Southern Foodways Alliance plugs FLAVORS FROM HOME and includes an excerpt from Omar Pernet Hernandez's story and Omar's tostones recipe: http://www.southernfoodways.org/what-were-reading-flavors-from-home-by-aimee-zaring/. I am so proud of all the refugees who shared their stories in FFH!
Goma Acharya looked at me with her penetrating, dark brown eyes and pushed her notebook across the table. “Here,” she said. “Write phone number.”
This is Goma for you. Intense. Assertive. Determined.
The year was 2009, my first day as a volunteer teaching assistant in Goma’s classroom at Louisville’s Catholic Charities’ ESL school. Though I hesitated to give my number to a student, Goma’s persistence finally wore me down. She called twice later that same day, announcing each time, “I, Goma, and you, be friends.” Not a request. Not even a suggestion. It was, looking back now, pure prophecy.
In the many years I have known Goma (GO ma), she has experienced many major life changes: giving birth to a second baby, working several odd jobs to help support her family, moving twice, learning how to drive, and purchasing her first house with her husband Tek.
When Tek and Goma were house-hunting, Goma asked me about the new house I had just bought. When I told her I lived in a condo, she fell silent. Then she said in her soft voice, “Aimee, did you say condo? I should tell you . . . in my country, condo is a very bad word.”
This is just one of the things I love about my friendship with Goma—we are both teacher and student to each other.
Read more about Goma's Bhutanese culture in Flavors from Home.
Goma’s Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese soup)
I cannot tell a lie. Fast and easy to prepare, ema datshi is one of my all-time favorite Bhutanese dishes. I’ve never been to Bhutan, but when I cook and eat this curry, I feel like I’m halfway there.
Ema datshi (pronounced EM-ma DOT-chi) literally means chili and cheese. Considered the national dish of Bhutan, this traditional Bhutanese vegetarian curry of hot peppers and cheese is extremely unique and spicy, though the heat can be modified according to taste. But don't be misled, this isn't a thick, creamy sauce like a Tex-Mex chile con queso.
There are limitless variations of this dish. Goma uses additional vegetables and yogurt in her recipe. She says this dish was served often in Nepali refugee camps.
From Their Kitchen to Ours
Daikon radish is a mild, large, white radish that can be bought at most Asian or Indian markets, organic markets, and some American groceries. If daikon radish isn’t available, substitute with thinly sliced potatoes.
Because the cheese traditionally used in ema datshi can’t be found outside Bhutan (it is a local farmer’s cheese made from the milk of cows or yaks), substitute with a thick, creamy plain yogurt or a good melting cheese of choice, or a combination of the two. For a more authentic dish, I like adding a crumbled farmer’s cheese or a Dutch feta at the final stage of cooking over low heat and gently stirring until just combined, or using this same cheese as a garnish. I have also added nacho shredded cheese and used this as a dip with tortilla chips.
If you can’t take the heat in this dish (no, don’t get out of the kitchen!), use milder hot peppers like poblanos or none at all—but then it won’t be true ema datshi!
Although optional, I highly recommend the garnish to get the full ema datshi experience,
Ready in about 30 to 40 minutes
1/3 cup vegetable, Canola, or olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 medium red, yellow, or white onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
2 or more hot green chili peppers, such as serrano or jalepeno, cut lengthwise into 2 or more slices, seeds and ribs removed, if desired, for less heat
1 daikon radish (or potato), thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups plain Greek yogurt (the creamier the better)
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1/8 teaspoon cumin powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Few dashes ground brown or black mustard seed (optional)
2 tablespoons cilantro, leaves and stems
1/4 red onion, chopped
1 small hot green chili pepper, chopped
In a large stockpot, heat oil over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. Add cumin seed, onion, and turmeric powder. Stir. Add radish (or potato), bell peppers, hot pepper(s), and tomatoes. Stir and add salt. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally. Lower heat to medium or medium-low. Add yogurt and stir. If thinner soup consistency is desired at this point, add water. Add paprika, cumin powder, and cayenne pepper, adjusting according to taste. Stir and cook, covered, over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add ground cumin and ground black mustard seed and stir.
Garnish if desired and serve with basmati, jasmine, or Bhutanese (Himalayan) red rice, sel roti (a ring-shaped sweet rice bread/doughnut), or bread.
Sitting across from me on the coffee table in his living room in an apartment in Southeast Louisville, Omar Pernet Hernández pulls out several envelopes, photographs, and even a medal--all wrapped inside a Cuban flag. He shows them to me one by one. Though I have asked him a question about his life in Cuba, I realize, from looking at his keepsakes, that he’d rather tell me his story in reverse, beginning with his first visit to the United States in 2008--perhaps one of Omar’s proudest moments.
In one picture, there is a group of people assembled around a large oval conference table. Wait, is that President George W. Bush?
Si, Omar confirms.
And is that little dot at the head of the table YOU, Omar?
Another picture shows a close-up of Omar and President Bush and the First Lady and another shows him with a group of people posing in front of the Statue of Liberty.
The pictures were taken on September 23, 2008 on Governors’ Island during the General Assembly meetings
in New York. Omar was living in Spain at the time, but he had been invited as a special guest to a Freedom Agenda luncheon where he and a small group of other activists from repressive governments around the world shared their heroic tales and discussed how to better promote liberty.
But how was he selected for this event? Omar looks at me, smiles smugly, and says, “I am universal.”
Read more about how Omar became "universal" as an outspoken defender of human rights, landing him in jail as a political prisoner four separate times in Flavors from Home.
Omar’s Tostones (Twice-Fried Green Plantains)
Serves 4 (about 20-25 pieces)
Tostones (Toes TOE nays) are a popular side dish in Cuba, Latin
American countries, and the Caribbean. It is believed that the tostone tradition comes from African slaves. Tostones (“to toast” in Spanish) are fried twice, salted, and eaten much like French fries or potato chips. The perfect option for those looking for a unique appetizer.
Some recipes suggest that tostones are often served with a garlic dipping sauce (mojo), but almost every Cuban I spoke to said they are traditionally served plain, just as Omar made them for me. But feel free to serve with a dipping sauce of choice.
Preparation Tip: To peel a green plantain, cut off the top and bottom and score a line along the length of the plantain. Lifting up from this line, remove peel (use knife to help).
Preparation Time: 20-30 minutes
Vegetable or canola oil for deep frying
3 green (unripe) plantains, peeled and sliced into about 3/4- to 1-inch rounds
Salt or sea salt to taste
Fresh ground pepper (optional)
Pour enough oil in a large skillet to fill about 1/4 full and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot enough to pop, carefully add plantains in a single layer. (This will take a couple of batches.) Fry plantains until cooked halfway through and slightly brown (about 5-6 minutes), turning once with a slotted spatula.
Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Keep oil in skillet heated. With the bottom of a glass or any canned item, smash plantains to about half their thickness.
Carefully return plantains to oil and fry again, turning occasionally, until golden brown on both sides.
Transfer back to plate, lined with new paper towels. Sprinkle with salt or other preferred seasoning. Serve warm as an appetizer or side dish. Best when eaten immediately.
Dr. Mahn Myint Saing and his wife of over 30 years, Chaveewan (known by their employees as “Pa” and “Ma”), have been dishing out authentic Thai cuisine at Simply Thai in Louisville, Kentucky since 2006.
If you ask the couple who is the better cook, Dr. Saing will freely admit, "She is. She is my guru. . . . She knows every aspect of Thai cooking. The whole Thai community knows who cooks the best [Thai]. If they want to eat, they come here.”
But did you know that before Dr. Saing was a successful restauranteur, he was a physician in his native homeland of Burma (Myanmar), a country in Southeast Asia, where he treated as many as 100 patients a day and covered a service area of 50,000 people—all by himself?
Or did you know that he was a martial arts instructor?
That he was the leader of an underground army, living in the jungle for almost a decade, fighting against the unjust practices of the Burmese government?
That he cannot go back to Burma because he is still considered an enemy of the state?
Dr. Saing’s story is reminiscent of the movie Forrest Gump in which the title character’s life takes so many extraordinary leaps and turns as to almost seem fantastical. But Dr. Saing’s story is no work of fiction. Read more about this brave refugee’s story of survival and reinvention in my forthcoming book, The Kitchen Refuge.
Dr. Saing and Chaveewan’s Kaow Soi
A light, refreshing dish to kick off summer, Kaow Soi (pronounced cow SOY) is believed to have originated in Burma then spread to Laos and northern Thailand, where it is a popular street food. It is one of the few Burmese-influenced dishes served at Simply Thai restaurant in Louisville, KY. This soup-like dish can be served with just vegetables or a variety of meats, such as chicken, pork, or beef. It is served in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. Though Burmese cuisine can certainly contain some "kick," don't look to this recipe for spicy heat. This Kaow Soi dish shows off the diversity of the region's flavors and would make a great introduction to Southeast Asian food for the less adventurous.
Though cilantro is optional, it really makes the dish pop. For additional zing, add the juice of an entire lime.
(Photo courtesy of test kitchen volunteer Janna McMahan)
Preparation Time: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons oil (any kind)
3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 shallots, chopped
3 cups coconut milk
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon red curry paste
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 pound chicken breasts, cut into thin, 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 6-ounce package fresh wheat egg noodles (thin not wide) or Thai rice noodles
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced (optional)
Heat oil in large saucepan until hot. Add garlic and shallots. Stir for 1 minute. Add coconut milk, chicken broth, red curry paste, curry powder, and chicken. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Add fish sauce, sugar, turmeric, and lime juice. Stir to combine. Set temperature to warm.
In medium saucepot, bring 3 cups of water to boil. Stir in noodles. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Drain noodles and place in large bowl. Pour curry mixture over the noodles.
Serve in individual bowls with a lettuce spring mix to the side, topped with an optional garnish of red onions and cilantro.
Who doesn’t like a vegetable disguised as a dessert? Gulalai’s
Halwa (literally translated “sweets”) is light enough to serve during the spring or summer or would be an excellent alternative to traditional fall and winter desserts.
2 pounds baby carrots (organic or the brightest orange carrots available)
1/2 cup fresh whole almonds, with skins
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5-6 pods green cardamom (adjust according to taste)
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
Pistachio nuts for garnish (optional)
Cook carrots over stove or in microwave until soft. Mash with a fork. Set aside.
Meanwhile, blanch almonds by placing in a bowl of boiled water, enough to just cover almonds. Soak for about 1 minute (too much longer and the almonds will lose their crispness). Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain
again. Pat dry, slip skins off, and halve. Set aside in bowl.
Heat oil in large wok or saucepan until it sizzles. Add cardamom. Make sure several pods are open to expose seeds. Lightly toast the cardamom, stirring to avoid sticking. Add carrot pulp. Cook on medium-high heat, stirring, until carrots reduce to about half of the original quantity and change to a darker orange color, about 15 – 20
minutes. Add sugar and allow to dissolve completely. Reduce heat to medium-low and add milk and almonds together. Cook for about 5-10 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until milk has been fully absorbed and the oil begins to separate from the solid ingredients. (Make sure not to overcook the halwa in this last stage or it won’t be as tasty.)
Transfer to serving bowl and top with pistachios for color contrast and extra crunch.
For a shortcut, use 1 (14-ounce) can Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk as substitute for milk and sugar.
Gulalai prefers buying almonds (with skins) and blanching them herself for fresher taste.
Meet Dr. Gulalai Wali Khan from Pakistan.
On August 9, 2010, Dr. Gulalai Wali Khan was leaving her health clinic in the crowded Karachi Market in Khyber Bazaar when a gunman on motorcycle fired three bullets at her, one of which hit her in the arm. How the gunman, at such close range, managed not to kill her is a mystery.
What wasn’t a mystery is why Gulalai was targeted.
Just a day after she was shot, the Taliban issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. The reason? One simple word: bloodlines.
Gulalai grew up in a prosperous political family in Peshawar, a valley region near the Pak-Afghan border. Gulalai’s grandfather was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the “Frontier Gandhi” for his non-violent opposition to British Rule and close friendship to Mohandas Gandhi. Gulalai’s father, President of the Awami National Party (a leftist, secular party), spent eight years in jails.
Gulalai’s brother, also a politician, was President of the Awami National Party (ANP) at the time Gulalai was attacked. The ANP, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, publically opposed the Taliban. Consequently, the Taliban began targeting first the party’s members, then its members’ blood relations.
Gulalai made the decision to leave everything behind to keep her children safe. “I worked three quarters of my life working toward a career that really mattered to me, and yet it took me a split second to walk away when the decision came down to my career or motherhood.”
Read more about Gulalai’s clandestine escape from Pakistan with her three sons and her views on the practice of medicine in America in Flavors from Home.
Coco's White Beans & Cabbage
Note: This isn’t a traditional Vietnamese dish but rather a unique “Coco special,” a blend of Eastern
and Western influences. This dish appears on the Roots menu and can be served as a main entree or side.
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 shallot, chopped
1 can Great Northern Beans, drained
2¼ head of white cabbage, shredded
Salt & pepper to taste
5-6 ounces baby spinach
¼ cup grated Asiago cheese
Directions: Heat oil in sauté pan and add garlic & shallot. Cook until fragrant. Add beans and cabbage.
Cook until soft. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Add spinach and Asiago cheeses.
(Just enough to warm and blend. Do not let spinach become limp.) Serve warm.