The Sourdough Starter Challenge


The interwebs are full of advice on how to create sourdough starter at home. The air is teeming with wild yeast (so we hear) and it’s just an issue of coaxing it to come eat your flour-water mixture.

But one can’t see the wild yeast. So that process requires a bit of blind faith and blind ritual; to keep feeding the unseen guests daily, without knowing if they are there, is a bit more…shall we say…devotion than most people can muster.

This is why, I think, a Twitter thread from yeast geneticist (or “local frumpy yeast geneticist” as he calls himself) Shoe Laces 3 (Sudeep) went viral. It is because he taught us how to see the wild yeast. The white powder on the skins of grapes? That’s yeast. The whitish dusting on the skin of raisins, or dried apricots? That’s yeast. So it is a matter of introducing that yeast to some flour+water, and they will eat it. As they eat it, they will breathe out carbon dioxide. That will make your flour+water full of bubbles and it will rise. It’s as simple as that.

And yes, the local frumpy yeast geneticist made it sound simple. The yeast are just like anyone else—they want to eat, dammit. I mean, they aren’t quite monks. Just bring them to food, they will eat.

So here we go—let’s try this out. Each day, I will post the progress of my wild yeast starter. That will include bubbleage, rise, smell, and so forth. If you want to follow along, go grocery shopping, get ready. Each day I will update this post.

Day 0: Grocery shopping

  1. Flour (bread flour or all purpose)
  2. Grapes (the skin will look a bit powdery)
  3. A clean glass jar that can be closed
  4. A wooden chopstick for stirring (a fork will do)
  5. A small spatula

Day 1: Create the mixture

8 pm

  1. Put 1/4 cup of water in a clean glass jar
  2. Add 2-3 grapes without washing them
  3. Stir it around
  4. Add 1/4 cup of flour
  5. Stir it around till you make a paste
  6. Scrape down the sides of the jar with a spatula
  7. Cover and keep it at room temperature (around 70-72 F)

Day 2: Look for bubbles, first feed

7 am

No bubbles to be found. Place inside oven with the oven light turned on for warmth. Do not turn the oven on.

5 pm


We have….bubbles! The mixture has risen to double. There is condensation on the sides of the jar. The surface looks frothy. It smells mildly alcoholic, mildly fruity, and a bit yeasty. There is some separated liquid at the bottom.

7 pm: Discard and feed


  1. Discard most of the mixture, including the grapes. Leave about a tablespoon or so.
  2. Add 1/3 cup flour
  3. Add 1/4 cup water
  4. Stir with a wooden chopstick
  5. Scrape down sides with a spatula
  6. Cover and leave on the countertop overnight (not in warm oven this time)
  7. My starter now has a name: it shall be called Bertie.

Day 3: Feed twice a day

8 am:


Bertie was left on the countertop overnight. Not quite doubled but there is bubbleage. Some liquid separated at bottom. Smells deeper than yesterday, more cheesy/yeasty, but also fruity.

  1. Stir the liquid in.
  2. Discard most of it, leaving a tablespoon or two.
  3. Add 1/3 cup flour
  4. Add 1/4 cup water
  5. Stir with a chopstick or fork
  6. Scrape down sides with a spatula
  7. Cover and leave on counterop.

5 pm:


Similar yeasty, fruity, alcohol smells. Bubbly and frothy, but not really risen. There is some liquid separating out once again.

Apparently the liquid is called “hooch” and is a sign that the starter is “hungry”. The yeast has eaten the flour and the alcohol it releases is collecting up top. If it is hungry, I should feed it! But this is also when the sour bacteria start their activity, so in my book that is a plus. Same routine:

  1. Discard all except about a tablespoon or two
  2. Feed fresh flour, 1/3 cup
  3. Add 1/4 cup water
  4. Stir & scrape down sides with a spatula and leave on the counter.

Day 4: All hooched up

Well I have sad news to report about Bertie. After I let it go a bit too long without feeding, it got some hooch floating on top, and…died. No more bubbles.

No matter I will start a new one tomorrow.



Follow this post for daily updates!!

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Pantry)


Bagels in the time of Corona

We are now living through a pandemic. Going to the bakery involves masks, gloves, strict social distancing ballets, and disinfectant. It feels apocalyptic. Creating bagels at home requires being covered in flour, messiness, kneading, the smell of baking in the morning. It feels…homey.

How to decide?

Bagels are pretty unique in the bread family in two ways: one is their torus (donut) shape, with a hole in the middle. This shape gives the bagel as much surface area as possible for their size, so that the dense insides can cook all the way through. The other is the curious step of picking up the risen torus entire, tender and fluffy from the bubbles trapped inside, and slipping it into boiling water for a minute before baking.

It’s odd, I tell you. I’ve made a wide variety of breads, from multigrain loafs baked in 9 by 4s to free-standing sourdough loafs to chapatis roasted on a griddle to pooris fried in oil. The step of boiling is completely unique. Generally, when you boil dough, you get dumplings, not bread.

And yet, here we are. Is a matter of fact, the boiling gives the bagel a sheen—and more importantly, a smooth soft shell, that preserves the shape and density during baking. That’s how you achieve the chewiness that for some reason is a match made in heaven (or “match made in leaven” perhaps) with cream cheese.

The method

Bagel dough is pretty standard, if perhaps drier and denser than a standard loaf bread destined to turn into slices and sandwiches. You have the option to add as much whole wheat flour as you like up to about 50%—I generally go with a third whole wheat, two-thirds not.

The list of toppings and flavorings that can be added, either to the dough, or on the surface of the boiled torus before baking, are endless: from cinnamon, to onions or garlic, to seeds like poppy, sesame, caraway. But I’m going to focus on the bagel recipe as a basic template, for you to experiment with on on your own dime.

Just like standard bread, there is a first rise. Depending on the amount of yeast added, and the temperature around your countertop, this can go from an hour to overnight in the fridge.

Just like standard bread, there is a shaping and a second rise. But rather than shape into a loaf, one breaks the bagel dough into pieces, rolls each piece into a snake about a foot long, and joins the snake head to mouth into a torus shape.

Then, of course, there is the boiling and the baking.

Sugar: this recipe is ideal for people who get tired of the amount of added sugar in commercially available food; it has no sugar at all. If you want to add some, you can add a teaspoon to a tablespoon or sugar or honey dissolved in the water.


Flour + water


Mixing the dough




After first rise


Break into six pieces


Start shaping each


Rolled out to snake shape


Join at ends


Start second rise











  • 3 cups flour (up to a third whole wheat, the rest bread flour or all-purpose)
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1.25 cups water
  • 0.5 onion, sliced, for onion bagels (optional)
  • 2 tbsp mix of sesame and poppy seeds, for seeded bagel (optional)
  • other topping ideas:
    • garlic
    • shredded cheese
    • jalapenos
    • caraway seeds


Collect your flours in a wide bowl. Sprinkle the instant yeast over and stir it into the flour with a fork. Then sprinkle the salt over and stir that in as well.

Make a well in the center of the flour with a chopstick. Pour the water in. Start mixing the flour into the water with your chopstick (a wooden one works best because it won’t stick to the mixture). Once most of it is mixed in, turn the dough onto a counter to knead.

Continue to knead for a few minutes, until you have a smooth ball of dough. Cover with oil and plastic wrap, and leave it to rise for about an hour or two, or until puffy and almost doubled.

Divide the dough into six approximately equal pieces, using a pastry scraper to make neat cuts, rather than pulling it apart. Cover all the pieces with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap while you work on shaping each piece.

To shape a piece into a torus shape: gently roll into a foot long shape with some stretching, some rolling, some flattening, resting it for minutes at a time. Moisten the two ends with some water and connect end-to-end in a bagel shape.

Place them side by side on a well-floured cookie sheet, with at least a couple inches between them. Cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap to avoid drying out. Leave to rise for another hour or two.

Pre-heat oven to 425° F.

Set a large pot of water to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, lower the heat to just above a simmer. One by one, gently scoop up each bagel by teasing it onto a slotted spoon and lower into the boiling water. Boil each side for 30 seconds and leave to drain. This is the time to put toppings on, such as fried onions or sesame seeds.

Place the tray with the boiled bagels into the oven for 20-25 minutes. Wait at least half hour before slicing them.

They go very well with butter, or cream cheese, or my idiosyncratic favorite: cream cheese and jam.

I’d love to hear in comments or on Twitter/Facebook if this worked for you. I would love to see pictures of your bagels!

(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry and on Facebook at The Odd Pantry.)

When it comes to no-knead breads, I am a believer

20 Vanity

For the longest time, all those recipes that promised you could make bread without kneading seemed to me simultaneously a cop-out and an oxymoron—like nut milks with no dairy, or vegan hamburgers or, for that matter, working holidays.

Why leave out the most kinetic, fun part of the entire process, that allows you to playact blue-collar labor, work out your aggression, and show the gluten who’s boss, all at once?

But I realized recently that I had missed the point. I had missed the import of one word: autolysis.

Bread starts with gluten. Flour has the potential of turning some of its proteins into gluten, that stretchy, strandy thing that binds the air into webs as it rises. Gluten is the cause of the elasticity of dough and for the spongy, soft interior of bread. Gluten is the reason bread doesn’t turn into either a pancake or a brick.

Flour, while it is dry and powdery, contains the ingredients to make gluten, but no gluten itself. But as soon as flour particles come in contact with water, a couple things happen. One, in the presence of water, two of the flour’s proteins start to come together to form gluten. And two, some of the starches break down into sugar. If the flour-water mixture is ‘infected’ with yeast, the little yeasties can feed on the sugar and multiply. This process is known as ‘autolysis’.

Now most of the wise bread teachers, like Rose Levy Berenbaum and the bakers at King Arthur Flour, have always recommended a period of ‘walking away‘ once you have mixed water and flour before the kneading begins. This walking away, whether it is for ten minutes or an hour, gives the gluten formation a head start, and makes the subsequent kneading a much easier task.

Call it walking away or call it autolysis, it is the time for the flour to spontaneously do the gluten-formation that kneading is usually called upon to do. But what if you took this principle to its logical conclusion, and allowed the flour-water to do all the work? What if you never had to knead at all?

What you have then is no-knead bread. It takes longer than kneaded bread, because the folding and squeezing that the dough is subjected to while kneading speeds up the process. But as a home cook, I plead—no, I demand—that you develop patience. It will take you a day, or more. But you will be proud of your loaf.


Now here’s another advantage that no-knead breads can give you that kneaded breads simply cannot. The dough can be very, very wet. So wet in fact that they are impossible to handle, because touching it with your whole hand as you would have to in order to knead would make a sticky mess. No-knead bread is never handled (with one exception, as I’ll go into next). So it can have a lot more water by proportion than regular breads; and a wetter dough makes for a softer, more risen, more holey crumb.

Now the dough is so wet that one even foregoes the usual ‘freeform’ baking of the crusty loafs, where they sit in the oven all by themselves. The dough is simply too wet! This is why the standard way to bake this kind of bread is in a covered dutch oven or a loaf pan. (I’ll show you both by-and-by). The added advantage of this method is that in the closed, wet, hot environment of a dutch oven, you essentially create a steam sauna for the bread, and get a simply remarkable final rise—while baking.


Now while kneading is not called for, here’s a step that can lengthen and stretch the gluten strands and thus improve the final crumb. This is a step that Rose Levy Berenbaum specifies in all her crusty loaves. It involves laying out the flaccid dough in a gently stretched rectangle, folding both sides in to overlap in the middle, turning 90° and repeating it. So,

Step One: Fold in the left third of the rectangle in order to cover the middle third, then fold in the right third of the rectangle in order to cover the previous flap.

Step Two: Rotate the dough 90° and repeat the two folds above.


Mixing flour, water, yeast, salt


Shaping for final rise

Misting and scoring


No-knead bread

A note on ingredients:

You have considerable flexibility regarding ingredients. Where the flour is concerned, you can go up to one third whole wheat. I’ve used high protein bread flour, but all-purpose will work too, though the result will not be as chewy, but rather, softer. A single teaspoon of salt will be just enough for the bread to taste ‘normal’ but you can go up to even two teaspoons for a saltier crumb. Using less yeast then a quarter teaspoon will make it rise slower, more will make it rise faster. Though I would not recommend more than a half teaspoon because remember, you want this process to be slow.

  • 3 cups flour (I used 2.5 cups King Arthur bread flour and 0.5 cups King Arthur whole wheat flour)
  • 1-1.5 tsp salt
  • 0.25 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1.5 cups + 2 tbsp water
  • Dry flour for sprinkling
  • 5 minutes to mix.
  • 8-18 hours first rise.
  • 10 minutes folding and shaping.
  • 1 hour final rise.
  • Bake at 450°F for 45 minutes

Combine the first three ingredients in a large bowl and combine thoroughly with a fork. Make a sort of well in the center and pour a cup and a half of water into it, reserving the two extra tablespoons to add if needed. Roughly combine using a chopstick till ALL the flour is moistened. Add in the extra water if needed to make sure there is no more dry powdery flour in the bowl. A wet, sticky mess is what one is aiming for.

The resulting mixture will be very, very rough and sticky. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and leave aside.

In about an hour or two, you are ready to fold the dough as described above. Sprinkle the counter with plenty of flour and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the counter. Sprinkle dry flour on the dough as well as on your fingers, as this will help you handle it without it sticking. Perform the two folds as described above. Now the dough will be a much smoother, tighter roll than the mass you started with. Place it back in the bowl, covered with wrap, to rise.

This rise can take anywhere from 8 to 18 hours. If it is rising too quickly and you are not ready to proceed with the next steps yet, put the bowl in the fridge to retard it. Take it out the next morning and let it come to room temperature, about an hour or two.

At the end of this period, the dough should have more than doubled, and the surface should show some large bubbles. If you tap the bowl, it will shiver like jelly.

Sprinkle the counter with more dry flour and place the dough on it and proceed to shape it into a round. This is done by pretending you are making a cloth bundle with the dough: so gather the edges into the middle, tighten, and do it some more.  Not only is the dough turning into a tight ball, the outer skin is also getting stretched.

Place it seam side down on some floured parchment paper. Cover with plastic wrap once again and leave to rise. You can leave it to rise free form, but it is better to place it in a bowl or basket or, as I did, an empty tortilla container. This is so that the vertical sides of the container constrain the dough from spreading outwards, and it is pushed to rise upwards instead. The dough will take about an hour or hour and a half for this second rise.

About half hour before you are ready to bake, turn the oven up to 450°F and place the dutch oven, uncovered, and its lid, in the oven to get it hot.

At the end of the hour, remove the plastic wrap off the dough. Mist the top of the dough with a fine spray of water. Use a sharp serrated knife to score it: gently, with a slicing motion and barely any pressure at all, make a half inch cut in the top of the dough. A lip will open up, showing all the glorious webbing that has developed under the skin. Scoring in this way helps the crust, as it bakes, to open up along that line instead of haphazardly.

Lift up the dough ball, parchment and all, and place in the dutch oven and cover with the lid. Bake for 30 minutes covered and 15 minutes uncovered.

At the end of baking, the crust should be golden brown and the bread dramatically risen. When thumped on the bottom it will sound hollow. Let it cool for an hour before slicing.

(Find me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry)

Roasted tomato sauce For the Win

img_9063Nature made tomatoes delicious but She also drenched them in unappealing wateriness. All tomato sauces are based on rescuing the flavor out of the swamp. It is simply a matter of technique.

Some insist that the skin and seeds must be removed. Some put great stock in canned tomatoes as opposed to fresh; others swear by long cooking. These are all fine techniques; but the one that works in my kitchen is one that I haven’t seen other recipe writers talk about much. This is surprising, because there is literally no way to describe how deep and dark is the flavor that results.

It is more of a technique than a single recipe, though I will give you a couple of variations that I often make. It involves long-roasting in the oven instead of long-cooking on the stove-top: four hours is ideal, but three hours can work too, at a slightly higher temperature.

Since it takes no fussing over, you can set it in the oven and leave the house, or putter about your other household duties. Long-cooking is no strain if your appliances do all the work. Yes, it does take a bit of planning and it does take about 5-8 nice plump medium tomatoes.

The basics

As to why this technique results in flavor so much deeper than the traditional method of cooking in a pot, I can offer some educated guesses.

One of the components of the flavor is the deep caramelization of the cut surfaces of the tomatoes as they are exposed to the dry heat of the oven. The juiciness ensures that they do not burn, but you can see the chocolaty color on the edges in the pictures below. This color shows that the Maillard reaction has occurred, imparting a welcome depth.

Nor does the the tomato liquid dry out evenly, as it would on the stove-top. I have often tried long-cooking simply chopped-up fresh tomatoes in a pot; and while the flavor certainly intensifies, the waxiness of the peel and the bitterness of the seeds stand out, diminishing the flavor. Of course one could peel and seed the tomatoes, but if one is to remove all the fiber from a thing, why even bother?

The great advantage of the long-roasted sauce is that the peel and seeds all go in, impart a caramelized edge, and yet, deep pockets of juiciness are left behind; as the oven has not dried out the fruit indiscriminately. The residue one is left with is approximately like a hybrid of sundried tomatoes on the cut-surfaces, and deep juice bombs inside.

The basic steps are these. Cut up the tomatoes either in halves, quarters or eighths. Place them cut-side-up, salted, drenched in olive oil in the oven, in a single layer, at a low temperature for up to 4 hours. At the end, a simple dressing of fresh olive oil, vinegar, garlic or herbs are necessary. Mashing them roughly with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher produces a sauce that will cover long pasta like linguini or spaghetti.

Variation with red wine vinegar and garlic

Roast tomato sauce with garlic and red wine vinegar

  • 6 medium tomatoes
  • 1 fat clove garlic
  • Few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste

Spread a bit of oil in a flat ceramic dish and start the oven at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3). Meanwhile halve the tomatoes and remove the stem. Place them cut side up in the dish, as crowded as you can, so they hold each other up. Sprinkle with salt and squirt more oil on the surface. Place them in the oven and set the time for either 4 hours (if set to the lower temperature) or 3 hours (if set to the higher).

Meanwhile crush the garlic and mix in some salt. This will liquefy and cook it, which will take about half hour.

At the end of the roasting time, mash the tomatoes a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. Stir in the garlic and the splash of red wine vinegar.

Cook and drain spaghetti or other long pasta; stir to combine thoroughly with the sauce.

Variation with fresh basil and olive oil

Roast tomato sauce with fresh basil and olive oil

  • 6 Kumato or other tomatoes
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • about a dozen leaves of fresh basil

Spread some oil on a flat ceramic dish. Quarter the Kumato tomatoes and halve the cherries. Spread them tightly crowded on the dish, tucking the cherry halves into the gaps between the others. Sprinkle with salt and more olive oil. Reserve about 3 tablespoons of olive oil for later.

Roast at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3).

Slice the basil leaves into ribbons.

Once the tomatoes are done, take out of the oven, mash and taste for salt. Add the reserved olive oil and the basil. Toss with pasta.

Variation with infused oregano and black pepper

Roasted tomato sauce with oregano and black pepper

  • 7 or so medium tomatoes
  • quarter cup of olive oil
  • a few sprigs of fresh oregano
  • several twists of black pepper
  • salt to taste

Prepare the roasting dish with some olive oil spread on the base.

This time cut the tomatoes into eighths. Spread them tightly in the dish, cut sides up. Since the pieces are smaller, use the higher oven setting (300º F) and the shorter time (3 hours). Cover with salt to taste and olive oil. The sprigs of oregano are to be tucked into the dish and black pepper sprinkled onto the tomatoes. As the roasting proceeds, a savory aroma will filter through the kitchen.

When done, remove the oregano sprigs. Mash gently, add more olive oil and toss with freshly cooked long pasta.

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. Follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- You can also subscribe to this blog here:

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The Golden Rice explainer


Ingo Potrykus on Time cover (source: “Gene manipulation in plantsOpenLearn)

In the year 2000 Time Magazine ran a cover story on something that it had probably never given such prominence to before. It was a grain—a variety of rice. The cover proclaimed that this variety of rice had the potential to save a million kids a year because it was yellow when milled instead of white. In pictures, the grains have a translucent glow as if imbued with saffron or turmeric.

But it contained neither. Rather, the yellow showed the presence of beta-carotene—the same compound that makes carrots orange—synthesized by the grains themselves as they formed inside the spikes of grass. Despite being a purely humanitarian endeavor, it was given the marketing moniker ‘Golden Rice’: a name suggested by Thailand’s ‘Condom King’, who had successfully marketed another, very different, public health product. The inventors hoped that since the human body can turn beta-carotene into Vitamin A, it could help the poverty-stricken rice-eating populations of the world where Vitamin A deficiency is an often fatal problem.

The Time Magazine article warned of controversies to come, and sure enough, in the ensuing 16 years, they have. While golden rice has had plenty of technical challenges to work through, it has also run into a number of regulatory and political headwinds.

This is because golden rice is genetically modified. The original prototype included two foreign genes: one from the daffodil, and one from a bacterial species.

By and large, the foodie public is not yet comfortable with genetically modified foods. Their thought-leaders, the mavens of the new food politics, turned against golden rice almost instantly; Michael Pollan called it the Great Yellow Hype, while Marion Nestle, in 2013, said on her website Food Politics that she could not believe people were still talking about it. The opposition reached an apogee when Greenpeace activists destroyed fields of golden rice trials in the Philippines (while claiming that the vandalism was done by the farmers).

While there is widespread skepticism about genetically modified foods, public opinion is contrary to settled science and betrays several misconceptions. But apart from the general debate, each genetically modified product has also to be understood in its own terms.

The orange hue

Gold—or less grandiosely, yellow-orange—is a color that nature is quite adept at. Pumpkins and carrots come to mind, but there’s no limit to the orange hues: fruits, and petals, and yellow corn, and egg yolks, and butter; leaves during autumn; and so on. When you see the yellows, oranges, or reds out in nature, it is a clue that the plant has been manufacturing pigments known as carotenoids. Each of these pigments, down to the molecule level, is a precise chain of 40 carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms, and sometimes oxygen atoms too, hanging on like amulets on a bracelet.

One of these is beta carotene. A 40-carbon, 56-hydrogen chain with loops at each end, it is a celebrity because of how the liver processes it, if eaten with some fat—it splits each 40-carbon chain into two molecules of Vitamin A. And Vitamin A is crucial for our eyes and immune systems.

But plants do not create beta-carotene in order to nourish us. It is crucial for them, too. It collects light energy and so helps leaves photosynthesize. It plays the role of an antioxidant by intercepting free radicals.

The white on rice

You might ask: if beta-carotene is so important for plants, why did rice need such expensive intervention—why doesn’t rice create its own beta-carotene out in nature?


Rice grains (source: “Photos of some important cereal grassesWayne’s Word)

But that question would be misguided in two ways. For one: rice does indeed create its own beta-carotene—where it needs it, which is in the tissues that photosynthesize, mostly the leaves. If you look closely, you see a dent in one tip of the torpedo-shape that is a single grain of rice. This dent is where the germ used to sit—the germ that would turn into a new rice plant if sown, that was removed during the milling process. Since the germ has to photosynthesize as it grows, it does have the capability to create beta-carotene and other carotenoids.

But not the surrounding starch—the food for the germ as it grows, which is also the part we eat. This starchy part is very low in micronutrients and contains no beta carotene.

The other reason that question would be misguided is the deeper one: there is no “rice” out in nature. The species Oryza sativa is entirely a cultivated species; its closest relative that it probably arose from, known as brownbeard rice (Oryza rufipogon), is considered a weed when found in rice fields, and, when harvested together, its grains are winnowed out like chaff.


Wild rice v/s domesticated rice (source: “New tricks for a very old cropEzra Magazine)

The ancients created the rice we eat. Their needs drove early rice evolution: they needed a crop that was easy to harvest, so they selected plants whose seeds didn’t shatter and fall when ripe; they needed a crop that was easy to plan for, and rice adapted in response to ripen all at once instead of in dribs and drabs.

They bred it to yield much more grain than the wild plant they found, and bred starch into the grain. They also bred the red color out. Did they just prefer white grains? Perhaps, but it is more likely that they got white rice as a side-effect of breeding traits they actually cared about, like making the hull easier to remove. Regardless, red rice, as the wild brownbeard is also known, wasn’t red because of carotenes, but rather, the same kind of tannins that give red wine and chocolate their deep color.

The rice crop has seen many improvements since the days of the ancient farmers. Many of these came in the 1960s, under research projects that are given the umbrella term of ‘Green Revolution’.

Though many of the Green Revolution improvements had to do with higher yield, the folks at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), under whose aegis these projects took place, had their eye on nutritional factors as well. A haunting story is often told about Peter Jennings, the legendary breeder: he had hunted for yellow grains of rice out in the fields for decades, hoping to find a rice plant that had spontaneously mutated to create yellowness. He was well aware of nutritional deficiencies that made rice a less-than-ideal staple food.

This isn’t as vain of a hope as it sounds. Occasionally farmers will find an oddity among their crop that has a beneficial trait or two, and sometimes that oddity will be bred into a well-known variety. The story of Cheddar Cauliflower, the bright yellow cauliflower sold in upscale grocery stores, played out this way.

Regardless, the decades-long hunt for spontaneous beta-carotene rice turned up fruitless. This led Peter Jennings to suggest one day in 1984 that if he had his druthers, the science of biotechnology that lay over the horizon would take on the challenge of creating yellow rice. Two researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, took up the challenge.

The beta carotene assembly line

In the early 1900s the Ford Motor Company revolutionized car manufacture with the assembly line: rather than each car being built up on the spot in a bespoke kind of way, its manufacture moves through stages, each of which focus on doing the same step over and over.

As with much else, biology got there first. Within each plant cell, which is essentially a factory, several assembly lines proceed simultaneously, each putting together the chemicals that the plant needs.

One of these assembles the 40-carbon beta-carotene. It is put together from pieces as though Lego blocks were being connected.

One of nature’s most common Lego blocks is a 5-carbon block known as isoprene; it is veritably the 2×4 brick of biochemistry. You might not have heard of it, but if you wander among oak trees on a hot, sunny day, chances are that their leaves are emitting an abundance of isoprene into the air; if you are familiar with the smell of rubber tires in the heat, chances are you have smelled it.

Considering that isoprene is a 5-carbon block, and we want to get to a 40-carbon chain, you would be absolutely justified in relying on arithmetic to deduce that it takes 8 blocks of isoprene. Although it isn’t isoprene itself that takes part in the chemical assembly line, but rather a form known as activated isoprene.

Let’s zoom in on a segment of the assembly line. The cell has already created 20-carbon chains out of 4 isoprene blocks, the steps of which we won’t go into. Where we begin, two of these 20-carbon chains are stitched together to make a 40-carbon, 64-hydrogen chain. This is phytoene, a colorless compound.

Watch carefully, because the creation of phytoene is an important step. It is colorless, but most of the warm colors in nature get their start as colorless phytoene: it is the first step in the creation of a number of yellow, orange, and red pigments.


Carotenoid-containing fruits and veggies, that all get their start as phytoene (source: Carotenoid Society)

The next step is important too. This is phytoene ‘desaturation’—a word that contains multitudes. It is also the step that results in color. How does this happen? The 40 carbons in the chain link not only to their neighbors along it, but also manage to hold on to 64 hydrogen atoms besides. In this step, the chain relinquishes 8 of those hydrogen atoms, and 8 carbon atoms hold on to their neighbor doubly instead. This is why this is known as ‘desaturation’—it now has unfilled slots that used to be occupied by hydrogen atoms.

It also changes how it interacts with light. Phytoene can only absorb high-energy light from the UV spectrum that is invisible to us. Since it lets all visible light through, it appears colorless. But after desaturation, almost all visible light except the low-energy red gets absorbed; hence what we have now is a deep red compound known as lycopene.

In fact, it is exactly the deep red we know of from tomatoes.

We are almost there. The next step that happens is a looping of the ends the 40-carbon chain. Once again, this step changes how it absorbs energy from visible light; this new form mostly absorbs the blues and cyan, so it appears orange to us. This, finally, is beta-carotene.

The genes

I called out two steps above as having special significance; one was the creation of phytoene, and the other was its desaturation. This is because these are exactly the two steps where rice needed intervention in order to create yellow grain.

In truth, it isn’t as if the researchers had to create the beta-carotene assembly line from scratch. Like we went over before, rice is not a stranger to beta carotene; it is synthesized in all green tissues that photosynthesize. But the assembly line in the starchy part of rice was broken in two key steps.

Faced with a broken assembly line in a modern factory, one frequently needs to tinker with the computer systems that run it, rather than mess with the nuts and bolts; and so it is with the plant cell. The problem lay in the genes.

Researchers had noticed that the starch did accumulate plenty of the 20-carbon Lego blocks I mentioned earlier, but no phytoene. This step happens under control of a particular gene whose name—psy—seems to come out of a spy novel, but really just stands for what it does—control the synthesis of phytoene.

Rice does have a psy gene, but its function is turned off in the starchy grain. But, siblings of the rice psy gene are found in other plants as well. Let us pause here to appreciate a fact that, while it has completely swept the biological sciences since Darwin and Mendel, is still not well understood by lay-people.

There is deep unity among different life forms—whether an ant, a sea urchin, or a palm tree—on the level of the genes. My cells may not make chlorophyll, thus I am not green. But my genes speak the same language as the genes of the palm tree: they just choose different sentences. Among close relatives long snatches of the genetic code are often much the same.



So when it came to seeking a psy gene to fix the broken step, researchers could turn to the vast library of psy genes available in other plants. They chose the psy from a paragon of yellowness, the daffodil, whose psy plays a part in the lovely color of its petals.

They announced in 1997 that their experiment had been successful. Close to six hundred seedlings of a Japonica rice variety were bombarded with the daffodil psy gene using a gene gun. In the end, they had 47 that contained phytoene and were fertile enough to propagate.

Remember, no color yet, because phytoene is colorless. The second key step—that of desaturation of phytoene, the step that produces the color—had yet to be done.

For this, they turned to an experiment that had been performed by Peter Bramley earlier on tomatoes. He had found that tomatoes could be induced to be twice as red by splicing in a desaturation gene from a bacterial species. This is because twice as much phytoene could be desaturated, producing twice as much red-colored lycopene.

The researchers, Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer, relied on this same bacterial gene, crtI, in their experiment. It worked—once again, speaking to the unity of three very different life-forms; rice, tomatoes, and—bacteria.

However, instead of becoming red due to accumulating lycopene like Peter Bramley’s experiment with tomatoes would predict, the rice grains seemed to be turning yellow, showing the presence of beta-carotene.

Remember, turning red lycopene into yellow-orange beta-carotene involves the additional step of looping the ends of the 40-carbon chain. Who performed that step?

It turns out that the researchers caught a break. Some parts of the defunct assembly line in the grains still functioned; when molecular robots detected the presence of lycopene, they kicked in and looped the ends, thus producing beta carotene on their own.

They had yellow rice.

The sequel

This is where things stood in 2000, when Time Magazine announced the breakthrough of golden rice. But the amount of yellow in the rice, while of momentous importance in showing that it could be done, wasn’t quite enough to actually help with VAD. As Michael Pollan framed it in the New York Times, an 11-year-old child would have to eat 15 pounds of golden rice in order to meet her daily requirement of Vitamin A. Although this was based on incorrect assumptions (golden rice does not have to provide the entirety of the daily requirement, since no one is at zero or they would be dead), it compellingly relayed the fact that this version really didn’t have sufficient beta carotene.

In reality, the product as it stood then was merely an alpha—a proof of concept—as the software industry calls it, or a pilot, as the television folks might.

The rice they created was a pale yellow in color; if the beta-carotene content had been more substantial, that fact would have advertised itself as a deeper orange hue.


Golden Rice versions 1.0 and 2.0 (source: “The science behind golden riceThe Golden Rice Project)

A follow-on team from Swiss biotech giant Syngenta achieved this by using the psy gene from corn (maize) to replace the one from the daffodil. Not only is their version of golden rice a deep orange color, it also has enough beta carotene for the child of Michael Pollan’s imagination to meet his or her daily requirement by eating a bowlful.

While the gene from maize met their scientific needs, it is also a perfect choice for illustrative purposes.

Both rice and maize are grasses, so their psy genes are more closely related to each other than the one from daffodil. Perhaps this is why the maize psy was considerably more effective in creating phytoene.

But beyond that fact lie other similarities. Much like the ancient form of rice, the ancient form of corn (teosinte) is not eaten. Much like rice, maize has seen a number of changes over thousands of years to turn it into a crop: the kernels increased in size and number; the yield improved; the kernels lost their husk. Much like rice, beta carotene is not physiologically needed in the kernels of corn: hence the plant never produced it.

(In fact, as Dr. Peter Beyer told me over the phone, nor is beta-carotene physiologically needed by the very vegetable that its name derives from—the carrot.)

But here is the difference: for poorly understood reasons, maize turned out to have a very malleable genome. The Native Americans bred it into astonishing colors and sizes; the maize genome today is massive and has come a long way from the genome of the ancient, inedible teosinte.

In 1779, Europeans came across a yellow, sweet variety that had been bred by the Iroquois tribe. Clearly, an Iroquois farmer at an earlier time had succeeded where Peter Jennings had failed: he or she had discovered yellow kernel plant somewhere out in the fields; which they then decided to favor and breed. This type of chance mutation could very well have turned up for rice, but the fact is, it didn’t.

Though just as absurd from a plant physiology perspective, corn and rice both had the potential to create beta carotene in their grain. Yellow corn was found art. Yellow rice, on the other hand, had to be intentionally sought and created.

(I want to thank Dr. Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg for his invaluable help in reviewing and checking my facts.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. Follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- You can also subscribe to this blog here:

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My view on genetically-modified crops

I had been writing about food for about a year when I sort of fell into the subject of GMOs; I didn’t expect to, but there is something about the process of writing that leads to discovery and ferment. It was then, and remains now, a politically-charged topic that I was driven to make sense of.

I didn’t have any expertise to add; but I did come to the subject with a unique perspective. I had two long-standing interests, though merely as a layperson—bio-diverse food, and biology (especially genetics) and have read on these subjects obsessively. Professionally, I am a software engineer, so I bring that perspective—one that is not afraid of technology, is aware of its power, but also, that knows (from the inside) how fallible it is; how infinitely perfectible it is. Over the last couple years I have written much and plan to write more; so it is probably time for a statement of what I believe.

I found that the popular debate around biotechnology betrays many misconceptions and shows no awareness of how either genetics or modern farming work (or why).

The first is a category error: genetically-modified crops are treated as a type of food, rather than a description of the process scientists used to create it. Thus, rather than each engineered trait being judged on its own merits, judgments seem to smear across all ‘GMOs’ equally.

Here is what I mean: any downsides of a particular product—it appears that RoundupReady crops have indeed contributed glyophosate-resistant weeds, for instance—is not only treated as a final argument against that particular product, but it is also made to stand-in for the entire technology. I am sure this is familiar to most readers: articles making claims about ‘genetically engineered crops’—here is one example—that then turn out to be about, say, herbicide-resistant crops specifically.

They are also judged with the yardstick of perfection. So any harm that comes to any genetically-modified crop anywhere is treated as a final nail in the biotech coffin, whether or not the trait had anything to do with it. A recent whitefly epidemic in Punjab that destroyed Bt cotton fields, for instance, was touted by critics as an argument against the use of Bt cotton. This is a bit like faulting vaccines for a bicycle accident a child got into on the way home from getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, any benefits that go towards raising yield, reducing chemical pesticides, or making farming more scalable or safe are treated as illegitimate, even as the poorest among us benefit from the lowered cost of food.

Why is this? I believe that some false narratives have taken over the public imagination; and these make it difficult for facts to break through.

False narratives

One is that most people think of farming as continuous with nature, while biotech as a form of human engineering. And they would prefer that engineers not tinker with nature at all.

In my opinion, this view is based on ignorance. Farming has seen plenty of tinkerers, engineers, and nature-meddlers over the millennia; it is just that when a form of engineering becomes widespread, and gets a couple of generations under its belt, it is seen through sepia-toned glasses as part of tradition. This is exactly what happened to another farming technology that one could more properly consider a Frankenfood; it initially raised fears and caused great discomfort among the cognoscenti, but as it took hold, those fears gradually disappeared.

The fact that people do not expect farming to be subject to engineering causes its own blinkered views. When it comes to human engineering, a certain seeking, spiraling improvement is to be expected; early flaws are to be expected. But nature on the other hand is seen as always perfect and any tinkering with it is seen as a fall from that state of original glassy wholeness. This is why, as I pointed out above, people judge biotechnology with the yardstick of perfection.

At heart too is a public mythologizing of the word ‘natural’ that promotes a false dichotomy: that foods either lie on one side of that divide as entirely untouched by human artifice, or on the other, the side of corruption, with industrial ingredients, impenetrable packaging, and refined to the point of pallor and death.

‘GMOs’ in the popular imagination have ended up on the corrupted side of that divide, and hence their many political problems. But what I found, instead, is that biotechnology can produce benefits that environmentalists ought to favor if they look at it dispassionately.

For instance, genetically-modified cotton, used in India since 2002, has allowed farmers to greatly reduce the amount of spraying that they needed before, increased their yield and their incomes. But Western opinion about GMOs in India has become the victim of a third narrative—that of corporate imperialists devastating an ‘old’ country, leading farmers to suicide.

Narratives are stubborn things, specially when they tweak first-world guilt. Neither studies nor data have budged this essentially false narrative.

Looking at the data is one thing; but I had the great privilege of talking in depth with three farmers who shared their stories with me. All three made earnest requests to earnest first-worlders—who they mostly do not have access to—to ditch their false narrative. It isn’t that they do not have problems: but their problems spring from a two-century-long technological upheaval; and while their use of biotechnology cannot solve their deep-seated problems, it can certainly help.

It hasn’t helped that biotech first sprang into public consciousness with their conglomeration of ‘cides’: herbicide-resistant crops, and those that produce their own larvicide, have made up the vast majority of commercially available GMOs. Any word that ends in ‘cide’ of course raises red alerts in people’s minds. In our fear-based society, what most people aren’t aware of is that what can be called ‘poisonous’ is much dependent on how it is used; for instance, both salt and household vinegar are toxic to mammals at lower doses upon ingestion than glyphosate, which is the active chemical in RoundUp. As for the larvicide produced by the Bt crops used by farmers in India, it is a directed poison, only toxic to larva of moths and butterflies upon ingestion, and is safe for other life.

A related narrative is the widespread distrust of corporations. Of course, it is smart to be on guard and never take corporations at their word: they do not have our interests at heart, and their incentives above all are towards making profits. But not everything is a zero-sum game, and this is why it is intellectually lazy to assume that just because a corporation is pushing for a certain outcome, it must therefore be against our interest.


In fact, from what I can tell, distrust of Monsanto in particular has risen to pathological levels, so much that any mention of it can create a reality-distortion field. I have had smart and serious people tell me that somehow Monsanto’s nefarious abilities are so great that it can reach and entirely corrupt people in every corner of the world in every public office, in a completely secret way, and so elaborately that nothing else in their life changes (they don’t start buying yachts for instance) but they start parroting Monsanto’s lines.

Look, this is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from the fallacy that humans are actually not that good at keeping secrets.

This particular conspiracy requires public officials, farmers, scientists, regulators, etc. to be in on it, in a devilish collusion across the globe. Monsanto is a medium-sized company that hires its lobbyists and attempts to muscle its way like all the rest. But I know it hasn’t invented mind-control techniques that turn humans into programmed robots.

This is not to knock the milder form of this distrust, which even I subscribe to: you have to consider financial incentives before you take people at their word. And it isn’t just financial incentives: a scientist whose life’s work is in a certain field is not likely to be objective about the value of that work. But this is why it is important to include people of all stripes in the conversation, including non-expert food bloggers like yours truly.

Removing trust from the usual arbiters leads to radical uncertainty. One has to keep in mind that the value of watchdogs like regulatory agencies, science journals, news reporters, and the like, aside from the expertise that they offer, is not that they are incorruptible, but that they also watch each other. Their incentives lie in the direction of uncovering corruption in each other.

The danger of radical uncertainty is that it makes people susceptible to charlatans, who are usually skilled at flaunting the right symbols and claiming to be the sole purveyor of truth while spouting utter nonsense. Do I have someone in mind? Yes, indeed, I do.

The future

Proponents of biotechnology have often touted its potential to deal with some of our food system’s pressing problems: world hunger; drought; soil salinity. In return, critics have often pooh-poohed these claims, saying that so far, biotech has done nothing but create herbicide-resistant crops and crops that protect themselves from larval damage. Why should we trust that it can do more?

This critique so much misses the point that it boggles the mind. Biotech is a few decades old. Judging it now is akin to judging the silicon revolution in the 1960s, when the norm was lumbering mainframes that filled entire air-conditioned rooms that one spoke to with carefully-spaced holes on punched cards. We can as little imagine today what biotech might lead to as we could imagine smart phones tucked into pockets in the 1960s.

(My archive of writings on this subject can be found through this link in the header.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. What concerns you about genetically-modified food? What would you like to see me write about?

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One weird trick to make pumpkin death-defyingly delicious

IMG_7296Just think—what is pumpkin, but a combination of excrutiatingly delicious orange pumpkin matter, and water. Water is water. It’s great. Stuff of life, 90% of the body, et cetera, et cetera. But it isn’t where the deliciousness lives. In fact, it mingles with the deliciousness of pumpkin flesh and—waters it down.

Who wants something that is watered down? No—one seeks the emphatic, the bold, the pure. Right?

So the trick to making delicious pumpkin and other winter squash is to remove the water. How to do that. Let’s see…there’s this thing that water does…I know, don’t tell me…it requires heat, but not center-of-the-sun heat…just normal, household-appliance-level heat…starts with ‘e’, ends with ‘e’…yes! It evaporates. Water evaporates when applied heat. Pumpkin flesh, on the other hand, does not.

Therein lies the secret. You’re welcome. Water just ups and leaves when things get hot enough. Pumpkin stays for the long haul.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. Imagine you roast a pumpkin (or other winter squash) so the flesh is easy to scoop off the peel. Then, you cook the pumpkin flesh in a pan for a good long time, stirring, stirring; till the steam rises and keeps rising and rising and eventually most of the water becomes the steam and leaves; and what you are left with is an increasingly pasty, gummy, reduced, deeply orange mass.

This takes only a couple ingredients to become one of India’s famed concoctions, to be had as dessert, or as a side with roti, or snuck in between meals from the fridge. Midnight snack? You wouldn’t dare? Done. Pumpkin halwa is great in all these ways.

Pumpkin halwa

Halwa is a general name for Indian desserts that are pastes. Sorry. What that description lacks in glamour it makes up in accuracy. It can be made of a number of widely disparate foods; wheat farina, whole wheat flour, carrot; and pumpkin. When I say ‘pumpkin’ of course I’m using it as a term of endearment for all winter squashes, those with the hard shell and sweet orange flesh. I used kabocha, which is known by foodies to out-pumpkin even the standard autumn pumpkins in terms of taste.

Made sweeter, it is a nice finish to a meal, served in tiny confection bowls; made a little less sweet, goes great as a side with deep-fried puffed breads, i.e. pooris.

Pumpkin halwa

  • One medium sized kabocha squash or sugar pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
  • Seeds of 6 green cardamoms
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
  • Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Slice the kabocha/pumpkin through the equator and scoop out the seeds with a sharp-sided spoon. I have found it really helps to pick a spoon that matches the curve of the hollow where the seeds are.

Lay the halves cut side down on a foil-lined cookie sheet along with 2 tablespoons water. Bake in oven for 45 minutes.

At that point the squash should be completely soft and easy to prick through with a knife. Bring them out and scoop out all the flesh.

Heat the ghee or butter in a non-stick, thick-bottomed pan. When melted, add the squash and cook on medium-high, mashing it down into the fat and stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, grind the black inner seeds of the cardamom in a mortar and pestle.

In about 30 to 45 minutes, the flesh should be much drier and also look smoother, as the rough grain disappears with the water content. At this point, add a pinch of salt, the sugar, and the cardamom. Add more sugar after tasting if it is not sweet enough.

Garnish with ground pistachios, slivered almonds, roasted cashews, raisins or any combination.

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[Not about food] What Katherine Anne Porter taught me about Trump’s America

We here in the United States have been riveted by the spectacle of Donald Trump, who made his billions in NY real estate and has no policy experience nor knowledge, about to win the nomination for the Republican party based merely on attitude. Many have suggested similarities with the Weimar period in Germany before the Nazis came to power. People forget that Hitler, too, was a long shot to win and often a figure of fun before he did. I recently read a novel based in those times, and startlingly, a lot of it applies to today. The novel is Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Here is an article I wrote about it.  I would love to know your thoughts, here or in the comments section of the article.

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The parable of food preservation; an Indian carrot pickle

IMG_7128Once upon a time, the dark cold months were months of deprivation. No green shoots appeared in the ground, no fruit swelled on the trees. The young ones went without, or raided the underground cellars for the grains and husks that they shared with their rodents. But the old ones said no, look, here’s what you do. You collect your bounty in the sunlit months; then you preserve it to feast on in the dark months.

“Preserve?” said the young ones, reflecting that perhaps dementia had claimed the old ones. “We have no fridges, nor vacuum packs. Surely, microbes will feast on our bounty before our clumsy hands are able to tear off a single chunk of it to place at the hungry lips of our babes. Surely a week, perhaps two, is how much one can hope to prolong the lives of these frilly delicate vegetables, whose very fronds seem infused with the light of Solis. But all season long? Respectfully, winter is long and harsh.”

“You fools,” said the old ones then, “have we taught you nothing?” They might have cuffed them with an open hand, I’m not sure. Then they drew out jars and jars of fruits and shoots they had taken the trouble to preserve many moons ago. The glass shone with the still preserved colors of the sun’s bounty.

IMG_7143But at first, the young ones shrank from the taste. “Pooh!” they said. “We see that this is imbued with the deep orange of a carrot, but the saltiness scours our tongue. And the mango—did you have to preserve it when green and sour? Could you not have waited for its velvety sweetness to emerge? Ah, we would give our firstborn for the taste of a sweet mango now! That clay jar under the ground—could that be cabbage? But heed the fumes—did a dog die in there?”

“Your trouble,” said the old ones, snatching the kimchee from their hands, “is that your noses are underdeveloped. Look. All of creation loves a good vegetable. You do, and so do the microbes. Food preservation is a race—who shall get to eat the bounty first? The microbes, or the apes known as humans?”

“We are not apes,” the young ones said, with dignity.

“You certainly are,” the old ones returned, “but moving on. Now not all microbes are created alike. Some sicken and extinguish us; others concoct healthful compounds in our foods. Let us call them (because thou hast simple minds, and thy understanding is shallow) the good microbes and the bad microbes. Some of food preservation is nothing but allowing the good microbes to build their colonies in our foods; by their own mysterious devices, the good microbes then form barricades to prevent the bad microbes from entering. Not only that; the guts of these little ones start to break down the foods, thus do our guts get a head start.”

“Shall we then eat microbe-infested foods?” the young ones queried. “Your brains are going soft, perhaps the good microbes have fomented trouble in them.”

“The word is ‘fermented’,” the old ones said, “and you need to understand, your bodies are suffused with microbes at all times. Be not childishly fearful. In fact, in the age of our descendants, fermentation will be thought of with glamour and books and websites shall celebrate the advent of the good microbes in our food, and our partnership with them.”

The old ones then explained how salting the food created a happy place for the good microbes, but instilled fear in the hearts of the bad ones. And how sourness also chased away the bad ones, so one could add to the food an acid-making elixir, such as lemon or vinegar; but if one wanted to be specially tricky, one could have the good microbes produce their own sourness from the depths of their bowels, as they feasted on sugars. Such sourness, the old ones further explained, went by the name of lactic acid, but had little to do with the food of the mammal babes.

IMG_7131“But heed,” the old ones intoned, “while fermentation is hip, do not forget, it is not the only way. Remember, water is needed for all of creation, and all of creation harbors it; the bad microbes desire it with a thirst so deep that it might be a thirst for life itself. What if one were to draw the water out of our foods, and leave it shrunken and dry; the microbes would find it as bare as a moonscape and would not deign to enter. Then: what if one were to cover the whole thing in oil, perhaps an oil such as from the mustard plant, that is practically a warrior against microbes itself, what then?”

What one has, then, is an Indian pickle.

Indian pickles (achar)

It has been a persistent mystery in the minds of some interested parties as to whether Indian pickles are fermented, or not. Among these, I count myself, and also my dear blogger friend Annie Levy from Kitchen Counter Culture. Well, by applying the powers of my mind deeply to the question in a Holmesian sort of way, I think I have my answer. Indian pickles—the typical kind, that are preserved in mustard oil—are not.

Now there are certainly Indian pickles that are fermented, but those are not the norm and the ones that I am familiar with do not use oil at all. But we will talk about those another time.

The typical pickles use a pretty standard method. First, salt the food: salt wants to reach equilibrium, and if the food isn’t salty already, it wants to enter the food from its surroundings. As it enters, it draws out the moisture and takes its place inside the food.

Next, allow the moisture to dry out by placing it in the sun. Once the pieces are much shrunken, jar it up and pour mustard oil over.

IMG_7127This is the basic method I have used with such disparate ingredients as cranberries and sour mango. This time, we have carrots and some green garlic.

The spices tend to be a similar set. Fennel seed is congenial, and so is the use of nigella seed. Turmeric powder has antiseptic properties so that is always used, and the heat comes from red chilies. Usually, the spices are left whole, this time, I chose to pulverize them a bit. They went from looking like this to this:

Of course, a lot of salt is used, and the carrots and green garlic are thoroughly mixed with the spices and salt and laid out on a wide, flat surface. Cover with cheesecloth, place in the sun, and allow the salt and the sun to perform their magic. Watch the slow shriveling of the carrots over the period of a week:

Once the pieces look pretty dry, it is time to mix in some lemon juice, jar it up and pour mustard oil over. Some like to heat the oil to smoking point and then cool it before using, but I don’t see the point because I want the oil to be at peak pungency.

Carrot pickle

  • Servings: 1 pint jar
  • Print


  • About 10 carrots, washed, scraped, and dried completely
  • About 5 full stalks of green garlic, washed, trimmed and dried completely
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • 1.5 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (methi)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 0.5 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 0.5 tablespoons turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • About half a cup of mustard oil


Once the vegetables are completely dry, slice them up in smallish segments, the exact shape does not matter. You could do longish sticks or smallish dice, as I did.

Pulverize the whole spices (fennel, fenugreek, nigella and mustard) slightly using a mortar and pestle. You can skip this step if you like.

Place the vegetables in a wide platter and cover with the pulverized spices, the salt, turmeric and red chili powder. Give it a thorough mixing so all the pieces are evenly covered with the salt and spices.

Cover the platter with cheesecloth and place at a sunny window. My window only gets sun for about an hour in the mornings and that seemed to be enough. Every couple days, give it another mixing with a scrupulously clean spoon.

In about a week the vegetable pieces will look much shriveled, darker and more leathery. Stir in the lemon juice.

Transfer to a scrupulously clean glass jar (you can sterilize it in boiling water first if you like, I didn’t). Pack it down. Pour some of the mustard oil over it and wait for it to settle; pour more. Do this in a few stages, until a thin film of oil shines over the very top of the jar. For me, it took about half a cup. Cover and store in the pantry.

Your pickle (achar) is done. It is great as a side in minuscule portions (since it is highly spiced). It should last for a good long time, even up to a year.

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The galloping bean: cooking with horse gram

IMG_6504I’m guessing that not many of you will have heard about the dal or bean I’m about to write about today. I certainly hadn’t. It is a small flattened bean, multicolored in a spectrum that goes from beige to dark coffee brown. It is commonly known by the rather picturesque name of ‘horse gram’; and if you think that a word like that harks back to a time when crops were named after farm animals, while animals were named for their use on the farm, you’ve got horse gram pinned.

In more ways than one this is an ancient grain. Grown in South India since the Neolithic, any knowledge of its wild progenitor is lost, though its cousins are found growing wild in the African savannas. It is the kind of grain that families grew in order to feed their cows, and then partook of the excess. Some lovely recipes were created around it nonetheless, particularly in the states of its origin: Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where it is known by the names of huruli, kulith, kulthi, ulavalu, kollu. Invariably it is soaked for a long time, then often left whole, and often sprouted. Its cultivation slowly trickled north over the Eastern ghats to the plain around the Ganges, where it is known as gahat; and they conceived of a way to mash it down with spices. Since I have a batch, I will be exploring a few different ways to cook it in these pages.

It never made it to the chic world of Indian restaurant cuisine (yes, I’m being sarcastic), nor really to urban households. But out there in the villages, this tough little herbaceous legume grows in conditions of utter deprivation, with no irrigation and no fertilization to speak of. Being a legume, it enriches the soil instead of taking from it.

Most other pulses that humans have favored, we have cultivated in our own image, to go soft. They cook down to mush (not knocking mushes!) and take no long soaking. But horse gram, though a tiny thing, must be soaked overnight, then cooked for a while, and even so, still retains its bite. One has to imagine that a grain as tough as this, practically wild, imparts some of its wildness and toughness to the eater.

IMG_6488Some practical matters

Those out shopping for pulses in the US might often visit Indian groceries looking for them. But horse gram is rare even in Indian groceries, as far as I know. So you might turn to online stores. Here are some that claim to stock it:Patel Bros., Big Indian Store, and I Shop Indian.

Now when you have a batch, and are about ready to soak it—this is a good time to sift through it bit by bit, looking for rocks. I have forgotten this essential step a couple times, having been spoiled by the more ‘progressive’ pulses, and been subjected to the unpleasant sensation of my teeth grinding on grit. I will never forget this step again.

About the soaking. Generally an overnight soak in plenty of water is recommended; but what if you find yourself on the very day, the very evening of the meal, and must, simply must cook horse gram that very day and no other? Here is a trick I learned from Madhur Jaffrey’s books: soak in very hot water, near-boiling, covered, for one hour or up to three.

Substitutions: of course, the world of beans and pulses is just dripping with riches. So there is no reason to imagine that this recipe is fused-at-the-hip with horse gram only. Substitute any whole bean of your choice: French lentils will do (with no soaking), or black chickpea (with). Red kidney beans (rajma) would do as well.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

This is a nice simple preparation where the beans float in a mildly spiced gravy of tomatoes and garlic. It goes very well with a steaming hot bowl of white rice on the side. You could also try eating it as a sort of bean soup as part of a Western meal, in which case a garnish of some raw onions, lime and avocado might be nice.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

  • 3/4 cup horse gram beans
  • 3/4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced small
  • 1-2 fresh green chilies, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons ghee or oil
  • 2 teaspoons udid dal (split & dehusked black gram)
  • 1.5 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
  • Few shakes of black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon salt

Sift through horse gram to discard rocks. Soak horse gram in plenty of water overnight, or in hot water for one to three hours, covered.

Place the horse gram in a pressure cooker or large pot. Add the turmeric, onion, garlic, chilies, and two and a half cups of water. Pressure cook for about half hour, or, if you used a regular pot, bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, for about two hours.

Once the horse gram is cooked (it doesn’t turn to mush, but cooks through), add the salt, and keep it aside, covered.

Meanwhile heat the ghee or oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When the ghee melts or the oil shimmers, add the spices in the following order: first, the udid dal, until it reddens; then the mustard seeds until they pop; then the black pepper shakes; finally, add the crushed tomatoes. After a few minutes of cooking—perhaps up to fifteen minutes—the tomatoes will have turned several shades darker and the oil will have separate. Turn off the heat and empty into the pot of horse gram. Stir it in and simmer gently for a few minutes to meld flavors.

Garnish with cilantro, avocado-onion-lime, or nothing at all. Serve with a hot mound of white rice on the side.

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