This story starts with a song so well known around the world that even Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon’s first wife, made a recording of it.
Very few people know, however, that it was written in 1926 for a famous Russian emigre artist Alexander Vertinsky, “the Black Pierrot,” as his stage persona was known, a melancholy balladeer of the times gone but not forgotten. After the revolution that forced the upper classes of Russian society into exile, Vertinsky followed his audience, eventually earning fame in Paris. Plagued by nostalgia, the celebrated “bard of the exile” accepted Stalin’s invitation to return and came back to Russia in 1943. Even though he was allowed to perform and even record some of his songs, he remained a shady, half-legal, not exactly trusted by communists individual. Most certainly, those of his ballads that had been written and performed while in exile were considered forbidden subversive material. Obviously, the younger generation, born after Stalin’s death, in the prevailing exhilaration of Khruschev’s “warming,” strove to gain access to anything forbidden and subversive. Thus, one of the definitely forbidden (and consequently very well known) Vertinsky’s songs was “The Farewell Supper.”
You don’t have to listen to the entire song if you don’t understand Russian, but there are lines in it that are important to my story:
I am raising my glass / To the inevitability of change
Put this information aside for further reference, and let’s move almost fifty years ahead in time.
The time is 1973, Khruschev is long gone, the brief “warming” is over, power is consolidated in the grubby hands of Brezhnev who has decorated his barrel chest with medals, who has awarded himself every honor available in the Soviet arsenal, and then invented some more, who is so in love with his own persona that he answers the phone by saying, “Dear Leonid Illich” (that was one of many jokes told about him). I am in the control room at Odessa TV Studio, with a few more people, getting ready to air a comedy show I had written and produced. Suddenly, we get an order from Moscow to stop all programming – urgent news coming through, live! “Dear Leonid Illich” is visiting India – give way!
What we saw on one of the first colored monitors in the USSR, was this unforgettable picture: regal-looking, statuesque Indira Ghandi in a gorgeous gold-edged sari next to the ancient Casanova (“Brezhnev and the ladies” was another topic of many jokes) who is openly leering at her bust line. Mrs Ghandi gets up with a champagne glass in her hand, and we hear simultaneous translation,”I am raising my glass…” And all five of us, without a second’s hesitation, sing in unison, “…to the inevitability of change!” The most miraculous part of this spontaneous outburst was, of course, the fact that nobody got in trouble! During Brezhnev’s times, when everybody knew that every third person free-lanced as a secret police informer, when knowledge of subversive material would get one eight to fifteen years of hard labor for “anti-soviet agitation and propaganda,” when even closest friends and relatives were under suspect, nobody ran to inform of this “organized group action”!
While I don’t know what exactly was served to Brezhnev in India on this visit, undoubtedly it was one of the delicious creations of Indian cuisine. But an interesting rumor was circulating around about tailoring the dish to his dietary preference. Let’s pretend it was one of my favorite Indian dishes, Sambar. I cook green lentils with diced celery and cilantro. I do it in a crock pot, but if you don’t mind constantly stirring , just simmer it stove top. It may take quite a while, though; even longer than it took Brezhnev to think up some of his inane pronouncements.
Meanwhile, mist a frying pan with oil and toss a few mustard seeds on in – high heat is necessary. Cover the pan and listen to it. When you hear popping sounds, add a few curry leaves and stir-fry them together for a couple of minutes, no more.
Chop up a goodly portion of fresh spinach and add to the frying pan. We are still stir frying here, so don’t reduce heat, but you’ll have to work very fast.
Add a handful of carrots and some diced red or yellow bell pepper and season your veggies. I use grated ginger and yellow turmeric, a pinch of cardamon and garam masala, and some salt and pepper. Reduce heat, cover, and let it simmer for a few minutes, until carrots and peppers are soft.
I had some precooked brown rice, so I just mixed it with the stir-fried veggies and poured cooked lentils in, together with liquid. Mix it all up and put it in the oven until you are ready to serve. Let the flavors blend and enhance each other! I served it with my own Roti (for recipe, click here). Isn’t it a totally beautiful, scrumptious vegetarian dish? Not to Brezhnev, it wasn’t, or so the story goes.
Just like any Russian, especially one born in Ukraine, “dear Leonid Illich” was used to a diet of meat and potatoes. He was also used to his every wish and whim being catered to. Well, ok, he would agree to no potatoes – after all, one has to make some ethnic allowances, and rice is still filling, but meat – oh no! Meat was absolutely essential, under the threat of an international conflict! So a few chicken breasts were urgently boiled, diced, and added to top “the Russian Sambar.” Chicken soup, remained from cooking the breasts, was offered to the honored guest. “What am I, a Jew or something?” – supposedly barked Brezhnev and disdainfully declined.
As you savor this delectable Sambar, whether authentic or Brezhnev’s version, think how prophetic our impulsive subversive outburst turned out to be: change was inevitable, and it came!
- 1/2 cup dry green or yellow lentils (makes 1 cup cooked)
- 2 cups loose fresh spinach, chopped
- 1/2 grated carrots
- 1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, diced
- 1 cup brown rice (makes 2 cups cooked)
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 5 -6 yellow mustard seeds
- 5 – 6 fresh curry leaves
- 1 inch (2.5 cm) grated ginger
- 1 inch (2.5 cm) yellow turmeric
- A pinch of cardamon
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Alternative: 1 chicken breast, boiled and diced
- Cook lentils in 1 cup of water with celery and cilantro: stove top on low heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently; crock pot on high for two hours, stirring occasionally.
- Preheat deep frying pan or dutch oven, mist with oil. Sear mustard seeds, covered, until they start popping (about 3 – 4 minutes), add curry leaves, stir fry for 2 – 3 minutes until wilted.
- Add spinach, carrots, and peppers. Add ginger and turmeric, season with cardamon and garam masala, add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well, cover, reduce heat, simmer for 7 – 8 minutes until carrots and peppers soften.
- Preheat oven to 200 F. Transfer vegetables to baking dish, add cooked rice, add lentils together with liquid, mix thoroughly. Cover, bake for 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
- Alternatively, add diced chicken breast before baking.