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.

Monsatan

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

Ingredients:
  • 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
Method:

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

Ingredients:

  • 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

Method:

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

Ingredients:
  • 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
Method:

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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Easy-peasy split green mung dal

IMG_6395As I have said before, dals are such an integral part of food in India that each type may be used in four different ways: the whole bean, the split bean with the green peel left on, the split bean ‘cleaned’ of the green peel, and ground. And the amazing thing is, that at each of these stages, the cooked dal presents a different look, a different flavor, and a different meal entirely.

Let’s take mung dal. Now this is the most basic of the dals, the cheapest, and the earliest introduced in childhood. One dal, so many meals! The whole bean can be sprouted or boiled without sprouting; either way, it stays whole, earthy and chewy. The split-and-cleaned dal is yellowish and makes a creamy end-product when cooked. Ground, of course, it can be used to make crepes and pancakes, known as adai in the South.

The split-dal-with-green-peel occupies a place somewhere in between all of these methods. Creamy, though not completely mush; earthy but not entirely; a nice meal with roti for cold nights.

Sai dal

My family comes from Sindh which is now lost to Pakistan. If one were to ask me what sets Sindhi food apart from the rest of Indian food, I would say, that it is our extremely vague way of naming dishes. For instance, a gentle stew of split-green-mung dal with some garlic is known, simply, as ‘sai’ (green) dal. Everyone knows what you mean. What’s the point of being more specific?

In our family this was a very frequent lunch or dinner side, that went with chapati (roti) and a vegetable. If you want to add a pickle to the meal, I won’t complain.

The flavor is the very essence of savoriness, with a slightly ‘rough’ mouth feel due to the peel still being left on the mung bean. Plus, you get the fiber which is no small thing, especially in such a delicious way.

Split green mung dal (sai dal)

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cups split green mung dal
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 fresh green chili minced
  • 2-2.5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 heaped tablespoon minced garlic
  • A few curry leaves (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Wash and drain the dal. Empty it into a pot that is big enough to allow for expansion of the dal’s volume as it cooks. Add two cups of water along with the turmeric, the tomato, roughly chopped, and the minced green chili.

Bring to a boil with the lid mostly off to allow for surging of steam that usually happens when dals cook. After it comes to a boil and the surge is done (around ten minutes), cover and turn the flame down to a simmer.

In around 40 minutes the dal will be softened. Add the salt and turn off the flame, leaving the dal covered.

Meanwhile start the tempering process. Heat oil in a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle right away. Add the garlic, and wait until it shrivels. Add the curry leaves, if using. Add the red chili powder; this only needs to cook for a few seconds. Turn off the heat and pour the seasoned oil over the dal, and stir in to meld the flavors.

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Profile of an Indian GM farmer: high-tech seeds in a traditional farm

IMG_6091

It is already dusk in Nimbhara — a small, nondescript village deep in the heart of India — but early morning for me. I am on a phone call with a farmer named Ganesh Nanote who has lived here all his life. Almost all of Nimbhara’s 500 or so working adults find employment as cultivators. A single road connects Nimbhara to the highway system; it was only built about eight years ago, and is now plied by a regular traffic of bicycles and three-wheeler rickshaws. Nimbhara’s heritage, culture, and industry all spring from its soil — an alkaline black heavy soil, broken down from the Deccan lava flows that might have killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Read the rest here.

Poached fish with soy, sesame and ginger (and ginger)

IMG_5846There are people who like ginger, and there are those who don’t. Both are within the bounds of normalcy. But then there are people who like ginger beyond all reason and sense. My husband is one of them. He is not satisfied with a ginger-flavor suffusing the food; it must have that, and also ginger sticks in addition, so he can actually taste it.

It’s pathological, as Donald Trump might say.

So if there is anyone in your life with a similar addiction, here is a recipe to finally satisfy them. And stop them complaining! That alone is worth the price of a good piece of fish.

To everyone’s astonishment (and relief), this meal actually has more to it than just ginger. The base is a poached fish: it could be halibut, or cod, or other white fish. Most people recommend very subtle accoutrements for poached fish in order to not drown out its mild flavor; but that is not what I did. As is my wont, it is often the seasoning that is the highlight of a meal, and the poached fish performs the function here of a nice inoffensive background.

Now for the seasoning. For this dish, I used two dressings, layered one on top of each other. Both use elements from the sort of Pan-Asian cuisine that is popular here in California, with flavors of sesame and soy.

IMG_5834Both dressings use the same trio of scallions, chilies and ginger. The first dressing, which is simmered in soy, has these items minced fine (on the left). While the second dressing, which is fried in sesame oil, has the chilies whole and the ginger in long sticks (on the right).

The poached fish, with both dressings layered on, makes a wonderful side for rice.

The fish, as it poaches:

Here is what the soy dressing looks like, as it cooks:

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Frying ginger and red chilies

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Served with rice and a side of greens

Poached fish with sesame-soy-ginger dressing

Ingredients:
  • 1 lb fish fillet (halibut, cod, snapper, etc.)
  • Half a cup of water
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
  • Dressing 1 (soy-based):
    • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
    • 2 tablespoons white wine
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • white part of about 3 scallions, sliced thin
    • 2 small red chilies, minced
    • Half inch piece of ginger, minced
  • Dressing 2 (sesame oil based):
    • 1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil or plain sesame oil
    • 2-3 red chilies, whole
    • Half inch piece of ginger, cut into long sticks
  • Garnish:
    • Green part of about 3 scallions, sliced thin
Method:

Heat water with salt added to about 160ºF (a simmer, less than a boil). Place the fish in it and poach for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the soy dressing. In a small pot, combine the ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and let it reduce by about half.

Once the fish is done, place it in the serving platter. Pour the soy dressing over to cover it everywhere.

Heat the sesame oil until it shimmers. Fry the ginger sticks and red chilies until the chilies darken and the ginger sticks shrivel a bit. Pour the hot sesame oil over the fish evenly all over it. Cover with the green scallion garnish. Serve with rice on the side.

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Four exotic fruits: in which I eat them so you don’t have to

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The other day I went to the grocery store looking for fruit with a pretty standard shopping list. On it were such stalwarts as apples, bananas, perhaps a basket of berries or so.

But that is not what I walked out with: not at all. Instead, my eye was drawn to a particular shelf where some odd shapes sat next to each other. There was the horned one. The spiny one. The dried up purple shell caving in to its hollow center. The one that looked painfully familiar, and yet I couldn’t place (it turned out to be a nightshade).

Like eccentric back-benchers, these oddities sat side-by-side casting baleful glances at the mainstream fruit around them. Well, I never could resist the call of the eccentric back-bencher; and there is no reason to start now.

The apples and bananas had to wait for another day. Here is what I came home with: a shopping bag filled with horned melon, passion fruit, pepino melon, and rambutan. We happened to have a friend over, so we spent a pleasant afternoon cutting open these oddities and chronicling the experience.

Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum)

At first, one is not sure if one is safe approaching a rambutan — it looks like a ruby-toned porcupine with pointy quills. But when you pick it up, you find it fits neatly inside your palm, as big as a ping-pong ball. The spines feel like plastic bristles that fold under pressure.

So far so good. But how is one expected to eat it? The peel offers no clues. It turns out that it takes a rather sharp paring knife to poke a hole in it and keep going. The skin is leathery and tough. You jab with the knife and peel off chunks, revealing smooth, wet, translucent white flesh .

Interestingly, in biological terms, the white flesh is not a fruit part at all, but rather, a thickened seed coat, known as aril. Some plants grow edible and sweet arils, for the same reason that others grow fleshy fruit — to tempt eaters on legs to eat them and thus spread them. Another example of such an aril-based fruit is the pomegranate, where each little seed grows red juicy pockets around it.

The single, oval seed is rather large with a papery exterior. In fact, a note for the squeamish — the taste of the translucent flesh always comes with a hint or two of the papery seed coverings. I don’t mind that at all, but some might.

Rambutan and the closely related lychee are both from the same family as the maple, of the flavorful sap. If I scrunch up my forehead enough I can imagine a maple-like sharpness to the taste of the flesh. It is sweet, resilient, and cool. When overripe, the peel becomes almost as hard as rock, while the pulp develops faintly pineapple notes. Go eat it: you have my blessings. The Odd Pantry rating:FourApple

Horned melon or kiwano (Cucumis metuliferus)

Don’t let those protuberances that make it look like a stegosaurus egg fool you — the horned melon is nothing but a cuddly cucumber inside. With a difference.

It looks rather alike, as you can see from the picture. But the flesh is lime green instead of pale, and much pulpier, so that it needs to be scooped out with a spoon. The seeds that sit inside each little polyp are chewier. With each bite, one notices the chewiness of the seeds, that remains in your mouth once the pulp is eaten. They taste a bit like very thin and small cantaloupe seeds. Some people, I hear, attempt to spit the seeds out, but here’s what I say: why bother?

Mildly sweet with a hint of tartness, the taste is still somehow very close to the watery freshness of cucumber. Unlike a cucumber though this is not a possible salad ingredient at all. Really there seems to be no better way to eat it than with a spoon directly off the cut halves.

So is it actually related to the cucumbers and the cantaloupes? Very closely — about as close as a raspberry to a blackberry (the same genus). Though native to sub-Saharan Africa, it is now grown all over the place from California to Australia. My feeling though, about why it hasn’t caught on, is that it is hard to place it in a food group. Neither a vegetable, nor a hearty fruit that could work as dessert, nor even in a fruit salad — the kiwano is a fruit without a convenient slot to fit into. Nothing that a bit of directed breeding couldn’t fix! The Odd Pantry rating: ThreeApple

Pepino melon (Solanum muricatum)

Sigh. One wants to be polite (and I always, always do) but I don’t see what the point of the pepino is. Perhaps a reader will come along and enlighten me.

It has the shape of a golden eggplant with purple streaks. This is not surprising since the pepino melon is neither a pepino (cucumber) nor a melon — but rather closely related to eggplant and other nightshades. Now this family is known for producing toxins, such as nicotine and capsacain (chili heat), but is also known for its tasty edibles. Eggplants have a unique taste, as do tomatoes and the swollen stems known as potatoes.

But the pepino, alas, is bland. Well, let’s start at the beginning. Cutting it open is easy, because the peel is very thin and presents no barriers. The specimen I got had no seeds. Cut into quarter wedges, as you can see, the flesh was easy to get to.

That’s the good part. There is barely a smell at all, though our friend detected faint notes of nicotine (he used to be a smoker). If you could imagine a barely-sweet cantaloupe with most aromas removed, then enhance that with the blandness of lettuce — that is basically what the pepino tasted like. Perhaps cooking it like a vegetable might lead to a better experience.

One hates to do this, like I said, but I won’t be buying this again. The Odd Pantry rating: TwoApple

Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis)

I have never eaten anything quite like a passion fruit. I didn’t know what to expect from just seeing the shell, which feels like a hard, textured globe with a tendency to collapse inward as it ripens. ‘The oysters of the fruit world’, our friend called it, and I could not understand what he meant at all.

When we cut it open I understood right away. Passion fruit pulp is loosely attached to the shell, much like an oyster is attached to it’s, and lies in a gelatinous mass. Each little black seed is surrounded by pulpy aril (that word again), giving the entire pulp the appearance of a different aquatic object — frog spawn.

The taste is intense: sour, a little sweet, tropical. The seeds are like grit in your teeth, but you can crunch through them. A couple scoops with the spoon and the entire fruit is eaten. This is not the kind of fruit one goes to for calories, but rather, the experience.

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Passionflower

It isn’t surprising that passionfruit is such a unique eating experience, because the flower it springs from — the passion flower — is rather unique too. Most flowers have a row of green sepals beneath the petals; the passion flower alternates a sepal and a petal in a single whorl of ten. Plus, it has a set of purple rays that emanate from the center, called the corona, that look much like the rays of cartoon suns. When early Christian missionaries discovered this plant, they thought its unusual appearance made a perfect teaching aid for the crucifixion of Christ, with each part representing a different aspect of the story. This, by the way, is what the ‘passion’ in the name refers to — the Passion of Christ. It is not a synonym for lust or ardor.

Heavy stuff. In any case, this is a fruit that is worth trying for the experience if nothing else. The Odd Pantry rating: FiveApple

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The original Frankenfoods

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein tells the story of a student named Viktor Frankenstein who performs a scandalous experiment — so scandalous that he keeps the knowledge of it from his closest family and friends. Broken, repentant, and emaciated at the end of the story, he pours out the tale of his hubris to a stranger. He has discovered the secret of life, he confesses; obsessed with experiments in ‘natural philosophy’, he has been able to fashion a live human from body parts scrounged from graveyards and slaughterhouses.

The resulting demon’s arms are like those of a mummy; his lips are black and dry; his eyes are yellow. Everyone that looks at him, including his creator, turns from him in utter revulsion. Not even given the dignity of a name, his creator refers to him as the fiend or the wretch. As a sutured set of body parts lying on a gurney he was merely grotesque, but when he moves, makes sounds, becomes animated — this is horrifying. He is not whole. No matter that he can speak or move or think, his origin is not natural. He is an unholy mishmash.

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