Monday, May 23, 2016

The Paan trail

           In my travels for food, Benares holds a very special place for its 24 hour "naashta" culture and for the reverence for Paan. The paan is a matter of great study and every aspect related to it is either a custom or a ceremony. I have to say after the cooks (Or In Benares even before the cooks) it's the 'Paanwalas' that command the most respect and admiration. Like no two cooks can cook the same dish exactly the same way no two Panwaaris will make the exact same paan and people travel miles for their Panwaari, believing that he has the "Taste" in his hands. Distinctive varieties of betel leaf now grow, notably Bangla, Meetha, Sanchi, Kapoori, Devasri and Ambari.
             So lets look at the Paan through the lens of Indian History. The leaf of the Betel vine (Piper Betle) is usually chewed with the Areca nut (also mistaken to be the fruit of the same betel Vine and hence called Betel Nut sometimes). It's recognised in Sanskrit as being a south Indian Practice (then called Malaya). Its earliest North Indian references are in the Buddhist Jataka Tales. 
           However the world History is much older, proving again that Paan and paan-chewing, is a migrated influence from Vietnamese Subcontinent. An old Vietnamese book - "The Life story of Tan and Lang", is dated 2000BC and mentions the Custom; proving the practice to be common and extremely ancient in South east Asia. 
           The term "Betel" for leaf is said to have been coined by the Portugese and originates from the term "Vetthile" in Malayalam. However the astringent "Katha" usage in Paan, is believed to be of Indigenous origin mentioned by Charaka and Sushruta for its medicinal properties...

Monday, May 2, 2016

Unsung summer heroes...

            Growing up in a joint family in a small town has its benefits. Learning the grandmothers' ways of dealing with the ecosystem is one of them, especially when it comes to the change of seasons. Today we talk about eating local and seasonal. Any punjabi kid who has grown up in a small town with his "biji" (grandma) will tell you that it was a concept drilled in his/her system by the elders of the house. 
            Another aspect of growing up in a punjabi small town family is the ability to have conversations, especially with street vendors and the uncle at the corner grocery store. Being the designated errand boy of the family you start enjoying these trips to the vendors and they become extended family courtesy the conversations. These usually revolve around their merchandise and the uses of it and most of the knowledge of produce that I have stems from these memories.
           Summer vacations used to be intense because the number of errands increased manifold and so did the conversations around summer produce. Mangoes are undoubtedly the mainstay of all summer conversation but then there are these unsung heroes that bring a lot to your summer table. Let's talk about three of these today. 

Jackfruit - If there's something a kitchen novice is scared of its jackfruit. Indeed a messy proposition to manage while cutting, Jackfruit is immensely beneficial in summers due to high water and minerals (especially calcium and potassium) content. Eating jackfruit during summer prevents skin damage and also betters our vision.
Bel (wood apple) - Another love or hate me kind of fruit that is usually used raw by us "small town" boys for repairing kites with the natural gum in it!! Bel is a boon for hot summers, it is a coolant and an amazing source of minerals. The ripe bel is the best cure for summer dysentery and heat strokes.
Singhada (waterchestnut) - Amazing served raw or roasted, water chestnut is any woman's summer delight. Proved to be extremely beneficial for skin and hair, they provide natural detox and are extremely beneficial in jaundice-like conditions and are a high source of much needed minerals.
             In an age where local and seasonal is the "in" concept in eating, let's go back to how our grandmothers dealt with the changing seasons and let's start conversations with vendors on the sources and benefits of what they sell. It's nature's intention to help us deal with the change of seasons and all we need to do is look around and use what's provided to us. This summer, make these unsung heroes a part of your lifestyle....
Jackfruit Biryani

Ingredients :
400 gms long grain rice
50 gms baby jackfruit, skinned and cut into about 50 gms pieces with hard inner core removed
Mari nation for jackfruit
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1 medium onion ground
8 to 10 green chilly paste
1 tsp cumin powder
½ tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp black pepper crushed
½ tsp red chili powder
¼ tsp turmeric
2 green cardamoms
6 cloves
3 medium onion, finely sliced
¾ cup yoghurt
½ tsp saffron, soaked in 1/3 cup warm milk
2 tbsp rose water
2 tbsp kewra water
2 inch sliced ginger
1 green chili, slit
1 tsp ghee

1. Cook rice till ¾ done and set aside.
2. Add all the ingredients to marinate the jackfruit and keep it for 15 minutes. Heat oil and deep fry the jackfruit lightly. Set aside.
3. Take around 4 tbsps oil from the same oil in which the jackfruit was fried and heat it. Add cardamom, cloves and fry for a few seconds. Now add sliced onions and fry till golden brown. Add yoghurt and stir constantly till it comes to a boil.
4. Add the fried jackfruit, mix and sprinkle a little water. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes till the jackfruit becomes tender.
5. Grease a large & heavy bottomed pan with ghee. Place the jackfruit mixture at the bottom and top up with rice. Sprinkle ginger, green chillies, saffron-milk, rose water and kewra water. Cover tightly with the lid and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve hot.