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The Cradle of Flavor

For decades, I thought I hated Indian food. In my 20’s, a guy I briefly dated had me over for an Indian meal he’d worked hours on, serving up a mélange of various foods.  I hate to say it, but I thought it was terrible.  Perhaps it was my young palette, which had grown up on mid America farm fare.  Perhaps it was the commercial “curry powder”, the only exotic spice available in the late 80’s in North Carolina.  At that time, I hardly knew where India was, but it was certainly “foreign” to me.  So I spent the next 20 years declaring that I hated Indian food, and the mere smell of “curry” sent me running.

In 2013, my husband and I were on his academic sabbatical in London, staying for two weeks in a rented flat in Chelsea. Having searched for the “best” restaurants, we settled on a few including the wonderful Gordon Ramsey outpost, Foxtrot Oscar.  But another restaurant, The Painted Heron, came up as the number one place to eat in Chelsea, promising lavish Indian cuisine.  Painted HeronBegrudgingly, at my husband’s behest, I agreed to “try it”, blithely posting in advance on Facebook that I was going to an Indian restaurant and that I would hate it.

Wow!! Was I ever humbled!  To this day, that restaurant remains a standard bearer of “one of the best dining experiences of my life”.  The extraordinary and variously complex flavors and textures and colors that came to our table for nearly two hours were simply amazing.  Out came baskets of flatbreads and seed covered crackers beside little dishes of the most amazing dips and spreads, each so uniquely flavorful!  Following came the tasting menu featuring lamb, seafood, chicken, vegetables … one after another, some cool, some spicy, as though they were choreographed to perform an intricate dance on the palette.

Two years later, in 2015, I was sent to Mumbai, India for a two-week technical workshop. While I spent most of my days and several evenings working, my Indian colleagues did get us all out into old Bombay a couple of times, which is located in the heart of the old city, beside the bay and The Gateway to India.  But they all wanted to take us to the hard rock café for a Pink Floyd tribute with bar food, which was a blast, and on another evening, out for wonderful Chinese food.  So my Indian foray during that trip was limited to buffet fare at the hotel where we stayed.  Culturally, I found India shocking at first with such a disparate society, at times beautiful and filled with colorful markets and kind people, but also sad, with so many people living on the streets as best they can, trying to take care of their families.

At Christmas this year, I bought a cookbook called Ajanta, which is an Indian restaurant on the west cost. In the Amazon suggestion section, I noticed that you could order the companion “spice box” featuring over 30 spices, which are hand ground and packaged by the restaurant and shipped immediately, so they arrive very fresh.  The smells when you open that box will excite your senses!  Little packages of seeds and chilies and cardamom pods, tamarind, turmeric, cumin and things I’ve never heard of like Chia seeds!  So we bought some plain yogurt, and basmati rice and have ventured further into cooking from the Asian realm.  Now we understand the movie, The Thousand Foot Journey, and the importance of the Spice Box!

This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Singapore, and received recommendations right away from friends that I would have to go to the “Hawker Stalls” which are everywhere in the city. I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded fun.  And so I my husband and I ventured out on the Sunday we arrived to the Maxwell Hawker center.  It turns out that hawker stalls are the Singapore version of food courts, although that term is really a misnomer when you see the dozens of walk up food counters of every variety, with families and friends happily perusing the choices, lining up for their favorite, freshly prepared foods, all in an open air Pavilion with tables in the middle.  The selection and variety of Pacific rim food was incredible!  Noodle shops, Satays, Thai choices, Indian choices and Malay choices.  There were vendors preparing fresh tropical fruit drinks and tall cold drinks made from pressed sugar cane.  Wonderful!  I’ve certainly had some very good Thai food, but nothing can really prepare you for these dishes prepared in country with local ingredients, cooked to order right before you.  A co-worker who’d lived in Singapore said we had to try “carrot cake”.  No it’s not a cake, nor does it contain carrots.  It’s a stir fry containing rice flour, white radishes (known as carrots in Asia), and a toss in of spices, soy, garlic, egg and seafood.  It was delicious!

I signed up for a cooking class while I was there, but it was canceled the day before due to lack of interest. BooksWhen I got back home, I ordered a “few” cookbooks as I wanted to explore Thai and Malay cooking.  My first attempts didn’t go so well.  It turns out cooking with coconut milk can be tricky and the varieties vary greatly in quality.  One attempt was very soupy and bland (although Thai curries are generally thinner), and on another attempt, I let the coconut milk boil, which broke and curdled and I ultimately threw the whole batch down the sink!

Today, with my husband and I both working the recipe, we made the most amazing Thai curry we’ve ever had! I found it in the cookbook, “The Cradle of Flavor” by James Oseland, which is part travelogue on the spice islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.  “Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes” was supposed to be orange but our Thai chilies were green, rather than red, so we wound up with a beautiful yellow curry with incredibly complex heat and flavor!  Straying slightly from the recipe, I partially simmered down the coconut milk with the shrimp shells, and then strained it, while my husband made the flavor paste of lemongrass, chilies, ginger and turmeric, which is fried for a few minutes before adding in pineapple, shrimp, tomatoes, and finally the thickened coconut milk.  Served over jasmine rice, with crispy naan, a true success!

A couple of weeks ago, a late night read about a friend’s trip to Key West had me dreaming of a tropical excursion for New Years. After searching for a bit through the Caribbean, we shifted our attention back toward Asia, back toward the equator.  And so we’re spending New Year’s on the Indonesian island of Bali!  In my usual style, I’ve already begun to obsessively read about the waterfalls, the lush jungles, the beautiful beaches, the snorkeling, the Hindu temples, ceremonial customs and ritual dance, the terraced rice patties, and the Monkey Forest you can visit with curious monkeys trying to pick pocket!  And I’ve already found a cooking class focused on spices, which begins with a visit to the local spice market, filled with fragrant native island spices like nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon!

James Michener created the mythical island of Bali Ha’i in his book “Tales of the South Pacific”, based on an elusive, exotic island with restorative powers.  “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” he wrote, “The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.”