Cooking is at once child's play and adult joy. And cooking done with joy is an act of love - Craig Claiborne
An open fire has been the cornerstone for most of the history of cooking and its evolution. For most of the history of making, cooking over an open fire was the only known way to cook a meal. In his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, celebrity author Richard Wrangham suggests that people must have started cooking in this fashion almost 2 million years ago when they tossed a dear or boar into the flames to cook it. This marked the beginning of cooking history and the first traditional cooking technique.
Wrangham has gone on to argue that this marked the evolution of cooking techniques for mankind, who was till such time used to killing and eating like any other animal. This was the first time that humans tasted savory food and started adding valuable nutrition to their meals that gave them the extra energy which finally led to the growth of the human brain.
The History of Cooking through the Ages
Century after century went by before the humans would discover fire and eat healthy food and well-cooked meals. During the Paleolithic era, which was around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, humans had found a new way to build primitive hearths by placing a handful of stones in a circle which would evolve into the proper hearth that you find in any home today.
With the discovery of gas range about 150 years ago, which was a new source of energy that could cook food faster, every household in the West had a fireplace and the obsession with maintaining the kitchen fire became quite popular. This was also because of the fact that before matchsticks were discovered, you had to keep the fire running or you wouldn't be able to restart it if it went out. In the medieval times, there was something called the medieval curfew, derived from the word couvre feu which was essentially a large, metal lid used to cover the fire embers at night so they would burn through the morning. In fact, if the fire ever went out, one would have to walk to a neighbor in the middle of a cold, winter night to borrow fire!
The history of cooking techniques is very intriguing. No-one really knows how the cavemen started a fire. Did they snatch burning branches from wildfires or just rubbed two rocks against each other? Thank goodness for not having to go through all that motion just to cook up a meal when you're hungry!
The Story of Otzi
In 1991, a group of Alpine mountaineers in the Italian Alps, found the remains of a 5000-year old Iceman and named him Otzi. It is said that Otzi carried his fire cautiously in the form of embers that were wrapped in layers of maple leaves and stored in a birchbark box. Otzi was also a step ahead of his fellow men. He kept a backup kit handy in case the fire went out. This kit was equipped with a flint, tinder fungus, and iron pyrites. During the Neolithic age, people would grind the fungus until fine and fluffy and pull it into a mollusk shell to strike sparks with the pyrite and flint.
The Ancient History of Cooking Techniques
The earliest records of cooking history have been left behind by ancient Egyptians. Wall paintings, dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found that suggest that the Egyptians enjoyed roasting, frying, and broiling. You will even find ancient history of cooking techniques in the Bible. Early carvings from Assyria and Babylonia indicate the use of charcoal in pans, a practice that still finds its place in the modern Japanese cooking method called Hibachis.
For the Greeks, good food was mostly an accessory to lavish banquets and lively conversations. The typical Greek meal consisted of,
- Roast meat.
- Fruits and nuts.
For the Romans, cooking was an art. Wherever they went, the Romans would collect recipes and learn new techniques to bring back to their country and add to their empire's treasures. With the evolution of cooking, simple Roman meals began to be replaced by elaborate banquets that involved delicacies such as snails and dormice. The Roman cooking technique got famous for the legendary Roman dinner. This has been described by the Roman satirist, Petronius Arbiter. A pastry shell containing a roasted ortolan, which is a tiny bird, was served under the guise of a carved hen sitting on a nest of eggs.
When it comes to the eating habits in the Middle East, you can refer to the Arabian Nights for its cooking history. During the 8th Century A.D., there was a famous lady of Baghdad whose adventures with elaborate shopping sprees have been described. Her purchases included,
- A large jar of the finest wine.
- Fruits like apples, peaches, lemons, and apricots.
- Herbs soaked in vinegar.
- 25 pounds of boned meat.
- Capers, parsley, pistachio, almonds, pepper, cloves, nutmegs and walnuts.
Medieval and Renaissance Cooking History
The culinary evolution continued through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period. The food during this age was distinguished between those that the peasants ate and those that were cooked in castles, palaces, and monasteries. The average citizen did not own a kitchen and he purchased most of the cooked food from a cook shop. On the other hand, those with great houses had a fully-equipped kitchen with kettles, skewers, and saucepans. Even the bread was baked in tall oven-shaped utensils in the shape of beehives. Roasts were placed in whole and guests could carve out the portion for themselves. Dinner would mostly comprise of a roast, white bread and a pudding or custard.
The Renaissance period saw the rise of the individual chef. This was witnessed during the marriage of Catherine de' Medici of Italy to Henry II of France, who brought along her whole team of Italian chefs to cook for her in France!
The evolution of cooking techniques received a boost during the time of Louis XIV whose second wide, Madame de Maintenon was one of the finest chefs in his empire. She even founded a school for orphaned daughters of French army officers at Saint-Cyr. There, she would organize cooking classes and culinary competitions and those who came out shining would be awarded the blue ribbon or cordon bleu, a term which is now synonymous to great food. Food was so important to the French that the famous chef Vatel reportedly committed suicide when the lobsters failed to arrive on time for a meal to be served to Louis XIV.
The modern cooking history saw the rise of the restaurant movement in France, following the French Revolution. And in 1789, there were about a hundred new restaurants in Paris alone.
The Evolution of Cooking
Laughter is brightest where food is the best - Anonymous
The average American is the closest to still associate with the concept of open-fire cooking, thanks to a good backyard barbeque. With the coming of cook books, gastronomic foods and online cooking classes, the history of cooking has taken a giant leap forward. Mankind truly has come a long way to discover new means of cooking, marking a complete departure from the use of fire. About 60% of barbeque grills sold today can run on gas and require zero or minimal fire skills. You can also find the typical charcoal grills, but even for that the charcoal briquettes are enough.
The concept of grilling your food, although ancient, has been truly well-adopted in America mostly. The average American chef is pretty well-versed with the grilling and dish out excellent recipes and diverse new foods by just grilling the meat and vegetables. And at the turn of the century, traditional idea of women cooks has slowly been replaced by the new idea of home cooks who can be from any gender. This is another step forward in the cooking history.
Anyone who can read a book and has basic culinary skills- be it American or Indian, can become a good cook with a little patience and passion. At the end of the day, world cuisine is not so much about the number of dishes you can make but more about the complexity you can add to them but with precision and ease. In any culture, water and fire still remain two important components of cooking. Belting out new recipes is really not a big deal anymore with so many online classes and culinary schools and cook books available in the world today.