Thursday, September 30, 2010

Afghan Heirlooms

Qabili pilau and sabzi

Technically I was not supposed to be there. My Afghan colleague Najla invited me to dinner and I gladly accepted the invitation. Riding in an unarmored car to her home in Karte Parwan, one of Kabul’s residential neighborhoods, where the outer walls were less than ten meters high and there were no armed guards outside, was breaking all the rules of security protocol.

Due to the volatile situation and cultural restrictions, I had limited contact with my Afghan counterparts despite the fact that I lived in Kabul. Therefore, this invitation was more than just dinner, it was a window into the lives of the people I worked with everyday, but otherwise had little access to.

Najla and I took a seat on the toshaks, cushions laid out on the floor in the living room. Her nieces ran in giggling, gracefully balancing trays with tea and sweets and depositing them on the floor in front of us. I attempted to follow Najla’s lead and gracefully fold my legs beneath me but wound up shifting every few minutes, uncomfortable and awkward.

“I didn’t tell you, but this is a bit of a special occasion,” Najla said. “My eldest brother has just returned from Pakistan. We are finally all together in Kabul again!” Najla’s family fled Kabul like so many other residents of the Afghan capital during the civil war that engulfed the city in the early 1990s. They made their way over the Pakistani border into Peshawar where they stayed in camps until they returned after the fall of the Taliban.

The room slowly filled with family members and everyone squeezed in around the plates that began pouring from the kitchen: dark green sabzi, stewed spinach, banjan borani, delicious fried eggplant topped with tangy yogurt and paprika; aushak and mantu, hand made dumplings filled with either leaks or ground meat and covered with yogurt, lentils and mint.

But the centerpiece of the meal was the qabili pilau, the dish that heralds a special occasion. The faint brown rice was redolent with spices including cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and anise. While the fragrance was synonymous with a special holiday meal, the combination of the soft carrot strings, the sweet, robust raisins and succulent chunks of lamb made this dish feel more like comfort food.

When I inquired about the spices, Najla was coy. “The exact mixture of spices in the pilau varies from family to family,” she said. “It’s always slightly different and,” she paused, “it’s top secret,” she smiled mysteriously. “What you are eating is my mother’s recipe, which she learned from her mother, which she learned from her mother….” She trailed off.

Passed on from generation to generation, the family qabili pilau recipe is an heirloom. It is an oral history, something that they carried with them when they left everything else behind. As most Afghans at some point in their lives have been internally displaced or refugees, like Najla and her family, this recipe is more than just a meal - it is remembrance. 

 Girls' School in Herat

  Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque, Old City, Kabul

Stunning Band-i-Amir lake, Bamiyan Province, Central Highlands

Buzkashi, game traditionally played on Nowroz, or New Years, with players on horseback and a headless goat as the ball

Women in burqas visiting the sick at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif

Outside boys' school, Herat

Shopkeepers at prayer, Jalalabad

 Herat's Friday Mosque

The "kite runners" - boys chasing kites at the King's Masoleum, Kabul

This post has been entered into the September Grantourismo HomeAwayUK travel blogging competition.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: A Crust Is a Crust, Is a Crust......

I had no idea tortillas had crusts! What a discovery! The innate loathing and childhood rejection of The Crust knows no cultural boundaries. Yesterday, my neighbor’s son was at our house and I offered to make him a quesadilla. The above was what he left on his plate. Crispy with grease, cheese oozing out the sides I couldn’t understand why the edges had been systematically discarded. When I questioned his mother, she airily responded that he never eats the crusts. Crust? On a tortilla? Where did that come from?

One could deduce from this fascinating anthropological discovery in my kitchen that kids in all cultures are totally insane and their picky nonsensical food prejudices are not random whims to make us crazy, but perhaps encoded in their DNA. How could this be learned behavior? Where does a Mexican kid learn that crusts are pure evil and then apply it to his culture's answer to bread?

P.S. He also said, “no gracias” to the salsa, and dipped his quesadilla into ketchup (!). Kids are weird in any culture.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wednesday Snapshots: The German Currywurst Museum of Berlin

As promised... The Deutsches Currywurst Museum in Berlin. A temple for pilgrims who worship at the alter of the wurst.

Your relatively steeply priced (13 Euros!) entrance ticket includes access to all exhibits as well as a tasty little currywurst sample at the little bude (vendor) that you have to walk through to exit the museum (clever!).

The decor includes giant drops of faux ketchup coming down from the ceiling and life-sized fries. To help illustrate the different variations of currywurst, replicas have been constructed, safely protected behind this glass should you temporarily forget that they are plastic and attempt to sneak a piece.

A colorful diagram of the various spices that go into the curry ketchup...

A brief history lesson that includes Herta Heuwer, who Berliners believe invented the currywurst just after the war - part necessity, part ingenuity, and part flirtation with an admiring British soldier. There was a brief mention of the fact that Hamburgers have their own Ms. Heuwer who they believe invented the currywurst... but they didn't dwell on her. Hmmm, a little bias on the part of the museum's home town, or am I just more of a proud Hamburger than I like to believe I am?

And a map of Berlin, currywurst bude by bude, indicated by little pieces of wurst made of cork and silver forks displaying the bude's name. Nicey.


My mom and stepdad, the kids and I will be heading to Berlin next week - my mom hasn't been there since she was threatened by mean German guards at Checkpoint Charlie in the 60s and my stepdad has never been - and the Currywurst Museum is high up on our list of things to see in Berlin.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fall Equinox Germanified Chicken Soup

Oh, it's that time of year again. Today is the first calendar day of Fall, my favorite season (or it was my favorite season until I moved to Hamburg where Summer is Fall, but that's a rant for another day). Besides the vibrant autumnal hews, the crisp but not cold afternoons, the clearest skies of any season, the crunching under foot, warm sun on rosy cheeks, American football tailgates, wool socks and turtlenecks coming out of "winter clothes"-marked boxes, hot apple cider - there are infinite reasons to love this season.

Not the least of which is fall FOOD. Which for me, means SOUPS AND STEWS. Mmmmm, chicken and vegetables simmering in a pot all afternoon, filling the house with the smell of cures for colds and celery. Roasts bathing in their own juices and a few robust onions thrown in for good measure - left in the oven ALL. AFTERNOON. LONG. to slow cook to the point the meat falls apart when the strings are cut. And the best part, coming home after a long walk through the foliage and opening the door to be hit by intoxicating smells that make the neighbors believe that I've been home all afternoon slaving away. Honestly, there are few things I love more than someone else in my kitchen cooking for me. And soups and roasts that you can leave on the stove or in the oven all day, cooking on autopilot, it's like a little fairy chef has snuck in to the kitchen and whipped up something while I've been out. Am I making it clear how much I LOVE this concept?

So in honor of the start of Fall and the Fall food season, a German take on Chicken Soup:

First of all, Germans make Chicken Soup soooooo easy: your grocers has "Suppen Huhn" - soup chickens, specifically tailored to go into your pot for soups or stock. And they ALSO have "Suppen Bund" - celery root, carrots and leak all bound together by a rubber band - all the veg you need for a veggie stock. Those Germans - so practical! Bring your chicken, veggies and water to a boil and then turn it way down, cover and let simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste at the end. And to really Germanify your Chicken Soup, just add:

Mmmmm Semmelknödel, what a find you were. Knödel are basically dumplings and I was craving some of the soup dumplings my mom used to put in her chicken soup - bisquick style. You can make the knödel yourself of course - and I am working on learning how and sharing a recipe with you - but you can also buy them in this little box, boil them for ten minutes and throw them in your soup. They are a bit heavy compared to soup dumplings, as the package illustrates they are usually eaten with meat and sauerkraut - (and we will get to that too) - but I thought they worked well with this hearty soup.

This might be overkill, but I also added another miracle of Germanic cuisine:

Oh Backererbsen, how I love you. "Soup Pearls" is the English name given on the package, while the German translation is "baked peas" and the French is something akin to "nut pasta". They are little balls of baked goodness (completely devoid of any nutritional value to be sure) that add that missing crunch to your soup - should you have been thinking, "You know what this soup really needs? Something CRUNCHY!" I know I was thinking that at least. And the kids love them. Kind of like crumbling soda crackers over your soup.

Happy Fall Equinox to All!!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Viva Mexico! Viva la Revolución!

Probably not Hidalgo's exact words, but definitely what the gente will be joyously shouting for the next few days!

Viva Mexico! Viva la Revolución! Over the next four days Mexico will celebrate the bicentennial of their independence from Spain (the birth of the country) and the centennial anniversary of the revolution (freedom from a thirty year dictatorship and the creation of a new democratic constitution).

Tonight at midnight the Mexican version of the “shot heard around the world” will ring throughout Mexico! In cities and towns throughout the country, a key official will ring a bell and shout the traditional declaration, El Grito de Dolores, and of course, mass revelry will ensue until the wee hours of the morning kicking off the actual holiday: La Independencia de México observed on September 16th.

El Grito de Dolores (The Cry of Dolores) was the battle cry of the Mexican War of Independence; proclaimed September 16th, 1810 by the priest of the people, Miguel Hidalgo in the small town of Dolores. Hidalgo ordered the church bells to be rung and gathered his congregation; he addressed the people in front of his church, encouraging them to revolt against the Spanish-- to take back their country, their land and their beloved Virgin de Guadalupe.

This year is especially festive, as both barrels are locked and loaded. One hundred years ago, the Mexican Revolution began on November 20th with troops of campesinos crying out for "¡Tierra y Libertad!" (Land and Freedom!). Dictator Diaz was successfully overthrown and characters like Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata were emblazoned in the history books and iconized in taquerías the world over.

The government has been making a big deal of the event: building monuments, marking several routes along highways throughout Mexico that were traveled either during Mexico's War of Independence or the Mexican Revolution, President Calderón will perform the Grito in Mexico City to a crowd of millions, and many more events and fairs for history bufsf and the patriotic. In a show of solidarity and revolutionary fervor, I am going to come tearing into the plaza on my stallion, guns a-blazing!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Elote: Mexican Street Corn

Would you believe me if I told you there was no sweet corn in Mexico? That’s right. I said No. Sweet corn. Mexico. I know, crazy talk, right? Well, sadly it is true. Mexico is a country void of lemons and the summer corn smile characterized by sweet yellow kernels stuck between happy teeth.

As is well known, Mexico is the Land of Corn; unfortunately, the only variety grown in the vast fertile fields is extremely starchy -- perfectly suited for pan de elote, tortillas and masa, rather than right-off-the-cob indulgence, or so I thought until I discovered elote. Elote simply means corn. Interestingly, it is also the straightforward name given to the complex punchy flavors of grilled or boiled cobs served up street-side. The charred, roasty-toasty cobs are punctured with a skewer and slathered with a combination of condiments such as: salt, chili powder, butter, lime, mayonnaise, crema, cotija cheese, and epazote. Alternatively, the cobs are boiled in huge vats, the kernels cut off the cob tumbling into a plastic cup; while smacking your lips, you choose which creamy, spicy, sour, salty offerings of flavors you want to parade into your mouth.

While oogling giant hotdogs wrapped in thick fatty slices of bacon sizzling away on a greasy flat top in a square in Cuernavaca, I spotted several stands with bubbling cauldrons of corn on the cob. While I have immense respect for those lining up for the pork party, I gravitated towards the bright smile of a woman dropping shiny yellow ears into the salted boiling water. She handed me a cup of steaming corn. This being my first time, I didn’t hold back. Overwhelmed by that same urge that drives your spoon into every topping at the ice cream sundae bar, I piled it all on. My immoderation was rewarded. Crunchy kernels burst with a mild corn flavor; the creamy mayonnaise-y crema was spiked with piquant lime, subtle heat from the chili and the salty cojita cheese amped-up all of the flavors resulting in a manic scarfing of deliciousness.

Why not rev-up the last of the summer corn with a Mexican street corn rendition? You will not be sorry; this is seriously addictive stuff. Make twice what you think you will nosh and don’t be surprised if those hot dogs go uneaten.

ELOTE: Mexican Street Corn

4 ears sweet corn, grilled with a good char or cut off the cob and roasted in the oven (with a bit of olive oil and salt)
2 tablespoons cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 teaspoon lime juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or chili powder
Kosher salt
2/3 cup crumbled cotija cheese
Lime wedges
Extra cayenne pepper or chili powder, for garnish
Fresh finely chopped epazote or cilantro for optional garnish

If going the whole cob: Crumble cheese onto a plate large enough to fit an ear of corn. In a small bowl mix the mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice, cayenne pepper or chili powder, and salt. When the corn is cooked, brush each ear with some of the mayo sauce then roll in the cheese. Garnish with a sprinkling of chili powder and cilantro.Serve warm.

If pure kernels are your thing: After the kernels caramelize a bit, take them out of the oven and put in a bowl.  Stir in mayo, sour cream, lime juice, salt, cotijo, and chili powder and mix well. Heap onto a serving platter and garnish with a sprinkling of chili powder and cilantro. Serve warm.