right next to the spice

a few years back i saw a movie that ignited in me a deep fascination (some people in my life might call it an obsession) with india. the day the dvd was released i bought the film (a rarity for me) and immediately watched the extra features which included an indian cooking “how to.” the next day my son and i made our first indian dish, aloo gobi, carefully following each instruction.
shortly thereafter i made a trip to a local indian market and bought a few spices including an especially spicy curry powder. i wanted to learn to make more dishes, yet every recipe i found required 5-10 different spices and many steps of preparation. i felt sad. by that time i had developed a taste for the delicious meals i enjoyed at indian restaurants. i wanted to recreate them at home, yet, pushed by the pace of my sometimes-too-hurried life, i began to try to fool myself into thinking that my meals were indian if i simply doused them with the curry powder in my cupboard. forget the garam masala, the cumin seeds, fennel bulbs, and finely chopped ginger. no need for turmeric or simmering or bwana’ing (the art of making a gravy with spices and water, mixed with vegetables and legumes). curry powder made it indian, right?
some of you who know me may know that i am not a patient cook. i love to experiment and be creative in the kitchen but i mostly love sitting down to eat with the counters clean and all necessary cooking items washed and back in place. complex recipes are not my speed, they require too many ingredients (so much to take out and put away all before eating), demand far too much attention to detail, and often rely upon slow preparation and stretched out cooking time.
as my life has shifted, however, and i have developed a growing respect for results that can only be accomplished with patience, i have found my way back to some of those recipes. i have begun to try them again, contributing the time, care, and complexity of ingredients they suggest. i am noticing the way in which an honoring of the intended preparation methods requires me to change my process. requires me to make more messes. requires me to take more time. and allows me much more of a reward.
my favorite indian dish at present is chole, a chickpea curry that simmers in a gravy infused with whole cloves, cardomom pods, pepper corns, and chopped ginger root. by the time it is served the chick peas are heavy laden with the flavors of the spices. yesterday, as i ate a bowl of it, i bit into one garbanzo that tasted exactly like clove, then another that was heavily spiked with the peppery warmth of cardamom. it struck me that the complexity of this dish was so much more rewarding and interesting than the many bowls of hot curry i had made earlier in my journey. the fact that the flavors changed from one bean to the next, based on what they were near in the pan, is fascinating to me.
it makes me think about relationships. and community. and how i am flavored by the spice i am next to.
it seems to me that many of us surround ourselves with people who are just like us. when together we’re like one big dish doused in one single spice. it might be flavorful and yet it’s one dimensional. people who share our outlook on life, our beliefs or values, our socio economic status, our neighborhood, even our physical appearance make us feel so accepted, understood, and comfortable. we know how to talk to and be with these people. we speak the same languages, quite literally using the same vocabulary. we know what life in this kind of community will taste like. it’ll be familiar, comfort food safe. and that’s o.k.
it’s also o.k. to have times and spaces wherein we throw caution to the wind, stop worrying if tarragon and chile paste go together, and create something new. something we don’t know how to anticipate because it’s unique every time. a community with someone who looks nothing like us, believes things we don’t (or better yet, things we don’t understand), lives in places we haven’t traveled to, or who makes us just a wee bit uncomfortable. a community comprised of whole, strong spices. a community where each being is different and where that differentness makes a change on that which it is near.
i recently served as a panelist for a worldview forum at malone university in ohio. in preparation for the event i listened to the podcasts of previous forums. one had a christian scholar sitting next to the imam from the local muslim church. they each took five minutes to explain their faith tradition’s positions on scripture, dress, and the afterlife. it was not a debate. it was not a discussion. it was, simply, a coming together. a time of mutual sharing of space in the service of understanding where each of these very different flavors fall. and of respecting. other panels have accomplished the same objective with people on opposite sides of issues such as food production and farming, civil disobedience, and other seemingly unable-to-sit-at-the-same-table topics. i felt so impressed. and inspired. and enlightened.
as i reflect on my own community of support i realize that sometimes my fear that other spices might overwhelm my own flavor cause me to avoid them. at other times i lament over not being entirely sure how to interact with a taste highly different from mine so i hold back. i work hard, however, to push past these, and other, fears and have benefited from a wildly diverse and spicy group of friends and colleagues. beans and spices of all different types, so to speak, subtly flavoring those around them.
by opening myself to complexity, by being willing to sit with the not-like-me flavors that are next to me in the pan, my life becomes so much richer. my values are not compromised, my beliefs not necessarily shaken, the things i hold dear are not at risk. rather, my own self becomes more richly complex...more diversely seasoned. my community is simply expanded and grown and i am expanded and grown with it. the co-mingling makes the whole thing better in every way.
i’d love to know how the spices right next to you either keep you comforted and consistent in important ways or seep into you in challenging ways that change you. there is a time for both one spice curry and many flavored chole. a time for comfort communities and complex ones. if, and as, you’re willing i’d love to hear about yours...

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