There’s a trick with Sichuan peppers I know how to do. As in how to remove that gritty seed in Sichuan peppers

Sichuan peppercorns are neither peppers nor corns. They are tiny berries which grow on the Chinese Prickly Ash tree. They belong to the citrus family and is a crucial ingredient in Ma Po Tofu and a myriad other Chinese specialties. Its use is not limited to China.

The onyx black seed is removed as it is gritty. Only the dry husk of the berry is used. When it hits your tongue Sichuan pepper gives it a small electric shock type of sensation and equally importantly it’s fragrance in cooking is spectacular. It has become one of my favourite spices.

Imagine my horror recently when I sat down to a dish of Ma Po Tofu I had made to find it full of grit. I knew it had to be the new batch of Sichuan pepper. I had powdered some for the recipe. What did I do wrong? Where did this sand come from? Wracked by guilt after all the chopping and prepping that goes into the dish I still ate it while carefully avoiding the gritty bits. Otherwise the grit would have won. Fortunately there were no guests who would have been shocked and it would have been a disaster. I survived.

This was may be five or six months ago and I have been hesitant to make any more Ma Po Tofu until the grit issue got resolved. This week I had some silken tofu glaring at me in the fridge for a week and it was time. A quick search online and I find it is the seeds that make Sichuan peppers gritty. The peppers I purchased in Chinatown were more than the husk. It contained the seeds which are as tough as stones. I did not encounter this problem with the first batch of Sichuan peppers.

So the rule is: Only the husk, not the seed. The seed is jet black, hard and onyx shiny. It could well be a gem or a bead in jewellery. However it does not belong in your Ma Po Tofu. I searched and searched to eke out a solution and there were many which I will not get into. They involved washing, drying in the sun and myriad others. Nothing however seemed to state the obvious. Which was to physically remove the seed.

I am sure there are many ways to deseed a Sichuan berry but here is one of them. I wasn’t going to go looking for them late evening in Chinatown and probably I might well have ended up with the same product with seeds in tact.

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Sichuan peppers – some with seeds in them. The seeds are gritty and should not be used.

How to: Using the tip of a small paring knife open the husk. The seed will fall out. Carefully pick out the husk and set aside the seed. Its the husk that you use. The seeds are beautiful and I hate to throw them away until I find out if they have any use. However someone from China told me that the most potent part of a Sichuan peppers is in the seed. I am not yet sure I would want to try it again. May be more research is called for on the gritty seeds. Until then use only the husk.

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Seeds extracted. Some of the berries were too tight to open. They too were discarded. Yet I was stunned by their Onyx-like beauty. I wonder if they are used as beads.

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The rule is: Only the husk, not the seed.

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There are many uses for Sichuan pepper. Here it releases a unique citrus-like fragrance in oil over medium heat, to start off Ma Po Tofu which appears below. My absolutely favourite recipe for this is here: http://thewoksoflife.com/2014/03/ma-po-tofu-real-deal/

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Credits: Title is a nod to Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection entitledThere’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 17, 2016

Gazpacho Impromptu

 

 

Tomatoes are lush and ripe around now and those winter nightmares of plastic red orbs are a distant bad dream. And at ninety-nine cents a pound nothing to thumb your nose at.  And why sweat over a hot stove when a cold soup will do for lunch. Not quite the authentic version or process involving mortars and pestles, but still quick and easy and tastes divine. Makes sure your ingredients are good and fresh.

 

 

Ingredients:

2 to 3 large ripe regular tomatoes (juicy) roughly cut up (with juice and skin and all)

Peeled large English cucumber cut in large pieces

1/4 to 1/2 a large green bell pepper, seeded, ribbed and rough chopped

Half a bunch of fresh Italian parsley thoroughly rinsed

Fresh mint to taste (entirely optional) thoroughly rinsed

Half a small red onion peeled and cut up

Two large cloves of fresh garlic or to taste

About 5-15 walnuts or whole almonds or cashew nuts

1 whole dried chili (arbol or similar type)

A few glugs of half decent olive oil (about 1/4 cup or less)

Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar to taste (two tablespoons more or less)

A dash of hot sauce (Grace Hot Pepper sauce works perfectly. Or Tabasco will do)

About 1/8th teaspoon of smoked paprika  (use a good brand like La Dalia)

Salt to taste

 

This is a raw dish. It is imperative your ingredients are well rinsed. Anyway it’s a rule around here even if things get cooked.

 

First make sure to always thoroughly rinse all vegetables and herbs before prepping (and in case of onions and garlic after peeling) them. Once prepped place all vegetables in a high speed high powered blender along with the rest of the ingredients.  Go easy on the salt, vinegar and hot sauce.  (If you don’t have a high wattage blender, then get one.)  Cover and blend on low and increase speed so everything is a rough smooth liquid. If you are using a high powered blender it will take a minute or less.

Check for seasoning and consistency. The vinegar should lend a slight tang, not a salad dressing tartness. You’ll barely taste the chili and hot sauce. They’re only meant to lift up the soup and not to make it hot. If it is too thick add more cucumber and/or tomato. I like it in a milk shake consistency so you can watch football while sipping it off a straw. Or you may add just cold water if too thick. Make it good and thick. Then it’s fun to plop some ice cubes in it too. Refreshing!

You may also add a slice of day old bread (good bread, and not wonderbread please) to the vegetables when blending. Idea is the vegetables give it body and taste while the olive oil blends with the tart tomato giving it a touch of emulsification. The nuts and the bread add a fleshy ceraminess and rounds it off.

Make it as liquid or thick as you like.  This is an entire lunch in a glass with ice in it. On a hot day it’s perfect.  Or chill the soup overnight and  you may serve it in a nice bowl with or without ice. If you want to look posh drizzle some olive oil on it and sprinkle some fresh chopped flat leaf parsley. Just a little.

From the first seconds in blender to the consistency of milkshake. You don’t need to completely blend it to oblivion either.

 

So there you have it.  How you get to lazily enjoy all those ninety nine cents a pound tomatoes that are at the greengrocers and markets this summer. And no hot stoves either.

 

Renuka Mendis

Toronto, June 26, 2016

Hanami at High Park

That hussy. The brash magnolia overdressed from head to toe. Flowers on steroids. Mocking the flowerless sakura at High Park’s sakura grove. A wasteland where by now we should be able to anticipate an ocean, an universe in constellations of sakura.  That demure poetic blessing from the sky which should be evident by now in the form of pink buds all over the approximately 2,000 trees that reside there.

Toronto’s annual Hanami at High Park where non-Japanese people turn up in kimonos with wine or sake in tea flasks to picnic under magic trees to be blessed,may or may not happen. Usually a certainty but this year only a dream riven with torment. The numerous false springs that were sprung on the trees this year seem to have left the sakura throwing up their hands to say — enough! We are not flowering but will give you leaves instead.

Thus delaying or possibly cutting back greatly the numbers of the large community of sakura devotees who congregate at High Park’s sakura grove making its annual pilgrimage.  Only those who attend know its joy, its sweet pleasure where all cares are left behind in a bundle somewhere between home and long before arriving near the grove at High Park. A place where everyone is happy. Smiling. Light of heart. A kind of paradise which seems unreal.

A recent Toronto publication sacrilegiously referred to High Park’s Hanami tradition as “a gong show” which is entirely out of line. It was an ignorant insult to the participants as well as to the blossoms and their history. Each year there are many who turn up for a few hours for a very special kind of happiness. It is there for the taking like free cake on a counter. Delighted little children, lovers, old women in saris, and yes as I said, a few in kimonos and parasols. But not this year unless there is a sweet surprise waiting for us.

When I went to check on Friday evening instead of blooms the trees had mostly sprouted leaves. There were only about ten flowers and that only on one tree. One of the older trees, a favourite. Except for that there were none to be found and the pink buds which are the harbingers of sakura were nowhere to be seen except for about three or four with the blossoms which I was fortunate to find.  There were white buds on a younger tree but likely they are fooling us, they will be popping out as leaves. Not sakura.

 

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One of the two clusters of flowers that were spotted at High Park on May 6, 2016.

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And the only buds that could be found on May 6, 2016.

 

The contrast of an empty sakura grove and the magnolia in full bloom was hard to bear. I turned my back to the imposing and obvious magnolia tree. The delicate and demure sakura, that sweet wind from heaven, that joy-giver was nowhere to be seen.  May be they still might bloom in a day or two. May be not. I will return in a few days in search of blooms. And those white buds will prove they are really blooms or spread more heartbreak sprouting greenery leaving sakura devotees distraught.

I made my way home with the few blooms I saw locked away in my heart. Not the usual millions of blossoms but a number that could be counted on my two hands. I wasn’t distraught indeed I was happy to have seen just those few in perfect bloom. It is quite possible that these were the first and the last for the year give or take a few more blossoms scattered here and there and over the last few days and the days to come.

I arrived home tired and in darkness feeling rather strange. And when I opened the door there I saw a roomful of an entire ocean of sakura. My heart and my mind compensating for something that might not be, reliving the Hanami of previous years.

I brought sakura home with me to stay here where they can never leave and where they will never fade. Until I forget them after a few days and move on to some other flower or some other sweetness or loss or horror. To remembering that in the end flowers tell you about the transience of life and living things. Why it is never wise to cling to things but to always be ready to let go. And then you just might get rewarded with an apartment full of sakrua that only you can see making your heart as light as a delicate flower petal.

 

 

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Sakura in bloom at High Park last year. May 9, 2015 a few days after its prime. You will see that there are hardly any leaves.

 

 

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On May 6, 2016 the trees had no flowers but leaves. And only about ten or so flowers were seen on one tree.

 

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, May 6, 2016.

what the moon made her do

she knotted her greying hair
way high
away, far away from the pool water
blue like oceans in travel brochures
safely dry
without the bother of muddled wet
after the swim

she comes home
a bag of milk in tow for tea in the morning
forgotten about the knot up top
held down by a plastic clip
gnawing at her skull
forgotten another headache of life

hidden under a song on the radio
the promise of summer in open windows
and people fearless to come outside in fewer clothes
what is that song?
what is that thing gnawing away at my skull
she remembers
this needs dealing with

no burying under the rug
where so many bodies lie unburied under dust
that gnawing clip – unclipped
and soft hair tumbles
soft moonlight
and a thousand kisses
down her neck

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, April 20, 2016

Zuze’s debut today at Cameron House

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At 8.40p.m. we had given up hope of getting in. The room was full and we had to hope some would leave.

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Raha Javanfar is a jinn with her fiddle, quietly setting the house on fire. Fast.

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Us lucky ones. An entirely happy, spellbound and bedazzled audience.

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Say after me. Raha Javanfar.

People had been arriving since from before 8:00p.m. was what the chap at the door said and that the room was filled to capacity when I arrived to line up at 8:30p.m. While there were many yet lined up outside on Cameron Street hoping to get in with only minutes to show time; Zuze was right on time. Nine p.m. as promised. Sharp.  The room was chock full with nary a space to stand. Warm. The music began like one coming upon a gushing beautiful river in the Iranian countryside of a Mohsen Makhmalbaf film but written in afrobeat and a good shot of funk.

According to the bill the songs were popular and folk melodies of Iran and Azerbaijan. Some set to a lovely waltz tempo and when Raha Javanfar with her violin reminding one of Esperanza Spalding opened her mouth to sing as the afrobeat grabbed the room she threw an invisible ball of flame, threw it into the crowd and lit the entire audience on fire. The expectations were real and in that first half second everyone knew instinctively that this was the real deal. Music that was poetry, the words of which many in the room did not understand but which touched each and everyone in it.

The first second most on their feet started to dance and Javanfar’s violin was straight out of a Tony Gatlif film. Gypsylike yet something more. Something urbane. Though warm and robust and insistent there was a depth of feeling to the music which was never overbearing. The crowd wanted more and Zuze went on giving. It was love at first sight on a two way street. All inhibitions put aside.  Halfway through the concert it was evident a few had some joints going to supplement the beer and cocktails.

Waltzes and lullabies and more in great big strands. Beautiful coloured strands amassed and woven together morphing into a river which we’d never seen or heard of but had always known. No one feared anyone and the whole room was love for about an hour.  No inhibitions. Just joy and the music as Zuze set the room on fire. Not a hot burning kind but a grand intimate familial human connection.  People were kissing with joy, dancing, bobbing up and down just being in the music. It was so pure. I’ve been in many rooms where live music is played but never felt this sense of freedom and absolute sense of oneness with everyone around me.

I used to come close to it sometimes with certain musicians at WOMAD when it used to come to Harbourfront many many ages ago. But this was different and more original. Not from somewhere else but made right here in Toronto with Iran, Azerbaijan and its poetry threads weaving a tapestry of humanity.  The whole front room of Cameron House was one last night. Freedom.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, April 15, 2016

 

 

frocks

lilacs are the worst fuckers
just like little girls’ frocks
in organdy and mauve
so crisp so soft
robbing all intellect
lilacs
lilacs
the worst fuckers

weighing down branches
as you walk by
looking honest
they never lie say their eyes
easily grabbed at, easily robbed
for table tops
and old horlicks jars
where guppies died

they thrive
then die
why bother then to even arrive
taking over the corner
not unlike little jack horner
fooling keats and yeats types
lilacs are the worst fuckers
just frocks.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, April 5, 2016

tamarind saruwath

When high acid melds with sweet it spells only one thing – naughty!

Ask me sweet, and I’ll tell you how.

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How:

Tamarind water* (just so tart not too tart).

Simple syrup to taste (to sweeten).

Few tablespoons of soaked kasa kasa or to taste (only for texture, like in bubble tea).

Ice.

You may add a drop or three of Ceylon coconut Arrack to spike it up.  Naughty, sweet and refreshing.

 

*Soak about a walnut sized lump of moist tamarind in a glass of water. They come in rectangular packs wrapped in plastic. Not the hard type but the soft and pliable. Ideally just plop the tamarind in a jar of water, cover and leave in fridge. It mellows over a few days which removes its sharp edges.  This way in the summer it is an ideal drink to turn to, whenever you feel like one.

Shake jar. Let tamarind settle in bottom for about five to ten minutes.  Carefully strain liquid into a glass/glasses but don’t go down to the dregs. Taste so it is just singing Tamarind; not punch in your face sour tamarind.  It should be just pleasantly tart.  If it is too tart and strong dilute with fresh water.

 

 

 

unnamed – by Renuka Mendis

these mists
in gifts
they rest
on arms and legs
of trees
softer than,
a mythical kiss
more like,
rice flour
that fell
by her feet
pounding
pounding
soaked rice
for aappa.
rice flour.
on trees.
in perfect gesture.
echoing music
of paddy greens.
same grace
same white
same powder
same lines
muted silent
rice flour
on the ground.
to be missed
given in ounces
sometimes pounds
until
when daffodils arrive
like pimples —
on the ground.
 
Renuka Mendis, march 5, 2016, Toronto