When I was a child I thought Orzo (or κριθαράκι) was actually a seed, like rice or a very special type of barley because in Greek and Italian Orzo or κριθαράκι actually means ‘little pearl of barley’! The second least obvious reason to anyone who might not have seen or eaten orzo is its shape. The pasta looks like a seed and is many times cooked like risotto, added to ingredients that have already been cooked long enough to release flavours and juices (soffrito or slow roasts).
Orzo returned to my kitchen when I picked up a pack of a Misco κριθαράκι at the Deli counter of Pipi’s café in Cardiff and has since been the basic ingredient for many improvised meals this year. It has been the impromptu but exciting pasta dressed in a chilly infused yet simple red tomato sauce for long catch ups and film nights with my wonderful Wendy (AKA Dr Dodds). It has lined our stomach with starchy satisfaction at the end of wine mellowed evenings with Elpida (cousin and friend extrordinaire). A variation of the recipe has seen this dish turn into a pasta bake topped with strong cheddar. It provided the basic ingredient for simple salads flavoured with cooked young spinach leaves, pine nuts, fresh parmesan and pepper that welcomed unexpected guests stopping by to pay us a visit. Recently in the Γιουβέτσι (giouvetsi) dish that I wrote about recently orzo has reclaimed its Greek traditional use in my cooking!
The return to cooking with orzo pasta definitely pointed out an iterative journey to dishes and recipes that I have grown up with and characterise my Greek identity. I realised that this cooking itinerary from experimentation to solid basics has been repeating itself and in a symbolic way it sums me up: the alchemy of flavours, ingredients and recipes from the micro cultures of Greece to new tastes and worldly “cuisines” that have rubbed off on me in the 14 years away from the birth land. Innovation and reinterpretation at once but with once common characteristic: each time this cooking iteration returns to deep routed sensory memories and recipes that will always be part of me.
I have always refused to be mindlessly patriotic, I actually despise manifestations of national delirium and at times have fearfully rejected national symbols but I soon realised that there is a difference between cultural awareness and nationalism. The one embraces and mixes whilst the other puts up solid walls and preaches parochialism, albeit it with the same cultural reference . And one of the ways that I have come to love and appreciate my culture (in its emerging hybridity) is through cooking.
Thinking about all this today has made me reassured and happy in realising that I have not forgotten who I am and that I am becoming who I want to be: my own filter of tastes, experiencses and cultures.
Follow this link for more on simple Orzo inspired recipes.
 Orza! In the context used here means ‘go ahead’ or ‘sail on’ and is used as a phrase of encouragement in Greek. The word is latin and translates to luff in English and actually means to sail closer in to the wind (particularly when a vessels sail is flapping).
There is always that takeaway dish that we all keep ordering again and again in the most unadventurous repetitive manner. That Indian takeaway dish for me is not a balti or a korma and I even managed to overcome my obsession with chicken shatkora, a Bangladeshi specialty flavoured with the exotic shatkora fruit, otherwise known as citrus macroptera or as I prefer to call it ‘ wild orange’.
But I am not going to talk about the culinary potential of the shatokora and its tantalizing combinations with chicken and mutton today because most recently my favourite takeaway dish and inspiration for this recipe is king prawn nawabi bahar. Apart from its taste I am also intrigued by its name. Nawabs were the regional rulers of East Indian provinces and from the little information I can find on the internet they are described as connoisseurs of fine dining. I am not quite sure about the meaning of bahar butin Persian the word translates to ‘spring’ and it also seems to be used as a name in Iran and Turkey. The word also seems to have been used to describe a unit in the trading system that stretched from the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa. To me bahar sounds like the words μπαχάρι (bahari) or μπαχάρια/μπαχαρικά (baharia/baharika) the first one of which we use in Greece to describe allspice or pimento berries , which should not be confused with the allspice powder mixture used in Britain or the red pimento peppers of Spain. The second word, μπαχάρια/μπαχρικά (baharia/baharika), is used to describe (aromatic) spices in Greek. So there could be a connection as I imagine that there was spice trade in the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa that someone I am sure had to measure in some unit possibly called bahar? Any views on this? In my mind, and in the context of food and this recipe, it may be that the word bahar signifies the generous amount of fragrant spices used in the dish.
Whatever the secret spice recipe of my local takeaway may be I am mostly taken by the combination of aubergines and king prawns in a light sauce dish that is almost ‘dry’ but moist enough to flavour the meaty prawns in their shell. So when a couple of days ago I stopped at ‘World foods’, my local corner store and cornucopia of spices and exotic foods, a basket full with small light violet aubergines, fresh, firm and about 10 centimeters long , caught my attention and had me thinking about making my own version of nawabi bahar. I love this tiny little shop that is always busy but somehow still fits all of us in at the same time. In its tightly but neatly packed space World Foods also fits a halal butcher, a greengrocery corner and a fish and seafood freezer something that made things really convenient last Wednesday as I grabbed all my essential ingredients, the ‘baby’ aubergine 8-10), king prawns (500gr net weight), tomatoes, onions , and was ready to cook a few minutes after leaving the shop.
I committed two ‘crimes’ in preparation of this dish that I would like to confess. First I bought frozen king prawns the destination of which I cannot confirm and that makes me feel bad about the possible unacceptable method in which they were caught. But I have chosen to be honest in this cooking journal and despite my best intentions I do not always buy as local and green as I should and would like. My second confession is about the quick defrosting method of the prawns that many cooking experts will frown upon. I simply had to fill and refill a pot with warm water and immerse the bag of prawns in it to defrost. If you are not too careful with the water temperature this could par cook your prawns that could lead into over cooking them later.
When I started cooking I was not in the mood for generous doses of baharia (spices) as I wanted to focus on the tender aubergine and prawn combination. So when I fried a large onion in a bit of olive oil in low heat I only added a bit of salt and some ground coriander. I tossed in the small walnut size aubergine chunks I cut the fruit in, fried for a few minutes with the onions and then added four crashed garlic cloves. I added the 4-6 medium sized ripe tomatoes, especially ‘soft’ and selected for sauce, blitzed in my minipimer blender (otherwise known as my kitchen chopper!) before the garlic burned. Sugar (not more than a tablespoon), more salt, some ginger power and more ground coriander also went in. I would have loved some lime in this but as I had note the juice of a lemon was a great substitue and an addition that I think is essential. In terms of sauce quantity, I simply aimed to have enough to give the thirsty aubergines some juice to cook in and be left with enough to quickly cook the prawns in. I don’t think this is one of the rich and plentiful sauce dishes that you dip your naan bread in.
Despite my initial instinct to keep this dish simple, I was suddenly convinced it needed cinnamon and something else, but what? I dreamingly gazed over my racks of spices and the colorful jars decorating my wall as well as taking up most of the space of one of my small kitchen cupboards. Allspice, the kind that is used in Britain and mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, appeared boldly behind a harissa jar! Tata! It joined the sauce with a bit more coriander powder. By the time the aubergines had simmered in the tomatoes and onions sauce (for about 15 minutes or maybe 20) it was time to add a taste of the sea. In less than 10 minutes after the shell-on king prawns went in (about 20 of them or about 500gr) my desired aubergine and prawn meal was ready, satisfying and tasty, and served on a bowl of white and red quinoa, as a healthier alternative to rice.