Cabbie Cuisine

Over the past few months, I have taken to asking my cab drivers about their cooking. I have found it to be a foolproof way of comfortably tapping into a stranger’s personal history and passions.

At 5 am after the legendary blizzard in December, my sisters and I were riding in the only car service we could get to take us to LaGuardia to catch one of the only flights departing that morning so we could make it home to surprise our mother for her 60th birthday.  Amidst the drama of the snow and the darkness and the sleep deprivation, the driver and I fell into a conversation about kefir. I had recently abandoned my experiment producing my own kefir inspired by an article in Edible East End about the innumerable health benefits of this strange and ancient fermented yogurt drink.  As we drove up to the terminal he hurried to give me all of the details of his mother’s recipe for Armenian kefir soup. As intriguing as it was, all I can remember is cooking it with a whole onion in the pot…an idea that I love and want to try in some kind of soup for sure–imagine how tender and flavorful that onion would be once removed from the broth! But here’s a recipe for kefir soup appropriate for this season.

Uzbek Cold Kefir Soup

Months later, while heading to Detroit to help develop the curriculum for the Detroit Future Media Workshops, Tony (my cab driver) was suffering from allergies. I asked him about what remedies he uses and he explained that the most effective one he’s tried is some concoction devised of coconut milk and oak.  When he told me he sneezes more when he eats dairy, I shared with him the little bit I’ve learned about lactose intolerance.  I explained how as mammals, we are born with enzymes needed to break down our mother’s milk and that when we grow to be around 4 or 5 years old, most people’s bodies stop producing this enzyme given that most children should be weaned off their mother’s milk by this time.  There are a few communities in the world that have co-evolved with their herd animals (goats or cows) whose digestive systems have continued to produce the enzymes needed to break down lactose. However, most of the rest of the people in the world do not continue to produce these enzymes.  There’s a really helpful breakdown of this in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Tony’s charming and earnest response to my mini-lecture was, “What else do you know?” I laughed and told him that I don’t know much–that I just love food. He immediately became very animated and told me that he loves cooking.

Reflecting back on the conversation, I am struck by the questions he asked me–what spices do you use? What’s your favorite tomato sauce? How do you do your rice? How do you do your meat? He was excited to share his techniques and really curious about mine. I was tickled in particular by his questions about my preferred spices–I like the idea of that as a way of getting to know someone (“Hello, my name is Ora and I like paprika and ginger”).

After telling him that I refuse to buy prepared pasta sauce and explaining how I make it myself, I insisted on him sharing his rice cooking techniques.

This is how he broke it down with me very deliberately and passionately (my reflections in italics):

“First I wash the rice and get all the impurities off. Then I soak it again but not too much because you don’t want the rice to lose its strength. Then I get a pot really hot on the stove and I mash up garlic and adobo seasoning, add it to the pot with some oil–enough to cover the bottom of the pot. I add the rice and turn it so that it is coated and then add water that just covers the rice. I turn the rice a few times, taste the water and add salt when needed.”

(Here’s where things get complicated) “After the rice gets dried out (I’m not sure what that means) I put a plastic bag over the pot and then put the lid on. This is how it stays flavorful, firm, and separate. Not how you guys do it where it gets too mushy and wet and flavorless.” (I was confused about who he meant by “you guys”…white people? Italians? I had talked about my mother’s cuisine being from Italy…either way, it is true that I personally do not feel satisfied with my rice-making technique and it is often too mushy!)    

When I asked him about the plastic bag melting, he said it melts but it doesn’t get on the rice and that’s how he makes the rice stay strong and separate. I feel like I would need him to demo this for me before I tried this at home.  But I definitely feel like he’s provided me with some ideas for how to step up my rice cooking game.

So now I’ll put Tony’s question to all of you: How do you do your rice?