I don’t expect anything in return for making my friends dinner, however, because I’m pathologically curious and have a robot brain, I have a 20-item questionnaire on file that I’ve been meaning to try out in the right situation. Don’t judge. Our guests this week, Wendy Park and Billy Gottlieb, were kind enough to indulge me by filling it out. Well, Wendy was kind enough, and Billy and Rodney groaned through the whole thing, but they were a captive audience, and I held back dessert until the questions were done.
We found out that Billy thinks he’s a “complete asshole” (he is not), that if Wendy started a cult it would revolve around good hygiene, and that Rodney disagreed, but would not specify, when I said my most annoying trait is leaving dirty cups around the house. “Who you would trade lives with for a week?” was mostly predictable. Billy, a music supervisor, said Keith Richards. Wendy said Obama. Rodney said Bill Clinton, and I obviously said our son, because his life is great. He gets to eat five meals a day, and wear only elastic waistbands, and go to bed at 7. He gets his own seat on planes, which is sooooo much space when you’re 32 inches tall, but not as much space as the entire rest of the plane, which is much more interesting to him than the giant seats we pay for. I digress.
When I factor in the diaper-wearing, though, I know that the only other person I’ve ever wanted to be is my younger brother, Punit. I was the kind of kid who thought my teachers were my best friends, who found any noise above a whisper “chaotic,” who glared people away with a frozen sourpuss. Punit was the kind of kid who could enter a room, smile warmly in a corner for five minutes, and when he left, everyone would beam and say “Isn’t he the greatest?” I’m 100% biased, but every memory of him is of a cheerful sweetheart who made our lives better. He made me laugh. He calmed me down when I felt crazy, which was always. And even though he was five years younger, he taught me so much about human nature, and the world, because I was born an insensitive weirdo with a quick temper, and he was an angel.
Punit and I grew up on an expat compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was a mostly uneventful upbringing, interrupted by the excitement of the Gulf War. Punit was 5, I was 10 and the only person in my family at all worried about the war, which my mother dismissed as “a fake one,” either to make us feel better or because she really believed it. My parents were born into messy post-partition Kashmir, and had grown up with perhaps too much perspective. They prepped emergency supplies like they were stocking a last-minute picnic basket; a haphazard box in the pantry contained a tin of pâte, Japanese shrimp snacks, and Yan-Yan chocolate-dipping cookies.
The first night of sirens, I ran across the hall and launched myself into my parents’ bed, dramatically shouting “But I was going to be a doctor!” They remained half asleep. “Don’t worry,” mumbled Mum, pulling me under the covers. “We’re not going to die tonight.” Punit padded in and wordlessly joined our pile. Things exploded in mid-air, the house shook, we all survived, and I went to school the next day, where the only difference was that our periodic fire drills became air raid drills.
Saddam bombed on a predictable schedule, and Punit and I took comfort in our nightly air raid routine. As it neared three in the morning and the alarms wailed, we’d hold hands to keep from falling down our slippery marble staircase, eyes squeezed shut so that we wouldn’t wake up too much, and felt our way downstairs. We brushed through a forest of plastic ferns in the foyer, our Bedouin-chic McMansion furnished, like most expat housing, like a Price is Right showroom.
Punit’s playroom under the stairs was our makeshift bunker, where we strapped on our gas masks and lay cheek-down on the shag, staring at each other through foggy eyeholes while we waited two to four hours for the windows to stop rattling. Punit’s mask was vastly superior to mine because he was born in London, and a British citizen. Glossy, black, and snug, with a sleek bulbous tank filter. He looked like an adorable insect, his curls fluffing around the sides. The rest of our masks were olive drab, one-size-fits-most gas masks from the Indian embassy, drooping with an angular, bulky filter which looked like a giant can of tuna:
After a week of dozing off in class, Punit rubbed his eyes one evening, exhausted, and asked if we could just drag our mattresses downstairs so we didn’t have to do the stairs every night. Staggered by his genius, I hurried to make it so. The next night, he suggested we put our masks on before we went to sleep so we wouldn’t even have to deal with that, and thus we attained peak wartime efficiency. The only drawback to his plan was being awoken by my mother’s shriek that first night, when she opened the door to the playroom and found her beloved offspring sprawled across the ground, heads encased in molded rubber, ostensibly unconscious.
We spent eight years in Riyadh, and Middle Eastern is as much a go-to cuisine for us as Indian, but I can only turn to Ottolenghi so many times before everything starts to taste the same. After a delicious meal at the Israeli-ish restaurant Balaboosta in New York, I ordered the cookbook and was happy to open it, three years later.
Starter: Zucchini Patties with Harissa Yogurt
I’m scared of frying anything, but my love for squash trumps my fear of hot oil, and I’m so glad it did. I made enough for eight people, and the four of us gobbled it all up.
More Asian than Middle Eastern, but a nice complement to our meal. The easiest and best fish dish of all time! 20 minutes from prep to eat. As I was cooking, Wendy referred to tilapia as a garbage fish for people who don’t know any better, but I quietly served it anyway, and she loved it. Even better if you take the fish out when it’s done, let the sauce reduce by half, and pour it back on. Serve with S’chug (see below).
Make a vat of this hot sauce and put it on everything you eat forever. It’s the tastiest spread since the invention of Jif extra crunchy peanut butter. I used parsley instead of cilantro, because cilantro can be so polarizing, and this sauce is now a fridge staple I’ve used in eggs, soups, sandwiches, anything edible really. I even tried to use it in a cocktail, but forgot it has garlic in it. The result might be a delicious marinade for pork, TBD.
Thanks to visionary chef Einat Admony, I have finally conquered my fear of sweets. If you ever want to witness pure joy, tell any group of humans that dessert is going to be homemade Kit Kats. The ratio of cooking time to gustatory delight feels like cheating. I’m keeping this one in my back pocket for surprise guests, although we’ll see if the Nutella in our kitchen lasts, now that Rodney’s found it.
This meal was the best one we’ve had yet, not only because of the food, but the childhood memories, thanks to one extremely thorough questionnaire. My brother is in grad school in England for the next year, and even though I remind myself daily to leave him alone, that he’s only gone for a year, I miss him always. I had been so stoic the week before he left, and then burst into tears in my car on the eve of his departure. I called him, sniffling, and he comforted me, saying “I was just your practice baby, but you have a real one now.” In one sentence he made me laugh, he made me feel better, and he gave me perspective. Because that guy is just the greatest.
Next up: The Heideckers, Kneebones, and The Adobo Road Cookbook.