11/2/09

Try it, and you'll love it

I could hear a very familiar sound that I've been hearing since I was a small boy: the sound of mustard seeds popping. I'd seen the box of mustard seed (and what a tiny box it was!) in the spice shelves at Chow, and wondered if I was the only one who'd ever use those little round bullets of magic. It was such a very small box, that I'd imagined that it would never get used.

In South Indian cooking, mustard seeds are used as a flavour base for damn near everything. It's like how the Keralites love their coconut, only more prevalent. Pretty much anything from Andhra Pradesh on south tends to be quite happy with mustard seeds. It's much like you tend to find cumin in a lot of things from the North. They'll put it into rice, into vegetables, into daal, into everything. It's a ubiquitous ingredient that we all love the flavour of.

I was pleased to see those mustard seeds there to begin with, but I was even more pleased to hear the sound of them popping. You see, to get spices properly popped, you have to get that oil screaming hot, over high heat. It's one of those fundamental techniques that any Indian cook learns, and is important to getting that authentic flavour. It also takes nerves of steel, because you're taking those spices so close to the brink of burning, that a fraction of a second can mean a disaster on your hands. It's why so many dishes end up with an off-putting flavour: the spices weren't popped properly.

So there I was, listening to that sound, and doubting it very much. It's one of those sounds that I hear at home, or not at all. It's a distinct sound. It's so distinct that it's impossible to mistake for anything else. But there I was, doubting that my ears were being honest. And then came the aroma. Oh! That smell is like home for me. Little did I know that it meant home for more than me.

When Cliff was growing up as a kid, his great grandparents from Romania taught his father (Mel) how to make a dish called Ikra (salmon eggs with spices and the rest). He described how it's got a distinct flavour and texture, and how there's a whole process involved to get to that point. Most of it made little sense to me, because I've never eaten the stuff, but it sounded complicated. Point being, it's one of his tastes of childhood.

Now here we are, years later, with him in the kitchen, and I in the office. Both of us are recapturing our feelings of home and comfort, but in different ways. I could smell those mustard seeds, and I was instantly back in my mother's kitchen, chopping some vegetable, or cleaning some greens, while the two of us chatted and gossiped as we do. Cliff was back in his mind's eye, watching the transformation from this grey, blobby looking stuff to the bright red that he recalls, and texture and crunch.

He's what he did. He combined millet, that he cooked and shocked, then added roasted cassava, some popped mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, clove, and cinnamon, lots of lemon, and a touch of salt. He tossed everything to combine it thoroughly, and And although it doesn't have that colour memory that he associates, he says that the flavour and texture are pretty spot on, and comforting.

The point that I'm trying to make is that while we may come from completely different backgrounds, with completely different memories, our coming together for a common cause (vegan food) sort of transcends those barriers and waters that separate us. We've got shared experiences in this new land, with new people, and new food. Although the context may be different (the mustard seeds went into millet, and not vegetables, potatoes, or other such food, and the millet is not fish eggs of course) it's the bridging of those wide open gaps that makes our food culture so interesting and varied. It's perfectly fine to borrow from each other while doing this, of course. It means that you're expanding your own horizons, to try something different.

For future generations, may that become home for them.
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