Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bengali Cooking

Some people think that Muslims don’t have a sense of humor. But nothing makes my Muslim friends laugh more than my appreciation of the Holy Month of Ramadan.

No, I am not a Muslim. I was raised Catholic. But I love Ramadan.

For those of you not familiar with Ramadan, it basically involves a month of prayers and fasting. And the fasting is pretty intense---no eating, drinking, smoking or sex from sunrise to sundown. It is all about personal discipline, obedience and being a good Muslim.

For me, it’s all about delicious Indian food.

You see, I work with quite a few Muslims. Most of them from Bangladesh. And all of them very nice and generous with their nightly feast---a community meal fondly referred to as Iftar. All of them are men. And all of them have wonderful mothers and/or wives who spend all day in the kitchen preparing glorious curried dishes that their husbands and/or sons pack up in Tupperware and bring into work to eat at the breaking of the fast. This year, Ramadan started around 7:00pm New York City time.

A few minutes before the appointed hour, the smell of curry and spice wafts out of the microwave and thru the kitchen of our otherwise American-themed restaurant. All of the Muslims working that night begin to scurry around the kitchen---opening Tupperware containers, setting the table, and chopping vegetables for the salad---the Middle Eastern version that involves no lettuce, but lots of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and the dressing a mixture of freshly squeezed lemon and spices. While this nightly ritual goes on, they begin to call the Iftar to my attention. Because somehow, I have become a part of their Ramadan.

My Ramadan feasting began a few years ago. One of the bus boys was eating his Ramadan feast alone in the kitchen. I made an innocent comment about the Indian food looking tasty, and next thing I knew, I had a huge plate of rice, goat meat, bread and some sort of coconut dessert in front of me. Sure, I’d eaten Indian food plenty of times before. But this was different. This was the equivalent of somebody’s Mom’s pot roast. It was amazing.

Last year, I noticed plates of Indian food suddenly beginning to appear before me.

“Is it Ramadan?” I asked with glee.

“Yes,” one of the bus boys replied, “Enjoy.”

Enjoy I did. Thank you Allah.

Of course, the Catholic guilt immediately began to creep thru. After all, they’ve been fasting all day. They haven’t even had a sip of water. And here I am eating their dinner. Don’t think I didn’t try to refuse. I’m nothing if not polite. But the Bengali’s explained to me that Allah gave them extra blessings for sharing their food. And there sure was a lot of rice and chicken curry. Well, okay. Twist my arm.

This year, I was immediately included in their Ramadan feast. There was always an extra plate and an extra chair. And all of my little Muslim boys immediately called me over to join in their feast. They know there’s no hope of converting me. They’ve heard me spout too much feminist propaganda to even try. And there’s no talk of Allah or The Koran. Only a discussion of how wonderful the food is. How delicious the feast. They do take the time to explain all the dishes and how they’re prepared. They also answer my questions about the holiday and the particular peppers used in the chick peas. And, for a few moments every night, I’m eating in the best Indian restaurant in town.

For those of you in parts of the country without a significant Muslim population, may I say---I feel sorry for you. I really do. The stereo-typical view of the Muslim as serious and brooding, is not what I know. In fact, I’ve never seen grown men giggle as much as these fellas do. Seriously. Giggle. My friend Kabir has the cutest laugh you’ve ever heard. And he giggles at virtually everything. If anyone ever pulled him aside at an airport, he’d probably start giggling. They wouldn’t know if he was an uncomfortable terrorist or just ticklish.

They all laugh constantly. Maybe it’s because they’re from Bangladesh. It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia over there. But here they are, fasting all day, and it’s 6:30 and they’re starving and they’re laughing their asses off watching me trying to interpret the Ramadan calendar---a chart listing all the dates and local times for each part of the fast.

“So, Iftar is the meal---and after that it says it’s time for Isha. What’s Isha? Dessert?”

Oh, how they laughed. Apparently, Isha is more prayers. They found this extremely amusing.

So this year, for Christmas, one of my managers gave me a copy of a book called “Bengali Cooking”. And, once again, the Bengalis laughed. Though they certainly don’t doubt my cooking abilities. A few times, during Ramadan, I even brought in a few dishes of my own. Of course, the meat thing’s a little difficult. Especially during Ramadan---it really should be halal. But I haven’t the slightest idea where one goes to buy halal meat. Instead, I opted for vegetarian dishes. I made one with couscous, zucchini and an apricot chutney that went over well. They also enjoyed my spicy green beans. And coconut macaroons are always a hit. After all, blessings from Allah or not---I just didn’t feel right eating all their delicious food.

And it’s amazing! I told the Bengalis that if they opened up a restaurant and sold this food---they would make a million dollars. It’s really that good. My favorite dish is the chick peas. The Bengali chick peas are slightly different from your standard garbanzo beans. They’re darker in color and about a third of the size. They even wrote the recipe down for me. It’s so simple. A little onion, a little pepper and some spices. Mmmm. I could eat it everyday. And all the curried rice and the thin breads that seem to be practically fried in something resembling a flavored lard---yeah, I know, lard doesn’t sound appetizing, but just think what it does to a pie crust.

At work tonight, I began skimming thru the Bengali cookbook---which is more than just a cookbook, but also a history of the country and its dishes. The author immediately explains that Bengali cooking is never really found in restaurants---why? Because, for Bengalis, it’s considered simple fare. It’s the sort of thing that is best served in the home. Something that involves love and care. Not the slapdash way food is generally prepared in restaurants. It needs time. And, according to the author, Chitrita Banerji, even restaurants in West Bengal and Bangladesh generally serve your standard Northern Indian dishes.

Bengali food, she explains, “…is not easy to reproduce on a mass scale, nor does it maintain its nuanced flavors after repeated heating or long hours in storage.” She also party blames the Bengalis themselves, for not realizing that the simplest dishes, tried and perfected over centuries, are suitable for more than just their daily meals. According to Ms. Banerji, they would never dream of serving their simple meals to guests---whether in their home or in a restaurant. It just wouldn’t be fancy enough.

As I skimmed thru the book tonight, I began asking questions. They were particularly helpful when it came to the hilsa---a fish. They were all eager to remind me that hilsa is The National Fish. If you mention hilsa, this is the first thing they will all say, “It is our National Fish!” This seems to be something they are extremely proud of---their National Fish. I’ve heard of the phrase “National Dish”, but never “National Fish”. If other countries have a National Fish, I don’t think any of them are as proud of their fish as the people of Bangladesh.

I hear about this damn fish all the time. In fact, I actually tried the National Fish this past Ramadan. It was good. It was fish---what can I say? It did have a lot of tiny bones you have to be careful to pick out---a fact they reminded me of this evening, should I attempt to cook their National Fish.

Frankly, I have no more idea where to get the National Fish than I have of where to pick up a case of halal meat. But I suppose I could give it a try.

“But be very careful,” they warned. “You have to cook the fish. Not like in American where you don’t cook the fish all the way. You must cook this fish properly, or it will make you sick.”

Maybe I’ll stick with the chick peas for a while. But I will definitely be making a trip to the Indian groceries in Jackson Heights soon.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Rats, Pt. 2

Yes, once again, we have rats in our restaurant.

For awhile, they appeared to be gone. At first, no one believed the General Manager’s pronouncement that we were now “rat-free”---perhaps because he’d made the announcement at least seven times before. In fact, no sooner would he announce a “rat-free zone” than one would scurry out from under the prep area. He was the manager who cried “No Wolf”.

However, after two weeks of not even a telltale sign, everyone on staff seemed satisfied that we were indeed “rat-free”. Yes, there had been causalities---although no one but me seemed to feel bad for the little guys. But mostly it was the sheet metal that seemed to do the trick. Lots and lots of sheet metal. One wall in the basement was entirely covered in sheet metal. Extra boards were nailed onto baseboards, holes were plugged up with everything from steel wool to a spray-foam, and every nest was cleaned out, boarded up and shut down for rat business.

Personally, I spent several hours online looking for ways to get rid of the rats without harming them. I even went so far as to spend twenty dollars on bobcat urine. Yes, dried, crystallized, bobcat urine. The online testimonials were fantastic. Apparently, the rats smell the bobcat urine, sense that there’s a large predator nearby, and quickly leave the area. My manager looked at me funny when I walked into work with a jar of bobcat urine, but agreed to give it a try. However, it seems that New York City rats have not seen a bobcat in about 200 generations. I might as well have sprinkled dinosaur urine around the place.
Around Halloween, we joked about getting an owl. We could just put it on a pedestal and if customers asked why there was an owl in the dining room, we could just say it was a Halloween decoration. The General Manager laughed a bit, but he seemed to be getting sick of hearing about the rats. In fact, we all sensed that he possibly wanted to do some firing. However, when you have rats, it’s kind of difficult to fire your staff. You just know the first place they’re calling is the City Board of Health.

But sometime, shortly after Halloween, the rats suddenly disappeared.

I have to say, I kind of missed the little guys. Well, not really. But the place did seem kind of empty without the rats. They’d kind of become a part of our day. Something to take the monotony out of restaurant life. Oh, we all had so many rat stories to reminisce about: The time one of the rats dropped from the ceiling and landed on the manager. Then there was the time one of the cooks came in in the morning and a rat was sleeping on top of a bin of dried mashed potatoes. Then there was the time one of the rats was still awake in the morning and the cook came in and saw the rat just walking around the kitchen. The rat saw him, then kind of looked like he went, “Oh geez, is it eight o’clock already? Ooops. Time to go to bed.” And then just casually sauntered off with a little wobble like Fred Sanford.

No matter what we did, the rats just kept coming. We seriously began to wonder if every week, someone wasn’t dropping off a bag o’ rats. In fact, Bag O’ Rats quickly became our favorite catch phrase.

Oh, we have dozens of rat stories. One of my personal favorites was the time a rat ran into the dining room during the dinner rush. We saw it, but none of the customers seemed to notice. I motioned to our manager, letting him know there was a rat in the dining room.


“Right there----under table 28.”

Luckily, I’d learned how to think like a rat. “Look,” I explained, “the rat has a nest downstairs and he’s just trying to get back to his nest. If we open the basement door, the rat will try to run against the wall and sneak downstairs.”

“But there are people sitting at the tables against that wall.”

“The rat will run against the wall and unless he screws up and runs across their feet, we should be okay.”

He quickly ran over and casually opened the basement door. Then we waited. A few moments later we watched the rat slowly make his way underneath the tables where people were obliviously having dinner. Ladies in expensive designer dresses nibbling on their Caesar salads before going to see a Broadway show---completely unaware that a rat was crawling at their feet. One of the Bangladeshi bus boys noticed the manager and myself standing there trying to act casual.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

With customers within earshot, I simply muttered the magic word---“Edu.”

“Oh, Edu,” he said knowingly. I think it’s safe to say that the nearby family of four from Ohio did not know the Bengali word for “rat”. And then another Bengali bus boy walked up to the first one. I heard the first one say “Edu”. And next thing you know, the entire Bengali bus staff was clustered around each other, muttering “Edu” and staring at the tables against the wall.

“Hey, you guys---stop staring. They’re going to figure out something’s wrong.” Whether you speak Bengali or not---when five Bengalis are all staring at you, it’s safe to say something’s up.

Within a few seconds, the Bengali huddle broke up with them all snickering and muttering about Edu. And moments later, Edu made his way, undetected, down the basement stairs and crawled into his nest. Tragedy averted.

Needless to say, after two weeks with no sign of Edu, we all breathed a sigh of relief. And then, as we exhaled, someone said, “I smell dead rat.”

We all began to sniff.

“Do you smell that?” one of the bartenders asked.

Apparently, one had died somewhere behind the bar. The bartenders were pissed. And then, we began to smell something in the dining room.

“What’s that smell?” one of the waitresses asked. “That’s awful.”

Booths were pulled out, tables overturned, all miscellaneous furniture was moved and looked behind, under, inside, everywhere. Even the dishwasher---notorious for fixing, finding, or taking care of any problem with anything---could not find the dead rat.

You didn’t always smell it. Sometimes, you would be going thru your day like nothing was wrong. Everything nice and rosy. And then you’d breathe in and catch a whiff.

“Someone has to do something about that dead rat.”

The manager went out and bought a can of air freshener. So now it smelled like gardenia and dead rat. It was not pleasant.

Eventually, the smell went away. The dead rat’s still there---buried somewhere in the wall or inside the heating vents. Who knows? But at least the smell was gone.

And then, once the smell disappeared, the rats came back. It started on a Friday night. I wasn’t there, but the girl at work who is the most terrified of the rats was leaving for the night. She left her bag in the back room and as she went to retrieve it, saw a rat scurry across the room.

The next day, around ten o’clock that night, the same girl was in the hallway ringing up some items at the register when I looked at the floor and saw a rat scurry up right next to her foot.

She’s terrified of rats. So terrified in fact that she swore that if one ever got close to her, she’d probably have a heart attack and told me that if she died, I would have to take care of her daughter. And, frankly, her six-year old daughter is kind of a shitty kid. I took a heavy step towards her to frighten the rat and watched it run in front of her foot and into a corner about a foot away. I called her name and she looked over.

“Hey,” I said casually, “come here.”

“What? Why?” she asked as she stood there with her notepad.

I grabbed her arm lightly and said, “Just come over here.”

She immediately guessed what was going on and jumped straight up in the air, let out a stifled scream and ran away from the register. “Where is it? Where?”

“There it goes!” I whispered with intensity as the rat took off into the side dining room. One of the bus boys noticed the commotion and walked over.

“Edu.” I explained, and nodded my head discreetly towards the empty side dining room. I quickly ran to the kitchen and grabbed a huge trash can. The bus boy grabbed a broom.

“Oh no, “I said as I pointed to his broom. “Don’t hurt the rat.”

I spotted the rat in the proverbial corner and quickly placed the trash can in front of the rat. I told the bus boy to go behind the rat and try to sweep him into the trash can. The rat would most likely run into the dark trash can and then I could scoop it up, quickly close the plastic bag with my hands, take the trash can outside and release the rat. At this point, not one customer had even noticed.

Unfortunately, the bus boy either didn’t understand my English instructions (I really need to learn more Bengali) or decided to take matters in his own hands. Next thing I know, I’m in front of the trash can and he’s behind it and the rat is screaming. I mean SCREAMING. “Don’t hurt it!” I cried out.

At this point, he appeared to have stopped doing whatever he was doing, but the rat continued to scream bloody murder. Then the rat ran off. Another Bengali spotted it behind a podium and grabbed his own broom. I don’t think he even touched it, but the rat must have gotten caught on something and started screaming again. By this time, six Bengalis were on the case and were yelling things in Bengali I couldn’t even begin to understand. I couldn’t stop them. I felt bad for the rat, started to cry, and walked away. Whatever they were doing, I couldn’t watch.

And, may I say---I was discreet. The Bengalis---not so much so. They don’t seem to realize that trying to kill a rat in front of customers is not such a good thing. By now, a party of six in the bar and my party of two at a nearby table are onto us. As I walked away with tears in my eyes, the young couple at the nearby table asked, “Are they trying to kill it?”

“I think so,” I sputtered as I felt my face getting red. “I can’t watch. I tried to save it, but… It makes me too sad.”

They seemed to understand my feelings towards the rat. They seemed like nice people. And it felt good to be so candid with them. I’d been lying to customers for months. I felt free. Open. Honest.

“I’m sorry,” the guy replied. “It’s a little mouse, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I replied without even missing a beat. “It’s a mouse.”

The rat got away safely.

After several months with the rats, we now realize that they’re eligible for the union. And once they’re in the union, you can never get rid of them.

If we can't laugh about the rats, we'll all go a little crazy.

We’re not infested, like before. But every so often, one of the little guys pops out to brighten our day. This year, I even made a Christmas card for the staff. On the front, a drawing of a bunch of happy rats decorating a Christmas tree. And beneath the picture, it reads, “From all of us to all of you…” Inside, it says, “Have a Very Merry Christmas. Love, The Rats.”

Of course, we can’t put this on the bulletin board with the rest of the Christmas cards from the produce distributers, the former employees and the pickle delivery guys. But it was passed around discreetly at the company Christmas party. As the big wigs sat around feasting on lobster tail and prime rib, getting drunk on expensive liqueurs at the open bar, and watching us all clean up their cocktail napkins filled with shrimp tails and empty skewers---it was fun for us to imagine their happy little party broken up when someone opened up the latest Bag O’ Rats. Unfortunately, the rats were a no-show.

The morning after the company party, one of the cooks found a rat sleeping on top of the refrigerator.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Giant Microbes

Discovered the strangest idea ever---a company called Giant Microbes.

The premise is, they take a picture of a bacteria or virus in a microscope---and then they turn it into a stuffed animal! Genius! Amongst all the other oddities gracing my desk---I now have The Black Plague and Ebola. They’re so cute! I don’t know why they make me happy. They just do.

A friend of mine just had a birthday and he can now say that for his birthday, he got Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Syphilis. Don’t say I never gave you anything, Timmy.

However, the oddest part of the stuffed animals is the tag which not only gives you the history, symptoms and cures for the diseases---but also adds the safety precaution:

“Remove plastic hangtags and ribbons before giving to a child under 3 years of age.”

Which is more appropriate for a baby gift? Chicken pox or Mange? Hmmm.