Embracing complexity through flavor

by Kristin on May 26, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Vaidy Krishnan

A few days ago Jason made Chicken Masala for dinner. His recipe calls for 23 ingredients, all eventually worked together in six separate steps, from roasting and grinding whole spices to making two pastes, one with cashews and another with ginger.

It’s one of those recipes that not only takes a lot of time and effort to prepare, it also tastes like it does (thank goodness—why else bother?). With each bite, you can detect the layers of complexity—the balance of sweet and spicy, the surprises in the initial taste and then the new surprises in the lingering flavor.

As we ate dinner, Jason wondered aloud why certain cultures end up prizing complexity and flavor so much more than others. You don’t just stumble upon these combinations of spices and textures. You don’t cook like that because it’s easy, and it’s what you have on hand. It’s a freeing art form and a painstaking science rolled into one. You imagine, envision, experiment, tweak, and pour your soul into it. In India, and many other countries—such as Thailand and Morocco—this process is clearly valued and prized (and we benefit from their experimentation and recipes).

Celebrating curry and a life that isn’t black and white

The next day I brought it up over lunch with some friends (at a very American bar, I might add). Someone pointed out the polytheistic nature of these cultures. “They’re very comfortable with complexity—they don’t expect things to be black and white.”

I find this really fascinating, particularly when I think of the tendency of Americans to love a Bible that they believe has clear answers. (I know—I’m getting into dangerous territory and stereotyping, but work with me!) Americans also tend to love their meat, potatoes and vegetables, each clearly delineated on the plate, each bit with its own distinct flavor and texture. There’s no question what you’re putting in your mouth, and what you’re tasting—some salt and some fine red meat (and don’t get me wrong—I love some fine red meat!). You might take a bite of this, followed by a bite of that, but still, you’re in control of where to draw the lines and when to do the mixing.

Eating curry makes you feel deliciously out of control. Just when you think you know what it is that you’re tasting, something else sneaks in and confuses you. Curry is a celebration of complexity without chaos, which is the thing that many people fear most about complexity, I think. Curry demonstrates that you can be completely in control, within a form, and yet completely let go within that adventurous space.

My own Midwestern ying and yang

In the broad scope of things, I think I’m somewhat in between when it comes to embracing complexity. I believe in one God, but I don’t like to define my God too narrowly, and I don’t like to pretend the Bible is filled with clear answers.

I want one spouse/partner, and I want my relationship with him (Jason) to have clear boundaries. But as someone who has been divorced and now enjoys the daily complexities of a blended family, including ex-spouses and their new partners, I don’t believe there’s only one way to understand marriage and family.

I love the simplicity of living in a small town in the Midwest—with my house and garden, my kids and dog, my church and neighborhood school and favorite bars—but I don’t want my life in the Midwest to be “normal” or typical or bland. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking things are black and white, easily parsed, categorized and understood.

Luckily, that can’t possibly be the case, thanks to the community of friends we’ve gathered here.

On Saturday evening, after celebrating H’s birthday at our house with the wonderful mix of people she considers her family, Jason and I went out to celebrate the birthday of our good friend, Marlah. Out of the 12 of us gathered around the table for her celebration, only four of us could be considered “white.” The rest were African American, Native American, Mexican, Cuban, Afro-Carribean, or some combination. (As someone kindly pointed out that evening, with my olive complexion and dark hair, I’m not that white.)

On Sunday, we were invited to feast on a Chengdu hotpot meal at the home of some friends from church, who have spent a fair amount of time in that region of China. Hotpot represents a different kind of complexity than curry. Twenty or more bowls of individual foods—from shrimp and greens to many foods my kids have never seen before like ribbon tofu, rice cakes, lotus root and enoki mushrooms—crowd the table. Ying and yang pots of spicy and mild hotpot broth boil furiously on burners at the table’s center.

With chopsticks, you pick various items of your choice from the separate bowls and drop them into the boiling liquid to cook. Sometimes you manage to pull out what you put in. Sometimes what you pull out is mixed up with things other people around the table dropped into the pot.

You feel like you have some control over what’s happening, yet what you end up with is always a surprise. It’s a joyous confusion of cooking, sharing, eating things together and separate, trying textures and flavors that are unfamiliar, yet all tied together by the complex flavors of the broth.

And isn’t that a lot like life?

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  • http://bernthis.typepad.com jessica

    first of all I’m glad to know that one can find love after divorce. (I’m still waiting) second: what a beautifully written post. My daughter’s school is a huge melting pot of kids and I’m so grateful for it. I think it’s important to know that there is a world out of people that are different from her but no less important

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    what a blessing to gather with friends who are so diverse in background! i luv the photo by the way!

  • http://www.essentialprose.com Zoe

    I love this — how curry reflects life! I feel quite strongly about embracing the pleasures and discoveries of food — whether that means enjoying a masaman curry or putting special care into your chicken soup. I’m a bit spoiled with complex flavors here in Thailand, but the funny thing is, my appreciation does not decrease! Every time I go to “our local” down the street, I can’t help but comment how unique and incredible the flavors are. I guess complexity is the sort of thing that never grows old :)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jessica, yes, there definitely can be love after divorce. (Have you checked out the book “Ask Me About My Divorce”? So many great stories in it.) Also, I completely agree about how important it is for my daughters to be at a school where they learn about sameness and difference along with geometry and spelling. I’m so glad your daughter is having that experience, too!

    jenx67, the diversity is a blessing, and it’s a surprisingly significant part of my life here. I also worry, though, that describing these aspects of my life might come off as bragging—like my days are just overflowing with interesting food and friends. I can assure you that there’s also plenty of what you would expect in a small Midwestern town—chicken drumsticks and Miller Lite and regular, kind people—and I highly value and enjoy their place in the mix of my life, too. :)

    Zoe, I’m so glad the one person I know who lives in Thailand responded! As someone who has lived in the states and in Thailand, do you think the draw to complexity in food reflects other attitudes and aspects of life, or am I completely making things up? (Btw, I sure wish I could taste something made by “your local!” Thai flavors are a close second, for me, to Indian.)

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    Julia Childs would be quite proud of you with this quote: “Curry demonstrates that you can be completely in control, within a form, and yet completely let go within that adventurous space.” Bravo.

    Man, being in-control but wild-at-heart. I like that.

  • Trina

    oh Kristen, this was turly a pleasure to read on so many levels, a complex blending of the spice of life. The commitment to blend the spices, and enjoy the outcome is truly worthy of our time and respect.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Dave, any day I can make Julia Child proud is a proud day, indeed! I’m not really worthy of blogging about cooking and food, but I do love it, and it’s a big part of my life. And yes—”being in-control but wild-at-heart” is perhaps the best way to live.

    Trina, I really like how you put that—”the commitment to blend the spices, and enjoy the outcome.” It is a commitment, isn’t it? It takes time and effort, like all the best things in life.

  • http://www.essentialprose.com Zoe

    Without getting too much into general thoughts on Thai culture, I’d say that there is a tendency here to accept things as they are, and not try to push them into a certain box … for better or worse, depends on the situation. Two strong threads in Thai culture are the “mai pen rai” (“no worries, doesn’t matter”) attitude and the commitment to “sanuk” — which is basically “fun.” This leads to a lot of going with the flow, and accepting what flavors (had to get that pun in there!) may come your way :).

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    Just for the record, this is one of my favorite posts of yours. Oddly enough (ironically enough) it appears that you (this post) is “wild” but “in-control”.

    Time cut into my initial comment – as it is today. But this post could easily – easily – lead to a chapter or even a book. There are a ton of sentences that are extremely deep and probably overfill many’s plates so that each of us didn’t know really where to start to write a comment. This post — like your food, like all of our lives — is beautifully complex while still based on heart, love, or what ever else one might call it.

    OK, two of the four are up and ready to go . . . and asking, and showing, and being their wild-in-(relative)-control selves.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Zoe, the Thai “no worries” attitude is really interesting. It makes me think it’s not so much that they *embrace* complexity, but they’re just used to going with the flow, out of necessity. Not sure how that might be different than the approach to life in India, but it’s certainly fascinating to think about the many possibilities, and how they differ from our own approach.

    Dave, yes, there’s a lot going on in the post. That’s probably one of my “faults” as a blogger—trying to squeeze too many related but separate ideas into a single post. If I was smart, I would have stretched it out into three or four posts! But expanding on it for a chapter for my book is an even better idea. :) Thanks for your encouragement and steadfast involvement in the Halfway to Normal community.