A Stateless Dinner

For dinner tonight, I made the following:

A kind of brown-rice pilaf that involved sauteeing onion, garlic and lacinato kale (chopped), removing from the pan and then sauteeing a mix of shitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms with a squeeze of lemon juice and some thyme; when those are soft and yummy add cubes of tofu (always press your tofu dry between two plates, with a weight on top, pouring off the water; it creates an airiness inside that allows them to far better absorb the flavors you attach) that have been marinated in a mix of soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin, lemon, garlic and olive oil for a half hour or so. When these have cooked for five minutes or so, add the kale/onion mix, two handfuls of pignoli nuts, and about the same amount of cooked brown rice as the size of the kale-mushroom-tofu mix in the pan — and stir all the ingredients together. I served it with butternut roasted with a sprinkle of cinammon and Sahadi’s Yemeni spice mix.

It was delicious, but it had no name — or nationality. It was something that evolved from considering the available ingredients in my fridge, and the influences of the myriad cuisines that one samples all the time in New York.

What got me thinking about this was this week’s Newsweek piece on Chinese food, based on Jennifer 8. Lee’s book that shows that what passes for “Chinese” in the U.S. wouldn’t really be recognizable in China. There are some interesting notes in there about the impact of immigration policy on the pattern of Chinese restaurant formation, and also some pretty silly observations — “In the 1950s,” she says, “if you ate Chinese food, China itself seemed a lot less threatening.” Uh…. Never mind. (Just picture Nixon and Kissinger in the White House pigging out on General Tso before launching the opening to China…)

But the basic point she’s making is hardly unique to Chinese food; it applies to most “Diaspora” cuisines. There’s no such thing as “Italian” in Italy, only regional cuisines to which the traditional American-Italian menu would look a little bizarre. I know the same is true for the Russian restaurants of New York, my friend Yuri cracks up laughing when he finds Ukrainian borscht, Polish stuffed cabbage and Uzbek-Jewish plov on the same menu. Don’t get me started on Jewish food, there really is no such thing — we simply took what we liked from the cultures in which we lived, according to our means (which is why the well-to-do Sephardim dine at the sumptuous spice table of the Levant, while us Ostjuden found comfort in such bland and stodgy favorites as gefilte fish, and traditional Baltic fare such as stuffed cabbage etc.)

And then there’s “Indian,” which in the West typically means a polyglot of Bengali and Punjabi delicacies, often bowdlerized and adapted to the West — and some exclusively Western imposters such as mulligatawny soup (invented in the kitchens of the P&O shipping line) and chicken tikka masala which was invented in Birmingham and exported to India for the first time in 1994.

Cuisines have always evolved through patterns of trade and migration, and while Ms. Lee is certainly correct that there’s nothing really “Chinese” about Chinese in the U.S., what she may want to consider is how exclusively Chinese is Chinese (if there is such a thing) in China.

Now go try my recipe, or better still, adapt it and let me know what you discover.

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13 Responses to A Stateless Dinner

  1. Well, Tony, the recipe may be stateless, but had you gone to college in the USA I would have said such food would mark you as an alumnus of Oberlin, Reed, or maybe Antioch College. As an erstwhile Obie myself, but a rebellious one, I tried not to eat such concoctions for many years, and yet now I do indeed dine on brown rice and tofu with weird greens. Tribal associations may fall away, but one’s college marks one for life.

    In California we call that green stuff dinosaur kale; Laccinato is a classier name but dinosaur evokes what the leaf looks like.

    Back to the stateless recipe – I worked as a lowly administrative assistant at the New York Times back in the early 90s, on 43d street, and ate regularly at the employee cafeteria even though the food was abysmal. One day a week, I believe Wednesday, the steam table specials included both kasha varnishkes and turnip greens, both of them quite good (and ‘authentic’ although what is authentic?) I was the only customer to order both items together that I ever saw.

    I always added a cup of plain yogurt to the kasha, and called the result my Arab-Jewish-Afro-American Middle East and World Peace Vegetarian Special. (Claiming yogurt for the Arabs, and turnip greens for African Americans… which could cause controversy)

  2. Tony says:

    Yes, that claiming business can turn very nasty, starting food fights. I’ve always loved the anthropology of those NYC deli salad bars, where you see Greek Spanakopita in a tray adjacent to sweet and sour pork, couscous salad, sushi rolls etc.

  3. Love those NY deli salad bars. In my day, in midtown of the early 90s, they usually included Brazilian specialties too, as a nod to the neighborhood Brazilian restaurants I assume. I loved the black beans. In the late 90s I took my California hubbie for a NYC trip and made him eat at an east 42d street deli salad bar – he was staggered by the variety, quality and price. SF lunchtime restaurants have nothing to compare. (although the food here is very good – just different)

    I’ve wondered if the economics of midtown real estate have allowed such places to survive…

  4. Bernard Chazelle says:

    I went to a wonderful lecture last week on “degenerate music” (with a concert of great degenerate music to go along with it).

    The degeneracy in question was identified by Hitler in the 30s as being Jewish and/or atonal and/or American-influenced. The result, of course, was that the only distinction of “official” German music from that era was its utter, complete, total mediocrity.

    By trying to be so German, Hitler killed German art (among others).

    Look at the history of art: it’s an endless story of cross-fertilization.
    It’s hard to think of any great artistic achievement that is not deep ly cosmopolitan.

    For example, the great genius of French culture in the 16th century was to steal all the good artistic and culinary ideas from the Italians. The Italians taught the French how to cook, how to paint, and how to write music.

    Good artists borrow, great artists steal. That’s really how it works.

    Does that mean French (or any other) culture has no personal identity? Of course, not. In fact I know of few cultures that have a more strongly felt sense of identity. What it means is exactly the opposite. To be able to form a strong cultural identity one must be a cultural sponge and seek out as many foreign influences as one can. What pisses off the defenders of French culture today is not American influence but the fact that foreign artists no longer stop in Paris to spread “their” influence the way they used to. The New Wave manifesto was an emphatic admiration for American cinema and an overt effort to build on top of it, not against it.

    Cultural decadence comes the moment you only have yourself to talk to.

    Now if blogs were more sophisticated, Tony would be able to deposit a sample of his delicacy for us to taste.

  5. Gracie_fr says:

    …..Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could do something eclectically similar with religion……

  6. Tony says:

    At risk of being cheeky, isn’t that what most of the religions actually did, i.e. borrow the most useful and popular bits of the traditions that preceded them?

  7. I thought California has been mixing up religions for the last 150 years or so. And what are Unitarians? They’ve been pulling it all together since the 17th century.

    But Tony is right, most religions carry forward something from antecedents. Fundamentalists hate this. An acquaintance gave us a book by an Evangelical Christian pseudo-scholar who is INCENSED at theologians who connect older religions to Judaism/Christianity – LIES he says, it’s all LIES, The Bible was first and has no relation to any pagan beliefs whatsoever!!! Sigh…

  8. Actually, we really ought not to try that with religion. Toxic shit for ingredients will always produce toxic shit for meals. Better to be done with the whole thing alltogether!

  9. Nick Gertsch says:

    Thanks. I’m supposed to be cooking for my new vegetarian girlfriend this weekend and have no idea what to make! I found a ton of recipes at this vegetable recipe site but with soo many to choose from I just got confused. Do you have any favorites youself, like .. the tastiest vegetarian recipe, ever, or something?! Thanks in advance! I’m so clueless about this vegetarian stuff

  10. Good answers in return of this query with firm arguments and explaining all on the
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  12. Geraldine says:

    Thanks for finally writing about > A Stateless Dinner | Rootless Cosmopolitan – By Tony Karon < Loved it!

  13. Arden says:

    I read this paragraph completely regarding the resemblance of most up-to-date and earlier technologies, it’s amazing

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