Sunday, July 23, 2006

Of Sautéed Greens and Sugar Beans

The hardest people to cook for are the people you have never eaten with. You have no idea if they shy away from spice or savor it; no clue if they eagerly try new dishes or stick to old stand-bys; nary a hint as to whether they push vegetables around their plate or start each meal with a salad. Want to make your menu-crafting conundrum even more challenging? Try entertaining acquaintances born and bred in a country other than your own.

For more than a year, I was overcome with anxiety every time I considered inviting Zimbabweans over our house to eat. What on earth would I serve? I recently decided that in order to overcome the impasse, I needed to start with small steps. So, I began by reflecting upon what my past experiences told me about what I should, and should not, prepare.

Lesson One
Over the past few years, Mark and I have been invited to share meals with people from many different countries. That’s why we know that Swedes squeeze fish paste out of a tube and dot it on their hard-boiled eggs; that if you want to consume anything other than meat or beer at a South African braai or an Australian barbie, you’d better BYO; that beets, eggs and fish form a merry, rose-colored troika in Russian fare; and that homemade Spanish tortilla is the most miraculous four-ingredient dish in the world. Sure, we don’t currently stock fish paste in our pantry, but each of these meals was an interesting cultural experience. On the other hand, there have been times when our foreign hosts have tried – very sweetly, I might add – to prepare their idea of American food. The results have been uniformly disastrous. Lesson learned – don’t try to imitate your guests’ native cuisine.

Lesson Two
I’ve mentioned before that Zimbabweans’ staple dish is sadza, and that it accompanies almost every meal. One characteristic of sadza is that it gives you a feeling of fullness difficult to attain with other foods. Thus, a Zimbabwean colleague – we’ll call her Rumbi – once told me of her experience dining at the home of a British friend, where she was served a lovely salad followed by a tasty stew. Rumbi then sat, patiently awaiting the main meal. Not until her host began serving tea and coffee did Rumbi venture to ask – “Can I help you with the main course?” Lesson learned – cook lots of food.

Lesson Three
My husband and I don’t eat meat, and, like many people around the world, Zimbabweans don’t think a meal is a meal without meat. I once ate a huge plate of sadza and beans in front of a colleague who looked at me, shook her head in disbelief and said, “I can’t believe that’s all you are eating.” Lesson learned – cook even more food.

With these lessons firmly in mind, I finally gathered the courage to invite six new Zimbabwean acquaintances over to our house for Sunday lunch. Of course, I still didn’t know exactly what I was making – simply that it wouldn’t be sadza and that, whatever it was, I would be making copious amounts. After an hour of aimlessly flipping through cookbooks, I had a eureka moment. What if I cooked with ingredients familiar to Zimbabweans, but prepared the food in ways familiar to me? I’ve been on a 2-year-long curry kick, so the main course menu was as follows:

Potato and Pea Curry (Mattar Batata)
Sri Lankan Greens (Mallum)
Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry
(All accompanied by cardamom-scented basmati rice, veggie samosas and assorted chutneys.)

Recent comments from the President of the Republic notwithstanding, potatoes are an occasional addition to Zimbabwean meals. Meanwhile, cooked greens and sugar beans are both frequent sadza accompaniments. The Potato and Pea Curry and Sri Lankan Greens recipes I used are courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey (From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail and World Vegetarian, respectively). Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry is a newly-discovered concoction gleaned from members of the Indian community here in Harare. If you don’t have sugar beans on hand, I’d use black-eyed peas or butter beans as a substitute.

Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups cooked sugar beans
1 teaspoon ajmo (optional; also called
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon grated ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder (or more, to taste)
8 small tomatoes, grated OR 2-14 oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 curry leaves (optional)
Chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the amjo seeds, cumin seeds and grated ginger. Let sizzle for 10 seconds, taking care not to burn the seeds. Add the ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin and chili powder, and stir to mix. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with your spoon if you are using the canned variety. Stir in the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, and stir in the curry leaves. Turn the heat down to medium/medium-low and let the mixture simmer for 45 minutes. The beans will be very soft. Depending on the texture you prefer, you can smush some of the beans against the side of the saucepan. Serve with the garnish of your choice – I was out of cilantro, so I used sliced tomato and a twig of curry leaves instead.

How did our guests enjoy the meal? Suffice to say – plates were cleaned.


annelynn said...

Wow, mallum! It's so exciting to run across Sri Lankan recipes, especially when I'm not even trying to find them!

Hi there - I'm Anne. I just found your blog via "Food Porn Watch." I'll have to read up since I've never been here before.

I loved mallum. I lived in Sri Lanka for 3 years and I miss the food very very much.

Well... nice to "meet" you!

Carolyn said...

Hi annelynn,

Nice to meet you, too, and thanks for being the first official comment on my new blog! Sri Lanka is definitely a place I hope to visit sometime in the near future – I’m jealous you had a chance to live there. FYI – Jaffrey’s From Curry to Kebabs includes another Sri Lankan recipe we love to make, Broiled Fish in a Sri Lankan Tomato-Cilantro Curry Sauce.

In case you don’t have a mallum recipe of your own from your time in Sri Lanka (if you do, I’d love to try it!), or in case others are tempted by your enthusiasm for the dish, here is that recipe from World Vegetarian:

Sri Lankan Greens (Mallum)

3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
15 fresh curry leaves, if available
1 medium onion (4 ounces), peeled and cut into very fine half rings
1 to 2 fresh hot green chilies, split in half lengthwise
1 pound green cabbage, collards, kale, mustard greens, taro leaves, dasheen, or spinach, well washed and cut into fine shred (7 well-packed cups)
¾ to 1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons desiccated unsweetened coconut or 3 tablespoons grated fresh coconut

Put the oil in a large wok or frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the curry leaves, onion and green chili. Stir and fry for about 4 minutes, or until the onion has browned a bit. Put in the shredded vegetable, salt and turmeric. Stir and cook until the vegetable has wilted somewhat. Cover, turn the heat down to low, and cook 10 minutes, or until the vegetable is tender. Uncover, add the coconut, and stir again. Turn off the heat.

Serves 2 to 4.

Nandita said...

Love it, love it, love it!
I'm already hooked to your writing, you better be posting often :)

The lessons were great too :)

annelynn said...

Thanks for the recipe! Oddly, that's one recipe I didn't get. So many times my host mother would just go outside and pick some leaves - varying species - and quickly throw it together. It was wonderful every time. I do have a terrific recipe you might like to try, though, if you've got access to fresh shredded coconut. It sounds unlikely, but it's absolutely delicious:

Pol Saembol (coconut saembol)

1 whole shredded coconut (or unsweetened frozen shredded)
1 lime (its juice)
1 tomato, finely chopped
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
chili powder (the bright orange fiery kind) to taste (I like a lot of it!)
salt to taste
black pepper to taste

To make it, you just mix everything all together and eat it either with rice or scooped up on chunks of good bread. It is fabulous - hot, sweet, salty, and piquant! You can vary all the ingredients to your own taste. It's a staple food in most every family - I often had it for breakfast.

I am very thankful for the time I was able to spend there - I hope to go back to visit some day. I miss the people and the food.

I really love your blog, by the way! I'll be back.