Thursday, December 17, 2015

Dear winters…from India with love

                  I remember having written about Boston winters a couple of years ago when I just got back to India, and how the change of seasons is so obvious in the European and North American lifestyle; the environment, clothing and most importantly, the produce. For us the change of seasons might not be that harsh but the winters bring a bounty of produce and a change in our eating habits that’s rooted, unique and inspiring. Whether it’s the Nihaari of Lucknow and Delhi, the fluffy milk froth (Malayyo in Benares, Daulat ki chaat in Delhi and Nimish in Lucknow), the Paya shorva of Hyderabad or the erstwhile shikaar (game) dishes of the royalty, the food of regions with an underlying Mughal influence is directed primarily by the phenomenon of Taseer (the heating/cooling effect of an ingredient on our body) and a bit by the seasonal produce. Oh, and not to forget mentioning the Kaali Gajar ka halwa from my city, Lucknow. 
                     The regions that are influenced heavily by produce are Gujarat and Punjab. The Sarson ka Saag with gur and Makki ki roti is a true celebration of winter and will always remain a perfect example of a farm to table dish. Not to forget the Kanji, a fermented drink made with black carrots and mustard, the Malpuas and the Paneer Jalebis that cannot be given a miss. Another Indian region that celebrates seasonal cooking, especially winters is Bengal, Nolen Gur is truly the most remarkable sweet ingredient ever and Nolen Gurer Sondesh is the king of winter mishti (not to forget the Nolen Gurer payesh, nolen gorer rosogulla). It all starts with Telebhaja and sun-filled conversations that mark the advent of winters . The live fish are suddenly in demand (Mangur, shini and shol maachh) as they are believed to be warming, and pulkopi (cauliflower) dishes in Pice hotels complete the circle. Oh and did I mention the I, our version of the crepes stuffed with payesh or khoa? And that for you is a very small glimpse of winters in Bengal!!

              However, in my opinion Gujarat takes the cake when it comes to celebrating winters. The unique produce that floods the market is remarkable and exciting for any chef — rattail radish (mogri), gumberries, lilua, winter greens and not to foget the green garlic. There would only be a few dining experiences better than enjoying Undhyu on a rooftop while flying kites on a chilly afternoon. Or the freshly roasted Ponkh (tender green jowar) or the one bite heartwarning lilwa (fresh toor) kachoris. The use of urad and spices (especially black pepper) in ladoos (uradiya) and other mithai is prevalant. 
Another popular non vegetarian Bohri Muslim winter dish is the “dhokla” not to be confused with the farsaan, this is actually a mutton undhiyu with lots of surati papdi and green garlic that will leave you wondering why winters don’t last the entire year. Gujarat (especially south Gujarat) for me is a “must visit” state in winters (and all my Gujarati friends are on the frequently dialled list). I strongly suggest you do the same to make this winter memorable and friendships around food longlasting.

Monday, November 23, 2015

All about tea...

              Growing up in a Punjabi family there are many superstitions that you grow up with the most common is "Drinking Chai makes you dark" this is a Punjabi's first introduction to tea!! It's only much later that we realise the beauty of this beverage to truly appreciate it in various forms.
                Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact date in history, legend tells us that tea was first discovered 5000 years ago by Chinese Emperor Sheng Nong. A few leaves from a tea plant supposedly fell into his cup of hot water. And luckily for us, instead of discarding it, he tasted it! The rest is history….Like all good things, chocolate, chilies, coffee, the word of tea spread quickly. Tea drinking was soon widespread in China...and then spread to Japan and India thanks to Buddhist monks. By 1610 AD Tea had reached Europe. In fact Tea has been pivotal in history at any points. The American Revolution was set off by the Boston Tea Party in protest to a tax applied to tea !!
                Tea is indubitably Chinese, and both the words the and cha are of Chinese origin. Cultivation has been practised for 2000 years, and at first the wild leaves were probably eaten as a vegetable. Brewing is described in a Chinese book of AD 220-65. The leaves were made into cakes, with rice added as a binder for older leaves and the cakes were then baked to remove the green.
                While the Chinese discovered tea and propagated its consumption, Indian tea came from a tea plant indigenous to India. According to Indian historians the tea plant grew wild in the areas of Assam adjacent to China, where the best Chinese teas were cultivated and local Assamese tribes had been drinking tea for centuries and some areas along the Brahmaputra were even growing it. The cultivation of Tea in India only happened much later with the advent of the British Government. Initial attempts at cultivating tea from China withered but the pioneering work of Robert Bruce, a retired lieutenant from the British royal navy, paid off and the first crude teas were shipped to England sometime around 1848.
Indian culture of adding milk and spices to tea is believed to have started with the effort of making tea more warming and to cut down the acidity.
                Tea is definitely good for health and the world around us is realizing that. Numerous studies have demonstrated the anti-cancer properties of polyphenols. Some studies indeed suggested that tea's polyphenols may reduce risk of gastric, esophageal and skin cancers, if one consumes 4 to 6 cups daily. Other laboratory studies have found that polyphenols help prevent blood clotting and lower cholesterol levels. A recent study published in December 2005 showed that just 2 cups of tea may lower the risk of ovarian cancer by 46 percent in women.
So the next time you sip tea leave the superstitions aside and sip slowly into 5000 years of history......

Monday, October 26, 2015

Of festivities and flowers...

                Being Indian, it is inevitable for our festivals to be associated with flowers and mithais. As tradition and for the aesthetics, flowers are unmatchable; somewhere though there always have been floral aspescts in our food as well. The good news is that the floral connect to food is coming back.
                These days' flowers are used a lot in food for garnishing and flavours, becoming super trendy in the last five years or so. The most common flowers used for garnishes are nasturtium, marigold and clovers. My travels astonish me with the amazing ways that people find of adding flowers to their diet. Chef Andy Husbands of Boston once fed me a dandelion salad with Jicama, served with a glass of dandelion wine. The salad was just crisp, awesome dandelion leaves tossed with dried dandelion flower vinaigrette and the wine was made purely out of fermented dandelion flowers. 
                 Ayurveda has also endorsed dandelion (simha danti) as its leaves and root are essential part of all kidney and liver medicines. Hibiscus is another flower that won my heart in my travel to the west. In Hawaii, I tasted the most amazing jam made out of wild hibiscus flowers (Rosella). Hibiscus also goes well with light teas much like Chamomile, another flower that is amazingly flavoursome and addictive. Then there is our Rose, the King of flowers and the body balancer of Ayurveda. Recorded rose recipes date back to the 9th century. 
                 Rose flower jam in Persia (our Gulkand) is till day one of the most effective digestif. The cooling properties of rose and rose water are used to balance the pitta (high heat) dosh in ayurveda. Then there's violet, cockscomb, clove flowers... the list is endless... a little bit of googling and you will be on your way to make your Diwali floral in all aspects. As a thumb rule all edible flowers are rich in antioxidants and vitamins - good for hair, skin and eye sight. However, in today's world of chemicals, using organic flowers or terrace grown fare is a way better bet. To further inspire you to use flower in your food as much as your decor this Diwali, here is an interesting recipe I created for this festive season......   

Rose Kalakand Tart

Serves 6
Prep time 30 mins
Cooking and cooking time 60 mins

Sweet paste for tart : 562 gms Flour
187 gms icing sugar
375 gms butter
3 nos eggs

For Kalakand filling :
60 gms flour

150 gms kalakand
150 gms almond powder
150 gms caster sugar
250 gms butter
3 nos eggs
20 chopped organic rose petals
50 gms mixed chopped nuts

For rose cream and coconut snow :
15 ml rose syrup
10 gms crème fraiche
20 ml rose water
20 gms desiccated cocount
10-12 sliced sweet supari

Method :
1. For the sweet paste, cream butter and icing sugar together. Add eggs gradually to this. Lastly, fold in flour and make a flat dough. Keep in the fridge for two hours to rest.

2. For Kalakand filling, cream together butter, kalakand and caster sugar till light and fluffy. Sift flour and almond powder together. Add eggs gradually into the butter mixture. Fold flour and almond powder in. Add rose water and mix well.

3. For rose cream and coconut snow, lightly whip the cream, add rose water and 10 ml rose syrup. Rub the coconut with the remaining rose syrup for the snow. 

4. Roll the sweet paste dough into a thin sheet. Line the tart mould with it. Fill the lined tart mould with rose almond cream to more than half. Sprinkle sliced mix nuts and dried rose petals on top and bake at 170c for 25 to 30 minutes. Keep it aside to cool. 
Cut in to triangle wedges and serve with rose cream and pink coconut snow; garnish with sliced sweetened betel nut ...

Monday, October 19, 2015

King of Fall

                This is the time that I miss Boston winter the most, the time of thanks giving, the time of the beautiful winter fare. When the best local blue cheese floods the market along with the amazing winter squashes and lovely game. The time to see what other chefs have thought of as their winter style statement.
               The white winter would perfectly complement the musky woody feel outside and the hearty soul warming feel in the food. In India the beauty of winter transition has its own charm, starting from the seasonal fare like the black carrot kanji and the sarson ka saag in the north to the warm Gajar ka halwa that makes you wait every year for the supple and pink Delhi carrots, not to forget the shalgam gosht and Shab Deg of my city Lucknow. 

                  Lucknow is the city of Unani medicine, the city of taseer. Old Lucknow residents still swear by the seasonality of cuisine. There'd be a sudden change in the food atmosphere and the aromas in the Chowk area, also known as the 'lungs' of lucknow in the old literary circle of Awadh, where the food smells or rather the transition of these smells indicates the change of seasons. The fluffy and flavorsome Nimish or Makkhan Malaai becomes a popular breakfast along with the warming Nihari and Black carrot halwa. Not to forget the Kashmiri chai which is no way related to kahwa but it's essentially, milk cooked in copper and craftingly poured and re-poured from heights to get a light pink hue, a color which the commoner would relate to the Kashmiris traveling to Awadh. It is served with a crumbled filo-like kagazi samosa making it a soul warming experience of a lifetime. 
                  Coming back to the US I realized that the sense of seasonal diet, while diminishing in a globalized India is still held high in the west which might be out of the sheer necessity to stay warm in extreme winters. While I'm proud to be a part of the new breed of Indian chefs who believe that India does not need to look west for culinary inspiration, food and lifestyle integration is something that we can take from them this time of the year so wishing you a winter full of local and seasonal flavors and aromas....
Here's a winter recipe for you to try :- 

Olive Oil : 1 tsp
Chopped Garlic : 1 tsp
Chopped Ginger :1 tsp
Chopped Onion :1 tbsp
Red Chili Powder : 1 tsp
Turmeric Powder : 1 tsp
Coriander Powder : 1 tsp
Salt : to taste
Crushed Black Pepper : to taste
Chopped Apple : ½ cup
Chopped Pumpkin :1 cup
Oatmeal : 1-2 tbsp

For Garnish :

Chopped Celery :2 tbsp
Parmesan Cheese : as per taste
Crushed Black Pepper : to taste
Gorgonzola Cheese : to taste
Honey : few drops
Degi Mirch : a pinch
Garlic Bread : as per taste

Method :

1. In a pan heat olive oil, add chopped garlic, chopped ginger, chopped onion, red chili powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, salt, crushed black pepper, chopped apple, chopped pumpkin, water and cover the pan and cook for 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Remove the pan lid and keep aside some mixture for the garnish.
3. Add water to the pan mixture and blend it. Then sieve it further.
4. Boil the sieved soup and add oatmeal to it and let it cook further.
5. Add chopped celery and parmesan cheese. Transfer the soup to a bowl.
6. Add gorgonzola cheese at the centre. Sprinkle degi mirch and drizzle few drops of honey on cheese. Serve the soup immediately with garlic bread.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reminiscing the fall...

           I remember the first change of seasons in Boston. Suddenly the air was chillier, the greenery was missing, all the restaurant menus changed, and lo and behold, there was pumpkin everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, from the pumpkin-spiced lattes to the pumpkin pies to the Halloween decorations.
          It was October 2006, when I realised that pumpkin definitely is the king of fall.
The next September, I was at it myself, doing my own versions of pumpkin specials from Achaari Pumpkin Raviolis to Pumpkin Rasam, and the most selling, Pumpkin Halwa Bake with cardamom ice cream. In trying to marry these Indian flavour combinations with the American pumpkin, I realised that our kaddu, which undoubtedly ranks among the Indian child’s most hated dishes, has actually a lot to offer !!!

           When trying out various flavour combinations, two dishes struck me the most to further establish the Indian expertise to deftly combine complex flavours :
1. Pumpkin Elissery from Kerala that gels the sweetness of coconut and pumpkin and then spiked up with curry leaves and chilies.
2. Kumro Chingri Botti, a Bengali dish with prawns, potato and pumpkin, scented with the quintessential Bengali spice mix, panch-phoran.
Oh! of course.. now the medicinal properties to further have your buy in. Pumpkin seeds/pepitas have antioxidant and anti-diabetic qualities. These are roasted and eaten semi husked or de-husked. They are also crushed and rolled for pumpkin-seed oil, a personal favourite for fall salad dressings....Here’s a sweet recipe to close the pumpkin page..


2 cups grated white pumpkin
1 cup sugar

½ cup grated sugarless khova
2 tbsps ghee
A pinch of cardamom seeds powder

Dry fruits to garnish

1. Squeeze out the water from the grated pumpkin. Heat 1 tbsp ghee in a pan and fry pumpkin till moisture is absorbed. 

2. Add sugar and cook till it is ¾th cooked. 
3. Add sugarless khova and cook till halwa consistency is reached. 
4. Add 1 tbsp ghee when the halwa starts leaving the sides of the pan. Sprinkle cardamom powder, dry fruits and remove.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The fine art of sweetness

              Indian streets and cities have many a tale to tell and many unheard untold food stories and discovering them is what brings great joy and pride. It sometimes also brings a slight sadness, a sadness born out of realising our own ignorance.....ignorance of our strength and our history and of the culinary skills that we as a society and culture posess. One such skill that we possess is confection.
              In a world obsessed with the fine art of patisserie we sometimes forget that "khand" or rock sugar, is as old as 800 BC in India and sugarcane chewing and the use of sugarcane juice is mentioned in the Samhitas. Now let's take our sweet conversation to two cities - Lucknow and Hyderabad. While my serious Interest in pastry is a decade old, I have always been obsessed with marzipan and fondant work. As somebody who sculpts and moulds the ability of almonds and sugar to transform into works of art has always amazed me. 

               In my recent visit to Hyderabad looking for some old recipes I had the good fortune of dining at and cooking with some really awesome cooks. One such cook was a 80-something Badi Bi of the Nizami lineage who promised to show me something I had never seen and I jumped at the idea. What I saw was the most beautiful display of marzipan flowers and the best part was each marzipan was flavored with the same flower it was shaped Into. Rose, jasmine... she had it all. Badi bi doesn't know marzipan but she knows Badam Ki Asharfi and her grandmother had started this art of turning the asharfi mix into these flowers around 70 years ago, passed it down to her and here I had travelled the world, looking to learn from the best marzipan artists!!! I went numb and then I felt joy, pride and sadness for myself. The joy of discovery, proud of being Indian and sadness at being obsessed with 'phoren'. So much to see, so much to learn....
                I grew up in Lucknow and winter was my favourite season only because of the sudden Influx of "gajjak" and "rewri"( besides the fact that schools would close because of excessive fog!!). It was till much later that I went to the small by-lanes of Charbagh to see rewri making being done and found it very fascinating how sugar just transfomed in 15 minutes from crystals to rewris. 

The workers have been toiling in immense heat in these workshops that are close to a hundred years old pulling sugar at 150+ degrees and deftly working to create more than 300 kgs of magic a day. While most of these kaarigars have been friends with sugar for more than three decades we are busy glorifying sugar artists from the west. Next time in Meerut or Lucknow, do stop by a rewri maker and smile and who knows he might deftly sugarpull a "rewri rose" in a flash and give you a food memory for life :)...

Badam Ki Jali
375 gms almonds
250 gms Caster sugar
Silver paper as required
1/2 cup milk

1. Remove the skin of almonds, grind it to a powder. 

2. In one pan, add almond powder and caster sugar and cook on low flame, add drops of milk until it takes the shape of a dough. 
3. Now roll it out and cut out shapes using a cookie cutter.Decorate with silver paper, cover one cut piece with another to make a 'jali'. 
4. Roast on a frying pan on low flame. Badam ki jali is ready.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Indian food … the journeys so far...

              As I travel across the country yet again I am convinced that travel is the best way to understand the food and culture of any country. After all food is an evolving space and cross cultural travel shapes up the cuisine of any culture. Staying in India we always study how our cuisine has been affected by different people and subcultures, traveling into the country either for trade or war. 

               There is another story to be told, the story of Indian cuisine affecting the world through ages. For thousands of years, Indians travelled to various parts of the world as traders, Buddhist monks, Hindu priests, labourers and more recently, immigrants. There is archaeological proof of presence of Indus valley merchants in Mesopotamia. Trade was a big reason to travel in the  ancient and medivial periods. However from the 17th century onward, Indians travelled to South Africa, Britain and North America as slaves and later this became a massive emigration drive in 1830s with the Abolition of slavery and the introduction of the indentured labour system pushing Indian Labour out into the British, French, Portugese and Dutch colonies. 
             Looking back, the signs and impact of this mass movement are the most visible in the food of Africa, South east Asia and Caribbean/Fiji Islands.Lets look at Africa first. The trending dish from South Africa, "Bunny Chao" was a backdoor serving option to cater to the Black South Africans who couldn't enter the restaurants run by the "banias" due to Aparthied. The original nameof the dish being Bania Chow. The making of Kenya Uganda highway brought in 30,000 Indians Into East Africa and along with them came kebabs, samosas and bhajias.The use of coconut millk in Kenyan cooking is believed to be an Indian Influence with the signature dish being Kuku paka (Chicken in Coconut sauce). The Caribbean cuisine is plush with Indian influences from eastern UP and Bihar with dishes like Tomato Chokha, Dal puri, Guyanese Peras, Baras and Parathas found abundantly across all Islands.
                The plantation workers that settled in Malaysia and Singapore have influenced the street food irreversibly and for good with the Indian Equivalent of kheema roti, Murtabak (from the Arabic word, folded). The Indian Muslims in Malaysia have developed a distinct style of cooking called Mamak which includes specialties like Biryani and Roti Kanai and the tea version of filter coffee, Teh Tarik.With many more such examples of Indian cuisine making a permanent impact across the world, I think we, as Indians travelling abroad should also think about proudly discovering these subtle influences that represent the legacy left behind by our forefathers....

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pulses … a small trivia

               Among the many wonders of Indian cuisine that appeal to the west, lentils and pulses lead the pack. From being the primary source of proteins for the vegetarians to providing much needed nitrogen for the soil, pulses have been around in our life forever. A little bit of theoretical study about these grains and their origins brought up a lot of Interesting trivia that I felt I should share.
               The three Ms of the Aryans…The trio of pulses that occur in Aryan literature are - masha (urad, vigna mungo), mugda (mung, vigna radiata) and masura (masoor, lens culinaris). Urad and mung have their origins in India (with grains being discovered dated 1500 BC and the mention of papads and vadas in Aryan literature using the properties of "phytin" the phosphorus compound in urad. Masoor, on the other hand is believed to have come from Turkey and Iran (where it has been dated to the seventh millennia BC) to India around 1800 BC. Probably that's why in scriptures it's a food forbidden in fasting and as an offering to Gods...

Matki - the Moth of Punjab and the Matki of Maharashtra, Sanskrit name Makushtha is now believed not to be Indian with proven origins in Guatemala and Mexico; leaving the origin of the Indian matki open....Lobia or the cowpea occurs as Nihpava in Buddhist canonical literature around 400BC, derived from lobos (Greek, Projection). It's again NOT of Indian origin, the current strain is believed to have come to us from Malaysia, where it was grown as fodder. 
Thuvar - whether it's the tall and bigger pod variety the North knows as Arahar or the South Indian shrubby Thuvarai; Pigeon pea till recently was believed to be African In origin, but of late South Indian excavations (around the western ghats ) have proved otherwise, giving hope that this grain that the Charaka Samhita so vividly endorses is Indian in origin!! 
Chana - the most multipurpose grain ever, finding uses in all courses of almost all Indian sub cuisines. Cicer Arietinum, it has been found in In Kalibangan and dated 2500 BC and yet traces its roots to Asia Minor and Middle East going back to 5400BC. South India received the chickpea even later (around 500BC), while the large kabuli varieties are only 200 years old in India 
Rajmah - the Shaane Kashmir legume is 8,000 years old but unfortunately has only spent the last 200 years in Kashmir having traveled from Peru via the Europeans; the French have been credited to try their cultivation first in India (like the broad bean which took the name French bean to credit their efforts). 
Well the origins might be local or global (or disputed ). The fact is, lentils are a 7,000 year old phenomena and every spoon of dal is a spoonful of history.

Green Moong Idli

Ingredients :
1 cup green moong dal (toasted and soaked overnight)
3 tbsp carrots (finely chopped)
3 tbsp French beans (boiled and finely chopped)
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp green chilli paste
2 tsp besan
1 tsp fruit salt (Eno)
Salt to taste

Masoor chutney
2 tsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
8 dried red chillies
100 gms rinsed and drained masoor dal
6 green chillies (de-seeded)
1 tsp fresh ginger (grated)
1 medium onion cut in quater
125 ml tamarind extract
1/2 tsp castor sugar
Salt to taste

Method :
1. Roast the moong dal in a non-stick pan till all the raw smell disappears. Cool and soak in water overnight. The next day, drain and discard the water. 

2. Grind the dal in a mixer to a thick paste using little water if required. Add carrots, green beans, salt, ginger, green chilli paste and mix well. Sprinkle the fruit salt on it and then a few drops of water on the fruit salt. When the bubbles form, mix gently. 
3. Wet a muslin cloth and spread all over idli mould. Pour the mixture gently into idli moulds and steam in a steamer for 15 minutes till they are done.
4. For masoor chutney, heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the fenugreek seeds, dried red chilies, mustard seeds and dal and stir fry about two minutes on a low flame. 

5. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool, and then mix with green chilies, ginger, onion and tamarind extract in a bowl. 
6. Transfer to a blender and process, adding little water if necessary to form a smooth paste. Add sugar and mix well. You can store it in the airtight container for up to two days in the refrigerator.
Serve idlis hot with this chutney....

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The story of baklava … in Mumbai

                  Originally started as a Roman dessert around the second century BC and taken to its glory by the Ottoman Empire, if there's one festive sweet that crosses all cultural frontiers and political boundaries, it has to be the Baklava.
                  Right from Greece where baklava takes a Christian connotation (made with 33 dough layers, referring to the years of Christ's life.) to the Balkans, where , besides being a popular dessert. It is also made specially by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr, and by Christians during Pascha and Christmas.Called Pakhlava in Armenia and Azerbaijan, it's spiced with cinnamon and cloves it gets accompanied by a sour cream in Georgia. In Iran, a drier version of baklava is cooked and presented in smaller diamond-shaped cuts flavoured with rose water. 
                  The cities of Yazd and Qazvin are famous for their baklava, which is widely distributed in Iran. It's this rose scented Iranain version that took me to Bhindi Bazaar (yes that's right, right here in Mumbai!!).

                   The history drenched lanes of this market have many a folklore in its folds in the Imamvaara lane off the main street an old obscure shop that only opens once a year at the time of the Equinox (around the 21st March) for a month to celebrate the Irani and Parsi new year has its own stories to tell. Opened in 1909 by Haji Golam Ali in a shop that he bought for Rs 30 and with the dry fruits that he had gotten along was where Haji saab started by selling only baklava and Lauz to celebrate Navroz. His son Haji Mohd Ali continued the tradition and handed it over to Haji Mohd Hassan Hajati (Irani) who continues to run the space out of pure passion with his help Maksood who has been doing this with him for the last 15 years. 
                   This shop is a pilgrimage for every Irani and Parsi family in Mumbai. 55 now, "Iraani" saab as he is affectionately called still uses the wood-fired oven that his grandfather built and the "Thaalas" that are traditionally used for baklava, the biggest thaala can take a 100 kgs of baklava at a time!! Next time you go there do try lifting the empty big thaala once and if you succeed do let me know how you did it.... 
                   Iraani saab puts two layers of pastry at the bottom and three on top and in between that he puts hand ground nuts drenched with artisan honey and immense passion (either of which he as a vast amount of that you have to see and believe); the divine stroke for me is the Persian rose extract that gives this baklava a soothing after-taste. The handmade pastry is not super fluffy giving it a good bite. Well if you are from Mumbai, you had till April 15 to make this pilgrimage to Bhindi Bazaar because Iraani saab is gone for a year... and did I mention the pista Lauz yet … Well discover it for yourself....

Thursday, August 20, 2015

All you wanted to know about Nachni

                     Nachni or red millet is widely grown as a cereal in the arid areas of Africa and Asia. It's also known as finger millet, which has been cultivated in India from as long as 4,000 years ago. In fact, the Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Maharashtra produce Nachni. Karnataka is the top producer of Nachni and has 58% share in India's export of this crop. 
                      As a crop and after harvesting, Nachni keeps extremely well and is seldom attacked by pests. This eliminates the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides, making it a safe food. It is also a cost-effective source of protein, iron, calcium and fiber, which makes it the preferred food of many communities. Notably, it's a rare source of the amino acid. 
                   The whole grain of Nachni may be ground into flour or decorticated before grinding to produce either a fine particle product or flour, which is then used in various traditional foods. The flour may be ground coarsely or finely, depending on individual preference and as per the recipe.  
                   Nachni Ladoos are common in some families. Nachni is prescribed to the mothers that wish to increase the quantity of milk produced for their baby. In Maharashtra, bhakri, a type of flat bread is also prepared using finger millet (ragi) flour. 
 Here is one recipe you can try with nachni.

Red Millet Khichu 

Ingredients :
For Khichu: 
1/2 cup nachani / ragi/ red millet flour 
1 cup curd 
Water as required 
Salt to taste 
3 green chillies 
1 tbsp ginger 
1 carrot 
1/2 cup french beans 
1 spring onion 
2 tbsp oil 

For Popcorn Lassi :
2 cups popcorn 
1 cup curd 
1 tbsp sugar 
Water as required 

For garnish :
1 raw mango 
1/2 tbsp sesame seeds 
1/2 tbsp roasted cinnamon powder 

Method :

1. In a pan, add red millet flour and dry roast it. 
2. In a bowl add curd, water, salt and whisk well. 
3. In another pan add oil, chopped green chillies and fry them. Remove few fried green chillies and keep aside. 
4. Now add chopped ginger, spring onion, carrot, nachni flour, curd mixture, water, salt in a same pan, mix well and let it cook. Add french beans.
5. For the lassi, in a blender, add popcorn, curd, sugar, water and blend. 
6. Garnish the dish with raw mango, fried green chillies, sesame seeds, roasted cumin powder and popcorn. 
7. Serve the dish with popcorn lassi. 
Your khichu is ready....

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Benaras... the city of simplicity

                           I wrote this while traveling and shooting for another season of The Great Indian Rasoi. A lovely winter morning in Benaras, talking to proud and passionate groups of people. Every time I visit this city there is an omnipresent carefree air that defines the city for me. I believe, being the city of moksha has done that for Benaras over the millennia. Sometime being close to death helps define your perspective towards life!! Here it has defined a whole city....
            First stop Laxmi Tea House, Chowk. Laxmi Prasad Chaurasia now in his 80s sits across a gullah, a frail figure with a wad of notes in his left hand and a keen eye on the brisk business happening in the now huge tea shop. After having made Benarasi Paan for the first 25 years of his life he chose to make chai out of sheer whim. This was 1966. 'My tea was simple and honest', he says. 'I never added any spices or flavouring. Those days amazing variety of tea were available and I just brewed and blended the right quantity for the right time. I've still not been able to understand how this simple tea could create such traffic jams that the city administration had to move me inside the gulli for the sake of better traffic'!!! 
            The shop still sells only tea and fire roasted toast like it would in 1966. No nashta in Benaras is complete without kachori. And my next stop was a new kachori friend Bharat Lal Sharma who owns a small and simple 50 square feet corner shop in chowk. Again, selling only two things - Kachori, which had the thinnest crust that I have seen; and a mind blowing Mawa Jalebi. The beauty of kachori was that you needed no chutney for sweetness. The sweetness came from the fresh and seasonal winter green peas. 
             The mawa jalebi was an unforgettable dream. It was pedas of pure mawa dipped in jalebi batter; crisp fried and soaked in rose scented syrup. The mawa was unsweetened, perfectly centered and brought an amazing balance to the sweet outer layer. I do care about my diet yet I finished six of these fritters!!! Next time, when in chowk I would highly recommend these beauties. 
             All in all the beauty of Benaras is in its simplicity which reflects beautifully in such corner shops, which have been selling only a couple of simple recipes over generations. For me the phrase - "simpler the better" has found a new meaning in Benaras. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Delhi conversation continued …

                   In my last column on Delhi I put forward a point of view. I believe that we give a lot of credit to the Mughalia aspect of Delhi cuisine which is great, but it takes away majorly from the other beautiful influences on Delhi food that need mention as well. Let’s talk about those today. 
                   The first influences were minimal, coming by the way of early Afghan invaders who usually never stayed. Arab raiders had established their presence in Sindh by the eighth century. However, it was only in 1200 AD that the first Sultan, of the slave dynasty set up rule in Delhi. Amir Khusrau and Ibn Battuta have chronicled the Sultanate epoch to allow some insight into the era. It’s amazing how the era that saw the arrival of nuts into Indian cooking, the first cooked Palav and Kebabs in Royal fare, the arrival of the Samosa, Falooda, Jalebi and Harissa (the precursor of today’s Haleem ) has been lost in translation due to the lack of proper documentation. 
                   Another aspect that hasn't found enough mention is the Sufi impact on cuisine; Amir Khusrau mentions that the meals at the sufi congregations were bold and vast enough to compete with royal Dastarkhwaans. Also the aspect of communal eating can be credited to the Sufi influence. This was followed by the Mughalia Influences that came by way of officers posted in Delhi more than the emperors themselves and the barrack food that still lives in the lanes of Shahjahanabad. 
                  The Mughalia influences have indeed contributed to our country’s cuisine as I discussed in my last article on Delhi cuisine. However what needs to be understood is that the real food of Dilli is an amalgamation of Sultanate, Sufi, Mughal, Kayasth, Lahore, Punjab and Anglo Indian influences and more needs to be spoken about, or the real soul of Delhi will fade into oblivion. 
                   As a dear friend and food historian Pushpesh Pant puts it, and I quote “While there is much greater awareness and better appreciation of foreign, regional and sub-regional cooking, somewhere in the process the precious gastronomic heritage of Delhi is being lost. More effort is spent on writing florid menus than on preparing a Qorma, Salan or Kaliya. It is rare to come across a halfway decent Shami or Seekh unless you are invited home. Some classics like Nargisi kofta or pasande are available only in shehar Purani Dilli. Takke-paise ki subzee is all but extinct. Bengali (chhena) sweets have pushed to the margin, the chewy sohan halwa. Phalsa sherbet is akin to an endangered species of flora and fauna. Paneer is ubiquitous and has alas banished all seasonal vegetables to eternal exile.” Thus conclude my thoughts on Dilli ka khana.......

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The "Mughalia" food trail

               My last trip to Delhi left me with a lot of questions and emotions. Delhi and the influence of Mughal Emperors on Cuisine has been my subject of interest of late and that has me looking at both "Dilli" and "Delhi" food in a newer, sort of eager manner. The first question that props up in my mind is about the word Mughlai (or Mughalia as it should be). 
              All Moghul emperors had very varied tastes and were inclined towards different places as their bases. Akbar was based out of either battle or Fatehpur Sikri in his later days, turning pure vegetarian. Jehangir preferred Kashmir. Aurangzeb spent most of his time in Deccan and chose simple eating habits as is. So the only emperor who can be credited to patronizing both Delhi and Haute cuisine is Shahjehan. 

             Now let's look at Lahore from the point of view of patronization by the Moghuls and we see where the country was ruled from. Lahore has seen more "Mughal time" than Delhi. So if we look at cuisine that underlays all Nawabi and Nizami cuisine of Lucknow, Murshidabad and Hyderabad it's the Mughalia cuisine that has a lot of Influence of Lahore. Yet in my mind it doesn't take away anything from the Cuisine of Delhi. So what's Delhi food? 
              For starters it's the best barrack cuisine in the world if I may say. Food and culture around Red fort in particular and Shahjehanabad in general is a perfect example of how intermingling of cultures by virtue of either assault, rule, sufism or immigration can create something as beautiful as "Dastarkhwaan-e-Dilli" . Delhi cuisine lived in the barracks of Red Fort, Feasts of the sufis, Havelis of Moghul officers, Kayasth joint families and the mansions of the Baniyas of Chandni Chowk. Until 1911 happened and Delhi became the modern India's Capital... 
              This brought in the Raj cuisine and the Dining room culture in Connaught Place, creating a lovely contrast to Shahjehanabad cuisine (if I may use that term). Then Lahore came back to Delhi and along came the tandoor and Turko-Afghan influences along with the partition....changing the face of Delhi cuisine again… a trend that continues till today making it India's Food capital. A big salute to a big city with a big heart……

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The joy of cooking together..

                  The other day I was writing something on coffee to be published on "Coffee day", the 29th of September. It just struck me how now, everyday is some "day", which is a great concept no doubt because it brings to light, aspects touching our lives that we would normally not stop and take notice of, in these busy times. In my mind, the day still missing from this repertoire is the "Joy of cooking together day". 
                  Having grown up seeing village women gather around the Sanjha-chulha in the evenings and create deft magic over folk songs, I firmly believe that those feelings of celebration and joy (some of it from gossip) got transferred to the rotis made. Now let's look at temple cooking, Prasad or langar gets made when multitudes of people get together in good faith and celebration, most of them haven't much clue about cooking in volumes yet they create that magic. 
                  Even royalty understood the simple pleasures of collaborative cooking; days of shikaar in Rajasthan used to end with conversations over a bonfire with the game skewered on their swords. The refined Nawabs of Lucknow after fishing out a large Angler from their royal reservoir (referred to as "Mahaseer Shikaar" to keep the royal activity in perspective) jacketed the mahaseer with Multani Mitti and buried it in a hole with only the head coming out.
The fish was surrounded by lit coal and the nawabs sat around the fish with "Durust" or purified ghee and waited, as the fish cooked the moisture escaped through the mouth causing the mouth to open, the Nawabs would then pour a spoon of the ghee and the fish would close its mouth, quite interesting right ? 
                This technique of "Gil e Hiqmat" I thought, was a legend till I observed and participated in it with Nawab Masood Mir Abdullah and Nawab Zafar Mir Abdullah, last of the Nawabi lineage of Awadh. The conversations were memorable; the bliss of eating that fish is a food memory forever.  Such conversations, joy and extreme emotion can only come when the objective is none other than cooking together selflessly. 
                    Here's where the food Sufi in me comes out and appeals ...In this world of competitions and cook-offs, lets put our agendas and busy lives on the side for a day and let the objective just be cooking and conversations....let's discover the Joy of cooking together.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The story of an insightful conversation

                  Having been in the profession, cooking for 19+ years, I have met many a culinary chefs, some of whom are chefs by profession, some are chefs by choice, while some are chefs by virtue of the legacy they uphold. And to be honest, I enjoy the company of street chefs and cooks, who have had this gift passed down from generations and hence I have always held a bias towards the modern fusion cooking-oriented Indian chef.
                 On my last visit to Ahmedabad, the way I thought about a lot of things changed during a conversation that extended over three hours. Here I met a very proud 70-year-old halwai, Kamlesh bhai, who is the seventh generation torch bearer of Kandoi Sweets in Ahmedabad. Started as a small weekly mithai stall in Manik Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Ahmedabad, they have come to be known as one of the biggest sweet makers in Gujarat. 

                 His son also into the business, is an MBA, who was forced to learn mithai-making early on in his childhood, a practice he doesn't regret. When I spoke to Kamlesh bhai on the presence of flavoured chocolates in every mithai shop in the country, I was expecting the usual outburst about how our traditional Indian food is being messed up. Instead Kamlesh bhai smiled, looked at me and said, "I keep chocolates in my mithai shop too."
                   He shared how he's made a promise to his father, that "I will pass this legacy down to my son in a manner that is interesting and contemporary, so that he is excited to take the business forward and further the promise to his kin, who will be happy and proud of this culinary inheritance."
                   He pointed out, "The only reason our business has survived for all these years is because we have handed over the reigns to our prodigy in the most appealing and current form. My son loves this business and is happy to take over from me not just because of the family pride but because its an evolving business. It is definitely not what it was 170 years ago."

Kalmesh bhai insisted, "We have to be trendy if we want to be a part of history. However, while doing all this, we continue to hold onto the essence of our basic values."
In a typical humble Gujarati way, he ended the conversation with the fact that still plays up a smile in admiration when I think about it. "The Rossagulah and any other Chenna sweet would not have been created if Bengal had chosen to ignore and not adopt the Dutch and Portuguese art of cheese making." Insightful....

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cooking the good old clay way

                      "Trending" has become the keyword in today's day and age. In the space where I am the topic that is trending these days is #claypot. Cooking in clay seems to be in. 
Tagines from Morocco , the Spanish Cazuela used a Lot in Basque cooking , the Chinese sand pot (Saw Kuo) and the Palayok of the Philippines are showing up in menus and in the news of late. So lets give this a thought and some research. 

                      Needless to say after humans figured out that fire cooked food and made it tastier. They possibly looked for a medium to cook in to extend their knowledge of pit and spit cooking, according to my friend and an eminent food writer Rahul Verma, the first cooking utensils were tree barks, essentially to hold some liquid and provide a layer of separation to avoid food chaaring. It was soon replaced by clay (around 15,000 years ago!) and clay pot cooking has stayed on ever since.
                    Let's bring this humble clay and pair it with the humble cuisine of our country and what we get is an understated yet sure winner. The long slow cooking that is inherent to our cuisine allows little to go wrong when cooking in claypots. Also the spices that we add to our food tend to mature over a period of time and taste better thanks to the porous nature of unglazed clay....

                    Whether it is the sarson ka saag and urad dal that is cooked in the "Taudis" of Punjab , the fish Curries cooked in the "Kundlems" of the local dhabas (Khanawats) of Goa (some of them still remain in Bicholim Taluka) or the Malwan fish curry and the dish that I hold a special bias towards - the Syrian Christian fish curry which tastes the most superb the next day, left in the chatti that its cooked in. (Have to mention the kullarh waali chai, the raarha doodh and Mishti doi). 
                  I have always believed that our relationship to food is an extension of our relationship to life and aspects around us. Earth and clay have been our bond to nature; philosophically from time immemorial earth has always stood for life and rebirth. 
                   As a chef seeing a claypot is a comforting sign because it shows we're going back to our roots yet again. All that this humble chef asks is to look inwards at our cuisine as well when appreciating "foren claypot cuisine", as "mitti" has always been the essence of Indian food and philosophy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Turmeric...of old Havelis and the Ageless wonder

Ahmedabad is a 5000-year-old city and has a lot to offer to a travelling chef. 
            Old 'Amdavad' is a culturally (culinary) rich and an architecturally opulent city. The old city bustles in a mish-mash of narrow streets and 'pols' enclosed in a 12-gate fort. Each Pol typically has a corner shop selling Chawana and farsan, and is a world in itself because these super narrow streets house some of the most beautiful and humongous havelis that you will ever see.
            In one such Haveli I met Abhay Mangaldas, who has taken upon himself to restore these architectural gems and lure the people of “new” Ahmedabad into the old city by opening restaurants and cafes in the restored Havelis. One food conversation led to another, and a lunch seemed inevitable. At the lunch table Abhay made me taste a salad that stuck in my head forever.   
                  A raw turmeric kachumber that was fresh, aromatic, mildly astringent and divinely combined with 'fafda', a pulled lentil crisp that gave it a perfect balance of flavours and a perfect contrast of textures. Surprisingly, raw turmeric and peanuts - even though underground veggies - are acceptably used in Jain food. There’s a lot more to this rhizome that one finds out on the slightest scratch, literally.
            Native to Tamil Nadu, this pre-Aryan spice has been known to mankind for over 4,000 years. The term 'Haridra' (haldi) is believed to have a Munda air to it; Munda is an ancient aborigine dialect. Even in the early Vedic times the only four spices recorded are mustard (Baja),a sour Citrus (Jambira), Turmeric (Haridra) and long pepper (Pippali). 
           Out of these, turmeric was regarded as the most auspicious because it was the most useful for the entire body. Turmeric stands tall as a cure in Ayurveda, Chinese, Unani and Siddha medicine thanks to Curcumin, a compound that is now also widely accepted in the West as a cancer buster.
           Yet all I say is forget the past and experience the present, grate some fresh turmeric and raw papaya together, toss it up with chopped green coriander, lemon juice and black pepper and top a papad with this salad for a taste you will savour forever. A chef’s promise!
For a little more complicated recipe try this:

Turmeric-scented Mango Sago Pudding

Ingredients :
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup soaked sago
¼ cup mango pulp
½ tsp raw turmeric paste

For garnish
Mango pulp according to requirement
¼ mango
1 mint leaf

Method :
1. In a pan put water, coconut milk, turmeric soaked sago and cook. Now, add mango pulp. 2. Take mango and coconut sago mixture in a glass. Keep it in the fridge to cool. 

3. When cooled take it out from the fridge. Then in the same glass put mango pulp. 
4. Cut a mango wedge and keep it on the glass. 
Garnish mango and coconut sago with mint leaf.