Monday, April 23, 2018

Call Me Methuselah

Everybody knows getting older is all about the increasing sense that everything's being shot to hell, and important traditions are being lost. (Digression management note: my new shtick is to put digressions in block quotes...)
Here's why old people get all dried up and curmudgeonly: they stop chowhounding. Once you stop actively replenishing your bag of treasured restaurants, musicians, people, ideas, etc., the old ones inevitably start winking out of existence (or pertinence) one by one until you find yourself on a wind-swept desolate plain in a world devoid of all color and vitality. Really, the problem is just that you haven't kept up with all the new treasure springing up!

It's a cliché for people in their 30s to say they no longer seem to keep up with new good bands. That's the origin point for the dry desolation they'll experience in their 50s and 60s.
But I'm experiencing some weird much higher-level version of this. I've seen whole cultures crumble. I'm only 55, but I might as well be 5000. Call me Methuselah.

The other day, I had to explain to a not-so-young Puerto Rican youth - living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood and carrying himself with evident "keepin'-it-real" Puerto Rican deportment - about one of the mainstays of Puerto Rican culture, which he'd never even heard of. "Maví" is a drink made from medicinal herbs and tree sap and molasses, traditionally left out in the sun so it ferments a bit. It's super healthy as well as the cheapest possible buzz ("Officer, I had no idea the cheap medicinal drink I'm selling would turn alcoholic; I must have left the clear gallon containers on top of my car roof too long!").

My understanding is that maví, which is delicious and quite unlike anything else, is one of the few artifacts of the long-gone Taíno, the island's original inhabitants. It is hard to find it down in Puerto Rico, but a few maví guys in NYC continue the tradition, selling gallons of the stuff, along with sugarcane and coconut juice and papayas, from vans that have parked in the same outer boroughs locations for decades.
The Amish in Pennsylvania preserve long-extinct German language and culture from centuries past. And there was once a Neapolitan restaurant in Brooklyn that cooked dishes unavailable in Naples for decades, based on salt pork, which preceded the more recent incursion of olive oil to the region. Diaspora's a complicated thing; immigrants both dilute and preserve their parent culture. The melting pot is also a time capsule.
10-20 years ago, Puerto Ricans would tell me they'd heard of maví but never tried it. Now this guy had never even heard the word. And his eyes barely focused as I told him about it, and how he could still find some around town. I might as well have been talking about petticoats and harpsichords.

Same with my favorite Punjabi dish, palakwala (proteins - often chicken - in a sauce of spinach, tomato, ginger, and cumin). I remember when palakwala was widely-known, and then when it was "that dish my parents used to talk about", and now...nothing. It's gone. Waiters assume I must be asking for a samosa or whatever.

Same for aloo bujia, a Pakistani dish of potatoes stewed for hours (no relation to the current trendy french fry dish called aloo bhajiya). Somewhere in Karachi there exists a wizened, foggy old Pakistani gentleman who remembers this from his youth. He and I are the last of the aloo bujia eaters.
Just more of that magical realism, baby....
Yesterday, I ate at Havana Cafe in the Bronx. A mere six years ago, I waxed on about how Cuban food has a vibe, a profile, a soul that was completely different from other Caribbean cuisines. I didn't mention it in that posting (cool photos, though, plus a hot airport chow tip), but a lot of it stems from cumin - much like how the soul of Alentejan food - from the south of Portugal - is cilantro.
I don't normally like to say things like that, because they're misunderstood. Foodies put facts like these in their hoppers and figure they've got it all neatly figured out (Cuba = cumin; Alentejo = coriander). But you can sprinkle cumin in your rice and beans - or stir chopped cilantro into your cataplana - all you'd like, and it's not going to taste the least bit Cuban or Portuguese. It's not the ingredient, it's the touch - the undefinable, uncapturable, irreplicable way that a flavor flavors.

You need to taste that unique touch over time with a receptive palate and heart. You need to feel it, love it, hanker for it when it's not there. You need to build up some frickin' nostalgia! Only then will you be privy to the soul of the thing (which still doesn't mean you'll be able to evoke it in your cooking; that's a whole other level). It's about way more than the mere presence of some ingredient.
There wasn't a single grain of cumin in the food. And they used - it pains me to even type this - red beans everywhere, even in the moros. Cuba is black beans.
Which is not to say Cubans don't make red beans, but that's like confirming that New Orleanians make tuna casserole or Poles cook spaghetti.
I also asked for some "mojo", the oily garlic sauce that's the very underpinning of the cuisine. It's the edible version of "clave", the underlying pulse of all Cuban music. I should not have needed to ask for mojo, and was put off that I needed to do so. The mojo should have sat in a thick glass jar right on the counter, in front of the salt and pepper. But the waiter poked around the kitchen and finally brought me out a small plastic urine cup full of some watery substance, vaguely salad dressing-like, smelling weakly of garlic. To paraphrase the great Don Martin, brrrrehhhhhhhhhtch.

The restaurant was filled with Cubans (mostly under age 40), all of whom seemed to be enjoying it....while I, Methuselah, silently disapproved.

Look, I totally expected restaurants to close and bands to break up. I expected things that were once vital to fade and ossify. It's cool; I'm replacing stuff all the time! Talk to me about craft beer or yoga or Safari extensions! But whole cultures are not supposed to disintegrate this quickly. And, as they do, I'm not supposed to be the only damn person who notices.


Jim Leff said...

An Indian emails:

aloo bhajiya is all over the sub continent. It’s our version of fries

And palakwala just means ‘made with spinach’. There is a standard palakwala punjabi/mughlai dish all over India - the confusion you might get in ordering it in the diaspora is that the waiter/chef interprets it as ‘with spinach’ rather than the actual dish

I'll respond in comment below.

Jim Leff said...

FYI though - aloo bhajiya is all over the sub continent. It’s our version of fries

I know. But that’s not it. I’m talking about an older, more traditional Pakistani dish called aloo bhajiya that was potatoes stewed for hours. It’s the world’s greatest potato dish - or was before it went extinct. Only Pakistanis over the age of 80 seem to know about it, and usually consider it to have been from their parent’s generation.

And palakwala just means ‘made with spinach’.

I'm aware of the linguistics. Similarly, quesadilla just means there’s cheese on it….but it’s still a Thing.

Palakwala is a specific Punjabi dish (again, tasting strongly of tomato, cumin, and ginger) nothing like the standard range of saag and palak sauces.

There is a standard palakwala punjabi/mughlai dish all over India -

That may be it, but then I don’t understand the “it’s just spinach” remark.

the confusion you might get in ordering it in the diaspora is that the waiter/chef interprets it as ‘with spinach’ rather than the actual dish

I’ve gotten into minute discussions with chefs and other Punjabis here about the dish (it’s one of my faves), and always make very clear that I’m not just asking for some palak-ish dish. Sometimes, if they’re OLD, they’ll understand what I mean and get a nostalgic look in their eye and agree that it’s rarely seen anymore. A “blast from the past". That’s the confirmation that assures me the situation is as I’ve described.

I didn’t, however, make any claims about this one in terms of continued presence back home. I’m sure aloo bhajiya is dead even back there, but have only confirmed palakwala’s fading here. If it’s still available there, I need to go.

But when I talk with young very recent Punjabi immigrants, they have invariably never heard of it, which raises my concern.

Jim Leff said...

Note that I just changed the original article to distinguish the trendy dish called aloo bhajiya.

Unknown said...

so is havana cafe bad now?

Blog Archive