Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mustard all the way ..

         The pungent culinary wonder...Mustard oil — the one love-it-or-hate-it ingredient that is essential to an Indian kitchen. Whether it is the Nawabs of Lucknow or the cooks of Calcutta, all of them swear by this pungent culinary wonder. 

              Mustard oil is key in making Nihari, the classic Lucknow lamb trotter stew. I have memories of Munir Ustad burning fresh mustard oil for sautéing lamb, and the pungency of home pressed pure mustard oil would make my eyes water every time, without fail. 
Let me give you an interesting, secret tip straight from the khansamas of Lucknow — if you want your mustard oil to mellow over a period of time, put it in a earthen pot and bury it underground for a couple of months. The heat of the earth sucks away the pungency of the oil like magic. Don’t believe me? Try it, but please mark your spot before you forget where you buried your oil!!! The magic elements behind the much talked medicinal properties of mustard oil are sulphur compounds and erucic acid. 
The latter is now used in almost all trial medicine for cardiovascular treatments. 

Here’s a western recipe for a dressing that I conjured using our very own mustard oil: Mustard oil tomato 

Ingredients :

Sesame dressing :
White Sesame seeds: 1 tsp 
Tomatoes (quartered): 3 nos 
Mustard oil: 2/3 cup 
White vinegar: ¼ cup 
Salt and pepper to taste 

Method :

1. Heat the oil till it smokes, split in two. 

2. Add the tomatoes to one half among with the sesame seeds, cook till tomatoes are tender, add vinegar and take off the flame. 

3. Blend and season, slowly add the remaining oil and cool.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Art of being ….. The wise cook and other stories

               I have written enough to establish food as an extension of art and expression. It is now time to sum up the series by treading on a very intangible line….being . A lot of times when I find myself anxious to create and thus rushing things (cooking processes) in the bargain, I am reminded of my grandfather ,a farmer telling me “son, remember ..the wheat will ripen only when it will ripen, learn to let it be”.

              Today, for me this life lesson holds as good in cooking as in any other discipline of art. A lot of times , we as cooks tend to speed up cooking by efficient equipment , blasting temperatures and technology wherein the wise cook knows exactly when he has to let the food just “be”. As a result of this controlling psyche, we now have express curing, express smoking, express drying and even express baking; and then we complain that the food in the good old days was better, of course it was.... because the cooks were patient!!! 
               Even with sculpting or carving we see a form in stone or wood and let it evolve with our chisel, everytime we rush it we lose sight of the inherent form. Now let me propose another intangible concept , be with me on this one … all the upsets and anxiety happen when we are not “being”… we are either wanting, having or trying and that’s not what we are designed to do because we are human "beings" . 
               Translated to food …. The wise cook understands that every time he is cooking in a frame of mind of  "being”, he is letting the food be, hence the food expresses itself completely in flavor, texture and taste with minimum intervention. The funny part …as modern cooks, it's these "natural flavors" in food that we strive for yet very rarely do we let a mustard, pickle or a cure fully mature or wait for a 12 hour slow fermentation to bring out the best in the bread…..because for me, a modern cook, cooking has become about control!!
               Here's a recipe for Worcestershire sauce, boil everything for 5-7 minutes then just let it “be” for 2 months :)

2 cups - distilled white vinegar
1⁄2 cup - molasses
1⁄2 cup - soy sauce
1⁄4 cup - tamarind concentrate
3 tbsps - kosher salt
1 tsp - whole black peppercorns
1 tsp - whole cloves
5 cardamom pods, smashed
4 red chilies dry, chopped
2 cloves - garlic, smashed
1  - 1" stick cinnamon
1 anchovy, chopped
1  1⁄2" piece ginger, peeled and crushed
1⁄2 cup - sugar

Friday, December 20, 2013

When food gives .....story of Vishala

Food is a giver and I have never doubted this ... because this keeps coming back to me like a universal truth.

In my travels for a food show there was a lot I learnt in Amdavad but more than the learning, there was a lot that I was touched, moved and inspired by. One such story is the story of Mr Surendra Patel.

An architect by profession, he has been running a F&B operation for 35 years by the name of vishala .... and has quite a story to tell. Fed up of the city life he decided to make people feel the same way like he felt when he used to vacation in his paternal village. 

 He named the place after "Badri Vishala", a place of meditation in the Himalayas, where many ascetics including Shri Swaminarayan have found nirvana and him being an ardent follower of the lord, established an Idol in the compound and thus started cooking prasad for the Bhog. It's this prasad that is still served at the place after the evening pooja. 
               In 1981, he went to buy some utensils for the restaurants in a nearby city only to find that people were selling old brass and copper utensils for money. 
                He was moved by the loss of heritage and bought back a truck full of utensils! After that he kept all his wives ornaments in mortgage to buy more utensils. 
He got a big project and made enough money to get them back, but by this time he had become notorious for buying utensils, so the company chose to give the money to his wife instead.... 

            Today in Vishala stands a museum called "Vichaar" which has the largest collection of utensils in this part of the world. His restaurant has no design, design he says, was created by man to understand things. Eventually we just get bored and move on to the
next thing to understand. According to him, nature just gives, and we attach meanings and celebrations to it. 
His restaurant has over 150 employees and has served many a dignitaries, heads of states and celebrities. Employee perks include free haircuts and bonus on quitting smoking!! ...

He unassumingly and nonchalantly gives all the credit to his friends who helped him with money and his wife who stood by him when he sold everything he had, to buy utensils and pile them up every where in Vishala; yet after you talk to him and walk around...he is every where in Vishala - in its simplicity ,sincerity and honesty...a great example of giving back ... 

Food has obviously given him enough. What started as prasad for the temple is now a feast for a humungous restaurant, which is always full. Yet Patel is not happy because he hasn't given back enough to food. 
An amazing relationship with food, "the relationship of giving" Way to go Mr Patel .... 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

All things smoked....

Going up in smoke……and other stories
             Growing up in Lucknow there are many unique cooking styles that you come across -”Zameendoz“ (cooking under the earth), “Dum Pukht” (the world famous art of slow cooking) and “Dhungar”(the quick cold smoking of kebabs) are some. Dhungar has always intrigued me as a child first and a culinarian later in life. The world famous Galavat ke kebab would not be as famous without the subtle smokiness of cloves and desi ghee imparted to the fine mince during its resting. 

The Burrani raita and the Murgh Awadhi korma are the other two dishes that are significantly heightened in taste post this unique treatment, where “Bujha Koyla” or the almost burnt out coal (to avoid a fire) is topped with ghee and cloves and then the lid is put on allowing the subtle smoky flavors to be absorbed. 
The affinity of the Smoky flavor with the lacticity of yoghurt is no secret in the Mewar region of Rajasthan where they make an exquisitely balanced smoked chhaas, absolutely mind blowing. Today it is chemically proven that smoking creates vanilla and clove scented com. As it turns out, Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s cooks already knew this fact 300 years ago when they made the kebab for the “Toothless Nawab”. Well that’s another story …  
Smoked Buttermilk dressing 
Ingredients :
Thick plain Buttermilk       2 cups 
Scallions chopped            ½ cup
Onion seeds toasted        1 tsp
Ginger- grated/Juiced      1 tsp
Orange zest                     1 tsp
Burning coal                     1 pc
Butter and oil                    1 tbsp
Seasoning                        as required

Method :
1. Mix all the ingredients except the coal, butter n oil and half the onion seeds in a big bowl.
2. In a small steel bowl add the coal, pour ghee and oil and the onion seeds, and float it on the dressing and cover.
3. Keep aside for 10 minutes, remove the coal bowl, stir and the dressing is ready.
4. Best combined with citrus, radicchio and tomato flavors.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Baguette.... a whole world

                   Bread Making is a fascinating subject from time immemorial …. my real journey with bread is pretty recent till about a couple of years ago.. when I started working with a French hotel chain (Accor) and realized the intensity of love for the subject. 
                  Until then, I realized I was merely scratching the surface by just tasting different “flavored” breads like the focaccia and the corn bread and was missing the point to a very large extent. The point of flavor detail and intensity of taste that flour can bring through various treatments.            
Being a farmer's son I now have a deeper sense of appreciation for the unsurpassable beauty of flour and its strength to hold societies together. 
 I am now absolutely in love with this phenom… there's so much to learn, so much to love, so much to live, that one can spend a lifetime working towards his vision of a perfect baguette!!!
                  A medium thin yet supercrispy crust , deep lactic and floral flavor, shiny soft non crumbly interior…….bliss. Let me stir your senses, and you will understand why I am obsessed with this wonder. A good bread has a lot of detail…lets quantify it into three main topics:

1. Starter - a simple batter that is “Trained “ to aerate over a period of few weeks , every time it rises , peaks and collapses it matures in flavor , only for the most part to be thrown away and 20% carried forward and “Fed” with fresh flour and water , this process creates an unbeatable lactic and fruity flavor.

2. Leaven - made with all but 01 table spoon of the starter to 200 gms flour , this is what we will taste in the bread, this has the essence of a lot of time , patience and discipline that we will eventually taste in the flour. 

3. Bulk fermentation - the second last rise of the yeast that has been well fed for weeks and that has now spread well in flavor detail to feed us well .. some chefs allow upto 12 hours for bulk fermentation creating a deeper acidic flavor profile.
               That’s all I got, but the next time you are eating a bread that is memorable , remember the humble starter that is old, mature and so full of character that a miniscule part has given you food memories forever.

Art of expression …. When chefs learn to be quiet and the food talks..

          Literally translated, expression is the conveying or representing of an idea or a feature. Yet every artist knows that in every feeling that manifests into art there’s the said and there’s the unsaid and that is where the world of language stops and the world of feeling and believing starts.
Just like art, Food is an expression … a manifestation of the said and the unsaid.
Food conveys, it talks in many ways whether  it is a dish speaking about the chefs passion when he created it or an ingredient that has served as a medium of artistic expression , trust me food talks.
            The Parmesan for example isn’t just a cheese-it talks about the patience of the humble peasant of Emilia Romagna of 1500s, allowing the cheese to mature for 24 months just like they would wait for a crop to ripen till the right time of harvest.
Our own Biryani is another wonderful expression of patience and perfection, tasting it could bring out a lot of conversations and feelings yet one common feeling that it exudes is appreciation for this grain , this wonderful medium that has lent itself to the hands of many an artist for over eight thousand years. Getting refined and evolved in this process we could probably write an encyclopedia about the evolution of rice but let me leave you with a fact that there are more than a million recorded and unrecorded rice preparations worldwide!
This food induced self-talk stems from the strength of food as a fulfilling artful expression that we can see, taste and smell.
That’s why food memories are so vivid. Every time I taste a good kakori kebab it immediately takes me 20 years back when I first tasted it at Munir ustad’s shop and I can feel that moment now, am sure all of us have our “time travel” dishes.. Amazing right? That’s how good a conversationalist food is...

Here’s a recipe to test your patience
Aged homemade Mustard
  • 100 g mustard seeds
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  •  big pinch of chilli powder
  • 2-4 tablespoons warm water, if necessary
  • optional: 1-3 teaspoons raw mango paste
1. Combine all the ingredients, except the mango. Cover, and let stand for 2-3 days.
2. Put the ingredients in a blender and whiz until as smooth as possible. Add water if the mustard is too thick. Store in an earthen pot for a month at least before using

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Temple cuisine ... an ode

The Divine gift of food....
             Having been brought up in a Sikh family, I was used to the Sunday “langar” culture. Maybe it was the fun of communal cooking that got me excited or maybe the perpetual asking for help by the priest that got me to assist him with cooking. Whatever it was, in a few years I was cooking the small communal langar on my own, causing my dad to nickname me a “Langri”, Punjabi for a temple cook.
             Now when I have been formally married to food for 18+ years and I have had the chance to study it in its various forms and incarnations, I feel it's my duty to write about the contribution of temples towards nurturing local cuisine and safekeeping the reverence for food in our culture. Throughout centuries many temples in India have been using the same recipes and same cooking styles which otherwise would’ve gotten lost a long time ago. 
              The largest kitchen in the world is set at Jagannath Temple in Puri where the mahaprasadam is still cooked in earthen pots placed in a pyramid over wood fire. Also in a lot of temples many recently arrived ingredients are avoided; like a lot of temples in south india use sweet potatoes and yams, and not potatoes. Travelling down southern India there are many unique preparations that are sacredly kept intact through centuries, like the No-mustard seed Aviyal of the Padmanabhaswamy temple or the unique Panchamrat of Muruga temple at Palani that stays good for six weeks .
               I am a miniscule culanarian in such a grand culinary heritage, yet as a chef I feel it's my humble duty to acknowledge and bring forth the contribution of temples for having preserved the culinary heritage and the joy in communal cooking and eating that we Indians are so proud of.

Heres a “Karha” Prasad recipe, the delectable halwa of Gurudwaras...

1 cup ghee or 1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 cubes)
1 cup whole grain flour (atta)

1 cup sugar3 cups water

1. Add sugar to water and set in pot to boil.
2. Melt ghee or unsalted butter in a pan.Add whole grain flour (atta) to melted butter.Stir mixture continuously to toast flour.
3. Pour boiling sugar syrup into toasted flour and butter mixture.Mixture will sputter. Take care not to be scalded. 
4. Stir rapidly until all water is absorbed. Keep stirring as it thickens into a firm pudding and  slides easily from pan. Serve hot.