I love you, Alemany Farmer’s Market! Plus: what one does with Bitter Melon Greens

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Bitter melon greens with paneer

I do so love you, Alemany Farmer’s Market! I love all the other farmer’s markets too but you are soooo special.

I have found that there are two types of farmer’s markets in the Bay Area. There are farmer’s MARKETS and then there are FARMER’S markets. The former are a lot about marketing. They sell produce, sure, but a lot of it is overpriced, and more than half the stalls are filled with high-profit-margin goods like infused oils in precious glass bottles. I can do that for free at home in an emptied jam jar and no preciousness.

Alemany Farmer's Market (Copyright: Kurt Rogers, The Chronicle)

Alemany Farmer’s Market (Copyright: Kurt Rogers, The Chronicle)

But Alemany farmer’s market, you truly are a FARMER’S market. I love you because you tickle my fancy every time I visit. Where else can I find corn that is blue and smaller than my palm and sticky. Where else can I find a fleshy, hairy stalk that is labeled ‘wild potato’ (even Google flopped on that one). Where else would I see tiny blotchy eggs that were apparently laid by a quail. Where else would I find a prickly pink egg, and not only giant taro with their purple stem still attached but also taro leaves. Where else can I find not one, not two, but three or four choy-related greens.

And no matter how strange and unfamiliar the sight I see, there’s always a crowd of customers expertly assessing, holding, pressing, rifling through the produce. There I stand, mystified, in awe, only to be elbowed aside by a little old lady with her cloth bag who has zeroed in on the unnamed leaves and is tossing aside the rotten ones and snagging the good ones. She is gone before I can gasp — excuse me, lady, can you save some for me, and by the way, what on earth is it?

In this farmer’s market, advice abounds. As soon as I pick up a fruit or vegetable and stand there regarding it, someone or the other’s voice will speak up beside me — you chop it, you fry it with garlic. Or boil it with chicken. Or what have you. More often than not, the English is broken and heavily accented and the accents could come from any part of the world from Africa to Vietnam. If San Francisco is a microcosm, then Alemany Farmer’s Market is a micro-micro-cosm. Or a micro-cosm-cosm? Something like that.

Best of all is when this market reintroduces me to some childhood friends that I didn’t at first recognize. The other day this happened to me twice. First I see these pretty round leaves tied in a bunch. The person at the stall informs me that they are moringa leaves, grown all over the world from Africa to the Himalayas to South-east Asia, a miracle vegetable that can cure all sorts of ailments. Sounds familiar, but what is it? Hold that thought…a post on that will come next.

Bitter melon greens

Bitter melon greens

Next I see a stall with these simply humungus bunches of bright green leaves with tendrils sticking out all over. Turns out these are leaves from the bitter melon plant — bitter gourd, karela, call it what you will. Well. That is an old friend and I love it. I have cooked with it many times. But I didn’t know that the leaves were edible too.

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Turns out they are, down to the stems. They are certainly bitter though, so I tried cooking them with something creamy to smooth out the bitterness. I used ghee and paneer.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is more of a mindset rather than a fixed set of steps. If you don’t have paneer, you might substitute with ricotta. If you don’t have the bitter melon greens, either dandelion greens, radicchio or frisée would be a great replacement. Out of the spices used, if you don’t have one, just leave it out, although of course the character of the dish will morph. The cumin seeds in particular, I would try not to leave out. Heat can come from any source like the cracked red pepper that the Italians use. Ghee of course, can be replaced with butter. Mmm…now I can’t wait to try this completely new recipe with all the replacements made! Here are pictures of the process.

Slicing the greens

Slicing the greens

Other ingredients: paneer, onion, garlic, chili, cumin

Other ingredients: paneer, onion, garlic, chili, cumin

Frying garlic, chili, onion

Frying garlic, chili, onion

Paneer goes in

Paneer goes in

Powdered spices go in

Powdered spices go in

Stir to coat

Stir to coat

Greens go in

Greens go in



Bitter melon greens with paneer

  • 1/2 pound paneer
  • Half a bunch bitter melon greens
  • 1 large shallot or half a medium onion, chopped fine
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-3 serrano chilies, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Rinse and slice the greens. The finer you slice the greens the better the final result. I ultimately didn’t get it super fine but I did try to ensure no stem was longer than half an inch. Dice the paneer into little blocks about 1/4 inch on each side. Finely chop the shallot, garlic and chilies.

Heat the ghee in a wide pan on medium heat. When it is shimmering, put in the cumin seeds. They will presently sizzle, then in goes the garlic and chilies. Let them get a little shriveled (couple minutes) and put in the onion. The onion only needs to cook until pink and translucent, not browned.

Put in paneer at this point, along with the dry masalas (turmeric powder, red chili powder and salt). Stir to combine. Greens go in next. Toss with paneer and spices. Then don’t need to cook for long. When they look shrunk down and shiny, add about half a cup of hot water, cover and cook on low for just about 4 minutes and you are done.

This goes well with chapatis/rotis or rice.

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A slab of bread rolls — laadi 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

  • 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

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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For inspiration on green beans, look east

Green beans with Bengali spices

Green beans with Bengali spices

Bengal is a pretty far away land for me, since I am from the west coast of India, and ancestrally hail from even farther away Sindh. Exotic, I think, is the word I would use. In addition to that, I’m fond of the way Bengali sounds (not intelligible to me), full of rounded vowels; and the things they choose to say, seem old-world and fancy. Then, there is art. Sorry, I meant Art. This is what Bengal is known for above everything else (go google Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, just to start). And if you think about it, great art is a lot about judicious choice.

So this is what I want to focus on today. A few  choices, judiciously made.

This dish is a dry sauté of green beans, with a simple tempering of whole spices. For vegetables cooked this way, a few choices you make are very consequential. How you cut the vegetables and how small. If they are small enough the high-heat sauté will be enough to cook them all the way through. If not, a slight steam-braise will be necessary, so cooking on low with the lid on to finish is called for. What fat one uses. Subtle choice, and often not subtle at all; the choice of fat can dramatically alter the dish. How high of heat one uses. High enough it is practically a wok-ish stir-fry. Low enough, and the primary means of cooking is from the steam emanating from the vegetable itself.

Naturally, the spices thrown into the fat to temper is consequential too. This is where the Bengali flair comes in. The famous Bengali spice mix, paanch phoran, consists of five disparate seeds from disparate plant families, that nevertheless come together in oil in an unforgettable partnership. For green beans, I find this to be very congenial and I usually cook them this way.

stuff 026Here is what goes into the paanch phoran, from bottom to top:

Fenugreek seeds: Fenugreek is a legume just like beans and peas. It has a distinctive smell that some have compared to maple syrup and a pleasing bitterness.

Fennel seeds: From the carrot family, fennel seeds are used as a mouth-freshener all over India.

Nigella seeds: Also known as kalonji, these small black droplet-shaped seeds are from the buttercup family. A relative, love-in-a-mist, is grown widely in England as an ornamental, I hear. Their flavor is reminiscent of onions when roasted.

Cumin seeds: Another carrot family member. Cumin has been used as a spice in India since ancient times. Its flavor is earthy and sharp at the same time.

Mustard seeds: Little brown balls with a kick. I have always thought of them as having a biscuity taste, whatever that means.

Bah, one can’t really describe a flavor. Go try it and I won’t need to.

Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices

I want the green beans to be basically done with the sauté, so I cut them into small pieces, none wider than about a quarter inch. For the fat, I use mustard oil, for more of the Bengali style.

Cutting the green beans into small rounds

Cutting the green beans into small rounds

Look how golden the mustard oil is

Look how golden the mustard oil is

Red chili powder

Red chili powder

Tempering spices

Tempering spices

Throw in the green beans

Throw in the green beans

Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered

Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered

Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices

  • Half a pound of green beans
  • Half a teaspoon red chili powder, or more according to heat tolerence
  • Quarter teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • Quarter teaspoon nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • Half teaspoon cumin seeds
  • Half teaspoon fennel seeds
  • Half teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons mustard oil
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery

Heat the oil on medium-high in a wide thick-bottomed pan. This is the temperature that the entire dish will be cooked at. Most Bengali recipes recommend letting the oil smoke first, but I hear that is bad for you, and I like the kick of mustard oil and don’t want to quell it, so I don’t let it smoke.

Throw in the spices in the following sequence: first the red chili powder; then the cumin; when it sizzles the nigella and fennel; when they sizzle the mustard seeds; when those pop the fenugreek.

Now in go the green beans. Stir to coat with oil. Let them cook, uncovered, occasionally stirring. Five minutes in, sprinkle in the salt. Ten minutes in, the beans will be mostly done, some charred, most shriveled, and still crunchy.

In this dish, I really like the effect of some sweetness. The sugar goes in towards the end of cooking, and is simply stirred in. Done.

Is it a chutney? Is it rice? It’s both – cilantro rice


I am very proud of my husband. He went from being a cilantro-hater to a cilantro-tolerator (only if it is minced fine), from there to a wary cilantro-liker (if used in the right dishes), to a must-have-cilantro-flag-waver (in some dishes), to an unabashed cilantro-promoter. The other day he informed me that someone had brought a dish of cilantro-rice to a work potluck. He thought it tasted very nicely savory and wanted me to try making it at home.

This is what marrying an Indian will do to you. Go marry an Indian, all of you — there certainly are enough of us around.

I know he will insist that I put in a disclaimer — that he still can’t stand cilantro that is un-minced and placed right on top of food in all its stemmy and leafy glory. So there you have it, disclaimer placed.

I had never heard of cilantro rice before. Given that I love cilantro and make chutneys with it all the time (here is one and here is another), and also that I’m constantly looking for ways to dress up rice, this is surprising. Cilantro rice marries these two interests. Now that the match has been made, this will be a staple in my kitchen.

Cilantro rice

There are various ways to do this but I basically made a chutney out of the cilantro and cooked it then mixed in rice. You could simply mince the cilantro with a knife or not cook it.

  • 3/4 cup rice
  • Half a bunch cilantro
  • An inch piece of ginger
  • 1 – 4 green serrano chilies
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (I used a shallot)
  • For tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon udad dal
    • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
    • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup cashew
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Cook the rice the normal way, but with somewhat less water than usual, to keep the grains from getting too mushy. Grind the cilantro, the chili and the ginger together using as little water as you can get away with — this basically means you are making a chutney. Finely chop the onion.

IMG_1326 IMG_1327

Heat the oil in a wide thick-bottomed pan on medium high. Throw the tempering items in in the following order: first, the udad dal, when it reddens the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Stand back if you value your peace. Wait for the leaves to sizzle and be done.

Now in goes the onion. They will start to get translucent and start to redden at the edges.

Clear a little space to make a hot spot on the pan and put in the cashews. As they roast they will take on a few dark spots. This will take a few minutes; now it is time to put in the chutney that you ground before. Throw in the salt, cook the paste down for a few minutes.

IMG_1330 IMG_1345 IMG_1346 IMG_1347 IMG_1348

The rice goes in next. Break up the clumps with your fingers if need be. Stir to coat all the grains with the chutney. Cover and cook for a few minutes on low.

Here is the result — fiddlehead ferns on one side, squash raita on the other. They will come later.


Getting off the curry train


I’m sorry to go all dramatic so soon in the blog post but do you know how there was this guy called Captain Ahab who had sworn revenge on a whale? Sometimes I feel like that when accosted with the word ‘curry’. Seems like an innocuous enough word…and descriptive, so why do I hate it so much? Let me tell you why. It is not descriptive and it is certainly not innocuous. It obfuscates, mystifies and conflates things. And if you think about it, that is exactly the opposite of what language is supposed to do.

Why do I hate the word?

I hate it because it is a word the British made up from half-heard scraps to vaguely signify the entire cuisine of a sub-continent. It is sometimes used as a generic term, but it promotes the notion that all Indians eat a single dish with a single spice mix in it. I hate it more when Indians use it to communicate with English-speakers. Sorry, people. I hate it.

Some ‘Curry’ meanings

People use this word in different senses.

  1. Curry as a Particular Dish: Do you make Curry, people will ask me, or claim to love Curry. I don’t have to spend too much time on this meaning because clearly, Indians don’t all just eat one dish, all billion of us, day in and day out, week after week.

  2. Gloopy Spicy Dish: Moving on. Some people use it to mean: any gloopy, reddish brown, spicy dish. Then the question arises: how many spices? If you stick a bay leaf into a beef stew does it become a curry? It is gloopy and reddish-brown. What about gumbo with its filé? Some Indian dishes may be green, non-gloopy, with merely garlic and mustard seeds in it, is that still a curry? I believe that people who use it in this sense are afflicted with Indian-Restaurant-itis. It is the condition of being mainly familiar with Indian food through the means of Indian restaurants. It is not their fault — it is that Indian restaurants outside India (with a few exceptions) insist on putting everything into everything and turning everything into an indistinguishable, reddish-brown mess. That thing — that indistinguishable mess — is a curry.

  3. Asian Saucy Dishes: Sometimes the word is used to identify dishes from all over South and South-East Asia that consist of some kind of spicy, saucy thing with floaters in it. Here I must simply plead lack of clarity. That subsumes so much variety as to not be a very useful word. It is as if all baked items from the Western world — including bread, muffins, pies, cakes, croissants — all were called ‘bakies’.

  4. A Single Spice: People will often ask me if a certain dish has curry in it. Needless to say, there isn’t a single spice called ‘curry’. Yes, there is a herb used all over South and Central India called ‘curry leaf’ or more properly, ‘kari leaf’ (Murraya koenigii). Red herring alert! This herb does not make your dish spicy. It adds a sort of herbal or grassy flavor to it. It has nothing to do with the spice mix sold as ‘curry powder’. It is not the main ingredient of it, or even an ingredient. In fact, you can’t use these leaves in their dry form at all, they do nothing. They must be used fresh and thrown into hot oil to get their flavor into food. They add a very subtle flavor, and in my opinion, are better left out than substituted.

Curry leaves

Curry leaves

  1. A Particular Spice Mix: As a spice mix called ‘curry powder’. Far be it from me to deny that such a spice mix exists — you could easily go to any grocery store aisle and prove me wrong. I must only insist that this spice mix is British, not Indian.

curry powder

During the Raj the British brought tea to India and took away a notion of savory dishes made of a mélange of onions, ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. As this blog post explores, cookbooks from the seventeen hundreds had started to experiment with Indian ways of cooking, say, chicken, using onions, ginger and turmeric. By the eighteen hundreds though, a standardized curry powder had replaced the powdered ingredients.

Here is a very early advertisement for Curry Powder: This was being sold to households as ‘exceedingly pleasant and healthful’. Any dish made that used it, apparently became a curry.

First British advert for curry powder from The British Library

First British advert for curry powder from The British Library

Needless to say, Indian food does not use a single spice mix; or necessarily a specific mix at all, most of the time, spices are thrown in whole. Some famous dishes (e.g. sambhar; pav bhaji) have gotten attached to their specific combinations; other specific mixes are used for special needs (garam masala; chaat masala). Often times the spice mix is a paste. Most of the time there is no mix at all, but just spices.

So what does curry mean — do you see what I mean by obfuscation and lack of clarity?

In which I play whack-a-mole

One of the reasons the word ‘curry’ has become such a fixture is that weirdly, there are a number of words all over the subcontinent that vaguely sound like ‘curry’. This makes people nod happily at the word, thinking it is an Anglicization of the one that is most familiar in their language. Most of the words below, by the way, are mostly unrelated to each other, and most have at one time or another claimed to have been the origin of ‘curry’.

A. Kadhi: There are the many ‘kadhi‘ preparations in the north which involve roasting chickpea flour and yogurt. This preparation is not highly seasoned, usually, but rather, mild and yogurty. This comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “boiled stuff“.

B. Tarkaari: In Nepal or thereabouts, tarkaari is the vegetable side that accompanies the daily meal of rice and lentils.

C. Kari: Tamil has a word kari which means black or blackened. Over time this came to mean grilled; then, stir-fried. Tamil uses two types of ‘r’ sounds, this one is the softer one.

D. KaRi: This is the second, unrelated Tamil word with the harsher ‘R’ which means ‘meat’.

E. Carriel: The Portuguese colonized India before the English did, and by the sixteenth century they were claiming that Indians ate something called Carriel. This is reported by a Dutch traveler named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, He spent time in Goa and this is how he describes food there: “Most of their fish, is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel, which is their daily meat.” Is this from the Tamil kari meaning blackened or grilled? or from the Tamil kaRi meaning meat? This word, Carriel, is still used in Goa in a sense similar to Curry.

There is a pervasive piece of misinformation that first appeared in the  Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian Dictionary in 1886, and subsequently has been spread throughout the Interwebs by Wikipedia: this is that Curry comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’ meaning sauce. As I listed above, there is no word ‘kari’ that means sauce in Tamil. Since English does not have the other, harsher ‘r’, we do not know which ‘kari’ they meant.

On the other hand, perhaps the English were already experimenting with ‘curries’ before they ever came to India….

The Forme of Cury

The Forme of Cury

F. Cury: Way back in the 14th century, a cookbook published by King Richard II’s cooks, which contained 196 recipes, was called ‘The Forme of Cury‘. This was way back before colonization ever happened…this word is from the French root ‘cuire’, the same as ‘cuisine’.

Interesting. The mystery deepens.

Here is an article that delves deeper into the history of the word. And another. And another.

So what word to use instead?

Ah, language. I tend to use the word ‘gravy‘ for wetter preparations, such as ‘potatoes in tomato-garlic gravy‘. This is the word we used at home. For drier preparations, I might use the word stir-fry or sauté. In general though, most of these dishes use the method of braising, so that word is usually fitting. ‘Stew’ works too. Spicy stew perhaps?

Help, I feel another rant coming on. ‘Spicy’ does not mean ‘hot’ as in chili hot. Somebody stop me please.

A pair of awards….

I just got a blog award!

I just got a blog award!

Do you know why this guy is happy? He just got a blog award!

Actually it was me that got it. And I got two…from my lovely blogger friends.

The WordPress family award from Chef Divya from Divya’s Indian Cookbook. She has lovely homey recipes, each one of which I want to try. You must check out her blog. Thank you chef! Here is a chef’s hat for you to show my gratitude.

Chef's hat from http://www.chefwear.com

Chef’s hat from http://www.chefwear.com

And a Sunshine award from Apsara of Eating Well Diary. Her focus is vegetarian food. With each recipe she has an eye to its nutritional properties. A true Apsara! Here is a traditional Cambodian Apsara dance for your enjoyment Apsara!

Then, I get to display these proudly on my blog….

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I am supposed to answer 10 questions…

1. Why did you start blogging?

I cook a lot and experiment a lot and I thought putting things on a blog would help me remember what I did last. It hasn’t.

2. Sweet or savory?

For food, people, experiences, travels, books and children: savory. For music: sweet.

3. If you were to go on any reality TV programme, what would it be and why?

The Apprentice, so that I could be fired personally by Donald Trump. No wait — it is because that is the only reality tv show I ever watched.

4. What was the last thing you Googled?

“Blog awards”

5. Night out or night in?

Depends on who with.

6. What has been your favorite blog post to write?

The one that is yet to come. It will blow your mind. Hold on to your hats.

7. What is the one thing you never leave home without?

My heart. I have heard songs like ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ and I can’t imagine a worse fate. Even though I live there.

8. Where would you most like to travel to?

The Amazon rainforest.

9. If you could have any super power, what would it be?

To be a fly on any wall I choose, spy on people’s lives, then write stories about them.

10. What can we expect to find on your blog in the future?


There, that’s taken care of. Now to pass on the award to my fellow-bloggers…how exciting! In no particular order:

1. Kitchen Counter Culture. Annie has an interest in fermentation like me. Maybe some day we will have a transcontinental collaboration and lob microbes at each other across the ocean. She writes often about the politics surrounding food. This is important.

2. Creative Cravings. Ramya pays attention to ingredients and shares that knowledge. This is important too.

3. Mohabhoj: The author dispenses with the traditional recipe format in favor of descriptions. And to be honest, who always needs recipes? Sometimes all you need is an idea.

4. Feeding the Sonis. Sanjana has an entertaining style, and oh yes, recipes too.

5. Yummy Mummy’s Kitchen. Ostensibly a food blog, the author tells stories about her life that I enjoy reading.

6. Sham’s Kitchen. Home-based South Indian cuisine. Northern too. If I could make everything on her blog I would be an expert.

7. Vegetarian Nirvana. I like her sense of style in her photographs. I could learn from that since I sorely lack any.

8. 1861: A blog in the true sense of the word…a log of events and thoughts on the web. About food.

9. The Garden Pond Blog. No, not about food. But we have a garden pond and I found it useful.

As for which award goes to which blogger…both go to all. How persnickety do you think I am?

Tomato-garlic gravy or bust

Tomato-garlic gravy with purple potatoes and peas

Tomato-garlic gravy with purple potatoes and peas

So I’m a pretty laid-back person generally but for this recipe I am absolutely a stickler. I am a tyrant. This must be made with these ingredients — no, don’t throw in ginger, don’t throw in cumin. Leave that onion out, you will ruin it. I realize that canned tomatoes will make your life easier but this recipe calls for fresh ones, and what recipe wants, recipe gets.

Don’t leave anything out either. I realize that curry leaves are not easily available everywhere. If you don’t find them, I guess you must leave them out. But please, do so with regret. And don’t go substituting it with something else.

However even though I am so particular about the gravy itself, on the subject of what you put in it — the floaters — my laid-back self reasserts itself. Put anything in it — anything. Potatoes? Yes, diced. Peas? Yes, sure, no need to thaw. Paneer — cube it, pop it in. Cauliflower? Certainly, deflowered. No, I mean, floreted. Green beans, bell peppers, eggplant, name it — use it. Even tofu, why not? Use your imagination, I encourage you every step of the way.

Presenting the:

Tomato-garlic gravy

A very simple way to zest up your basic vegetables for weeknight eating. Potatoes go specially well, diced. This makes enough for a dinner for two. Goes with chapati or other flatbread. Made more liquid, can go with rice.


  • 3 – 4 large cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 – 3 serrano or other green chilies, depends on your preference
  • 6 – 7 curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 2 medium tomatoes (I used roma / plum tomatoes)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 cups of chopped vegetables, see above.


Chop the garlic, slice the chilies. Dice the tomatoes. Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, throw in the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, the garlic, chili and curry leaves. The will sizzle and start to shrivel. Now is the time to put the tomatoes in. Stir to coat with oil and spices. Now let it cook for ten minutes or more on medium. No need for lid. First they will liquefy, then boil off the liquid, till they become pasty.

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This is how you know when the tomatoes have cooked enough — you see bits of the peel separated from the flesh, rolled up into little sticks. If you look carefully at the completed dish picture you will see them.

Add the dry spices, stir for a minute. Put in about a half cup to a cup of hot water, depending on how wet you want the final result. Let the water come to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes.

The floaters go next…each vegetable must cook for its specific length of time…so this must happen in a choreographed way. Potatoes take about 15 minutes; cauliflowers too; green beans about 10, frozen peas just need to thaw and they are done. So use your judgment on the timing.

This dish is great with chapatis with some moong dal on the side. Cilantro works for garnish.


My Parathas turned Purple


I have a huge amount of respect for nutrition scientists. But one can sense that in food, they have met a worthy adversary.

Carbohydrate, fat and protein

WHO Food pyramid

WHO Food pyramid

There were the days when they confidently issued proclamations about ‘food pyramids’ that could be rendered in the colors available in a child’s crayon pack. There was carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Various experiments were performed on unsuspecting dogs and rats that led them to believe that out of the three, protein was the one true nutrient.

Then came sailors and prisoners who were given protein enough, but were afflicted with swollen gums, purple spots, and finally, death. This disease was called scurvy. This disease had been known since the Roman times, and had often been treated with herbal cures such as lemon juice. Another time, a sailor stepped ashore and ate some cactus fruit, and found that it had curative properties too.

The vitamins

So what was it about lemon juice and cactus fruit that had the magical property to cure scurvy? Surely, they thought, since scurvy was a disease of ‘putridness’, whatever that means, and clearly, acid cuts ‘putridness’, it has got to be the acid in lemon juice that does the trick. So they began dosing sailors with diluted sulfuric acid and vinegar, to no avail. This acid treatment went on pointlessly for years, apparently, until a doctor named James Lind had a forehead-smacking moment and realized the sulfuric acid was doing more harm than good.

James Lind feeding citrus fruit to a scurvy-stricken sailor aboard HMS Salisbury in 1747 (Artist: Robert A Thom)

It was through such nightmarish means that scientists were forced to accept that the complexity of nutrition went beyond the big three of fat, carbohydrate and protein, and the ph dimension of alkaline and acid. By the early twentieth they had identified nutrients that were given the name ‘vitamins‘ which meant ‘force of life’, or something. Vitamin C cured scurvy while Vitamin B cured beri beri and pellagra; others were discovered too.

So food science climbed up the ladder of complexity, but you can tell how many nutrients they expected to find in food, because they started naming them after the alphabet. There may be ten, there may be twenty, surely it would not go beyond A through Z, right? They found 13 vitamins.


The farther one goes, the farther behind one gets. Now they have identified so many nutrients that this layperson (me) has lost all hope of catching up.

Phytonutrients‘ is the name used to describe all kinds of nutrients available only through plants. They help plants perform all their planty duties: fight germs, fight aging, fight toxins, stay alive, in other words. They give the plants their colors; their smells; their pungency. When we eat plants, we get the benefit of these chemicals too, for surprisingly similar functions.

Now there is a type of phytonutrient that is a pigment that gives plants a purple color (anthocyanins). There is tons of tantalizing research about how beneficial these pigments are for us. There is evidence from folk medicine — hibiscus has been used for liver dysfunction, while bilberry has been used to cure night-blindness. There is evidence from the test-tube that the purple pigment prevents the growth of cancer cells. There is evidence from tests on rats that the purple aids in cardiovascular health.

The pigments have antioxidant properties, so that is one reason why they might have so many benefits. But scientists are now alive to the dangers of accepting the simple explanation. These pigments belong to a set of 4000 other compounds called flavonoids; plants use all of them in concert to perform various functions through their lives. So it is not just this or that chemical that provides this or that benefit; it might be any of the 4000 thousand put together that does it. So it isn’t the purpleness itself; it is the army of its cousins working together in the plant.

That makes sense — plants do not live on vitamin supplements. They use whatever they’ve got in whatever combination they can, to do the things they need done. If we eat those plants, we ingest those chemical complexes and gain similar benefits.

We have come a long way from the time scientists dosed sailors with vinegar. Now one can imagine them shaking their fist and saying, ‘Just — just go eat purple food.’

Well, that’s easy.

My purple parathas

I love stuffing cauliflower or potato into rotis to make parathas. Eating them with plain yogurt is soul-satisfying. But on this day, I made them purple.

Ingredients for the roti:

  • Have a look at this recipe (Rolling the Roti) and make as much as you need. I made 2 potato parathas and 8 cauliflower ones = 10 rotis total.
  • Oil or ghee as needed.

Ingredients for potato filling (for 2 parathas):

  • 1 medium purple potato
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • 1 small green chili sliced, or substitute with half a teaspoon red chili
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala
  • Salt to taste

Ingredients for cauliflower filling (for 8 parathas):

  • About 4 cups purple cauliflower florets
  • An inch of ginger, minced fine
  • 1 – 2 green serrano chilies
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 – 3 teaspoons chaat masala
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • Half a teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
  • Sprinkle of asafetida (optional)

Method for potato filling:

Microwave the potato until it is soft. Mash it, peel and all. Mix in the other ingredients, squeeze it into a sort of dough, and divide into two disks. The filling is ready, each disk will go into one paratha.

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Method for cauliflower filling:

Grate the cauliflower, mince the ginger and chili. Heat the oil in a large thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. When it shimmers put in the asafetida and the cumin. When they sizzle put in the ginger, chili, and grated cauliflower. Stir to coat with oil. Add the salt and the chaat masala. Raise to heat to nicely dry the cauliflower. It is very important to get the cauliflower to be as dry as possible, or it will make your life hell while rolling out the parathas. When it is dry enough, turn off the heat and let it dry.

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Method for composing the parathas:

Roll out a roti about 6 inches in diameter. Place the right amount of filling in the center. For the cauliflower it is about 3 heaped tablespoons, for the potato filling it is about a 2 – 3 inch disk of potato. Gather up the edges of the roti and give it a squeeze. Flatten the pouch into a disk and start rolling it flat with the filling inside.

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While rolling parathas the ever-present danger is that the filling will come squeezing out like toothpaste out of a tube. One must learn to avoid that. One way is to use a very gentle hand while rolling — you don’t want a few long, weighty rollings, instead many quick, darting, gentle rollings. Use dry flour as needed to patch up holes.

The ideal paratha, when rolled out, has such a thin roti cover that one can see the filling peeping out in various places, but it doesn’t actually fall out. Keep your eye on that ideal.

Meanwhile have a cast-iron griddle or tawa going on a medium-high flame. Slap a prepared paratha on. After 30 seconds, the top surface will seem a little set. Flip it over. Wait 30 seconds. Now spread a bit of oil or ghee over the top surface and flip it over for another 30 seconds. Repeat. In total, each side has been cooked dry twice, then cooked with oil twice.

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While one paratha is cooking, did you think it was time to stand around and have a coffee break? No, my dear, get busy rolling out the next one. When one gets practiced one can have two griddles going at once.


Have it with some plain yogurt on the side, nothing else is needed.

Malvani gravy with Salmon and a creepily Moving Finger

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

— Omar Khayyam

I call bullshit on that. We are in the interwebs, people, and the Moving Finger can do what it damn well pleases. So it did. I used my Malvani spice paste to make a nicely-flavored gravy in which I floated some salmon; but I also used the opportunity to tighten up my ingredients list for the spice paste itself. So a post from months ago has been updated with more precise amounts and, ahem, better formatting. Check it out. Take that, Omar.


I also made another discovery — this spice paste that we had used at home forever, taught by our Malvani cook, is actually none other than the famous Goan Xacuti masala; which in turn is none other than the Portguese Chacuti — but apparently not the Portuguese from Portugal, but the Portuguese from Goa when it was colonized. Learn something everyday. Also enables me to correctly tag this post.

Malvani gravy with Salmon (Goan Salmon Xacuti)

Now anything can be put into this gravy; usually some kind of flesh; but I don’t see why vegetables or paneer or tofu might not belong either. I used salmon and this made enough for a dinner for two along with white rice.


  • 3/4 pound salmon (steak or fillet)
  • 3 tablespoons Malvani masala
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt


Slice the onions thinly and fry in the oil until somewhat browned. Read this for the proper method. Put in the Malvani masala at this point and stir and cook it on medium heat for a few minutes. Dice the tomatoes and put those in. Let them cook to the point they liquefy and dry up.

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Now this base must ‘lose its raw smell’ as my mother said; which means, must be boiled with about 3/4 cup water added in. Boil it on a simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes.

Now the salmon makes its entry. Sprinkle the salt over and cover with the gravy. Keep the gravy at a low simmer, cover and cook for about ten minutes.

Any greens might work for garnish but I used basil.

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15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently

I think about food a lot. I don’t have a huge appetite, and I wish I could grow it so I could think about food even more. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about food anyway.

So you can imagine that out of the first 24 years of my life, which I spent in India, and the next — well, many years — that I have spent and am spending in the United States, a good part of that was spent thinking about food. The flavors; the ingredients; the cultural differences.

So my point is — there is not much I can claim expertise on, but this is probably it. It’s inconsequential, it’s fluff, but I’m an expert in it. How do eating styles differ between India and America? Sorry — I meant to say that in a more catchy way. The 15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently. Looky here, BuzzFeed!

1. Carnivorous v/s herbivorous:

This is no secret but Americans are more carnivorous than Indians. Way more. Way, way more. Ten times more, as a matter of fact, per person.

Global meat consumption per capita

Clearly the fact that India is not as economically developed as the United States is big a factor, and all experts agree, meat consumption in India will go up with GDP. But not as much as you would naively expect. You see, there were these guys some time ago — you might have heard of them, or might not — by whose influence Indians gave up meat almost altogether. One’s name was Siddharth, he was a prince, but you might know him better by his other title: The Buddha. The other was an emperor. His name was Ashoka, but most people know him better by his symbol, the wheel in the middle of the Indian flag. And then there was another prince, Mahavir by title, who created the Jain religion, about the strictest in the world in its edicts to cause no harm to other creatures.

2. Sugar and spice:

Another non-secret is that Americans consume a lot more sugar than Indians.

Global sugar consumption per person

A typical breakfast for an American might include pancakes, maple syrup, jam, or muffins. A typical breakfast for an Indian might include a number of different things depending on the region, but would include chutney or chilies. Indian desserts are very sweet indeed, but one has less of it, and not with every meal.

3. Industrial grease v/s elbow grease:

Good old fashioned American ingenuity extends to food: Americans eat way more processed food than most other countries. I had never heard of recipes that included Campbell’s chicken soup and Dorito chips as ingredients before I came to America. Factory-made cheeses in America must by law be called ‘cheese food‘ to distinguish them from the real thing.

4. Ingredient List Length:

In America a typical ingredient list is about four items long. This includes the main item — say fish. The four ingredients might be, fish, salt, pepper and olive oil. The typical Indian ingredient list for say, fish, to compare apples to apples, is about 15 items long. About half or more items might be spices.

5. Time Spent Cooking:

Because of the above, in America dinner is ‘prepared’ or ‘fixed’: doesn’t that give a sense of some pieces being put together? The fish is dressed simply and put under the broiler; meanwhile the bag of green beans is snipped at the corner and nuked; the dinner rolls are wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a still warm oven. Stuff is brought to the table. In India, food preparation starts in the kitchen at least an hour before the meal, possibly the night before, with the soaking of beans. I’ve often spent two hours before dinner chopping, sauteing, stirring.

Life is harder in India, but somehow we have more leisure time; a lot of that is spent in the kitchen over the minimal two-burner stove. In America, kitchens are palatial and magnificent and six-burner stoves are a maintstay of the foodie (we have a four burners ourselves), along with two ovens and a microwave, but we don’t seem to have much time to spend in food preparation. This is true especially for lunch, which in America always seems to be a quick meal. In India, there is hardly any distinction between lunch and dinner — both are equally elaborate.

6. Who does the cooking:

In India: mothers, grandmothers, the Brahmin family cook, or maids. In America: sometimes mothers and sometimes fathers. And sometimes no one.

7. Doneness:

Steak doneness chart

Steak doneness chart

This is a concept that I learned only after coming to America. People are such connoissuers of meat here, and meals are simple so that each ingredient matters more, so there is a lot of stress on when exactly food is considered ‘done’. Ten seconds too early, and it might be too rare and could kill you. Ten seconds too late, and the meal is rubber. Finicky, finicky. I never used the thermometer while cooking until I came to America.
In India, warmth is felt on the wrist; steaks are never eaten, so the question of rare or medium doesn’t arise; most other meat is prepared in the pressure cooker with spicy gravies around it; and it is ‘done’ when you hear two whistles. Possibly three, or four.

8. The Sandwich:

The American sandwich

The American sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The Indian sandwich

The American sandwich is the Incredible Hulk while the Indian sandwich is Tintin. It’s no wonder that sandwiches are a staple lunch food in America, while they are considered a snack in India.

9. The Salad:

This is another area where the typical American ingredient list is way longer than the Indian one. Americans have taken salad to a high art; can we say, also a high-calorie art? The variety in dressings alone is enormous. About fifteen types of premixed dressing are available on any typical grocery shelf; another fifty can be concocted at home. The variety in greens has exploded to include reds (radicchio) and bitters (endives). The American salad welcomes any type ingredient, be it chicken or bread or beans.

The Indian salad on the other hand may be a few leaves of lettuce or some sticks of cucumber. There you go, there’s your salad. If you get lime juice on it you’re lucky. Remember to spit out the stems!

10. Attitude towards chili heat:

Another quirk of Americans is to get into a bit of chest-thumping over being able to eat hot chilies. This may be a misconception on my part (I am a furriner after all) but it seems like in America the hotter the food you can stomach, the more macho you are. While in India I have seen old, frail grandmothers chomp on fresh green chilies straight with only raw onion as an occasional crutch. In my family it is the women who can eat hotter food (in fact, they need heat, without which they can taste nothing); and the men who shy away. Without feeling like their machismo has been questioned.

11. The Convenience Racket:

Have you ever opened a coconut to pry the flesh out? I had occasion to do this yesterday. This is not easy. Breaking it requires a hammer and a hard floor. While prying the flesh out I feared gouging my palm several times. When it splits, if you haven’t had the presence of mind to sip out the water, which by the way needs a screw-driver, you have a wet mess on your hands. Meanwhile, the counter is covered with brown coconut fibers, and the floor needs sweeping too.

Now think about how things would be different if the coconut was an American fruit. They would have engineered a shell that came with a zipper that neatly opened. The shell would be shiny smooth, there would certainly be no fibers — they would have been harvested for cattle feed already. The flesh would peel out in neat portion-sized strips by a mere touch of a finger.

Do you get my gist? Somehow Americans manage to genetically or otherwise engineer food to be incredibly convenient. Rough edges are smoothed out. Fruits like custard-apple (cherimoya) or pomegranate that serve a hefty dose of seeds with each bite don’t catch on.

Dirt — dirt is washed out at the farm. When we purchased lotus root at home, there was no mistaking the fact that someone had to wade into a muddy pond to get it. Garlic cloves were so small that you needed to peel about a hundred for a meal.

What is the problem with convenience, you ask? Nothing! If you had asked me yesterday, when I was struggling over my coconut, I would have said, I love it, bring on the magic zippered coconut! If you ask me on the days when I desperately miss the starchy, small-grained Indian corn that one roasts over coals to a char; or when I miss the crunch of seeds when I bite into watermelon: I say, perhaps we lose something in the Convenience Racket?

12. The Squeamishness Differential:

Americans are squeamish about fruits and vegetables they have never heard of; spices; textures of food. Pulpy — no good. Slimy — no good. Too mixed up together, ingredients not separate enough — no good.

Indians, on the other hand (including me), are squeamish about pungent cheeses, and meats that are prepared too plainly.

13. Health advice fads:

Food and health, of course, are intimately related; there have always been dozens of oughts and ought nots thrown around in any culture. Health advice also tends to run in fads. One year beans are a hit, another year they are the worst thing you can eat, filled with toxins. I tend to like Michael Pollan’s advice on this, to eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.

But then the giant health food industry would grind to a halt, and we can’t have that, can we! In my years in America I have seen two sea-changes in health advice: from low-fat to low-carb; and innumerable other food-villains have been first villified and then, reluctantly, brought back to the plate. Eggs are one. Butter is another. I think gluten will return too, or perhaps that is my love for bread talking.

In America these health fads have proper names, and often have books, videos, or meal plans associated with them. I’m thinking Weight Watchers; Atkins; Paleo. I don’t doubt that each one is a profit-making machine in its own right.

India has its health advice fads too, but here is the difference — these fads are mostly hundreds of years old. They never seem to go away. One is the fad of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ foods from Ayurveda. This is almost like gender — each food is assigned to be either ‘heating’ or ‘cooling’ by the ancients. Too much of the heating type and you come out in pimples, sort of like a volcano, I guess? Too much of the cooling type and you might have aching bones. Forgive me, this gendering of food has no basis in science as far as I know, and is necessarily vague.

Another is to do with food combinations. One is never supposed to have milk with fish. Or water after eating cucumbers. My mother warned me that if I broke these rules I would get ‘vaaee’.

Hm. I have broken these rules a number of times now, so I guess I am now cursed with the mysterious ‘vaaee’…looking at my situation in life I take it that ‘vaaee’ gives you slowly graying hair and weight in unwanted places.

14. The Vegetarianism Differential:

Vegetarianism is relatively new in America; and tends to be chosen by people who care about health, animal welfare or the environment. More power to them, I say. The braver among them might choose to go vegan and avoid all animal products entirely (including leather).

In India though, vegetarianism is thousands of years old and is often demanded by religion, if not, by culture. Entire families and castes might never touch meat. But here’s the difference — no matter how ‘pure’ the vegetarian family is, veganism is pretty much unknown. In fact, cow slaughter is forbidden partly because we obtain milk from the cow and that makes it a somewhat maternal animal. The pure vegetarians, on the other hand, might avoid onions and garlic.

15. The Backlash!

Americans spent the fifties discovering processed food. Feminism swept over the land at the same time; none of it was inevitable, but the two movements colluded with each other to take people out of their kitchens into the aisles of corporations.

But now — now is a wonderful time to be a foodie in America. All those years of convenience and gradually deteriorating food quality have led to a backlash. America taught me to honor my ingredients like I never did before. There is a huge amount of respect for the craft of cooking as well.

I often get anxious about my home country’s trajectory in this arc. My peers are already cooking less than families did when I was a child. Options for eating out have exploded. Women are working out of the home in larger numbers, but men have not turned to the kitchen in equal numbers. Is the simple act of rolling a roti destined to become an exotic craft? I hope not. Time will tell.


This reflects my own experience and your mileage may vary. Please tell me in comments, agree or disagree! Did something strike a chord? Make you mad? Extrapolating from your own experience is always dangerous. But, extrapolate we must.

‘Extrapolating’ — from xkcd