Tri-Tip Awakened & Aroused

August 28, 2012

A fome é o melhor tempero (Hunger is the best of the spices).
~Portuguese proverb

Fusion cuisine is said to blend the culinary traditions of two or more disparate cultures or regions, e.g., those timeless mélanges of Moorish-Spanish or Vietnamese-Chinese-French or Saracen-Sicilian-Italian or the Malay-Indian-Arab-Chinese-Spanish-Japanese origins of Filipino dishes.  Cookery melded, kitchens merged, and cooks intermingled to create hybrids that emerged as one or so food styles.  Despite current myths, fusion has ancient roots as humans have been sharing and expanding gastronomic traditions for centuries.  Much to the chagrin of the suffering vanquished, fusion has often been the result of invasion, conquest, occupation and settlement in society’s endless quest to seize distant lands and peoples, then impose and interbreed food cultures — altering culinary landscapes. 

Imperialism and colonialism have now morphed some. More an outcome of “globalization,” fusion has lost some punch, becoming almost banal given the blurring and overlapping of culinary borders and the decay of regional boundaries. The globalization of food production, while superficially providing many of the world’s cuisines now stifles local farms and crops, sterilizes the soil, renders the food system less sustainable, and often strips the land for grazing to enhance short term mega-agribusiness profits. This leads to ecological collapses, malnutrition in many nations, and the overfeeding/wasting of unbalanced foods in developed countries. The world is entering a long-term, politically destabilizing food crisis if we continue our ways. Much like marketing was in the later half of the last century, water and food insecurity will likely be the bane of this century.

Sadly, exploitation has become more subtle, yet more pervasive, making globalization almost synonymous with the imperialism of yore. The iconic faceless pith helmets of the old world now have been replaced by the often empty dark suits and ties that grace our boardrooms. Some corporations advocate a certain consumer culture, in which the usual goods, promoted by global marketing campaigns exploit basic material desires and create like lifestyles. Homogeneity and monoculture run rampant and diversity fades. So, all of us wear the same threads and eat the same grub. Other institutions have used a more directed thrust, rendering cuisine (and other goods) more efficient, caculable, and predictable, yet less healthy, as exemplified by the pandemic spread of dreary fast food chains across the globe. These monotonous fast food principles have come to dominate sectors of society. McDonaldization.

What have we wrought?

Back to the days. As early as 50,000 BCE humans used aromatic herbs and spices to flavor their food. In the ancient world, camel caravans trudged from Calcutta, Goa and the Orient to the spice markets in Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome. Traders eventually used ships which sailed along the Indian coast, past the Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia, and finally through the Red Sea into Egypt — always facing inclement seas, robbery, shipwrecks, and piracy. The immensely profitable spice trade was long cornered by Arabians until the 13th century, when Venice emerged as the primary trade port for spices bound for western and northern Europe, making the region extremely prosperous. Later, spices were commandeered and monopolized by the wayfaring Portuguese who first circumnavigated Africa and thus created an empire. Portuguese power began to wane until England and Holland came to the fore. The Dutch organized trading posts and took control of the spice trade until they were crippled in a seemingly endless war with England which ultimately gave the British control of spice cargoes via the British East India Company. Now, spice growers export their goods through houses and merchants.

Considered sacred by most Hindus, beef is considered taboo in many Indian states.  But, peoples of other religions and certain Hindu sects eat the red stuff. It can even be found on menus in southwestern states, such as Goa and Kerala. On California’s central coast though, once home to Spaniards and Mexicans and the “birthplace” of tri-tip, this cut is thought nearly sacrosanct.

A brief, roundabout ethnic and geographic journey from spice to meat to grill, but well worth the miles and the wait. The inspired aromatics and spry flavors of this tri-tip (or any such cut) are flat sublime.   

SOUTH ASIAN TRI-TIP

1 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
1 T green cardamom pods
1 T whole cloves
1 T mustard seeds
1 t cinnamon stick, broken

1 T turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 tri-tip steaks or roasts (1 1/2 to 2 1/2 lbs each)

Lemon curd, for basting (optional)

Heat the coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, mustard, and cinnamon in a medium heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring or shaking the pan occasionally, until they become aromatic and just lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool some, and then coarsely grind in a spice grinder or coffee mill devoted to the task. Transfer to a bowl with the turmeric and cayenne pepper and mix well.

Rub the meat with halved garlics then salt and pepper rather generously. Sprinkle the tri-tips with the spice mixture and rub in well. Strew minced ginger over the steaks and press into surface. Allow to stand in the fridge for about 2-4 hours. Make sure the meat reaches room temperature before grilling.

Prepare grill to medium high heat.

Grill the tri-tip for about 10 to 12 minutes per pound, turning every 6-8 minutes or so, until medium rare. Baste with lemon curd several times on both sides while grilling. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks, the size of the ‘cue and the heat of the grill. The internal temperature should reach near 130 F. Because tri-tip is so lean, cooking beyond this point will render it tough.

Let stand for at least 15 minutes before carving. Consider serving with raita, a mesclun salad with fresh or roasted figs and vinaigrette along with warmed naan. Just a thought.

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No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Unlike some other iconic Indian cuisine often tied to ancient origins, tandoori murghi has relatively recent roots. The tale nonetheless is steeped in intrigue, politics, religion and history.

For centuries, India labored under British dominion, a vestige of the British East Indies Company’s centuries long, relentless mercantile expansion and Parliament’s political acquiesence to the Raj‘s oppresive, sometimes brutal, colonial visit. Like guests who were really never invited and then became cruelly rude and refused to leave. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was dissolved and rule was transferred to the empire under Queen Victoria who was even proclaimed Empress of India. A cultural conundrum on the best of days. I could go on, back and forth in history, but space does not permit.

In the 1920s, Mohammed Karamchand Gandhi, who was indelibly marked by Indian culture and trained as a barrister in London, emerged as a steady voice of Indian nationalism. Commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, he espoused non-violent civil disobedience of oppressive British policies which he had earlier developed in South Africa. To name a few, he attempted to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, forge religious and ethnic harmony, enhance economic self sufficiency and exalt class equality. Political rivals dismissed him with Winston Churchill once ridiculing him as a “half naked fakir.” During this same time, a humble young man named Kundan Lal Gujral opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in culturally vibrant Peshawer, a district of the northwest frontier of British India. He experimented with cooking young birds in tandoors, the clay ovens used by locals to cook bread. The earthenware kilns were/are bell shaped, set into the earth, and fired with wood or charcoal, reaching temperatures of about 900 F. The result of this simple trial and error? The inside was perfectly done and the outside crispy with spice galore.

By the end of World War II, Britain capitulated and finally in 1947 India attained independence. The Punjab province was partitioned with the eastern sector joining Pakistan and western India. So, Peshawer, with a predominately Muslim population, became part of Pakistan which revived a long standing dispute of whether India would be an united Hindu dominated state or would have a separate Muslim state to the north. Rebellion and carnage ensued between Muslims on one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Gujral was one of many Sikh and Hindu refugees who had to flee the upheaval by heading toward India. He relocated his restaurant to Daryaganj, Delhi, a move that as chance would have it brought fame.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, happened upon Moti Mahal and was so impressed by his tandoori murghi dish that he began reserving state banquets there. Foreign dignitaries began pouring in — Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, the Shah of Iran, et al. The close relationship between the restaurant and India’s preeminent leaders endured for several generations, even making sumptuous Tandoori Murghi standard fare on Indian menus throughout the world.

At first blush, this receipe looks a tad daunting.  But, a careful read shows that once the tandoori masala is made and the lemon curd purchased (both well in advance), the prep and roast or grill are a snap.  Weekday grub.  Should you opt for the sauté and roast route and time is a factor, the ghee is not essential.

TANDOORI CHICKEN

4 lb whole chicken

1/2 C tandoori masala (see below)
2 C plain Greek yogurt
2 T fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

3 T ghee (see below) or unsalted butter
1 T grapeseed oil

1/2 C lemon curd, prepared or homemade

Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken. Trim excess fat (usually found in the cavity) and then rinse the chicken with cold water and pat dry thoroughly. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut all the way down one side of the backbone, just cutting through the small rib bones close to the backbone, but not through the center of the backbone itself. Next, cut all the way down the other side of the backbone, removing it entirely. Reserve the neck and backbone for stock.

Flatten by firmly pressing the heel of your hand down over the breastbone. This will open the carcass and break the breastbone so as to flatten out the chicken. With a sharp knife, score the chicken flesh rather deeply at diagonals about 1 1/2″ apart on the meaty side.

Whisk together 1/3 cup of the tandoori masala, yogurt, ginger and garlic in a medium bowl. Place the chicken in a large glass baking dish or large ziploc freezer bag and coat thoroughly with the marinade.  Massage the marinade thoroughly inside and outside the chicken, including all gashes, crevasses and valleys. Turning occasionally, allow to marinate in the refrigerator overnight, but preferably 18-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow it to reach room temperature. Then, sprinkle the chicken with some tandoori masala on both sides. Heat a large, heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat, and add the ghee and oil. Once hot, sear the chicken skin side down first until browned, about 5 minutes on each side. Then place in the oven until a fork inserted in the meaty part of a thigh exudes pale yellow juices, about 20 minutes. Throughout the roasting process, baste regularly with lemon curd. The goal is crispy yet tender. Remove to a cutting board or platter and loosely tent the chicken with foil. Allow to rest about 5-8 minutes or so before serving.

Serve with sides to your liking, such as thinly sliced fresh onion rings, cucumber salad, lemon wedges, spiced basmati rice, naan, and mint or mango chutney.

Tandoori Masala
1/3 C coriander seeds
1/3 C cumin seeds
2 T green cardamom pods
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2″ piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

2 tablespoons pimentón agridulce or paprika
1 T sea salt
2 T turmeric
1 t cayenne pepper
Pinch ground mace
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves and cinnamon in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes aromatic and just lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool some, then grind the spices in a spice grinder or coffee mill until fine, and then transfer to a bowl with the pimentón or paprika, salt, turmeric, cayenne pepper, mace and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

Ghee
1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium heavy saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer and/or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Pourboire: alternatively, grill the chicken. Preheat a grill to between medium high and medium. Build a gentle, yet hot fire. Make sure that you have a fire that is substantial enough to maintain a consistent temperature for up to 30-45 minutes. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate to reduce sticking issues.

Then, remove the chicken from the marinade, allow to reach room temperature and sprinkle with some tandoori masala. Place the bird on the hot grate and grill, starting with skin side down, turning occasionally (but not obsessively) to prevent over charring, until cooked through, some 25-30 minutes total. Baste wth lemon curd on the tail end of the grilling process, particularly focused on the skin side. The bird is done when the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160 F by a meat thermometer which is not touching the bone. Again loosely tent and allow to rest before carving.

Also, in lieu of lemon curd, you may add fresh lemon juice to the yogurt-tandori masala marinade.

Egg Curries

July 12, 2012

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.
~Oscar Wilde

Given India’s eloquent history, vivid traditions, varied cultures, diverse and burgeoning populace and potent economic position, it often seems baffling, if not disconcerting, that news from there rarely travels here. Well, unless the info is perceived to somehow affect Joe the plumber. Of course, sadly the same can be said of most all Asian and African lands — as if these places are outmoded artifacts. To our detriment we have been, and will remain, profoundly ethnocentric. What follows is civic and social ignorance. Sometimes it seems food is the only refuge from the depths of this self-inflicted punishment.

Ranging by region, this dish is far from standard across the subcontinent, but supposedly originates from Northern India, particularly Punjab. It is sometimes known as Anda Bhaji, Punjabi or Mughlai Curry there, while in south India it sometimes bears the names Andhra, Chettinad Mutta, Mangalore or Kerala egg curry depending on locale, cuisine and ingredients. Within those subsets there are even more species which differ from kitchen to kitchen, cook to cook. No doubt, the varieties have been given short shrift here.

Captivatingly aromatic, there is a nuanced burst of spice with each chew.

EGG CURRY

9 eggs
Water, to cover

2-3 T grapeseed oil
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 T serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 T honey

1 T garam masala
1 T turmeric
1 T pimentón agridulce (Spanish paprika)
1 T cumin seeds, roasted and finely ground
1 T coriander seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 T cardamom seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 T fennel seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 t fenugreek, toasted and finely ground
Pinch of sea salt

1 C fresh tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 C chicken broth

1 C Greek yogurt
2 T chickpea flour

Cilantro leaves, chopped

Gently place the eggs in a saucepan and add enough cold water to liberally cover the eggs. Bring to a boil over high and then immediately remove from heat and cover until done, about 12 minutes. Uncover and flush with cool running water and then briefly place in an ice bath to cease cooking. Dry promptly on paper towels, peel and reserve.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pan over medium high and add the ginger, chiles and garlic. Cook for about a minute and then add the honey, and cook about a minute more. First mix, then add the garam masala, turmeric, pimentón, cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel, fenugreek, and sea salt to the pan, and again cook until fragrant, about a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add the chicken broth, bring to a quiet but steady simmer and reduce, about 5 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whisk the yogurt and chick pea flour together and then slowly stir into the tomato sauce. Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce heat to low and continue to cook, stirring gently, for about 15 minutes. Slice the reserved boiled eggs in half lengthwise and gently place them in the sauce, cut side up, to reheat spooning the sauce on top.

Finish with a light sprinkling of chopped cilantro and serve alongside basmati rice, paratha or naan.

Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
, The Mistress of Spices

Somehow, this became a three headed post.

Derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted,” biryani is a rice dish crafted from a sensuously transcendent spice medley and basmati rice layered with curried meats (often lamb, mutton or chicken), fish, eggs or vegetables. Biryani was born in the kitchens of ancient Persia, and was later transported by merchants to the Indian subcontinent where the dish developed even further. Whether made in India, South Asia or the Middle East, regional variants are abundant and often without boundaries, such as hyderabadi biryani, ambur biryani, bhatkali biryani, kacchi biryani, awadhi biryani, mughlai biryani, berian biryani, sindhi biryani, khan biryani, memoni biryani, pakistani biryani, sri lankan biryani and the like. That is a short list.

Yes, I have admittedly been cheating on biryani. The farmers’ market spice merchant has been effusively loyal and ever helpful. Yet, I have been shamefully, almost covertly, buying his superb admix which is damned good. So, it only seemed fair to concoct my own biryani blend (with a little help from my friends). Much like curry or ras al hanout, dry roasting and then grinding your own spice brew at home tends to create a more spellbinding and blissful union.

BIRYANI SPICE BLEND

1 T cardamom seeds
1 T coriander seeds
2 t cumin seeds
1 medium cinnamon stick, cut into pieces
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 T black peppercorns
2 t fennel seeds
2 t caraway seeds
2 star anise
1/2 t grated nutmeg
1/2 t turmeric

Dry roast spices over moderate heat until fragrant. Discard bay leaves. Cool and reduce to a powder in a spice grinder by pulses or by using a mortar and pestle. Store in an air tight container in a cool, dark place.

Now, on to the main course. Guests will be grateful for the effusive, almost contemplative, scents…

LAMB BIRYANI

Dry roast and grind anise seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds.

1 t anise seeds, toasted and ground
2 T black peppercorns, toasted and ground
3 T green cardamom pods, cracked, toasted and ground
2 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 t cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
2 T garam masala
1 t crushed red chile flakes
1⁄2 T turmeric
1 t paprika

6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
4 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 1 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and minced

2 1/2 lbs trimmed boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
Sea salt
3/4 C plain yogurt

2 1⁄2 C basmati rice
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1⁄2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
4 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Sea salt
2 C water
2 C chicken or vegetable broth

1 C whole milk
1 t saffron threads

Mint leaves, roughly chopped
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Cashews, lightly sautéed in butter and chopped (optional)

Heat butter and canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and then just turning golden. Transfer to a bowl and set aside for later use.

Heat butter and canola oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat until shimmering. Add garam masala, chile flakes, turmeric, paprika, anise, pepper, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and 1 cinnamon stick, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then add garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and ginger and sauté, stirring, another 2–3 minutes more.

Add lamb, season with salt, and cook until lightly browned, turning, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked onions and yogurt, cover and reduce heat to medium and cook until lamb is tender, about 25 minutes. Place lamb in a glass bowl or dish, tent and set aside. Keep the empty Dutch oven available for the layering step below.

Meanwhile, melt butter over moderately high heat. Add the minced garlic cloves and sauté briefly but do not burn. Add the basmati rice, stirring well to coat. Add cinnamon stick, along with the cumin, cloves, and bay leaves, and season with salt. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to medium low. Cover and cook until the rice is firm and the liquid reduced, about 10-12 minutes. Set aside off of the heat.

Warm the milk with the saffron threads in a small saucepan.

Transfer half the curried lamb back into the Dutch oven, then top with half the rice. Clothe with layers of the remaining lamb and then rice and finally add the warmed milk with saffron. (Lamb–>rice–>lamb–>rice–>saffron.) Cover and cook over low heat until the rice is tender, about 10 more minutes.

Plate and garnish with mint, cilantro and cashews. Consider serving biryani with coconut curry gravy, daal (lentils), regional vegetable dishes, and/or naan bread.

Pourboire: instead of sautéing in unsalted butter and canola, ghee or ghi–a traditional Indian clarified butter–is often used due to its high smoking point and toasted flavor. A recipe follows:

GHEE

1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Please Sir. I want some more.
~Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.

Today, Britain marked the birth bicentenary of Charles Dickens with a wreathlaying at his grave in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The church congregation included what may have been the most prodigious gathering of the revered novelist’s descendants. Simultaneously, a street party and ceremonies were held in his native Portsmouth. Ralph Fiennes, who will star as Magwitch in the adaptation of Great Expectations, read a moving extract from another of Dickens’ most beloved novels, Bleak House. The venerated Victorian author was an almost incomparable inventor of character, both ordinary and grand. His prolific pen authored numerous novels and other writings, all resonating with humanity and compassion. A deft storyteller, Dickens skewered wretched and greedy affluence, depicted the misery of poverty, and explored such varied themes as needed educational reform, sordid workplaces, class diparity, dismal childhoods, and destructive guilt, loneliness and despair. No slight to Shakespeare, Chaucer and esteemed ilk, but this is Dickens’ day.

Most know that Dickens coined “scrooge” (miserliness) and “uriah heep” (insincerity), but he is also the creator of “pecksniffian” named after Seth Pecksniff, a character in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. The definition: hypocritically affecting benevolence or high moral principles (e.g., pompous politicians).

Over six decades after the end of British colonial rule in India, the works of Charles Dickens continue to be studied and taught across the sub-continent. The issues he addressed in his works–caste inequity, social injustice and poverty–repercuss in the modern world.

India had long ago exported the flavors of chutney, mustard, pepper, and curry to loyal (and perceptive) followers in the isles. Since imperial times, Indian fare and British gastronomy have been inextricably intertwined. About the time of Dicken’s birth, the first Indian restaurant opened in London and by the time of his death, curry was well entrenched in the country’s cuisine. This is not to say Dickens had a penchant for curry even though food passages abound in his novels.

Indian restaurants began to really proliferate in London in the 1960’s — flock wallpaper and spicy hues, tablas, biryanis, naan, and vindaloos, with piped sitars and seductive curry aromas wafting throughout. Decades later, foreign minister Robin Cook even proclaimed chicken tikka masala, arguably the most favored curry there, “is now a true British national dish.” No, not Sunday roast or Yorkshire pudding or fish and chips, but CTM.

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t mustard seeds

2 t dried chili flakes
1 T ground turmeric
2 t garam masala
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 2 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into chenks
1 1/2 C Greek yogurt
Sea salt

3 T unsalted butter
2 small to medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 T paprika
2 t coriander
1 t cumin
1 t mustard seeds
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
1 t garam masala
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1/2 C plain yogurt

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Basmati rice
Naan

Soak bamboo skewers in water.

In a dry heavy bottomed skillet, heat the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds over medium low heat for a couple of minutes. Grind the cumin and coriander seeds and set aside for the sauce later. Grind the mustard seeds for the chicken marinade with red pepper flakes in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. In a food processor or blender, purée turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard, garam masala, garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and slowly add water until a loose paste forms. In a bowl, stir together half of the paste, yogurt, and salt thoroughly. Rub into the chicken and marinate, covered, in the refrigerator overnight. Reserve the remaining paste for later.

Remove chicken from the refrigerator so it reaches close to room temperature. Prepare charcoal grill to medium heat. Thread the chicken pieces through skewers. Grill chicken until just done, about 2 minutes per side, then arrange on platter and tent with foil. Do not worry if the chicken is slightly undercooked, as it will cook more in the sauce.

Meanwhile, heat butter in a heavy saucepan over medium high. Add onions, paprika, and reserved coriander and cumin. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6–8 minutes. Add remaining paste, tomatoes, garam masala, and cinnamon and cook another another 10 minutes. Stir in cream and yogurt, and chicken bring to a slight boil and reduce to a gentle simmer until thickened, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt to your liking.

Serve with basmati rice and naan.

Pourboire: should a charcoal grill not be an option, simply broil, sauté or roast the chicken during that step and then continue with the remainder of the recipe.

The cruelest prison of all is the prison of the mind.
~Piri Thomas

Petit and piquant, piri piri (also known as bird’s eye or African red devil) is a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, which is both a wild and domesticated chile pepper.

Piri piri rolls off the ever seductive Portuguese tongue which did not so gently settle into the lush, tropical lands of the República de Moçambique (Mozambique). Not unlike most European-African incursions, Portugal began to colonize these lands in the early 16th century. Mozambique’s natives and natural resources, particularly gold mines, sugar and copra plantations, endured serious exploitation. Indigenous peoples were subjected to harsh conditions, punitive laws, and restricted rights all the while “settlers” were lured to a land claimed to be flowing with milk and honey. Sadly, a familiar tune.

Independence from this colonial yoke was finally achieved in 1975, yet Mozambique was soon ravaged by civil war, economic woes and famine. Relative peace was reached, ending sixteen years of brutal strife and allowing the country to begin drifting toward some form of stability. Still, the civil war that devastated Mozambique’s economy and infrastructure left it one of the world’s poorest nations.

Ironically, Portugal’s PM, José Sócrates, has now requested a financial bailout for his own country, north and west of its former colony.

The country’s name was derived from Mossa Al Bique or Mussa Ben Mbiki who was a renowned, local Arab trader of yore. I must assume that had to be one in the same person.

Shrimp piri piri has been anointed as Mozambique’s “national dish.” But, what does that phrase connote in a world rife with regional and familial dishes, cross cultures, conquest, occupation and colonialism?

This piri piri swerves some from the basic, but is well worth the diversion.

SHRIMP PIRI PIRI

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil

1/2 t black mustard seeds
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
6-8 red bird’s eye chiles, seeds and ribs removed, chopped

1 t cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1/2 t ground turmeric
1 t garam masala
1/2 t ground clove
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t sea salt
Pinch of raw sugar
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

1 lb shrimp (16-20 count), peeled and deveined, tails intact

Fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Lime quarters

In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the mustard seeds and cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-4 minutes longer.

Add the cumin, turmeric, garam masala, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, salt, sugar, and vinegar. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and, when the mixture is cool enough, purée in a food processor or blender until smooth. If necessary, add more oil to achieve the desired consistency. Set aside and allow to cool. Then, pour over the shrimp and cover in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté, stirring and shaking the pan, until the shrimp are done, about 2-4 minutes. Serve promptly with cilantro and limes.

Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.