Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Khichdi and other stories…

                 When one thinks of khichdi, grains and millets invariably come to mind. India has always had an amazing array of grains; thanks to the varied climatic conditions and soil types. The variety of millets available in the interiors of the country is enough data for a book. 
                 The unfortunate part however is that millet is an unstated grain grown by people who cannot market and sale. The green revolution undoubtedly did a lot of good for the Indian farmer, however the millets lost their charm in this era. I remember eating a porridge made from jhangoora, a millet amazingly sweet and creamy, so much so that a drizzle of honey is enough. 
                    Madhya Pradesh alone has more than 50 strains of millets and other strains of grains outside of rice and wheat. For me the foxtail millet stand out as the grain of MP. Collecting my thoughts back towards khichdi and the raj contribution towards Indian food, the British did a lot towards influencing Indian cuisine knowingly and unknowingly. The term curry word given by British as early as their arrival in Madras after having the local kari at fort George William. In fact the British sahabs and memsahabs who stayed in India were well-adapted to the romances of Indian cooking. 
                   Grain, porridge was made all across India from the Vedic times. Khichdi was known as kshirika and was consumed across the country. There are mentions of Khichdi in the Mughal literature especially during Akbar's times. Hence the common misconception that this term comes from kedgeree is not true. In fact it is the other way around. The British sahab and memsahab culture had its effect on exchange of home food. Similarly, in a recent conversation with Pushpesh Pant, a friend and food historian, he established that the ishtoo of Delhi, Lucknow and Benaras is indeed a mildly spiced do pyaaza called by a name the British understood better. More so, the British can also be credited with the revival of Delhi khandani food of Delhi as most old families dug out and cooked recipes from their kitchen repertoire to please the Sahabs for grant and titles. 
                  Hence the British era saw a fair exchange of cooking styles and dish nomenclature. If we give khichdi to them we got the ishtoo back. Now let’s get some Indian millet back in our life to give the well marketed ‘imported super grains’ a run for their money.

Bajra Khichdi

Ingredients :
1/2 cup bajra , soaked or 8 hours and drained
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds (jeera)
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
A few sprigs of coriander leaves
2 tbsps green peas, cooked
2 tbsp carrot, small diced, cooked
1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing)
Salt to taste

Method :
1. Combine the bajra, salt and 2 cups of water in a pressure cooker, mix well and pressure cook for for whistles. Allow the steam to escape before opening the lid. Keep aside. 

2. Heat the ghee in a deep pan and add the cumin seeds. When the seeds crackle, add the asafoetida, turmeric powder and sauté for a few seconds. 
3. Add the cooked bajra, boiled green peas, cooked carrots and salt mix well and cook on a medium flame for two to three minutes, while stirring occasionally. 
Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Spice blends - Part 2


                Let's bring our spice conversation home to Mumbai. Talking about spice mixes, it's imperative that Mumbai and its cultural diversity would give birth to a lot of spice mixes...
East Indian Bottle Masala - Bottle masala making is an annual event amongst the East Indian community of Mumbai that takes place prior to the monsoon, when hot sunny days are guaranteed. Masalas are mixed according to the house recipe. The masala consists of 20 spices or more in varying proportions with the main ingredients being - dry red chilies and coriander seeds. The spices have to be dried in the hot sun, prior to each condiment being roasted on a slow fire and then pounded in a wooden mortar with a wooden pestle. The bottle is then sealed and if sun dried and hand ground (well traditionally) then filled up traditionally in beer bottles (so the name). It is then used round the year to flavour their rich cuisine. The East Indians use it for everything. As with all good things, there are women in the community who specialise and could make it for entire villages of East Indians in suburban Mumbai! Bottle masala differs in pungency, flavour and even colour depending on the ingredients used. If properly stored, it can last a long time. 

Parsi Dhansak Masala - This is a traditional Parsi spice mix used to make Dhansak, a dish which was born out of the amalgamation of Persian and Gujarati cuisines. Dhansak became very popular in the late 19th century, with the rapid growth of Mumbai and Karachi. The working men were provided with tea and snacks by Parsi immigrants from Iran, who had set up small tea stores on street corners selling soda water, biscuits, tea, omelets, and also dhansak. Hence Karachi and Mumbai, the coastal cities of the sub continent, became the two favourite cities of Parsis to settle in. Dhansak is a hearty lentil and vegetable-based mutton or lamb curry. It is made by combining bay leaves, mustard, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mace, chilli and pepper. Although a Sunday staple it's traditionally a mourning dish and never served on weddings.
Maharashtrian Goda Masala - This is a typically a Maharashtrian spice mix, predominantly used to flavour vegetable and lentil preparations. It's traditionally made in a large mortar pestle or Khalbatta. It is prepared by combining roasted and powdered red chillies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, poppy seeds, turmeric, asafoetida, dagad phool (stone lichen), naag keshar and badal phool. Because the spices are roasted the masala is dark, almost black in colour. Also called Sundåy masala as it's sold in Sunday haats in the Konkan region. 
                 Yet there is no masala conversation complete without the mention of Awadh. Like the legendary Lazzat-e-Taam, a spice mix with a minimum of 32 spices, but more about Awadh in the next column. Happy eating!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Spice blends - Part 1

             In most cuisines around the world, the all-important "secret ingredient" is often a blend of spices. Just a small amount stirred into a dish can add a world of flavour or connect us to home! Somewhere in their culinary evolution, humans began using herbs and spices to flavour their food. And as cuisines and classic recipes evolved, so did the use of combinations of spices and spice blends that were used to cook and flavour foods with.

             India being the home to spices is of course home to numerous spice blends. And the making of spice mixes is still an activity that is sacred and in many places secret. They can also be defining of a cuisine. To begin at the milder end of the spectrum, the USA is home to Cajun Blackening Spice, which is a combination of salt, garlic, onion powder, thyme, oregano, hot and sweet paprika, white and black pepper, used to season roasts, stews, grills Cajun-style pan blackened dishes. With the phrase "as American as apple pie' so popular, it isn't surprising that American spice blends also include a couple of charming blends on the sweeter end of the spectrum. 
              While the Apple Pie spice blend is a perfect flavouring combination made of cinnamon, Cardamom, nutmeg and clove, it is the Pumpkin pie spice blend of "warming" spices, that is the general purpose spice blend made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, allspice and mace, that is used to uplift a bland pie to rich dessert standards; and is also stirred into sweet potato pies, cakes, cookies and custards. 
               Jamaica is home to the Jerk style of cooking in which meats (pork, chicken, fish, beef, sausage and now even tofu) are dry-rubbed with a fiery spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice; made of allspice and fiery Scotch Bonnet chilies, combined with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. The marinated meat is then barbecued over aromatic wood charcoal. In Europe and the Mediterranean, Quatre épices is a blend mainly used in France but also popular in the Middle Eastern kitchen. Literally meaning "four spices", this blend combines pepper (white, black, or both), clove, nutmeg and ginger and is typically used in soups, stews, vegetable preparations and also in sausages and salamis. 
                 Ironically Britain's claim to Spice blend fame is Curry powder - a blend of spices created by any companies after the days of the Raj, to recreate the the flavors of India, for Englishmen homesick for India. Almost always made of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, recipes vary in their addition of ginger, garlic, red pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, black pepper, and other spices...but the most hilarious aspect of the Curry powder is the total absence of curry leaves!! 
                 Options get more exciting as one comes to the Middle East, Iran, Lebanon and Eqypt; there are a variety of spice blends that aromatize the food. Literally meaning "top of the shop," Ras el hanout is perhaps the most renowned Moroccan spice blend that can contain more than 30 ingredients. For Moroccan spice merchants it is a point of honour to have the most sought after version of this blend in the entire souk or market. Legendary spice blends that spice merchants have created for clientele might include ingredients as bizarre as hashish or even the notorious Spanish fly!

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.