Russian princess, cook, mother, traveler, gardener, hostess, observer
Moveable kitchen — migration is in my bones. Nearly 100 years ago my father, a baby prince, was carried across Russia as his family and two servants (one was the cook; they had their priorities straight) fled the October revolution. Unlike many other Russians who left for Europe, they ended up escaping eastward, traveling to Harbin, a town in Manchuria, and settling finally on the west coast of the U.S. At around the same time, my mother’s parents exchanged the strictures of Mormon Utah for the balmy shores of California. A few years later, when they met at school, this unlikely couple found they had both enjoyed eating cream puffs for a nickel at the same bakery in Hollywood.
Cooking is in my bones, too. Food, and wine, were important parts of our family life, as different as they sometimes were from the very standard fare of the 50s and 60s in the U.S., when fancy meant frog legs at the one little French restaurant in the valley, and exotic was the barbecued spare ribs and mai tais at Don the Beachcomber’s faux Polynesian haunt in Hollywood.
My father had the fantasies, my mother the day-to-day in terms of food. Weekends might find him working feverishly on a dobostorte, cursing when the caramel turned rock hard on an otherwise ethereal construction. He found his inspiration in Gourmet magazine, including its 2 vol cookbooks, ed., 1961 or 2 (which I still have). He also loved cocktails, engineering a masterful champagne cocktail for New Years, a variation on the French 75 (recipe to come).
My mother, while coming from a simple background, had an excellent palate. She used to taste the wines that my father would bring home from the one (!) shop that imported bottles from France in those days. He would do the research but she was the one who could tell if something was good or not. In the same way, her weekday meals were always well-balanced and flavorful. I have never needed to improve on her rotisserie barbecued Cornish hens (recipe to come). She learned imperial fare from the Russian cook, Katia, for whom I was named, including delectable piroshki and succulent bitki, among others, and passed those on to me.
While my father’s family, in their zhivago-esque departure from their native land, was more preoccupied with survival than gourmandise, they did carry with them their traditions. My aunt Marina, with whom Katia the cook lived, had the gift of turning out spectacular meals like chicken kotleti and boletus mushrooms in sour cream with what seemed a bare minimum of effort.
When I left home, at the tail end of the hippie/Adele Davis (remember her?) health era, I carried a bag of granola with me on the Greyhound, to offset those long hours of sitting with some healthy fiber and to avoid having to eat in the greasy spoons where the bus would stop for breaks. Not long after, what I call my suitcase adventures began. During a long stint in Switzerland in the 1970s-80s, when the expat section of the grocery store was filled with oddball items (think grocery outlet), I would return from infrequent trips to California laden with things like tequila and tortillas. Voyages to India meant a bagful of spices, crunchy-sweet-salty-spicy chanachur, and tools – a Bengali shil nora (grinding stone) and a curved knife with a coconut grater tip, called a boti.
For a long time I thought I was alone in this food migration, following my own private spice route ferrying beloved or newly acquired tastes through the air or across the seas to reproduce in my own kitchen. But I’ve found that this is not the case. Swiss friends carry tubes of Cenovis. A friend who spent time in England pines for Hobnobs and Pimms Cup. The best one I’ve heard thus far is about someone’s Ukrainian uncle, who was held up in customs for hours. His worried daughter persuaded the guards to let her inside (this was pre 9/11) to find out what was going on. It turned out they stopped him because his suitcase was leaking blood; convinced of the superior quality (and inferior price) of meat in his hometown, he’d frozen a side of pork to bring back, which, alas, had defrosted before he made it home.
The original title of this blog was “suitcase cilantro” – for this humble herb – indispensable in all the cuisines I love best – Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, to name only a few – is alas, almost completely absent from my current adopted city of Istanbul. A city of 15 million, without fresh coriander! (but that’s a subject for another day).
Oh, there are tiny clamshell packs for a few dollars in the upscale markets halfway across town, and when I’m desperate I undertake the trek and bear the expense (if in fact it is even in stock). But mostly I’ve waited for trips – to Lebanon or Cyprus – to load up with fresh fragrant flourishing bouquets of the stuff.
And so I’ve spent years now regularly weighing suitcases down to the last gram, factoring the fees for the extra bags into the overall cost, in order to supplement our larder with fish sauce, maple syrup, liquid smoke, corn tortillas, good cheeses, stone cut oats, even bags of green split peas and urad dal.
Recently, however, we’ve had the fortune to move into a house with a fairly large garden. The promise of being able to grow some of our own food, and more specifically our own CILANTRO has led to both a frenzy of seed ordering at Baker Creek or Bountiful Gardens, and to an evolution in my approach.
Rather than depending solely on airplanes and roller bags alone, I want to make or grow the things I can’t find where I now live, hopefully as sustainably and organically as possible. So the last trip back to the U.S. yielded up, along with gardening books, a dehydrator, not only for veggies, but for Moroccan khlee (recipe forthcoming); an Omega juicer, for juices and a host of other things; and a hand crank flour mill with a flaker attachment. Oh, and a bare root kaffir lime tree, which has taken root in its pot here, covered again with glossy green leaves for tom ka ga and Bengali curries. The curry leaf cuttings didn’t make it, in spite of the rooting hormone, but a recent trip to Kerala netted a small sapling, which recovered from the shock of transport and is doing pretty well, in spite of spending winters in a low light kitchen. And a mixie-grinder from India, too, for dosas and wet spice pastes.
Thus the premise has expanded, to include, hopefully, thoughts on food and travel, interplays and attachments new and old, continuity and change – and all the deliciousness that this world and this earth have to offer.