Breaking boundaries with cuisine
By Vidyaratha Kissoon
March 18, 2007
Culinary Delights II ( Georgetown : The Women's Club of the Indian Cultural Centre)
'Fainting Imam' is the name of one of the interesting recipes in Culinary Delights II, the second edition of a collection of recipes edited by the Women's Club of the Indian Cultural Centre of Guyana.
The production of Culinary Delights is one of the activities which the club embarked on to strengthen cultural ties between the peoples of Guyana and India, while the funds raised from the sale of the book support the club's charitable projects. The purpose of the book is to bring together a "lively blend of cooking methods from Guyana and India" while "promoting the use of locally available ingredients enhanced with herbs and spices from both countries." Each section is prefaced by colourful illustrations of some of the dishes. This second edition was published as part of the club's 25th anniversary, and features over a hundred different recipes organised into eleven sections. The book is compact and easy to keep in a kitchen while cooking.
'Fainting Imam' (Imam Bayildi) is a Turkish recipe using boulanger (also known as aubergine, eggplant, baigan, brinjal). The legend behind the name of this dish is as interesting as the recipe itself. A long time ago a Turkish imam, known for his love of good food, surprised his friends by announcing his engagement to the young daughter of a wealthy olive-oil merchant. The friends did not know about her ability to cook. But they presumed part of her dowry would include olive oil. They were right. For her father gave the groom twelve jars - each one large enough to hold a person - of the precious oil. After her marriage the bride proved to be an excellent cook and each day prepared a special dish for her epicurean husband. One of them, eggplant cooked in olive oil, became his favourite. And he ordered that his wife prepare it each night for dinner. This she did for twelve consecutive days. On the thirteenth, however, the dish was missing from the meal. Queried about its absence, the bride replied, "Dear husband, I do not have any more olive oil. You will have to purchase some more for me." The imam was so shocked that he fainted. And since that day, according to the story, his favourite dish has been known as Imam Bayildi, 'The Imam Fainted.'
The introductory part of the book includes recipes employing some of the ingredients which are used in other recipes, such as garam masala, the combination of spices which form the distinctive flavour of many curries. The authors recommend that home-made garam masala is better than any commercial variety. However, some of the recipes refer to a popular local commercial brand of masala. Other recipes include details of the ratios of particular spices which would flavour each of the curries. This variation in the proportions of spices is the secret to success in achieving the individual flavours of many curries.
The first section is devoted to 'Savoury Snacks and Drinks.' It would be a little troubling to the health conscious to note that most of the savouries have to be fried. The section on 'Soups' contains Guyanese favourites, while the 'Salad' section includes recipes for the spicy Kutchumber and Lebanese Tabouleh in addition to other favourites. The 'Bread and Roti' section includes recipes in addition to the ones we know for roti and dhalpuri. Sada roti is missing from the recipe book and the club may wish to include it in the next edition of Culinary Delights since it is absent from other popular Guyanese recipe books. The 'Vegetarian' section contains many new recipes utilising local vegetables, some of which, like the Kofta Curry based on cabbage, are very intensive, while others are very simple. The vegetarian recipes provide many new ways of cooking local vegetables and would provide cooks who have to find vegetarian menus with a range of nutritious options. The inclusion of a section on 'Chutneys and Pickles' is a first for any Guyanese-produced recipe collection. The section on 'Cakes, Desserts and Sweets' is the longest in the book, and all of the recipes are tempting for any cook with a sweet tooth. Many Guyanese recipes are also included in the book.
There are some omissions which could easily be included through an errata sheet. It would be helpful to have a glossary of the herbs, spices and vegetables mentioned in the book, which should provide Guyanese equivalents or translations. The recipe for Alu Dum calls for quantities of both elaichi and cardamom, which are supposed to be different names for the same spice, while the term besan is used to refer to different kinds of flour. The clarification and consistency in the use of names would encourage cooks who are not familiar with Indian ingredients and who might feel intimidated about sourcing them. Nervous cooks might not want to attempt the recipes which have to be cooked in an oven where no temperatures are provided. The recipe for the Sheermal bread indicates that the inclusion of the ghee is important, but there is an omission of this important step in the description of the method to make the Sheermal.
Guyana has a range of hot peppers, and it would have been interesting to see whether there could be any local substitutes for the chillies and chilli powder often stated as ingredients. Other fresh herbs such as fresh mint leaves and curry leaves are not easily available, and any tips as to growing them would enhance the next edition of Culinary Delights.
The members of the Women's Club must be congratulated for documenting recipes which have hitherto only existed as stories in family traditions. Not many cooks would use weights and measures, but would instead rely on handfuls of this ingredient, or pinches of that ingredient, and rely on years of experience to test consistencies or to observe mixtures to identify the different stages of cooking. (Some of the men who cook for large gatherings claim that they can look at the steam from the pot to determine the quantity of salt required!)
In documenting the measures, there was no consistency in the use of imperial or metric measures. It is common practice in many recipe books to standardise the measurement systems, or even include both forms, and there are conversion tables which could easily be added to the book to improve the usefulness to readers who are from different backgrounds.
Turkish writer Elif Shafak while referring to the role of food in bridging the Turkish and Armenian cultures, noted that cuisine breaks boundaries, recognising no national or religious boundaries. The Women's Club of the Indian Cultural Centre has succeeded in bridging diverse cultures in this book. The club must be congratulated for embarking on this project as an innovative way of raising funds. It would also be interesting to have feedback on how the Guyanese recipes are used by the readers from India. Readers who like to experiment with new cooking methods would find the book an interesting addition to the kitchen, and are encouraged to support the Women's Club in the implementation of their social projects.
Available from book stores and members of the Women's Club.