Saturday, November 3, 2007

Feast on This

"In Children of the Ghetto (1892), Israel Sangwill writes of a young man in the East End of London who held a Christian girl he fancied to be cold of heart and unsprightly of temperament. 'Perhaps,' he wrote, 'though he was scarcely conscious of it, at the bottom of his revulsion was the certainty that the Christian girl could not fry fish. She might be delightful for a flirtation of all degrees, but had not been formed to make him permanently happy.'"
In Claudia Roden's The Book Of Jewish Food: On Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (where this great quote comes from), she makes every Jewish foodies dream come true when giving Portuguese and Spanish Jews credit for bringing with them what is now known as the quintessentially British dish, Fish n' Chip.
Why does it make me so happy you ask? Well, Jews are known for many things, food included, but as far as refined or groundbreaking dishes are concerned, we are left in a dust by the French and Italians. Sure, a good cholent makes my heart swell with nostalgia but there are few taste similarities to the elegant cassoulet. And a good kugel is something I associate with holiday dinners but it is no hand rolled gnocci.
So here comes a cookbook that makes hero's of us all. Last night I successfully attempted Mrs. Roden's Lamb with Red Chillies and Tamarind (page 404). Sweet, spicy, creamy and flavourful, this dish doesn't come close to resembling the foods I know as Jewish. This recipe is the contribution of Mrs. L. Samuel to the "Bene Israel Cookobook", distributed by Jewish Religious Union Sisterhood in Bombay.
There were three Jewish communities in India; the Cochinis, the Baghdadis and the largest but most isolated group, the Bene Israel. They lived in total isolation for centuries until they were discovered and assimilated into mainstream Jewish life less then three hundred years ago.
They are also the most Indian of three groups in their dress, language and lifestyle. Unknown to the rest of the Jewish world, they were discovered by the Cochini Jews in the mid-eighteenth century because of the fact that they kept Sabbath, practiced circumcision on the eighth day, made distinction between clean and unclean foods and recited the Shema prayer even though it was the only Hebrew prayer they knew.
This recipe is history on your plate, evoking Bene Israel's ancestry as one of the shipwrecked Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, who ended up off the coast of India in Kind Solomon's time in the second century b.c.
I used lamb shank with the bone still in as opposed to shoulder because you get more meat after trimming. Remember to talk to your butcher, tell him/her what you are making and ask what they suggest with what meat they have available. If you live in Toronto try Gasparro's Meat Market at 857A Bloor Street West at Roxton Road, (416) 534-7122.

2 lbs (1 kg) onions, sliced or coarsely chopped
6-8 tablespoons vegetables oil
4 1/2 lbs (2 kg) lamb shoulder or fillet of neck or a mixture of the two
6-10 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
8-10 tiny dried red chillies*
3 lbs (90g) tiny new potatoes
3 1/2 oz (90g) creamed coconut in a hard block or 8 oz (250g) canned coconut cream**
3 tablespoons tamarind paste (can be found in Indian and Oriental Stores)
3 tablespoons sugar
* These can be bought in packages at Indian or Oriental stores
**I bought Mr. Gouda Coconut Cream at Fiesta Farms for $1.99. It is very easy to use, it is a hard block that you can cut into pieces and plop into your dish. And it gives great flavour.

Fry the onions in 3-4 tablespoons of oil on a very low heat until soft and golden, keeping the lid on and stirring occasionally to keep the onions from burning. It make take 30-45 minutes because of the large quantity.
Trim off skin and excess, but not all, fat from the meat and cut it into 1 1/2-inch (4-cm) pieces. (A step that Mrs. Roden left out and that I find essential is salting the meat before you start browning it. Remember, it is very hard to over-salt raw meat, so be generous.) Fry in 3-4 tablespoons of oil in batches in a large, heavy bottomed pan, turning the pieces to brown them all over.
Add the garlic, cumin and coriander to the onions and stir well for a minute or so, then add the spiced onions to the meat. Cover with about 4 cups (1 liter) of water and bring to a boil. Remove the scum and add cinnamon, cloves and chillies, then simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours, or until meat is very tender. Remove chilies at this stage.
Now put in the potatoes, peeled or simply washed (Mrs. Roden recommends you don't peel them so I didn't, but I did quarter them), and add about 2 1/2 cups (600ml) of water - just enough to cover. Add the creamed coconut cut into pieces or the canned coconut cream, the tamarind and the sugar and simmer for another 30-40 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. There should be a lot of sauce.
Serve with plain rice, chapatis, or bread.

1 comment:

krystal said...

Maia...more please....more writing! I will read it, I swear!