Today’s weeknight meals were once fit for a king: Andrew Coppolino

Pizza Margherita was created to honor an Italian queen in the early 1900s, while Béarnaise sauce paid homage to a French king in the 1500s.

Quinoa was considered a gift from the gods and revered by people living in the Andes; today it’s a common “superfood” found in supermarkets.

The pozole soup you might pick up from Mynor Garcia’s America Latina Grocery and Eatery in Kitchener, Ont., started as a sacred dish for the ancient Aztecs and used the revered ingredient hominy.

Although he is of Guatemalan background, the restaurateur and shop ower says he loves the dish that they serve periodically at the Victoria Street store.

“The chicken pozole is probably one of my favorite soups of all,” Garcia says.

In praise of simple foods

In fact, often the humblest, most commonplace foods we eat today saw their start as part of a banquet feast for royalty and aristocracy.

Simple biryani rice, a basic grain that feeds millions of people in their homes and at restaurants, is an ancient dish of both Persian and Indian cultures — the former influencing the latter.

One origin myth speculates that biryani was made for a Mughal queen for whom the marble mausoleum Taj Mahal was built in Uttar Pradesh, India, 400 years ago.

Pizza Margherita was created to honor an Italian queen in the early 1900s. The dish in this photo was made by Bread Heads. (Andrew Coppolino)

The biryanis and kormas that we eat in Indian restaurants today — often sold by street vendors in India — are essentially those prepared centuries ago, says Ritesh Bhargava, chef and co-owner (with his wife Jenny) of Waterloo’s Masala Bay Indian restaurant.

“Our cuisine is Mughlai from the north [of India]. It was the cuisine for emperors,” Bhargava says. “From there, it has been in our culture and we cook in the same way they cooked at that time.”

This, of course, pre-dates British colonialism and the East India Company that wrought havoc in the area, and England’s love of “curries” — Indian food that long ago supplanted fish and chips as a “national” dish.

We should also note that centuries before western cuisine’s playful experimentation with molecular gastronomy in the 1990s, an Indian chef cunningly crafted sugar and painted it to look like individual grains of rice “jewels” for his emperor patron.

Ritesh Bhargava with depiction of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Mehtab Kaur at Masala Bay restaurant in Waterloo. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

golden tastes

Like Indian restaurants who pay homage to their aristocratic culinary origins with names like Kitchener’s Royal Paan and Waterloo’s Koh-I-Noor with its diamond reference and crown logo, Chinese restaurant names capture ancient Imperial eras: Golden Dynasty, Golden Wok, Ming’s Dynasty, Dragon City and Royal Chinese — even if they serve humble chop suey dishes and others that aren’t really “Chinese.”

When it’s on the menu, and irrespective of our social station, we can all eat “forbidden rice” a rare, low-yielding variety of black rice that was once served only to emperors. Peking duck, and many other roasted duck dishes, were served to royalty during the Yuan Dynasty of 450CE.

Mussaman curry is on the menu at both MiMO Thai Kitchen and Loloan Lobby Bar in Waterloo. The dish appeared in Siam (modern central Thailand) in the court of the Ayutthaya Kingdom over 400 years ago. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

You won’t likely find traditional bird’s nest soup (made with hardened bird saliva), but you can find versions of it on occasion in Chinese restaurants, and especially on so-called special menus.

Meanwhile royal dishes like shark-fin soup have been eradicated, for the most part.

To move to the center of the southeast Asian peninsula, there has long been a “Royal Thai cuisine” that we have enjoyed at restaurants.

At both MiMO Thai Kitchen and Loloan Lobby Bar in Waterloo, popular massaman (or mussaman) curry is on the menu: the former restaurant’s is a basic combination of chicken (or beef), potatoes, carrot and coconut milk; the latter’s, spiced lamb with rice and pulses prepared in a clay pot.

Likely originating from a combination of influences from Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Malaysia, the dish appeared in Siam (modern central Thailand) in the court of the Ayutthaya Kingdom over 400 years ago.

Pad Thai is a national dish that identifies and unifies Thailand. This one is from Bangkok Cuisine in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

However, Thai cuisine is often popularly defined by pad Thai. Found in all Thai restaurants, it’s not a “royal” dish, per se, but rather an “official” dish essentially brought into existence by a Thai prime minister in the late 1930s, according to food journalist Alexandra Greeley.

With likely origins in a Chinese dish, pad Thai translates to “stir-fried rice noodles Thai-style” and became the national dish that has been beloved around the world.

Plaek Pibulsonggram wanted to establish a national dish that identified and unified Thailand as he attempted to not only modernize and “westernize” the country but support farmers and the economy.

From his seat of power, Phibun, as he was known, encouraged a national dish for the masses, pad Thai, and a sense of pride that, no matter where we are, we can happily slurp up and enjoy in our everyday lives.

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