Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cooking with Ghee - Salaama

I generally don't mention ethnic restaurant meals in this blog unless they include a menu item with obvious barbecue connection like the puerco asado at Los Compadres or the Bánh mì sandwich at Pho Saigon. I love eating traditional foods from every part of our globe. Anywhere you go on the planet, longstanding food traditions were formed by people figuring out how to create the tastiest and most nourishing foods possible using the locally available plants and animals.

Just keeping up with posting about all the barbecue and soul food places I'm discovering takes up enough of my time that there is no way I could attempt to write about all the ethnic eateries I visit too. Any restaurant that closely follows the time-honored traditions of any single, specific food culture is going to be serving up good, real food. Of course, once restaurants start abandoning those time-honored traditions to cater to American tastes the nutritional value of the food being served can plummet. There aren't any ancient Chinese traditions surrounding sugary, corn-starch thickened sauces on foods fried in cheap industrial vegetable oils. 

Pork-based traditional foods are the focus of this blog. But after a recent trip to Salaama Market and Restaurant on Raleigh-LaGrange I decided it warranted a mention even though its adherence to Halal dietary restrictions means that you aren't going to find any pork products anywhere in the building. But even though the friendly people at Salaama avoid my main source of dietary fat they still manage to work plenty of healthy, natural fat into their cooking.

I've eaten at Salaama in the past, after reading about it in Ken's Food Find. The little restaurant and market is right off Covington Pike in an area where I spend a lot of time at work. I mentioned Ken's review of the place in a recent post about meeting up with him for brunch at Three Angels Diner. That post caused a couple friends to read his review of Salaama and decide they wanted to take a trip out there. I was down the street from it when they decided to go last Friday so I stopped in to eat with them. I was the first one to arrive so I decided to kill some time looking around in the market.

I was impressed by the large quantity of ghee on the shelves. Ghee made by heating up butter and separating out the water and milk solids to get the concentrated butterfat. Concentrated butterfat is as delicious as it sounds. And like other natural animal fats, it is a health food. In fact, the same way that a switch from butter to margarine and other vegetable oils in the U.S. was accompanied by a dramatic increase in heart disease rate, populations in India that have switched from cooking with ghee to margarine and other vegetable oils have seen the some kind of jumps in heart disease rates. 

Plenty of people try to blame increasing rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. on an increase in the consumption of animal fats when the opposite is actually true. Throughout the world, any time a population of people begins replacing animal fat in the diet with processed vegetable oils, sugars and grains it begins to see a steady rise in the "diseases of civilization." Seeing shelves stocked with ghee instead of vegetable oils let me know that the people at Salaama are serving up genuine real food.

Ghee is shelf stable at room temperature. The other main dairy products for sale in the market were yogurts and yogurt drinks. In recent times processed food companies have convinced people that the best way to extend the shelf life of dairy products is to pasteurize and homogenize them until the body can barely recognize them as real food. But for thousands of years before that the healthy, natural way people kept dairy products from going bad in hot climates was to intentionally ferment them with helpful bacterias. Traditional diets formed over hundreds or even thousands of years based on observation of what caused people to thrive. It is amazing how quickly marketing by the processed food industry has convinced U.S. consumers to abandon traditional foods in favor of factory-produced garbage despite the obvious damage that shift has done to the nation's health within just a few generations.

The staff at Salaama has been very friendly every time I've visited but there is a definite language barrier. There is always a lot of communicating with hand gestures and pointing at items on the menu. On this trip I ordered the beef stew and both of my friends ordered the goat. All the meals included salads that I forgot to photograph. 

The beef stew.

The goat.

The first time I went to Salaama I had a salmon dish. Every meal I've tried there has been great and my friends enthusiastically devoured their goat in a manner that assured me it was just as good as the stew I was enjoying. All the meals are centered around meats and vegetables cooked with ghee, seasoned with spices and served over rice. The beds of rice on the bottoms of the plate are enormous. I just mainly ate the meat and veggies from my meal and left most of the rice behind. If someone wanted to eat the rice too and take their leftovers home the serving could easily be used for two meals. The server initially forgot our hot sauce. If you don't get a little container full of green sauce with your meal be sure to ask for it. It adds a whole new dimension to the food.

Apparently the meals also include bananas for dessert since our server dropped three of them off at our table as we were about half-way through our meals.

Salaama Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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