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Spices: Mustard Seed

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(2) page(s): 33, 34, and 38


There are at least forty different kinds of mustard seed. They are recognizable by color, black to white. The Latin names for the darkest or black seeds are Brassica nigra, those called brown seeds are Brassica juncea. The white seeds are Brassica alba. There is also Brassica hirta, which can be either yellow or white; and there are others. The black ones are the strongest, and as the seed color gets lighter, usually so does taste intensity. Black, yellow, and white seeds are indigenous to China. There are some varieties that originated in the Middle East and made their way to China hundreds of years ago. Nowadays, all kinds and colors are cultivated, but the most popular and most liked are the mustard seeds that are dark in color.

Called both black and brown, the darkest variety seed coats are actually a deep reddish-brown, the seeds themselves small and almost round. The Brassica juncea are rather tiny and sometimes there can be thousands to the ounce. The Chinese like the brown seeded ones the best and call they call them jiiezi. Their texts refer to the above botanical name and also some literature writes about them as Semen sinapsis. There are varieties among the wild mustards that also use the Sinapsis name, Sinapsis arvensis is one of these.

The use of mustard seed varies from whole seed to ground powder. Occasionally the Chinese use it as a color additive along with or instead of turmeric, and more recently real and false saffron, both of which are imported mostly from the middle east. However, this is not a common occurrence for foods, but can be for coloring cloth and other non-food items.

In the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) ,and in the Yuan (1279 - 1386 CE), mustards of western origin became popular; some even coming from Europe. However, these were added to the dietary more as use as mustard greens and less for the seed. However, mustard greens are not the focus of this article.

The first use of mustard seed among the Chinese is not clear. This plant is mentioned in the Shi Qing or Book of Odes, but that was about its leaves. Early on, the Chinese knew how to pickle foods. Why they are not mentioned in this book’s poems, said to be circa 800 - 600 BCE, is a mystery. They probably were using the seeds for flavoring agents and for their oil.

Mustard seed is important source of oil in China. Most popular are the light-colored ones; they produce a virtually tasteless oil. Westerners refer to them as 'rape seed' oil, which was recently renamed ‘canola’ oil. The Chinese make oil from the darkest of its seeds, and more often than not, they refer to that oil as 'mustard seed' oil. They press every kind and color of mustard seed for its oil, and have been doing that for a couple of thousand years.

Aside from the oil and the greens, mustard seeds are used in China to pickle foods, to be added to cold dishes, and sometimes for use in long-cooked dishes. More recently, they use more of them ground as a flavoring agent. They are popular cooked or cold, and one finds them available and in dishes as a medium to dip other foods into or put into other dishes.

Medicinally, the Chinese have long used mustard seeds. They are considered hot in the hot/cold dichotomy, and they use them whole to relieve dyspepsia, rid the chest of phlegm from a cold, and as an aid to reduce excessive coughing. When ground, mustard seeds are used as a chest plaster for bronchial relief. Sometimes they are added to other decoctions for a variety of reasons.

The Chinese know that mustard seeds include an essential oil that when mixed with water, releases a slightly bitter and piquant substance. It is chemically related to sugar, and is a glucoside. It gives foods and medicines taste, but mostly does so at room temperature or when cold. This ‘bite’ as some call it, lessens and the chemical that causes it can be destroyed in cooking. That may explain why mustard seed is not that popular in hot foods. However, when ground and added late in the cooking process, some piquancy and bitterness does remain. Chinese chefs know that timing is everything, particularly when using ground mustard seeds. If a mild result is desired, they add them early, if more hot is wanted, they add them later in the cooking process.

Some Chinese homes and many Chinese restaurants like to serve ground mustard as a paste and condiment for dipping. They make theirs daily for best results. Though people can grind the seeds, most purchase them as a powder. It is, in the western world, sometimes called 'English mustard powder.' To make your own, grind mustard seeds in a spice or coffee-type grinder; but be aware that cleaning the machine is extremely difficult.

Most people purchase mustard powder, then add some water to it. Most add twice as much water as the amount of powder. There is a trade off when making mustard paste, as it is often called. Use less powder and stir and stir and stir. This achieves the same result as using more mustard powder and less stirring. The more mustard powder and water are mixed or stirred, the stronger the end taste.

For mustard to stay some days and for it to look glossy, add oil to the water. This mellows the intensity, and if covered, this mixture can stay a week or more in the refrigerator. A few chefs add a teaspoon or more of vinegar to intensify the taste. Restaurants rarely add oil and most never add vinegar because they make theirs fresh daily, and they serve it in tiny dishes. Sometimes the mustard takes up only half that tiny dish. Some restuarants add a dollop of hot chili sauce to the other half of that small saucer.

This dual condiment sharing has roots in Taiwan. Actually, many Taiwanese and Fujianese folk like to take some of each and mix them on their plate before dipping dim sum or any other food into this mix. This combination, for reasons unclear, mellows the taste of either condiment.

Some foods have Chinese proscriptions, and mustard seed is one of them. Early in its use, people were advised not to eat the seeds or the paste together with turtle. While many Chinese acquaintances concurred, no one could advise when or why this admonition. If you know, please inform.

Below are some dishes, pickled or cooked, that use mustard seed, whole or ground. They add spice to Chinese cooking. Keep in mind that one can change the intensity depending upon when this spice is added.
Chicken with Sesame Mustard Sauce
Ingredients:
1 large chicken breast (about six ounces)
2 sliced fresh ginger
1 scallion
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 whole egg, beaten
1/2 cucumber, seeded and shredded
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon thin or white soy sauce
1 Teaspoon mustard powder mixed with one teaspoon oil and two teaspoons cold water
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
Preparation
1. Immerse chicken breast in three cups cold water. Add ginger and scallion. Bring water to just below the boil, then simmer twenty minutes. Cool ten minutes in water, then remove chicken to a plate and discard water, ginger, and scallion. When cool, pull apart, that is hand shred the chicken.
2. Heat oil in wok or fry pan, then fry egg for one minute, turn over, then remove after half a minute. Egg should be soft. Then cut it into thin strips, mix with shredded cucumber, and set aside.
3. Mix rice vinegar, soy sauce, and mustard powder mixture and stir minimally if sauce is to be less piquant, or op to two minutes, if wanted very piquant.
4. Put lettuce in a serving dish, top with chicken shreds, then egg/cucumber shreds, and then with the sauce. Top this with the sesame seeds, and set out on the table. Toss/mix just before eating.
Spiced Cabbage
Ingredients:
1 large Chinese celery cabbage (about one pound), cut into two-inch pieces, or one-inch slices
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
4 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1 Tablespoon mustard seeds
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon chili oil, optional
Preparation:
1. Mix cabbage and salt and set aside for six hours, then rinse and spin or towel dry.
2. Heat oil, stir-fry the ginger and mustard seeds for one minute, and toss with the cabbage and the sugar. Set aside for two hours, and do not refrigerate.
3. Just before serving, toss with chili oil, and serve.
Squid with Mustard Seed and Greens
Ingredients:
2 dried squid, soaked in glass jar, covered, for twenty-four hours
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1/4 pound pork loin, shredded
1 cup coarsely chopped water chestnuts
1 cup coarsely chopped mustard greens
1 Tablespoon whole mustard seeds
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Preparation:
1. Remove and remaining any membranes or bony substances from the squid, and cut the flesh into thin slivers.
2. Mix rice wine, cornstarch, and sugar, and set aside.
3. Heat wok or fry pan, add oil, and fry pork pieces for one minute, and remove from wok or pan and add the squid and the rice wine mixture, and fry for one other minute before adding both vegetables, mustard seeds, and the broth. Stir-fry for five to seven minutes, add salt and a few tablespoons water, if too thick, then serve.
Fish with Mustard Seeds
Ingredients:
1 two to three pound sea bass, scaled and gutted
6 black mushrooms, soaked for twenty minutes, stems removed
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon whole mustard seeds
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one cup chicken broth
1/2 cup corn oil
Preparation:
1. Rinse and dry the fish, and make three or four slits partway down to the bone on each side.
2. Cut mushrooms in quarters, if large, in half if small, and set aside.
3. Mix soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, mustard seeds, and cornstarch mixture and stir well.
4. Heat oil and fry fish on each side for one to two minutes, then remove from oil, set aside, and discard the oil.
5. Put mushrooms, and the sauce mixture into the wok and gently slide in the fish spooning sauce over it. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer twenty minutes, spooning some liquid over the fish every five minutes. Then gently remove to deep serving platter, and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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