Review: How Curry, Soy Sauce and Sriracha Became American, MOFAD Mar. 9, 2017

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine © Tatsuya Aoki for WhereNYC

Cover image: Courtesy of Sarah Lohman

Sarah Lohman’s book: Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine reveals the rich history behind black pepper, M.S.G., curry powder, soy sauce, chilli powder, garlic, vanilla and sriracha and how they became America’s pantry staples. Ms. Lohman began her talk at MOFAD with a brief synopsis on the eight ingredients, diving deeper into their origins.

Why choose to focus on these particular eight flavors? With the help of a Googles Ngram Viewer, she compiled and graphed a list of commonly used ingredients. After analyzing the results, she filtered out the best candidates according to their popularity over a span of 300 years. Of the remaining eight flavors, according to Ms. Lohman,  each have defined the contemporary American palette.

One of the most interesting finds was the introduction of curry powder in the U.S.. Having had originated some 4000 years ago in East Asia, it was through the East India Company and eventually the British empire that brought Indian cooking to the West. According to Lohman, curry’s arrival in the U.S. came via Great Britain through a Punjabi-Indian chef Ranji Smile who, while working at a London hotel in the 1890s, mesmerized a top New York restaurateur with his curry dish. A deal was made and shortly thereafter, Smile began serving his curry dishes to New York’s social elite.

Prince/Chef Ranji Smile

Prince of Curry, Chef Ranji Smile. Image courtesy of Sarah Lohman

As one of America’s first celebrity chefs, he led a rockstar lifestyle, touring the States, hosting cooking demonstrations amidst elaborate stage acts that included sword swallowers and dancing girls. His fate took, however, a cruel twist when after living in America for 30 years, his application for U.S. citizenship was denied, as it extended only to Anglo-Saxon whites and black Americans. His story ends there with speculation that he left the U.S. out of sheer frustration and faded into obscurity.

Lohman talks soy sauce © Tatsuya Aoki for WhereNYC

Introduced to the America in 1760, soy sauce was produced in Thunderbolt, Georgia by English sailor and entrepreneur Samuel Bowen. By the 1800s it was available along the east coast. It’s popularity helped spawn derivatives such as Worcestershire Sauce and Ketchup. In 1973, the Japanese soy sauce company, Kikkoman opened its first American factory in Wisconsin. The following year, it published a cookbook of both traditional Japanese dishes and American classics incorporating Kikkoman soy sauce. The 1974-cover also daringly featured a modern, mixed family consisting of a white-American dad, Japanese mom, and their two kids enjoying a barbecue.

David Tran

David Tran, founder of Huy Fong Foods inc. Image courtesy of Sarah Lohman.

While curry and soy sauce also came from abroad, the Sriracha we know and love originated here with Southeast Asian flavors. Sriracha, or more specifically, Huy Fong Foods Sriracha was developed in southern California by Vietnamese immigrant David Tran. He adapted the traditional Sriracha recipe to use California’s red jalapeño peppers. In the 1980s it was a small family run operation that distributed locally. Ever since the first batch was sold he struggled to keep up with the demand. Within several years, the operation had scaled to the size of a corporate manufacturing facility. Today, Huy Fong Foods outsources their red jalapeño peppers to Underwood Farms, located just north of Los Angeles. Huy Fong Foods Sriracha meteoric rise in the culinary world is rather impressive, considering the lack of marketing the company has done to promote its products.

Sarah Lohman © Tatsuya Aoki for WhereNYC

It is a common but very poignant story of immigrants and Americans traveling abroad who brought new flavors and ideas of cuisine. As new communities arrive, mix and evolve, the flavors change and so does the American palate. With each new inspiration, the notion of traditional cuisine evolves molds with other cultures. Like a melting pot of many ingredients, the eight flavors featured Sarah Lohman’s book fit like a mosaic of different cultures blending into one identity.

Tatsuya Aoki