Spicing up the mid-winter blahs without spending a fortune on plane fares to exotic locales or other expensive forms of self-medication is something my husband and I specialize in this time of year.
We both love to travel and, mercifully, we both love to cook. So what with the holidays over, meaning no time off and no money, one of our favourite things to do is cook up something exotic.
Even the small act of digging through Linette Creen's A Taste of Cuba for the best recipe ever for Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians or, in straight talk, black beans and white rice) or the beat-up Better Homes and Gardens' Mexican Cook Book (circa 1977) from my years in San Diego and subsequent addiction to good Mexican food triggers 1,001 memories and sets up some good vibes.
But my all-time favourite for global cooking trips is New Internationalist's Vegetarian Main Dishes from Around the World. I'm not a vegetarian but this little baby — and it is a baby measuring a mere 4.5 by 5.5 inches — consolidates super-inexpensive, super-delicious recipes from all over the world.
Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Thailand, Nepal, India, Thailand, Haiti and more are represented in authentic local dishes a good street vendor on the ground would deliver. Most of the recipes centre on beans.
Beans, legumes, pulses. What would the world do without them? In fact, it seems like the whole world, both in time and space, have relied on them in one form or another.
Scientists have found clear evidence that beans, lentils and chick peas (or garbanzo beans) were gathered in the wild in Central America, the Near East and parts of Europe since prehistoric, pre-agricultural times, 8,000, 9,000, 10,000 BCE.
Wild ancestors of runner beans provided food for the peoples around Tamaulipas on the extreme north east coast of Mexico — Olmecs, Chichimecs, Huastecs — for thousands of years. Evidence of what were likely cultivated beans has been found in ancient caves in Thailand. Then we have the many soy bean dishes and the fermented black bean pastes of the peoples of China going back thousands of years; likewise the lentils and dals of India.
Sumerians depended on lentils, chick peas and beans. And raw beans, says Reay Tannahill in her endlessly fascinating Food in History, were a mainstay of the lower classes that could be had from the grimy cook stalls in ancient Rome. (Take-out food was more popular then than it is today.)
Something else that we can thank the Romans for, says Tanahill, is a concept that's unfortunately stuck with us to this day: if something, anything, but especially food is rare or expensive it's got to be good. Even if it isn't.