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Culture

Mooli Memories

Every now and then I change the cover image of the Chef at Large group and write a small description – usually whatever immediately comes to mind. Here’s what I wrote earlier this morning. Do visit this post to see what others shared about their trysts with mooli. Some are quite interesting and our culinary cultural diversity continues to amaze me.

My earliest and fondest memories of radish / mooli is from the redi / cart outside school where this chap would have a stack of mooli on one side and a big jar of green chutney. During break or at the end of school, he’d peel them, cut them in half lengthwise, and smear a spoonful of that piquant, spicy and delicious chutney on the flat side with a spoon. We’d buy it for, maybe 50p.

That first bite of mooli would be a shock to the senses, usually somewhat cold, the flavours of the chutney shocking the palate, and God help us if the mooli was ‘strong’, sending a shock up the nostrils, sometimes leaving us gasping for breath. Every so often today, I break my fasts with a platter full of mooli and a katori of chutney. Quite a few nutrients in there, plus one of the few dishes in my list that are from childhood, low carb and satisfying too.

Then there are parathas stuffed with shredded / kaddu-kassed mooli, drenched in white butter, again with some dahi and green chutney on the side. Indu makes these parathas as two separate rotis with the stuffing in between. One side will first be lifted up causing a pillow of hot steam to escape, exposing the shreds of white mooli, speckled with red chili and dotted with bright green coriander. while butter is diligently applied all over the paratha while it cools down a bit. We rarely eat stuffed parathas these days, so each such occasion is a memorable indulgence.

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Culture

The Role of a Chef Outside the Kitchen

I was asked to be part of a discussion panel at IICA’s graduation day about a month ago, and the title of this post was the topic of discussion. Here’s what my perspective was.

Food Production

Imparting knowledge of food production in a cost effective manner, to maximise both quantity and quality of output to organisations such as those involved in social welfare and reform, thus helping them make the most of usually scarce resources. Quite a few people know how to cook. You however, are training in the production of food. Your skills when applied to such situations could make all the difference to quite a few children for example, who may not otherwise have been affordable to that organisation.

Just as we have ‘Doctors without Borders’, we can also have ‘Chefs without Borders’; chefs travelling the world to regions affected by all manner of calamity, using their knowledge and skills to optimise available resources and create food production capabilities for those effected.

With an addition skill – a basic knowledge of nutrition, properties of different nutrients such as sensitivity to heat, cooking techniques for maximum retention of various nutrients, and the nutrition content of different foods, the food production systems you design in the above two scenarios would become nutrition delivery systems, making your work and role even more valuable.

We live in busy times, with barely any time for ourselves and our families and it is usually our bodies that suffer due to misinformation or lack of knowledge about food and nutrition. Armed with knowledge of both, food production and nutrition, a chef is also ideally placed to teach the principles of both, food production and nutrition to the masses, giving them a fresh lease on life, avoiding the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease we’re looking at, as a species, worldwide.

During times of economic crisis, when not only are prices of essential kitchen commodities high, but there’s also a cash crunch in most households, a chef can help the general populace cope by teaching techniques that allow a home cook to not only cook with a minimum of the basics, such as onions, but also how to stretch a rupee to the max, from a food quality and quantity point of view. At a time when families may not be able to afford to eat out, but still crave restaurant style food, your knowledge will go a long way in keeping families happier than they otherwise would, having found comfort in foods of their choice as well as having saved a few rupees.

Cultural Preservation

The preservation of the cultural aspects of food can be done in two ways primarily – via academia through theoretical conservation and via the population through practice and exposure. Chefs can play a key role in the preservation of such historical knowledge by first acquiring this knowledge and then exposing it via the establishments they’re associated with, not just via time limited promotions, but as full blown menus, with the kitchens too adapted to historical styles of cooking.

One might say this isn’t really stepping out of the kitchen. I would argue that the outcome of such an effort, when carried out in a sustained and consistent manner would result in greater cultural security of the people, resulting in lesser inter community strife given the comfort one gains from knowing one’s culture and history is safe, in addition to the numerous benefits gained from historical knowledge, which is being re-discovered by modern medical and nutritional science. In effect, this would enhance and retain the mental and corporeal health of our population in addition to keeping our multi-cultural society healthy, vibrant and happy as a whole. That, certainly is outside the kitchen.

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Culture

Five Foods for Divine Consumption

Hinduism and related works are a veritable treasure trove of information on many aspects of our existence, including life, death, food, medicine, the physical, metaphysical and more.

The following pointers come from Anushasana Parva, which is book #13 of 18 that comprise the entire Mahabharatha. Known as the “Book of Instructions” or “Book of Precepts”, this book discusses the duties of a ruler among other related aspects. [2] The version I have with me is a translation by Pratap Chandra Roy (1842 – 1895) [3], and book XI of the series.

As per this sub-section of the undeniably epic Mahabharatha, the following five foods must never be cooked for oneself, but always offered to the deities. [1]

  1. Samyava
  2. Krisara
  3. Meat
  4. Sashkuli
  5. Payasa

Samyava is described as following by different sources as being

  1. Patties made of wheat flour, mixed with milk, and fried in ghee. [5]
  2. A thin cake of unleavened bread, fried with ghee, pounded and again made up into an oblong form with fresh bread, sugar and spices, and again fried with ghee [2]

Two, slightly more elaborate explanation, almost recipes, are as follows [4]:

Refined wheat flour, fried with ghee, then mixed with sugar and marica followed by infusion with the powders of ela, lavanga and karpura, stored in a crucible of kneaded, refined wheat flour and again fried in ghee. Finally this fried food should be soaked in sugar syrup, at which point it is called Samyava.

Refined wheat flour, kneaded with honey and milk, fried in ghee, soaked in sugar syrup, sprinkled over with powders of marica, ela, subhra and karpura. This is called Samyava, which is like ambrosia.

Krisara, described in the book as a “liquid food made of milk, sesame, rice, sugar and spices” [1], sounding quite like what we know as kheer, though in the context of Ayurveda, it’s also described as a “thick paste gruel” [6].

Meat, here I assume refers to any fish, meat or poultry dish.

Sashkuly, is described in the Srimad Bhagwatam as a large, ear-shaped cake made of rice flour, sugar and sesame, and fried in ghee [7] and as “a kind of pie” in the Mahabharatha [1].

Finally, Payasa, apparently the simplest of the lot, appears to be the closest to a simple kheer, being “rice boiled in sugar and milk.

My Interpretation

We live in an age of self-indulgence, plying ourselves with all manner of treats and indulgences, both culinary and otherwise sensory. My constant takeaway with all manner of ancient books is the depth to which the authors were acquainted with the human psyche, which doesn’t appear to have changed very much in the last few thousand years.

Given our propensity towards self destruction through self indulgence, and the authors’ certainty of that probability, I believe the purpose of these foods being accorded special status was to keep them away from regular use by regular people, thus keeping said people healthier through a religious system of regulated self-denial.

In the case of meat, especially with the same book saying that “One should never eat the flesh of animals not slain in sacrifices” [1], I believe the intent was to promote conservation in addition to moderation.

What do you think?

References:

  1. The Mahabharatha in 12 Volumes
  2. Anushasana Parva
  3. Kisari Mohan Ganguli and Pratap Chandra Roy
  4. Materia Medica of Ayurveda: Based on: Madanapala’s Nighantu By Vaidya Bhagwan Dash
  5. Student Britannica India
  6. Role of Pathya Aahara Kalpana (Diet) In Maintenance of Healthy Lifestyle
  7. ?B 11.27.34
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Culture

Seven Chillies and a Lemon

I saw some shrivelled chillies and some lemons lying about this morning, reminding me of the very common sight, especially in north India, of a lemon strung up with seven green chillies, usually at the doorway or entrance to a building or home. Sometimes, they’re even seen hanging on street food carts and vehicle bumpers. You’ll also find decorative pieces on Amazon in metal and ceramic depicting the same objects.

That they were for good luck, or to ward off back luck, I knew, but that was all. That decided the topic of today’s post – seven chillies and a lemon.

A little digging found me reading about the sister of a revered Hindu goddess, Alakshmi, the elder sister of Lakshmi, who most of us know of. Elder, because Vishnu created her before creating Padma, or Lakshmi. At the time, Vishnu was engaged in creating a dual aspect to the universe – good and evil. Due to her being elder, Alakshmi is also known as Jyestha (the elder). [1]

As the story goes, she married a sage named Duhsaha, who after seeing his wife’s distressed behaviour around all that was good and virtuous, happened to meet with the great sage, Markandeya, who narrated his problem and was given a specific list of the types of places he could visit with his wife and the types of places he mustn’t visit with her. As expected one list is all those deemed pious and holy, and the second, all else. [1]

Also known as Nirrti [2], Alakshmi has mention in Hymn 10-059 of the Rigveda, where she is implored to depart. [3]

Per folklore, the two sisters once asked a merchant which of them was more beautiful. The merchant, not wanting to anger either, said Lakshmi was beautiful when she enters a home and Alakshmi, when she leaves it. Consequently, both are respected and acknowledged, though only Lakshmi, is welcomed. [4]

The sweets that Lakshmi is said to like, are placed within a house so she enters. The sour and pungent flavours that Alakshmi is said to favour are placed outside the house, so she is satiated and has no desire to enter. [4]

The correct number of each, is apparently seven chillies and one lemon, though I have no reference for this.

Did you know this? If you know more, please do share in the comments below.

References:

  1. Linga Purana, J.L. Shastri, Chapter 6
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nir%E1%B9%9Bti
  3. Rig Veda, Ralph T.H. Griffith (translation)
  4. Myth = Mithya: Decoding Hindu Mythology, Devdutt Pattanaik
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Columns Culture

Goa On My Plate

FOR MOST HOLIDAY-SEEKERS, GOA is little more than the go-to place for beaches, booze and never-ending bashes. Am absolutely not denying that. It is that too. But as an artist I was also familiar with another Goa. The Goa of Francis Netwon Souza’s paintings. Souza’s Goa was anything but sunny and Pina Colada-framed as he delved into the deep psycho-geography of his native place, creating miasmic, people-less landscapes where church spires and domes seemed to be colliding with the arches of common homes. Souza’s Goa was a turbulent place where cultures and religions collided against each other. Thankfully there was also Mario Miranda whose brilliant caricatures of his fellow Goans infused another layer of wit and self-deprecation into the Goa I knew. This time however my journey to Goa introduced me to a delightful aspect of the area that I wasn’t too familiar with.

It was an amazing happenstance that brought us to the kitchen of Odette Mascarhenas who is an author, food historian and food curator of Serendipity Arts Festival that I had gone to attend. As a food-lover it was lovely to chat up and taste some of the dishes Odette was showcasing under her ‘Tityache Khabbari’ project of the Serendipity Arts Festival. Literally translated it means ‘news from the marketplace’ but the project sought to explore the intricate network of veins that connected the many different communities of Goa. So in a sense the news from the marketplace was that Goa is neither a Portuguese Catholic monolith nor a Konkan Saraswat-dominated pyramid as many Hindutva revivalists would have us believe. Instead it was a beautiful mosaic of cultures and food habits that was in a constant state of osmosis where each borrowed and absorbed from the other.

We started our meal with ‘Sol Kadhi’ which is a wonderfully refreshing and visually alluring pink drink. It’s made with coconut milk and dried kokum, a mangosteen family berry responsible for the colour of the drink. Then came ‘Bharille Bangde’, a green masala stuffed whole Mackeral fried with a coat of rava. Most of Goa’s fish recipes, Odette tells me, can be traced back to Gaud Saraswat Brahmins who as myth and legend point out were brought and settled in the area by Parshuram, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. Some of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins also converted to Christianity and formed a composite community within a community of ‘Brahmin Catholics’ known locally as the Bamonns.

A dish that I was neither familiar with nor had had anything even closely resembling it was ‘Ambade Ros’. Ros is a curry made with hog plums (found only in the region and look like small raw mangoes), coconut and jaggery. The name ‘ambade’ also has a common etymology to ‘amba’ which is the word for mango. The deliciously sweet and sour Ambade Ros is made during the non-fish eating months (mostly Shravan) when the other communities turn to dried fish as their staple.

‘Khatkhate’ is another Gaud Saraswat Brahmin dish that is as ingenious as it is frugal. Made with toor dal and leftover vegetables, coconut milk, kokum and teppla (a pepper-like spice that’s native to the region) Khatkhate is a uniquely spiced dish closest to a vegetarian alternative one can think of to the Hyderabadi Haleem.

If there is one thing that is common to all the community kitchens of Goa it is the coconut. There was nothing in our elaborate four-course meal that did not have coconut in it, except perhaps the tea and the Vindaloo (which you will learn later is universally misspelt). Most homes had and still have their own coconut trees to support this excessive dependence on the fruit. Odette tells me this was because milk was not so freely available in the old days which is why coconut milk became such a widely used substitute.

One sub-group—actually a collection of many similar communities—that Odette calls the Hindu-centric people because they were distinct from both the Catholics and the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins. One their identifiable feature was the coarse texture of their ground masalas which were unlike the fine pastes of the Brahmins and the Catholics. This was largely because the more affluent communities had kitchens where whole families got together to grind spices while those living on the border areas tended to live in nuclear family setups with fewer hands to grind spices.

Geographically these communities were located on periphery of Portuguese-administered Goa in the areas between Perne and Canacona of today. Their food was simpler with perhaps a hint of aspiration as they tried of prepare and serve food in the style of the more affluent Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and the Roman Catholics. As a result they had a gamut of preparations that are similar yet different. Odette asks me to taste a prawn cooked inside a banana leaf that she says is suggestive of the culinary aspirations of the other less prosperous communities of Goa.

Being in Goa how could we forget the world-famous ‘Vindaloo’ which Odette corrects me is the corrupted form of actual ‘Vindalho’. “Vindalho was something brought in by the Portuguese,” she says, “it was a combination of the words ‘vin’, ‘alho’ and ‘ho’ which translated as wine, garlic and in-the-style-of. Because they used to marinate their meats with some bay leaves and salt, a lot of wine and garlic and carry it on their caravels to wherever they were travelling, like pickled meat. But when they began to inter-marriage and conversions took place the locals could not stomach a bland preparation. So they recreated a dish where they used pork and they called a ‘Vindalho’ and added a lot of spices.” There are many preparations where the Roman Catholics have taken bits from the Portuguese and some bits the Hindus. A good example of this is the ‘Sanna’. ‘Sannas’ are soft-steamed rice cakes that use toddy for leavening much like the Appam of Kerala, though in appearance they’re closer to the Idli. The sour-ish Sannas are best had with Vindalho as its hot spicy flavour is tempered by them. Odette also makes me sample a ‘Gahve’ which looks like a soft Dosa but is the made of rice flour like Sanna but without the toddy.

The osmosis of food and cooking styles was never a one-way street. Many things that the more affluent communities saw and liked they brought to their own kitchens. The ‘Shagoti’ gravy for example was a chicken dish of the Hindu-centric people that became the ‘Xacuti’ of the Catholics. Today however Xacuti is like the ‘Roghan Josh’ of Goa, it’s cooked in most Goan households and is loved by all. The ‘Sausage Pulao’ of the Catholics is another mysterious dish whose origins are still not very clear. “There is an interesting debate about whether the Sausage Pulao came in because of the ‘Biryanis’ of the Muslims or the ‘Arroz’ that came with the Portuguese. But my supposition is that because it is mixed with the rice, cooked with the rice in the style of the Portuguese, because the Portuguese had a lot of seafood in their Arroz, it is the latter rather than the former. But unlike the Portuguese seafood Arroz Goans never made a rice dish with fish, it was always rice and fish curry,” says Odette.

Among the Roman Catholics a sweet basket or ‘ojem’ was distributed at the time of weddings. This basket contained ‘Dodol’, ‘Doce’ and ‘Bol’ which unlike the khoya-dominant sweets of north India are all made with different permutation combinations of three key ingredients: rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. I especially loved ‘Bol’. The colour of a coconut shell it is a baked sweet bread made with rice flour, coconut, jaggery and toddy and has a unique hard and brittle texture. It’s an ideal tea snack that’s biscuity in appearance but tastes yum like nothing else. Since am blessed with not just one ‘sweet tooth’ but a whole set of ‘Sweet 32’ I ventured deeper into the world of Goan desserts and discovered subtly flavoured ‘Mangane’, a kheer made with chana dal, sago… and yes you guessed right… coconut milk and jaggery.

It was indeed a serendipitous find, finding food in an arts festival. But it was worth all the three hours or so I spent eating and chatting with Odette. Thanks to it, I now have another, new and very different picture of Goa in my mind.

Dhiraj Singh is an artist, arts columnist and TV personality. He has shown his works at art shows in India and abroad. More about him can be found at www.dhirajsingh.co.in

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Columns Culture

India’s Favourite Desserts!

I’ve been having a load of fun with questions and answers on CaL. The last question asked, was about which desserts do CaL members find absolutely irresistible. We received over 800 responses!

Given how we have such variety to choose from, I expected responses with mixed options from India and abroad. Reality however was quite different and showed just how desi all of us are on the inside, clearly illustrated by the top 9 desserts of Indians from different geographies, backgrounds and cultures. And as a bonus, we have recipes from blogs who are members of the CaL Badge Network. I hope you enjoy them. 

#9 Kheer

Onam Special Pradhaman from Vidhya’s Home Cooking

We have different types of kheer as made in different cultures all across India. Most popularly made with a simple combination of rice, milk and sugar, kheer has many different variations from all over the country, using lentils, coconut milk, different types of rice, different types of vermicelli, spices, sugar, jaggery and what have you. 

#8 Kaju Katli

Kaju Katlis are slim, diamond shaped sweets made with cashew nuts (kaju), which most Indians adore! They’re soft with a bit of a bite, not too sweet and taste strongly of cashew nuts. Diamond shaped for as long as I can recall, it is the rare person who eats one and no more.

#7 Rasgulla / Rossogola

The subject of a prolonged and intensive squabble over its origin, Bengal or Odisha, what we can all agree upon, is that it’s delicious. A spongy ball of mostly cottage cheese that’s soaked in sugar syrup, there are many varieties of rasgullas and I have yet to meet a person can squeeze all the syrup out of one and yet enjoy this classic Indian dessert.

#6 Ice Cream

Nolen Gurer Ice Cream With Coconut Milk by Not a Curry

One of three non-Indian inclusions in the list, ice cream is loved the world over and I’m not about to describe it here. We do have our own flavours though of which mango is likely to be the most popular.

#5 Cake

Devil’s Food Cake With Dark Chocolate Ganache by Noopur’s Kitchen

There were many entries for cake, so I clubbed them into one entry. We’re fascinated by cake and apart from the egg-less abominations that are the current craze, we’re pretty good at doing cakes in different flavours, shapes, sizes and other points of variance. 

#4 Chocolate (based)

Street-style Chocolate Sandwiches by Aarti Madan

This one is no surprise, given how few of us can stay away from chocolate. India even has chocolate paan (a traditional mouth freshener), chocolate burfis, chocolate kheer and chocolate modaks among others. In short, we’ve incorporated chocolate into every Indian dessert that can handle it!

#3 Rasmalai

Rasmalai could be called a cousin to the rasgulla, given it’s about a soft dumpling soaked in a sweet liquid. But that’s where the similarities end. Rasmalai dumplings are somewhat spongy but not as much as rasgullas (of which many varieties exist) and more conducive to being sliced with a spoon. The sweet liquid is milk based and usually flavoured with saffron and pistachio nuts, both of which are absent in the traditional rasgullas, though there are varieties where the rasgulla is stuffed with a saffron flavoured mixture of nuts and milk solids.

#2 Halwa

Caramelised Suji Halwa from More than Curry

As with cakes, there were many entries for halwa, another dish that’s loved by most Indians. We use it as a religious offering on special days, quickly cook a batch of wheat flour, ghee and sugar to satisfy sudden cravings, make it with all kinds of grain, lentils, fruits and there are even variants that use garlic and meat! Most often seen in the form of a thick paste, some variants are set and cut into blocks too.

#1 Gulab Jamun

Bread Gulab Jamuns from Priyashii’s Kitchen

I’m quite surprised with the #1 entry. That it is popular is well known, but so popular? Yes, quite a surprise. Made of deep fried milk solids and then soaked in cooked and flavoured sugar syrup, most Gulab Jamuns are eaten piping hot, sometimes hotter than freshly made tea! It’s also a much beloved wedding buffet dessert where it is usually paired with vanilla ice cream, the lot eaten together. Many variations exist.

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Culture

India’s Favourite Chai-time Snacks

I asked members of Chef at Large a couple of days ago, where they’re from and what their favourite tea time snacks were. The response was enthusiastic, given how much we love our masala chai and the nibbles we serve with it.

The original post is here.

I then fired up my favourite Python editor and started working on those responses, and here’s the result – the top 5 snacks Indians love with their chai.

  • Samosas
  • Biscuits
  • Vadas
  • Mathris
  • Kachoris

Given there were over 700 responses from diverse geographical areas, including Indians settled out of India, it’s a very nice surprise to see samosas at the top of the list. 

A brief description of the dish, as well as bunch of recipes from CaL Badge Network bloggers follows.

Samosas

In its simplest form, a samosa is boiled, spiced and mashed potatoes stuffed into a rolled out pastry dough and deep fried. Many variations exist, such as the little ones in Chennai that are stuffed with spiced, mildly fried onions, or those stuffed with spicy buffalo meat that can be found in the Jama Masjid area and then we have mava samosas, ‘Chinese’ samosas that are stuffed with noodles and so on. The format is simple and it lends itself to a variety of flavours and textures. Samosas are also served in a more filling manner, crushed and topped with curried potatoes, choley and more.

Recipes from CBN members:

Biscuits

We love our biscuits too, liberally dunking the sweet varieties into a mug of tea and even slurping up the soggy mess left at the bottom of teacups. You’ll find biscuits left unflavoured with just a little added sugar, others with aniseed (saunf) and ajwain and yet others that are savoury and lend themselves to a number of toppings.

Recipes from CBN members:

Vadas

Most of us in north India are likely to associate vadas with the fried, fluffy, doughnut shaped snack made of urad dal. Those from Mumbai or whereabouts already have their own iconic version, the vada used in vada-pav, that’s made by coating a ball of spiced potatoes in a thin layer of chickpea flour batter and deep frying. South Indians have their own numerous varieties and other parts of the country, their own versions with different names. 

Recipes from CBN members:

Mathris

Largely a north Indian snack, Mathris (also called Mathi)are made with flour, water, spices, oil and usually deep fried. Found in most cultures in the upper half of the country, Mathris can be made using a variety of flavours and are usually served with pickles and chutney, making the number of combinations quite large. 

Recipes from CBN members:

Kachoris

A cousin to the ever popular samosa, kachoris too can be found in many shapes, sizes and fillings. While most are deep fried with a flaky crust and a spicy filling, the nature of the crust and the filling changes from culture to culture and state to state. Most are usually seen to be stuffed with a spicy lentil mixture though there are variations like Rajasthani onion kachoris or pyaaz ki kachori. Usually a snack item, kachoris are also sometimes served in a more substantial format and can serve as a mini meal too – crushed or torn apart and topped with curried potatoes, choley or even a thin kadhi (without pakodas) in Rajasthan. There also exist variations that are baked without any stuffing, such as those found in Kashmir.

Recipes from CBN members:

What other variations have you seen, of these very popular tea-time snacks?

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Culture

Do you like Kashmiri food?

Kashmiri food is one of the great cuisines of our country, with two related but distinct versions – that of Kashmiri Muslims and of Kashmiri Pandits. Kashmiri Pandit cooking is a bit of a paradox in that they don’t use onions or garlic in their food, restrictions we usually associate with strict vegetarianism, yet are enthusiastic about and indeed do a great job with non-vegetarian dishes, usually made with chicken and mutton in a variety of ways.

Holiday Inn-Mayur Vihar, just as they did last year, brought in a Kashmiri food specialist, Mrs. Rajni Jinsi, who worked alongside the chefs at Cafe on 3, the property’s all day dining restaurant, and churned out a variety of foods. Sid Khullar visited and we put a bunch of conversations and pictures and video clips together into this collage that we hope you’ll like.

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Culture

North Eastern and Uttarakhand Food: Explained!