Thursday, January 2, 2020

Chaatpati Chutney #FoodieReads


I read Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi* on New Year’s Day, between cooking, baking, watching movies, and playing board games. After an event-filled holiday season – often with multiple parties per day – we were grateful to just stay home and relax with no agenda or obligations.

You might know Lakshmi as a co-host of Top Chef or because she was married to controversial author Salman Rushdie for a spell. That was about the extent of my knowledge about her. It was refreshing to discover that she’s not just a pretty face…and she does actually cook and eat!

On the Page
Between the dedication sheets and the start of chapter one, there’s an otherwise blank page with the words: “The heart knows no pain sharper than love’s arrow.” That is a hint of what is to come. Over the next three hundred plus pages, we follow Lakshmi’s story. It’s one that is filled with intense loves, poignant losses, and a lot of food in between.

I’ll admit, though: I was simultaneously riveted and repulsed. Her prose is captivating and evocative while some of her choices left me wanting to reach into the book, pull her out by her hair, and smack her. Seriously.

Even after knowing she shouldn’t be with Rushdie, she showed a stunning lack of restraint on their first date . “At 3:00 a.m., I woke with a start. I’m naked in a married man’s bed. I got dressed and skulked out of the Mark, feeling like a hussy. Once home, I showered, attempting to scrub away my shame. There were so many reasons we shouldn’t be together. He was married, for one, with a young son. He lived in London. The ominous cloud of the fatwa hung over his heard. He was twenty-three years my senior, old enough to be my father. I consoled myself by resolving that there was only one decision to make; the next step was too obvious to doubt. We would stop speaking. I would go back to my life and he to his. But he kept calling. And I kept answering. I could not resist him” (pg. 8).

She details her painful experience with endometriosis and her work in creating awareness and a foundation to support women afflicted with that is admirable. I, of course, had heard the term, but had no idea of its implications. “A healthy female body, Seckin explained, expels uterine lining during menstruation. Not so in the case of a woman who has endometriosis. Instead, the tissue pools in the body’s reproductive cul-de-sac. The body then reabsorbs the lining, which grows. But the lining is no mere plasma or scar tissue; it has glands and responds to hormones – forming layer upon layer in the uterus, a new one each month that spills out into the peritoneum or lower abdomen. It can pool outside the uterus and attach itself to all the internal organs of a woman with the condition, preventing normal functioning of those organs. It can choke her reproductive system, as weeds in a healthy garden can take down the tallest of shrubs” (pg. 32).

Her description of thayir sadam, a porridge of salted yogurt, had my mouth watering. “Every housewife had her own special concoction that she mixed into yogurt rice. My mom fried freshly minced garlic and green chilies; my aunt added fresh pomegranate seeds and chopped cilantro; and others served it plain with just a spoonful of fiery Indian pickles made from green mango, sorrel, or lime. Few versions were anything but comforting and delightful, though my grandmother had the magic touch. With the contents of her iron ladle – mustards seeds and the like, plus perhaps crunchy fried lentils or even pieces of lotus root cured with spices, dried in the sun, …she would turn rice and yogurt into a meal…” (pg. 83).

She draws comparisons between her homeland and new experiences. “[Aunt Bhanu] deftly formed what seemed like hundreds of potato patties before breading and frying them in a shallow pool of oil. When I had my first McDonald’s hash brown, I thought to myself, This is a very poor aloo tikki” (pg. 89). She adopts a white-washed name through high school, calling herself Angie, first, then Angelique. Her life as a model in Europe was an interesting period. But, eventually, you see her grow comfortable in her own skin.

Of course, there’s lots of food mentioned and, as for most of us, food ties into memories and healing. Upon getting her own place after her divorce and having a kitchen in which to cook, she writes, “…I was so giddy about being able to cook in my own kitchen again. …I thoroughly savored going to Kalustyan’s, my old standby gourmet ethnic store, and buying all my pantry ingredients. I lingered lovingly in their spice aisles like a bookworm in the stacks of an old library. I filled my basket with ras el hanout, baharat, urfa chili and sumac, green mango powder and zaatar, bottles of obscure hot sauces, yuzu and rose jam” (pg. 208). “I made the staple chutneys and condiments I used regularly, like thick, pasty cranberry chutney with cayenne and fenugreek. I boiled carcasses in a heap of vegetables and aromatics for stock I could freeze. I spent whole weekends in the dead of winter filling tall canisters with lentils and pulses of every color. I bought black rice, red rice, brown rice, and of course basmati rice by the heavy jute sackful. I replenished my cupboards with all those rare and funky things I had discovered over my years of travel: dried black Omani limes and Szechwan peppercorns, kokum fruit skins and tins of glittering pieces of orange glacé” (pp. 209-210).

So, if you can reserve judgment on some of the choices Lakshmi makes – or better yet – forgive her lack of belief in her own agency, this is a compelling immigrant story.

On the Plate
There are a few recipes sprinkled throughout the book, including Applesauce for Teddy, Krishna’s Pickled Peppers, Kichidi (a simple white rice and mung lentil porridge), Egg in a Hole, Chili Cheese Toast, and more. But it was her Chaatpati Chutney that I was compelled to try. She shares, “Our best sauce to come of all those years of trial and error was our chaatpati tamarind-date chutney. This dark and gooey sludge became my first mother sauce of sorts, because it instantly woke up any bland or boring ingredient and made it finger-sucking good” (pg. 94).

Ingredients makes 1 ½ cups
very slightly adapted from Lakshmi's book
  • 4 C water
  • ¼ C tamarind concentrate
  • 2 t ground cumin
  • 2 t ground coriander
  • 1 t paprika (this is my addition)
  • 1 to 2 t cayenne, to taste
  • 1 to 2 T vinegar (this is not in the original recipe, I used apple cider vinegar)
  • 20 dates, pitted and chopped
  • 2 t salt (I used a birch-smoked salt)
Procedure

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon and mash the dates as you go to create a thick pulp. The finished chutney will look like a loose jam or barbeque sauce.

I haven't decided on what to use this. I'm thinking as a salsa for baked naan or maybe smothered over a warmed brie. I'll keep you posted.

*This blog currently has a partnership with Amazon.com in their affiliate program, which gives me a small percentage of sales if you buy a product through a link on my blog. It doesn't cost you anything more. If you are uncomfortable with this, feel free to go directly to Amazon.com and search for the item of your choice.

Click to see what everyone else read in January 2020: here.

3 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read this several years ago, but remember having a similar reaction about some of her choices. Evocative writer though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think I might enjoy this memoir. I know I would enjoy this chutney.

    ReplyDelete

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