The Dinner Party

This is a story that really happened; it may not have happened as I remember it, exactly, but nothing ever does, does it? So there's your caveat lictor.

When I arrived in my village a few years ago, some very nice people invited me around for dinner to introduce me to some other very nice people. I can honestly say, sadly, that other than my hosts and one other person at the dinner, I do not remember who else was there.

This may be because I actually have a terrible memory for dinner parties. I was once introduced to someone who I believed I'd never met; he was incensed, and responded to my enthusiasm at meeting him for the first time, "But Aruna, you had me to your house for dinner!" "Oh!," said I, horrified, but not remembering. "In Paris!," he said, wanting to prompt my recollection. "Oh!" said I, still horrified, but still not remembering. "SEVERAL TIMES," he (almost) screamed.

The person who had the misfortune of having (re)introduced us probably felt a bit awkward at this point. I suppose I should have pretended I knew the guy -- it's what you do, I'm told, to be polite --- but when I heard him mispronounce my name I thought it would be more fun not to. I mean, the guy comes over to my house several times for dinner and can't pronounce my name right? Gawd.

As I say: my memory is partial. But not necessarily mistaken.

So, this particular dinner party: there was a woman there who had a quite regal air, and was treated as a very special person by everyone at the table -- people were deferent, and laughed a bit emphatically at her stories and bon mots.

I, on the other hand, was a curiosity. Fresh meat, as it were, in a very small place, a single mom, a brown person, a person not at all comfortable with the sort of Yankee WASPish culture of the place, a fish out of water in a town where everybody knows your name and your business. I have this strange bad habit of assuming I am invisible -- that I am only seen when I make myself visible -- which is a perfectly fine mania when you live in New York City. That city operates on the fiction of mutual anonymity: it's why no one bothers putting up curtains -- it's not that I couldn't see the naked man across the street from me, it's that there exists a social contract that says that even if I did ever happen to bump into him, I would pretend I hadn't. But it's not such a convenient fantasy -- this fantasy of invisibility -- when you live in a town with one coffee shop, one grocery store, and one movie theatre.

At one point, conversation around the table turned to the fact that it was going to be very hard for me to find a man in this part of the world. The local men were all married or spoken for, I was told. I took that as a warning as much as a statement of fact. It was okay, I said -- I wasn't looking.

I think it was between the second and third courses -- our host was a very good cook, and he made us many small courses of local things all beautifully presented -- that the regal woman said that she wanted to tell us a story. She was clearly troubled by this story -- it weighed heavily on her, and she took pains to let us know how traumatized she was even to think about it. It was, she said, the one time she experienced outright anti-Semitism in this part of the world. She was actually scared for herself and her family.

This was the story she told, as it is lodged in what we have established is my already somewhat constipated memory.

"We live in a house that's at the end of a driveway that runs off a country road. One day, as I was taking groceries out of my car, a man jogged by on the country road. He slowed down at the end of my driveway, and then stopped. And then" -- and here her eyes widened and her face contracted, as if she was both dying to say it and appalled at having to have the words come out of her mouth -- "and then, he pulled down his pants, and DEFECATED ON THE ROAD, RIGHT AT THE END OF MY DRIVEWAY."

At this point, everyone became silent. Forks stopped dead in front of mouths, held in paralyzed hands. Faces stiffened, muscles drawn tight by brains temporarily frozen trying to compute the proper response. Stifled noises could have been giggles, or grunts of dismay, or maybe involuntary expressions of disgust. 

She continued: "And I couldn't believe my eyes. I just stood there, I couldn't move. After he finished, he pulled up his pants and continued jogging down the road. I called my husband" -- her husband, who was sitting beside her, stayed silent -- "and he said there was nothing to worry about. Just the call of nature." 

"But then the next day -- it happened again. And again. For about a week, every day, the same man would come to the road at the end of my driveway, squat, and take a shit."

By this point, any reflex control on the guests' part had vanished, and we were laughing raucously, not believing what we were hearing. And then our host asked the crucial question. "But you said this was anti-Semitic. How do you figure?"

Our storyteller's face turned serious -- grave, even. "The man. He was Arab looking."

"Arab looking?" Laughs -- all around, not just mine -- became a bit uncomfortable. Eyebrows were raised, perceptibly and im-.

"Yes, he was tall, and he had olive skin and dark, slightly curly hair, and he was very fit, and quite handsome, and he looked... Arab."


And here is the kicker: at this point, the storyteller and all the guests turned in their seats. To look at me. Stare at me, really. Clearly all thinking the same thought. At first, I couldn't figure out what, exactly, the thought was. Were they imagining that I was actually this Arab man in disguise -- how many brown people live in my town, after all?

And then the even more horrible realization came to me:

"Wait... You're not suggesting that I should DATE him?" 

Everyone burst out in laughter, but it wasn't because I had made a joke -- it's because I caught them out. 

Unfortunately, or luckily, my outburst prevented the conversation from going any further -- or maybe it was the arrival of the next course that diverted us, I'm not sure. We didn't, for example, delve into the question of why an Arab defecating on the road would have been an anti-Semitic gesture, necessarily, or how she could describe the man so vividly even though he was doing his deed at the end of a very long driveway, or why, when she called the police, finally, they didn't find any evidence of anything, or why the terrorist potty-breaks stopped immediately afterwards. 

Dinner was excellent, though. I remember leaving hungry.

Rogan Josh
Serves 6

Ancho chili, before and after.
Rogan josh is a specialty from Kashmir that has traveled the world -- a red, aromatic lamb or mutton (goat) curry that's now a standard on Indian menus all over the world. It's said to be a Persian dish that the Mughals brought with them when they occupied India, and the words that make up its name (rogan = ghee or fat, and josh = heat, both temperature and passion) will give you a sense of its richness. It's not a hot dish, but it is flavored with the heat-producing spices in the Indian repertoire, which make sense given the Kashmiri chill. It warms your stomach. It's traditionally served with steamed white basmati rice. If I were to make it for a dinner party, I would serve a dal and a vegetable dish alongside -- the rogan josh gravy is so intense that one eats it in relatively small portions.

This is one of those dishes that looks intimidating because of the list of ingredients, but once you have your mis-en-place done, is quite easy. It's also the first time I've ever used ghee. Don't tell my parents. The red color of rogan josh comes from a tree bark that is considered, even among Indian cooks, a quite esoteric ingredient. Most substitute Kashmiri chili, which is a mild, dried red chili, for the tree bark; I've used a combination of ancho chili (which provides an almost chocolately smokiness) and Hungarian sweet paprika. I made this version with goat meat, because I had some on hand, but I think lamb is preferable because its stronger flavor holds up well with the spices. I don't normally like Greek yogurt, but for adding to curries I make an exception -- it is highly unlikely to separate, which is a plus.

The "bhuna" process -- it's all about developing
flavor by frying the spices in oil.
3 lbs bone-in lamb (lamb shoulder, lamb shoulder chops, lamb neck would all work) or goat meat, cut into 2" pieces and patted dry
1 dried Ancho chili
1 tsp fennel seeds
1.5 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp mace powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
2 tsp kosher salt
6 cloves garlic, pressed through a garlic press or grated on a microplane
3 TB ghee or canola oil
2 black cardamom
4 green cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
4 cloves
1.5 c chopped shallots
2/3 c plain Greek yogurt

1. Break the ancho chili and shake out the seeds; tear up the chili into pieces. In a spice grinder (aka a coffee grinder that you've dedicated to spices), grind the chili pieces until you have a fine powder. Put two teaspoons of this powder into a small bowl; reserve the rest for another use. (If you're smart, you'll add it to the next chili con carne you make.)

2. In the same spice grinder, grind the fennel seeds to a powder. Add this to your bowl. Now add the next 6 ingredients, along with the pressed or grated garlic to the bowl. Here's your spice mix.

3. In a heavy pot (I use my Le Creuset Dutch oven here), heat the ghee or canola oil over medium-high heat. To the hot fat, add the whole spices (cardamoms, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves). When these have started to sizzle, add the shallots and sauté over medium heat until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Adjust the heat so the shallots brown, but don't burn.

4. Now add the spice mix from step two. Stir for 30 second or so, until the spices are well incorporated with the fat and the shallots. Turn the heat to medium-high, and add the meat, stirring to coat well with the spice and shallot mix. Now you will bhuna the meat -- sauté it with the spices to develop the flavor -- for about 3 or 4 minutes, in order to toast the spices and allow the meat to brown. Do not mix incessantly -- mix and let everything come into contact with the pan for a few seconds, then mix again. There should be enough fat in the pan that the spices shouldn't stick and burn; if this seems a danger, add a few tablespoons of water and sauté until the water evaporates.

5. Turn the heat back to medium. In a small bowl whip the yogurt with a fork until lightened and creamy (just 30 seconds or so). Dump the yogurt in the pot, and start combining it with the lamb and spices. Allow this to cook, mixing regularly, for a few minutes or until the yogurt is "absorbed" into the mélange -- it will seem thickened and you'll see some oil separating.

6. Add 3 cups hot water to the pot, turn the heat to medium-low, and partially cover the pot (leave the cover open a crack). Allow the curry to simmer for about 1.5 hrs, or until the lamb is very tender. Adjust for salt.

As with most curries, this one will taste best after it's sat for some time. You can serve it immediately to great effect, or you can let it come to room temperature -- and even refrigerate it overnight -- before reheating and serving.


Anonymous said…
Agree about Greek yogurt, on both counts: don't usually like it but it's the way to go for these kinds of purposes. I used it for my infamous chicken w/Aleppo pepper marinade.
Unknown said…
Maybe the turned faces to you meant that they were hoping you would be the one to call her out on her anti-Arab stereotyping? That description fits lots of Italians, Turks, Spaniards, Mexicans…sigh.
It could be, Pamela, I suppose -- but there's something equally strange about waiting for the one non-white person at the table to be the one to speak out against racism, you know?
Anonymous said…
Wow, you are a phenomenal writer. I can't get enough of the blog. - Chitra
Unknown said…
Interesting beginning! Thanks for sharing the recipe here. I will try to put this to use in a friend’s birthday party. He’s a big foodie and we’re celebrating in one of the best event venues Chicago has. I’ll just try this at home first!