Biting into a hot crusty chunk of potato tattooed with cumin seeds, I had a clear moment of seeing. There was something tight, precise about the relationship between the two that heightened the understanding of each other. The seared heat and baiting earthy fragrance in tandem, allowed the potato to reveal itself: modestly alluring, moist yet remotely dusty, sweet humble sister of the earth. By the time the remaining ingredients were added and intermittent samples taken, a single thought became clear. These potatoes made me want to be a better person.
Now I am not the sort of person who tucks shirts into pants, nor do I embrace the perfection of white which in any gradation displays tell tale tumbles and misadventures with food. Persnickety details and lofty goals which dogged me in my youth have almost all slid off of me, now ignoring me completely. This odd thought, this declaration which I sounded out first in my head in astonishment and then aloud as if to break the vacuum of a dream, held me under loose spell all week. In truth, the idea of my food counseling me towards higher levels of enlightenment had me a bit unsettled. Was this simply a dramatic flourish, an example of culinary hyperbole?
Inextricable from this dish, heart and center is dear friend J_ who lovingly and laboriously prepared Bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari alongside lamb with onions, sweet and sour okra, spicy green beans, fried aubergine slices, coriander chutney, Gujerati carrot salad and raita for my first authentic Indian feast. This extraordinary potato side dish was so eye-batting, jaw dropping good it sent me running to the store anxious to buy Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking so that I could relive the ecstasy ad infinitum in the privacy of my lair. But these decorated spuds were really just the crowning star of a whole unseen universe which her friendship richly opened to me. A world traveler, dancer and seeker, Hawaiian born and raised, and lover of inordinately small purses, J_ moved about in poised grace yet relaxed naturalness. Her broad accessible humor, gentle probing intelligence and insight, as well as curiosity always seemed to bring her to new shores whether traversing chocolate drenched fruitcake, conjuring Mexican mole or sharing Cuban black beans. Unwittingly at the table I became travel mate beside her exploring unknown and colorful territories. This week a bubble of time opened up to me revealing a buffet of moments and meals woven together in the delicious span of our friendship. Deeper beyond the contentment of a belly long sated, is the value of opening to new worlds and wearing a rainbow of different perspectives. J_ showed me how to love the world more, through first loving its food.
Further out from this bubble, I consider this extended moment of time, this blink of at least eight years- as a gift, enduring in thought and memory yet ultimately not materially permanent. And this realization which I’ve examined before, only takes on more weight with each revisit. There is something beautiful and poignant, terrifying and potent about the transience of life and its moving inner workings. And it is easy to be struck with this simple truth in the slow amorphous end of a friendship. Long ago as a student this awareness nudged my sleepy corners and pierced me with insight. I needed to open up to the moment: to newness, strangeness, bigness, badness and weirdness. I needed to dissolve my periphery, any vestige of shell holding me back from experience and become one giant eye, thumping heart, hungry tongue, and reciprocal touch; simply whatever is needed. I remember and I forget all over again. And those lustrous pearls of events, people and place glide silently past the strand of time. That is what those potatoes make me think of.
And undeniably, those potatoes stop me dead in my tracks while I hold my breath in feeble attempt to hold onto live ecstatic sensation. They rattle my small world; shake up everything I think I know about starchy stubby tubers. In their own quiet way, they electrify me. It may be the double layered pow of heat achieved by up front, top-note, fruity cayenne pepper blended with the grassy tones of jalapeno. Or perhaps it is the swing of lemon or the curvaceous sway of coconut. Maybe it is the way that mustard seeds and cumin mingle, deepen and ground those potato bits low before the medley of corn, mint and cilantro brighten and take this dish to flight. These potatoes are simply- impeccable. And for these few reasons and probably half a dozen more, make me want to show up completely, for this meal and for thousands more.
Sweetcorn and Potatoes with Mustard Seeds and Mint/ Bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari serves 4- adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking
3 Tblsp vegetable oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 large potato approx 5 oz. parboiled and cut into 1/3” dice
3 plum tomatoes diced and seeded
4 Tblsp finely chopped cilantro
3 Tblsp finely chopped mint
½ jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 ½ C fresh/frozen corn
1/3 C coconut milk
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tblsp lemon juice
Fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp ground roasted cumin seeds
Directions: Put the oil into a non stick frying pan over medium high heat. When hot, put mustard and cumin seeds in and then the garlic and potato at the point the seeds pop. Fry until the potatoes turn golden and crisp. Put tomatoes, cilantro, mint, and jalapeno in next and fry for about 2 additional minutes. Next put in the corn, coconut milk, salt, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. Stir and bring to a simmer, covered for about 3 minutes. Uncover and add black pepper and the ground cumin seeds. Taste and tweak until desired balance is achieved.