Friday, December 6, 2013

India: Part II - Bukhara Daal

We dedicated the first few days of our trip to New Delhi to visiting historic sites and eating. We ooed and awed at miniature paintings of Hindu mythology, ancient sculptures of gods and goddesses at the National Museum, and tombs and monuments that spring up in the middle of the urban hustle and bustle. We were humbled by these pieces of Indian history.
We joined friends at Bukhara, a famous restaurant where customers are given bibs and a meal of a lifetime that includes daal (stewed lentils) that is quite simply the best in the world. Once I tasted the smoky deliciousness I knew there had to be something special about how they make these little grains. I was right. I heard rumors that they use the same pot to make the daal, and never wash it out, so the flavors remain infused in each new batch of daal and spices...and BUTTER! Yum. Word has it that they place a few lentils on a small piece of charcoal under the pot in order to give the whole mise en place a hint of smoked daal. 

Our Bukhara feast. The lamb melted off the bone like butter.
The world's best daal (see what I mean about the butter)? Yum.
Finger lickin' good. KFC, eat your heart out.
It is hard for me to comprehend the magnitude of Indian history. So complex and....old! As I savored the mouth-watering meal at Bukhara I thought about how centuries of culinary traditions have come together to create a marriage of spices that bring intense happiness to my heart. It was an experience similar to standing in front of a statue of Buddha that dates back to the second century and feeling utterly happy and spiritually overwhelmed about what I was seeing. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

India: Part 1

I dedicate the following India entries to celebrating 20,000+ hits to my blog. Thank you for reading what I love to write.

Tara, architect, designer, art historian, chef, world traveler, and dear friend invited us to visit her in India. She and I met at culinary school in Paris and instantly became kindred spirits. Neither of us consider ourselves religious, but we find our spirituality in the passion and appreciation we have for travel, food, tigers (more on tigers later), and all things beautiful. 

My husband and I decided India would be the perfect destination to celebrate his 40th birthday. It's an important moment to remember in someone's life, and India's history, food, colors, adventures, and magic seemed to offer the memorable experience we were looking for. We were right.
Ranthambore women
We arrived in Delhi after a 30+-hour trip from Panama City, and were instantly treated like a king and queen even though we looked like creepy zombies with bloodshot eyes from the 15-hour plane ride we'd just taken. A chofer took us to Tara's home, which is where good taste, globe-trotter design, and comfort come together. 
Living room

Delhi beyond the balcony
Before I tell you about our trip, however, I'd like to talk about what happened before we left Panama. I thought long and hard about how I would prepare for a trip to India. As a student of anthropology at the London School of Economics I studied under many professors who were experts on India. In fact, social anthropology has its roots in London, where the British sent ethnographers to India way back when in order to study Indian society *and therefore be able to take better control of it. Because I've read many ethnographies about the caste system and religions of India, I had an image in my mind about what the country was all about. I envisioned utter luxury as well as dire misery. I prepared myself psychologically for these extremes, and for sensory overload. Even though I knew I'd see tough things, I was convinced that I would also see wonderful things. 
Weaver at Ramthambore women's cooperative
Others didn't share that view. In fact, plenty of Panamanians, and people from other Latin American countries, looked at me like I was insane for wanting to go to India. Many were confused, or perhaps simply ignorant about where and what India was, and told me to be careful, as if I were about to enter a war zone. You'd be surprised by how many people in the Americas lump all of the Middle East, South Asia, and a lot of Asia, into one and the same. All of it dark and dangerous. That's what they think.

A few days before leaving, my husband was having a conversation with two women about our upcoming trip. One of them said, "have a great time and bring me something nice!" and the other responded, "what would he bring back? There's nothing there to bring."

Instead of allowing this point of view to pollute my dreams of India, I felt sorry for this woman and instead envisioned myself in textile markets buying block print and cut-work treasures to bring back to Panama. 

The entries to come will tell you about the trip. I'll finish this first entry by explaining that our experience was magical. Mostly because India's colorful chaos is intoxicating in positive and negative ways, but our trip was particularly special because of our hostess. A lovely, strong, and brilliant Indian woman who has the sophistication that comes with seeing the magic that the world has to offer.

Mark Twain once said that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

I am thankful that I do not suffer from vegetating in my corner of the earth, and I know when I need my travel fix. I needed an escape from Panama's concrete jungle, our routine, and prejudice (mine and everyone else's). This adventure confirmed my belief that escape is what feeds my intellect and my spirituality.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Anticipating India

My name.
Pretty soon, this blog will have photos and recipes of succulent lamb curries, burnt red raw silk saris, intricate marble etchings on the walls of ancient palaces, yellow ochre spices, inquisitive eyes the color of which I have yet to discover, Himalayan sunsets and sunrises I have yet to imagine, tiger homes, people homes, homeless people, people watchers, people I have yet to India. Stay tuned for my next foodie anthropologist adventure.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When cooks can't cook

My husband and I met in Honolulu at an international education development conference. The day we met, I was certain he was the man I wanted to marry and live a global nomad's life with. We got married exactly one year after the day we met. Very romantic, I know. The not so romantic aspect of our life in international development, is that we sometimes have to brave the not so romantic aspects of living in developing countries. I've had to rough it in Equatorial Guinea, Africa, where I was hospitalized in a "clinic" in the middle of nowhere from food poisoning caused by eating bush rat. I've also been known to be looking maniacally for a restroom in Mexico, Colombia, China, and Washington DC (damn that hot dog from a stand in the National Mall)!

I wouldn't exactly say we're roughing it in Panama, since we live in a beautiful high rise in an impressive new concrete jungle of shiny, tall, modern, futuristic-looking buildings. When you're about to land at the Panama City airport, the view of the skyline resembles Miami or even Dubai instead of what you would imagine a Central American skyline to look like. 

Despite the marble, views of the Pacific, pools, saunas, and all the luxury, however, construction is not of the highest quality. It's common for floors to rise all of a sudden, creating giant pyramids of marble tiles in the middle of your living room. Water pipes are known to burst constantly, causing entire buildings to lose water for days at a time. Lack of maintenance is the norm, despite high administration and rental fees.

Three weeks ago, they shut off the gas in our building. No hot water. No stove. No oven. No dryer. The reason = multiple gas leaks in almost every floor of our 40-story building. The gas guy told me there was a gas pipe on the 40th floor that was in such bad shape, it "would have been a bomb." 

We've had to be resourceful. I'm using wedding gifts that usually remain untouched in the back of my cabinets. Cuisinart griddlers and toaster ovens have baked, broiled, panninied, and toasted like they've never done before. I heat water with an electric kettle for my young sons to shower (under a watering can we hold above their heads), but my husband and I bathe in freezing H2O. Yes, it's hot here in Panama, but damn, that water is still cold. 

I'm using this opportunity to teach my four-year-old the concept of luxuries like running water, hot water, and electricity. I'm also using this opportunity to think of recipes I can cook without the use of a stove or a normal oven. Here is the recipe for a roasted vegetable lasagna I made in my toaster oven. 

When cooks can't cook....they still find a way. 

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna (*Adapted from Rombauer's Joy of Cooking)

zucchini (3 lbs)
eggplants (3 lbs)
tomatoes (3 lbs)
coarse Kosher salt (I like Mortons)
fresh ground pepper
olive oil (1 tsp)
Ricotta cheese (1 lb)
Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup)
Eggs (2)
nutmeg (1/2 tsp)
breadcrumbs (1/4 cup)

In roasting pans, roast three pounds each of sliced zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes in plenty of coarse Kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, and olive oil. Roast at 350 degrees until nice and caramelized. 

Cook dried lasagna (1 lb) in salted boiling water and a splash of vegetable oil for a couple of minutes less than normal cooking time because pasta will continue cooking in the oven.

In a bowl, mix ricotta cheese (1 lb), parmesan cheese (1/2 cup), two eggs, salt, nutmeg, and pepper and set in fridge until ready to use.

To assemble lasagna, place one layer of pasta on a glass pyrex lined with olive oil, then add a layer of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with crushed pepper and roasted vegetables, and repeat for as many layers as you can. Finish off with a layer of lasagna topped with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.

Cover lasagna with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees (ideally  in a normal oven, but when you have to, a toaster oven works as well) for half an hour. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dream divas

My good friend and founder of Panama Kontacts, a facebook group in which Latin American expatriate women share information about life in Panama, invited me to speak at this month's "tertulia", or "discussion/chat". She told me my story inspired her. Wow. That was my first reaction. My next reaction was to get very excited about what I was going to say to a group of women who wanted to know how I fulfilled my dream of going to culinary school in Paris...and to facilitate a discussion about how to open your mind to the possibility of realizing your dreams.

What to say, what to a group of women who live in a country different from their own. Why are they in Panama? Housewives? Business executives transferred by their companies? Did they come seeking political asylum? Seeking a better life? Are they mothers? Are they wives? Are they single? What to say to them...what to say.

They turned out to be strong, interesting women with a lot to share. The setting was DGAG, a rockin' contemporary art gallery whose owner is a dynamic Venezuelan woman filled with creative energy. I decided to ask my audience of dream divas about their own dreams, and to keep those visions in their minds while I gave my presentation. I told them my story and talked about being positive, having a happy life, about building your life instead of just living it (see Ashton Kutcher's speech in reference to Steve Jobs' concepts of building your life). I said that fun marriages and relationships are all about adventures, and that if you support your significant other's dreams and they support yours, you will have many adventures. I told them that by realizing your dreams you would most likely enrich the lives of the people around you and some dreams would result in better communities, cities, countries, and a better world. 

I reminded them that if their children had visions of them as strong, determined women, they would inculcate the idea that you should never settle for mediocrity and that once you experience the feeling of achieving one extraordinary thing, you'll become addicted to being that way, and that you'll forever be motivated to do bigger and better things. We agreed, however, to always be thankful and feel humility by the thought that what you achieved, you did so with the help of others.

I gave them three tips: 1. every morning, when you wake up, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and envision your dream, and do it again before you go to sleep; 2. say "yes" more; and 3. once you achieve one dream, think of the next.

We identified the following characteristics of happy people (inspired by a Huffington Post article): they dream, visualize, and succeed, they tell their stories in order to share tools that are necessary to build, evolve, and persevere, and they turn gratitude into energy that helps them face challenges.

I received positive feedback from the audience about the conversation. But the most satisfying part of this experience was being in a female powerhouse, a room filled with women who created a new life for themselves in a new country, some for professional reasons, some for personal, some who had to leave their country of origin because the political situation became so bad that their dreams were being stifled. 

The human right to envision hopes and aspirations is a powerful and beautiful force to be reckoned with.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I never want to buy tomatoes again...

...instead, I want to grow them myself.

We're all aware of the importance of eating our greens, but I want to talk about how good it is to grow your own greens, and reds, and purples...and how great it feels to feed them to your kids!
My son holding a tomato plant he grew from a seed
We live on the 22nd floor of a high rise in Panama City. Our apartment has a balcony with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal in the distance. Every day thousands of pounds of produce come in ships and containers through the canal. It is then delivered to Panamanian supermarkets. Chinese markets in Panama carry high-quality imported produce, and only a lucky few can purchase it. These grocery stores charge about $8.95 for a basket of 1/2 lb of strawberries, $4.95 for a tiny pack of blueberries, and up to $9 for a 5-oz bag of baby spinach.
Our spinach
What about local production? According to Debora Rivera, a Panamanian Environmental Engineer, Panama has one of the lowest restrictions of the use of pesticides in the world. In an informal conversation with the Country Representative of the Inter-American Development Bank in Panama, he explained that in Panama, the incidence of cancer most likely caused by the use of pesticides (for both farmers who handle the chemicals and those who consume the produce), is rampant. Some residents of Panama are taking matters into their own hands, reacting to disturbing legislature that approves the use of very unhealthy pesticides, and created organic farms in Panama. Some sell their organic produce in the city, at high prices.

It does not surprise me that Panamanian farmers have to use a lot of chemicals in order to grow broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes, for example, because these plants are not native to Panama's hot and humid climate. Panama's average temperature is 82 degrees and its average humidity is 81.5%. In addition, there are tons of tropical bugs around. This is a rainforest, after all. Needless to say, many plants don't do well in that environment and the most effective way to grow luscious green lettuce is to spray on nasty chemicals.

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to try to grow my own tomatoes, spinach, carrots, zucchini, and herbs, among others, while avoiding the use of pesticides. The result is that after two months of planting, watering, and nurturing seeds and seedlings, I harvested my first spinach leaves yesterday.
Our first spinach harvest
We live in a world where food is manipulated, genetically engineered, and tainted with chemicals in order to survive a long voyage from farm to table. I personally don't like the idea that the produce I'm feeding my children travels from a farm in California, through the Panama Canal, and onto my table. I wish the trip was shorter, so I started my own garden...22 stories up.
Our veggie garden high up in the sky
I close my eyes and imagine a spinach leaf that I nourished from infancy, and love the feeling of envisioning that it's doing good things to my body. I made baby food for my son with that spinach (chicken stock, black quinoa, potato, spinach and kale), and loved knowing exactly what was on those leafy greens.

As an anthropologist, I like to think about what we decide to feed ourselves as humans. We are, after all, what we eat.

I couldn't resist including the Candide reference...sow your own garden. Don't mind if I do!

From seeds...

Friday, April 26, 2013

White Teeth*

I recently visited Embera Drua, an indigenous community located in the Darien region of Panama. When I first arrived, these are the things that entered my mind: paradise, happy, Tahiti, Gaugin, staged?, white teeth(!)

When I thought about the angle of this blog entry, I considered three options. The first is to write like a romantic anthropologist and celebrate how wonderful it is that this girl is dressed like this:
Panama or Tahiti?
The second option for a blog entry angle is to tell a far less romantic side of the story.

The third, and final, option for this food blog entry is, of course, to talk about the food. After much consideration, and because I find all three angles equally interesting, I'll incorporate them all.

Our guide, a prominent member of the community and the person in charge of public relations for the indigenous group cooperative, explained that back in the day, the Embera Drua used to wear clothing made of tree bark decorated with natural dyes. He explained that they stopped using this clothing in order to preserve trees. He said that only two of the seven indigenous communities of Panama, the Embera being one of them, dress in "traditional" clothing. So, what is "traditional"?

As an anthropologist, "traditional" and "custom" are my least favorite words. This is because I believe people are constantly changing, especially at this point in time, when the world is a peanut and it is easy to blend traditions and customs, such as, say, the Embera Drua of Panama with Tahiti. Therefore, I think tradition and custom are evolving concepts and if I lifted the skirt of an Embera lady, I would probably see the following text printed on the fabric: "Made in Tahiti". Actually, I don't know whether or not Tahitians still wear the skirts that Gauguin made so famous. I doubt that Tahiti exports anything other than gorgeous vacation memories, so it would probably say "Made in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or India" but you get the idea. 
Embera house and hanging kilts, which are purchased in Panama city but my guess is that they're probably imported from Asia.
Ia Orana Maria Aka Hail Mary, Paul Gaugin, 1891
This doesn't mean that an Embera woman's current "tradition" or "customs" are less valid. In fact, the Embera are (very wisely) adapting their traditions and customs in order to participate in Panama's tourist market. The tourist industry is one of their most significant sources of revenue, so they are re-inventing themselves in order to preserve their existence as an indigenous community. So what if they add a few "non-traditional" beads and textiles along the way in order to look pretty and make for better photo ops when the tourists come by. 
Necklace made of US quarters (which are used as currency in Panama).
Now let's talk about the Embera community's white teeth. Well, they have them, and the reason I find this interesting is that I doubt they see dentists every six months. I think it's because they eat real food. Not processed food, mega sugary drinks and snacks, but rather fruits, fish, plantains, and vegetables. 

Here's another popping of the romantic bubble, however. To my heartbreak, I saw a pile of Coca Cola crates, a young girl drinking a florescent pink fizzy drink, and a mother feeding a fuscia-colored creamy sugary wafer to a seven-month-old baby. I wanted to shout "NO! DON'T DO IT! Keep your white teeth!" But I guess it's inevitable that now that they can afford to go to town and purchase beef, cooking oil, and rice, they can also buy junk food along the way. Oh well, there go the white teeth.
Embera Drua woman preparing the fire for our lunch.
Delicious fried fish and plantain for lunch.
*By the way, I'm reading Zadie Smith's White Teeth and it's fantastic. You can tell a lot about a person by the color of their teeth.

**Check out my photographer friend Alejandra's gorgeous photos of the community.

***I highly recommend visiting the Embera Drua. They have a community cooperative that organizes day trips that includes a canoe ride along the river Chagres, a dip in a beautiful waterfall, and a chance to meet the lovely people of the community, have lunch, and shop for stunning Embera crafts.
My son with an Embera Drua tucan mask.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cue Pride Tears

I'm back after a hiatus from blog writing. Instead of baking a bun in the oven in the literal sense,  I've been nursing and taking care of the bun in my oven in the figurative sense.

My second baby boy was born in September, and even though there hasn't been much action in my kitchen lately, I managed to invite friends and family over for a few memorable meals.
Jumbo deep fried shrimp with tartare sauce
Combine the emotional extravaganza of maternity hormones with successful taste pairing, and the result are tears at the dinner table. 

These are photos of a meal I made for my parents and a family friend. The menu included a to-die-for tartare sauce* (see recipe below), lamb with a bechamel truffle topping, and a chocolate orange souffle that made my parents cry.
Lamb with bechamel truffle topping, green beans wrapped in bacon and mashed purple potatoes
Even though the food was tasty and sophisticated, my parents' tears probably had more to do with how proud they were that I achieved my dream of completing culinary school in Paris, toddler in tow.

As lovers of good food, they were beaming with gluttonous pride. As a mother of two, I understand what motivates parents to cry with pride. My three-year old recently started swimming free-style beautifully, and my five-month old turned over on his own yesterday. Cue pride tears. 

I can't wait to see what my sons come up with that will make me react the way my parents did. I'm guessing it was more than just the chocolate.
Chocolate mousse with orange segment and juice reduction and pomegranate-stained candied orange zest
Tartare sauce recipe:
- mayonnaise (I prefer to make my own - by hand - I swear it tastes differently). Whisk two egg yolks until creamy consistency and slowly pour 1 1/4 cups of vegetable oil while whisking very quickly.
add these ingredients to taste:
- lemon juice
- mustard
- finely chopped capers
- finely chopped shallots
- fresh tarragon
- fresh parsley
- salt
- pepper
- cayenne pepper
- 1 boiled egg (pressed through a fine sieve/chinois)