Wednesday, August 11, 2010

South of the Border

Mexico. A country so close to the U.S., and yet the average U.S. citizen truly knows so little about it. In High school I remember spending a trimester on Mexican, Central and Latin American history, but I only really recall learning about the Incans, Aztecs, Cortez and the Alamo. As for current events, well, I know I am terrible. I know about the drug wars, the poverty, the immigration issues, and, conversely how gorgeous the country is and what a great vacation destination Mexico is. In short, I know Mexico in relation to the U.S., but not really much about it on its own. Rather embarrassing. I have visited Mexico, but just the touristy areas of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. It is a beautiful country and I would love to learn more about it.

On recommendation from friends, I picked up C.M. Mayo's The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. It was fascinating! A fictionalized account (but mostly true to life) of the French invasion and subsequent Habsburg empire in Mexico around the years of the American Civil War. I was amazed. I had never heard of the French invasion of Mexico, and certainly never knew that others besides the Spanish had set themselves up as rulers in that wild and beautiful land.

This novel follows the lives of the main players in this story: the Iturbide family, children of a former emperor of Mexico, the Liberator; Alice Green (later Iturbide), the daughter of a prominent Washington D.C. family; Maximilian and Charlotte, Habsburg archduke and duchess who become emperor and empress of Mexico; and some of the main politicians of the times. The Iturbide child (son of Alice and Angelo Iturbide) is named heir to the throne of Mexico and the ramifications of this decision complicate perception and support for this struggling young empire. This book has it all! Political drama, family feuds, martial disagreements, royalty, adventure and traveling new lands, cultural conflict, kidnapping, insanity, etc.

C.M. Mayo's lyrical, humorous prose brings each character to life--often using historical letters and other writings. The characters were compelling and complex, the court intrigues (both in Mexico, Europe and in the U.S.) revealed why this empire was so short-lived, as do Maximilian's strange decisions . I especially enjoyed the depiction of Maximilian who tried his best to fit the image of a benevolent ruler without truly understanding the needs and desires of his military and subjects. He seemed to live in a fantasy world of what "good" rulers do and couldn't base his decisions on the actual reality he faced in Mexico. Mayo describes the countryside of Mexico and Europe, the cities and castles with such gorgeous details to make each scene come alive. I want to visit the castles Maximilian built! They sound sumptuous.

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire really made me wonder what Mexico would have been like had the empire lasted, and if that project was ever truly viable. Would everyone speak French there now? Or a mixture of French and Spanish? Could the entire country truly have been rid of the bandits and marauders and united under a European? I feel that the European rulers could never have lasted for too long--they just didn't relate well to the people. This is a great novel, and an awesome way to learn more about Mexican history.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


When I was a child, my mother would tell me the stories of who my ancestors were, which countries they came from and how they got to America. We talked often about my grandmother, her mother, who immigrated to America as a Japanese war bride following WWII. I was entranced with the adventure and how bravely my grandmother said goodbye to her family and all she knew to follow her husband home. Their love was strong despite the difficulties that come with not sharing a native tongue. Soon my mother bought me a place mat that had a map of the world and I spent mealtimes staring at all the different countries and wishing I could visit them all. I would plan out trips, tracing sea adventures in the Pacific Islands and land adventures through Europe and Asia.

When I was in college, I began to fulfill some of these dreams. I have backpacked through Europe, lived in Japan and visited Mexico and the Caribbean. But there is still so much left to see and experience!

A like-minded friend recently lent me Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad. Ms. Gelman is absolutely fearless! As her marriage disintegrates, Gelman begins to test her new wings and travels alone to all the places her husband has refused to go throughout their long marriage. Eventually they divorce and she gives him nearly all their worldly possessions and becomes a nomad. She is an author and can write wherever she is, and her royalties are enough to sustain her living expenses, so she is able to devote herself to this lifestyle.

In each country that she chooses to live in, Gelman studies the language, the cooking, and the culture. She tries to make friends with the people of the area, and while many are initially wary of her, she is eventually fully embraced and made a part of their lives. She shares her children books that she wrote with the children of the area, and often teaches informal English to her friends and their children. Her two grown children also often visit her as she goes around the world. She spends as long as she likes in each place, moving only when fancy takes her. I was so impressed with her utter fearlessness (I have only once traveled alone, and found myself in several somewhat dangerous situations.), her networking skills, and the way she becomes a part of the local community in each place she visits. Gelman writes in a clear, engaging style as she explores her rebirth in a new way of life, her experiences and interactions with new cultures and her struggles with loneliness and the loss of her marriage. Ultimately, Gelman triumphs in redefining herself, her life's path and finding meaning in making connections with people.

I didn't want this book to end! I recommend it highly to anyone who loves traveling and reading about different cultures. It revived my dream of working as a travel writer, and I am now planning a trip to Europe with my sister.

One of my favorites

I've been continuing to explore and create the recipes from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking and wanted to share these fabulous koftas. Koftas are meatballs, heavily spiced and these ones are just incredible! Every bite explodes with flavor and I was truly sorry that I hadn't made a double batch.

Kashmir Koftas, page 60 from Indian Cooking. These are excellent with plain basmati rice and a side of veggies. Serves 6.

Ingredients List:
2 lbs. ground lamb (I used grass-fed beef)
1 and 1/2 in long piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8-1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
5 T. plain yogurt (I used Greek style since it is closer to Indian yogurt)
7-8 T. vegetable oil
2 inch stick cinnamon
5-6 cardamon pods
2 bay leaves
5-6 whole cloves
1 cup warm water

Combine the meat with the first eleven ingredients, and add in 3 T. of the yogurt. Mix well. Wet hands and form the meat mixture into 24 sausage shaped koftas, about an inch thick and 2.5-3 inches long.
Heat oil in a large nonstick pan. When hot, put in the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, whole cloves and cardamon pods. Stir for a few seconds. Quickly put in all the koftas in a single layer and fry until they are brown on all sides. Beat the remaining yogurt into the water. Pour over the koftas and simmer for 30 minutes. Gently turn the koftas every 7-8 minutes. When all the liquid has been absorbed, carefully lift the koftas out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. You don't have to eat the whole spices, I did, but she recommends that you discard them.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks

I love cooking. I love learning new cooking techniques. And I love Indian food. The intense, complex flavors make me just want to eat forever. My favorite two dishes at my local Indian restaurant, Raja Mahal on E. Franklin Ave. in Minneapolis, are Chicken Tikka and Lamb Sagwala. Every bite bursts with rich flavor and a delicious spiciness that I just had never created on my own before.

I had a gift card to Barnes and Noble, so I decided to use it on an Indian cookbook. Every time I went I would flip through the options, but I just couldn't decide. I knew I definitely wanted authentic recipes. I knew I wanted it to be filled with newsy details and descriptions, the recipes to be clear and easy to follow, and gorgeous photos to garner my interest and let me know what the finished dish is supposed to look like. I like to read the cookbooks just as much as I enjoy actually creating the dishes, and the little stories about each dish get me excited to make them.

I decided that the best way to choose would be to try them out for a while. I went to my local library and found Madhur Jafffrey's memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees, but no Indian cookbooks. (It is a rather small branch.) I took home the memoir and Ms. Jaffrey's descriptions of her childhood foods made my mouth water. When I discovered that she was a cookbook author, I knew I wanted to check out her books. I loved the fact that she learned how to cook through the letters she and her mother wrote back and forth while she was studying in England. It gave me confidence that her instructions would be clear and that she would understand the difficulty of procuring certain ingredients outside of India. I put five of her books on hold and was able to pick them up within a week. I checked out Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking, From Curries to Kebabs, Flavors of India, Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, and An Invitation to Indian Cooking.

I spent one day just reading the cookbooks and marking all the recipes in each book that I wanted to try. I noticed that a lot of the recipes were featured in several of the books, which made it easier to eliminate. I decided against Quick and Easy Indian Cooking because it didn't have many recipes. Alternately, although it contained a ton of recipes and had lots of fun descriptions and little stories, my copy of An Invitation to Indian Cooking didn't have any pictures. It was also the oldest of the bunch. From Curries to Kabobs turned out to be recipes from all over the world, anywhere that used the spices from India. While fascinating, this was not what I was looking for. So that took it down to Indian Cooking (henceforth referred to as IC) and Flavors of India (FOI). I began cooking.

I joined a CSA this year, so I had a ton of greens. The first day I made Saag (Kale). The second dish was Sookhe aloo (Potatoes with ginger and garlic). Both from IC. They were fabulous and fairly simple to make. My sister and I gobbled them up.

I then invited a friend to dinner for the next Friday. I knew it would take a while to make all the dishes I wanted to try, so I started making the samosas on Thursday. They took forever! But they were well worth it. Anytime I make a filled pastry it takes me at least one entire day, and it certainly was slow going.  But that is really more my lack of experience with rolling out dough.

On Friday I made Hare dhaniye ki chutney (Fresh Coriander Chutney) to go with the samosas, Mughlai saag (Spinach cooked with onions), Xacuti (Chicken with a roasted coconut sauce), and Peelay chaaval (Aromatic yellow rice). All the recipes were from IC except the Xacuti, which was from FOI. I later discovered a version of it in IC too. The dinner went really well. Everything turned out delicious, and I was absolutely in love with the coconut chicken.

The next week, I made Whole Green Lentils with Spinach and Ginger, which was a bit plain, but probably would have been better if I had the right amount of spinach. I also made Kashmiri koftas (Kashmiri style meatballs) which were delightful. Every bite was just so incredibly flavorful. I loved all the whole spices and the yogurt sauce made it truly decadent. I made Baigan ka raita (yogurt with eggplant) for a sauce. All recipes were from IC.

IC is a great cookbook because it has a lot of different recipes, the layout is easy to understand and use. I like that it is divided up in to separate chapters for each type of food (meat, poultry, vegetables, etc.) It has pictures, nice descriptions and suggested pairings. I really liked FOI because it is divided up by region. Each section gives a history of the region, the foods, and Jaffrey's wonderful descriptions of the time she spent there. I loved reading these sections. Many of the recipes were in both books, though they were usually slightly different in portion sizes.

Through this experience I realized that Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking was the right cookbook for me! I ordered it online and it will be arriving later this week. If I get a second book, it would probably be FOI, because I love knowing where each dish is from, and there were a lot of regional dishes that aren't in the IC. But I realized that I simply find IC easier to use, so it is best one to get first.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Long time

Hi! I am sorry that I haven't been posting for so long! I really do feel terrible for neglecting this blog so much. I am currently completing three internships and I plan to be back when they are over, or when I have more free time. I have about a month left. I have been reading a ton of wonderful books and plan to post reviews of them as soon as I can! Thanks for being patient.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Slant, Laura E. Williams' coming-of-age novel perfectly captures the desperation that all people--and especially middle and high schoolers-- feel about finding acceptance and fitting in with the social groups around them. A Korean adoptee, thirteen year old Lauren feels like an outsider in her small Connecticut town. She longs to stop the teasing at school about her eyes and the constant attempts of math homework thievery. Even her crush, Sean, sometimes calls her Slant.
Hoping to stop the teasing and name-calling, Lauren saves up for irreversible eyelid surgery. She expects that this change will bring her true happiness and allow her to fit in at school. As she gets closer to this big step, Lauren learns new truths about her family, friends and the other kids at school.

Ms. Williams writes with clarity and simplicity, revealing details about Lauren's world from the beginning that hint at the imperfections in everyone's life. Using the motif of photography, she gradually reveals the truth about Lauren. Lauren is obsessed with truth and lies, and slowly begins to realize that not everything can be categorized so simply.

This is a great book! I highly recommend it to everyone who enjoys YA Lit.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cooking to savor and reflect

Untangling my Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Ms. Riccardi writes a fun and entertaining memoir of her time spent studying tea kaiseki in Kyoto, Japan. Tea kaiseki is a specialized meal that accompanies Japan’s highly ritualized tea ceremony. Rife with subtle meaning and composed of seasonal foods, tea kaiseki is designed to bring the participants closer in communication with nature, and, as it comes from Buddhism, ultimately to attain enlightenment.

Riccardi loved Japan and had dreamed of going there as a child. After attending college and hating her job, Riccardi decides she needs a change and head out to fulfill her dream. She teaches English to make ends meet and pay for her expensive tea kaiseki classes. She is taken in by a lovely Japanese couple who give her the opportunity to participate in real Japanese life. She also encounters the good fortune of having an English-speaking classmate who translates all the tea kaiseki classes for her and allows her to help him create several tea kaiseki meals for the ceremonies he holds in his backyard tea house. Riccardi ultimately finds that tea kaiseki teaches her patience and the ability to savor the present moment, as well as the delight of longing for more.

I enjoyed reading this book, mostly because the subject matter fascinates me, as it is part of my cultural heritage. I would love to someday have the opportunity to study Japanese traditional arts -- especially flower arranging and pottery – and I hope to become good at cooking Japanese food. This book is wonderful because Ms. Riccardi includes several recipes at the end of each cooking session. I plan to re-create several of these soon.

An aspect of the book that I did not enjoy was that Ms. Riccardi described a few of the people who were so kind to her in rather unflattering terms. I found this to be ungrateful, -- regardless of how true these observations may have been -- and it seemed to me that she could have omitted this, or put a different spin on it. If I was one of these people, and happened to read her book, I would feel hurt.

All in all, it is worth reading if you love Japan, cooking, or enjoy reading ex-pat memoirs.