Exit West

THE BOOK:

30688435._UY1200_SS1200_This is the love story of two young people living in an unnamed oppressive, volatile, and unstable city. In spite of the various restrictions on their lives, the two are relatively light-hearted and hopeful, just as any other young couple falling in love might be. Nadia is estranged from her family, having chosen to live alone in a culture where unmarried young women just don’t do that, but Saeed is close to his parents. When his mother is randomly killed in her own yard by militant gunfire, Saeed brings Nadia to live at his father’s house. They become like father and daughter quickly in those dangerous and uncertain times. When war breaks out, Saeed and Nadia have to decide whether to stay, or try to find access to the “doors” that are rumored to provide access to unknown locations, possibly thousands of miles away in another country. There were so many uncertainties when the couple made the decision to leave: can the person they’ve paid be trusted; where will they end up and will it be safer than where they are; will they make it to the designated door location without being apprehended by the police or the militants or the army; what will happen to them during the actual passage through the door? So many questions. Losing his mother, and leaving his father changed Saeed. He began to pray more, laugh less and lost his playful optimism. The rest of the story is about their literal journey, through the doors to new locations, and the journey of their relationship as their love grows and changes.

What made reading this book so enjoyable was the beauty of the writing. Hamid’s prose is meticulous and precise and I was left feeling that each word was carefully chosen in constructing sentences that sometimes felt like poetry. In his writing, Hamid managed to convey joyfulness when Saeed and Nadia first met; grief when Saeed lost his parents; and tension in the uncertainties that the couple faced as they migrated through space and time. Suspension of belief about the doors was easy, I simply accepted that something as mundane as a door in an ordinary house could be the route to another geographical location, like “beam me up, Scotty,” in Star Trek.

THE BEAUTY:

The doors, if one was lucky enough to find one and be able to afford passage, provided an opportunity to escape from one reality into another, so there was a  lot of uncertainty and risk involved, but also a lot of hope. You didn’t know where you would end up. It could be wonderful, but it also could be more dangerous and hostile than the place you left. The doors are metaphors for the choices we make in response to how good a fit exists between where we are and what we want in life. When the circumstances of your daily existence are so difficult that choosing to move on to an uncertain future is the only avenue that allows you to pursue the life you want to live, then you make that choice and hope for the best. That is the basic story of refugees all over the world, making difficult choices to pursue a better life. But as the old woman in Palo Alto thinks near the end of the book:
“…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”

A complex book about love, family, refugees,

THE FOOD:

While there were plenty of scenes that took place in restaurants or cafes and other more domestic settings, food was mentioned in a generic way. When Saeed and Nadia went to a Chinese restaurant early in their relationship, the only details given were that they had water and tea to drink, and used forks instead of chopsticks. In one location various groups were giving out free bread and soup. In another, there is a gifted cook who is using local whole foods to create a taster’s paradise because the world’s foods were coming together and being re-formed into something new and wonderful. In that spirit, having just made and tasted kimchi for the first time in my life, I found this Michael Symon recipe from the TV show “The Chew,” while searching for recipes using kimchi. You can use supermarket kimchi if you don’t want to make your own. The best part about this was the pickled hot dogs! I love, love, love hot dogs. My favorite day of the month at school was the day the cafeteria served hot dogs, and all the children knew it. It was also the day I had to say “yes” repeatedly to the question, “Are you having a hot dog today?” I pickled my own, because they’re ready overnight and I had them in the freezer, but a short cut if you don’t have pickled digs is to add 3 tablespoons of pickle juice to the food processor before pulsing all the ingredients.

Kimchi Potstickers

½ C kimchi, drained and excess liquid squeezed out, finely chopped
1 C pickled hot dogs, sliced
¼ C scallions, finely sliced
1 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 T cornstarch
1 package potsticker wrappers
3-4 T peanut oil (for pan frying)
(3 T pickle juice if your dogs aren’t pickled)

for the dipping sauce
2 T chinese hot mustard
2 T water
1 T soy sauce
1 T honey
1 T rice vinegar

In a bowl of a food processor, add the kimchi, hot dogs, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil and cornstarch and pulse until coarsely chopped. Refrigerate until ready to use. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Keeping your potsticker wrappers covered with a damp towel, work with one or two at a time and add about one tablespoon of filling to the center. Brush the perimeter with water, then fold in half, crimping and sealing the edges. Place on the parchment-lined baking sheet and keep covered with a damp towel until all of the wrappers and filing have been used.

Place a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add peanut oil and half of the potstickers. Cook, without moving, until golden brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, add 1/3 cup water to the pan and cover. Continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove to a platter, wipe out the pan and place back over the heat with more oil. Repeat with remaining potstickers. Serve with the dipping sauce.

For the Dipping Sauce: In a medium bowl add the mustard, water, soy sauce, honey and rice vinegar and whisk to combine.

If you can’t find pickled hot dogs use regular hot dogs and add 3 tablespoons of pickle juice to the kimchi mixture.

NOTE: We absolutely LOVED this recipe. The dipping sauce is fabulous and we’ll use it in place of the other one we’ve been using for Asian-style dishes. This was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. The only dilemma now, is I have leftover pickled hot dogs, and I promised myself that I would never eat more than one hot dog per month. Can’t freeze, as they were previously frozen. Dilemma!

 

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