The Threads of India: In Sari & Spice

Invisible threads are the strongest ties. That’s what the 20th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed. He wrote those words over 100 years ago, and since then, this statement of his has come to take on many different meanings to many different people. Depending on context, mood and circumstance, for some, it suggests spirituality or a sense of place. For others, it describes personal relationships or attachments, affinities to particular objects, or even an inner knowledge of one’s own self. But here in the Vintage Kitchen, this quote always reminds me of history and how we are tied to the past in subtle yet powerful ways.

Today we are embarking on Week 22 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour which takes us to India via the kitchen to discuss fabric, second chances, and a savory chicken dish that is slathered in spice.  Welcome to Week 22 of the Tour! Welcome to India…

It’s impossible to look at photographs of this amazing landscape and not notice all the color. From flower gardens like this cascade of hibiscus tumbling over a brick wall in Utter Pradash…

…to the spice markets of Mapusa where all the shades of the rainbow greet you around every corner…

…to the splendid architecture  of buildings like the Mysore Palace in Karnataka and the Taj Mahal in Agra, which seem to magically change color throughout the day depending on the direction of the sun… 

…pops of color bloom throughout India every minute in delightfully unexpected ways.

In a country that is over 250,000 years old, there is no shortage of source material when it comes to tying in a cultural companion, but ever since the Recipe Tour started I had a definite idea in mind about this particular post and the focal point of it.

Whether you are talking food, fashion, flora or fauna (or all four!) one of the dazzling componants to life in India that float around the landscape like jewels come alive are the traditional saris worn by women of all ages throughout the country. Seen in all shades and patterns, girls typically start wearing saris in their teenage years as a symbol of femininity, independence and equality among all women regardless of social status. 

Made of just one uncut length of fabric (usually 9 yards in total) with the ability to be styled in over 100 different ways depending on folds and drape, the sari has been a part of India’s history for over 5000 years.

Each region throughout the country has its own style and customs surrounding saris and the wearing of them, but Indian women as a whole, view saris as an important part of their national identity. They are even passed down through generations as a source of pride, nostalgia and honor.

Today, they also symbolize strength, resourcefulness, and female empowerment in a new, exciting and creative way that previous generations never knew. 

Last Thursday, I announced a giveaway here on the blog of a special prize tucked inside the white box above that would be awarded to one lucky winner. It’s a gift that was handmade in India and clues hinted at color, purpose, and longevity of use. Tonight, I’m excited to reveal the contents of the box.

Are you ready to see what it is?

Tah-dah! It’s a five-foot-long Happy Scarf (ie table runner) made of two recycled cotton saris.  Repaired, pieced together, and hand-quilted to form a completely new and functional item for the table, this type of Indian handicraft is changing the fate of women all over the country.  Reversible, with a different pattern and color arrangement on each side, this Happy Scarf holds up to its name in more ways than one.  Suitable for all four seasons of display and use, it features colors bright and sunny on both sides. One side contains shades of spring and summer in pink, yellow, peach, white and raspberry…

…while the other side features a warm wash of autumn and winter hues in butternut, marigold, black, white, beige, pink and yellow…

Made in Calcutta by a woman from an impoverished village who was given the opportunity to learn the textile trade, this Happy Scarf represents a new kind of freedom for women in India. By learning skills within the textile and handlooming industry, working with fabric offers women a chance to gain independence and improve the quality of their lives by earning fair wages, receiving health benefits, job training and education, and also by being a part of a community of artisans striving for a future bright with possibility, potential and a fulfilling career. 

Typically it takes a sewer about two days to make a table runner of this size. Like a homemade quilt, distinct signs of each sewer’s handiwork can be seen throughout. In this case, unique touches are found not only in the selection of sari fabrics that she chose to combine but also in her vertical hand stitching of the fabrics as they were joined together and her repair work , which we can see in three different places on the light pink side…

These patches cover over holes made in the fabric that occurred through normal use and wear when the sari was once part of a woman’s wardrobe. The ancient Indian art of textile repair is known as rafoogari and represents a powerful philosophy that sums up the beauty and integrity of the Indian culture. Instead of simply throwing a piece of good fabric away because it is slightly flawed with a hole or worn thin by a frayed area, each garment gets repaired, patched up, so that its life and purpose can be extended for years to come. Some garments in India carry examples of over 200 years of rafoogari repairs. This was not thriftiness at work for the sake of reusing fabric, although that was a beneficial attribute, but instead it was a gesture of respect and honor towards the fabric and the memories it held for all the people that it came in contact with. 

This type of fabric work utilizing recycled saris can be seen in all sorts of Indian handicrafts. Kantha is the type of stitch work featured in the Happy Scarf, which involves sewing together five layers of fabric and highlighting the running stitch that pieced them all together by using brightly colored thread. I first fell in love with this type of Indian textile art when my sister gave me this tote bag for my birthday a few years ago…

Like the Happy Scarf, my tote bag is made from five layers of two different saris, contains patchwork repairs and features lots of bright color. The front and the back both contain different imagery and the fabrics are super soft. 

It even features the name of the sewer inside (which I love!). 

Although the bag and the Happy Scarf are made by women employed by two different companies in India, they both contain similar stories and similiar missions – to help women get out of poverty. Like the curator of the Happy Scarf, the maker of this bag, Arati, experienced a tragic side of life. Involved in human trafficking within the commercial sex trade, Arati through the help of a female empowerment company, Sari Bari was able to escape her cruel circumstance and change her life completely. Through education and training in the textile industry, Arati was able to gain support and financial independence as well as create beautiful works of art that promote a sense of pride and fulfillment within herself and her community by carrying on a centuries-old art form.

Whenever I go on a trip via plane or car, my Indian art bag joins me.  By taking it on as many adventures as possible, I like to think that the spirit of Arati herself is out there traveling the world too via her talent and creativity. It’s always fun to imagine stories about her.  I like to think about the possibility of one day traveling to India and running into Arati on the street. If that happened we would only know each other solely by her recognition of the bag.  Wouldn’t it be fun to stop and chat with her for a bit!  To find out more about what her life was like when she made this bag and to see how it differs now. Wouldn’t it be fun to thank her in person for making a piece of art I absolutely adore and to share with her all the adventures we have had together so far?  

The visual beauty of each of these recycled sari creations, whether they are transformed into blankets or bags or table runners or napkins or, is that each one is one-of-a-kind. True works of art based on each sewer’s skill, fabric selection, and choice of color arrangement.  The emotional beauty of these creations is that they helped improve one particular person’s life, one piece at a time. 

In the Hindu religion, to which 95% of India’s population belongs, the color yellow symbolizes learning and knowledge. That makes the Happy scarf an ideal companion for a table full of diners ready to engage in interesting conversation. Sized at 5′ feet in length x 15.75″ inches in width, it fits practically every table shape from long to short and is ready for a wide variety of styling fun. Here, I paired it with antique serving platters and flatware, vintage hotelware plates and midcentury napkins. The change in color palette from side to side adds a nice change in mood and aesthetic too…

Tonight’s recipe is as equally colorful in sight and history as our table setting. The previous stop on the International Vintage Recipe Tour took us to Hungary, via the kitchen, where we explored the bright red world of paprika, but this time in India we are diving into the sunshine shades in all areas of the culinary experience. 

On the menu tonight it’s Chicken Bengal, a warm and saucy stewed chicken featuring five distinct spices – coriander,  cumin, cloves, ginger, and turmeric. But before any of those flavors are introduced, the chicken marinates in a yogurt and garlic bath in the fridge for a few hours. After that point, the whole marinade,  yogurt and all, slips into a sizzling pan of spices where it cooks for some additional hours over a low simmer until it reaches the point of falling-of-the-bone tenderness.

Easy to make, low maintenance, and wholly satisfying, the end result is a saucy blend of spice and chicken that can be adjusted to your liking for heat or enjoyed mild but nuanced in a pool of sweet, savory and salty flavor. Total cook time including prep work and marinating is 4 1/2 hours, so make this on a cozy day when you have some time to spend at home.  Pair it with our favorite historical BBC drama, Indian Summers, and you have a theme night all wrapped up in one fun package. 

Chicken Bengal

Serves 4-6

1 large chicken (4-6 lbs), cut in eight pieces

1 cup yogurt ( I used 2% milkfat Greek yogurt)

2 tablespoons finely minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups finely minced onion

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

3 cloves

1 hot red pepper – optional ( I did not use)

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Basmati rice for serving 

Toss the chicken in a large mixing bowl with the yogurt, salt, and pepper, and half the garlic. Toss until the chicken is well coated…

and then transfer to a Ziploc bag and refrigerate for two hours. 

Melt the butter in a heavy casserole and add the oil and onion. Cook until the onion starts to brown, add the remaining garlic and spices, and cook over low heat stirring frequently (about 2 minutes). 

Add the chicken and marinating liquid.

Cover and simmer until the chicken is fork-tender (approximately 2 hours). About thirty minutes before the chicken is done make the rice and set it aside, but keep it covered so that it stays warm. When the chicken is fork-tender and falling off the bone, remove it from the heat and let it rest for several minutes before serving it atop a bed of rice along with whatever juices are leftover in the pan. 

Not quite as creamy/saucy as the Hungarian Shrimp Paprika recipe, the basmati rice in this dish acts as more of an aromatic companion than a vehicle to soak up juices. The main stars of the show here in this recipe are the turmeric, which gives the whole dish that bright yellow color, and the coriander, which adds a foundation of flavor.

Coriander, according to the language of flowers, symbolizes hidden worth. The Bengali region of India from which our recipe is named is where the ancient art of Kantha originated. The predominant color yellow in the saris symbolizes learning.  The woman who sewed the Happy Scarf together, escaped an unhappy environment and discovered her own self-worth through learning an ancient art. When you think about all that goes into making a meal, from the food to the place settings to the company that sits around the table with you, it is mind-boggling how much connects us to other people in other parts of the world in other eras of history in a myriad of unsuspecting ways. This post started out as just a simple Indian dinner. But the more I dug into the history of India, the more transparent the relationships between fabric, food, color, country and symbolism all seemed to go hand in hand. Completely unexpected, all the elements of this post practically connected themselves. It formed a perfect symbiotic relationship.  It formed the words that Nietzsche wrote. Invisible threads truly are the strongest ties.

On Monday, the winner of the Happy Scarf will be announced on the blog. My fingers are crossed for everyone that entered. In the meantime, cheers to India. Cheers to all their beautifully artistic ways of carrying on the color of their culture with the memories of their past. Cheers to strong women and to bright futures.

 Join us next time for Week 23 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour as we head to Indonesia via the kitchen!

 

India photos courtesy of Lewis J. Goetz, Varnan Guba, Aditya Joshi, Claudette Bleijenberg, Bhim Chauhan, Vivek Dashi, Hari Nandakumar, Tiago Rosado, Joshuva Daniel, Akhil Chandran, Ashim D’Silva

Hungry for Hungary: The Red Carpet That Leads to A Recipe

Today in the Vintage Kitchen we are rolling out the red carpet. Award season starts in three days with the kick-off of the Golden Globes on Sunday (Feb 28th) and from then until the end of April, there is an awards show practically every week in the entertainment industry. The schedule looks like this…

the Critics Choice Awards (March 7th), the Grammy Awards (March 14th), the Screen Actors Guild Awards (April 4th), the BAFTA Awards (April 11th), the Independent Spirit Awards (April 22nd) and the Academy Awards (April 25th) not to mention a smattering more of lesser-known but equally important events that acknowledge artistic contributions made to the performing arts this past year.

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2013 Academy Awards. Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Known throughout history as a universal sign of welcome and special treatment, red carpets today are mostly associated with fancy galas and luxury experiences. But here in the Vintage Kitchen, we have our own version of red carpet festivities.  Just like those eye-catching ceremonies full of famous people and fancy dresses, the red carpet in the Kitchen this week is a source of inspiration, creativity, style and visual pizzaz. But unlike star-studded versions made for the entertainment industry, our red carpet is not made with yards of thread and fabric. It doesn’t spotlight a zillion famous faces or fancy dresses. Nor is it something that can easily be rolled out, rolled up or walked onto.  Instead, our red carpet looks like this..

Grown under the hot summer sun, picked and then pulverized to a fine powder, the red carpet that is unfurling itself this week in the Kitchen is one made of spice. The star of today’s post is paprika and the exciting event we are celebrating in such a colorful way is the kick-off of Part Two of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2021.

 

If you are new to the blog, catch up here on the previous 20 countries we visited last year, by way of the kitchen.  If you have been following along from the beginning of the Tour, then welcome to Week 21 and to 2021. Throughout this year, we will be covering recipes from the remaining 24 countries featured in the 1971 edition of the New York Times International Cook Book.  This recipe tour brought so much unexpected joy last year, I’m excited to dive right in!

We begin the second half of this around-the-world culinary adventure with a country that tempts your taste buds straight away just with the letters in its name…

The red carpets of Hungary may not be star-studded, glamourous, paparazzi-loving experiences like the events are in Hollywood but they are full of celebrity in their own right. The Capsicum annuum fields and the paprika they produce have long been iconic stars of the country, culture, and cuisine for centuries.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki

You might be surprised to learn that paprika isn’t made from one particular plant, yet instead is made from all types of red peppers. Ranging from sweet to spicy depending on the variety and the region in which it’s grown, different levels of heat can be produced by using different types of peppers. Bell peppers produce sweet paprika, cayenne peppers produce spicy paprika.

Members of the capsicum annum family include all types and sizes of red peppers, although thin-walled peppers make the most ideal candidates for paprika. Illustrations by Marilena Pistoia from The Complete Book of Fruits & Vegetables circa 1976

Originally cultivated in Mexico, pepper plants were first introduced to Spain in the 1500s and then brought to Hungary in 1569 during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Due to difficulties in importing spicy black pepper, Hungary’s search for an alternative brought red pepper plants into the spotlight and popularized paprika, quickly deeming it an essential spice that was both affordable and easy to grow. To say that a country fell in love would be an understatement. By the 19th century, paprika became synonymous with Hungarian cuisine and agriculture. Today, they export over 5500 tons of the spice each year.

Grow your own with seeds grown from the gourmet source at hungarianpaprika.net

Thanks to the idyllic Hungarian climate with its hot, dry, summer weather, plants mature over the course of a season. The peppers are picked in September when they reach a robust shade of red, and then are dried in the open air before being ground into a fine powder that is then packaged and sent out to cooks and kitchens all over the world.

Air-dried red peppers in Hungary circa 1968. Photo via pinterest.

Throughout this process the peppers retain their orangy-red hues, making paprika an ideal color enhancer for various foods as well as a semi-permanent natural dye for fabrics. Like curry, paprika takes on different flavor notes according to where it is cultivated in the world.  Mexico is known for spicier paprika and Spain for smoked paprika but Hungarian paprika is the most sought after for its sweetness.

Most Hungarian foods that contain this colorful spice proudly announce it in their names… Chicken Paprikash, Paprika Pork,  Paprikas Szalonna, Stuffed Cabbage with Paprika, Meat Ball Paprikash, Punjena Paprika… but there are other famous beloved heritage dishes like Goulash, Lipatauer Cheese, Fisherman’s Soup and Hungarian Stuffed Crepes that use the spice by the tablespoonfuls too.

Today in the kitchen, we are sticking to the literal side of things and featuring Paprika Shrimp with Sour Cream.  I first made this dish last September with the intention of sharing its ideal attribute of being one of those fantastic in-between-seasons recipes that blends so nicely with warm days and cool nights.

Light, thanks to the shrimp, but creamy and comforting thanks to the pretty paprika-colored sauce, I’m reminded again how this recipe now, six months later, is still an ideal candidate for this new time between seasons as we start to transition from winter to spring.  Serving it over a bed of steaming rice makes it satisfying for days that may still contain traces of snow and sleet yet the vibrant color of the whole dish brings a burst of bright pastels to the table – a nice change from all the earthy-hued stews and soups we customarily consume over the winter months.

Many Hungarian dishes are prized Sunday dinner-type foods since they often require lengthy amounts of steeping and simmering, but this recipe is quick and easy to make. It requires just a handful of ingredients, pairs nicely with a glass or two of wine, and can be accompanied by a salad for simplicity or a green vegetable for another pop of color. Traditional serving companions in Hungary would include sides of bread and potatoes.

Like any Hungarian cook would tell you – the secret to this recipe is seeking out the best sweet paprika you can find. Then you’ll truly understand and appreciate the impact this unique spice can have on such a simple dish.

Paprika Shrimp with Sour Cream

Serves 4

2 tablespoons butter

24 medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

Freshly ground salt & pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/3 cup sour cream

2-3 cups white rice, cooked

A few extra sprinkles of paprika and finely chopped chives, parsley or scallions for garnish

Prepare your rice, then set aside and keep warm. Next, heat the butter in a large skillet. When it is hot add the shrimp. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (to taste), cayenne pepper and paprika.

Stir and cook just until the shrimp turn pink, then flip each shrimp once to cook the other side. Be careful not to overcook the shrimp.

Sprinkle with the shallots and add the heavy cream. Stir the mustard into the sauce and remove the skillet from the heat.

Stir in sour cream and heat thoroughly without boiling.

Serve over a bed of warm rice. Garnish with an extra sprinkle of paprika and top with whole parsley leaves or finely chopped chives or scallions.

Warm, sweet, and satisfying this dish is full of subtle yet layered flavors.  Hungarian cuisine with all its enjoyment of cream and butter and starch will never be considered diet food, but this recipe spread over 4 servings will hardly cause concern for any health-conscious eater.  And that’s not the point of it anyway. The Canadian writer Joanne Sasvari wrote in her 2005 memoir, Paprika, that “Hungary is a country where the past always sits down at the dinner table with the present.”  I love that sentiment. When you prepare a dish like Paprika Shrimp, you are not only enjoying a flavorful meal but you are also enjoying the historic journey of a spice – one that was ground from a pepper that was grown on a plant that was part of a collection in a field that stretched for miles and years and centuries ultimately coming to define a country’s heritage and its cuisine.

“When a Hungarian cook puts a steaming bowl of food in front of you, they are not only offering nourishment but also comfort, affection, and a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life,” shares Joanne.  In other words, they are offering you the red carpet experience. Signs of welcome and special treatment. Signs of dreamy decadence and luxurious dining shared with friends and family.  And signs of love and sweetness too. That’s the glamour of a Hungarian kitchen, as it has been in the past and as it will, comfortingly, continue to be in the future.

Cheers to paprika for not only coloring the landscape but also our plates. And cheers to Hungary for giving all eaters the red carpet treatment with each and every meal. Join us next time as we embark on Week 22 of the Recipe Tour with a trip to India via the kitchen and a special giveaway contest that will bring a dose of extra joy to one lucky reader’s kitchen space.

 

Winners Announced for the Sparta Souvenir Giveaway!

Spartan Table giveaway names announced!

Ladies and gentlemen we have a winner! Well three actually since the Spartan Souvenir giveaway includes three gift packs. Technicalities aside, cheery congratulations goes out to Jessica W., Michael B. and Kari T. on winning olive oil and oregano samples from the gorgeous Greek city of Sparta courtesy of The Spartan Table. Winners, please check your emails for contest notifications and respond with your postal address for receipt of your prize via mail.

spartantable_gifts

A big thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway! Look for more exciting chances to win  souvenirs from around the world as we head into 2017. Ms. Jeannie would also like to extend a special thank you to everyone who sent private messages about this post in particular and the magical world of Jehny and George. Comments are like stars in the night sky – always delightfully unexpected and always very rewarding for the spirit – so keep them coming! Ms. Jeannie loves (LOVES!) to hear what’s going on in that brain of yours.

The Spartan Table holiday gift giving ideas

While you head into the holiday stretch, please keep The Spartan Table in mind for both holiday cooking and gift giving. Jehny and George ship so fast from Greece, you’ll have barely placed your order before you see your international package sitting pretty in your post box.  Unlike mail from Italy that can sometimes take up to a month for delivery, Greece is definitely on top of their postal practices and procedures with usual delivery time-frames hovering between 5-10 days. (The souvenirs for this post took just 5 days!) That, combined with the accommodating, kind and friendly attitudes of Jehny and George, your Christmas shopping experience with The Spartan Table is guaranteed to be not only easy breezy but also thoroughly enjoyable. And so very delicious!

Cheers to Jessica, Michael and  Kari and to the ancient city of Sparta for bringing history home.