I guess the consensus is that 2020 was annus horribilis.
The pandemic led the way, sparking off a cascade of grim events: near and dear ones suffering or dying from the virus or from ailments they normally should not have because hospitals were off limits; the government’s assault on our civil liberties; the incarceration of dissenters and role models, old and young; the cessation of handshakes and holidays.
I hate to break it to you, but I doubt 2021 is going to be annus mirabilis.
The virus isn’t going away, and it’s unclear if the clutch of vaccines on the horizon will withstand its ominous, new mutations. The government isn’t going to let up; we aren’t going to mingle any time soon; and the stresses and strains on our lives will stay.
The only thing that appears consistent is our need to eat. By dint of being homebound, people who had never entered the kitchen did so, and others experimented more than ever.
When I try to emerge from our little pandemic-era cocoon and spread my culinary wings, so to say, I find there is no better place to visit than my collection of kitchen adventures from across the nation and the world.
Food writing is my happy place.
I am currently reading Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book Of Food And Drink: memoirs, poems, tell-alls by writers as diverse as Roald Dahl, Malcolm Gladwell and Steve Martin, dredged up from the magazine’s 88-year-old treasury.
I have just received Desi Delicacies, a collection of food writing from Muslim South Asia: essays, recipes and stories from chefs, writers and historians. I have not read it yet, but it appears to offer the things I like—a rich smorgasbord of cuisines, leavened by politics and history.
A book I haven’t hauled out—and hauled is the appropriate term—for a while is Culinaria, a 640-page, large-format compendium of European cooking. It is a culinary encyclopaedia, a meticulous account of the mundane and the exotic, the combined work of writers and photographers who sought out bakers, farmers, shepherds, pastry chefs, star chefs and home cooks from across the continent.
The variety of ingredients and food sprawls from boring, canned baked beans from England to smoked reindeer heart in cream sauce from northern Norwegian nomads to smørrebrød, Danish open-faced sandwiches that I recall, during a Copenhagen winter, as being one of the most delightful small meals ever—particularly one that had smoked eel with scrambled eggs.
For this week, I zeroed in on Hungary, a country whose cuisine lies at the confluence of West and East, occupied once by the Turks and later influenced by the French and Austro-Hungarian empire. Culinaria tells us that Hungary was once entirely a country of nomads, who gave the country the tradition of a cast-iron stew pot, the bogrács, in which that famous Hungarian dish, the goulash, is cooked.
What the world knows as goulash, Culinaria tells us, has many names in Hungary. The root word is gulyás—for sheep herders and the soup they made—and gulyashus was the dried meat they carried on long journeys in sacks made of sheep’s stomach, to be mixed with water and heated when required.
What I cooked was a pörkölt, the sauce of which is red and thick and different in consistency from a gulyás. It corresponds, says Culinaria, to what the world knows as a goulash.
The book has versions with beef and veal, but I chose the version with chicken, a csirkepörkölt—no, don’t ask me to pronounce it. It was easy to make, in keeping with my simplicity mantra for 2021. I did make some changes to Indianise it, substituting fat with ghee and paprika with Kashmiri chilli powder.
Now, I understand a Hungarian might be horrified, since paprika is the pre-eminent spice of the Hungarian kitchen and closely associated, says Culinaria, with the Hungarian character—“fiery, spicy and temperamental”. It clearly has some links with us, so Kashmiri mirch might not be such a distant leap. Paprika was brought into Hungary by the Turks in the early 16th century, perhaps, says the book, via Persia and from India. For centuries, the Hungarians called it “Indian pepper”.
And there you have it, the Indian connection, although I frowned a bit because chillies were first brought to India in the same century that they were supposed to have travelled to Hungary. If you have any solution to that puzzle, let me know. I am off to sample my goulash.
INDIAN CSIRKEPÖRKÖLT (HUNGARIAN CHICKEN GOULASH)
750g chicken pieces
3 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder (ideally, paprika)
3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 red pepper, diced
2 onions, chopped
10 pieces of garlic, smashed
Half cup red wine
Half tbsp ghee
Salt to taste
Marinate chicken in tomato paste, Kashmiri mirch, garlic and salt. In a non-stick pan, gently heat ghee, fry onions till translucent. Add the chicken with marination, cover and stew for 15 minutes, lowering flame. Add tomatoes, red pepper and wine, cover and stew for 30 minutes, adding a little water if needed. Adjust salt. Optional: If you would like to tenderise the meat more, transfer to an oven-proof dish and bake for 30 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.