Culture through Basil Eggplant

This week marks the end of my month of clinic. It has truly been a treat to not only have met families coming from DC and the surrounding area, but also countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I feel simultaneously ecstatic and terrified to be identified as the primary doctor for such a diverse bunch of kiddos and their families. I am a far cry from a polyglot. My Spanish is rudimentary at best. My Mandarin is rusty. But one thing I try to do for any patient who speaks another language is at least greet them in their own language (and joke/apologize for my own inadequate language skills) before calling an interpreter. I feel like even this small effort indicates an appreciation and respect for another culture and background that is different from my own.

Sarah and I really enjoy watching Andrew Zimmern on Bizarre Foods. He is one of my food heroes. As much as I love watching him eat things that would make the average person squirm, I think I enjoy his show much more for the respect and deference he pays to the culture and the people of the country. He never lies if he does not enjoy eating something, but he is also never disrespectful and always appreciative. You often see him smiling and laughing with a group as they share a meal.

I wrote a little before about my struggle to balance the culture and identity of my country of origin with the customs and traditions  of my new home without completely assimilating. One of my favorite occasions in college was getting together with one of my best friends, Jim, and going to dinner at our favorite Berkeley restaurant with gaudy, bright purple facade in Berkeley, Taiwan Restaurant. It was an opportunity for us to spend the evening flexing our language muscles by conversing purely in Chinese over pots of steaming tea and good food. While our dinner selections often changed, we always made sure to order the basil eggplant.

Basil Eggplant

Eggplant soaks up oil like no other so oftentimes the rendition you find in restaurants have been initially deep-fried to get the right texture. I do not like using that much oil so substitute water instead to soften the texture.

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Ingredients

  • Asian Eggplants                                          4, sliced in half long ways and sliced on the bias
  • Garlic                                                              5 cloves, chopped
  • Water                                                              1/2 cup
  • Oyster sauce                                                 3 T
  • Black bean chili paste                               1 T
  • Thai basil                                                       1/2 cup of leaves

Add 2 T of oil to a pan with a lid and put on medium high heat. Add garlic and chopped eggplant and saute for 5-10 minutes until eggplant is slightly browned. Add water and cover pan. Let steam until eggplant softens (usually 10-15 min). Add oyster sauce and black bean chili paste and toss until eggplant is uniformly coated. Take off heat and add basil leaves and serve.

 

Food and people are similar. Existence in a vacuum outside the scope of culture, history, tradition, is bland. But with the slightest effort, I often find comfort in what was initially uncomfortable and appreciation through the differences.

D

Feeling peckish

Every so often, Sarah and I can’t help but reminisce about our time in Istanbul after our first set of board exams in medical school. It was our first international trip together and the beginning of my Andrew-Zimmern-inspired adventures in trying as many bizarre foods as I could get my hands on (sheep’s head, chicken breast dessert, intestine sandwiches, raw meat kofta, etc). We were blown away the street food offerings of roasted corn, chestnuts, simit, fresh-pressed juice, fish sandwiches that cost us next to nothing and were the perfect way to stay energized throughout the day’s adventures.

One particularly warm day, we came across a vendor, whom we creatively nicknamed “Chicken Man,” rolling around a cart with glass display of rice and chickpeas topped with roast chickens. I was hungry as usual and decided to risk life and bowels to sample his wares under the skeptical gaze of my travel companions. Turns out he knew exactly what he was doing. By letting his roast chicken sit on top of the rice and chickpea mixture, the dripping infused everything with a savory and delicious chicken essence. Whole thing cost me $2.50 USD with no ill effects. So in the words of Andrew Zimmern, #IfItLooksGoodEatIt.

Yesterday evening we had our friends, David and Rachel, over for dinner. And feeling nostalgic and inspired, we turned to a modified Chicken and Cardamom Rice recipe from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook.

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Chicken with Caramelized Onion & Cardamom Rice

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Ingredients:

  • Currants/raisins                                 4 T
  • Olive Oil                                                2 T
  • Butter                                                    2 T
  • Onion                                                     2, sliced thinly
  • Chicken thighs                                   6
  • Cardamom                                           2 T
  • Cloves                                                    1/4 t
  • Cinnamon stick                                  2, broken in h
  • Basmati rice                                         2 cups
  • Chicken Broth*                                   2.5 cups
  • Parsley                                                   1/4 cup, rough chop
  • Dill                                                          1/4 cup, rough chop
  • Cilantro                                                 1/4 cup, rough chop
  • Salt                                                          To taste

Melt 2 T of butter in pan over medium high heat. Add sliced onion and saute for 10-15 minutes until nicely caramelized. Remove onion from pan and place into small bowl. Place chicken thighs in large bowl and season with 1 T of salt and ground black pepper. Add olive oil, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and mix well together with your hands. Heat up the pan once again and place in chicken with all spices starting skin side down.. Sear it until the skin turns golden and crispy. Remove chicken from pan and set aside. Remove some of the oil from the pan, leaving a thin layer on the bottom. Add rice, caramelized onion, and currants/raisins and stir. Add the seared chicken into pan over the rice and pour in chicken broth. Cover the pan and cook for 30 minutes on low heat. Add parsley, dill, and cilantro on top and serve.

*The original recipe called for using boiling water. I wanted to enhance the savoriness and aroma of the dish. So I ended up making my own chicken broth with cloves. You can use store bought broth as well.

D

Windowsill bounty

When we made the move to DC, we made a pact to try to only buy things for the house that we intend to keep for the long haul. Everything that comes in needs to pass the ‘do we think we’ll still like this in 20 years’ test. As a result, our only major pieces of furniture at the moment are a couch and a dining room table with four chairs. We’re calling it the zen/minimalist approach. The one thing that escapes this high level of scrutiny is plants. I feel about house plants the way some people feel about stray kittens and puppies – I think they are all beautiful despite their quirks and instantly want to adopt them all. Our apartment would be a little jungle if Dennis didn’t hold me back. The one category I can consistently get him to cave on is herbs – if we can eat it, he’s usually ok with it. So far we’ve built up an arsenal that includes rosemary, green onions, basil, thai basil, and mint, and I have grand plans for expansion as soon as we have a few more horizontal surfaces. Thus far I’ve mostly been running my hands through the leaves of the plants and smelling them – we’ve been trying to use them sparingly until they get a bit bigger and more established. A few weeks ago though my brother and his girlfriend came over to hang out for the afternoon and, once dinnertime rolled around, my brother kept looking longingly at the basil plant. The time for the first harvest had come. We turned to a recipe I had earmarked ages ago – Ottolenghi’s pasta with a yogurt/pea sauce and fresh basil. The result was a lovely, summery bowl of comfort food. The dish has all the comfort factor of macaroni and cheese, but with a bright, herby lightness.

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Pasta with Yogurt, Peas, and Chili, slightly modified from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem

  • 2 1/2 c greek yogurt
  • 2/3 c olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 lb fresh of frozen (and thawed) peas
  • kosher salt
  • 1 lb pasta, whatever shape your heart desires – we chose little shells for all the sauce crannies
  • 2 t red pepper flakes
  • 1 t smoked paprika
  • 1 2/3 c basil leaves, roughly torn
  • 8 oz feta, crumbled
  • juice of one lemon

In a food processor or blender, combine the yogurt, 6 T of the olive oil, the garlic, and 2/3 c of the peas. Pulse until the sauce is a uniform pale green.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt generously, and cook the pasta until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet. Add the chili flakes and paprika and cook until fragrant, stirring constantly (1-2 min). Add the remaining peas and cook briefly, until the peas are well coated in chili oil and warmed through.

Drain the cooked pasta and add to the yogurt sauce – consider adding the pasta in batches and stirring between each addition to prevent the pasta water from separating the yogurt sauce. Add the warm chili peas, basil, and feta, toss gently to combine. Season with kosher salt and lemon juice.

Notes: when we first made this, I believe we only used 4 oz of feta and found it to be more than enough. Crumble in gradually and use as much as you see fit! We also thought fresh mint might be a nice addition but did not test this theory. Let us know if you do!

-S

 

On Heritage and Hunan Xiao Chao

I stumbled on an article from the NYTimes on my Facebook feed the other day titled, My Father, the YouTube Star by Kevin Pang that made me to take a moment and reflect on my own culinary journey and relationship with my parents. In a world where electronic communication has really taken over actual conversation, I find myself communicating with my entire family mostly through a series of group text conversations punctuated by weekly emails from my mother sharing some of her favorite Chinese cooking YouTube videos (thanks Mom!).

I grew up primarily eating my mother and my grandmother’s cooking. Despite the effort they put into their delicious creations, I clearly remember some point during my childhood where I began feeling embarrassed at the “oriental” food that I would routinely bring for lunch. So, like the little shit that I sometimes was, I reacted by asking for Lunchables, Squeeze-Its, and bologna sandwiches which, in retrospect, were clearly inferior to anything made at home.

Now that I’d like to think I’ve matured a little, I find myself utilizing cooking as a way to reflect and pay homage to my family, my culture, and my upbringing and to make sure that none of it gets lost with time. As Kevin Pang puts it:

Your mom’s great-grandmother used to cook amazing Shanghainese food for her. She would dream about it. But when your mother was finally old enough to ask for the recipes, her great-grandmother had already developed dementia…The only thing your mom had left was the memory of her taste. We’re afraid that if you wanted to eat your childhood dishes, and one day we’re both no longer around, you wouldn’t know how to cook it.” 

Hunan Xiao Chao (湖南小炒)

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I first had this dish with my family at a now defunct restaurant in downtown Mountain View. Traditionally made with strips of pork and assorted chilies, I remember it as one of the most vibrant yet painfully spicy dishes that I’ve ever eaten. The colors and flavors were so amazing that I kept going back for more despite having to gulp down glass after glass of ice water with my nose running profusely and beads of sweat dripping down my brow. I’ve modified this recipe from the original so that is less exquisitely painful and substituted tofu for the pork.

Ingredients:

  • Pressed firm tofu                                 0.5 lb, sliced thinly
  • Bell peppers                                           3, seeded and julienned
  • Jalapeno                                                   1, seeded and julienned
  • Garlic                                                        3 cloves, minced
  • Ginger                                                       1 T, minced
  • Black bean chili paste                          2 T
  • White pepper                                          1/2 T

Heat up 1.5 T of oil in a large pan/wok on high heat. Add garlic, ginger, jalapeno, and bell peppers. You want the peppers to cook fast so they retain a little bit of their crunch. Add tofu, black bean chili paste, and white pepper. Stir fry for an additional 3-5 minutes. Serve over rice.

D