned with the combination of cilantro, chili, and fish sauce instead.

Liz Smith preparing a lemongrass pork sub at Indochine Banh Mi

“We have a lot of people who say, ‘I’m addicted to your sandwiches!’” says Smith.  She’s referring to her well known “Vietnamese subs”.

“I know what they mean, because when I was living in Calgary, whenever I got hungry, the first thing I would think of is Vietnamese food.”

Clean and Fresh

Though Smith accredits her success to the taste in food, she also says that a lot of the appeal comes from the food’s freshness.

“Everything is made in house and everything is made daily,” she says.

With magazines, books, nutritionists, chefs, and documentaries telling us to eat fresh, organic and healthy, it’s no wonder that both Asian cuisine and vegan is trendy these days. They have a reputation for being healthier and more nutritionally balanced traditional “Western” meals.  And maybe they are, if cooked and eaten properly.

As a Thai national with Chinese ancestry myself, I can assure you that a breakfast plate of Hainanese chicken and broth (literally called “rice chicken fat” in Thai) could have as many calories as a large burger with fries (anywhere between 300-600 calories). That said, the Som Tam salad (green papayas substituted with carrots in Halifax) I would consequently have for dinner, would be about 200 calories.

Not that calories should perturb anyone from trying new food, especially when there is so much to explore.

“When I moved from my old apartment into my current home,” Thibault reminisces, “I remember somebody asking me, ‘How many kinds of soy sauce do you need?’  I looked at the bottles and said, ‘Two for each culture.’ It’s true.  I even use Vietnamese fish sauce when cooking Vietnamese, and Thai when I am cooking Thai.”

When does pizza stop being pizza?

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Not the Nation, a Thai parody site of the news agency the Nation recently published an article about the World Pizza Council demanding to revoke the Thai pizza restaurant chain The Pizza Company‘s right to call their latest invention a pizza.

This is what their pizza looks like:

The “pizza” above contains your usual cheese and tomato sauce with toppings like sausage, onion, green pepper, pineapple and what appears to be pepperoni. The crust however, is consisted of cheese-stuffed sausages surrounded by more cheese and crust dough.

Unusual, fatty, and so likely to be the average (non-vegetarian) stoner’s favourite snack.

While this article is clearly a joke (unless there really is a World Pizza Council), one’s gotta wonder: When does a dish transmogrify itself to the point that it is no longer its original self?

I guess if the dish in question still tastes the same in it’s new form, then it’s still the same dish. And it’s not like there’s anything wrong with being adventurous.

Then again, I’d never dip my sushi into wasabi ice cream.

Would you? 

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