How to research exotic cultures…plus some recipes for life and the dinner table…
I’ve experienced a number of scary things in my life, and here’s a sample:
- Watched a man tear my purse out of my hands on the New York City subway and beat it maniacally against the wall (I grabbed it back—thank you very much).
- Filled out freelancer tax forms (I had a panic attack and couldn’t act human all day—we can’t win them all).
- Decided to write a half dozen Sikh major characters into my new novel, Jane Steele, before I knew a single thing about Sikhism (the story you’re about to hear is true—and still unfolding).
See, I want my novels to be diverse. Sweeping. To contain multitudes of races, religions, and cultures. Since that’s what the world looks like, isn’t it more fun if books look like that, too? Jane Steele is a riff off Jane Eyre in which our heroine is a knife-wielding vigilante defender of the downtrodden, and the Edward Rochester character is a veteran of the two Sikh Wars that Britain fought in the mid-19th century. His best friend is Sikh. His young ward is half-Sikh. His housekeeper is Sikh. His entire staff is Sikh. That’s literally dozens of Sikhs, several of them highly relevant to the plot and all deserving of meticulous attention.
Lyndsay, I thought with my face firmly imprinting in my palms before a single word of Jane Steele had been written. You just started researching the Sikhs and their holy book is 1430 pages long. You were raised Protestant in the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest amongst the cows.
You are not qualified for this. Thank you, next applicant please.
See, the only thing worse than having a lack of diversity in one’s books is doing diversity really badly, like writing an Orthodox Jewish family sitting down to an enormous pork roast dinner scene. I was already terrified as a researcher, which was a pain in the backside because I found Sikhism fascinating from the instant I began to study it. The religion was founded by Guru Nanak (born in 1469) and was a rejection of the cruelties of the caste system and animosity between religions, insisting that God abides in all humanity without the need for externalized rituals. It’s an astonishing society—radically egalitarian, historically massacred, both meditative and powerful, and famously ravaged by the East India Company.
You MUST use the fall of the Sikh Empire in Jane Steele, you MUST, I told myself. Now quit bellyaching, calm down, and look up their food already.
My friends, when a task daunts you (like learning half a millennium of culture), come at it from the flank. I might have known nothing about the Sikhs, but I do know that the most common way families share memories is through cuisine. I know people put love in their food. I know history is contained in food. And I know my husband and I love to cook together and can list among Things Currently in Our Pantry nigella seeds, mango powder, zataar, sumac, fermented black garlic powder, and Polish soup mix (in Polish).
The Sikhs were centered in the Punjab, so I set out to learn its curry blends, its coffee-making methods, its sour, pickled vegetables. I mixed dry spices and visited my favorite lower Manhattan deli, the one that sells eighty kinds of pepper and something called “cat’s claw bark.” Justification for this culinary binge was simple: I was going to be writing about a Sikh household in Jane Steele, so how dare I get their food wrong? But really I was doing it because maybe I’ve never taken a single religious studies class, but I have made Gordon Ramsay’s beef Wellington from scratch, and once I learned the food, I wouldn’t keep picturing my own staggering incompetence quite so vividly.
Today, of course, I know more about Sikhism having studied it in such depth. Not as much as I’d like to, but I’m still learning! And I hope that you’ll fall for Sardar and Sahjara and the other fictional Sikh characters in Jane Steele because now I adore them. But to introduce you to them, I’ll provide links to some of my favorite newly discovered dishes—ones you can make with your own family. Bon appetit!
A Sikh Supper
(Note: Some Sikh people do refrain from eating meat for various reasons, including religious festivals, but as it’s not forbidden by the Guru, I’ve included links to a delicious chicken dish recipe here.)
CHICKEN DILRUBA (embed link: https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/punjabi-cuisines/cuisine-of-punjabchicken-dilruba)
I love the inclusion of ground almonds and walnuts in this dish—there’s a creamy texture and richness that can’t be beat. Note: The use of fresh hot peppers can be reduced if you have a tender palate.
Curried beans and curried lentils are some of the most delicious things to come out of the Punjab, and this one is extremely popular. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you’ll simply need to increase cooking time and use a heavy-bottomed pot—and if you can’t find dried mango powder, just mix in some lemon juice at the end!
ALOO PALAK (SPINACH WITH POTATOES) (embed link: https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/punjabi-cuisines/cuisine-of-punjabaloo-palak)
This classic side is generally made with spinach, but if you have beet green tops you want to use, or some leftover kale or chard in the fridge, I say throw caution to the wind and try it. Tweet me how it turns out!
JEERA RICE (embed link: https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/punjabi-cuisines/cuisine-of-punjabjeera-rice)
How could you possibly eat these other lovely stewed dishes without rice? Answer: Ill-advised.
That was clearly a tiny sampling, but I hope you try Punjabi food and enjoy it heartily! Jane Steele likewise comes to love the Sikh culture, and I dream of one day traveling to Lahore myself, sampling street breads and food stands as I wander its ancient byways.