Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Neither Fish Nor Fowl: A Pomegranate Spring of Eggplant and Abbasid Chicken

[image from http://images.8tracks.com/; Still Life With Pomegranate by Mark Schneider]

"We shape our self / to fit this world / and by the world / are shaped again. / The visible / and the invisible / working together / in common cause, / to produce / the miraculous." [David Whyte, excerpt from Working Together, from The House of Belonging.]

In keeping with my quest to find cuisines shared across the Islamic world and the impact of Islamic cuisines on that of its Western non-Islamic neighbors, I've been reading Nawal Nasrallah's labor of love Annals of the Caliph's Kitchen, a translation of Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's 10th century cookbook Kitabh al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). This cookbook, one of the oldest in the world, is the most comprehensive work of its kind and includes more than 600 recipes from the royal cuisine of the medieval Abbasid court in Baghdad. The recipes showcase food meant for "kings and caliphs and lords and leaders." The methods of medieval Baghdadi Abbasid cuisine explored in this cookbook led to a "lasting cuisine that traveled westwards as far as Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, and eastwards as far as India" according to Nasrallah's research. Furthermore, Nasrallah quotes Bernard Rosenberger as stating that "the re-conquest of Spain and Sicily...introduced first the countries of the Mediterranean and later those of Western Europe to classical Muslim foods and tastes," as well as Anne Wilson whose research shows that the experience of the Crusaders in the Eastern Mediterranean region "was to have a considerable impact on the diet of Western Europe."

Some of us have always thus been inevitably intertwined, at least, in our culinary tastes and histories.

Nasrallah's book reads like an Arabian Nights of cooking in her descriptions of medieval Baghdadi food culture. The food-related excesses she describes as part of courtly culture (whether preparing and eating elaborate meals, seeking out and writing about the most unique ingredients and food experiences, and so on) is not unlike the culture of culinary excess that we live in today, if one has ample disposable income and time, that is. There are many more of us today who can indulge like the Abbasids, perhaps not every day, but certainly a few times every month.

Don't be misled by my cynical tone here. Regardless of the excesses described in this cookbook and in our contemporary consumerist lives, this type of culinary history (like all historical accounts) nevertheless is valuable in that it holds the key to the events that we feel compelled to reenact when presented with similar motivating impulses and influences. Also, I have a more personal reason for reading this history. After a youth somewhat squandered by learning about ancient Romans and ancient Egyptians (neither of whom are directly relevant to my own culinary heritage), I'm trying to fill the gap in my knowledge of one of my own culinary ancestors -- the Abbasids. As a certain witty scholar and fabulous cook I know says "Abbasids are our Romans" with the "us" referring to South Asians whose cuisine and culture have been affected by medieval Islamic food culture.

Recipes are like maps to places we can't return or travel to anymore, or to mythical places that may never have existed. They are keys to memories of events that may never have taken place or histories long forgotten. Each re-creation of a recipe then is an act that requires an imaginative fusion of fact and fiction, of history and memory. In writing about even older recipes, ancient Mesopotamian recipes from the "Yale Babylonian" recipe tablets to be precise, Laura Kelly a/k/a the Silk Road Gourmet writes here: "These ancient recipes are a fascinating challenge for modern cooks—not only because they are a window into the food culture of ancient Mesopotamia, but also because they are actually little more than lists of ingredients, usually with scant information on the amounts of ingredients to use, their form, or even how to prepare the dishes. Although difficult for some to navigate, the recipes allow for a great deal of creativity in using what is on hand or in reinterpreting dishes with favorite local and personal flavors. (In medieval Europe, recipes were typically written like this, and outside the industrialized world they still are.)"

For many if not all of us, each such act is also a small creative gesture (whether or not intentional) towards the daily puzzle that is our identity that we add to, subtract from, discard or destroy, every day. For Nasrallah, who lives in self-imposed exile in Boston Massachusetts after leaving Iraq in 1990, I imagine the recipes and the culinary history she's expended substantial effort to unearth must represent all of these and more. As I read through her book and contemplate the gift it contains (whether or not her readers appreciate it), I feel like taking the next train to Boston, showing up at her door and giving her a great big, tearful hug. Good thing for her, I don't know her address:-)

When, like Nasrallah, we live in exile both from our original places of birth (geographically and psychologically) and in our chosen places of residence (psychologically), when we have one of those hyphenated identities (whether acquired at birth or upon naturalization), often (not every day I hope, but sometimes) "life...is a daily confrontation with micro-aggressions and gestures of alienation" as Zia Haider Rahman, the brilliant author of In The Light Of What We Know, said recently in an opinion piece in the New York Times about life for immigrants and their children in Europe. It's as if the identity puzzle I spoke of above is in the hands of the people who we encounter every day, instead of in our own hands, and they (rather than we) are the ones putting the puzzle together as they see fit based on their own limited knowledge and experiences of who it is the hyphenated puzzle identity standing in front of them may be. As Rahman sees it: "Every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language. To the white Briton, the hyphenated identity — Bangladeshi-British, Pakistani-British — only highlights otherness. Each side regards the hyphenated identity as a concession to the other, rather than both rejoicing in a new stripe in a rainbow nation." This resonates to a certain extent with hyphenated Americans like me even though the culture of immigrant assimilation works quite differently in the United States (with its many and diverse state, urban, suburban and rural subcultures) when compared to Britain.

Inspired by Rahman's eloquently penned NYT piece, this battle for identity is one that I hope to wage in the terrain of food cultures and recipes. When I mention that I like to cook, I'm asked every time whether I cook "my own kind of food". The person harmlessly asking the question means Bangladeshi food, of course. When I say yes I only cook my own kind of food, I mean something quite different. I like to cook, serve, eat, read and learn about, travel for and find food from all the various cultures, places, stories and histories that have shaped who I am (literally and imaginatively) today. Unlike food writing about the exotic other, the exploration I've embarked on here is not for the seekers, keepers and peddlers of authenticity. Not because I've anything against traditional cooking. Far from it. Without some agreement about what tradition requires, there can be no reaction (like mine) to such tradition. The sad truth is that a quest for the "authentic" and who gets to represent the "authentic" leaves those of us with pixelated identities out in the cold. My food writing and recipes are for those who seek the roots they never knew or may have forgotten, that are mistakenly ascribed to them, that they've grafted on to themselves, that they imaginatively recreate or reject as a lifelong endeavor of reimaginings and realizations. These posts and the recipes in them try to capture the "who" of who I am (and those many others like me) as an evolving composite of where we come from, where we've have been and where we aspire to go someday.

The two recipes in this post, one vegan, one not -- Eggplant "Chutney" with Pomegranate Molasses and Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses -- are examples of composite recipes imaginatively created from multiple sources. The first is inspired by a sweet and sour chutney-like Bangladeshi dish from my mother's recipe closet handed down to her from her mom, my late nani or maternal grandmother, that I've modified to incorporate pomegranate molasses instead of tamarind paste for sourness, and added a couple of other little twists. For added inspiration, I also read this recipe by a fellow food blogger Imik Simik: Cooling with Gaul for his/her adaptation of Louisa Shafia's Eggplant and Tomato Stew with Pomegranate Molasses from The New Persian Kitchen. The chicken recipe is adapted from Nasrallah's translation of The Book of Recipes. Here's the original recipe by a boon companion to a 9th century Abbasid Caliph. Not too shabby, I say! I cooked it according to methods and using quantities that are my own as an act of reinterpreting a historical recipe for contemporary tastes. The dish uses the ancient Arab and Byzantine condiment murri, for which I substituted tamari or high-quality soy sauce.

As Rahman points out so poignantly, the cultural mainstream's discomfort with otherness is unlikely to go away. So, for those of us who fall into the role of the other, temporarily, permanently or situationally, the least we can do is to fashion this otherness for ourselves in our own chosen images in our reimagined food cultures.

Eggplant "Chutney" with Pomegranate Molasses

Eggplant with Pomegranate Sauce. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.

Servings 6-8
Cooking Time ~30 minutes (Prep ~1 hour)

  • 4 Asian Eggplants or 1 Large Eggplant cut into 3 inch long pieces [salt and set aside for an hour, then wash and pat dry carefully]
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large tomato, sliced
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp. (or 1 tsp. if you prefer more heat) chili/cayenne powder
  • 3 Tbsp. oil [I used coconut oil]
  • 1 Tbsp. raw honey
  • 3 Tbsp. (or less for less sourness) of pomegranate molasses [available in stores that stock Middle Eastern products; I used the fresh kind from Turkey]
  • Salt to taste
  • A little hot water
  • Thai basil (optional) or fresh coriander leaves for garnish 
1. Saute the onion in oil until translucent.
2. Add garlic and tomato and saute for a couple of minutes.
3. Mix the onion garlic mixture thoroughly with the remaining ingredients (except water) and lay out the eggplant slices (skin side up) in a flat saucepan. Heat on medium heat until the liquid released (including any water added sparingly as needed) starts to boil.
4. Cover and simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes until the liquid has almost evaporated. Add hot water sparingly to prevent sticking.
5. Add the honey and pomegranate molasses.
6. Cook for a few more minutes until all the moisture has evaporated. Turn off heat.
7. Garnish with Thai basil, if using, or fresh coriander leaves.
8. Serve at room temperature.

Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses

Abbasid-Style Chicken with Pomegranate Molasses. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.
Servings 6-8
Cooking Time ~1 hour (Prep. ~1 hour)
  • 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces [since the Abbasids used game birds such as bustard, francolin, grouse and sand grouse, pasture-raised chicken, guinea hen or pheasant would be the more appropriate substitutes; mine is the common person's version with chicken] 
  • 1/2 bunch parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1/2 bunch celery stalks with leaves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoon Turkish red pepper or cayenne powder or hot paprika powder (optional)
  • Whole roasted black pepper (2 Tbsp.), cloves (1 Tbsp.), caraway seeds (1-1/2 Tbsp.), coriander seeds (1 Tbsp.) [place in a sachet for easy removal or ground to a powder]
  • Tamari or high-quality soy sauce (2 Tbsp.) or to taste
  • Pomegranate molasses (3 Tbsp. or less for less sourness)
  • Hot water, as needed
  • Fresh coriander or mint leaves for garnish
  • Pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
1. Saute onion until translucent.
2. Add chopped parsley leaves and celery stalk with leaves and saute for a few minutes.
3. Lightly brown the chicken on all sides.
4. Add the remaining spices and soy sauce and a little hot water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes or so or until chicken is tender.
5. Add pomegranate molasses and cook for a few minutes.
6. Check taste and add salt and adjust sourness, as needed. Turn off heat. 
7. Garnish with fresh coriander or mint leaves and pomegranate seeds, if using.
8. Serve immediately, "God willing" (to channel a quirkily lovable expression from medieval Muslim cookbooks).

Pixelated. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Have Food Will Travel: You Can't Take It With You or Can You?

Spring Blossom on Tree Trunk. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.
"Hey mama, when you leave / Don't leave a thing behind / I don't want nothin' / I can't use nothin'"

"But I long for the day when I'll have new birth / Still I love the livin' here on earth"

Yet another Spring, Nowruz (Persian New Year), and Easter are upon us. Renewal is all around, which for some of us brings to mind the other side of rebirth, unpleasant as the topic may be: death and our finitude. No, this certainly will not be a rumination on such unpleasant topics such as death and human finitude, because who has time for that! But, that ever-present shadow of mortality, however much we try to blink it away, reminded me of the often quoted phrase: "you can't take it with you." To the grave, I presume. Well, that doesn't seem to stop pretty much everyone you know including yourself (and certainly, me) from trying, striving, accumulating, always accumulating. Oh yes, and giving away, in order to accumulate more.

Along with all the other things we do as human beings, some of which seem all too paradoxically inhuman to us (e.g., murdering other human beings, whether as a state actor or as an individual or as part of an ideologically-motivated group), trying very, very hard to take it all with us, or at least fool ourselves into thinking we can, may just be one of those resident demons in our human DNA that we (at least, some of us) can only hope to reach a truce with. Slaying this demon altogether, may not be an option for most of us.

However, when it comes to food, trying to take something of your own or collective food culture or memory with you seems to be a less fraught proposition. You don't know what I mean? If you've ever tried to sneak a candy bar, or an apple, or hot sauce, or (yes) chili pepper, where it's prohibited or at least socially frowned upon, or if you've overpacked food in preparation for something (e.g., an impending journey or a storm), you know what I mean.

This desire to take it with you, when it comes to food, before the days of mechanized survival, often went to ridiculous extremes, at least for the well-resourced. I was reading Charles Dickens's "American Notes for General Circulation" about his 1842 voyage to America because I wanted to get his astute take on the Atlantic crossing, as well as American life at the time, delivered in his signature effortlessly humorous style of course. In it, he describes how a group of deck hands "took in the milk" on board the ship by bringing a live cow on board. A live cow on an Atlantic ship crossing. A live cow. Poor cow.

I remember too shopping for food in 2012 before Hurricane Sandy, considered "one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes that year for the Atlantic hurricane season, and the second-costliest hurricane in United States history." We all know that phenomenon of desperate shopping for food before a storm. What happens with all that milk and eggs? Do people "survive" on custards, milk shakes and omelettes for those few days, if that, while the storm blows over? Our case was a little different. We had all the rice and beans, milk and eggs too, and other provisions, frankly, to last a few months (remember, what I said about accumulation above). But, I found myself buying and eating copious amount of junk food (potato chips to be exact), which I almost never touch in my normal daily life, in anticipation of the storm that actually ended up bypassing our city altogether. And, I suspect, I was not alone in having binged on junk food for a storm that never came. Something about impending displacement (whether through a long journey or a storm) triggers some deep-seated desire to try to take calories with you, whether packed away or in your stomach.

So, I won't tell you the story about how we once packed a car full of food to go to a cabin in the woods for a week, except that the cabin was near a town, and thus, grocery stores and restaurants. I think you get my point.

For those of us who like to eat well and have dietary restrictions (religious or otherwise), all this food travel starts to get very complicated. When we make a choice about food, including what to take with us and what to eat where and when, we make subtly profound micro-decisions about who we are, in that moment and in life (at least, as far as we know in that moment). We're signaling to the world, this is who I am, this is who I'm not, this is who you are, I am not you, and you are not me. Some people, picky eaters to be exact, will go so far as to draw an uncompromising and uncrossable line in the sand when it comes to exercising control over food. Food is usually presented as a universally common denominator, which it is as a factual matter, because we all have to eat to survive. But, the proposition that food is some kind of grand unifier, as it's often presented (specially in food writing, including in my own), is an ideologically driven proposition (based on a desire for diverse peoples to "get along" by eating each other's food) that has little bearing on reality.

What we eat or don't eat divides us as often, if not more often, as what we choose to eat unites us.

Matthew Brown argues in his though-proving article Picky Eating is a Moral Failing that
"[t]o be a picky eater is to have a significant lack of openness to new experiences and to substantially hamper one’s development....As meals are perhaps the most pervasive of social experience, being a picky eater can violate your duties to others. I argue, not that everyone must attempt or pretend to like what your friends or what expert gourmands like, but that there are significant obligations to openness, self-knowledge, accommodation, and gracefulness that should impact one’s food preferences." Now, whether or not these obligations to other people "should" impact one's preferences, wouldn't it be nice if it actually did, at least once in a while?

Going back to traveling with food, I know that for me it comes from a concern that I may not be able to eat what is offered (e.g. on an international flight) or, or more controversially (at least, if we are open to the proposition that there are ethical dimensions to "picky eating"), I may not like what is offered or I may consider it unhealthy for me to eat (e.g., when traveling in an unfamiliar country). At a deeper level, this desire to travel with my kind of food, whatever that means for you (could be a nutrition bar, which is often the case for me), stems from a need to carry the familiar (in the form of a taste sensation in the brain) with you when setting out into the unknown (yes, even the humble, everyday unknown).

If you're with me this far, as we read the news every day about the millions of people who are now displaced from their homes due to war, unrest and the effects of climate change, I wonder what they're able to carry, if anything, with them to remind them of the food from a home that they've no certainty of ever returning to, specially when one comes from a place with a strong, food-centered traditional culture. And, once our memories fade or we never learned in the first place, what happens to us when we leave our foods behind? Who do we become? I know that we, by and large, adapt and survive, as migrants, refugees and immigrants always do, somehow. For example, here's one hopeful story about Syrian refugees in Beirut making a place for themselves through cooking and serving their food, and here's another about an immigrant, women run restaurant in London, but these exceptional cases are but points of light in what feels like a gradually looming darkness.

What would you take with you to remind you of home? For me, it's a jar of Mr. Shutki, a Bengli-style fermented spicy shrimp paste in a jar available in London and introduced to me by my sister, that like the ancient Romans and their garum, if I could, I would take with me everywhere and add to almost everything (veggies, pasta, rice, eggs, meat, literally everything). However, since this fermented condiment paste has a distinctive antisocial aroma, for now, I refrain and restrict myself to only writing about it.

I'll end as I began with the theme of the season by quoting one of the food authors I've learned the most from, Michael Pollan, here in an interview about his book Cooked:
"[F]ermentation puts us in touch with the ever-present tug in life, death....once you start studying fermentation, you're acutely aware of the fact that everything that lives contains the seeds of its own decomposition and that living on in the same way that on the leaves of a cabbage at any given time are various bacteria species just waiting for a breach in the cell walls to leap in and digest and rot that cabbage, you've got a lot of bacteria on you and in you waiting for the same moment. And these bacteria are our friends, but when we die, they get - they make quick work of fermenting us. And - but, you know, you go around the world, and every culture has very important ferments. This is a cultural universal, it appears. And there's a good reason for it."

Have Shrimp Paste Will Travel. Photo by Mir Elias, 2016.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Four Recipes And A Pilaf: The Halcyon Days of Chickpea Splendor

Desert Flower. Photo by Mir Elias, 2013.
"In winter / all the singing is in / the tops of the trees..."

"As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last / hangs really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree / Then for the teeming quietness, happiest days of all! / The brooding and blissful halcyon days!"

This winter, with its unusually warm temperatures, has been slightly disconcerting to say the least. However, it's been a real treat to wake up every morning to singing birds in "the tops of the trees".

According to Zen teacher and author Steve Hagan: "The halcyon days are two weeks of calm weather surrounding the winter solstice. They are a time to reflect---a dark and brooding time when we may be drawn into quiet contemplation on the past year as well as on larger dimensions and aspects of our lives." Hard to do in these busy days of a holiday season full of managing a variety of expectations, whether self-imposed or imposed by others. Also, the weather has been anything but calm in parts of the United States with violent tornados tearing out swaths of the country.

While my days have not quite been "halcyon" in the past weeks, circumstances have provided the opportunity to work with one ingredient, the topic of this post, in a calm and consistent fashion to explore four different recipes, all of which together would make for a complete dinner menu (i.e., a soup, a vegetarian entree, a non-vegetarian entree and a dessert). And this focus, in the midst of that managing expectations business I mentioned above, has frankly provided much needed distraction for the contemplative state in which I often find myself when yet another year draws to a close.

Chickpea or Cicer arietinum is a legume that has a history that is long if not storied. As you will see, there seems to be nowhere left in the world where this legume doesn't turn up, making it an excellent candidate for this blog.

As one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, chickpeas are quite ancient. According to the New World Encyclopedia: "Remains from 7,500 years ago have been found in the Middle East...[and by]...the Bronze Age chickpeas were known in Italy and Greece." In terms of their uses, as food and for their supposed "medicinal" properties, "[i]n classical Greece, they were called erébinthos and eaten as a staple, a dessert, or consumed raw when young. The Romans knew several varieties, such as venus, ram, and punic chickpeas. They were both cooked down into a broth and roasted as a snack....Ancient people also associated chickpeas with Venus because they were said to offer medical uses, such as increasing semen and milk, provoking menstruation and urine, and helping to treat kidney stones. Wild cicers were thought to be especially strong and helpful."

Apparently, research into the domestication history of chickpeas by archaeologists found that "[t]he wild version of chickpeas (Cicer reticulatum) is only found in parts of what is today southeastern Turkey and adjacent Syria, and it is likely that it was first domesticated there, about 11,000 years ago. Chickpeas were part of the culture that first developed farming on our planet, called the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period....Domesticated chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) come in two main groups called desi ['local'/'country'] and kabuli [from Kabul in Afghanistan], but you can also find varieties in 21 different colors and several shapes....Scholars believe that the oldest variety of chickpea is the desi form; desi are small, angular, and variegated in color."

The World's Healthiest Foods (which details the many health benefits of chickpeas) states: "During the 16th century, garbanzo beans were brought to other subtropical regions of the world by both Spanish and Portuguese explorers as well as Indians who emigrated to other countries. Today, the main commercial producers of garbanzos are India, Pakistan, Turkey, Ethiopia and Mexico." As yet another fascinating horticultural article on chickpeas states: "Brought to the New World, it is now important in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru and the U.S. Also important in Australia. Wild species are most abundant in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia."

While the account above appears straightforward enough, when it comes to falafel (a popular Middle Eastern food made using chickpeas) and the origins thereof, much ink has been spilt. And the origin of the word "chickpea" is anything but straightforward! Even a poem has been written about the chickpea (as a metaphor for the forging of the purified human soul through various trials) by none other than the Muslim Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.

So, like the tomato and the chili pepper (both of which originated in the Americas), without which much of the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent would not exist in its current delicious form, chickpeas also originated outside of the region (in the Middle East) but is now a staple legume in many of the regional cuisines of South Asia! This ancient legume, the chickpea or garbanzo bean, has made its own quiet and deliberate way all across the world. Reading its remarkable, peripatetic history, I felt that one recipe wouldn't do justice to this splendid ingredient, so I picked four recipes to share with you: a chickpea flour based soup, Karhi, from the Punjab region of Pakistan and India; an Omani/Persian-inspired chickpea and spinach stew; a Mughlai-style chickpea and ground beef stew; and a halwa made from chickpea flour also from the Indian subcontinent. All the recipes are gluten-free, and are vegetarian except for the one which has beef (in which lamb or vegetarian "meat" can be substituted easily). I also include a simple recipe for polau/pilaf below as it is a nice accompaniment to the Karhi and the two stews.

Like the discretely splendid chickpea, in the upcoming new year, may we quietly enrich all the lives we touch and all the activities to which we set ourselves. And, in remembrance of the recent winter solstice or shab-ye-yalda (when, in the Persian tradition, the longest night is greeted with poetry in the company of family and friends sharing a special evening meal together), I'll leave you with a poem (one of mine).


Shortest day
Longest night
Don't mourn the dark
It may help us see
   When the light blinds our eyes.

Punjabi Style Karhi

Karhi. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.
[My recipe is based on this meticulous one I found online as modified by my husband's suggestions regarding what he considers are certain key spices as indicated by an asterisk below. All these ingredients should be available at your local South Asian grocery store. Also, a powerful kitchen vent is useful as are open windows when cooking with some of these ingredients such as onion, turmeric and asafoetida powder.]

Servings: 8-10
Cooking Time: ~ 1 hour

  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 cup besan or chickpea flour
  • 3 tsp turmeric or more to taste
  • 1 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 3 cups water 
  • 1 TBSP salt
1.  Mix the above ingredients slowly (in the case of the water and the chickpea flour) with a wire whisk and one at a time so that all lumps are dissolved and the chickpea flour and buttermilk mixture is smooth. Set aside.
  • 1/4 cup mustard oil (or olive oil)
  • 1 medium onion (finely chopped)
  • 1/2 garlic bulb (finely chopped)
  • 1 inch ginger (finely chopped)
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp whole fenugreek seeds (optional)
  • *4 tsp whole nigella or kilonji seeds
  • *2 dried whole red chilies
  • *3 stems curry leaves
  • 2 pinches hing or asafoetida powder (optional)
  • 3 tsp amchur or dried mango powder (optional for sourness if your buttermilk is not sour enough)
  • 1/2 cup new potatoes (parboiled)
  • Hot water (3 additional cups as needed for desired thickness)
  • An additional 1/2 TBSP salt (or to taste)
1.  Parboil potatoes by cooking them until almost done in slightly salted boiling water or in the microwave. Also, put on a kettle of water to boil as you'll need it later.
2.  Heat oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the hing or asafoetida powder if using.
2.  Saute onions until translucent. Add ginger and garlic and saute for minute.
3.  Saute the red peppers, curry leaves, and nigella, fenugreek and cumin seeds (taking care not to burn any of the spices, particularly, cumin).
4.  Add the chickpea flour and buttermilk mixture (prepared above).
5.  Add the parboiled potatoes.
6.  Add water, as needed, a cup at a time to reach the desired level of thickness (like a creamy soup).
7.  Stir often but carefully to prevent sticking. (Be careful with picking up and dropping the the spoon into the pan as I ended up with little yellow dots all over my stove, which added to the post-cooking cleaning efforts.)
8.  Cook for approximately 20-30 minutes.
9.  Serve hot with bread or rice (see recipe for a pilaf below).

Omani/Persian Inspired Chickpea and Spinach Stew

Chickpeas and Spinach with Dried Limes. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.
[This is a recipe I invented based on Iranian stews that use dried limes and greens, as well as this article on Omani cuisine where I learned that "Oman is positioned at the crossroads of the spice routes. And so for centuries, there's been a lot of interaction with traders from South Asia, East Africa, Persia, and even the Far East. So they have dishes like vegetables simmered in coconut milk with hot chilies and lime." If you just follow the recipe without the coconut milk or hot chilies, you have the Iranian version of my recipe, and if you include coconut milk and hot chilies, you have the Omani version, which I prefer due to my preference for bold yet balanced flavors.]

Servings: 6-8
Cooking Time: ~ 1 hour
  • 1 large (25 oz.) can or 2-1/2 cups of cooked chickpeas
  • 1 large frozen bag of spinach (thawed)
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 small onion (thinly sliced)
  • 1 TBSP turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne powder or to taste
  • 1 TBSP whole cumin seeds
  • 1 TBSP whole coriander seeds
  • 2 small dried limes (ground into a powder)
  • Chicken or vegetable stock 1/2 cup (optional, if you want your stew to have the consistency of soup)
  • 2 TBSP coconut milk (optional, if using for the Omani version)
  • 1-1/2 TBSP coconut oil (if using for the Omani version, otherwise use olive oil)
  • 1 dried red chili (optional, if using for the Omani version)
  • Salt to taste
1.  Saute onion in oil until translucent. In the meantime, thaw the spinach by heating on low heat in a microwave.
2.  Add garlic and saute for a minute.
3.  (Add dried red chili if using.)
4.  Add turmeric and cayenne powder, and coriander and cumin seeds. Saute for 2 minutes with kitchen vent (if you have one) on high.
5.  Add thawed spinach.
6.  Add stock (if using to make a soup instead of a stew) and chickpeas along with their juice.
7.  Bring to a boil, simmer for 30 minutes (add the coconut milk, if using, about half way through).
8.  Check salt and add dried lime powder before turning off heat.
9.  Serve hot with bread or rice (see recipe for a pilaf below).

Mughlai Style Chickpeas with Ground Beef

Mughlai Chickpeas with Ground Beef. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.

[This is also my own recipe based on how the women in my family have learned to cook meat over the years. I call it "Mughlai-style" because, while this is not a Mughlai recipe, "the tastes of Mughlai cuisine vary from extremely mild to spicy, and are often associated with a distinctive aroma and the taste of ground and whole spices", which this dish certainly evokes. It's the kind of home style "Mughlai" cooking that I grew up with:-)

Servings: 4-6
Cooking Time: ~1 hour
  • 1 large (25 oz.) can or 2-1/2 chickpeas
  • 1 lb. ground beef (I used the free range, grass-fed variety)
  • 4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
  • 1 inch ginger (finely chopped)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 piece of cinnamon or canela
  • 8-9 green whole cardamom pods (with the ends slightly open)
  • 1 small onion (finely chopped)
  • 1 TBSP turmeric
  • 1 tsp cayenne or to taste
  • 1 TBSP ground cumin
  • 1 TBSP ground coriander
  • 1-1/2 TBSP coconut oil (if using) or olive oil
  • 1 couple of splashes of kewra or screwpine essence (in the US, the Ahmed brand is the best available one)
  • Salt to taste
1.  Saute onion until translucent with bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom. (This is my maternal grandmother's technique, according to my mom, in order to reduce the smell of frying onions.)
2.  Add garlic and ginger saute for a minute.
3.  Add turmeric, cayenne, coriander and cumin, saute for 2 minutes with the kitchen vent (if you have one) on high or the windows open.
4.  Brown the beef.
5. Add chickpeas along with the juice from the can.
6.  Bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes.
7.  Check salt before turning off heat.
8.  Add kewra, stir and cover the lid. (As soon as you do this, you'll realized why this recipe is Mughlai-style.)
9.  Serve hot with bread or rice (see recipe for a pilaf below).

Chickpea Flour or Besan Halwa

Besan or Chickpea Flour Halwa. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.

[This is a recipe that I explored to add to my repertoire of gluten-free desserts. It's a modified version of a recipe from a fellow blogger, Prerna Singh, at Indian Simmer, and I loved this quote by her about her mom's recipe for besan ka halwa: "With my mom it was never about fancy food or use of those rare or exclusive ingredients. She would use all the basic ingredients that you can find in the pantry any day of the week and make something special out of it." One sign of the best of cooks, in my opinion, is when you learn to work with what you have and make not only the most of it, but something special and uniquely your own.]

Servings: 8-10
Cooking Time: ~1 hour
  • 1 cup chickpea flour or besan
  • 1/2 cup ghee or clarified butter (I swear only by the Bangladeshi kind if you can find it, otherwise, you're better off using the highest quality unsalted butter available to you)
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 2/3 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 1/4 cup nuts for garnish (I used chopped raw almonds only along with dried mulberries which I had in the house, but you can also use pistachios and/or cashews)
  • 2 tsp cardamom powder  
  • 1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon or canela 
  • 1-1/2 cup water with a little buttermilk (as I had some on hand), but you can use just water or 1-1/2 cup milk instead
1.  Heat ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan.
2.  Add besan to it and fry it until it starts changing color. When besan has turned light golden brown in color and gives off a distinct fragrant aroma, add water slowly and keep stirring the besan thoroughly so that it doesn’t form lumps.
3.  Add sugar and cardamom and cinnamon powder and blend it all together and stir until the water is fully absorbed and the halwa pulls away from the sides of the pan.
4.  Garnish it with the nuts and mulberries (optional).
5.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Bangladeshi Polau/Pilaf

The Karhi and the two stews are wonderful with a little polau/pilaf. Here is my maternal grandmother's recipe via my mom all the way from Bangladesh. When I make and eat this rice, I feel equal parts joy and pain, but I hope the people who eat it will only feel the joy.

I used both Bangladeshi ghee and Bangladeshi kalijeera rice for this recipe, but you can use olive oil or butter and high quality basmati rice instead. The general proportion of uncooked rice to water for this recipe is approximately 1:2. 

Saute 1 cup rice in ghee and olive oil mixture (enough to generously coat the bottom of a nonstick pan) along with some green cardamom pods, 1 cinnamon or canela stick and a couple of bay leaves, for 10 minutes or so. Add 2 cups hot water, salt (to taste) bring to a boil, then simmer (covered with a tight seal) on low heat for 15 minutes. Add saffron before turning down the heat (optional). Garnish with lightly caramelized onions (optional). Serve hot.

Polau/Pilaf. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Ineffable Nature of Holiday Traditions and Almond Cookies

Zimtsterne/Cinnamon Star (Almond) Cookies. Photo by Mir Elias, 2014

This is the first year I noticed that people started wishing me a "nice holiday" right before Thanksgiving instead of the usual "Happy Thanksgiving" greeting. What other holiday would we all be celebrating in the United States around Thanksgiving? Why the use of the generic "holiday" in this instance? Why the sudden unease? Were people wondering whether an immigrant American like me celebrates Thanksgiving? (But, isn't Thanksgiving the quintessential American holiday in certain respects -- the holiday allegedly observed by the first immigrants to North America?) Or, had they somehow picked up on the historical baggage of bloody genocide that Thanksgiving comes with, not to mention the current animal ethics concern with the mass slaughter of rather tasteless birds on one day. I'll never know.

This is also the time of the year when acquaintances and colleagues start showing a sudden interest in what it is I celebrate (if at all) during December. Mind you, this happens every year (you'd think they'd know by know). And, every year, I've to come up with a creative way of saying that while I don't observe Christmas in the traditional sense (but, who does anyway!), I exchange gifts (more as a matter of reciprocity than anything else), put up twinkly lights and prepare festive meals around the Winter Solstice. This year I'm even signed up to volunteer during Christmas week at a cafe that provides free lunches to those in need. Do all of these count as celebrating the American holiday season that is Christmas?

In the past several years, I've even created my very own holiday tradition in December with a dear friend. This annual tradition provides the recipe for this post.

No, don't worry. This is not one of those "war on Thanksgiving" or "war on Christmas" type posts. Nor is it one lambasting political correctness, a useful tool often used ineffectively to give the impression of appearing to be inclusive, while often managing (at the same time) to give offense. No, I won't go there.

The genericization of Thanksgiving and people's unease and studied uncertainty about what it is I celebrate in December got me thinking about traditions -- Who do they belong to? How do they change over time? When is it time to abandon them? How does one create a new tradition? These are difficult questions for immigrants like me, often because recreating traditions (honoring as much of the original traditional elements as possible) often provides the only purchase we have in a new country that we'll eventually learn to call home. A special family recipe, for example, and the stories that accompany it could be just such a self-made tradition, as is the case with Jonathan Safran Foer recounting his grappling with the tradition (as a vegetarian) of his Holocaust refugee grandmother's chicken and carrots recipe in his moving vegetarian memoir Eating Animals. He writes:

"We are made of stories. I'm thinking of those Saturday afternoons at my grandmother's kitchen table, just the two of us--black bread in the glowing toaster, a humming refrigerator that couldn't be seen through its veil of family photographs. Over pumpernickel ends and Coke, she would tell me about her escape from Europe, the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn't. It was the story of her life....and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn't know, as a child, what that lesson was....We are not the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother's singular dish, will never again receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family's primal story, will have to change [emphasis added]."

As the world in which we live deals with an unprecedented scale of war and mass migration of refugees, a similar concern is expressed in this thoughtful op-ed piece I read recently in Al Jazeera in the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris: The Hidden Meanings Behind 'our way of life': "But who are we, and what exactly is our way of life, beyond personal preferences and timeworn customs? Perhaps most urgent, how do ideas about our way of life change citizens’ willingness to welcome refugees and other new members of the community?" Advocating for a more expansive and changeable (yet sober) view of "our way of life", the author argues:

"[T]alking about [the United States as] a nation of immigrants is just one among many options that can reflect a collective commitment to a measure of openness. One might choose to speak of our way of life as members of a formerly persecuted group (e.g., Jews), members of groups formerly interned on security-based pretexts (Japanese Americans) or citizens of formerly colonizing empires. One can invoke our way of life as Muslims living in Western countries. The relevant question will be what political alliance will ring truer to constituencies at home and mobilize more support. Questions of security and of culture will inevitably be crucial in determining this, but ultimately who we are remains an open question [emphasis added]."

Refugees and immigrants, by the very fact of their "transmigratory" experiences have to recreate their traditions. Recreate, not replicate. Even those who never leave home may be forced to reimagine a tradition if the tradition no longer comports with their personal ethical values, e.g., a vegetarian eschewing eating Turkey at Thanksgiving, or sacrificing livestock animals during Eid ul-Adha, or passing on a meat-based recipe from Grandma.

In a short retrospective on the Thanksgiving tradition (as currently practiced in the United States), the Nerdwriter states: "Traditions like Thanksgiving are not natural by any means, they're invented, and at the time of their invention they [recalled] a past that wasn't really there. An imagined, constructed past that serves the purposes of the present...Holidays like these are open to revision. As Americans, Thanksgiving is ours to reframe, just as the country is. That is a responsibility for all of us, a responsibility for which I give thanks."

Even the culinary traditions that were part and parcel of the horrific slavery economy in the antebellum South are being excavated and salvaged by food journalists such as Toni Tipton-Martin to restore the vast and varied contributions made by women of African descent to the food cultures of America. If something so wondrously rich and profound as Tipton-Martin's book, The Jemima Code, can emerge from as debasing a tradition as slavery, there is hope for all traditions with a problematic history, outdated cultural referents, religious connotations to which one doesn't subscribe, or unethical practices, and so on.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to make a friend who has remained a friend through the past, often turbulent, nine years. She's the one who introduced me to her Swiss German tradition of getting together to bake Zimtsterne or Cinnamon Star cookies for Christmas.
Photo by Mir Elias, 2014.
Cookies made out of almond flour are one of those foods that (to me) inspire eternal optimism in an ever fractured and divisive world (if you're to watch and believe traditional media, that is). Here's why:

From the Sephardic Jewish tradition in pre-Inquisition Spain: "Almendrados, which date from the 15th century or earlier, are cookies made of ground blanched almonds, lemon zest, egg and sugar. They are left out to dry for a day before baking." However, as chef and restaurateur Jose Andres says: “Many dishes didn’t belong only to one but to all — Jews, Christians and Muslims, who were living together in the important towns of Spain before the 15th century.” Janet Mendel, an American journalist who has lived in Andalucia for many years and is an expert in Spanish cooking, including having written four books about Spain's food has this to say about almendrados: "In Andalusia or Al-Andaluz, the kingdom of the Moors (Muslim Arabs and Berbers), who ruled southern Spain from the eighth to the 15th century....Andalusian cuisine was the most opulent of all of Europe, in the use of spices, herbs, almonds, rose water, orange blossoms and other exotic flavourings....While many Andalusian dishes reveal a Moorish legacy, nowhere is it so up-front as in the repertoire of sweets. Flavoured with aniseed, cinnamon, sesame, ground almonds and often bathed in honey, these delicacies are straight out of Arabian Nights." According to Sweet Treats around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, these almendrados or "Moorish-inspired macaroon-type cookies" were most likely to be what Christopher Columbus was dunking in his horchata just before he set off for his fateful encounter with the Americas. I even found a recipe for Magreb Almond Cookies in this online Muslim "Sufi" cookbook!
Photo by Mir Elias, 2014.
I'll leave you with my friend Sonja's recipe for Zimtsterne Cinnamon Star Cookies. I don't know how an almond cookie recipe made its way to Switzerland and Germany but will hazard a guess that almonds and cinnamons would have been rare and expensive ingredients in Europe in the 17th century and, thus, served as the perfect ingredients for a special occasion (i.e., Christmas) cookie. My favorite part, aside from making them with Sonja, is that these cookies are gluten free!

The best temporary cure I know for all the unease and uncertainties and ineffabilities hinted at in this post is to do something we enjoy with a good friend or close family member or by ourselves (if we're so inclined) and bite into our favorite treat as a reminder of that good time, however momentary, however fleeting.

Go forth and recreate or reimagine your own or someone else's traditions! It's all good.

Zimtsterne or Cinnamon Star (Almond) Cookies

Makes approximately 50 cookies
  • 250g powdered sugar (or 200g for a more manageable level of sweetness for those of us who are sensitive to sugar)
  • 350g almond meal
  • 2-1/2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice or 1 oz. Kirschwasser or other liqueur (optional)
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 egg whites

1. Beat egg whites with a little sugar (sprinkled in small quantities a little at a time) in a clean electric, stand mixer until stiff peaks form (approximately 2 minutes) like a meringue.
2. Add the salt and lemon juice and carefully fold in to mix.
3. Set aside a tiny bowl (approximately 7 ounces) for icing.
Photo by Mir Elias, 2014.
4. Add the remaining sugar, almond meal and cinnamon to the remaining egg whites (sprinkled in small quantities a little at a time).
5. Knead into a dough using the mixer.
6. Shape into two to three balls and roll out into 1/2 inch thick flat pieces (using sugar, as needed, on your hands and on a clean kitchen counter to prevent sticking).
7. Cut out star shapes with a cookie cutter. Clean the cookie cutters as often as needed in warm water or sugar to get sharp points on the stars.
Photo by Mir Elias, 2014.
8. Spread a think layer of icing (see step 3) on each cookie carefully with toothpicks.
9. Let dry overnight or for at least 6 hours.
10. Bake in a 450F oven for 3-4 minutes at most.
11. Enjoy and, remember to share:-)

Photo by Mir Elias, 2014.
Postscript: Mine come out more like starfish, while Sonja's are perfect pointed stars:-)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

"Murdering and Creating" Our Many Faces: Rice as Zardah or Khichuri

Anisoptera Felix. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015

"There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet / There will be time to murder and create"

“The real violence, the violence I realized was unforgivable, is the violence that we do to ourselves, when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.”

I've loved the first quote above from T.S. Eliot's Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock ever since I read the poem as a teenager who could hardly claim to understand the meaning of this dark monologue created in a different place and time. As an adult, I still can't quite relate since a fictional, white middle aged man's troubled ruminations from a hundred years ago seems utterly irrelevant to my own experiences. Overall, the poem (although intellectually comprehensible) remains emotionally unapproachable for me, and yet I'm drawn to its strange intimacy. T.S. Eliot himself was a known anti-Semite, "not a typical anti-Semite, but an extraordinary anti-Semite," something I find repugnant (but I will come back to this a little later).

John McPhee recently wrote in his New Yorker essay on writing: "Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language....At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got."

Well, being oneself is a process of selection and omission as well (whether planned or haphazard). We spend an inordinate amount of time selecting, omitting and performing versions of ourselves for the benefit of everyone we choose to have in our lives and everyone else who is in it regardless of our feelings about their presence. This is a common human social practice, which admittedly grows a tad bit tiresome with each passing year. Not surprisingly, friends of mine who're making the crossing into middle age and who take the time to be more introspective than the average person have started saying that they're making a more whole-hearted attempt at being their more "authentic" selves (if such selves even exist, but that is a matter for another day's discussion).  "Take it or leave it!" they say. All I can say is that these friends of mine are far more courageous than I am, or perhaps, my crossing over to this "take me as I am or scram" mode of being will take longer to achieve.

This desire to "murder and create" different faces to meet different people, create different projections of ourselves is hard to give up for those of us who have been "performing ourselves" all our lives and I'm not sure giving up this practice is a worthwhile effort. Those who advocate for a dropping of the veils between our outer projected selves and our "true inner self" assume, first, that there is such a thing as an identifiable self devoid of our fictional creations/destructions, attachments, relationships, discriminations, etc.; and, second, assuming there is a "true inner self", that it/he/she is going to be accepted by everyone else for who they are. Someone who looks like me and is a stranger at home and abroad cannot take acceptance for granted. But, why this desire to be accepted? Why indeed? Well, I'm less brave than most, as we've already established. And, as long as I don't cling to any of these versions as being the "real and only" version of me, I don't really see the harm.

It's all I've got.

We don't restrict concocting various selves only for ourselves. We apparently do it with respect to everyone and everything around us! As Hal Herzog writes in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals: "Our tendency to project ourselves into even a robot’s head is a trait that came along with having a big brain. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the capacity to infer the perspectives of other people, to put ourselves mentally in their shoes, would have been a huge advantage to our ancestors, whose success in the Darwinian race to pass on their genes hinged on the ability to forge political alliances, vie for mates, and figure out who they could or could not trust. The ability to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling is referred to as having a 'theory of mind.' Humans have this ability…"

So, we're evolutionarily hardwired to create theories and conceptions about other people, about nonhuman animals, about inanimate objects, about theories themselves (e.g., regarding evolution, climate change, etc.), and as I've laid out above, many of us also create projections of ourselves for other people's benefit, however problematic the whole endeavor may be. Ultimately, such creations or fantasies are tools that the survivalist carries around, and certainly to be found in the tool chest of the most long suffering (in various degrees) of all survivalists -- all migrants, immigrants, and otherwise displaced people, as well as trans, queer and gay people.

Not to be be outdone, projecting our worst fears onto others who are unlike us is the tool of the xenophobe as well, in whose eyes a young teen is transformed into a potential terrorist in the making, who at best exercised poor judgement and at worst wanted to scare the "decent" folks in his small town school. Everywhere the xenophobe looks, there is danger. So the immigrants who clean our toilets, water our lawns, take care of our children, cook meals for us, and build our houses are all potential criminals and rapists because only the dregs of Mexican society rip themselves through the barbed wire to crawl up to the glorious Shining City upon a Hill that is the U S of A. As the late great James Baldwin said: "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." And, if not, pain, they'll be forced to deal with whatever inner demons that roost in their existent or non-existent inner selves. Slaying or taming these demons requires courage, which hatemongers constitutionally lack.

Ultimately, some of us have to compromise more endlessly in the world than others but all of us (including, tragically, nonhuman animals and the environment) are struggling under the burden of our own projected selves and those of others. The only realization I can share is the one I learned from interacting with T.S. Eliot's poem and his body of literary work over the years. Sometimes to encounter the unfamiliar is to feel dislike, repugnance, pity, anger, fear, pain, indifference. But to make an effort to know and become familiar with the unfamiliar will not make one become more loving, kind, or compassionate (not unless you're a loving, kind and compassionate person to begin with), but will certainly create an intimacy with the uncomfortable, the strange, the fearsome, the repugnant. At the very least, such an intimate encounter may provide an insight into one's own and the Other's many-faceted selves. And, in that elusive plane where we meet, perhaps we can "murder and create" new, more compassionate versions of ourselves and more "acceptable" versions of others (as beautifully illustrated by the work of Judy Clarke, the lawyer who defends the "worst of the worst").

In keeping with the above theme, the recipes I chose for this post present two faces of the utterly versatile rice.

Zardah with Barberries

The story of the first recipe for Zard Biranj (Yellow Sweet Rice) or Zardah as it is popularly known, a mainstay of Mughal cuisine, is better told by Bisma Tirmizi in her food blog. I followed her recipe for the most part (I omitted pistachios but included saffron), except that I added the flourish of dried Iranian barberries or zereshk (a small tart red berry, which happened to be in my pantry and which is not an ingredient that is used in zardah but in regular, i.e., unsweetened, Iranian pilaf instead), because I couldn't help projecting my version of the recipe onto the traditional version:-) I used long-grain, aged Pakistani basmati rice (the best I could lay my hands on). Tirmizi's version has the perfect level of sweetness for most palates, but for those who like their desserts toothachingly sweet, you can consider doubling the amount of sugar in the recipe.

Zardah even merited mention in the Emperor Akbar's 16th century Ain-i-Akbari, which is also fortuitously appropriate for this post's theme of "murdered and created", multi-faceted, amalgamated/contradictory selves, as Akbar still stands in the historical imagination as an exceptional example of a Muslim ruler who promoted an extraordinarily integrated religiocultural, sociopolitical worldview during his reign.

Zardah. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.

Rainy Day Khichuri 

Tirmizi also gives us the detailed story of Khichri or Khichuri (Rice with Legumes) -- a dish that takes on a wide variety of faces ranging from the British Kedgeree; to a food offering to the Hindu gods, which according to Bong Mom, "when mixed with devotion, faith, respect...and lifted to the sublime...[becomes] Bhog er Khichuri"; to the comfort food which I will always associate with the magically rainy afternoons of my childhood during the monsoon season in Bangladesh. While both Tirmizi and Bong Mom provide a couple of excellent variations of this recipe, below is my variation of my mom's recipe.

On a parting note (no pun intended) -- Khichuri, a dish that's been around since before the Common Era, is often a child's first dish in South Asia. For my last day on earth, if I'm very, very lucky a simple plate of khichuri will usher me out of this life.

Khichuri. Photo by Mir Elias, 2015.

Servings: 4-6
Cooking Time: ~1 hour

  • 1 inch ginger (peeled and crushed into a paste with a little water in a food processor)
  • 4 cloves garlic (crushed into a paste with a little water in a food processor)
  • 3 bay leaves (whole)
  • 1 tbsp cumin (whole) 
  • 1 small yellow onion (peeled and sliced)
  • 1 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 4-5 dried whole red chilies (optional)
  • 1 small to medium-sized cauliflower (carefully separated into its florets)
  • 1 cup rice (I used arborio rice since this dish reminds me of Risotto alla Milanese)
  • 1 cup split orange lentils or masoor daal 
  • ~7 cups hot water
  • 3-4 tsp. salt or to taste
  • Enough olive oil to cover bottom of pot
  • 1/2 stick of butter or equivalent clarified butter or ghee (to my chagrin I was out of my favorite Bengali ghee but had on hand the best butter available in the US).

1. Heat oil in a heavy, large pot over medium heat.
2. Saute the onion until soft along with the bay leaves and the red chilies (if using).
3. Saute the cumin briefly (taking care not to let it burn and become bitter).
4. Add the rice, lentils and water (adding 4 cups first and the rest as needed throughout the cooking process and remembering to keep the water heated, so that the end result has a creamy consistency).
5. Carefully skim off the foam that rises to the top.
6. Once the rice, water and lentil mixture has come to a vigorous boil and little or no foam rises to the top, add ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt and the cauliflower florets (making sure that they're submerged in the liquid).
7. Adjust the water as needed so that all ingredients are just under the water line and the ingredients don't stick to the bottom.
8. Simmer on low heat. Stir gently once or twice if needed (which allows the lentils and the rice to break and create a creamier consistency) taking care not to break the cauliflower florets.
7. After 15-20 minutes, once the desired risotto-like consistency is reached and the rice, lentils and cauliflower is cooked, stir in the butter carefully and turn off the heat.
8. Serve warm.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Taking The Long Way Around: The Quiet Charm of Lentils

Slow-cooked Maash (Urad) Daal (White Lentils). Photo by Mir Elias. Copyright 2015

"That the longest way is the most efficient way, / The one that looped among islands, and / You always seemed to be traveling in a circle / And now that the end is near / The segments of the trip swing open like an orange. / There is light in there, and mystery and food. / Come see it. Come not for me but it. / But if I am still there, grant that we may see each other." 

"Getting to know you, / Getting to know all about you. / Getting to like you, / Getting to hope you like me." 

No, I've not been on a walkabout but it sure feels like it since my last post. I've become an aunt again after 12 years, graduated from yet another academic program, visited a country I've never traveled to before, applied for my first arts grant (for this blog), started studying in depth regarding a topic that'll lead to yet another rite of passage in the near future (I hope!), and am looking forward to a milestone birthday with more joy and less trepidation. To paraphrase my favorite Ashbery poem quoted above
-- I know the end is always near but I hope it'll remain sufficiently far until it's time so I'm going to take the long way around (with your indulgence) to get to my point.

At home in the US and abroad, this has been a summer of turmoil and change -- in Europe with the "Grexit" crisis revealing the naked ideologies that formed the EU, in the Middle East with the potential Iran nuclear deal providing a hairline crack of light shining through previously closed doors, the landmark case in the US making marriage equality the law of the land, and the walking dead of racist terrorism (only never to be labelled as such) rearing its head in Charleston, South Carolina, to name a few of the headlines that, in typical media myopia, pushed aside the news from Syria, Burundi, Yemen, and so on, and so on. But, what does the news (almost always bad and rarely good) have to do with a food blog?

The personal is certainly political, but for someone like me, the political is personal too.  I started this blog with an aim to demystify the “otherness” of people like me and, in my case, through sharing the far flung cuisine of the Islamic world (found in places as diverse as Latin America and the Caribbean all the way to China), to bring about a greater understanding within and outside Muslim communities (whether secular or observant) and (hopefully) to encourage a virtual breaking of bread together. While I don’t wish to overstate this point, through this virtual breaking of the other's bread, this blog is my minuscule part in stemming the tide of violence based on perceived and actual difference that is leeching its way across our nation and many other parts of the world. 

Lives cannot be understood through facts alone and history is imperfect in the telling and retelling (including, the "historical facts" I sometimes link to in this blog). Storytelling, on the other hand, especially of the non-linear variety and including the poetic form, allows one to exhume and bring forth the feelings underlying our personal, social and political values, thereby making them available for others to access today and in the future. Once such feelings are accessed, familiarity will breed greater understanding and lead to changed attitudes (one can only hope!). 

Similarly, to eat the food prepared by someone, or based on someones carefully detailed recipe, is to know that someone (in good ways, but in bad ways too, e.g., if some aspect of the recipe indicates a lazy disregard of an ingredient or process) in ways that is not possible to know them through a casual encounter. The taste of their food (as with honestly expressive art in the case of talented artists) is the key to an intimate insight into the very soul of a person that they would never reveal to anyone but their most loved ones

The recipe I picked to exemplify this point involves cooking a particular kind of lentil (lentils share a long history with human beings) in a way that is a little different from the usual way that lentils are prepared (usually as a soup of varying thickness depending on the type of lentils). The recipe is my mother-in-law's recipe for maash (urad) daal (or white, split lentils) which she handed down to my husband. Never having met this wonderful lady in person before she passed away, I know her through our brief, warm exchanges by phone, and the taste of her simple yet sublime dishes as replicated by her son. Tasting these dishes is a way I've come to "know" them both in my own fashion as I mention above. As for their Slow-cooked Maash (Urad) Daal recipe, the spicing is subtle, the cooking process is slow and the delicate end product, at least for me, is dappled with both light and mystery, which makes me hope that we may all see each other -- mother, son, daughter-in-law, wife -- in another life.

Before we get to the actual recipe, I'll end with a quote by Ta-Nahisi Coates from his brilliant Letter to My Son about the experience of Black otherness in America: "I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it."

In dealing with the violence (whether in words or action) against all the "others" of this world, this blog is my way of trying to find a way to live with some measure of optimism within all of it. 

I hope you too find your own way to do the same. I leave you with this song "Cry No More" by Rhiannon Giddens and with my mother-in-law's and husband's recipe for Slow-cooked Maash (Urad) Daal.

Own your otherness, don't let it own you.

Slow-cooked Maash (Urad) Daal

Servings: 6-8
Cooking Time: ~ 1 hour
  • Two cups maash (urad) daal
  • 8 cups hot water
  • 2 cloves of garlic (crushed)
  • 1 inch piece ginger (sliced into thin discs)
  • 3-4 whole dried red peppers
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • Salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 onion (peeled and sliced finely)
  • 1/4 cup regular oil and ghee mixture (enough to generously fill the bottom of a saute pan)
  • Cilantro, slivered ginger, limes and fresh chili peppers for garnish

Ginger, Garlic and Dried Whole Red Pepper. Photo by Mir Elias. Copyright 2015

1.  Boil water. 
2.  Add daal to a deep nonstick pot. 
3.  Add hot water (5 cups). Give it a stir (do not stir stir the lentils more than I recommend here). After the water comes back to a boil, skim off scum from the top (you will need to do it 2-3 times, and give it another stir once during the last stir to get all the remaining scum). 
4.  Add garlic, ginger and the red pepper. 
5.  Add hot water very little at a time if needed, stir another time gently and cover. 
6.  After 10 minutes, add salt, stir once more gently and cover. 
7.  Then let cook until the lentils are soft (but with each individual lentil still holding its shape) and the water all absorbed (about 30 minutes, but check carefully, e.g., by dipping a fork into the lentils, without stirring to see if the water has been absorbed at around 20 minutes). Only add hot water if absolutely necessary.
8.  In the meantime, caramelize onions in the oil/ghee mixture by frying them in a separate pan and stirring consistently to avoid burning. Separate the onions from the hot oil and spread the onions on a paper towel so that any excess oil is soaked off. 

Caramelized Onions. Photo by Mir Elias. Copyright 2015.

9.  Heat the oil in which the onions were caramelized if it's become lukewarm. Spread out the daal in your serving platter, crumble the caramelized onions on top and around and pour the hot oil on top (it should make a sizzling sound as it hits the lentils) before serving. 

Serve with rice or roti and the previously prepared garnish of fresh ginger, green or red chilies, limes and cilantro leaves.

Ginger, Cilantro, Limes, Fresh Chilis. Photo by Mir Elias. Copyright 2015.