Sunday, January 06, 2008

Curried Kidney Beans, and the Mobile Food Chain

I didn’t study science in school and do not work in a scientific field – maybe that’s why I so admire books that make science accessible to us commoners. Jared Diamond can work this magic, as can Natalie Angier. I am currently reading Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones, a bio-archaeologist. Jones’ prose isn’t as approachable as Diamond’s or Angier’s, but his topic – the history of the meal – is so fascinating that I am willing to read, and then re-read, as many paragraphs as necessary.

In each chapter of Feast, Jones describes a particular archaeological dig and, drawing upon the dig’s findings, envisions and narrates a typical meal-time scene. I just finished reading his exploration of a meal near a lake in Israel 23,000 years ago and a feast 11,000 years ago in the Euphrates Valley of Syria.

There are signs of weaving at the site in Israel – a new invention that allowed us humans to capture fish, small mammals and birds and to gather seeds, grains, legumes and nuts more effectively. As a result, we became much less dependent on men hunting large animals for our survival. By the time the scene in Syria happened, there were basically no men left whose main occupation was hunter.

(I promise all of this background will get to a recipe, eventually!)

Many things struck me about the meal Jones describes in Syria – the huge variety of grains, legumes and nuts consumed, including a cake flavored with ground mustard seeds, and the fact that the seeds had been cracked and soaked – similar to the preparation of tabouleh in the Middle East today. The meal takes place in a permanent settlement, something novel for us humans at this point in our history.

The climate was changing like crazy 11,000 years ago at the time of the meal in Syria, forcing plants and animals to continually chase their preferred habitats. In the past, people would have moved with them. But now, after constructing their permanent settlements, they didn’t want to move. Nor did they want to give up eating their favorite things. So, humans began modifying the environment around their favorite plants in order to mimic the places where these plants thrived – an early step towards agriculture.

(Really – a recipe is on its way….)

Another interesting feature of that meal 11,000 years ago is that it was prepared in a new physical human space – the kitchen. Instead of food being cooked and eaten around a fire, the meal in Syria was prepared in an area separate from the dining location. And there is evidence that all of this cooking – grinding, pounding, soaking, washing – was done by women.

Says Jones: “The meticulous study of the bones…indicates that in the ancient Euphrates at least, a very significant role in food preparation was played by women. All this evidence of back-breaking women’s work raises the question of what the men were up to.”

So, what were the men up to, especially since their hunting skills were not being called into action? Jones argues that the “surplus” men in the community became travelers, visiting settlements near and far. There emerged a tradition of welcoming these visitors into settlements with food and shelter, and of the visitor himself offering gifts of thanks, which included cultural artifacts, plants and animals. Soon, the number of migrants, and the number of new permanent settlements, began to grow.

(I know you don’t believe me, but a recipe is coming!)

Jones describes this movement of people as creating a “mobile food chain.” “It [the mobile food chain] did not spread by bulldozing flat the competition, but by leapfrogging from favored site to favored site…each new settlement taking with it many elements of the food chain, the styles and the beliefs of its parent communities.”

It would seem, then, that for many thousands of years we have had a tendency to prefer the foods and preparations we are accustomed to, and to take these customs with us wherever we go. I know I do this. Every time I travel to the States, I bring back with me black beans, pine nuts, granola bars, and walnuts. I can live without these items, of course, but I don’t want to. On the weekend before Christmas, I made minestrone soup, just like my mom does, even though I had to make a couple substitutions. With these actions, I am mimicking a human tendency that has spanned millennia – migrants bringing their favorite foods with them, and modifying their cooking to fit their new environments.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many people of Indian descent in South Africa, and they’ve brought with them styles and ingredients of cooking that have, over time, become just as South African as they are Indian. It is this combination of people developing cuisines in their “permanent” settlements and migrants sharing their favorite foods with new neighbors that has contributed to the amazing variety of dishes we humans have created.

One of these dishes is Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry. The red kidney bean comes from South America, but is now quite common in South African cuisine. Take this traveling bean, combine it with Indian migrants, and you have a curry prepared in a Gujarati style, with a South America bean, in a southern African country.

Do like your ancestors would and share this meal with friends and family. Feast!

(And, finally, the recipe!)

Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry
From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail
Serves 6

1½ cups / 300 grams dried red kidney beans
3 tablespoons / 45 milliliters vegetable oil
3 whole dried hot red chilies
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole cumin seeds
Generous pinch of ground asafetida
10-15 fresh curry leaves, if available
3 medium tomatoes, grated
¼ teaspoon / 1.25 milliliters turmeric
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground coriander
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground cumin
1-2 fresh hot green chilies, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters sugar
1½ teaspoons / 7.5 milliliters salt

Cover the beans generously in water and leave to soak overnight. Drain the next day, put in a medium-size pan, add 6 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Partially cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for 2-2 ½ hours, or until the beans are tender.

Meanwhile, pour the oil into a medium pan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the red chilies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and asafetida. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the curry leaves and tomatoes. Stir once, and then add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, green chilies, garlic, ginger, sugar, and salt. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 5 minutes.

When the beans are tender, pour the spiced tomato mixture into the pan with the beans. Bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, on a very low heat, for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Red and Green Gimmick

When my husband and I first moved into our furnished rental house in Harare, we discovered a heart-shaped plaque on the wall that featured two kissing mice and the slogan "mouse-to-mouse resuscitation." We took it down. Immediately. And hid it in the farthest corner of the closet. I am not a fan of the tacky or the twee.

I do, however, take pleasure in the occasional gimmick. Gimmicky is at the seedier end of the tacky-classy spectrum, I’ll admit; although I hope you’ll agree that it doesn’t quite approach the excess of plastic mice attempting to cutely feign a life-saving procedure. Predictably, my gimmicks typically enlist the assistance of food and drink. I’ve dyed cookies all colors of the rainbow to match holiday hues. In college, my roommate and I turned our apartment’s thermometer up to 80 and held a July in Winter party, complete with umbrella-ed margaritas. A year-and-a-half ago, when the Zimbabwean government dropped three zeros from the currency, my husband and I hosted a “zeroes” fiesta featuring zero-shaped food, including bagel pizzas. And, over the past two weeks, I have been obsessed with preparing red and green food. Roasted red pepper soup with a dollop of avocado cream for garnish? Made it. Spinach lasagna? Check. Watermelon and feta salad with mint? Yep. And, for breakfast on Christmas morning, testira (sometimes written tastira) – a Tunisian egg and pepper dish. Red and green peppers, of course.

Although some recipes call for the egg in testira to be poached, the egg is scrambled in the recipe I use from Kitty Morse’s The Vegetarian Table: North Africa. In any case, the egg is really beside the point because what makes this dish a standout are the peppers – roasted until sweet and spiked with harissa (also spelled harisa), a traditional Tunisian condiment of chilies, garlic, spices and olive oil that makes you breathe like a dragon.

Testira is typically served as an accompaniment to fish. My taste buds have a difficult time imagining how this combination works, although I certainly don’t doubt the flavor amalgamation skills of the people who brought us tabil and chakchouka. Fish and testira might be one of those things I’ll just need to try someday in Tunisia. In the meantime (and this could be a very long meantime), I think testira stands up for itself quite well as a breakfast centerpiece.

Hmm….maybe I could have a party where the gimmick is that everyone brings a food combination that they like, but that other people think is strange; or maybe the gimmick could be egg dishes from around the world, or maybe…

Adapted from The Vegetarian Table: North Africa
Serves 3 as a main dish

2 red bell peppers
2 green bell peppers
1 red or green chili pepper
4 large tomatoes
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil
2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters ground coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters harissa (See note below)

Roast the peppers and the tomatoes, using the roasting method you prefer. Here’s what I do: I preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and put the vegetables on one tray, with the tomatoes on a piece of aluminum foil with the edges rolled up so that the juices they emit during roasting don’t spread. Place the tray on an oven rack near the top. Turn the peppers every 5-10 minutes. The chili pepper will only take about 20-25 minutes to roast. The tomatoes and peppers will take about 35-40 minutes. The peppers are done when their skins have blackened and separated from their flesh.

Set aside the tomatoes to cool. Place the peppers in a glass or ceramic bowl and cover with a plate. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel and seed them, and cut them into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) pieces. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel, seed and chop them.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and thicken a bit – about 5-6 minutes. Add the peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-12 minutes. Stir in the coriander, salt, pepper and harissa. Add the eggs and stir gently until they are cooked. Serve immediately with toast and some extra harissa on the side for those who like spice!

Note: I’ll write about harissa in a future post. In the meantime, in some countries you can find prepared harissa in a jar at the store. These two recipes also look quite good, and are similar to the Madhur Jaffrey recipe that I use. If you don’t have harissa, you can add a teaspoon of chili powder when you add the ground coriander, although it won’t pack the same punch.

P.S. Happy 2008!