Tag Archives: Food

The Pasta-Rice Wars

It’s the age-old debate in our house… what’s for dinner or as P so aptly puts it, “Ke khane?”

The two contenders on the field are generally daal-bhat or pasta and salad. With four Nepalis in our house these days, bhat is generally the winner.

Although last night AS tried a new recipe. She had been searching different cooking videos on youtube and found a chef making a salad out of pasta—but the pasta looked like rice! She had to try it! So she went to the grocery store and carefully searched the pasta aisle, scrutinizing each variety until she found it—orzo.

So last night we had soup and salad made from orzo pasta. P assumed it was a rice salad until AS announced to the table that the salad was, in fact, made with pasta.

“No…” P said, disbelieving, “It looks just like rice, just bigger and thicker!”

“Yes,” AS triumphantly smiled, “It looks like rice, but it’s pasta!”

P looked at me and said, “All these years you’ve been making pasta out of the wrong noodles! I’d eat this any day… do you think it would taste good with daal?”

“You could but the orzo pasta in a lentil soup” AS offered, “I’m sure that would taste good.”

So orzo pasta might be the armistice the Pasta-Rice Wars have been waiting for.

Musings on Peanut Butter

Over the long weekend P, myself, R and S went on one of our road trips—this time to northern Maine, the farthest you can go north on the Eastern coast before you hit Canada. It was in this tiny hamlet that P and S, fresh from a landlocked mountainous country, started their American life at a rural state school near the ocean.

We connected with a few friends from their days “down east”—a professor, a classmate or two, and some local townsfolk friends. During our conversations, one story kept popping up, and of all things, it was about peanut butter. Mental note—blog about that.

So here I am, my post on peanut butter.

The first conversation started when our hosts asked what I wanted to pack for lunch since we were going to the Salmon Festival, and being a vegetarian, I wasn’t so interested in eating the local attraction of salmon-on-a-stick.

“Just give her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” S said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “She loooooves peanut butter and jelly.”

This snarky comment comes from the cross-country road trip the four of us went on in 2008. I was trying to think of easy foods to pack in case we were out on the road and hunger struck. What would any true-blooded American think of in such situations? Why the classic PB&J, of course!

Perhaps my companions didn’t notice when I stuck the large jar of peanut butter in our shopping cart in California, but on day two, when I pulled it out of the trunk during a rest stop at the Grand Canyon and proposed a quick sandwich for lunch, I was met with three disappointed stares.

“Come on guys, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are quick, easy, and filling. What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Nepalese hate peanut butter!”

How can anyone hate peanut butter? I admit I’m not as crazy as some Americans, who could literally lick it off a spoon, but a peanut butter and jelly sandwich definitely hits the spot now and again.

“Give it a try, its good, and it will hold you over until dinner.”

Well—I was the only one eating PBJ’s the rest of the trip.

The next time over the weekend that I told the story we were having lunch with an older American couple. They were equally surprised (especially since they have a Thai daughter-in-law, who uses peanuts in all sorts of cooking).

“But you like peanuts?” asked the woman.

“Yeah” agreed R, S and P.

“So what is the difference? Peanut butter is basically crushed spreadable peanuts.”

Still no takers.

“But get this…” I added, “A few nights ago when it was too hot to cook in our apartment a group of us decided to make summer rolls including a Thai peanut sauce made from peanut butter, vinegar and sugar. P loved the sauce.”

“I didn’t know there was peanut butter in it at the time!” He defended himself.

“But you still liked it.” declared the friend.

“It was mixed with other things.” He said, and S concluded: “You’ll never get a Nepali to like peanut butter.”

Sigh. I know that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a pretty American thing. As a student living in the International  House, I proposed making PPJs for “American culture night” since they really resonate with me as a part of Americana childhood.

However, I don’t want to stereotype all Nepalis, because I hold out that there must be Nepali peanut butter lovers in the world, but I do offer a word of caution—don’t make PPJ’s for a road trip with Nepali friends and expect to be popular.

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).


“Don’t Trust Americans With Mangoes!”

This was declared at dinner last night. Needless to say, as the only American in the room, I gave my countrymen a bad name by cutting the two mangoes offered as dessert incorrectly. Sheesh!

Mangoes are a beloved fruit in Nepal. I have yet to meet a Nepali who does not like mangoes (if one is out there, please let me know!) There is even a “mango season,” where there seem to be so many mangoes they are practically falling from the trees like rain (okay hyperbole, but you get the point).

In the US, particularly as a native of the Northeast, it is quite possible for someone to grow up and never eat a mango. Apples– definitely, we have our own “apple season,” oranges, bananas and grapes are pretty ubiquitous also, but sometimes beyond that the average person might be getting into unchartered fruit territory (at least when I was growing up. Now exotic fruits are more accessible, particularly in juice form).

I remember reading about mangoes in a cookbook in middle school, and seeing a recipe for a mango smoothie. Never having tried one before, I tracked down a mango at the local store, and copied the cutting technique from the book. This is still the cutting technique that I use today– I mean, I don’t cut mangoes on a daily basis, mangoes are usually someone else’s territory, but I thought I had a handle on it.

So last night, after I got in from a long day at work, I was delegated to cut the mangoes for dessert. I took the mango and sliced around the pit, and then I scored the slices so the mango flesh would be easier to bite off the skin in square pieces.

I scored the flesh in a similar way...

P and D started eating and asked, “Where’s the rest?”

“There is no more,” I said “All that was left was the pit, so I threw it out…”

“You threw it out??” They pretty much yelled in unison, “Why would you throw it out?? There is so much more mango pulp we could get off of it!” P even melodramatically declared, “My dinner is ruined!”

Not only did they not like the way I cut it, but I didn’t get all the edible flesh sliced off, a cardinal sin of mango eating.

Last year D’s German girlfriend tried to slice a mango through the middle, not knowing there was a pit in the center. “How could you not know there was a pit?? Have you never eaten mango before??” he teased her (although I think he was serious about the question. It’s hard for P and D, mango lovers since childhood, to believe there are people out there who don’t know how to cut or eat one).

Thus, “Don’t trust Americans with mangoes!” If you are in the company of mango maniacs its best to let them have their way with the fruit.

I guess thats the last time I’m delegated to slice dessert.

Ode to Chili Peppers

Yes—I am a white girl, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like spicy food! I’m not kidding… really, I do. No, seriously. I can prove it… just hand me that little green chili. Crunch. See? Okay— yes, I know  my eyes are watering a bit, but I still like it… do I have to eat another to prove it?

I’ve had this conversation a lot. I get it—people who are used to eating spicy food don’t necessarily expect European-Americans to like it, because (in general) European inspired food is simply not hot. I mean the national spices of Ireland are pretty much salt, pepper and butter (much to P’s dismay when we eat Irish food on St. Patrick’s Day).

But some of us whities really do like spice (my mashed potato eating Irish ancestors must be rolling in their graves!), and it can be disappointing to be invited over for dinner only to find out that the South Asian host “lowered the spice level” of the food for everyone because they assumed I couldn’t handle it.

Fighting against this stereotype I’ve actually gotten myself into a few situations where I had to eat things that were borderline too hot. I specifically remember two clear occasions– one was at a Thai restaurant in Vermont and the other an Indian restaurant in Massachusetts with R and S. After asking for a higher level of spice the waiters eyed me suspicious and said, “Are you sure?” to which I replied, “Yes please” (and I probably added something snarky like, “I might not look like it, but I love spice”).  I imagine they went back to their respective kitchens and said, “Let’s teach this white girl a lesson” because both times my food was so spicy it pretty much glowed a psychedelic red color when it reached my table. And because I’m stubborn, I finished each dish down to their last fiery drop to keep up my street cred and prove a point. I can do it.

I can actually remember the first time I ate a chili. In the town I grew up in there was an orchard that sold fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods and plants, almost like a one-shop farmer’s market. Unlike the regular grocery store with plastic packaged products, this place had counters full of food that a little kid could sneakily taste test. My sisters and I would pinch off grapes and hastily pop them in our mouths, or inconspicuously munch on a raw green bean. One time I picked up a tiny thin red pepper, smaller than my pinky finger. I thought it was cute because it was so small. So I picked one up from the table and when no one was looking popped it into my mouth and chewed. I wasn’t expecting the red fueled explosion that followed. I nearly collapsed in tears. That day I learned  two lessons—don’t sneak food from the orchard, and tiny peppers can be painful, but also, kinda good.

So the moral of the story is—don’t judge a book by its cover. Someone might not look like a spice lover, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. And… if you dare me to eat a chili pepper, no surprises, I’ll do it.

Back Again

Hello all, sorry I’ve been absent. I did give a heads up.

It has been busy. The  American-Nepali household has been all over the place in the past two weeks. P is working at a research institute in Maryland for the summer and left New England on Memorial Day. I was at an International Educators conference in Kansas City (MO and KS), and had a chance to stay with another Nepali college friend that I haven’t seen in years and meet his lovely wife. As one of my colleagues at the conference said, “You have Nepali connections all over the place!”

I returned home over the weekend to a full house. Since P is gone for the summer and we have space (and I prefer the company), three friends are staying with me—people you have heard about before—AS, N and KS. It is kind of nice to have an apartment full of people. We take turns making dinner and doing the dishes, there is always someone around to take a walk, go to the gym, watch a movie, or chat with. In addition there have been a lot of people around in general, dropping in for dinner, congregating to watch the Celtics in the NBA finals (hey, I live in New England, I  have to support the home team! Plus basketball is my American sport of choice), and this weekend is the start of the World Cup. Needless to say the summer will be full.

P is coming back tonight for a brief visit on his way out to South Dakota. The research institute in Maryland set him up in a hotel for the summer, which would be nice if it had a kitchenette. I think P has to make sandwiches, microwave dinners, or eat out.  He’s not happy, and is looking forward to daal, bhat, tarkari and maasu for dinner tonight (lentils, rice, vegetable curry and meat). Luckily the best cook in the neighborhood (AS) is now in residence!

Yesterday he mentioned to me that he met another Nepali at the research institute and I was teasing him about using the “Nepali ho” connection to get himself invited over to dinner once a week for his daal/bhat fix. Poor guy. I’ll have to drive to Boston to pick him up after work, and at least tonight he will have a belly full of Nepali cuisine.

Also, last night I submitted my story to be critiqued by the local writer’s group (I mentioned this before). I’ve passed it around to various friends for suggestions and edits before submitting the draft. There certainly is more work that could be done, but I’m pretty happy at where it is right now. I am looking forward to see what the writer’s group has to say (next Tuesday night), and another round of editing. I’m both nervous and excited. Perhaps one of these days I will see a story of mine in print. You never know.

When it Comes to Food, Nepalis Know How to Throw a Party…

The title really says it all…

During the past two weeks about 50+ emails have been exchanged to plan a big dinner party for this evening. The occasion? Ten Nepali students are graduating from P’s university, and the non-graduating Nepali community is hosting a dinner in their honor and for the graduating students’ families. The party is projected to have about 50 people but one can never be certain what the final head count will be at a Nepali gathering until it happens.

Last night eight of us split into two marathon shopping trips to gather all the food, and we met at S-di and M-dai’s house to divide up the ingredients. Each non-graduating Nepali-community member was charged with bringing some dish or another to the party– P and I had to make a giant (giant!) vat of cauli aloo (cauliflower potato curry), a massive tossed salad, and of course, a giant bowl of rice (because how can you eat without rice??). Our cauli aloo used 5 large heads of cauliflower and 10 huge potatoes. We are used to cooking for big crowds, but that was quite a lot!

Cauli aloo mattar (foreground) and (pre)tossed salad (background)...

As we were dividing up the groceries last night S-di said, “I feel like we are at a wedding house” since during weddings usually there is a back and forth offering of gifts between the bride and groom’s family, and each family has to arrange trays of goodies (fruits, sweets, snacks, etc). The families spend long evenings arranging all the trays and prepping them for their unveiling.

The "wedding platter" goodies from R and S's wedding...

P and AS chopped up eight whole chickens and spiced the meat. I helped to peel about 6 bulbs of garlic while others peeled ginger and counted out onions, tomatoes, and lemons. This morning P and I were charged with running to the grocery store to pick up last minute items and deliver them to various people’s houses. It has been quite the undertaking…

It is a beautiful day in our little section of  New England, so I am happy to emerge from the kitchen, eat rice, curries, achars, and salads until I can’t move, then dance the rest of the night away.

But it certainly wouldn’t be a Nepali party without lots and lots of food…

Fiddleheads- My Own “Bizarre Food”

While on the subject of “bizarre food” it wouldn’t be fair to highlight only the Nepali side. Springtime in New England means that it is fiddlehead season. I had never heard of a fiddlehead until I visited a friend in Portland Maine where fiddleheads are serious business, and now that I live in New England I can occasionally find fiddleheads in the grocery store when the time is right.

Fiddleheads are the young shoots of ferns that peek out of the ground once the weather starts to warm and are supposedly the first “green vegetable” of the year. The fern heads are tightly coiled and get their name because they look a bit like the coiled head piece of a fiddle. Once the fiddleheads uncoil then they are no longer edible (actually… toxic!), thus the season is very short.

In an age where one can find any vegetable at any time of the year—Mexican tomatoes in January, Chilean peaches in March—the fact that fiddleheads are only around for a few weeks at a specific time in a specific region and are gathered by foragers in the forest makes them sound very mystical and unique.

I loved this description from a website:

When we had our cottage at Sebago Lake, [the fiddleheads] would arrive at local stores in burlap bags carried by some memorable local characters. If someone, always “from away”, were to ask where he found them, the usual response was a silent stare. If the forager responded at all, it would usually be: “in the woods”. Natives know these locations are carefully guarded secrets and never bother to ask the question.

In fact the first fiddleheads I had ever eaten were gathered by my friend’s significant other while he was out in the forest at a secret fiddlehead cache, and he indeed had a burlap bag full of them. We had taken P’s parents to Maine for the weekend, and the whole family sat on the porch outside rubbing the brown papery chaff off the outer layer of the fiddlehead coil.  My friend was very eager to share this very “New England” specialty with P’s foreign parents, but little did she know that the coiled worm looking baby ferns which are proudly New England regional cuisine… was also a Nepali food!

I didn’t realize this coincidence until I bought my now favorite Nepali cookbook and found two recipe entries in the index for fiddleheads. Nepalis call them neuro and make a curry (neuro ko tarkari) and use them in a type of salad (saandheko neuro). By the time I made this discovery last year fiddlehead season had passed, so I was anxious for it to come this year.

I found them two weeks ago and bought a bagful. P wasn’t as excited, but hey, remember, I wanted to be more adventurous with veg food and here was my opprotunity. I offered to try the curry recipe, but he said that curry would probably overpower their original flavor, so I decided to make them “New England” style…

Fiddleheads fresh from the market still with little bits of brown chaff stuck to them. Rinse them well under high pressured water.

Soak well in water to get rid of any soil or anything else from its native forest environment. Make sure to remove the dark bottom edge of the uncoiled fern stem.

They look like little bugs or worms, don't they? Especially that one in the lower left hand corner...

After soaking, dry the ferns. Sauté with 2 tsp butter and 2 cloves minced garlic for 4 mins, stirring occasionally, then simmer for 4 mins covered. Feel free to add a little more butter if necessary.

Finished product!

They taste a little earthy, and a little like asparagus, but I enjoy them. A tasty different seasonal treat that both ties me to my new home (a traditional “New England” dish) and P’s home (a surprise Nepali food).

On a side note– When Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods made a show in Maine, fiddleheads were on the menu!

The Yak Cheese That Keeps on Giving

This past week P and I have been watching a few episodes of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern through Netflix before going to bed. The show kind of sucks you in because once you start watching you want to know what other crazy things this guy is going to put in his mouth.

Last night we watched episodes on Japan and Ethiopia. In Japan the host eats a lot of unusual and raw seafood, and while in Ethiopia he ate a lot of meats—raw camel liver, goat organs stuffed in ox intestines, stuff like that. While half the time I was thinking, “Man, how can he eat this stuff?” P was saying, “Hmm, that ox intestines looks pretty good… remember that time I ate camel in Kenya? It was so tasty! We need to go to Okinawa some time, I’d love to try that fish dish he just ate.”

When we finished the Ethiopia episode last night P said, “I should write to this guy and see if he would go with me to Nepal. I’d be happy to take him on a culinary adventure!” and he started brainstorming different Nepali foods he could feed Andrew. I added “churpi” to the list. P said, “That’s not a bizarre food” but yes, yes it is.

I added churpi to my mental list of blog posting topics last weekend when I saw a packet of churpi at AS and N’s house. It is one of those special Himalayan foods (found in Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan) that you don’t find at regular Indian grocery stores, so it usually finds its way to our house in little plastic packages stuffed in the luggage of people traveling back and forth to visit family in Nepal.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, all this build up, but what the heck is “churpi”? According to Wikipedia, churpi is: “a dried smoked cheese… made from the milk of yak… It is prepared in a local dairy or at home from a material extracted out of buttermilk called sergem. The sergem is wrapped in cloth, usually jute bags, and pressed hard to get rid of water. Then, it dries out and becomes similar to cheese. Finally, in this cheese-like stage it is cut into pieces, and hung over the smoke to make it stone hard.”

Label from AS and N's bag of churpi. I like that it is described in English as "cheese candy." Rock hard cheese candy sounds so appetizing.

The emphasis is on the final part… “stone hard.” That is the special characteristic of churpi. It’s cheese that is so dried and smoked it doesn’t have to be refrigerated and could probably last 100 years because it is as hard as rock. The little inch long cube of yak cheese can take hours to chew. You bite it and suck on it and gnaw it for ages, actually I still have trouble believing you can actually ingest it. Of course, P loves it.

Being vegetarian I’ve tried to be more adventurous with non-meat foods because I’ve already limited my culinary choices by so much, so the first time I encountered churpi I was ready to give it a go. I love all kinds of cheese—going to cheese markets in Europe was a heavenly experience—and I eat fresh yak cheese in Nepal, so how different can dried yak cheese be? Well, imagine chewing on a lightly cheesy flavored chunk of hard resin for three hours. That’s kind of what eating churpi is like for me. You chew it, chew it, chew it, chew it, chew it, and then… eventually give up.

Chunks of churpi...

But it is one of those foods that is really different, and thus fun to give to unsuspecting victims. I’ve given chunks of churpi to co-workers and American friends to see what their reaction would be. It’s usually the same, “How is this cheese? It’s hard as rock!” One co-worker kept it in his desk for a year, never quite working up the nerve to try it.

It’s not bad, it’s just different. So that is my Nepali recommendation for Mr. Zimmern. If you go to Kathmandu, bring back a packet of churpi. It’s the yak cheese that keeps on giving.

Beef… It’s What’s For Dinner…

Beef was a big part of my childhood. As I’ve mentioned before, we were a real “meat and potatoes” kind of family. Both of my parents worked, cooking in general wasn’t a big thing in our house (aside from my dad’s meat dishes, especially summer barbeques), and we ate stuff that was quick and easy. That included lots of beef dishes—meatloaf, hamburger (and Hamburger Helper), steak, roasts, tacos, meatballs, crockpot stew, and of course, corned beef. Hamburgers in particular were very common.

“Beef—It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement from 1992.

I was never a big fan (aside from corn beef. That was the one meat I did really like, I guess it was the inner Irish calling out), and I used to argue relentlessly about eating meat every night (or silently feed chunks to the dog under the table).

Life is really different now, and although I’m happily meat-free, our freezer is occasionally stocked with P’s meaty pleasures—chicken, pork, goat, fish, unusual game meat from my dad–but no beef. His mother is very religious (a combo of Buddhist and Hindu), and would never dream of bringing beef into her house. I’m sure she had nightmares that an American daughter-in-law would not only eat beef herself, but also corrupt her son and grandchildren into eating it. My veggie-ness helped win over her heart. She sees me as an ally in keeping P’s meat consumption down, and can rest assured there will be no unholy beef eating in her son’s home.

That doesn’t mean that every friend of ours who grew up in a Nepali Hindu household has a strict “no beef” philosophy. Our friend AD jokes, “Only Nepali cows are sacred, so an American cow is fine. I have no problems eating burgers in the US” while others seem less worried about breaking taboos and eating beef in general (if you aren’t particularly religious, then the taboo probably doesn’t mean that much anyway).

But sometimes you eat things you don’t intend to, without even realizing it, which reminds me of a funny story from last Thursday. I was driving south (to the Gori meetup) and of course dropped in for dinner at R and S’s house (plus they were babysitting my dog, who wasn’t feeling great. Thanks guys, you’re the best!). They made homemade pizza for a quick dinner so I could get back on the road, one veggie and one meat with pepperoni. There was a debate over whether pepperoni was beef or pork, and whether pepperonis in general are made from beef, pork or some combination of both.

During the discussion R stated, “I prefer not to eat beef, I really try not to…but sometimes it happens… For instance, I knew that cheeseburgers were beef… but I always thought that hamburgers were made from pork.”

“Why would you think that? The only difference is a piece of cheese.” I said.

“No… don’t you see… cheeseburger meant beef, but hamburger meant pork.”

“I still don’t get it, it’s just a  slice of cheese.”

“Cheeseburger and hamburger” she said, adding an extra emphasizes to the ham part, “People know that ‘burger’ means beef, so cheeseburger means made with beef, but why would you call a plain beef burger hamburger unless it was made with pork? Don’t they have chicken burgers made of chicken?” She rationalized.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I reflected.

“So I always assumed hamburger was pork, and one day I was sitting with my cousins talking about how I don’t eat beef, while eating a hamburger. They said, ‘R—you are eating beef right now!’ and I said, ‘But it isn’t a cheeseburger!’ and they had to explain! It took a while for me to believe them!”

Isn’t English fickle?

Oh… I had to add this… From a British comedy sketch on “what it means to be Hindu”–

“My son… you are indeed right… [Hinduism] is a very complex and intricate religion. There are many gods, there are many texts, but they all point to one universal principle… no beef” (ha ha ha).