Tag Archives: South Asian Cooking

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).


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!