http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/29/magazine/29food.html?_r=1 January 29, 2006 Food
It Takes a Village
By AMANDA HESSER
Over the holidays, Naomi Duguid and her husband, Jeffrey Alford, invited three of their sons' friends — a Tamil, a Pakistani and a Jehovah's Witness — to celebrate with them at their farmhouse outside Toronto. "For Christmas morning," she recalled earlier this month, "Jeff and I heated up the iddlis so they were a little toasty and crisp and wonderful, and we had iddlis and sambhar and coconut chutney for Christmas breakfast."
If you have not heard of Duguid and Alford, it is time to get acquainted. Together they have been the authors and photographers of five cookbooks, each a splendid travel diary and recipe log that takes readers by the wary hand into remote villages throughout the world. Their latest, "Mangoes and Curry Leaves," which came out at the end of last year, spans the Asian subcontinent, from Sri Lanka to India to Nepal, with dishes ranging from seeni sambol (Sri Lanka's onion and chili condiment) to Nepali tamarind-mint tea to Rajasthani morning rice — recipes about as instantly appealing to American home cooks as opera is to teenagers. Why expand our views when we have Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart offering such adventurous dishes as honey-mustard chicken wings and pumpkin pie? Could it be that the American cookbook market is a looking glass that reveals the insular tendencies of the culture as a whole?
There was a time way back in the 1980's and early 90's when Americans soaked up books about foods from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Mexico by journalists like Claudia Roden, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Colman Andrews, Diana Kennedy and Paula Wolfert. Those authors uncovered the old ladies who still made couscous by hand, the bakers who insisted on centuries-old recipes for phyllo. Many a home cook has cursed Wolfert's insistence on pomegranate molasses, but when the sheik-mahsi — a Middle Eastern dish of stuffed eggplant with tomato-pomegranate sauce — was finished, the discovery of a new flavor diffused the annoyance.
Duguid and Alford began writing books in the 90's, just as celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse began eclipsing journalists by wrapping European foods in American packaging (big portions, big flavors). Duguid, a Canadian lawyer, and Alford, who hails from Wyoming, met on a hotel rooftop in Tibet in 1985, where they talked for hours in the dark before seeing each other's faces. Their love of Asia and its foods soon formed the foundation of both a marriage and a career of travel, writing and photography.
Over jasmine tea in their Toronto kitchen, surrounded by a world-class array of cookware, none of it from Williams-Sonoma, Alford and Duguid seemed undaunted by the market in which they compete. "Our whole work life has been a constant campaign," Alford began. "Against Europhilia," Duguid said, finishing his sentence. One of their pet peeves: editors who, before bidding on a book, ask if there is a New York City restaurant that serves the food they are writing about. At a dinner with their editor, Ann Bramson, and others in the industry a few years ago, Alford was asked what they were working on. His deadpan response: "We'd really like to do a book about sorghum and millet." Bramson, he said, was not amused.
Their next book, on China, will be the first time they concentrate on a single country. Previously they have focused on a single food or region — "Flatbreads and Flavors," "Seductions of Rice," "Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet" (a meditation on Southeast Asia) — allowing them to wander rather than be thoroughgoing. As a result, they have introduced us to dishes like Uzbek paklama, a heartier relative to baklava; miang lao, Lao packets of pork, tamarind and ginger wrapped in leaves; and Persian eggs scrambled with cashews, chilies, raisins and lime juice.
When they are on the road, Duguid and Alford take copious notes and hundreds of photographs, sometimes yielding dubious results, like Alford's recent trek to Hom, a remote village in China. "There just wasn't a lot of food," he said. "They'd boil bones. They'd hand-pull noodles and put them in the broth and then put it on a platter and put the bones on top. So then I get home, and I'm, like, O.K., bones and noodles?"
As we drove to nearby Parliament Street, which is lined on one side with Sri Lankan groceries, the driver of a tow truck moved unhurriedly, blocking traffic on both sides of the route. Alford, at the wheel, simply stopped and waited. From the back seat, Duguid muttered, "C'mon jerkhead!"
Inside Yarl's Super Store, Duguid picked up jackfruit seeds, fresh curry leaves and vada, a fried dal cake fragrant with chilies, onion and fennel seed. The store, packed with everything from banana flowers to rice bowls to sambol, was like a typical shop in Sri Lanka, only it had windows and frost on them.
Later we walked around Kensington Market, a neighborhood just off Chinatown. Once inhabited by a Jewish community, it is now a model U.N. Max & Son Butcher is still there, but nearby is a Middle Eastern grocery, an Ethiopian dry-goods store, a Portuguese fish market and the Lao-Chinese Association of Ontario.
It is easy to see why they choose to live near here. It's the kind of world they love, a place where you can find lime pickle and Maldive fish (which doesn't always make it easy on the rest of us). But as Duguid said of their travels: "We're not doing it because we're saying, 'How comfortable can we be?' We're doing it because we're saying, 'How engaged can we be?"'
Sri Lankan Village Salad1 small seedless cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/3 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 green cayenne chili, finely chopped
1 red cayenne chili, finely chopped
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons coconut milk.
1. Place the cucumber slices in a colander, sprinkle with the kosher salt and set aside for 30 minutes. Rinse gently and pat dry.
2. In a shallow bowl, combine the cucumber, shallots, chilies, sea salt and pepper. Gently toss in the vinegar and coconut milk. Serves 4.
Baked Goan Fish ith Fresh Green-Chili Chutney
For the chutney:
2 cups cilantro, leaves and stems
6 green cayenne chilies, coarsely chopped (4-5 chilies can be substituted to reduce the heat)
8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
For the fish:
One 1 ¾ - to 2-pound firm-fleshed fish, like pickerel, trout or red snapper, cleaned and scaled
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon fine sea salt.
1. For the chutney, place the cilantro, chilies, garlic and ginger in a food processor and process to a paste. Add the coconut and blend. Transfer to a bowl. Lightly crush the cumin seeds with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and then add to the chili mixture. Stir in the lime juice, sugar and salt. Add more salt to taste.
2. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash and dry the fish. On each side of the backbone, cut a deep slit down the length of the fish. Line a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan with foil and spread with 3 tablespoons of oil. Rub the fish with the lime juice and salt. Using ½ cup of chutney, stuff it into the slits and put the remainder in the cavity. Lay the fish on the foil. Pour the remaining oil over the top of the fish. Cover the fish with foil and crimp together the top and bottom pieces to make a packet.
3. Bake for 30 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the fish. The fish is done when the thickest part yields a little to the touch or the flesh flakes with a fork. To serve, lift sections of the top fillet off the bone; when the first side is finished, flip over the fish to serve the second fillet. Serve warm or at room temperature with the pan juices and additional chutney. Serves 4. All recipes adapted from "Mangoes and Curry Leaves," by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.