Maybe cooking is

Along the Silk Road

Posted on: March 23, 2010

Feed and entertain me and it’s a good night any way you look at it.  I ventured to a supper club this past weekend for exactly that.  Rubbing elbows with strangers, I dined on Jain and vegetarian Indian cuisine at HUSH in the U Street neighborhood.  (Since the event is on the DL, a trend mentioned on my last post, I don’t have any pictures to show, but here is the  HUSH Menu.)

A daring and cheerful woman, hostess Geeta spoke of Gujarati history, Indian cooking, and the sweet and savory spice boxes of the Silk Road, which captured my attention particularly.  Caravans traveled along a road that wove through the Hindu Kush and Balkh, paying customs duties and city taxes at each stop to transport furs, leather, canvases, and spices across the Middle East (aka the Kipchak lands and Syr-Darya River).

Kipchak lands (map courtesy of TürkicWorld)

Syr-Darya (map courtesy of David Derrick)

Many caravans carried items from plundered temples and palaces of the Punjab and Delhi Sultanate regions, and the caravans often lured thieves en route.

Delhi Sultanate (map courtesy of R. L. Hangloo)

Each region of India has variations in spice box contents, and combined with personal preference, Geeta says Indians argue spices the way Italians argue sauces.  So, take this with a grain of salt: the “traditional” savory box of Gujarati includes:

  • Turmeric
  • Cumin
  • Black mustard seeds
  • Coriander seeds
  • Hing (Asafoetida)
  • Red chili pepper
  • Amchur powder (dried, ground mango for a tart flavor)

Savory spice box (photo courtesy of Kate Pounder)

The Gujarati sweet spice box, which contains the most sought-after spices on the Silk Road, includes:

  • Green cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Whole cloves
  • Saffron
  • Tea masala
  • Gur (jaggery)

Relying on the natural cues of the spices rather than timing, unlike Western ways (see NYT article on ovens with one button for chicken nuggets and cakes), Geeta explained how the spices cook together.  Simmering in oil, when the mustard seed makes a popcorn pop sound, the spices have fully cooked and there’s about 30 seconds to add other ingredients before the spices burn.  Recognizing these cues about food’s natural properties is what I love about learning to cook.  All in all, HUSH was a great meal made by a great cook with great effort.

As far as my recipe undertaking this week, it was not for a dinner party of 16 people with four courses.  Just me.  Inspired by Asia, I made Thai-style beef salad for lunch this week.

Where’s the cooking in a salad? I hear you ask.  Well my friends, it’s actually more complicated than just lettuce.  This is a luxe salad.  Cooking is required for the beef as well as the noodles (I substituted Trader Joe’s organic whole wheat spaghetti for linguine), as well as mixing the salad dressing and shredding the cilantro.  The recipe recommended a 30-minute marinade, but I let the beef soak for about a day to let the flavor sink in.  The result: a delicious, pack-able lunch for the week.

Lunch: banana, lettuce with carrot and cilantro, cooked beef, salad dressing

The HUSH dinner made me wonder about several subjects, one of which was the type of person drawn to dine with complete strangers.  Some of those who attended the dinner at HUSH could be described as “foodies,” a term that came up at the dinner table.  Washingtonian’s Food & Wine Editor Todd Kilman succinctly describes the categories of foodies, stunning for stream-of-consciousness in a live chat:

Washington, DC: “Can a vegetarian/vegan be a foodie?”

Todd Kliman: It’s a good question.

But maybe we first need to define our terms a little. I usually think of “foodie” in a few different ways. There are the foodies who can’t wait to tell you what city they have just returned from (often somewhere in Europe), and what they know about a top chef, and how they’ve eaten 75 times at Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington, and how all of this — all of these things, together — qualifies them to expound at length on a particular restaurant, or a particular dining scene, or the worth of a person to express a view about something as essential and vital as, oh, a dish.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. Not even close. That line about having eaten 75 times at the Inn, that came from an email correspondent of mine some months back.

This, of course, is an extreme example — although extreme examples abound in the food world.

There are also the foodies who care about where they shop, and what they buy, and what their choices say about them and the world, and who can muse upon the various meanings of a chicken for hours upon hours. These foodies are not big restaurant goers, necessarily, but they care a great deal about what they eat and where and why.

The person who loves to eat and drink and who lives to eat, as they say — this person is a foodie too. Someone who spends free time thinking about food, and keeping up with restaurants, and trying out new restaurants, and sharing news of discoveries with friends and family.

A subset of this last description is the food-adventurer, which is a little different. This is a person who doesn’t need to be told what is good — who would rather find out for himself. Who loves the seeking as much as the finding. Who sees restaurants as portals into cultures. Who loves the idea of armchair travel. Who doesn’t care about drapery or fixtures or carpets — only deliciousness.

So … to answer the question. I think, yes, a vegetarian or vegan can be a foodie. At least, one kind of foodie.

I have to say, though, I haven’t meat a lot of vegetarians and vegans who I would think of as food-adventurers. Nor do they tend to be the sorts of people who frequent big, expensive restaurants to the point that they love the game of it, and love to make pompous pronouncements about their importance. I don’t even know a lot of vegetarians and vegans who keep up with the food scene, or who make the rounds of new openings, etc.

Amazing.  I need recipes from you guys so I don’t spend a bajillion dollars eating out.  Or dares for recipes or ingredients (think Iron Chef style).  Feel free to challenge.  And in the meantime, the thought for the week: “Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”  – François-Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire)


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