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Archive for April, 2010

African Peanut Stew with Cilantro

African Peanut Stew with Cilantro via alaskavegan.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago Dave and I shared dinner with a group of Kenyan expats at 4-Course Vegan. It’s a place where you either go with a group of 8 and take up a whole table, or you share your table with strangers. We shared with strangers and had a wonderful evening. After the perfunctory questions such an occasion calls for–what do you do?, what’s your name?, do you live in Brooklyn?, are you vegan?–were out of the way, we got to talking about Kenya and what our new friends missed and didn’t miss about it. We talked a lot about food. Much to my surprise, cilantro is an absolute staple in Kenyan cooking.

But it took some time to figure this out because Kenya, like much of the world, does not call cilantro cilantro. In Kenya, cilantro is dhania, the Hindi word for cilantro. (There’s a large Indian population in Kenya which I only know because one of my best friends is Indian with a lot of family in Kenya.) So if you’re someone who likes to travel or eat “ethnic” food (that term sounds so vaguely offensive to me, but I don’t have a better one) and hates cilantro, you’ll want to know what the locals call it, especially in cultures that eat a lot of this horrible stuff.

Cilantro: English, Spanish, Italian. Used in the US and much of Western hemisphere and apparently Italy (Cilantro pizza anyone? Gag). This covers Latin cuisine which is of course a red flag cuisine for cilantro haters, but at least you can use the word with confidence that the restaurant will know what you’re talking about. Indeed we get the word in English from the Spanish.
Dhania: Hindi; used in Kenya, India
Koriander: German (I find going for cilantro and coriander both in a restaurant situation where the waiter doesn’t speak really great English to be an effective communication strategy, though for Indian food they use a lot of coriander seed which is delicious to most cilantro leaf haters I know, so if you can successfully clarify you mean the coriander/cilantro leaf and not the seed you’re all set).
الكزبرة: Arabic. Pronounced “el-kez-bur-uh.” You know, the next time you order Falafel in Dubai.
Coriandre: French. Even cilantro sounds beautiful in French, though they don’t have too much cause to use the damn word since the French (at least historically) favor sophisticated herbs like tarragon to horrible ones like cilantro.
Shiang Tsai: Chinese – Mandarin. I have not discovered a lot of cilantro in Chinese food, but then again I’ve never been to China and the cuisine is so diverse there, I wouldn’t put it past one or more of the regional cuisines to rely heavily on cilantro.
Yim sai: Chinese – Cantonese
כוסברה: Hebrew. Pronounced “koos-uh-bur-ah.” Latkes with cilantro-infused applesauce. Mmmm…
Koyendoro, Koendoro: Japanese

Source: Google Translate where you can find the word for cilantro in virtually any language you’d ever want to. I know the next trip I take or ethnic meal I eat, I’ll have the right word ready to go. And depending on the language, learning “no” or “without” is just as important, lest we end up with a generous extra portion of Dhalia with our samosas.

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Illustration by Stephen Webster
New York Times

Today’s New York Times Dining section has a striking front page. What is most striking to most I imagine is not the small cilantro article on the lower right, but the hyperbole of a pastrami sandwich that overwhelms the page.

I’ve been thinking a lot about juxtaposition recently (always) and while Harold McGee’s excellent article provides so much fodder to dive into here in this blog, fodder that I’m excited to dive into in the near future, while I have the eyes and possibly attention of more than I’m used to it’s the pastrami sandiwch that juxtaposes cilantro hate neuroscience/anthropology that I’m concerned with today.

Beginning January of this year, I’ve adopted a vegan diet that I keep at a strictness of oh, say 98%–due dilligence applied, the occasional doubt of trace amounts of dairy infrequently ignored. I’m not here or anywhere else to try to convince anyone they should do the same, but I think I have an interesting and less-obnoxious-than-most-vegans take on it.

The Times asks “Can This Sandwich Be Saved?” in its headline (Julia Moskin asks in her headline). A better question, I argue, is “Should This Sandwich Be saved?”

The article is about the slow but consistent decline of the Jewish deli (the number of them, the success of them, the perceived quality and authenticity of them) and the corresponding ascension of the not-Jewish deli (which is not to say Gentile deli–some not-Jewish delis are Jewish delis, just not Jewish delis of yore). It profiles several mostly younger chefs and restaurant owners who are bringing things like “sustainability,” creativity, and vegetables (that aren’t coated in mayonnaise) to delis.

On the one hand, while I value tradition, knowing what you’re going to get when you go into a place, a kind of place, on the other hand I believe in progress, that what worked yesterday at least might not work so well today. As Jonathan Safran Foer points out in his excellent book Eating Animals–which I read to rev myself up for veganism 3.0 (I’ve dabbled before for years at a time)–no one, and I can’t speak to this personally not being Jewish and all, but especially no one from such a strong cultural and culinary tradition as the Jewish one, wants to see tradition die, even if there are not so great maybe ethical or other considerations that might not make them the best practices to uphold.

My argument here isn’t whether or not certain traditions should be upheld. Certainly you can uphold their spirit and modify their specifics–this has always been so. But it gets complicated when one tries to determine what is the vital essence of this tradtion–what part of it needs to be preserved. Which is why religion is so flawed–who gets to decide that essence?–doesn’t seem to be the smartest guy in the room, does it?–but that’s another post.

My argument here is that making things better or more progressive, here through sustainable butchering practices (in house, local, grass-fed), and flavor and creativity and all these ostensibly wonderful things, can sometimes obscure that they are really much further from that than being good enough. That is, sure grass-fed pastrami is better than its factory farmed equivalent, but is it good enough? Maybe it is good enough for you and maybe it is good enough for a lot of people (everyone knows the whole slaughter process and everything is still really awful, right?) and that it should or shouldn’t be still isn’t my argument (exactly).

My argument is that these progressive means of producing meat and dairy and eggs and other foods while obviously good in some ways may be detrimental in that 1) they make well-meaning liberals and people who otherwise give a damn feel like they’re doing enough, that things are moving forward enough to 2) eat these things (maybe not so bad) and 3) (the real problem) eat the old-guard counterparts of these foods more often than the sustainable version because 99% of meat and eggs are still factory farmed. Basically, the very margainal market (supply, not demand) that exists for organic, local, sustainable, not factory farmed animal products seems larger than it is and because many seek out the good versions when they can, are used to eating these things at all, they will inevitably eat these things in their factory-farmed-mixed-pig-part-ball-park-frank-at-the-Yankees-game variety too, right? In fact, many if not most end up eating this kind of food (think cubed chicken in that make your own salad New Yorkers) more often than the good kind, because the good kind is out there so we don’t give it up completely.

And I’m not here to judge that. Food writing for years I ate my share of all these things–foie gras, Yankees hot dogs, Shake Shack burgers, Heritage Pork chops, etc–and I’m not on a mission to change anyone’s mind about anything. But I’m interested in spotting bargained logic and unwarranted self-congratulation and while I really hope that Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt of Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley and chefs like them continue to create a better product, maybe at least some of us should also be thinking of creative ways of not eating this stuff at all.

Despite all this, you can say one good thing about delis categorically–I’ve never seen cilantro in a single one.

Also, I think the New York Times should give me a vegan and/or cilantro hate food column. Just a thought.

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NY Times today.


Real analysis to come circa lunchtime.

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More later, but for now a link to The New York Times article and this juicy bit from Harold McGee, paraphrasing Northwestern (GO CATS!) neuroscientist Jay Gottfried:

“the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.”

Indeed, to hate is to survive.

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