Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Meal 44. Bengali Motor Polao and Pangas Mach

Ahmed is the master cook of this authentic Bengali meal. Though I was first a bit confused by the difference between "Bengali" and "Bangladeshi", a quick search taught me the latter epithet refers strictly to the nation. Bengali includes West Bengal, officially part of India. As this evening with Ahmed teaches me, he does feels the ties with India. We watch highlights of Bollywood movies, a compilation of mostly musical interludes with the megastar Shah Rukh Khan.
Somehow, in my long and (I try) multicultural life, I have never really watched a Bollywood movie. I'm impressed by how they seduce me with their fantasy world. The songs and dances vary from the classic to the modern, in desolate landscapes and ornate palaces. Ahmed explains how in one classic dance sequence, every movement of the arms, the legs, the head means something. He can understand what the female character is trying to express to the male love interest without a word being spoken. Amazing! In all of the romantic sequences shown, the actors never kiss, though some touching of the naked female stomach obviously is allowed. Ahmed tells me nowadays some actors do kiss for real, but that it is bad for their image. You will see a tantalizing amount of 'almost' kisses, which to be fair, might be more interesting in the end.

Now, for the cooking...when I enter the communal kitchen in Ahmed's student house, I am impressed by the enormous pan of rice waiting for us. It is more than enough for the four people that will be enjoying this meal tonight. As Ahmed is leaving to return to Bangladesh in just a few days, I wonder who will eat it all. The rice is infused with yellow colour, and aroma, because of the saffron added. Ahmed obligingly poses with the Motor Polao rice at right. But the fish is more special. He calls it Pangas Mach. Googling that turns up nothing, though I do find Panga is a type of fish found in the Indian Ocean. It is serves with Dal Aloo Ghanto, a lentil sauce. The vegetables draped on top are called "Indian root" in Bengali, but Ahmed isn't sure of the English translation. It is all artfully served and quickly gobbled up by me, a young Dutch friend who is always up for Bengali food, and Shusil, our Nepali friend who prepared the second meal for this project.
The same relaxed atmosphere is present now as at that evening more than a year ago. As we go to leave the dirty dishes in the kitchen, we find Ahmed's housemates preparing a meal including magic general, in my world, stimulating company beats chemical stimulants any time! Although, in a way, maybe food counts as a stimulant as well? I do enjoy good company more in combination with good food!

To check out some Bengali recipes at home, try out these websites:
A collection of Bengali recipes
Anita Pal's Bengali recipes

Friday, May 11, 2007

Meal 43. Sahrawi Couscous

This meal is the most "political" meal I have had during the whole project. The nationality "Sahrawi" probably won't ring a bell for most people. It is the term used by/for refugees from the Western Sahara territory. This is a huge chunk of Morocco; on some maps it will have a different color. After Spain left Morocco in 1975, control of the Western Sahara has been disputed by Mauritania, the Moroccan government and Frente Polisario, who want independence for the region.

And it is the representation for Polisario in the Netherlands, Ali, who will be making couscous for me tonight. I got to know him through a friend of mine, who got a visa from him to visit the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria. It is very interesting to meet someone whose life has been influenced so strongly by the politics of his home country. He had just been studying medicine in Spain for three years when he was called back in the mid seventies to help his country fight the Moroccan rule. He mostly served by running the Red Cross and remembers the period as very difficult. There was a lot of fighting then, guerilla warfare with a lot of people getting hurt or killed.
The Polisario formed a kind of government in exile of the Sahrawi refugee population in Algeria. Ali was their minister of education for a while and tells me about many young Sahrawi being educated in Cuba. Mostly as doctors and as teachers. They shared the language and the common past as Spanish colonies.
Ali has had many different "nationalities", as the Sahrawi passport is only recognized in certain countries and he has to be able to travel freely to represent Polisario. At the moment, he is officially Spanish.

During the preparations for the meal, we speak about the past and present of his country and I am impressed by his gentle spirit. His attitude seems to be a mix of sadness, frustration, determination and hope. The fight for independence has been going on for so long now, more than 30 years. And though there has been a ceasefire and talk of a referendum since 1991, no real steps forward have been taken. It is virtually impossible for a Sahrawi to travel from the camps in Algeria to his birthplace because of the wall that has been built by the Moroccan government.

In essence, the couscous Ali is preparing is not that different from the Moroccan couscous I had earlier (see Meal 12. ). Again, the couscous is steamed twice, with a lot of attention to the "fluffing" in between, as seen at right. It is served with succulent lamb, chick peas and a multitude of vegetables. Squash, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, tomatoes and nabos, turnips. Ali tells me that though this is typical, a more unique meal is eaten in the Sahara desert. When groups of men head out into the desert for whatever reason, they will take flour, onions and meat with them. The flour is made into unleavened bread with the sand as an oven. This is served with a sauce of meat and onions on top. For the authentic experience I think I would have to travel with them into the desert! Who knows if this might happen one day...who knows what the situation of the Western Sahara will be then...