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Rainbow Eats

September 10, 1997|CHARLES PERRY

Foodies are puritanical about food coloring; only the pure, natural colors of the ingredients and all that. They're flying in the face of the entire history of cuisine. People have always loved punching up or even totally changing the color of what they eat.

Often they're aiming at a color with positive associations, such as yellow. In Peru, foods were tinted with marigold petals whenever possible because yellow was the holy hue of the sun god, d.b.a the Inca emperor. The heavy use of annatto in Central America and turmeric in India is largely attributable to the jolly golden color that results, tasty though those spices are.

Yellow is the color of good fortune too--and of that epitome of good fortune, gold. In the Middle Ages, European and Middle Eastern cooks often lacquered foods with a mixture of saffron and egg yolks to make them look golden. Apparently the Arabs did this only with meatballs, but European chefs gilded roasts as well. The process was common enough to have a specific name: endoring.

European cooks also colored foods with various other agents such as the red dye alkanet. We have to remember that they didn't have all the colorful tomatoes and peppers we have, so without food coloring many a dish (particularly in winter) would be boringly brown.

Sheer boredom would explain how peculiarly thrilled the medievals were by a bland white dish named blancmanger. Of course, in a way they were proto-foodies--you could make blancmanger only with ingredients that were naturally white.

In Tunisia, it's traditional to tint the almond filling of baklava green, but this apparently has a different explanation--simply that, well, pistachios were always so darned expensive.

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