◊ Pushing Pulling

Untitled

Dear mom,

My weirdo recipes and extreme menus shouldn’t intimidate. I’m just playing with what I’ve got here, so of course things are… different. Even though I’m eating more plain curd and potato chips than ever, I’m determined to taste all the colors of India. I’m inspired with every bite regardless of how bacteria-laden. The more dirt I consume, the stronger my gut. You said it first.

I just left rural Assam, where I coordinated product development with a women’s cooperative of weavers (10 km from Bhutan!). I was shocked by how different the Bodo Tribe’s flavors and traditions are from those of the India I’m familiar with.

IMG_6464

The women wear wrapped pieces of woven cotton rather than draped, flowing saris. Instead of wheat, they eat rice. And pork, chicken, fish… beetles, ants and crickets. Each home hosts its own brew of rice wine flavored with herbs like tulsi.  The region even has a version of idli called tekeli pitha… instead of stone-grinding rice and dal into a liquid before it’s steamed, they pulverize it by hand so it’s course. They layer it in cylindrical molds – rice flour, black sesame paste with salt and sugar, another layer of rice flour, one more black sesame and another rice. The molds are steamed over water jugs in a fire pit, and served hot with boiled egg.

One evening, I visited a weaver’s home and tasted river snails that she had roasted and served with fried balls of pulverized sticky rice and warm milk.
IMG_7567

IMG_7193

But the day that I read your last letter I went to a celebratory dinner at the fanciest joint in the area, and guess what I ordered. A cheese omelet and roti. No masala, no pickle, no spicy. No snails. Just an egg with processed cheese and whole wheat flatbread. I know you understand because I watched you oil dough, salt potatoes and brown onions for months and months to recreate the Bubbe knish.

Comfort. It comes in food, bed sheets and air conditioning. I push it away hard and I seek it with hunger. I detest it and enjoy it so much. After 25 years, I’m a pro at leaving it behind and reeling it back in where and when I need it. I left a sufficient income, satisfying work and great house for nomadism. Comfort feels better to me when it’s distant. Clean underwear… soggy cornflakes… a letter from you — it all feels so good right now.

But that extra feeling of pleasure can’t be the only reason I veer from comfort. There has to be a more logical explanation. I roam around like a bag lady with my snacks, water bottle and camera and I don’t know why. Today is my last day of 24. Tomorrow, I will leave behind the early twenties and cross over to the mids. Most women my age are mothers and wives (really, check the stats). I have no shelves for my clothes. My life is in bags strewn across the world.

With 25 years, I expect to have a better idea of what and why I’m seeking. What do I want to be? Where do I want to be? I declared my love for city-life while racing through the markets of Bombay amongst millions. In Kutch, I was relieved with small-town familiarity. In Calcutta, I vowed my happiness to the stimulation of urban whir. And when I was with a tribal village in the forest, I figured that rural-wherever is the place for me. Will I ever know?

IMG_5490

Bengali food guruji

I’m learning with every push and pull… Which makes it all okay?

I went way out of my comfort zone in my last cooking venture with a friend’s mom in Calcutta: Mustard Fish and Coconut Prawn Curry (the prawns still had their heads attached!). I had to do it… Mustard fish is the most prominent dish in Bengali cuisine. And I’m working hard to strengthen my gut. Always pushing, always pulling.

I’m not making any promises, but when I come home I might be in shape to stomach your gefilte…

love ya, see ya later,
Shaina

IMG_3850

Ps. A trick that I learned about deodorizing fishy smell is to rub the fish in turmeric before it’s cooked…  I’d suggest you try it next Passover, but the thought of yellow gefilte chunks makes me naush.

Bengali Mustard Fish (or tofu):

IMG_5530

  • IMG_5525500 grams (1/2 lb or 4 fillets) of firm variety of fish (or tofu)
  • 3 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tbs mustard oil
  • 1 tsp onion seeds (nigella seeds)
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1 green chili, sliced
  • mustard paste (see recipe below)
  • salt to taste
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • cilantro to garnish

This simple, flavorful dish is a Bengali classic, typically eaten over steamed rice and soupy dal (lentil soup).

Rub raw fish pieces in turmeric to odorize fishiness and set aside. Over low heat, saute onion, chili and onion seeds in mustard oil. Stir in mustard paste and salt. Add fish and to mixture and fry over low heat. Garnish with cilantro and enjoy over rice.

You can prepare the same dish with tofu instead of fish.

raw fish in turmeric

raw fish in turmeric

Steamed Mustard Fish (or tofu):

  • Mustard Paste (see recipe below)
  • Mustard Oil
  • Salt
  • Fish

Another version of mustard fish, this dish is just as common as pan fried fish. It’s typically wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, but can be steamed in any vessel. So much flavor!

Mix mustard paste, oil and salt. Cover fish or tofu with a thick layer of mustard paste mixture and steam for 10 – 15 minutes. Enjoy over rice.

Mustard Paste:

  • raw black mustard seeds
  • salt
  • water

Soak mustard seeds in water overnight. Grind on high speed in a food processor with salt and water. Then strain with a fine grate strainer. The remaining liquid is your mustard paste.

Coconut Prawn Curry:

IMG_5540

  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 500 gram (or 1/2 lb) prawns
  • 1 tbs vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp red chili powder (to taste)
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 onion, chopped2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 c coconut milk
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3 -4 cardamom pods, whole
  • 1 2-3” cinnamon stick, whole
  • 3 or 4 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves, whole
  • 3 or 4 cloves, whole
  • 1 tsp cumin, whole

Cover prawns in turmeric and set aside. Do not de-shell until ready to eat.

IMG_3843

Over low heat, saute red chili powder, garlic, tomato and onion in oil. When onion is translucent, add coconut milk, whole spices, sugar and salt.  Simmer for 5 minutes or until spices are fragrant. Add prawns to gravy and cover with lid for 5 – 10 minutes or until cooked. Serve over rice. For more gravy, decrease ratio of prawns to coconut milk/spices.

See where I’ve been:

IMG_3676 (1)

Being back in Kutch confirmed that the place exists outside of my dreams and memories. The Qasab ladies are still stitching, my vegetable wala is still singing, and the ice cream guy developed a new flavor – choco chips brownie!  Life goes on.

IMG_0896
So much joy at my fav restaurant, Kuvio’s Jain thali. Same waiter served us… still laughing at the quantity of my biscuit consumption. The bajra (millet bread) was as hardy as I remember.

IMG_3678

Last time I was in Kutch, I attended a neighbor’s marriage celebration. This time, she was a pregnant. And a few days before I left, I held her baby. I attended the baby-naming ritual with the whole hood and ate sweets in her honor. So special to see things come full circle.

IMG_3732
In the old market of Hyderabad, boys sell scraps from the Cadbury factory. Obsessed…. hold me back from diving in.

IMG_0967 (1)
Arrived in Calcutta on Holi, India’s festival of colors and Spring. I played Holi with friends in a park with sprinklers and loud music. T’was crazy.

IMG_3793 (1)

In love with Calcutta. The buildings are colorful and bright… like a beach town despite its population of billions. There’s an amazing art scene – contemporary galleries and art around every corner!

IMG_0978

But mostly what I love about Calcutta is the curd (plain yogurt) served in individual clay pots as a street snack or take-away. So fresh! The clay pots soak up the extra whey, which makes the yogurt thick and special. Everything is served in these little clay pots, even chai. When people are done with them, they toss them on the ground. They shatter and get swept up at the end of the day. It’s so fun!

IMG_3803

Also the bhel in Calcutta… so different from anywhere else: puffed rice with sprouted lentils, flattened gram flakes, tomato, cucumber, onion, mustard oil and coriander. Mustard oil is on everything!

IMG_3904

IMG_3956

I went on a tour of Calcutta Jewery with Aliza, the friend I was staying with, and her family who was visiting from the US. We went to the Jewish cemetery and two HUGE, beautiful and sadly abandoned synagogues.

IMG_3804

To get permission to see Jewish sites, visitors must go to a Jewish bakery, Nahoum’s, in Calcutta’s oldest market, to get a signed note from its owner. There’s nothing Jewish about the baked goods, but there’s a hamsah over the cash register.

IMG_7624

The natural beauty of New Boingaigon is out of this world. And the traditional cloth that the women weave and wear is beautiful.

IMG_6942

Weaving requires serious math skills. The women count out loud as they prepare special warps for clients in the US, Europe and India.

IMG_7092

After spending so much time with artisans, you’d think I’d have a handle on craft production… but working on this end is totally new for me. And such an important piece of the puzzle for me to understand. Thank you, Rubina and The ANT, for this incredible opportunity!

Advertisements

♦ Room Enough

Dear Shaina,

You’re grossed out by my fish!! I haven’t slept for a week worrying about that bacteria laden cucumber you ate off the streets of India!  At least my fish…every last slimy sticky glob of it…was washed repeatedly in Birmingham’s finest chlorinated water before being sterilized for over an hour in a continuously boiling salted broth.  My Gefilte Fish would pass surgical hygienic standards.

My only comfort is knowing that they have now discovered that we have as many types of bacteria living in our gut as we have cells in our body…and that many of them are beneficial to our health.  In fact, the greater the diversity of bacteria, the more likely the good bacteria will beat out the bad bacteria…or something like that. We know you have lots of bacteria and they are certainly diverse…let’s just hope the good kind wins!  I also understand that saliva contains antibacterial qualities, so be sure to immerse that street food in a lot of spit before swallowing.

Shaina, it is hard to believe that you will be 25 years old next week. Where has 25 years gone? Bubbe and Zayde’s words are ringing in my ears, “Ahh, the life…it goes so fast!”IMG_1039

Your birthday is a day of celebration for me too.  It is the day I became a mother.  I had no clue what that meant or how it would “look” on me. I thought I knew exactly what you would be like.  I realized very quickly that I had to get to know who you were, separate and distinct from me.  In your own quiet way you showed me and I slowly learned how to be your mother and …to find myself in that role, as well.  You have been teaching me ever since.

My Cooking Shoes

My Cooking Shoes

Here I am, again, readjusting my step and finding my balance as I wander into my new status as the mother of a budding-independent-young-adult child. I watch you negotiating and maneuvering the foundations of your adult life…so far away…so different from my own world…so filled with richness and promise….and I am proud and a little anxious…and filled with love and awe!

I am honored and more than grateful to be your mother and I will celebrate the day of your birth with gratitude… and prayers for many more birthday celebrations.

In the meantime, I am feeling pressured by all this intense recipe sharing.  I know that kids are supposed to grow up and surpass their parents..and I am truly grateful that you are well on your way to doing that.  I am just so intimidated by your menus and the disparate flavors and food you so ingeniously put together. I remember Bubbe’s longstanding repertoire of foods.  She had her specialties…briskets and blintzes, strudels and knishes…and we loved them and asked her to make them on every occasion…again and again.

I tried on her recipes and made them mine. I filled in with my own culinary experiments and derivations and she eagerly tasted and complimented and kvelled (bragged to anyone who would listen) about my prowess. There was room enough for both of us in the kitchen.

I find myself retreating to my own specialties and comfort foods, content (while kvelling) to leave you to venture into unfamiliar species of grains and chias and edible grasses.  There will always be room enough for both of us in the kitchen.

The recipe (I am embarrassed to even call it a recipe) I am sharing today is one that you survived on as a child and your friends requested when they slept over. Dad and I often enjoy it on leisurely Sunday mornings or as a middle-of-the-week dinner.  The Cheese Omelet holds a lifetime of memories and thrives in every life stage and transition. It can probably even be replicated in India.

Shaina, your Dad and I wish you a very happy and healthy and safe birthday…and many, many more! We love you all the way to the outer edges of our hearts!

Love,

Mom

xoxoxoxoxooxoxo

Dad showing off his matching (?) socks

Dad showing off his matching (?) socks

Still Playing Together

Still Playing Together

Standard Cheese Omelet

(for 2 or 3 people)

photo copy 3

  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 Tablespoons half and half or milk
  • ~ 2” square of Vermont aged cheddar (grated or in small chunks or slices)
  • 1 tsp butter
  • Sea Salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
  • A non-stick 12” frying or sauté pan with lid

Beat eggs and egg whites with milk with a fork or whisk.

Heat a large 12” non-stick frying or sauté pan over a medium flame and add butter.

Pour beaten eggs into heated frying pan with melted butter and swirl the pan so eggs cover the entire bottom of the pan. The key to a good omelet is having a thin enough egg base to cook quickly through without burning the bottom of the omelet.

photo copy 2

When the eggs are cooked enough to hold their shape, but not all the way through, distribute the cheese evenly over the omelet. Use more or less cheese to suit your taste and preference.  Reserve some cheese for the top of the omelet.

Lower the heat and cover the omelet with the lid for about 30 seconds to melt the cheese a bit. After the cheese has melted a little, fold the omelet in half  and sprinkle remaining cheese over the top. Reduce the flame to simmer and put the lid on the pan for about a minute to allow the omelet to cook all the way through.

Cut and serve with fresh tomatoes, sweet potato hash browns or a fresh green salad…and your favorite bread.

IMG_1002

Variations:

Different spices, cheeses or veggies can create a whole new dish. Mix herbs into beaten eggs. Sauté veggies in pan and pour eggs over them. Always add cheese last.

My favorites:
Tarragon and Jarlsburg cheese
Basil, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese
Sauteed onions and mushrooms with cheddar or gruyere

Sweet Potato Hash Browns

  • 3 sweet potatoes already baked ( I always bake extras and use the leftovers for hash browns)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1 Tablespoon butter or olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat frying pan over medium heat and add butter or oil.

Sauté chopped onions in butter and oil until translucent and add minced garlic.Image 1

Cut up sweet potatoes with skins on into small chunks (~1”) and add to the frying pan with the onions and garlic.

Cook over medium heat until potatoes and onions are browned to desired crispness.

Serve as a side with the omelet.

Roasted Beets
(Just because I like them and I eat them with everything)

  • Fresh beets (as many as you want)
  • Olive Oil
  • Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste

IMG_1035

Heat oven to 375°

Trim leaves and roots from beets.  Leave skin on and wash thoroughly, removing any rough areas.

Cut beets in small wedges or chunks.

Place cut up beets in a bowl and sprinkle lightly with olive oil ( 1TBLSP is enough for 3 cut-up beets) and toss beets in oil.

Place beets on large enough baking sheet, covered in parchment paper, to hold all cut-up beets in a single layer.

Lightly salt and pepper to taste.Place in preheated oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until done to desired crispness.

Serve as a side or garnish to any meal.  Adds great color and flavor to green salads.

IMG_1019