WHAT? Yogurt concentrate. Labné, also lebne, labne, or labneh, is a "cheese" made by draining residual water from yogurt (laban in Lebanese) over a period of about half a day. In The Cheese Bible, Christian Teubner writes that yogurt, also called mast in Iran and yaourti in Greece, was prepared by desert nomads as a way to preserve their milk for travel; yogurt cheese is simply an offshoot of yogurt-making. Even in remote Lebanese villages today, people consume as much as 600 pounds of labné per year. The cheese is eaten for breakfast with fruit; seasoned with fresh mint, olive oil, and zahtar, and served with pita; or, after being well drained, formed into balls and preserved in olive oil. Labné has also been discovered by western dieters, who prize its low fat content and creamy consistency. Some scholars believe that Lebanon was named after laban, for the country’s prominent snowcapped mountains appear to be covered in yogurt.
WHAT? Polished poultry. While the term lacquered is simply an adjective that means “shiny,” in Chinese restaurants in the West it has come to denote a whole category of shiny roasted meats, often displayed hanging from hooks in the windows. Perhaps the most famous is Peking Duck, which is both a dish—a steamed and roasted or deep fried duck—and a meal—which includes multiple courses of said duck, pancakes, and hoisin sauce. But other meats, such as squab, chicken, and pork, are also lacquered to glaring effect. For centuries the best shine has been produced with maltose (aka malt sugar or yitang), explains Jacqueline Newman, editor-in-chief of Flavor and Fortune, an English-language Chinese food magazine, and professor emeritus of Queens College. But the gloss maltose imparts is secondary to its effect of crisping the skin. Glistening lacquered meats are traditionally purchased in China—not made at home.
WHAT? Smoky sipper. Enjoyed a cup of lapsang souchong with your afternoon cookie lately? If you’re like most Americans, the chances are slim. Lapsang souchong is a strong black tea with an assertive smoky flavor that has been likened to the taste of single-malt Scotch whiskey and cigars. Real lapsang souchong hails from Mount Wuyi in the Fujian province of China and is quite rare, but the name is often applied to black and oolong tea leaves of indiscriminate origin that have been treated with smoldering pinewood ash. According to legend, the smoking process was discovered by accident in a small village during the Qing dynasty when a group of soldiers took over a tea factory filled with fresh, unprocessed leaves. By the time the townspeople were able to get back into the factory, they didn’t have enough time to dry the leaves before market day, so they used pinewood fires to speed the process. Though many find lapsang souchong an acquired taste, true connoisseurs are seduced by its rich aroma and tart finish and claim its strong flavor pairs well with salty or spicy dishes.
WHAT? We larb New York. Are we the only ones who remember David Rosengarten cracking up every time he tried to say the word "larb" on his television show some five years ago? But however silly the word sounds, "I love it," he writes of larb (the food) in Taste. Made of poached ground beef or pork mixed with rice powder and enlivened with fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, and mint, larb frequently appears on the menus of Thai restaurants in the United States. But according to Joyce Jue in Savoring Southeast Asia, larb actually originated in Laos. "This highly seasoned salad has spread beyond its original home to tables from Chiang Mai to Phuket and is now regularly served at weddings," she wrote. Jue also notes that it was traditionally made with raw water buffalo, rather like our steak tartare. The word itself means "to put together or combine." Larb is eaten at weddings to symbolize a smooth combination for the newlyweds.
WHAT? Chewing the fat. Though Corby Kummer described lardo as "heaven on bread" in a 2005 New York Times article, this porky product is actually made from the layer of fat located directly under a pig's skin, which is then seasoned and cured. For most Americans, a slice of pork fat wasn't always the most appetizing antipasto, but in recent years this delicious Italian delicacy has been winning over fans on this side of the Atlantic, thanks in part to celebrity chefs like Mario Batali, whose lardo pizza at his NYC eatery Otto has become a favorite of critics and diners alike. After all, what self-respecting carnivore can argue with paper-thin slices of seasoned, glistening, translucent fat delicately draped over pizza dough—or any other carbohydrate for that matter? But in Italy, long before it was the ingredient del giorno, lardo was traditionally peasant fare, made from the fat that remained after the pig was butchered and sold. There are two towns in Italy known for the production of lardo: Arnad in Val d'Aosta and Colonnata, located in Tuscany's Apuan Alps. Though both varieties hold DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) status, the latter is well known for its centuries-old technique of layering the fat with seasonings such as salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, sage, and rosemary and pressing them under marble slabs for up to a year to cure, a method that yields meltingly tender, aromatic slices of fat with a delicate flavor. Contrary to its name and gleaming white appearance, lardo is only 60 percent fat—the remainder is the fibrous protein collagen—and, according to William Grimes of the New York Times, ounce for ounce, lardo contains less cholesterol than butter and fewer calories than olive oil.
WHAT? Black magic. Made from a shiny black seaweed indigenous to Wales, laverbread has been eaten in the country for centuries. Despite its starchy moniker, laverbread is actually just laver seaweed that has been chopped and boiled for several hours until it forms a sticky paste. Plentiful and highly nutritious, the gelatinous grub became a staple of mine workers during the eighteenth century. Nowadays, it is more often formed into oatmeal-coated patties and fried to make lavercakes, which are served with bacon and cockles at breakfast.
WHAT? Revered root. Licorice root was so prized in ancient Egypt that generous supplies of it were found in King Tut’s tomb, and hieroglyphics suggest it was the starring ingredient in a popular beverage. Used to treat ailments from arthritis to ulcers, the root is said to promote vitality, soothe and detoxify the body, and act as an anti-inflammatory. The botanical name for this savory stem is Glycyrrhiza, which means “sweet root” in Greek. It is used to flavor cough drops and tonics, as well as certain beers, ice creams, and even meat products. Contrary to popular belief, however, it’s not licorice root that flavors the confection that bears its name—it’s aniseed.
WHAT? Lemon-aid. "Sweet, fragrant, powerful and very easy to drink," says World Food Italy guidebook about the traditional lemon-scented digestif from the Amalfi coast. Culinaria: Italy adds that limoncello is "just as essential an end to a Campanian meal as grappa or anise liqueur is in other regions." Until recently, limoncello was hand produced by artisans, or made at home from prized recipes; lately, commercialization of the liqueur has begun, often substituting inferior products. Authentic limoncello is made from Italy’s indigenous, aromatic Nostrano lemons, but it is possible to make an approximation of the intensely citrusy drink by infusing alcohol with lemon peel for 20 days or more, then mixing it with sugar syrup. In place of Nostrano lemons, the charming website www.caprigallery.com/limoncello_en.htm suggests, "The Best thing is to have a Lemon Tree or a friend with a Lemon Tree. Never Buy Lemon that you Find in Supermarket that are in a Net. They are threated with a Special Wax that would affect the Taste.[stet]" Serve limoncello very cold in very small glasses.
WHAT? Sweet stage. Dame Nellie Melba may have had her peaches and Luisa Tetrazzini, her chicken, but the Parisian opera house, the Palais Garnier, may be the only music building in the world to have a cake created in its honor. The building was commissioned by Napoleon III in 1858 and opened in 1875. Garnier's design incorporated elements from many architectural styles, and was considered garish by some critics and a delight by others. In 1954, Andrée Gavillon, the director of the famous Dalloyau pastry shop, weighed in by christening a new torte of génoise, coffee butter cream, caramel, and ganache, L'Opéra. According to Culinaria: France, the rectangular shape mimics the shape of the opera house, while the multiple layers symbolize the varied architectural styles.
WHAT? Lies beneath lilies. Lotus (or water lily) flowers have been prized for their beauty for thousands of years, but below the water is another prize, the edible rhizomes, which are often mistakenly called roots. (Ginger is another type of rhizome.) Lotuses grow wild throughout mainland Asia and were introduced to Japan by China. Light in color, long, and cylindrical, when sliced the lotus root reveals a fibrous, tart flesh with a lovely lacy pattern of holes. Lotus is eaten throughout Asia. It can be blanched or steamed, served cold in salad or hot in soup, pickled, fried for tempura, stir-fried, or braised.
WHAT? Fertile fruit. In one Peruvian myth, moon goddess Cavillaca rejects the advances of the haggardly spirit Wiracocha. One day, while Cavillaca is weaving under a lucuma tree, Wiracocha transforms his essence into the shape of the lucuma fruit. The lovely goddess eats the fruit and becomes impregnated, eventually turning herself and her son into rocky islands off the coast of Peru to escape her unwanted suitor. Infinitely more appealing than Wiracocha, golden-yellow lucuma fruits look like persimmons, have flesh the texture of pumpkin, and are prized for a rich, musky taste reminiscent of maple syrup. The fruit is more often used as a flavoring agent than a stand-alone snack; throughout Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia you’ll find lucuma paste in drinks, puddings, milk shakes, and desserts.