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"Pack your guitar, your swimsuit and maybe a book...anything that helps you relax," I told the Urban Farmer. It was time for Experience #2 in my series of Surprise Anniversary Adventures! …
Wanderlust can be an excuse sometimes. In dreaming of distant adventures, foreign tongues and exotic foods, it can be all too easy to overlook the finer details of what’s close to home. In lamenting a lacking budget, it can be all too easy to feel lost in day-to-day routines and to visit the same old haunts. I’ve been guilty of this. Life is full of trade-offs, and when I took some creative leaps and financial risks, my passport began to collect dust, and I began to collect excuses.
My rootedness made my head spin, questioning if I were on the right path, if there were a light at the end of this tunnel, etc (i.e.: I should probably just take a yoga class and exhale these anxieties away). But wanderlust doesn’t come with a mileage requirement. I had failed to plan. I had failed to explore. I had failed to wander within my means, so I decided to cut through my own bullshit. Luckily, I had friends right there with me.
I tried to approach my city and my region like a complete outsider, and like a clipboard-toting cruise director, I made a list, with headers, bullet points and links. I tried to recall all the “Oh! What’s that? We should go there!” moments and let Google fill in the gaps. One such place to make the list was the Sri Venkateswara Temple.
Perched atop a hill, this Hindu temple is visible from a busy Pittsburgh highway, but no matter how many times I’ve traveled that route, the temple has always shocked me. It was as if my eyes were playing tricks on me, as if an acre of India had somehow dropped onto available real estate in Western Pennsylvania. I had traveled past the temple so many times, it was high time to explore it!
With very little understanding of the visiting procedures, we made our way to the beacon of white, and much like the observation required of traveling abroad, we had to look, listen and imitate so as not to offend or overstep our boundaries. Photography isn’t permitted inside the temple, so I had to look and listen all the more.
When I stepped into the temple, the coolness of the floor hit my bare feet, the bright white of all the details radiated light, and I felt this immediate calm. Guided by the layout, we unknowingly performed the ritual circumambulation. The priests’ chants formed a relaxing background as we watched the rituals unfold. My friends and I sat close to one another, silently appreciating the sacredness all around us, and then we worked up the nerve to join an Archana in a shrine.
The priest walked with a lit flame on a silver lantern/urn of sorts, and we cupped the smoke toward our faces, followed by a turmeric-dyed water and another silver urn placed quickly and gently on our heads. We didn’t understand the significance, as the ritual all happened in what I assume was Hindi, but the process was very humbling and quieting.
Walking through the temple and joining the rituals made us appreciate the more philosophical elements of religion and the more universal messages- clear your mind, clear your heart, humble yourself, be present, be the light. I recalled a similar feeling when I sat in a Parisian Catholic church to escape the rain. I spoke French well enough to understand the priest, but if I let my mind drift, the verses were simply beautiful sounds strung together. There was something about the architecture and the ritual that combined to stir my emotions in a profound way. Some might attribute that feeling to a deity, but I prefer to linger in the agnostic and cull together the attributes that touch me the most.
With a new level of calm, we departed, found a park and enjoyed an Indian inspired picnic.
I often explore the way a journey inspires a recipe, but this day-trip and picnic were an example of a recipe inspiring a journey. I had received a packet of Rose & Chai spices in my RawSpiceBar subscription, which arrives like a souvenir, with stories, recipes and even a patterned paper from the spice’s land of origin. Receiving the package in the mail feels like a ritual unto itself, so I wanted to share the food in a special way as well. Knowing I was going to bake these Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookies was the impetus for visiting the temple at long last.
I might never have thought to have an Indian inspired picnic if it weren’t for my little elephant chai cookies, but the menu turned out to be perfect picnic food so much so we coined the term piknir.
Nina packed several traditional Indian dishes in her authentic, stackable Indian lunch tin and paired them with a few varieties of naan. Kara provided the iced chai and fresh mango. Didi provided chutneys and the mint & fennel combination Indian restaurants serve after a meal. I added the chai cookies and a curry roasted sweet potato salad.
In a tribute to the spiritual calm we felt from the temple, we made our own picnic basket shrine to Ganesha, complete with the bananas we received after completing the Archana. Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, so we shared our individual obstacles. These topics may never have emerged on a typical picnic, but sharing these vulnerabilities was really comforting and inspiring. We were able to hear each other, to relate, and to boost each other as well, and that may never have happened if it weren’t for a cookie recipe!
Here’s to cutting through our bullshit. Here’s to exploring. Here’s to observing. Here’s to gleaning the philosophies that make us better beings, and here’s to cookie inspired journeys!
Curry Roasted Potato Salad for an Indian Inspired Picnic
About This Recipe: Be loose with this recipe! It should come together fluidly, tasting as you go and trusting your spice instincts. The addition of greens means you take in more veggies than a traditional picnic potato salad. I suggest kale or a heartier green for texture. I added hemp hearts for a slight crunch. They’re available at Trader Joe’s, but if you can’t find them, you can substitute flax or the chopped nut of your choice. I spiced my version heavily with turmeric, which adds a mild, warm, peppery flavor but a bright color and a variety of health benefits.
There is the French bakery, and then there is the French boulangerie with reflections of the Tour Eiffel in the display cases. There are tapas, and then there are tapas amidst a mob of fútbol fans. There are empanadas, and then there are empanadas made by the madres who fought for their sons’ freedom from government corruption. There are cachacas, and then there are sweet, refreshing cachaças after taking in the views of sugar loaves and an omipotent redeemer.
There are chai lattes, and then there are chais from earnest workers in slums, where school girls gather to practice their English and request their photos. The blurred lines of the globe fill us with glimpses and tastes, teasing and toying with the wanderlust stirring inside those of us who feel its tug. These foods and their customs, the way they lead us to expand ourselves and later revel in nostalgia, these are the connections I explore through mixing bowls, whisks and spices.
Spices…the colors, the textures, the scents…transport us, to places we have been and to places we have only imagined. The sealed, glass jar of turmeric at the grocery store pales in comparison to the freshly ground, bright sunflower gold of the turmeric of the market stall. The way the spices blend and transform onions, garlic, ginger and greens becomes a vehicle, and we go on a sensory journey. Proper spices are a powerful tool.
No matter how organized a trip may be, a traveler must always leave room for the unexpected, the serendipitous discoveries- the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the unlisted gallery, the street performer who strums better than the famed. RawSpiceBar channels surprises, journeys and flavors in one great idea: a monthly spice subscription consisting of three, global, authentic, freshly ground spice mixtures, from top chefs, along with recipes for their use.
It’s an idea I wish I had conceived myself. The monthly spice package unwraps like a friend returning from a trip abroad, regaling you with souvenirs and stories, complete with a layer of patterned paper representative of that region. My first spice package revealed glimpses of Punjabi India.
As I learned, traveling to India is a foodie’s contradiction- the most authentic recipes, and pungent plates await at the street level, but avoiding Delhi Belly requires keeping a safe distance. Most of my food associations entail an extreme consciousness of what I ate and drank, but despite the precautions, there were still plenty of immersive moments like sipping authentic chai tea and riding a beautifully adorned Indian elephant.
As a baker, I was drawn to the Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookie recipe. I used the cookies as a way to revisit my trip to India, through intense spices and elephant shapes. India is a trip I have yet to fully process in my head or organize photographically. There are still folders and folders of images waiting to be sorted and experiences to be recalled. In more ways than one, the spice package sent me wandering.
These cookies became an afternoon shared with friends, exploring the exotic that exists close to home and finding inspiration in the distant. More on that to come!
Whole Grain Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookies featuring RawSpiceBar
About This Recipe: RawSpiceBar updated this centuries-old Indian shortbreads cookies recipe by adding freshly ground rose buds & chai spices, yielding a peppery, sweet cookie that pairs perfectly with milky tea or coffee. Nankhatai comes from the Persian word “nan” (meaning bread) and the Afghan word “khatai” (meaning biscuit). These little shortbread cookies are said to have originated in Surat in the 16th century, when the Dutch were prominent spice trading partners with the Indians. An Iranian man ran a European style bakery here but, once the Dutch explorers left, had to adapt to low-cost sweet treats for locals. Traditional North Indian Nankhatai do not use any leavening agents but these days a small amount of baking powder and salt is added to give these cookies a lighter feel.
p.s: I received product from RawSpiceBar, but all opinions are my own!