A Blog Mainly About Food

If by "mainly" you mean "sometimes"

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Legacy Recipe

There are only a few recipes in my arsenal that have their direct roots in the cooking of my mother. As I've probably mentioned before, she isn't the greatest cook in the world. Still, her chili has found its way into my heart, as have her twice baked potatoes. But the one recipe that has found its way into my (mental) cookbook is her chili chicken. Its what's I like to call the "legacy recipe," a dish I'll most likely be cooking for the rest of my life.

What I call "the legacy recipe" is the dish that has been in your family for generations. Many times the recipe is part of a holiday tradition, or something special not enjoyed all the time. Other times, it might be the stereotypical comfort food, or associated with specific events. Some families have the joy of many legacy recipes. Others have none -- a sad circumstance indeed. Food is something that can tie families together, often across oceans. Witness the reverence that Italians have for food "the way grandma made it" or the persistence of traditional Eastern European foods in the Chicago area. More locally, look at the vibrant ethnic enclaves like Eden Center or Wheaton -- places where the food traditions of new immigrants flourish. For many immigrant families, traditions of language, dress, and religion may get lost in the morass of America. Recipes, somehow, persist. This is in part because of the adaptibility of cuisine. Food is so different, essentially mutable, infinite in possibility. The legacy recipe is not etched in stone, unchanging. That would defeat the very purpose of it. It adapts and changes with time -- and still continually evokes the past, our ancestors, previous ways of living.

All this waxing poetic is ironic, especially considering the background of the recipe I call my personal choice for "legacy" status. Ma moved to the United States before she ever learned how to cook; ironically, it was my father who first taught her how to make simple curries. She learned from those around her in the small Bengali community that became a second family. At some point in time, the recipe for chili chicken entered her repertoire. The recipe itself is bizarre. Heavily spiced with soy ("soya" in India) sauce and thin Indian chilis. Served on thick white jasmine rice, heavy on sauce but light, typically, in vegetables. Just as likely to be slow cooked as it is to be stir fried. Is it Indian? Is it Chinese? Actually, it's both. Indian style Chinese food, born in Calcutta and popularly known as "Hakka Chinese". If in Calcutta, eating it is a mouth-burningly unique experience. One that I had the pleasure of having in the comfort of my suburban home on countless evenings.

As a legacy recipe, I guess chili chicken is -- after a few mental leaps -- perfectly logical. At this point, its a triple hybrid of Chinese, Indian, and American traditions. And its a dish I most likely would never enjoy at the dining room table of my aunts in India; in fact, odds are my mother was experimenting with recreating a restaurant meal when she made it. In fact, since both sides of my family were part of the Indian bourgeoisie class, odds are few actually cooked a major meal; my mother's generation is probably the first to really step into a kitchen. So this makes me the second generation to carry the G. family's chili chicken. My gender makes it even more interesting; where now it is traditional for women to be the cooks in Indian households, for many years it was men who took the primary leadership in my family's kitchens. Thrust into the western world and female dominance in the home kitchen, its amusing that I'm the one carrying the cooking from the family. Hey, if Dad taught Mom, why not buck tradition and be a man in the kitchen? Still, a few mysteries remain. Who taught my mother to make this dish? Why do Indians call it soya sauce? What will this recipe look like in twenty years, when hopefully control of it has passed to someone else? In forty?

I'm sure mom would rather her legacy recipe to me be shorshe maach or some other disgusting traditional Bengali fish preparation. The sad irony is that the one cuisine that is truly native to my culture -- Bengali style fish -- is the one type of food in the entire world that I authentically despise. Still, the Bengali-Chinese cuisine is a nod, ever so slightly, back to the homeland. Maybe its the signal of a new sort of "legacy recipe," carrying more weight than something as simple as Mother's Pumpkin Pie.

When preparing chili chicken my instincts take hold, my urge to alter Ma's recipe slightly -- or sometimes, not so slightly. What was a relatively simple preparation has become in my hands a full on effort requiring a good 45 minutes of prep time. The sauce my mother concocted originally was a simple mix of vinegar and soy. My version has multiple sauces and an Eastern mirepoix base. I don't think my mom knows what a mirepoix is! The dish itself is best when served over rice, and gains a certain amount of richness if served as leftovers. I alternate between using a wok (or more properly, a karahi) and using a large sauce pan. When choosing the chicken, it's vital you select pieces that still have the bones in. Frankly, I think boneless chicken is tasteless and I'll only use it if absolutely necessary. Heck, for flavor's sake I err toward the organic.

6 medium sized organic chicken thighs
Ginger
5 cloves garlic
2 medium yellow onions
5-10 thin asian style hot peppers (jalepenos may be substituted if necessary)
1 bunch cilantro
Soy Sauce
Oyster Sauce
Rice wine vinegar
Scallions, as a garnish

Skin the chicken thighs and cut into thirds. Set aside. Mince the garlic, grate one tablespoon of ginger, and set aside. Thinly slice the onion. Heat a healthy glug of oil (I used EVOO) in a wok over medium heat. While the oil is heating, chop the peppers and place four of the chopped peppers in a 2-1 mixture of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. Also finely chop about half of the cilantro. Save both of these -- they come into play at the end of the recipe.

When the oil has heated, throw in the ginger and garlic. Stir until the kitchen is fragrant and the garlic is soft and semi-translucent. Careful, however, not to burn the ginger. Throw in the chicken and the onions; cook as if stir frying. for 5-10 minutes.

Pour enough soy sauce in the wok to cover both the chicken and veggies. Also pour a quarter cup of rice wine vinegar and two healthy glugs of the oyster sauce. Add in the remainder of the chopped peppers and mix thoroughly. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat, cover, and cook for 20-30 minutes, until the chicken is falling off the bone. Uncover turn off the heat. Throw in the cilantro and mix. By doing this, you are wilting the cilantro and adding its flavor to the dish. Adding the herbs at a higher temperature will effectively kill the fresh flavor of cilantro. Serve over rice, garnished with chopped scallions. In the mood for spicier chicken? Pour on the soy/ vinegar/pepper sauce. For you wimps out there, you can remove the chilis entirely. Of course, this effectively kills any Indian-ness the recipe has, but hey, this is America. We're free to make our own legacies.