by Rishidev Chaudhuri
As I grow older and worldlier, and as the world itself grows more worldly, an increasingly wide range of ingredients and techniques and flavors take up residence in my kitchen. The flavors of my childhood were primarily those of the subcontinent, dominated by the Indian Ocean cities of Calcutta, Colombo and Bombay, and by European food mediated through England, Calcutta and the colonial mixing. And it is sobering to contemplate that there was a point when soy sauce didn’t consistently inhabit my kitchen (a few years in a vegetarian co-op in Massachusetts and a semester in Japan changed that), or to remember that fish sauce and various vinegars didn’t always occupy prominent roles in my culinary imagination. I’ve always known about chilies, of course; I imagine that growing up in another culinary tradition and discovering chilies must be like discovering some fundamental metaphysical truth about the world, perhaps one that you’d always known must exist, perhaps one that must exist in all possible worlds.
Some will lament the loss of local particularity that goes with such increasing cosmopolitanism, and that is indeed worth a mournful moment of silence. But, inevitably, these world-traveling ingredients strike up conversations and more in the pantry (I discovered the herring passionately intertwined with the curry leaves one long lazy afternoon), and spark improbable but delightful culinary revelations.
The combination of fermented soy beans and butter is a revelation. It is not traditional and, depending on the vividness of your imagination, might seem transgressive. At the least, the cultures that love them are separate, with soy sauce, miso and the fermented bean pastes concentrated in East Asia, and butter spread through the rest of the world with a special concentration in parts of Europe and India. They are also distinctive and easily identifiable as foundational elements of their associated cuisines: “butter” and “soy” are almost caricatures of how one might describe, say, the opposition between French and Chinese food.
But fermented beans and butter certainly should not be kept apart: together they bring a beautiful hybrid of savory and fatty, of mouth-filling and complex and rich. A great starting point is soy sauce and butter (unsalted is often better, since the soy has salt), which pair well together as a sauce or dressing, for cooking vegetables and meats, and can liven up a soup or stew (careful with a fatty stew; butter can make it greasy). The combination of a bit of ghee and soy sauce on rice is also delicious, and pays homage to the cuisines of half the world’s people. You could pair that with mildly-spiced lentils and some greens, for a simple comforting dinner.
Miso and butter are also lovely together, and I mash together one part of mild miso with about 2-4 parts of butter and use it with vegetables and roasted meats and as a sauce and as the base for soup. It’s also great as a general butter substitute, and while I was writing this I just spread some on a cracker.
Recently, I’ve been sautéing onions and a spicy bean paste (like the Korean gochujang) in butter, and using that as a base for vegetables and simple stews. It’s also spectacular as a base for shellfish: once the onions have softened, add a little liquid (wine or stock, for example) to the pan, pop in some mussels or clams, cover and let them cook till they open. The mix of oceanic flavors with the fat, spice and umami is wonderful, and you’ll want to make sure you get all the sauce with bread or rice, and then lick the plate clean.
Sometimes, overcome with grand ascetic visions, I give up drinking alcohol for a month or so, as I did earlier this year. This can be hard for various reasons (how to numb the mind and stave off thoughts of the abyss?), but on the most mundane level not drinking can be hard because so many non-alcoholic drinks are boring, one-dimensional and much too sweet. I started to write down the things I found myself drinking instead, for future reference and to share with friends who complain about bad non-alcoholic drinks. Here are a few.
Sparkling water or club soda with a few dashes of bitters is my go-to drink at a bar, when I don’t want an actual drink but still want something with complexity. It's easy to make and available both at dive bars and at bars excited to show off their bitters selection. Bitters are typically alcohol based, so this isn’t quite alcohol-free, but the amounts are small.
At home I’ve been making oleo saccharum and using it in small amounts in fizzy water or in iced teas. I wrote about oleo saccharum here and you can make it more complex by adding herbs like mint and rosemary to the mixture as it steeps. I’ve also been making berry shrubs and drinking vinegars to use in the same way (also described in the previous link), and I’ve pleasantly drunk my way through several bottles of sherry and balsamic vinegar.
There are rosemary bushes all over the town where I live, and I pull off little sprigs and crush them in my hands (for remembrance), and carry the scent around with me as I go. Predictably, I’ve had rosemary on the brain, and have been drinking rosemary infusions, which have a mild, clarifying bitterness and astringency. Steeping rosemary sprigs in hot water for ten or so minutes will give you a light extract, and you can steep longer if you like. It’s good cold too, over ice or in fizzy water. You could also make a rosemary simple syrup (bring equal parts water and sugar to a boil, stir till the sugar dissolves, add rosemary, turn off the heat and let it steep), and use that as the base for drinks. Of course these are great cocktail ingredients, but that is currently beside the point.
Ginger infusions and syrups are also delicious. I make a concentrated syrup by simmering water, sugar and peeled, chopped ginger together for about an hour and then straining out the ginger and drinking the syrup diluted with lots of ice or soda.
Finally, while I adore coffee and drink large amounts of it, one cannot drink cup after cup of coffee in the evenings and expect to sleep undisturbed. But diluted coffee is still wonderful, and I find that a little iced coffee (for example, steep coarsely-ground coffee overnight with cold water in the fridge and then strain) topped up with sparkling water and perhaps a sprig of some herb will keep me happy for a long time.
 I’m not sure whether there’s a canonical explanation for the scarcity of dairy in East Asia. I’ve seen explanations that the land was less cattle-friendly; Harold McGee suggests that the scrub in China was more toxic to cattle. Another possible explanation might be lactose intolerance.