Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I was away for 10 days before putting up the previous post. This is one of the longer driving holidays we've been on and it was quite busy, packed with things to see and do. We went to Goa, and stopped off in parts of Karnataka that we drove through, so we saw waterfalls, beaches, forts, plantations, temples, churches and me being me, went to quite a few stores in search of local specialities as well.
The first picture that I put up for the guessing game came from a small plantation attached to a temple in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, specifically from a place called Honnavar, about two hours from the Goa border. We took different routes to and from Goa and several stretches of both routes were flanked by these plantations.

So, as Sia, Mallugirl and Maneka guessed, the first picture is the fruit of the areca palm (also called the betel nut, though the betel, a leaf, actually comes from a different plant, a vine).It's considered a bad habit to eat too much nut powder (a mixture of areca and spices) but in small doses after a meal, it can aid digestion. It's believed to strengthen the teeth and gums too.

The palm grows to a height of 70 feet and the fruits, just like miniature coconuts, grow beneath the fronds - you can see a spray-like formation in the picture - that's got several tiny fruits growing along each prong.

When ready, they are picked and sun-dried and then split open for the nut. The process differs based on the region but this is what I gathered from speaking to the priest at the temple.
See a picture of the betel leaf, nuts, nut-cutters and some more information here.

It was again Sia, Mallugirl and Maneka who guessed the cashew apple. I've seen plantations but have never seen the fruit on the tree. I tasted it just once but the nut had come off, so I can say this is the first time I've seen the real, whole McCoy. I'm notorious for extracting the peanuts and cashew nuts from the snacks that are passed around; my friends even credit me with a technique for that all my own!
The picture in the previous post was from a wayside plantation in Goa - the air is fragrant with the scent of these trees. I deliberately used that picture because the nut had dropped off. The fruit was ripe, waxy and oily, too much of a temptation not to pick. I clicked it, then I flicked it!

There are red fruit too, as you can see in this picture. The fruit are crushed and their juice fermented and distilled to make feni. This photo is from a distillation unit that was housed in a plantation we visited. There are a few plantations in and around Ponda which offer various packages for tourists (there may be others elsewhere, too) - with and without stay. I didn't know till recently that the oil of cashew is used as an anaesthetic for leprosy, and to cure warts and corns.


And now, we come to the final picture of the previous post. I'm thrilled (heh heh)no one who commented could guess what it was. I didn't too, when I saw it lying in the Sahakari Bhandar in Panaji. I was busy searching for cocum when I spied this. Another shopper nearby looked at me strangely when I asked her what it was but it was totally a new discovery to me - I've never, ever seen it in that form.
It was with some reservations that I posted it as the third question in the guessing game - it was not a spice I was "born into", it's not a spice I use in my daily cooking, I saw its other common forms only a few years ago (blush, blush!) and began using upon the recommendation of friends, but did that mean no one else would know it in this form?
Apparently, it's as strange to you all as it is to me, so here goes - it's asafoetida! Yes, inguva, hing, perungayam in Telugu, Hindi and Tamil. I like saying those unaccustomed to it react similarly to how most vegetarians react to the smell of frying fish - with a shudder and noses wrinkled, but for all its sulphurous pungency, this resin comes with a host of benefits, digestive, curative (whooping cough, asthma) and is even used in perfumes, I've read, difficult though it may be to believe. It's even called 'devil's dung' because of its smell! What a nickname to earn!

I'm sending this off to Weekend Herb Blogging hosted this week by Kate of Thyme for Cooking.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lessons From A Trip - What Are These?

I've just come back from a long-ish trip - some of the high points were the discovery of the stuff in these photos. I've never seen them in these forms before, can you guess what they are? A very happy Ugadi/new year to all of you!




Thursday, March 08, 2007

Disco Greens

Or red amaranth, but then there wouldn’t be many buyers, or in this context, readers drawn to this post! There’s a story behind the headline, though.

The Indian readers among you will know of an old Hindi movie called Disco Dancer, a big hit which spawned a number of similar movies/dance sequences in other Indian languages. Anything shiny and sparkly came to be called ‘Disco …’ after that, be it clothes, costume jewellery, stationery, and as I was to find out a few years ago, vegetables as well.

That day, I had gone shopping for vegetables and spied these gleaming, red bunches with a wizened old woman selling a variety of greens. I knew what they were, of course, but keen to know what they were called in Tamil, the local language, I asked the lady.

With panache and authority, and a look that said she needn’t explain more, she said, “Disco Keerai,” stunning me into inexplicable repulsion … and departure in search of better, and less ostentatious, acquisitions.

My repertoire of dishes with leafy vegetables was restricted to a rather single-formula daal (lentil preparation), stir-fry and chutneys. I don’t make too much more even now but since then, was lucky to find a book called Green Leafy Vegetables by Shyamala Kallianpur, published by the author in 1997. There are several recipes for the most popular/commonly available greens and fewer for the not-so-well-known ones.

This recipe is the only one in the book for red amaranth. (The sample in my photo is cold and sad, do excuse, but gives you an idea of its looks.) I’m sure it has done the rounds of the blogs, especially those specializing in Saraswat cuisine, but whenever something is a new discovery to me, however old and traditional to others, it seems to go into my blog nowadays.

I don’t often see red amaranth in the market and it’s been ages since I last cooked/ate it so I don’t remember the taste, but the book, the blog and the anecdote were too great a combination for me to resist. As was the opportunity to play heroine and rescue the grated fresh coconut I bought a few days ago from its inevitable destination – the dustbin. (Just as death is life’s only certainty, my friends, so is my trashcan my vegetables’ only certain fate.) And so, here comes the dish, which the author calls Bhajji Amshi. I omitted the jaggery the author mentions, but the rest of it remains.

Red amaranth with tender stalks, chopped – 8 cups
A 2 cm cube of jaggery (optional, I would say, but probably not traditionally omitted)
Salt to taste
Water – 3 cups

Grind together to a paste:
Freshly grated coconut – 1 cup
Raw rice, soaked in water for 10 minutes – 1 tbsp
Tamarind, soaked for a while – a lime-sized ball
Green chillies – to taste (she recommends 8-10, I used 5)

Oil – 2 tsp
Garlic, peeled and bruised – 8-10 cloves

Wash the amaranth leaves well. Chop along with the tender stalks. Put it in a pan, add three cups of water, salt and jaggery, if you’re using it. Cook covered on low heat – this will take a while – make sure the leaves wilt and some water evaporates.

Add the ground paste to the cooked amaranth and bring it to a boil.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic slightly. Put this in the curry and immediately cover it so that the flavour permeates the dish. Serve with rice.

Amaranth is full of goodness, and makes for some interesting trivia. To read up, go here and here.

This is my submission for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Anna of Morsels and Musings.


Friday, March 02, 2007

The Chilli of the Valley

Well, there’s no valley (or lily) – it’s more a headline that’s intended to make an impression! But in a larger sense, it IS the chilli of my valley – the seeds came from an aunt’s home, went to another’s, came back to yet another’s – which is where I got them from. And the aunt last to be mentioned, actually my great aunt, gave me this recipe.

I’d almost have missed this dish. Aunty was reluctant to serve it because it was a day old when we visited her but I shamelessly lobbied for it to be included in the meal, ended up eating everything I could and even carried the leftovers home, not to mention the rest of those same chillies in the refrigerator! Along with the recipe, of course!

My grandmother (Aunty’s sister) would slave over this dish – I haven’t eaten it often since she stopped cooking. My own efforts, a muddle of deduction, shortcuts and impatience, resulted in this taste remaining a fond memory, but thanks to these generous aunts, will no longer remain so!

My grandmom used green capsicum (bell peppers) for this dish. She would prepare the mixture patiently, decapitate the capsicum carefully, stuff them with the mixture, put the caps back on, tie them with thread, stand them in a frying pan in a puddle of oil, then lay them down and fry them on all sides till the skin was discoloured, even on the verge of turning black, softer and succulent.

The attraction is the mixture inside combining with the juicy skin, and any that escaped would make a nice, dry, fried, powdery bonus. It’s lovely eaten with rice – I’m not sure what it is about us that makes us tear apart vegetables that have been put together so carefully once they approach our plates, but that’s one of life’s quirks, I guess.

Well, my great aunt’s recipe involves the microwave, so the cooking time, vigil, oil, everything involved in that long process is shorter, but just as tasty. Forgive me if there are no exact measurements, I was just too keen to get on with it, and approached it but with two thoughts in mind: I’m going to discover the secret, it’s going into my blog!

It is a laborious process if you're using small chillies but it’s worth it, and coming from a person who prefers a simpler style, that’s saying a lot! Also, I didn’t use the capsicum that my grandmom did, these are miniature versions that grow in my aunts’ kitchen garden, like I said. And it’s a one-off dish for me, I don’t think I’ll be able to get my hands on these chillies till my aunt visits again!
So here goes:

Capsicum/Biggish round chillies
Some besan/chick pea flour/senaga pindi
A whole pod of garlic, peeled
Cumin seed/jeera – 3-4 tsp, roasted dry
Salt - to taste
Oil – 2-3 tsp + 1 tsp
Some butter, just a dab or two

For tempering:
Mustard seed, cumin seed, split urad dal/black gram, dry red chilli

Roast the flour for a minute or two in a thick-bottomed pan. (Till it changes colour slightly.) Watch it like a hawk, it gets burnt easily.
Grind/mash the cumin and peeled garlic into a rough paste. Mix this with the flour, adding butter to bind – it’s like rubbing butter into flour for cake, you get fine crumbs.

Slit the chillies/capsicum and get rid of as many seeds as you can – try to get at the hard core of seeds and tip it out with the tip of your knife. Try not to let the knife go through the other side – I’ve heard that a safety pin works well but I’ve never tried this trick! Don’t remove all the seeds unless you have zero tolerance to heat, though; keep a few – that’s what imparts taste.

Stuff the chillies with the flour mixture. It’s not impossible to keep the chilli/pepper from ‘leaking’ even if it’s punctured on the other side, but if you’re unsure, keep it together with a toothpick (as I’ve done with some in the picture; I’ve also done that to some whose caps I sliced off in an experimenting mood).

Apply oil on a microwaveable plate, arrange the chillies on it, smear them with a light coating of oil or trail a spoon of oil over them, and microwave for six minutes on High – by High, I mean the highest power, that’s what I did. I did this in three spells of two minutes each, though, because I wanted to be sure I didn’t char them black. Those who don’t use a microwave oven can follow my grandmom’s methods detailed earlier in this post.

Now, in a frying pan, heat a spoon of oil, temper with the mustard, cumin, black gram and red chilli, put in these chillies, leftover mixture, if any, and quickly saute it. You’ll know it’s done my way if the skins wrinkle just a bit more and look a little drier. With bell peppers, you’ll probably have to wait a little longer.

This turned out to be an expensive dish to make – I went to the gym late, spent good money on faster transport and on the way back home, bought a shirt I’d usually only wear on holiday for a considerable amount of money as it was calling out to me from the sales gallery next to the gym – none of which would have taken place if I hadn’t been so righteous about exercising late in the day despite all that time spent in the kitchen! Look what a bit of nostalgia does!


Chillies are a good source of Vitamin, A, B, C and E with minerals like molybdenum, manganese, folate, potassium, thiamin and copper. They reportedly contain seven times more vitamin C than orange. Ever since the chilli came to India at the end of the 15th century, it has been included in Ayurvedic medicines. Chillies are said to be good for slimming down but stimulate the appetite as well!

Christopher Columbus discovered chillies in the Caribbean in 1492 and called them peppers, thinking they were related to black pepper.

The correct spelling in English is chilli. The plural is chillies. It is etymologically derived via Spanish from the Nahuatl word for the plant. It has no connection with Chile.

Generally, fresh red chillies are 2-3 times hotter than green, and dried pods are 2-10 times hotter than fresh pods. However, the hottest can vary from plant to plant in the same field.

The fiery sensation is caused by capsaicin, a chemical that survives both cooking and freezing, but it also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that promote a sense of well-being. The antidote to the heat is milk products, bread or chocolate. Water just spreads the burning around!

Wilbur Scoville in 1902 developed a method for measuring the strength of capsaicin in a chilli pepper, which originally meant tasting a diluted version of a pepper and giving it a value. Mild bell peppers rate at zero, jalapeƱo is mid range 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, cayenne, aji and pequin 30,000 to 50,00 units, the habanero between 100,00 and 500,000 units. Apparently it can be measured by computer these days. (Recently, the Assamese variety called Bhut Jholakia was named as the hottest chilli.)

For more info, visit this site.

This is my submission for Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Kalyn's Kitchen this week.