I’m sitting in the middle of a bustling Indian food stall in Penang, the food center of South East Asia.
I can feel beads of sweat falling from the nape of my neck, my temples and my lower back. Sticky and hot feels comfortable and right at home in this environment. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, across from our long table, and my face looks particularly shiny and pink compared to all of the beautifully dark Indian people around me.
I am with a group of people who speak the local language, Malay. The ordering process is chaotic, words flying back and forth like Frisbees, hand gestures are amplified and I all I can do is sit and witness the dance of the ordering process.
I’m pretty sure I just said “yes” to cauliflower and eggplant. I’m not an eggplant fan but I’m starving so at this point, anything without a mom will do. Pretty soon, big green banana leaves arrive at our table and are placed in front of us. This will be the backdrop for our meal.
Next comes the rice, and then a medley of carrots and peas like I have never seen before, spiced and brilliant red. Papadum is put on our leaves along with something that I couldn’t identify and that have never experienced at any “Curry in a Hurry” place in the U.S. I have no idea what it is, but it’s finding its way into my heart, with each bite I take. Next comes a trio of curries and everyone starts to pour them over their rice, so I promptly follow.
Here comes the cauliflower and the eggplant. I put everything on my bright green leaf and dig in. Literally digging, with my right hand.
I start to chew, and the texture of the caramelized soft cauliflower paired with the intense flavor, leaves me no choice but to close my eyes and simply…experience. I open my eyes, and I swear, there is a tear.
Reluctant to stray from the cauliflower because of the orgasm I’m having with it, I decide to try the eggplant. I take one bite and the flavors literally burst in my mouth. Holy shit—it is just as good as the mother-loving cauliflower!
I have to smile because I can’t hold it back.
I’m going back and forth between the cauliflower and the eggplant, the rice, papadum, curries. A festival is taking place in my mouth like it never has before and I am now merely an observing beneficiary of ingredients put together with perfection. I reach for my coconut to wet my palate.
This isn’t lunch—this is an experience, never to be forgotten. I am now in the car off to explore the rich history of Penang. I am completely satisfied, until it hits me. Every Indian meal I have from this day forward will be tainted by the experience I just had.
The amount of disappointment that I have from this thought surprises me. I lick my lips and savor the last bit of lingering flavor in my mouth.
I have not been able to successfully replicate this lunch in my own kitchen, but it’s not for lack of trying. I have tried and failed many times. I will continue to work on it.
In the meantime, here’s a cauliflower recipe, and although it is not Indian inspired, it’s very tasty and easy to throw together. Five ingredients and fifteen minutes is all you need.
Cashew Cauliflower Cream:
You can use it on anything that you would ordinarily use Sour Cream on. Add it to dips and sauces, baked potatoes, chili, spicy soups, tacos, nachos, burritos or you could scoop some on top of a big green salad and call it a delicious day.
What you need:
1/2 cup cashews, soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 cups cauliflower, cut into pieces. They don’t have to be bite-size because they will eventually be blended
1 teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup water
How to do it:
1. Place the cauliflower in a pan along with one cup of water and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, drain and set aside.
2. Drain the water from the cashews and place in a blender along with the cauliflower, apple cider vinegar, sea salt and water.
3. Blend for several minutes until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
4. Refrigerate for up to a week.
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Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Author’s Own