Unsung summer heroes…

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Growing up in a joint family in a small town has its benefits. Learning the grandmothers’ ways of dealing with the ecosystem is one of them, especially when it comes to the change of seasons. Today we talk about eating local and seasonal. Any punjabi kid who has grown up in a small town with his “biji” (grandma) will tell you that it was a concept drilled in his/her system by the elders of the house.

Another aspect of growing up in a punjabi small town family is the ability to have conversations, especially with street vendors and the uncle at the corner grocery store. Being the designated errand boy of the family you start enjoying these trips to the vendors and they become extended family courtesy the conversations. These usually revolve around their merchandise and the uses of it and most of the knowledge of produce that I have stems from these memories.

Summer vacations used to be intense because the number of errands increased manifold and so did the conversations around summer produce. Mangoes are undoubtedly the mainstay of all summer conversation but then there are these unsung heroes that bring a lot to your summer table. Let’s talk about three of these today.

Jackfruit – If there’s something a kitchen novice is scared of its jackfruit. Indeed a messy proposition to manage while cutting, Jackfruit is immensely beneficial in summers due to high water and minerals (especially calcium and potassium) content. Eating jackfruit during summer prevents skin damage and also betters our vision.

Bel (wood apple) – Another love or hate me kind of fruit that is usually used raw by us “small town” boys for repairing kites with the natural gum in it!! Bel is a boon for hot summers, it is a coolant and an amazing source of minerals. The ripe bel is the best cure for summer dysentery and heat strokes.

Singhada (waterchestnut) – Amazing served raw or roasted, water chestnut is any woman’s summer delight. Proved to be extremely beneficial for skin and hair, they provide natural detox and are extremely beneficial in jaundice-like conditions and are a high source of much needed minerals.

In an age where local and seasonal is the “in” concept in eating, let’s go back to how our grandmothers dealt with the changing seasons and let’s start conversations with vendors on the sources and benefits of what they sell. It’s nature’s intention to help us deal with the change of seasons and all we need to do is look around and use what’s provided to us. This summer, make these unsung heroes a part of your lifestyle….

Jackfruit Biryani

Ingredients :

400 gms long grain rice
50 gms baby jackfruit, skinned and cut into about 50 gms pieces with hard inner core removed
Mari nation for jackfruit
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1 medium onion ground
8 to 10 green chilly paste
1 tsp cumin powder
½ tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp black pepper crushed
½ tsp red chili powder
¼ tsp turmeric
2 green cardamoms
6 cloves
3 medium onion, finely sliced
¾ cup yoghurt
½ tsp saffron, soaked in 1/3 cup warm milk
2 tbsp rose water
2 tbsp kewra water
2 inch sliced ginger
1 green chili, slit
1 tsp ghee

Life Lessons from the learned…

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There’s this comfort cocoon , a shell that all of us (or lets just say me) love going back to, to feel good about ourselves, our achievements and our contribution to society. This greatness is measured on our own scale and parameters that are a result of our experiences, perceptions and transactions in this world . Needless to say its hence coloured with our world view . And then (for all of us without doubt ) there are these eureka moments , these wake up calls that drag us out of this comfort zone with a feeling that there is a way of seeing life and achievements beyond how we see them.

I believe these eureka moments don’t show up to prove us wrong, there can be no wrong way of looking at life ,can it ?  they show up to create a moment for us, the moment of realization.

A question that I come across often (& often i am the one posing that question to myself ) is about finding happiness. Am sure that’s a common dialogue between us and the voice in our heads. finding happiness can be quite a task, keeping it once found, well that’s another story.
There have been two moments in my recent past when both me and the voice in my head have agreed to just be quiet and let the moment of realisation seep in , both these have been interactions with children , children whose parents earn (or used to earn when they were alive) way below the national average income .
MOMENT 1 : Every Diwali there’s an influx of children who come with their  families selling flowers and diyas .Their presence was unnoticed by me till three years ago when a dear friend, Ruchi Srivastava took the initiative of distributing food boxes to these kids who live on the sidewalk for the duration of this festive migration and help their parents earn.
Last Diwali I went out distributing these food boxes with hotel management students and saw the two powers at work, the power of giving and the power of children.  Like I had gone in the first year ,the students also went with an expectation of seeing scarcity and hunger , instead we saw happiness and gratitude. The only imperfection was in the way we were looking at them; for them, life was perfect. They were busy with life, studying or taking care of younger kin or tying together garlands for sale.
There was not one child who did not thank us for the food or who wasn’t curious why we were doing this.
We in fact were doing this for ourselves and that what all the students eventually realised, while we started out to fill in for a need on the streets we eventually filled up our souls with gratitude; the happiness that the students got was really moving.

My eureka moment that made me realise that our need to give is born out of our need to get(actually borrow, a little bit of happiness from these children )

MOMENT 2 : I was at another friend, Rushina’s cook Studio with young children from teach for India Foundation. It was supposed to be a quick visit to taste some egg dishes that they had made and it ended up being the most memorable 2 hours that will stay with me for this lifetime. these children (who were from extremely economically challenged families ) in Addition to happiness also showed another virtue , responsibility. Every dish tasted divine and the first guess for anybody would have been that these were seasoned hands at work. In a way they were because they were cooking ever since they were six or so due to challenging situations back home . This happy shock wasn’t enough to make my day , the best was yet to come.
There was apparently a test with 12 questions to check on how they had fared in their food classes, which various chefs had taken n the last 8 weeks . To me the questions seemed largely unfair to be asked to a bunch of 10-12 year olds and the silence that ensued post question paper distribution confirmed it for me , i stayed back just out of curiosity with no expectations. To make it easier on the kids i didn’t check the papers and started a discussion hoping to make them feel better for not knowing . what happened next moved me to tears ,suddenly everyone was excited to answer and everyone had the right answers . the reason for silence that i mistook for not knowing was for responsibly relaying what they had learnt and the quiet focus was on winning this challenge that had been posed . I had never heard a better explanation of how chocolate was made that i heard from a 9 year olds mouth . the process of fermentation was explained to me in a way that i had no more to ask . then i saw all answer sheets they had all questions answered in all papers . here i was trying to make them feel comfortable for not knowing where the only person to not know was me myself. lesson learnt – knowledge is not a function of resources available , its a function of commitment to learning which occurs in the human mind , the space where theres no rich or poor – only purity , love and happiness .
Life is about learning from the learned and i feel both silly and wiser now having learnt from more learned children around me (All thanks to people who take a stand for me and to Ruchi and Rushina who catalysed this learning for me)

The ‘King’ is back

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Spring time is the time of festivities and the start of the harvest. To a farmer it signifies abundance and food for the next year, hope and belief – in Mother earth and in the merit of hard work. To any Indian it signifies the arrival of the king – Alfonso. The mango that the world waits for.

The Portuguese, ever since they landed in Calicut have given us many things and got back many things in return starting late 1400s, whether it’s the art of plantation or the science of Nautical Navigation, there’s a lot that we have got; but the most significant gift has been the grafting of many a Brazilian Mango strains with ours (In fact the first people to use the word “manga” were the Portuguese).

Any Keralite would swear by the Mulgoba and any Indian will have Haapus or Alphonso sunk deep in their mango memories. The most common story is that It is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese administrator of Goa and Malabar, and Admiral. In one of the famous journeys undertaken, the Brazilian graft found its way during Afonso de Albuquerque’s voyage when he brought his famous namesake fruit to India. So, the Alphonso mango found home along the verdant shores of the Konkan in Maharashtra India. The locals took to calling it Aphoos in Konkani and in Maharashtra the pronunciation got further transformed to Hapoos. This variety was then taken to the Konkan region of Maharashtra and other parts of India.

Another folklore credits a Spanish Monk St. Alphonso Rodriguez. Since most varieties were named after grafters, the two things that are true are, one that it’s a grafted variety and two that it’s named after a Mr Alphonso – the person we thank every time there’s spring and the smell of Haapus comes to live in our kitchens.

Mango Flavored Brown Rice Phirni

1/2 cup soaked brown rice
4 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
6 tbsps sugar
1/2 cup alfonso mango puree
2 tbsps almond, peeled and sliced
Few strands of saffron
5 to six dry cranberries
Mint leaves for garnish

Method :
1. Soak the rice in water for an hour. Drain, wash and drain again. Pat dry on an absorbent kitchen towel and blend in a mixer.
2. Add ½ cup of cold milk and mix well to make a paste. Keep aside. Boil the rest of the milk and gently stir in the rice paste. Cook for about 15 minutes on a slow flame, while stirring continuously.
3. Add the sugar and simmer for a few minutes. Now add the mango puree and stir well.
4. Pour into serving containers and keep aside to cool. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve chilled garnished with almonds, saffron strands, mint leaves and dry cranberries.

Health and Diet

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All around us we see a spurt of health food and health food concepts. Physical Health has always been an important part of our well-being. It’s important to understand that food unfortunately bears the most brunt for our health issues and our lifestyle, of which our diet is only a small part. It’s time that we spoke about well-being and its relationship to lifestyle as a whole, rather than blaming a diet while just looking at our physical health. Here’s a couple of healthy recipes that can help you get there.

Anjeeer Kebab Samosa

5 to 6 Anjeer (dried figs) (soaked, drained and chopped)
I cum yam, boiled and mashed
1/2 tsp green chilies, chopped
1/4 inch ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
A few coriander leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp chaat masala powder
1 tbsp paneer, grated
1 tbsp hung curd
1 tbsp cashew nut paste
4 tbsp besan flour
1 tsp yellow chili powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
8 Samosa patti/ spring roll patti

1. Mix the curd, yam, cashew nut paste, besan, salt, yellow chili powder, garam masala and coriander leaves in a bowl. Add little water if required and mix to make a thick batter.
2. Mix the figs, green chillies, onions, ginger, chaat masala powder and salt. Take a portion of the yam mixture and stuff 1 to 2 tsp of the fig mixture in the middle. Shape into a round patty.
3. Heat oil in a nonstick pan and gently slide the kebabs and fry until golden brown. Remove and transfer to a serving plate.
4. Stuff the kebabs in samosa patty/spring roll patty and fold into triangle shape. Seal the edges. Dust a baking tray and arrange the samosas. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 degree C until cooked from both the sides.  

Baked Oondhiyo

For The Green Chutney
3/4 cup chopped coriander (dhania)
4 green chillies
1 tsp lemon juice
For The Garlic Chutney
10 garlic cloves
2 tsp chilli powder
For The Sweet and Sour Sauce

3/4 cup jaggery (gur)
1/2 cup tamarind (imli)
1/2 tsp chilli
salt to taste
Other Ingredients
750 gms surti papdi (fresh vaal)
500 gms purple yam (kand)
250 gms potatoes
250 gms sweet potato
2 to 3 brinjal
1 tsp carom seeds (ajwain)
1 tsp ginger – green chilli paste
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 to 2 tbsp oil
lettuce leaves
salt to taste
Green chutney, garlic chutney, sweet and sour sauce, sev and oil (optional) to serve

1. For the green chutney, blend all the ingredients in a liquidiser. Keep aside.
2. For the garlic chutney, blend all the ingredients in a liquidizer. Keep aside.
3. For the sweet and sour sauce, blend all the ingredients except coriander in a liquidizer. If too thick, add enough water to get the right consistency. Keep aside.
4. String the papadi. Do not separate into two. Peel the kand and cut into big pieces.
Cut the potatoes and sweet potatoes without peeling. Make slits on the brinjals.
5. Mix all the vegetables. Apply the ajwain, chilli-ginger paste, soda bi-carb and salt. Mix thoroughly and apply the oil all over.
6. In a small earthen pot (matka), put a few leaves of lettuce at the bottom. Fill with all the vegetables and cover with the remaining lettuce leaves. Cover the matka with an earthen lid and bake in a hot oven at 200 degree c (400 degree F) for 1 hour.
Alternatively, instead of cooking in a matka, wrap the vegetable mixture (without lettuce leaves) in aluminium foil and bake in a hot oven at 200 degree c (400 degree f) for 1 hour.
Serve with green and garlic chutneys and sweet and sour sauce, oil and sev.

The Chili history

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One of the many stories that Indians refuse to believe is the one of the chili and its origins. Its unfathomable as a layman to believe that Chilies are not Indian and are less than 300 years old! Well, true story and here it goes… India being their trading partner, the Europeans had used black pepper as a medicinal aid and to spice up their cooking since Greek and Roman times.

By the Middle Ages, black pepper had become a luxury item, sold by the corn and used to pay taxes. Traders looked for new ways to India and the lands beyond — not just for pepper but for other lucrative spices, and for silks and opium. Columbus did not find India and black pepper, but he found a fiery pod that would, within years, not only infuse Southern European cooking with bold new flavors but also revolutionize cooking in India.

The remarkable spread of the chili is a glorious chapter in the story of globalization. Few other foods have been taken up by so many people in so many places so quickly. Chilies belong to the genus Capsicum, family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. Only five of Capsicum’s 25 species have been cultivated, and in South America, where most of the world’s wild chilies are still found. The Europeans didn’t immediately fall for the chili, they did become its greatest propagator. Portuguese traders carried it to settlements and nascent colonies in West Africa, in India and around East Asia.

Within 30 years of Columbus’ first journey, at least three different types of chili plants were growing in the Portuguese enclave of Goa, on India’s west coast. The chilies, which probably came from Brazil via Lisbon, quickly spread through the subcontinent, where they were used instead of black pepper. Yet its amazing how India took to Chilies and used them for all possible aspects, colour, texture flavor and spice. Today if there is one common thread other than cricket and Bollywood that binds the country together it’s the “Mirch”. The often taken for granted chilly is here and here to stay, a perfect example of globalization even before the word made it to the modern day lingo….

Khichdi and other stories…

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When one thinks of khichdi, grains and millets invariably come to mind. India has always had an amazing array of grains; thanks to the varied climatic conditions and soil types. The variety of millets available in the interiors of the country is enough data for a book.

The unfortunate part however is that millet is an unstated grain grown by people who cannot market and sale. The green revolution undoubtedly did a lot of good for the Indian farmer, however the millets lost their charm in this era. I remember eating a porridge made from jhangoora, a pearl millet amazingly sweet and creamy, so much so that a drizzle of honey is enough.

Madhya Pradesh alone has more than 50 strains of millets and other strains of grains outside of rice and wheat. For me the foxtail millet stand out as the grain of MP. Collecting my thoughts back towards khichdi and the raj contribution towards Indian food, the British did a lot towards influencing Indian cuisine knowingly and unknowingly. The term curry word given by British as early as their arrival in Madras after having the local kari at fort George William. In fact the British sahabs and memsahabs who stayed in India were well-adapted to the romances of Indian cooking.

Grain, porridge was made all across India from the Vedic times. Khichdi was known as kshirika and was consumed across the country. There are mentions of Khichdi in the Mughal literature especially during Akbar’s times. Hence the common misconception that this term comes from kedgeree is not true. In fact it is the other way around. The British sahab and memsahab culture had its effect on exchange of home food. Similarly, in a recent conversation with Pushpesh Pant, a friend and food historian, he established that the ishtoo of Delhi, Lucknow and Benaras is indeed a mildly spiced do pyaaza called by a name the British understood better. More so, the British can also be credited with the revival of Delhi khandani food of Delhi as most old families dug out and cooked recipes from their kitchen repertoire to please the Sahabs for grant and titles.

Hence the British era saw a fair exchange of cooking styles and dish nomenclature. If we give khichdi to them we got the ishtoo back. Now let’s get some Indian millet back in our life to give the well marketed ‘imported super grains’ a run for their money.

Bajra Khichdi

Ingredients :
1/2 cup bajra , soaked or 8 hours and drained
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds (jeera)
1/4 tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
A few sprigs of coriander leaves
2 tbsps green peas, cooked
2 tbsp carrot, small diced, cooked
1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing)
Salt to taste

Method :
1. Combine the bajra, salt and 2 cups of water in a pressure cooker, mix well and pressure cook for for whistles. Allow the steam to escape before opening the lid. Keep aside.
2. Heat the ghee in a deep pan and add the cumin seeds. When the seeds crackle, add the asafoetida, turmeric powder and sauté for a few seconds.
3. Add the cooked bajra, boiled green peas, cooked carrots and salt mix well and cook on a medium flame for two to three minutes, while stirring occasionally.
Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve immediately.

Spice blends – Part 2

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Let’s bring our spice conversation home to Mumbai. Talking about spice mixes, it’s imperative that Mumbai and its cultural diversity would give birth to a lot of spice mixes…

East Indian Bottle MasalaBottle masala making is an annual event amongst the East Indian community of Mumbai that takes place prior to the monsoon, when hot sunny days are guaranteed. Masalas are mixed according to the house recipe. The masala consists of 20 spices or more in varying proportions with the main ingredients being – dry red chilies and coriander seeds. The spices have to be dried in the hot sun, prior to each condiment being roasted on a slow fire and then pounded in a wooden mortar with a wooden pestle. The bottle is then sealed and if sun dried and hand ground (well traditionally) then filled up traditionally in beer bottles (so the name). It is then used round the year to flavour their rich cuisine. The East Indians use it for everything. As with all good things, there are women in the community who specialise and could make it for entire villages of East Indians in suburban Mumbai! Bottle masala differs in pungency, flavour and even colour depending on the ingredients used. If properly stored, it can last a long time.

Parsi Dhansak Masala – This is a traditional Parsi spice mix used to make Dhansak, a dish which was born out of the amalgamation of Persian and Gujarati cuisines. Dhansak became very popular in the late 19th century, with the rapid growth of Mumbai and Karachi. The working men were provided with tea and snacks by Parsi immigrants from Iran, who had set up small tea stores on street corners selling soda water, biscuits, tea, omelets, and also dhansak. Hence Karachi and Mumbai, the coastal cities of the sub continent, became the two favourite cities of Parsis to settle in. Dhansak is a hearty lentil and vegetable-based mutton or lamb curry. It is made by combining bay leaves, mustard, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mace, chilli and pepper. Although a Sunday staple it’s traditionally a mourning dish and never served on weddings.

Maharashtrian Goda Masala – This is a typically a Maharashtrian spice mix, predominantly used to flavour vegetable and lentil preparations. It’s traditionally made in a large mortar pestle or Khalbatta. It is prepared by combining roasted and powdered red chillies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, poppy seeds, turmeric, asafoetida, dagad phool (stone lichen), naag keshar and badal phool. Because the spices are roasted the masala is dark, almost black in colour. Also called Sundåy masala as it’s sold in Sunday haats in the Konkan region.

Yet there is no masala conversation complete without the mention of Awadh. Like the legendary Lazzat-e-Taam, a spice mix with a minimum of 32 spices, but more about Awadh in the next column. Happy eating!

Spice blends – Part 1

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In most cuisines around the world, the all-important “secret ingredient” is often a blend of spices. Just a small amount stirred into a dish can add a world of flavour or connect us to home! Somewhere in their culinary evolution, humans began using herbs and spices to flavour their food. And as cuisines and classic recipes evolved, so did the use of combinations of spices and spice blends that were used to cook and flavour foods with.

India being the home to spices is of course home to numerous spice blends. And the making of spice mixes is still an activity that is sacred and in many places secret. They can also be defining of a cuisine. To begin at the milder end of the spectrum, the USA is home to Cajun Blackening Spice, which is a combination of salt, garlic, onion powder, thyme, oregano, hot and sweet paprika, white and black pepper, used to season roasts, stews, grills Cajun-style pan blackened dishes. With the phrase “as American as apple pie’ so popular, it isn’t surprising that American spice blends also include a couple of charming blends on the sweeter end of the spectrum.

While the Apple Pie spice blend is a perfect flavouring combination made of cinnamon, Cardamom, nutmeg and clove, it is the Pumpkin pie spice blend of “warming” spices, that is the general purpose spice blend made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, allspice and mace, that is used to uplift a bland pie to rich dessert standards; and is also stirred into sweet potato pies, cakes, cookies and custards.

Jamaica is home to the Jerk style of cooking in which meats (pork, chicken, fish, beef, sausage and now even tofu) are dry-rubbed with a fiery spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice; made of allspice and fiery Scotch Bonnet chilies, combined with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. The marinated meat is then barbecued over aromatic wood charcoal. In Europe and the Mediterranean, Quatre épices is a blend mainly used in France but also popular in the Middle Eastern kitchen. Literally meaning “four spices”, this blend combines pepper (white, black, or both), clove, nutmeg and ginger and is typically used in soups, stews, vegetable preparations and also in sausages and salamis.

Ironically Britain’s claim to Spice blend fame is Curry powder – a blend of spices created by any companies after the days of the Raj, to recreate the the flavors of India, for Englishmen homesick for India. Almost always made of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, recipes vary in their addition of ginger, garlic, red pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, black pepper, and other spices…but the most hilarious aspect of the Curry powder is the total absence of curry leaves!!

Options get more exciting as one comes to the Middle East, Iran, Lebanon and Eqypt; there are a variety of spice blends that aromatize the food. Literally meaning “top of the shop,” Ras el hanout is perhaps the most renowned Moroccan spice blend that can contain more than 30 ingredients. For Moroccan spice merchants it is a point of honour to have the most sought after version of this blend in the entire souk or market. Legendary spice blends that spice merchants have created for clientele might include ingredients as bizarre as hashish or even the notorious Spanish fly!

Dear winters…from India with love

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I remember having written about Boston winters a couple of years ago when I just got back to India, and how the change of seasons is so obvious in the European and North American lifestyle; the environment, clothing and most importantly, the produce. For us the change of seasons might not be that harsh but the winters bring a bounty of produce and a change in our eating habits that’s rooted, unique and inspiring. Whether it’s the Nihaari of Lucknow and Delhi, the fluffy milk froth (Malayyo in Benares, Daulat ki chaat in Delhi and Nimish in Lucknow), the Paya shorva of Hyderabad or the erstwhile shikaar (game) dishes of the royalty, the food of regions with an underlying Mughal influence is directed primarily by the phenomenon of Taseer (the heating/cooling effect of an ingredient on our body) and a bit by the seasonal produce. Oh, and not to forget mentioning the Kaali Gajar ka halwa from my city, Lucknow.

The regions that are influenced heavily by produce are Gujarat and Punjab. The Sarson ka Saag with gur and Makki ki roti is a true celebration of winter and will always remain a perfect example of a farm to table dish. Not to forget the Kanji, a fermented drink made with black carrots and mustard, the Malpuas and the Paneer Jalebis that cannot be given a miss. Another Indian region that celebrates seasonal cooking, especially winters is Bengal, Nolen Gur is truly the most remarkable sweet ingredient ever and Nolen Gurer Sondesh is the king of winter mishti (not to forget the Nolen Gurer payesh, nolen gorer rosogulla). It all starts with Telebhaja and sun-filled conversations that mark the advent of winters . The live fish are suddenly in demand (Mangur, shini and shol maachh) as they are believed to be warming, and pulkopi (cauliflower) dishes in Pice hotels complete the circle. Oh and did I mention the I, our version of the crepes stuffed with payesh or khoa? And that for you is a very small glimpse of winters in Bengal!!

However, in my opinion Gujarat takes the cake when it comes to celebrating winters. The unique produce that floods the market is remarkable and exciting for any chef — rattail radish (mogri), gumberries, lilua, winter greens and not to foget the green garlic. There would only be a few dining experiences better than enjoying Undhyu on a rooftop while flying kites on a chilly afternoon. Or the freshly roasted Ponkh (tender green jowar) or the one bite heartwarning lilwa (fresh toor) kachoris. The use of urad and spices (especially black pepper) in ladoos (uradiya) and other mithai is prevalant.

Another popular non vegetarian Bohri Muslim winter dish is the “dhokla” not to be confused with the farsaan, this is actually a mutton undhiyu with lots of surati papdi and green garlic that will leave you wondering why winters don’t last the entire year. Gujarat (especially south Gujarat) for me is a “must visit” state in winters (and all my Gujarati friends are on the frequently dialled list). I strongly suggest you do the same to make this winter memorable and friendships around food

All about tea…

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Growing up in a Punjabi family there are many superstitions that you grow up with the most common is “Drinking Chai makes you dark” this is a Punjabi’s first introduction to tea!! It’s only much later that we realise the beauty of this beverage to truly appreciate it in various forms.

Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact date in history, legend tells us that tea was first discovered 5000 years ago by Chinese Emperor Sheng Nong. A few leaves from a tea plant supposedly fell into his cup of hot water. And luckily for us, instead of discarding it, he tasted it! The rest is history….Like all good things, chocolate, chilies, coffee, the word of tea spread quickly. Tea drinking was soon widespread in China…and then spread to Japan and India thanks to Buddhist monks. By 1610 AD Tea had reached Europe. In fact Tea has been pivotal in history at any points. The American Revolution was set off by the Boston Tea Party in protest to a tax applied to tea !!

Tea is indubitably Chinese, and both the words the and cha are of Chinese origin. Cultivation has been practised for 2000 years, and at first the wild leaves were probably eaten as a vegetable. Brewing is described in a Chinese book of AD 220-65. The leaves were made into cakes, with rice added as a binder for older leaves and the cakes were then baked to remove the green.

While the Chinese discovered tea and propagated its consumption, Indian tea came from a tea plant indigenous to India. According to Indian historians the tea plant grew wild in the areas of Assam adjacent to China, where the best Chinese teas were cultivated and local Assamese tribes had been drinking tea for centuries and some areas along the Brahmaputra were even growing it. The cultivation of Tea in India only happened much later with the advent of the British Government. Initial attempts at cultivating tea from China withered but the pioneering work of Robert Bruce, a retired lieutenant from the British royal navy, paid off and the first crude teas were shipped to England sometime around 1848.

Indian culture of adding milk and spices to tea is believed to have started with the effort of making tea more warming and to cut down the acidity.

Tea is definitely good for health and the world around us is realizing that. Numerous studies have demonstrated the anti-cancer properties of polyphenols. Some studies indeed suggested that tea’s polyphenols may reduce risk of gastric, esophageal and skin cancers, if one consumes 4 to 6 cups daily. Other laboratory studies have found that polyphenols help prevent blood clotting and lower cholesterol levels. A recent study published in December 2005 showed that just 2 cups of tea may lower the risk of ovarian cancer by 46 percent in women.

So the next time you sip tea leave the superstitions aside and sip slowly into 5000 years of history……