Back to the roots

We all have fond memories of food cooked by our mum, grandmas or aunts. My grandma (Amma) was a fabulous cook. My grandma also had the most beautiful rustic kitchen in our ancestral home in Aversa, Karnataka. It was a longish kitchen with a mud stove, where food would be cooked on wood fire. Just above the stove there was a small window that worked like a chimney.

The beautiful sparkling brass, copper and steel utensils would be standing proudly on the wooden shelves near the stove. Small brass containers filled with ingredients required for daily use like coffee, tea, sugar closer to the stove. Masalas and batters would be ground on a ragda (stone grinder) and spices would be pound on a khal batta (motar and pestle). Her food would always taste divine.

The smell of the wood fire would bring a beautiful smoky aroma to the dish. Today when I travel to quaint villages in India and I smell food cooked on wood fire, its nostalgic. I always wondered, why the smoke from the wood fire remind me of Amma’s food? The answer to this I found which I must share with you was that, the burning of wood breaks its cellulose, which releases two chemical compounds that excite our sensation to smell to detect unique taste and smell. The experience of something being flavorful is a combination of taste and smell.

When Amma would visit us in the city she would bring a lot of goodies along with her, some raw ingredients as well. Mum a great cook herself would cook them just they way Amma would make it but there was always a difference in the flavors and Amma would always attribute it to the latest gadgets that would make cooking fast and easy, or the newer variety of utensils one was using. Though mum always stuck to cast iron, brass and clay utensils. I guess the water in the city would also alter the change in the taste, but Amma always had her fixed thoughts and it was difficult to convince her otherwise. She would always insist on using the age old methods of cooking, giving her reasons, which I totally agree with today.

A few years back, I shifted to new home with modern interiors with a beautiful modular kitchen. The utensils I bought were also the kind that would suit the kitchen, mostly the pretty looking, colorful, non – stick cookware. The food would get cooked easily with less oil and also initially I thought it was easy to maintain. I changed my mind quiet soon about that, as sometimes by mistake the cook would use a metal spoon to stir and then oops a scratch would be seen and then it has to be simply thrown away.

We at home love hot, crisp dosas and can have them for any meal. On the weekend the menu is usually a spicy masala dosa with sambar and chutney. I got out my non stick dosa pan very happily and excited to spread the dosa batter and looked forward to some crips, golden dosas. But the outcome  was not exactly what I had expected. The dosa was white as if white washed even after keeping on the tava for a little longer than usual smearing it with oil and crinkled on the edges and it looked so unappealing. The excitement was over in no time.

Disheartened I called my mum and she tried talking to me about switching over to the old traditional utensils. Honestly I was not very receptive to that initially as seasoning, brass, copper and cast iron utensils seemed like a task and then the thought of maintaining by regularly seasoning them just scared me as most of us don’t have the time and energy for all this with all that we do to survive in the city.

Exactly a week later, mum came over home to see how settled we were and she bought a cast iron tava along with her as a small gift from her end. That was the best gift I could have received. She had called for it from the village and had seasoned it by washing it with a mild soap, wiped it dry and simply coated it with a thin layer of oil and left it in the sun for 24 hours. Repeated the process for three days and voila! The pan was ready to be used. The next time dosas turned out just like the way I love, crisp, golden and thin as paper.

This experience made me think of changing my non stick cookware to the age old traditional ones. I didn’t do it over night by slowly and steadily over six months I managed to replace most of the non stick utensils.

So, at first I bought a cast iron kadhai, seasoned it the same as mum had and the first recipe I cooked in that was a chicken sauted in a masala with onions and spices. The outcome was amazing to look at and tasted delicio.

Cooking in the cast iron kadai was great, the masala would get bhunoed (sauted) evenly as cast iron heats evenly and the masala would get the perfect brown color and the food would cook evenly and quiet quickly. By now I was throughly enjoying cooking with this new introduced piece of equipment and soon I realized it was time to move on further.

I went one day to matunga market and bought a clay utensil to cook our traditional stew and curries. After googling on the internet and getting confused with all the different ways, as usual, mum came to the rescue.She told me to collect all the starch water from the cooked rice which I would usually drain off and soak the clay pots in that for three days. On the third day she told me to wash it with mild detergent, dry it in the sun for a few hours and then coat it with oil and place it on the stove and heat it on a low flame for an hour and then fill it with oil and fry bhajiyas and lo! The clay pot was good to be used. The prawn curry that I cooked in that got me many compliments from my foodie family. After the successful attempt cooking in a cast iron kadhai and a clay pot, there was no looking back. The adventures in the kitchen were getting very interesting and exciting.

I frequently travel to Pune a city 150 km away from Mumbai and I love visiting Tulshi baugh, a market place which has quaint small stores that sells a variety of unique as well as traditional cooking equipment’s and many other things. My cook at home would always tell me amazing stories of food which always had the mention of grinding the masala on the stone.I went there with an intension to buy a pata varvanta (stone grinder) and grind masala’s on that. The old gentleman who I bought it from was quiet a unique character suiting the place. He was quiet surprised to see me enquiring about the various sized stone grinders that he was exhibiting, as my appearance didn’t make him believe that I would use one, let alone use it but he also seemed to have a doubt if I even knew how to use one. He assumed  I was going to keep it as a prop and so was trying to sell me a not so good one till I sternly explained to him I needed to use it.

He figured I was serious and slowly started telling me how to cure it before I used it. He told me to wash it, soak it in water for 5 days. Wash clothes on it after that! I was like who the hell washes clothes on a pata varvanta!! He calmly told me one needs to do that to get rid of the impurities and the tiny grains of stone that are loose on the flat platform and after grinding some soaked rice he said I could use it freely. Well I did exactly what he told me and when the pata varvanta was good to be used I ground a coconut based masala for a okra curry. It was not just fun grinding on it but the flavor of the curry was different and way better. This was because when you grind in an electric grinder the heat that is produced alters the flavor of the ingredients. I remembered my grandma telling mum that garlic ground to a paste in an electric grinder is probably making the garlic taste a bit bitter vs pounding it to a paste on the stone or motar and pestle. Well she was right.

Recently I made a dhaba chicken curry using techniques like pounding the spices and the aroma of the curry was all over the home, which was mouth watering. Basically the pounding of the spices had broken each cell of the spice releasing its aroma and the oil secreted enhanced its flavor and so the curry was truly a great hit at my home.

I never had thought a slight change in the methods and equipment for cooking would bring out such fabulous results. Cooking has always made me happy and feeding my loved ones satisfying, but the use of traditional cookware has enhanced my cooking even further and that pleasure cannot be described! So when are you all planning on taking the plunge

Here is a recipe of a crab curry cooked in a brass utensil (you can use chicken or mutton as an option)

INGREDIENTS

10 crabs cleaned / 1 kg mutton or chicken

3 onions sliced

1 large onion finely chopped

1 1/2  cups of grated fresh coconut

1 1/2 cup of grated dry coconut

2 tbsp of malvani garam masala powder (available in any grocery store, if not a regular garam masala is an option)

4 tbsp oil

1 tbsp ginger and garlic paste each

Salt to taste

METHOD:

1- Heat a cast iron pan and sauté the sliced onions till golden and then add the fresh coconut and fry till slightly brown and finally add the dry coconut and roast till the mixture turns a nice brown. Cool and grind to a fine paste.

2- Heat the oil in a brass vessel and add the oil. Once the oil is hot add the chopped onions and sauté till the onions are soft yet pink and then add the ginger, garlic paste and sauté till the raw smell has gone.

3- Add the malvani masala and the crabs / mutton / chicken and sear it on a high flame for 3-4 minutes

4- Add the ground onion coconut paste and mix well. add 2 liters of water and salt and cover and cook (crabs for 15 minutes and the meats till done).

5- Serve hot with chapatti or bhakri or any bread of your choice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TREE OF LIFE

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A coconut tree is once such tree where each and every part of the tree is useful.

The roots were used to make dyes, tooth brush, mouthwash and it also has medicinal values.

The leaves are used to make thatched roofs. Also used in making containers for storage. We store rice

The coconut water, we all love to drink. The thick, crisp, inner flesh of the mature seed is a regular ingredient in a diet for people in the tropics and subtropics.And from the same flesh of the mature seed oil is extracted, which is used for cooking and frying. Coconut milk is also made from the same, which is used to flavor different curries.

The coir from the fibrous husk is used in making a variety of furnishing products.

The coconut also has a religious and cultural significance in certain societies particularly in India

On this note I want to share some memories of a trip that I took to my village.

The part of India that I hail from Karawar in Karnataka is rich and luscious with coconut trees. Whenever I visit my maternal ancestral home the first thing that is served is fresh coconut water.

I went to Aversa a village  few kilometers away from Karwar where my ancestral home is in the rains. It was a trip that was planned on the spur of the moment. At 8:00 am in the morning I got a call from my uncle Balu kaka, saying I should attend the Nopi festival, which was a day away. So by 9:00 am I packed my bag and headed to the airport. Surprisingly I managed to get a ticket for the next flight and landed in Goa at 1:30 pm.

Found a local taxi that would take me straight to Aversa. It was a beautiful mesmerizing two, hour drive. Driving through the small winding roads and passing through quaint villages was so nostalgic. Finally reached Aversa and on seeing my entire family the fatigued of the travel just vanished.

As always Balu Kaka (uncle) went and plucked a coconut and served me fresh coconut water while the rest of the family was surprised to see me. Balu kaka and I decided to make it a surprise after her had convinced me to come. My parent, cousins, aunts and uncles were really happy that I came.

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The evening was spent well with family, we went for a long walk to our fields nearby and then returned home to see a sumptuous spread that my aunts and mum had made of fried fish, batatya talasni (sauté potatoes), dalitoi (dal made with ginger and chilles and laced with coconut oil) and rice. Nothing to beat a simple home cooked meal.

The next morning was even more fun. We all cousins had left for a town called Ankola at 6:00 am to buy the vegetables, coconuts, fruits and the rest of the ingredients that were going to be needed for the pooja the next day, where after the pooja the entire village is given a feast and so we had to go to the town to procure all the goods. All the ingredients and us cousins were loaded on a small truck back to Aversa, where the truck driver dropped us off to the village temple. The bumpy ride back home was fun but our bones were creaking too at some point.

My uncle who was the chef and in charge sorted the vegetables, fruits, flowers and over 100 coconuts and kept in their respective places. He was going through his lists and checking the stock and scribbling on small chits of papers assigning jobs for the prep.

After a while it was announced that I will be chopping vegetables along with other ladies of the village and then if time permits and my job done, I was also instructed that I would have to assist in making the garlands for the gods. These are anyways a few of my favorite jobs to do.

The menu for the next days lunch was a very elaborate and a traditional one of gajbajya randoi (a vegetable curry using gourds), muga molya randoi (sprouted mung curry), bhendi ghosalya upkari (okra and ridge gourd vegetable), dalitoi, rice, ambaya nonche (hog plum pickle), payasam (Kheera), kesar bhaat (saffron and sugar rice). The number of people eating would be 600, so one can imagine the kilos of vegetables to be chopped and the number of coconuts to be scraped, sounds tough but I was sure it would be fun.

In the afternoon after we returned home, the rest at home were relaxing in the courtyard sipping wine and vodkas and relishing freshly fried crisp mackerel that Balu kaka was frying and having a gala time. We joined in as well and had a wonderful afternoon where lunch went on till 4 pm till we finally one by one crashed in our beds for an afternoon siesta.

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After a cup of hot tea in the evening at around 7:00 pm we all assembled in the temple courtyard where the vegetables were washed and kept. We were 8 women who were on the job of chopping vegetables. As we were about to start one of them started singing hymns and the rest followed. I don’t know how to speak kanada very well so I was a silent observer enjoying it completely. By about 10:00 pm all the veggies were chopped and the coconuts were scraped and everything was neatly kept in a small room and locked.

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The next morning my uncle Gundu who was the chef woke up at 4:00 am and after a cold water bath at the well and headed to the temple kitchen with his team. So for this festival the cooking is done only by the males of the family, while the women get dressed in their fineries and head to the temple for the pooja.

So I along with the rest of the ladies at home, got ready in my fineries and went off to the temple and sat down to make the garlands.

The next few hours were just totally divine and mesmerizing. The melodious sounds of the mantras, the fragrance of the flowers, camphor and the incense sticks and the rain had simply put me in trance.

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By the time the pooja was over it was 1:30 pm and all the villager were queued up with their little offering of flowers, bananas and coconuts. After which they all moved to a hall where the food was going to be served. I too went along with my family, but to serve the lunch that was cooked by my uncle.

It was a long hall with a smooth slurry flooring where the banana leaves were placed in rows. One by one all the villagers sat down and washed their banana leaves with the water that was served for drinking. After that we all started to serve. First the pickles and salt was served followed by the dry vegetables and then the curries. Finally the rice and dal was served. After the priest finished saying some mantras aloud the people started eating. The system of serving was so well organized that I just didn’t imagine we had serve more than 600 people that afternoon. At the end my family and I sat and relished the meal to our hearts content.

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I returned home really tired but totally satisfied. This was indeed one of the best trips ever for me.

What’s cooking today?

Varan.jpgThe weather has been really hot these days and with the temperature rising by the hour all I can think is of simple food and lots of cold water to drink.

As usual Sarita my cook came and asked me in the morning what would I like to eat for lunch and I thought what could be better than the humble Varan Bhaat (dal and rice) for lunch today.

So basically Varan is a dal made by simply boiling Toor dal (pigeon peas) along with some turmeric powder and asafetida, the cooked dal is mashed, some cumin seed powder, jaggery and salt is added and then the dal is further boiled till it’s nice and thick. This humble varan tastes best when eaten along with hot steamed ambe mohar rice (a variety of rice that grows in Maharashtra which literally means mango blossom as it has a strong aroma reminiscent of mango blossoms) and a dollop of home made tup (ghee)

So the varan is a vegan preparation which is a typically from the Maharashtrian or Goan cuisine which is served on all occasions.

In most Maharashtrian homes varan, bhaat is served as the first course followed by chapatti and vegetables.

A varan, bhaat, tup and limbu (lemon) is a complete meal by itself. Proteins from the dal, the carbs from the rice, fat from ghee and vitamin C from the lemon makes it a complete meal.

Most Maharashtrians even today have this at breakfast. I would always find it very unusual till I realized we also have Idli, sambar and chutney for breakfast using the same ingredients.

Long ago I had heard a story of a women who on her death bed told her sister in law that after she dies her son should be fed nothing more than varan, bhaat twice in a day as she was aware of the sister in law ill treating the son after her death. The mean aunt was more than happy to fed the mother less soul remains of varan, bhaat along with some ghee and lemon wedge. The boy in turn grew up to be healthy and strong, as his aunt was not aware of the goodness of this simple meal, unlike the mother.

So today its Varan, bhaat, tup and limbu for me!

 

 

Moringa! ……not a film character but a tree!

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Yesterday I went to the local market gadding about looking out for some unique vegetable that I could buy and cook.

After walking for a bit I reached my regular vegetable vendor Ram Prasad who usually sells leafy vegetables and I found a small cane basket full of tiny white flowers tucked away slyly in a corner. The basket was not clearly visible

Curiously I looked deeper in the corner and I realized they were the moringa flowers and suddenly there was a big smile on my face.

I gave Ram Prasad a look which made him feel guilty of hiding those flowers from me and he quickly tried to cover up his blunder saying that the produce was too less to be sold and so he had kept it away.

Well after all the convincing he tried I bought the small basket of the moringa flowers and walked back home like I had won the war.

My staff at home, were very excited to see these flowers and were not sure what I would make of it. I told them a story of my childhood, which I will share with you all as well.

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In my hometown Aversa we have our ancestral home which we would visit every summer vacation. My Grandma would eagerly wait for all of us to come and relish the different varieties of mangoes, guava, chickoo and jackfruit. It would be a feast for us to gorge on the amazingly tasting fruits.

So in the front garden she had planted some mango trees, a guava tree, a chickoo tree, a jackfruit tree and right in the corner of the garden there was this delicate Moringa or drumstick tree.

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The leaves, flowers and the drumsticks of this tree are used in our cuisine. With the leaves Amma (grandma) would make a simple vegetable, which would be sautéed in coconut oil, onions and green chillies and garnished with fresh grated coconut.

The drumstick would be used in sambar and many a times coated with chilli powder and rava and pan fried crisp to perfection.

 

Back then food would be cooked on wood fire. Every morning Amma would offer a small prayer to the Agni deva before she would lit the fire. Then she would scrape fresh coconut for the meal and grind it along with some spices on a stone grinder to make curries. My favorite part would be to grind on the stone, pluck the fresh vegetables for the curry.

 

One morning while we were all seated on the floor for breakfast with banana leaves placed in front of us and garma garam soft idli and sambar served she asked me to help her pluck the morninga flowers after I had finished, but my excitement and impatience took over my hunger and I simple left the breakfast and dragged her to pluck them.

While we were picking the flowers I asked her what was she going to cook with these pretty looking flowers and she smiled and said Vade (cutlets) I was quiet surprised and had a puzzled look on my face. She looked at me and said wait until you taste it. After picking the flowers I trailed behind her to the kitchen. She placed them on platform and asked me to clean them and wash them genteelly.

She put some freshly scraped coconut and spices to grind on the stone and I offered to help and to her surprise I managed to make a paste just the way she wanted and the cutlets with the moringa flowers were made

img_8405The feeling of helping Amma cook a dish even today boosts my morals when I am cooking something difficult

Is simplicity so difficult? …

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This maximum city has got us a lot of opportunities to grow and become successful. Even an uneducated person who comes from a village can make a living for himself here, which is amazing! But in the quest of growth some how I realized the simplicity of life has been lost.

I very vividly remember as a child every weekend my dad would make it a point to spend time with us, either go out for a weekend or Friday night would be a movie and Saturday night would be dinner at some restaurants close by, be it Chinese at Nanking or Flora, the Great Punjab for my simple dinner of alu matter and roti.

Our weekend trips would be so much fun…. Dad would pick me up after school on a Friday evening with mum and my brother already in the car with our suitcases packed and then we would decided where to head… no hotel reservations, no itenary planned and yet those weekends would be adventurous… Mhateran, Pune, Nasik, Bellary, Kolhapur, Alibaug were a few places we visited… and the list continues. So my childhood has been memorable.

As I grew up and went to college I still remember I would be given Rs 25/- everyday as pocket money, which was sufficient and a railway pass to reach college. I would take a bus from my home to the train station and then a train from Bandra to reach college.

Now with the 25 rupees that I had, I had to figure out how to save some from it, for a snack with friends, just an outing or maybe a movie and trust me it was a fun challenge  to managing to save quit a bit of it and then go gadding about with my friends. For that, sometimes I would walk from the station instead of taking a bus or an auto rickshaw ride  back home and use that money to treat myself to a nice mango dolly after the long tiring sweaty walk.

So you can imagine how simple life was for me. A simple dinner of alu matter and a crisp roti, movies, long drives, a mango dolly …. Life was beautiful

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Today things have changed…. I live in an amazing house, own luxurious cars and eat in the most fancy restaurants, have loads of friends and yet life seemed empty. According to everyone round me I seemed to have “the perfect” life and felt what the hell am I cribbing about! And yes I did believe them and felt everything is good then why this hollow feeling of emptiness

After much thought I understood that “for me” life is about togetherness, simplicity and doing things that I love and feel happy doing, like I love to walk on Worli sea face while the sun is setting, or at night I love to sit at the far end of Marine drive over looking the city blinging with lights and tall buildings making the place look glamorous, while the sea in front of me talks of its vastness and consistency. As much as I enjoy eating in a fancy restaurant I also love to go to a small khanaval (eatery) and relish a simple meal. I prefer spending my time in buzzed up markets with cramped shops selling masalas, vegetables, utencils and not to forget flowers, I love going for long drives and stopping for an ice cream abruptly some place. Cooking, listening to music and painting are very therapeutic for me. It’s not the number of friends that I have but who are the ones who will stand by me was important.

After a bit of a struggle and a lot of thought put in, I did manage to get some simplicity in my life finally ….feeling blissful

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