Tag Archives: Cooking

Downton Abbey and My Great-Grandmother

This probably doesn’t have much to do with intercultural relationships, but I still thought I would share.

A few months back the local NPR station was advertising the PBS Masterpiece Theater program “Downton Abbey” (which was originally a BBC production) during one of their fund drives. I didn’t take much notice at that point, but then a blog I occasionally look in on about a British housewife in Kenya recently mentioned the series and was relating it to hired help in the Kenyan context. I looked it up and the program was streaming on Netflix, so I thought I’d take a look.

I admit, I enjoyed it, and wound up quickly watching all 7 episodes. The series centers on an aristocratic titled family in the English countryside two years before WWI, and the servants that live and work in their house. The program does a good job at going back and forth between the two perspectives (family and hired help) and the dynamics between them.

But I also had another reason for having an interest in it. The show made me think about my maternal great-grandmother known to the family as “Nanny.”

I never knew Nanny. She came to the US on a White Star Line ship in steerage from Ireland around the time that this film took place (1912-1914) and died a year or two before my parents married. My aunt tracked down the manifest at Ellis Island from the ship and saw her signature, age, and amount of money she was carrying (a few dollars).

She arrived in the US and stayed with a sister and eventually applied to an advertisement to be a cook—for one of the richest men in America at that time—JD Rockefeller. I’m not sure if she realized it at the time of application. Apparently before Nanny took the position there was a Swedish cook that had a hot temper, and one night lost it at the butler and chased him with a kitchen knife and was promptly sacked.

Rockefeller sent Nanny to cooking school, and she worked for him at his Kykuit Estate in Sleepy Hollow, NY for nearly 20 years before she decided to leave so that she could marry. By the time she had my grandmother (an only child) my great-grandmother was in her 40s (conversely my grandmother married at 19 and had seven kids before she was widowed in her 40s).

Probably about ten years ago my aunt (the same aunt who tracked down Nanny’s ship manifest) took me to Kykuit so we could do a tour of the estate. We bought tickets, and followed the group and guide through all the fancy rooms that the Rockefellers lived in, but my aunt and I really wanted to see the servants’ quarters and the kitchen, where Nanny spent most of her time. Although it was still interesting to see the house, and the artwork and the gardens, the tour didn’t let us see where the workers lived. My aunt pulled the guide aside near the end of the tour and explained about Nanny, telling the two famous stories from the kitchen from our family lore:

1)      That Nanny had personally baked Rockefeller’s 90th birthday cake in 1930.

2)      When Nelson Rockefeller (later the governor of NY) was a little kid he used to come down to the kitchen to watch the cooks. One time he insisted on helping Nanny make cookies so she gave him some dough, but he wasn’t patient with it, and played too much until it became stiff and inedible. However since JD was such a stickler for waste he insisted that Nelson’s cookie disaster be baked, and he had to eat the bad cookies from the kitchen. Not to mention that Nanny supposedly used to scold Nelson by threatening to hit him with a wooden spoon (something my grandmother also used to do, although she never did make good on the threat).

The guide graciously asked us to stick around after the tour and snuck us to the kitchens to see where Nanny used to rule as the head cook. It was pretty neat.

Downton Abbey gave me some insights into what life must have been like for Nanny in the kitchen. Granted, she wasn’t in England, but the robber barons of the gilded age were pretty much American aristocracy, and the kitchens were filled with Irish and other immigrants. There was even a side story in one of the episodes about the head housekeeper who was contacted by a former suitor from twenty years before, and she had to decide if she was comfortable leaving the household and being in the “real world” again, or if she should stay serving the family until retirement. My great-grandmother probably had that same dilemma at some point—I’ve worked here for 20 years, however if I don’t leave now I might never have a family. Should I stay or should I go?

And now eighty years later, here I am, a byproduct of her decision.

I think I’ve mention this before, but after 20 years of cooking Nanny was  “done” with fancy cooking, and so she didn’t teach my grandmother that many dishes, or really any fancy dishes that she must have learned going to a cooking school. In turn, my mother also didn’t learn any particularly special dishes from either my grandmother or great-grandmother, and I too, didn’t learn. Most of the food I know how to make now is P-inspired South Asian cuisine, or stuff I experimented with myself!

I also never realized that P and I actually have something in common. P’s grandfather also worked in an aristocratic household– as a driver (Family Tree), kind of like my great-grandmother the cook.

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The 2010 Sel Roti Tihar Challenge

Living in our intercultural household means that the fall is filled with lots of holidays… and lots of food. October brings Dashain and Halloween, November and its Tihar and Thanksiving time and December culminates in Christmas and New Years. What’s a girl trying to get in shape for a wedding to do? Take on a Challenge I guess.

Tihar technically starts today (November 3rd) with “Kag Puja” or the worship of crows. People leave sweets for the crows on the roofs of their houses because the cawing of crows symbolizes sadness and grief in Hindu mythology, and offering puja supposedly averts grief and death from your home. I don’t think we have crows, just lots of Canadian Geese at the moment, so I’m not sure if we will be able to do this, but tomorrow is Kukur Puja–worshiping dogs– and with a pup in our house, that’s pretty easy! I’ll happily give our little Sampson a flower garland, tikka, and treat like last year!

After Thursday’s Kukur puja, Friday is Gai (cow) Puja and Lakshmi Puja, Saturday is Maha (Self) Puja, and Sunday is Bhai Tikka (worship of brothers).

I digress, back to the challenge… during Tihar a traditional food to eat is a homemade circular fried bread made out of rice flour called “Sel Roti.” People eat it at other times of year as well, but it is widely eaten during the festival.

S's brother making Sel for Dashain

His pretty Sel Roti, already to eat... one of the "challenges" of making Sel is making the circle of dough in the cooking oil. I should have helped my uncle make doughnuts as a kid to prep for this!

I’ve been saying for months that I wanted to try and make Sel this year, and every time I mention this plan I’m usually told, “Sel is too hard, I don’t think you can do it.” (well… telling me that only makes me want to do it more, of course!)

I’ll counter with, “But I have a recipe I can follow, from my Nepali cookbook…” to which someone would respond, “Oh, but even with a recipe, Sel Roti is too hard, I don’t think you can do it.”

Gosh darn it, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do! At least let me try…

So this Friday I am taking on the 2010 Sel Roti Tihar Challenge. I’ll take photos and document the process… and if I fail, at least I tried, but I’m hoping for some of that homemade circular bread for Bhai Tikka… and the “street cred” that goes along with having achieved a dish considered “too difficult.”

If you have made Sel Roti before, feel free to share your stories or give cooking tips! I can use all the help I can get!

To see how it turned out visit Sel Roti Prep and Sel Roti Success!

For the Love of Cilantro

The September issue of National Geographic had a featurette on cilantro, an herb I never ate growing up, but is now part of our daily diet (whether we are eating South Asian, Latin American, or sometimes even American food).The article highlights the love it or hate it relationship most people have with the plant.

In fact upon further investigation, I happened upon an April 2o1o New York Times article titled “Cilantro Haters, Its Not Your Fault” which included this little anecdote:

In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked [famous French chef] Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”

“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.

“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

Ms. Child had plenty of company for her feelings about cilantro (arugula seems to be less offensive). The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word “coriander” is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, that cilantro aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes” and that “Europeans often have difficulty in overcoming their initial aversion to this smell.” There’s an “I Hate Cilantro” Facebook page with hundreds of fans and an I Hate Cilantro blog.

Harsh! I wouldn’t ever even think of associating cilantro with bedbugs or bad smells!

I’ve heard this before, that (supposedly) genetically there are some people out there who don’t like the taste or smell of cilantro. According to National Geographic, haters describe the herb as “soapy” tasting, while lovers find it “citrus-y.” I was reminded of this over the weekend when P and I went camping with his geography program. For Saturday lunch we made burritos, including fresh chopped salsa with generous handfuls of minced cilantro. Several European American students cringed and grumbled about not liking cilantro, and whose idea it was to add so much… but that they would “deal” with the situation or skip the salsa.

Luckily I’m whole-heartedly in the lovers camp. I often put giant fistfuls of chopped cilantro in just about any Nepali dish I might cook, and sometimes I’ll even include it in salads or soups. I find it fresh and clean tasting (and thus surprised that Julia Child would describe the taste as “dead”), and for someone in the lover camp it is honestly hard to imagine why others would have such a strong distaste for something so delightful–unless they were genetically wired different ;)

So three cheers for cilantro from American-Nepali… and while you’re at it, check out the Gori Wife Life’s awesome post on making pakora (for which she also uses cilantro).

mmmmmmm….

Nepali Cooking- A Recommendation

Last night we had a farewell dinner for our good friend D’s foreign girlfriend. She had been visiting for several weeks from Germany and the time had come that she had to go back. P and I wanted to give her something special, and I knew she liked to cook, so I thought she might appreciate a Nepali memento—a Nepali cookbook—and perhaps when she was particularly nostalgic for D she could whip up one of the recipes for dinner. P and I went through the cookbook and bookmarked off some of our favorite (or most commonly cooked) recipes and a few of D’s favorites, so that she would have a place to start.

With that said, I thought I’d talk a little bit about this particular cookbook. I’ve mentioned it on the blog before (here and here), but it is worth mentioning again. I didn’t find this cookbook until 2008, by then I had already been cooking Nepali food for years. Most of my cooking style was gleamed from helping my friends in the kitchen while they made various dishes. My cooking style is probably a bit elementary—my two favorite spices are garlic and cumin powder (not to mention cilantro)—but several of my dishes have been refined enough to be considered pretty tasty… if I do say so myself ;) .

However at some point I realized that it would be handy to have a Nepali cookbook. Gathering recipes from friends (AS is a great resource!) was helpful, but sometimes it would be nice to have a resource to look up information, at least for reference. Plus,  I have a stack of vegetarian cookbooks to get ideas for different types of food, so why not Nepali?

I’d never seen a Nepali cookbook though. Most bookstores probably have an Indian cookbook or two, and yeah, some North Indian food is similar to Nepali food, but I really wanted something specifically Nepali. So I turned to the handiest book website around… Amazon. If you search “Nepali cookbook” four different options pop up: Kathmandu Kuisine (1987) which is out of print, Nepali Delights Cookbook (1992) developed by the Association of Nepalis in the Americas, The Nepali Cookbook (1996) which is an updated version by the Association of Nepalis in the Americas, and finally Taste of Nepal (2007).

I bought the two most recent cookbooks The Nepali Cookbook and Taste of Nepal. The Nepali Cookbook is a nice resource, particularly for someone who is either a beginner, or someone who wants to learn a few Nepali dishes but doesn’t plan to eat Nepali food on a fairly regular basis. It was pulled together by a group of women from the Association who each submitted their favorite recipes. It is clear and simple, although unfortunately there are no pictures.

However, the cookbook I really wanted to talk about was Taste of Nepal. As the cookbook’s website notes, it is “one of the very few Nepali cookbooks on the market, Taste of Nepal is a thorough and comprehensive guide to this cuisine, featuring more than 350 authentic recipes.”

I should write a fan letter to Jyoti Pathak, because I’m really happy to have found this book. It is pretty heavy duty, not only because it is hardcover, but it is about 470 pages long. Again, unfortunately there are no photographs of the individual dishes or the process of how to make things (some people, myself included, find that pretty helpful… although I just found a food photo gallery on the cookbook’s website), but she does have the Nepali name and the English equivalent for all the dishes, adds cultural notes where appropriate, and begins each chapter section with a nice introduction. She offers substitutes for Nepali spices that might not be readily available, as well as notes on how to mix your own masalas… not to mention there is an entire chapter dedicated to momos!

Since I’m still pretty set in the way I like to make Nepali food, I prefer to use her cookbook as a reference, blending a little of my style and a little of her style to make the flavor a little more complex and mature. Plus she has many recipes for dishes that my friends have not made before, so I can try a lot of new things if inspiration hits.

I was joking in the car on the way back from dinner that I should make this a new custom, if other Nepali friends get involved in intercultural relationships, I should make the cookbook my standard, “welcome to the community!” gift.

So for any Nepali food enthusiasts out there, or for anyone who wants to learn Nepali cooking styles, keep in mind the two references above, particularly Taste of Nepal—it has C’s “stamp of approval!”

“Eating Animals”- Children and Food

I started reading a book on Sunday night that I am pretty excited about: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I saw it recently in a bookstore and the title intrigued me enough to pick it up, but when I read the description on the inside cover, it really hooked me—

“Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood-facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf- his causal questioning took on an urgency…”

I’ve mentioned my vegetarianism before. I’m not a veggie proselytizer, I’m not out to recruit people, and you won’t see me chaining myself to a slaughterhouse door, but my own vegetarianism is important to me. The more I hear about the factory farming process in documentaries like Food, Inc, and when I read about potential health issues from some types of meat consumption, it makes me feel more confident in my dietary choices.

I’ve also mentioned before that P is an avowed chicken lover. Of course, I’d  be happy (and probably his veggie mother would too) to have him phase meat out of his diet, but I also don’t expect him to give up something he truly, honestly loves. P has toyed with the idea of making the switch, but I don’t think it will ever happen. I’ve been told on many occasions that my veg momos don’t hold a candle to the chicken or pork momos my other friends voraciously consume, and I can see the excited glint in P’s eye when there is a nice goat curry or a packet of deer jerky around.

So that brings us to the discussion of how to raise children when and if we have some one day. I’ve already made my feelings on the subject known. I’d very much prefer to raise vegetarian kids, and once they are older (middle school/high school aged) they can decide for themselves, and I’ll happily live with their decision. P, on the other hand, though less vocal, has stated that he would prefer to raise kids that enjoyed chicken momo, etc. There isn’t a whole lot that P and I don’t agree on, but this is one.

Other friends have weighed in on the argument—“If you raise them veg, then they will probably not like meat anyway… you’ll be influencing them from the start! That’s not fair to them!” but I kind of feel the same way, if you start them off eating meat, what if they never think about life without meat? Or what if they decide later in life to be veg and they are uncomfortable with having grown up eating meat and they question me as their parent for not sticking up for them? What if they are angry that I denied them the pleasure of meat as a child? Since my own vegetarianism is so important to me, how can I morally let them eat meat when they are too young to make the decision for themselves?

That is what intrigued me so much about Foer’s book. I’m very keen to see what conclusion he comes to. It’s been quite interesting thus far, even though I’ve only just started.

One issue he raised which I had never really thought about before is food as a storytelling device. In his introduction he talks about his grandmother who survived World War II as a Jewish girl evading the Nazis by keeping on the run and eating whatever scraps of food she could find along the way. This personal history greatly affected her relationship with food. Her signature dish was chicken with carrots, and she would serve Foer and his brother this dish while telling stories over the dinner table. He says,

“Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us—our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable…”

and later notes,

“We are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have changed.”

Wow, food for thought (no pun intended).

I’ll have to let you know what I think once I finish the book.

Spreading the American-Nepali Love with Christmas

I’ve mentioned this before… that P and I now have an annual Christmas party at our house right before the holidays. I love learning about Nepali culture and participating in Dashain and Tihar, and I feel that it is also important to celebrate and showcase my own culture, and so I get excited about organizing this yearly Christmas gathering.

It starts a day or two before the actual party. I like to invite people over to help make dozens of batches of cookies as the dessert centerpiece at the Christmas party (plus they are good to have around for gifts and to give visitors!) Over the past few years our upstairs Irish and Thai neighbors have helped, AS and N were over this year, KS and our Indian neighbor have also come before, as well as one of my two sisters, depending on who is around at the time.

This year we made 8 different types of cookies… my favorites are the Irish soda bread biscuits because they are kind of like soft biscotti and nice with a cup of tea for breakfast or dessert. We also made orange cranberry drop biscuits, oatmeal raisin/cranberry cookies, spiced sugar cookies, ginger cookies, Swedish jam cookies (with apricot or raspberry jam), peanut butter balls, and macaroons. The macaroons were a big hit, I’ll have to remember that for next year.

Many of our friends were traveling this year, so we didn’t have as many guests as usual at Saturday’s get-together, but we did have a new edition at the party I wanted to mention.

AS, C and N... donning Santa hats and enjoying the party...

I’ve talked about “couchsurfing” before… so a woman in New England recently found P on the couchsurfing website. She had spent several months living and traveling in India and Nepal and when she returned she wanted to keep in touch with people from the region. Since she didn’t know any Nepalis in her area she started looking for people online and stumbled upon us. She wanted to connect with a Nepali community to give her the opportunity to practice speaking the language, and to meet people with a shared interest. She definitely connected with the right couple! P mentioned the Christmas party on Saturday and said that she should come. Despite the snowy weather forecast she made it to our place.

The party was a lot of fun. Lots of food… many American appetizers and the cookies for dessert, and Nepali main courses—matter paneer, daal-bhat, channa masala, roasted spiced chicken, tomato achar. We played Yankee Swap (always a crowd pleaser), lots of conversation, Christmas music, and other games.

Now it is on to the family Christmas. P and I will be traveling back to central New York on Thursday morning. For any of those who celebrate… happy holidays and happy new year!

Musings on Food

I was sitting in my office during my lunch hour, munching on some leftovers, trying to think of something to write about, when I got an email from S. He and R live a few hours drive away from us, on a main route that P and I take all the time to visit relatives or other friends. They have become a major pit-stop on any road trip that we take, and now it is hard to drive that stretch of road and not stop, even if just for a cup of tea! Anyway, they know that we are staying at their place tonight so S said, “I figured we would make momo in honor of your blog” yesss!

Yet I have already written about momos, so I figured I would expand on the topic of food.

Green Dot- no worries for me!

Green Dot- no worries for me!

I feel really lucky. South Asian food, in general, is delicious, not to mention there are a lot of vegetarian dishes for me to choose from. When I studied in India it was incredibly liberating to walk into most restaurants in Delhi or Jaipur and see half a menu of vegetarian options, or entire restaurants where I could close my eyes and pick something at random off the menu and know with complete confidence that it was veg. I was a huge fan of Indian packaging with the “green dots” for veg food and “brown dots” for non-veg. I didn’t have to read labels or second guess. It was wonderful, and very depressing when I came home to the States and ate at a restaurant only to find I had two choices on the menu.

I sometimes joke with P that if I had fallen for a Korean, a Kenyan, or a Brazilian, I would have been in deep trouble since fish and meat are central to a lot of these communities’ favorite dishes. Yet South Asian food has a lot of variety, of both meat and vegetables, and it is easy for me to find something that I like. Don’t get me wrong, I think P might just die if he gave up chicken, but if we eat daal/bhat (lentils and rice) with saag (cooked spiced spinach), mushroom curry, or chana masala (chickpea curry), he is a pretty happy man.

Learning to cook Nepali food has actually opened up my own interest and experimentation with cooking in general. Now, if you come to our house for dinner (as many often do) it’s possible that you might have mushroom/spinach/gorgonzola pizza or that you might have daal, bhat and egg curry. I’ve come quite a long way from my culinary roots.

I gave up eating meat in stages in late middle/early high school. I was never a big fan of the taste. I had different philosophical, emotional, and personal reasons for not wanting to eat meat over the years, but now it boils down to time. It’s been a really long time since I’ve eaten meat—I’m in the double digits of years now—and I’ve lost an appetite for it, I just don’t find it appealing.

"Don't make me eat it! I'll just take the peas!"

"Don't make me eat it! I'll just take the peas!"

My family is at peace, for the most part, with my decision now (although I still get the “don’t forget to pass C the turkey!” jokes on Thanksgiving). Yet when I was a kid first exerting my interest in vegetarianism, it was a tough uphill battle. I spent many nights sitting alone as punishment at the dining room table long after everyone finished dinner because I refused to pick up my hotdog and eat it.

My parents, especially my meat loving dad, just didn’t get it. For him cooking meat was like a work of art—you grill it and spice it to perfection, you slow roast it to fill the house with its titillating aroma, you savor a good cut, and you don’t overcook it so that you can still taste the deep natural flavor of the meat. I think he enjoyed the process of meat eating as well. He loves to hunt and fish, and I think he felt a connection to the venison burgers he made, knowing that he had been an important part of the entire consumption process. As a kid I was appalled by this, but now I have a lot of respect for his way of thinking. I like that he is a sportsman who uses every part of the deer. He stocks his freezer with cuts of caribou and antelope, and slowly eats it throughout the year, gifting the meat to friends and family along the way. However when I was young this did not help me in diversifying my culinary choices.

Voila... dinner!

Voila... dinner!

We were a real “meat and potatoes” family, and every dinner consisted of a meat, a starch (mashed potato, baked potato, pasta, rice), and a boiled vegetable (corn, peas, carrots, broccoli, asparagus). Sometimes we had a salad as well. When I gave up meat I simply removed it from the equation. I’d have mashed potatoes and corn, or pasta alfredo with broccoli, or just a big salad. I wasn’t paying attention to proteins and I wasn’t really exploring other options, but at the time, especially after throwing veggie burgers into the mix, I was satisfied enough.

My repertoire of dishes might not have grown much beyond mixing pasta and lentils with “Italian seasoning” and olive oil had I not started hanging out with the Nepali gang. A whole new range of spices opened up to me- cumin (one of my favorites!), turmeric, garam masala, red chili and paprika, fenugreek, cilantro, different curry powders, even using garlic and onions like I never had before. Once I had a steady foundation of daals, and veg curries, I started getting creative with salads, soups and casseroles.

When we moved, some of the Nepali women I met asked me how to make American bake goods. My paternal grandmother had been famous for her pies, but other than Betty Crocker cake-in-a-box, I’d never really made my own homemade stuff before. Feeling like a cultural liaison (never wanting to miss an opportunity for east meets west) I asked my grandmother for some of her recipes, and started making cookies and pies so that I could show my new friends how to make these desserts. It was great. Nepali cooking gave me the confidence to cook South Asian, as well as American.

I don’t profess to be a great cook, and I don’t cook everyday (ask P, he will tell you!) but I enjoy the smorgasbord of food we now eat. We make a lot more from scratch (realizing that it’s cheaper and doesn’t take forever to make homemade pizza dough or waffle mix, and it tastes so much better!) and we can eat a greater variety of food.

Yum! I’m starting to get hungry for those momos!