Friday, December 30, 2011

Festive biryani

I've been on vacation since a few days before Christmas, and my intention had been to use the time making progress on my thesis project, which will be due in early May: seventy-five pages of a creative project and a 30-page (I think) critical writing project. I'll finish half of both! I'll start rewriting certain sections! I'll do more research! But...not so much. I've been severely sidetracked by Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey, a cookbook of recipes from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and a place close to my heart, Cambodia.

I worked in Phnom Penh for a year, starting in spring 2006, and that's where my mind travels when I daydream. It was a year I learned much about myself and the many ways the world can work, and I carry the lessons I gained with me daily. Some were painful — I remember early on talking angrily to a taxi driver after he said he'd pick me up at a certain time, but didn't, causing me to miss an important interview for an article I was writing. But losing your temper in Cambodia is a big mistake, especially if you do it in front of more than one person, and it took days to be forgiven. And before I was, many people wouldn't speak to me. They'd simply turn around when I started talking. I was just another crazy American who couldn't act right. Since then, I've tried to remember that what works in New York doesn't work everywhere, and to proceed with politeness and propriety in new situations with new people.

One of my favorite things about Phnom Penh was the food, especially the food in small street stalls, markets and local restaurants. There are some wonderful, fancy restaurants in Phnom Penh; it's the country's capital and biggest city, with hordes of politicians and foreign diplomats who dine in high style. But you can't strike up a conversation and test out your fledgling language skills (or, in my case, non-skills) in restaurants like that, and besides, expensive joints aren't for every day anyway.

One of my favorite spots was a market stall that served thick rice noodles for breakfast, with dried shrimp, pickled chilies, peanuts, coconut milk and taro spring rolls — a sweet, spicy dish with the sharp saltiness of seafood. Another was a rice porridge restaurant in the first-floor of a family's home, which also served as the garage. They'd roll up the front gate, take the car out, move the round tables in, serve soothing babah for less than a buck, and after the last person had left for the night, put everything back. And I loved all the tucked-away spots that served Cambodian style curry. Rick Stein's cookbook has recipes for all of that. Last week I made mussels in coconut milk and Cambodian green curry, and the smell of lemongrass still hasn't left the apartment.

I've also been testing my hand at the recipes from other countries included in the cookbook; I've made rich, saffron-bright Moghul chicken korma, and for Christmas dinner made a Bangladeshi lamb biryani, along with a salad of tomatoes, red onion, chilies, cilantro and cumin. One of the wonderful things about Stein's recipes is that he walks you through how to make everything taste really authentic, from how to use ingredients you may not have worked with before, to grinding all the spices yourself instead of using ready-made mixes. It takes more time, but it smells and tastes like heaven.

Many of the ingredients in his recipes can be found online, if they're not available in your local market. If you live in or near New York, you can get everything at Kalustyan's on Lexington Ave. between 28th and 29th streets. When I visited the shop for the first time, I felt like a kid at Disneyland — they had everything I was looking for, plus things I didn't know I might need, and they were playing the Brandenburg Concertos over the speakers. I could have spent the whole day in there. 

So aside from making a traditional full English breakfast for Christmas morning, it's been pretty spicy here in Brooklyn, with lemongrass and Thai basil and hot peppers crammed into the fridge. 

Next on the list is Vietnamese fried fish with turmeric and dill, then Bangladeshi bhuna khichuri, a spiced rice with lentils and hard boiled eggs served with fish, then back to Cambodia for beef with lime and black pepper dipping sauce. And after all that's been cooked and eaten, I'll get down to that thesis project. Happy New Years Eve day, and happy eating!

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