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.
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.
November 14, 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. Our first story comes from Hope Yancey, a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is thankful for a relationship that thrives in spite of food.
The Bacon is Faux, but the Love is Real
By Hope Yancey
The smell of vegetarian bacon aromatizing our kitchen as it steams up the microwave is enough to send my husband running the other way fast. He would probably classify the assault on his nostrils as a pungent odor rather than a mere smell. I heat my strips of veggie bacon for breakfast, sometimes enjoying them accompanied by eggs or arranged on a sandwich roll with a little Miracle Whip and dash of black pepper. Served over toast and sliced tomatoes and topped with prepared cheese sauce, it makes a nice version of Welsh rarebit for an easy lunch or supper.
We have a long and storied history with veggie bacon in our relationship. It was one of the first meals I cooked for my husband after we met about 11 years ago. He kindly pretended to savor it, only confiding much later how truly unpleasant he found my morning meal of choice. I’m sure he wondered what other gustatory delights awaited him in his future. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I like the stuff. I harbor no delusions that it tastes like real bacon, though I wouldn’t really be qualified to say because that’s a flavor I haven’t experienced for myself since at least 1990. It doesn’t particularly bother me that veggie bacon’s texture is such that it fails to crisp, hardening instead. No matter: What it lacks in authenticity, it compensates for in other ways.
Veggie bacon served its purpose, as it proved to be the gateway to a string of other meat substitutes my generous husband would go on to bravely endure in the name of love. There’s been veggie sausage (patties and links), veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers and much more. He views some products more favorably than others. Veggie corn dogs, like veggie bacon, are decidedly not a favorite of his, but for different reasons in each case: “The veggie bacon definitely smells the worst. It’s just outright offensive. And the corn dogs taste the worst,” he said recently. Harsh. Fortunately, he does have an affinity for some of the veggie meatballs he’s tried. All is not lost.
Carnivorous lunches with one of his brothers represent a brief but regular weekday reprieve for him. He indulges in foreign meals that are scarce in our household—things like turkey sandwiches, ham and sausage calzones and delicious Teriyaki chicken, all made with actual meat. While he’s toiling away at the office, I’m able to luxuriate in my veggie bacon with abandon. As I pull the familiar, slim package from the freezer, I can be secure in the knowledge that the aroma in the air should have ample time to diminish before his arrival home. It was a revelation for me that there also are homemade versions of veggie bacon out there; that’s a whole new delicacy waiting to be discovered. It could be a game-changer.
In the meantime, I’m thankful for a husband who tolerates my self-imposed dietary restrictions so gracefully and occasionally even joins me in a meat alternative. I feel like a wife ought to do more to demonstrate her gratitude. I should really bake him a cake. Was that a recipe I saw online for frosted maple-bacon cupcakes garnished with pieces of veggie bacon?
October 17, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation: how food repaired a relationship of some sort—or didn’t, despite your best efforts. Our first essay comes from Alexia Nader, a graduate journalism student at New York University and a freelance writer.
How Do You Apologize in Italian?
By Alexia Nader
I was up to my elbows in raw ground beef, anchovy paste, capers and onions, and completely panicked. “Call your mother now and tell them that dinner is going to be late, tell them to wait an hour,” I yelled to my boyfriend Marco as my chest sank—I had already ceded complete success. It’s bad form to show your dinner guests the frenzy of preparing a big meal; when they enter the door, the cook should have everything under control in the kitchen and look calm and composed. I was walking around the kitchen barefoot with frizzy hair and no make-up, wearing Marco’s dead aunt’s ancient apron and sweating profusely in the August heat. But I was determined to put on the table the meal that I had traveled two hours to Marco’s tiny hometown of Russi, Italy to prepare. It was my last plea for Marco’s family to forgive me for stealing their son away to America.
Two days before the Sunday lunch, I gleefully sketched out a list of dishes and ingredients for the meal. Having just returned from a month-long, self-guided exploration of Basque France and Bordeaux, I had foie gras confit in my pantry and memories of gambas and steak tartare at the forefront of my mind. What really determined my menu choices, though, was my refusal to make Italian food for Marco’s family after attending one inimitable lunch at Marco’s grandmother’s house. I could never compete with her four courses, honed to perfection by hundreds of years of Emilia-Romagna tradition—the antipasti were diaphanous slices of mortadella, prosciutto and coppa; cappelletti in brodo, puffy lunettes of fresh filled pasta that were the product of hours of painstaking craft, floated in a savory pork broth for our primi; tender and hearty roast rabbit with mashed potatoes followed; cake, coffee, and sorbet felt like a symphonic coda. Much of the same audience would soon be eating my food. I wanted to dazzle them with the exact opposite of rustic, traditional cuisine: an understated meal that, for them, would evoke both the exotic and urbane.
The attraction of the unknown had worked well when I first started dating Marco three years earlier. I was studying abroad in Bologna. He was an engineering student, precise and methodical in his thinking, shy and naïve—the complete opposite of the quick-talking city people that I usually befriended. Some months into the relationship, I learned that he came from a family of farmers. His uncle still owned a peach grove where Marco picked peaches for ten euros a day every summer, and his grandmother was the type of person who could wring a chicken’s neck for dinner without batting an eye and pick out a ripe cantaloupe by rapping on its tough rind.
On our first date my lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prevented us from talking about most of our interests, except for one—our obsession with trying new food. I learned that Marco would try any dish at least once and, despite his hometown’s lack of foreign restaurants, had discovered and fallen in love with Japanese food. He learned that my childhood—living in Miami among people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean—had given me this compulsive need to sample and cook with as many flavors as I could get my hands on.
For our many meals together in my cramped apartment, I cooked everything but Italian food—lentil lettuce wraps, arroz con pollo, tacos al pastor, panang curry—all dishes that made his eyes widen in surprise upon experiencing a flavor he had never known existed. I got an immense feeling of satisfaction when he called his mother and excitedly told her what new food he had just tried. He had lived for 19 years eating an unadulterated form of his regional cuisine; I relished corrupting his palate with my bastardized, global cooking repertoire. Marco was a convert, but his family, whose members had never been on an airplane or lived outside the humble, rural province of Ravenna, wouldn’t be so easily won over.
I decided on a three-course menu: mâche salad with foie gras, black grapes, and balsamic drizzle; steak tartare with toast points and truffle oil; and a fruit salad. These choices were a product of many hours staring off into space and mentally aligning different factors: the season, how hungry Marco’s family would probably be at 4 p.m., the late afternoon heat, how much truffle oil would cost and the day of the week. When I was growing up, Sunday was when we ate a Lebanese version of steak tartare called kebbeh nayeh; I planned on telling Marco’s family this as I set the plates of tartare on the table.
When Marco’s family arrived at the apartment at 5:00, the tartare was setting in the refrigerator, my balsamic glaze had reduced and I had conscripted Marco for the duty of brushing slices of bread with truffle oil. Marco’s father and brother gathered around the table that I had set up near the balcony, trying to keep their fidgeting inconspicuous. Marco’s mother offered to help out in the kitchen. I burst out with a sharp no, and immediately stopped short, telling myself that subjecting your boyfriend’s mother to your control-freak cooking tendencies is not a step in the right direction. I brought out the courses, spread them family-style around the table, sat down, and tried to loosen up with a big gulp of prosecco.
There is one key element of a successful meal that can’t be planned in advance—lively, continuous conversation. Even though Marco’s family ate everything on the table, the unfamiliar food made them uncomfortable. I gradually understood that, for Marco’s family, casual conversation was not appropriate for a fancy meal. They ate their foie gras and truffled toast points in silence, save for a few comments about how fresh the meat tasted and what a nice touch the balsamic glaze was. I tried to stimulate small talk but my attention was divided between eating my food and spying on everyone’s plates to see how much they were eating.
That the food was too strange and foreign was as much of a white elephant as the fact that the meal was meant as an apology. I was the reason that Marco was leaving his family; no amount of pleasure that could be garnered from my impeccably planned meal could obscure my role in the matter. My first try at mending bridges with food failed. I realized that, for a meal to meld, both the diners and the cook need to put their ideas of what the food should be and mean aside, and simply eat. Had we done that, we would have been a happy group of four Italians and one American interloper, enjoying some delicious summer fare on a sticky August afternoon.