Friday, September 22, 2017

Fasting - the science beyond

       That time of the year again when I start thinking fondly of pandal hopping. A mere recall of the Niramish bhog and my ever favourite Bhog er Khichuri, gets the taste buds salivating. Well, the feast is another story for another time. Let’s talk about fasting.
                We have long since established a scientific logic prevailing behind our socio-religious practices, be they at the spiritual or culinary levels. That includes the change in food patterns, as also fasting. Fasting or vrat in its varying degrees, from complete to partial abstinence is in itself, a scientifically essential detox for our digestive system.

       Take Navratri for instance. There are two major Navratris in a year (four in all). Both of these occur during major seasonal shifts – beginning of spring and autumn. These are also times when the human immunity level is at its lowest. Eating light and avoiding rich, heavy and spicy foods helps the body adjust to the new season naturally.
                That brings us to the importance of eating right during fasts. Getting plenty of energy and fibre rich foods while staying hydrated is the order of the day. Hence why there is inclusion of more millets as grain substitutes and not surprisingly so, considering that millets were an Indian staple in the days of yore.
                And it’s not just Navratri that highlights the significance of fasts. Similar science revolves around fasting on Ekadashi, the 11th day in the lunar cycle. Atmospheric pressure being the lowest on Ekadashi, makes it apt to abstain from heavy foods to sustain the mind-body balance. The concept is simple and similar for the most part. Eating light puts less pressure on the digestive process, helping the senses stay alert and active.
                So this season, while you observe fasts and enjoy the feasts, don’t forget to honour what your body truly needs.
Here’s a light yet energy rich recipe to try..
300 gms sweet potato - boiled, peeled & diced
½ green apple, diced
½ red apple, diced
Few spinach leaves, roughly shredded or chiffonade
Few Walnuts, roughly broken
1 tbsp chaat masala
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cumin seeds - roasted and powdered
2 tbsp yogurt, beaten
Lemon juice-to taste
Fresh Coriander, chopped
Fresh mint, chopped

1. In a mixing bowl add cumin seed powder, chili powder, chaat masala and lime juice and mix well.
2. Now add sweet potato, diced apples, spinach, walnuts and mix well.
3. Transfer to serving bowls and pour remaining seasoning on top.
4. Sprinkle the chopped coriander and mint leaves and serve immediately. Optional to serve with whisked yogurt too.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Magic is in the Tadka

               Ask any seasoned Indian home cook about the true foundation of a dish and the reply is bound to be Tadka. Call it Baghar, chaunk, vaghar, phodani and much more in different vernaculars, tempering is a crucial step in Indian cooking that sets the basics right. Now tempering in Asian terminology is different from the western concept; the latter referring more to balancing or stabilising an ingredient or a set of ingredients, especially in the confectionary field. The Asian version is the practice of cooking spices in hot fat to improve the flavour of a dish.
              Tadka originates from taṛaknā, which interestingly means ‘to crack’ or ‘to break’. Fat being a better carrier for spices than water, the aroma spreads more evenly through the dish.
             There are multiple components to the Tadka, most important being the heating of the fat. Clarified butter imparts a flavour like few other, as any true-blue Dal Tadka or Rasam fan would tell you. Health scares initially and sadly drove away the ghee lovers, but with more friendly researches surfacing, the masses are gradually making a beeline to the ghee counter, which, trust me, is extremely heart-warming to the Punjabi in me!
              Techniques and combinations play an equally important part. Each savoury dish; and I am talking the length and breadth of our culinary map; typically uses a different set of ingredients, that need to be added at specific times, in a particular order and ratio and cooked for just the right amount of time before the main ingredients are added, or the tempering itself is added to the cooked dish. Which brings me to the timing of the tempering. 

             Some dishes begin with a tadka, while for some, it is the finishing touch; most of the Gujarati Farsaans are excellent cases in point. After all, who isn’t drawn to that final dash of mustard seeds, slit green chilies, curry leaves and grated coconut on a Dhokla or Khandvi?
              My stint with Munir Ustad instilled in me the importance of Tahseer, a concept that was ingrained in the Lucknow cooks of yore. It's about balancing the ingredients, neutralising the property of one with the property of another. The same Tahseer is an important aspect of tempering in Indian cuisine. Cumin seeds, cinnamon and asafetida aid digestion, mustard seeds are excellent for heart health and relieve muscular pain; in fact, the very addition of fat as the cooking agent is to enhance both the flavours and the nutritional benefits of the spices.
               So the next time you prepare your tempering, stick to the basics, keep the ingredients in order and cook them right, because, remember – the magic is in the Tadka!

2 tbsps sesame Oil
1 tsp Mustard Seeds
1 tsp Cumin Seeds
5 to 6 Curry Leaves
1 tsp Chopped Garlic
1 tsp Chopped Ginger
½ cup Chopped Onions
½ tsp Red Chili Powder
½ tsp Coriander Powder
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
½ cup Mixed Veggies (Carrots, green beans, peas)
2 tbsps Corn
2 cups Bajra, soaked overnight
1 cup Amaranth, soaked overnight
½ cup grated Coconut
Salt to taste
1 Tomato, chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon
Chopped Coriander for garnish
1 tbsp Green Chilies, chopped

1. Pressure cook bajra and amaranth with salt, turmeric & red chili powder for up to 3-4 whistles. 
2. To prepare the Tadka, heat oil in a large pan, add mustard seeds and let crackle. Add cumin seeds, curry leaves, chopped garlic, chopped ginger and saute for a bit.
3. Now add chopped onion, coriander powder, mixed veggies, corn, cooked bajra, cooked amaranth, grated coconut, salt, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, chopped coriander and cook well.
4. Serve with chaas, pickle and toasted papad.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Self actualising… through food

A theory of dish hierarchy (A six part series )
          Creativity, art and food go hand in hand. Crazy, borderless thinking and stretching the limits of the known is the key to all things creative. And yet it is when there is a method to this madness that the whole comes together. The science of design stresses that art pleases our eyes for a reason — it might be harmony, contrast, balance, perspective or all of these. But even before you seek to create anything, you need to understand your medium. For me this is food.
            I have always been fascinated by the Maslow Theory. And over the years I have built what I call Ranveer’s hierarchy of dish structure inspired by it. A detailed glimpse of the same can be found in my new book as well. I strongly believe that all great artists, regardless of their medium, including chefs (make no mistake the best chefs of the world are artists — their medium is food) arrive at a basic set of practices over their career that they apply in creating their masterpieces: The canvas, the medium, the framework, the subject, the colour combinations... 
            And then there are the less tangible things: An overall sense of balance and harmony and most importantly the soul of the artist himself, a piece of which gets left behind in every creation by him. To get creative with food, we first need to understand what happens when we eat. All reactions to food are based on the human senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. The saying “when we eat, we eat with our eyes first…” is true. How food looks determines the first reaction to it. Then as one gets closer to it, the aromas come into play. 
            When food comes in contact with mouth, the palate comes into action bringing along with it the brain and a gamut of intangible reactions like perception and taste memory. So, on hierarchy of dish structure, with any recipe or a dish — and this is on the assumption that the elements that make up the dish are technically cooked perfectly, the basic structure would be dependent on the levels of taste, flavour, texture, appearance, aroma (stimulating taste, touch, sound (on the bite), sight and smell respectively).
             When I create a dish, I look at it from the POV of the person who will eat it. I approach it holistically and take that into account, as a chef, when I create a dish, I construct it foundation outwards (taste is the first accomplishment and presentation the last), but the eating experience of the diner is visually inwards (he encounters presentation first). This is important because I have to keep this in mind right through the creation process to achieve the right balance in my dish. The diagram explains it better.  
You can read more about it in my book available here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The sweet culinary heroes of Old Delhi

          In the streets of a city lives its soul. Whenever I am travelling, I try to imbibe the culture of the city through its streets. Some Indian cities are treasure troves of secrets and stories that are hidden in its streets. Old Delhi is one of them. Ghanteywaala halwai and Ashok Chaat shutting shop was a shocker to all foodies. It’s sad that 200 years of history just got washed away in the tide of modernisation. That’s why it’s important for all of us to know these stories and pass them down to keep interest and conversations alive about these spaces. Let me walk you through some of these lanes and tell you some such stories. 

           Opposite Badal Begh Masjid, below the erstwhile residence of the famous Indian actress Meena Kumari in a small shop sits Jamaluddin a 60 something gentleman, who has only one thing on his mind and menu, Kheer. This 150 plus year-old kheer shop has been frequented by commoners and bureaucrats alike after an evening of spicy food in Old Delhi. Jamaluddin is happy selling what he has and going home and has no interest in opening another shop, his next generation has no interest in kheer or the legacy, so visit Bade Mian kheer in the next couple of years before it gets lost in the annals of history. 
           All is not that gloomy though, take the example of the Dareeba Jalebi shop in Chandni Chowk. Abhishek Jain is a 30 something enthusiastic entrepreneur, whose family has a jalebi shop started by his grandfather in 1940s. Abhishek takes great pride in the family legacy and is seen every day at the shop in the evenings. He talks about his grandfather with great passion and pride and puts as much passion in talking about how he has not changed the recipe of the sugar syrup by even an ounce. 
           Then there’s the iconic Chaina Ram Halwai, Sindhi confectioners, who migrated to India and continued to do what they did best in their shop in Karachi, make the world sweeter. The long lines for poori-sabzi in the morning are a testament to the finesse of the kaarigars and their recipes that have come from Sindh and are still held as close to the heart as they were in the yesteryears, Chaina Ram is not going anywhere for sure. Then there are the old corner chaatwallas who will make you Kulla chaat — an Old Delhi legacy on request, the fruit sandwich wale Jain sahib, the fruit cream-waale sardarji and the many more milk and lassi shops that tell a story of yesteryear glory. All waiting to be discovered. 
Next time in Delhi enjoy a metro ride to Old Delhi and make these food heroes feel important, you will help ensure that they are interested and proud owners of a food legacy unparalleled.