It was early Romans who pounded the seeds and mixed them with wine, or grape must, which is pretty much still the method used to make prepared mustard.
MUSTARD IS a tiny seed that packs a mighty wallop in the kitchen. As with some people, though, it takes a little liquid to unleash its wild side.
The ancient seed looms large in religious allegory going as far back as the 5th century B.C. and Gautama Buddha’s story of the distraught mother. When Kisa Gotami asks Buddha to heal her dead son, he sends her to gather mustard seeds from every family in the village who has never lost a child, parent or friend. Empty-handed after her search, she understands she is not alone in her suffering.
In Christianity, mustard seeds symbolize the power of faith: According to Christ’s parable, this least of all seeds grows into the greatest of herbs.
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Ancient Greeks prized mustard for its medicinal benefits, but the early Romans are the ones who pounded the seeds and mixed them with wine, or grape must, which is pretty much still the method used to make prepared mustard. In the early 1800s, Englishman Jeremiah Colman refined the making of mustard powder. The product in those bright canisters of Colman’s Mustard in contemporary groceries hasn’t changed much since.
Botanically speaking, mustard is a member of the assertive Brassica clan that includes cabbage, broccoli and kale. The seeds may be white, yellow, brown or black; the darker the color the stronger the flavor.
Mustard is cheap and easy to make at home using seeds (buy them in bulk) or powdered mustard, or a mix of both. Liquid ignites the volatile oils: water, wine or beer will do the trick. It takes a few minutes at room temperature for the heat to fully develop. Adding acid, such as vinegar, halts the process and preserves the pungency. Beyond that, feel free to get creative with whatever ingredients your imagination, your garden or your pantry yield.
Try this ginger-cilantro-lime version: Soak yellow and brown seeds (¼ cup each) in about ¾ cup of flat amber ale. After a couple of hours, add a tablespoon of mustard powder, a quarter cup each of minced fresh ginger and cilantro, plus the zest of two limes and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes. Then pour the mixture into a blender with the juice of the two limes and a quarter cup of cider vinegar. Add a dash of turmeric if you want a brighter yellow color. Blend to a thick, grainy paste. A few hours at room temperature lets the flavors meld. Store it in the refrigerator for up to a month. Use it to coat pork tenderloin or skinless chicken breasts before grilling, or just to perk up a ham sandwich.
The simplest prepared mustard starts with equal parts mustard powder and water. Tinker with herbs, spices and salt. Vary the tart/sweetness with vinegar, honey, fruit juice or zest. Experiment with small batches until you get the balance you like.
Chef Mark Fuller did just that to concoct the Chinese-style honey-mustard sauce he serves with his famous fried chicken at Ma’ono in West Seattle. Here’s his recipe to try with your fried chicken at home.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.
Ma’ono’s Chinese-Style Mustard Dipping Sauce
Makes 2 cups
2 tablespoons Chinese mustard powder
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2/3 cup Dijon mustard
1 cup honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Dissolve the mustard powder in the water, add the other ingredients, whisk until smooth. The mixture will taste bitter and acrid at first, until the powdered mustard reconstitutes, but will mellow as it sits. Prepare one hour in advance.