Sunday, January 13, 2008

Terroir

I have always enjoyed the French passion for food, in particular their insistence on terroir which is what distinguishes Bordeaux from Bourgogne, Champagne from Asti Spumante. It’s a little difficult to find a single word in English that could stand in for the equivalent of terroir which is an amalgam of the soil, the climactic conditions, the water and a host of other situation and location-specific factors that give each piece of agricultural produce its distinctive taste from region to region. The French are almost fanatical about it and the way a Frenchman or woman uses the words ‘quality’ or terroir is like hearing a high priest at the temple of Ra chanting the sacred word.

It was interesting to start thinking about terroir in the context of other cuisines, thanks to Anna's cool finds blog event, A Taste of Terroir. If any other country can lay claim to the concept of terroir, I should imagine it would be India. It is popularly said that every 100 kilometres in India, the language, customs and the food changes. The concept of terroir comes into place in countries in which agricultural production is large and uses mostly traditional methods, seeds and manure. In fact, in present-day France which employs barely 2% of the population in agriculture and has among the most industrialized and modern agricultural methods in use, it may be a throwback to the past to still hold by the concept of terroir, whereas in India it would hold true. Even now, the average Indian farm is a small-holding whose farmer works using the methods he has imbibed into his very veins over generations of working the land, and plants his crop seasonally and uses the manure that he knows has always worked on his land. The Indian farmer still relies on climactic conditions to decide his bounty for the year and the quality of the rain or sun play a huge role in turning out his crop the way that it does both in taste as well as quantity.

Each Indian state has multiple types of regional cuisine, based on centuries of understanding of the people, their way of life, the work they do and the agricultural produce available to them. The type of fish eaten in a Calcutta, for example, may be very different from that eaten by the West Bengal coast, and certainly from that enjoyed by the Malabar coast. Chef Ananda Solomon of the Taj finds that coconuts grown in Orissa do not work as well for Goan cuisine as those that grow in the West. My parents, who are from South India but settled in the north claim that certain native fruit and vegetables of the South, including curry leaves, smell and taste infinitely better in their native place. What is that, if not terroir?

In urban India, pockets of terroir still live on in the city-specific speciality cuisine or ingredients. Whether it is the rich, cow’s-milk based pedas from Mathura or the foamy, light-as-air dessert made by combining sugar, saffron and milk foam in Benaras, the Shrewsbury biscuits of a Pune, the MTR of a Bangalore versus the Ghantewala Mithai and Karim’s of a Delhi.

In the North of India, dairy food is almost a religion. Milk is widely considered food of the Gods across India but nowhere is it as worshipped as complete food as in the North. All kinds of milk products, from ‘desi ghee’ (clarified butter) to pure butter made from buffalo milk to paneer to lassi, thick and foaming and sweet, are had in vaster quantities than anywhere else in India. Paneer – a cottage cheese made by curdling plain milk and pressing it down into a solid form – is given a place of honour in Punjabi homes. Paneer per se has no taste of its own and looks a little like Styrofoam - and sometimes tastes like it too. It takes on the taste of whatever mélange of gravies and spices it is cooked with, and is variously mixed with peas and onions, a creamy tomato gravy or pureed spinach and spices to form a vegetable accompaniment to rotis, the unleavened bread of India. It is also served cooked in a clay oven or tandoor after being marinated with a spicy yoghurt-based marinade which gives the paneer a wonderfully smoky-spicy taste.

Delhi has a reputation for being a foodie, if conservative city. From ancient days, Delhi has been a capital city to a number of different types of rulers from different dynasties and cultures, and therefore offers a wide mix of cuisines and has what I call a large stomach – Delhi lives for its food. From Old Delhi, which has a whole street devoted to parathas – the stuffed unleavened breads fried in butter – to the varieties of chaat that it has, to Karim’s which is famous for Mughlai cuisine, every nook of the city has a food speciality. City natives know that there is a specific samose-wala who makes the best samosas, and one bhelpuri wala who makes the best bhel, one dahi wada seller who has the best and creamiest dahi wadas…

In keeping with its foodie tradition, Delhi also has a special shop selling paneer, which exemplifies the concept of terroir. While ordinary white paneer is available just about anywhere, this shopkeeper serves a unique type of paneer. He mixes finely chopped ginger, fenugreek laves, coriander seeds and leaves and other spices right into the curdled milk to produce an interestingly spicy and fragrant variety of paneer. He is famous for this one product and Delhi-ites in the know line up at the shop to take it away.
I had not heard of this until recently when BFF was visiting Delhi. I promptly sent off my driver and factotum to procure some of this paneer for us, while I pondered what to do with it. It would be a travesty to let this paneer hide its light under a bushel, so to speak, in a traditional gravy. Then inspiration struck, and I decided to serve it simply grilled in the oven, with a sprinkling of salt, along with Muhammara of which I had just whipped up a batch.

We raced through 250 grams of this in minutes, so tasty was it, and didn’t even end up using the Muhammara which otherwise is wolfed down with almost anything. I grilled this paneer lightly, so that it didn’t get that squeaky-rubbery taste which over-cooked paneer invariably gets, and the salt helped bring out the flavours of the embedded spices. It worked wonderfully as a starter and I can see myself regularly serving it when we entertain.

While still contemplating the concept of terroir some time ago, we visited my aunt-in-law for lunch and she fed us an unusual Halwa. Halwa is a dessert made using milk, sugar and the main ingredient which ranges from semolina to vermicelli to various vegetables. The halwa we had was made of black carrots and was a speciality of Allahabad. Now red carrot halwa is a seasonal dessert that is made quite regularly during winter when the red carrot crop comes into its own, but I had never seen this dish made of black carrots.

Black carrots are a winter vegetable only typically grown in North India, particularly Punjab and UP, and drunk, not eaten. That is, their juice is made into Kanji or carrot juice, topped with a sprinkling of rock salt and a spritz of lime juice, and considered both delicious and good for health. I have never enjoyed Kanji and therefore never bought black carrots for use at home. But this halwa sounded intriguing and I couldn’t wait to try it on my own. One thing that struck me was that this was much richer in taste than the typical carrot halwa. I usually make carrot halwa using barely ½ tbsp of ghee, which is only used to fry cashews for garnishing the dish, since I feel the fat from the fullcream milk is quite enough. But this recipe needed some tweaking and I thought about it during the week as I went about my official job. I figured that the black carrots needed to be sautéed in home made ghee first and only then cooked with milk and sugar. That would make them less likely to mush down and lose texture and add the rich, lush taste of the Halwa we had had.

The grated black carrots look more like a deep, deep purple – almost black but the purple shows through in the sunlight. Just looking at them gets me all excited. I drop the matt black mass of finely grated carrots into a wok and slowly cook them in the ghee. The wonderfully nutty, enticing aroma of ghee fills the house and I take in a deep breath. The grated carrots are glistening in the fat of the ghee and I figure it’s time to add in the full cream milk. I pour it into the wok and pause to marvel at the lovely lilac-mauve colour in the pan.
Red carrots turn the milk a pale, uninteresting red but this colour has promise and exoticity. I struggle to capture its beauty in the photographs, taking the pan off the stove and into the sun, but remain by and large defeated – not using the flash means the mixture just looks dark brown while using it means the richness of the ghee glitters into the lens and prevents the colour from coming through. Well, you’ll just have to take my word for it – it looks like something that should be served to royalty.

I add in sugar and watch the tiny crystal cubes shine on the surface of the violet liquid like diamonds on a crown and then slowly dissolve and lose themselves in the mad swirl of the inky mass. It is a slow-cooking process, and you can become completely tranquillized in the repetitive yet occasional movements of stirring the halwa and returning to a contemplative state. I wonder who the primal man was who discovered that these things were good to eat. Fruit one can well imagine attracted attention by their colour and because they were hitting people walking under the trees in their faces, but vegetables, especially those that grow below the ground like carrots? Black coloured vegetables?

It takes a long time for the simmering liquid to slowly evaporate, permeating its richness into the carrots. At long last it is finished, and I stare down at the black mass that promises a lush sensation for the senses. I roast some cashews in ghee and pour them on top of the caviar-ey halwa. They are a nice rust-red contrast to the dark colour which remains a rather inky violet even in the sunlight. The halwa colour reminds me of the tropical night, that magical, mysterious interplay of black and blue.
I have my usual struggle to take pictures that do justice to the dish and finally, finally, we pop some into our mouths. I have waited for this dish the way one waits for a treat – impatiently and yet, when the treat arrives, you approach hesitantly so you can savour the anticipation of its enjoyment for a few moments more. It doesn’t disappoint – the halwa is rich, with a full-bodied flavour that matches the intensity of its colour. I lose myself in the intense dark taste that lingers on my tongue long after the morsel has disappeared down my throat. The texture of the grated carrot which has softened but not melted jostles against the crunchy hardness cashews, and their cheesy sweetness offsets the fruity flavour of the carrots. The unctuous mellowness of the milk solids coats the mouth silkily. The sensation of the halwa on the tongue is luxurious…if Cabernet Sauvignon could be made into a dish, this would be it, I think and reach for another mouthful.

8 comments:

Anna Haight said...

It's wonderful to read about the depth of terroir that still exists in India, and the perfect examples you use to illustrate the point. Very interesting, and it makes me want to taste and learn more about the cuisines of India! It is a special place!

bird's eye view said...

Thanks Anna. I guess cuisine in India is still largely traditional and it was really fun to think about it in the context of terroir.

Mala said...

Hey - the paneer sounds great. Which shop is this?
Thanks,
Mala

bird's eye view said...

Hi Mala,

This is from the shop in Aurobindo market, opposite Midland.

Laurie Constantino said...

I loved everything about your post, from its wonderful description of the foods of India, through a complete description of black carrots (which I've never seen before), through your tasty-sounding Halwa. And that paneer sounds amazingly good. Thank you for introducing me to all these things.

bird's eye view said...

You're welcome, Laurie. Thanks for your comments.

Pelicano said...

I found some black carrots this year; I was planning on making them all into kanji, but...!

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