While in Israel, I had an enlightening falafel experience. Now, like me, you may find falafel to be a laughable food substitute, a mashed chickpea ball of no real value. Essentially it’s a stopgap – “nosh puppies” is how I thought about them. And still do – I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve had a falafel conversion. But when they are scooped into hot clean oil and made fresh, they are a lot better.
But then, what isn’t?
Hot oil is a kind of magic. I know it. You know it. Jean Anthelm Brillat Savarin, the author of the immortal Physiology of Taste, knew it: “Fried foods,” the great gastronome wrote, “are always welcome at any banquet. They are pleasing to the taste, preserve the fundamental flavors of foods, and may be eaten with the fingers, something that is always appreciated by the ladies.” In addition, Brillat Savrin praised frying for its ability to transform foods, nearly at the speed of thought. “It takes no longer to fry a four pound carp,” he wrote, “than it does to boil an egg.”
It’s this magical quality of frying which, in my opinion, sets it above all other forms of cooking food. A ball of mashed up chickpeas doesn’t excite anybody; on the contrary, they’re more likely to inspire repulsion or even a kind of universal dread. But pop them into some hot oil, and before you know it, these inert bodies have metamorphosed into miniature suns, radiating pure excitement in every direction. This is what hot grease can do. Its festive pop and spatter fills every kitchen with glee; and through some miracle of chemistry, the hotter it is, the less greasy are its products. The medieval alchemists searched in vain for an element which could transform base metals into precious ones. But had the alchemists had a deep fryer, they would need have looked no further. It’s a cauldron filled with bubbling magic; and like King Midas, everything it touches turns to gold.
That’s not to say that it’s completely effortless. Even with a dedicated appliance you have to be on top of the oil. Changing it is one of the messiest and most difficult of all kitchen tasks; unlike Jiffy Lube, where a man walks underneath the car and has special containers for that vile fluid, we have to pour it – where? And how can we do that without getting it everywhere? The result, not unpredictably, is that we’re all inclined to change it but rarely. And that’s where you get into trouble.
Deep frying is only the impeccable, perfect technique described above when the oil is clean. The more stuff gets cooked in it, the dirtier it gets and the lower the smoking-point. Sometimes all the food in it makes the oil tastier, at least for a while. Think of walking past a cheap Chinese take-out restaurant. That perfume! Who could mistake it? But soon the aroma becomes acrid and nasty, and the eggrolls all taste of last year’s shrimp and motor oil. Think about all the other things that leak into hot oil, like cheese, and carbonized bread crumbs, and the precious bodily fluids of various meat animals. Can they all be bad?
No. They can’t. And even something as low as chickpea paste, when immersed in a bath it shares with so many good things, from breaded meatballs to onion rings, all the way up to Brillat-Savrin’s four-pound carp, will come out transformed, made new, crusty and delicious. Deep fat frying is, now and forever, the Golden Path to great taste.