Monday, August 16, 2010

The food post -- Part 1

1.

My friends know well that I do not drink much. In fact, I know nothing of the nuances: which glass suits which wine, the subtle differences between beers, the myriad cocktails. I am even worse about hard liquor, which I haven’t tried beyond a few sips.

But with food it’s a different story. I have a hard time understanding those who want to “get done” with the chore of eating. To me, every meal has to be deliberated on, even if the options are limited and even if I am busy. When I am on the road and alone (and especially so), I search earnestly for a place to sit and enjoy a hearty, elaborate meal.

I am picky though. I prefer vegetarian because that is the way I was brought up. Meat turns me off with its texture and odor. I am willing to reconsider if I am at a Pakistani restaurant that is known to make exemplary chicken curries. I prefer foods that are “liquidy”: soups and moist dips. Dry sandwiches are okay but they have to be nothing short of spectacular, else they risk condemnation. That is why the bagel is my least favorite food: it turns my mouth (and throat) into an arid, oasis-less desert. No, it does not matter how much cream cheese I add -- sorry!

2.

Indian food was all I’d tasted when I first came to the US. I was unwilling for a few months to try anything outside what we graduate students cooked (and I was afraid of credit cards: I had never used one and it seemed like the most complicated process, what with signatures and all). Someone suggested a restaurant called Haji Baba. At the time, I had a subconscious anti-Muslim bias and the Arabic lettering outside the restaurant frightened me. The irony is that the same place later became a favorite, and a way to signal to my more “parochial” friends how “cool” and “multicultural” I was.

So it was a gradual and tentative opening out: the inauthentic yet ubiquitous Chinese restaurants with food soaked in sugar syrup to please the super sweet American tooth; the excitement and later exhaustion with the dull Indian buffets with mass produced northern fare; the repulsion upon first encountering pasta and raw broccoli (Newman, the postal officer in sitcom Seinfeld, rightly calls the latter a “vile weed”, though recently I’ve figured out how to use it well).

In time, I discovered my flavors. The farther north and west of India the cuisine's origins were (but not quite as far as Europe), the better I liked the food. In any American city, if I spot an Afghani or Iranian restaurant, I will not have the slightest hesitation. But it is not the famous kababs that I like, rather it is the simpler vegetable preparations. Eggplant dishes such as kashk e badejmaan and mirza ghassemi for example bring out the essence of the vegetable much better than the Indian version, the baingan bhartha.

And the rice! Rice made the Iranian way (polo, which may be the etymological root of the Indian pulao) is something else. My favorite is the adas polo – rice with lentils, raisins, dates, saffron – at Persian Room, a somewhat upscale restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona. At that high ceilinged place with blemish-less white napkins, it was easy to forget, because of the quality of food on offer, that I was a poor graduate student.

There are dozens of such Middle Eastern restaurants in the Phoenix metro area (Arizona). The Lebanese restaurant, Haji Baba, I’ve already mentioned. Dipping pita bread in garlicky mashes, hummus and babaghanouj, or having falafels with tahini sauce: these are the usual pleasures. But an under appreciated dish, and one I love, is fava beans, seasoned with sumac and served curry style, along with buttered long grain rice.

3.

Farther west and in a different continent is a cuisine that has captivated me for years now. To most, Ethiopia suggests only famine and poverty. But the tragedies stick in our minds longer of course, and we forget the day to day. I find an echo in Ethiopian cuisine of Indian styles – in the spices, the lentils and the vegetables – but I do not mean to lessen its distinctness or originality by making that comparison.

For starters, Ethiopia is the place where the nutritious yet largely unknown grain teff was domesticated (coffee too is first traced to Ethiopia). Teff is used to make injera, a sour, porous and spongy flatbread (like a dosa). It is a mystery why this African grain, so rich in ingredients, never leapt continents to become as popular as wheat, rice and maize.

Injera is served on a large circular plate. On top, are arrayed small sized vegetable and lentil preparations (I always order the veggie combo; meat is the farthest thing from my mind at an Ethiopian restaurant). The meal is supposed to be communal and eaten without silverware. The lentil preparations – misir watt, kik misir watt – are striking; I rate them much higher than the ubiquitous dals of India. Among the vegetables, my favorite is the the gomen watt, a collard greens dish.

I attribute my love of Ethiopian food to Blue Nile, a restaurant that opened very near my apartment in Tempe, Arizona. So taken was I from then on that during my travels, I made a conscious effort to look for Ethiopian meals. In DC, where the community is the strongest, I’ve tried Meskerem and Etete; in Minneapolis, Fasika; in Las Vegas, Merkato. Then there are two restaurants whose names I do not remember, but whose food I do. In Tucson, I ate the spiciest Ethiopian meal I’ve ever tasted; I remember enjoying immensely even as I sweated throughout. And in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (during this trip), a hole in the wall place unexpectedly turned out to be memorable.

I’ll stop here for now, but the journey isn’t quite complete. In the continuing piece, I’ll turn my eye, briefly, to cuisines to the east of India. And rather than talk of the history of Mexico, Peru and Bolivia – I’ve bored you enough with that – I’ll talk of my meals there.

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