The Story

The Awesome Thing That Happened
At the Halal Market

By Lindsay Sterling

Since I’m not Muslim, I felt a little funny going into the Halal Market on Washington Avenue. Halal describes foods that are prepared according to Muslim law. Would a non-Muslim be welcome in there? What reason would one have to go in? In my case, I was hoping to find some fine bulgur wheat near my office so I wouldn’t have to drive through traffic to the Iraqi store out on Forest. Inside, the place was dark. Shelves were packed with dusty merchandize, some I recognized, some I didn’t. The lack of windows made it feel like a cave.
But then the cashier smiled brightly from the back of the store. He was a black man from Uganda. His name was Mubarek. I told him about my quest to learn a dish from every country in the world. Did he, by chance, know of a Ugandan who could teach me a dish?  “My sister is a great cook,” he said. “She can teach you. She lives in Boston but she comes up a lot.” He gave me her number. When I called his sister, she responded, “I can teach you. I’ll call when I am in Portland.” Their immediate willingness was shocking.
When she called a couple weeks later, she didn’t even say her name. She just said, “Hello. I am in Portland.” I met her the next morning at the Halal Market. Mubarek was working again. He introduced me to his sister, Zabib [Za BEEB], and their other brother, Haroun, who’d also come up from Boston. They were all going to show me how to cook one of their tribe’s favorite meals: choroko (mung beans), chapati (flatbread), pilau (rice cooked with meat broth, onions and spices), and catchambarat (a fresh salad of shaved green peppers, red onion, tomatoes, and carrots dressed in lemon juice).
The band saw behind the counter at the Halal Market whirred loudly as Mubarek cut frozen, bone-in goat meat into bite-sized pieces for us. Haroun introduced me to choroko, tiny little pond-green beans also known as moong or mung beans. In Vietnam the sprouts grown from these beans are used for garnishing a soup called pho [pronounced Phuh]. In Thailand, the sprouts are stirred into pad Thai. In Uganda, cooks boil the dried beans in water until they’re soft and then cook them a second time in oil that has already fried onions, carrots, green peppers and salt. Choroko, prepared as they taught it to me, tastes a lot like smoky refried beans.
At their dad’s house, while Haroun cooked the beans and rice, Zabib made the flatbread. She kneaded flour, water, salt and oil into a loose, wet dough, covered it, and let it rest for thirty minutes. Then she rolled out the dough, cut it into strips, and rolled each strip into a shape like a miniature cinnamon roll. Then she rolled each one of these with a rolling pin into a disc about a quarter inch thick. She cooked the discs one at a time on a hot, dry pan until they turned light in color with toasty brown spots.
The chapati was soft, hot, and delicious. You break off bite-sized pieces and grab the various parts of the feast with them: beans, salad, or rice pilau. In America, we’d call choroko a bean dip. But eating it with Ugandans, it’s more of a bean grab. Being able to share our differences is a great thing. I hope we all don’t become the same over the years. And amidst our differences, I hope we can all be as awesome to each other as this Ugandan family was to me.

Click at right for the recipes and live cooking class info.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2014