Asha Jain’s Aloo Gobi

When the Culinary Historians of Canada announced that May’s topic for the Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge was “Food from Mother,” the timing was perfect. At the beginning of May, I was busy preparing a conference paper for an upcoming trip to Toronto, and at the same time shopping for ingredients at specialty grocery stores around Vancouver. The two activities were related, because I was both researching and cooking from a Canadian play: Asha and Ravi Jain’s A Brimful of Asha (2012).

A Brimful of Asha traces the story of the Jain family when Asha and her husband attempted to arrange a marriage for their son, Ravi. Originally produced by Ravi Jain’s Toronto theatre company, Why Not Theatre, A Brimful of Asha has toured across Canada and internationally with Asha and Ravi performing as themselves. You can see this mother-son duo on stage this summer if you happen to be planning a trip to New York City. A Brimful of Asha is part of Soulpepper Theatre’s 20th-anniversary tour of eight productions that are heading to New York’s Pershing Square Signature Centre from June 29 to July 29, 2017.  The tour nicely coincides with Canada’s 150th.

Back in 2014, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of A Brimful of Asha at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island. My Canadian drama students were captivated, particularly when Asha and Ravi welcomed the audience with a platter of warm samosas, and later graciously signed the students’ copies of the play when the performance ended. The published play extends this spirit of generosity by offering two recipes—for Aloo Gobi and Rajma— “from the Kitchen of Asha Jain”.

In the play, Asha relates her side of the story: how she very much wants her son Ravi to marry, to have a family, and to be happy. According to Asha, everything in life has “its charm at a certain time” (30). During the family’s original dispute, Ravi was single, in his late twenties, and nearing his “expiration date” for marriage. Time was of the essence, but Ravi only wanted to focus on his career. If you would like to know how this family conflict unfolds, I encourage you to see or read the play!

When you cook Asha’s recipes, you appreciate her motherly care. For Asha, timing is critical.  Adding spices is followed by waiting, and then stirring. Followed by more adding, waiting, and stirring. Attentive patience yields the best results, both in the kitchen and in life.  My hope is that in addition to her recent theatre career, Asha will consider a future role as cookbook author. Her Aloo Gobi and Rajma are stage-worthy.

Asha Jain’s Aloo Gobi (adapted from A Brimful of Asha):


Ingredients:

  • ½ head of cauliflower
  • 1 potato
  • ¼ cup of canola oil or ghee
  • 1 tbsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp. cilantro powder
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • ½ tsp. mango powder (or lime juice — please see note below)
  • ½ tsp. garam masala
  • fresh cilantro (garnish)

Steps:

  1. Heat ghee on low heat. Add cumin seeds and cook for 30 seconds.
  2. Add cauliflower and potato (both chopped into bite-sized pieces) and stir until mixed and coated. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle cilantro powder, paprika, salt, and turmeric on top, but do not stir! Cover and cook for 5 minutes on low heat.
  4. Stir in spices until combined. Then cover and cook until cauliflower and potato are cooked through, stirring now and then.
  5. Sprinkle mango powder or lime juice* (*read note below) and garam masala on top, but do not stir! Cover and cook for 2 minutes on low heat and then combine.
  6. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

*NOTE: After trying 4 different Vancouver grocers, I had no luck finding mango powder, so I substituted with 1 tbsp. lime juice. My search for mango powder continues, as I will definitely be making this dish again.

Jain, Asha and Ravi Jain. A Brimful of Asha. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2012.

Text and Photographs: Shelley Boyd

“Tea Cosy Cafe”

Here at Canadian Literary Fare, when someone mentions “the first fresh foods of spring,” we dream of asparagus.

dreaming of asparagus

At this time of year, grocery stores are stocked full of these green, purplish-tinged bundles, making this vegetable perfect for the Culinary Historians of Canada April edition of the Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge. Before this springtime bounty disappears and April comes to an end, collaboration is key. From Alexia’s Montreal kitchen and my Vancouver desk, we offer some impressions of the creative life of the asparagus – how it has inspired writers and artists at home and abroad.

Arguably the most famous literary asparagus appears in French author Marcel Proust’s multi-volume À la recherche du temps perdu, translated as In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927). Proust cheekily describes these vegetables as celestial creatures —disguised goddesses who make their presence known long after one has eaten!

Literary critic James P. Gilroy tells us that Proust endeavoured “to discern the essence of things beyond their external covering,” as his “impressionistic description” was a tribute to Édouard Manet’s famous asparagus paintings Bunch of Asparagus, 1880 and Asparagus, 1880. (98)

Bunch of Asparagus

Asparagus

Numerous food writers have recounted Proust’s allusion to Manet (see The Rambling Epicure), curated creative recipes and interpretations of Manet’s still-lifes (see Megan Fizell’s Feasting on Art), and even explained the aromatic effects of this vegetable (see Sara David’s “Asparagus Pee Investigation” from First We Feast).

These connections between food and art, food and memory, and food and the body are certainly at the heart of Manitoban writer Sarah Klassen’s poem “Tea Cosy Cafe” from Dangerous Elements.*

Klassen’s asparagus poem is a Canadian reinvention of Proust’s magical description and Manet’s still-life paintings.

“Tea Cosy Cafe” opens with two adults ordering a health-conscious lunch: asparagus crepes, “without the béchamel,” and a side salad; a tuna sandwich, “no mayo,” and a peppermint tea.

The asparagus instantly summons memories of the speaker’s childhood. Suddenly there are images of her mother in a kitchen, working “quickly as if she’s running out of time.” It’s a spontaneous and transformative moment of recall where food becomes art, and the past becomes immediate and alive, related in the present tense.

eat your greens

snap off the woody bits

The mother stirs the cream and butter until it “bubbles in the pot.” Now, she “arranges buttered toast” and “piles it” with steamed asparagus tips taken from her garden. Next, she chops boiled eggs and “pours hot sauce / extravagantly over everything.”

roast in oven at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

Toast with bechamel and cheddar

The mother knows little of French culinary culture. She has never heard the words “béchamel,” “crepes,” or even “cholesterol.” Yet for her children-turned-adults, the meal remains a dark, sensuous magic served on mismatched plates. The remembered black coffee poured into “a chipped cup.”

serve on a mouse-shaped cutting board

As Canada’s spring of 2017 arrives and quickly passes, Klassen’s poem offers a verbal impression of asparagus memories from a decadent yet humble childhood, where “food is poetry and / dangerous” – and still shaping the now ascetic present.

Recipe Note from Alexia:

Try baking your asparagus at 400 degrees F for 15 minutes. Also, try putting the bechamel directly onto the bread and broiling it (with some added cheddar) for 5 minutes. Finally, Shelley suggested a lightly poached egg in place of the chopped egg. I think she’s absolutely right.

Or eat two of them

*If you’d like to read an earlier version of Klassen’s entire poem, see “Tea Cosy” in the open access journal Canadian Literature, volume 146, Autumn 1995, p. 85.

Gilroy, James P. “Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 98-109, Jstor.

Klassen, Sarah. “Tea Cosy Cafe.” Dangerous Elements, Quarry Press, 1998, p. 39.

 

Text by Shelley Boyd

Photographs (except where indicated) by Alexia Moyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse

When the Culinary Historians of Canada announced that “Maple” was the March topic for the Canada 150 Blogging Challenge, I immediately thought of Alice Munro.

Munro once famously described her affinity for the short story through a maple-inspired image. Rather than writing novels, she prefers to condense a story to its essence – “boiled down like maple syrup” is how she puts it. (“Alice Munro”)

In the world of literary cookbooks, maple also appears to be Munro’s signature ingredient.

Judith Choate’s A Reader’s Cookbook targets book club members with the aim to “amplify” texts through “literal tastes” tied either to setting or to a writer’s country of origin. In the chapter “Under a Maple Sky—O Canada!” Choate includes a recipe for Maple-Walnut Bread with Maple Butter alongside a passage from Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.”

This short story describes the distinct character of the Ottawa Valley as the place where “maple syrup has a taste no syrup produced elsewhere can equal.” (4) Munro’s own Ontario roots in Huron County, or Ontario’s West Coast, mean that maple syrup sometimes makes appearances in her fiction.

A Reader’s Cookbook claims that “the maple flavor sings of the Canadian table.” But just as actual maple syrup is classified by colour and taste, Munro’s stories reveal a range of meanings suited to her characters’ far-from-sweet circumstances.

Consider Munro’s “Spelling” from Who Do You Think You Are?  To my mind, this sombre story is akin to the “Grade A — Very Dark, Strong Taste” variety of maple syrup. When the protagonist, Rose, visits her elderly step-mother, Flo, readers discover a home in a state of decay, the fridge full of “sulfurous scraps, dark crusts, furry oddments.” (235) Flo has started placing kitchen tools in strange places, and with her mind unravelling, she turns to sweetness in excess — a culinary charm against a world that seems nonsensical and filled with bitter experiences too difficult to resolve:

“She might tip the jug of maple syrup up against her mouth and drink it like wine. She loved sweet things now. Craved them. Brown sugar by the spoonful, maple syrup, tinned puddings, jelly, globs of sweetness to slide down her throat.” (235)

Swilling maple syrup may not appeal to most, but Munro offers a lighter serving suggestion in the form of Maple Mousse.  Margaret Atwood’s The CanLit Foodbook includes Munro’s “own recipe” for this dessert, one that I’ve always been curious to try.

The ingredients are simple: milk, gelatin, whipping cream, egg yolks, sugar, salt, a splash of rum, and of course, a half cup of maple syrup to give it a subtle flavouring.

Munro recommends serving this moulded dessert with extra syrup “if you want to be fancy.” A maple candy provides an “O Canada!” garnish.

Maple mousse makes a brief appearance in Munro’s “Sunday Afternoon” from Dance of the Happy Shades. This story perhaps falls under the “Grade A — Amber Colour, Rich Taste” maple syrup classification with its depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Gannett’s affluent, leisured life in the city. Every Sunday, the extended Gannett family gather for lunch. On this particular afternoon, tongue, aspic, and maple mousse are on the menu. Alva, the farm-girl hired as the summer-time maid, works in the family’s midst — living under their roof, following their daily rhythms, eating their food.

We are told that there is “plenty” of maple mousse dessert for Alva, but she will never be part of the family. She eats all her meals alone. Hers is an isolated existence distinguished by subtle humiliations: her name summoned by Mrs. Gannett “in tones as … penetrating as those of the bell,” and her required uniform of “Cuban-heeled shoes clomping” on the backyard patio when she carries out the luncheon dishes. (164)

Maple syrup may be quintessentially Canadian, but when it runs through the imagination of this Nobel-prize-winning author, the results are Munro’s uniquely storied varieties.

 

“Alice Munro.” 1978. BC Booklook, 7 April 2008.

Choate, Judith. A Reader’s Cookbook. New York: Red Rock Press, 2012.

Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro’s Maple Mousse.” The CanLit Foodbook: From Pen to Palate—A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare. Compiled and Illustrated by Margaret Atwood. Totem Books, 1987, p. 55.

—. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1988.

—. Friend of My Youth. 1990. Penguin Books, 1991.

—. Who Do You Think You Are? 1978. Penguin Books, 1991.

 

Text and Photos by: Shelley Boyd

 

 

Traill’s Irish Mash

Imagine having pork and potatoes every night for supper.

To break the monotony, you decide to innovate. Instead of pork and potatoes, you serve pork (without potatoes). And the next night, to really  switch things up, you prepare potatoes but without the pork. Such was the reality of poorly provisioned nineteenth-century emigrants living in the backwoods of Canada.

To understand the importance of the potato in this settler scenario of “doing without,” we turn this week to two of Canada’s most famous nineteenth-century emigrant writers, Catharine Parr Traill (1802-99) and her sister Susanna Moodie (1803-85).

Catharine Parr Traill (Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada)

Here’s a sample of Traill’s and Moodie’s potato-musings:

“The potatoe is indeed a great blessing here; new settlers would otherwise be often greatly distressed, and the poor man and his family who are without resources, without the potatoe must starve.”

– Catharine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 125

***

“I have contemplated a well-hoed ridge of potatoes on that bush farm with as much delight as in years long past I had experienced in examining a fine painting in some well-appointed drawing-room.”

– Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush, 375

While Moodie waxes poetic about her kitchen garden, Traill appreciates the practical knowledge necessary to vary the regular mealtime appearance of this life-saving, tuberous vegetable.

One Potato Recipe, Two Potato Recipes, Three Potato Recipes, Four . . .

 In Traill’s The Canadian Settler’s Guide, which was originally published as The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854), I count at least eight potato-related recipes and dishes. I suspect there are more beyond what is included in the “Potatoes” section.

“Every body knows how to cook a potato,”  Traill begins, but she includes the instructions just in case you haven’t had this daily pleasure and don’t know the trade secrets. (124)

For an economical dish, when meat is scarce and there are hungry mouths to feed, Traill recommends Irish Mash. (127) It’s the perfect meal for a large family in the backwoods.  The recipe calls for “a large quantity of potatoes” (just in case you haven’t had enough already!), seasoned with onion and pepper, and mixed with leftover cold meat. I opted for chopped bacon and green onions for a bit of (Irish) colour.

Traill describes this dish as “satisfying” rather than “delicate.” I’d have to agree. Having consumed more than my annual share of mashed potatoes during the past week, I was grateful for the luxury of ordering sushi last night.

 

Text and Photo Credits (except where indicated): Shelley Boyd

 

Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush or Life in Canada. 1852. Edited by Carl Ballstadt, Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts Series, Carleton University Press, 1988.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer. 1836. Prospero Books, 2000.

—. The Canadian Settler’s Guide. 1855. McClelland & Stewart, 1969.