Chana Masala: Art You Can Eat

It is inevitable that any time at an artists colony will be plump with the exchange of ideas.

When you toss artists from disparate backgrounds into a small cauldron and essentially seal it for a month, art, words, music and and more will certainly be shared. And so it was for me at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif., earlier this year, where I spent a month isolated on a mountain ranch with a tiny crew of colony mates that included talented artists from Mongolia, India and Austria, a wonderful choreographer and composer and writers who inspired me every day.

In addition to art, however, we ended up having some rich exchanges over something surprising: Cooking.

As you may have read before on this blog, colony chef Dan Tosh fed us tremendously well on weekdays. But on weekends, left to our own devices, we ended up taking to the stove to teach one other a little about the dishes that fueled us in our own homes. Which is how I came to learn to make out-of-this-world chana masala …

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Karavalli (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.): Scratching An Itch

Something peculiar starts to happen whenever I go more than a few days without eating anything spicy.

Spirits start flagging; an irritability obliterates the charming and pleasant person I choose to believe I am. You see, in Singapore, where I grew up, almost everything is spicy — dinner, lunch, breakfast, even high tea, an occasion that’s often marked with curries and fiery noodles (and chased with clotted cream-slathered scones). Nothing is subtle; everything is jacked up with curry powder, peppers, tiny bird’s eye chilis.

At home in New York, where I am master of my own meals, these cravings aren’t a problem. But when I recently found myself at an artists’ retreat in the snowy woods of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the very fortunate situation of not having to worry about making my own meals for a few weeks, my demons started to emerge.

Thankfully, a friend had a solution — there was an outstanding Indian restaurant in town, he said. It seemed like one that could certainly scratch my spicy Asian food itch. And while I was skeptical of an outstanding Indian restaurant existing in a not-incredibly-diverse stretch of upstate New York, I was desperate for a cure.

So, on a chilly Saturday, we piled into a car and off we went …

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786 Yassin Restaurant: “Drunk Food” To Remember


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The moment I heard about 786 Yassin Restaurant, a place in Singapore that reputedly serves outstanding Indian mutton soup, I instantly begged to be taken.

When done well, soup kambing, as it’s called, is a hefty flavor bomb that’s hard to forget. It comes infused with coriander, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg and star anise (among other spices) and dotted with crispy fried shallots and soft onion chunks.

This, no doubt, is the Chanel of soups.

When to have it, however, turned out to be something to consider.

“You can’t have soup kambing now lah,” said my friend Basil, who had told me about Yassin, prompting me to immediately suggest heading there for dinner. ”It’s mabuk food.”

Ahh, drunk food — the dishes that are the perfect panacea when you’re leaving a bar at 2 a.m. and looking for something to quell your hunger and sober you up. In the case of soup kambing, this heady concoction of spices does an especially efficient job of clearing your head and helping you wade out of your Chivas fog.

I didn’t want to have to get drunk in order to try Yassin’s though. So after some persuading, we were on our way.  

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Indian Chicken Curry: A Grandmother’s Recipe


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A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry.

As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look.

“You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”

A very good point.

It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. “She would park her wheelchair at the entrance to the kitchen and bark out instructions to me,” he said.

Well, her lessons must have stuck because Basil then proved that he could rattle off her curry instructions as quickly and surely as he can list the latest Manchester United stats.

The moment I got back to my Brooklyn kitchen, I knew I had to try it.

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Top 10: The Memorable Eats Of 2009


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You know it’s been a good year when you are able to say this: 2009 was when I began to eat for a living.

I’d always been a devotee of affairs of the stomach. I may have written about fashion and other lifestyle areas for a living but baking, braising, trying new recipes, eating out — those were what consumed me when weekends rolled around. 

Luck has its ways of finding you, however. Now, on the precipice of 2010, I’m beginning to close out a lunar calendar year of cooking and eating with my family in Singapore as research for my book, “A Tiger In The Kitchen.” 

My journey so far has taken me many places – France, where I had the loveliest gingery champagne cocktail with friends old and dear; China, where my father and I went in search of my great-grandfather’s footprints in the village of his birth. And, of course, Singapore, where my aunties and maternal grandmother have been plying me with meals, recipes and much, much love along the way.

With all that I’ve packed into 2009, it’s hard to decide what the highlights have been. But, inspired by some stellar Top 10 gastronomic lists out there (definitely check out Sam Sifton’s list of Top 11 dishes in New York in the New York Times), I decided to give it a go.

Here, in no particular order, are my 10 memorable eats of 2009. 

Enjoy, buon appetito and listen, let’s do this again in 2010 …

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A Tale of Six Meatballs


CIMG4598 It’s a little scary what can happen when a journalistic killer instinct is directed at something seemingly innocuous.

Like, meatballs. And the battle to be voted top meatball chef in a six-way competition.

There is the non-stop smack talk. There is the repeated invocation of maternal units. There is, even, the reflexive forming of menacing kung-fu gestures anytime the word “meatball” is mentioned.

And we haven’t even gotten to things that my fellow competitors did.

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