About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das
"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).
Thursday, June 19, 2008
My Red Hot Taiwanese Dinner
NOTE: don't bother to read this if you are a die-hard vegetarian or even an omnivore who's not experimental at all...
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” -- Winston Churchill
“Pigs are not that dirty. And they're smart, strange little creatures. They just need love.” -- Shelley Duvall
My morning starts with a glass of orange juice. Usually I have a breakfast of a small bowl of cereals or a toast with cheese spread. Occasionally, on weekends, I may opt for an English breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee or go for croissants.
On weekdays, later in the day, I usually drink two cups of tea with milk or coffee with creamer.
It’s surprising to most people that I tend not to eat a quick lunch, like others who eat fast food or just one sandwich or survive eating a salad. My lunch is normally a near-full meal, whether I am at work or in the university. Usually I carry lunch from home and avoid eating out. I eat breads or pita rolls or rice, vegetables or lentils or beans, chicken or fish or tofu and a seasonal fruit. There may be some salad included too in my meal. If I have to use up leftovers, I make a pita pocket to eat it.
With the midday meal, I normally drink only water. At times, I take a fruit juice or eat unsweetened yogurt.
I make it a point to drink a cup of tea or coffee in the evening, sometimes with scones or light snacks, what the French would call a goûter.
My dinner is usually light – a soup, breads or noodles and maybe some vegetables. For soup, I prefer having cream of broccoli, French onion, cream of mushroom or spinach soup. Again I only drink water with my meal. At times of course I break the monotony drinking Perrier or on rare occasions, some red wine.
I almost never eat dessert unless it's a special occasion. Like an anniversary or a birthday. Then, I have cheesecake or rice pudding.
My weekend meals are little more elaborate. Lunch has at least an additional course, as has dinner. Often I like to eat out on weekends. My favorites are Thai, Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines. I adore Pad Thai, dumplings and couscous.
Well, having listed all of the above, I one day ventured to eat and drink something that I have never tried before and I believe not many people who appreciate diverse cuisine, would even have ever eaten it.
Invited to a dinner by my Taiwanese friends at their home some time ago, I had this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Knowing the Taiwanese have a very diverse cuisine, I had agreed to eat a surprise ingredient the Taiwanese commonly use in their “hotpot”. Well, it has a specific name for them that I do not clearly recall. I think it is “Zhu Xie Gao” but don’t recall for sure as my Taiwanese friends are not around now to tell me. Also, before eating it, I had no idea what it would look like or taste like. Our friends asserted it was arguably one of the best items one could sample in Chinese or Taiwanese cuisine.
On the day of our dinner, we gathered round a table on which sat a small stove burner. A large pot warmed on it, three-fourths filled with water. Kevin and Elisa, our friends, neatly placed around all food items that were to be offered in the hotpot once the water started to boil.
There were fresh shrimps, shiitake mushrooms, chopped sausages, tofu cubes, broccoli florets, shredded chicken and beef, baby carrots and corns, fish balls and the special item I was going to sample that evening. Soy sauce and vinegar were to be added at one’s discretion. One normally stirred the broth from time to time to check if the food in there was done and used a ladle to serve. One ate from dainty Chinese soup bowls (or probably they were rice bowls), added steaming jasmine rice to the broth and used a pair of chopsticks. I am bad at using chopsticks, so spoon and fork were just fine for me!
As various items were tossed in to the hotpot and we eagerly waited for the broth to be ready, I knew it was my big day to eat the “unknown” item. Kevin joked that it required thorough cooking and so waiting would be fine.
And then I was served the most delicious hotpot broth I have ever tasted in my entire life. I searched in my bowl amid shrimps and mushrooms and baby corns, and picked up 'the' piece – a dark red cube, like a red tofu. There it was, the much-awaited and curiosity-arousing item. Congealed pig blood. Cut neatly in cubes, a delicacy for several communities in the world. I put it in my mouth, in awe and trepidation.
I must make clear that before my hosts suggested I eat this surprise ingredient, they knew I was not only an omnivore, but also not squeamish about eating beef, pork, lamb etc., and pretty experimental about my diet. I wasn't cheated or anything.
So, I ate congealed pig’s blood, considered a delicacy in China, Taiwan, the Philippines and a few other East Asian countries. It is not a usual item that a non-East Asian would hope to eat, however avid an admirer of such cuisine he or she may be or however diverse meat eating experience one may have.
The reason I voluntarily tasted it was because I wanted to be familiar with the culture that my Taiwanese friends represented. Another flimsy reason was to break out of the mundane shrimp-and-tofu routine that most eaters of Chinese/Taiwanese food are used to. (Umm, I've decided to stick to that routine though!) Although pig or pork was a sort of taboo to my family, it wasn’t a taboo for me. So, I went ahead.
Most people I spoke to about my experience with eating congealed pig blood, reacted with astonishment and to some extent, utter abhorrence. Some asked me if culturally (and religiously) it was okay for me to eat pig’s blood. To that I said, for me any cultural experience was just fine, as long as it did not cause food poisoning etc.
Most Indians (my country of birth) reacted with visible shock and disgust. Most Americans reacted with disbelief (and some shock). Most East Asians took the news calmly.
Although I sound okay with that experience, for me challenges were many in the beginning. Overcoming unfamiliarity was a big one.
Also, it was difficult coming to terms with eating something I was never familiar with. So when Kevin explained what the secret item was, I had to steel myself.
Culturally, although eating pork is not encouraged in Indian society, I've been eating sausages and salamis right from my childhood. But pig blood? Huh, that was a different ballgame all together.
Let me confess, I WAS worried about the hygiene aspect of this item to begin with. Eating blood? Gracious!
The image of blood in my mind also did not make me particularly enthusiastic when I actually got down to eating it.
On the flip side, the fact that I did not actually see any blood in the hotpot kept my nerves calm. At my friends’ recommendation when I picked up the congealed blood cube, it looked quite innocuous, like a dark red tofu cube. It tasted salty, but it did not have any additional flavor which might be good idea to make it easily palatable to those that have never tasted it. So next time I eat it, I'd take the help of chili sauce or garlic to better the taste. Only if I eat it.
Having eaten congealed pig’s blood, it acted as a window to other East Asian cultures. “Pork blood jellos” or “chocolate pork” (as Filipinos call them) is a ‘normal’ food item in these cultures. For them, eating congealed pig’s blood (duck’s blood for those who do not approve of pig), was just like eating blood sausage or similar food eaten in Europe (hey, yes, Europeans have their own).
The one assumption that I begun with, when I brought the spoon to my mouth as Kevin and Elisa ran their commentary describing the red cube, was that pork blood cubes would taste simply horrible and spoil the taste of other items cooked along with it.
On the contrary, I found out that the blood cubes were not of any heightened flavor. They were certainly not worse than smelly bean curds or salty anchovies. They were in fact very much like salted tofu, a little harder in texture may be, but not unsavory. Cooked in that Taiwanese hotpot, they did not at all affect or alter the taste of the broth. I think though a little spice might do it some good.
Later, while reading on the subject, I found out blood may be a taboo item in many societies and faiths, especially in the West, but blood is perfectly accepted as food in parts of Asia or Africa. I must say, eating congealed pig’s blood and the ensuing entry to the uncharted culinary world of East Asian countries led me to research further on the subject of “unusual” food. To my pleasant surprise, I found out that not only blood, but also several other very unusual food are eaten in Europe and America. One can check them at:
Often we are too quick to criticize the food habit of the “others”. But think “squirrel brain” in American Deep South or “Calf’s brain” in France or blood sausages of Germany and blood pudding of UK. How do these things get acceptance? Conclusion: Culture must be seen in perspective and sensitivity can only grow out of familiarity and acceptance, at least tolerance. But let me end by saying I'm not recommending eating blood cubes here. It was my experiment, it remains so.