I met Norman the Indologist at the Keoua canoe club in Honaunau. He had cooked lunch for the race that day. It was a richly spiced assortment of squash, bean chili, tomato soup, salad, rice and breadfruit.
“I can taste the Norman spices,” said my friend Ken, chowing down, minutes before he introduced us.
We were behind the canoe rack in an overgrown garden. Ken’s kids and their friends were swarming a tamarind tree, chewing the fleshy, tart pods. Norman, casually sporting close-cropped hair, a puffy beard and a twinkle in his eye, relaxed on a picnic table. “Tamarind,” he said, watching the kids. “That’s the secret ingredient.”
Danny, a Fijian woman with an Aussie accent, a smile as big as the Pacific and a third place medal from the race that day handed out fresh kava to drink. Good kava tastes like really good mud. Norman gave us a Ziploc bag with some brown powder inside. Not kava, but the Norman spices; a dry-roasted, mixed, and crushed preparation he called rasam.
Rasam is a general term, like curry, or garam masala, and there are many regional variations in rasam recipes across South India. Rasam can also refer to a thin, sour soup spiced with rasam powder, usually eaten alongside a lentil-based vegetable mush called sambar.
According to legend, rasam soup was invented when a South Indian raja threw a big party, during which all of the sambar was consumed, leaving the cooks and servers devoid of anything to eat on their rice. Someone combined all of the leftover ingredients from the sambar—the dal (lentil) water, leftover tamarind juice, and leftover tomatoes—and spiced it up. Thus, a new dish was born.
Today, sambar and rasam constitute the backbone of the South Indian diet. “It’s Brahman food,” Norman says, referring to the elevated priestly caste of Hindu religion.
Brahmans bring their holy ways into their kitchens, he explained. “Cooks of other castes might not do all of the rituals and say the mantras like the Brahmans. So Brahmans will only eat their own food. Members of any other caste will eat Brahman cooking, too, but might not eat each other’s. So Brahmans are the cooks as well as the priests. They are the ones cooking at railroad stations where they have to feed 10,000 to 20,000 travelers a day.”
Norman isn’t making this stuff up. He lived in India for a decade, earning a master’s degree and studying for a doctorate in Indology, or ancient Indian history and archeology, at the University of Mysore.
“I was in India long enough to get my education and learn my philosophies and learn how to cook,” Norman said. When he returned to the states, he helped introduce a style of yoga known as Ashtanga, which incorporates movement with strength building and developed a wide following.
After years traveling widely as a yoga teacher, Norman decided it was time to simplify his life and “drop out,” as he put it. With degrees in geography and education, from before his studies in India, as well as his Indology degree, Norman might be the most educated dropout around most towns. But not Hawaii.
“I just want to do my little thing,” he says. “Teach my yoga class, cook at the canoe club, paddle the boats, raise my kids, work my farm.” And when foodies in India run out of Norman’s rasam powder, they call and order more.
“Someone from Maharashtra may be used to their goda masala mix,” he explains, “but they can also appreciate what I’m doing.”
When I asked for the recipe, he said, “Oh, the usual stuff. The difference is in the dry roasting.”
“By ‘usual stuff,’” I prodded, “you mean coriander, cumin…”
“Yeah, yeah, you know, fenugreek, yellow and brown mustard seeds.”
“I might add turmeric separately, depending on the dish.”
Big BJ, who lives at the canoe club, interrupted the conversation with his beer. It took a few sentences before I realized he was speaking English.
“Dat soup wa de dish o da day bra,” BJ said, raising his palm for a high-five with Norman.
The tomato soup was the dish of the day all right. Nobody disagreed. It had a fullness of flavor that was worthy of note. And it had a depth that was beyond flavor, acting in some other realm.
Norman smiled. He explained that the soup was made with leftover water from cooking the beans for the chili, combined with the leftover water from cooking the canned diced tomatoes. The tomatoes were cooked with Norman’s spices of course, and tamarind, coconut cream, and vegetables.
The story of Norman’s tomato soup reminded me of the mythological invention of rasam soup in the raja’s kitchen, where the combined byproducts of sambar created the power drink of the Brahmans. In this case, the combined byproducts of Norman’s veggie chili had formed the power drink of Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddlers—just another instance of Norman the Indologist bringing a bit of Eastern know-how home.
Ask Ari: The ins and outs of cutting the cheese
Q: Dear [writer formerly known as] Chef Boy Ari,
Why is it that many foods considered to be healthy, like beans, cauliflower, or cabbage, make you fart so much? It seems to me that farting is the result of some digestive inefficiency. If so, I would think that eating simple, nutritious foods would put your digestion into balance and you would fart less. But my informal research between healthy food and farting seems to indicate no correlation, if that. Why is that?
—Not Silent, Butt Deadly
A: Dear NSBD,
There are a few possible explanations as to why, exactly, millions of particles spew from your body and into the tender noses of anyone within range. Perhaps you are so excited about your gastro-intestinal research that, in your effort to start collecting data as soon as possible, you are swallowing air along with your soybean loaf. Gulped air is one of the main causes of flatulence. Another probable cause is insufficient chewing, which leaves your guts with more work to do, and can result, technically speaking, in chemical reactions that produce gas.
Meanwhile, I know a woman who claims to have no memory of ever farting. I’m not saying I believe that she’s never let one sneak out, but I have no doubt she farts less than you do. And by the way, NSBD, she eats mostly unprocessed food—the kind often referred to as healthy. When I asked if she could explain why she never farts, she shrugged, and said maybe it’s because she chews so carefully and thoroughly.
But of course, personal habits of air gulping and under chewing don’t explain the legendary flatulence inducing qualities of some foods, including the ones you mentioned. Gas that’s produced in response to diet often results from components of certain foods getting munched a certain way by certain bacteria, which produce fumes that can clear a room faster than a fire alarm.
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