Sunday, May 31, 2009

Going Dutch

Johannes Vermeer's "The Wine Glass"

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) has a friend who has lived in Amsterdam for several years. He swings through town to see family every so often, and we get to enjoy his company over a meal and drinks. It’s a fine, relaxed time that feels like the best parts of college – zesty, deep, respectful debate about everything from the birth of open source software to religion.

Naturally, we tend to talk about life in the U.S. versus life in the Netherlands. Here’s a list of what I learned:

 The housing market there is unsettling people because prices are fluctuating by 10% or so in either direction.

 It’s equally easy to be a vegetarian in either country, although it used to be harder here.

 Europeans don’t wrap up nearly as much of their identity in their jobs as Americans do.

 Temporary resident aliens have the right to vote in the Netherlands. Thus our friend was able to vote for the next Water Commissioner, which might not sound like much, but it is -- 25% of the Netherlands is below sea level and under constant threat of flooding.

 Our friend was the first employee to refuse a company car – in Amsterdam, you really can’t have one because, he says, there’s just no room. Also, when you have four markets, a cheese shop and two bakeries within walking distance, and the bars are a tram ride away, you don’t need one.

 He described the Dutch language as the intersection between English and German. There are two ways to say “cheers”: prost, and gesundheit (if you pronounce the first syllable like you are a Jewish grandma saying “challah.”)

The Joy of Appliances

We have recently been made ridiculously happy through the acquisition of a new washer and dryer. The old ones were starting to hobble, and it turns out my company's discount on them is significant. Add to that the tax credits available for Energy Star items, which pretty much everything is these days, and we were off to the races.

Here are the space-age machines, stacked because A) they can be, and B) our laundry room is more of a laundry cubby, and expanding the usable space by even a few inches makes our lives much more pleasant. Take special note of the gas line on the left, which I think of as more of a bruisemaker than a gas line. That red knob is 2 feet, 6 inches from the right-hand wall, and while I often curse the idiot who put it there, I am glad they made it sturdy.

Mowgli has a collection of approximately 1.5 million tools and is not at all intimidated by things like the possibility of getting electrocuted, so we opted to have him handle the installation. I admit to being nervous -- you never know what you're going to run into, even in an 11-year-old house, and I had to resist the nightmare scenarios that popped into my head unbidden. I conjured up floods of water cascading into the basement from the first-floor bathroom through an open pipe that could not be turned off while Mowgli yelled instructions to me and I did my best not to scream at him. Which actually happened, years ago, in my old house.

But happily, history did not repeat itself, and everything went relatively smoothly, i.e., we got through it with only two mid-project trips to the big-box hardware warehouse. One of those was for dryer vent parts. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say Mowgli had some choice words for the folks who built our house. He was pretty diplomatic, though: "They're not supposed to do that" and "Those idiots!" were about as salty as he got.

Once everything was hooked up, we inched the six-foot-tall technological wonder into place by shoving our bodies against it in precisely choreographed little bursts. We tossed some clothes in, consulted the manual, poured the right amount of detergent in the fancy little additive drawer, and gingerly pushed the necessary buttons. Then we sat down to watch.

That's right. We sat on the linoleum floor of the laundry cubby and gazed in wonder at the clothes as they tumbled back and forth, making comments like "What's it doing?" and "That's amazing." and "Wow."

The next morning, I found a stack of folded clothes, and a note. Here's a closeup:

In case you can't make it out, it says, "The dryer is so awesome that it even folds the clothes!"

Now that's a good dryer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

We Heart the Spelling Bee

Over the holiday weekend, my husband Mowgli (not his real name) ran into reruns of last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, which could only mean one thing: it’s time for this year’s bee.

Go ahead, call us geeky, we don’t mind. We know what you may not: the national bee is an amazing piece of theater.

ESPN aired the semifinal round last night, and by the time ABC televises the finals (tonight, 8 p.m. Eastern/ 7 p.m. Central), the remaining 9- to 15-year-olds will have been whipped into a nervous froth of adolescent yearning. But it’s all good, clean fun: they’re competing for brainiac glory, and money.

The top prize includes a savings bond, $2,800 worth of reference works, a scholarship and an engraved trophy as well as a check for $30,000. If you take second place, you receive $12,500. Even kids who misspell in the first round of the semifinals get $250.

Being a former rule-writer, I checked those out. Here’s my favorite: “The speller must not have repeated fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade for the purpose of extending spelling bee eligibility.” Imagine, for a moment, the hilarity of exactly how one would intentionally repeat a grade in order to qualify for a spelling bee. You’re ridiculously smart, and yet, and yet, advancing a grade will erase forever your last shot at holding the big, shiny trophy… oh, the agony!

The statistics about the spellers are fascinating, and sometimes counterintuitive; 44 are only children, 63.5% of them attend public schools, there is one third-grader, and 30 spellers are related to a previous national finalist.

And here’s one to chew on: "English is not the first language of 33 spellers, and 117 spellers speak languages other than English." Imagine that for a moment. Create a picture of yourself at 12, 13 or 14, in France, on a stage, on national TV, spelling French words. Merde!

But as you may have guessed, it’s the kids of Indian descent that really float my husband’s boat. When they're at the mike, he likes to reminisce about his own school days and imagine how they prepared, especially when they cut to the parents’ section of the stage. It's a nice bit of side theater for me, seeing my husband dissolve in fits of laughter while imagining the arduous path that led these kids to the bee. For a taste of this, you can check out the documentary "Spellbound."

And yes, in case you’re wondering, we did watch the reruns; we were hoping to see this moment again:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hair Conundrum

Among my odd talents is the ability to put my hair up using chopsticks. I did this yesterday while preparing to meet a friend for lunch, and then hesitated. We had talked about going to a Vietnamese restaurant, and I know that in other Asian countries, using chopsticks for non-food applications is a big no-no. Poking your chopsticks into your rice and leaving them there is really bad in form in China -- it mimics the incense sticks (stuck in rice, I think) that signify a funeral.

Gads -- what if my hairdo offended the nice people who make and bring me the yummy food I love so much?

But then I thought, this is America, and they've been here for a while. Surely they've been far more offended by far worse faux pas. I'm not going to Vietnam; I just want a 19.02 with curry sauce.

These are the things that occupy me -- worrying that I might offend someone with my hairdo, and then deciding that it's okay.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Opening the Kimono

Dear readers, I can't fathom what sort of photo could adequately illustrate my mortification when I realized, after joining Facebook, that I'd ranted, ever so gently, last month, against doing just that.

Here's the pertinent section in case you don't feel like reading the whole thing:

"I don’t want to be found by my third-grade classmates. I don’t want to put myself on display. I don’t want to be lulled into exhibitionism by the atmosphere of unabashed sharing and then regret it later. Yes, I know I can set the privacy levels, but I just don’t want to crack that door. It’s too tempting."

So once again, after more or less declaring "never," I've gone and done it. Cracked the door. Opened the kimono ever so slightly. Uploaded photos. Friended pretty much everyone I could think of, and accepted 95% of the friend requests that came my way.

Still, it's a great place to put omote vs. ura to work, and I'm getting lots and lots of practice in the ancient arts of temptation avoidance and self-restraint. Because as nice as I may seem to be most of the time, I have a serious snarky streak, and hard experience has taught me that it's best to keep it under wraps.

At any rate, it's done, and I don't feel I caved completely, because I joined partially for work -- to study the beast and understand it. Here's a short list of what I've learned so far:

- Posts get sentimental and/or silly late at night.

- People LOVE quizzes.

- People also love to dispute the results of quizzes.

- Quizzes can be gamed.

- It's a great place to seek advice and opinions on things like the best way to quit coffee (thanks again, everyone -- today is Day 3, and I'm not missing it).

- Some people are so friendly they'll accept your friend request even if they don't know you. Okay, so the guy could also have been clueless, or looking to reach a certain friend count, but still. I definitely had the wrong guy, and it was almost certainly clear to him that he didn't know me, and he accepted my friend request anyway.

- It can be simultaneously comforting and alienating.

- It's a very serendipitous environment. I would call it Zen, but I don't know enough about Zen to know if that's accurate. Maybe my next status update should be a social media koan: Is Facebook Zen?

And on that note, I leave you with a random photograph.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Coconut Chutney: Round Two

The Cuisinart has been sucking up valuable counter space ever since round one. I left it there to remind myself that I needed to go back in for round two while the coconut was still fresh. And since I have today off in addition to Monday, I decided 9:15 a.m. was the time to jump back in.

I went with a different, seemingly simpler recipe this time: fried coconut chutney. Here it is as it appears in the book “Tiffin Varieties.”

And here’s my mise en place (that’s French for “make sure you have everything before you begin, Einstein.”) Clockwise from top right, we have the coconut with a green chile on the rim, salt, black gram dal (hulled, which is why it’s white), tamarind paste, curry leaves and mustard seeds. Alert readers will notice that the recipe above does not call for curry leaves, but since they're an essential ingredient in most Southern Indian dishes, I made an executive decision to add them.

And thus began today's theme of improvisation. My coconut was still in biggish chunks, and I’d need to grind everything together later on anyway, so I put the coconut, chiles, curry leaves, tamarind, salt and gram dal in the Cuisinart and processed it until all the bits seemed small enough. I also added a little oil to help with the frying, and because it was bone-dry.

Once in the frying pan, the oil didn’t seem adequate to keep everything from browning, so I added some water, which cooked out relatively quickly. So I added more, and decided to continue on that track for 15 or 20 minutes.

From the mutating smell wafting up, I could tell the ingredients were melding nicely, so I took a small taste. Friends, either Mrs. S. Mallika Badrinath is a sadist, or I added way, way too much salt. But what I could taste around and behind the salt seemed right, so I rummaged through the Indian mystery shelf of the pantry to see if the bag of dried, shredded coconut I remembered was a mental invention, or actually there. It was there. On a higher shelf was the can of coconut milk I’d bought months earlier, just in case I felt like making piña coladas or coconut curry.

Here are my coconutty saviors:

After the fried mixture had cooled a bit, I put it back in the Cuisinart with the supplementary coconut products and whizzed it around briefly. It was still fairly salty, but because I have great faith in the Joy of Cooking, I added chunks of potato to the new mixture to hopefully soak up some of the salt, and set it to simmer on medium for a bit.

I just tasted it. It’s much better, but it’s not spicy enough, so I added another green chile, cut lengthwise, which I’ll take out later. I think it will be okay in the end, but I’m really glad I also decided to make dal. Faithful, simple, delicious, difficult-to-screw-up dal.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Love Letter to a Lily Allen Song

For a singer-songwriter-musician, I don’t buy a lot of CDs. It’s weird, but there it is. When I get hold of one I like, I wear it out, and if there’s a track I take a particular shine to, I’ll put it on repeat in my car’s CD player for days at a stretch. For the last month or so, the album has been Lily Allen’s “It’s Not me, it’s You,” and the track has been “Him.”

It’s a song about God that borrows heavily in concept from Prince’s “One of Us.” It’s also a bit sexy, but that makes sense given that Allen has never been afraid to be anything, least of all sexy whilst singing about God.

Fellow blogger Richard Byrne has convincingly argued that Serge Gainsbourg’s “L’Hotel Particulier” is as perfect as pop sex gets; meanwhile, I don’t think I’ll ever hear a song about God that’s more sensous than this one.

In particular, I’m talking about the instrumental break (at 2:05 in the YouTube track below). It starts with a breathy “ah-ah” vocal – an extended version of the lead-in for the second verse – that’s soon joined by a walking bass line. Then it widens into a fattened-up version of the chorus’ musical bed. The synth violins are still there, only now it’s impossible not to notice that they sound as if they’re being played through a trumpet mute for a pulsing effect. They’re propelled along by driving snare-based drum work and an elegantly simple single-line guitar solo. I crank this section up every time it comes on, because I can’t resist the impulse to take a bath in its warm, thick, loungy vibe.

One of the best things about this album outside of Allen herself is the producer, Greg Kurstin, and one of the best things about him is his egalitarian approach to instrumentation – banjo, accordion, and pedal steel are just a few of the pleasant surprises on these tracks. He’s also skilled at quoting musical styles without parroting them. I’m still working out why “Are You Mine” reminds me of the Beatles, though I suspect it’s the piano and the deft employment of the “rule of three” – repeat something twice, then shift away.

Getting back to “Him,” the verses wander through a series of amusing questions such as whether the big man in the sky would drive without insurance, and speculates about his favorite band. But the chorus is where Allen shows us what she really believes:

Ever since he can remember
People have died in his good name
Long before that September
Long before hijacking planes
He’s lost the will
He can’t decide
He doesn’t know who’s right or wrong
But there’s one thing that he’s sure of
This has been going on too long

Finally. Someone wrote a song about God that I can not only believe in, but feel the truth of in my bones. It’s about time. Thank you, Lily Allen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Coconut Chutney: Round One

The tools in the photo will not help you crack the coconut.

This weekend, I rode my bike a few times, met a friend for breakfast, and disemboweled a coconut. I'd bought said coconut a few weeks earlier with the intention of making coconut chutney, which is one of my favorite food substances.

I had taken my scratchy-covered brown victim to the garage to drive a nail into two of its eyes; this was how I remembered opening coconuts as a kid. At the beginning of the adventure, Mowgli had said we didn't have the proper tool (a handheld scythe) but I was undeterred.

The nail-driving and subsequent milking went fine, and we both enjoyed the watery milk, which Mowgli says is good to drink in summertime. He also said that if we poured it in the houseplant soil, a coconut tree would grow; this was a shortlived and highly amusing attempt to start a game of "gullible wife."

Back out in the garage, I spent a while whacking the nut with a hammer and marveling at the lively, happy sound it made as it rebounded from each assault, utterly unharmed. Thinking I'd have better results if I put a chink in the convex armor, I found a handsaw and worked up a sweat making an insignificant valley.

Then Mowgli came out and laughed at my feeble attempts. He put on a gardening glove, took the coconut over to the landscaping bricks pictured above, and had it open after two or three thwacks against the edge.

Back inside, I pried frustratingly small chunks of flesh out with a knife until the shell was bare, and was thrilled when my helpful husband said to use a potato peeler to remove the thin inner husk. Half an hour later, I was ready to make the chutney.

The recipe I used is from a cookbook written by Mrs. S. Mallika Badrinath, who's written a series. We have about nine of them; they have titles like "100 Vegetarian Gravies," "100 Snacks Special," and "100 Rice Delights." The chutneys are in "100 Tiffin Varieties."

Once I had Mowgli identify the Bengal gram (the mysteries of the Indian pantry shelf are many) and researched the size of a gooseberry so that I could add a blob of gooseberry-sized tamarind paste, I was ready to go. I ground the coconut in the food processor, added a green chile, the tamarind, the Bengal gram, some salt, and whizzed away, thinking the racket the peas were making were par for the course.

Then Mowgli came by to say, "The gram is not roasted." My shoulders fell forward in bleak defeat. The recipe calls for roasted Bengal gram, and in my excitement to move out of the preparation stage, I had forgotten about the roasting.

I am sorry to say that I scraped all that lovely fresh coconut-tamarind-chile-gram goop into the trash; I just couldn't figure out how to salvage it. And since I had used my last green chile, I couldn't start over, even though I had enough of everything else for a second attempt.

And that, my friends, is why I called this post "Coconut Chutney: Round One."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

International Food Field Trip

As we headed out of the building, one of my fellow travelers said, “I can’t believe we’re really going!” I couldn’t, either – we’d been plotting a lunchtime field trip to Jay International Foods for at least a month. Besides me, there were three young coworkers, all guys, all creative and funny and adverturesome in their eating and cooking.

When you enter the store, you get a small idea of what it smells like to travel the world. Myriad unidentifiable scents form a semi-sour wall built on fresh-fish base notes; I’m always relieved when it fades, as stinkiness is not my favorite part of traveling.

There are at least a hundred kinds of jam: rosehip, plum, apricot. I picked up a jar of ginger preserve. They sstock more kinds of fish sauce than seem logical, tubs of spices for less than half the cost of a single small grocery-store bottle, enormous bags of rice and tins of oil that will last for years. In the frozen section, you can find squid, whole jack mackerel in two sizes, very cute flat fish of some sort, and the infamously stinky durian.

Part of the fun of going to any international food store is gawking at the packaging. We found a bottle of “Chee-zee” spread with a cheesy-looking kid on it, an ingredient list that included “lovely,” and many products that were clearly named but still unfathomable, such as “Beef Iron Wine.”

The dry goods are arranged by country, and because I lived in Japan for a few years, I tend to get nostalgic in that section. This time it was the mayonnaise that made me think of the adventures I had figuring out what to buy in Tokyo’s grocery stores. It was Kewpie brand, with its nonsequitur image of the ‘40s-era doll, in a bottle made of thin plastic that ensures you’ll get every drop out. I’m good on mayo, though, so I picked up a box of Vermont curry mix – this is Japanese-style curry, a block of trans fat and spices that you add to your meat and veg to make a viscous, sweet gravy. One of the guys picked up nori and wasabi, and ingredients for spring rolls.

Another guy needed tamarind paste, but the closest thing we could find was tamarind chutney. I asked a nearby Indian man whether it could be substituted for the paste. At first, he thought I just wanted him to get out of the way so I could get to the shelf beyond him, but when he realized I was asking him a question, he smiled broadly and attempted to answer it. Then he asked me to wait a moment, and called his wife over. She had been in the other aisle, and by the time she got to us, she seemed a little annoyed, said something vague, and gave me a head wag that I had trouble interpreting. My husband has told me many times that Indians hate to say no, and this particular wag seemed too vague for a “yes.”

Later on, still bothered by the Indian woman’s watery answer and the thought of a friend making Pad Thai with the wrong form of tamarind, I asked a store employee about the tamarind paste. “Aisle 17. Chinese and Thai.” Sure enough, there it was, blocks of it stacked up right across from the Indian section, where I had righteously expected it to be.

One of the guys, who had a Vietnamese friend growing up, bought a packet of sweets that were green, chewy, tasted like popcorn, and were filled with a sweet white bean paste. He handed us each one in the car on the way back, which prompted all kinds of commentary and discussion, capped off by a “Thanks, I think.”

We must have stayed for more than half an hour, but it felt too fast. Next time, I want to start earlier and have a meal while we’re out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Love Letter to a TV Show

There are many unexpected pleasures in a marriage; some even make you laugh. I’ve had the good fortune to experience one that makes me almost pee my pants laughing.

About six months after the wedding, after selling my house and moving and incorporating my stuff into inadequate closet space, I noticed that my Indian gearhead husband was frequently watching TV, and that often, he was watching shows about cars. Blech, I thought, and blech again.

He kept urging me to sit down and watch with him. Blech once more, I thought, even though I had noticed by this point he laughed a lot at one particular car show. I continued with my important tasks, organizing my sock drawer, deciding where to put my dental floss and so forth.
Eventually I gave in, sat down, and experienced the unparalleled entertainment that is Top Gear. It’s a BBC show wherein the three hosts test fancy cars, make celebrities race around a track in a crappy car to see who will be fastest (Simon Cowell was, for a long time), and undergo car-based challenges.

The most stunning challenge didn’t involve cars at all; the producers sent them to Vietnam, gave them enormous boxes full of money, told them to buy a vehicle with it, and left them to figure out that the only thing they could afford would be a moped or ancient motorcycle. Then they had them drive, on the bikes, from Saigon to Hanoi. Finally, they issued a cruel edict: if the bikes became unrideable, they would have to finish the journey on an American-flag-bedecked motorcycle blaring “Born in the USA.”

It sounds silly, and it is, but it also contained some of the most gorgeously simple anti-war statements I’ve ever seen. Richard Hammond narrating the story of a man on a beach who survived an air assault there and consequently lost his hearing, while the man scratched the story in the sand. A B-52 left to rot in a canal because that’s where it crashed and nobody had bothered to move it. All three men rendered speechless by bullet holes in an ancient monument, and then again by the raw beauty of a valley view.

Here’s a clip from the episode. You’re welcome.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Riffing on International Food

Breakfast during a ski trip in Japan. Yes, that's a hot dog, but isn't it pretty?

This morning, as I was thinking of a topic to post about, I realized this is the last day I'll see a good friend before she goes to Paris for a week. So naturally, my thoughts turned to food; specifically, the glories of international foods eaten in their home environment. Because seriously, my friends, you have not had a croissant until you've had one in Paris. I know that sounds like food snobbery, and maybe it is, but I'm sorry, it's true.

I've had pierogi in Krakow, dosas in India, and yes, croissants in Paris. But the foods I keep coming back to and getting nostalgic for are Japanese.

Every convenience store in Tokyo, where I lived for a year and a half, had onigiri -- triangular wads of rice stuffed with salmon, or beans, or tuna. They were delicious, simple, filling and blessedly cheap. In summer, they had pre-packaged cold soba -- buckwheat noodles with a sweet, salty soy-based sauce, and a tiny compartment of paper-thin green onions.

Naturally, there is a class of bar food. Yakitori -- literally, grilled chicken, a/k/a chicken on a stick -- was a favorite, as was its cousin, octopus on a stick. Seriously, folks, when you're 22 and you've had a few giant beers after teaching English for nine hours and you've missed the last train, nothing hits the spot quite like grilled octopus smothered in teriyaki sauce.

Finally, the ubiquious sushi; it's in convenience stores, in "kaiten" joints where it goes by on conveyor belts and they tot up your bill based on the plates stacked in front of you,
and at proper sushi restaurants. Someone in the gaijin house where I lived had identified a half-off night at a sushi restaurant we could walk to, and I had some of the best raw fish of my life there. I can't recall what I had -- probably lots of tuna -- but I remember how much I loved eating what the locals were eating, where they were eating it. This was also my first exposure to banana leaves as plates, and using my hands to eat in public.
And now I'm so hungry for sushi that I'm plotting a new career as an international food writer.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dance Class

I did not wear these shoes for dance class.

My husband Mowgli (not his real name) and I just finished a beginning ballroom dance class that was mostly enjoyable, but at times seemed interminable (most notably when we were attempting the foxtrot). We learned (and I use the term loosely) cha-cha, tango, waltz, merengue, salsa, foxtrot, and an unnamed dance that our instructor assured us is very popular in the clubs right now, though after doing it for five minutes I have no idea why. It was a horrendously boring side-to-side thing, with none of the variety of the cha-cha slide.

The instructor was a thin older lady who occasionally got confused about whether she was teaching the guy’s or the girl’s part. She was very nice, and from the way she glided about I could tell she’d been doing formal dance all her life, but she also had a tendency to wave her hands and urge us to practice more if we were having trouble with something.

We took the class because one fine evening, Mowgli announced his desire to learn to tango. I think he’d been watching “Chuck Versus the Tango,” but he does often mention, in a very impressed tone of voice, that Robert Duvall is a noted tango dancer. At any rate, it was my job to find and sign us up for a class.

Naturally, being budget-conscious, I headed straight for the online St. Louis Community College course listings, found a 13-week course for $49 per person, and signed us up. At our first class, there were about 30 people in the high school gym where we met. By the end, it was down to 10 or 12.

If you ever find yourself in need of excellent people-watching, I highly recommend a ballroom dance class. We had a pair we called the “happy couple” because they were always beaming, madly enthusiastic, waving their arms and bottoms about and embellishing the steps almost as soon as they learned them. They were sweet and hilarious at the same time. There was also one guy who would sometimes show up on his own, his arms holding a ghostly partner, doing the steps by himself. I always felt a bit too shy to go over and dance with him, but a couple of other ladies did.

I’d been to enough Polish weddings to know how to do the box step and the polka, so I was somewhat ahead of the game. Poor Mowgli had never before had a dance class of any kind. Also, he needs new information broken down into tiny component parts in order to learn it. This was not that kind of class. This was a “here’s the step, here’s the step again, okay now get with your partner, here comes the music” kind of class.

Despite that disconnect, and me having a tendency to lead, and not always being able to go fast enough to keep up with the music, we were doing pretty well by the end of the class. Also, we laughed quite a bit and had many romantic moments on the floor of the U City High gym; it’s kind of hard not to when you're being held by the love of your life.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On my Profile Photo

Yes, those are my hands. They're covered in mehendi, which is henna paste applied and allowed to dry. It's a decorative art that's thousands of years old and is practiced in many countries for different reasons. In India it's typically associated with special occasions having to do with transecndence and transformation. When I've asked about it, some people have told me it also has to do with warding off the evil eye.

Mine was done in India for the occasion of the reception that Mowgli's parents threw for us last year. A cousin's 13-year-old daughter did the honors; she had a book of patterns with her and let me pick out what I liked, then did the work freehand. She had premixed tubes with tiny tips; she did my hands and feet in the space of an hour.

On my wrists are gold bangles; some are mine, some are my mother-in-law's. I also wore a combination of necklaces, some hers, some mine. The mix appeals to me both in terms of the symbolism of the joining of families, and the trust implicit in letting someone else wear your special-occasion jewelry.

The last of the mehendi wore off three weeks after it was applied. It was still clearly visible when we came back to the States, and a lady in one of the airports asked me if we had just gotten married when she spotted it. I think I said no, it was just a reception, even though it was tempting to say yes. It certainly felt like a wedding to me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lunch, Pakistani-Afghani Style

Yesterday I learned that the spices you eat can darken or lighten your skin.

Allow me to explain. I went to lunch with an adventurous friend who was up for trying an Afghani place I hadn’t been to for at least a year. The owner, an exceedingly tall guy whose parentage is half-Pakistani, half-Afghani, was an intermittent presence at our table. He helpfully suggested various dishes (take his advice as I did and get the lamb biryani, it’s fabulous) and playfully cajoled us into trying their special yogurt sauce. It’s ordinarily just for the staff, but after tasting it, I did my best to playfully cajole him into adding it to the menu.

I asked about the spice mix on the kebobs, and he started telling me about the two options (one just tasty, one fiery and tasty) but then took a sharp left turn into the topic of skin-darkening spices. He listed off countries with spicy food (Pakistan, India) that have darker-skinned people and countries with less spicy food (Afghanistan, most notably) that have lighter-skinned people. He said a lot of people don’t realize the connection, but it’s true.

Then we moved on to the topic of the cheesecake that he’d put together that we had to try. When I asked if he could take our order, he put in a final plug for the cheesecake and said he’d send the waitress over.

This morning when I Googled “skin-darkening spices” I only found links about how to lighten dark skin. When I Googled “light skin spices” I found the same kinds of links. This is not shocking, given the cultural value placed on light skin in many cultures, but it’s still sad. It also reminds me of when I asked someone, during our trip to India last year, whether the skin-lightening creams I saw everywhere actually work.

Her face definitely darkened when she said she’d tried them, but they don’t do anything.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Canine Inspector Clouseau

I ran into the 1964 classic "A Shot in the Dark" on TV yesterday, and realized as I sat there that our dog Jim is like Inspector Clouseau in several striking ways:

1. He is stunningly clumsy; he has a particular talent for getting tangled in cords and falling over his own feet on the stairs.

2. He is not terribly bright; he often turns around to see where his own fart noise came from. This is apparently terribly confusing for him.

3. He is excellent at fending off Kato. Once when Mowgli was walking him and they were charged by a leashless German Shepherd, our meek, mild Jim put himself between the dog and Mowgli and got down to doggy business.

4. He makes us laugh.

5. Chicks dig him.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Waiting for Dosa

About a month ago, in the basement of the Hindu temple, a man struck up a small conversation with me. This is unusual, but it’s also true that I don’t often initiate conversations, as A) I’m not terribly good at that anyway, and B) everyone’s usually eating, or waiting for food. Specifically, we’re waiting for dosas.

Dosas are enormous, thin, crispy, savory crepes, made from a batter of rice and very small beans called urad dal. The basic idea is this: you wash and soak the beans and rice for a few hours, grind them together with some water, and then let the mixture ferment for roughly 20 hours. This fermentation process is the key to producing the aforementioned crispiness.

Back to the gentleman who was talking to me: I had just gone through the shared-table ritual of asking, “Do you mind if I sit here?” and he had nodded his assent with a tilt of his head and a smile.

Him: I hope you will enjoy the food.

Me: I always do. It’s the best in town.

Him: Can you make Indian food?

Me: Some of it; simple things like dal, and dry curries.

This conversation got me thinking, not only about why he would ask me that particular question, but why I didn’t cook more Indian food. The dishes I had tried weren’t horrendously difficult, turned out well, and had built my confidence. Why was I resting on my Indian cooking laurels? What made me think something like, say, dosa would be beyond me?

I started searching for recipes, both at home and online. The ones at home all called for rice, which we happen to be very low on right now. But online, I found one calling for rice flour, which I have, so I decided to start with that, on Wednesday night. Thus last night was the night of dosa truth, and let me tell you, it was a bit harsh.

First of all, I don’t have the right pan – dosa pans are huge circular things, flat like crepe pans and curled up at the edges (I assume that’s to help with flipping). Second of all, I had no idea what heat level and amount of oil was best. Even though I was working with non-stick pans, parts of them were definitely not non-stick, and besides, as Mowgli helpfully informed me, oil is essential when cooking dosas.

My batter was also pudding-thick, and seemed too grainy; the recipe I used was not specific about how much water to add. I had used a food processor instead of the rice grinder that would be used in an Indian household, and suspected I hadn’t ground the batter long enough. I hauled the food processor back out, combined some of the batter and some water, let it whiz around for a few minutes, heated up the pan, and ladled a bit of batter in, spreading it around with the back of the ladle.

The question of when and how to flip the thing was vexing, so I abandoned all hope of getting it right the first time and used my memories of pancake-making as a guide. The top got dry and a bit bubbly, and there was some steam coming from underneath, which I had no idea how to interpret. Using a silicone spatula, I worked around the edges and flipped it, let the second side cook for a minute or so, and slid it onto a plate.

I took a small bite. It was undercooked, which I attributed to the batter still being too thick and not able to spread properly. I added more water. And still more. Sadly, a few dosas had to be abandoned. They crumpled when I tried to flip them and their gooey insides stuck together, making them into useless lumps and prompting Mowgli to offer the Indian cooking proverb “the first dosa always sticks.” This would have been reassuring, but I was well beyond the first dosa.

Turning up the heat and adding more oil seemed like good variables to play with, and indeed, that’s when the batter started cooperating. I achieved my goal of making enough dosas for dinner, roughly an hour and a half after I had started. They were only crispy on the edges, and they were not the delightfully thin variety that’s so fun to eat, but as Mowgli had reassured me, there is such a thing as thick dosa, so I’m not worried about that.

There’s some batter left from this batch, so I’m going to try more with it to see if it’s better the next day, like so many things are. I’ll keep you all posted on that, as well as future attempts.