30 April 2013

Needed to find out

I came to spices by way of a fairy tale.

Before I learnt to read I liked to while away my pre-school time listening to children's vinyl records that my mother regularly bought for me. There was a good deal to be all ears for, from Grimm's Fairy Tales to Kipling to Andersen to Soviet creations (some meager, some good), and I dutifully listened to them all. I had my favorites, but none was more loved than Hauff's Little Longnose. I couldn't -- I wouldn't -- stop listening to it over and over, often dragging the turntable needle across the scratched vinyl disk back to the start as soon as it reached the end.  

In a few brushstrokes, Little Longnose is a tale about a young boy, Jacob, who unwittingly insults a disagreeable woman at his mother's vegetable stall at the market. The woman asks him to help her carry her purchases, and when they reach her home she offers Jacob a plate of soup with knödel. The soup is so delicious it's unheard of, but the old woman being a wicked witch, it's imbued with magical herbs and spices that cast a spell on Jacob and turn him into a long-nosed hunchback. Unable to leave, he stays at the woman's house for the next seven years, during which he learns the magic of cookery. The story ends happily, but for our purposes today I just meant to say that it cast a spell on me. I listened lying on a couch in the living room, my eyes repeatedly examining a few cracks on the white ceiling, whily my mind, merging with the sounds flowing out of the spinning vinyl, was long gone to the old woman's garden, where I was beside Jacob, collecting musky herbs and blending mysterious spices. I could almost taste them.

Little Longnose got me intrigued, but for the time being that was that. I was too small to take any action of my own to hunt down the mysterious spices, my parents didn't seem that interested to do that for me, and in all honesty, in the Soviet eighties (not to mention earlier) there wasn't much on offer anyway. Intrigued I remained.

Then my mother started to (rarely) bake. She took to apple pirozhki with cinnamon, and often cinnamon wound up to be the key ingredient. I loved it. For educational purposes I liked to discover that a lot of cinnamon could cause my throat tingle, but what I really, really loved about cinnamon, even if it was past its prime and of dubious origin, is how different it suddenly made my everyday food. One moment it was the beloved baked apple with vanilla sugar, but add cinnamon and the deeply familiar fruit shifted ever so slightly toward the worlds far-off, an equally comforting and mystifying feeling. O the child's joys of discovery! Then my mother went on to use those spice mixes for fish or chicken or meat in her cooking, and faceless as they were they still took our meals off the beaten track. An interesting world was lurking somewhere in those spice mixes.

Then, at the age of twenty two, I had my first Indian curry. My friend Luke and I met up in snow-coated Saint Petersburg for New Year's then, and it was Luke's choice to have a hot Indian meal in the northern Russia. Did I want to? Hell yes, Indian sounds good. Equipped with the restaurant pages from a city guide I believe we went here. As a bold first-timer I ordered chicken karahi, the hottest on the menu. Our waiter giggled upon hearing my choice and pointed out that it was very spicy, pausing on 'very' for effect. Yes, I'm sure I'd like chicken karahi, please.

I cried and blew my nose through the whole meal. But, those piquant spices submerged in the incendiary sauce were such a revelation! My curry, it seemed, was otherwordly and I felt blue when the meal was over. My napkin was stained, heavily, with fragrant sauce; I took it with me. The aroma lasted for another day, and then, whoosh, the spices were gone. I didn't know what they were and I needed to find out.

Soon after I moved to Moscow for a year where I found an Indian grocer, and with him the vermillions, the scarlets, the ambers and the ochres of spices. For me, it was like upgrading from the children's watercolors to a professional art supplies store. I fell for Indian cuisine hard and fast. That comforting and mystifying feeling, a promise of discovery comes in tenfold each time I open a jug of garam masala or curry madras or toast cumin, fenugreek or mustard seeds in hot oil to make a tadka. Born and raised Russian to parents who till now never even ventured beyond the Soviet Union borders and so far with no experieces of my own of travels through India, I'm most certainly in no position to install myself as an authority in Indian cuisine. My only credential is that I'm mesmerized by it. I open a recipe, jack up the fire and let my mouth and my nose take me where I need to be. As my Indian friend Vijay once said, to cook Indian well all you need to do is listen to the pot and taste. I do! And so, me and my spices live happily ever after.

Chana Masala
Adapted from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg
Yield: 4 servings

A good chana masala (hello chickpeas!) is a balance between spicy and tangy, and this one delievers with a bang. The sour note traditionally is supposed to come from unripe mango powder (amchoor), but -- the purists, look away! -- you can strike the target by making use of lime or lemon juice instead, as done here. Taste and adjust the seasoning to how you like it. Does it need more citrus note and salt? It very well might. May I only insist that you use canned tomatoes that are more acidic than sweet? Somehow sweet tomatoes numb the dish. You don't want a numb chana masala.

I like to accompany this chana masala with basmati rice. Molly suggests to serve it with some full-fat yogurt (1/3 to 1/2 cup) to soften the flavors, or plain with a squeeze of lemon (I prefer lime). Whatever you choose, don't forget to sprinkle it with a pinch of garam masala and some chopped cilantro (or parsley). And be prepared, this dish gets only better the second day.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp garam masala, plus more for serving
3 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Two 400 g (14 oz) cans peeled tomatoes (see headnote)
a handful of coarsely chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves, plus more for serving
A good pinch of cayenne, or to taste
Two 400 g (14 oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp lime (or lemon) juice, or to taste

Heat the olive oil in a thick-bottomed, preferably cast iron, pot. Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's thoroughly caramelized. The more color in the onion, the more flavor in the final dish. Adjust the heat if the browning happens too quickly.

Scale the heat down to low and add the garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, cardamom pods, and salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup water and stir to scrape up the brown bits, if any, from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the liquid had eveporated. Pour in the juice from the cans of tomatoes, and add the tomatoes themselves, carefully breaking them apart with your hands as you add them to the pot. (You can also use a potato masher to crash the tomatoes directly in the pot.)

Bring the pot to an idle simmer. Add the cilantro (or parsley) and cayenne, and cook gently until the sauce starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. Add the chickpeas and lime (or lemon) juice, stir well, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add 2 teaspoons water, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add another 2 teaspoons water and cook until it's absorbed, for about 5 minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce's flavor. Taste, and adjust the seasoning.

Serve with basmati rice, yogurt, or plain (see headnote).