My favorite class this semester is easily my Wednesday evening class. It is the class with a million names: Comparative Cuisines, International Cuisine, Indian Cuisine. It is sort of a catch-all name, the idea being that Professors teach their specialty, and we zero in on a culture and cuisine. The 'comparative' part comes from us - our interpretation of the cuisine is inherently a comparative experience because that is of course a way of understanding and a natural instinct. We draw lines of connection and disconnection and thus we see.
My favorite Professor is teaching this favorite class, and he is originally from India so we are diving into the vast and multi-faceted world of Indian cuisine. And of course, because it's grad school, we are also wrestling with the concept of national cuisine and its overall validity/applicability. I love all that crazy theory stuff, where you get to talk in circles and say stuff like 'the thingness of stuff' and nobody laughs (too hard), but sometimes you really just need to remember that you're in food studies and maybe the best way to puzzle this out is to just cook.
Many of the books we've read so far- the memoirs and cookbooks alike - have featured recipes quite prominently although it doesn't always seem that the authors actually intend for the reader to cook them. For example, in Chitrita Banerji's delicate and beautifully warm "Feeding the Gods: Memories of Food and Culture in Bengal" her recipes are a bit cryptic - many of the ingredients are not in English (though the book is clearly written for an American audience) and it can be frustrating.
Because of this, I began my Indian cooking adventure with one of the actual cookbooks, "The Calcutta Kitchen". It is glossy and wordy and very Western-feeling, so I assumed it would be a good starting place. It is difficult to say if I was right or not, as I haven't cooked out of the others yet (that's what I'll be doing all weekend), but I can say that it was a LOT of work! SO. MUCH. CHOPPING. So many vegetables!
Wow. I just kept thinking of older Indian women who spend their days cooking for their families, for their husbands and sons, and how patient they would have to be. The flip side of this is the abundant use of vegetables, which I really liked about all the food I've made so far. Between all of the onions, potatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash, onion, garlic, spinach and all of the wonderful spices, the food is an absolute multi-vitamin!
This is cauliflower, eggplant, green chiles, and potato that is cooking in a simple sauce of 2 whole onions that have been pureed with mustard seed and cumin.
After this initial stage, you add a ton of tumeric and coriander and end up with a super spicy, giant pot of warm yellow goodness.
Below you see dish #2 - sweet potatoes, squash, eggplant and spinach cooked down with water, fresh ginger, mustard seeds and cumin to create a thick, savory sort of sauce. It was really clean tasting and simple, but in the interest of honesty I wasn't so excited about eating the leftovers (and we had a LOT of those) until I drowned them in Tabasco. Talk about cross-cultural understanding....oops.
This last thing I made was the biggest hit with David and I. It's really simple and so addictive. It's origins lie with the Jewish population in Calcutta (which I didn't even know existed) and it is essentially just good old fried potatoes. First, you boil the little beauties in water spiked with a healthy dose of tumeric and salt. They come out of the water with the prettiest yellow hue, like this;
Then you simmer them in oil for 20 minutes, cranking up the heat at the end to give it a crispy skin that snaps when you bite it. Who doesn't love that? Mmmmmmmmmmm....
We ate all of this yummy experimental goodness on a big pile of brown rice. It was really a good meal for a cool fall night.
Also, I must give a little props to David, for being such a willing test kitchen eater and for being so open to digging into whatever I ended up cooking. Food is a pretty personal thing, and it is a rare person willing to make a total leap of faith about what's for dinner.
To be continued....