Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our obsession with 'crispy'

                   It would be unfair not to talk about these crispy delights and the queues they generate world over - whether it is the southern American fried chicken or the Italian Fritto Misto, the English fish -n- chips, our very own pakoras or the Japanese tempura. Frying has given us lip-smacking food world over.
Being a chef, I am familiar with viscosity and the temperature that hot oil generates to give food the richness, the crunch and a contrast of texture that is otherwise not possible. 
However, to explore frying and its evolution in the Indian context, during my recent travel, I spoke to eminent food historian Dr Pushpesh Pant, and he put things quite in perspective.
              Fried food allows cooking at up to 190°C. With oven not being a common medium of cooking in India, and water being a source of health insecurity, frying was the only medium to preserve food for a longer time. 'Safri' food or cuisine of the traveller still is pickled delicacies like achaari gosht and fried food like mathris and their kin.        
          Also, Indian festivals and weddings are celebrated over many days, and slow travels to towns and villages in old India meant that eventually the celebration food would take some time to arrive before being consumed. Hence, the high temperature fryer fare was the chosen expression of celebrations in the country.
            It is unfair to completely negate the relevance of fried food across all food cultures in general and our food culture in particular. This method of cooking has been obsessively targeted as a sole reason for ill health in India, leaving out key details like the quality of fat and the temperature of frying. Being a food tourist, the queues I see at fried food stalls are heartwarming.

         Standing in one such queue for The Great Indian Rasoi in Kolkata on College Street, and craving for hot tea and Tele bhaja, I struck a conversation with the owner Kesto, who is the fourth generation descendant of Laxmi Narayan Shaw, the founder, after whom the shop is named.
             Kesto showed me pictures of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose eating at the shop, passionately speaking about how the modern fat food cannot replace the neighborhood addas, while I enjoyed my raisins-stuffed soy chop and piyaji.
             Keshto proudly told me that they have been serving free Tele Bhaja to north Kolkata on January 23 (Netaji's birthday) ever since 1942 when LN Shaw went door to door distributing Bhaja.
                Sit in your living room window with hot tea and pakoras, eat less but eat for sure, because sometimes, nothing beats good fried food.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Chana...and the stories about humility and versatility

                   Travelling to eat has many advantages, especially if you are a chef; the biggest being the chance to meet some really passionate people who have been around food for generations and look at their dishes as an extension of their family.
Gujarat is full of such people, and eating around Ahmedabad I met quite a few. I cannot do without naming Surendra Patel of Vishala, who has one of the world's largest utensil museum, besides the restaurant that is born out of the sheer need to cook prasad for the small temple nestled in the vast expanse of the restaurant. 

              Mr Patel strongly believes that food is a giver. He says it has given him the passion and the life force that his original occupation of interior designing and architecture couldn't. Having fed heads of state in his restaurant, he humbly dismisses his achievements as a gift of food. 
             All his food is cooked without onion and garlic and he serves the best Undhyu I've eaten. Other gifted gentlemen I met in Amdavad were from the seventh and eighth generation 'farsaan' families and 'halwai' families.
            I believe in a strong relation between cultural aspects like people, traditions, food and its ingredients, and one ingredient that encompasses the headstrong yet humble,resourceful and varied culture of Gujarat is the Chana Dal - a lentil that has been around for 4,500 years in India. It grows in the most adverse conditions, and yet is humble enough to lends itself towards preparations of all kinds and all courses ranging from starters and snacks (like farsaan) to mains (undhyus, gattas and other innumerable preparations), accompaniments (papads) to desserts (Mohanthal and other vast variety of sweet besan preparations).

             This nourishing grain, which has been the food of the Harappa civilization and beyond in India for me truly exemplifies grit, resourcefulness and adaptability of a great culinary region in India.
Here's a recipe, which is a take on the Classic Chana Dal Dhokla....

1 cups medium-grain rice
• ½ cups chana dal washed
• ½ cup sour yogurt
• Warm water
• ½ cup boiled beetroot paste
• 1 tsp finely chopped coriander
• 1 tsp gram flour
• 1 tsp oil

 For the bean mixture
1 tbsp oil
• 2 tsp sliced onion
• 1 tsp ginger juliennes
• ½ tsp finely chopped green chilli
• 1 tsp sesame seeds
• 4 - 5 curry leaves
• 9 - 10 french beans
• Salt to taste
• 1 tsp sugar
• 1 tsp vinegar

1. Make the batter of soaked rice and dal with warm water, add curd to it and allow to ferment for six hours. 

2. To make the mixture; in a bowl add the rice and split black gram batter, boiled beetroot paste, finely chopped coriander and gram flour and mix. Leave for 30 minutes.
3. Grease another bowl with oil and pour the mixture in it. Place the bowl in the steamer to let the mixture steam. 

4. In a pan add oil, sliced onions, ginger juliennes, finely chopped green chilli, sesame seeds, curry leaves, french beans, water, salt, sugar and vinegar and let it reduce for two minutes.
5. Remove the prepared dhoklas from the steamer and cut into long pieces. Place it on a plate and add some of the french bean mixture. Add some more dhoklas and keep the leftover french bean mixture.
Beetroot Dhokla is ready to eat.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Jalebi trail...

        Jalebis hold an immense sentimental value (or food memories as I like to call them) for the whole lot of us who grew up in smaller cities along with our grandparents in joint families. I remember the awesome winter breakfast of doodh Jalebi that would "make me strong "as per my grandmom (take that !!) Another jalebi food memory is of the 'khatti' thick n soft Jalebis that you get in village weddings in Punjab, I can still eat a kilo of those !!
                    Then there's the painful Jalebi memory from Boston when I decided to team up with a friend to make and sell Jalebis on India day, when more than 10000 people (most of them Indian) visit the Charles river Esplanade. I ended up making Jalebis of over 50 kgs maida (that equals 2 large drums of batter), made a lot of money in the process but was left with a sore and unusable arm for the next three days!!    
             All in all jalebis have an old connection that still holds strong. So every city I go to I find that one Jalebi wala that makes this divine gift like none does and trust me the non-metros beat the big city counterparts hands down. 
           There's the late Yadav Ji Jalebis on Raebareilly road, Lucknow whose sons now inherit the recipe, then there is Gurudas Jalebiwala AKA the "Jalebi king of Amritsar", there is Motu Ram of Jodhpur whose wafer thin Jalebis are unbeatable and whose answer to all recipe-related questions is "there's no special recipe, its just the water of Jodhpur" !!; and then there is the old famous Jalebi Wala at the corner of Dariba Kalan in Old Delhi. 
           The Story of this Jalebi wala is content from my forthcoming book, Food Fables - a collection of legends and interesting stories around food that have been passed down from generations. Around 1900, Nem Chand Jain moved to Delhi from Agra with a very young wife and 50 paise dowry and started a small rabri selling business, he found himself a small stall outside the shop of a benevolent Shamsuddin. His jalebi business gave him money and popularity first in the bustling jewelers neighborhood and then in Delhi, enough to buy a 76 room haveli in Gali Khazanchi. After partition, Shamsuddin's shop became the Jalebi shop and has stayed that way ever ever since. 
          This is only a small part of the story as narrated by Abhishek Jain, the third generation "Jalebiwala", the bigger version includes 200 guns and ghee containers full of money, gold pistols and sugar syrup that cooks for 22 hours. Ask Abhishek at the cornershop and he will happily share jalebi folklore and a slice of sweet history, it's only the Jalebis you pay for, the folklore is free and forever....

Monday, March 30, 2015

Goan Culinary Evolution....and the tale of two curries

Every cuisine has these key aspects that are not just essential to understanding the cuisine but also fill in the missing links to the growth of that cuisine over centuries.
In Goa, one such aspect is that of the Saraswat Hindu Goan food, that I was made aware of at the Khandeparkar home in Ponda.
Khandeparkars are a joint family of 50 living in this massive 35-bedroom house for close to a 100 years. Sitting at the 50-seater dining table for lunch, I tasted a divine preparation, a food memory forever called 'Hooman'. The taste and flavours came across as predecessors to the Goan fish curry. 
This curry and the subsequent enlightenment at the lunch table answered a lot of questions and left me with a lot more. Saraswat Brahmins, the first Goan settlers, had come to Goa in around 600 BC, and settled down in the talukas bordering Maharashtra and Karnataka. Fear of religious persecution, first by the Sultanate and then by the Portugese, caused them to retreat further and live quietly, unnoticed. As a result of this, the authenticity of their food has remained. Although the food and eating habits that they bought to Goa evolved over centuries with Muslim and Christian influences, the original state was always with them, tucked away and sanitized.
In conversations with Odette Mascarenhas, an authority on Goan food and a super passionate human being, she agreed to the fact that it's very rare that a cuisine evolves and yet the nascent form of it, which is close to 2000 years old remains alive, as is. She has an amazing tale to tell on the subject, the 'Tale of two Curries'. That's where the Hooman that I ate at the Khandeparkars' fits in.
Hooman eventually ended up becoming the Kodhi or the goan fish curry over the centuries. Saraswats use lime and tamarind pulp for souring unlike toddy vinegar and kokum used in Christian homes, both of which were discovered much later. Also the Xacutti, another signature preparation of contemporary Goa, evolved from shagoti, another Saraswat preparation.
So, I guess its time for all Goan food enthusiasts like me to get up and give the saraswats a big hand for giving us Goan food as we know it today and yet preserving it like it was 2000 years ago.
Here's a Saraswat recipe, an ode to this great cuisine....
Dry Mussels (Shenani)
Ingredients :

2 cups mussels
1 cup grated coconut
2 tbsp, coriander seeds
1 tsp, turmeric powder
1 small marble-size ball of tamarind (7 gms)
2 tbsp oil
6 to 7 cloves of garlic
4 medium size, onion
6 red, chilies
12 to 15 peppercorns
6 to 7 cloves
Salt to taste

Method :
1. In a pan stir, fry coriander seeds till they turn brown. Add coconut until turns brown. 
2. Grind everything all masalas together with tamarind. 
3. Slice onions, sauté lightly and add the masala. 
4. Add little water and toss the mussels, Cover and cook till done.