Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bathing in the Colors of Spring

It's a surreal experience to celebrate Holi or the Festival of Color in Spanish Fork, Utah. Most of the people who converged on the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple yesterday were BYU students reveling in their own form of spring break.

In the legend commemorated by the festival, an evil king named Hiranyakashipu forbids his son Prahlad from worshipping Vishnu. But Radhu rebelliously continued to offer prayers to the god. Getting angry with his son, Hiranyakashipu challenged Prahlad to sit on a pyre with his wicked aunt Holika who was believed to be immune to fire.

Prahlad accepted the challenge and prayed to Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika was burned to death, while Prahlad survived without a scar.

The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi. According to some accounts, Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before her demise, and he decreed that she would be remembered every year at Holi.

Part of the beauty of the celebration is that once the colors are thrown over the crown, everyone is the same colorful combination. They shed their differences and become one. The irony of the festival in Utah is that most of the 15,000 BYU students there looked more alike before the throwing of the colors than after.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making Indian Food Sing

A man named Sing convinced me I could make Indian food "just like they make it at Bombay House." And I was naive enough to believe him.

I wandered into Sing's shop in the heart of Taylorsville in the hopes of finding cardamom pods—anything whole that hadn't been ground to a blackish dust by McCormick. But Sing saw me as a white girl who definitely needed several impromptu lessons on Indian cooking.

Before pointing me in any direction in particular in his dimly lit and exotically fragranced store, he first needed to find out just what in the devil I would be needing with cardamom pods.

"I'm making chai," I told him a little sheepishly.

"Well, how do you do it? What do you put in it?" he asked me.

I started going through a list of ingredients that seemed to me to be pretty regular: cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaf.

"No, no, no. That is not how we do it. It's NOT how we do it." He was quite positive that he was about to save me from making a colossal chai mistake.

"You are going to need this," he said definitively, as he handed me a large basket. I followed him meekly as he quickly started listing off the necessary items for chai and grabbing bags of unrecognizable spices off his low, dusty shelves. After filling my basket with green cardamom pods, black tea powder, raw fennel seeds, an egg-shaped nutmeg seed, and whole cloves, he asked me if I knew how to make saag paneer. I slowly shook my head, so he grabbed the handle of my basket and shoved a tattered notebook and greasy pen into my hands and indicated with a loopy finger in the air that I should start writing.

"This is a very important Indian dish you need to master," he said as he continued filling my basket with the necessary ingredients. He rattled off instructions as I followed him around frantically scribbling down notes, doing my best to get close enough to the spelling of the strangely named ingredients to be able to look them up on Google later. A couple of times, seeing my confusion, Sing rapidly spelled the ingredient for me, but because of his thick accent I didn't get much closer to the correct spelling. "You call me when you have made it and tell me how it turned out," he said.

On the second loop around the store we were on to chicken curry complete with whole mustard seeds, golden garam masala, and bright orange turmeric powder. I scribbled down the directions, convinced by a very enthusiastic and effervescent Sing that I could make this curry like any restaurant. "You call me after and let me know how it is. You be sure to call me," he repeated.

I walked out of Sing's store with a bag full of enough spices to season my own restaurant for a year at least, but convinced I could cook like the Bombay Houses' best chef.

I came home and eagerly started wading through my recipes written in several directions and with arrows and notes in the margins. My friend Bonnie came over to witness the attempt and was unreasonably supportive as I started pulling out bags of powders, pods, and seeds.

My kitchen soon took on the look of a disaster area as I tried grinding the spices with the back of an ice cream scoop and blending spinach and onions in a not-so-powerful blender that hasn't been used for anything except margaritas.

At one point Bonnie pointed out that the green goo I was scraping into a wildly sizzling pan looked a lot more like baby poo than food.

But I pressed on.

The curry was lumpy and the saag paneer too green, but Bonnie ate some of the chicken and declared the rice perfect.

It took me hours to rescue my kitchen, but I can't give up now! I have enough ingredients for a year full of spicy attempts at curry and saag.

I haven't dared call Sing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?

If only I spoke French!

All day today I was working on labels for bottles that will be sold in Canada. Everything from ingredient decks and usage recommendations to positioning statements and marketing copy on the label must be in both French and English to meet Canada's stringent regulatory standards.

This afternoon I was struggling with an English phrase we needed to have translated into French. But my colleagues—the manly metrosexual graphic artist I'll call Mayo, and our friendly Swedish product manager I'll call Kristofer—weren't much help in the French department. (Kristofer's native Swedish wasn't even providing any good clues.)

So, we decided to bring in reinforcements in the form of Simone, the cute French girl who works on the other side of the building. (That's not her real name either, but she is completely innocent in this story.)

Simone has helped me with various projects and we've formed a bit of a friendship by way of the break room, grabbing coffee, and short elevator trips. I've always thought she was fun and interesting to talk to and ready with a quick hello and a smile. She seems like the kind of person I would like to invite to my dinner club.

Kristofer eagerly volunteered to go get Simone to help us with a new French translation—something about "gently flash pasteurized."

When Simone arrived at my desk, the three of us—Kristofer, Mayo, and I—all pointed to the offending phrase we had been mispronouncing and slaughtering with clunky American (and Swedish) accents for the last hour.

Then Simone read it.

she suddenly became the sexiest thing any of us had ever seen. While she was intent on writing out her translation and whispering the correct phrases in French, not one of us could tear our eyes off of her. (Not even me. And I like boys.)

Just as she was about to leave, I breathlessly asked her if she would mind reading the paragraph just one more time. None of us made a sound.

After she walked around the corner, Mayo said, "Is it just me, or was that the hottest thing you have ever seen in your life?"

I had to agree. It wasn't just him.

If only I spoke French.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Can't Be Vegan When Camping with Jan

My friend Jan died this week, and her passing has stirred up all kinds of memories and people from the past. It has been very bittersweet, but leave it to Janny in her final act to arrange for a big reunion of old friends.

Jan was a great outdoors woman. And she knew how to camp. I was pretty lacking in that area, to say the least. I didn't really grow up camping. My family's idea of a camping trip was to drive the truck a mile from the farm into the canyon and have a "weenie roast" with hot dogs burned over the fire on willow branches we had just cut with my dad's dull pocket knife from the edges of Toad Springs. We weren't even fancy enough to have s'mores. And we always had to go back home to sleep so dad could get up to milk the cows at 4 a.m.

So when Jan and Diane and a group of friends decided to go camping in Moab together, I couldn't have been more excited. This group was crazy and funny and full of life and I would do just about anything to tag along. So when Jan told me to just bring my camping gear and a tinfoil dinner, I wasn't about to ask too many questions--especially not "what's a tinfoil dinner?"

We caravanned our way to Moab, laughing and playing tricks on each other as we drove. I think Lan and Tam at one point took their shirts off and pretended like nothing was up just to see if Di and Jan would notice when they passed us.

We made it to Moab and finally settled in to a camping spot after pushing and digging one of the cars out of sand up to the doors. Everyone deftly produced their tinfoil dinners to cook on the fire. Mine looked pretty much like everyone else's except maybe a little lopsided and unstable and long like a log. I was anxious to see just what was inside everyone's mysterious tinfoil dinners. The mouthwatering smells of savory stews were wafting from the fire and I could see my dinner starting to smoke. I pushed it around with a stick and tried not to call too much attention to it, but it soon became pretty obvious that one of those dinners was not like the others.

Jan asked me, "What exactly do you have in there, Wendy?" And I'll never forget her peels of laughter when I opened it and she saw my blackened Rice-A-Roni and beans along with some random vegetables like broccoli and mashed potatoes. I was experimenting with veganism at the time and hadn't had meat in months. I had just packaged up leftovers from the fridge and sealed them in tinfoil.

Jan and Di were good enough to share some of their perfectly cooked dinner, even some forbidden meat, but my first attempt at tinfoil cooking was never to be forgotten. My stint as a vegan was over and I still haven't lived down that tinfoil dinner to this day.

I've had many a tinfoil dinner since then and have even learned some tricks to make them incredibly tasty, but I'll never be able to eat one without thinking about Jan.