Friday, June 5, 2009


This long chilly spring is hurting our friends and neighbours Kung and David, whose shop on Baldwin street, Chada, depends on foot traffic, especially on people shopping before or after a meal outside at one of the little restaurants nearby.  But most of us are loving the bright days and the luxuriant flowering green of trees and shrubs and gardens all over the city.

I've been out in the green a lot, now that I've broken through my fear of traffic and have started bicycling in the city.  The bicyle I'm riding is the red Diamond Back, a mountain bicycle, that I rode in 1986, first in and around Lhasa, and then, after a long trip on busses and in the train and on more busses (11 days in all) along the rocky Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Gilgit.  
Unlike then, when Jeffrey and I rode with the wind in our hair, on roads with no traffic, let me reassure you that I am wearing a helmet.  I am also picking my routes through the city very carefully, and the times at which I bicycle.  It is so great to be out and moving freely in the city.  I am grateful that I don't have to commute on a bicycle, and even more grateful to all the advocates that have succeeded over the years in getting more bike lanes opened and such a growth in the number of cyclists that motorists have become more educated and respectful, generally speaking, of people pedalling.

The other day I had a letter from Elissa Altman, a happy letter thanking us for our Nepali cucumber salad (in Mangoes & Curry Leaves), which has had a big impact on her household.  The dressing has mustard oil in it, and I was reminded by her letter of what a barrier new ingredients can be to us.  Mustard oil is especially difficult for people to take on, because most of it (imported from India) comes marked "for external use only" or some equivalent message.  In fact of course it is a staple cooking oil in Bangladesh, Indian Bengal, and much of Nepal, as well as in other communities in the subcontinent.  But first you have to get past the label, which is only there as a way of avoiding the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration or equivalent.  

Mustard oil adds heat and a lovely pungency.  So now that I'm talking about it, I'll put a precis of the salad recipe here, in case anyone is curious to follow up:  Use an English/European cucumber, cut into spears, with seeds trimmed off.  Put it in a colander, sprinkle on kosher salt, and let drain for 10 or 15 minutes while you make the dressing.  Dry roast 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, let cool a moment, and then grind both to a powder.  Combine with 2 tablespoons plain yogurt and stir to make a paste.

Rinse the cucumbers and squeeze excess water out of them.  Put in a bowl, add the spice paste, and rub it all over the the cucumbers.

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons MUSTARD OIL (or substitute peanut or raw sesame oil) over medium heat, add 1/2 teaspoon each fenugreek and nigella seeds, and 1 green slit cayenne chile, and cook until aromatic (30 seconds or so).  Add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne and a pinch of turmeric, stir, and pour the oil over the cucumbers.  Toss gently.  Add a tablespoon lemon juice, then set aside for ten minutes before serving.

Add coriander leaves and about 1/2 teaspoon salt just before serving, and toss gently to mix.

Sorry to clutter this blog with a recipe... but I hope it encourages some of you to leap into the world of mustard oil and Bengali and Nepali spicing.

And another thing, while I'm on the subject of food:  I stir-fried some tat soi leaves last night with ginger and wild leeks and a little chopped duck confit.  Fabulous.  Tat soi is a newly available green (I mean, much-more-widely-available-now green).  Do give it a try.

It's a little strange, I know, to be focussing on the domestic when Obama is breaking new ground with his speech in Cairo and other earth-shattering events both good and bad are happening all around.  But it seems to me that, as always, focussing on the everyday necessities is a way of staying grounded and of reminding ourselves of our shared humanity.  

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