Brick Lane by Monica Ali is the story of Hazneen, a Bangladeshi girl who moves to London when she is eighteen for an arranged marriage to Chanu, a middle aged municipal worker. Hazneen and Chanu live in the housing projects of London, and the novel follows about twenty years of their lives. The book gives an insightful portrait of the immigrant experience in London, but is mainly the story of one woman's personal growth and awakening. There is lots of mention of food in the book, as Hazneen spends a lot of her time cooking for her family, though she never eats with them. She is always sneaking into the kitchen when her family is asleep or away and eating cold food - cauliflower curry, rice and dal (lentils) - eating alone is her way of coping with her unhappiness. I dug around the internet looking for Bangladeshi recipes, and it was so hard to decide what to make. I decided to go with the basic Bangladeshi/Bengali red dal, thinking it may be kind of boring, but was the type of food Hazneen's family would eat every day. Well I was wrong about it being boring - this is a highly spiced dish that is both warm and comforting and exciting to eat.
I enjoyed Brick Lane mostly because of the vivid and complex characters that Monica Ali creates. Hazneen starts out the novel as a quiet and superstitious young woman, forced to leave her home and everything she knows to marry a strange, overweight, middle aged man. She goes along with her father's decision to marry her off and ship her to London because she believes it is her fate. Hazneen grew up in a small village with her mother, father and sister Hasina. When she is a girl her mother dies under mysterious and gruesome circumstances, and you have a feeling that part of Hazneen died when her mother did. Hazneen's husband is an interesting character - he invokes feelings of frustration and disgust, as well as sympathy and affection. When the novel begins he is full of plans and ideas and hopes, and as time goes by, he becomes stuck, unemployed, and bitter. His dream is to make enough money so that he can take his family back to Bangladesh in comfort and style. He is obsessed with being a success and being thought highly of by the Bangladeshi community, but he is completely paralyzed when it comes to doing the things necessary to get ahead. Ali also creates a colorful group of characters in the immigrant community that surround Hazneen and Chanu - an judgmental old woman who in fact is a brutal money lender, a doctor who both loathes and loves Chanu, Hazneen's best friend Razia who is in her own way a feminist and pushes Hazneen to be more independent and Karim, a young islamic activitst who Hazneen eventually has an affair with. Through Hazneen's involvement with Karim, Ali brings into the novel the issue of being a Muslim in the West after 9/11. My favorite part of the book are the letters Hazneen's sister Hasina writes her from Bangladesh. Through these letters we learn of the life that Hazneen might have lived if she had stayed in Bangladesh, full of love, then violence, tragedy, poverty and prostitution. Hasina's narration is charming and moving and was a welcome break from the four walls of Hazneen's and Chanu's cramped apartment in London. This was an interesting and enjoyable book.
BENGALI RED LENTILS WITH SPICES
Adapted from Julie Sahni
1 1/2 cup red lentils
4 cups of water
2 thai green chilies, sliced
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon of salt
4 tablespoons ghee (see below) or vegetable oil
1 cup minced onions
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 cup chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp panch phoran mix (see below)
4 small dried red chiles
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic
More salt to taste
Note: Panch Phoran is a Bengali spice mixture that is made of spice seeds. I bought mine already made at a local Indian grocery. To make it yourself, mix equal amounts of fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, mustard seeds (black or brown), cumin seeds and fennel seeds. Here is what it looks like:
I started out this dal by first making the ghee, which is Indian clarified butter. The method I used is from Alton Brown, on foodtv.com. I used half a pound of butter, I melted the butter in a saucepan and brought it to a boil over medium high heat.
I lowered the heat, let it cook till the butter browned a bit and the top was covered with a thick foam (the solids separate from the liquids). I drained it through a fine mesh strainer into a heat proof bowl or container. Ghee does not need to be refrigerated and can be used for several months.
On to the dal. Rinse the lentils well and pick out at any stones/etc... Rinse the lentils 2 or 3 times. Put in a saucepan with the water, turmeric, salt and thai chili. Bring to a boil (carefully, this bubbles over easily) and then reduce heat and cook for 25 minutes. Then cover and cook for 10 minutes more.
While the lentils are cooking, heat the Ghee in a saucepan, add the onions and cook till browned, about 20 minutes. Add ginger and cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, which will loosen up any onions or ginger that stuck to the pan. Cook till the tomatoes break down, about 10 minutes.
Add the cooked tomatoes to the dal. Add them after they have been fully cooked. Rinse out the frying pan without soap. Heat the 2 tablespoons of ghee till quiet hot. Add the panch phoran and let it cook for about 10-15 seconds, some of the seeds will splatter and pop, be careful! Add the chilies and bay leaf and cook for 10 seconds. Add garlic and cook for 20 seconds more, then add the ghee and spices to the dal, cover the pot so the flavors infuse the dal.
Serve over rice, I also added some cooling yogurt and cilantro.