As a permanent expat and excessive traveler, I readily fell in love with Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel. The themes in this book resonated with me like a gong: why travel absorbs some people but repels others, the lessons and frustrations embedded in relocating, and the ebb and flow of the urge to return home. While reading I could often be caught sighing happily as the poetic but brisk prose vivified a spectrum of cities and countries.
Questions of Travel follows two main characters, with the chapters alternating between Sydney-born Laura and Sri Lanka-born Ravi as they live their separate and very different lives. Ravi sacrifices a love of geography when he catches the early 90s bug for computers and the internet. He bickers with his siblings, mollifies his mother, and marries a spirited social activist whose brutal murder drives him out of the country. The unattractive Laura inherits wanderlust and a small inheritance from her aunt, which fuel her travels around Asia and Europe, her years living in London, and her eventual return to Australia to work for a Lonely Planet-esque guide book company.
Despite de Kretser’s lush writing, the novel occasionally feels directionless. The protagonists’ meandering stories are crowded with endless details, lovely but unimportant jaunts, and encounters with people who end up mattering little. In short, they resemble strongly the plotless path of real life, which is compelling from a literary standpoint but vexing for a fan of fiction. I’ll admit, I fell out of love with this book before I finished it. In the moment when Laura and Ravi are on the brink of a genuine connection, a small embarrassment sets them back on their paths as mere acquaintances. The novel emphasizes repeatedly how human beings not only fail to connect but fail to grow, a profoundly dispiriting focus for a novel centered on travel. I could forgive the author’s lengthy dance with her settings and characters, but I couldn’t get over the creeping pessimism that encircled the whole concept of leaving home. Laura never evolves beyond the hope of a tourist looking to escape her life and Ravi never gains a purpose that isn’t externally placed on him. Instead of introspection on why we relocate and the impact it has on us, the book reduces travel to yet another way that human beings misunderstand each other.
Although for over half the book the reader anticipates the moment when Ravi and Laura’s stories will fuse, to the author’s immense credit when it finally happens, it is still a surprise. It would have been easy to make the meeting of two protagonists (especially one male and one female) magical or notable. Instead, it’s artless and ordinary. You could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. It’s exactly how we meet people in real life: with no grand indication of what they will come to mean to you, if anything.
I decided to make chicken tikka masala, a dish that was an unexpected result of two very different cultures meeting and melding. Laura spends a portion of her adulthood in the U.K. (where chicken tikka masala has been declared the national dish due to its unwavering popularity) and though the spices undeniably stem from the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of this dish is generally thought to be London.
Not to mention, the recipe is one with a long list of ingredients and a myriad of procedures, echoing de Kretzer’s abundant descriptions and winding plot.
CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA
For the marinade
- 1 cup plain yogurt, whisked until smooth
- 1½ tablespoons ginger paste + 1½ tablespoons garlic paste, blended together
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (poked with a fork and cut into large bite-sized chunks)
For the sauce
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/6 cup ginger paste + 1/6 cup garlic paste, blended together
- 2 medium-sized chili peppers, minced (seeds removed if you don't want it spicy)
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 can tomato puree (8 ounces)
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt (or to taste)
- 1 cup water
- Oil, for grilling
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Minced fresh cilantro, for garnish
- Cooked rice and/or naan bread, for serving
For the marinade: In a large bowl, mix together the marinade ingredients. Add the chicken last and toss to coat. Marinate for at least 30 minutes, or in the refrigerator up to overnight.
For the sauce: Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the ginger paste, garlic paste, and chili peppers. Sauté until lightly browned around the edges. Add the tomato puree and cook until the sauce has darkened in color (about 3 minutes). Add the garam masala and the paprika and sauté for about 1 minute to draw out their flavors. Add the salt and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook until thickened (about 20 minutes).
Meanwhile, fire up your grill. When it’s good and hot, lightly brush it with oil. Place the chicken on the rack, shaking off some of the excess marinade. Cook until the outside is charred (about 2-4 minutes on each side). Don’t worry that the chicken will still be a bit undercooked as it will finish cooking in the sauce.
Pour the sauce into a blender or food processor, and process until smooth. (Note: I don’t have a blender or a food processor, so I simply took the pan off the heat and whisked thoroughly by hand.) Pour back into the skillet and bring back up to a boil. Add the chicken. Then take the heat down to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the heavy cream and stir through. Garnish with minced fresh cilantro, and serve over rice and/or with naan bread.
Note: You might find it easier to grill the chicken if you thread the chunks onto skewers. Just be sure to thoroughly soak wooden skewers in water beforehand.
I used Malaysian chili peppers (because that’s what the Singapore supermarkets carry) but Serranos and jalapeños work great too.
Adapted from Aarti Sequeira