Causa de cangrejo
Peruvian potato, crab and avocado dish
The Spring 2009 semester is now history!
For a few weeks at least, there will be no syllabi telling me which chapters I must read; no writing assignments on pre-determined topics; and no quizzes, exams or other manner of testing. I will read, write and challenge myself however I see fit, thank you very much.
That's not to say that I didn't enjoy my studies; in fact, my just-completed anthropology course, Rise of Civilizations, proved to be an exciting revelation about the central role of food in our social evolution. As a broad survey encompassing 12,000 years of human history and 10 different regions of the world, it wasn't possible to delve with great detail into the food practices of each culture but it was more than enough to whet my appetite to learn more.
The Cooking Ape?
The ability to make and use tools, and to control fire first set early hominids apart from other great apes but it was how these innovations were used that hastened (relatively speaking) our journey down the evolutionary path. Stone tools dating as far back as 2.5 million years ago facilitated the consumption of meat, providing "useful cutting edges for a species that lacks both sharp teeth and claws for slicing meat, shredding, plants or digging" (Price, 63). The general scientific consensus is that meat provided the extra calories necessary to develop the larger, Homo sapien brain.
Not so fast, says biological anthropologist and author Richard Wrangham, who argues that raw meat alone was insufficient to support the pace of human evolution. In his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Wrangham theorizes that cooking was the crucial extra step necessary to shape the modern human form and lifestyle. Cooking by fire softened animal and plant matter, he says, rendering them easier to digest and more nutritious, thereby providing significantly more calories for physiological development (Evans, 79). Furthermore, he suggests that the control of fire may have also been an important catalyst in forming social relations:
[Photo from WikiMedia.org]
"Once individuals were drawn to a specific attractive location that had a fire, they spent a lot of time around it together . . . We had to be able to look each other in the eye [and not] react with impulsivity. Once you are sitting around the fire, you need to suppress reactive emotions that would otherwise lead to social chaos. Around that fire, we became tamer."(Wrangham, quoted in Dreifus, n.p.)
From Civility to Civilization
While Wrangham's theory is under debate, there is no doubt that with increased sociability and cooperation, humans began the slow transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists and eventually, residents of towns and cities. But just as eating raw meat can not be solely credited for human evolution, cooking by itself did not give rise to the ancient civilizations that were precursors of today's complex societies.
Instead, it was our ancestors' domestication of plants and animals nearly 10,000 years ago that made it possible to produce sufficient, even surplus, food which in turn allowed them to redirect their energies toward developing the hallmarks of civilization, such as occupational specialization (e.g. farming, manufacturing) and economic trade. Within a short evolutionary timespan, every continent in the world, excepting Australia and Antarctica, saw the rise of such complex societies, marked by the emergence of large urban centers like Rome, the creation of monumental architecture such as pyramids, and the development of distinct artistic styles in paintings, personal ornamentation and pottery.
(Photo from www.hp.uab.edu)
It is through such artistic expression and detailed craftwork that we may trace the transformation of food consumption from basic necessity to political and ritual form. In one of the earliest pictorial representations of ancient ruling systems, the Royal Standard of Ur (2600-2400 BC) from southern Mesopotamia depicts a feast during which food, both harvested and on the hoof, are presented in tribute to the king. During China's Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BC), skilled artisans created food containers of exquisitely molded bronze which were meant strictly for ritual purposes, usually as grave goods to be buried with its owner as an offering to honored ancestors.
And in South America, elaborately decorated drinking cups called keros, made of ceramic, wood and even gold, were produced as early as the pre-Incan cultures of Tiwanaku and Huari (AD 400-1000) and continued well after the Spanish Conquest. These vessels were filled with chicha, a fermented drink made of maïze, and were used primarily for ceremonial activities. A peculiar characteristic of keros was that they were always made in pairs - one for use by a human ritual participant and the other as a symbolic offering to the gods. [Image on the right depicts an Inca king drinking from a kero while its pair is carried by a small figure up to the Sun God, Inti. From Guaman Poma website]
Of all the regions covered in the course, it was South America and its early cultures that captured my imagination. Whereas archaeological evidence points to long-distance trade between the civilizations in the Near East, Europe, Africa and Asia (all connected by land mass), allowing wide exchange of information and technologies, South American societies developed in relative isolation and yet managed achievements that rivalled those from across the oceans.
Inca Civilization - High Society
(Photo by Eric in SF)
Stretching from what is today Ecuador and down to the southern part of modern Chile, the Inca empire (AD 1476-1534) - the largest civilization in pre-industrialized Americas - enjoyed a very bright, albeit very brief, reign. Based primarily in the Andes Mountains but with the rich waters of the Pacific to the west and the lush jungles of the Amazon to the east, the Inca enjoyed a broad-based food supply ranging from fresh fish and shellfish, meats from domesticated llamas, alpacas and guinea pig, and crops such as maïze, potatoes, squash, beans and peppers.
Food and other commodities were distributed across the region by way of an extensive paved highway system similar to the vast network of roads in the Roman empire and complete with waystations called tampus where travelers could rest and store their goods (Price, 422). But this was not the only feat of engineering that the Inca shared with distant cultures with which they had no contact.
Terraced farming in the Andes - cutting level areas within a slope for agricultural use - may have developed as far back as 2400 BC (Crawford, 414), which would predate even the famous 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines! Could this be the reason for my fascination with South American civilizations among all the ones covered during this course? A primal affinity, a subconscious recognition of a kindred culture?
Terraces at Macchu Picchu (photo by CmdrGravy)
Or is it, as always, about the food? Great minds may think alike but when it comes down to it, the stomach rules the head! Peru, as the central land of the Inca empire, has 28 of the 32 designated climate zones, resulting in an incredible biodiversity of animals and plants, particularly its seafood and potatoes. But dishes such as papa a la Huancaína, lomo saltado, anticuchos and, of course, ceviche (recipes from Wikimedia Cookbooks) reflect not only Peru's diverse ecosystem but its rich social history as well.
". . . Peruvian cuisine is the quintessence of cultural fusion . . . blending between Inca and Spanish traditions [and] incorporating the flavours and techniques of the many immigrants that disembarked in the country's ports, in particular African, Chinese, and Japanese."
Led by the country's most renowned and successful chef Gaston Acurio, who recently opened an outpost of his popular Lima restaurant La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in San Francisco, Peruvian cuisine is quickly gaining a foothold among American gastronomes and has already been hailed by Epicurious.com and Bon Appétit as one of the hottest food trends of 2009.
Not one to miss the bandwagon, especially if it's carrying such fabulous fare, and inspired by my favorite ancient civilization, I decided to celebrate my (hopefully) successful completion of the semester by preparing Causa, a layered potato dish of seafood and avocado served chilled.
Also known as Causa Limeña, it is a perfect representation of Peru's indigenous foods - potatoes (of which approximately 3000 varieties are grown), seafood and the chile pepper known as aji amarillo (yellow Peruvian hot pepper). The origins of this dish and the etymology of its name are as varied as the cuisine's many influences.
The term 'causa' comes from the Quechua word 'kausay', meaning 'necessary sustenance', invoking the role of potato, its main ingredient, as the primary staple food in Peruvian history (Higgins, 207). But it is also the Spanish word for 'cause', which may refer to one story that the dish was created by patriotic housewives during the 19th century war with Chile. In fact, 'limeña' is the word for the women of Lima, Peru's capital. And yet, it is also another name of a variety of yellow potato, papa amarilla ('Lost Crops', 95). Got all that?
No matter the meaning of its name, causa is a delicious example of Peruvian cuisine and a perfect summer dish.
Crawford, R.M.M. Plants at the Margin. Cambridge U P: 2008.
Dreifus, Claudia. "From Studying Chimps, a Theory on Cooking." New York Times. April 20, 2009.
Evans, Mary. "What's Cooking?" The Economist. February 21, 2009: 79-80.
Higgins, James. Lima: a Cultural History. 2005
Lost Crops of the Incas. Office of International Affairs. 1989.
Price, T. Douglas and Gary Feinman. Images of the Past. McGraw-Hill: 2006.
Causa de cangrejo (Crab Causa)
The dish presented here is an adaptation from two recipes for Crab Causa - the first is from The Peru Guide and the other from Whole Foods Market. Traditionally, it is garnished with olives and slices of hardboiled eggs; however, I opted for WFM's idea of topping it with a fresh mango-tomato salsa. I also prepared it as a 'loaf' but for an even more pleasing presentation, it may be prepared as individual servings using ring molds or ramekins.
Ingredients and instructions
For the causa:
1 kg (about 2 lbs) Yukon Gold or other yellow potato
4 Tbsps aji amarillo paste**
1/4 cup canola oil
1 lime, juiced
1/2 cup mayonnaise, divided
1 (6 oz) can crabmeat, drained well
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 avocado (+ 1-2 tsps lime juice)
Salt to taste
** Aji amarillo paste is an essential staple of the Peruvian pantry and an important ingredient in many recipes. Although it may be difficult to find, it is well worth the effort to have it on hand. Otherwise, try this recipe for making your own paste!
1. Boil the potatoes. Drain and cool until safe to handle, then peel and mash very well (no lumps!);
2. Let cool then mix thoroughly with aji paste, canola oil, lime juice and 1/4 cup mayonnaise. Set aside;
3. In another bowl, mix crabmeat, 1/4 cup mayonnaise and scallions (if the mixture is too runny, add panko by tablespoons until thickened). Set aside;
4. In a separate bowl, mash avocado with lime juice and set aside;
5. Cover the inside of a bread loaf pan with enough plastic wrap so that it overhangs the edges;
6. Spread a smooth layer of mashed potato on the bottom of the pan, then add mashed avocado;
7. Add another layer of potato, then spread over with the crabmeat mix;
8. Spread remaining mashed potato; cover with plastic wrap, laying it directly on the potato;
9. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
For the mango salsa
3 large plum tomatoes, diced small (about 3/4 - 1 cup)
1/4 cup sweet onion, diced small
1/2 mango, cut into small chunks
Cilantro, chopped fine
1 Tbsp lime juice
Salt to taste
Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate until ready to use.
To serve the causa:
1. Remove causa from the refrigerator and place a large plate over the top of the pan;
2. Carefully invert the pan and plate, allowing the causa to slide out; carefully peel the plastic wrap and smooth out any 'wrinkles' with a knife or spatula;
3. Spoon mango salsa on top, gently spreading it so that it covers the surface;
4. You may wish to allow guests to spoon it on their plates themselves as 'slicing' it is somewhat messy (chilling for several hours helps set it more firmly). Given time and patience, you may wish to plate individual portions using ramekins or ring molds. Serve immediately!
After the first taste, I'm sure you'll be saying, "¡Sumaq mikhuna!" (Quechua, "That was delicious!")