Food & Drink » Food

Flash in the Pan

That thing you do to food


At the farmers’ market last week I passed on some beautiful French file green beans for no good reason. I wanted them. They looked good, had great flavor (I tasted one), but I couldn’t think of anything to make with them—a failure that bugged me for the rest of the day.

A few days later my friend Tempa had me over for dinner and shamed me. Tempa is from Bhutan, a tiny country on the other side of the world that couldn’t be further away. But that didn’t stop him from cooking me a dish of almost entirely local ingredients, including fresh green beans. The only ingredient that came from afar was a spice that looks like peppercorns, except it’s red, and smooth, and easily crushed or popped open. The spice, which he’d brought from home, goes by the name thing, and is pronounced “ting-ee.”

In Bhutan, there is no black pepper. If you want hot pepper, you ask for chile. If you ask for pepper, you get thing.

Thing has a strange, tangy taste that will make your mouth numb if you eat it straight. For this reason the thing plant (Xanthoxylum alatum), which grows in many parts of the Himalaya, is known as the “toothache tree” in the highlands of India. Thing is also popular in China, where its name translates to “mountain pepper.” In the United States, thing is commonly available in spice shops, usually by the name “Szechuan pepper,” which is what you can find it listed under at Butterfly Herbs.

“You mostly put thing in izay, or when you want to cook something delicious, like animal hide or stuffed intestines,” Tempa said.

I’m very familiar with izay, having traveled twice to Bhutan. It’s kind of like Bhutanese salsa, a reddish paste served alongside the meal and used to add extra heat (this is kind of absurd to anyone who’s experienced the heat of Bhutanese food, which is rather like getting shot out of a cannon). Recalling my many encounters with izay, I remembered that it did indeed contain that distinct thing flavor. One time in particular, when hiking along the trail that served as the main road of the Bhutanese district of Gasa, I stopped at a hut that sold food, including a vat of leather that was marinated in izay.

“Last time I was in Bhutan,” I said, “I ate some animal hide that had been marinated in izay, and it had the strong flavor of thing, I’m sure of it.”

Tempa was skeptical. “Was the hide cooked?”

“I think so. It was very soft.”

“Okay, you got cooked one. It has thing in it.”

A few days later I was playing around with Tempa’s recipe for the green been thing thing. The name translates into “beef curry,” though it doesn’t resemble the kind of curry most people think of. It could be called “beef in tomato sauce and thing.” I didn’t have beef, but I had duck, which I used instead.

First, I poured some cooking oil into a pan (Montola brand oil, made in Montana, produces safflower and sunflower oils, both of which are awesome for frying). For 1 pound of meat (any red meat will do), add 4 cloves garlic, 1 medium onion, and 2 large tomatoes—all minced—to the pan.

“When it looks like it will melt, add the beef,” said Tempa. In other words, when the tomatoes release their water, add the meat. I actually added my duck first, with the oil, and browned it for a while before adding the garlic, onions and tomatoes.

As all that stuff was simmering slowly in the pan, I added water as necessary to keep it from getting too thick and to keep the meat covered. I kept simmering until the garlic, onions and tomato blended together into one consistent sauce and the meat got soft.

When Tempa arrived he reprimanded me (gently) for not chopping the vegetables small enough. He stood over the pan mashing everything with the edge of the spatula until it was small enough.

When the sauce had blended and the meat was tender, I adjusted the seasoning with salt and added chopped green beans. Then, in a mortar and pestle I mashed some thing (half a teaspoon, more or less, to taste) and ginger (about a half-inch cube, sliced) together, added them to the pot and cooked it for just a few minutes. I stirred it up and served with rice.

If you want to get your thing on and experience some real Bhutanese food prepared by some real Bhutanese, here’s something to put on your calendar: The Bhutanese Chili Festival, September 27, at the PEAS Farm. There will be food, music, games and all manner of Bhutanese culture, from 2 to 6 p.m. E-mail me for more info.

Ask Ari: Growing garlic

Q: Dear Flash,

I want to plant garlic this fall. What kind should I plant, and how should I plant it?

—Garlic Crusher

A: This is a great time to be thinking about planting some garlic. It usually happens in October or early November, but now is when you want to think about acquiring seed garlic and figuring out where to plant it.

You have two basic options for getting your hands on some seed. You can order it, or you can just go out and buy garlic and plant it. There really isn’t any difference between seed garlic and non-seed garlic—other than with seed garlic you know exactly which variety you’re getting.

But if you buy garlic at the farmers’ market, the farmer might be able to tell you what kind it is, and then there really is no difference. And even if the farmer doesn’t know, you can at least rest assured that whatever variety it is, it will do well in your climate, as the farmer surely grew it locally. Pick out the biggest, burliest, healthiest looking bulbs you can.

I grow a variety called Romanian Red that I got at the Tonasket Barter Fair a few years back, and I love it. The bulbs are big, and there are few cloves—between four and six per bulb—which means that even the smallest bulbs have big cloves, which is nice in the kitchen. Cloves of Romanian Red will peel easier than a prom dress, and have awesome flavor. Romanian Red is a hardneck variety, which means in early June it will send up edible flowers.

As for planting, it’s not a bad idea to choose your patch of ground now and supplement it with manure or compost. You might even want to cover it up with black plastic to prevent the growth of weeds.

When the autumn leaves start flying, gently break apart your bulbs and plant the cloves, with the peels still on, about an inch deep and six inches apart, with the pointy side up and scabby side down. Cover the whole patch with straw, and forget about it until March, when you should peek under the straw and make sure the shoots are finding their way through.

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