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  • Food in the 'Hood

    A Fine Feathered Friend: The Wonders of Dill

    It was a perfect marriage — the energetic fragrance and the earthy root vegetable. I still savor the memory of the dill that adorned the bracing beef borscht at Sir Nicholas, a Polish restaurant in Toronto. On another memorable occasion, I relished a plate of tender strips of sautéed zucchini covered with a garlicky yogurt sauce that was flecked with dill. A variety of Balkan dishes served at Café Sofia, a Bulgarian restaurant here in Washington, arrived with the same herbal flourish.

    Dill, I would discover, was more than an aromatic. The ancient herb, native to the Mediterranean and southern Russia, was also revered as a tonic for mind and body. The herb “strengthens the brain,” English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote. The plant with its distinctive green, feathery leaves — along with anise, fennel, coriander, and carrots — is a member of the parsley family. The group is known for its fragrant leaves and seeds and its umbels, parasols of yellow flowers.

    Both the Greeks and Romans praised the potent herb. The Greek word for dill, anethon, meant “burn,” an early suggestion of its electric force. The Romans, who called it anethum, invested dill with additional powers. Dill, they believed, could produce feats of muscular strength. The meals of gladiators were infused with dill oil. The herb, which the poet Virgil praised as a “pleasant and fragrant plant,” was also associated with gaiety and celebration. Romans wore feathery wreathes woven from the weed to their feasts.

    Dill was seen simultaneously as invigorating and relaxing. Dioscorides, the Greek herbalist, recommended it for indigestion. The aromatic “stayeth the hickets [hiccups],” he declared. northern Europeans would later come to value dill as a remedy for intestinal distress. “The seed . . . is used in medicine that serve to expel wind,” the English writer Nicholas Culpepper observed. Dill was originally put in the pickling solutions for cucumbers, a gas-producing vegetable, because of its reputation. Only later, spice expert Maggie Stuckey says, did preservers use it to impart fragrance.

    In Scandanavia, dill was given a new name in recognition of its soothing effects. Dilla, the Norse word for the herb, meant lull. The Saxons in Britain adopted the name and it migrated into English. Colicky babies for centuries were given dill water to calm their stomachs and make them sleepy. Medieval churchgoers chewed on dill seeds to ward off hunger.

    Dill seems to have taken hold in a swath of land stretching from Russia and Scandinavia in the north, through eastern Europe and the Balkans, and south to Iran and Afghanistan. Despite its Mediterranean origins, it has few outposts in the region other than Greece and Turkey. It is rare, for example, in the Italian kitchen.

    In the herb’s heartlands dill invigorates the cuisine. It lends a zing to Polish sautéed chicken, pickled herring, and cucumber salad. The Swedes, who are ecstatic about it, make a mustard dill sauce for salmon cured with dill and other flavorings, and scent bread with the herb. Chesnochaya, a Russian vodka, is infused with dill, garlic, and peppercorns.

    A simple Greek salad of lettuce, tomatoes, spring onions, and feta gets verve from dill. Tzatziki and cacik, the Greek and Turkish yogurt and cucumber dips respectively, are often accented with the herb. Both cultures elevate grape leaves with a dill-laced filling.

    Dill also plays a prominent role in the cooking of Central Asia. The Persians, who traditionally lay out a plate of fresh herbs to grace their table, adore dill. During the Persian New Year, dill contributes its aroma and vitality to a verdant frittata. The profusion of herbs symbolizes rebirth. Polows, Persian pilafs, fragrant with dill, are both elegant and sumptuous..

    America’s dill heritage pales when compared to these richer traditions. The herb, however, did play a role in our country’s religious life. Children were given the “meeting seed” to chew on during sermons, presumably to keep them from getting restless.

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    Dill Delights

    Café Divan (1834 Wisc. Ave., NW; 202-338-1747). This Turkish restaurant garnishes artichoke, celery beet, and cacik (yogurt and cucumber) appetizers with dill.

    Domku (821 Upshur St. NW; 202-722-7475). Domku (“little house” in Polish), a café serving Eastern European and Scandinavian food makes ample use of dill. Their pickled herring and gravalax as well as their borscht are fragrant with the herb. An aquavit, a strong vodka that Domku makes, is infused with dill.

     

     

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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