Words

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverised bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.”

– Haruki Murakami in Kakfa on the Shore 

Words

 

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“If you can’t write a decent short story because of the cold, write something else. Write anything. Write a long letter to somebody. Tell them how cold you are. By the time the letter is received the sun will be out again and you will be warm again, but the letter will be there mentioning the cold. If it is so cold that you can’t make up a little ordinary Tuesday prose, why, what the hell, say anything that comes along, just so it’s the truth. Talk about your toes freezing, about the time you actually wanted to burn books to keep warm but couldn’t do it, about the phonograph. Speak of the little unimportant things on a cold day, when your mind is numb and feet and hands frozen. Mention the things you wanted to write but couldn’t. This is what I have been telling myself.”

~ The Cold Day by William Saroyan

PS: Found this short story in a book titled The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (Faber and Faber) written by William Saroyan. Bought this book from Any Amount of Books, London.

No looking back

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I never used to cook much when I lived with my parents. After marriage, it was just me and my husband living together in Mumbai. My in-laws lived in a different state. So, there was no fear in my mind as such to get up early and prepare the tiffin on daily basis. 

One day, my mum gave me strict instructions over the phone. “Get up early. Take a bath. Say your prayers and ring the bell in the temple (present in the house). And then start cooking,” she said. The time was set. The lunch-box had to be ready by 8 AM as that’s when he left for work.

So, there I was, up at 5.30 AM, hell-bent on doing exactly what my mother asked me to do. I entered my kitchen only after doing all the three tasks. Rang the bell in my makeshift temple (felt heavenly). Washed my hands, and went near the basin to pick up the spinach leaves I kept the previous night to cook. The best part was, I did everything on time. Presently, the time was 6 AM sharp. And I saw an ant attack on my spinach leaves! The tiny warriors ran on the plate and I didn’t know what to do. So, I sat on my kitchen floor, and carefully, started separating the ants from the huge bunch of leaves.

I was extremely precise in separating them both ants and leaves. Slowly and steadily, I reached a level where my plate started weighing a bit lighter. Sometime, in between, my husband entered the kitchen and made himself a glass of Bournvita. “That’s okay, baby. I’m leaving for work,” he said. I, on the other hand, was in state of horror to push the million ants away from my spinach leaves. “I’m sorry. It’s such a mess here,” I responded, irritably.

And guess what? When he returned home in the evening around 6 or 7PM, I was still cleaning the same bunch of spinach leaves!

The following day, after the spinach and ant episode, I woke up in the last minute and prepared the lunch in my night-suit, gave the lunch-box to him and went back to complete sleep, while my husband went off to work. And that became my routine.

Well, now you would have guessed my speed when I started out working in the kitchen. I was damn slow. Things just registered late in my mind. Month after month, you could see my experiments with measurements going haywire, and I had to learn a lot from my mistakes. 

I have a passion for reading magazines, and it was in Marie Claire India magazine (discontinued now), in which I spotted the recipe of Amritsary Choley. The magazine used to carry beautiful photo essays, and I tore this particular page that comprised a chef’s recipe of it. In the big photo on that page, there was the holy Golden Temple, and in a small shot, you could see a bowl of Amritsary Choley. It was written in a simple language, and it just clicked to me that the recipe could be the path breaker for me as a home chef.

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So, I tried the recipe on one of the weekends, and loved it to the hilt. It’s rare when you make something that looks similar to the recipe’s original photo. And I was happy!

When I went to Amritsar, after a few years, I realised the flavours of the city’s local food items are not just magical, but inspiring as well. You start believing in good food, and good life. And when you can create an enchanting recipe at home, it does feel special.

And when it comes to my kitchen skills, I’d say, there is still a lot of scope of improvement. But, hey, it doesn’t matter more than one’s love for good food. Right? 

Recipe: Amritsary Chole with Ajwain Atte ki Poori

Ingredients

¾ cup – chickpeas (soaked overnight)
1 onion – finely chopped
1½ tomato – grind into paste
1 tsp – ginger and garlic paste
2-3 – dried red chillies
1 tsp – carom seeds (star of the dish)
1 tsp – cumin seeds
2 tsp – coriander powder
½ tsp – turmeric powder
1 tsp – red chilli powder (totally depends on your preference)
salt to taste
1½ tbsp – ghee
1½ tsp – chana masala (store-bought)
a few pinches – garam masala
a few pinches – anardana (for sour taste) OR tamarind pulp
For garnish

Coriander leaves – chopped
Ginger – finely cut, length-wise
Green chillies – as per your wish

Method

  1. Soak the chana or chickpeas overnight.
    2. Take the chana in a pressure cooker, add water, a tsp of ghee and turmeric powder, and close the lid. Give this 5 whistles, and then keep checking if the chickpeas have cooked properly or not. Keep the boiled chickpeas aside. Make sure there isn’t too much water, because we want a thick consistency, and not a runny one.
    3. I use a cast iron skillet to make my choley dark. So, in a cast iron skillet or kadai, add the ghee, turmeric powder, carom and cumin seeds, red chillies, and let it crackle for a few seconds. Now, dump in the chopped onion and ginger-garlic paste and start sautéing it.
    4. Now, add in the tomato paste, the spices, salt and sauté for a few minutes. You want the paste to become thick, but make sure that it doesn’t stick.
    5. Once the mixture is cooked well, add in the boiled chickpeas.
    6. Add some water, and let it boil for 10-15 minutes on low flame. Cover it with a lid, but keep checking in between.
    7. Once done, serve it with hot and fluffy pooris, and don’t forget to garnish. You can also serve some sliced raw onions, green chillies and lemon wedge to go with the dish.

Note: The last time I added anardana in this dish, I could take its hard texture in my choley. So, make sure you don’t add too much of it.

Recipe: Ajwain Atte ki Poori

Ingredients

whole wheat flour
2-3 pinches of salt
1 tsp carom seeds
1 tsp oil

Method

Mix all the ingredients, and make a tight dough. Make small balls, roll a ball into a small round shape, and fry it in oil. As you dip one in the oil, press it with the frying ladle from all sides to allow the poori to puff up. Make sure the flame is medium to high, and not low.

A kitchen secret

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Once I was talking to my ex-boss, Archana Pai Kulkari, about the despair of deciding menus. She was the magazine’s editor for which I used to work as a sub-editor. I wanted a book that could help me in the true sense. No, I didn’t need any fancy photos. Didn’t want to bring exotic veggies or ingredients for a recipe as well. Essentially, I wanted a book that could give me recipe options that I could cook up with whatever I have in hand. Archana immediately asked me what cookbooks I have with me. And she highly recommended a book called Vegetable Delights by Malini Bisen. Now, it’s hard for anyone to put down a suggestion given by her. She’s that good. I wasn’t a fool not to follow her.

So, the next morning, I found a copy of Malini Bisen on some weird online bookstore, where I didn’t shop before. They promised to deliver the book in 15 days. May be it’s a rare copy, I happily thought to myself. I clicked the buy button.

When I received the book, and looked at its contents page, I knew exactly what Archana was talking about. Published by Wilco Publishing House, the book offers recipes for 51 vegetables. Plus there are many other varieties of recipes as well. It made my daily job in the kitchen simple. I couldn’t stop thanking Archana for this gem of a book.

In my kitchen, it’s all about authentic recipes. I rarely use packaged food or readymade food. In fact, I don’t even have a mircowave. I don’t mind working hard for hours on a dish and doing things like soaking and fermenting, if the recipe calls for it. It has become a way of life now. Being at home allows me more time, though. I get that. Whenever I have a job in hand and a cook in the kitchen, I’m no more creative with planning our meals.

There are times when I need to cook a dish in minutes, and here’s when a book like Vegetable Delights comes to my rescue. For a popular vegetable like potato, Malini has given 30 recipes in her book. For green peas, she’s come up with 11 recipes. And for a rare one like cucumber, she’s written five recipes. Who cooks cucumber? Certainly, Malini knows the vegetable world better.

The vegetables go alphabetically in the contents page, and believe me, there’s no easier way to use the book. I also go through the chutney section of the book many times. If you’re an eager Indian cook, or a lover of authentic Indian recipes, you must have this one in your kitchen shelf.

PS. I miss our crazy talks, Archana Meedem. Only if I had a time machine at my disposal.

Layers of love

DSC_0613It seems to me that missing things has become a norm in my life. When I first left home to study in Bangalore, I realised how much I miss my city Surat, especially the food. Thankfully, my mum sent my favourite snack items in packets from time to time. My hostel cupboard was never empty. From her handmade ladoos to pani-puri flavoured khakhras. And now, while I live in Gurgaon, she does the same. Whenever my brothers come to visit me, they always complaint about the heavy luggage bags. After completing an year of studies in Bangalore, I came back to Surat. The year was 2010, and I had a goal in mind: to learn Gujarati snack items. And for that, I knocked the doors of none other than Mrs Niranjana Joshi.

I’m yet to find a perfectionist like Niranjana Joshi. She’s incredible. Since my college days, I have enrolled for many ‘Nira’s Cooking Classes’. She is grounded yet sophisticated and competitive. She respects each one who attends her class yet doesn’t encourage gibberish talks in-between the classes. She has own little secrets that does the magic in every dish. I just love to sit in front of her, see her teach a trick or two and have a good laugh with the lady herself. All that said, Niranjana is extremely alert when it comes to her recipes. She likes to handover her recipes only to her students. If you happen to visit Surat, make sure you attend at least one of her classes.

Talk about Gujarati farsan items, and Khandvi or Patodi will top the list, at least for me. Some home cooks, however, find it a hassle to make Khandvis. For me, it’s all about sticking to the technique, trying no short-cuts and being precise. You can’t goof up with recipes, at least, not with Khandvi.

The soft layers of Khandvi makes it a winner of a dish. So, here you go, dear readers. I’m sharing Niranjana’s recipe here. You will, however, have to bribe me to know the little secret that she gave us during the class. Ha-ha.

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Recipe: Khandvi/Patodi or Gram Flour Rolls

Are you ready for some arm muscle exercise? If you can’t stir the kadai for more than 20 times, don’t try this recipe. Once you put all the ingredients in the kadai, you need to keep stirring it hard for a good 10 to 15 minutes. If the gram flour mixture is not steamed well, the stirring can go on for a few more minutes. That’s exactly where people promise not to try this recipe at home, ever again. But here’s why I like it. My mum has taught me this stirring-the-kadai business ever since I was like 12 or 13 of age. I love this farsan. For me, there’s no looking ahead than a Khandvi dish that’s been perfectly steamed and rolled. So, hold on, and believe me, you’ll get there too. Just be precise and give it your best.

Ingredients

For the mixture

1 cup gram flour
2¾ cup butter milk
1 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp green chilli paste
½ tsp turmeric powder
a pinch of asafoetida
½ tsp garlic paste (optional)
½ tsp ajwain or carom seeds (optional)
salt to taste

For tempering

oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
curry leaves (optional)

For garnish
coriander leaves, chopped
grated coconut (optional; somehow, I never end up using them)
roasted sesame seeds (optional)
a pinch of red chilli powder (optional)

Tools needed

A deep kadai
A big ladle spoon and steel spatula
Steel dinner plates (alternatively, you can also use a clean kitchen counter to roll the steamed gram flour, but I like to do it on my steel dinner plates)

Method

  1. What I like to do is, make a good buttermilk first. And strain it too. If the texture of buttermilk is good, the Khandvi’s texture will be good too. And I like to keep my buttermilk out on the kitchen counter for a few hours, so that it gets a bit sour. Sweet buttermilk is what I tend to avoid.
    2. So take a deep bowl, and add in the gram flour. Add all the ingredients in it, except the buttermilk. Mix it all well.
    3. Slowly, start adding the buttermilk. What happens with me is that I end up using too much of buttermilk and later, it takes me hours to get the perfect consistency. So, make sure you don’t put too much of it. Thin consistency is what we’re looking for. But don’t go overboard with the buttermilk.
    4. Here comes the arm muscle part. You want to heat a strong kadai and once hot, add in the gram mixture. Stir it constantly. You don’t want to let this burn. No you can’t talk or look around or do anything when doing this. Just keep on stirring this mixture on high flame with a big ladle spoon you’re comfortable with. After the right hand, switch it to the left hand. Do it so for five minutes and slow down the flame to medium. Also, you just don’t want to see any lumps. Mash all the lumps and mix the mixture well.
    5. After about eight minutes of more stirring, you want to get a thick consistency. Now is the time to do the consistency test. Take the back of a steel dinner plate. Wipe it clean and grease it lightly. With the help of spoon, take a spoonful of the steamed gram flour on the plate. Spread it with a steel spatula. After two minutes, cut it our into a thin sheet and try rolling it. If you’re successful, your next quick task is to switch the flame to slow and spread the steamed gram paste on all plates. This has to be done fast, because if the paste dries up, it won’t spread easily.
    6. After about four to five minutes, start drawing long lines on the sheets. And start rolling them. Don’t worry if they cut in between. Keep rolling the cuts and you’ll see them hidden under the rolled piece.
    7. Put all the rolls in a plate. Now is the time to do a little temper round. Heat oil in a small kadai. Add curry leaves, mustard seeds and asafoetida. Let it splutter. Now quickly add this oil mix onto the batch of Khandvi. Mix them lightly, just in case if the oil hasn’t reached a spot or two.
    8. Before you serve them, garnish it with coriander leaves, grated coconut, roasted sesame seeds and a hint of red chilli powder. I like to add the latter two when I serve them to special guests.

Voila! Enjoy the delicate savoury Gujarati snack to the hilt! Khandvi isn’t made in machines, dear readers. You can easily make it at home. Plus, it can be prepared in less than half an hour. Go for it.

The humble meal

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Growing up, we’ve always sat on the floor to eat our meals. After coming home from school, my mom sat us kids down and fed us hot rotis with dal and sabzis. For me, a hearty meal is dal chawal. Place an aasan (a small mat) on the floor, your thali and eat with your hands till your tummy is full!

But at my in-laws’ place, nobody sits on the floor, forget eating there. Here, all eat at the dining table. It becomes awkward for me to sit on the floor and eat, in front of them. I and my husband live alone in the city where he works, and it’s completely all right to sit anywhere and eat! Not that any of my in-laws will have a problem with any of my doing. But it sure becomes comfortable for me, when they’re not watching me.

Also, for me, eating on the bed is something I find weird. Growing up, my parents never allowed me to sit on the bed and eat. “You’ll become sick if you eat on the bed,” my mum says. So, even if it’s winter and you don’t want to come out of your blanket, I make sure to get up and eat my meals near the kitchen.

Talking about my in-laws, they eat their rice with spoon. Which is why, it always becomes a comic scene (at least for me), to keep the spoon aside and mix the dal chawal with hands and hog! So, here’s what I generally do when I’m with my in-laws. I serve them the food, and once they’re done eating, I find a corner or wait for them to move elsewhere. It’s only then that I mix everything that’s there in my thali and eat with my hand.

Of late, I have started making chana dal once a week. My mum prepared it on special occasions. I absolutely love this dal. Give it to me, and I will let the world’s best pastas and pesto sauces go away. A basic dal chawal after a long day makes me a happy person.

You can use this recipe with any other dal as well. It’s just that, generally, dals like arhar, require two whistles in the pressure cooker, and chana dal requires more.

Also, whenever you are done boiling the dal, make sure you whisk it well. Once, my father’s elder brother (whom I call Bade Papa) was home. I served him a dal that was not at all whisked. He could make it at the first glance, and softly uttered, “Dal ghoti nahi hai,” (you didn’t whisk it). I was in the kitchen, and my arms were up with embarrassment. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. Each technique shows.

Recipe: Chana dal

1/2 cup chana dal or Bengal gram dal (I usually consider one full fist for a person)
1 medium tomato – chopped
1 medium onion – chopped
2 green chillies – chopped
1 tsp grated ginger
salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
2 pinch garam masala
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
1 pinch asafoetida
ghee for tempering
coriander leaves (chopped)
curry leaves, for tempering (optional)
1 tsp crushed garlic (optional)

Method:

  1. Soak the dal for at least half an hour or overnight. Boil it in the pressure cooker, and give it 4-5 whistles. Once it’s done, whisk it for a couple of seconds with a wooden whisker. Keep aside.
    2. Heat two tsp of ghee in a kadai. I use my iron kadai, which gives it a dark shade as well. Add all the spices (except garam masala and salt) and give it a quick stir. Add the chopped green chillies and ginger as well. Ginger is the hero of this dish.
    3. Add in the chopped onions, followed by the tomatoes and salt. You might want to bring the flame to medium from low. Sauté it well, or else the masala will stick on the kadai. Just in case if it already has, scrap it off and sauté again.
    4. Mix in the boiled dal that you have whisked once.
    5. Add 1 cup of boiled water, if the consistency is not thin.
    6. Let the dal boil for a few minutes. Add the garam masal before switching off the flame.
    7. Garnish with coriander leaves. In the picture, you can make out that I was out of it.

Recipe: Rice

Soak basmati rice for at least half an hour. I take one and a half cup of rice for the two of us. Take the soaked rice in a pan and add clean water to it. I usually keep adding water until the level of it is about half a finger from the rice, and then I start the boiling process. The flame is usually slow. When a rice granule breaks easily with my finger tip, I know it’s done. I also put a wooden spoon on the pan so that when it boils, the water won’t flow out. Then, I strain the rice to remove the excess water and place it in a vessel or casserole with a dollop of ghee shining on it.

Because, when it comes to dal chawal, the more the ghee, the happier I am.

Kaka na Khaman

You don’t value things until they go away from you. In retrospect, even a small thing can take a big space in your heart. Having lived in Surat (Gujarat) for more than 20 years, it becomes really difficult, at times, to settle in an another city. And the street food, especially, is one of those things that will always stay in my heart.

Back in 2009, when I went to study in Bengaluru, I liked the city’s cool vibe. From the weather to the relaxed attitude of people, there was almost nothing that I didn’t like about the city. But after a few months, I started craving my Surti farsan (snack items) like crazy. And I promised myself to learn each farsan item when I go back home. After all, who likes to eat burgers and donuts as street food? Not me.

For us, back home, enjoying Surti farsan every Sunday morning is a way of life (read Khaman, mini chana Samosa,  Idada, Khandvi and Fafda). In school days, I and my class group had a plate of khaman with salted onions on the side, every day. That paper-wrapped khaman would cost us 20 bucks and it meant a lot. And I’m not talking about the juicy, sugar syrup-laden khaman-dhokla with tri-colours that the world buys from air-conditioned eatery joints. I loathe them from the bottom of my heart.

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I’m talking about the dry khaman that usually the young boys carry with them on their heads in a huge utensil, with a knife to cut the onions and newspaper cut-outs for serving, kept on the lid. You can easily spot these boys around 4PM in the lanes of Bhagal or Nanpura. And I’m also talking about the fresh khaman that old women sell to kids for 5 bucks per plate, near the school gates in Surat. When we were in school, while going back home, we would usually drop at Neelkanth apartments for this. I would like to call this the original version of khaman that had lots of powdered chunks as well. The food hawker was a jolly fellow. He always smiled at us schoolchildren. And when he saw us smiling back, he would give us a bit of extra khaman. In the picture (below), he’s folding his shirt’s cuffs before serving his famous khaman to the people standing in the line. I’m sure all of them are cheering in their heads: Yes, kaka has arrived!

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Now, when I visit my family in Surat, I make sure to visit this building at 1 o’clock sharp in the afternoon. That’s when kaka arrives here. In the picture, the vessel is filled with khaman. Mind you, I was the first customer that day, and I can’t express my happiness in words. All those school memories (and our endless chat sessions) flashed back in my mind. Those were golden days of our lives. I bought a batch of khaman worth 50 bucks; went home and ate like a pig, and didn’t let anybody in the house touch it. No, I think I did allow each a small bite. I was generous that day.