◊ Pushing Pulling

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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.

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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.
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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?

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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

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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):

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  • 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:

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  • 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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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!

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One thought on “◊ Pushing Pulling

  1. Love you, Shaina, and pray your 25th was as amazing as YOU ARE!!! We still don’t know what we wanna be when we grow up either, so just ENJOY EVERY DAY and it will all work out!! xoxoxox

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