The Music of the Stove

I love music. I avidly listen to a wide variety of music from the close harmonies of Orlando Gibbons to MJQ with the occasional Fall Out Boy hit thrown into the mix. I listen to different types of world music, and even like the modern fusion of electronica and world music found on the Six-Degrees label. I studied classical piano and the related subjects of theory, history and counterpoint for nine years at the local conservatory when I was a kid and usually bring a tape recorder on my travels to record the sounds of the world around me. Curiously, with all of the listening and playing that goes on in my life, I like it to be quiet when I cook.

Part of my quest for quiet is concentration – certainly this is the case when cooking a multi-course meal in which dishes have to hit the table at particular times and in a particular sequence. Part of the need for silence is a certain reverence for the food and the artistic act of shaping a meal into something more than just the sum of its ingredients. But there’s more to it than that. The lack of music playing in the background or sometimes blaring as I’ve encountered in some kitchens doesn’t really bring silence. What it does bring is the ability to listen and perhaps to hear what’s happening on the stove.

As big and somewhat brainy primates we rely on our eyes for most of our sensory input when standing at the stove. How many times have you said or thought, “That looks done.” The second sense that most of us use when cooking is smell. The smell of freshly baked bread or pastry can evoke powerful memories and feelings of well-being in some people. Smell, even more than touch or color helps us tell the difference, for instance, between onions that are caramelizing nicely and ones that might be starting to burn. For the most part, however, sound is a much neglected sense when it comes to the art of the kitchen. We look, we smell, touch and taste, but how often do we listen to the food we are preparing?

Yin and Yang Eggs

Take something as simple as sautéing an egg in butter. As the butter slowly heats, it becomes golden or just a bit brown around the edges as it starts to audibly bubble. The bubbling starts slowly but increases in tempo until it becomes a steady stream of sound when it is ready to be used. A crack of an egg on the side of the pan and a raucous symphony begins when the chilled egg hits the warm butter – that is unless you live near a farm, or have taken the eggs out of the fridge more than an hour ago – then the pan will sing a gentler song as the temperature differential between the egg and the butter decrease. As the temperatures between the two ingredients merge, the sound drops off in both volume and pitch and the egg begins the same slow bubble that the butter went through. As the egg warms, the collagen in it cross-links and becomes denser as the texture firms. As this happens, the pitch starts to rise until the egg is almost hissing as it comes done.

Try it sometime. Either promise yourself to listen as you cook next time, or better yet, listen to someone else cook – preferably with your eyes closed or back turned – and try to predict when something is ready by using mostly the auditory sense. You really can hear when the onions in the wok are done, can’t you?

We listen to each other eat all the time, and the sounds of people enjoying food play a large part in the satisfaction cooks and chefs experience in preparing a meal. We complement each other with kind words and occasionally gush over a dish. Even when trying to be polite, there are the sounds of mastication, and my favorite are the sounds we utter unconsciously when really enjoying something. For lack of a better term – I’ll borrow the phrase used by Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – they are the “yummy sounds”. We’ve all heard them and we all make them – those soft, little grunts or sighs of pleasure when eating something delicious that somehow slip past the conscious superego that minds our manners. Yummy sounds make all of the work worthwhile.

If listening to each other eat creates a bond between the cook and the diners or even just between friends enjoying a meal together, does listening to a meal as it is being prepared create special links between the food and the chef? I say yes, and if you doubt that there can be a bond between humans and food, I urge to watch Tampopo again and not grin from ear to ear as master Goro instructs his student Gun how to properly respect the bowl of soup before he tucks in.

Cooking is like playing music – it is a performance art. No matter how hard we try to standardize the preparation of a certain dish, it often does turn out differently from batch to batch or from day to day. This is not only because of the variability of type and amount of ingredients, although substituting sweet parsley with cilantro or rau-ram could really change the fundamental taste of a dish, but it is also because of the mood of the chef and the sometimes tangled relationships that can exist in a family or in a kitchen.

I like to be clear and calm when I start to cook. This gives me space to listen (and see, smell and taste) the food I am preparing – and also allows me to bond with the food and let my skill and enjoyment of food preparation flow into the meal. When I have the space to approach meal preparation that way, it is far more than calories or even a beautiful presentation that I give to those dining with me – it is love. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Yin and Yang Eggs © Andreea Székely|


A Magical Nepalese Menu

Bohjan Griha Menu

Our house is a bit magical. The front of the house is on a relatively ordinary suburban street, but the back of the house looks over a seemingly endless tract of woods through which herds of deer, wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers and indigo buntings live. We share the house with thousands of books. Books of all shapes and sizes that overflow creaky shelves, books in foreign languages, really old books, rare books and . . . you get the idea. Since books are trees by another name, I have often fancied that the books inside the house and the trees outside somehow work together to make things appear and disappear from the shelves. This is miserable if you are looking for a particular book and simply cannot find it no matter how hard you look, but absolutely wondrous when you find something unexpected or rediscover something once forgotten.

A couple of days ago, something wondrous happened. I was rummaging through the poetry section of the library when a scroll wound around some twigs tumbled out from in between a couple of the books. I picked it up, feeling the familiar feel of coarse Himalayan fiber paper in my hand and smiled – remembering what the scroll contained. I unrolled it and was instantly thrown back in time. It was a menu from Bojhan Griha, a fantastic restaurant in the Dilli Bazar section of Kathmandu, Nepal.

It’s a startlingly simple Nepalese menu, but as with all great restaurants – a simple menu often means that the chef has perfected a few of his or her best dishes and that you are likely to dine on some really marvelous food. Such is the case with Bojhan Griha where flavorful, butter-soft lamb is blanketed with a rich curry, resplendent with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and accompanying vegetables, the quail and ducks are roasted to perfection and served with a mango-peppercorn sauce, and even the simple side dish of spinach overflows with the flavors of cumin, red pepper and just a hint of dill. Even the building that Bojhan Griha occupies is special. It is a restored building from the mid 19th century, once owned by a state holy man, that has many of the original luxurious appointments still intact.

That whole trip was so unexpected. On an ordinary Tuesday, I got a phone call at home from a colleague who asked if I could go to Nepal on Saturday – that I was needed for a particular project. He went on to tell me that he had already cleared it with anyone who could potentially object, and that the paperwork for my visa had already been filled out – and that all they needed was my approval. Being a new mother with an infant son, I said, “absolutely!” figuring that I could clear it with my hubby later So, in a few days, I was in the airport lounge hugging my kids and husband goodbye and boarding a flight for what was then the great Himalayan kingdom that I had always dreamed of visiting.

Terraced Fields Outside of Kathmandu

A driver met us at the airport and whisked us past the white-washed homes with tiled roofs of the fertile countryside directly into Kathmandu city which – like many cities in the developing world is a modern sprawl built around a historical old-town center. In this case, the old-town in Durbar Square reflects Kathmandu in its glory days of the 12th to the 15th centuries – with square pagoda-like towers next to more Indian-inspired arched buildings. One of the fascinating things about Kathmandu is that it is a very human-sized city – no building was more than a few stories tall.

Me being me, I had to climb the 365 steps of the Swayambhunath Temple and bounded up the first 25 steps or so, proclaiming that it was so easy! My guide shrugged his shoulders and followed. Well, the slight rise in the wide bottom steps turned increasingly vertical until the last 50 steps or so seemed like climbing a stone ladder. Even though I was pretty tired and a bit disheveled about half way up, I continued climbing – kind of like Jimmy Page in his fantasy sequence in The Song Remains the Same – striving toward the mountaintop.

Finally I reached the top and joined the other pilgrims by touching my forehead on the giant vajra in the middle of the courtyard. Only I did a little more than touch my forehead – I sort of rested it there as I caught my breath – leaving only when my guide gently, strong-armed me away to some nearby benches. After I rested, I spun some prayer wheels, said a few of my own prayers and as I was set to leave the way I came – my guide pointed out the driveway round the back of the temple where our driver was waiting patiently for us. I looked incredulously at him and he shrugged, reminding me that I said I wanted to climb.

Bouddnath Stupa

Even though I have spent a good portion of my life in cities – New York City included – I’m not really a city person. For me, nothing beats the sound of birds and the glimpse of elusive, wild animals – so I went the most obvious place one can go in Nepal – straight up. First, we went to Bhaktipur and watched the Maoists withdraw into the shadows of the temple as our car pulled into the main square. Quite on purpose, most of the temples in Nepal occupy the local “high ground”, so this is where the people who were –at that time political dissidents – hung out. It gave them a good vantage point from which to mind the comings and goings of people and merchants in the city. After touring the old temples, we continued on up the hills until the air got a bit thin and summer sun burnt us through our clothes. Not outfitted for climbing and having absolutely no interest in pitting myself against nature, we stopped at what might be the highest restaurant on earth open to the public – Club Himalaya – and had lime sodas on the patio as we looked down onto the backs of the golden eagles soaring far beneath us. A bit later in the day, the almost constant cloud cover dissipated a bit and we caught a glimpse of elusive Everest with the sun shining down on it – a rare site in the summertime-our guide told us-we were blessed.

Back in Kathmandu, I reconnected with some old friends who were living part-time in the city and who were able to take me down some of the paths trodden by Tibetan refugees and women and children fleeing abusive men. At a shelter, I met a little girl who was almost systematically starved and beaten to death by her father – simply because he wanted a boy. This lucky child – who had been given to aid workers by her mother in an effort to save her life – now attended school and hoped to be a pharmacist. Still, she missed her mother terribly and hoped that she will survive.

Durbar Square Kathmandu

In the city, I also bought shoes for a gaggle of shoeless children, and handed out countless bills to pregnant and cripple beggar-women and women with children in tow who had no other way to earn a living. For all of their faith, most prosperous Nepalis seem to overlook charity as part of their earthly duty. This is not something inherent in Buddhism, for I found the Theravada Thais to be generous almost to excess to those less fortunate, and suspect that it symptom of a more modern ill that afflicts wealthy Nepal. I am a bit anxious about the future of the country, now in the hands of self-proclaimed Maoists, but hope that someday, better social programs will be able to help those who cannot help themselves.

Other memories from that trip include a dinner at a restaurant that curiously specialized in both Nepali and Russian food named Wunjala Moskva. We sampled the Russian part by having shots of good vodka inside the house and then ate Newar Nepali out in the garden in one of a series of a small, private, screened-in, dining rooms arranged around a large central patio. The food was a prix-fixe menu of vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties and was nothing short of amazing. Memorable even now, are the gingered duck with its accompanying flavors of garlic and lovage; the spicy potatoes with ground sesame seeds and manjo juice and a mixed vegetable tarkari with lots of black cumin, cinnamon and cardamom.

Each woman in our party was offered a pashmina shawl to help stave off the coolness of the evening and men well – they just had to tough it out. They were after all – men. About halfway through the dinner drums started beating and entertainers took to the patio-stage and began performing Nepali folktales in luxurious costumes depicting both gods and monsters. One of the monsters was even bold enough to come right up to our party and show us just how fearsome he was. He was eventually slain by the hero-god, but in true Nepali fashion, continued quivering from time to time after the hero proclaimed his victory. Eventually he slunk off the stage – one day to return – bringing his special form of chaos back to the paradise that is Nepal. (All text and photos by Laura Kelley).


The Welcome Wagon

Greetings and welcome to the Silk Road Gourmet Blog.  I started the website as a companion to my upcoming book – The Silk Road Gourmet which features recipes from countries that were once part of the great Silk Road trade.  For over 30 years I’ve been travelling the world, eating and collecting recipes, and just recently decided to gather some of my favorite Asian recipes together in a book that will allow people to sample what I consider some of the highlights of the Silk Road cooking. The book also discusses how food is an important part of the material culture of a people and as such how it bears the imprint of history.  Also considered are the connections between cuisines and how they came to be.

In this blog, I’ll be telling some of the stories behind the travelling and recipe gathering as well as discussing some more recent culinary and cultural adventures I’ve been having.  I also welcome guest posts about your culinary and cultural adventures along the Silk Road or elsewhere in the world.  All I ask is that guest posts keep with the overall mood of the essays and discuss personal perceptions and feelings about food and travel or the preparation of food.

I also urge you to check out the rest of the site for information on the book, countries covered and of course some delicious recipes.  If you have questions or suggestions feel free to e-mail me at laurakelley at silkroadgourmet dot com.  Till then – welcome and enjoy!