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Sailing the Spice Islands

I grew up in the Midwest on a fairly typical diet for the time. Meatloaf, fried chicken, pot roast. “Italian” food was spaghetti or pizza; “Chinese” food was the impossibly exotic Sweet and Sour This’n That served by a local hot spot decorated in a “polynesian” theme.

“Vegetables”, properly cooked, were boiled to near unrecognizability, unless they were fried to nearly the same state. Meat was sometimes treated the same way (“Dredge the roast in flour, then boil until tender”). “The Joy of Cooking” still had the section on how to clean game – and people still used it.

My mother had two kitchen gadgets. One was a copper bowl she never used that was ostensibly for making meringues (but in actuality gathered dust where it hung on the pegboard – yes, most of our kitchen tools were hung on a pegboard, ala Tim Alan).

The other was a plastic cylindrical thingy with round flat inserts and a sort of a push rod thingy that I believe was called a “hamburger press”. The idea was you dropped a dollop of the raw meat into the cylinder thingy, topped it off with one of the round inserts, then squished it flat to make the Perfect Patty. You could make several of these – six is the number that springs to mind – and then freeze them for quick burgers at a later date. The circular discs had a tendency to slip at odd angles if you loaded up too many patties for squishing at once, making a lopsided burger that was thicker on one side than the other. Oh well.

That was the extent of kitchen tomfoolery in my household. Oh, we had lots of kitchen gear, but they were all TOOLS (hence the appropriateness of the Peg Board). We had two sets of pots, the “everyday” pots which were cast iron, and the “good” pots, which were Revere Ware Copper Bottomed Pots and were considered the height of culinary cookware attainable by mere mortals. When I took over as Kitchen Witch at the tender age of 6, the “good” pots quickly became the “everyday” pots, as the cast iron ware in general weighed more than I did.

Some of our kitchen tools were quite frightening. There was the meat grinder, and yes, I used it on a fairly regular basis. We also had a butcher’s saw, bone saw, meat saw, whatever the proper name for the thing was – an implement that would no doubt be totally at home in a modern-day slasher flick, but not so much in a modern day kitchen. Unless your name is Hannibal Lector, that is.

I contend that it is my early exposure to What Goes Into Home Cooking that largely turned me off meat in later years. If adults don’t want to know what goes into sausages, then 6 year olds don’t need to know what that chicken looked like BEFORE it got fried. Not to mention beef liver, which came in a huge slab that had to be cut up before being, yes, “dredged in flour” and fried with onions.

Do you know what happens to your fingers as you dredge strips of beef liver in flour? Let’s just say “ICK!” and leave it at that. Even eggs had to be carefully sorted, breaking them one by one into a teacup lest you come across one that had been fertilized.

Again, just say “ICK!” and leave it at that.

So, somehow, while learning to cook in ways to keep the small town Midwestern palate of 40 or 50 years ago happy and well fed, I did not develop a love of the very food I was cooking for others. Possibly I’d have been better off if I had had some guidance in the kitchen other than being tossed in the deep end with a stepstool and a cookbook. At any rate, I developed a very low tolerance for the “ICK!” factor and a dislike for most of the very dishes I was cooking. Even now the smell of corned beef and cabbage can put me Right Off food altogether for hours.

Every once in awhile, my brother will wax eloquent about some dish I cooked routinely in our youth. He’ll go on and on about how good it was, what a wonderful aroma wafted from the kitchen when I was cooking it, and how eagerly he anticipated dinner on the occasions when I was preparing said dish. He’ll look at me expectantly, and I just stare back at him blankly, because invariably it is some concoction or other that I would never, at that age, have even CONSIDERED actually eating, especially not if the title included any of the words “Salmon”, “croquette”, “pot pie”, “casserole”, or “soup”. Don’t be too impressed; one of the dishes he remembers so fondly was our family’s version of “Spanish Noodles” which basically consisted of egg noodles, Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and a pound of ground beef.

Once I left home, I virtually stopped cooking. Given that I didn’t much care for meat, and given that “vegetables”, in my milieu, generally meant something green and boiled to squishiness, I didn’t have a lot of culinary options anyway.

That I knew of.

Then I met and started dating my ex and a whole new world opened unto my wondering eyes – and nose, and taste buds.

A world where “spice” meant a whole lot more than black pepper.

A world where vegetarian cooking was the norm, and people expected their vegetables to taste like something besides each other – or, better yet, bacon grease. Where “vegetables” meant more than carrots, peas, lima beans, and green beans chopped, sliced, cubed, and frozen into submission.

Where garlic was more than the stuff they put in bologna that made people avoid getting too close to you after lunch. Where cabbage took on many different forms, totally distinct from “boiled”. Where a mango is a fruit and not a green bell pepper.

Where ginger was something much, much more than a pale tan colored powder in a can that you used on rare occasions to make cookies.

Where the exotic became attainable, but never (to me) ordinary. A whole new world of Spices.

Now I began to understand why countries went to war over control of “the Spice Islands”.

Kalonji. That’s onion seed. Zheera, cumin. Ajwain, Carom seed. Dhanya, coriander. Methi, fenugreek. Curry leaves. Amchur, mango powder. Hing, asofoetida. Imli, Tamarind. Saffron or it’s poor cousin, turmeric. Chili peppers – not the anemic “chili powder” blends I was familiar with, or paprika, but REAL, fiery, hot chilis. Fresh ginger.

Since then I’ve embarked on a long journey of discovery, finding herbs, foods, and spices from foreign lands that to me were utterly novel and unique. Over time I’ve picked up a repertoire of Indian dishes which I have of late begun to flesh out with cuisine from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, China, and Japan.

I’m still learning, still exploring. My sensibilities are not the sensitivities of a native from any of those lands, nor even my own. I’m the quintessential Barbarian, knocking at the gates, or more likely knocking them down, in search of culinary booty. When I’ve done looting the area, what I concoct may or may not much resemble a “native” dish. I’m inspired by, I borrow from, I out and out steal bits and pieces and stick them together in no doubt odd and garish – but tasty! – ways.

So, armed with the East Indian recipes I’ve developed over 30 years, internet access, and a half dozen South-east Asian cookbooks, I’m tackling new frontiers (for me) in Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisine.

Kitchen Barbarian. Coming soon to a cookstove near you.

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