We had a wonderful dinner party on Saturday night with a selection of Indian subcontinental food. The dinner was to celebrate the announcement of the secret marriage of a couple of friends and to give a former Londoner some of the curry that he so sorely misses. The meal was also a rewarding end to a couple of days of cooking by yours truly. In truth, I’ve been working this dinner for a couple of months. I made the mango pickle a couple of months ago, the vindaloo paste two weeks ago and the chutneys several days ago. Despite all the work, I simply love hearing that the shrimp in spicy tamarind-tomato sauce with hints of mustard and fennel is, “amazing” to one of our guests. Our menu included:
Spicy Cucumber Wedges
Pakistani Bean Salad
Pakistani Riata (Yogurt and Cucumber Dip)
Cashews with Black Pepper
Bread, Condiments and Rice
Papad (cumin seed and chili)
Rice with Garlic and Pine Roasted Nuts
Spiced Saffron Rice
Bangladeshi Chicken and Pineapple
Shrimp in Spicy Tomato Sauce
Sweet and Sour Okra
Butternut Squash in Coconut Cream
Cardamom and Rose Lassi
The Pakistani Bean Salad is an all-time winner with its grapeseed oil sweetness blending with chili peppers and white vinegar for a sweet and sour treat, and for the cucumber wedges, I used a garam masala to flavor them instead of ground cumin for a sweet but spicy surprise. The spicy Pakistani Riata, the chutneys and the pickle were also enjoyed with the selection of breads while we waited for the mains to heat up. My favorite of the three is the cucumber chutney with malt vinegar and ginger bringing a great zing to the natual cool of the the cucumbers.
The main dishes were served with two contrasting rices. The mild Pakistani rice with loads of garlic and roasted pinenuts brought a gentle flavor that origninated in the Arab world and traveled to Pakistan along with goods, beliefs and ideals, and the spiced saffron was flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves was well as saffron and sweet butter. For our London friend, I made a proper lamb vindaloo that made him sweat after a few mouthfuls. For his new American wife, who has less of a taste for spice, I made a sweeter Bangladeshi curry of chicken and pineapples. For myself, I prepared one of my favorites: a curry of shrimp in a tamarind tomato sauce with dashes of mustard and licorice-like fennel. The vegetables on the omnivore table were a lovely butternut squash with mustard seeds in sweet coconut cream and a sweet and sour okra served a sides – but they could easily have been enjoyed as part of a series of main dishes on a vegetarian spread.
Our guests were serious Whovians, the desserts – two subcontinental sweets in syrup were an afterthought – eaten in near silence while watching the second “Weeping Angels” episode of the Matt Smith Dr. Who series. We also had good chardonnay and Williamsburg mulled and plain ciders flowing all night
A lovely evening with some happy people. Good food, good friends, a shared interest – a wonderful evening which I am happy for, but still tired from as I look forward to another week of work. Still, these are the moments that sustain us. Leftovers, however, will also sustain both families for some time to come as well! (All recipes from the Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1; Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Chicken and Pineapple Curry borrowed from Google Images).
In sorting through my old photographs recently, I was struck by this one and its timeliness – even though I snapped it more than a decade ago. Although completely unposed, the graceful curve of the neck, the adoration of the child by the mother, and the child’s alert but peaceful gaze at the viewer reminded me of dozens of European Renaissance paintings I’ve seen of The Madonna and Child. The colors in the photograph differ from the heavenly blues and royal golds used by Western artists and instead are pure rural Bangladesh – a sea of greens mixed with sunlight dappled through the forest canopy, and glowing café-au-lait accents of south Asian skin.
For me, this photo is a reminder that faith is not found in a church, a synagogue, mosque or temple. Those are places for education, reminders and sharing with communities of believers. Rather, faith is found on the streets and in the villages and towns of the world – places where our actions as faithful people matter most. For some, faith can even found in an old photograph of an ordinary farmer’s wife and son from Matlab, Bangladesh. (Words and photo “Hail Mary”, by Laura Kelley).
Those of you who have been reading The Silk Road Gourmet for a while know that Bangladesh has a special place in my heart. I have been there many times and am in love with the country and the people and their endless ingenuity in making the best of their home on a semi-hospitable flood plain. In slightly less than 40 years since independence, the country has gone from sweeping famine to a country of bustling cities with a rapidly growing middle class – and this development and rising prosperity is due principally to the industriousness and works of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. The cities are permeated with a feeling that almost anything can happen – sort of what I imagine the American Wild West was like back in the mid-1800s. The countryside, on the other hand, is peaceful and moves to a slower rhythm that is all but gone from the west – women cooking and raising children and men fishing or farming in accord with daily and seasonal cycles.
When visiting Bangladesh, I was often up before dawn – listening for that first human sound that separated night from day – the revving up of a gas-powered generator for the cleric’s microphone and morning prayers. Then across our camp on the Gangetic delta, his voice would echo – rising and falling and calling the faithful to their morning devotion. At more exciting times we would race with river dolphins in the Brahmaputra, trying to outrun an incoming cyclone or surreptitiously try to make our way through the streets during a general strike. Night time in Bangladesh is a wild time. The cities glow with incandescent light as people bustle from place to place. Even in the best neighborhoods, cats mewl, dogs bark and birds of all kinds take noisily to stands of trees to proclaim their territories.
The ancestors of modern Bangladeshis are a blend of the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area in prehistory, Tibetan and Burmese peoples who came over the Himalayas into the country, Dravidians from Southern India and the Indo-Aryans from Northwestern India. In addition, Iranians, Arabs and Turks also settled in the area in the late Middle Ages bringing Islam with them as they came. Long before that time, however, Bangladesh was first a Vedic Kingdom beginning in antiquity and later it came under Hindu stewardship which lasted until the mid 8th century. During these successive states Bangladeshi rulers were amongst some of the most powerful on the subcontinent and their empires extended well beyond the borders of the modern state and across the Delhi plateau and into what is now Pakistan. Some histories say that these kings even kept Alexander at bay with only the threat of reprisal by a strong, well-trained and prolific military.
The Buddhist Pala Empire ruled from the mid 8th century until the dawn of the 12th century and created a period of stability and prosperity with the building of major public works including temples and palaces at that time. The Palas were also responsible for spreading Buddhism to Tibet, Bhutan, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia as their traders and merchants bought and sold goods along the land and sea routes of the Great Silk Road.
Islam made its first appearance in Bangladesh rather late – with the arrival of Sufi Muslims in the 12th century. The Pala kingdom had all but disintegrated by this time and was replaced by a rapid series of sultans of Turkic, Bangladeshi or Afghan origin who remained independent from Delhi despite attempts to rein them in. It was during this time that the country began to be known as ‘the land of the rebels’ or Bulgapur. During the late 15th century, the Portuguese arrived and peacefully – at first – set up trading businesses and religious missions in coastal towns and cities. The Mughals of Delhi reasserted control in the late 16th century and their rule continued until the mid 18th century when the British East India Company gained control. Continued protest and rebellion from the Bangladeshis and brutal repression caused the British government to take control of the area in the mid 19th century and they held sway until Indian Independence and partition one-hundred years later.
Bangladeshi food bears the marks of all of these civilizations. Although it is superficially similar to Indian and some Pakistani food, generally speaking, it is much more delicate and subtle in flavor with a tendency towards sweet rather than sour. Bangladeshi cookery also tends to be less hot than other subcontinent cuisines – much of this is due to the addition of chili peppers or chili powder towards the end of cooking or just before serving – more as an afterthought instead of a main idea. Many recipes also often call for spices to be dissolved in water before cooking which has a tendency to dampen the flavor a bit as well.
Shared with the Persians, Afghans and the Mughals are the love of fruit and nuts in meat and rice dishes as in Lamb Rezala, Shrimp and Coconut Curry, Kebab with Raisins and Mint and Chicken and Pineapple Curry. Of these dishes, my current favorite is the Chicken and Pineapple Curry which is a great sweet, slightly hot and spicy dish that is mellow enough to serve to most diners. Serve with plain or slightly spiced long-grain rice.
Chicken and Pineapple Curry
3-4 chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium onion, peeled, sliced and separated into crescents
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 cup water or chicken broth
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Seeds from 3 cardamom pods, crushed
2 whole cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup finely chopped pineapple
1. Heat peanut oil in a sauté pan and over high heat sauté the chicken pieces until they become firm and opaque – 3-5 minutes or until done.
2. Add the onion slices and sauté onion until it softens and starts to color. Add grated ginger, turmeric and chili powder and stir well. Then add the water or chicken broth to moisten the spices and heat until the sauce is warmed.
3. Add coriander, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, whole cloves, bay leaf, salt and pepper and stir well. Add sugar and stir. Then add cooked chicken and cook to heat 5-8 minutes. Once heated, add pineapple and stir well. Cook to heat until pineapple is hot and then serve.
The great thing about this dish is just how much a product of the Silk Road it really is. Southern Bangladesh was an important link between the land routes coming down off the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the maritime routes coming across from Indonesia and the Thai peninsula and those coming in from eastern and western Indian ports and Pakistan. These brought tropical fruits like pineapples and eastern and Pacific spices like ginger and cloves into Bangladesh.
This boy – this glorious boy – followed me through the southern Bangladeshi village trailed by a gaggle of children. He was determined to do a traditional dance for me and to get me to photograph him – and his friends said that I would never do it. He trailed me and tapped on my shoulder announcing in simple English that he was going to dance, and that I had to take a picture. Well, how could I resist, right?
So bold a boy with so minor a request. Well the children gathered in a semi circle around us and started a slow clapping as the boy started to lift his legs one by one, partially cross them and slap them – a dance, not too unlike some southern Alpine dances I’ve seen. I started clicking away, my autowinder doing all the work as the tempo of the clapping accelerated until the boy was a blur of flailing arms and legs and the children were a mass of giggles. Then everything came to a sudden halt and the dancer gave me the lovely vogue that I captured for all eternity – or until the paper and chemicals disintegrates and the image is lost forever. But for now, there he is a brave, outgoing and talented boy who – against the predictions of his friends – got the foreign woman to photograph his dance
I look at his photo sometimes and wonder what has become of him. Is he working an oil rig in one of the Gulf States? Did he get an education and move to the city? Did he remain in the same village and is now a married householder with children of his own? Is he still a leader of his peers or has the world crushed that natural ability to fit a more docile mold? How has time ravaged that strong body and that smooth skin? Where have the tides of life taken him?
TR over on his site From the Faraway . . . Nearby recently posted a beautiful piece entitled, “Not Today”. I urge you all to read it and really think about it. Superficially, it’s about a day of travels in which none of the planned destinations or sites are seen. A deeper read reveals all of the unplanned things that happened instead. I was left reading that homage to life’s empty space thinking, “So this then is life . . . How curious, how real,” and feeling rather transcendental as I did.
Sometimes I realize how far I’ve traveled from my own home port and wonder how my life became so unmoored. So many people I meet seem so determined and goal oriented. I have for the most part, let the fates dictate my path and yes, I’ve been buffeted quite a few times as a result of that choice. But, you know, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the journey has been fantastic and the current destination is – pretty darn good.
More than 20 years ago, I, along with some friends, pranced around naked in the fountain after midnight at the Busch-Reisinger Museum: a bunch of kids on their way back from a night at the Plow and Stars – a pretty standard prank for Saturday night in a college town. But today, I look different, I feel different, I think differently; I emote differently . . . so am I really still the same person? Generally, such changes are simply attributed to a growing maturity that is so delayed in the western world, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to think of those changes as a change in identity instead. Perhaps that is a better way to think of our past selves anyway – not as part of a continuum, but rather as discrete individuals somehow related to each other – that way each self can be fully appreciated, understood and perhaps reintegrated someday.
When we reflect on the past or go through old photographs we become, in a way, time travelers. So many frozen moments, so many images of people locked unchanging in the prison of our minds. Smile at the sepia-toned face of an old lover and remember his touch. He has probably changed as much as you have – and yet for you, he is forever 25.
Consider for a moment the changes brought by the passage of time to an artist who recorded the events – like Rembrandt or Durer. Durer realized that he was creating his own immortality and never painted or drew a full portrait of himself after the age of 28 – preferring instead to cast himself as a character in one of his great woodblock prints or etchings. Rembrandt, on the other hand, was ahead of his time, and recorded more than 40 years of his life in a series of self portraits – some simple emotional studies, but a few true contemplative works that portray not only his physical characteristics, but his emotional stance as well. Look carefully at the three self-portraits and ask whether the confident, masterly young man would recognize the depressed and unsure old man as a future incarnation of himself if they met in the street.
But aging isn’t all bad – at least that’s what I tell myself despite the creak in my bones in the pre-dawn of the day. In the west we have a tendency to dwell on the physical decrepitude of old age instead of the understanding, tolerance and perspective our minds and characters gain as they grow old. It is the obsession with the physical aspect of our beings that fuels celebrities and those in the public eye to ever greater acts of self-mutilation in an effort to remain young looking. It would do as all well, especially as developed country demographics tilt in favor of aging populations, to stop dwelling on the crow’s feet and wrinkles of our aging physiques and focus instead on the positive things that aging brings. Once upon a yesterday, older people were considered wiser and were consulted on issues of politics and strategy before they were enacted so that their historical and personal knowledge and experiences could be factored into plans.
In a rather innovative private art class, my elementary-school age daughter is making a Joseph Cornell box of her favorite things. It’s a mixed media piece and when complete, it will contain photographs, objects and drawings to represent the things she now thinks are important enough to put inside. As disheveled as it may become over the years, and no matter how many times it gets thrown in the trash, I am going to try to preserve it for her so she can look back at this self of hers when she has become someone else in time. We all expect great things from her. When asked recently by her teacher, “If you could be anyone in history – anyone at all – who would you be?” With her characteristic easy, self confidence, my daughter answered, “Me”. And I, as the proud mother of such a daughter, smile widely at the unruly student I was when we pass each other in the street headed in opposite directions. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley).
The child before me lies still as stone on a black plastic mattress. He doesn’t stir or even acknowledge my presence as I count the number of times he breathes in half a minute.
There is a large hole cut in the mattress and a basin underneath that catches his excrement along with the flood of water from his body that is hastening his death. At his side, his mother sits silently, wrapped in a green sari, watching me closely. I look up and to the left and right and as far as I can see in every direction there are cots, black plastic mattresses, children hovering between life and death and terrified, protective women sitting nearby. They come from far and near to save their children – some of whom are sick but relatively strong and others who are barely flesh covered skeletons with the skin stretched taught over their little bones. Most are boys. More often than not, their sisters have been allowed to live or die – Allah willing – at home.
There is a strange, unpleasantly sweet smell in the air that barely masks the odor of dysentery and a makeshift tent over our heads where only last week there was jungle. The children and their mothers are silent and the only sounds to be heard are the soft murmurings of staff conferring over the treatment of the children. In stark contrast to the volume and drama of the violent deaths glorified by Hollywood and its subsidiaries, in my experience, most people die with barely a whisper. There is no cry to an unjust heaven or swell of music, there is only the quiet, barely noticeable passing of children from the realm of the living into the realm of the dead.
Because of the work of the public health pioneers who came to Bangladesh almost 50 years ago, most of those children seen at that makeshift hospital were cured and returned to their homes within a week. Thousands of little miracles made possible by the advent of a simple solution of water, sugar, salt coupled with a dash of humanity. Commitment, desire for change and the fortitude to carry on in the face of tragedy and disappointment has over the years saved millions of young Bangladeshis from a premature grave. On one of my first trips down the Brahmaputra I saw a ruined hull of a motorized houseboat – like the one Martin Sheen captained in Apocalypse Now – listing near the shore and was told that it was the first floating hospital that brought medical care to the people of the river. I thought of the likes of my elder colleagues sitting on the cramped little boat in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity and day after day and year after year turning disease into health and almost certain death into a renewed chance at life.
One evening in Dhaka, I received a great gift and was allowed to see the city through the eyes of one of the pioneers. A warm breeze blew over the canal and the lights of downtown started to shine against a darkening sky as we walked. Vandaceous orchids dripped from the trees or were for sale by vendors along the quiet suburban avenue. Below us on the water, women did a last load of laundry, slapping the sheet-like robes on the rocks and pounding them with stones. My companion stopped and with an expansive wave of his hand said, “Tall buildings, paved roads, a bridge over the river Brahmaputra – a booming middle class! What I am amazed at . . . is all of this wealth!” He went on to say that he hated to hear young people gripe about the poverty and lack of amenities, because they had no idea how far the country had come in less than two generations. “There was nothing here. Nothing but people and most of them were starving. . .”
Bangladesh has indeed come far, but still has many miles to go. Far too many of its people remain bound to the land – in sharecropper purgatory – working all year to pay the rent to stay on the land. However lush and bountiful the countryside, it is a rural poorhouse for most of its citizens. Those that try to escape often wind up in an even lower circle of hell – the urban slum – the successful ones can sometimes pick a meager living off of the river. The houseboat has become the new symbol of prosperity and independence, because however poor a lifestyle the river provides it is theirs and it is free. The Bangladeshis are amongst the most industrious and resourceful people that I have ever met. They don’t need a billion-dollar vaccine that will result in another failed attempt to keep cholera at bay, What they needs are more Grameens who will chip away at the poverty by providing more disposable income so the people can better themselves one family at a time.
Coming back to our guest house after our walk along the canal, the pioneer and I sat down to a table bedecked with several Bangladeshi specialties. That night we dined on sweet and sour Lamb Rezala with its almonds, poppy seeds and raisins and chicken curry with pineapples. Plain rice was plentiful as was a biryani with layers of meat, nuts and fruit. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, feasting along with the other western visitors at the guesthouse, but couldn’t shake the knowledge that outside, hanging on with a white-nailed grip to the margins of the city’s newfound prosperity, hundreds, maybe thousands of children went hungry.
My memories and feelings about my travels in Bangladesh are a tangled wing of extremes such as these. I love the country, its incredible spirit and energy and that wild feeling that almost anything could happen that permeates its cities and countryside. Much of the landscape of modern Bangladeshi society is a direct result of the work done by the early public health pioneers who brought so much more than medicine with them on that houseboat. To the people of Bangladesh they brought the promise of today – for when you give the gift of health to people, you are giving them the future as well. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of A Sick Child and Hail Mary! by Laura Kelley)