Friday, January 18, 2008

Comfort Food

Comfort food was the theme for two food-blog events this month - Meeta's Monthly Mingle and The Garden of Eating. Comfort food almost always implies a simplicity, an ease of preparation and of the act of eating. No fiddly bits, no last minute need to watch the dish as it hatches, no need to fool around with the sophisticated kitchen equipment which you have spent half your life and life savings to put together. It’s all about retreating to the quiet place deep inside where the world appears comforting and cozy…in many ways, comfort food is about recreating childhood.

I think that’s one of the reasons that on days when we are stressed or the world becomes too cacophonous, most of us reach into that cupboard where we store the recipes of the food our parents fed us. It reminds us of a time free from all responsibility, when we knew that someone else would be around to feed us and look after us, hurt could be healed by a simple kiss and hug and someone knew all the answers. No matter how sophisticated a palate we develop as adults, or how accomplished we become as cooks, we reproduce the food that our mothers put on the table, and for a few minutes, in the act of eating the familiar tastes of childhood, we can forget the ambiguity of life as an adult.

For me, as a South Indian, comfort food has to include rice. I grew up on it, and we ate rice everyday, at a time when no one thought carbs were the enemy. We did have rotis occasionally – the unleavened bread of India. Dad made the most exquisite rotis I have ever eaten, thin, soft and multilayered, a lovely caramel colour, with darker spots of brown which were crisp. The rotis were so delicious that we didn’t need much else by way of accompaniment, a cucumber kosambri( salad) or even just a piece of homemade lime pickle and a bowl of homemade yoghurt – curds, as we call it – was enough. There is something about food that is made with love and dedication that elevates it into balm not only for the body but the soul.

But every day food for us was rice, and a variety of lentil preparations – saaru, huli, kootu, a south-indian style salad of finely chopped or grated vegetables with a splash of lime juice, finely chopped chillies and coriander leaves and the oil seasoning – hot oil with exploded black mustard seeds and curry leaves, and a vegetable made with the same seasoning but topped with grated fresh coconut. We would occasionally have something North Indian – chholey or rajma – but this was very much the exception, indulged in only when dad was out of town, because like most South Indian men, dad is a creature of habit. A meal means rice with the lentil dish, followed by mosaru-anna – rice topped with yoghurt, had plain or with a dash of salt, with a spicy pickle on the side.

Whenever I am feeling stressed out, I reach for my repertoire of rice dishes, accompanied by a lentil gravy. That and potatoes, which are the great comfort food cutting across cultures. The potato dish that comforts me most is a crisp potato sabzi, made from chopped, boiled potatoes. In a 1 tbsp quantity of hot oil seasoning of cumin seeds, you pop in the potato pieces and cook them slowly until they turn brown and crisp on the outside. You then flavour them with salt and chilli powder, and that’s it. I find it interesting that comfort food in many cultures is about bland and soothing food – for us Indians, whatever be the emotion, food has to be spicy!

My favourite lentil gravy dish for comfort is saaru.
Saaru is made out of tamarind water, flavoured with a special mix of spices and the addition of a tomato, some jaggery and salt, and if made with a smaller quantity of lentils can even be had as soup. The taste is sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at once. You might think that such a concatenation of flavours would be confusing to the tongue and far from comforting but one sip of it and I feel all content. Saaru is a particularly fragrant dish and while making it, the whole house is redolent with the smells of that hot, spicy mixture. As a saaru aficionado, you can tell just by smelling its fragrance in different homes what it is going to taste like – will it be on the sour side, will it have the right balance of sweet and sour, will it be too thin, is the masala spicy enough…

Saaru is topped with a seasoning made by heating fresh ghee ( clarified butter) – I always use homemade ghee which tastes and smells much better. You wait for the ghee to turn hot and then drop in a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Once they are done exploding, you pop in a pinch of asafetida-which I love the smell of – and curry leaves. The saaru is garnished with this and chopped coriander leaves which make a bright green contrast to the rust-red colour of the saaru. It is had with hot rice and in my opinion, best eaten by hand. You pour the hot saaru onto the rice which you have mashed slightly in your plate so it mixes better with the liquid. You quickly mix the two together, take a small quantity and make a ball of it, using just the tips of your fingers. You scoop up a morsel of the crisp potato vegetable ( or papad which is what is in the picture) alongside and pop the mouthful into your eager mouth. Aaah...bliss!

Saaru
Ingredients:
1 - 2 tbsp saarina pudi
1 lime-size ball of tamarind, soaked in hot water
1 lime-sized ball of jaggery ( use 1 tbsp brown sugar of jaggery is unavailable)
1 tsp chilli powder ( use kashmiri chilli powder to make it less spicy)
1/2 cup pigeon peas( toovar dal) and a tomato
Pinch turmeric
Salt to taste
Handful curry leaves, washed and dried
1 tbsp home made ghee
Pinch asafoetida
1 tsp mustard seeds

Cook the pigeon peas along with a tomato in a pressure cooker or in a sauce pan with water until well cooked and mushy.
Squeeze the tamarind into the hot water and strain the brown liquid into a deep saucepan. Put it on to heat, with the pinch of turmeric, and heat for 3-4 minutes until the raw smell of the tamarind wears off. Then add the saarina pudi, chilli powder, salt, jaggery and half a cup of water and let it boil away for some time. Meanwhile, blend the cooked lentils and tomato together in a blender until mashed into a fine broth.
The fragrance of the saaru should be emanating from the tamarind-masala liquid by now. add the lentil-tomato broth and a cup and a half of water and let it come to a boil. Keep it boiling for 4-5 minutes before turning the heat off.

In a small pan, heat the ghee. Add the mustard seeds. Once they finish exploding, add the asafoetida and the curry leaves and turn off the heat. After a minute, add this to the saaru in the saucepan and top with coriander leaves.

3 comments:

MeetaK said...

Simply full of flavor. Love all the spices.

bird's eye view said...

Thanks Meeta!

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