Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Of Candid Beel & Uncold Water

Add hot pups and fried france to the list. Along with umbercut steak patata. Snakes. And more. And you have a glorious mélange of what’s on offer in the little and not-so-little stores and restaurants all over India.

Those of you from South India must be familiar with hot pups. For those of you who are not, this is the name hot puffs go by in some establishments. Flaky or not-so-flaky pastry filled with a dark mass of spicy curry, with bits of green and orange peeping out if it’s vegetarian. The realization that pups could be a corruption of puffs came about in a rather chastening way – somebody much older than us pronounced it so and it set us sniggering, till they said something that made us realize things like those weren’t important. But they still amuse; though they don’t raise a mocking laugh any longer, they do prompt a gentle one.

Snakes, of course, are snacks. A “pig mutton” stall is a place that sells pork. Candid beel is candied peel - remember the big, sticky glass jars, containing multicoloured pieces of peel, hog plums traditionally coloured red and branded cherries, and the preserved raw papaya we know as tutti frutti? Uncold water is an ingenious phrase to differentiate between refrigerated and unrefrigerated bottled/mineral water that is stocked in the store. Uncold is cheaper, usually priced at MRP (maximum retail price), cold is costlier as the storekeeper has incurred expenses on electricity while chilling it. (I’ve read it’s against the rules to charge more for chilled bottled water, though.)

When I accompanied The Spouse on some official work to a temple town, the aspirational/tourist-pleasing aspect of small town India blended with the constraints of vegetarianism were evident in the restaurant of the hotel we stayed in. There was a variety of mystifying stuff on the menu but what truly perplexed me was umbercut steak patata. What on earth was it? Should I order and find out or safely stick to the less arcane selections on the menu? I stuck to the safe option. But the umbercut wouldn’t leave my mind – I turned it over and over and over till the penny dropped, quite suddenly – it was meant to be hamburger steak with potato! Yes, for the scores of foreign tourists who came to this place with its temple and its world-famous ashram, the hamburger patty, made of potato and not meat, would be the bridge between spirituality and their non-vegetarian homelands!

And with that, I leave you with a recipe for Fried France.

Medium-size prawns, shelled, de-veined: 500 gm
(Paneer/cottage cheese can substitute this)
Onions, minced: 2
Green chillies, chopped: 2
Tomatoes, chopped: 2
Coriander/cilantro, chopped: A cupful
Turmeric: ½ tsp
Salt: To taste
Chilli powder: 1 tsp
Cumin powder: 1 tsp
Coriander powder: 1-1/2 tsp
Oil: 2-3 tbsp (or less)

Heat the oil, fry the prawns till they turn pink and opaque.

Now add the onions, fry till brown.

Add the green chillies, sauté.

Now add the chopped tomatoes, mix well.

Now go in the powdered spices and salt. Mix well and sauté.

Garnish with chopped coriander.

Somebody who tasted this said the prawns were slightly tough, and that could be because they were fried first and continued to cook as the rest of the stuff was being added. However, she said it was tasty.
I even tried a vegetarian version with paneer/cottage cheese a couple of days later, and it worked well.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pommelo Memories

This is one of those fruits that’s an old favourite but increasingly, a rare find. Come to think of it, it was always special, we would see it only rarely, but at least every year, in our home. Somebody had it in their yard, somebody would bring it, saying it grew in their home, and we’d tear it apart with relish, getting at the giant sections, peeling off the thick, dry skin that came away easily, and fill our palms with the firm flesh.

Oh, the pommelo (pummelo, pampelmousse, pamparapanasa in Telugu) is a different, delightful citrus altogether. Unlike its smaller cousins, the oranges, tangerines and such, whose interiors are softer, more wet and sections therefore slightly, just slightly, harder to peel without squashing, these are well defined. Unlike them though, this is more difficult to get through, because of its very thick rind and very fibrous interiors, but once you open it, it’s a juicy treat. This citrus fruit is quite an individual, its bittersweet taste sets its apart from the sweet-sour tang of its ilk.

My grandmother had a tree at home which died only in the last couple of years. I remember my aunt bringing it to a friend’s house, where the Aunties, who were making a vegetable salad for lunch, very matter-of-factly cut it up, scooped the flesh and put it in. It made a pretty picture alright, pale pink flesh and all, I remember thinking, but who would ever use that in a salad? (I had yet to evolve, as you can guess.) And how could they mix up such an increasingly rare fruit with plain old vegetables and not savor it by itself? Then came lunchtime, and the salad, with a very plain dressing of olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper came alive with the texture of these pommelo chunks. What were the rest of the ingredients? Onion, cucumber, carrot is what I remember, and some moong sprouts as well. Well, I may be imagining the sprouts but they go well with citrus fruit, I know that for a fact. I’ve even seen recipes for pommelo salads with shrimp but am yet to try them. There’s a yellowish-fleshed variety as well.

I’ve eaten pommelo marmalade once – that was the first time I got to know the English name of this fruit. My friend’s mother had made it from one fruit and ended up with quite a lot. The little browsing that my lately faulty Internet connection permitted me to do told me this fruit’s rind is better used for candied peel and that it’s native to South-East Asia. I still like it best sans embellishments, in all its natural glory. And I like to have it all to myself.

Last weekend, on a sudden trip home for Vinayaka Chaturthi, I noticed carts selling these. This is the only time I see them in the market. Then they made their appearance on the dining table in a relative’s home. I ate greedily, and was thrilled to carry the leftovers home and eat more. Our hostess sent over one more that evening, and I bought a couple more. One more that miraculously appeared in the fruit bowl at home made its way into my bag, Dad and Mom telling me very graciously that neither of them would eat it when I asked them if they minded. “Keep some for my guide,” said The Spouse, who’s working towards a Ph. D, “at least from my share of the fruit,” only to be told he didn’t have a share. I now have two more left. The first was peeled painstakingly, shapely, for the camera, and a knife plunged and dug through the second to rapidly fill a bowl with the booty, which made a delicious, light chilled dessert after a busy day at work.

This is my submission for Kalyn’s Weekend Herb Blogging this week, hosted by Myriam at Once Upon a Tart this week.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Showing You My Cookbooks

Favourites imply choices, and choices imply taking a stand. Does not having one absolute favourite make you an irresolute person, and is that opinion further compounded when I say that even the books I choose to mention here are not my only favourites? Or does it signal my catholic nature and fair disposition :) - a cookbook is chosen to suit a mood, an appetite, a craving; at the very least, it’s chosen for its easy accessibility in a deep bottom shelf filled with rows of several of its ilk, so how can I choose one, or a few, and dismiss the others?

But choose some I must, and I have. As you can make out from the picture, I own many, and only a few have been ignored routinely, principally because the ingredients are hard to come by. I have, on a couple of occasions, lugged a few of them to work and given them away, but am unable to part with the rest even though they are impractical for the Indian situation or my eating habits. All of us own things like that, don’t we?

To get down to the subject, one of my regular books is the Telugu ‘Kantamani Vantakaalu’ – the purplish one on the left, in the foreground. I resort to this most often when I’m beset with doubts about everyday food. Does Bengal gram go into the tempering, or am I imagining it? Do I temper the vegetables going into the chutney and then grind, or do I grind and then temper? This book is good to deal with these doubts.

It’s for similar reasons that I like Cooking At Home with Pedatha. This is the only book I’ve noticed that tells us exactly how to temper a dish – what goes in first, the mustard seed or the urad dal, and it’s fail-proof.

At the back, there’s Hyderabadi Cuisine, by Pratibha Karan. I love it for its looks, and I’d better – I waited years to buy it, mooning over it every time I saw it or went to see it in the store, always reaching out for it but holding back, and finally, buying it. It’s so expensive my lending library still hasn’t bought it, after all these years, and I have. (I’ve bought several other books that the library has resolutely refused to, but that’s another issue altogether.) Anyway, this is a book to possess, and the word is not being used idly, but with most of the associations, connotations and implications that possession denotes. Yes, it’s a trophy book, but not a b/himbo as far as I can see – I’ve tried a couple of recipes from that book, and they work.

Next to that, you see the Readers Digest 30-Minute Cookbook – it has even more h/bimbo appeal, not to mention substance; it’s a pleasure to cook from provided you get all the ingredients in India. And it was gifted to us by an uncle, who seemed to have ordered it with us in mind.

This post is being sent off to Nags of For the Cook in Me for the event Show Me Your Cookbook – I’m certainly not shy, I haven’t shown you myself but I’ve shown you half of my cookbooks, and would show you the rest if only I could figure out a way to take a 360-degree picture of this pile!

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Blog and An Anniversary

The cake crumbled, and the idea is still fuzzy, so I offer you flowers instead, for my big day! One year ago, I set up this blog, and it's been a fun ride all along, with the new food, new friends, new knowledge.

When I stumbled upon food blogs last summer, the discovery was nothing short of thrilling. Here were people after my own heart, gourmets and gourmands all! It reassured me in various ways about an obsession that had been growing steadily – and food blogs were legit places to unabashedly indulge in that craze.

More importantly, they offered a platform and an outlet for the anecdotal writing that I enjoy, not to mention the glimpses into others’ lives and kitchen as well as the good dose of warm-and-fuzzy feelings whenever someone reacts to a post. If this hadn’t been India, where there aren’t too many food bloggers, I’d be probably looking out for people in grocery stores and wondering if I knew them from the blogs!

So here's the cake that didn't make it, and if the idea for a commemmorative event ever shapes up, I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, read on to see how some people react(ed) to my food blog:

Dad: So whose photos are those? Some are really appetizing!
Dad, they’re mine!
Oh, I didn’t understand what you said, good, very nice.
Mom, he missed the whole point!
Mom: He’s a nut!

The Spouse, in a loud don’t-try-to-fool-me tone: You cook for your blog, don’t say you cook for us!

Aunty: Sra, why don’t you think of Aunty too as a blog and write me an e-mail as long as your posts?

Friend: Ohhowcool! (delivered in an I’mtryingtoshowyouI’mexcited tone but failing miserably – Lesson for Sra: Your ego needs to be cut down to size)

Kid brother: Akka, what sort of a dish is that? You call it capsicum? It looks wormy and disgusting! Couldn’t you get a better picture?

Aha, aha, you mean to say you made the paneer yourself? Hyuk hyuk (that typically pest-kid-brother snigger). You bake brownies and stuff, why don’t you post those? (I no longer do; I just did, and it failed.)

Now for the thanksgiving speeches: Thanks all of you, readers, bloggers, family, friends, lurkers, awarders, Asha, my first commenter – it’s been a great year, and I hope there will be more ahead, with all of you around.

PS: The cake is a flourless orange almond cake, recipes for it abound on the Net. Mine tasted good, but the centre didn't bake well, 'twas the pan substitution that did it!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Sortie to Mysore

When RCI-Karnataka was announced, I knew what I would make right away. Some time ago, I had made a tamarind rice dish that The Spouse said was just like the Bangalore version – I had then felt all the difference (from the usual Andhra version) came from the sesame seeds that went into it – but try as I might, none of the recipes I located for puliyogare were it, till I found it in a book on Tamil cooking!

Now that wouldn’t do, even though it was a highly practical recipe for a rational, everyday quantity of rice. Karnataka cuisine, bar the Mangalorean/Konkan style, is as undersold as Oriya cuisine so it has to be as authentic as possible, at least in my ’umble blog, so there began the task of preparing myself mentally to soak, squeeze and boil down the 1/4th kilo of tamarind that all the seemingly Karnataka-style recipes called for. (I didn’t want to scale down for authenticity’s sake, am bad at Maths.)

A tad anaemic, but that can be addressed by adding more concentrate/more turmeric during the final tempering!

In fact, I’ve no doubt that this is a Karnataka recipe as it’s called Mysore Puliyogare, and it also says that the author was raised in that State but it shall remain unnamed because the instructions started unraveling halfway through the recipe and it was left to yours truly to take it upon herself to put two and two together and finish it off!

As it happened, the finished product had nothing in common with the other one I mentioned, but was very different from the pulihora we make at home. I had never tried my hand at chintapandu pulihora (tamarind rice), often a dirty yellow-brown whose sourness set my teeth on edge almost everywhere I encountered it, but nimmakaya pulihora (lemon rice) and its mango counterpart were a different kettle of fish altogether (now, fish and pulihora is an interesting thought, but I digress).

The difference between our home’s pulihora and others’ was that we wouldn’t put any nuts in ours, tamarind, lemon or mango, but with this dish, that’s going to change, even though the recipe didn’t mention any. Does that take away from the Mysoreness of the pulihora? I don’t know. I had to ask a friend how to use the puliyogare concentrate, and with a wicked glint in her eye, she explained.

“Spread the cooked rice in a plate and cool it. Mix gingelly (sesame) oil with it, so much that your hand also becomes nice and oily (the glint appeared here), and mix the concentrate with the rice.”

“But what about the nuts?” I asked.

“Well, aren’t they in the concentrate already?” she asked.

No, I said. I still don’t know when to include them in the concentrate but I’m going to fry a bit of them separately, along with some more mustard seed, black gram and curry leaf, and put them in the rice.

Here’s the recipe, then!

The tamarind and coriander powder/seeds are not seen

Tamarind: ¼ kg/250 gm
Coriander powder: 1 tbsp (the book recommended 1 tbsp of coriander seeds, to be fried with the rest of the ingredients in oil)
Peppercorns: 1 tsp
Fenugreek seeds: ¼ tsp
Mustard seeds: ¼ tsp
Asafoetida: A chip/crystal the size of a tamarind seed (could be ¼ tsp, or ½ tsp of the powdered variety)
Salt: 1-1/2 tbsp (I used iodised crystal salt)
Dry red chillies: 30, stalks off
Jaggery: 50 gm (the book recommended 100 gm)
Black gram dal, split, husked: 2 tbsp
Bengal gram dal, split, husked: 2 tbsp
Turmeric: 1 tsp
White sesame seeds: 3 tbsp
Dessicated coconut: 3 tbsp (the book recommended ¼ of coconut but I’ve seen other recipes include dry coconut in Karnataka versions)
Sesame/gingelly oil: 7-8 tsp (the book doesn’t specify)

Wash tamarind. Soak tamarind, salt and jaggery in water an hour ahead.

After an hour or more, squeeze the tamarind to extract the juice, strain into a cooking vessel. Discard the pulp.

Boil this juice – it took more than an hour for all the water to evaporate and the concentrate to thicken. In fact, I kept adding water as I 'kneaded' the tamarind for easy pulp extraction, but if you can do it with less, well and good.

Barring coriander powder, fry all the remaining ingredients in oil till a nice aroma comes off the pan. Make sure the red chillies don’t blacken.

Whiz the fried mixture along with coriander powder to a ‘pasty’ powder (don’t add any water, but the oil will make it wet) in a mixer/grinder.

As the tamarind concentrate begins to thicken, begin to simmer it.

Just before you remove it from the fire, add the spice mix to the pan. Stir well and take off fire.

Glorious, isn't it?

Cool completely and bottle. Put it in the fridge.

This amount was recommended for 3.5 kilos of rice. The rice should be plain, non-Basmati, non-scented rice.

To use the tamarind concentrate, mix it with cooked and cooled rice to which some oil and turmeric powder has been added. Temper it with mustard seeds, some black gram dal, curry leaves and nuts fried in a bit of sesame oil.

My concentrate has a lovely aroma of asafoetida and sesame oil, not to mention the flavour of the dry red chilli!

Here's more info on pulihora/puliyogare.
Here's a rava version and a semia version and a carrot version