Josna Rege

351. Slow Food from Way Back

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, seasons, Stories, United States on November 25, 2015 at 3:06 am

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Dad always eats the food put in front of him without complaining, but the effusiveness of his appreciation when I serve even the most basic Indian meal of rice and dal bespeaks his craving for it. As a painter, he occasionally clips photographs of dancers or other elegant female forms from the New York Times, but three years ago as Thanksgiving approached he cut out a recipe and casually mentioned to me that it looked like a good use of leftover turkey. I glanced at A Dish for Pilgrim or Maharajah, noting mainly that it looked elaborate and time-consuming, but, since it was so unusual for Dad to actually suggest that I make something, took it under advisement. That is, I added it to a pile of papers, where it soon got buried, while Thanksgiving came and went.

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A month later, though, when Nikhil’s birthday and Christmas-New Year came around, I happened upon the recipe again, and this time decided to give it a go. It was indeed elaborate, but I made sure I had all the ingredients and decided to give myself over to the task, however long it took. As the house filled with the mingled fragrances of onions, cashews, and raisins fried in pure ghee and basmati rice cooked in spice-seasoned broth, all my earlier reservations were swept away. If leftover turkey is capable of inducing a flow state, I was well into it.

The turkey biryani was such a hit that my double batch was completely devoured before the evening was over, and I made it all over again just two days later by popular demand. That too was polished off in short order. The recipe was posted proudly on the refrigerator door, where it sat until the following Thanksgiving, when I prepared it again. That was two years ago now, and I confess that since then my cooking hasn’t extended much beyond the same old everyday fare, and quick-and-easy frozen dishes. As for anything new or experimental, just thinking about it makes me tired.

Let_s_not_eat_up_our_climate1-350x245During the same period of time my friend Anna has become interested in the Slow Food movement, which emerged in the late 1980s “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” She starts from scratch, making nutritious bone broth and simmering the food on very low heat for hours, until it is saturated with goodness. She has drastically reduced the quantity of food that she eats but dramatically increased the quality, buying nothing but the best ingredients and taking great pains—no, tremendous pleasure—in its preparation. Joining her for dinner is always deeply relaxing, as we eat in her kitchen by candlelight from her mother’s old china and savor each precious spoonful.

But of course until only very recently all cooking was slow, of necessity, since everything was made from homegrown ingredients. In our twenties and thirties, before children and when the children were small, we emulated the old ways, growing and canning our own vegetables, buying whole grains and beans in bulk, fresh-grinding the grains, and soaking the beans overnight, then cooking them for hours on the woodstove. Nowadays I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I buy my beans in cans, already cooked, and make my cornbread from a mix.

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (npr.org)

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (from npr.org)

My first cookbook was an American one that that my mother found, circa 1962, while we were living in Greece. It was a hardcover children’s cookbook, lavishly illustrated and printed on glossy paper, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. But when I set out to make some of the recipes, I was completely stymied: all the ingredients were processed foods, and all the steps involved opening a can of this or a packet of that, none of which were available in any of the shops we frequented. The only recipe I was able to make with the ingredients I had available to me was homemade potato chips (crisps), which turned out wonderfully well and made me inordinately proud. I was reminded of that cookbook today while listening to a pre-Thanksgiving radio program which described green bean casserole, a horrible-sounding dish that is apparently a beloved American seasonal staple, made entirely from canned and packaged ingredients.

Indian cooking is slow food from way back. While living on the farm in Winchendon in the 1980s, we would take it in turns to cook. When it was my turn I would frequently make a full-course Indian vegetarian meal, with rice, dal, chapattis, and at least two vegetable dishes. The preparation would take most of the afternoon, and Charlie, tired of waiting, would invariably lose his patience (and frequently, his temper) and make himself a hefty cheese sandwich just as I was entering the home stretch. A dismissive comment by one of my housemates about my “Third-World” cooking still rankles, and probably only strengthened my commitment to the stubbornly, pleasurably slow process of conjuring up a simple banquet from scratch. But with Charlie getting hypoglycemic, the babies getting tired and fretful, and the frying spices filling the whole house with their heady fumes, I can see how my insistence on slow cooking must have tried my housemates’ patience.

I took the yellowing turkey biryani recipe off the fridge today, considered it for a moment or two, then shook my head. Slow cooking is just not on this Thanksgiving, when, for the first time ever, I have succumbed to the idea of buying and re-heating a pre-cooked turkey. But at least I’ll be serving fresh steamed green beans. And the biryani still beckons as I promise myself the pleasure of slowing down for Christmas. Thank you, Dad.

Evan Sung for The New York Times

Evan Sung (New York Times)

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  1. Turkey Biryani sounds really good. And your picture of the farm house kitchen with grumpy guys + amazing aromas at dinner time was…Bittersweet.

    • Bittersweet sums it up, Norah! And yes, that recipe is a keeper. Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and I hope we can catch up over the holidays. xxx J

  2. It does sound good. I never had that much talked about green bean casserole and never hope to. Our Thanksgiving meal promises to be a slow one, with cooking going on here and in several of my daughter’s houses and then eating here. Hope yours is a good one in spite of the time constraints on cooking and hope the day itself is relaxing!

  3. Lovely post Jo – big hugs (mouthwatering ones) – so lovely of your dad too. Xxxxxx

  4. Turkey biryani sounds interesting.. 🙂 Slow cooking, local produce, seasonal fare – three things we no longer value.

  5. I missed the hyperlink and then spent time looking for the link for the actual recipe, but finally found it!

  6. I’ll have to try this, Josna. My sister forwarded it to me and I enjoyed the post above and beyond just the recipe. I lived in India for a number of years, but have never been happy with my attempts at biryani (but I never give up hope!)

    • Thank you! And sincere apologies for my terribly late reply. I’m glad you enjoyed the post itself, and wonder if you have had another try at a biryani. I made vegetable biryani a couple of years ago, and it turned out wonderfully, but took a lot of time. I have written other stories that you might enjoy about food and being an immigrant. One is called “Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation”: https://josna.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/92-cookbooks-immigrants-and-improvisation/
      Thanks again for commenting and best wishes, Josna

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