When Tito and I eat Indian food together, we eat. We talk about whether the meat is tender, or wonder what spice gives a dish its more distinct flavor, but we don’t remember India. (We’ve never been there.)
When I cook Indian food, whole subcontinent-themed feasts like the one I made for my grandmother last spring (she loves Indian food), I enjoy it. I love the smells, and the spices, and the way my limbs pause between ingredients when I’m cooking, uncertain which order I should add things in. I never cook Indian food without a recipe, and when we eat, it’s delicious, but it’s not mine. I know when it tastes good, but I don’t know if it tastes right, the way I know a good, flaky croissant from a less successful one, a clean reduction sauce from one that has garbled, foggy flavors. I don’t know Indian food.
A few nights ago, a friend of ours with a somewhat complicated ethnic background invited us to her house for dinner. Her mother, a fourth generation Kenyan of Indian (Gujerati) descent, raised under British rule and educated in England, was also there. They made us dinner.
Sure, I’ve had some curry. I’ve had it in America and London and Australia and Paris, and once in Tokyo. But I can’t remember ever having had it in someone’s home, prepared by someone as familiar with her own cuisine as Mumtaz, Munira’s mother, seemed to be.
We had curried potatoes, thick with their natural starches, and a spicy eggplant and spinach dish. There was basmati rice, somehow fluffier than I’ve ever seen it, and chicken cooked in coconut milk, whole hard-boiled eggs bobbing in a sweet yellow sauce.
When Mumtaz began describing the chicken, someone at the table perked up at the dish’s Swahili name. I’ve had that in Uganda, she said. Suddenly were at the eye of a storm of travel stories, each anchored somehow by this chicken dish. I think my husband and I, and maybe one other guy, were the only ones at the table who hadn’t traveled through the Lake Victoria region, and as we chewed and served and passed, I felt their company making my life richer.
For dessert there was a big flan, smooth and perfectly cooked, its top studded with hand-crushed fresh cardamom. She’d used a mixture of condensed, evaporated, and regular 2% milks, and as each bite dissolved in my mouth, I felt like I could taste places I’d never seen.
We must waste so much time, collectively, trying to explore new cultures in restaurants, thinking the rooms themselves, not the people within them, are the best conveyors of tradition.
When Munira’s mother asked me what I thought of the food, I instantly said it tasted softer. She’d taken me off guard, and as soon as I said it, I thought maybe I’d misinterpreted; she just wanted to know if I enjoyed it. But no, softer was just what she wanted to hear. When I explained her food tasted less jarring, more nuanced than typical take-out joints’, she smiled. She seemed to be happy to have imparted the flavors of her ancestors’ onto just one person’s palate that night.
Oh, and a note of caution: My dearly beloved camera’s shutter is broken. It’s headed for a camera wellness center in California, and will be replaced for the next few weeks by my husband’s point-and-shoot, which can take movies underwater but has minimal macro capabilities. Please be patient.
Indian-Inspired Creme Caramels (PDF)
Recipe 313 of 365
When our friend Munira’s mother makes her cardamom-studded flan, she steams it in a pie plate and serves it in wiggly slices. Here’s a slightly simpler (and certainly inauthentic) version, made just with cream, that makes it easier to eat bit by bit, over the course of multiple nights.
Mumtaz also taught me that flan can be steamed on a rack, over water in a sealed pan, rather than half-submerged in a hot water bath, as I’d always done in the past. It takes a little longer, but the whole process seems easier to me this way.
TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: 6 (very rich) servings
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 nutmeg, grated
4 cardamom pods, cracked and seeds removed, shells discarded
Small pinch saffron
3/4 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar
2 whole large eggs
4 large egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place a roasting rack in a roasting pan, and cover the rack with a clean tea towel. Fill the pan with boiling water until it comes up to the level of the towel. Place six (1/2 cup) ramekins on the towel, and set aside.
Heat the cream, nutmeg, cardamom seeds, and saffron in a saucepan over medium-high heat until it just begins to simmer, and set aside.
In another clean saucepan, melt 3/4 cup sugar over high heat until it caramelizes, turning the pan to mix the sugar as it darkens. (Do not stir sugar with a spoon.) When the sugar is uniformly brown in color, divide the caramel between the six ramekins.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar until blended (but not until thick). While stirring, pour the scented cream into the egg/sugar mixture in a slow, steady stream. Strain the mixture into another bowl through a fine-mesh strainer, then divide it evenly between the ramekins. (If you’d like, you can pick a some cardamom seeds out of the strainer and add a few of them to each ramekin; they’ll fall to the bottom and decorate the end product.)
Cover the roasting pan with a sheet of wide heavy-duty foil, crimping the edges to seal. Bake on the center rack for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the custard is just set in the center.
Let crème caramels cool to room temperature, then slide a small knife around the edges, and invert onto dessert plates. They can also be chilled up to 3 days before serving. (In that case, dipping the ramekins in hot water before unmolding makes it easier.)