Yasmin Halima, the mother of my young and brilliant colleague Dr. Seema Yasmin, was eager to get back into the kitchen. During the holidays, she and her family lost their house in one of the tornados that tore through the Dallas area – so devastating. When they came to dinner on New Year's Eve, I told Yasmin she was welcome whenever she liked, and Seema emailed me a couple days later: Her mom really missed the kitchen and would love to come.
Yasmin sent me a list of ingredients to pick up. She would be preparing (and teaching me how to make) her family's favorite comfort dish, thummi letho – Burmese chicken curry.
Yasmin and Seema respect Muslim dietary restrictions and only eat halal meat, which poses no problem at all, as there' s a halal butcher in a wonderful Asian grocery, Indo Pak Market, not far from our house. It's super fun doing the shopping there, hunting down chick pea flour (labeled as besan) and coconut milk and tamarind purée, which comes in a plastic-wrapped block.
Yasmin arrives, and we chat for a while. Though her daughter is my colleague, Yasmin is a year younger than I! Then we head into the kitchen. Once we start chopping peanuts and slicing garlic and stirring and sautéing, she relaxes and tells me her story – a remarkable one.
Born on India's west coast, near Surat in the state of Gujarat, Yasmin moved with her family to England when she was six. She grew up there, in a tiny industrial town near Coventry, in the Midlands, with a conservative Indian Muslim upbringing. (Her grandparents and father were born in Rangoon, Burma, where they had textile factories.) Yasmin had an arranged marriage, and when she was only 19, gave birth to Seema.
The marriage was not a happy one, and when she was 26, she made an unfathomable decision: She would leave not only her husband, but her community. "I wanted an education, and I wanted my daughter to have an education," she tells me, as she stirs a pot of chicken, lightly searing the pieces, which she's tossed with chopped garlic. Such a thing – leaving, or even making any kind of life decision – was unheard of for a young woman of her upbringing. Yasmin did it anyway.
Her family supported her as she left for university and then moved to London as a researcher for the national department of health. She raised Seema on her own, but credits her sister with ensuring her daughter was educated about her faith and culture. None of it was easy.
Yasmin tells me she succeeded in getting her undergraduate degree in educational research and psychology and Seema – a star pupil (who by the way met her husband Emmanuel when they were both 17) – managed to achieve her own dream, gaining admittance to Cambridge University to study medicine. While Seema was at Cambridge, Yasmin – who was working for a non-profit aid organization – realized a dream of her own, to study at an Ivy League university. Admittance to a graduate program at Columbia brought her – and later Seema and Emmanuel – to the United States. Yasmin spent three years in New York, then seven years in Washington, D.C., running an international non-profit organization called Global Campaign for Microbicides followed by a few years working in public relations, before moving with Seema and Emmanuel to Texas.
Amazing how you can get a know a person when you're cooking together. Before the evening is through, I learn that she'd like to start catering – on a small scale: cooking Indian and Burmese dishes for private dinner parties.
So. It was Yasmin's sister who taught her how make thummi letho, the dish we're putting together. "Part of what we do to heal is we cook," she says. "And we feed. We make this dish that makes you feel good. We have emotions attached not just to food, but to dishes." Thummi letho, Yasmin tells me, "is such a basic, homely dish. We eat it to make us feel warm and safe." She sees food as a connection back to her family, too, along with observing certain Muslim traditions – praying and eating halal. "It's my umbilical cord back to my family and community." Neither she nor Seema wear the veil.
Seema, Emmanuel and Lily will be here in a bit, along with Yasmin's sister's son, Luqman, who just flew in last night from his home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to help the family through their crisis. "They're very close," Yasmin says about Luqman and Seema. "Like brother and sister."
When she makes thummi at home, Yasmin takes her time. "In the morning I might do a couple of things" – preparing some of the garnishes, say, and making the Basmati rice – "and in the afternoon I might do a couple of things."
The dish has several parts: what she calls the "base dish" – rice, cellophane (mung bean) noodles and linguini, all tossed together and garnished with sliced potatoes and eggs and chopped peanuts; a coconut milk-based chicken curry; and a variety of garnishes, to be passed at the table.
It's a lot of elements, but the curry itself is very simple, taking less than a half hour to make. If you want to simplify it, you can serve the curry on plain Basmati, or on plain cellophane noodles, and serve it with just a garnish or two – maybe lime wedges and chopped cilantro.
Yasmin sprinkles a couple teaspoons of chile powder onto the chicken, then thinks again and adds another. "You don't want it bland and boring!" A can and a half of coconut milk goes in, then it simmers till the chicken is just cooked through. While it bubbles, she toasts the chickpea flour in a dry pan till it's fragrant and it changes color slightly to pinky-gold. ("Can you see how it changed?" she says. It's pretty subtle.) That gets stirred into the curry, along with a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter, and voilå.
The garnishes have been prepared and put in small bowls: crushed, roasted peanuts; the limes and cilantro; fried garlic chips; fried chile flakes; tamarind paste.
Seema, Emmanuel and Luqman arrive, followed by Thierry and our friend Habib: thummi letho party! Seema has brought a galette des rois for dessert, given to her by Marina, another colleague. I'm glad Thierry and Habib will be handy to explain that tradition (they're both French).
Seema's excited about the thummi. "When else can you eat noodles and rice in the same dish?" she says. "It's not fancy food; it's comfort food, and it tastes so good. There are so many ingredients!"
Yasmin puts the plates together for us, as if she hasn't done enough. First the noodles and rice, then she spoons some curry over, topping it with a slice of potato and one of egg. Then the garnishes: limes, cilantro, a drizzle of sweet-sour tamarind paste, some chopped peanuts. It's wonderful: coconutty and tangy and hot and rich with peanuts. I can see why it's a family addiction.
Naturally we all go for another round.
Later, Thierry and I take the galette to the kitchen to insert the small ceramic king figurine inside, then bring it back to the dining room and explain the game: Whoever gets the piece with the king inside wins the crown – and chooses a queen. I slice it, happy that my knife doesn't hit the ceramic piece. It's much more fun if you don't know where it is. We taste the cake – puff pastry filled with almond frangipane (thank you, Marina!). Bingo – Luqman gets the king!
He places the glittery paper crown on his head, and we ask, "Who's your queen"?
"Emmanuel!" he cries. How lovely: Burma meets France to bring a little sweetness, a little spice, into the new year.