December 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays complete. We’ve read about pizzelles, mystery cookies and mashed potatoes, and today’s essay is about roti, a specialty that comes from Trinidad by way of India, China and Queens. Linda Shiue is a San Francisco-based doctor and food writer who “believes in the healing power of chicken soup.” She blogs about food and travel at spiceboxtravels.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @spiceboxtravels.
Ravenous for Roti
By Linda Shiue
Ask any Trinidadians what they’re hungry for, and the answer will be “roti.” This refers not only to the Indian flatbread itself, but the curried fillings which make Trinidadian roti the best hand-held meal you’ll find. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpouri roti, which is filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. You wrap the roti around some of your curry filling and eat it like a burrito. It’s sold as a common “fast” food in Trinidad (the cooking of the curry is not fast but the serving of it into freshly prepared rotis is) but also prized enough to be served at family gatherings and celebrations. For members of the Trinidadian diaspora, like my husband, the hunger for roti is profound. If you live in New York, it is not too far of a trip to find yourself a decent roti—Richmond Hill in Queens is home to a large Trinidadian and Guyanese community. Trinidad itself is only about a five-hour flight away. But if you are on the West Coast, you’re out of luck. Visiting Trinidad requires almost a full day of air travel. Last time we checked, there was only one Trinidadian roti shop in our area, over in Oakland. It was a musty, dim (as in unlit until customers rang the buzzer) shop, and the owner was equally dour. Even as I paid for our lunch, I felt the need to apologize for intruding. The rotis were pallid, dry and lifeless.
They were nothing like the roti I had devoured in Trinidad. On my first trip to my husband’s home, my future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo. What’s tattoo? Better known around here as armadillo. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of culinary delights I had never imagined. On this trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. I was presented with plate after plate of curried dishes, condiments (including kuchila, tamarind sauce and fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce), pastelles (similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins) and the rice dish pelau. Since then, I’ve learned to cook a pretty mean curry myself. But I have not yet mastered the art of roti making, and this is a cause for sorrow. We make do with eating curry and rice when we are without roti, but whenever we can find time and an excuse to go to New York, we have one mission: procure roti.
There is no such thing as “going too far” to sate the hunger of the expatriate. When it is for something as tasty as Trinidadian roti, a cross-country flight is not considered unreasonable. So we go to New York for a Christmastime visit to my New York-by-way-of-Trinidad in-laws. There is no Christmas goose or ham on the dining table at this Trinidadian Christmas celebration. When we announce our plans to visit, our family knows to make the obligatory run to Singh’s for curry goat and chicken, aloo pie and doubles, to bring it over to my mother-in-law’s for a welcome feast. But they have also learned over the years that they should check in with us for our “to go” order of unfilled roti. We’ll order half a dozen each of dhalpouri roti and paratha, carefully triple wrap them individually, and freeze them overnight to bring back with us to San Francisco. By the time we get back, they are starting to defrost, but they’re the first thing we unpack (and refreeze), because this is some precious loot. The handful of homesick Trinidadians we’ve collected over the years here is always thrilled when we organize a curry night, and there is never enough roti.
December 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about foods that make your holidays. Our first essay was about a mystery cookie from the Italian Alps, and today we have a story about a main-course dish: mashed potatoes. Judy Martin, from Cupertino, California, appeared here before with an essay about food and dating.
The Mashed Potato Monster
By Judy Martin
Every holiday meal must include mashed potatoes. But my mother made them from a box. I never could understand why she liked those flat, dry, ragged little flakes that pretended to become potatoes when hydrated. Even my elementary school made real mashed potatoes. Except for the time they turned out to be mashed turnips. That was a nasty surprise for a first grader!
When I was 10, I spent a week visiting my cousins. One night, a small sigh of pleasure escaped my lips at the dinner table. There were lumpy mashed potatoes on my plate. What a treat! My aunt heard my sigh and demanded to know its cause. I responded that the potatoes had lumps. This was the ultimate compliment. It meant the potatoes were real. But she refused my compliment. No matter how much I tried to explain, I don’t believe she ever forgave me for commenting on her lumpy mashed potatoes.
We ate mashed potatoes often when I was growing up, and I continued the tradition with my own family. For everyday meals, they were made with margarine and low-fat milk. But for holidays, they were dressed up using my grandmother’s preparation method (no flakes for her) with lots of real butter and pre-heated evaporated milk. Sometimes I even added sour cream or cheese. I was proud that my son Matt grew up eating real mashed potatoes. He didn’t care what else was on the holiday menu as long as there were mounds of mashed potatoes.
The first holiday Matt spent with his new wife’s family in California was a culture shock. He was horrified to learn that not everyone eats mashed potatoes on holidays. In fact, his wife’s family never eats them at all. His mother-in-law’s potato casserole just wasn’t an acceptable substitute. He marched into the kitchen and prepared his own mashed potatoes. I was mortified to hear this story; I had created a Mashed Potato Monster.
Matt’s in-laws are good sports and, unlike my aunt, don’t offend easily; they found his mashed potato obsession humorous. Now we often spend our holidays all together and to avert another holiday crisis, I make sure there are mashed potatoes on the menu.
December 12, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food. Susie Tilton, who has written for Inviting Writing about mysterious greens called cardoons, starts us off with a story about mysterious cookies called… something. She blogs at Sweetie Petitti.
Pasquale’s Italian Wonders
By Susie Tilton
My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.
The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals. He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts. We called it shca-te-la. And therein lies the problem.
One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.
On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up. They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!
December 5, 2011
‘Tis the season for specialty foods that grace store shelves and dining tables but once a year. And for some people, certain times of the year just don’t seem quite right unless the table is graced by those unique edibles. Have you ever gone to ridiculous lengths to make sure that you and yours could have that one, prized food on your stomachs? For this month’s Inviting Writing, tell us about the distances you traveled, the favors you called in, the sleepless nights, the hours spent slaving in the kitchen and whatever else you had to do to secure a special dish. Send your true, original essays to FoodandThink@gmail.com by Friday, December 9 and we will publish our favorites on subsequent Mondays. I’ll get the ball rolling.
How I Got My Cookie Fix
By Jesse Rhodes
For almost every special occasion—anniversaries, graduations and always at Christmastime—Mom would invariably make platters of pizzelle. For the uninitiated, these are Italian cookies made via a waffle iron-like press where dollops of sticky dough—punched up with flavorings like vanilla, anise or cocoa—are flattened out into wafer-thin discs emblazoned with fabulously intricate designs. Coated with confectioner’s sugar, their resemblance to snowflakes is striking. And, due to their delicacy, trying to eat them requires some skill. One wrong bite and the entire thing snaps, smattering the front of your shirt with flecks of white powder, which, admittedly, can be some source of entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the perfect cookie. Not content with trying to time visits home to when Mom might be making them, I decided I needed an iron of my own. The problem is that every pizzelle manufacturer has its own cookie design. Logically, pizzelle made in any other machine should taste just like the ones I ate growing up, but none quite inspired the same sense of nostalgia as the look of Mom’s cookies. So, like hers, mine had to be the Vitantonio model 300 pizelle chef with cast iron grids, made in the good ol’ U.S.-of-A. No substitutions.
This particular machine had not been produced since the early 1990s, and eBay seemed to be my only hope for scoring one. It turned out other people had a similar appreciation for the goodies this iron made and were willing to shell out big money, sometimes paying upwards of $100, which was well above what I could afford. Nevertheless, I was not above engaging in bidding wars. Despite knowing that the odds of actually winning were slim, I blithely kept placing bids in dollar increments, sticking it to whoever had the means of investing more money than I in a uni-tasker kitchen appliance that, admittedly, even I would only use during the winter holidays. Sure, my fellow eBay bidders could have their cookies. But if I had anything to say about it, they were going to pay for them.
It was late July and weather forecasters were making a big t0-do over the fact that the heat index would hit a whopping 105 degrees. Since that day also happened to be a Saturday, and I wasn’t about to waste a day off sitting inside with the blinds closed and A/C cranked, I got up early to at least get a walk in and went down to the local Goodwill before the weather became too unbearable. While browsing the mishmash of kitchen goods, I saw it. Nestled among the tortilla makers, griddles and cannibalized hand mixers sat the blackened and dingy object of my culinary affections. I wondered how it could have ended up here. Perhaps an Italian grandmother had died and whoever settled her estate thought this thing made really bad waffles. Whatever its origins, it was mine. And for all of five dollars. Plus the cost of a new electrical cord. (I went back on the hottest day of the following summer thinking the stars would align again and there would be another one sitting on the shelf. No such luck, not that I technically needed a second. But the thought of a pizzelle iron trophy room, glittering in chrome-plated glory, was an undeniably attractive idea.)
I got home and set to work cleaning, cracking out the liquid soap, the dish rag, the automotive-grade steel wool, the bottle of Turtle Wax liquid chrome polish, but soon noticed that one of the tapered, black bakelite feet was a little loose. I know well enough that turning a screw to the right tightens it, but on upending the iron and turning it around a few times, telling my right from the appliance’s right was anyone’s best guess. So I ventured a guess, made a few turns, and soon heard an ominous “clink” as the foot fell off in my hand and heard the sound of a renegade nut rolling around inside. Turning it right-side up again I stared at my gimpy little pizzelle iron, barely able to maintain its balance. There was no avoiding a trip to the hardware store in order to buy a few tools to crack this thing open.
A few days later and a mile and a half mile walk up to Cherrydale Hardware, I found myself staring at a display case jam-packed with socket wrenches, puzzled by their strange denominations: quarter inch, three-eights of an inch, half inch, three-quarters of an inch. The clerk kindly asked if I needed help and told him I needed a crash course in what these things were.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked.
My mind raced. I mean, could tell him I was fixing a pizzelle iron, but that would require explaining what the thing was, which would then require a description of the beautiful snowflake-like cookies—maybe mention the powdered sugar—and then realize I was standing in a sawdust-and-plywood, mom-and-pop-style hardware store telling a total stranger that I’m repairing a cookie press.
“I’m fixing a waffle iron.” Waffle iron. Yes. With big, muscular Belgian grids ready to churn out hearty breakfast-of-champions-grade golden waffles. It was a perfect fudging of the truth. The clerk instantaneously suggested a quarter inch wrench, which I purchased, along with a five dollar appliance cord, and went home.
The repairs were quick and painless. Soon I had it plugged in and heated until the grids were smoking hot, dropping teaspoonfuls of vanilla-flavored batter and finally making my own cache of cookies. I have since made them up for friends and as table offerings at social gatherings, and there’s a certain sense of pleasure that comes from introducing people to a cookie that always seemed so unique to Italian kitchens. It’s a feeling that just barely trumps the satisfaction of having a personal reserve of pizzelle at home stacked in a popcorn tin that sits beside my favorite chair.
November 21, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Stories about the holiday, being thankful for a certain food, or edible expressions of gratitude. Jessica McLean, like many of us, has wrestled with recreating traditional family recipes, which are often tricky, sometimes in surprising ways. She lives in Pennsylvania and says, “I enjoy eating anything my grandmother will cook for me, and watching from a healthy distance while she prepares it.”
How Do You Make That?
By Jessica McLean
For me, one of the best parts about Thanksgiving—and the winter holidays in general, really—is the traditional recipes. The ones my grandmother breaks out only for Thanksgiving and Christmas (and maybe Easter). Many of them are family recipes she learned from her mother, and they aren’t especially fancy. What makes them special is that she makes them only for holidays.
Turnips are one of these recipes. My great-grandmother was born in Estonia, and turnips were a common dish in her household growing up. Even after she’d moved to America, she would make this food from her childhood for her own girls. Her daughters all loved a particular turnip dish she made—I don’t know what it’s called, really. We always just call it “turnips” during the holidays, since it’s the only turnip dish ever served. It’s a sort of mashed and baked dish—nothing fancy, just warm and tasty and filled with tradition.
When I was little, I wouldn’t go near them. They smelled funny to me.
Truth be told, my grandmother and my great-aunt were really the only two in the family who ate them. But my grandmother makes them every year, even after the death of her sister, because they loved them and because the dish has been traditional for the holidays for generations. When I was in high school, I finally felt brave enough to try them and was surprised by how good they were. Creamy and soothing like mashed potatoes, but with such a delicate flavor…I almost always request them now, just to be sure they’re at the table.
A couple of summers ago, I moved to a new town where I didn’t know anyone and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. So I decided to give my grandmother a call and get the recipe for her turnips. I had this idea that if I could have just a few scoops of my favorite Thanksgiving food, the jolt of nostalgia would cheer me up. My grandmother cautioned that she didn’t have exact measurements because the recipe was so old, and gave me the basic gist. I trekked out to the store and picked up the ingredients, including the all-important turnips. At home, I diligently prepped and chopped and mashed and baked, waiting with anxiety and anticipation to taste the outcome.
When the turnips were out of the oven and cool enough to eat, I put a big scoop in a bowl and settled onto the couch to enjoy. I took a bite and the taste was more or less correct, but the texture was just…off. More like a chowder than thick mashed potatoes. It was still an enjoyable and affordable snack, but I called my grandmother right away to figure out what went wrong. I told her everything I did, hoping that she’d be able to fix this for me, to tell me what I did wrong or forgot to do so that I could recreate the delight I felt each Thanksgiving with my first bite of turnips.
After talking it over for a few minutes my grandmother suddenly gasped. “Jessie, I know what happened. My mother called these turnips because that’s what they call them in Estonia, but they’re actually rutabagas!”
I won’t say that this turned my whole world upside-down because it wasn’t quite that dramatic. We did have a good laugh about it, and I asked her to make an extra batch during the holidays that year so I could take left-overs home with me. But I still haven’t attempted to make the rutabagas myself, even though I do have a corrected copy of the recipe. I decided they were best left to the expert—my grandmother—and to Thanksgiving.