Cooking-ish

It’s been a stressful few weeks…months… ok maybe year. Lots of work stuff. Lots of home stuff. I try to keep calm. We aren’t dealing with life or death at work, but sometimes we are at home. Sometimes when I am completely overwhelmed I’ll add one more thing to my day – which sounds crazy – but the one more thing is something I love to do.

I’ll make plans with friends during a busy week or run out for a quick dinner with my husband. Sometimes that one thing is just going to sleep, which isn’t bad either. But sometimes I’ll cook.

This past weekend I went home to see my family and celebrate all June and July Birthdays and Father’s Day, we’re efficient like that.

Even though my birthday was in May – I still scored a few gifts… one of my favorites was from my little bitty sister. She did done good.

I’ve been following this food writer all year, watching her videos on Bon App (that’s what the cool kids call it). I know what you’re thinking, an Indian cookbook? Not very original of me – but who said I was original? I like Mindy Kaling too (no I don’t think I look like her, and she doesn’t look like my sister or my cousin either and thank you).

Priya Krishna, the author/cook grew up with a mash-up of Indian/American food. This was very different than how I grew up. We ate food no one recognized, flavors that were nowhere to be found in restaurants – turmeric and okra and daikon. It was the 80s. Even chips and salsa hadn’t taken off yet. Plus I just wanted to be normal. I didn’t want my house smelling of garlic and onion all the time – ironically now this is my favorite part of going home, smelling all the cooking.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, I’m stressed and I need a distraction.

Some things about this book. It’s illustrated by Maria Qamar, a Desi (which means of Indian decent) pop artist out of Canada. She published a book a few years ago called, Trust No Aunty. I found out about her because my daughter loved her (this is the way I find out about a lot of cool stuff). Online she’s also known as @hatecopy. Check her out.

I love getting a new cookbook. I read it like a book book – know what I mean?

I knew the first recipe I’d try right away. It had all my favorite things. Poblanos! Serranos! White beans substituting cheese (damn you lactose)… here’s the recipe

I immediately added cilantro to this mix because… you know… cilantro. I also didn’t have fresh garlic so I used garlic in a tube… which is fresh-ish.

Funny side story – when I checked out at the grocery store with my stuff, the cashier, a nice young dude, said to me,” uhh just so you know, these aren’t jalapeños they are Serrano’s which are way spicer.” I was so impressed! I love people who give a shit. I told him how cool that comment was asked if he liked to cook, he said,” nah there’s just a lot of people who come back yelling that they got the wrong pepper.”

Yelling? About the wrong pepper? There’s so many questions I have for the pepper yeller. How was the wrong pepper choice the store’s fault? Is there really that big a difference? And lastly, ARE YOU INSANE??

Anyway, back to the recipe.

So here’s how it goes…

If you want to do it right, put the oil in first and once heated toast the cumin seeds in it first until fragrant before adding the onions. If you want to be like me… put everything in together while talking on the phone with a friend. Then add coriander and let it get nice and translucent.

  • While the onions get cooked I chopped the Serrano – not attractively but I got the job done.

  • Back to the onions… which got well-done by mistake because I ignored them while hacking away at the peppers.
  • Now…take the beans and mash them up.
  • Once mashed chunky, add the onions, the “fresh” garlic, the Serrano’s, lime and salt.
  • Again… don’t be like me. I sliced the poblanos in half so they looked like green alligators.
  • This is adorable but not the right way to stuff a pepper like this. I should have only cut half of it. Oh well. You live and learn. Except I didn’t learn and cut the others the same way.
    So I shoved the stuffing in and put them on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Here’s all my poblano alligator heads ready to go in.
  • Now go and wash your hands carefully because you’ve touched Serrano’s and poblanos. Wait about 45 min and bam!
  • Lol! Ok. So my peppers weren’t exactly stuffed. It was more like a roasted pepper with a mashed bean cake on the side but it was delicious! More importantly I did something not work for 2 hours of my day.
  • Mission accomplished.
  • ps… this is what they were supposed to look like. I debated posting this and saying I did it but of all the things to lie about, is this what I want to choose? Ofcourse not. Then I’d be no better than those wackos yelling in Shoprite that they were sold the wrong pepper. No thank you. I’ll save my lie for something else, like my weight or the success of my children or something… like a normal person.
  • Je m’appelle…

    Hello world! Or hello 825 followers if I’m being more precise! First post in over a month but who’s counting? Are you counting? I hope so.

    A lot has happened since we chatted last. Some work. Some home. Mostly TV. More to come on that later.

    Today’s post is about my name. Yep. Mi nombre. A few weeks ago my daughter’s boyfriend (adorable guy), asked if he could interview me about my first generation childhood. He said it’d take an hour and he’d ask me questions about my childhood, adolescence, etc. My answer was yes, of course. An hour to talk about myself as if I was on Oprah (not the new Super Sunday version…the old 4pm talk show version)? Who would say no to this? Not me. Not the gal who literally started a blog thinking people were dying to know crap I did and do and think about. Anyway it was so much fun. He promised to share the final version of it with me and if it’s flattering and makes me out of be some national Indian treasure, I’ll share it with you.

    I’m telling you about the interview for two reasons. 1) to show off, obviously 2) because it got me thinking about my childhood. I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much time talking about how I grew up since…well since I started dating my husband and he grilled me like the FBI. But lately, something has been coming up. For some reason, in the past year, maybe 2 years – I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my name. Specifically…how my name is pronounced. Even more specifically – how I’m letting people mispronounce my name.

    My name is Neha.

    It’s an old-school Indian name derived from the Sanskrit version (Sneha). It means love and tenderness – which will come as a big surprise to those who usually use other words to describe me. You know who you are. In the proper Indian dialect (choose your favorite), it’s pronounced Neigh-Ha. Neigh…like what horses say, and a very soft ha. Not like a karate chop HA! That’s how my very young, wonderful parents imagined my name being said all over India.

    Except my young, wonderful parents didn’t stay in India. They hauled ass to the USA. Jackson Heights, Queens to be exact – in 1979ish. To get the exact date I’d have to call my mother and disclose why I need this info, to which she’d say I’m giving super personal info to strangers on the internet who want to kill me. True story. My mother thinks the internet is out to get me. She’s right of course.

    Let me set the stage. Jackson Heights today is not what Jackson Heights of the late 70s/early 80s was. Today, there’s so many Indian immigrants that have settled there, they call parts of it Little India. Back then it was still mostly immigrants, but there was a broader mix – Chinese, African, Puerto Rican, and some Italian and Irish to balance it out. In today’s Jackson Heights – my young self would have had other Nehas to mix and mingle with. My young self would have gone to a school full of other people that looked, talked, lived like me. But that’s not how it was.

    My dad was a pharmacist – the reason we came to the US was for his job. My mom was a teacher in India but her certifications weren’t accepted here, so she got some random part-time work. My parents did one thing. They worked. They didn’t socialize. They didn’t have hobbies. They worked. I had a job too. One job. School. That’s all I had to do. My entire focus was school (and TV. Indians love TV. It’s a stereotype I know, but it’s also true). As was the case for most of my elementary and middle school life, I was the only Indian in my classes – and sometimes in the school.

    I don’t remember the first time I said my name to someone outside my family. I wish I did. I wish I could remember how and why my name began being pronounced like Leah…as if it was spelled Neah…Knee-ya. It all makes sense. I’m sure I wanted to fit in. I’m sure I wanted to not be different, but I don’t remember making a calculated effort to change how people pronounce my name. But maybe I did. I definitely wanted to assimilate. I wanted to dress like everyone else, eat like everyone else (lost cause), date like everyone else. My idea of a perfect boy was a blonde, blue-eyed dude with a one syllable name. Speaking of names, I would have given up a limb to be called Kelly, Jane or some other really white name, so maybe this was the closest fix. I just wish I could remember that happening. I probably need some deep therapy to remember, but the irony is that I remember other things really well from that time. The Saturday night line-up…. Dance Fever followed by Love Boat and ending with Fantasy Island. I remember the slice of pizza my mom got me every Friday after school – this was early 80s NYC pizza. Big. Flat. Foldable. I remember getting a Rubix’s Cube. It was my parent’s favorite kind of toy. Quiet, cheap, and portable. I remember all kinds of useless info. The moment that changed the way people said my name? Not so much.

    I’m going to interrupt this line of thought for a quick moment. One of the things I get asked often when i’m trying to explain why my name is pronounced the way it is, is this question,” well how does your family say your name? Do they use the wrong version too?” No. No they don’t use the “wrong” version. They don’t use any version. My family almost never, and I mean literally almost never, calls me by my given name. For the majority of my childhood I was known by a pet name – a loving moniker – Bittu. And it’s pronounced how it looks. Bit-To. It means “little one” or “little thing” or something like that. That’s what my parents, aunts and uncles called me. Once I had cousins old enough to talk, they called me Didi. Which means “big sister”. I know what you’re thinking…I’m a cousin, so why call me a sister? It gets even better. Now every member of the family calls me Didi, including my parents. Confusing, right? Listen – I can’t explain why all Indians are confusing – I can only explain the ways I’m confusing. Are you still with me? Are you over it? Bored? How many times have you checked your insta? Tell the truth. I just needed you to have some background since I assume you’re making a case in your head about why I’m a psycho.

    So after Jackson Heights my parents moved us to the hub of diversity and inclusiveness known as Albany, NY. No offense if it’s gone through some major change and my sarcasm no longer applies. Remember when I said I was the only Indian in the school growing up? Well in Albany I was the only person of color in the entire school! And it was middle school to boot. Good times. Actually they were good times. I have been incredibly lucky in my life and have always met friends who helped me through. In 7th grade something amazing happened. Two Pakistani girls moved to town. Twins. Huma and Asma. We immediately became friends. They were my first ethnic friends! I mean I tried being friends with a girl named Chang back in Queens but she was allowed to hang out less than I was so it didn’t work. I enjoyed my white friends whose parents let them come to my house for hours with no issue. Anyway – back to my first brown friends. They had just moved here from London. Dad was a doctor and divorced (scandal!). They came to the US to be closer to his sister. They all had these amazing accents which somehow cancelled out their “otherness” and made them hugely popular. It didn’t hurt that they were loaded and had a house with a pool (a rare jewel in Albany). Their dad worked crazy hours and the girls were mostly home alone – another bonus. I loved their house. It was the opposite of my house. No one cooked. My house smelled of ginger and garlic all day. Their house smelled of…nothing. Heaven. The twins’ dad was the first person to tell me that I was mispronouncing my name. Lucky for me his daughters were mortified and told him to never to talk to me again and I moved on.

    Actually my family moved on. We moved from Albany to Harrisburg, PA. Again, Harrisburg today has a full, lively Indian culture. Back then? Nada.

    My dad believed any religion was good religion – so I went to a Catholic High School. It was diverse”ish”….but guess which population there was only one of? That’s right people. Still me representing all Indians. Dot. Not feather.

    It wasn’t until I went to college in NYC, where I minored in religion (by mistake) and had to join a club as part of my Religions of the World class, that I met a whole bunch of Indians. I joined The South Asian Club for two long months. They were a nice bunch – most of them had grown-up in Queens, in the exact neighborhood that I’d started out in. Turns out Queens went full-on Indian soon after we moved out. On another side note – by this time I was dating a half Irish/half Ukrainian New Yorker. That’s right people, he’s blonde, blue-eyed and most of the time has a one syllable name. All my dreams really did come true. Anyway this new bunch of friends all tried to educate me on the correct way to say my name. I left soon after. Not just because I didn’t want to be lectured to, in all honesty, I left because they met on Friday mornings at 8am – which didn’t work with my Thursday night at Terminal Bar schedule.

    I’ll speed up. The 90s were vapid. No one really cared what the origins of my name were or how to say it correctly. Easy peasy. Even the early 2,000s were a non-issue. It wasn’t really until the last few years when people started getting “woke” that it came up again.

    The 20 year old intern who asked me gently if I knew how to correctly pronounce my name. Yes, thank you. Next. The well meaning friends who have other friends who pronounce the same name differently. Yes, I know. I get it. You feel like you’ve been doing me wrong. But you haven’t! I swear. It’s not you. It’s me. Well, technically it’s not me, it’s my name.

    You know I even went through a real immersion-into-my-culture phase in high school. We would go to India every year at that time to visit relatives (relatives who also never ever called me by my formal name). I was way into the culture, the movies, the food, the language – all of it. I was a Junior in high school and all I wanted to do was be different. I was thrilled to show-off my funky jewelry and henna’d hand. But even during that time – I never thought about changing the way people say my name. What does that mean? What does that say about me? I dunno. I’m sure there’s a million ways to dissect it. To “help me”. I’ll have to find a therapist and have them give me an answer. Or maybe I’ll Google it.

    My point is this…aren’t you glad you made it to the point! Mazel. You’re almost done. My point is that however it started, and whatever reason I did it or maybe someone just started calling me that and I went with it – whatever – it’s how I’d like you to pronounce my name. Yes, the wrong way.

    Trust me – it’s a daily struggle. People say my name in all different ways. Correct, incorrect, messed up, etc. I don’t mind any of it. I met a wonderful friend last year through work who is French. We had a long discussion about this. She told me that in French – the direct translation of Je m’appelle isn’t “what is your name?”. The meaning is “what do you want to be called?”. I love that. Je m’appelle Neha (knee-ya).

    In conclusion, I’m moving to France. Au revoir.

    Happy New Year! I’m talking to you Chinese people….

    I thought I’d share my favorite non-PC story involving my favorite Chinese friend in honor of today. I’m sure she won’t mind. If you are offended easily or think this is insensitive – please stop reading now. I totally understand. I once wrote a note to the New York Times condemning an Indian Cultural Day they had in Central Park called “Curry in the Park”. I was outraged that they would define all of the beauty that is the Indian culture and reduce it to a seasoning used in the food.  How dare they! They wrote back that it was, in fact, a showcase of Indian food. Oh. Anyway – I get it. Racism is terrible. But sometimes….it’s funny. On to my story.

    Let me set the scene.

    I worked in a very serious, very conservative private bank in New York City. This was the defining job of my career. All my biggest successes and f’ups happened here. It’s also where I learned the type of team that I wanted to be in (and lead eventually). We were hardworking, sarcastic, funny and silly. If you made a mistake in our team, you wouldn’t be walked through how to do it better – you would be teased and laughed at. There was no training or “on-boarding”. You just worked like hell to figure things out while the rest of the team rolled their eyes. It sounds rough. But it was amazing. You developed all the skills you needed to be a good planner – including the king of all skills – thick skin.

    We were also quite a mixed bag. Cold, stylish leader without a heart? Check. Smart, creative Chinese gal who bordered on being mean? Check! Rich, Hermes wearing Euro daughter of a client? Put together, chic New Yorker with an accent? Check and check! And me, a married Indian gal with a baby in her late 20’s. Let’s just say we didn’t blend into a crowd.

    Sorry about all the back story but you need to know this in order to really appreciate the situation. So because we dealt with billionaires and people who managed billionaires, the atmosphere in the office was always quiet and well-heeled. Except in our area. We were always laughing and shouting and eating. A mark of most good event groups. We also kept to ourselves most of the time – not that anyone was knocking down our door to be included.

    Then, one fateful holiday season – it happened. Our guard was down. We were invited to join the secret Santa gift exchange on our floor. We decided to do it. We even decided to go to the party for the gift exchange. All of us. Except the head of the group who spent December in Prague or something. We were going to assimilate! At least for that hour.

    We all shuffled into the conference room and pretended to be excited. One by one we opened our gifts. Oh look, the strange dude in graphics got me a cookbook. How nice. The lady in accounting got someone a candle. Charming. You get the point.

    Then. Our Chinese gal opened the first of 2 gifts from her secret Santa. Hmmm. Geisha stickers. She smiled. We stared. We started to feel the corners of our mouth convulsing – we looked at the floor. We looked at the ceiling. We looked anywhere to avoid eye contact with her. We prayed the next gift wouldn’t be ethnic specific. We were wrong. She opened a box of Chinese rubber stamps. Ok – at least this was the right bucket of stereotyped gift. (You say Chinese, I say Japanese…) There was no ill intent. The person meant no harm. But we were all dying. Literally bursting at the seams laughing. We never participated in a gift exchange again. True story.

    I know what you’re thinking. How awful – that person should have been reprimanded. Oh no. You didn’t go to HR for this stuff. You thanked the Gods that this happened so you could hold it over your co-worker’s head! That’s how we rolled.

    For months after we talked, relived, re-enacted the moment. It was like a Christmas miracle to our team. It’s been 14 years or so since that day, and it still brings me joy.

    Here’s to the year of the goat!

    (Please note that the Chinese gal and I remain the closest of friends and she had to help me remember some details. I remembered the gift giver as a boy, it was a girl. I remembered 3 gifts. It was only 2. Thank god for her. Chinese people. They’re good to have around)

    Ganesh is Good!

    So…I made it to 31 days of blogging straight. Phew. I’m tired. Now goodbye until December. Ha ha. Just kiddin. It was very appropriate that the day my self-inflicted challenge to “write” every day ended, I went to celebrate the Indian god that you pray to when you start stuff. Typical.
    Anyway – I met my family today to celebrate the Hindu god Ganesh. You know, the one with the elephant head. Every year in late August, this god of new beginnings is the central focus of all festivities for 10 days. A huge, I’m talking 20 foot huge, statue is created for the holiday. On the 10th day it’s taken to a body of water and submerged as an offering for a good year. We didn’t see that happen. I’m not even sure where they’d go in New Jersey to do that.The shore? Would we want Ganesh to be with all the other people sleeping with the fishes? I dunno. What I do know is that the festival involves food. Not Indian buffet food – there’s no chicken tikka masala here. This is Indian street food. For Indian street rats like me. We also did some shopping and spent some quality time with my parents, which means we let them buy stuff for us. They love that.
    Here’s some pics and here’s to an amazing new year – so says Ganesh.
    My mom and dad about to approach the big guy.

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    Here’s Ganesh in all his glory.

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    And here’s my favorite of all the food – and there was a lot of food – eaten today! It’s a puffed, crispy thin bread stuffed with all kinds of yogurt, potatoes and cilantro chutneys. Then they top it with fried thin noodles. A food for the gods. Or for me. We also found a pickle bar. Indians love a good condiment.

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    Bros before….you know

    We had a busy weekend. We picked up a kid at camp. We drove 3 hours to upstate NY and had a fun day with friends, came home, slept and then headed west to Harrisburg to see my family (and pick up the other kid).
    We were also there to celebrate two birthdays and an Indian celebration called Raksha Bandhan (we’re efficient that way).
    To be clear, there are hundreds to Indian celebrations. What can I say, we like lots of Gods and lots of ways to worship them. And by WE I really mean my people, not me. Because as I’ve told you before, I’m religious light. I dabble. The Catholic Irish Ukrainian dude I married is the same way. We do the big things. Baptism so the kids get into heaven? Check. Making sure they know how the Indian god Ganesh got an elephant head? Done. Mortal soul secured.
    So we approach holidays in both religions with some whimsy. Don’t you think some of the problems of the world would be resolved with some whimsy? Whimsy is undervalued.
    Anyway, back to the weekend.
    Basically the celebration is about the bond between a brother and a sister. She puts a sacred thread on his wrist, dots his head with a red mark called a Tilak (red powder dye and water. Think runny red lipstick) and she feeds him something sweet. He promises to protect and love her and gives her a small gift. Lovely.
    What happens if you don’t have a brother like me and my sister? You’re screwed ! Just kiddin. Our cousins step into the role for us.
    Here’s some pics from the celebration. The last pic is of my cousins who payed dual roles, our brothers and the birthday boys.
    Notice my sons face as my daughter feeds him the Indian sweet. Maybe next year she can feed him an M&M or something.
    And speaking of tweaking tradition, one of the sacred threads resembled a football – so we chose that for my son. He missed the subtle cultural fusion we tried to create.

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    Chaat. It’s what’s for dinner.

    The other day I found myself alone at mealtime. No kids. No hubby. Just me.
    Know what I had?
    I had this.

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    And this.

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    Now, if you’re a normal Mexican/Chinese/Thai food enjoying kinda person – chances are you’ve had Indian food. Although I’m not saying that you’re abnormal if you don’t enjoy the ethnic aisle, no judgements (but you ARE missing out you big boring weirdo). Anyway, you recognize the chick peas and the bread – they are staples in any good Indian buffet. But it’s the dish in the first picture that gets me going.

    In India, street food is called Chaat – it’s the fast food of my people. What I had is called Dhai Puri – which means yogurt bread. Except the little round bread is fried to a crisp, stuffed with other fried foods, and then drizzled with a yogurt sauce. There’s also a tamarind sauce and garlic chili sauce on top – and more fried bits for good measure.
    Healthy? No! Delicious? Yes!
    The end.

    That Guy.

    photo

    Insert Twilight Zone Music….

    In 1997, my husband and I took a cruise to Bermuda from New York City, where we lived.

    Back then, there was none of this relaxed cruising stuff. You were assigned to a table. And that’s where you sat all week.

    Every night, we had the same staff serving us. They were amazing.

    This is a picture of one of our waiters, a gentleman from Bangladesh who loved me.

    As almost all men from the old country do. Just kiddin’

    He took such good care of us. Special veggie dishes. Extra spicy, for me.

    Loads of extra shrimp in my husband’s scampi. That kind of thing.

    We found out that he lived on the boat 10 months of the year.

    Went home to his wife and kids for 2 months and was back at it.

    At the end of our week we took this photo, said our goodbyes, and left a nice tip.

    Cut to 2006

    We were now living in Eastern Pennsylvania with our two kids and a cat

    Miles and miles from Bermuda. Or Bangladesh.

    I’m in Harrisburg, with my whole family.

    We were there celebrating my sister’s bday – at the local Indian restaurant.

    Like usual.

    Guess who our waiter was.

    Guess.

    Yes.

    I swear.

    Really.

    He left the cruise job, brought his family to the US, and moved to my hometown. Happened to get a job at my parent’s favorite place to celebrate all things. Happened to be working the night we were there. And happened to be our waiter. Again.

    Insert Twilight Zone music again….

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