Tuesday, July 14, 2015

My Egg is Not Soupy & Other Problems (Not a Food Post)

I had not intended to stay quiet around here for so long. 

A year ago I rounded up the kids, packed whatever I thought I couldn't live without and moved across the world to Canada to start a new life without one essential component: my husband. 

We hadn't planned on a long separation: he intended to join us within a year. But as these things go, stuff happened, plans changed and I now find myself looking at an indefinite stretch of years ahead without him. 

The day he travelled back to the Middle East (our home of 12 years), my middle child looked out the window at his cab disappearing down the street and said, "Now it's going to be a very quiet house without Baba". 

This single-parent thing is challenging. Every once in a while I find myself overwhelmed and far, far from being a picture of grace under pressure. In our initial four-month adjustment-phase the kids and I often got frustrated, tangled in the web of our mutual expectations from each other and unable to move past small things. 

I tried to be honest with them: sat them down many times and apologized for my short-fuse shortcomings, explaining that I sometimes find it all very hard and I need them to help by being responsible and cooperative. It didn't seem to really ring home. 

We travelled back 'home' during Christmas Break for some family-time. On my last day there I went to say a quick goodbye to one of my best friends in the neighbourhood and shamelessly broke down saying, "I'm scared of what these kids will put me through again. I don't want to go back and face it". 

My fears were mostly unfounded. Many things improved. Maybe their father waved a magic (sedating) wand over them. Everyone was much calmer from then on. 

Now that the settlement phase is past us; rituals and routines are in place, we can focus the next year on creating memories.  

I'd say we did okay. I did okay. 

Although there were moments.. after the kids were in bed, for instance, the weight of  the lonely, long winter evenings was unbearable. Because I could not recreate the daily rituals from my other life, I found sleep to be the preferable alternative to facing a deafening silence that even a television cannot mute. 

And then there are small things: I eat my eggs over-easy & maybe a teensy bit over-cooked but my kids like their fried eggs with runny yolks. Despite my best intentions, I can't make the perfect fried egg. It's my  husband's forté. It's probably the only cooking he has ever done and can do. Each weekend he would fix breakfast with his little assistants crowded around him, cheering him on. 

It's a real treat watching them together. Or hearing them pottering together in the kitchen. He is infinitely more patient than me and fully-engaged when he spends time with them. They say "he makes everything fun". 

Funnily this little truth no longer stings me. Nor do their other little comparisons. Last month one of my kids announced, "you make the worst soupy-eggs in the world! Baba is the best cook!". Then she quickly bit back her words, scanned my face for visual signs of emotional trauma and slowly said, "You're the best cook in the world for everything except eggs. Baba makes the best eggs. You know he can't cook anything else". Her earnestness made me laugh. 

We'll go back in a few weeks. But this time, they have things to look forward to in their new, albeit Baba-less, life. And I'm feeling strong enough to do it all over again. 

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


These days I'm replete of all mental energy after spending just shy of half a day hanging around alone with the placid, independent and easy-going baby of the first year who has now morphed into not only a tantrum-throwing whirlwind of dangerous activity but also a constant, clingy shadow. The rest of it is just her being her toddler self, asserting her place and presence in the family, and I know it's a phase but the clinginess. . the clinginess, people!

After 4 p.m. I'm checking the clock every five minutes, counting down ... dinner: 5:30 p.m.  ... kids in bed: 6:45 p.m ... 7:15 p.m., complete silence: the moment I was waiting for all day. When I can flop on the couch, unwind, have a peaceful dinner with the man when he gets home a half hour later and catch up our individual days. And then, most evenings, fall into dead slumber before 9 p.m.

To say the least, this is a frustrating phase. I dislike how anxiously I count down the hours between her two naps & bed time. And then what a tyrant I am with the older kids about sticking to the schedule each evening and how it's 'hurry, hurry, hurry - everyone eat and get into bed already!'. It seems really mean. Especially considering I have only 3 hours with the older two, between their getting home and going to bed. But I'm failing to get most productive things done and a sense of urgency is beginning to creep up as several deadlines approach. I feel completely inadequate and don't know how anyone with young kids at home finds their balance. For one, they must have really sedate children!

Because today is the first chilly day of the season, and because I can't do much more than fiddling my thumbs while the toddler sleeps, and because I have a dozen things-to-do carried over from yesterday: dinner today is Pea Soup and, hopefully, some kind of sandwiches. The recipe comes from Nigella Lawson. I saw it on one of the early episodes of her tv show on BBC Food very, very long ago and it popped into my mind today because I was trying to think of something I can make very quickly, without having to dice or finely chop anything. This fits the bill quite nicely since all it requires is frozen peas, a shallot and some vegetable stock. And the fact that it is called Slime Soup should hopefully appeal to my kids.

Oh, I so want to be Nigella Lawson when I grow up

Meanwhile we can pretend I look as rapturous and Domestic Goddess-like as Nigella when she is working in the kitchen, that I magically whip up delicious and impressive daily meals ... despite the toddler clinging to my leg, the kitchen counter brimming with every utensil, jarred spice and whatever else I am cooking with, the sink full of dishes, remnants of breakfast yet to be cleared from the dining table and the puddle of juice the toddler has managed to spill on the floor and is happily splashing with one hand, the other chubby hand firmly holding on to my leg . . .

Slime Soup
by Nigella Lawson (found here)
makes 1 litre

4 cups frozen peas (I used petit pois)
1 scallion
3 cups boiling water
vegetable broth concentrate or a stock cube (I used 3 oxo cubes of vegetable stock)
1 ball mozzarella

Cook the frozen peas and scallion in the boiling water with the stock concentrate/stock cube until soft and cooked through. Remove and discard the scallion.

Roughly chop the mozzarella and put it into a blender along with the soup. Blend, return it to the pan to make sure all the cheese has melted. Serve.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Of Friends and Granola

The two M's, an evening at my place, some time in September
It's been almost a week since 'M.' moved away but I still walk past her house anticipating the welcoming glow of lamp-light filtering through her dining room window and her cheery 'Come on in!' that always came moments before I reached her back porch or noticed her on the other side of the glass door. My visits to M.'s house were never as brief as their pretext and I was often there for hours before I reluctantly tore myself away and walked back home.

M is much older than me, a senior citizen if you will, thoughtful neighbour, an honorary grandmother of sorts to my kids, always smiling and exuding energy and positivity. For two years she was a huge encouraging force in my life: she cheered me on while I worked on my Dissertation last year and was the first person who brought me a carefully and affectionately-worded Congratulations card in her meticulous handwriting when I received my grade. Nobody was allowed to get broody with her around: if she got the faintest clue anyone in our circle of friends was feeling down she would go over and drag them out, forcing them to enjoy the outdoors or would tactfully engage them in activities that forced them to shed the blues. There was never a discussion about it, never a long-winded, obsessive hashing-out of whatever ailed any of us. Only an abrupt change in perspective, effective immediately.

In an environment where many fail to find meaningful activities, M didn't have enough hours in the day to do the many things she enjoyed - from Mahjongg to Bridge, teaching knitting to Book Club, Food, Fitness and Travel. M is an amazing cook - she introduced me to my very first Thanksgiving meal (not a tradition where I come from) and we frequently exchanged cooking techniques back and forth. I borrowed ideas on how to make our meals more nutritious and flavourful and in return I taught her how to make Masala Chai, Haleem and baked Biryani.

She's been gone all of four days but I miss her. And I'll miss making things for her. . . A jar of my experimental Chipotle-Raisin Chutney had a permanent place in her refrigerator & repertoire because she and her husband loved how the flavours came together. They were always huge fans of whatever I baked up and brought over which gave me excuses and opportunity to bake even when there wasn't any occasion to.

The saddest part of expatriate life is that every couple of months you say goodbye to someone - because they have either moved on elsewhere or moved back to their native country. It's the unkindest cut.

With time one begins to take it all in one's stride. After living an expatriate existence for a little over a decade these transitions are something I have come to expect almost unflinchingly. There is a little sadness but also the comfort in knowing that social media now makes it so much easier to maintain connections, especially when those on the other side are so good at keeping up at their end. And in this case I'm not at all sad, I miss her for now but I know that I will see M again. We won't be neighbours any more but will be a four-drive away from each other in just a few months. The prospect of having even one good friend in almost close proximity when I move halfway across the world and start a new life, is heartening.

One of my experiments that ended up in a tin on M's kitchen counter is this Granola. I painstakingly made it on a cold, January morning. I say painstakingly only because I couldn't find unsalted, shelled sunflower seeds at the grocery store and  had to shell a whole lot of sunflower seeds to get a measly 1/4 cup . . I just wasn't patient enough to get the whole 3/4 cup the recipe asked for. . and I decided to dry dates in the oven, prior to adding them to the granola, which took me at least one whole day.

To others I seem like a mad woman when I turn seemingly simple tasks into all-day Daring Baker-like challenges. But I find comfort in laborious tasks. I think I get my fastidiousness from my paternal Grandmother. She most likely does not know what Granola is, never baked a Pie from scratch or even considered alternate uses for the oven other than storing frying pans. But when she works in the kitchen she is like me, or I'm like her: fussing over food preparation, mindful of flavours, doing things slowly and thoroughly, losing myself in the process.

The fruits of all this labour were delicious and greatly appreciated by M & P who, like me, had the Granola for breakfast with yogurt and a drizzle of Maple Syrup. I'll be thinking of them when I make a new batch this week. 

The recipe comes from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: The Many Little Meals of Rose Bakery by Rose Carrarini, a charming, eye-catchingly bright green cookbook I picked up on a whim during one of my travels and has since then become a favourite. 

Right off the bat Rose confesses that she is a pastry chef who is not overly-fond of sugar or sweet things and prefers naturally, intensely flavored food instead. This mindful approach is reflected in her recipes which are simple, un-fussy and focus on wholesome flavours rather than complex technique or saccharine sweetness (in the case of her desserts). I've made several things from this endearing book and hope to feature some in future blog posts. 

For now, here's the recipe for Rose Carrarini's Sugar-Free Granola. Please keep reading after the recipe, I'm not quite done with this post. 

Sugar-Free Granola
from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: The Many Little Meals of Rose Bakery by Rose Carrarini, page 48
(Serves 6)

300g (4 cups) rolled oats
100g (1 cup) whole almonds
120g (3/4 cup) sunflower seeds
120g (1 cup) pumpkin seeds
40g sesame seeds
1 tablespoon wheatgerm
125 ml (1/2 cup) apple juice
4 tbsp sunflower oil
A handful of dried or fresh fruits such as blueberries, strawberries or sultanas (I used dates and added them later)
natural (plain) yogurt, to serve

Preheat oven to 160C/325F.
Mix all ingredients (except dried fruit) together in a bowl, then spread out evenly in a baking tray.
Bake, turning often, for between 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove and let cool.

I want to say a big Thank You to all the readers who commented on my previous post or left me email messages asking how I am/leaving words of encouragement. 

The sporadic blogger that I am, I don't actually imagine many read or regularly follow my periodic posts. It has been elevating and heart-warming to read all your messages. I have had a few difficult months and all of that is not over yet so I am still not doing much writing, or blog-following. To be honest, I don't much talk to anyone these days either and am nicely, safely wrapped up in my cocoon of silence. But I miss this space and it feels good to be back. Baby steps . . 

Thank you again, for your encouragement! 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Kibbeh bil Sanieh: My Last Post for a While

It was a different summer this year. Alternating between weeks full of fun and days drenched in worry and reminiscence. A summer full of transitions and changes. Nine weeks of vacation went by sadly too soon but it has been great to get back into the usual rhythm of my day: waking before the sun, reading, pilates and a quiet breakfast by myself before waking the others and plunging into my busy day. With the kids back in school theoretically I have had more time these past 3 weeks to dedicate to things I have wanted to get back to all summer. But blogging (or blog-following) just can't be one of them at the moment. My heart is not into it. Words represent a struggle for me right now: whether I'm reading a book (fiction) or writing a blog post. All of it may as well be an alien script.

These are busy times for me and I have a lot on my plate: I've got two much-postponed creative projects on the plate, a re-location to plan and execute, refresher-lessons in French and I'm also back in University. Adding three (demanding) kids to that crazy mix makes my days go by dizzyingly fast. After I submitted my Dissertation last year I was on a bit of a roll and really wanted to delve deeper into the subject of my research so I seriously contemplated enrolling in a PhD program . . that desire lasted about 3 months. Many of my friends from Graduate School were going ahead and starting their Doctorates but I felt this was not the right time for me to make that kind of rigorous, long-term Academic commitment. Besides, I would really rather just get back to work instead of being The-Woman-Who-Went-To-University-Forever! So the Certification I'm doing now is hopefully my very last foray into Academics for at least the next couple of years.

The start of a new year is usually symbolic: a time to take stock of what we've come from and where we are going next. While this is not technically the beginning of a new year, the last few weeks of summer have given me time to reflect a lot on all this while I slowly made my way back into my pre-Summer routine. To keep a balance right now, I have to prioritize and so blogging will take a back seat until I can figure it all out.

With that out of the way, I have to tell you that for me the best part of the end of vacation is that Families are back: there is laughter and frolic at the community pool, happy squeals in the playground as friends re-unite after the Summer. Friends returning from their home countries often come bearing gifts. My latest little treasure is a jar of Baharat - the Lebanese 7-spice mix. A unique, freshly-ground blend brought back for me straight from my friend's ancestral village. After being blown away by a Bulgar salad she made one day I had asked her for a recipe. She told me the amazing flavours came from Baharat she had brought back from Lebanon. I felt it tasted a little like Garam Masala but definitely used a different ratio of spices, giving it a different fragrance and edge altogether. When asked to explain which seven spices it contained she said she had no idea what this particular spice mix was made up of exactly: while the base recipe usually contains allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and coriander she guessed that this one contained not only the classic blend but also crushed rose petals and dried ginger. She explained that the blend is generally exclusive to the family or region that it originates from. I confirmed this through an article here. But I wasn't any closer to finding how to recreate the exact blend at home. It tasted so different from the store-bought mix. Luckily, I received it as a gift. What followed, of course, had to be my very first attempt at making Kibbeh

Kibbeh is a Middle Eastern dish made up of ground meat, bulgar wheat, onions and Baharat. It is usually shaped like a croquette and is deep fried yielding a crispy outer shell and soft, meaty centre. I took the simpler route and made it in the form of a baked pie known as Kibbeh bil Sanieh. I followed the recipe here and had enough of the 'outer dough' left over that I shaped it into patties which I froze for later use. All I had to do then was shallow-fry them when needed and this makes an easy option for the kid's lunch boxes on days I'm running out of steam. Or inspiration Or both. 

Now off I go on my hiatus. See you soon! 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Helba - A Dessert for New Moms

Monday is 'my' day of the week. It's the one morning when I don't see anyone, I try not to answer the phone and I do not do anything that can be termed 'productive'. After the man and kids leave early in the morning I usually flop down on the couch with a book and a cup of tea while the baby sits at my feet playing or strolls between the, now empty, living area and sunny playroom bringing me toys or books that we can look at together. Sometimes she force-feeds me bits of spitty rice-cake. She's very lovey in the morning, very docile, and soon goes down for a long nap, leaving me to indulge my slothful agenda.

My friends know this but, the week before last, one of them texted me asking me to come over the next day (Monday morning). "I know it's your day" she said, "but if you come over I'll make you a pot of tea". Bribery sometimes works. My price, apparently, is a cup of well-brewed Earl Grey tea and Za'atar Crackers. Because she is considerate enough to understand what Mondays mean to me I requested her to allow me just two hours of 'me time' in the morning and then I would show up, baby in tow. And so, off I went to see one of my most favorite people in the world. 

I met 'B.' a little over a year ago when we shared a ride to Ikea on the communal bus. She had just moved into our neighborhood, did not know anyone and was eager to make friends. We reached the store before it opened for the day, giving us opportunity to have coffee together with a few others while introductions were made and she told us where she was coming from. Her name is an unusual one: her father named her after a historical Palestinian town (since then re-named) renowned for it's beauty in Ottoman times. I remember being struck immediately by her gentleness which belies a passionate and strong nature. She has strikingly attractive blue eyes that are warm with compassion and an inner radiance. When she speaks she is calm, her voice comforting. She soothes me.

Where we are located, finding like-minded people is a bit of a fluke. It doesn't happen too often. I was lucky to have found 'B'. She is the one I call when I am wit's end with something one of the older kids have done and vice versa she calls me when she's trying to figure out how to deal with her stubborn middle child. We drink tea or Jallab and share Lebanese treats while we vent, sitting in her little backyard listening to the neighborhood kids frolic in the playground just beyond her yard.

'B.' had a baby earlier this year. Her third child. And it was only natural that I bring her something delicious (and nutritious) when she invited a few friends to meet him for the first time. And so I made Helba - a Basbousa-like dessert made with semolina, fenugreek seeds, shredded coconut and fennel-seeds: all the things that are great for lactating mothers. Fenugreek is a very good galactagogue, a fact few women seem to know, but needs to be taken carefully because it can have a severely lowering effect on blood sugar if taken in excess. Years ago my OB-Gyn advised me to steep a heaped teaspoon of fenugreek in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes and drink it up just before nursing, repeating as many times as I wanted to during the day. I followed this advice religiously and would drink up to 5-6 cups a day. I used to sweeten it with a spoon or more of honey but over the years (and 3 children later) I've acquired a taste for fenugreek tea and can drink it completely unsweetened. Fenugreek has lots of other health benefits that you can read about here.

Helba, in Arabic, means fenugreek. I found this recipe quite by accident over a year ago when I was looking up things I could make ahead for myself before the birth of the baby. I didn't know what to expect and was actually a little wary because fenugreek is very bitter and I thought the 2 tablespoons this recipe asks for would go a long way. So I was pleasantly surprised at how utterly delicious this dessert was. Especially cold, straight from the refrigerator. I made a large tray for myself and each morning a small square of this scrumptious treat was often the first thing that I reached out for. I have made it several times over in the past year, sometimes using more fenugreek and substituting whole wheat flour for the all purpose flour. The WWF substitution did not yield the best results but I still ate it all! I know it's super rich and so this kind of thing would not otherwise make an appearance at my house too often. But my justification is that us new Moms need to keep up their strength and a little indulgence in those early weeks is just okay!

Friday, June 07, 2013

Carrot-Date-Sultana Cake for Baby's First Birthday

The day is done: we have been partied out. The last of the dishes cleared, leftovers put away. Kids in bed. And now the inevitable long stretch of quiet that follows.

I've spent the past hour uploading photos from my camera, re-living our day, and smiling at the recollections. As a third-time-around mom I knew this bittersweet day would come: my precious baby would become a toddler and I would sit here, stumped, wondering where the past year went. This time the wistfulness hits me harder. How can anyone stand moving beyond this phase? 

I am not prepared for this: with the baby I've been far more relaxed than I was with my older children. I've tried to treasure every moment, every developmental stage; every smile, babble and squishy-cheeked bit of deliciousness. There were days when I felt I could not get anything done because we'd had a rare bad night or two but I was perfectly content to hold her close, breathe in the smell of her sweet, downy head and sit immobile for an hour or two while she napped. For the first months I carried her almost all the time. Her Reflux was just an excuse: the truth is I loved wearing her in my moby wrap, cherished the option of being able to kiss the top of her head each time I tilted down my chin . . .  of drinking in her moments of quiet alertness and of deep sleep. When she became older I would carry her on my left hip, hugging her to me with my left arm, as I went through my day and attempted to perform my daily chores with my other free arm. . . when I went out to visit friends they were ceaselessly amazed how, in the midst of our chatter, she would suddenly rest her head against me and croon herself to sleep. The loud crooning was my cue to begin patting her back or to walk up and down the room a few times and gently rock her. She was the only baby at play-dates who did this. Who fell asleep in this adorable, funny, quirky way.

A baby's first year is a real roller-coaster of emotions and experiences. The whole year can feel like the longest day of your own life. But I still didn't want to rush it. To those with two children or just one child, 3 can seem like a scary number. An out-of-control, chaotic number. But it isn't. Motherhood, the third time around, is that much sweeter. That much more fulfilling. And so much easier. I may have had a few niggling doubts about how I could possibly open my heart to one more little person. But that first moment I held her in my arms, surrounded by my other children, cleared every uncertainty from my mind. "She completes us" I texted back to a friend who had sent a message congratulating me on her birth.

Now, a year on, our little 'apple' (nicknamed by older siblings) is a bundle of energy: walking room to room pointing one little index finger up and shaking her fist to make herself heard, eyes twinkling, bestowing infinite smiles, laughing her new cheeky but darling little laugh as if she's just discovered that the world is a hilarious place, gumming every wire in the house, or quietly (and adoringly!) following her older sister around.

We celebrated her birthday simply. I invited a few close friends over. There was far too much food, too much noise and two cakes too many. I  baked a fruit-sweetened, sugar-free smash cake just for her (Recipe found here): a rather sorry attempt at making an apple-shaped cake which, quite sadly, I forgot to take photos of before she began wrecking it. However, she loved it and enjoyed it tremendously as you can see. 

She had no idea what was going on, but she knew something was up. And that it was something good.

So she weaved her way between our guests, moving from one room to another, laughing at everything and even enduring all the torture bestowed upon her by her elder sister: being carried, jostled, made to wear party hats and over-sized sunglasses along with a pair of ratty fairy wings. She kept going for hours and hours, at last falling into deep sleep as soon as the last of our guests said goodbye.

Happy Birthday, my sweet girl.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Watermelon Sorbetto

Summer sneaked up on us. . late-April was deceptive with it's sudden stormy showers and cool evening breezes. For a while we grew complacent, duped ourselves into believing these mild days were here to stay. But then, just like that, the nip in the air was gone. Now early mornings are often motionless, hot. By noon the sun is glaring and the heat stifling. 

Soon appetites will begin waning and the kids will beg for things that are cool and scoop-able. The best way to indulge my children's summer dreams: this delicious sorbetto

The sorbetto is made with fresh watermelon juice and a whisper of lime to add a hint of tartness. The amount of sweetness is just right and does not overpower the fruit's natural flavor. David Lebovitz recommends throwing in some mini-chocolate chips for fun (to mimic watermelon seeds). I've never done this but maybe I will the next time I make a batch. Personally, I don't think it needs any chocolate: there couldn't be a simpler, more delicious dessert to round off your meal.

This sorbet is best made in an ice cream maker, but I often skip that step and freeze the mixture directly in popsicle molds. The recipe can be found on Page 112 of The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, or because I am too lazy to type it out you can find it here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Masala Chai for Needy People

I've wanted to get back to this space but it's hard to be a foodie when you've lost your sense of taste and smell. 

January started off great. I had awesome things happening in my kitchen: there was a lot of cooking and experimenting going on, a bucket-list of food-related projects I wanted to do this year, a lot of early-morning baking and photography in the soft, lovely light in the playroom just off my kitchen. . . Then the flu struck me down. Followed by repeated, debilitating, episodes of allergic rhinitis. It was almost April before I could shake all of that off and be my normal self again. 

But I still can't smell anything. I get faint whiffs of things at times, but mostly nothing otherwise. My sense of taste is creeping back and food is no longer unappetizing. However, I can only tell that what I'm eating is sweet/salty/sour/hot. I don't get all the other subtle flavors. Not only has it been depressing to eat in this state but it has been that much worse to cook and never know what is really going on with what I've made. I can't always be sure if food is seasoned properly or, quite simply, if it even tastes good. I hold things close to my nose, inhale deeply. Nothing. 

It has been a hazard too:  I've forgotten pots of oats simmering on the stove some mornings while I dashed around doing other chores and only noticed the smoke rising from the kitchen when I (luckily) walked by much later . . . or I badly scorched things in the oven.. I once failed to acknowledge a rotting, rank head of cauliflower in the crisper for several days .. And then there are the things that I missed being able to breathe: the rain, flowers, the baby's skin, fresh bread, chocolate . . Without my sense of smell to rely on, I have been quite lost. 

After struggling with this for a few weeks I reminded myself: cooking is intuitive. I've discovered it's possible to trust my instincts and to rely on visual cues. Most of the time this works in my favor. During this phase I had stopped reading food blogs in addition to abandoning my own - what's the fun in reading about food that you can't truly experience? But I'm warming back up to it all. . . starting by hanging around on Instagram again. . scanning my Google Reader for all the interesting posts I've missed these months . 

And so I start out my mornings with a steaming cup or two of Masala Chai, consumed by the liter during the day, catching up on my reading. 

This isn't really a precise recipe, but it is how I usually make my tea. I play around with it most days, omitting one thing or the other. Never really knowing what this tea *really* tastes like, guessing instead by the zing of ginger on my tongue and the heat of the black peppercorns at the back of my throat. This Masala Chai is wonderful when you have a cold, or a sore throat. A thermos-full prepared by me often does the rounds of my neighborhood each time a friend feels under the weather. 

Masala Chai
(makes 1 cup of tea)

1 clove
3-4 black peppercorns
a few pieces of cinnamon bark
2-3 green cardamoms
a pinch of fennel seeds
2" piece of ginger
evaporated milk

Crush everything together in a mortar and pestle. Bring 1 cup water to a rolling boil and throw the spinces and ginger in. Simmer 2-3 minutes. 

Add 2 tea bags (black tea), tags removed, or cut open two teabags and add the loose tea to the boiling water. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep 3-4 minutes. 

Place back on the stove, uncover, add desired sweetener and evaporated milk. Heat through but don't boil, strain and serve. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shakarkandi (Spicy Sweet Potato)

Lahore, beloved. My adopted city. 25th largest in the world. Steeped in history. The food and cultural capital of the country, a city of crowded tree-lined roads and pulsating bazaars. Lahore gets under your skin, makes you fall in love with its faded elegance; winding, bumpy, messy streets, its shady gardens and even the noisy hum of its bazaars. 

Walking through the narrow, colorful alleys of dupatta gali in winter, your senses are constantly teased by the wafting, pungent aromas of samosas and masala chips frying or saccharine-sweet tea brewing as your ears adjust to the sounds of women chatting with their companions or bargaining with vendors over the loud and incessant sounds of electricity generators humming, filmi music blaring, and dozens of sewing machines buzzing in unison. As you stroll, stopping to glance at a fabric or a sample of embroidery, a vendor will call after you, "Would you look at this? Touch and feel how smooth it is .. it came in just yesterday .. I have the best price ..  but wait! At least look! You won't find this anywhere .. O Baji! (sister) Stop!". He may jog a short distance behind you, fabric in hand, convincing you to stop and consider. Or his pleas will be taken up by his competitors, "You want a Pashmina shawl? Is it winter fabric you want? I have this new Marina fabric ... just look!". You might stop, after all, curiosity getting the better of you. Or, if you are like me, you will want to get away from the dizzying bright displays of sequins and bangles, glittering embroidery and all that noise and step out to the street - wind your way between impatiently honking, stalled traffic and head over to where the smoke is rising from a thela (push-cart) displaying baked sweet potatoes and clementines decorated around a heap of hot charcoal

Photo Credit: www.dawn.com
"Dass rupay ki Shakarkandi (10 Rupees worth of sweet potato)", you request the thela-waala (peddlar/street hawker) and then watch as he dumps a sweet potato into the mound of coals, pokes it a few times, digs it out and places it on a layer of torn newspaper in his left hand while he quickly slashes it with his right one, cubing it, he shakes a zesty spice mix over it and drenches it with a few generous squeezes of clementine juice with his coal-blackened, sooty hand. He then sticks a toothpick or two into the cubes of the steaming sweet potato, wraps the newspaper around them and hands the package to you. Throwing caution and all thoughts of hygiene to the wind, you dig into the unbelievably delicious Shakarkandi, mouth burning. What a high. 

For me, Shakarkandi is synonymous with freezing, foggy winters in Lahore when the sun doesn't shine for days and days: this simple little snack chases all the blues away.

One quiet morning, as I moved around my kitchen in silent nostalgia while I prepared vegetables to steam for the baby's meals that day, it hit me: It's so easy to make Shakarkandi at home. Why had I never done this before in all these years? There is no long list of ingredients. All you need is: sweet potatoes, clementines, chaat masala. The latter is not a fancy ingredient, it's a simple spice blend that you might easily find at your local South Asian store. If not, here's a recipe to make your own.



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