My good friend psychotherapist Renato Palma in Florence once told me, “Peggy, Peggy, non devi mai spiegarti”. You never have to explain yourself.
As a southern girl, explaining yourself was a popular past time, whether any one wanted to listen or not. The bank teller, the checkout clerk, one’s father or mother. The police. I suppose I was always trying to explain how I see the world differently. I often felt a stranger in a strange land. Then I started traveling and became an actual stranger in strange lands, but felt more “at home” in the world than where I grew up.
I stopped explaining myself as per Renato’s advice. I had to stop apologizing for the person I am or have become. Traveling had turned me inside out and I was exposed. My lust for life was like a ferrel cat out of the bag. I had nothing to hide, but what would happen if I lived my life according to me? All sorts of interesting things. Confusion was out. Fusion was in.
My travels through India, North Africa, Europe, Japan and southeast Asia, to name a few continents, have had their way with me. Yearly visits over time have blended who I have become and influenced my growth and perceptions of the world like rings inside of a tree trunk. Cut me in half and I will wreak of cumin, catfish, turmeric and tagliatelle, parmigiano, jamon Iberico, collard greens and miso, chai and chianti, whiskey and sweet tea. I can hardly make a simple dish without making it better with a spice or a twist.
Last Sunday, I had promised my partner David that I would make him congee. Congee is a common word for gruel in several Asian countries. It’s usually rice cooked slowly with a lot of water until it’s creamy and quite easy to digest. Some say that it cures what ails you and keeps you strong. Ingredients change from country to country. It’s not far off from the east Indian gruel called Kitchari, meaning mixture: a combination of basmati rice and a lesser amount of mung dahl. It has spices and ghee added for cleansing purposes. If something is good, it can always be better in my book. I have had variations of congee and kitcheri in my life, so what do I do? I fuse, depending on the season and where I am and what I need.
David needed an alternative to a sweet breakfast. He would drench his morning hot cereal with granola, fruit and maple syrup. By noon his energy was dead. David is one of those rare birds that doesn’t know when he’s hungry. He can often go without food, or snack until dinner. At least eating something substantial in the mornings can give longer lasting energy. Complex carbohydrates break down slowly, sticking to our ribs at least to get us through a long day if that is what we need. It also balances the blood sugar, eliminating the need for sugar as a pick me up. The addition of meat, which is common in Asia, offers extra protein and substance. David was delighted. He loves lamb from his days in Peace Corp in Persia. He loves kitcheri from his days as a teenager in Delhi and finally, he loves congee from his days in Buddhist seminary. What we eat tells the story of our lives. So does our decor.
I call this dish Lamb Kitchari Congee. It’s a warm and balancing winter go-to that can be eaten for any meal. It has become a breakfast staple for David who says he could eat it every day. I on the other hand could not.
LAMB KITCHERI CONGEE
1 lb lamb stew meat (optional)
1 cup of PRE-MIXED kitcheri from your Indian grocer OR mix 1/2 cup basmati rice + 1 cup split mung dahl
2 tsp. ghee
1/2 to 1 inch ginger root, chopped or grated
1/4 tsp. good salt
1/2 tsp. coriander powder
1/2 tsp. cumin powder
1/2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
6 cups (approx.) water
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves
Sauté lamb in ghee and spices. Add rice and mung dahl mix (kitcheri) and coat with the oil and spices. Add ginger, salt and 6 cups of water. Bring to the boil and then let simmer on a low flame until the rice and dahl are cooked (30 minutes or so in a pot, 10 minutes in a pressure cooker). The mixture should be a little soft and soupy. Add chopped scallions and cilantro, more spice if you like, even a dash of shoyu.