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literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Teju Cole's "Every Day is for the Thief" & Daal with Tomatoes

Teju Cole's "Every Day is for the Thief" & Daal with Tomatoes

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

In Every Day is for the Thiefauthor Teju Cole introduces the reader to a city that may by unknown but remains intriguing and, in some cases, familiar. It is the story of a young Nigerian doctor, now living in New York City, as he returns home to Lagos for the first time. The unnamed narrator's culture shock begins as soon as he visits the Nigerian embassy. He has not left American soil yet, but is already face by a system that runs counter to efficiency, unless lubricated by bribes. He will be frustrated by this — the expectation of undue payment for basic service — several times before he quits protesting and gets on with his trip. His is the story of any Western transplant returning home to a third world country where things are just done differently, where corruption is the new rule of law, where nothing speaks louder than a little extra cash.

Restrained prose guides the reader through a city that is dusty, in places poor, everywhere choked by regular power outages and always, always sweating. It reminds me of my birthplace, Karachi, the Pakistani city by the sea I have returned to time and time again. Like our narrator, I too get frustrated by the brokenness of the local system. Like him, I too work within it instead of around it.

I do not want you to confuse my description of Cole's writing as "restrained" with something similar but wrong, such as "limited." His words are thoughtful and metered, capable of portraying the most subtle emotions by painting a scene. When the narrator visits a local music school, he delights in the education, in the preservation of the arts. He then wilts a little, realizing not only the barrier to entry — students must own their own instruments — but that Nigerian instructors are paid less than foreigners. Even well-functioning facilities are followed by a shadow or two. The reader is free to decide whether to focus on the light or the dark.

Fans of Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi's Americanah will surely enjoy this short novel, as will those with a taste for strong yet measured prose. This book, to me at least, feels like it was written for immigrants, those who return home and find it at once drastically different yet all the same.

Every Day is for the Thief unexpectedly reminded me so much of my experiences returning home to Pakistan that I decided to share a traditional South Asian dish for it. Daal is a vegetarian favorite, often served alongside rice and spiced ground beef, but I enjoy eating it plain, using paratha pieces as spoons. This recipe comes from my mom and feels so right for this book because, familiar as it is, I always make it a little different than she does. It's home, but my version of it.


DAAL WITH TOMATOES

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 cup orange (Masoor) daal/lentils
  • 2 cups + 1 cup water, divided
  • 2 medium tomatoes, cubed (do not throw away seeds/juices!)
  • 2 serrano peppers (cracked open if you prefer spicy)
  • 1 handful chopped cilantro
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Instructions

Soak daal in cool water for 10 minutes, then drain

In low, wide pot, cook daal with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil and cook until water is mostly absorbed. Mix vigorously with wooden spoon or whisk until mostly smooth.

At this point, pour in 1 cup water. You can add more later if you want to thin out the daal. Also add in chopped tomato and chilies.

Cook covered over medium heat for 30-40 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking.

Add in cilantro and lemon juice, and any extra water for thinning. Cook another 5 minutes or so. Add salt to taste. Transfer to serving bowl.

For lunch, I prefer to serve daal as described above. For a heavier dinner side, consider the following: In a small frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of oil with zeera (cumin seeds). When zeera is browned, pour contents of pan over daal and serve immediately.


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