Fresh off the boat story. I got introduced to different cuisines after my move to America. My first meal, once I landed in Boston, was spaghetti and meatballs made by my fiancé ‘s mother. It was different from what I was used to and delicious. The next day we went out for dinner with Sean’s family to an upscale restaurant. I looked at the menu and found nothing remotely familiar except the word ‘chicken’. I knew chicken, so I ordered lemon chicken. I took a bite and hated it immediately. For an Indian, chicken was not meant to be eaten bland with only tart lemon as the overpowering flavor. Chicken should be cooked in a myriad of spices, after lovingly sautéing onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes…
My brother in law looked at my face after one bite of the chicken, laughed and asked if I liked my food. I contemplated if I should be polite or honest. I decided to be honest.
Anyway, after our marriage Sean introduced me to middle eastern food and a love story began between me and hummus, kebabs, koftas, tzatziki, tahini, baba ganoush. For the longest time though, I was confused as to why the delicious eggplant concoction was named after one of our most beloved Hindu gods, Baba Ganesh. Due to a touch of dyslexia, I read the menu wrong, Baba Ganesh instead of baba ganoush. And I heard it as Baba Ganesh when someone said out loud, baba ganoush.
One day, in complete innocence, I voiced my confusion to Sean, “Isn’t it strange that people named a food after a Hindu god? Why do you think they did it?”
“What do you mean? Which food?” He asked.
“Baba Ganesh! The eggplant dish that I love!” I confidently replied.
“Do you mean baba GANOUSH? Completely different from Ganesh.” Sean laughed.
It was a moment of euphoria and realization. Wait a minute…..two completely different words!!!
Yesterday, I made baba ganoush at home as pictured above. It looked lovely, I garnished it with love and as I was arranging the parsley, I remembered my confusion about the name of this dish long time ago. The memory made me smile.
Although I met this young man at work, he quickly became more than a coworker, he became family – my adopted brother in my adopted land. What does that have to do with the photo above? I will get there. But first I must ramble, as is my habit.
One day, my friend who I mentioned above brought me a Tupperware full of roasted cashews. I ate a few and the tastebuds in my mouth did a happy dance. The nuts were so flavorful. He had fried the nuts and mixed them with Thai red chilies, lime kefir leaves, salt and the flavor was divine.
Cashews (kaju) were, and still are, expensive in India. We could afford them once in a while in small quantities and only at the beginning of the months when we were flush with new paychecks. Cashews were for rich people, peanuts belonged to us.
One of my most popular gifts that I take back home are big jars of cashew nuts from Costco. They bring smiles of joy in people’s faces. The weight of carrying a heavy jar of cashew nuts is totally worth all those smiles.
If you want to spice up your cashews, and if you have some Indian spices lying around, you can have jar full of spicy, savory cashews to snack on when hunger strikes.
Heat a tbs of vegetable oil in a large skillet.
Fry whole Kirkland jar of unsalted cashews on low heat till they attain a golden color.
Keep the fried cashews in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix 2 tsp of chaat masala, 2tsp (or less) of Kashmiri chilli powder, a tsp of garam masala, a pinch of Himalayan salt or rock salt, a pinch of citric acid.
In the same skillet where you fried the cashews, throw in a handful of dried red chilis, and once they give out a spicy smell (10 seconds) add the spice mix. Keep the heat to medium low. Mix the spices for about 15 seconds and add to the fried cashews.
Coat them well. Cool completely and store them in a jar.
Lastly, chomp away.
Sometimes I add a few raisins to a handful of spicy cashews when I snack on them.
…is fun and …..well, interesting. My 21 year old is an enthusiastic, creative and very good cook. She requests cook books for her birthday, she takes cooking lessons once in a while, she reads and tries to explain the chemical reactions that happen while ingredients mingle (I pretend I am listening, I really don’t), she checks out various recipes and then uses the salient features of several of those to make a dish. And they turn out wonderful. She wakes up excited to cook. To say that I am lucky is an understatement. I love to try different kinds of food and she obliges. Happily! Enthusiastically!
I cooked for Diwali, she helped. She wanted to cook for Thanksgiving and I volunteered to help and cook a few dishes. Our Thanksgiving is spent with our extended family where my contribution is generally a pecan pie. My sisters in law and brothers in law do the real cooking. Since we could not gather this year, we decided to cook full Thanksgiving meal just for the four of us. Sahana planned to cook turkey breast, garlic mashed potato, stuffing, brussel sprouts, homemade rolls and quiche of spinach and sundried tomatoes for the resident vegetarian. I was going to make squash casserole with walnuts and Gruyere cheese, cranberry sauce, peas, apple pie, pecan pie and a fruit pie crumble with whatever fruit was there at home. I am sad to report I slightly burned the top of the crumble.
Anyway, the point of this post is to write about my experience of cooking with Sahana. As I prepared to assemble the apple pie, and Sahana got the turkey breast out to brine, she asked, “What should we name the turkey breast?”
“Why should we name the turkey breast? We are going to consume it.” I replied.
She went ahead and named it Harvey anyway. She lovingly massaged Harvey with herb butter, gagging once in a while at touching raw meat. Harvey was then carefully placed in the fridge, uncovered.
“Shouldn’t you cover that?” I enquired, not wanting to see buttered turkey staring at me everytime I opened the fridge. No, she read that the turkey can not be covered. I did not dare contradict the chef who had been reading one recipe after another to cook this turkey.
After that, everytime she opened the fridge she asked Harvey how he was doing in there. It was slightly creepy hearing her talk to a dead bird like that. Morbid even! And comical! Everything she does in the kitchen is done with a lot of love and tenderness. So I was not overly surprised when I heard her crooning to something in the oven.
“You look so pretty, my darling.”
I asked who she was talking to.
“The quiche. It is looking so pretty.”
It did. I write this as she shooed me out of the kitchen because I was in the way. I half assembled my squash casserole. I will finish it once the very happy, very enthusiastic cook has done her cooking for today. To save her some trouble, I suggested that we buy Pepperidge farm stuffing and store made rolls. She looked at me as if I uttered blasphemy.
“Store bought?? No!”
She bought Italian bread, diced it, spiced it, baked it and made amazing homemade croutons for stuffing. Ryan and I stole quite a few of those already. Here is a photo of homemade rolls.
If you are brussel sprouts hater out there, I strongly recommend you try out this roasted brussel sprouts Sahana made with honey lime glaze with pistachios. It was perfection. I was slightly disappointed that this dish got no verbal love from its creator. It got gushing admiration from its consumer, though (me).
I enjoy cooking, sure. It relaxes me. But I certainly do not put so much love to the task. Cooking with Sahana and watching her work with love, joy and tenderness makes me smile.
This Thanksgiving is different. It is isolating and sad for many reasons. Cooking with Sahana will be a cherished memory though. 2020 Thanksgiving gave me that and I am thankful.
As I sat on my couch on a dreary evening during a raging pandemic, I made a resolution. I decided to celebrate all the festivals that came my way without appropriating any tradition or religion which my fusion family does not belong to. Since I am culturally Hindu, I was safe with celebrating Kali pujo, Diwali, bhai phota and since my partner is a practicing Catholic, we were also good with Christmas. For Bengalis, Kali pujo is a bigger celebration than Diwali, although I hear that these days Diwali is celebrated by Bengalis all over with great fervor. I like that. Celebration is hopeful. Especially during these trying times.
I decided to go all out for Kali Pujo/Diwali this year to dispel the gloom that is slowly yet surely descending on me due to the current circumstances. My “all out” consisted of lighting choddo (14 in Bengali) prodeep on the night before Kali pujo (Friday, Nov 13th), wearing a saree and cooking.
Choddo prodeep, or 14 earthen lamps, are lit to respect our 14 generations. A little background on this ritual:
Folklore in Bengal says that the spirits of ancestors come back to the household on this night and these diyas help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that our ancestors are at a proximity to us and bless us on this day. It’s a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — requesting them to save everyone from evil spirit and ghosts. This is very typical of a lot of Hindu celebrations where we think of the departed and pray for them before we move on to the ceremonies of the current like nandimukh.
I am not religious. I don’t worship goddess Kali with shlokas and flowers, however the idea she represents, that of female empowerment, has fascinated me since childhood. She is the ultimate boss lady among Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. She is simply incomparable. To celebrate her awesomeness, I decided to cook on the day of Kali pujo. I fasted too. No, not for any religious reasons. I fasted to cleanse my system so I could feast at dinner.
The menu for Kali pujo was:
Doi begun (eggplant in yogurt sauce)
Malai kofta, paratha and Bangali sooji with ghee, raisins and cashew.
After cooking all day, I donned a saree, lit diyas and invited family to the table.
That was the extent of our Diwali celebration yet it energized me for the next day. We were going to celebrate bhai phota, a ritual where sisters bless their younger brothers or seek blessings from their older ones. My sweetest memories during my growing up years come from the day of bhai phota when we all got together for a day of chaos, laughter, blessings and of course, food.
I woke up early to get breakfast ready before the celebration started. Breakfast was baked French toast with apple and pecans, hash brown casserole, blueberries and bacon. I had done most of the prep work the night before, so all I truly needed to do was pop the baking dishes in the oven.
I had the phota tray ready with sandal wood paste, kajol, diya, some grass and rice for blessing.
Sahana gave phota to Ryan, Ryan touched her feet to get her blessings. We had the computer on so my parents could witness the ritual virtually. Sahana then gave phota to Sean and my father via computer. Since she was little, Sahana has broken tradition and given phota to Sean on this day. Khushi gave virtual phota to Ryan with utmost seriousness. Folks in Kolkata blew on the conch shell, the sound of which traveled through ether to shower us with good omen. We ululated on both sides of the pond. Our two sounds met somewhere in the middle and technology made it possible for us to celebrate it together. Somewhat.
By this time, I was exhausted. Yet the nervous energy within me propelled me on to make narkel diye chhola r dal (chanadal with coconut), luchi. Sahana made a potato curry to go with it. My two days worth of intense cooking was consumed within 20 minutes.
My family got into the spirit of things. Sahana was an enthusiastic participant and even the boys donned kurta pajama to support my desire to summon my childhood joy to my adult life.
For a weekend, we ignored the raging pandemic outside our little home, we ignored that I cannot go home to see my parents, Sean cannot go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, we ignored the fear of us catching the virus. The celebration was a respite from the constant anxiety. Now my fridge is full to the brim. We all will eat leftovers to empty it so Sahana can store ingredients for Thanksgiving meal that she plans to cook. She has even created a spreadsheet with the dishes she will prepare or delegate. We will go from one celebration to the other. And perhaps, pretend for a while that life is how it should be.
I thought I would end the blog there. But no! I came home from work yesterday and discovered that my house elves have been busy. They transformed my plain house into magical just by bringing in a magical tree.