I turn it up all the way to hear over the sounds of sizzling shallots coming from the pan in front of me. The radio talks about everything, and while my hands are busy chopping vegetables and uncovering steaming pots, it’s a relief to let it run through a slew of topics: elections, the Havana film festival, discoveries in astrophysics, etc… just when my mind starts to wander I’m drawn back by an Alabama Shakes track. No topic is left uncovered. And always taken to the brainiest extent (e.g. I would have never guessed that organized sports were not popular in the U.S. until after the Civil War because they used to be associated with European aristocracy and English domination!).But today the show I listened to was about a very French subject. An excruciatingly divisive debate in the French Academy that’s been tearing society apart for decades: Spelling. Four voices alternate opinions, rising and falling in their allotted times. The kitchen sounds are louder than expected and I have a hard time hearing everything but I catch some snippets: “the genius of the French language”, “the 1990 orthography reform project”, “a literary nation”, “the poetics of language” — like the word for dragonfly, libelulle, with four “L’s”, a letter that phonetically sounds like the word “ailes” meaning “wings” — as one interlocutor calls it, “a symbiosis of biology and orthography”, in which both the animal and the word referring to it have the same physical characteristics. With the proposed changes, schoolchildren would have less supposedly useless accents to memorize, less dashes, less superfluous consonants.
The questions from callers continue to pile up. Is orthography an art or a science? Does it even matter that much or isn’t it more important to simply teach students to love reading great books? At that point the four voices culminate into a cacophony of linguistic arguments. One of them says, half-joking, that the subject of spelling touches a nerve in France, much like the way that the subject of gun control polarizes Americans. The French have turned their writers into stars, high priests of a literary religion. In no other country have writers enjoyed such high status. Bernard Pivot — a literary critic and former host of a wildly popular TV show about books, Apostrophes — recounts how as a child, he read new words in the Larousse dictionary and thought of them as new friends that he would gradually get to know better over a lifetime. We can love, hate, or love-hate them. Words are our friends but also our enemies, our slaves and our masters.
“Word” is “mot” in French, phonetically recalling “maux” (same pronunciation) which means “evils”. There’s a heaviness to it, something to be confronted and deciphered like Sartre’s autobiography, Les Mots. In Portuguese, palavra, sounds like abracadabra with its rhythmic vowels. “Word” is a unit, it’s Microsoft Word, it’s the cog in a mechanical system, the brick and mortar of sentences and paragraphs.
There is also the French word “chat” (the “t” is silent) meaning “cat”, which in Portuguese sounds like “chá” meaning “tea”, and is written like the English word used to describe early Internet forums. Reverse it and it works as well: “gato” is the word for cat in Portuguese but sounds like “gâteau”, meaning “cake” in French. And somehow when I find myself talking to my cats I end up having a brief mental image of a teacup with cake…
Masala garbanzo beans + zucchini & spinach | Serves 2-4
If using dry garbanzo beans, you will need to soak them overnight (see instructions below in the garbanzo beans section). The next day, start by cooking the garbanzo beans and make the masala sauce in the meantime.
The masala sauce:
The quantities below make app. 4-5 cups of sauce. You can easily freeze or keep the leftovers in the fridge a few days. It also goes wonderfully with chicken, prawns, etc.
- 30g butter
- 1 small onion, thinly diced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely grated
- 2 tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
- 190g tomato paste
- 1 medium-size fresh tomato, peeled & diced
- 1/2-1 tsp very finely chopped hot pepper or ground paprika, to taste
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garam masala (or a spice mix with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger…)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground curry
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 whole-milk yoghurt
- 15cl crème fraîche
- 20cl coconut milk
- A few fresh coriander leaves
- fleur de sel & black pepper
- In a pot, melt the butter and add the diced onion. Cook until soft and add the grated garlic & ginger. After a couple of minutes, add the tomato paste and diced tomato as well as hot pepper. Cook on medium-high heat until the bottom of the pan starts to stick.
- Add all the ground spices and mix thoroughly. Throw in the yoghurt, crème fraîche & coconut cream. Mix well, bring to a boil and then down to a simmer.
- Add the fresh coriander, sparing some for serving. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Simmer for another app. 15 min., mixing regularly. Serve hot or reheated if used by itself or with another dish.
The garbanzo beans:
- 1 cup dry or app. 2 cups pre-soaked garbanzo beans
- 2L vegetable stock or salted water
- 2 shallots, peeled & thinly sliced
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- 1-2 cups masala sauce, to taste
- A few baby spinach leaves
- olive oil
- If using dry garbanzo beans, the night before, soak the beans overnight in a large bowl covering generously with a lot of cold water to make sure they’ll have enough liquid to fully rehydrate and expand (they can double in size). Cover the bowl with a clean cloth. Drain & rinse the next day.
- In a pot, bring the vegetable stock to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook the garbanzo beans for app. 1 and 1/2 hours or until tender. Try one to make sure they’re fully cooked since the cooking time can vary quite a bit depending on the soaking and the age of the beans. Drain & reserve.
- In a pot, heat up some olive oil and fry the sliced shallots until soft and slightly colored. Add the sliced zucchini and stir frequently on medium heat until it becomes soft too.
- Add the garbanzo beans as well as the masala sauce and mix until homogenous. A couple of minutes before turning off the heat, throw in the spinach leaves, mix and serve.
*Some of the pottery used in this post is handmade by a wonderful friend & potter from Auvergne. Each vessel is thrown on the wheel, and Hubert makes his own glazes using natural products from the region such as crushed minerals & ashes. He just started a lovely blog about glazing & pottery techniques.