Thursday, March 27, 2014

Balai .. The Lucknowi wonder

The streets of old Lucknow have many a story to tell.....Everytime I visit these narrow streets and get lost in them I discover something new. Balai is one such discovery made some time ago in the “gullies” of Chowk. It has the nuttiness of our clotted cream (malai ) along with a rich creaminess that comes from the reduction of milk.

Milk is slowly heated (never boiled) in thick- bottomed, flat and shallow kadhais on cowdung “uplas” and a layer of balai forms, the milk is allowed to reduce to a very thick consistency and the balai is removed and stacked on top of each other. These gateaux-like stacks are sold in the streets especially Victoria street in the mornings. In this street they have a specialty called Kashmiri chai being sold in the winters; its not the kehwa but a light pink colored very sweet milky tea, the nawabs called it Kashmiri because they felt the color and the sweetness was just like the people of Kashmir, royal comprehension does affect cuisine you see !! 
                      Here’s the interesting part though, this tea is ”eaten“ with a spoon and not sipped. Kagazi samosa, a light flaky puff is crumbled into a cup and this pink tea is poured into it and then its topped with a huge dollop of Balai.This rich and royal winter concoction  warms you up instantly.
         On my last visit I went to Banwali gali in Chowk, to the 200 year old Ram Asrey Mishtaan Bhandar and discovered this wonder all over again, this time in the form of a Gilori or a paan. “Nanhe”, their balai specialist guided me through the complete process of making the Balai and then filled it up with a inique mixture of nuts and “Kesari Misri” - a saffron flavored rock sugar. We rolled up the Giloris when the balai was still warm and I stole a moment to make one for myself!! The taste, the mouth-feel ,the contrast between the creaminess of Balai and the crunch of the rock sugar... created a perfect moment and gave me a food memory forever...

Here's an inspired recipe, dedicated to Nanhe, the Balai maker....
Bruleed Balai éclairs

Choux buns or éclair shells          3

Balai or half cream half malai       1 cup
Rock sugar                                   1 tbsp
Gulkand                                        ½ tsp
Chopped nuts                               1tbsp
Method :
1. Roll the gulkand and the nuts in the balai.
2. Cut and retain the tops of the éclairs
3. Fill the éclairs with balai mix and top with rock sugar and brulee with a torch.
4. Put the tops of the éclair back and serve immediately.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Gulab Jamun .. rediscovered

Serendipity, a phenomenon of happy, accidental discoveries has given the humans a lot of scientific gifts. Serendipity in the kitchens is not uncommon either. It’s common parlance that chocolate chip cookies were an accidental discovery by Mrs Wakefield and so were ‘Saratoga’ potato chips by George Crum in Saratoga Springs NY. In fact, the good thing about the kitchen is the mini eureka moments you keep getting as a chef and the element of (personal) serendipity involved. 
I had such a mini eureka moment in Kolkata in late January while spending time at the fruit market intrigued by the similarity of the fruit from the Bengal and North East to the exotic Thai and South East Asian counterparts. Outside Garihat market, a proud gentleman was sitting with fruits from famed North Bengal and Sikkim region. With him were some Malay apples (Jamrul or wax apple as we better know them) and a strange looking green fruit with pink hues called Gulab Jamun. The moment I tasted the fruit it was a food memory forever. Not very sweet, but juicy and floral like no other, it was as if the fruit had been injected with rose water. The curious-cook-siren went off. What is the real name of the fruit? Where did it originate? What came first, the dessert or the fruit? After due diligence, here are the answers.
The fruit is Syzigium jambos, cultivated in South East Asia and Jamaica. It’s been called gulab jamun from times immemorial. Here’s the interesting part though, gulab jamun as a dessert is only recorded in culinary history after the Mughals. The fruit being much older and hence probably the inspiration for the dessert. 
Not convinced? Here’s another fact. The only other country where a similar dessert also called gulab jamun is found is Jamaica. Is it a coincidence the fruit is found here as well? 
Well, I lay no claims but if this write up has gotten you taking notice of this “our” exotic fruit, the job’s done.

Jamrul-watermelon and salad
l White jamrul, sliced: 1 no.s 
l Watermelon, diced: 100 gms 
l Arugula: 60-70 gms 
l Greek honey: 1 tsp 
l Salad oil: 2 tsp
l Mustard powder: a pinch 
l Lemon juice: 1 tsp
l Salt and pepper to taste 
Mix the lime juice, oil, honey and mustard, blend and season. Keep aside. Marinate the jamrul slices in a little dressing and spread at the bottom of the plate. Top with tossed watermelon and arugula and drizzle some dressing. The finished salad can be sprinkled over with some goat cheese and pinenuts as well.