Country mouse and city mouse – buckwheat pancakes

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Some time ago I hiked up some hills around Lonavla with a friend. We were out having fun, well-prepared with our water bottles and GPS watches and clothes made of modern fabric that is apparently made from gasoline. Our feet were shod in lightweight sneakers that made the shards of rocks underfoot all but disappear.

Incredible views on all sides of us. Buddhist cave carvings from centuries ago ahead of us.

There we ran into a farmer coming downhill on the same trail as us. No gasoline-fabric for him. He had on his airy dhoti around his waist that he probably wore no matter what the situation. A light cloth wound around his head protected him from the sun. Thin as a rake, he walked on those hills as though he didn’t think about it too much, just did it.

I felt weirdly embarrassed. This man naturally belonged here, while we were interlopers from our fat happy internet-savvy world and we clearly didn’t. And he wore no shoes! Shards of rock or not, he was barefoot and scarcely concerned by it. At that moment my shoes happened to pinch a toe or two, and I thought to myself — if the farmer can go without shoes, perhaps I can too. Maybe the rocks are not as bad as they look.

So I tried walking barefoot, hanging the shoes from my neck by their laces. I couldn’t go four steps without hurriedly getting them back on again. Oh, the shooting pain! Tens of jagged rocks at any point poked right into my soft soles.

Marginal environments

As I watched the farmer keep his steady pace down the hill, I realized that although this man had probably never seen a computer keyboard in his life, he had mastered this marginal, mountainous environment and knew secrets about it we didn’t. He fit in here, while the only way we could was to drag paraphernalia from our fat happy internet-savvy world into it.

So…ah yes, buckwheat. Buckwheat is the farmer. Buckwheat grows on mountains with gravelly soil and practically no nourishment and does it six ways to Sunday. It doesn’t need much but gives a lot. Secrets — yes, it knows a few. It scorns pesticides and actively dislikes being coddled with fertilizers. It will grow quickly, produce quickly in a short season from June to September, swamp out the weedy flimflam, laugh blithely about insect pests, and produce a non-grain grain that will feed you all the essential amino acids. Count them — nine — all amino acids essential to humans.

Why a non-grain grain? Because it is a tiny seed and used as a cereal and ground and used as a flour. But it does not come from a grass, as grains usually do. Walks like a grain, quacks like a grain, but is not a grain. As I have gone over before.

Buckwheat certainly has a whiff of the old world. It grows widely in the Himalayas and is used for rotis and gruel. In Japan it is used to make the famous soba noodles. Kasha and blini in Eastern Europe. Immigrants brought this grain to America and in the 18th century 20 times more acreage was devoted to buckwheat than is now.

Then came the use of fertilizer — one of the inventions that fuel our fat happy Internet-savvy generation, and with it crops like wheat and corn that want coddling; and buckwheat was edged out. Makes you wonder what all that buckwheat was being used for, doesn’t it?

Buckwheat pancakes

Undoubtedly a big proportion of the buckwheat flour went into pancakes, given how delicious they are. In our family we were introduced to them via the hippie sensibility of Santa Cruz, where my husband lived for four years. Now they are a weekend staple. They go with maple syrup, but remember to use good, natural, golden maple syrup from the sap of maple trees, not the fake sticky one that comes from corn.

Dry ingredients:
  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Wet ingredients:
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • almond oil for cooking
Method:

Stir together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

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Meanwhile crack the eggs into a separate bowl and whisk. Then whisk in the buttermilk. Melt the butter and whisk that in as well.

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Now that the wet and dry ingredients are separately ready, it is time to combine them. Pour the wet into the dry. Stir gently. Most lumps (almost all) should be gone. The consistency should allow it to pour; you might find you need to add water. I usually add about half a cup.

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To cook, I have a large non-stick griddle on highish heat. (‘High-ish’ is the point between medium-high and high). We found that butter smokes too much so we use almond oil for cooking. It has a high smoke point and a nice aroma. A tablespoon of oil for each batch of six pancakes works nicely. Spread the oil all over. Pour six ladle-fulls on like shown, each should be about four inches wide. All told you will get about 20 such pancakes.

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The time to flip each is when several bubbles have arisen and popped; and the edges look set. Flip and cook on the other side for 30 seconds to 1 minute; it will softly rise in the meantime.

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Here is our nice pile of pancakes. City mouse (wheat flour) meet country mouse (buckwheat).

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Beasties in my batter

My mother always said that South Indians are much smarter than the rest of us simpletons because they eat a lot of urad dal. This is a bean I have mentioned before. It is alternatively called black gram or Vigna Mungo; this is what it looks like:

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the left, split and dehusked on the right.

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the top, split and dehusked on the bottom.

It is closely related to the more well-known moong dal (mung bean), they are both in the Vigna genus, which means they are about as closely related as…say…the polar bear and the grizzly bear to each other. Urad dal, though, has a blacker husk, and white (not yellow) underneath.

Even though this bean is eaten as a dal all over India, its most interesting use is in the fermented cakes and crepes of South India — idlis and dosas. In order to ferment it, the lentil is first soaked and ground thoroughly, and mixed with rice batter.

Fermentation of the Lactic Acid type

Let’s take a little digression into what fermentation does to the batter.

Fermentation

Fermentation

  • The mixture is kept warm, and you know what happens when you leave something out of the fridge — a whole jungle gets started in it.
Jungle of beasties

Jungle

  • Creatures like lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and bacteria that like to breathe air. They do battle, and one-by-one, are felled. The air-breathing bacteria (we know them as ‘contaminants’) are killed off right away, while soaking. The yeast also goes nowhere (unless you cheat by adding commercial yeast, which basically sends reinforcements to the yeast faction). The salt kills off many other weaklings.
  • What wins out is a certain lactic acid bacteria called Leuconostoc mesenteroides; and it brings a lactic acid bacterium friend, called Streptococcus faecalis.
Leuconostoc mesenteroides

Leuconostoc mesenteroides

  • These guys get busy stuffing their faces with your batter. They mostly gorge on the sugars and starch.
  • You know what happens when creatures eat — they produce stuff. All right, let’s get graphic — they excrete. One thing they produce is lactic acid, which is responsible for the pleasantly sour taste of idlis and dosas. Another thing they do is pass gas — in this case, it is carbon dioxide. This gas — CO2 — which is also responsible for the bubbles in bread, soda and beer — makes the batter rise and become fluffy. The cool kids call this ‘leavening’.
CO2 bubbles

CO2 bubbles

  • They also somehow increase the amount of vitamin B1, B2 and B3 in the batter.
  • Even though beans and dals of all types are really good for you, they also come with a bit of a sting in the tail — they have some ‘anti-nutritional’ properties which prevent your body from absorbing the goodness. Well, fermentation reduces those bad things.
  • One of the anti-nutritional properties of beans are those that cause you to…you know…flatulate. So the beasties in your batter are helping you from doing that too much, which is a good thing.

So now I’m thinking that my mother was wrong…it is not just urad dal that makes you smarter; it is the little beasties that ferment it.

Idli / dosa batter

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup urad bean, whole, skin on (I used whole grain to add that extra bit of nutrition to it).
  • 2 cups uncooked white rice (I used basmati but a short or medium grain white rice would work as well or better).
  • (in general a 1:2 ratio or dal to rice works well; you can experiment with 1:3, but don’t alter it more.)
  • 2 teaspoons salt (lactic acid bacteria finds salt very congenial, unlike yeast).

Method:

Rinse the dal and rice once in plain water and drain. Now leave them to soak in very generous quantities of filtered, room temperature water, separately. You must leave them for at least six hours; but I let them soak for more than twelve.

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At the end of this time, the rice will have almost doubled, while the beans will have almost tripled. The black gram beans will have become lighter into a green, as seen below:

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Now it is time to grind them separately. I used my trusty blender. This is not the ideal choice, because there is a chance the blades get overheated and kill the beasties. The ideal would be a stone grinder (also known as a wet grinder). Maybe someday I will make the big bucks and spring for one of those. In the meantime, I slum it with my blender (that I got for free from American Express). I have never had a problem.

Let’s do the rice first. I drained it, and added a cup of fresh filtered water along with it. Blend it for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The end result will be a thick white liquid. When you squeeze some between your fingers, you should feel tiny grit, which is the ground up rice. You are not trying to get this to be perfectly smooth. Tiny grit is what you are looking for. Empty it out into a very large bowl, that will be used for rising.

Next let’s do the drained dal. This time you will need to add a cup and a quarter of water to the blender. Blend for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The batter this time will be fluffier and not as watery. When you feel it with your fingers, it should feel smooth, not gritty.

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Black gram (urad dal) batter mixing with rice batter

Pour the dal batter in along with the rice batter. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Mix it with your hands; this is one of those instructions that every South Indian mother imparts to her children; as far as I am aware, no scientist has tested why this is so. The beasties are already on the bean, so it isn’t that. Could it be that this step imparts warmth? In any case, using your clean (but not sanitized) hand, gently stir the batter to combine. Leave it covered in a corner in your kitchen.

Now. I left it at room temperature in San Francisco, but the ideal is room temperature in South India, which would be in the nineties Fahrenheit. So if you like, you can leave it in the oven to rise, with either the oven light on to create warmth, or, after turning on the oven to about a 110 F and turning off. In a warm oven with the light on, this will take 12 hours.

Room temperature of about 70 F worked fine for me, but it did take longer.

In about 12 hours I raised the lid to take a whiff — oof! Wet socks, toe jam, belly button cheese…not sure what else it reminded me of. Clearly, my batter had developed a yeast infection. Be not squeamish, ye of little faith! Put the lid down and keep going.

Now I am not sure if this is typical, but it sure smelled like the batter went through a yeast infection phase on its way to a proper lactic acid bacterial infection. It could be that because I do so much bread in my kitchen (including sourdough) that the little yeasties are floating about just dying to get their naughty little hands into stuff.

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Risen idli/dosa batter

Risen idli/dosa batter

In any case, within about 24 hours of rising, I certainly smelled some of that lactic acid goodness — it smelled sour. It had risen to almost double the original size. The batter was ready.

Idli cakes

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups idli batter from above (this will make one dozen)
  • Idli steamer which usually comes with 12 perforated cups
  • some oil

Method:

Rub a bit of oil on each of the idli trays. Pour about a quarter cup of batter on each. Now place it in a pot with water to about a couple inches already at a boil; cover, turn it down to a simmer, and steam the cakes for about 12 minutes with the lid on.

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Idlis are great with any manner of chutney on the side, or sambhar (dal made out of pigeon peas and its characteristic spice blend).

Dosa crepes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup batter (this will make about 4 decent sized crepes)
  • 4 teaspoons oil

Method:

Thin out the batter with about a third to half again as much water. So if you start with a cup of water, use between a third of a cup to half a cup extra water. Basically, the batter should flow easily, much like crepe batter.

Heat a wide nonstick pan on medium high heat. Spread about a teaspoon of oil around. Now, we pour about a third of a cup of thin batter and spread it.

Spreading dosa batter into a nice thin layer is an art form. Here is what you need to know.

  • You don’t have to have a thin layer. But the thinner you spread it, the more crisp. Until you achieve that pinnacle of thinness, crispiness and paperiness — paper dosa.
  • If you pour batter on to a hot pan, it will immediately congeal and instead of spreading, you will get a rubbery mass. So the pan needs to be hot while cooking, but cool while pouring on. Traditionally people have used the onion trick — rub half a cut onion on the pan to cool it down. I used the French way of lifting it off the flame as I pour the batter on.
  • To spread it, people have traditionally used a spiral motion — take a flat ladle and spread the batter around with its bowl in a spiral fashion. Once again, I used the French method of tipping the pan this way and that to spread it.

In some places, the batter will be spread so thin that it is lacy.

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Cover with a lid and cook on high heat for about three minutes. Or four. At this point, the underside will definitely look brown and crisp. If you try to lift it off, the crepe will easily peel off; even the thin lacy parts. You can cook it on the other side if you like but it is not strictly necessary.

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Dosa can be eaten with similar accompaniments as idli; chutneys, sambhar; or really any manner of vegetable or meat viand. The South Indian restaurant standard is to make a wrap with a potato preparation inside.

Enjoy, and thank you beasties!

Roti from the mountains

From the nuances of rotis from the flatlands of India, let’s go across the border to Nepal, where they have a different take on roti entirely. Here wheat flour does not feature at all in any form, nor for that matter any grain. A non-grain-based roti! I am intrigued.

Instead, phapar ko roti, which merely means buckwheat roti, is made out of the flour of the seeds of the buckwheat plant. Not being a grass (in fact, I have some growing in my garden, and it has club-shaped, distinctly non-grass-like leaves), buckwheat seeds are not properly considered a grain at all.

Perhaps that is a tad too clever. At any rate buckwheat seeds are turned into flour, turned into breakfast cereal, turned into noodles, risen with yeast, and in most ways eaten like a grain.

I came upon buckwheat by way of Santa Cruz, California, where my husband first discovered buckwheat pancakes. I recreated them at home, and since then we have been big fans of the distinctly…umm…muddy (meaty?) taste of buckwheat.

A flat, savory buckwheat crepe was a completely new concept for me when I heard about it from my Nepali friend. I’m always looking for new taste sensations, so let’s get started — Phapar ko roti.

Ingredients (just two, as in the more familiar wheat roti)

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Quarter cup of buckwheat flour

1/4 cup buckwheat flour

1/4 cup + 1 tbsp water

(this much is enough for one serving, increase as needed)

Method:

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Buckwheat flour: stir with whisking motion

Phapar ko roti batter

Phapar ko roti batter

Stir the water in with the buckwheat flour using a sort of whisking motion until you get a batter that can be poured. Feel free to adjust either the water or the flour. Heat a large non-stick pan on medium-high. Now the recipe I read actually suggested not using any oil at all; I tried that, but all I got was a mess.

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Phapar ko roti: my lovely mess

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Phapar ko roti: second attempt

So next I tried using a teaspoon of oil on the Calphalon pan, spreading it around, and then pouring my batter on. Tilt the pan this way and that to get the batter to spread. It will start to set very quickly. I flipped it over in a matter of ten or twenty seconds, when most of the top surface has set. Cook on the other side for about another twenty seconds.

Take it off the pan. Here is my lunch:

phapar ko roti with radish achaar

phapar ko roti with radish achaar

I will have to blog the Nepali radish pickle another time. The flavor of the roti was very mild and made a good substrate for a spicy side.