I was on my way to publish this recipe on the RRRG site when today occurred. Aside from the explicit details of vegetables, sauces and salt along with visuals of my latest, exotic meal preparation, I have a real-life story for you to digest as well (or if you’re curious, just skip to the recipe).
July 29, on Hong Kong’s MTR today: my ears being fed by ipod melodies and eyes full from people-watching while compacted in my rare seat. The train door opens and in steps a very orthodox-looking man of Islam. He carries with him two, white boxes which he bends to arrange in the middle of the car and fit like a puzzle piece amongst the forest of legs and feet. His goods are roped up and look like chickens or live animals could be housed in them but upon closer look to the small holes punched on the sides, the containers just sit there blank and innocent, devoid of any life. Cucumbers or cabbage heads?
Although supposedly within the same cultural “eastern” family, his Arabic features set him significantly apart from his present far eastern environs (far east, middle east, oriental…all confusing misnomers if you ask me). Here he is at around six foot three, both hands grasp the plastic drop-down handles, towering over his Han brethren. His back is to me but I am designated a second to glimpse his light brown prismatic eyes. Rebellious hair takes to his face as erratic-patterned patchwork while his bronze tinged skin speaks shades different than the yellow hued tans standing next to him. His head is topped off with a maroon-colored kufi.
Draped over the entirety of his rough looking yet slender frame was a well-worn, cream thobe and clinging limply to his neck, an even more worn looking keffiyah (you know, the large, patterned scarves that supermodels and Urban Outfitter fans have created envogue). His keffiyeh was red and white patterned; colors that I’ve associated with Jordan because of the prevalence of them worn there. He absolutely did not remind me of a Jordanian.
In what I could only describe as calm suspicion or culture shock, he continuously swivels his face to the left….to the right….at times stopping in the middle. Then continuing on. I watch his eyes dash from Chinese face to Chinese face. He looks down at his feet and then again left and right, obviously not recognizing anyone but more-so seeming lost and alert on not coordinating at his place in time. The subway car suddenly shudders and his willowy figure fluidly follows. I watch so deeply, this scene… that it was as if all protective layers were winnowing away and insecurities were revealing.
His untenable position in the middle of the car made him look surrounded. I am now another guilty ogler in the mix. While he peers about, his eyes touching another’s, 10 sets of eyes watch him in his distraction, then quickly turn away as his attention roves elsewhere. He appears anxious. Alone. I imagine (and remember) myself being in a completely different culture sans familiarities: zero family and friends, lacking home and not able to speak anything save a few words of the local language. I have felt that. It’s an amazing experience but with its pains and sacrifices at times. I process these thoughts and how I feel about witnessing another being possibly feeling this way. Sad… but okay and understanding that he was having “his time”.
Aside from the empathy (and sympathy) attached to this event, my interest was to simply just learn about where he was from and to practice my Arabic. The feeling was overwhelming. I would have to take action.
I proceeded to similarly do to him what a young, Tibetan girl from a small village did to me. Months ago, when I had pulled into a small town in Western China, a grade-school girl saw me and came tearing down the sidewalk with a ferocity that was so exciting…. “HELLO! HELLO! How are you?!” she yelled as she ran over to cross the street, dodging cars, bikes, yaks and people. I was blown away. Her curiosity was so loud it became tangible and it socked me with a great amount of admiration for her drive. She wanted to practice her English with a rarely-seen foreigner in her remote town. I turned away from the other villagers that I had been chatting with as she reached me all smiles and breathless from her chase to learn. I began to speak with her, careful to pronounce my words clearly and without my 10 jumbled accents from past lives in Hawaii, NYC, Maryland and Asia. She was overjoyed and we practiced speaking until she had to leave for school.
So here I am, tracing back to those thoughts and smiling on mass transit; overcome by my sweet experience from former Tibet, overcome now by watching this orthodox-turned-heterodox-in-Hong Kong, just a tap away from me. I embrace the feelings of enjoying the beauty of our unique differences, the humor in watching the onlookers around inherently act insecure themselves and astounded of what they don’t know. I look up to follow the rainbow of lines on the metro map to search for the lighted stop I’m presently at. One more stop left. I’ve had my own game of Jeopardy in my head on where he is from and I’ll explode if Alex doesn’t confirm my answer (I had deduced Yemen or Oman). In true, Christine-form, I do something about it. He finally turns around on one of his cyclical face pivots and he briefly looks at me….
“Salaam.” I say smling amid all the Cantonese words that fly back and forth in the car like hyper butterflies. He turns fully around now to face me. Without the metal on metal clamor of the train skating on its tracks, I’m sure the whole car would be silent.
“Kayf Halak” I say. He is just looking at me. Then mutters his response in Arabic. Oh my god, I’m weird. I really, really want to practice. Damn, I’ve forgotten so much in conversing and I leaf through quickly page after page of my mind’s limited Arabic. His expression is worth a million dollar’s….. worth a million words that would have me rewriting the Koran.
“Where from?” were his first words, as if wants to confirm that an American girl just approached him at random and is speaking his mother tongue in China.
“China……..uh..America..” I say….not wanting to throw Taiwan in there to add complication. He pauses and his expression morphs into this very strange expression that I couldn’t identify. He pauses again to think and looks away to look around. Frowns very slightly. I thought, ‘He doesn’t understand me’. But then, I thought maybe he found it offensive because I know that the interaction and roles between men/women in certain countries are very different from Asia and even more different in the US. Additionally, I thought maybe he is reticent about a stranger talking to him; many people are like this. But I wanted to know now and since he had asked,
“Where are you from?”
“..Afghanistan…..” I repeated. And we just looked at each other. I wanted to continue and practice speaking more although now I am thinking maybe he only speaks Farsi with the exception of universally known Muslim greetings/blessings. Faris is the language predominately spoken in Afghanistan (and its western neighbor, Iran).
“Esmee Christine.” I say. Sounding as retarded that day I was speaking English to the young Tibetan girl, I’m sure but thought we might as well just go into introductions.
He was still in thoughts and as the subway door opened and the lady to my right got up.
“Can I sit?” he asked.
“Oh yes, yes…” and I immediately motioned to the empty seat next to me. He sat down and shuffled his boxes around close to him. But then I realized, this was my stop and I had to leave. I believe he wanted to converse more but this was all too hared and too loud for both our broken Arabic/English to be discernable.
“I have to go.” I said, almost too suddenly because I was about to miss my stop.
“Salaam!” I exclaimed through the amused Chinese onlookers. He looked at me, his response obscured by my rush and the crowd making its way in. He waved his hand goodbye but again, I took in a deeper expression; maybe one born from a friendly gesture and respect without boundary to our differences, a connection without fear of an unknown. I have a habit of embracing unknowns although draw back myself on some events.
The doors shut behind me and my train of thoughts chugged onward on its endless journey.
Here is one of my favorite Afghani recipes…one that I had coincidentally created and shot to share a few days before my meeting. The prepping is a bit time consuming but well worth the true, end consumption.
My dish is different than others. I’m basing it off of an Afghani restaurant that I used to frequent in Las Vegas. They would add green chilies (jalapenos and I used pablanos in particular for this) and I found the flavor to be amazing. It added another dimension to cooking as I had to bake them to get the skin peeled (or you can fire-roast – stove-top-roast).
1 Globe Eggplant
3 Cups Canola Oil
1/2 Slice of Yellow Onion
2 Pablano Peppers
1 Green Capsicum
1 Tomato Puree (fresh or from the can)
Slice all the vegetables.
Salt the eggplant to get its “water” out (this step is important – or the eggplant won’t taste right and will soak up a ton of oil): You can choose to slice the eggplant in large pieces to salt or cut it up. I chose to cut it up into smaller pieces to have the sea salt permeate the areas more quickly. Let it sit about half an hour. It gives you time to slice up the onion, capsicum and prepare the chilies as well. Roast/fire-up the chilies to remove the skin. For a directory on chilies, this is awesome:
Now that the eggplant has been salted, pat it dry really well (I think I used way too many paper towels – not sure how others deal with this). Now it’s time to brown the eggplant. I filled up my frying pan with a half inch of oil and fried until light brown. Eventually, you add the other ingredients and cook it longer. I didn’t crowd the eggplant in the frying pan as I heard that this prevents the pieces from cooking evenly. I fried on both sides then took them out and set them on a paper towel except the last pieces. I didn’t want the dish to be too oily so I drained the pan then added the onions and capsicum to fry for about 5 minutes. Then, I added the tomato sauce and sliced tomatoes and let it all just stew up a bit.
Let it simmer – I was figuring the longer the simmer, the more the flavors soak in. I steamed some brown rice and topped it off with the bouranee baunjan. The only item that I lacked was the yogurt sauce (chakah) because I didn’t have time to go to the Persian market to get it. I was still very happy how it came out. Hope you manage to enjoy it too or wait until next time when I send you a dinner invite. 🙂