Friday, April 10, 2015
This is the story of how I crashed an Indian wedding.
I was walking down a street in Udaipur with only a vague plan of taking the cable car ride up the mountain when a young man suddenly approached me and invited me to have chai. My initial reaction was to decline; he was about my age, eager, and I could already guess what he was interested in. And yet when he asked again, something in me caved. Why not? I thought. I had been on my own for several days, was bored, and something about this unexpected offer for chai seemed like an avenue for adventure that I was so badly craving.
And so I found myself in a tiny textile shop with this boy and the owner of the shop drinking piping hot chai, fresh from the chaiwallah just across the street. When they offered me a joint I shrugged internally and accepted. I was just smoking a joint in a scarf shop in India. It was so random and ridiculous, but I liked the sound of it in my head. Surely this was what travelling was all about: having insane and unexpected experiences. The sensible part of my brain told me I was being irresponsible, but I shrugged it off. I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe, but half the thrill of the moment, if I’m being honest, was the fact that it was edged with the possibility of danger, and that I was risking it.
This was all going on in the back of my mind, when about halfway through the conversation I just happened to mention that I’d always wanted to go to an Indian wedding.
“You should stay until tomorrow! The wedding’s tomorrow.”
Sunday, October 26, 2014
I returned home from India just two weeks ago, but it already feels like it's been months. I can hardly believe that just a few weeks back I was in Delhi, sweating in its sweltering heat, sleeping under an electric fan, and living out of a backpack.
But here I am, back in Toronto, with its wide sidewalks, crisp autumn air, and plentiful public washrooms. It's nice to be back in my old, familiar neighbourhood with all of its adorable cafes and reliably good coffee, but I find myself dearly missing the chaiwallahs of India.
Wallah, in Hindi, is a sort of catch-all phrase that indicates a person's involvement with some specific activity, usually referring to a person's profession, and chaiwallahs are the makers of chai. I have much love for chaiwallahs, because they make chai. Amazing chai.
When I was in India I drank chai just about every day, often multiple times. My friends and I spent one distressed day in Bangalore searching for chaiwallahs fruitlessly, only to discover a restaurant slightly tucked away that made delicious, street-priced joy. We rejoiced.
If you travel to India, you will probably become obsessed with chai. I did. I drank it, Instagrammed it, and yes, also learned how to make it.
Chai just means "tea," but in India, when a person says "chai," they're talking about Indian masala tea, a creamy, milky, sweet, spiced tea that is served piping hot in tiny glasses. And holy fuck is it good.
There was one chaiwallah in Mumbai close to my hostel that I visited just about every day. His "shop" consisted of himself, a hot plate, a bucket of water, a bucket of milk, his tray for chai glasses, and his cooking equipment. It was on a flight of steps just off the sidewalk of a main road where he was shaded by the buildings and trees. We'd stop by and order a cup each, then sit on the hoods of parked cars while he prepared the chai fresh for us. Because chai is usually served in small, handleless glasses (usually 70ml, sometimes 120ml), chaiwallahs often fill them 3/4 full, leaving a space at the top for you to hold so that you won't burn your fingers. But this chaiwallah filled our glasses right to the top, then placed it inside a second glass so that we could hold them without burning ourselves and enjoy a full cup of creamy, fresh chai.
If you've never seen a chaiwallah at work, it can be entertaining in and of itself. They bring everything to a boil in the pot, then with a ladle-like spoon froth the mixture by stirring it vigorously and scooping some of it up, lifting it high, and then pouring it back into the pot, over and over until the chai is frothy and golden brown in colour. Then they strain it and serve it to you, piping hot. It's a jolt of creamy, sugary goodness, meant to spike your blood sugar and give you a burst of energy. It's a little ritual that makes it into just about everyone's day, and it certainly made its way into mine while I was travelling.
There is chai everywhere in India, but it tastes a little different everywhere you go. Most chai masalas (spice mixes) consist of cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon (also called cassia), nutmeg, and cloves. But some places don't use cinnamon but do use star anise, others use white pepper, and some add fresh ginger. (Always add fresh ginger, if you ask me.)
And then there's lemongrass ginger chai, which, holy shit, let me tell you about it.
First, it has the bonus of not requiring a masala and so saves you the trouble of trying to figure out what the fuck to put in your tea to make it taste so damn good, and second, it is damned delicious.
Now that I'm back home, I'm not having chai every day. It's just not the same, but every other night I do whip up a few cups at the stove and cuddle up with one on the couch. It's a recipe that doesn't take much time or effort, but I find a little bit of chai brings me a whole lot of comfort.
Monday, August 4, 2014
I've been travelling through some of the hottest countries in the world during one of the hottest times of the year. I spent three days in Jodhpur, India and I wanted to die. It was so hot. I went exploring through the old city with some friends for about two hours and then I felt so sick that I thought I was going to vomit. I sat with my head between my knees on a street corner thinking, "DON'T PUKE DON'T PUKE, YOU ARE IN CONTROL. YOUR BODY IS YOUR SERVANT. YOU ARE THE MASTER. BREATHE. NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS. DON'T PUKE.'
Thankfully, I did not puke. I got into an air-conditioned cab, and when we got back to the hostel I promptly crawled into my bunk and napped. After that I spent a day eating digestive biscuits and decided I needed to get the hell out of Rajasthan.
And then I went to Egypt! And headed south to Luxor, where it was EVEN HOTTER than Cairo. I win again! I went on a tour for about 4 hours which, thank god, involved transporting us around in an air-conditioned car. It was almost 49°C outside and after walking around ancient temples and tombs all morning and afternoon I was ready to have a second shower and a nap.
My second day in Luxor was actually spent mostly napping and lying in my bed, because fuck the Karnak temple, I'm not paying to wander around a temple in that heat. I was content to just lie on a bed and sweat from the effort of breathing instead.
When I arrived in Jordan last week and checked the forecast and saw the temperature was a high of 31°C I almost cried with joy. ONLY THIRTY ONE DEGREES CELSIUS? HELLE-FUCKING-LUJAH. I was so happy I do not even have words for you.
That said, it's still hot. It's over thirty and I'm still not actually adapted yet. And so I walk around these countries, sweating profusely, dreaming of this ice cream and wishing I could get avocados over here because, oh my god, I miss them.
But hey, you probably have access to avocados! And strawberries! And limes! And definitely tequila. Also, you probably have a freezer. If you have all these things, and a blender, YOU ARE SET my friend. Get to work and make yourself some god damn refreshingly delicious (and vegan!) ice cream! And be thankful that you are not sweating as much as me.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
When I made this dish for the first time, it was still cold outside. Jackets and hats and boots were all still a part of my life, and the sun was still quick to disappear in the evening.
Now, it's damn hot outside and I have been sunburned twice already because I keep stupidly forgetting that in Canada the sun can and will hurt you, and even if you soak your back in a thousand tea bags that awkward tan will still be with you for the next three months (thanks for nothing, internet).
It's a whole other world out there now, full of soccer hooligans and shorts and long days filled with sunshine.
This recipe feels like it came from another era of my life, when things seemed predictable and stable and I felt like I knew what the next six months of my life looked like. Now I don't know what the next week looks like.
About six weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to quit my job to travel the world. It was not well thought out or planned for, but I've never felt more excited or terrified about anything in my life. The decision certainly surprised no one more than me. In fact, I still can't really believe I'm going, and I'm flying to India this Friday. Holy shit.
In the midst of all this sudden chaos, there hasn't been much space for thought or rest, and cooking has been a very slapdash affair (if I even manage to cook anything at all). With all of my creative energies elsewhere, I've been falling back onto easy, familiar dishes that don't ask for much attention and offer much forgiveness.
Rice and lentils give me space to think and rest. They'll simmer happily away while my mind wanders, or while I literally wander away. As long as I have a timer, disaster never strikes.
The garlic brown butter is just a little bit of flair and not much work, and along with some minced fresh dill, is all a pot of lentils and rice needs to become a delicious meal rather than a poor/busy man's dish of necessity. Don't skimp on the garlic or the butter - it's what makes rice and lentils worth writing about, trust me.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
When I finally emerged from Marrakech Menara Airport, it was around 3 in the afternoon and nearly thirty degrees celsius. I was wearing jeans and already sweating and was still impressed by how good all the Spanish people in the plane had smelled, even though they were almost all wearing dark clothes, blazers, and long pants. I followed my taxi driver across the parking lot and into his taxi, which looked like it had had parts of it stolen or sold. The dashboard was an ode to minimalism and there was definitely no AC.
I was running on about two hours sleep, but I wasn't even sure if the several hours I'd spent on my overnight flight across the Atlantic with my eyes closed constituted actual sleeping. The Spanish man next to me had been extremely chatty and oddly enthusiastic about helping me communicate with the flight attendants, all of whom spoke perfect English. I'd had my contacts in for over 24 hours and I was half convinced they had fused to my eyeballs and become one with me. I felt like I'd passed the point of exhaustion and entered into a new phase of alertness as I stared out the window and watched the scenery flash by and tried to converse with my taxi driver, who spoke about as much English as I spoke French, so it was...an interesting ride.
This was almost a month ago, in April, when I flew to Morocco for a week. I'd been dreaming of travelling for months, and got my passport renewed in January. "It's a sign!" my roommate told me. "Now you have to go somewhere!"
She was right. I knew she was right, but I was terrified. Not of anything specific, but just the idea of going off somewhere on my own was enough to make my gut twist and anxiety wash over me. I've always been shy of taking risks or making myself vulnerable - I dislike being out of my element. I'm a perfectionist, and as a result I've developed an extreme fear of failure. It's often held me back and prevented me from doing things, or from even attempting to try new things. I realize it's more than a little ridiculous; failure is an essential part of life, and when it does happen, it's never as scary as my mind makes it out to be. But my problem has always been that I believe my own mental bullshit. I let my anxieties immobilize me.
Jumping in has always been the hardest part.
I grew up on a lake in northwestern Ontario, and I lived my life in it throughout most of the summer. Getting into the water, though, was almost always something of a challenge. The worst thing you could do was to stand at the edge of a dock, looking down into the dark, cold water as it lapped at the edge. The more you waited and stared, the harder it was to get in. Dip your toe in and you would shock yourself with the cold and jump back, even less inclined to dive in. You could get stuck for a long time on a dock, contemplating the water and slowly working up the courage to jump.
So I developed a tactic to get around this horrible dare I don't I phase. I refused to let myself think about it. I would walk straight down to the dock, drop my towel, and start running. In the five seconds it took me to doff my clothes, run to the edge of the dock, and launch myself into the air, all thoughts of the water, what it would feel like, how far the drop was, would be suspended. I would turn my mind off (as much as I was able to), and in a very Nike-esque fashion, just do it. The fear only existed in the moments before I was in the air. Once I was airborne the fear was irrelevant. In the air, there was nothing but exhilaration and adrenaline, and when I hit the water, the shock was only momentary. The coolness of it would surround me and become my new world, more welcoming than the air.
When I purchased my plane tickets to Marrakech, I didn't really think about it. I randomly picked the city, almost as randomly as sticking my finger on a spinning globe. I googled flights, picked the cheapest round-trip I could find, then grabbed my credit card. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, in less than five minutes I'd guaranteed myself a trip across the Atlantic and back. It seemed very surreal to me, and I spent the next hour saying, "I'm going to Morocco! I'm going to Morocco?" while my friends laughed. It continued to feel surreal until I found myself in that un-airconditioned cab, driving along the streets of Marrakech.
That first night in my hostel, I had one brief moment of panic. I was alone, didn't know anybody, had no friends, what the hell was I thinking? I was going to be stuck hanging out by myself in a strange city for a week, what kind of fucking vacation had I embarked on? But the panic didn't last long. You can never underestimate the friendliness of travellers, and when everyone's a stranger, there's no point in being shy. There were very few times in the seven days that I was gone that I felt alone, and none in which I felt regret.
The moments up until the one when I booked my flights, those were the hardest. My trip through five airports (as stressful as that was, in certain ways) and one taxi were just part of the fall. Hitting the ground was the easiest part, and once I was in Morocco, I didn't want to leave.
But enough sentimentalizing. This is about food.
This dish in particular is one of my favourite food memories of Morocco. It was served to us as dessert, or a "fruit course." Sunny slices of oranges sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with dates. It seemed so simple as to almost appear boring, but as soon as I tasted it, I was in love. I think I ended up eating half of the damn thing. (Everyone else was groaning and full of tagine.)
The bright citrus is refreshing, while the cinnamon adds warmth and the dates provide richness and sweetness. It's so easy to make that I almost feel guilty calling this a "recipe." Oranges, cinnamon, and dates. It's all you need. So jump in!
Sunday, May 4, 2014
This recipe is yet more proof that I put Sriracha in everything. But then again, why WOULDN'T you put Sriracha in everything? It's a delicious, fiery flavour storm. In fact, I may have gotten a little carried away with it the first time I made these soba noodles, because even my spice-loving roommate found the intense spicy after-burn hard to handle. (Clearly she needs to start eating spoonfuls of Sambal Oelek like me. Trial by fire.)
As a result, however, this recipe went through several variations in which I attempted to control the heat without sacrificing on flavour. Because, whatever others may tell you, it's not a goal of mine to set people's throats on fire or give them lessons in heartburn.
It only took three tries before I found the right balance. It's still got a bit of a punch, so be warned. If you're not keen on spice and you always order "mild" burritos, this dish will probably hurt you. Myself, I think it's pretty tame, and would say it has more of a gentle nudge than a punch, but I'm also the type of person who keeps adding chilli oil to her dumpling dipping sauce. (IT'S SO GOOD, GUYS.)
So be warned, this dish is a little spicy, but it's so good, too.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Before I launch into this post, let me preface it by saying this: this is a story about Natural Delights Medjool Dates (which are deliciously awesome, by the way, and also full of antioxidants and fibre and ENERGY and eating them straight with almonds is my new favourite snack ever) and my friend Anna's ridiculously good pancakes, but it's also a story about eggs and camping, and the magic my dad created using a tiny camp stove and a tiny pot, and also my mother's 90s mix tape.
My family went camping a lot when I was a kid. Both my parents were teachers, so each summer usually involved a family road trip, be it to Hell Drummer, Alberta or my grandpa's camp or all the way to Colorado. Whatever our destination, there were always long car drives (because we lived in the middle of nowhere at the end of the highway). Sometimes, on these long drives, my mom punished all of us with her Il Divo CD, while I mourned the loss of her mix-tape that was the soundtrack to the majority of our road trips in the 90s, when tape-decks were still a thing and CDs were things that only really fancy people could play in their cars. (That mix-tape was the best god damn mix tape ever; it introduced my 6-year-old self to Boogie Woogie Dancing Shoes, which became my personal anthem and also led me to believe that there were actually magical shoes out there in the world that women could simply wear and thus become The BEST DANCERS EVER. I yearn for those shoes still.)
So we did a lot of camping on these road trips, and we ate a lot of instant oatmeal on said trips, but sometimes my dad would make us a magical breakfast of Camp Eggs. These eggs were the most luscious, rich-tasting, delicious god damn eggs of my entire life, but I could only eat them when we went camping. They were literally just scrambled eggs, cooked very slowly in a tiny pot on our Coleman's camping stove. My dad once made them at home, or so he claimed, and served me a plate of something he said were camp eggs, but he couldn't fool me. They were not camp eggs. Camp eggs did not exist outside of camping, without that little pot on the propane stove. Camp eggs were creamy and soft and tasted like eggy butter, and they could never be re-created at home on our regular stove despite all its modern conveniences.
But then, many years after the last time I had eaten Camp Eggs, I read this, and my entire perspective on the matter changed. It was all in the technique, and that little pot and camp stove had forced my dad to unwittingly cook scrambled eggs to perfection. With the pot's minimal surface area and the low heat of that gas stove, the eggs were never over-cooked, thus creating the creamy, buttery, insanely delicious eggs of my memories.
All that preamble is to say that, after years of camp eggs deprivation, I realized its amazing secret: cooking the eggs slowly over low heat. GENIUS. That knowledge, combined with a breakfast experience at Takht-e Tavoos several weeks ago, involving eggs served over a bed of cooked dates and toasted walnuts, led to this dish.
It wasn't, however, until I teamed up with my amazing awesome friend Anna on a project for Natural Delights Medjool Dates that I was able to perfect it.
On a bright Saturday morning, I walked over to Anna's with my camera bag and tripod slung over my shoulders and a packaged of cheese in my purse (I should make a habit of carrying cheese around in my purse), for a delicious breakfast date, where we ate ALL THE THINGS. (Actually, I did not eat all the things. I snacked on all the things and then could not eat breakfast. WOE.)
Anna, who is the queen mother of pancakes, made a batch of banana medjool date pancakes that were later drizzled in date syrup (if I'd had my way, I would have also slathered them in peanut butter, because peanut butter), and I made these sweet & salty scrambled eggs. And let me tell you, both were pretty damn tasty. We have taste testers to back it up, I swear.
So if you find yourself with a little extra time in the morning, I highly recommend taking the time to cook your eggs slowly, with a handful of toasted walnuts and sliced medjool dates, and if you're feeling like being extra good to yourself, throw in some old cheddar cheese. Also, make yourself some of Anna's pancakes (find her recipe here). They're the best. You wont' regret it, I swear.