OK, here is another post that starts by talking about a recent road trip, this time in the Motor City. We saw some stellar art – at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and on the city streets. Detroit is home to a talented, lively graffiti art scene.
We also ate some amazing food – some of it definitively American, but most of it brought to the city by immigrants. We’re always happy to eat at Señor Lopez, on the edge of Mexican Town. The food is delicious, authentic, plentiful and cheap, and the service is unfailingly friendly. But what really captured our culinary hearts this visit was a pair of Bengali meals.
One of the Bengali restaurants is in Detroit proper; the other is in Hamtramck, a small city that’s actually inside the city limits of Detroit. First settled by German farmers, Hamtramck saw a huge influx of Polish immigrants in the early 20th century. In 1970, the city’s population was 90 percent Polish.
The past few decades have seen a new wave of immigrants, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia – especially Bangladesh. Buddhist and Islamic temples have joined the churches sprinkled throughout the city.
And more to the point here, Hamtramck is now sprinkled with a dazzling array of food choices reflecting its cultural richness. The city’s Polish heritage is well represented, of course, with numerous restaurants, groceries and sausage shops. Longtime residents still talk about the fire that temporarily closed Bozek’s Meat and Groceries in 2007 – mainly what they say is how incredible the air smelled. And Fat Tuesday is celebrated as Pączki Day, a day given over to eating pączki, traditional Polish pastries filled with fruit or cream fillings – and to drinking early and often and probably playing hooky from work.
The newer arrivals brought their cooking pots, recipes, and food traditions with them, too. We shopped for late night snacks at an Arab-owned market with beautiful produce, a huge selection of locally made hummus and an impressive olive bar. And we feasted on Bengali pizzas one evening after a day of museums and shopping and hiking around. (That’s another great thing about immigrants: they adopt and adapt ideas of their new home. Like pizza.) One pizza we ordered was topped with spicy curried chicken; the spinach feta pizza tasted like saag paneer. Both featured perfectly charred, crisp, cracker-thin crusts.
This week’s recipe is inspired by an appetizer we shared at a more traditional Bengali restaurant. The original dish is Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian Dry, best known as a famous Indo-Chinese first course. But it’s popular in Bangladesh, too.
In the original, the cauliflower is coated with a three-flour batter and deep fried. Then, depending on the recipe, it’s mixed with a sauté of some combination of onion, garlic, vinegar, red chili sauce, ketchup (or tomato paste), soy sauce, oil, peppers, and other flavorings. Sometimes, it’s topped with cilantro, sometimes with sesame seeds. The resulting dish is “dry” only in the sense that it isn’t in a gravy sauce, as many Bengali and Indian dishes are.
For my version, I didn’t try to recreate what we’d eaten at the restaurant. Instead, I used its delicious, tangy flavors as a guide. I lightened it up a bit, skipping the batter and deep frying, and cooked the cauliflower for a shorter time to maintain more of its crunch.
Sautéed Cauliflower with Chili Sauce
Serves 2 as a side
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil + more if needed
4 generous cups bite-sized cauliflower florets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, chopped (and seeded, if you wish)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili oil (see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon Sriracha hot sauce (see Kitchen Notes)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
1. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium flame. Add cauliflower and toss to coat with oil. Season generously with salt and pepper and sauté for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until charred in some spots.
2. Add onion and jalapeño pepper to pan, drizzling in extra oil if needed, and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add garlic to pan and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add chili oil and Sriracha to pan and toss to coat cauliflower. Remove pan from heat and add vinegar. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. Top with chopped cilantro and serve.
Spicing things up. The chili oil is traditional. You’ll find it in Asian markets and some supermarkets. Created in the United States in the early 1980s by a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, Sriracha is becoming a tradition in its own right. For us, the two hot sauces add the right flavor and heat to this dish, a nice, serious kick. If you’re going to skimp on anything, cut back on the chili oil. The Sriracha delivers a lot of the tangy quality necessary for everything to work.