Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Diving Right In

Okay, I think there's been enough intro for the time being. Parts of one's history will always leak out at other times. No sense in protecting against how the past might unfold. Am I expounding the Freudian fundamental rule of free association? Well, perhaps. . . So, let me leap straight into the present.

Last night, E & I had some friends over for dinner, and I prepared a pretty solid Indian meal. Here's what I put together:

*Mini-pappadums (bought at one of the many Indian grocery stores on University Ave)

*Salad with greens, orange bell peppers, tomatoes, and avocados dressed with a Lime-Cumin Vinaigrette (from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

*Braised Chicken Maharaja (from the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, Volume 2. Laxmi Hiremath is a great Indian food whiz!)

*Vegetable Biriyani (also from the SF Chronicle Cookbook, Volume 2)

*Mango Lime Cheesecake with Ginger Snap Crust, topped with fresh mangos, shredded coconut & a lime sauce.

To be honest, I think that I fashioned the entire meal around the dessert. I had been itching to try to come up with a good recipe for Mango Cheesecake. I had it in my mind that I could really create something stellar with the combination of a creamy mango-ey dessert and a ginger snap crust. Thus, the experiment.

How did it go? The dinner went fabulously, and I must put in a plug for the Vegetable Biriyani, which was a winner. The chicken was also good, but came out a big dry. (I think that I haven' t quite figured out how to cook chicken optimally and blame this on my own lack-of-technique.) The sauce that the chicken cooked in was AMAZING, however. The recipe was well worth making if only just for the flavors of the sauce, which might intimidate those who don't have an adequately stocked spice rack. Of course, I shall not forget the salad, which was simple and delicious, and E receives credit for putting it together.

Now, the finale: the cheesecake. I would say that the cheesecake was okay. My guests thought it was yummy and that it did taste of mango. However, I wanted it to be even more strongly flavored with the fruit and would opt for augmenting both the amount of fresh pureed mango in the cake (I used two mangos) as well as the amount of lime zest. I also wasn't all that keen on the lime sauce. It tasted like a lime Jolly Rancher had melted all over the top of the cheesecake. No one can take credit for this more than me. I didn't do my homework and find a good lime reduction recipe. I just decided that putting lime juice and sugar together on top of the stove would yield some kind of topping. (I also added a drop of green food coloring to the mix, which was doubly the reason why it ended up looking like a hard candy.)

One of my guests, a fellow foodie & kitchen experimenter, recommended that I go next time for a ginger topping, which I think is a good direction. Maybe a carmelized ginger sauce or something using crystallized ginger? Maybe even something that has a crunch to it? Maybe with nuts? I'm not sure yet.

Anyway, I don't know how soon I'll be back to perfecting this recipe. E & I are getting hitched in the summer, and I don't want to be making cheesecakes only to be fattening up and unable to slip into my wedding garb. E says that I should focus on fruit tarts, which ain't such a bad idea given that spring & its bounty is arriving.

Friday, March 25, 2005

I Began Cooking in Iowa City

In 1997, I began studying for my MFA in Poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Iowa City. Actually, I quite liked Iowa City. It's quaint, walkable, and has the charm of a progressive college town. It's also supposed to be one of the most highly educated towns in America, boasting an average of a masters' degree per citizen (last I heard). In short, there's a whole lotta brainy folks in Iowa City.

Unfortunately, loads of smart people do not necessarily mean good food, but there were some diamonds in the rough. New Pioneer Coop is a great place to shop for organic veggies and hard-to-finds like Tofutti ice cream sandwiches and Israeli couscous. It's also got an abundant deli with lots of mouthwatering prepared food. There's also the Sanctuary, the best pizza pub around town. The pies are simple and delicious, and the beer is good. It was the first place I ate in Iowa City, and still remains at the top of my list. There used to be (though I don't think it's around anymore) a stellar Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall, Han's, at the corner of College and Burlington. Often, I wish I could carry this place around in my back pocket and conjure their Lemongrass Tofu at a moment's notice.

There were a couple of upper-end restaurants like the Linn Street Cafe, probably still around. The food, as I remember it, was very mediocre, especially if you compared a similarly-priced menu in the SF Bay Area to its prices. You know, there have got to be a few places to take visiting notables, so . . .. I realize it's unfair to compare the eateries of the SF Bay Area (especially San Francisco, Berkeley & Oakland) to Iowa City. It's ludicrous, actually, but the whole reason why I paint a picture of Iowa City's restaurants is to illustrate the dearth of taste adventures available. In the midst of this barrenness, I realized quickly, as I made friends with several of my classmates who also hailed from mostly metropolitan areas (or at least areas of the country which prioritize food innovation), that the best meals you could experience were in people's homes. Food, the best foods I had ever eaten, were in Iowa City. They were just underground.

This--realizing how people were making food & realizing that there was no alterative if I wanted to eat well--were the impetus for my learning to cook. I bought myself the first few cookbooks (Almost Vegetarian and the Greens Cookbook) and dove right in. Fortunately, I wasn't a "don't know how to boil water" type. I was already skilled enough to know how to put things together (and I had been very good at Chemistry Lab), and it just a matter of time before I was teaching myself how to make quiches and pizzas from scratch.

And if writing poetry didn't pay my bills (ha!), then at least I was learning another skill.

My Parents Immigrated from India

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s from South India, a time when finding now-ordinary items like cilantro were very scarce. They traveled many miles, often to nearby metropolitan areas to stock up on dhals, rice, spices, and Indian vegetables. These treks were rituals, searches for my family and our Indian friends, against the grain of American cuisine, to recreate the familiar tastes and flavors of their childhood.

What I ate in the home as a child might still sound foreign and unappetizing to many Americans who are more accustomed to steak-and-potato palates. To other, more adventuresome types, my mother's cooking can be elevated to the level of haute cuisine and is quickly becoming inspiration for the opening of restaurants and the writing of Indian cookbooks. Friends who were fed Hamburger Helper meals too many times in one week say they envy the Indian-food-every-day diet.

But I was (and still am) the stubborn child who always craved something other than Indian food. Don't get me wrong. I liked Indian food. But I wanted more than just Indian food. Could my mother maybe make the Sloppy Joe's that Katy's mom made once a year? Or, could we have french toast with strawberries on a Sunday morning instead of idlis and coconut chutney?

My father had always cursed me for this exploratory tongue, though he was also a food taster and lover. After coming home from a long day of work, he'd ask spontaneously if my brother and I were craving noodles from Peking Palace or Thai red curry with chicken. These were rhetorical questions, for if we answered no, he'd have overwritten the veto. I remember once, on a family vacation, we dined in an all-American middle-of-the-road chain establishment. As the meal was coming to a close, my father eyed the captivating apple pie a la mode on the menu and asked if we'd go in for a share. We all refused him, and he sat stubbornly with his arms crossed and huffed like a child who'd been just denied a toy.

Despite this kinship that we shared, my cravings frightened him. They were a metaphor for something much greater--that I might forget who I was and where my family had come from. If not for the smells of cumin and coriander wafting through the house, who would I be? If I chose burgers over dosas, was I saying, unconsciously, that I was assimilating all too quickly into the fabric of America? For myself, I know that my desire to taste the world has never meant that India has no place in my heart. It's just that, like I said, I wanted to taste the world.


Welcome, folks! This is a new adventure for me. Venturing into the world of blogging, that is. I've sat still and quietly observed the power and presence of blogging in a circle of writerly friends. I've been awed with how many of them have chosen to use their blogs as a medium of creativity and exchange but uncertain of how I might want to use my own blog.

After much consideration, I've decided it no longer needs to be as thoughtful as I'd hoped. A myriad of interests might crop up in this blog, including poetry, memoirs, love, music, & psychology. Ah, but food. Food might be the primary glue that holds this blog together. It's a source of inspiration for me. It makes my world go 'round.