Roasting corn the sticky way

Roasting corn

Roasting corn

There was a time when corn was a delicious starchy snack. You had to cook it to enjoy it, and sometimes for quite long. But when you did, the kernels had this indescribable corny flavor that you could enjoy with butter, or chilies, or lime, or a number of other ways.

Wait. Rewind. Start over.

There was a time when corn was nothing but a big grass called teosinte, and the cob was basically a stick, and there were maybe five kernels on it. And they were covered with a hard shell. This corn was, shall we say, inedible.

So various talented ancient breeders who saw the possibilities in corn bred it to grow bigger.  And bigger. And made the kernels edible. Then, tasty. Richly colored with purple and red hues, the cobs would make as good a decoration as the kernels would a nutritious tortilla, if you ground them up and slaked it with lime.

Fine. Then came people (closer to modern times) who didn’t care much for these splashy colors and wanted food to be pure white (picky eaters) possibly to better match their bone china. So they bred corn white.

Great. Unknowingly, they also said goodbye to the wonderful nutrients carried in the purple and red hues. Then they realized that if you pick corn and eat it right away it is sweet. If you wait even a few hours, it is starchy. So they got into a sort of fever to eat corn as soon as it came off the farm like one, two, three, ready…pick…eat!

Then came test-tube-wielding lab-coated people who found a teeny-tiny-leetle thing you could change in corn to make it stay sweet longer, so they did. This corn was not really a very good organism, since it could not reproduce on its own. But it was a very desirable crop.

Sweet corn. A sensation. The lab-coats had nowhere left to go but down. They made corn sweeter. And super-sweeter. Closer and closer to candy. Until there wasn’t much difference left between this and this.

Corn Candy corn

Stop! Just stop already. We recently bought corn at the grocery store and ate it eagerly for dinner…such a disappointment. Sweet it was, very much so; but none of that wonderful corn flavor that comes with the starch. We felt like we had eaten dessert early. Where does one go if one misses the savory flavor of corn that goes with a bit of chili, a bit of lime; perhaps some charring? Where does one go for corn of such arrested development?

To the farmer’s market!

Sticky corn

The other day at the farmer’s market I found mounds of corn that went by the name of sticky corn. Some were purple, some not. They were quite a bit smaller than the regular cobs. What they exactly were was a mystery to me, but judging from the people crowding around the piles I guessed that sticky corn is an Asian specialty.

It turns out that way back in the 1500’s almost right after the Portuguese found corn in America, they brought it to China, where it became quite popular. Now once in a while corn will develop waxy grains. Normally this is a defect and the waxy grains don’t bode well for corn itself. But the Chinese, already used to sticky rice, treasured and tended to the defective sticky corn. It became a delicacy.

Breeding away in backwaters of China, sticky corn escaped this drive to turn everything sweet and easy.

From the 1500’s to present-day farmer’s markets in the Bay Area where certain Indian immigrants (me) are sick and tired of candy-sweet corn and are craving the roasted starchy flavor. Of course I swooped in and grabbed some.

Roasted corn

Now I was trying to recreate a specific thing. All over Mumbai there are food stalls that serve but one dish — roasted corn. There are coals and there is fire, and a simple red chili and salt combination with some lime. It turned out that sticky corn needed pre-cooking to achieve this dish but it turned out delicious.

Sticky corn with pencil for scale

Sticky corn with pencil for scale

Sticky corn in pot for boiling

Sticky corn in pot for boiling

Boiled

Boiled

The kernels when boiled

The kernels when boiled

Roasting

Roasting

Served

Served

Roasted sticky corn

  • Servings: 2 cobs per person
  • Print

Ingredients:
  • Sticky corn in their ears
  • Red chili powder
  • Salt
  • Lime or lemon
  • Butter or ghee (optional)
Method:

Pressure cook the ears of corn for 15 minutes with some salt added to the water. If you don’t have a pressure cooker you can boil them for 45 minutes instead.

Take the leaves off the cobs. Hold them with tongs and roast them over an open flame, turning slowly, for about seven minutes each until evenly charred. If you like, rub some ghee or butter over. Serve with quarters of lime and a small bowl with a mix of red chili and salt, so that by dipping the lime in the powdered mix, and rubbing the lime over the entire cob, all the flavorings can be added at once.

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Like bhaji on pav

Pav bhaji stall (Photo credit: http://burrp.in.com)

Pav bhaji stall (Photo credit: http://burrp.in.com)

A couple posts ago I did the recipe for pav bread, and possibly some of you thought — well, ok, but where’s the bhaji? Especially if you have lived in Mumbai for any length of time. Those who have not might be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.

You see, there aren’t a lot of dishes that Mumbai can claim as its own: most are brought in from other regions of India by immigrants. Pav bhaji is one of very few that were invented in the city. Just like the culture of the city itself, it is a bit of a mongrel; just like the city itself, it is imbued with street culture. It is street food, but it is so much more than food. It is a fixture of street life. It is fuel for hungry office-workers, cart-pushers, delivery-boys, ward-boys, brick-layers, day-laborers. A cheap lunch date for college romances. For a city that thrives on masala (spice), whether in food or in movies, it is a way to cram as much masala as is humanly possible onto the smallest paper plate.

The Bhaji

Now the word ‘bhaji’ is a bit like my most hated word — ‘curry’ (read this if you want to know why I hate it), in that it is a generic word for spiced and cooked vegetables. It suggests a hodge-podge, something that is so mixed up that one has to resort to vagueness. But in fact, although this dish was invented as a hodge-podge, it has now come to mean one exact dish, with one exact spice mix and one exact set of vegetables. Especially when used with ‘pav‘, as in ‘pav bhaji’.

This particular hodge-podge consists of several boiled vegetables, fried and mashed with spices. The whole thing is done on a giant griddle. Butter is spread all over the griddle and then the boiled vegetables sautéed. The mashing, as I remember, is done with a flat metal spoon. The mashed mixture is served with two pieces of pav bread, which have been sliced and toasted with butter and some of the spicy mix spread on it. The dish is topped with more butter. So there is butter underneath it, in it, and on top of it. Then, raw onions and cilantro are chopped fine, mixed with lime to make a bit of a relish, and that relish is thrown on top to garnish your paper plate.

The whole thing for less than 20 rupees.

Pav bhaji served

Pav bhaji served

History

Pav bhaji was invented by street-food vendors out of leftovers. In the late nineteeth century Bombay’s main industry was textiles; there were 130 mills in the central area of Girgaon (‘mill village’). The last shift let out at midnight. Street food vendors that sprung up around them threw together whatever scraps of vegetables they had from the day’s cooking and mashed it all up to hide its lack of pedigree. For the masala powder, once again, they threw everything in it indiscriminately, from garam masala (warm) spices like cloves to hot spices like dry red chilies.

From textile mill workers the dish became a standard for the underworld that was just getting started up around that time. A movie from some years ago called Vaastav depicts the story of an underworld don who gets started in business by opening a pav bhaji stall. Here is a clip of a song from the movie. I realize it is a little unconventional for a food blog to showcase Bollywood songs, but this one does show how the dish is made. This time, that is my excuse. (Next time I embed a song I won’t need an excuse.)

(Rough translation: here is a short man with a big belly, a man with money. He is eager for food. The griddle is hot, let’s throw the butter on it.)

Pav Bhaji

Today vendors of Pav Bhaji are everywhere from street-food stalls to expensive restaurants. It has lost its whiff of the underworld. Many variations have sprung up — Jain pav bhaji that omits onions and potatoes, khada pav bhaji that isn’t much mashed, Mexican pav bhaji that includes baby corn.  I’m still faithful to the original, so that is what I showcase here. In fact the spice mix has also become commoditized and is available for sale in most Indian grocery stores in nice neat packages labeled ‘Pav Bhaji Masala’, but of course we have to make it from scratch…so here we go.

First the spice mix:

Whole spices for pav bhaji masala

Whole spices for pav bhaji masala

Roasting

Roasting

Going thru the funnel

Going thru the funnel

My 8-year-old helping with a chopstick

My 8-year-old helping with a chopstick

Done and labeled

Done and labeled

Pav bhaji masala

Ingredients:
  • Quarter cup cumin seeds
  • Quarter cup coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 3 black cardamom (use half of what I have pictured above)
  • 10 dry red chilies (change amount to suit your taste, this is pretty hot)
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mango powder
Method

Heat a cast-iron pan on medium heat. We are going to roast spices so be sure you have your windows open and fan on. Roast each spice separately until each is fragrant and slightly darkened. Empty into a plate. Grind them together in a clean coffee grinder. Pour into a jar using a funnel. Now is the time to mix in the already ground turmeric and dry mango powder. Shake to combine. Label and save.

Then the bhaji (vegetables):

Vegetables

Vegetables

Veggies about to be boiled

Veggies about to be boiled

Boiled veggies roughly mashed

Boiled veggies roughly mashed

Saute onions and green bell peppers

Saute onions and green bell peppers

Add ginger-garlic-chili paste

Add ginger-garlic-chili paste

Add tomatoes

Add tomatoes

Dry spices go in

Dry spices go in

Cook dry spices

Cook dry spices

Add vegetables

Add vegetables

Pav bhaji served

Pav bhaji served

Pav Bhaji

Ingredients:
  • Ginger-garlic-chili paste made from 6 garlic cloves, 1 inch piece of ginger, 2 green chilies
  • 1 medium onion chopped up
  • 3 medium tomatoes chopped up
  • 1 green bell pepper (capsicum) diced
  • For boiling:
    • 2 carrots
    • 10 or so green beans
    • 1 medium potato
    • Quarter of a medium cauliflower
    • Quarter of a medium head of cabbage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter or ghee
  • 2 tablespoons pav bhaji masala from above
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Method:

Roughly chop the vegetables that are for boiling, add half a cup of water and the 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on a simmer until softened, about 15 minutes. When they are done, roughly mash with a potato masher.

Meanwhile heat the ghee in a thick pan. When it is hot add the onions and bell pepper. Let them soften on medium heat for about 4 minutes. The important thing with the onion is that it must not caramelize — that adds a sweetness and brown flavor that does not go with this dish. Add the ginger-garlic-chili paste and stir, until the oil separates, which means the paste is cooked. Now in goes the tomatoes. They have to first liquefy then dry up. You can turn up the heat for this part.

Once they are dry, you can add the dry spices — the pav bhaji masala and the turmeric powder. Stir them in and cook for a minute. Plop in the mashed vegetables. Mash some more, cook for 10 minutes or so, gently stirring and mashing as you please, until they are well combined.

Give it a taste — now is the time to make adjustments. Adjust the salt. Add red chili if it is not hot enough. Add more ghee or butter swirled in on top for lusciousness.

Serve with pav bread, optionally sliced and toasted on the same pan, with a bit of butter. Garnish with minced onion and lime juice.

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A slab of bread rolls — laadi pav

Pav

Pav

Most people are only dimly aware of this but the Portuguese colonized India long before the British, and hung on till long after. Because of their influence, a particular yeasted bread called pav spread all around Bombay and became very much part of the culture of the city. (A word on that shortly.) Now pão in Portuguese simply means ‘bread’. In India, we have a pretty fraught relationship with yeast breads, as in, we didn’t get around to rising breads much. Most of the use of wheat flour is for flat breads. It’s not that risen breads are not popular in India — they are, very much so. But they come from the European influence, and have always remained a bit foreign. By that I mean that hardly anyone makes risen breads at home. When I was a kid, if one wanted pav, one had to resort to bakeries.

Irani restaurants

By iranichaimumbai (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the old days, most of the bakeries in Bombay were run by the Iranis, as part of tea-houses called Irani restaurants. They were pretty unique establishments, run by Zoroastrians who escaped Iran around the 1920’s. For me, it is impossible to think back to any neighborhood in South Bombay without thinking of the corner Irani restaurant that served it. The Iranis were foreigners and the rigid customs of Hinduism meant nothing to them. The food they served was mostly Irani cuisine but also had a touch of Europe.

Their clientele looked like the city itself. There were Christians and Parsees, taxi drivers and street workers, middle-class office workers and retirees. For a few rupees you could hang out for hours under the high ceilings, the drone of the fan overhead, read the morning newspaper that was still warm from the press, sit on the wooden colonial-style netted chairs at glass-topped tables in peace while you ate your breakfast.

They were not fancy. Customer service was a bit…brusque. This post has an entertaining story about that. Tea inevitably got poured into the saucer to be drunk. Breakfast was variations on pav. Maska pav is bread and butter. Brun maska pav is hard brown bread with butter. Akuri pav is pav bread with scrambled eggs. And so on.

If you want to further explore the old world of Irani restaurants, here are some websites with pictures and wonderful stories. The Heritage Institute page on it, and one from a website called Irani Chai.

Street food

The Irani restaurants are sadly on their way out. Many have turned into beer bars, one into a McDonalds. If they are around, they have survived by expanding their menus to include dosas and Chinese. But pav bread remains as popular in the city as ever. It fuels much of the manual labor that goes on in the city from the early hours to way past midnight.

I guess this is the appropriate time in this post for me to start referring to the city as Mumbai. People say that no one starves in Mumbai. To eat a decent, wholesome meal, you don’t need to own a kitchen or a stove or even own a pair of shoes. Every street corner has some food stall or the other. Many serve meals centered on pav. Plates and cutlery are completely unnecessary. Food is simply handed to you or may be wrapped in a newspaper.

One is vada pav, which is mashed potato deep-fried in a besan batter, served inside a pav, with garlic chutney. Another is pav bhaji, which is a mashed mixture served with pav with tons of butter. For 50 rupees you can fill your belly with an excellent, pure vegetarian, wonderfully-spiced meal. People, please realize how wonderful this is. The Odd Pantry will showcase all of those recipes eventually.

But one has to start with pav.

Laadi pav

The particular version of Portuguese pão that we in India latched onto looks like a grid of bread buns stuck together at the edges into a slab (‘laadi’). To me the word ‘laadi’ sounds a bit mechanical or construction-related, so it is quite endearing when it is used for bread. Looks a lot like a dinner roll that is available all over America.

But look, this is different. I’ve tried to recreate my favorite street food snacks at home using a standard dinner roll, but the results are terribly disappointing. This is because store-bought dinner rolls have more than a hint of sweetness and that simply does not go with the savory flavors of street food. It totally ruins it, in fact. They often don’t use real butter and one absolutely needs real butter.

This recipe of pav has no sugar whatsoever. None. You don’t need any. And real butter. Just try it.

Flour and yeast

Flour and yeast

Pour water in and stir

Pour water in and stir

Shaggy mass

Shaggy mass

Shaggy mass with butter poured on

Shaggy mass with butter poured on

Pav dough

Pav dough

Divided dough

Divided dough

Further divided dough

Further divided dough

Pav rising

Pav rising

Pav risen

Pav risen

Laadi pav

Ingredients
  • 3 cups bread flour (I used King Arthur, substitute with all purpose or maida in India)
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast. This is also available in most stores as bread machine yeast.
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Method

Have the flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir it in. Then sprinkle in the salt and stir that in. Add 1.25 cups room temperature water and gently stir to moisten all the flour and make a shaggy mass. Cover and go do something else for 15-20 minutes.

Melt the butter — I use the microwave for this. But make sure it is not sizzling, it needs to be just melted. Pour the butter over the flour mixture. Now give it a good kneading, for about 5-7 minutes. The dough will be smooth and shiny.

Cover with plastic wrap and leave it aside at room temperature to rise for 1.5-2 hours. My room temperature is around 70°F. In India, room temperature will be a lot higher, so I would leave it under a fan or airy window.

In 1.5-2 hours, it will have doubled. Gently take the dough out, and using a pastry cutter, divide it into 12 rolls. The way I do this is to first divide in half, then each of those into halves to make 4 quarters, and each of those into 3 to make 12.

Each roll must be shaped like this: take the dough in hand and start by rolling it into a pouch, press down the center point with your thumbs and keep rolling more and more of the bun into the pouch. You are sort of trying to make a stretched balloon with the outer surface. Pinch the seam of the pouch shut. Cover with oil and lay seam-side down on a cookie sheet. Each roll is to be place half inch away from its neighbors in a grid.

Let it rise for another hour. The rolls will have risen into each other and gotten connected. Bake in a 425°F oven for 15 minutes. If you like, brush with butter right away when they come out.


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