Tuesday, March 31, 2009

South Indian

Most times you ask someone from North India what cuisine they enjoy eating out, and you'll get an instant reply, "South Indian". Of course, it's another matter that for most North Indians, South Indian means idli dosa. I was mighty pained when my husband's uncle, meeting me for the first time after we had gotten married, promptly said in a would-be-south-Indian accent, "tum Idli-vada khaata?" ( You eat idli-vada?). Any kind of stereotyping gets my goat. Not that I don't enjoy idlis and dosas as much as anyone originating south of the Vindhyas, of course.

The trouble with having dosas at a restaurant up north where I live is that the accompaniments are completely tasteless. The chutney is a bland travesty of the authentic chutney, made only of ground coconut with a tempering. The sambar or huli as we call it in Karnataka is a weird, too-sour concoction with tomatoes and a strange assortment of vegetables as diverse as okra, onions and beans floating in a pale soup. We South Indians have very specific vegetable combinations that can be used in huli. The only thing that's up to par is the actual dosa itself.

Some time ago, I had a major craving for dosa with its traditional accompaniments and since mom was out of action with a hurt leg, decided that I would make it from scratch. I went to great efforts to ensure authenticity, from buying the special paper-dosa type frying pan to making the chutney and gunpowder. The only cheat – I bought MTR's instant dosa mix J. On the other hand, MTR is a revered Bangalore trademark for the best of South Indian cuisine so I guess I didn't stray too far.

The whole ritual of eating dosais for breakfast is an experience. The dosas are made one at a time and served hot, fresh off the pan, with dollops of salty and sour flavourful chutney, spicy sambar and gunpowder. It's a lovely mix of flavours and textures - the crisp dosais, the yielding, liquidey chutney, the spicy huli amd the crunchy gunpowder. It's almost a competition to see who can eat more dosas until everyone is stuffed to bursting point. And then the finale - hot South Indian filter coffee, served in stainless steel glasses, tumblers, as we call them, with a thin layer of froth on top. Dosa is usually described by 5-star hotels as a 'crisp lentil pancake, served with coconut relish and a spicy lentil broth'. On second thought, that's a pretty good description, so here I leave you with a smiley picture of my traditional South Indian breakfast…

PS. The recipe for gunpowder

Gunpowder is also known as molaha pudi, which roughly translated means pepper powder. It's a spicy mix of lentils and dried red chillies, guaranteed to blow the roof of your mouth off. Unless, of course, you know the trade secret: to your portion of gunpowder, add about 1/2 - 1 tbsp sesame seed oil or, failing that, home made ghee, and mix it well together until you get a chutney-like texture. The oil or ghee adds a wonderful aroma that's part of the experience


1 cup chana dal

1 cup urad dal

10-15 dried red chillies

Handful sesame seeds

Roast all the ingredients using 1-2 drops of oil, one by one. When cool, grind to a fine powder and mix, with salt to taste.

This is my entry for MLLA – 9, hosted by Laurie.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stuffed Mushrooms

Here's my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted by Anna this week.

I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with mushrooms. Perhaps because as per the classifications of taste, they are supposed to taste similar to meat, and as a vegetarian, I find their meatiness a bit hard to swallow, literally. However, there are some mushroom-based recipes that I quite like, as long as I don't have them too often. Mushroom curry, a somewhat dry vegetable made in a typical Indian style, with onions, tomatoes and green bell peppers in a cumin-coriander powder sauce is one of them. Another is my mother's famous mushroom soup, which uses liberal quantities of green chillies and very finely minced mushrooms in a broth reminiscent of white sauce, only more watery. Another that I've always enjoyed at restaurants is grilled and stuffed mushrooms. So when we wound up with a basket of large mushrooms at home, I decided to give that a whirl.

I sliced off the stems of the mushrooms and chopped them up very finely. I then mixed this with breadcrumbs, minced coriander leaves, finely chopped green chillies, some cheese ( mozzarella and cheddar mixed), some minced onion and garlic and grilled them, brushed with butter, in a hot oven for about 15 minutes, until they were browning, and served it hot with a dash of lime juice. And voila, a favourite appetizer was born!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Here comes the sun

One of the reasons I like making omelettes, just like I enjoy making soups and salads, is that within a certain set of rules, you have wide scope to experiment and innovate. I tend to get bored cooking the same recipe over and over again, don't you?

So this weekend I made another of my decadent omelette concoctions, lapped up by my son. These omelettes look lovely-bright yellow, with vibrant greens, as if sunflowers have been playing in your pan!


2 eggs, well beaten

1/2 cup milk

1 cheese slice ( cheddar or similar)

1/2 onion, finely chopped

7-8 leaves of spinach shredded into long, thin ribbons

1/2 tbsp butter

Beat the eggs with the milk until well mixed. Put the butter into a heated nonstick frying pan and swirl to coat evenly. Pour in the egg mix and sprinkle the onion and spinach shreds evenly over the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and let cook on medium heat for some time. When the omelette appears partially cooked, add the cheese slice on top, cover and cook again until the omelette is done. Serve either folded over or as is, with well-buttered toast or croissants.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How I met Salads

When I was growing up, eating out wasn't the common or garden variety activity that it is today. It was an event, and happened either at a friend's house, or at an event like a marriage celebration. And salads were never a big part of the experience. First of all, simple Western-style salads weren't usually on menus - those tended to be items like Caesar salad or Waldorf salad. Secondly they'd be really expensive and since most of us were on a strict budget, we'd slide right past that section and go straight to soup and then main course and dessert.

Anyway I was used to South Indian style kosambris and didn't see the big deal. Until we went over to my friend Leon's place. Leon was one of my classmates at business school in France. He's from South Africa and I and my friends had a great time hanging out with him and his wife Ardela at dinner at our home. So a few weeks later when we decided to go sight-seeing in Paris, we were only too happy to let them host us for lunch. Leon's 14 year old son Rezan had made the salad for us.

Actual bite-sized lettuce leaves tangoed with julienned red and yellow capsicum and halved cherry tomatoes and contrasted with the sharp taste of spring onions cut into slices. The salad dressing of extra virgin olive oil, mustard, caster sugar and vinegar was in perfect harmony with the flavours of the vegetables. And the addition of walnuts set the seal on perfection. That salad was an absolute experience for all of us 'desis' who were having something like it for the first time.

And ever since then, western-style salad has been a family favourite. And I can't thank Leon enough!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Apples and Thyme: Shaavige Payasa

While cooking up this dish for my son's birthday, I traveled back in time to my childhood, and it prompted me to blog for apples and thyme. So many of my memories are linked to this dish, especially those involving any kind of religious occasion. It was de rigueur that on festival days, mom would get up at the crack of dawn, bathe and wash her hair, dress up in a nice silk saree with her hair bundled into a cotton towel to help it dry faster, and start cooking delicious festive food, while dad would be up equally early to prepare for the pooje. Right after his bath, dad would wear a dhoti in Karnataka style, which meant he would wrap it once around himself, pleat the spare cloth in intricate little folds and tuck them in, in front and back, so the cloth formed a sort of pyjama, only one with rippling pleats and the rich mellowness of pale gold silk. He would wrap a similar cloth over his shoulders and sit down to perform the religious ceremony.

Dad has a sonorous voice and a great command over Sanskrit shlokas. For many poojes, however, he would read out the shlokas from one of his kannada books. Periodically he would stumble over one of the words, go back and repeat them, all the while conducting the pooje. First the Gods would be given a ritual bath in a brass thali. Then they would be dressed up for the occasion – first sandalwood paste, then bright red kunkuma on their foreheads. The temple at home would be cleaned up too and decked up with decorations made out of cotton with kunkuma and turmeric rubbed on them at intervals to add colour. A thorana or garland made of mango leaves would be put up. Dad would arrange potted plants on each side of the temple and then decorate with various flowers. Then while reading out shlokas he would instruct my sister and I in what to do – offer turmeric to begin with, then the kunkuma, flowers. My sister and I would compete to offer the biggest or most fragrant flower.

The noise of steel vessels clanking together in the kitchen accompanied dad's chants. The most delicious smells would be emanating from the kitchen – fresh coriander, tempering made from home made pure tuppa (ghee), frying ambodes or papads, the spicy aromas of saaru or huli, cardamom – while equally fragrant scents accompanied the pooje: melting camphor, agarbatti and the jasmines and roses The pressure cooker would whistle deliriously at some critical junction in the prayers and it'd be like a competition between the whistle and dad's chanting.

As I got older, I helped mom out with the small stuff in the kitchen – grating the fresh coconut, helping powder the cardamom, cutting up the cucumber for the kosambri…And of course, inhaling the scent of the payasa as it was cooking. I hated the rice and lentil payasa mom used to make but this was one of the favourites. We'd wait hungrily, torn between concentrating on the pooje and salivating for lunch, since on pooje days one was not supposed to eat before the pooje was over. Though mom and dad were fine with us having breakfast, we often used to skip it on that day so we could save our appetites for the festive food to follow. A silver plate was reserved for the prasada and minute helpings of all the items would be ritually offered to the Gods before we could sit down for our meal.
Small portions of the food were pre-served onto each plate before we sat down. The food was always served onto the plate in a particular order. Salt first, at the top, followed by pickle to the right of it. Then a small spoonful of the payasa, which was one of the prasadas or offerings to God, at the bottom right. The cooked but unsalted lentils came on the left of the payasa. Kosambri would be served next to the pickle, followed by the vegetable curry, palya. The ghee and plain rice would be on the left of the lentils while the flavoured rice of the day would be in the middle.

We had to start the meal by scooping up the payasa, and then we were free to dig in. We'd have the flavoured rice, followed by saaru-anna or huli anna and then the main helping of the payasa followed by curd rice which is an inevitable ending to any South Indian meal. Nothing I've ever eaten has tasted better than the festive meals at my mom's. And after that gargantuan meal, we'd curl up and sleep like babies!

Payasa recipe
Fistful of dried, thin vermicelli
1 tablespoon of ghee
1 litre milk
1 and a quarter cups sugar
4-5 saffron strands soaked in hot milk
Handful raisins
Cashews broken up into quarters and fried in ghee until somewhat brown
2-3 cardamom pods, coarsely powdered with a rolling pin or in a mortar and pestle
Break the vermicelli into about 1 cm pieces by hand. Fry it on medium heat in the ghee until it starts turning a light brown and emanates a fragrance. Add the milk, ideally full cream, the sugar and the saffron and let it cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vermicelli is fully cooked – it'll look translucent. Add the raisins and cardamom and serve it hot or cold garnished with cashews. I usually like it cold so I refrigerate it and sometimes serve it with vanilla icecream.
You can also choose to serve this dish as dessert, garnished with a few pomegranate bits, halved green or puple grapes or almond slivers.