Rani, our live-in housekeeper-turned-essential family member came to us when I was eleven years old. Right away, I knew she was different from any of the other household help who had worked for our family. Her gender and upbringing demanded that she be quiet, and subservient. Her dark flashing eyes said otherwise. She refused to give us a straight answer about her past, or her family. All we knew was that she was married off at a very young age to an older, abusive man. Hired as an assistant-of-sorts to our older, bossy housekeeper, we frequently found Rani mumbling under her breath about how she could cook anything better than 'that woman' - that part turned out to be true. She was belligerent, vain about her long, thick braid that fell past her hips, and was usually in trouble with my demanding mother for one thing or another.
Almost thirty eight years later, she still won't tell us how old she is, except that "it's probably no more than forty". Her cooking is legendary within our family and well beyond. Her cold coffee and 'lime juice' (limeade, with salt and pepper added, then blended with ice) is the first thing visitors ask for the minute they walk in the door. She is loving, but quarrelsome. The children in our household had no protector more fierce than her. Rani holds her recipes and tricks of the trade close - she believes them to be the source of her power, and guarantee of her place in the family.
Sunday mornings were for sleeping in. But it was a struggle to stay in bed, because every Sunday morning, we woke up to the aroma of sambhar, and went downstairs to a full South Indian feast that took Rani the better part of two days to prepare. First, the rice and dal had to be soaked, ground, and fermented to make the batter for pillowy idlis and thin, crisp dosas. Then came the various chutneys: coconut, roasted tomato, and peanut. Then of course, the prep for sambhar. And if she was feeling kindly towards me during the mango season, there would be pieces of raw mango in the sambhar - my favorite. Come Sunday morning, Rani stood over the stove for hours, making dosas to order for our family with hearty Punjabi appetites.
Our next guest chef for Spice Route Kitchens comes from the land of my heart - Tamil Nadu, in South India. I hold within me the sounds of ragas being practiced through open doorways, and the smell of salt in the air leading you to the roar of the ocean. Nalli's, with it's five stories of silk, and Pondy Bazaar during Diwali. Corn roasting over a brazier at Marina Beach, then liberally dusted with salt and chili powder, plus a squeeze of lime. Long drives up the coast, and incomparable fish at Fisherman's Cove. Memories too numerous, and too personal to recount. Through it all, Sunday morning idlis, sambhar, dosas and chutneys have been a constant. Thank you for allowing me to share them with you, at least for one week.
Being neighbors, it's not surprising that India and China share many similarities: strong family values, ancient civilizations, generations living under the same roof, and the importance of food in the culture.
A bowl of rice signifies fertility, luck and wealth, and is considered a symbol of the link between the Gods, and humans. Back-breaking work goes into the planting, transplanting, and harvesting of rice, so it's not surprising that rice is revered. It is supremely endearing to me how, when sitting around the table sharing a meal, elders will pick out choice morsels from the serving bowl and place them lovingly into the bowls of children, or guests. That spirit of sharing, loving, laughing, and learning around the table is what we hope to bring you through our next guest chef for Spice Route Kitchens.
Wendy Pannell is really funny; she is also a hardworking, travel-loving single mother who immigrated to the States decades ago. Upon tasting her first burger at Wendy's, the fast food chain, she loved it so much that she appropriated the name for herself - and in her words, saved other people from mispronouncing her Chinese name. When she brought us some of her food to sample, I have to admit it looked ordinary enough. I mean fried rice is fried rice, am I right? WRONG! Wendy's cooking surprises. It has familiar dishes like fried rice and Dan Dan noodles doing a number on our taste buds. You find yourself taking the next bite immediately after the first, while trying to identify what makes it just so dang delicious. And let me tell you - I grew up eating some delicious Chinese food, both home-cooked and in fine dining restaurants in India.
So trust me - order one of everything from her menu - you'll be coming back for more before her week as our guest chef is over.
Order online at https://www.cheeniraleigh.com/spice-route-kitchens.html#/ , and you can thank us later.
I know one, but not the other. As much as I relish great food, Latin American cuisine has held both familiarity and intimidation. Familiarity because so many of the ingredients are essentially Indian - rice, beans, cilantro, tomatoes, chiles. Intimidation because I don't know enough about it, and therefore am not qualified to know good from mediocre. Or so I thought.
First one, and then several tastes of food made by a real-deal, accent intact, fierce foodie and chef later, all I knew was that I wanted it all. And then some. The mere mention of food cooked by her is enough to get my younger daughter drooling, while my carb-free, diet-conscious older child will sit down with an entire tray of Pastellito de Guayaba con Queso made by her, and polish them off.
Columbus, upon his failure to find India, and possibly trying to pass off his discoveries in America as vaguely Indian, brought chilis back with him and called them peppers, in lieu of returning with actual peppercorns. Africa and Latin America became the repositories of seeds, spices and plants from both sides of the world, and boy has the cuisine benefitted!
Brazilian chef Ana Claudia Tapioca of Global Comfy is our guest chef of the week, bringing you dishes from various countries in Latin America. If you've ever been fortunate enough to attend a cooking class taught by her, you already know the prodigious amount of culinary knowledge she carries in her head, which is charmingly topped with her kinky curls. That knowledge is translated into sheer magic on a plate - fiery but balanced sauces, esquite rice that I still dream about, succulent pork with lacquered skin the color of dark caramel...I could go on and on.
Spice Route Kitchens is designed to bring you the true cuisine of a region, not just the familiar versions served in restaurants. To that end, this week's menu from Ana made me want to lick the screen when she sent it to me, and I don't even know what most of these dishes are! We think you will share the sentiment.
Follow along on social media @cheeniraleigh to keep an eye out for the menu, which we will release before Wednesday. We're working through kinks in ordering, deliveries etc., as true to form, I put more thought into the food than the logistics. Given the deliciousness and variety that we are bringing to you, I hope that you will be willing to overlook some of that. Stay tuned!
Wife, mother, baker, jam maker, hug dispenser, reader.