Recipe: Soft Tofu Stew (Soondubu Jjigae)

October 15, 2012

Fall is the season of comfort food. Even in southern California, where the leaves remain green and the temperature doesn’t drop below 65 degrees, pumpkin lattes and hearty stews abound. Most Americans, me included, associate comfort food with dishes like macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, beef stew, ice cream, apple pie, or pretty much anything loaded with fat and processed carbohydrates.

Conversely, most Americans associate unappetizing health food with things like tofu, salad, and any vegetable but potatoes (unless it’s a vegetable smothered in cream and/or cheese, in which case it crosses over into the realm of comfort food). But there’s definitely no American-style dish involving tofu that’s considered comforting. The very suggestion is enough to give children nightmares.

I always thought the American notion of comfort food was the universally accepted definition. Then I moved to Egypt and realized that comfort food in the Middle East generally involves rice, which was not on my comfort food radar at that point in time. Growing up, my family would eat rice for one of two reasons: either it was an accompaniment to some kind of “ethnic” meal, like Indian or Mexican food, or it was the only starch we had in the house. Potatoes, pasta, polenta and bread were always preferable to rice. So I associated rice with either foods outside of my comfort zone or as the undesirable substitute for much-loved potato dishes.
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Recipe: Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala

June 8, 2012

I read an interesting article in the New York Times recently about Western chefs, like Rick Bayless, who gained notoriety cooking a cuisine they have no cultural ties to: “Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes.” Besides having a practical edge on their immigrant counterparts, Western chefs who specialize in an ethnic cuisine they did not grow up eating are able to adapt traditional dishes to Western taste buds.

Cooking a cuisine as an outsider also enables one to think more creatively and employ techniques and ingredients from other parts of the world. For example, in today’s recipe for chicken tikka masala, I borrowed a marinating technique from the Middle East (lemon and tomato paste) and a thickening agent (roux) from France. I’ve also never seen tahini in an Indian marinade. While I did this in order to replace the butter, yogurt, and cream that normally goes into chicken tikka masala, sometimes I substitute ingredients because I can’t find the authentic ones. Cooking Indian food in America is not always easy, unless you happen to live near an Indian grocery store.

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