Thursday, September 29, 2005

Interview with John McPhee

The New Yorker on-line site has an interview with John McPhee, one of America's most versatile writers. He has written books about oranges, the merchant marines, the geology of the North America, physics, 'controlling' the Mississippi River, young Bill Bradley, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and countless other subjects. An upcoming New Yorker has another installment of his series on transportation. This time, he rides on a coal train.

If you haven't read any McPhee, be sure to put him on your "to read list."

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wine from a Manhattan Vineyard

In the September 26 New Yorker magazine's Talk of the Town Ben McGrath wrote about what might be the only vineyard in Manhattan, the Chateau Latif:

One day in 1977, while his wife, Vera, was out doing errands, Latif Jiji, a professor of mechanical engineering at City College, stuck a small grapevine in the ground in the back yard of his town house, on East Ninety-second Street, between Park and Lex.

[snip]

The grapevine is now a hundred feet long, stretching from the yard to the back of the house, up four stories, and across the roof; another few years and it should begin its descent toward the front stoop. It yields an average of more than four hundred pounds of Niagara grapes—that is, common green grapes—each year, enough for the Jijis to make about a hundred bottles of their own white wine. They call it Ch√Ęteau Latif, and believe it to be the only Manhattan vintage in existence.

[snip]

“It’s got a hint of carbon monoxide, No. 6 train, and hot-dog water,” Jeff Ourvan, Latif’s son-in-law, said, as he popped a ripe grape in his mouth.

[snip]


Manhattan terroir is probably not such a good influence on the grapes, but perhaps the refinement of the Upper East Side balances the rough air and soil.

Read the whole thing here.


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Monday, September 26, 2005

An Enchanted Slipper - Home-Made Ciabatta

I tried the ciabatta recipe printed in the LA Times---the one that used 1/384 teaspoon of yeast in the biga---and was blown away by how the combination of water, flour, salt and yeast can turn into a complex living thing. Step 1 was to mix a biga (flour, water and a tiny bit of yeast) and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The recipe said it would double or triple in size, but mine appeared to have not changed at all. Nonetheless, I pressed on and mixed the biga with flour, water, salt and more yeast. The dough was very wet, almost like cake batter, and as I mixed it (using the paddle attachment, not the dough hook) a web of gluten strands started to form, some seeming to stretch across the width of the mixing bowl. As I poured the dough into a container after mixing, some of it stuck to the sides of the bowl to make a strands of gluten thread almost 12 inches long. The process of the dough coming together was so amazing that just getting to this point made the effort worthwhile (beauty appears in unusual places).

The dough was the wettest and softest that I have ever handled, but with enough flour (and the handy-dandy flour wand and bench knife) the manipulations were relatively easy. Baking it was simple: just slide the loaves onto the preheated baking stone, with no need to throw a cup of water into the oven or spray water on the oven walls.

The picture above shows my result: a beautiful deeply colored crust, uneven hole formation, but a little too puffy (I should have been more aggressive with the dimpling just before baking). What can't be seen is the complex flavor of the inner crumb and the satisfying stretch of the crumb. I'll definitely make this bread again.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Durian - polarizing, aromatic, tasty

The durian is a popular subject in the blog-o-sphere: a Google blog search for "durian" resulted in over 7600 hits. This most polarizing of fruits (love it!!! hate it!!!) even has its own subject heading in the Google Recreation > Food Directory with 12 entries, and is the only fruit or vegetable with a heading. For an audio introduction, visit the Good Food July 16, 2005 page (segment starts at 15:00).

According to the Wikipedia Durian entry, the fruit's name derives from the Malay word "duri", which means "spike" or "thorn", and because of the spikes, the 1-5 kg (2-10 lb.) weight, and the fact that it grows in tall trees, the fruit is quite dangerous to harvest (hardhats are required!).

On the last day of a trip to Bangkok I bought a few small pieces of durian from a street vendor. Since the durian is a large, spikey and complicated fruit, many vendors cut open the fruit to extract the inner goodness, then wrap it in plastic for sale. After I removed the plastic barrier, a strange aroma hit me: onions, garlic, mixed fruity sweetness, and a subtle "rotting" aroma. But when I put it into my mouth---and got past the strange aroma---I was rewarded with a complex and volatile flavor that seemed to include the essence of many fruits. The fruit was soft, like a non-sticky taffy, but with fibers near the pit. All in all, it was an exciting experience, and something that hard candy or ice cream cannot successfully replicate. Those forms tend to overemphasize the less attractive flavors and aroma. If given the opportunity, I shall certainly try fresh ripe durian again, ideally with the recommended mangosteen companion (durian is "hot", while mangosteen is "cool").



Preparing durian for sale in Kuala Lumpur














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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Add 1/384 teaspoon yeast to the bowl

You don't often see a recipe with an instruction like that. Now where did I put my 1/384 teaspoon sized measuring spoon? Or should I just throw in a few grains of yeasts? The method is quite a bit simpler, thanks to the recipe writer, as I'll reveal below.

But where would you use 1/384 teaspoon? In a homeopathic bread recipe? In this case, it appears in the biga, or leavener, for a ciabatta recipe that appeared in Rolling in serious dough in the September 21 LA Times Food Section. Writer David Colker describes "Camp Bread":

Camp Bread was actually less like a camp and more like an extremely lively academic conference, with labs, except that you could eat the results.

It was serious bread. Artisan bread-making processes are based on those used in Europe for centuries to make hearth breads. They often begin with a starter (sourdough or one made with commercial yeast) that's allowed to develop for at least 12 hours.

The main dough is mixed for a relatively short time, just four or five minutes in some cases. Then the risings of the main dough — professionals call the first rising the fermentation stage, and the second the proofing — can take as many as three or four hours.

The general rule: small amounts of leavening and large amounts of time to develop flavor. [emphasis added]

The ciabatta recipe that was included in the article starts with a biga that ages for 24 hours then is blended into the main dough. The first few steps are

1. Sprinkle the 1/4 teaspoon yeast into 1 cup warm water, stir and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Mix the bread flour, all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour and rye flour in a bowl. Measure one-half teaspoon of the yeasted water into the flour mixture. (Throw the rest away; the point of step 1 was not to proof the yeast but to measure 1/384 teaspoon yeast.)
[Next steps: add water, mix, let sit for 24 hours. ]
So that's how you get 1/384 teaspoon: extracting 1/2 teaspoon of 1 cup water + 1/4 teaspoon yeast. And that's an instruction that will cause convulsions in anyone who normally uses the metric system in the kitchen.

Even though I live with easy access to Acme Bread, Semifreddi's, Grace, the Cheese Board and more, I plan on trying the ciabatta recipe this weekend. Will it turn out like this? Not likely, given my unpredictable oven. But the process of bread baking is rewarding, to see the inert become living, to work with the dough, to fill the house with that indescribeable aroma. I just hope I don't put something like 1/380 or 1/390 teaspoon of yeast into the biga...

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Ancient Folktales above a Los Angeles Street

Update, 4/22/12:  Replaced two broken links to Ellsworth Kelly's art with one that worked today and removed a link to "To Hell with the Birds."

It was just another crow flying across the way until its wings and tail flayed out and it made a sharp turn to chase a huge fly. The fly escaped, and in an instant the bird had changed direction again, but the fly was too quick. Beaten, the crow gave up, and alighted to a ledge.
The scene almost sounds like it could be a Native America or European parable, doesn't it? But the chase and escape occured above Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles and reminds me the even the most banal situations can reveal beauty or insight.

A few days ago I was visiting the Christian Science Monitor web site for a news fix, and ran across an eye-opening book review. In Art Makes His World Go Round, Marjorie Kehe, reviewing Michael Kimmelman's Accidental Masterpiece, wrote:

The evening after I finished reading The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa I went to the grocery store, and - expecting only my usual Monday night shopping trip - had a transcendent experience instead.

Food had never before seemed so lovely. The gentle colors and curves of the apricots moved me profoundly and I bought eggplant we didn't really need just because I couldn't resist its dark-purple sheen and bulbous forms.

Back out in the parking lot I almost gasped at the dusky tones of the sky and was stunned to note - for the first time ever - the remarkable shapes that cars have.

Be prepared. This is the kind of thing that will happen to you when you pick up this book by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times.

Your backyard will look like a museum and the subway platform will seem oddly inspirational. What you will find is that art is everywhere. And what could be bad about a discovery like that?

Kehe's comments reminded me of an exhibit of Ellsworth Kelly's art at the SF MOMA a few years ago. His work---large monocolored shapes, pairs of colored blobs, or simple sculptures (examples here)---was a bit mysterious and frustrating at first, but eventually I started to get a little bit of understanding. During the above-mentioned retrospective of his work at SF MOMA, there was a documentary about his life called "To Hell with the Birds" (I can't find much about it on-line). In interviews in the film, Kelly relates that his art is sometimes inspired by the shapes of nature: the curve of a tree's trunk, the sunlight gleaming on a wall, the shadow of the railing on a staircase (...or not, a future post will address this).

By keeping our mind, eyes and ears open and fresh, surprising vistas will be revealed, and new stories will unfold in front of us.


Note: "Crow in Flight" photo from Mark Lorch's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons license.

Banana Leaf Curry



One of the culinary highlights of the trip to Kuala Lumpur was lunch in the Restoran Grand City in Petaling Jaya. Grand City specializes in the "banana leaf curry" meal. These meals appear frequently in regions of Malaysia and Singapore; I imagine that they are an import from South India.

Our banana leaf meal went like this:

After we ordered the banana leaf meal, a server brought a banana leaf (about 12" by 24") and placed it in front of us. Thus, the leaf was both placemat and plate. Then a parade of food servers began. At our Grand City, the parade resulted in the following items scooped onto our banana leaf (or placed nearby):

  • rice (white basmati, but in some places you can get biryani rice)
  • dal, chicken curry or lamb curry spooned on top of the rice
  • three vegetable stews
  • fried papadum
  • a little salad of cucumbers and onion
  • a dab of lemon pickle
  • a scoop of crispy deep-fried vegetable chips
  • a cup of rasam
  • a cup of thin pudding (sweet, milk-based, with pistachio pieces, channa dal, and vermicelli)

All of the above was part of the fixed price meal (and was described in the menu as simply "rice" at a place in Singapore). For those needing more variety or big hunks of meat (or veg-meat), there was also a counter with 10 or so items that could be purchased in addition to the rice meal, including several varieties of vegetarian 'meat' in spicy sauce.

Why a banana leaf instead of a plate? I can think of several reasons: economy, convenience, hygiene and tradition. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food suggests another: ritual purity.

Banana trees grow easily in the tropics and can be converted into plates with just a few slashes of a knife and a quick rinse. Cleanup is simple and inexpensive (both in terms of labor and capital). In the proper place, and with careful planning and growing techniques, it is conceivable that use of banana leaves could be more energy efficient than using metal, ceramic or paper plates. In addition, the leaves could be composted after use to become fertilizer for the future banana leaf crops.

It probably makes no sense to ship banana leaves from the tropics to Devon Street in Chicago or Iselin, New Jersey, or Jackson Heights, Queens but I wonder what the distance is at which the energy efficiency benefit is lost? 10 miles? 100 miles? Does it ever make sense in terms of energy and materials? Can the plants grow fast enough to supply the demand for meals? Could it work in Artesia, California? Has anyone done the calculations?

In terms of ritual purity, Achaya writes
[m]any early societies must have used leaf plates and cups, but their use persisted in India because of the strong concept of cross-pollination [sic, but I think the author meant cross-pollution here - Marc] that marked the Vedic food ethos; this made disposable materials attractive even after those of clay, stone, wood and metal became available... (the leaf plates and cups entry)
and
[In a Brahmin household, concepts] of ritual pollution pervaded the cooking, serving and eating of food...Cross-pollution was guarded against by the use of disposable plates and cups made of plant leaves. (the etiquette of dining entry)

Eating restaurant food cooked by strangers eliminates much of the purity that is obtained through the use of disposable plates like banana leaves, but their use continues for the reasons of economy, convenience, hygiene and tradition. In addition, the quantity of food provided by the restaurant would have required some seriously large plates.

Since banana leaves don't grow in most of the U.S., the U.S. equivalent of the banana leaf curry in Indian restaurants here is the thali, which is a meal served on a tray with as many 10 small stainless steel containers of food. (I don't know how popular the steel serving dishes are in South India.)

The word thali actually refers to the tray, not a style of meal, and is probably equivalent to the American "Blue Plate Special", which is a frequently varied group of a main and side dishes. From A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food:

The sthali was a ritual cooking pot used in a domestic Vedic kitchen to boil rice...The name survives in a modified form in the thali of today; however, this is not a pot but a circular metal dining plate with raised edges, often accompanied by deep, small circular metal bowls called katoris in which are placed accompainments to the meal...At large gatherings, as for a wedding feast, disposable leaf plates would still be preferred.




Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ocean Park through My Own Eyes

When I lived near Washington, D.C., I visited many of the great museums along the East Coast (the National Gallery, the Met, Philadelphia Museum, etc.). Each time I was sure to look in the 20th century section for works by Richard Diebenkorn, especially his monumental Ocean Park series (for example, #19, #49, #54, #70). The Ocean Park title derives from the California neighborhood where Diebenkorn worked for many years.

Despite living in Northern California for many years, I rarely visit Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in the endless city, and while looking at a map of Santa Monica, I noticed that Ocean Park Blvd was just a few blocks from where I was staying. To satisfy my Diebenkorn curiosity, I took a short car tour around the Ocean Park neighborhood. As I drove up and down the hilly, narrow streets in the early evening I thought I saw some of what might have inspired Diebenkorn: power lines at every angle breaking up my field of view; bright sunlit building walls with sharp edged-geometries; street lights and their angular braces carving out triangles of sky, leaves or building.

When I returned home, I consulted The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, and found this passage in the section by Jane Livingston:
These paintings [the Ocean Park series] were often described as comprising "dissolving planes" or "sheets of atmospheric color"; moreover, to the artist's puzzlement, they seemed to be read by many as literally depicting the actual landscape of Ocean Park, apparently in reference to the ocean itself and the sky, although Ocean Park was a half-residential, half-industrial, slightly scruffy urban area rather more than an idyllic seascape. The interpretation of these works as either landscapes or cityscapes is well off the mark. The Ocean Park paintings were intended as---and remain---highly metaphoric spatial and chromatic explorations.

So it turns out that I was not seeing the direct visual inspiration of the Ocean Park series, and might not have even been in the right neighborhood. The Ocean Park I saw was an upscale residential area (perhaps I needed to go south a few blocks), not a scruffy industrial/residential mix. Nonetheless, there is something of the special California light in Diebenkorn's paintings---and it's hard to imagine an artist not being influenced in some way by the surrounding landscape and buildings (see this post for another view). Could he have made paintings with the same quality of light if his studio had been on the Lower East Side or a cabin in the New England woods?

In the end, this ended up being a lesson in seeing the beauty of the world around us, even if it is a wedge of blue sky through the power lines or the glow of evening sunlight on an apartment wall. More on this subject in a few days.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

"Bean Ice" for dessert?

In Malay, it's Ais Kacang (literally "ice bean", sometimes spelled Ais Kachang outside of Malaysia since c is a ch sound in Malay), a refreshing, surprising, slightly creepy dessert. The dessert starts with small scoops of little rice noodles (sometimes flavored with pandanus leaf), red beans, brightly colored jelly bits, and some corn. Next, a few scoops of shaved ice. Over this the vendor pours some palm sugar syrup, condensed milk, and fruit syrup. And you have ais kacang.

My family and I tasted ais kacang in the Chinatown Complex food court in Singapore. The food court is dingy and poorly lit, but has about 200 stalls serving all kinds of food and drink. If you can find your way around the place and remember how to get back to where your friends or family are sitting, a good meal is easy to obtain. In the gritty environs of the Chinatown Complex, the dessert did not bowl me over, but perhaps it would taste better while sitting on a quiet palm-lined beach or in a lush city garden. The deep, rich flavor of the palm sugar syrup was pleasant, as were the rice noodle and the jelly pieces, but I wasn't crazy about the red beans or corn.


In a recent New York Times article (full text is behind the dollar-wall), Dana Bowen tries to carve away the mysteries of Asian ice desserts:

Across East Asia shaved ice - shave ice, it is usually called - mixes the refreshment of ice cream with a continent's worth of variety. Sold as a snack by street vendors or as a dessert in restaurants of every caliber, it can be as simple as watermelon juice splashed on ice and as outlandish as slush doused with cornflakes, whipped cream and colored jellies.

[snip]

Such icy variety is nothing new in Malaysia, where A.B.C. (the initials stand for air batu campur, or water stone mix), is a tradition. At Sentosa, a Malaysian restaurant in Flushing, a thin shave soaks up condensed milk and palm sugar over a bed of roasted peanuts, green and red beans, chewy palm seeds, canned corn and black grass jelly, which is made from dried herbs and has a medicinal tang.

A Malaysian dish called chendol or cendol swaps coconut milk for condensed milk and adds rice- or pea-flour noodles flavored with pandanus, a leaf that tastes a bit like bay leaf. Palm sugar, cooked to caramel, gives the ice a coffeelike depth.

[snip]

The evolution of shave ice snacks has puzzled food historians. While it is possible that each country developed its own recipes once ice became readily available, there may be a single taproot.

"It's more Malaysian than anything else," said Jacqueline M. Newman, editor of Flavor and Fortune, a Chinese-food journal published in Queens. She drew connections between the jellies and nuts in Malaysian ais kachang ("bean ice") and the ingredients of halo-halo ("mix mix") in the Philippines. "Traffic between the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia was considerable in the 1500's," she said.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Curry leaves

Curry leaves - This photo of a Murraya koenigii (curry leaf) tree (taken at the Singapore Botanic Gardens) is certainly not the most exciting or artful of my photos, but the story behind it is interesting. It is not the source of curry powder, and not even the source of that often misused word curry. It is, however, a flavoring in many Indian dishes. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T. Achaya has this: "the fresh leaves of Murraya koenigii, kari-pak or karve-palli in Tamil, meetaneem and gandhela in Hindi, are widely used especially in south India to impart a distinctive multi-spice flavour to items like uppuma, curd-rice, ..."

Again referencing Achaya, in his entry on curry:

From the Tamil word kari, a term for black pepper, derives the Indo-Anglian curry, which has come to symbolize Indian food for the westerner. The term originally denoted any spiced dish that accompanied south Indian food, and was first so referred to, using the term caril, by Correa as early as in AD 1502 and by Garcia da Orta sixty years later. Later the word curry was greatly widened in usage to include a liquid broth, a thicker stewed preparation, or even a spiced dry dish, all of which appear in turn in a south Indian meal, each with its own name. [e.g., rasam, kootu, poriyal - Marc]

In the tens of different Indian dishes that I have cooked, it is quite rare that the recipe has called for "curry powder." Instead, each recipe has a carefully chosen collection of herbs and spices, and cooks can spend a lifetime learning and mastering the subtleties of blending spices to create the right flavor or bring out the essence of the raw ingredients. For example, cumin, coriander, black pepper, tumeric and ginger in one stew; garlic, ginger, green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves in another.

Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking has the following explanation of the origin of "curry powder":
The earliest British merchants, who arrived with the East India Trading Company, worked and settled along the southeastern coast of India. It is more than likely that they wanted to take back with them to England the familiar aromas, flavors, and colors of the Indian food they had become so passionately fond of. But not having mastered the different Indian cooking techniques or a sense of the spice blends, they in all likelyhood just indiscriminately sprinkled kari podi [curry powder] over stews and casseroles. This yielded preparations with the familiar golden color, hot taste, and flavor of the dishes known as "curries."

Finally, although the above definition of curry proposes that the word originates from the Tamil language in south India, my favorite south Indian cookbook, Dakshin, lists four other powders in the "Basic Recipes" section before "curry powder" appears (Sambar 1, sambar 2, rasam, and mysore rasam powders).

Since the subject has drifted from the curry leaf to curry powder, my standard curry powder recipe comes from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Sahni. Most Indian cookbooks have their own variation. If you have a dedicated spice grinder (I use a coffee grinder), be sure to start with whole spices, as the resulting powder will be much more vibrant than using powders or a pre-packaged mix. I don't use it much when cooking from my Indian cookbook library, but it is good to have around (to put in Singapore-style rice noodles, for example).

The Idli


In some cities in the U.S. (LA, Chicago, Berkeley, D.C.), it is possible to find restaurants serving the most popular dishes of South India (usually they are called Udupi Palace or Udupi something, after the city of Udupi in southeast India). These include dosai (a thin pancake made from rice and lentil flour and stuffed with vegetables), avial (a spicy stew with coconut milk base), uttapam (a vegetable pancake with rice/lenti flour base), and idli. The photo shows an idli (upper part of the photo), and the traditional sauces of sambar (the reddish sauce) and coconut chutney (the white sauce). One way of eating it is to break it up and flavor it with the two sauces.

A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T. Achaya describes an idli as:

...a common breakfast food of south India, the idli is a white, spongy, swollen circlet about 10 cm across. Rice grits and urad dal are ground together to a thick batter and left to ferment naturally overnight. Portions are placed on pieces of muslin held in depressions on a metal tray, and steamed in a closed vessel till cooked. Idlis are eaten with coconut chutney or with sambhar, or with a spiced pulse-based gritty powder called molaga-podi, doused with ghee or oil.

The first mention of the idli in literature [was] in the year AD 920, where it figures as one of eighteen items served to a brahmachari who visit the home of a lady. Thereafter it is a frequent item in Kannanda literature down the centuries...

See also the Wikipedia entry. To make your own idlis, sambhar or coconut chutney, I recommend Dakshin, by Chandra Padmanabhan.

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Temple Guardians in Thailand

Some of my favorite architectural features of Thai buildings are the creatures on the roofline: birds and serpents that guard boundaries of the sacred structures. The chofas (sometimes spelled chofah, cho fa, or cho fah) are bird guardians and live on the peaks of each gable. In areas with many religious buildings, like the Wat Phra Kaew complex or the Wat Pho complex, the elegant silouettes of the chofas are everywhere, gleaming in the smog- and humidity-filtered Bangkok sun. Unlike much Thai art and ornamentation, which can be distractingly ornate, the chofa is a simple, yet sublime, object. The shape of a bird is suggested with the minimum of detail.

The Arts of Thailand, by Steve Van Beek and Luca Invernizzi Tettoni, gives the following definition of chofa: "variously translated as 'bunch of sky' or 'tassel of sky', the slender finial like a stylized bird's head graces either end of a roof peak of a bot [the monks' congregation hall] or vihan [worship hall]. It is thought to signify the garuda and may originally have been intended to render Buddhism more appealing to Vishnuites, the garuda being Vishnu's mount." (p. 241)

In some buildings, the chofa "grasps two nagas [serpents] in its claws...", with the nagas sloping down the edge of the roof. The chofa has significant import ance, and some buildings are not considered consecrated until chofas have been fixed in place.

The naga is a snake, sometimes with many heads, and one particular naga (the serpent king Muchilinda) played an important part of the Buddha's path to enlightenment (photo of a sculpture). Ornate and fierce-looking snakes are on the sloping edge of many roofs in Thailand as part of the protection around the holy site. Visit Khandro.net for much more about nagas.

See also Glossary of Temple Terms, Temples, Thai Architecture, and Temple Talk at various Thai tourism sites.




















(top and lower left photos: from Wat Phra Kaew compound in Bangkok; lower right photo: monastery complex near the Golden Mount, Bangkok)

Laksa, part 1



Laksa is one of the stars of the cuisine of the Malay peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) and northern Borneo (Sarawak). Laksa is a category of food--like curry or soup--but the basic dish generally comprises a flavorful broth, noodles, and seafood. The varieties of laksa include:

  • Nonya laksa (aka laksa lemak) - coconut milk makes up the strongly spiced base
  • Penang laksa (aka asam laksa, asam is Malay for sour, and asam jawa is tamarind) - its hallmark is the sour taste of tamarind, with poached and flaked mackerel as the seafood component.
  • Johor laksa - uses mackerel, herbs and spices in a coconut base.
  • Sarawak laksa - has a base of shrimp paste, with tamarind, lemon grass, coconut milk.

According to the laksa entry at Wikipedia, the name comes from the sanskrit word lakh which means many. In Malay, laksa means "ten thousand".

It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While in Kuching (in Sarawak on Borneo), we visited Auntie Mary's House (recommended by the Lonely Planet guide) for lunch, and they had run out of Laksa several hours earlier. In the mall beneath the Petronas Towers, the food court had a Laksa Shack with five or six bubbling caudrons of the regional bases. The photo above is from the Old China Cafe in the Kuala Lumpur Chinatown. Old China Cafe specializes in Peranakan cuisine (also called Nonya cuisine), which is a result of the cultural mixing of Chinese and Malay in the last few centuries. The basis of many laksas is fish or shrimp paste, so it is not easy to find a strict vegetarian version. The only one I found was the Casa Green Vegetarian Eating House in Singapore (near Ferrar Park MRT).

Home-made laksa is straightforward to make at home, but requires a lot of grinding. Although a laksa without polygonum/laksa leaf/daun kesum might be heretical to a Malaysian, the end result can still be delicious. A vegetarian-adapted recipe for Nonya Laksa is below.

See also Cuisine of Malaysia at Wikipedia, Lonely Planet World Food: Malaysia and Singapore, and All For the Love of Laksa (a wonderfully written ode to laksa). A fantastic on-line guide to Asian ingredients can be found at Makan Time.




Vegetarian Nonya Laksa
Recipe based on The Food of Malaysia, edited by Wendy Hutton, Periplus books.


Base and Vegetables
1/2 cup oil
6 sprigs polygonum (daun kesum, Vietnamese mint)
2 wild ginger buds, finely sliced (photo at Makan Time)
6 cups water
1 1/2 cups thick coconut milk
1 heaped tablespoon sugar
Salt to taste
1 pound thin fresh yellow noodles (or wider if you desire), or dried noodles, cooked and drained
12 oz. deep fried tofu or gluten or seitan
1 carrot, cut into sticks of about 1/2" length (so they fit on a spoon)
8-12 ears of babycorn, cut in half
Other vegetables if you feel like it: cauliflower, potato, etc.

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts, blanched for 30 seconds
Snowpeas, trimmed, then blanched lightly (30-60 seconds)


Spice Paste
8 dried red chilies
10 shallots
1 stalk lemongrass (the lower two-thirds)
3/4 inch galangal
1/4 inch fresh tumeric (or 1/2 t tumeric powder)

Garnish
3 sprigs polygonum (daun kesum), sliced
1 cucumber, in matchstick shreds
3 eggs, beaten, made into thin omelets and shredded
2 red chilies, sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
6 small limes (Kalamansi are ideal, Mexican limes would also be excellent), cut in half of in wedges


Method
Chop all the spice paste ingredients finely, then put into a blender jar. Blend, adding a little of the oil if necessary to keep the blades turning until you have a fine paste. Heat remaining oil and gently fry the blended ingredients for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Add the polygonum, ginger buds, and water and bring to a boil. Add thick coconut milk, vegetables, tofu, sugar and salt. Reduce heat and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 10-15
minutes.

To serve, reheat noodles by plunging them into boiling water for a few seconds. Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among 6 individual noodle bowls and top with the sliced polygonum and ginger bud. Pour sauce on top and add some of the garnishes. Serve with chili sauce and cut limes.

For storage of left-overs, do not put noodles into the broth, as they will absorb the sauce, swell and soften to the point of disintegration.

The Indian Menu

Why does it seem that almost every Indian restaurant in the U.S. has the same menu? Tandoori meats, aloo gobi, saag paneer, korma, channa dal (chickpeas in spicy sauce), naan, etc. You know what I mean. These dishes are directly or indirectly part of the Mughal or Mughlai style. But where is the Goan restaurant, the Gujarati cafe, the Bengali bistro? India is a region larger than Europe (excluding Russia), with at least five major religions, 15 major languages and hundreds of minor languages and dialects.

My research finds that the reasons for menu sameness include some of humanities biggest influences: religion, power, happenstance, and economics. More specifically, the concern in Hinduism about food purity, the development of cuisines, the turmoil after the 1947 partition and the risky economics of the restaurant business.

In A Taste of India, Madhur Jaffrey writes

India has had no long tradition of fine public dining such as exists in France and Japan. Upper-class Hindus, who rarely crossed the 'seven seas' for fear of losing caste and whose meals had to be cooked and served by freshly bathed Brahmins, could scarcely be expected to dine in public places where the food had been prepared and touched by God knows who. Even in my family, where we were quite liberal, I never took a sip from my sister's glass or a bite from her apple. Any food eaten by someone else was consider 'unclean' or jhosta.

So how did Mughal cuisine become the dominant cooking style in American restaurants? In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Edited by Andrew F. Smith), the entry on Indian-American Food has a theory.

The authors propose that there are three primary venues where development of cuisine occurs: imperial courts, marketplaces, and households. The courts are where the leaders display their power and wealth. For food, that means a rich and complex cuisine prepared by formally trained chefs who keep good records for their successors. (of course, there were also many recipes that were closely guarded "state secrets" which were probably passed down orally)

The food of the marketplace is created for the workers of the marketplace, travelers, shopkeepers, and shoppers. The food is designed for simplicity, convenience, and low cost. The entry also says that the marketplace was the birthplace of many foods with long shelf life, like pickles.

The home has the least elaborate cuisine because cost is important and the needs of economical nourishment generally outweigh the need to impress. Many techniques are passed orally from one generation to another.

Thus, the complex and rich food of the courts was the obvious choice for a restaurant menu.

Another possible force that made Mughal food the standard restaurant fare is the chaos brought on by the division of India in 1947. Alan Davidson, in the The Oxford Companion to Food writes

However, so far as the outside world is concerned, the tremendous variety in Indian food, whether brought about by geographical and climatic differences (wheat and breads in the north, use of coconut in the south) or arising from dietary laws (no pork for Muslims, no onions for Jains) or from the caste system, or other causes, has been obscured to a very large extend by a coincidental factor. Most of the Indians who operate or cook in restaurants, inside or outside India, are from Punjab....

...The prime factors were the lack of any restaurant tradition in India, and the inhibitions which prevented members of various castes and religious groups from becoming professional cooks. Thus, in the upheavals which followed the division of the subcontinent into India and the and the two Pakistans in 1947, it was displaced Punjabies (numerous, eager to work, and relatively free of inhibitions) who could most easily become entrepreneurs and operators in the restaurant business. They took on these roles, and it was natural that they should subsequently staff the catering colleges set up to ensure part of the necessary infrastructure for tourism....(the wide popularity of Tandoor cookery is, incidentally, one of a number of things for which Punjabis have been responsible--the villages of Punjab had communal open-air tandoors where housewives would bring their dough to be rolled into rotis and baked by the tandooriya).

South Indian restaurants (like Udupi Palace) are popping up around the country (and having great success, with lines out the door on weekends in some locations), places like Ajanta in Berkeley, CA rotate regional dishes onto the menu, and various places in New York City are serving regional dishes and experimenting with fusion, but the Mughal cuisine still dominates, especially outside of areas without large Indian populations. (some lists of Indian restaurants are here and here)

To sum up:
  • The centuries of the Mughal reign led to the creation of a complex and splendid cuisine
  • Home-style or street food is too mundane for a restaurant (but that's what people used to say about Italian home-style cooking too, and now some of the hottest Italian places are getting back to simplicity.
  • India did not have a fine restaurant tradition until after independence
  • The restaurant business is financially challenging, especially for niche markets like Indian food. And most people who start restaurants do not have a financial buffer that would allow for experimentation. They must use tried and true concepts to avoid financial failure.

A new start

I set up this blog (formerly "Aimful Meandering", a rather obscure and hard to remember name) to help me unravel some mysteries, organize my thoughts and deepen my knowledge. Questions pop into my head: "what is the symbolism of that thing?", "what is the origin of that soup?", "why do they eat that?" Or I'll see something that pushes my mind in surprising directions. I expect to have an unpredictable and unique blend of posts about food history, cooking techniques, art, travel, and nature.