There was a time when kings and governments would try to draw boundaries between regions, claiming each for themselves. But the local populace would try to keep the camaraderie going with their new neighbors based on the one thing that can unite people, transcending all differences – food.
That is how the Dhakai cuisine came into being. It was food that was enjoyed by the people of an undivided India, where the land now called Bangladesh was earlier known as East Pakistan. Dhakai cuisine can trace its roots to the 7th century when Turkey established trade links and ruled the region. Later, Muslims took over, and then the British, which has left a solid impression on the actual Dhakai cuisine. Even the exiled royals, Wajid Ali Shah and Tipu Sultan, who spent their last few days there left a mark on the cuisine.
After India’s partition in 1947 and the Indo-Pak battle of 1971, a large number of people migrated to West Bengal, especially around the border regions, while others moved to different parts of Bangladesh. This explains how the Dhakai cuisine spread throughout the two countries.
THE REGIONAL VARIANTS
Dhakai cuisine traditionally emphasizes freshly caught seafood and freshly slaughtered meat as well as the fresh vegetables and lentils that are served with rice. The cuisine offers plenty of spicy or non-spicy options with freshly ground spices climaxing to give a splendid taste despite of the absence of red chilies, tomato and onion.
The cuisine obviously has variations from Bengali food, as people from Bangladesh or Dhaka shifted their base and re-located to various parts of Bengal. It can be broadly categorized under the following:
Western region: Concentrating on Khulna and Jessore areas as well as those close to the West-Bengal cities of Balurghat, Ingrej Bazar, Murshidabad and Dinajpur, the popular dishes here include Fish Head Curry, Dalna, Chachari, Hilsha with mustard, etc. The gravies are slightly sweet and ingredients are often fried before being added to the gravy.
Northern region: The North Bengal area, especially Cooch Bihar, Jalpaiguri and Siliguri also boasts of certain Dhakai traits. The main characteristic of this region’s foods are they are focused on desserts and use banana, raw papaya, raw mango, urad dal and grilled or smoked vegetables.
Southern region:The Sunderban belt has also been influenced in their style of cooking methods. Dry Fish (Shutki), Bamboo shoots,
sea fish, etc. are the specialty of this region, and the people here use lots of chilli flavours and coconut in their preparations.
Apart from West Bengal in India, there are pockets in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi where one can enjoy Dhakai cuisine. It is also widely available across certain regions of Europe especially in London, where over 13 restaurants serve this cuisine. Even the Middle East has quite a satisfactory number of people who incorporate this in their staple diet.
Fresh produce, freshly ground spices, dum cooking style and sautéing form the fundamentals of this cuisine. Unlike contemporary Bengali cuisine, which is improvised to cater to customer needs, Dhakai cuisine is more home-style and largely remains unchanged.
What makes this cuisine stand apart is that it derives a natural sweetness from onions, by caramelizing it. Another conventional aspect is that only mustard oil or ghee is used as the cooking medium. Whole black mustard seeds and freshly ground mustard paste are also a typical combination in most dishes. A pungent mustard sauce, called kasundi, forms the base ingredient for fish dishes and
vegetable dishes popular in Dhaka. Some of the well known dishes of Dhakai cuisine include Khasir Gelasi, Morog Pola, Ilish Paturi, Tehri, Kochur Saag and Pati Sapta.
Dhaka’s main staple food of sweet water fish comes from its river-dominated regions, which are home to thousands of fish types like Hilsa, Rui, Katol, Koi, Pabda, Boal, Citol, Magur, Sing, Mola, Dhlea, Kajoli, Kakchi, Aar, etc.
The staples of Dhakai cuisine are rice, with varieties like Chinigura and Kalijeera, which is a common component of everyday meals, and to a lesser extent, unleavened whole wheat bread like naan.
The five prominent lentils varieties used in most dishes include Bengal gram (chola), pigeon peas (oror), black gram (biuli), and green gram (moong). Pulses are used almost exclusively in the form of ‘dal’, except ‘chhola’, which is often cooked whole for breakfast and is processed into our (beshon).
Various varieties of green vegetables and fruits are available throughout Bangladesh. A host of gourds, roots and tubers, leafy greens, succulent stalks, citrons and limes, green and purple eggplants, red onions, plantain, broad beans, okra, banana tree stems and flowers, green jackfruit sapla, Arbi Stem, kochur loti and red pumpkins, are to be found in the vegetable markets or kacha.
Country chicken, seafood, fish and mutton dishes are favorites across Bangladesh and the cuisine also incorporates various drinks such as Labang, Sorbots. A full Dhakai meal might look like it is meant for those with gargantuan appetites, but the cooking techniques involved actually make it easy to digest. You can easily wolf down Paat Patar Bora (fried jute leaves), then scoop up Khasir Gelasi (lamb curry with potatoes) or Boal Do Pyaza (a fish gravy) with some Polao or Chatur Paratha (bread made from gram our), and then polish off some desserts like Chitoi Pith. Then glug down a couple of glasses of Borhani, a digestive drink, to help you deal with any tummy pangs.
Did you know that Ecuador has many active volcanoes and probably the greatest densities of volcanoes globally?
Did you know that all the three species of vampire bats are found in Ecuador?
Did you know that almost 60% of the world’s premium cocoa is produced in Ecuador?
These were some of the facts that Ecuador’s Consul General in India, Héctor Cueva Jácome, revealed. He also spoke about the country’s unique culinary culture, for instance the bizcochos, a shortbread pastry that is special to Cayambe near the country’s capital, Quito.
Ecuador has five distinct geographic regions: the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific Coast, the Amazon rain forests, the Cloud Forest and the Andean Sierra Highlands. Each region has its unique cuisines, though there are some similarities too. One such commonality is the use of fresh seafood, especially along the Pacific Coast, the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon.
The use of fresh local produce is very evident in most dishes of the country. Vegetables, beans (a favourite with Ecuadorians) and fruits are cultivated in the highlands and all over the country, which ensures supply of fresh produce all year round.
Rice and corn are part of the staple diet of the country along with some meat and vegetables. The other must-have in every meal in certain parts of the country is plantains and other tropical fruits. This healthy diet accounts for the robust physiques and untiring stamina of the locals!
However, what this country is better known for is its premium quality cocoa, the core ingredient for the one food that has the world swooning – chocolate. In fact, one archaeological study suggests that Ecuador was probably the original home of the cocoa bean.
SOME TRADITIONAL FARE
Like any other country, Ecuador too has some traditional dishes that might not be popular, but are regarded as comfort food by locals. Here is a look at some of them, which include the ingredients that are most commonly found in the cuisine:
The folks of Ecuador make the most of the seafood that is amply available to them. This traditional soup is quite special because it is only made once a year – during Easter. It contains a variety of porotos, or beans, some of which are found only in the Andean Sierra highlands including fava beans and cannellini beans. Sometimes mellocos, which are small and very starchy Andean potatoes as well as chochos, also known as lupini beans, are also added to this Easter soup.
Another key ingredient to Fanesca is the Bacalao Seco or dried salt cod, which has to be soaked for 24 hours properly so that the saltiness of the fish does not make the soup bitter.
Potatoes are one of most important crops in Ecuador, especially amongst the Andean highlanders, and there are over 200 varieties of potato found in the country. It is part of most meals, in one form or the other.
Llapingachos is an Ecuadorian dish, which can have different consistencies, either to make patties or thick potato pancakes stuffed with cheese. Also called Yapingachos, they make for a great breakfast or brunch dish, and can be served on their own as an appetizer or even as a full meal accompanied by a tasty peanut sauce or Salsa De Mani, fried egg, sausages, pickled onion and tomato salad, some lettuce, avocado slices and Aji Criollo hot sauce.
EMPANADAS DE VIENTO!
Cheese is another ingredient that makes its presence felt in Ecuadorian cuisine. Empanadas De Viento combines gooey cheese and onions inside a crispy fried empanada that is topped with powdered sugar. This appetizer is often served during breakfast or as an afternoon snack.
]One thing can be said about Ecuadorian cuisine – it is not for the faint hearted. Though exquisite and comforting at the same time, the one thing an average person needs a er a hearty meal is a nice long siesta. Enough said.
When Christopher Columbus first saw native Americans eating capsicum peppers, he thought these were the fabled black pepper that he was scouting for. He called these peppers ‘Pimiento’ and that was his second mistake – the first being mistaking Latin America for India. These were in fact, what the world calls chilies but what Americans prefer to call chili peppers, probably due to the confusion Columbus created centuries ago!
While some historians believe that Mexicans were cultivating chilies around 7000 BC, others claim that chilies were brought to Mexico by seafarers who traveled to India, China and other parts of Asia where it was a common spice. The debate amongst historians apart, once the Mexicans got a taste of this fiery ingredient they could not get enough of it, which explains why the country had over 40 varieties of chili.
POPULAR MEXICAN CHILIES
While chilies are often eaten in their fresh form, to increase shelf life, Mexicans prefer drying and powdering them for further use throughout the year. During monsoons and winters, when it can get really cold in different parts of Mexico, locals rely on chilies to generate body heat and keep their internal systems warm.
The heat in a chili comes from a chemical known as capsaicin, which is found in the membrane where the seeds are attached. Interestingly, this chemical was nature’s humble way of protecting chilies from being ingested by animals, as it would irritate their skins and their mouths if they bit into the fruit (yes, botanically speaking chilies are fruits, though most people mistake them for vegetables).
Specific types of chilies are cultivated in various regions of Mexico, though some are more known than others. Here are some of the more popular varieties:
Jalapenos (pronounced hala-peno): Probably the most popular Mexican ingredient known worldwide, jalapenos derive their name from the city of Xalapa where they were initially cultivated. Over the years, as popularity rose and they were extensively traded, jalapenos were grown in other parts of Mexico, where they are also called Chiles Gordos or Huachinangos.
Mexican homemakers will always pick up the deep green coloured jalapenos, instead of the mature red coloured variety because they consider the latter too mediocre and believe they lack a sizzling punch. Chili growers often grind the unsold red jalapenos, either when fresh or after drying, and export them to other countries. So the next time you plan to make Chipotle, insist on using the green jalapenos to do it like a true Mexicano!
Guajillo (pronounced gwah-hee-yoh): These are called Mirasol peppers when fresh, which roughly translates to ‘looking at the sun’. They are so called because these tend to defy gravity to grow upwards in the air on the top of the plant. These deep red coloured chilies are roughly 4 to 5 inches long and are not extremely fiery in taste, making them perfect for including in salsa or mild chili sauce. Once dried, these chilies take the name Guajillo peppers. They are often found in coarsely ground format throughout Mexico and are amongst the most commonly used pepper in the cuisine.
Habanero (pronounced hab-e-nero): Don’t let the small size of the Habanero mislead you; this tiny fruit packs a blistering thump. Habanero’s origin can be traced to Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and after Spain invaded Mexico, they realised that this chili was a great commodity to trade worldwide, which is how the Habanero reached as far as China.
Though green when ripe, this chili changes colour as it ripens and it can be found in many colours – yellow, orange, red, pink and brown. It has a thin skin with a citrusy flavour, which lends well to various salad dressings and hot sauces. In olden times, Mexicans would soak this chili in Mezcal or Tequila to add a spicy tang to the drink.
Serrano (pronounced seh-rah-no): What is unique about these green coloured chilies is that though they are fiery enough to stop an elephant in its tracks, you can munch on them and not feel a thing – at least till you feel your internal system on fire a few minutes later! Their spice quotient notwithstanding, Mexicans often eat these raw either in salads or salsa or as garnish. It is also added in guacamole or baked within bread dough to give the dish a sharp flavour.
Ancho (pronounced an-cho): When the deep red coloured Poblano pepper is dried, it assumes the form of Ancho. Its most distinctive feature is its wrinkly skin. Whole Ancho are often soaked in water before use, especially in salads and various types of mole; while its powdered form is often used for spice rubs to marinate meat in. Given its sweetish and smoky flavour, it is often used in barbecue sauces to glaze dishes with a thick sugary flavor.
Pasilla (pronounced pah-see-yah): These are often confused with Ancho, because of a similar wrinkled texture. But Pasilla is actually the dried version of the Chilaca chili pepper. These peppers are often used in sauces. Though not very high up on the charts of fieriness, Pasilla can range from mild to medium spiciness. They have a slightly sweet taste of raisins and cocoa, which makes them perfect for barbecue sauces, moles, soups, stews and even as spice rubs for marinating meat.
While these are just a few of the many Mexican spicy pods, it is undeniable that one reason for the country’s great food is these chilies. You can easily use them to add a delicious and sizzling kick to any dish, but first acquaint
yourself with their heat quotients.
Around a decade ago, Lotus Suites, now called VITS Hotels, was a popular destination in Andheri East. This was largely because of the lack of dining options and watering holes in the immediate vicinity where corporate yuppies could gather for after-work drinks or for a quick working lunch.
Back then, this hotel had an unusual layout. It had a small indoor swimming pool that was surrounded by a restaurant, a buffet dining area and a bar. It is quite incredible to imagine that someone would want to take a dip in the pool, while creating a spectacle for those eating! While the swimming pool was often deserted, the three restaurants would see a steady flow of guests in those days.
In the night, the entire area would transform into a disco. However, the sound from the nightclub would disturb the guests staying in the hotel and hence the discotheque was closed down. Perhaps, that signalled the sliding fortunes of Lotus Suites.
REVISITING OLD HAUNTS
When we revisited VITS Hotel after almost 10 years, we noticed that besides the change in the name of the property, a lot of other things had also changed. The crowd had definitely reduced, despite the numerous corporate offices that have sprung up around the area. But then again, many popular eateries and bars have also opened up nearby.
The swimming pool wore a desolate look, but we were told that the room occupancy rates were up. However, there was no way to verify that. There was an overall air of cheerlessness rather than conviviality that one would associate with a thriving restaurant.
Perhaps, that is why a marketing ploy like having the ‘Longest Happy Hour’ in Mumbai is just the shot in the arm that this establishment needs. This offer has been rolled out at the Jalsa – The Coal Bar, which was earlier called ‘Behind The Bar’.
NO CELEBRATION IN SIGHT, SADLY Jalsa – The Coal Bar is a recessed enclosed bar adjoining the swimming pool. You open the door and are confronted with a decently stocked and brightly lit bar with a dance floor and a DJ console flanking one side and a dining area to its other end.
The bar has been done up to give an Indian vibe coinciding with its Indian name, but it ends up exuding a rather confused feel instead. Sure, some knick knacks like handmade Rajasthani puppets, clay pots and porcelain pickle jars are strewn around, along with low tables and mirror work cushions, but that is where all efforts of giving an Indian feel were given up.
The lighting is very contemporary and utilitarian, where instead some clay lanterns could have been strung up. The walls could have sported some Madhubani or Warli hand paintings, clichéd as it may be, but it would have given Jalsa a more celebratory ambience, keeping with its title. Perhaps the decorators of the restaurant had their own reasons for mixing and matching modernity with rusticity.
The ‘Longest Happy Hours’ promotion in Mumbai, which is on from 11am to 11pm, is a campaign that was designed to encourage the working crowd in the nearby corporate offices to visit the bar for post-work drinks or grab a drink during lunch.
It covers all Indian manufactured foreign liquors, because these are the beverages that see the highest sale in the bar. However, officials at the hotel do admit that the marketing activities for the campaign could have been better amplified to make it more popular.
INTERESTING PRESENTATION OF FOOD
One interesting facet about the food that is served at Jalsa the Coal Bar is that all the Indian dishes from the multi-cuisine menu are served in covered brass jars inside each of which is a piece of coal, a glowing ember if you will. So, the moment the lid is lifted, the scent of smoke wafts over. The flavour latches on to the food as well, and covers up some mistakes in dishes like the chewiness of chicken pieces in the Chicken Malai Kebab (INR 325). The cashew and cardamom paste mixed with yogurt in which the chicken drumsticks were marinated was what really elevated the Shabnami Murgi Ki Kaliyan (INR 325) and saved it from becoming just another mundane North West Frontier appetiser.
If you want to avail of the Longest Happy Hours at Jalsa the Coal bar, we strongly recommend you pair your drinks with the Prawn Koliwada (INR 410). The luscious pieces of prawn marinated with spicy masala, rolled in batter and then deep fried are the perfect accompaniment with a cold draught of beer or a glass of whisky.
As far as food goes, the chef manages to keep things afloat fairly well. However, for things to really turn around for Jalsa the Coal Bar, a lot more needs to be done. For one, they will have to amplify their marketing exertions and make the restaurant look and feel livelier. Hopefully with these efforts, the restaurant and the property will regain its lost glory.
While it began as a snack to be savoured with tea, over time, as it gained popularity across the world, Dim Sum began to be eaten through the day from breakfast to dinner.
Dim Sum is becoming so popular that not just Oriental restaurants but even other multi-cuisine eateries are putting them on their menus. Now, some people know their Har Gao from their Siu Mai but the majority think that dim sum stands for steamed and stuffed rice dumplings. Unfortunate, because the history of these tiny morsels can be traced back to China to about 2000 odd years ago, when it was a delicacy reserved for the pleasure of royalty alone.
Later it was served to the prosperous merchants who stopped at the upscale tea houses of the famous Silk Route and became part of the Yum Cha tradition, which basically meant a tea time ritual. Dim sum is meant to appease the appetite but not satiate it and hence is the perfect tea time accompaniment. Eating dim sum at a restaurant is also called Yum Cha, which means ‘drink tea’ in Cantonese, or Dian Xin in Mandarin, which means ‘touch the heart’.
While it began as a snack to be savoured with tea, over time, as it gained popularity across the world, dim sum began to be eaten through the day from breakfast to dinner. After all, there is no wrong time to enjoy it! In China, dim sum restaurants do not have a menu. They usually have a cart or a section where the bamboo steamers have various dim sum and guests are encouraged to try any of them. Dim sum can be of different types – steamed, boiled, pan fried or deep fried. There is variety in the wrappers, such as the wonton skins or doughy buns. The buns are made with flour, yeast and baking powder and are either steamed or baked.
SOME POPULAR DIM SUM
Selecting dim sum can be quite confusing if you are new to ordering this delicacy. With so many options to choose from, it can be quite bewildering. Here are some of the more popular options to help make things easier:
Har Gao or Xia Jiao: These classic steamed dumplings have a translucent wrapper with around 7 to 10 pleats. The covering is made with a wheat starch which gives it extra stretchiness and lends it translucency and keeps it sturdy so that the prawn filling does not come out.
Cha Siu Bao: Bao means buns in Chinese. These steamed dumplings are made with a filling of BBQ pork. The dough of the bun is slightly yeasty and dense, which is offset by the sweet and savoury marinade of the pork.
Siu Mai or Shao Mai – This is an open kind of dim sum with varied fillings of pork and chicken, chicken and shrimp, etc. It is often topped with roe and can be bland, so try it with the accompanying chili oil.
Turnip cake – It is a popular peasant dish made up of a mixture of shredded radish and rice flour as both of these ingredients are found in abundance in the countryside. It is steamed and then cut into square pieces and sometimes pan-fried.
Zheng Jiao – These dumplings look like gumdrops with multiple pleats on their top, which is their characteristic feature. They are usually stuffed with a combination of juicy stir fried meat or vegetables and are then steamed.
Fun Gao or Fun Gor– They are also referred to as Chiu Chow Dumplings. The filling can have chopped peanuts, garlic, chives, minced meat or diced vegetables and shiitake mushrooms.
Chun Juan – Another unlikely contender to the dim sum menu, these crispy fried spring rolls are made from very thin rice paper wrappers. They are dipped, moistened slightly, and then stuffed with vermicelli, stir fried vegetables and meat like prawns, chicken, or pork.
Chang Fen– What sets these apart from Chun Juan is that these rolls are made of rice noodles. They can be quite runny as they are made of rice flour and tapioca flour that are both very starchy, then combined into a gooey mixture, poured into a flat pan with holes, steamed into thin sheets, stuffed with mildly spiced fillings, and then served with various sauces.
Guo Tie – These crescent shaped dumplings are also called pot stickers, because they are pan fried in a cast iron pan and if not cooked properly in the right mixture of oil and water, then they can stick to the pot literally!
Interestingly, while tea is generally the preferred brew to be enjoyed with dim sum, few people know that champagne also pairs very well with it! Yes, you read that right. The acidity of champagne compliments the soft flavours of the dim sum. So, the next time you have a champagne party at home, why not lay out an array of dim sum to go with it?! This will surely surprise your guests and be the talking point at your dinner table, in a good way.
Vinita Bhatia with inputs from Chef Rahul Hajarnavis, Associate Director – Culinary, JSM Corporation
When it comes to transmutation of matter, why bother about turning metal into gold when you have something even simpler and just as cherished closer at hand? We are referring to that wonderful elixir that most of us wake up to daily and then use for sustenance throughout the day – coffee! In fact, for many it is the best part of the day and what makes us tolerant of, and to, those around us!
Sadly, most of us abuse this wonderful draught, not because we do not love it, but because we do not know how to prepare it correctly. Now, Melbourne is considered to be the coffee capital of Australia and has a very strong café culture, due to which the citizens of this bohemian city take their coffee ethos very seriously. Benjamin William Essex Morrow, or Ben Morrow, is an innovator who has explored the beverage extensively for years and designed unique café designs that have won him top places in café championships.
He was recently in India as part of a Tourism Victoria initiative to educate people about the coffee culture that has rampantly taken over Melbournians, where some cafés even offer a tantalizing array of alternatives for café aficionados, including syphons, filters and French pressed coffee. Ben shared some tips on how to brew a worthy cup of coffee, which we suggest you pay close attention to.
THE RIGHT IMPLEMENTS
Choosing this would depend on the kind of drink that you love. If you love filter, then an Aero Press is one of the best go-to methods at the moment. In the right hands, it makes sweet, clean and delicious coffee.
If you are more of an espresso person, you will need a little more power. Ben recommends looking into La Marzocco Linea Single group for their strong coffee. The Linea is an espresso workhorse and easily available. It makes fantastic espresso and has more than enough power to steam exceptional milk.
EASE OF PURCHASE AND MAINTENANCE
In Melbourne, Ben uses the Aero Press, which is cost-effective, easy to clean and portable. It is basically a pipe with a rubber stopper and a filter cap, so it is hard to go wrong there. If you cannot get it from a retail store, you can buy it off the internet.
While buying it online, look for options that are not priced at more than $50AUD. As for the Linea Single Group, La Marzocco has a factory outlet in Mumbai, India. If you get in touch with them, they can ship throughout India. Do keep in mind that espresso machines are a luxury item. So, they go for around $6,000AUD.
STORING COFFEE BEANS
When it comes to whole coffee beans, the ideal time to drink the product is between 4 to 14 days. The first few days the coffee bean releases lot of carbon dioxide after being roasted. That can make it taste a little off balance. Ideally, store the beans in a cool, dark and dry place. Once it is past its peak, it will start becoming a bit weak on flavour. Some of the words you can use to describe this taste are flat, bland, underwhelming, boring and lacklustre.
Now that you have the beans, the coffee machine and everything else on hand, you think you are all ready to fix a perfect cup of Joe, right? Well, there is one more detail you need to keep in mind – the brewing time.
This depends on the type of coffee beans you have selected and how they were roasted. If it is too short a contact time, the concoction can be weak and underdeveloped. On the other hand, if it is too much, the swill can be astringent, bitter and unpleasant. Since all this can feel a little like rocket science for the uninitiated, Ben Morrow and his colleague, Matt Perger, have created a website www.baristahustle.com, which has fantastic tips on brewing. Take a look at it; it will demystify a lot of things about coffee brewing.
Making a perfect cup of coffee is not magic. And you do not have to be a professional barista either. But if you are truly passionate about this particular brew, then do invest the time in learning how to make the draught correctly.
It is a long and pleasant journey, along the way you will probably notice that your taste and preferences will change and develop. You will be able to recognize a well brewed cup of coffee from an average preparation. That in itself is the best reward you can grant yourself.
Suhoor is the most important meal during Ramadan as it replaces breakfast. It helps jumpstart the metabolism and gives the energy that will sustain the devout till Iftar, the meal when they break their day-long fast.
While Suhoor is important for adults, it is even more crucial for kids who observe this rigid fast, as it affects their physical performance and mental alertness during their active day. Now, fasting is usually not advised for children under the age of seven or eight, but those who are older are gradually guided into the principles of following roza, by their elders.
Kids who don’t eat Suhoor may become tired at school and lose concentration in class. Skipping Suhoor also deprives them from getting all their nutritional needs and most of their essential nutrients for their growing bodies such as iron and calcium.
It is important to choose the right variety of food for your children during Suhoor including complex carbohydrates, fiber and lean protein. Complex carbohydrates are slowly absorbed into the body and release energy slowly during the long hours of fasting. These are found in fiber-rich foods such as wholegrain breads and breakfast cereals. Therefore it is highly recommended to have at least half of your grains intake from whole grain foods.
WHOLE GRAINS, ALL THE WAY
Whole grains are products that contain all the three natural parts of the grain. The first part, which is called the germ, nourishes the seed and is rich in B vitamins and Iron. The second layer, which is called the endosperm, provides energy to the grain, and contains carbohydrates and B vitamins. The third part, or outer shell of the grain is called bran and is the main source of fiber.
Interestingly, not a single component stands out in delivering health benefits, irrespective of what the TV commercials would like us to believe. Rather, it is the combination found in whole grains which work together.
Whole grains can be found in a variety of cereals, including wheat, oats, barley, rice, and corn. Picking the right types of grain can sometimes be confusing, so if you are picking up a cereal box for breakfast, it is best to always check the label to be sure if a food is made with whole grains.
As a general rule, consider your Suhoor as your breakfast meal consumed at an early timing. Explore healthier food items during Suhoor such as semi-skimmed milk, fruits, whole grain breads, low-salt cheeses and whole grain breakfast cereals, making sure you switch your kids from consuming refined grains to whole grains, which can be as simple as substituting refined cereals with whole grain cereals.
But while your child might be excited about fasting during Ramadan, especially if he or she is doing it for the first time, make it a point to monitor your little one’s well being through the day and be alert for signs of fatigue and uneasiness. Ensure that they get all the essential nutrients through a well-balanced diet during Suhoor and Sehri. And also encourage them through the initial days of fasting, which are the most crucial ones during the month of Ramadan. It will boost their willpower and keep their spirits high.
If you have an Indonesian neighbour, and we hope you are privileged enough to have one, then you will be lucky to be invited to a Selamatan at least once. For someone who had the fortune to attend one of them, we can tell you it
was quite an eye opener.
The Selamatan is a thanksgiving meal that the Indonesian family organises for a wish fulfilled or a prayer granted. “Basically it is a time for celebration by people to show their gratitude, whether for the birth of a child or a marriage in the family, the purchase of a house or plentiful harvest,” explains Chef Ridwan Hakim, Executive Sous Chef, Plaza Keraton Luxury Collection Jakarta, who was recently at The Westin Pune.
While it is not compulsory to organise a Selamatan, most Indonesians arrange for one nonetheless to share their happiness with the people they love. They believe that the good fortune will come by praying together and breaking bread together.
Interestingly, this Selamatan is not a tradition that is limited to Indonesia alone. Even Sudanese and Javanese people follow it, though there are slight changes in their customs. For instance, the Indonesian begins the meal with Nasi Tumpeng (rice cones with a side dish), while the Java celebration starts with Gudeg (stewed young jackfruit).
A COMMUNAL AFFAIR
There was a time when the Selamatan feast was organized in mosques and was enjoyed only by men of the village. Today the celebratory feast has moved to the homes and has become a closed family affair to involve the womenfolk and people from other communities as well.
“In the villages, the men are seated in one room while the women sit separately in another room. In the urban cities though, the men sit on one side of the room while the women sit alongside another side of the room,” says Nyugen Razak, an Indonesian national now settled in Pune.
The celebrations begin with prayers together. The host usually does not eat or serve the food, instead overseeing that the guests are taken care of properly.
THE FOOD TAKES CENTER STAGE
The main dish is the ornate Nasi Tumpeng, a yellow-coloured, cone-shaped rice dish that is steamed in a container made from bamboo strips. It is served on a banana leaf along with, along with various assortments like Rendang (Beef curry), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), Emapl Gepuk (fried beef slices cooked in a sweet and spicy sauce), Sayur-Sayuran (assorted cooked vegetables) Sambal Goreng Ati (spicy liver), boiled eggs and other dishes. “The towering height of the rice is to a testimony to the towering greatness of Allah, while the assortments is the host’s offer of thanks for the bounty that the almighty has blessed him with. Usually, the guest of honour at the Selametan has the honour of cutting the top of the Nasi Tumpeng,” explains Nyugen.
Some dishes are must-haves in the Selamatan feast however, like the Gudeg. “It originally comes from Yogyakarta city in central Java island, and is the signature dish of that city. Made from the young jackfruit, it is stewed with coconut milk palm sugar, galangal, Salam leaf and many other ingredients,” adds Chef Ridwan. Another mainstay dish is the Tempeh, which is fermented soy bean covered with mold. Then there is Kerupuk, which are deep fried crackers that could be made from shrimp, soy bean or bitter nuts.
We asked Chef Ridwan is there are any dos and don’ts that we need to keep in mind when it comes to participating in Selamatan to avoid making any faux pas. He lists out just two –greet the host and don’t take the top of the cone unless you are the guest of honour!
You could call them the Three Musketeers, with the twist being that while Alexander Dumas’ characters were quick to pick up arms against injustice of any nature, brothers MV Naveen, MV Nameet and their cousin KN Prasad, are busy propagating the theory of Zero Pesticide produce, a concept that their company, First Agro, has patented and is promoting aggressively in India. Vinita Bhatia talks to MV Naveen about how different Zero Pesticide is from organic farming and whether there are takers for this produce in India.
Vinita Bhatia (VB):What was the trigger for starting First Agro, especially since none of the three founders were from the agricultural business? MV Naveen (MVN): That is true. Nameet was a commercial pilot in Canada. During his free time he would dabble in horticulture and new farming techniques. In fact, he was passionate about pesticide-free farming and showed me the data in 2008 about how consumers in India are importing produce and said, “Why don’t we do this on a mega scale?”
I was the regional VP in Hewlett Packard and came from the corporate world and understand data and statistics very well. KN Prasad, my cousin, had a similar background from the supply chain industry and he too was enthusiastic when Nameet proposed this idea.
With growing urbanisation and increasing disposable income, people were looking for safe food. Food security was becoming an important issue. We thought that the numbers looked promising, especially because the supply and demand ratio was skewed. What was also interesting is that while people were importing the produce from overseas, the produce would often change hands a couple of times before it reached the end consumers, compromising the quality. We thought we could cut out these intermediaries if we sold to one supplier in the country, who then sold to the end consumer and the prices would still be cheaper than the imported cost. And that was how First Agro came into being in 2010.
VB: How did you raise capital for the company? MVN: We are self-funded and have group companies. And we have internal cash accruals. We did not want to go to VCs because we did not want to have someone dictate how to run our company, at least in the initial days.
VB: Let’s talk about pesticides and their usage in India. How high is it compared to international standards? MVN: According to some studies, India spreads around 90,000 tonnes of pesticides on its fields every year, making it one of the largest users of pesticides in the world. Sadly, Indians end up consuming over 40 times more pesticides in their food than their American counterparts since 90 per cent of the food we eat is full of pesticides. Part of this happens out of sheer ignorance on the part of the farming fraternity. Let me explain this with a simple example.
Most farmers in India are not well educated about the effects of chemicals on the human body. When their crops are affected by pests, they go to their local fertiliser shop and ask for some chemicals to get rid of the pest. The shopkeeper gives them some pesticide and usually does not explain the correct measure in which to spray the chemical. Even if he does, sometimes, the farmer presumes that the more chemicals he sprays on to the crops, the faster the pests will perish, and he muddles the dosage, without realising that it could have many ill effects on the health of the consumer who eats the final product.
Sometimes, farmers harvest immediately after the pesticides are sprayed on the crops, which means that the level of chemicals on the crops will be very high. That is how some Indian crops have such levels of pesticides, due to sheer ignorance and human error.
Also, when companies get into mass-scale farming, their processes get homogenised and they have to focus on the revenue bottom lines. This is best achieved when the crop output is good, which is why they have to use pesticides despite their best intent.
VB:Why is the use of pesticides so harmful for humans? MVN: All pesticides are harmful to the human body, if ingested.
VB:What exactly does Zero Pesticide imply and how is it better than organic? MVN: First, Zero Pesticide is a trademarked term that is used only by First Agro. It is much more evolved than organic farming, because we follow the internationally established Codex standards.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization and is a global reference point worldwide to ensure that consumers are unexposed to dangerous levels of toxic substance through food. This is done by subjecting all produce to tests that find out Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for Pesticides and Extraneous MRLs in the produce.
Whenever pesticide is sprayed on crops only a certain amount of it is absorbed by the plant, while the rest remains on its surface as residue. During the Codex test if a produce displays MRL that is above permissible limits, it means that it is unfit for human consumption and the company does not get Codex’s seal of approval.
Every six months we send our produce to one of the three labs in India that specialise in Codex testing. And, so far, our produce has always been approved as being free of pesticide.
Organic farmers and their suppliers are actually following no-pesticide or organic farming policies. They rarely go to a lab to get their products certified, so there is no way to be really sure how genuine their produce is. Like I always tell, people who are involved in the business of organic produce are like those who have mugged up for their 10th exams, but never bothered about passing their exams!
VB: Do you think consumers in India are really aware, or concerned, about chemical overuse in crops? MVN: Till a few years ago, I would have said no. But now we are working closely with chefs and they are doing their bit to educate their guests about the need to eat the right produce. Consumers are already aware of concepts like Farm-To-Fork as well as the much-abused organic produce, which indicates that there is an interest in safe food. That is heartening news because it means that with the explosion of information of how the overuse of chemicals is harming our bodies, people are becoming cautious of what is on their plate.
[box] The first thing we learned is about the Indian system of jugaad when it comes to doing business! I come from Japan where we have never experienced power outage, and then we came to India where the power goes out for hours on end. We had to learn ways to keep the farm equipment running on backup power without running up very high power bills, which, I can tell you, can be very exhausting.[/box]
VB: Most customers are skeptical about terms like organic food, and now Zero Pesticide, because the price of such produce is quite prohibitive. Most of these are considered to be too exotic to be a part of one’s daily diet. Do you think the mode of cultivation justifies the end cost of these produce? MVN: This might come as a massive surprise to your readers. But if a company were to follow the traditional farming methods and not use pesticides and chemicals while growing crops, then the cost of the produce would actually be much higher than what you pay when you buy from your sabjiwala.
I know people who think that First Agro’s produce is overpriced. But that is because it is not mass produced. Also, it is a lifestyle choice one has to make. You can either pay more for produce that is free of chemicals, and hence, healthier. Or, you can choose to spend later on your medical bills because you are exposed to ailments courtesy all the chemicals you are ingesting from regular produce.
VB: What were some of the mistakes you made along the way while setting up First Agro? MVN: What we have learned in the past three years can fill up a library. The first thing we learned is about the Indian system of jugaad when it comes to doing business! I come from Japan, where we have never experienced power outage, and then we came to India, where the power goes out for hours on end. We had to learn ways to keep the farm equipment running on backup power without running up very high power bills, which, I can tell you, can be very exhausting.
Initially, despite Nameet’s extensive knowledge of horticulture, olericulture (the science of vegetable growing) and hydroponics (soilless farming), we were not successful when we tried to grow some of his vegetables in our Talakad farm. When he was later successful and we started offering cherry tomatoes in green and purple colours, then our customers were amazed and even shocked. Later, it was also not easy convincing retailers, even the big ones, about Zero Pesticide produce and most of them just turned us down. We had a tough time explaining to them that we were not the same as other organic produce suppliers.
Then again, we realised that while India has huge human capital, their understanding of farming practices and our expectations were poles apart. After some misfires we finally got the right people on board who shared our vision and could keep things going at the optimal level.
Of course, I don’t even want to get into the various policies and red-tapism that exists for any business to function in India. Initially it was quite frustrating. But over time, we found our way around it.
[box] You can either pay more for produce that is free of chemicals, and hence, healthier. Or, you can choose to spend later on your medical bills because you are exposed to ailments, courtesy all the chemicals you are ingesting from regular produce.[/box]
VB: How many tonnes of produce are you shipping to retailers and restaurants in India currently? MVN: We are shipping around 30 tonnes of produce to large format retailers such as HyperCity, Foodhall, More, Godrej Nature’s Basket, etc., and hospitality brands such as The Oberoi, The Taj Group of Hotels, JW Marriott, and Ritz Carlton on a monthly basis.
VB: I believe you are now looking at expanding your land base in India. What were some of the criteria you had while scouting for land? MVN: First Agro’s farm currently is at Talakad, near Mysore in Karnataka. It is spread over 45 acres of land. Here, we grow more than 40 varieties of produce, including 15 tomato variants such as Heirloom, San Marzano, Roma, etc. Besides this, we have exotic Japanese produce like Komatsuna, which is Japanese mustard spinach, and Mizuna, which is Japanese mustard lettuce. We also have striking lettuce like the purple coloured Triple Lola Rosa as well as the Double Lola Rosa. These are not easy to cultivate and need a specific kind of soil and environment, as well as constant monitoring in the greenhouse.
We have identified farms in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and are negotiating with the respective agencies for setting up our operations there. However, we are clear that wherever we open our farms, we will be directly involved and it will not be franchisee models. We want to be in control of what we grow because that is the only way we can be confident about the quality of our produce and also the cost at which we can make it available to our customers.