For the first month or two of the pandemic we had nothing but food from home. Restaurants were open for take-out and delivery but even then we thought it best to stay home. I struggled with this idea. On the one hand I hated the idea that I got to sit at home and work, safe and sound in my home while cooks, cashiers, grocery store staff and delivery people took care of my food needs, possibly at great personal risk. How was that fair? On the other hand, if I don’t support local restaurants, those same people may lose their jobs and livelihoods.
In the end we started eating take-out occasionally, ordering online or by phone and dashing out to pick it up. We did this much less than we did before the pandemic, though. We might have dinner out several days a week a year ago, now it’s probably around 1-2 times per month.
A side effect of this has been that our family’s appetite for delicious food from around the world hasn’t changed so we’re cooking more at home. Of course there’s been lots of Indian food:
I cook a bit of Chinese food as well. This is a Sichuan dish called Ma Po Tofu – a spicy tofu dish with ground meat and also flavoured with Sichuan Pepper which gives a numbing sensation that layers on top of the heat from the chillies. I saw this plant growing when I was near Ganpatipule in Maharashtra in 2018. There it is called Teppal or Tirphal in Marathi and in Hindi it’s apparently known as Mulliam or Tilfda. It’s one of my favourites.
A couple of days ago I was craving Ethiopian food so I rode my bike to an Ethiopian market and picked up some berbere spice. Last night I made a spicy chicken stew called Doro Wat. It’s seasoned with lots of berbere. Ethiopian food has a very unique flavour. This dish was amazing – incredibly flavourful, spicy and super rich.
The recipe (you can find it here) starts with heating lots of ghee (and in this case olive oil also) and then adding onions, cooking them slowly for 45 minutes and then adding ginger/garlic paste and butter then after cooking even longer, adding the berbere and cooking even longer. Interesting to see just how similar the ingredients are to Indian masalas – Coriander Seeds, Cumin Seeds, Green Cardamom Seeds, Dried Red Chili Peppers, Whole Allspice Berries, Whole Cloves, Fenugreek Seeds, and Black Peppercorns – and yet it tastes so different from any food I’ve had from any state. After adding chicken broth, white wine and honey it gets cooked until the chicken pieces are extremely tender. It gets served with bread or injera – a flatbread made from fermented dough. In some ways it makes me think of the softness of roti (but thicker) but with the fermentation used in dosa. I can buy injera at the store but this dish, to me, is better with bread – and this homemade version was so delicious and rich. I’ll definitely be making it again.
This culinary cross-pollination fascinates me. In just a little bit of reading I learned how trade routes and politics affected what spices arrived in which countries when. And then, once they’ve arrived it’s amazing to see what’s done with them and how they’re integrated in to the culture. Just looking at cumin alone is crazy. In Indian food it is used one way, often with whole seeds to add a delicious element to curries and other dishes. In Western China it’s used to season lamb skewers and other meats. In Mexican food the proportions are different. For example, often I see cumin/coriander used in Indian food on a ratio of 1:3. In my Mexican refried beans dish, though, it’s used in a ratio of 3:1 and that changes the flavour profile entirely. And of course when it is in Ethiopian food it tastes totally different.
It’s one thing to explore other cuisines in a restaurant or if one’s lucky, by actually traveling. But to explore them from within the kitchen, and the history books adds a whole new dimension. Whatever happens related to the pandemic, I think I’ll be doing much more cooking at home.