Friday, February 24, 2017
My latest mini-odyssey started with a novel that I picked up purely for some escapist reading. The story, set in Ceylon, was not particularly well written, but what it lacked in literary merit, it made up for in setting and cultural details. Within the first few pages, I ran into an unfamiliar term: jaggery. The dictionary defines jaggery as a course, brown sugar made from palm tree sap.
A few days later, perhaps with subconscious influence from my reading, I spent the evening watching The 100-Foot Journey (Helen Mirren and Manish Dayal), a delightful movie in which culinary scenes are so beautifully photographed one can almost smell the spices, curries, and haute cuisine of a Michelin-quality restaurant.
I've always been partial to a good curry and had been experimenting with adding extra turmeric and fresh ginger to my weeknight stir-fry (read: mix up of various leftovers). The movie, along with a colorful Williams-Sonoma catalogue chock full of exotic Indian-inspired table settings and their new line of masala and curry seasonings, put me right over the edge. I needed an excursion to the Indian subcontinent.
Lack of time and money precluded actually going to India, so I did the next best thing: I found my way to an Indian restaurant not too far from home where I was able to indulge in a marvelous buffet. Samosas, patek paneer, channa masala, vindaloo, and tandoori. Fresh, aromatic, spicy but not so hot the flavors got lost in the burn, the dishes in this restaurant and its quiet ambience carried me along on my little travel fantasy. At the end of the meal, there was a table by the door on which sat four bowls (pictured above). Instead of the usual starlight mints or plastic-wrapped toothpicks, these bowls contained more interesting breath-freshening agents: cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, and sugar-coated anise seeds.
To keep the fantasy going after I left the restaurant, I found my way to a nearby Indian grocery store. The small strip-mall space was stuffed to the rafters (literally) with exotic merchandise, most of which I had never seen before. I'm no stranger to ethnic groceries, but with the exception of a place in San Francisco's Chinatown, I've never been so transfixed by shelf after shelf of the unfamiliar. (MCH, if you're reading this, call me to schedule a field trip.) I made my purchases, coming away with mango powder, sandalwood soap, cardamom seeds, a jar of ghee, and, of course, jaggery.
How fortunate I feel to be able to make an excursion like this. Within an hour's radius of my home, I can cross thresholds into many other cultures. I can purchase items I might not be entirely certain how to use and discover treasures I didn't know existed.
In my humble opinion, that is what makes this country great.