In July, I was asked to read poems inspired by my neighborhood: Jamaica, Queens. I was even part of a panel, guys. WHAT!? I saw this as an opportunity for me to write about my favorite vegetarian Indian eatery (Annam Brahma), as well as my new love for cooking Indian cuisine right in the heart of home–my kitchen. The first kitchen I’ve felt the most comfortable in.
I only started to mess around with these beautiful spices once I moved here, as they are sold in my nearest market and I can smell their warmth coming from the windows of various neighbors on my block.
Love is another reason. Once I found out that Butter Chicken was Danny’s favorite, I wanted him to come home to the rich broth set to simmer on my stove. In the oven would always be a head of cauliflower that was doused in 1/2 a cup of olive oil, seasoned with turmeric, garlic powder, paprika, a generous amount of salt, roasted with slivers of jalapeño and garlic. It’s my favorite, adapted from a recipe I saw in Saveur magazine.
He made naan, of course. Not because I couldn’t. But because I’ve always loved watching him work dough. I started serving both cauliflower and naan along with my dal, with a tiny bowl of basmati rice. But sometimes I still need to head to Annam Brahma just for a bowl of their own dal, and to be surrounded by all the loving people there. Just sitting at one of their tables (I prefer the corner) feels like a much-needed hug.
I have used the spices that were a gift to Annam Brahma customers on their anniversary for ALL these dishes, and it’s mostly the spices and all the bright blue houses in Jamaica that inspired this poem. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Turmeric-light?
The names of cafés alone open you wide with hunger.
The Smile of the Beyond,
Panorama of My Silence-Heart,
Annam Brahma meaning “Food is God” meaning
not commodity meaning—
what I understand food to mean—
And if the names alone do not turn your feet into curious movement,
let’s talk about color.
Each storefront is more like
homefront and they are all painted blue, not just blue
but bright baby but
2pm sky on Parsons with sun-Up-blue.
And on 164th,
right there, between bodega and Greek Orthodox Church
the blue beyond smile.
Walk in and sit
anywhere / but always by flowers and packets of brown
sugar that say things like
“A moment’s peace
save the world.”
Pick up a totem to be kept in your wallet,
which Chinmoy may—or may not say— “I must love
the unloved ones—I must.”
You must order their Dal.
If food is God these lentils are well-seasoned turmeric-Light
where Oneness is
what’s what from the pulse?
Perhaps chopped onion, minced garlic, ginger, sautéed
with the seeds with the seeds with oh glorious round
mustard seeds and coriander rounding off the taste of
cumin and chili,
maybe a single wooden clove
in a simple vegetable broth
is that cilantro? Tomato? Jalapeno together simmered long til
wholeness takes the shape of bowl
and naan takes the shape of spoon
and mind takes the shape
It is where I go in my shut-the-fuck-up moods.
Where I went when I learned
my landlady IS trying to kill my cilantro,
I mean, why else do they bolt?
And how am I different, bolting towards blue, craving
beets so hard I
SWOONED when the day’s special was
Cream of Beet soup.
Acknowledging my excitement,
she came over,
spooned leftover juiced beet into my bowl
and her smile smiled me right into
And you and I,
we sat there for three hours,
interrupted only when she stopped to say
“It is beautiful
how you are helping each other.”
We watched Sri Chinmoy paint in the background as we sipped chai,
we spoke but we were also not speaking.
We breathed in spices that lingered in the air and
came out with hair smelling of raw Indian sugar,
curry and cumin
curry and turmeric
turmeric and coriander and wait a minute!
On an anniversary,
we were each handed a packet of such spices Thank you.
Suddenly, walking past homes marked with similar shades of blue,
you are home making Dal. Roasting
a head of cauliflower with sliced jalapeno and garlic tossed
in olive oil
their white heads draped with a glossy turmeric-light.
Your neighbor is making butter chicken.
Your landlady, a dish out of the bok choy that hung
upside down on laundry lines
air drying this morning,
And your cilantro
wilted, but waiting
After Transmutations came to a close, my loves and I went to Annam Brahma (to order their dal.) Connie told me that my poem was very Ross Gay-esque (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudes) and I broke out into smiles <3
Next day, I made dal. I made it exactly the way I made dal for the very first time. Danny said it was even better than Annam Brahmas’s, but that could’ve been because of my rich chicken broth (or because he loved me). I did, after all, use the very spices they had given me as a gift during their 42nd Anniversary. To this day I want to know where I can order the turmeric they use, as well as cumin and coriander seeds.
Do not be intimidated by all the ingredients and spices I list here. This is really a simple recipe, you just gotta have these spices around. Everything comes together in less than 10 minutes! I love love LOVE the simplicity of it. The warmth of it. It’s also very inexpensive to make.
I should add that I mostly use whole seeds and pound them to dust in my mortar and pestle. If you get them already grounded, do not purchase them from your regular supermarket. Nuh-uh. They are dull cooped up on those shelves. You can find them online if you’re having trouble locating the good stuff.
1 1/2 cup red lentils
5 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Ginger, 1 tspn or more, chopped
1 jalapeño, diced
1 tspn Cumin Seeds
1 tspn Mustard Seeds
1/2 cup onion, diced
1 tomato, diced
1 clove (fish out) or ground
1 tspn ground coriander
1/2 tspn (or more) turmeric
Pinch of cinnamon
Salt and Pepper to taste
In a pot with a little olive oil and under high heat, add mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds pop (they always pop! be careful) add your ginger, garlic, and jalapeño. After about a minute, add your onion and lightly caramelize ’em.
Now you just have to add the tomato, stock, lentils, and ALL the spices. Let it simmer, covered, for 20-30 minutes. It’ll thicken. You may add more water if it’s too thick. You can play with the spices, too. Top it with freshly chopped cilantro.
Sometimes I add chickpeas when chickpeas are around because why not.
With the temps going down soon, I’ll certainly be welcoming more spice in the kitchen, in food and in drinks. Ohhhh, Autumn! <3