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 Baigan Bharta is an iconic dish that you’ve, no doubt, enjoyed at your local Indian eatery. It basically translates to “Eggplant with minced vegetables,” which is a description that hardly does justice to this delicious preparation. Complex, in a smoky, sweet, spicy, savory kind of way, Baigan Bharta thrills the taste buds, and without any animal fat, healthy to boot. It’s also fun to make because you get to roast a whole eggplant directly on one of the burners on your stovetop (provided you are using a gas range instead of electric). The thick eggplant skin chars well, allowing all that flavorful smoke to seep right into the inner flesh. In this recipe, we also roast the tomatoes in the oven, though if you are short on time you can always used canned tomatoes. Though the recipe calls for a food processor to puree the vegetables, I prefer a rough chop to preserve some kind of texture beyond that of baby food. Also, you will get different bites–some of sweet tomato and some of smoky eggplant. Since there are very few spices used–only cumin seed, coriander seed, and cayenne powder–this dish can be put together without much fuss, and should be added to your regular repertoire. It can stand alone with some steamed Basmathi rice and raita, or eat is as a snack with some good Indian flatbread like chapati or roti.

There’s a ton of recipes for this dish floating around out there, but I found one I liked in the new cookbook, Spices & Seasons, by fellow Hippocrene author, Rinku Bhattacharya. It’s simple to make, with relatively few ingredients, and tastes amazing. I guarantee Baigan Bharta will become one of your goto Indian dishes.

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The Recipe

From Spices & Seasons (Hippocrene Books, 2014) by Rinku Bhattacharya

1 large of 2 medium eggplants (about 1 ½ lbs.)

3 Tbsp. oil

4 medium ripe tomatoes (about ¾ lb)

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

2 tsp. crushed coriander seeds

2 tsp. ginger paste

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp. salt or to taste

1 tsp. cayenne pepper powder

2 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro leaves

2-3 green chilies, chopped (optional)

  • Place eggplant(s) on an open flame and cook for about 6-7 minutes. When the exposed side is completely charred, turn the eggplant and roast on the other side for 6-7 minutes until well charred. Place the eggplant(s) on a plate to cool. Carefully remove the skin and mash coarsely.
  • In the meantime, drizzle about 1 tablespoon of oil into a baking dish. Place the tomatoes in the dish and begin broiling them in the oven on low heat. Turn the tomatoes a couple of times to ensure they are cooked evenly and the skin is uniformly darkened. When the tomatoes are charred, remove from broiler and cool slightly. Carefully remove their skin and place the tomatoes in a blender or food processor and coarsely puree.
  • Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a pot. Add the cumin seeds and cook for about 45 seconds. Add the red onions and lightly sauté for about 5-6 minutes, until they wilt and begin to turn soft and crisp around the edges. Add the coriander seeds, ginger paste, and garlic and cook until the garlic is fragrant and toasty.
  • Add the mashed eggplant and mix well. Add the tomato puree, salt, and cayenne pepper powder, and cook and stir until they are well mixed.
  • Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve immediately.

Serves 4

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Ask anyone who lives or has spent some time in Jordan’s capital of Amman what their favorite restaurant is, and most likely “Fakhr El-Din” will be the first name out of their lips. I had heard plenty about this upscale Lebanese restaurant, founded in 1997 and located near Amman’s second circle in a house once owned by Jordan’s first Prime Minister, Mr. Fawzi Al-Mulki. And what grand house it is with an indoor fountain, well-appointed dining space, and a picturesque outdoor garden. Though I had passed by the place, I never found occasion to eat there.

All that changed when I decided to invite my wife’s family out for a meal. I gave them three choices: Armenian, Syrian, or Lebanese. Most everyone chose the latter–specifically Fakhr El-Din–since they were well familiar with the food and ambience. Since I had been to the Armenian place before (which was good), and the Syrian spot had recently closed, I was on board as well, having fond memories of my culinary adventures in Beirut. Since we had about 8 in our party we had to take 2 cars, and unfortunately for me, the car I was in had to make a couple stops, so we arrived late to dinner. As a result, I missed out on ordering from their extensive menu , which includes sections for both hot and cold mezze, salads, soups, chef’s specials, seafood, and main courses. Had I not, I would have tried some of their more unique dishes, including lamb brains and frog legs.

But on the positive side, we did not have to wait to eat, and upon arrival found our table laid with a nice sampling of mezze including hummus, babaganoush, tabouleh, a beet salad, raw almonds, and kibbeh nayeh, a Lebanese specialty made with raw lamb, burghul (cracked wheat), and spices. A Middle Eastern version of steak tartare, this dish is served with raw onions, garlic sauce, and fresh mint leaves, and eaten with pita bread. I’ve had it several times before, but Fakhr El-Din’s version was especially good, and we ended up ordering 2 plates of it, since it was so popular. Rounding out or feast were the most tender chunks of goat that I have ever eaten as well as chicken livers sauteed in a sweet pomegranate syrup, and, of course, lamb kebabs and chops. I have found that most lamb I have eaten in the Middle East is not at all gamey or fatty, and this lamb was no exception, cooked to perfection.

For dessert, they brought out a plate of freshly sliced watermelon and cantaloupe as well as a selection of candied apricots, and a mulberry jam. We also ordered a serving of Osmaliyeh, a rich, cheese-based pastry topped with strands of baked angel hair pasta and crushed pistachios, and drenched in a sugar syrup. It was no wonder that the Arabic coffee, served by men wearing red fezzes, did not have any added sugar.

Though you could eat this same food practically anywhere in Jordan or the Middle East for that matter, and for much cheaper, it was the high quality ingredients and excellent service that set this restaurant apart. So for a top-notch traditional meal in sumptuous surroundings, Fakhr El-Din is the place to be.

(Reservations recommended)

http://fakhreldin.com/

In light of the recent round of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, I probably chose the worst possible time to visit the “Land of milk and honey” for the first time. But as luck would have it, a weeklong cease-fire in mid-August provided a convenient window of opportunity to make a quick trip there to sample its culture and cuisine.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am married to a Palestinian, who has family both in Israel and the occupied territories of The West Bank, so I was privy to a perspective that few Americans get. Considering the horrific images that circulated in the media prior to my arrival—mostly of young Palestinian civilian casualties–it was a surreal time to be there, especially as a ‘tourist,’ yet I found both Arabs and Israelis (and Arab Israelis) to be incredibly hospitable and kind. Despite the long-standing enmity between these two groups, they also share so much in common, including a love of family, a pride in their past, and a reverence for one and the same God.

In fact, my only negative experiences occurred at Israeli border checkpoints—the first en route from Jordan, and the other as I travelled from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank back to Israel—where despite my U.S. passport I was treated with suspicion, disrespect, and downright disdain, albeit nothing on par with what Palestinians living there must deal with on a regular basis. To be honest, it felt like being transported back to the Jim Crow era in America or Apartheid South Africa, and I only wish that more American policy-makers could experience Israel from the perspective that I did. Maybe then our tax dollars would not contribute to the systematic denial of human rights for an entire group of people as well as supplying the firepower to massacre innocents that has led to a deaths of more than 2000 in a month. But you can’t judge a country by its government, so politics aside, the people I encountered on this trip provided me with some keen insights as well as some memorable meals.

The old mulberry tree, all that remains of my wife's family's property in Israel

The old mulberry tree, all that remains of my wife’s family’s property in Israel

We stayed with my wife’s family in the Palestinian village of Jaljulya, located about 20 minutes outside Tel Aviv. I was surprised to find such Arab enclaves to be not an exception, but the rule, as we passed many similar towns. Furthermore, Arabs living in Israel speak and read Hebrew as well as their native tongue, and carry Israeli passports, which allow them to travel out of the country. Such is not the case, obviously, for those living in the West Bank (more on that later). But Arab Israelis like my wife’s family have paid a heavy price for such ‘normalcy’—namely the cession of their ancestral lands. We toured acres and acres still owned on paper by my wife’s grandfather, which is now a middle-class Jewish neighborhood. An old bent Mulberry tree is the only remnant of former times, when this property once contained endless groves of citrus.

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Palestinian hospitality knows no bounds, and each morning for breakfast we were fêted by a spread fit for a sheik, prepared by the women of the family, all of whom wore the traditional hijab, or head covering, even at home. Breakfast consisted of hard-boiled eggs, hummus, a tomato-cucumber salad, falafel, labneh (yogurt), pickled vegetables, home-cured olives, and fresh, piping-hot pita–all of it home made. Strong Arabic coffee (no sugar), sage tea, and lemonade with mint accompanied the meal, and this family were also big espresso drinkers.

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After visiting the former ancestral lands, and cruising through the comfortable suburbs of Tel Aviv, Mustafa, my father-in-laws’s cousin and our host, took us to the old Tel Aviv boardwalk, Namal, which was crowded with beachgoers and families enjoying the beautiful weather and a welcomed pause in the conflict. The irony that we were not more than 44 miles from Gaza City, which had sustained widespread destruction as well as a disruption in their power and water, was not lost on me. We dined at The White Pergula, a restaurant overlooking the water, which was, incidentally, Palestinian-owned, like many of the businesses around here, and almost as soon as we sat down were treated to a dizzying array of mezze, or appetizers. I ordered a local brew, the all malt Maccabee, though I subsequently discovered Goldstar, a dark lager, which I much preferred. Since I had never heard of any of the fish on the menu with the exception of Sea Bass, I let Mustafa do the honors, and he didn’t disappoint. A heaping platter of lightly battered and fried seafood, including fish, calamari, and shrimp, was delivered to our table, and we chased lunch with some dark, muddy Arabic coffee.

 

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The following day, after checking out the bustling Carmel Market, we dined in Yaffa, Tel Aviv’s much older neighbor, and an amazing place to wander around and get lost in history. Once again, small plates of mezze inundated our table before even ordering as is the custom here. In addition to such standards as hummus, babaganoush, and tabouli–which incidentally, were some of the best I’ve ever had–we had various simple preparations of beets, carrots, red cabbage, arugula, sautéed eggplant, and a concoction of fresh dill and sliced tomatoes that I couldn’t stop eating. No utensils necessary as you scoop up the mezze with grilled za’atar bread (a concoction of dried thyme, sesame seeds, salt, and spices) or regular pita. Old Man & The Sea, another Palestinian-owned restaurant with a Mediterranean view, featured a nice selection of the local catch, so I ordered a light, flaky, mild white fish called Lokuse, simply grilled with salt and pepper and served with a lemon. We also tried the sea dates, as mussels are called here, and grilled shrimp. With all that seafood swimming in my belly, I was thankful to see watermelon and prickly pear served for dessert, though I had to try the small balls of deep-dried dough soaked in simple syrup, called Awwameh, reminiscent of the Indian dessert galub jamun.

 

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As we put away a large meal like this in the late afternoon, we usually skipped dinner, but went to check out Tel Aviv by night with my wife’s cousins and their wives. It was during these nocturnal outings that I had an opportunity to try Israeli shawarma, which is notably made not with lamb, but turkey. We visited a small chain called Sun, where we got a generous heap of the lean meat accompanied by a chopped tomato and cucumber salad and fries. I doused my shawarma with a condiment called amba, a tangy, spicy, mango pickle, which must definitely have some Indian origins, though it was introduced to Israel by Iraqi Jews. Served alongside the meal was a plate of various pickled vegetables and the ubiquitous pita. On another occasion, we had the original lamb shawarma in one of the places on the main street of Yaffa that are apparently open all night. But even more than the food, what amazed me about the place were its original vaulted stone ceilings, which seemed to date back to antiquity. One note about Palestinian hospitality: They would give you the shirt off their back. My wife’s family did not let us pay for anything on these excursions, and once when tried to pick up the tab, I almost set off WWIII, so I deferred to our hosts.

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Back in Jaljuliya, we ate some mean barbecue, indulging in tender cuts of lamb rubbed with a home made spice mixture as well as lamb kebabs. The grilled meat was served with a rice pilaf, pickles, and molokhia, a leafy green that is boiled to yield a slimy, green broth, which was probably the least favorite food I ate on the trip.

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Though Tel Aviv is no doubt a hip, modern, attractive city with plenty to offer in the way of amusements and dining, I preferred the rustic charm of Yaffa with its old stone buildings and glorious past. But surpassing even this picturesque port is the coastal town of Acre (Akko in Hebrew) in the north. The old city, which was mentioned in ancient Egyptian sacred texts, and passed through the hands of Alexander the Great, The Crusaders, and the Ottomans, practically emanates history, and remains a place where the 95% Arab population lives and works. In fact, we ate at a highly recommended, 60-year old restaurant called Abu Christo, which was started by a Greek/Palestinian family. By now I was growing accustomed to the fine mezze and fresh Mediterranean fish, and we enjoyed small anchovies and a local favorite called Sultan Ibrahim as well as calamari and shrimp. Afterwards we strolled the small stone alleys of the old town. Since we didn’t spend much time there, it’s a place I would definitely revisit.

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On the way back that evening, we stopped off for dessert in Nazra, better known to Christians as Nazareth, where there is a huge Catholic church. Driving through the bustling city center, I was no longer surprised to find most of its inhabitants Palestinian. We stopped off at a well-known bakery/sweet shop called Elmokhtar Sweets, where I had my first taste of the Palestinian favorite known as Kanafeh, a cheese-based pastry topped with angel hair noodle threads and crushed pistachios and soaked in a sugar syrup. Fresh out of the oven, the cheese was gooey like mozzarella while the topping had a crunch thanks to the baked noodles and nuts. Though still full from dinner, I greedily scarfed it up.

 

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Thanks to the hospitality of Mustafa and his family we stayed in Israel much longer than originally planned, but with the cease-fire set to expire in a couple of days, we decided it was time to check out the West Bank. So named since it is territory on the west bank of the river Jordan (with the country of Jordan on the east), this area, which includes such historically significant places as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Jericho, is akin to a Native American reservation in the U.S. Where once the Palestinians controlled all of the land, which is currently called Israel, today they are largely relegated to this much smaller territory as well as the Gaza strip.

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We headed for the city of Nablus, from where my mother-in-law’s family hails, driving through a rocky, hilly landscape studded with olive trees and evergreens. The views became increasingly more dramatic as we progressed, until we finally entered into the bottom of a deep valley. Though I had expected a small town, Nablus is actually one of the bigger cities on the West Bank, with its characteristic box-like dwellings ascending the mountainsides. Walking around the old souk, or marketplace, which spreads out from a central clocktower, you could get lost in the maze of covered passages that house shops and stalls selling practically everything. We ate falafel and fool (fava beans), hummus and a salty fried cheese similar to Halloumi. We also sampled more Kanafeh, which supposedly originated here, though I preferred the one I had eaten in Nazareth. The following day, we had time for a breakfast of kebabs before visiting family, and preparing to cross back into Jordan. I tried lamb testicles on a stick for the first time and found them to be tasty. Though the time was short, we did not want to get caught in Israel when the cease-fire expired, and sure enough, the day after we returned to Jordan the makeshift rockets started flying from Gaza, only to be answered by precision-guided Israeli missiles dropped from F-16s.

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As we were briefly held at an Israeli checkpoint that last day crossing over from the West Bank, I spoke to an older Palestinian man, who told me that they detain him there everyday for a couple of hours, despite the fact that he is married to a Hungarian, and holds a European Union passport himself. “It’s because I’m Palestinian,” he said. I could only shake his hand, tell him I was sorry, and wish him luck, but I felt very small at that moment–but happy to be getting out of Dodge.

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I must confess to being a huge fan of mussels. These quick and easy to make little bivalve mollusks, which pack loads of flavor, may be prepared in so many ways, but I prefer mine steamed. Once considered ‘poor man’s food,’ mussels have definitely undergone a transformation of late, and you can see them on restaurant menues for as much as $30 a bowl these days. But why would you want to pay that kind of money when you can pick up a 2 lb. bag for next to nothing, throw them in a pot with a few simple ingredients, and create a completely satisfying dish bordering on the sublime. You will spend   very little time in the kitchen, and be rewarded with a dish fit for a king (or queen).

Some people might be intimidated with shellfish, and seafood in general, but there are just a few simple rules when dealing with mussels. First all all, clean them well. This usually involves a small brush to scrub the shells, and some finger action to remove the tiny ‘beard’ which mussels use to attach themselves to tidal rocks. Since farmed mussels are popular these days, however, most of the work has already been done for you. After that, be sure to discard any mussels that stay open. Mussels are a live food that must be cooked while still alive (because they release toxins when they die), and their natural reaction is to tightly clench their shells together when disturbed. After yoou’ve steamed them, also remove any mussels whose shells have’t opened. Other than that, you’re good to go–so what are you waiting for? Go enjoy some mussels today!

 

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Hoi Ma-Laeng Poo Ob is one of the more simple preparations of mussels that I’ve ever seen. Instead of steaming the mussels in the flavorful sauce, however, it is used for dipping. The only thing you have to throw into the steaming pot are the mussels themselves and some fresh Thai basil leaves.

 

The Recipe

2- 4  lbs. mussels, scrubbed and cleaned

large handful of Thai Basil leaves

 

Sauce:

½ cup lime juice

2 Tablespoons fish sauce

1 teaspoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons cilantro roots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1-2 red chilies, sliced

½ cup water

 

1.)   Place mussels in a steamer, over boiling water, and sprinkle with Basil leaves. Steam for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and wait 2 minutes before opening steamer.

2.)   Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and set aside.

3.)   Discard any mussels that did not open. Serve the mussels with the sauce on the side for dipping.

 

 

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Summer is heating up, and the last place you want to spend too much time is a hot kitchen. But don’t sweat it, because I’ve got just the quick-fix recipe for all you curry lovers. This is a scrumptious shrimp curry from Pakistan which is very easy to put together. Coupled with the fact that shrimp cooks very quickly, you’re looking at a dish which was made for the hot weather–light, flavorful, and simple to make. Serve with some steamed Basmathi rice and a salad, and you’re good to go. I even rolled up the leftovers in a wrap with some chopped Romaine lettuce and it was a perfect lunch. Dishes like this one are what Pan Asian is all about, so I hope you try it yourself, and please enjoy!

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The Recipe

1 ¼ lb. (500 g) raw jumbo or tiger shrimp

3 tbsp. sunflower oil

1 onion, chopped

1 tsp. garlic paste

1 tsp. ginger paste

1 tsp. tomato paste

1 medium tomato, peeled and finely chopped

8 oz. (225 g) plain Greek-style yogurt

1 tsp. red chili powder

½ tsp. ground black pepper

½ tsp. ground turmeric

½ tsp. cumin seeds

½ tsp. ground coriander

salt to taste

3-4 green chilies, coarsely chopped

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

cilantro leaves for garnish

 

1.)   Peel & devein shrimp leaving on tail. Set aside.

2.)   To make the masala (sauce), heat oil in a pan and fry onion until golden brown. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, tomato, and yogurt and cook for another few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chili powder, black pepper, turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander, and salt, and cook until the oil separates.

3.)   Add shrimp and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until shrimp turn pink (about 4-5 minutes). Do not overcook shrimp! Stir in the green chilies and chopped cilantro, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve hot with steamed rice.

 

Serves 4-5

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I return to The Hill Center on Capitol Hill in DC to do another class on the basics of Sri Lankan cooking. To be honest, I never thought I’d be doing cooking classes in a million years, but it kind of makes sense as this is an extension of my cooking show on Youtube, Pan Asian.

 https://www.youtube.com/user/ThaILLST/featured

Also, the good thing about cooking classes–especially interactive classes like mine–is that I can get the students to do all the cutting, chopping, stirring, and really all the work. But the big payoff at the end of the class is that everyone gets to eat all the tasty dishes we make. So it’s really a win win situation for all since you learn something about the cuisine and culture of Sri Lanka, and then get to enjoy a nice, big lunch, which you could not even get in a restaurant anywhere nearby. And since the class is from 11-1, you still have all day to go and enjoy the rest of your Saturday. A good day for me is when I get to watch cooking shows on PBS all day, so if you share a similar passion for food, I encourage you to sign up today at the following link! Space is limited and seats go fast, so hurry!

You can sign up right here:

http://hillcenterdc.org/home/programs/1826

 

Read A review of my last class right here:

http://lankapera.blogspot.com/2012/04/cooking-lesson.html

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This past week I had the pleasure of participating in 2 events which involved Sri Lankan food. The first, was a Sri Lankan Supper Club in Baltimore–put on by yours truly–at the home of some friends which attracted 30 guests, who have all now been duly baptized in the Church of Rice & Curry. Unfortunately in the midst of preparing and serving this buffet feast I did not have time to take pictures, but regardless it was a fun event and people enjoyed themselves immensely.

The second event was a benefit for a Sri Lankan school in Bentota sponsored by the non-profit, YouAssist. This time, I did not do the cooking, but supervised the students at Stratford University in Falls Church, VA, who put up an ambitious rice & curry meal for the 50 paying guests who attended. After conducting a short demo, during which I spoke about Sri Lankan spices, and actually made a batch of Sri Lankan roasted curry powder and then a pot of chicken curry, the guests sat down to the meal. To be honest, I was a little nervous at how they would receive the food–especially since this was the first time the students tried their hand at making Sri Lankan cuisine–but I’m happy to report that everyone in attendance  thoroughly enjoyed the meal and were full of praise for myself and the students (though I can’t really take any of the credit for the food, it’s good to know that the recipes from my book turned our just right no matter who is cooking) This time, a professional photographer in attendance, Li Thornton, documented the evening in the following gallery. Her information is below as is a link to YouAssist. Thanks to Anne and Michael Jansen of YouAssist and Chefs Jordan Lichman, Ricardo Willis and their staff at Stratford for making the event a great success!

Li Ansefelt Thornton

 

http://youassist.org/ 

 

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