WHAT? Mexican water you can drink. Agua de jamaica—a tea from steeped jamaica flowers, sugar, and water—is sold all over Mexico by street vendors, who ladle it from large glass barrels. In Authentic Mexican (William Morrow), Rick Bayless notes that the tea is one of a number of aguas frescas (literally, fresh water); other flavors include horchata, made with sweetened rice milk; tamarind; and a wide variety of fruits. Although they are called flores de jamaica in Spanish (jamaica flowers), the "flores" are not flowers at all, but the calyx (the layer that covers the blossom) of what Americans know as the hibiscus plant; the plant also goes by the names roselle or Jamaican sorrel. The fruity flavors of all the aguas frescas, Bayless wrote, "are sweet and uncomplicated to match the unpretentious, spicy snacks they’re frequently paired with."
WHAT? Hot water. In general, this Spanish term refers to a broad genre of white spirits distilled from grapes, sugar cane, or molasses. Tequila has been called Mexico's aguardiente. Cachaça is the aguardiente of Brazil. In specific, aguardiente refers to a type of eau-de-vie produced in Spain from grape must. The name means literally "burning water," and anyone who has done shots of any of the alcohols that fall under the category of cachaça knows whence the name derives. A Spanish proverb warns: "El aguardiente es una puta: que no te guste demasiado, o los bronquios lo acabarán pagando." (Aguardiente is a whore. Don't like it too much or your throat will pay for it.)
WHAT? Jellied belly. Certain items have come to be expected on a traditional Swedish smörgåsbord, while others have been retired over time. Myriad forms of herring are always on offer, for instance. But the cold, jellied meat dish known as aladaube has all but disappeared. As evidence, our Swedish culinary correspondent Katarina Pederson reported that there is only one aladaube recipe (for eel) in the recently published Swedish cookbook, The Good Sweden by Inger Grimlund and Björn Halling, whereas a cookbook from 1891, Cooking as Science and Art by Charles Emil Hagdahl, included 14 recipes for the dish. Nils Norén of Aquavit confirms aladaube’s diminished popularity. The dish can be made from practically any variety of meat or fish that can be stewed—pork, goose, hare, calf’s head, lobster, salmon, or eel—hence the name, a contraction of the French culinary term, à la daube, which translates roughly as “made like a stew.”
WHAT? Not your grandmother’s mashed potatoes. A decadent dish of creamy potatoes and rich cheese, aligot is indigenous to the Auvergne region of France. The dish is made by mashing potatoes with butter, cream, fresh garlic, and Cantal cheese and whipping until the mixture forms long ribbons when dropped from a spoon. One of the oldest French cheeses, Cantal has been produced since the first century A.D. Although the nutty cow’s milk cheese is often aged for more than six months, freshly made Cantal gives aligot its unique velvety texture. In Auvergne, the unctuous dish is usually accompanied by sausage.
WHAT? Curiously strong powder. From the Greek alt, meaning "change" and oids, meaning "taking the form of," Altoids were developed by a confectioner in 19th century London to relieve intestinal discomfort. More common in the purses and pockets of people concerned about halitosis, these curiously strong mints have in fact found their way into the spice cabinet of at least one chef, José Andrés of Café Atlántico and Jaleo in Washington, D.C. "We wanted to add some freshness to that hors d'oeuvre," said Andrés when asked whence came the inspiration to grind up those little pastilles to sprinkle on his sweet potato "ravioli" with sea urchin. "Chopped fresh mint wasn't strong enough, a reduction of mint was ugly. Then the idea came to us to use the mints. They are perfect. You put them in your mouth and you get this little moment of zoom." One suspects that as a garnish or seasoning Altoid powder might really perform three functions: flavor, gastrointestinal relief, and breath refreshing, all in one. Nice Altoids.
WHAT? A good Host. The Aztecs revered this mighty grain, using it in religious rituals to make what Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt, authors of All-American Waves of Grain, liken to a Holy Communion wafer. The carnivorous sun-worshippers would combine the tiny grain with a liquid mixture that sometimes contained blood, form the concoction into cakes, and use the cakes in religious rituals. People who ate these cakes believed they were eating the flesh of the gods. Not surprisingly, the Spanish didn't approve of this custom, nor of the Aztecs generally. The conquistadors wiped out Aztec civilization and for good measure destroyed many acres of amaranth. For the next four centuries, the grain was practically unknown. Within this decade it was rediscovered and is now highly touted for its healthful properties. Amaranth greens, which taste similar to spinach, are edible, as are the seeds (which are sometimes ground to make flour). Many natural food stores sell breakfast cereal made from this ancient grain.
WHAT? Damned dough. The golden-colored Anadama bread is a specialty of New England that is always made with cornmeal and molasses. Many cookbooks repeat one of two related stories about the origins of its unusual name. In one, a fisherman, angry with his wife, Anna, for serving him nothing but cornmeal and molasses, one day adds flour and yeast to his porridge and eats the resultant bread, while cursing, "Anna, damn her." In the second version, Anna is described as a skillful bread baker whose husband says "Anna, damn her" with great pride as he contentedly munches on a fragrant slice. According to John Mariani's recounting of the latter story in The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, Anna's tombstone allegedly reads: "Anna was a lovely bride, but Anna, damn 'er, up and died." Both these accounts of the name are considered dubious. James Beard includes recipes for anadama bread in American Cookery and Beard on Bread, but, surprisingly, Fannie Farmer's 1943 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book has no recipe for it.
WHAT? The heavenly herb. Native to northern Europe and Syria, and now grown in the damp meadows of Central Europe, America, and Asia, sweet angelica is a member of the parsley family. The tall, leafy plant has a hollow stem and grows as high as nine feet. In dessert and pastry making, the pale green, celery-like stalks may be candied (which turns them a neon green) and used as decorations. The roots and seeds are used to flavor sweet wines and liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse. But the monks were not the first to be convinced of angelica's divine powers. It is said that the Archangel Raphael revealed to a pious hermit that the "herb of the angels" was a remedy against the plague.
WHAT? Moroccan gold. Since time immemorial, Berbers have relied on all parts of the rare and endangered argan tree of Morocco, but "the gold mine of the argan tree remains argan oil," according to Targanine, a women's cooperative that produces it. Moroccans drizzle the nutty, fragrant oil over couscous or tagines; they also use it in salad dressing and rub it onto their skin to prevent wrinkles. Until very recently, the production method had remained unchanged for 1,000 years. Berbers gather the yellow fruit of the tree and extract the nuts, which are toasted and ground into a paste, from which the oil is kneaded. It used to take 20 hours of backbreaking labor to produce just a single liter. Now, the process has been speeded up somewhat, according to Targanine. The production was, and continues to be, women's work. In the last year or so, argan oil has crossed the Atlantic, and the exotic amber-colored beauty is making welcome appearances at fine restaurants in the United States. But this Moroccan miracle oil doesn't come cheap. In Manhattan, Dean & DeLuca sells a 200-milliliter bottle for $58. The argan tree, by the way, grows only in Morocco. It is under such severe threat from desertification (due to urban expansion and poor agricultural practices) that scientists fear the argan forest could disappear within 20 years.
WHAT? A honey of a grape. Arrope has existed in Spain practically as long as wine itself. Often used at the end of the winemaking process, arrope is a thick, sweet, syrup made from grape must (juice) that is added to liqueurs to help round out their flavor and enhance their natural sweetness; it’s most frequently used for wines from Málaga, Spain. To make arrope, grapes are crushed, and their juice is heated over a flame until it is one-third to one-fifth of its original volume. As the must reduces, it develops a dark, rich color and a smooth texture. Grapes are the most popular, but are not the only fruit used to make arrope; in fact, any fruit juice may be used. Nor are arrope’s culinary uses limited to wines. It is also delicious in savory dishes, imparting a singular full-bodied sweetness. And we like it drizzled over ice cream!
WHAT? Chinese mirepoix. Asian celery, more commonly called Chinese celery, is thought to be closer to wild celery than our ordinary cultivated variety, so it's no surprise that it tastes, as Bruce Cost put it in Asian Ingredients, "tastier." Others describe it as more robust and juicier than the type we slice into sticks to eat with onion-soup dip. Chinese celery, by contrast, is rarely eaten raw. A staple in Asia, it is used in soups and stir-fries, and is considered an aid to digestion. Chinese celery has been around for centuries; according to gardenguides.com, a kind of ancient recipe card discovered in Han dynasty tombs called for it. The stems of Asian celery are hollow and about the size of pencils; the vegetable looks like a cross between American celery and Italian parsley.
WHAT? Faux fusion fruit. Sometimes called apple-pears, Asian pears are not, in fact, a cross between the two, but are rather the pear varieties that grow in China and Japan. (For the last century, we’ve grown them in the United States as well, mostly in the Northwest.) But Asian pears, though juicy like a pear, are apple-shaped and have the crispness of a good apple. In Japan, where they are known as nashi, they are a popular autumn dessert, served in neatly peeled slices. Asian pears come in various shades of russet and yellow, depending on the variety. They may be the ancestor of our more familiar Western pears.
WHAT? Herbes de Toscane. According to Tuscan food expert Sandra Lotti, asperso comes from the verb "aspergere," which means "to sprinkle," and is both a medieval seasoning and a way of curing meats. Asperso is made up of salt, peppercorns, juniper berries, sage, rosemary, thyme, and red chili peppers. The herbs are kept together in a terracotta urn until they have completely infused the salt. This mixture is then crushed in a mortar.
WHAT? Aegean vines. Although the Ancient Greeks colonized the Mediterranean basin with grape vines, their modern-day descendants aren't much known for their wines. It's not for lack of production, but the limited appeal of some of distinct flavors and unusual production methods, which haven't traveled as well as their grapes (think of the pine-tree-resin spiked retsina). Assyrtiko is different. Considered Greece's best white grape varietal by experts such as Nico Manessis, author of The Greek Wine Guide (Olive), assyrtiko is widely planted in the arid volcanic-ash-rich soil of Santorini and other Aegean islands, where the average age of the root stock is 70 years, and many vines date back 150 years or more. Assirtiko is vinified in a variety of ways to produce crisp, dry white wines and sweet, heady Visanto.