January 23, 2010

The Provenance of Food

It's something I've been thinking about for a while, and going to the Indian Food Festival on Friday made me think of it again.

Where does your produce come from? And how do you make a choice? In France, the markets are required to tell you the provenance of the produce. Of course it usually varies with the season. Strawberries in February are usually from Spain and they don't come from France until a few months later. Just like winter fruits in California come from Chile.

But here in the UAE, it's not as simple as what's in season. They don't grow much here in the desert, although more than I had thought as evidenced by this feature on locavores in The National last week. Of course dates, but apparently carrots and eggplant and zucchini, too.

A colleague has an Abu Dhabi blog and he writes about something similar there, at Abu Dhabi Do!

I am particularly fond of bananas from the Philippines. They are sweeter and more flavorful than bananas from South America, in my opinion. (Of course, this is all just my opinion). I started eating them last year in Hong Kong, and here I have a choice. Bananas from the Philippines, from India or from South America. There are two brands: Chiquita and Estrella. I prefer the Estrella bananas.

And it's not just bananas. I prefer Indian pomegranates to Tunisian or Egyptian ones. They are sweeter and juicier. I also usually prefer tangerines (or mandarins or clementines -- they vary) from Egypt, but those from Pakistan, which are lately on sale, have been pretty good. The ones from China are very tiny, and seem hardly worth the effort.

I can choose from Omani or Jordanian eggplant, Arabian potatoes and mangoes from Thailand or India. There is a huge supply of produce from the US and from Europe, but aside from the French apples, I don't usually bother. (An exception being celery, because a lot of places don't grow eating celery, they have cooking celery, and the US is an exception).

We are seeing a lot of summer fruits from South Africa right now: Peaches, nectarines and apricots. And as the price is going down, I can tell we are getting closer to the season.

There was a better-than-usual selection of produce from India this week: Green cardamom and bitter squash and tapioca and gigantic yams. I have no idea what to do with any of this. But I took some pictures. I wanted to try some of the more unusual fruits: jack fruit and snake fruit, which looks like it has snake scales on it. But I was discouraged by someone who knows better.

But it's something to think about, knowing where your food comes from. The bigger surprise -- to me -- is that there is such a difference.

January 22, 2010

The World's Longest Palindrome

Somebody told me today that Malayalam -- the official language of Kerala, India, and a language spoken by 35 million people world-wide -- is the world's longest palindrome.

It isn't quite; it's one of a few that are the same length in English, and a Finnish word for soapstone dealer is officially the longest.

But never mind. Malayalam is spoken by over 773,000 people in the UAE, a country of only 5 million residents.

And I'm thinking about this because I learned the Malayalam word for saunf, a Hindi and Urdu word for fennel . In Malayalam it is called peruncheeragam. In Tamil it is shombu.

In English, it's called: sugar-coated-fennel-seeds-they-give-you-after-dinner-at-an-Indian-restaurant-that-taste-like-Good-n-Plenty.

This is all part of my quest to have some of the delicacies of Indian food in my home so I don't have to wait to go out to eat. I learned all these words so that I can go to the grocery store and, if I can't find what I want, I now know three different words in four languages that someone at the supermarket might understand.


January 21, 2010

The Subcontinent Groove**

*This is long and disorganized. Bear with me, please.
**Link added to Indian Food Festival

Indian food.

I have it at least once a week, but I probably think about having it five times a week. I don't have enough free time to try all the things I think I'd like to.

I'm not sure if it's serving as a replacement for Mexican, or that Lebanese is now so plentiful at home I don't feel the need to make a special effort here. But it's what I think about. All. The. Time.

And today I made a breakthrough: A colleague gave me a basic do-it-at-home Indian 101 primer.

It started when she went out to cover the Indian Food Festival. She called in to check with me (I'm her editor) and said, "And it smells so good here!!" And then I said, "Well then you should bring me some!" And she did.

She arrived with three kinds of biryani (rice dishes), a dried beef dish (spicy), a cauliflower dish (it must have a real name) and some Indian sweets. It was a ton of food, and she was right, it did smell good. We shared with the others in our cluster (lest you think two of us ate four tubs of rice plus)

This venture of course opened the door for me to ask lots of questions. It's very multicultural here, and I don't think anybody minds answering questions, but I don't want to make assumptions. My colleague is Candian by way of Calcutta. I know from things she writes that she is a foodie.

She got me special rice with cashews in it. Nice. I discovered that the grocery I usually go to is known among subcontinenters as having quite good prepared Indian food. When the tea boys (men from Bangladesh and India) asked where she got it, they seemed pleased, and knew that we would share with them.

Every week Paul and I go to a restaurant called Nihal and every week I get the lamb vindaloo. After experimenting a bit in the beginning, I'm now afraid to try anything else because what if i don't like it as much?? If I were going five nights a week, I might be -- maybe -- willing to experiment. Switch it up a bit. But mostly, no.

So this gave me a chance. I have another chance next week when two of the interns who worked at the paper are taking me to a good Indian restaurant. I have decided to put my fate in their hands and eat whatever they order. But more on that after it happens.

Anyway, my colleague is amused that I like this food so much. I ask about the beef. Isn't that a bit unusual for Indians? No, she says, the Muslims eat a lot of beef. She goes on to tell me about some Goan pork curry at a place she knows. Pork? Yes, because Goa has lots of Portuguese influences because it was colonized by Portugal. I had heard about the great fish curries from Goa, so this was new, too.

So she decides to write down for me how I can eat Indian at home without too much cooking, since my kitchen is so sad. She tells me how to cheat with frozen parathas, and says I can cook them in the frying pan without any oil. And now I know that "aloo" means potato!

Next up: pappadam. I believe I may have mentioned this previously. She reveals that I don't need to fry a pappadam, no sirree, I can just pop one into the microwave and it will crisp right up. I cannot believe my good fortune in learning this. She tells me to look for a brand called Lijjat made by women in small villages in India, with a label in Hindi. The package is yellow and red.

(Please click the link to Lijjat, it's a fascinating history of seven semi-literate women from Gujarati who started a cooperative business that now employs 42,000).

So, for the pappadam, she says: Put only one in at a time, don't cover it, don't put it on anything. Microwave it for two minutes.

And don't worry if it smokes. Because it will clear up right away. Um, yeah.

I'm off tomorrow, and headed to the Indian Food Festival to check out the goodies. I have a recipe here for easy spinach curry, and if you leave a note or e-mail me, I'll pass it along.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy some frozen parathas, some uncooked pappadam and I'm settin' up the microwave.

Afterward we can all have saunf.