(Pollan on cooking) “But even better, I found, is the satisfaction of temporarily breaking free of one’s accustomed role of producing the one thing – whatever it is you sell into the market – and being the passive consumer of everything else.”

I have just finished reading Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and am excited by what it has taught me about the ancient art of cooking. The theme of the book is that cooking involves the transformation of meat and plant matter, and the four transformations coincide with the traditional elements namely earth, wind, fire, and water.
The subtitle of the book is “”A Natural History of Transformation”. In the section dealing with fire, Pollan explores traditional whole animal barbecue as practised by the pitmasters from the Southern states of the USA. In exploring transformation by water he explores the world of stews and braises. In the section dealing with air, he looks at  bread baking, because after all, isn’t a loaf of bread but trapped air. Finally, in the earth section he takes us through a fascinating journey through the world of food fermentation. 
Michael Pollan is an acclaimed US journalist, who was recently included in “Times” 100 most influential people in the world. His books always appear in the New York Times bestseller list and “Cooked” is no exception. 
I have never read a cook book or a book on cooking, but I could not put down Pollan’s book. Over the next few weeks I hope to share some of the insights I gained from the book in the hope that it will spark your interest in this activity which is increasingly being seen as mundane and boring. 
I recommend “Cooked” to anyone interested in a fascinating and insightful read.
Let us begin our review of “Cooked” with a look at the humble but ubiquitous onion. Ever asked yourself 
“”Why do I always find myself chopping up onions?”
Rest assured you are not alone. Onions represent the “starter” for meals all over the world.  
If you begin your pot dish by sautéing chopped onions, carrots and celery in butter or sometimes olive oil you’ve made a “mirepoix”, which marks your dish as French. 
If you begin with a mince of onions, carrots and celery sautéed in olive oil (and perhaps add some garlic, fennel or parsley) then you’re beginning an Italian dish with a “soffritto”, (in Italian soffritto means underfried).
But soffritto with one “f” and “t” – “sofrito”is Spanish and normally includes onions, garlic and tomato in place of celery. Cajun cooking begins with onions, garlic and bell peppers.
If you begin with diced spring onions, garlic, and ginger you are moving towards Eastern cuisine, as this is an “Asian mirepoix”.
In India a “tarka” comprises diced onions and spices sautéed in clarified butter or ghee.
Returning to our question about why we spend so much time chopping onions. Scientific research has revealed that low, slow heating of vegetables, breaks down the long chains of proteins into their constituent amino acids, some of which like glutamic acid are known to give foods a meaty savoury taste called – “umami”.
We were all taught that we can perceive four tastes namely salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Now we know there is a fifth taste – umami and like each of the others there are receptors on our tongue dedicated to detecting its presence. 
Named after “umai” which is Japanese for “delicious”, umami was recognised as a fully fledged taste by the Japanese in 1908. It was discovered by a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda who was investigating the flavours emitted by dried Korbut, a seaweed used as stock in a number of Japanese dishes. 
Umami was not recognised as a separate taste in the West until 2001 when scientists discovered the separate receptors on the tongue that detected umami.

More to follow ……

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