Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Note: was posted on 9th Feb
Hello everyone. Thanks to everyone for visting and revisiting in the past 2 weeks....and basically waiting for me to get over a major bout of home sickness. I have been dying to post stuff for some time. But everytime I look at my pics from home........everything here seems to suck!
Anyway, no more whining. I promised to show you some of a 40-50 people bash (which eventually turned into a 100 person bash) at our place on Sankranti. Well, we had some cooks from outside come to our place and make some stuff...but mom insisted on doing the 'crucial dishes'. One most important one was Bajre ki Khicchdi- that is a mish-mash stew of a millet. This is an interesting crop since
a. it is perfectly suited for production in semi-arid regions of the country. Basically, it requires 1/3rd of the water that normal staples like wheat and rice would require.
b. It is highly nutritious vis. minerals. But not so much wrt to carbs. And hence it has been termed an inferior good- one whose consumption declines as people get richer and can shift to the more expensive wheat/rice.
c. It is making a huge comeback in the diets of middle-class (and above) Indians-- for both the above reasons. The reasoning that the Green Revolution that occured in Indian agriculture during the 1960s (which basically involved in large scale use of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice) is draining a lot from the soil and environment is starting to take root. And all of this is exacerbated as a renewed interest in rural and small town India that I have mentioned in a previous post.
Anyway, since we belong to a semi-arid (actually, plain arid region) of India, the use of bajra in various forms has always been part of our cuisine and rituals. Particularly during winter, since this millet is supposed to be very 'hot'-- it raises your body temperature when you eat it.
The way to make the stew is pretty labor intensive. The grain needs to be de-husked. That basically means either pounding it in a mortal or pestle or whirling it in a mixer for a few minutes, then removing the displaced husk by winnowing & sieving. And then repeating this process ad infinitum...........ok, at least 4 times. Here is Balbeer doing the dehusking.
Then you bung in the grain with triple the water and put it on a reaaaaaaaaly slow flame. In our case, this was a real, live, wooden stove in the backyard. The pot was coated on the outside with mud-water slurry in order to slow the cooking even more.
And after about 3-4 hours......you get Bajra Stew. It is traditionally eaten with Kadhi and mixed veggies in the winter. In the summer, instead of stew bajra is pounded to flour and flatbread (roti) is made.
Again, thanks for the great comments and thanks for checking in. More stuff soon..........hopefully. I wish I could shake this homesickness off.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Special things deserve their own space. A few days ago when I posted some of my favourite food/food related things, I did not mention this breakfast. Its just tooooo special and needs its own space.
For as long as I can remember, every morning we were in my grandparents house there was struggle. My grandmother who started cooking at like 6 am would want us to eat her breakfast while I only wanted to eat 'chakkar ki kachori'. Dont get me wrong -- I loved my grandmom's food. But breakfast was reserved only for kachoris. So my grandad would drive us to Chakkar (a cicular market in Ajmer, hence the name) and in a corner of that market is a shop about the size of a large crate of fruits (really).
In that sits a very fat, sweaty, immensely polite man and he serves the most divine kachori's ever!! To go with kachori's, there are also samosa's, crisp pakora's made of ground lentils, tamarind and ginger sweet chutney, coriander chutney and ......Kadhi! Kadhi is something like the standard chickpea flour-buttermilk stew that we know but the proportion of flour and water is really high and spices seem to be present in equal proportions to the flour (!!!) and bits of potato and other veggies are floating in it.
This time we got take-away breakfast from Chakkar and here's how it went.
1. First you feast your eyes and nose
Clockwise: Kachori's (filling of ground fried lentils, liberally spiced), lentil pakora, Kadhi, Dona (bowl made of leaves), Ginger-tamarind chutney, samosa.
2. Then you grab one 'dona' (bowl made out of dried leaves and twigs, oldest known disposable utensil environment friendly), place a kachori in it. Then break it up in the middle. Fill the depression with pakoras. Top with tamarind-ginger chutney.
3. Top this concoction with the 'kadhi' and enjoy.
The interesting feature of the Chakkar-kachori guy is that he has a very clear business model which involves only 3 business hours a day, every day irrespective of anything! He arrives at the shop at 7 am and is packed up for the day by 10.30-11 am. His day starts at 4 am when he and his entire family wake up to make the dough, filling, kadhi etc fresh. He brings the prep-ed ingredients to the shop, fries and assembles everything there, sells to his only clientele- the breakfast crowd and is done for the day. His business during those 3 hours is so brisk that he does not even bother to stick around for afternoon or evening business (hence I have no picture of him this time). His prices hover around Rs. 3 (7 cents) per heaped 'dona' and many poor villagers only buy 1 serving of the kadhi which they eat with home-cooked bread.
Here's to comparative advantage, super-specialisation and knowing-your-customer.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
What can I say? Words have been bubbling for days but either there was no time or no net connection. The "broadband" that we get in Delhi is like an Indian 'babu' (officer) -- temperamental, slow, very sarkari (beaurocrat-y).
So this past week, we visited Ujjaini-- an ancient and holy city in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It has religious claim to fame and is mentioned in the Purana's as one of the holiest sites in India. It is on the banks of the river Kshipra that is supposed to have originated from Lord Shiva's finger. And it is the home to a HUGE number of temples the most well known of these being the Mahakaleshwar Shiva temple. This is the only 'Swayambhu Jyotirlingam' in the world. That is, it is the site of a 'lingam' (one form in which Lord Shiva is worshipped) which originated by itself. That makes it a place where "....god came and stayed by himself and did not need an invitation from us..." in the words of our priest.
The town has many other interesting temples and traditions. Given the location of Ujjaini in the Malwa region bang in the middle of the country, this city has been at the cross-roads of all major cultural, religious & political movements in India be it marching armies or marching 'sadhus'. In order to get from the North to the south or from the east to the west, you have to pass through this region and this city.
This confluence is reflected in everything in the region! Rajathani, Gujrati and Marathi (the region has borders with all 3 states) cuisines, languages and cultures have come together in a different, softer avatara. Since my 1 day visit there largely consisted of a long puja on the banks of the river and then dashing from one temple to the next, I was not able to take many notes or many pictues. But I will share one really tasty snippet with you. And that is a popular breakfast dish 'Poha' or beaten rice.
Firstly, the region is one of the biggest and best producers of poha and secondly, I have NEVER eaten such a dish nor seen any recipe for poha like this. Our train stopped at 7.30am in a small town called Nagda, a few hours from ujjain. There was a huge crowd around a tea stall on the platform and the sight of a huge urn of fluffy yellow poha, topped with fresh corriander and served with a topping of fresh 'sev' namkeen......I just could not resist. Not only did I gulp down 2 helpings, I also had a conversation with the owner about how to make this divine variation of a standard dish. In the picture below, note the unique way in which the dish is kept warm over a huge pot of boiling water. If kept on direct flame for too long, the poha lose their fluffiness and are quite hard to eat.
Here is Govind's (guy in picture) recipe:
1 cup Poha, 1.5 tblsp sugar, oil+mustard seeds+turmeric powder+green chillies for tempering+tons of 'besan ke sev' and corriander for garnish.
Soak the poha in water for 7-10 mins till soft. In the mean time, heat 0.5 tsp of oil and add the mustard seeds. Once they pop, add everything else. Stir till incorporated- will only take 1-2 mins since the poha is already soft enough to eat due to soaking. Garnish with coriander and then with a heap of sev. Serve. The gujrati sweetness of the marathi poha interacts really well with the savoury rajasthani namkeen and the universal freshness of coriander.
Talking of namkeens......they are awesome here! I am sure you might have heard of "Ratlami sev'....well Ratlam is an hour from Ujjain.
There are many reasons for visiting/re-visiting Ujjain -- religious, cultural and culinary.......in particular one curry that I was dying to try out but could not -- Poppy leaf curry! The state of MP has quite a large cultivation of poppies (primarily for opium, unfortunately) and during season, this vegetable is very popular both for its taste as well as for ............other things! Reason to go back? Absolutely!
Sunday, January 07, 2007
The latest Outlook magazine has a whole feature on food and foodies in India. But they are not talking about the usual suspects in Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai. The whole feature is about food specialities in 'mofussil' (rural, far away) areas. Its is well written feature and they really try to capture the essence of eating and living in small town India. If you have time do give it a dekko.
It also raises an interesting point - 'Bharat' is as fascinating to 'India' as it is to foreign tourists. Even a casual reader of Indian news or views will tell you that this distinction between the urban, upwardly mobile, globalized, as-comfortable-with-basil-as-with-coriander India ('India') and the rural/small town, benefiting-but-not-much-from-economic-reforms, basil-worshiping India (called 'Bharat') has been in the news quite a bit over the past few years.
There has been a recent resurgence of curiosity about and respect for regional cuisine and lifestyles. In the early 1990s there was a renewal of interest in handicrafts and hand looms and that has continued and in fact, has been incorporated into high fashion as well. People like me who studied in Delhi University or JNU in the late 1990s will remember the khadi or hand loom kurta's, kolhapuri chappals and jhhola's that were the mark of a true intellectual, a symbol of empathy for those worse off than us as well as a symbol of their empowerment through the use of traditional arts.
But in this century, as economic reforms have started fructifying into massive economic gains the movement is about more than clothes. It is about awareness that a train ride away lies a land that may as well be foreign to you. It is about awareness that ignoring either India or Bharat can have electoral consequences (the last general elections were lost by the incumbent BJP and one of the reasons that is propounded is that the party did not pay as much attention to Bharat as it did to its traditional, middle class constituency in urban India). It is about awareness that the massive economic gains are leading to a fast, permanent shift in Indian society. The extent of social and geographic mobility has increased ten-fold just in the past 10 years. Places like Pune, Bangalore, Gurgaon are the new melting pots and it doesnt matter whether you are from the posh GK-II locality in Delhi or from Balia district in UP. But the fact that GK-II and Balia is squished together in space-starved cities means greater curiousity about what Balia has to offer the world.
As I undertook my own bi-annual tour of 'mofussil' places this winter, I could not but help think about how important and relevant this movement is right now. I hope that it is not just a fad that will pass away. I hope that we (India or Bharat) continue to be curious about each other and respect each other. And yes, here I do presume that the distinction holds. You may have your own views about this and I would love to hear them.
So what have I been up to the past few weeks? Eating my way through India and Bharat alike! Here are some of my FAVOURITE things ever to eat ordered by the time I took their pictures.
Favourite 1: Bengali Sweet Shop (South Extension Market) Chaat 'Bhaiyya' (brother). This guy makes the best roasted potato chaat as well as tikki's ever. And the 'gol gappas' (little balls full of spicy water) are as tasty as ever (despite using bottled water and gloves :)). My most-favorite chaat shop used to be in Khan Market but unfortunately, it closed last year since Khan market is getting “too cool” to have a sweet shop! Much as I like upmarket coffee shops and Italian bistros, they do not have chaat!!!
Favourite 2: Simple home-made lunch of potato-pea curry, dahi vada (lentil dumplings in yogurt), home-made green chilie pickle and 'Bathua' paranthas. Bathua is a green that is quite nutty in taste and really comes out well in paranthas as well as in raitas. Clean the leaves in cold water and then blanch in boiling water for 3-4 minutes. Grind to a paste. For parantha's, incorporate this into the flour while making the dough. For raita: cool the paste and mix in yogurt. Sprinkle salt and ground, roasted cumin seeds.
Favorite 3: Mughlai food the way it is supposed to be at Minar resturant, Outer circle, Connaught place. Clockwise: pudina naan, chicken kadai (for best friend Malini) and Malai Kofta for me! And of course the mandatory pickled onions and papads. Reasonable (by Delhi standards) prices and really good food.
Now we proceed to Jaipur. Here is Bai making a delicious stew for me. She and my grand-aunt thought and thought and thought about what to make for me that I had not tasted. And they came upon this really traditional Rajasthani stew called 'Rabdi'. It was delish! It is a variation of the traditional 'Kadhi' made out of chickpea flour. Here instead they use 'bajra' flour. It is made into a paste with water. Then it is incorporated into buttermilk and cooked for hours on a low flame with constant stirring! It tasted perfect for a winter night. Plus all those wonderful minerals in bajra. Kudos to Bai and grand-aunt.
New favorite: Bai in Jaipur making 'rabdi' for me!
But of course, that was not the evening meal! There was a proper dinner to be had which included my MOST favorite green chili dish ever (which is saying a lot since I love chiles in every form known to man). And also, the dish that has been my Waterloo for years. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I try, no matter how many tricks I use I can never get my 'Besan Mirch' to have the right taste and consistency. But hope is still alive...........maybe one day mine will taste and look just like my grand-aunt's did.
Super – Favorite: Green chillies in Chickpea flour
Favorite: Dinner at Grand-aunts home. Very simple, very very rajasthani. Clockwise: chickpea kadhi, besan mirch, potato-green bean curry, potato-cauliflour curry and a thick fat masala roti.
Non-food! Picture from the busiest market in Jaipur. Hustle bustle, color, rickshaws and traditional turbans (look at the red things above the shop). These turbans called 'saafaa' are worn by men and are made of meters and meters of beautiful, tie-dye cloth.
And now Ajmer – my mom's home town. My grandparents are no more yet the house and the place has so many memories of them and all the fun that we used to have their as kids. A large part of those memories involve food (my grandmother was an awesome cook)-- eating it, cooking it, shopping for it. My grandfather was a food enthusiast and a botanist to boot! So it was really informative going veggie shopping with him. Going there now is a treat because we get reminded of my grandfather and the vegetable sellers remember him and us! Like Bai in the picture below......she allowed me to take a picture because she had seen me since I was a kid.....and only on the condition that I print it out and bring it for her the next time I came! Also, 'Bai' means lady and is used to refer to women respectfully.
Favorite: Vegetable market in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Tons of colorful personalities and beautiful, fresh, totally unmodified veggies.
Favorite: Fresh red chillies.
Favorite: Ugly and small.........but immensely tasty baby Brinjals.
Absolute favorite! The basket right in the middle (next to the scale) is an awesome kind of bean thingie called 'Mogri'. Its basically wild radish greens. Its chopped up and sauted in oil-cumin with potatoes with a sprinkle of powders.
And now I will let you into the secret ingredients in my cooking. Yes, yes...its the Indian spices that you know all about. Just their source is Prithvi Masala Store, Gol Market Ajmer. I always take spices from here and almost never need to buy them from the Indian stores in the US.
For me, its like a treasure trove. Everything is fresh and he will grind, pack and seal in front of you so that you know that you are getting the real stuff.
Favorite and healthy: Fresh, unground turmeric. That is the real color, no digital tricks.
Sample box 1: Unground 'khadda' spices. Left to right, top row: Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin. Second row: Javitri (red flowers), ..............., star anise, Kalonji. Third row: White pepper, Big cardamom, dry mint leaves, dry methi.
Sample Box continued: Top row, left to right: Fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, black pepper, cloves. 2nd row: Ajwain seeds, cumin, anise (saunf). 3rd row: Red chillie powder, Coriander poweder, Turmeric powder, white pepper pods.
Back in Delhi, it was time for new years. And a north indian favorite was our first major meal of the year.
Yum-o: Makke ki roti (corn flour bread) with Sarson ka sag (Mustard leaves curry) accompanied with home-made butter, green chillie, Potato-Dill (!) curry and Onion curry. The recipe for all of these a little later in the season.
Favorite: Laxman in Kitchen making makka rotis.
He has been with us since I was born and pretty much brought up my brother and I. We used to spend so much time with him that both our tastes in food are more like his- totally Rajputi, Rajasthani, super-spicy, very onion-y, garlic-y – rather than like my parents ( very little spices, onion, garlic). In the next post, we will talk about my most, absolute, super favorite thing that he makes......Yes, I am repeating myself but there are only so many adjectives!
Next stop on this journey is going to be Ujjaini – the holy city of the Malwa region. Also, this coming weekend we have a huge (50-60 people) party at home. And since it is 'Makkar Sakranti' / 'Pongal' on Sunday, Mom will be making a traditional favorite – Bajre ki Khichdi with Kadhi. More on that closer to Sunday!