Food as Current Reality: Book Bites with Malka Older

Book Bites is Cooking the Books‘ more easygoing cousin. Authors talk about their book and share a recipe, all in one tasty bite. 
Author photo book bites
Malka Older

I first met Malka by reading her work (as one does), but then we got to hang out at a restaurant off Harvard Square during Vericon last year. Now she sends me all the best squid & technology news (sometimes simultaneously!). So glad to know her, and her wonderful book INFOMOCRACY, out today from Tor.com Publishing.

Malka Older is a writer, international relief and development consultant, and PhD candidate studying governance and disaster. During her travels she has eaten deep-fried scorpion, pregnant river snake, and raw horse, and occasionally won money or chocolate based on her tolerance for capsaicin. You can find her writing at Leveler, Bengal Lights, Tor.com, Sundog Lit, Capricious, Reservoir Lit, and in the anthologies Chasing Misery and My Cruel Invention.
Today, Malka visits to talk about her novel Infomocracy, out on June 7th from Tor.com.

Infomocracy_full
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Infomocracy
is set some fifty years in the future, so food hasn’t changed that much. There are some differences. Banana-honey-peanut butter sandwiches are now an expensive delicacy, given the rarity of honey and bananas, and termites are a reasonable choice of protein to fill an enchilada. But at its heart Infomocracy is a globe-trotting adventure story, and one of the joys of global adventure has to be the food.

The food (and drink) function as locators, not just in terms of giving the reader some local color, but also helping characters who travel almost constantly root themselves in their current reality. The food gives them something to look forward to and familiarity when they return. There are manakish in Beirut, okonomiyaki in Osaka, pigeon in mirabelle sauce in Paris, a chili-infused cocktail I’m particularly fond of at a specific bar in Jakarta, thosai in Chennai, and a brunch of kumquat mimosas and runny quail eggs dripping with hollandaise in New York City. Mostly, this is food that I was jonesing as I wrote each location. (Mostly. Not the pigeon, but yes the mirabelles; not the brunch, either, although it doesn’t sound awful).

Even in that company, this description makes it clear I really miss Sri Lankan food:

He turns his attention to his plate, heaped with rice, dhal, chicken curry, slithery fried eggs, cashew curry, mutton curry, okra curry, coconut sambal, and fried pappadam. His tongue is on fire, but it’s a vibrant, deep-flavored fire. He downs half the ginger beer in the first swallow. It’s almost as spicy as the food, but the peppering of its carbonation does something to quiet the chili sting.

The following recipe is nowhere near Sri Lankan food (or I wouldn’t miss the island as badly as I do), but it does provide something vaguely reminiscent of it and also filling, nutritious, and comforting. In fact, it’s less of a recipe than a strategy for cold nights after long days. Replace the vegetables with whatever you have on hand (including appropriate meats, if you want); spice to taste.

Note: I learned to cook from my mother, partially over long-distance phone calls after I moved overseas. Her measurement units are a lot, some, and a little. For your convenience, I’ve added this key:

A lot = 2-3 vigorous shakes of the spice container
Some = 1-2 vigorous shakes of the spice container
A little = a gentle shake or tapping on the side of the spice container

Ingredients:

  • AT LEAST 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 small knob of ginger
  • 1 carrot, pealed and chopped
  • 1 small or ½ large onion, pealed and chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, chopped
  • Optional: 1 jalapeño (or preferred chili variety)
  • Optional: spinach, bokchoi, or other leafy vegetable
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil (or your preferred cooking oil. And by 1 Tsp, I mean cover the bottom of your pot.)
  • 1 cup lentils (honestly, I’m just guessing here. But you’re going to get more out than you put in.)
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Optional: cinnamon stick
  • Curry powder
  • Optional: mustard seeds
  • Optional: cumin seeds
  1. Heat oil in the pot. Crush in the garlic and the ginger (I usually put small pieces of ginger into my garlic crusher, but slicing it as thinly as you can is also fine). Add the onions, and sautée until translucent. Add the other vegetables (except for the leafy ones) and sauteé. Add a lot of cumin and curry powder, and a little cinnamon.
  2. When the vegetables are cooked, add lentils, along with water per the directions on the lentil package (different types of lentils use different amounts, from 3x to 1x. Also, check beforehand if your lentils need to be rinsed). Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add a lot of cinnamon, including a cinnamon stick if you have one, a lot of cumin, and a lot of curry, cover pot. Cook for the amount of time suggested on your lentil package, adding water if necessary (particularly if you like your lentils soupy). Feel free to repeat the spicing recommendations. If using leafy vegetables, add two to three minutes before finishing.
  3. For extra bonus spice points, in a separate frying pan heat additional oil and add cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Cook gently until they pop. If you like you can lightly sautée (without browning) some additional garlic with that too, then pour into lentils and mix just before serving.
  4. Serve with good bread generously slathered with butter.
  5. Serves two with leftovers.

Visit the whole Book Bites larder… and the Cooking the Books pantry!
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