Articles in Tradition
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett
Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
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You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
My heart goes out to anyone living in the northern United States and Canada this winter, as the 2014 North American cold snap refuses to release its vise-like grip. But I have to admit to a slightly sneaky delight that these same terrifyingly low temperatures may be helping ensure this year’s harvest of one of Quebec’s finest products: ice cider.
Apples and cider have been part of Canada’s history since the first French explorers arrived in the 16th century. Many of the settlers came from Normandy and Brittany, regions of France with rich apple-growing and cider-making traditions of their own. It’s tempting to suppose that cultivars of the fruit from back home were among the products stowed in the holds of their sailing ships. Some of the resulting apples certainly ended up as rough ciders meant for home consumption.
When Quebec first framed its alcohol laws in the 1920s, cider somehow got left off the list, with the result that it could continue to be made only on a domestic scale and not for resale. Only in the 1970s was this corrected, and cider was once again produced commercially.
C’était pas fameux! [It was pretty horrible],” grimaces Benoit Bilodeau, an artisan cider producer on the Ile d’Orleans, a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and just a short ferry ride from Quebec City. Badly made from unripe fruit, full of chemicals and high in alcohol, these early ciders carried the guarantee of a sore head the next morning. “It was an uphill job recovering from that image,” Bilodeau acknowledges.
Ice cider depends on long, cold winter
Nowadays, several different types of cider are produced in La Belle Province (as Quebec is known locally), both still and sparkling and with varying degrees of alcohol content and residual sweetness. But the most prized drop, introduced in the early 1990s, is ice cider, a deep golden elixir with a tight balance of sweetness and acidity and intensely concentrated fruit.
More ice cider information:
Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau, 2200 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, Canada, www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca
You can find ice cider available for purchase online at www.wine-searcher.com
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If you know a little about Eiswein, the naturally sweet wine made from late-harvested, frozen grapes that was originally pioneered in Germany, you’ll have a handle on how ice cider is arrived at. In the same way that grapes destined for ice wine are left hanging on the vine till the temperature drops well below zero, so also are perfectly ripe apples with high sugar content left to freeze on the tree (or picked and stored in wooden crates), awaiting just the correct conditions of intense, prolonged cold. It’s not something that happens every year, hence my furtive rejoicing at this year’s extreme temperatures.
In this process, known as cryoextraction, the still-frozen fruit is pressed to extract a super-concentrated juice, which then ferments gently for several months in stainless steel vats in a cool cellar or outhouse.
Ice cider is generally a blend of juice from several different apple varieties, each chosen for their distinctive qualities — aroma, sweetness and high juice content. Bilodeau grows more than a dozen varieties of apple from which he selects three for his ice cider, which he has christened Nectar de Glace. McIntosh (Canada’s favorite indigenous sweet-sour dessert apple, discovered in Ontario in 1811), Cortland (“wonderfully sweet and juicy”) and Spartan (“great aroma”) all flavor his ice cider.
Yields for this highly concentrated product are a fraction of those for regular cider: From 20 kilograms of apples, Bilodeau gets about 12 liters of ordinary cider, compared with a mere 3 liters of the precious cidre de glace, or ice cider. This fact, together with the inherently risky nature of the exercise — a sudden rise in temperatures, say, or hungry birds in search of sweet apples — as well as the skill required to make such nectar, is reflected in its elevated price: A 375-milliter bottle will set you back about $20 Canadian.
The Association des Cidriculteurs Artisans du Québec has framed strict standards for this premium product, which prides itself on its quality and authenticity. These include minimum sugar levels in the juice as well as in the finished product and no added sugar or alcohol or synthetic colorings. Most important, the apples must be frozen naturally outdoors — not in an industrial freezer — and at temperatures between 8 degrees below zero and 15 degrees below zero Celsius. No juice concentrates may be used, all apples must be grown on the property and every stage of the process must be executed in-house. The finished ice cider must have a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent and a maximum of 13% and be tasted and judged by a professional tasting panel.
If you are currently shivering your way through one of the coldest winters in living memory, console yourself with the thought of Bilodeau up on a ladder in his snowy orchard, plucking burnished red apples from bare branches at 15 degrees below zero, and all for the sake of those tiny bottles of golden nectar.
Top photo: Benoit Bilodeau’s line of ciders includes ice cider (third from left). Credit: Sue Style
Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), was the start in Britain of a short period of carnival preceding the 40 days of the pre-Easter fast — abstention from good things including meat, eggs and butter.
As with carnival traditions everywhere, the festival traditionally was marked by egg games — some versions of which are still to be found as municipal events, particularly in the north of England — and involved competitive rituals and the license to behave badly by young people who had not yet acquired families of their own. Medieval market towns, ever on the lookout for trade, took the opportunity to throw rowdy entertainments such as greasing the pig, egg rolling, cockfighting, dancing on the village green, pancake feasts and general indulgence in as much socially unsuitable behavior as the community was prepared to tolerate. Sometimes the festival took the form of pelting rival gangs with raw eggs and flour bags, and there is mention in Victorian accounts of license granted to choirboys to chuck eggs at senior members of the clergy.
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Similar traditions still exist in the lands of the Mediterranean, where Shrove Tuesday’s specialties were — and sometimes still are — prepared by children and young people, those who do not normally cook, so the recipes had to be simple, and the ingredients, just to add to the general anarchy, had to be begged, borrowed or stolen.
As recently as the 1970s, my own four young children took part in just such a Shrove Tuesday ritual in Languedoc in southern France, disappearing with classmates for the whole day and well into the evening. Afterward they were very mysterious about what they had been up to, and it was not until several years later that they told me they had all gone around the village pinching supplies from unattended larders. Then they sneaked off to an isolated barn and cooked up a gigantic omelet in a huge iron pan. After the omelet had been torn up and eaten (no plates, knives or forks permitted), the event developed into wild, unruly games. And that was as much as they were prepared to explain.
Shrove Tuesday Omelet
This is really a fat egg pancake cooked up with bacon and fortified with potato and onion, though these can be omitted if unobtainable from the larder.
Serves 4 to 6
About 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large mild onion, finely sliced
2 to 3 cooked potatoes (about 1 pound), diced
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a roomy frying pan or skillet, fry the bacon gently till the fat runs.
2. Add the butter and onion and fry until soft and golden but not browned.
3. Add the diced potato and let it feel the heat.
4. Fork the eggs together to blend. When the potatoes are ready, pour the eggs over and around them.
5. Stir over a gentle heat till most of the egg is set, then stop stirring and let the omelet brown a little on the base.
6. Serve in its pan, without turning it out.
Languedoc and Provence, France, like omelets cooked in the Spanish way, as a fat, juicy egg cake set in olive oil rather than the soft, rolled butter-cooked omelet of northern France. Only the leaves of chard are used — the stalks are too juicy and would make the omelets gray and damp as they cool to the right temperature for eating.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks to cook like asparagus)
4 ounces strong cheese (such as Cantal, Gruyère, Emmental, cheddar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous handful of chervil or flat-leaf parsley, amounting to 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons when chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash and dry the chard leaves and slice finely.
2. Grate the cheese and beat it into the eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Chop the herbs and then mix them in with the eggs.
4. Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a roomy frying pan or skillet. Stir in the chard leaves and turn them quickly in the oil till they wilt. (Don’t allow the greens to burn or they will taste bitter.)
5. Tip the contents of the pan into the eggs and stir all together.
6. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. When it is quite hot but not burning, pour in the egg-chard mixture. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat until the eggs are set — 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.
7. Turn the now-firm pancake out, reversing it as you do so the cooked side is uppermost, onto a plate. Slide it gently back into the hot pan (add a trickle more oil if necessary) and finish cooking uncovered on the other side — allow another 5 to 8 minutes. Notice that the cooking is very gentle, which is the style of an omelet in Languedoc and Provence, where culinary habits are closer to those of Catalonia, Spain.
Top illustration: A woman feeding hens. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
The driver who took me from Punjab to Kashmir, India, estimated the ride to be around eight hours, 10 if we ran into traffic, which he assured me was inevitable. After spending the past few days wandering through India’s Golden Temple of Amritsar, I was ready to hit the road and didn’t blink at the double-digit journey to Srinagar.
At first I enjoyed the quick stops we made at the dhabas, roadside stands serving hot, homemade meals that are a ubiquitous feature on any road trip in India. As we gained momentum, our speed slowed to a steady but painful crawl up the Himalayan two-lane highways we shared with what seemed like every truck in the nation. The air thinned, and the dhaba stops became more frequent in an effort to break up the monotony. By the fourth egg omelet — a fried egg wrapped around a piece of toast and grilled — my mouth dried up at the sight of them and I declined to get out of the car. We were 14 hours in, and I wanted nothing else but to get there.
It was early November and our anemic car heater didn’t stand a chance against the clutch of an early winter. Then we stopped altogether in a massive traffic jam in the middle of the night on top of a mountain.
The driver, who had not said a word to me in 17 hours, explained that an avalanche had blocked off the road miles ahead and we would need to wait for it to be cleared. Hours passed in the cold, black night with nothing to think about but how much I wished I had not passed up my last opportunity for an egg omelet.
At last we were on our way, climbing and climbing until we finally arrived at my hotel on the edge of Dal Lake, famous for its elaborate houseboats and shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola.
The entrance gate was locked, and no one answered when I rang the bell over and over in what I feared might be a futile attempt to find a bed that night. At last the hotel owner wiped his sleepy eyes as he walked to the gate, then showed me to my room, where I wanted to sleep for days.
Kahwah tea an ancient tradition
A knock on my door late the next morning woke me.
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“I am sorry to bother you ma’am, but would you like some tea?” asked the man who stood before me, wearing a black linen suit buttoned up to his neck.
“I would love some tea. Thank you so much. No sugar, please,” I said to avoid the sugar-bomb chai served everywhere in India.
“Ma’am, if I may invite you to tea at our restaurant? We have a special tea here in Kashmir that will warm and restore you after your long journey.”
I wanted nothing more than to return to my bed, but I couldn’t turn down someone so polite and I reluctantly followed him to the dining room. This was my first opportunity to see Kashmir in the daylight, and even from the vantage point of my hotel, it was glorious. Soaring, snowcapped mountains and the freshest air my lungs had inhaled for ages were already doing a number on my exhaustion; I was now looking forward to the restorative elixir he promised.
“Would you like to join us in the kitchen, ma’am, to learn how this tea is prepared? We read a little about you after you made your booking, curious as to why someone would venture to Kashmir so late in the season. When we saw your interest in food, we suspected you were coming for the saffron harvest. I believe you would enjoy learning about our special kahwah tea. We are very proud of it in Kashmir.”
I was, indeed, there for the saffron festival, and I could not resist his offer. “I would be honored,” I told the man, who later told me his name was Ashish.
Inside the kitchen, several cooks gathered round as the head chef, Kiran, gathered the ingredients he needed. He crushed up cinnamon and cardamom pods, adding them to boiling water that he sprinkled with cloves and threads of saffron. He let it boil for a few moments before spooning green tea into it, the aroma of hospitality filling my nose.
The Kashmiri tradition of kahwah tea is so ancient, its origin was lost long before the conflicts between Kashmir and Pakistan began. Pakistanis drink it too, as do the Afghanis. Some say the Chinese were the first to drink kahwah, but it’s likely that most Kashmiris, whose spirits are infused with the tradition of their beloved tea, would disagree. They greet their mornings and conclude their days with it; finding in it solace from the hardships they have endured.
Ashish led me to an outdoor table that Kiran carefully arranged with a tea cup, saucer, kettle and small bowls of honey and crushed almonds. The kitchen staff gathered around, and I felt foolish drinking on my own. There was enough kahwah to go around, and I asked if everyone could join me.
Additional saucers and cups were collected from the kitchen as Ashish sprinkled almonds into my cup and drizzled them with honey. He poured the tea from high above, a golden line of kindness making its way from his kettle to my cup. The air smelled like cinnamon and the tea warmed my spirit, vanquishing fatigue and filling me with gratitude.
Makes 2 cups
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 cardamom pods, crushed
3-inch knob of ginger, crushed
2 cups water
4 threads of saffron
1 tablespoon green tea
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts
1. Combine the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes before adding the cloves, saffron and tea.
2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes more.
3. Remove from the heat and cover to infuse for 10 more minutes. Strain through a sieve.
4. Drizzle honey into cups, sprinkle it with almonds and pour the tea.
Top photo: The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.
It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.
In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.
Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita
To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.
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Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.
Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?
Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.
2 shots tequila
¼ cup orange juice
¼ cup tomato juice
Bottled Mexican hot sauce
1 Mexican lime (aka Key)
Sea salt to taste
1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.
2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!
3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.
Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky