Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Life As a Cultural Chameleon

As you know, Mom was a xenophile. (How awesome that I actually got to use that word in the right context!?) She was not, however, particularly well traveled, nor was she a great student of foreign cultures. In fact, the closest Mom ever came to actually learning a new language was when she signed up for a Yiddish class to learn how to say “Oy Gevalt” properly. As soon as she found out it was an actual language, Mom dropped that class faster than a hot latke. (Ba-Dum-Bump!)

But when it came to eating like a native, Mom was a pro. As I mentioned before, she spent a good part of the 80s and 90s pretending to be Italian. This mainly involved dropping the last vowel from words for Italian food, such as “mozzarell” or "manicott.” There was also a time when Jeanne was a little bit Chinese too. She regularly attended Chinese cooking classes, and mastered the art of stir-frying in a wok.

At one point during the Chinese period, she and my Uncle Will prepared a breathtaking Chinese banquet for all of the cousins. At this time, Chinese restaurants in the United States were one step above Chop Suey and loaded with MSG. You can only imagine the reaction a dish like cold sesame noodles received from the family. Actually, the only one who really gawked was my Uncle Bill Knox, who insisted on stabbing his dumpling with a single chopstick and offered to take me to McDonald’s. But guess what? The man ate every last bite of food on his plate. Perhaps Mom and Will did more for US-Sino relations than they realized. (Uncle Will, if you still have any of those recipes, please send them my way!)

I am proud to say that I have inherited my mother’s passion for cultural chameleon-ism. I am half-Jewish and half-Catholic, so the role suits me well. When I married into a Jewish family, I became the best Jewish wife ever. And, since my brother married into an Indian family, I also fancy myself an Indian. You should see me rock out to the Hindi tunes.

Naturally, I was delighted when my friend Hagere, who hails from Ethiopia, offered to teach me how to make one of her wonderful dishes. Last fall, Hagere created a stir at a potluck dinner when she brought a steaming pot of chicken and hard-boiled eggs stewed in a brilliant red, spicy broth. She served it with Injera, the staple bread in Ethiopia. Injera has a spongy consistency, but is so flat and malleable that many people actually use it as a tablecloth upon which to serve the food. To put it eloquently, it’s awesome.

Unfortunately, the bread takes three days to make, so Hagere and I decided to focus on the chicken dish. On a hot afternoon, she came to my house bearing two gifts: a spice called berbere and a seasoning known as mekelsha. Berbere is a fresh-ground pan-roasted spice mix that typically contains equal parts allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt with a heavy dose of cayenne pepper. All you really need to know is that it’s super-duper spicy and gives Hagere’s chicken its rich color. Mekelesha tastes a lot like all-spice. Neither can be obtained in the U.S. However, you could use smoke Spanish paprika with a blend of the aforementioned spices and ground all-spice as substitutes.

After about an hour of watching Hagere expertly mince and stir, we produced this gorgeous stew pictured to the left. Can you believe it? That night, I even followed her instructions and cooked up some spinach with onions, garlic and ginger as a side dish. We used flat bread from Costco as a substitute for Injara. However, Hagere tells me you can order Injara fresh at

Watch out, Ethiopia. I am so going there to meet my new peeps.

Hagere’s Chicken Stew

1 chicken without skin, quartered
1 lemon, sliced
¼ cup olive oil
1 to 2 onions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp of fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 can of tomato paste or 3 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
2 cups of water (add more as needed)
2 Tbsp of Spanish paprika (blended with mix of allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt to taste)
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp of Ground All-Spice

• Soak chicken in cold water and lemon, and dry completely. Set aside
• Heat onion, ginger and garlic in large pot, until softened.
• Add olive oil, and continue to heat on medium flame until nearly very soft (perhaps 15 to 20 minutes)
• Add paprika with spice blend and stir; Add tomato or tomato paste and continue to blend. Add little bit of water to avoid burning.
• Continue to heat and stir until onion, ginger, and garlic are no longer recognizable (It should look as though you put it through a blender)
• Add chicken, and fry in sauce for roughly 15 minutes. Turn frequently, so sides brown evenly.
• Add salt and pepper.
• Once chicken is browned, add 1 cup of water. Let cook for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked through and tender.
• (Optional: Add hard-boiled eggs)
• Add all-spice and mix.
• Serve with rice, Injara, or flat bread.

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