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

Done

Done

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Ingredients
  • 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
Method

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

 

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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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

Ingredients
  • 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
Method

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.

Coconut-yogurty thing from South India

Palladya with rice

Palladya with rice

The other day a friend — Rashmi by name — casually popped in a comment about a ¢#&!Ω# she makes at home, called palladya. Apparently it is similar to the kadhis of the north.

What?! Why have I never heard of this before? Me — a connoisseur of all kadhis everywhere, or so I thought? Why have you kept this secret from me all these years, Rashmi? I thought we were friends. We exchange stories about kids, husbands and various other things. And yet, you kept this from me? Sniff.

Anyway, now that the secret is out, I am glad to have been introduced to this concoction. It is a soupy thing that uses yogurt as a base just like the kadhis of the north, but instead of using chickpea flour for thickening, it uses ground coconut. Floaters are vegetables, a set similar to the ones in this kadhi from Sindh. Some typical ones are okra, white pumpkin/melon (this one), and other squashes. Ever the iconoclast, I used cauliflower; always trying to fit in at the same time, I used baby squashes (this one).

Palladya

This was my first time making it, you can see how it turned out. We had it with rice and it was yummy. Next time I will try to get a finer grind on the coconut by first grating it. And souring the yogurt by leaving it out all day before using it is a tip from Rashmi I didn’t have time to use, but I will next time.

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding


The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

Cauliflower

Cauliflower

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Cuppa yogurt

Cuppa yogurt

Stovetop

Stovetop

Tempering

Tempering

Palladya: kadhi from South India

Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons channa dal, soaked for half hour in hot water
  • Half a coconut, grated, or 1 cup frozen
  • 3 or more fresh green chilies
  • 1 inch piece of ginger
  • 1 cup yogurt or buttermilk, soured
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup summer squash cubed (I used apple gourd/tinda)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil (substitute with any oil)
Method

Grind the drained channa dal, coconut, chilies and ginger together. You will need to add some water in order to get a fine grind, I ended up adding about half a cup. Do try to grate your coconut before throwing into the blender, that way you are more assured of getting it to turn into a smooth paste.

Put the veggies in a pot combined with the coconut paste, salt and some water. Bring to a boil, covered. In about 20 minutes of cooking at a simmer, covered, the vegetables will be more or less cooked. Poke with a knife to make sure.

If so, whip up the yogurt and add it to the pot. Stir, this only needs to heat through. Now the tempering. Heat the oil in a small, thick-bottomed pan. Throw in the mustard seeds when it shimmers; wait for it to pop. When they pop, throw in the curry leaves. When they look shriveled, turn off, pour the oil and spices into the palladya, and stir.

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….

wordpress-family-award wpid-11-cosmos-under-blue-sky-cosmos-flower-under-sunshine_1440x900_69080

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?

Posts.

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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.

Method:

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.

IMG_1066 IMG_1068 IMG_1069 IMG_1071

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.

IMG_1072

My Parathas turned Purple

IMG_0940

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.

Phytonutrients

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.

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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.

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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.

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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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A meditation on tempering and a good-tempered moong dal

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Very little meat is eaten in India; many families are entirely vegetarian, but even the others (like mine) hardly got around to buying meat for the dinner table once or twice a month. I have met a lot of people in the United States who find that hard to believe. In this country all three meals are sometimes centered around meat. In addition to forming the main course, meat products are used to flavor the food: whether it is the use of chicken broth, or bacon cooked into the sauce base or thrown on salad, or ham hocks as a base for tough greens like collards.

Many modern cooks here are learning to leave aside the bacon in favor of aromatics like onion and garlic. In my mother-in-law’s generation people were a little afraid of these ‘strong’ and ‘aggressive’ flavors; nowadays, they generally lead to a flurry of swooning.

But what if you were to leave out the meat, leave out the eggs, then in a fit of pique throw out the onions and garlic too?

What would food taste like then? Is one supposed to develop a taste for grass? Well it turns out that this type of cuisine is one of the most flavorful in the world. Jain food, which is pretty much synonymous with the Sattvic or ‘pure’ food of Hinduism, leaves out any foods that might cause harm to other creatures; clearly this is an extremely high bar, but in practice, that means no meat, eggs, fish, onions or garlic.

That still leaves the wide world of vegetables (including my beloved cauliflower), all kinds of lentils (dals), grains from wheat and rice to millet and sorghum, the nutty fragrance of ghee, and of course what India is famous for, which is spices.

Tempering

My personal opinion — the ingredients are great and all. But really what sets apart Sattvic cuisine and Indian cuisine in general is the technique of tempering. Known by various names — tadka, chhaunk, bhagaar or vaghaar — this is the method of heating fat and throwing in whole spices until they release their essential oils.

Most non-Indian people ask me if I grind my own spice mixtures for Indian food. The answer is yes, I do. But for most everyday food, I don’t need to — because I just use them whole while tempering.

This is the basic process of tempering. Heat oil or ghee in a thick-bottomed small pan. When it shimmers (in case of ghee it should completely melt and a fragrance arise) the spices are put in. There is a certain sequence to the introduction of spices to the oil. There is, I admit, a bit of magic to this. Asafetida, if it is used, usually goes in first. Dry red chilies, if used, go in next. Mustard seeds (for me) usually go in last because they will pop with a vengeance. In between come the other whole seeds. Then in go the aromatic vegetables, such as garlic, ginger, chilies, onion, if any, that the recipe demands.

Tempering can be the first step of the recipe. Or it could be the last, as in the one below. The tempered oil is poured over the completed dish and stirred in.

Now spices are great even if you prepare them in the more well-known way — which is to grind them up into a mixture. I’m not going to run this method down (a classic of many cuisines, including Indian) but here is the difference from the tempering method. When you grind the spices, you are pulverizing every bit of them into the food. This includes the essential oils but also the fibrous seed-coating and other parts. Yes, there is a bit of the cardboard taste in most of the fibers. When you have a strongly flavored meal with onions or meat and so forth, you don’t notice this powderiness. But in a delicately flavored dish where the highlight is a lentil or a vegetable, the ideal method is to draw out the spice flavor into fat, leave the seeds whole where they add a bit of crunch, leaving the tastes pure.

And if you think about it, purity is what the Sattvic type of food is centered on.

Moong dal tempered with whole spices

This dish uses a mix of the dehusked (yellow) moong dal and the split but skin on (green) moong dal. Moong dal, of course, is a synonym of mung bean. It is one of the fastest cooking dals and needs no pre-soaking. This makes enough for a dinner for two.

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2  cup moong dal split and dehusked
  • 1/4 cup moong dal split but with skin on
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida (hing)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ajwain (carom) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (jeera) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard (rai) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 cups water
  • For garnish: dry mango powder or lemon juice, more red chili powder, minced cilantro.

Method:

Rinse and drain the mix of dals in plenty of water. Put the dal in a pot along with 2 cups water and the turmeric. Bring it to a boil with the lid off; once it foams up heartily you can lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover with a lid and leave it for 35 to 45 minutes. At this point it should be softened. Add the salt.

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Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers add the asafetida and the red chili powder; when they foam add the cumin and the carom seeds; when they sizzle add the mustard seeds; when they pop turn off the heat and pour the oil into the dal.

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Stir and taste for salt. At this point your dal is ready, all that is left is the garnish. I have suggested some but feel free to experiment!

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Avocado Relish

There are some Westerners who go to India and fall in love with being Indian. They make all sorts of claims about their souls being Indian, or having been Indian in some previous life time; and, if you think about it, there couldn’t be a better proof of feeling Indian than throwing around claims about previous life times. Some start to wear rudraksha beads and saffron robes. The more extreme among them might take on a Hindu name.

We have all met at least a couple such people; if not, visit your nearest ISKCON and you will. But today I will introduce you to one such friend of mine — the avocado.

This fruit with buttery green flesh is native to Mexico. To me, the taste of the avocado has always been reminiscent of the flesh of young coconut: the kind you stick a straw in first to drink up the water and then the coconut-wallah scrapes the flesh off from the inside and hands it to you, using the shell as a bowl.

But stick it in a saffron robe and you would think this fruit was born and raised in India. It takes well to a number of Indian preparations. Mix it with yogurt to make a raita. Stick in a paratha. Spice it up to make chutneys. As I experiment I will be blogging about various Indian treatments for the avocado. But today, I will make that quintessential fresh accompaniment to rich and heavily spiced food — the kachumber.

Kachumbers are little salads or relishes that emphasize freshness and coolness. A bite of this is supposed to freshen your mouth during the meal. It usually consists some combination of onion, tomato, cucumber with lime juice. Try it with avocado, as below; it brings the taste of kachumber up to lusciousness.

This makes enough as a dinner side for two.

Avocado Kachumber

Ingredients:

  • Half an avocado, large, diced
  • Quarter cup finely diced red onion
  • Quarter cup finely diced tomato
  • One third cup finely diced cucumber
  • 1 green chili, serrano or jalapeno, finely diced
  • 1-2 teaspoon minced cilantro
  • Juice of one lime or lemon
  • Half a teaspoon salt

Method:

Couldn’t be simpler. Mix it all up! We had this as a side to fish and rice.

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Post script: Although I first tasted the avocado only after I came to California, where it grows easily even in home gardens, it turns out that avocado grows in India as well, under the guise of butter fruit. It seems to be known mostly in the south, and is only available during August and September. It also has trouble hitting that right moment of ripening — sometimes the fruit rots before getting there. But if you see it, do purchase it!