An appetite for ethnic cooking

Posted: April 05, 2007

One in a series of occasional stories about a local food group.

As one who was born in Korea and raised in Brazil, Min Kim proudly draws from both wells to prepare the culinary specialties of each culture.

So for the latest meeting of her monthly food group, Forking Delicious, Kim brought brigadeiros - a fudge treat traditionally served at children's birthday parties in Brazil.

And then she fascinated the six other women in the group with a description of her mother making kimchee the old-fashioned way - fermenting it in a hole she digs in her backyard.

"Culture and family are important to me," says Kim, 32.

She shares that value with the rest of the 30- and 40-year-olds in the group - seven strangers who met through Meetup.com two years ago and quickly realized a shared passion for food and its formative place in culture.

"We are diverse in our backgrounds," says Lesu Ali, a first-generation Indian-American. "But we have so many streaks in common."

So it seemed only natural for the group to focus on ethnic cooking at its March 25 meeting.

They may take their food seriously, but this is an otherwise casual bunch - so no one coordinated the menu. It just fortuitously resulted in an even mix of savories and sweets, with champagne for all.

Ali stepped outside her Indian culture to bring an Israeli dish: couscous with dried apricots and currants.

"To me, Indian food isn't ethnic," said Ali, who thinks her family's Indian restaurant may have been the first of its kind in Detroit. She worked there on the weekends, making samosas, parathas, pooris and pappadams.

"And now when I make ravioli or empanadas at home, I know I'm using the same techniques."

"The atmosphere at home was always open to other cultures and what they served," she said. "When the restaurant was closed one day a week, we went to a neighborhood Greek restaurant."

Meanwhile, Kathy Simon and Tinamarie Fairfax made Indian specialties not native to their backgrounds.

For Simon, the choice was moong dal - an Indian stew of yellow lentils, cumin and tumeric.

Fairfax made a creamy, delicious kulfi - a South Asian ice cream made with boiled milk, which gives it a delicate caramelized flavor and smooth taffylike texture. (See accompanying recipe.)

And Donna Russell, who is not Chinese, made Shantung Chicken from Susanna Foo's second cookbook, Fresh Inspiration (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005). The aromatic dish is made with star anise and maltose, the Chinese equivalent of corn syrup. When Foo's cookbook was released, the women loved it so much that they devoted an entire evening to cooking those recipes exclusively.

Kim's brigadeiros - pop-in-your-mouth fudge balls named for a Brazilian air force brigadier - were scarfed down quickly. Then she spoke of her Korean side.

Even the place settings at the Korean dinner table reflect the culture's values, she said.

"There is a very specific Confucian order to setting the dinner table," said Kim, and she learned it from her mother.

Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honor, as well as respect for age and seniority. The eldest has a place of honor at the table and is the first served.

"The idea behind that is, if everyone respects their place in society," Kim said, "there will be peace."

Kim and another group member, Dana Greene, are trained pastry chefs who work in unrelated fields (teaching and nursing, respectively). But the other women who make up Forking Delicious are simply passionate, self-taught cooks. When they get together, they feed off one another's energy.

They're so remarkably compatible that they decided to rent a villa in Umbria for a September cooking vacation. That might give the false impression of wealth, but Simon lived in Umbria for a time and is using her connections there to get a good price.

Russell, who's eyeing the week-long trip as the ideal time to marry her longtime beau, Jim, showed off her new aquamarine engagement ring at the March meeting.

Next up?

For their May meeting, Russell is coordinating a Chef's Skills night with several local chefs volunteering to demonstrate techniques for the women. And in June, they'll meet by the waterfront in Riverton, Burlington Co., where Kathy lives, for a picnic.

Also in the works is a "food facial" night to explore the cleansing and beautifying benefits of cucumbers, oatmeal, and more.

No telling what menu they'll select for that venture.


 

Go to http://go.philly.com/food for recipes from Forking Delicious.


Learn more about Forking Delicious at www.forkingdelicious.com.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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