Tagged: Indian food: Maharashtrian

Twice-cooked Potato Bhajji with chillies and tomato

When I started this blog earlier this year, Amey took up a hobby he’s always had a latent interest in.

We’re short on the square footage so all he could have for his first foray into gardening was the little window ledge above our kitchen sink. I like to think my blog naming choice factored into what his first project was. But truth be told, that was decided by some really hot (we’re talking bright lights flashing all over the Scoville scale) chillies we happened to find at the Indian store one day. He carefully saved the seeds from capsaicin riddled beauties and tossed them into a seedling pot with a fervent prayer.

A slow two weeks went by with no results…

After a frantic consultation with the omnipresent gods of instruction on the WWW, we came to the conclusion that (thanks to some quite flawed direction from yours truly) he had put the seeds too deep into the soil. Careful digging unearthed a couple of sprouted seedlings struggling to find daylight. Words of reproach and apology were bandied at large and the seedlings were replanted just barely beneath the surface of the soil.

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Buttermilk (Takachi) Kadhi

You know that hole-in-the-wall you love? The restaurant that’s smaller than the MUNI bustop? You know that lovely yellowed curry it serves? The one that’s smoky (or not) and tart (or sweet?), the kind you put up with sardine-can seating for, because you love it? Remember how when you’re done, your napkin, the tips of your fingers, heck, even the plate just goes completely yellow? Enough to make you nervously wonder about maladies that mess with your vision? Congratulations, you have had a swift, yet definitive introduction to turmeric. (And oh, that stuff that turned your fingers red that other time? No, that’s not chilli powder, that’s just the red food coloring additive in chilli powder. Very different. We’re talking apples and potatoes here. Even though the French call them both pommes, but I digress…)

Turmeric has been turning everything yellow for eons. This stuff was around even before the Romans decided that anyone who turned water into wine was really cramping their style. But it didn’t begin its culinary journey as anything connected with cooking. What it was used for, first and foremost, was as a dye, especially for holy robes.

Turmeric has been mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu sacred texts. It was associated with purity and cleansing. Even today, orthodox Hindu households will use turmeric water to purify everything from themselves to objects in the house and the house itself before a religious event. Along the same lines, Hindu brides and bridegrooms have a ceremony called ‘haldi’ (the Hindi word for turmeric and also the name of the ceremony), just before their wedding day.

This yellow-orange rhizome (that is a relative of ginger) is also credited with tons of medicinal uses. It is used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agent. When a classmate in school cut her finger during a cooking class, a well-meaning friend promptly threw some turmeric on her finger. Good move as far as providing an antiseptic, but bad for the bleeding. As it turns out, turmeric is also an anti-coagulant. (No permanent damage done, it was a very tiny cut. Nothing that the band-aid that followed couldn’t take care of.) Studies show that curcumin, the main flavoring compound in turmeric, is also an anti-oxidant.

Turmeric imparts a rich, ochre yellow to anything it is included in. The mustard so popular on hot dogs gets its color and part of its distinctive flavor from this golden spice. Turmeric is famous for its inclusion in curry powders. Marco Polo noted the following of turmeric when he came across it in 1280 “There is also a vegetable which has all the properties of true saffron, as well the smell as the color, and yet it is not really saffron.” This isn’t entirely true. Turmeric and saffron can both turn things yellow. The similarity ends there. Saffron is fragrant and enchanting, its flavor elevated and floral. Turmeric smells a bit acrid; Its flavor is earthy, reminiscent of ginger and mustard. One should never be used in lieu of the other. The dish in question would absolutely not taste the same.

Turmeric in Indian cooking is used primarily in its dry, ground form. Small quantities are used when called for in a recipe but they are more than enough to convey the ginger-peppery flavor. In some parts of India, turmeric leaves are used to wrap dumplings before steaming. There is a milder flavor and flowery aspect associated with the leaves that is different from the stem which supplies the powdered spice.

Forming the base on which several dishes can be built, turmeric, along with asafoetida and mustard seeds, feature in countless recipes from the Indian sub-continent. Lentils, vegetables, meat and fish, all do well with a seasoning of turmeric. One of the simplest dishes featuring turmeric is also the most satisfying. Called kadhi, different regions of India have their own versions; it tends to be of a thinner consistency in the south as compared to the north of the country. It can be plain or made with chickpea dumplings (pakoras).

Buttermilk Kadhi
Serves 3-4

2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup chickpea flour (besan)
1/3 tsp asafoetida
1/4 tsp turmeric
3-4 green chillies, split lengthwise (Serrano or Thai chillies)
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Cilantro for garnish

For seasoning:
2 tbsp clarified butter (ghee) or canola oil
5-6 curry leaves
1 tsp asafoetida
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds

– In a pot, combine the buttermilk, chickpea flour and 2 cups of water. Stir together to dissolve any lumps.
– Add sugar, salt, turmeric and asafoetida and mix.
– Move the pot onto the stove on medium high heat and bring the mixture slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Add more water to thin it down if the mixture is still too thick. (The ideal consistency would be like that of tomato soup).
– When the buttermilk comes to a boil, add the green chillies and ginger.
– In a separate small pan, heat the ghee or oil to prepare the seasoning. Add mustard seeds (which should begin to splutter if the oil is hot enough) followed by cumin, asafoetida and curry leaves. Continue to heat gently for a few seconds to season the oil or ghee.
– Pour the spiced oil into the buttermilk mixture. Stir everything to incorporate.

Garnish with some cilantro and serve.

Cook’s notes:
Keep stirring the mixture as it comes up to a boil to avoid any possibility of the buttermilk curdling and separating. Once it has reached a boil, the thickening of the chickpea flour keeps everything together and you needn’t worry about it anymore. Though oil can be used here, try and use ghee if you can. There is a voluptuousness of flavor that it brings to the party. Also, if using oil, make sure it is neutral tasting like canola or peanut oil. An oil like olive oil would be too strong and would disrupt the other flavors.
Though traditionally served on steamed rice, kadhi can also be served with chapatis or enjoyed just by itself. It is rare to find this dish in restaurants. This is home-cooking at its most basic. You could try variations by including some carrots or peas in it. Served with rice and an Indian spiced pickle or papad, you have a simple, nutritious meal, a tiny bit of comfort on a plate.

Aloo and Onion Bhajjis

I woke up with a start today, completely disoriented, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Today was like coming out of a mental fog. There was no clarity of day or time. Was I late for work? Had I missed a test? (Yes, it must be only me who deliberately picks eight o’clock for all her exams when she could pick absolutely any time. This way it gets over and done with faster, you see.) But then, just as suddenly, the eerie-ness of it all faded. It was my Friday off. My next test is at the end of a month. There was a moment of quiet calm. And then it was effectively shattered by a sharp and precise thwack-thwack-thwack of a hammer. Construction workers don’t have Fridays off.

The renovation of my apartment building continues merrily on. It inevitably figures in my conversation because these days it is over on my side of the building. And at times, it is cacophonic. There is a strange desperation that claims your life when your home is no longer your refuge, when the simple act of reading a book or listening to music could be summarily interrupted at any time by loud noises and vibrations that has utensils bouncing off the dish rack. The situation also has the odd air about it of bringing my work home with me. The noise doesn’t consciously bother me unless it’s very close, but every time there is a new, different noise, part of my brain automatically engages in trying to figure out what machine it is, what phase of work is going on. Probably normal given my profession, but certainly not something I want to do on an off-day. Fortunately this is San Francisco. There is no dearth of places to be. So we packed some snacks and decided we’d be somewhere else.

There is an amazing array of food that could pass as snacks in Indian cuisine. Some of them just as easily become a side dish in a meal. Bhajjis (or bhajiyas or pakoras) are one such snack. They are the Indian version of fritters. They just use a different flour for batter and are principally made of vegetables. The flour here is chickpea flour, way tastier than most flours are. There is a basic and very simple ‘no yoghurt or buttermilk’ batter with a one time dipping given to the veggies. The veggies can be practically anything large enough to hold, dip and fry.

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Mom’s Goda Masala Batata Bhaaji

It’s no secret I love potatoes. Anyone who knows me a little could tell you that about me.  Sometimes, random strangers have been forced to hear about my life-long love affair with the aloo. I do my Ancient Mariner routine and they are forced to go through what it must feel like to be a patron of Hotel California. You can just see them, politely yet desperately move away from me while I prattle about boiled potatoes, steamed potatoes, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, the several ways the French cook their potatoes..(droool!! smack!!)…but I digress..

I am the self-anointed ultimate potato critic. When I go to a new restaurant, I will peruse it with the express intention of finding their pomme de terre dish du jour (or belonging to their permanent collection, I’m not too picky about the little things). I look to see how they serve it, what accompanies it, and then look through the rest of the menu. Yes, I know that it is most unlikely to find several dishes where the potato is the star on a menu. My philosophy is that the potato is the star, not the side, the chicken and lamb or (insert anything else here), serve only as a basis of a flavourful accompaniment. It gives me a feel of the essence of the restaurant when I find what they choose to pair my favourite with. While I’ve accepted that restaurants serving Asian cuisine are unlikely to serve patatas, most others do. So imagine my horror when I went to one that serves vegetarian food (pages and pages of it, you never saw such a vast menu!) but didn’t have a single potato on the list! Yes, Cafe Gratitude, bet no one told you that about your menu before! A combination of that, the pervading smell of pot and the bleary-eyed waitress (who didn’t know their desserts and made my friends accompany her to the display case to find out) has ensured that I will never again step through your doors. But mostly the ‘no potato’ thing.

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Mom’s Batata Bharit with Rice and Yoghurt

For me, starting grad school was synonymous with starting a life in the United States. Everything was new, from trains inside airports that transported you around it to wide open spaces with not a sign of life. The latter was a novel and jarring experience. Almost anywhere in India, you always see people. In Texas, you can go miles and miles without seeing so much as an armadillo. I remember sitting at my window, jet-lagged and missing home on my first day in, hoping to see anything that moved. Even the trees wouldn’t stir. My room-mates were out and I don’t think I have ever felt so alone on a blazing, bright sunny day.

I missed Bombay a lot, including and importantly, the food. Everything with which I was familiar looked similar in the US, but was completely different. The sole Indian restaurant in College Station was a joke; everything was watered down to an extreme. Chinese food was unrecognizable, with hardly a dish on the menu being the same as the ones I knew at home. The nearest grocery store/market was over two miles away. And giving in to the urge to convert everything I bought into rupees made me freak out. (100 rupees for a mere pound of potatoes, are you *#@!! kidding me??) Also portions had my head spinning. A burrito joint called Free Bird, while serving some pretty decent burritos, had a regular size burrito that was humongous (and that was the smallest size!). A couple of days of eating out on such fare and the local McDonald’s and we were done. After scaring up various pots and pans and loading up on groceries, thanks to helpful college seniors, we began the task of organizing food at home.

Back in Bombay, I had loved the idea of cooking and had tried my hand at a decent share of stuff but had never needed to cook on a daily basis. The kitchen was really my mother’s domain. I’d never been more than a sous-chef at best, irregularly at that, playing chef on the rare occasions she was unwell. The sudden task of dealing with daily meals, paying bills and grad school was unbelievably trying. Quick food became a goal to strive for, with a strong concentration for familiar and cheap (we were, after all, foreign students in a foreign country, and it was 50 rupees to the dollar at the time).

One of the first things Indian babies are fed is rice, first in the form of a soft paste, eventually graduating to rice with milk. The adult and significantly more flavourful version of this is dahi-bhat (curd & rice) which some, like my husband, possess the capacity to consume daily basis. It is supremely easy, quick and cheap to throw together. The yoghurt gets tempered with various ingredients, depending on where you from in India, but any of the combinations result in a lovely, mildly spiced rice dish. Pair this with a batata bharit (potato mash), the kind that my mom put together, and you could be forgiven for feeling like a small child having a grown-uppish meal. It was a little slice of heaven between classes and we were home in a brand new world!

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