Let the festivities begin!

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Kolkata loves its food to the point of pride; Durga Puja especially is a time when the city puts out the best it has to offer, in all its finery. Ask any Bengali, or a food lover, even, what Durga Pujo means to them and you cannot miss that flicker of happiness in their eyes. The festival begins in full fervor on Sashti and culminates on Dashami. Time for pandal hopping, Notun Jaama and great food. (NB: This list isn’t exhaustive!)

It’s a rare Bengali breakfast that would be complete without the Phulko Luchi, the Eastern counterpart of the Puri, especially around Durga Puja . Made with refined flour, it’s slightly smaller than the normal puris and popularly served with either sweet or savoury sides, the more common ones being Alur Torkari or Cholar Dal. The taste of a true luchi is enhanced when fried in ghee. That might have got your calorie bells ringing, but remember, Pujo time is for indulgence!

Radha Ballabhi is a match made in culinary heaven. It’s one of the omnipresent dishes in any important Bengali ceremony. It’s difficult to pass by a sweet shop and resist these stuffed delights, right off the wok as they are prepared by the Moira, or the traditional sweet maker. Much as they are a popular breakfast dish, they are equally enjoyed as evening snacks.

Other snacks worth exploring at this time are the Koraishutir (Peas) Kochuri with Alu dum, the humble Alu chorchori seasoned with Hing and Golmorich (asafetida and pepper) and the Tinkona (triangular) Porota with Chenchki (vegetables or lentils spiced with panchphoran), Vegetable chop, Kathi rolls and Dimer Devil, which is, guess what – Deviled Egg!

The Bhog or the community lunch is the highlight of the Pujo celebrations. It is Niramish or pure vegetarian. Bhog er Khichuri or Moong dal Khichdi is an important part of the bhog. Prepared in the Satvik manner, i.e, no onion or garlic and just the fact that it’s cooked for Bhog, it’s blessed with a flavour that can rarely be recreated elsewhere. Other dishes include the Mishti pulao, Labdar Torkari, a mixed vegetable dish, Chanchra (a drier vegetable dish); all this served with crispy fried bhajas or vegetable fritters on the side and the delectable Payesh and mishti to end the meal with. It’s interesting that typically, a sweet and sour chutney is served in the interim before the dessert fare to cleanse and neutralize the palate.

From the Muri Ghonto or the Fish head curry served with rice, Ilish Pulao, the famous Kolkata mutton biryani, to Shukto, Doi Fulkopi (spicy cauliflower in yogurt), Lal Shaak bhaja (you guessed it right, amaranth fritters) and an interesting one made with grated potato, called the Jhiri jhiri or Jhuri Alu bhaja, there’s a heady mix for vegetarians and meat lovers alike..

No account of Bengali culinary offerings is complete without touching the sweet end of the spectrum. The Nolen gurer Mishti Doi or sweetened yogurt made with date palm jaggery and Nolen gurer Payesh are major attractions.

Bijoya or Dashami sees more sweets, as togetherness is celebrated with sweets; Mishti mukh kora as it’s called. Komola Bhog, a saffron flavoured Roshogullah, Sandesh in all its variations, also Shor Bhaja, a sweet that’s deep fried in ghee and soaked in sugar syrup. This dish originated in Krishna Nagar, Nadia and is a labour of love. It’s made from the cream of milk called Shor. A baked variation of this dish also exists, called Sarpuria.

The connection of food with the Divine is oft talked about and is a given. It’s indeed the power of faith, purity of mind and the spirit of cooking and eating together that infuses a magical flavour to any fare. So this Durga Pujo, go ahead and celebrate the festival of power or Shakti, victory of good over evil and discover the power of food in all its glory.

Fasting – the science beyond

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That time of the year again when I start thinking fondly of pandal hopping. A mere recall of the Niramish bhog and my ever favourite Bhog er Khichuri, gets the taste buds salivating. Well, the feast is another story for another time. Let’s talk about fasting.

We have long since established a scientific logic prevailing behind our socio-religious practices, be they at the spiritual or culinary levels. That includes the change in food patterns, as also fasting. Fasting or vrat in its varying degrees, from complete to partial abstinence is in itself, a scientifically essential detox for our digestive system.

Take Navratri for instance. There are two major Navratris in a year (four in all). Both of these occur during major seasonal shifts – beginning of spring and autumn. These are also times when the human immunity level is at its lowest. Eating light and avoiding rich, heavy and spicy foods helps the body adjust to the new season naturally.

That brings us to the importance of eating right during fasts. Getting plenty of energy and fibre rich foods while staying hydrated is the order of the day. Hence why there is inclusion of more millets as grain substitutes and not surprisingly so, considering that millets were an Indian staple in the days of yore.

And it’s not just Navratri that highlights the significance of fasts. Similar science revolves around fasting on Ekadashi, the 11th day in the lunar cycle. Atmospheric pressure being the lowest on Ekadashi, makes it apt to abstain from heavy foods to sustain the mind-body balance. The concept is simple and similar for the most part. Eating light puts less pressure on the digestive process, helping the senses stay alert and active.

So this season, while you observe fasts and enjoy the feasts, don’t forget to honour what your body truly needs. Here’s a light yet energy rich recipe to try..

SWEET POTATO & APPLE CHAAT

Ingredients

300 gms sweet potato – boiled, peeled & diced

½ green apple, diced

½ red apple, diced

Few spinach leaves, roughly shredded or chiffonade

Few Walnuts, roughly broken
1 tbsp chaat masala
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cumin seeds – roasted and powdered

2 tbsp yogurt, beaten
Lemon juice-to taste
Fresh Coriander, chopped

Fresh mint, chopped

Method

  1. In a mixing bowl add cumin seed powder, chili powder, chaat masala and lime juice and mix well.
  2. Now add sweet potato, diced apples, spinach, walnuts and mix well.
  3. Transfer to serving bowls and pour remaining seasoning on top.
  4. Sprinkle the chopped coriander and mint leaves and serve immediately. Optional to serve with whisked yogurt too.

Magic is in the Tadka

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Ask any seasoned Indian home cook about the true foundation of a dish and the reply is bound to be Tadka. Call it Baghar, chaunk, vaghar, phodani and much more in different vernaculars, tempering is a crucial step in Indian cooking that sets the basics right. Now tempering in Asian terminology is different from the western concept; the latter referring more to balancing or stabilising an ingredient or a set of ingredients, especially in the confectionary field. The Asian version is the practice of cooking spices in hot fat to improve the flavour of a dish.

Tadka originates from taṛaknā, which interestingly means ‘to crack’ or ‘to break’. Fat being a better carrier for spices than water, the aroma spreads more evenly through the dish.

There are multiple components to the Tadka, most important being the heating of the fat. Clarified butter imparts a flavour like few other, as any true-blue Dal Tadka or Rasam fan would tell you. Health scares initially and sadly drove away the ghee lovers, but with more friendly researches surfacing, the masses are gradually making a beeline to the ghee counter, which, trust me, is extremely heart-warming to the Punjabi in me!

Techniques and combinations play an equally important part. Each savoury dish; and I am talking the length and breadth of our culinary map; typically uses a different set of ingredients, that need to be added at specific times, in a particular order and ratio and cooked for just the right amount of time before the main ingredients are added, or the tempering itself is added to the cooked dish. Which brings me to the timing of the tempering.

Some dishes begin with a tadka, while for some, it is the finishing touch; most of the Gujarati Farsaans are excellent cases in point. After all, who isn’t drawn to that final dash of mustard seeds, slit green chilies, curry leaves and grated coconut on a Dhokla or Khandvi?

My stint with Munir Ustad instilled in me the importance of Tahseer, a concept that was ingrained in the Lucknow cooks of yore. It’s about balancing the ingredients, neutralising the property of one with the property of another. The same Tahseer is an important aspect of tempering in Indian cuisine. Cumin seeds, cinnamon and asafetida aid digestion, mustard seeds are excellent for heart health and relieve muscular pain; in fact, the very addition of fat as the cooking agent is to enhance both the flavours and the nutritional benefits of the spices.

So the next time you prepare your tempering, stick to the basics, keep the ingredients in order and cook them right, because, remember – the magic is in the Tadka!

BAJRA & AMARANTH KHICHRI

Ingredients:

2 tbsps sesame Oil
1 tsp Mustard Seeds
1 tsp Cumin Seeds
5 to 6 Curry Leaves
1 tsp Chopped Garlic
1 tsp Chopped Ginger
½ cup Chopped Onions
½ tsp Red Chili Powder
½ tsp Coriander Powder
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
½ cup Mixed Veggies (Carrots, green beans, peas)
2 tbsps Corn
2 cups Bajra, soaked overnight
1 cup Amaranth, soaked overnight
½ cup grated Coconut
Salt to taste
1 Tomato, chopped
Juice of 1 Lemon
Chopped Coriander for garnish
1 tbsp Green Chilies, chopped

Method:

1. Pressure cook bajra and amaranth with salt, turmeric & red chili powder for up to 3-4 whistles.
2. To prepare the Tadka, heat oil in a large pan, add mustard seeds and let crackle. Add cumin seeds, curry leaves, chopped garlic, chopped ginger and saute for a bit.
3. Now add chopped onion, coriander powder, mixed veggies, corn, cooked bajra, cooked amaranth, grated coconut, salt, chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, chopped coriander and cook well.
4. Serve with chaas, pickle and toasted papad.

Self actualising… through food

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A theory of dish hierarchy (A six part series )

Creativity, art and food go hand in hand. Crazy, borderless thinking and stretching the limits of the known is the key to all things creative. And yet it is when there is a method to this madness that the whole comes together. The science of design stresses that art pleases our eyes for a reason — it might be harmony, contrast, balance, perspective or all of these. But even before you seek to create anything, you need to understand your medium. For me this is food.

I have always been fascinated by the Maslow Theory. And over the years I have built what I call Ranveer’s hierarchy of dish structure inspired by it. A detailed glimpse of the same can be found in my new book as well. I strongly believe that all great artists, regardless of their medium, including chefs (make no mistake the best chefs of the world are artists — their medium is food) arrive at a basic set of practices over their career that they apply in creating their masterpieces: The canvas, the medium, the framework, the subject, the colour combinations…

And then there are the less tangible things: An overall sense of balance and harmony and most importantly the soul of the artist himself, a piece of which gets left behind in every creation by him. To get creative with food, we first need to understand what happens when we eat. All reactions to food are based on the human senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. The saying “when we eat, we eat with our eyes first…” is true. How food looks determines the first reaction to it. Then as one gets closer to it, the aromas come into play.

When food comes in contact with mouth, the palate comes into action bringing along with it the brain and a gamut of intangible reactions like perception and taste memory. So, on hierarchy of dish structure, with any recipe or a dish — and this is on the assumption that the elements that make up the dish are technically cooked perfectly, the basic structure would be dependent on the levels of taste, flavour, texture, appearance, aroma (stimulating taste, touch, sound (on the bite), sight and smell respectively).

When I create a dish, I look at it from the POV of the person who will eat it. I approach it holistically and take that into account, as a chef, when I create a dish, I construct it foundation outwards (taste is the first accomplishment and presentation the last), but the eating experience of the diner is visually inwards (he encounters presentation first). This is important because I have to keep this in mind right through the creation process to achieve the right balance in my dish. The diagram explains it better.
You can read more about it in my book available here.

The sweet culinary heroes of Old Delhi

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In the streets of a city lives its soul. Whenever I am travelling, I try to imbibe the culture of the city through its streets. Some Indian cities are treasure troves of secrets and stories that are hidden in its streets. Old Delhi is one of them. Ghanteywaala halwai and Ashok Chaat shutting shop was a shocker to all foodies. It’s sad that 200 years of history just got washed away in the tide of modernisation. That’s why it’s important for all of us to know these stories and pass them down to keep interest and conversations alive about these spaces. Let me walk you through some of these lanes and tell you some such stories.

Opposite Badal Begh Masjid, below the erstwhile residence of the famous Indian actress Meena Kumari in a small shop sits Jamaluddin a 60 something gentleman, who has only one thing on his mind and menu, Kheer. This 150 plus year-old kheer shop has been frequented by commoners and bureaucrats alike after an evening of spicy food in Old Delhi. Jamaluddin is happy selling what he has and going home and has no interest in opening another shop, his next generation has no interest in kheer or the legacy, so visit Bade Mian kheer in the next couple of years before it gets lost in the annals of history.

All is not that gloomy though, take the example of the Dareeba Jalebi shop in Chandni Chowk. Abhishek Jain is a 30 something enthusiastic entrepreneur, whose family has a jalebi shop started by his grandfather in 1940s. Abhishek takes great pride in the family legacy and is seen every day at the shop in the evenings. He talks about his grandfather with great passion and pride and puts as much passion in talking about how he has not changed the recipe of the sugar syrup by even an ounce.

Then there’s the iconic Chaina Ram Halwai, Sindhi confectioners, who migrated to India and continued to do what they did best in their shop in Karachi, make the world sweeter. The long lines for poori-sabzi in the morning are a testament to the finesse of the kaarigars and their recipes that have come from Sindh and are still held as close to the heart as they were in the yesteryears, Chaina Ram is not going anywhere for sure. Then there are the old corner chaatwallas who will make you Kulla chaat — an Old Delhi legacy on request, the fruit sandwich wale Jain sahib, the fruit cream-waale sardarji and the many more milk and lassi shops that tell a story of yesteryear glory. All waiting to be discovered.

Next time in Delhi enjoy a metro ride to Old Delhi and make these food heroes feel important, you will help ensure that they are interested and proud owners of a food legacy unparalleled.

Malpua through a magnifying glass…

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I went for an Iftar trail through Mohammad Ali Road, a tradition ingrained in me from my origins in Lucknow. Ramzan is the time when the real food and foodies come out in the evenings for a true feast of all senses. A time when there is colour, aroma, flavour and love in the air.

There’s a plethora of dishes that are only Ramzan specific. Every shop owner will bring out a signature dish that you get only in the holy month, which is usually a dessert. Sandal is such a dessert which shows up only during this time, it’s a steamed fermented rice cake (very close to the Goan sanna in flavour, although lighter in texture),which is topped with malai and nuts; if overtly sweet is not your thing, this is just the right dessert for you. Malai Khaja is another such dish which although available all year round, gains importance in the holy month. The sweet to really look out for and acknowledge though, is the Malpua.

The beaten egg condensed milk flour emulsion gets all the attention as it is being dropped into flat kadhais with ghee to form big, full moon like pancakes that are topped up with rabri or eaten with Phirni. Most shops go through anywhere between 2,000 to 5,000 eggs in one night. The double egg version is more fluffy and crispy for obvious reasons. While I was sampling the Malpua it struck me as an amazing story of taste crossing borders and religions.

It is a sweet that stands for festivities and celebrations across the country and beyond. I have grown up eating Malpuas in winter spiced with fennel and black pepper. It has been the food of the gods, having been a part of the Chhappan Bhog at Puri during the evening prayers for centuries. Bengali, Maithili and Oriya malpua is traditionally made only with thickened milk and a little flour (sometimes rice flour instead of wheat flour). In Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh there are several variations, using some or all of the following ingredients: maida (refined flour), semolina, milk, and yogurt. The batter is left to stand for a few hours before being spooned into a tawa or a kadhai of hot oil to form a bubbling pancake, which should be crisp around the edges. The pancakes are then immersed in a thick sugar syrup and are a must-have on Holi.
Malpua also known as Marpa in Nepal is specially made in the Kathmandu Valley, which uses maida, mashed up ripe bananas, fennel seeds, pepper corns, milk and sugar into a batter and prepared in a similar way as in India. So if you haven’t already been to Mohammad Ali Road, do go and dig in to get a first hand experience of food beyond borders.

The Humble Banana

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Some aspects of our diet are sometimes just taken for granted. Take breakfast for example, the most important meal of the day that gets least attention. Similarly bananas are another aspect of our diet that’s “there” and needs no speaking about in the age of strawberries and fruit exotica. Well for starters, banana is a berry and of the 107 countries that banana is grown in, India certainly is a prominent contributor to its consumption. Well let’s keep this crisp and glorify this humble fruit with a five points covering why we recommend you fall in love with this fruit.

1 Bananas help overcome depression due to high levels of tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin — the happy-mood brain neurotransmitter.
2 Bananas balance your blood composition and relieve anemia with the added iron .
3 High in potassium and low in salt, bananas are able to lower blood pressure and protect against heart attack and stroke.
4 Bananas are a superb detox as they are rich in pectin, thus helping aid digestion and gently remove toxins and heavy metals from the body.
5 Bananas are a natural antacid, providing relief from acid reflux and heartburn.

Steamed Banana and Walnut Loaf

Ingredients
150 gms ground oats
150 gms almond flour
400 gms whole wheat flour
400 gms brown sugar
300 gms honey
12 golden bananas
180 gms walnuts
17 gms baking soda
17 gms baking powder
500 ml olive oil
Method
1. Combine all the dry ingredients together along with the ripe mash banana, sugar and honey and let it mix with the paddle attachment.
2. Add olive oil to the mixture and mix it thoroughly.
3. Divide the batter into the prepared tins.
4. Bake them on a double boil at 175 C for 20 – 25 minutes. Serve warm with low fat whipped cream.

Raw Banana Croquettes

Ingredients for raw banana croquettes
4 boiled raw banana
Salt to taste
2 tbsp grated cheese : 2 tbsp
1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
1tsp garam masala powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp chopped coriander
2-3 tbsp red kidney beans
All purpose flour to coat
1 1/2 tbsp oil to roast

Ingredients for the salad
1 tomato
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 tbsp feta cheese
1 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt to taste
Crushed black pepper as required
1 tbsp chopped coriander

For garnish
Banana chips as required
Sour cream as required
1 pinch red chili powder
1 coriander leaf

Method
1. Take the boiled raw banana and peel it and take it out in a bowl.
2. Now add salt, grated cheese, lemon juice chopped garlic, garam masala powder and cumin powder.
3. Also add red chili powder, chopped coriander and red kidney beans, in this mixture and prepare the tikki.
4. Heat oil in a pan and cook the tikki from both the sides. For the salad cut long wedges of the tomato and them.
5. Keep the salad on a plate and keep the tiiki on it. Decorate it with banana chips. Put the sour cream on a plate, sprinkle red chili powder and garnish with coriander leaves.

Decoding Umami

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Umami, is a much-talked about taste these days. Thanks to the Japanese, we’d say, let’s wait and talk about Umami for a moment; because while it was the last taste perception to be discovered, it actually plays a key role in a dish. Umami is present in some form in all foods. Umami is Japanese for ‘pleasant savoury taste’.

Described as a pleasant ‘brothy’ or ‘meaty’ taste that has a long-lasting effect of, causing the mouth to water and the tongue to feel coated in a pleasant manner. Umami balances taste and rounds out the overall flavour of a dish. Foods rich in umami have existed since ancient times. Garum, fermented fish sauces from ancient Rome, Murri, fermented barley sauces from medieval Byzantine, the fermented fish and soy sauces of South-East Asia, bonito flakes, kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms of Japan are all examples. Naturally occurring glutamates are found in many foods although food additive mono sodium glutamate (MSG) is best associated with umami.

Now, umami never features on our taste checklist in India, subconsciously it has always existed. We have been sending umami signals to our brain forever. Traditionally, Indian food gets its umami in two ways. The first is from ingredients such as green peas, raw jack fruit, gucchi or dried morels, sweet potatoes, walnuts, lotus root, poppy seeds, sesame oil, ginger and coriander seeds together are big sources of umami as well. The other source of umami in Indian food comes from two processes we use regularly, like fermentation (of Kanji, breads like hoppers and Goan sannas) The cuisines of the North East are full of umami rich foods).

The process of ‘Bhunao’ is another one that triggers umami. The typical Indian process of caramelising our onions and garlic lends umami to our food. The North East is umami galore with brilliant fermented dishes coming out of the kitchens. While umami is definitely addictive and novel, it is not alien at all. It’s a taste that has always existed and is being defined now.

Stay Cultured!

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Revival of fermentation and how India is catching up…..

World over, the phenomenon of fermentation and preserving food by bacterial action is both an ancient art and a hot new trend. Indian chefs are delving deep into the science of bacterial action on food and discovering the beauty of the concept.What we are also discovering is that inducing culture into food and then controlling it is not inherently built in our culture.

Fermentation for leavening without addition of any culture is often used in the south for idlis, dosas and vadas, but fermentation has never been seen in our culture as a method of preservation, one definite reason being the hot and humid climate which makes it difficult to manage and control bacterial action. Even in the west, this whole cultured culture (before getting revived as probiotics) was pretty much a thing of the past, modern methods of food manufacture do not accommodate fermentation as fermentation was never a large scale thing and it is difficult to control, making it impossible for two batches to taste the same. So standardisation methods such as pickling with vinegar instead of salt were introduced.

Canning and pasteurisation became the new science and hygiene became prima facie. Food became transportable and with amazingly long shelf life, but these modern versions of pickles, sauerkraut and such lacked the vitamins and enzymes that natural fermentation gives food , in a way modernisation undid thousands of years of tradition in a few decades. Sad as the story is, the happy part is that traditional fermentation is enjoying a revival across the world and India is catching up. Fermented black garlic is now a common sight in fine dine spaces in Mumbai. Probiotics have established themselves as a need and Indian cheese making industry is now dishing out some memorable cheese.

Dahi our very own cultured probiotic is being recognised by the world along with other cultured products (with a cult following if I must say ) Kefir, Ayran and Doogh, our acceptance of more cultured products was definitely started by cheese and now the three cornerstones of fermentation (cheese, wine and bread) have become a combination of common gastronomic parlance. Most bacterial cultures and starter kits are now available online, do order them see the instructions (even if you don’t follow them ) and make your food alive in the literal sense. Stay Cultured!

The Paan trail

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In my travels for food, Benares holds a very special place for its 24 hour “naashta” culture and for the reverence for Paan. The paan is a matter of great study and every aspect related to it is either a custom or a ceremony. I have to say after the cooks (Or In Benares even before the cooks) it’s the ‘Paanwalas‘ that command the most respect and admiration. Like no two cooks can cook the same dish exactly the same way no two Panwaaris will make the exact same paan and people travel miles for their Panwaari, believing that he has the “Taste” in his hands. Distinctive varieties of betel leaf now grow, notably Bangla, Meetha, Sanchi, Kapoori, Devasri and Ambari.

So lets look at the Paan through the lens of Indian History. The leaf of the Betel vine (Piper Betle) is usually chewed with the Areca nut (also mistaken to be the fruit of the same betel Vine and hence called Betel Nut sometimes). It’s recognised in Sanskrit as being a south Indian Practice (then called Malaya). Its earliest North Indian references are in the Buddhist Jataka Tales.

However the world History is much older, proving again that Paan and paan-chewing, is a migrated influence from Vietnamese Subcontinent. An old Vietnamese book – “The Life story of Tan and Lang”, is dated 2000BC and mentions the Custom; proving the practice to be common and extremely ancient in South east Asia.

The term “Betel” for leaf is said to have been coined by the Portugese and originates from the term “Vetthile” in Malayalam. However the astringent “Katha” usage in Paan, is believed to be of Indigenous origin mentioned by Charaka and Sushruta for its medicinal properties…