The Competition – Scallion and Coriander Pancakes

The Competition

Here I am, the day I’ve been waiting for, all that hard work and preparation culminating in one afternoon.  I woke up early to meditate and stretch. Clear the mind, focus the body, make myself limber for any movement that may be necessary.  

I look at myself in the mirror, lightly jogging in place and doing a one two jab punch.  You can do this, I say to myself. You’re a winner, you’re fast, quick and perceptive. This is my year.  Forget about what happened last year, we’re focused on this year. I throw my clothes on, all washed and ironed for the day.  Lucky sweatshirt on top of my t-shirt and I’m ready to face the world.

I skip down the stairs and jump the last step.  “I’m REEEEEADY!” I shout out to my generous fans, anticipating cheers of glory as I enter the living room.   All I see is my cat, sleeping on a basket of clean laundry. And all I get is a meow of protest as I lift her up and dump her on the floor.  She quickly trots away without a care.

I turn the corner towards the kitchen, and there they are.  My husband and best friend. I get a kiss from each and sit down to eat my specially prepared breakfast, smoked salmon scrambled eggs on top of sourdough with avocado on the side.  The perfect amount to keep my energy up, but not tire me too early in the competition. The two of them sit down next to me and look at me expectedly. My husband begins, “How are you feeling?” 

“I’m feeling good.  I’m going to do my best and I think knowing this will help calm my nerves.”  

“So, no freak outs this year then?” Ayesha, always straight to the point.  

I shake my head, “Nope, no freak outs this year.  As long as I focus, there will be no freak outs.”

“Alright, just asking in case you see Al-”

I cut her off before she could continue, “Na, na, naaaa, don’t even say his name.  Doesn’t deserve us even talking about him. The little snivelling fool.”

“That’s not very nice, remember we talked about the competitiveness and how it can manifest itself in different ways, like being rude and not listening.”  Mansoor knew I stopped really listening as soon as he mentioned my supposed competitive side.

“Please, it’s not being mean when it’s the truth. Plus I think he quite likes being called a fool..and little.” Ayesha and I share a little laugh while Mansoor looks slightly disapprovingly at the both of us.  

Moving the conversation along, Ayesha continues, “Seeing as you are already wearing that disaster of a sweatshirt, do you want to go down the list of what else is needed for the day?”  I nod at her while chewing a piece of sourdough; they remembered to get my favorite from the bakery in town. They nearly closed down a few months ago and I nearly lost my mind. The local newspaper called me ‘dramatic’ as I wailed outside the store, wringing my hair and pleading to the citizens of Hot Springs to sign my petition demanding the bakery not move to the adjacent town.  Luckily, the rent in the other location became far too high and no, I had nothing to do with that. Though, I might have paid a visit to the landlord to casually state how I read an article in the New York Times about Allenstown being the next “hit” town and he could get a pretty penny for his property. It’s not my fault he believes any random person who tells him “facts”.

I realize I had not been paying attention to Ayesha, so naturally I blurt out, “What?”

“You clearly weren’t listening, so let’s just say I have it all and your special treat is freshly made and packed away. You’re a little freak, just by the way.”

“I know,” I respond joyously, “now let’s get this show on the road!”  

All packed up in the car, we drive off, gabbing away and singing Disney songs.  The true classics, none of this new Frozen, Let It Go, BS. After about 45 minutes or so, and after stopping to pick up some brilliant apple cider donuts, we arrive, powdered sugar all over our faces and clothes.  I’m talking about real powdered sugar, not, I’m in a club with a bunch of traders and need some powdered sugar to keep this party going.

We’ve arrived.  I step inside the gymnasium of the local middle school and I breathe it all in.  A giant sign welcomes us, “Welcome to Puzzle-topia 2018!” That’s right, it’s the jigsaw puzzle competition in the east coast of the United States, well maybe not all of the east coast, but definitely the most known in New York State.  And trust me, it’s a big state.

I’m flanked by Mansoor and Ayesha and we head over to sign in.  “I’m here, Mariam Khan, to check in!” I proudly state to the much older grey haired woman before me.  She must be a new volunteer, I don’t remember her from previous years. She passes me the sign in sheet, and I continue, “Are you new? Where’s Marty? Or Harold?”

She sighs, “Marty got sick from bad potato salad last night, so I’m just filling in for the day.  You can find your table and settle in, we’ll start in about half an hour.”

“She seemed super enthusiastic.”  Ayesha whispered to me sarcastically as we walked away.  

I chuckle in response and then suddenly feel Mansoor pulling at me from the other side.  “Hey, why don’t we go this way.” He says it really suspiciously, and I look around confused.  Suddenly, I see it. I see what he was trying to make me avoid. The little snivelling fool is right in front of me.  I pull myself up straighter and walk right towards him.

“Alexander,” I say as coolly as possible, “how great to see you this year.  I see you’re wearing the medal from last year over your shirt. How great that you can save costs by purchasing clothes from the children’s section of stores.”

“Mariam, I’m surprised you’ve come back after last year’s performance.”  I hated that condescending voice of his, “And look, you’re wearing that dreaded sweatshirt again.  I’ve never understood why the smiling Earth is hugging itself, with this slogan, ‘Earth is my home.’  I’m so glad you can save costs by getting clothes from the salvation army.”

“Um, because Earth is our home and Earth’s home and we should love and cherish it.  Think about that next time you litter.” I hit the empty styrofoam cup out of his hand and saunter away before he could get in another word.  

“Is he picking up the cup?” I ask so I don’t have to turn around.

“Ha, he looked absolutely appalled and yup, there he goes, shaking his head and picking up the cup.” Ayesha says delighted at the latest exchange, while Mansoor looked a little more embarrassed.  

Finding my designated puzzle space, we look down.  Everything has been set up already with the pieces and the picture facing down.  No one would dare cheat and look before, that would mean ultimate elimination for the rest of your life.  “This is it! All my puzzle training for the last year and I’m ready. Thanks for coming guys, I really appreciate it.”

After all the sentimentalities are over, they find their place and I’m standing above mine.  Countdown begins and 1 minute to go before I flip these babies over and start making a puzzle.   I look around and recognize most of the faces, all eager to claim the Jigsaw Puzzle Master Prize at the end.  Hardly any of them are real competition, it’s just that blasted Alexander who stands in my way.

Before I could send a scowl his way, a loud buzzer signals the beginning, and suddenly all you can hear is the frantic turning of puzzle pieces.  Turning the picture over, a let out a low whistle. This year is a difficult one, Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Separating the pieces into their respective similar colours, I find the border pieces and start putting them together.  Bam, bam, bam, border is coming together nicely.

The border finishes in good time, and I can see I’m ahead of those around me.  Now time to make a decision, which area to start with first. I decide to go with the tree, all very similar colours, but I can get the border of the tree down fairly quickly.  I’m having a more difficult time filling in the tree, at times it feels like I’m just randomly testing pieces, but must continue on. I’m completely absorbed in my puzzle, until I make the mistake of looking up.  The woman just next of me has gone a different route and definitely has more pieces attached. Crap, should I change my strategy and leave that for the end?

I abandon the tree, and start working on the yellow pieces.  It’s easy at first, I got the moon and I’m trying to put together the other yellow circles, but there seems to be a lot more yellow than I first anticipated.  I’m starting to sweat a little. Maybe I should work on the village parts, those can be more distinctive. But they’re blending into the tree and now I’m full on sweating.  I start getting flashbacks to last year. The same thing happened, I abandoned my plan and everything started unraveling after that. I can’t focus on what’s in front of me and I only hear my screams from last year.  

Suddenly the image of me throwing the pieces to the ground and stomping off is in my mind.   I need to get this sweatshirt off and cool down. I start yanking at the sleeves, and simultaneously trying to pull it off my body.  I’m stuck and I can’t get this sweatshirt off my head. I’ve completely forgotten how to remove a sweatshirt from my body. I’m freaking out as the precious seconds are speeding away.   I start hyperventilating. Deep short breaths, and I started whisper screaming to myself. “Oh my god, I’m going to be stuck forever, I need to cut this off of me RIGHT NOW.” Suddenly I’m surrounded by Mansoor and Ayesha.  Mansoor is in stitches laughing. Now he laughs, not before when I hilariously knocked the cup out of Alexander’s hand. Ayesha is just plain confused. “Mariam, why are you flapping around, panting to yourself like a maniac”

“I can’t get this off, I cannot get this sweater off! My arm is stuck or my head is too big.  How the hell did I even get this on?”

Mansoor finally maintains some control of his laughter, “Okay relax, let us just help you.  Stop moving around so much!”

One hand pulls my arm down, and the other helping hand yanks the sweater off with ease.  My hair must be sticking up in fifty different ways, and I quickly throw my hands up and flatten it as much as possible.  “So, what are the chances that my mild panic attack distracted everyone else and I’m not wasting my time right now talking to you both?” Trying to regain my composure as quickly as possible, I close my eyes for a quick second and take a deep breath.

“Yes, you’re welcome, you crazy woman,” Ayesha shakes her head, “go back to your puzzle, we’ll just be here, waiting…all day long for this competition to finish.  Like we have nothing better to do.”

Waving my hands at the both of them, “Ya ya, you don’t have anything better to do so make yourselves useful and steal a puzzle piece or two from that damned Alexander Mc-Ihavenolife.”  

“I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules Mariam?” Once again, where is Mansoor’s laughter when necessary.  

My face is staring intently at the puzzle, focusing to get back to my plan, while Mansoor makes his unnecessary comment, “I don’t know why you’re still here, please leave, thank you!”

I’m sure he looks absolutely crushed, but I have no idea.  My attention is 100% back on this puzzle. I’m sure Ayesha is patting him on the shoulder while she says, “Think it’s time for our little crazy puzzlers snack soon, that will calm her down.”  

I hear this and snap my head back up, “Snack? Yes, yes, brilliant idea, bring me my special treat.  That will get me back on the right path.”

“Lucky for you, I have it right here.”  She whips open her bag and yells to no one in particular, “Just giving her some food, not helping with the puzzle AT ALL.”  She knows the rules, no help from outside people. Placing the tupperware in front of me as if she is at a religious altar, they both back away slowly.  “Enjoy,” she mouths at me, while Mansoor gives two thumbs up.

Taking a minute to enjoy myself, I open up the tupperware and breathe in the aroma.  Scallion and coriander pancakes with toasted sesame seeds and my special dipping sauce.   Some may say it is an absurd treat to pack and carry around, but the flaky goodness of the flatbread combined with the tangy spiciness of the dipping sauce is divine.  I take one big bite and place a puzzle piece at the same time.

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

RECIPE:

Scallion and Coriander Pancakes:

Chinese scallion pancakes are very similar to paratas, which is one reason why I love it.  Round, flaky bread that is very satisfying to eat on it’s own or with a dipping sauce. Traditionally, it is filled with just scallions (green onions), but I like to add in coriander as well, since coriander is the best.  There are some who will vehemently disagree, and that is just a damn shame. Just like paratas, eating one is never enough.

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups of flour
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 bunch scallions (sliced)
  • 1 bunch coriander (chopped)
  • Salt – either coarse, or flaky or just normal
  • Sesame oil (ideally, as it enhances the taste, otherwise vegetable oil)
  • Toasted sesame seeds

Instructions:

  1. Mix the flour with the water, and knead until it forms a smooth dough.  Once very smooth and elastic, cover the dough with oil and put it in a bowl.  Cover the bowl with a damp towel/cloth and rest for 30 minutes
  2. Cut the dough into 8 equal parts, keeping the parts you aren’t rolling out under the damp towel.  
  3. On the counter or on a metal tray, lightly oil the surface (with sesame or vegetable), and roll out one part until it is a very thin rectangle.
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Doesn’t have to be a perfect rectangle
  1. Cover the entirety with scallions, and coriander (or one of each), and sprinkle salt on top.  Then roll the dough up tightly, so it is one long tube of rolled dough. As if you are creating a pinwheel, coil the long tube so it becomes a round dough.  Leave this to the side, and do the same process for the 8 other dough parts.
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Coiled into a pinwheel
  1. Once you are done, take the first coiled up dough, and flatten it with your hands. Then taking a rolling pin, roll it out into a thin circle (parata size).  Don’t worry if the dough breaks and some of the insides come out.
  2. If it’s your first time, roll them all out into circles and heat up your pan.  If you are more of a seasoned cook, you can fry the pancake while rolling out another.  
  3. Before frying, sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds on each and press them down on the surface a bit.  
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You could even freeze them like this in between sheets of parchment paper for later!
  1. When it comes to frying, heat up your frying pan on medium heat, and add a bit of oil.  When the oil begins to shimmer a bit, put a pancake on and cook for a couple minutes on each side.  The colour should be a nice golden brown. If the pan becomes too hot and the pancakes begin to burn, turn down the heat.  
  2. Once all done, you can cut them in half/quarters and serve with the dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce:

Combine all of the following:

  • 2 clove garlic
  • 3 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha (or any chili sauce)

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