‘Neither East nor West’: Chicken Tikka in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

As it often happens, it is not quite the best lines of poetry that are remembered in popular culture: rather, I sometimes think, the most awkward-sounding. Kipling’s phrases ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ (from ‘The Ballad of East and West’, 1899) have been heavily exploited over the years. Interestingly, the former phrase seems to have inspired a lot of restaurant owners across the globe, and both are also referred to in the tragicomic adventures of the Anglo-Pakistani Khan family in the film East is East and its sequel West is West. However, the ballad continues (and ends) on quite a different note: while ‘East is East’ and ‘West is West’ and they shall never meet (at least geographically), Kipling continues saying that when two equals meet, ‘there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth’ (l. 3, l. 95). Differences are intriguing, valuable, and ultimately enrich us. This blog post, in fact, would not have been possible without an ‘East meets West’ kind of collaboration (or ‘West meets East’, if you like):

  • Long ago, Franzi, from Germany, indicated Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a book she would like to see us make recipes from.
  • Much later (sorry!) I, Nico, originally from Italy, read it and much much later (very sorry!) made a recipe from this book.
  • Natasha, originally from India, gave me a beautiful box full of REAL Indian spices and ingredients (as opposed to what you get in the UK, or in Europe, for that matter), which have made my adventuring into further culinary fields possible.
  • Anum, originally from Pakistan, shared with me the recipe for her chicken tikka (which is the recipe I selected from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and is also a reader of Mohsin Hamid’s books (as well as a follower of our blog, like all the other characters of this story).

 

It is not just serendipity that both East and West should be involved in the reviewing of the bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The story told by Mohsin Hamid is one of an Eastern man’s failed dream of the West, and perhaps can also be one of the Western reader’s failed expectations of the East, too. As the reader subconsciously becomes the ‘you’, who the protagonist Changez is constantly referring to (an ‘American sir’), we are lured to listen to the story of Changez’s life in the United States, much like Odysseus’ mermaids, or the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s ballad. Changez’s tale is as unavoidable as it is compelling, as charming as it is sinister, and as carefully crafter as it strives to appear casual. Changez takes us through the ups and downs of his life in America as a muslim at the dawn of 9/11: his prestigious education, his dangerous beard, his failed, sick American lover, and his morally ambiguous job. As dusk comes down on Lahore and on Changez and the reader having tea, a meal is ordered, which is seen to cause immediate suspicion in our Western self as the silent listener of Changez’s eloquent yet extravagant talking. As opposed to Americans perhaps, Changez says:

 

‘[W]e Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali [a neighbourhood in Lahore] that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurateurs would consider placing a western dish on his menu. No, we are surrounded instead by the kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat, the spiced brain of sheep! These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon. Not for us the vegetarian recipes one finds across the border to the east, nor the sanitized, sterilized, processed meats so common in your homeland! Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.’ (p. 115)

 

In another occasion in the novel, the narrator half-ironically warns his companion against the local food, as he thinks the Westerner will fear it as ‘poisonous’. According to Changez, the “predatory” and “non-squeamish” nature of Pakistani cuisine is what distinguishes it from that of bordering India and of the familiar United States; and to fit all stereotypes, I had to select ‘the tikka of chicken’ as the dish to prepare for this blog post, indeed perhaps the least adventurous of all these, and the most common to the Westerner!

Enjoy our chicken tikka, and no reason to be squeamish about it!

chicken-and-spices-2

Recipe (from our blog friend Anum, tried by Nico)

Ingredients (for 2 people):

2 chicken pieces (I used chicken breast, but even better would be chicken leg or thigh)

4tbsp plain (or Greek-style) yogurt

1/2 tsp garlic paste

1/2 tsp ginger paste

3 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp crushed black pepper

2tbsp single cream

1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp dried coriander leaves

1 tbsp sunflower/vegetable oil

 

Directions:

  1. Place a few small cuts on the chicken.
  2. Whip the yogurt and cream together in a large bowl and add the chicken.
  3. Then add all the other ingredients together and marinate for up to 2 hours.
  4. Once the chicken is marinated, cook in the oven at a temperature of 200 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked (this may vary according to your oven). It may be that the chicken gives off water whilst cooking; if so, drain the water and continue baking in the oven.
  5. After the chicken is cooked, to give it the smoky flavour traditionally associated with chicken tikka, you can take a piece of charcoal and place it on the stove until it glows red. Then place it on the chicken and cover it with a lid or plate to infuse the smoke. I haven’t tried this as I didn’t have any charcoal, but it sounds exciting and it gives the chicken the smoky, barbecue flavour otherwise missed when using the oven to cook it.
  6. Anum recommends a mint or tamarind chutney to go with it if you like!

 

References

Mohsin Hamid. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

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