Ink on my Apron: Living in sin
Of late, I’ve been performing this strangely satisfying act of comparing and contrasting things I eat and trying to draw unlikely parallels.
“Anything cheesy, fried or conducive to dipping,” was the answer that came pat when my closest friend was asked to comment on my eating preferences a few years ago. Much to my embarrassment, I had to admit, she wasn’t far off the mark. While my relationship with these three categories of food has been reined in over the years, there are times when nothing else will quite cut it when it comes to those inopportune four o’ clock “teatime” cravings. On some hallowed occasions such as last Monday, I happened to chance across a recipe for zucchini and feta fritters that ticked not one but all three favoured categories – making it a surefire winner in my eyes. It also got me thinking.
Of late, I’ve been performing this strangely satisfying act of comparing and contrasting things I eat and trying to draw unlikely parallels. Isn’t it uncanny how a whiff of the Arabic seven spice blend, I have now taken to making, gives me the same heady hit that I formerly associated exclusively with the smell released when I unscrewed a jar of my grandmother’s signature garam masala? What is it about a falafel that prompts me to conjure up images of parippu vadas served piping hot and scoffed by the plateful on childhood summer holidays to Kerala? Is the Emirati cracked wheat staple harees living proof of the fact that the Maapilah Muslims of Kerala came into a rather nuanced culinary inheritance courtesy the Arab traders who inhabited the region much before the arrival of Vasco da Gama – and subsequently the Portuguese – in 1498? Could a Thai fishcake be inspired in technique by a Malayali fish cutlet or is it the other way round?
Having said that, are any of these questions really pressing and do they warrant our attention? The simple answer to most would be no but if, like me, you will never just eat food for food’s sake it is intriguing to understand the culinary ties that bind and distinguish us. In the spirit of all things indulgent and greasy, I was inspired to do a little round-up of some of my favourite fried treats.
A shallow-fried ode to some of the defining elements of Malayali cuisine, a chemeen vada is a specific indulgence best reserved for the onset of the monsoons in Kerala and washed down with a glass of tea. These coin-sized treats showcase just one of the magical ways in which a Malayali can transform a combination of prawns, grated coconut, green chillies, pearl onions, and curry leaves into something magical. If you’re someone who thinks a fish cake is capable of resolving most of the world’s problems, a chemeen vada is likely to be a game changer.
A French fry may well be the most widely-recognised fried avatar of one of the world’s favourite edible tubers, but the concept of frying a potato isn’t exactly groundbreaking or exclusive to one specific culture. A bite of the aloo tikki is likely to draw certain comparisons to its western counterpart, the croquette, and for good reason too. Unlike the croquette, which often contains ground meat and can be mixed with béchamel sauce, the aloo tikki is an unadulterated ode to the spud. Made out of boiled potatoes, peas and various warming curry spices, the mixture is shaped into a dollop-sized patty and deep-fried after which it is served with the mandatory spicy mint and coriander chutney and sweet tamarind sauce.
For the red-meat lover in me, you can really do no better than fried kibbeh. A Levantine dish made of finely ground lean beef or lamb, bulgur, minced onions and Middle Eastern spices, kibbeh is considered the national dish of many Middle Eastern countries, and for good reason too. There are various riffs on it depending on the region from baked versions to raw, and those cooked in broth, but there is an inexplicable joy attached to indulging in my personal favourite – the fried Nabulsi kibbeh that features a hint of peppermint.
Indians may well lay fierce claim to the samosa – right from the plump bursting-to-the-seams Punjabi samosa stuffed generously with boiled potatoes and peas (which is the variety that has put India on the map) to lesser-known offshoots that the Muslim communities are renowned for, featuring caramelised onions and shredded meat. As much as I love these, I am partial to a cheese sambousek and this probably has to do with the fact that I was raised in the Middle East. Reminiscent of a smaller empanada, these half-moon shaped delights are crimped along the edges and stuffed with a combination of kashkaval and feta cheese before being fried.
Momos are to Indian Chinese cuisine what I imagine crab rangoons are to their American Chinese counterpart. It has now become a well-established fact that in the culinary world, a good thing can never be left alone and a crab rangoon - with its cream cheese, crab meat and scallion filling nestled within a four-pointed star wonton wrapper - is a standing testimony to this. Though the exact origins of crab rangoon are unclear, it is allegedly derived from an authentic Burmese recipe but was probably developed in the United States as cream cheese, like other cheese, is fundamentally nonexistent in Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and a food blogger at Inkonmyapron.com.