Sunday, July 10, 2011

stories echoing our own

Zubin couldn't believe that any American father would let his teenage daughter go out at night in Bombay. "Go out where?"
"My friends have parties. Or sometimes clubs - there's that new place, Fire and Ice."
"You should be careful," Zubin told her.
Julia smiled. "That's so Indian."
"Anyone would tell you to be careful - it's not like the States."
"No," Julia said.
He was surprised by the bitterness in her voice. "You miss it."
"I am missing it."
"You mean now in particular?"
Julia was putting her things back into the knapsack hapazardly - phone, cigarettes, date book, lip gloss. She squinted at the window, as if the light was too bright. "I mean, I don't even know what I'm missing."

Sometimes the stories we love best are not those that teach us something about other lives, but those that echo our own. These are stories in which we meet characters we know, and see our own thoughts laid out on the printed page. Stories in which we find that a stranger has described us better than we could describe ourselves. "The Tutor," from the collection Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, is a story in which I see my own history, and it's the work I've chosen for the Summer 2011 edition of Novel Food.

"The Tutor" is the story of Zubin, who left India to study literature at Harvard and Oxford and returned after dropping out of his PhD program, and Julia, who has lived all over the world with her family, and chose to move to Mumbai with her father when her parents divorced. Zubin is Julia's SAT tutor, hired to help her improve her weak verbal scores. Julia wants to go to Berkeley more than any other college, because San Francisco is where her family lived before they moved anywhere else. It's a quiet, layered story, and it captures the mood of being adrift, of wanting something that lacks a name. The sense of displacement is reflected in the food and drink: cuisines never match locations, no matter where the characters might be.

"In Paris, after her mother left, her father became a cook. He would go all the way to Les Freres Tang to buy rare vegetables for Thai soup. None of the roots and leaves and grasses in the Thai soup were edible, but the broth was fantastic. You poured it, garlicky and golden, over rice. It was so spicy that her eyes teared and her nose ran and her mouth burned so no drink could cool it... Her father wore an apron with the Durer rabbit on the front, and he fogged the black windows with his soups and curries. In the morning you could taste the lemongrass and cumin in the bread that had been left out on the table."

Thai soup in Paris is followed by coquilles St. Jacques in Mumbai. Julia won't eat Indian cuisine, and buys coffee from a trendy expat coffeeshop "five times a day." Zubin drinks sambuca and other foreign liquors alone in his room. Food and eating evoke nothing of home, but become one more reminder of how Julia and Zubin are always out of place, seeking an escape.

Like most expats, I had my own stint as an English tutor. I don't object to the local cuisine here in Hong Kong, but it's not something I enjoy eating on a daily basis. If anything, my childhood monotony of steamed rice and stir-fry is an experience I've tried not to repeat. Rather than drawing inspiration from any particular food scene in the story, I decided to focus on the idea of food as an escape.

Cacio e pepe is a classic Roman dish, spaghetti tossed with grated Pecorino-Romano and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper. It's a dish I didn't eat that often while I was actually in Rome (I was more enamored of its close cousin, spaghetti alla carbonara) but it's quick and simple to prepare - a classier, smarter version of pasta with melted cheese, one of my longtime comfort foods. Digging into a bowl of this is a welcome escape on days when I'd rather be someplace other than Hong Kong. For all I know, it could work for Zubin and Julia too.

Cacio e Pepe

This dish uses nothing but Pecorino-Romano, pasta and black pepper, so don't skimp on quality. Make sure the black pepper is fresh, and if you can't get decent Pecorino-Romano, you're better off substituting Parmigiano-Reggiano.

(Adapted from a recipe that appeared in the March 2003 edition of Gourmet magazine. Serves one, generously, if cheese and pasta are one's comfort food.) 

Set a large pot of salted water on to boil. Set a large mixing bowl in the sink, and rest a colander on top of it.

Using a grater with teardrop-shaped holes (not a microplane grater; the cheese will clump), grate two ounces of Pecorino Romano into a small bowl. Set aside.

When the water hits a rolling boil, add a third of a pound of spaghetti and cook until al dente.

Drain the pasta into the colander. Carefully pick up the colander, and set it aside.

Carefully (very carefully) pour off all but two tablespoons of the pasta cooking water from the mixing bowl. Add the pasta back in. Sprinkle over the cheese, and toss to coat. Grind a generous quantity of fresh black pepper over the pasta, and toss again. Transfer to a plate or bowl, and serve immediately.