Hey, I have a new friend. I never knew of Lynn until a few Sundays ago.
On that fateful Sunday, I was caught slurping on sinfully creamy pâtes au citron for a late lunch. (Just so you wonder, that’s something I’ve yet to
blog brag about. Lately I’ve been reading up too much of Laura Calder’s, but nothing shall stop me, there’s this pâtes au bleu recipe of hers I’m tempted to try. Sounds hip-huggers already, I know.)
Because the lazy bone in me was hibernating, I managed to pull out my socks and tennis shoes and, as usual, dashed out for a good run. Just a few feet from my house, a soft, feeble cry seized my attention. I let dubiousness take hold and maternal instinct(!) guide my way.
There, I wound up by a drain, looking down and I saw a black kitten with grayish-blue eyes. The drain was dry; the kitten, though, was struggling to get itself back up. Without hesitation, I reached out to grab it. Feeling somewhat panicked, I sprinted home, with the frightened kitten in my hands.
Comelnya anak kucing! Chants of excitement instantly pierced through my ears, all I could hear was “kitten” and “cute” uttered in Malay. These children stopped their game, tossed their badminton rackets, and went ecstatic over the little feline.
Within seconds, I was found entangled in a web of disagreement: the children were calling the kitten theirs! He wanted; she wanted; I was divided. Let me tell ya, it wasn’t easy dealing with parents who were strangers in the place. Mr. and Mrs. A said no, while Mr. and Mrs. B gave an unwelcoming look. Even my mom said, “Return the kitten to where it was.”
Instead of in the drain, I grudgingly left the kitten in a cardboard box, placed on top of the pile of waste in a huge Dumpster, to steer clear from any potential predators.
Deserting the poor kitten sickened me and the children – Rafeef, Raneem, Rana, and Mohamed – of an Arab family that lives across the street. But there wasn’t much we could do other than obeying our parents. Life moved on, and so was my plan to work out. Time to hit the road again.
“We’d like to join you,” said the sisters of Rafeef, Raneem, and Rana. Feeling lonesome and longing for company, I spurted out a yes. I was so happy that my face was falling apart. Poor Mohamed, though, wanted to join us but was impeded by his dad, because he is a boy(!).
Did I beat my own record or what that Sunday evening. We walked, jogged, ran, and chatted for about two hours! (My previous best was held at one hour, minus chatting.) What were also exciting are the new friends I’ve made. And, because “Pei-Lin” sounded rather
alien exotic, they gave me a one-syllable name: Lynn.
Remember I told you about my family moving into this new neighborhood late last year? It houses quite a handful of Middle Easterners, including this family from Jidda. My new friends are quite international: they are part Arab, Turkish, Egyptian, and Indonesian. They speak Arabic (duh!), English (how else can I talk to them?), a little Iranian, Turkish, Malay, and Mandarin! I was taken aback when the eight-year-old Mohamed uttered “你ni 好hao 嗎ma (how are you)?”. Of course, I answered, “我wo 很hen 好hao (I’m very good)!”. (His Taiwanese classmate taught him that. I didn’t.)
It was so good, I was so pleased to discover the love of international foods in these friends of mine: Arab (duh!), Moroccan, Turkish, Indonesian, Malay, Thai, French, and even Chinese, just to name a few. Raneem told me that, back in Jidda, her family frequented Chinese restaurants, which would, unlike those in Malaysia, offer halal menus that adhere to Islamic practices. We youngsters were even treated to Thai food for supper by the father. Being the shy me, and since I don’t eat late into the night, I declined his offer. “Please, please help yourself to the food, daughter,” he insisted. What else could I say in return but a thank you. And I did eat some – some kind of Thai salad, I think?
|Dried dates (top) and halvah (bottom). These are the gifts from Hind, the aunt of Rafeef, Raneem, Rana, and Mohamed.|
In their living room I spotted little tagines: on the TV set, display counter, coffee tables, and by the couch. I love their conical shape. Such works of art. Even the vessel used for holding dried dates is made to resemble a tagine, except it’s made of glass. These were the first tagines I’d encountered in real life. Unbelievable. I thought I’d never get to see one unless I leave for Morocco.
Ever since I made my first tagine, I’ve fallen head over heels for it. Albeit introduced as Moroccan, similar dishes can be found throughout the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia – Raneem, Rafeef, Rana, and Mohamed’s homeland.
A tagine plays on herbs and spices and fills your head with herby, spicy nuances. In the dead of winter or on a nippy rainy day, it gladdens you with warmth and comfort. Think of a tagine as a giant pot of savory hot chocolate: sonorously comforting, toothsomely satisfying. It’s something I won’t mind going for seconds, or thirds.
And it’s especially true about this tagine, in which zucchini, tomatoes and chickpeas take the lead, alongside spices, of course. It may not sound as rich as hot chocolate and other tagines, but I couldn’t care less. Pure vegan stuff like this fills my growling tummy, and doesn’t stretch my already-expanding waistline, which I like.
Tossing vegetables and peas and herbs and spices into a pot eases the urban tension in me. Letting them bathe, slow, in a Middle-Eastern-scented broth soothes the weary soul in me. All the waiting and patience (important!) rewarded me with a big potful of wholesomeness stewed to perfection: zucchini that verges on mushiness, tomatoes that invigorate your palate with a zing, and chickpeas tender enough to chew on but with the chunkiness of its partially mashed sibs. Last but not least, a warm, curry-like, mildly hot, sapid base for you to wash down all the goodness with.
As the spicy perfume of the tagine wafted through the kitchen, and as I savored the humbly rich, soupy stewed vegetables, I was taken on a journey across the globe, to cultures unexplored. Through this tagine, and other tagines, and my new friends, I discovered life’s little pleasures, including my new moniker, Lynn.
I am traveling without leaving my backyard.
Zucchini, Tomato, and Chickpea Tagine
Adapted from Moroccan Bible, by Rachael Lane
1 cup dried chickpeas
60 milliliters (¼ cup) olive oil
1 large red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cayenne
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
4 tomatoes, quartered
2 medium-size zucchini, quartered
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
80 milliliters (1/3 cup) water or vegetable stock
Soak the chickpeas in water overnight. On the next day, drain and rinse them and place in a medium-size saucepan. Cover with water, and bring to the boil over high heat. Cook for one hour, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a medium-large tagine or heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add (A), and sauté until softened and fragrant. Add the chickpeas and (B), and stir to combine. Pour in the water or stock, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Serve.
Yield: about four servings
Yield: about four servings