Archive for the ‘Subcontinent’ Category

For all I know, it’s ‘palak pakora.’ Pakora was suggested by the letter home to parents as a buffet food for the school Eid party. This surprised me, as I think of parkora as Hindu, but the chick pea fritter extends throughout the subcontinent, and I believe that everyone eats them. Ashamedly, I have no idea what ingredients might make a pakora more typical of Bangladesh or of Pakistan rather than Tamil-Nadu, so I made them as I always do. I expect that vegetarian pakora was suggested by the school because it neatly skips the issue of halal, which might vex the non-Muslim parents, and thereafter by extension the Muslim parents, too.

Pakoras are very quick and simple. For these I sifted besan (gram, chick pea) flour with a little ground cumin and cardamon, pinches of salt at bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). I then made a paste with water, and stirred in chopped spinach, cilantro, diced red onion and green chili (not much, these were for the kiddies). I promptly deep-fried them by the tablespoon-full in sunflower oil and drained them on towel. My son dips them in yogurt. I like them with lime pickle in oil.

Otherwise, I’ve been absorbed in the markets these past weeks, watching the Fall of the Empire. I buy the FT every morning and it’s out-of-date by lunch. I hang on Robert Peston’s every word, and am consequently tickled to anticipate every calamity by twelve hours. Months ago I found rights issues fascinating (for all the good it did those banks…), but they look ho-hum these days, with half the high street evaporating and Iceland slipping beneath the North Atlantic in a hiss of leverage. I wonder if I’m too old to learn Mandarin…


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This is my version of saag paneer (or palak paneer), an quick Indian side of greens with fresh cheese. The version one reconstitutes from powder in a pouch tends to be more pablum-like. When I make it at home I like mine chunky, with fried paneer and the tang of a tomato sauce. This specimen is a saute of onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, fenugreek (methi) seed, and spinach leaves to which chopped canned tomatoes have been added toward the end. Very simple, quick to do, and not at all hot, so a hit with small children. The onion and fenugreek make it seem quite sweet, actually.

Be warned that paneer is a vengeful dairy product. It hath wrath. Sweetly toasted cubes of cheese come at the price of hot oil spitting about the kitchen and the cook. For minimal spitting, buy a well-pressed block of paneer and fry the whole thing over medium heat on its two significant sides. The fried slab of paneer may be subsequently chopped, producing on each cube two nicely browned sides of six, all for minimal fuss and violence. Frying individual cubes of paneer is maddness: a volley of hot oil shrapnel will pepper your hairy forearms and set them on fire. And once that spreads to your eyebrows your evening is pretty much ruined.

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I find that as one drives further toward central Asia raw onion is treated with more respect. Sweet and crunchy with a little sting in the tail, this is a condiment or a salad, depending on one’s inclination.

There are many ways to draw the sulfur out of a raw onion. Choosing a low-sulfur variety, like vidalia or walla walla is one. Time spent in the refrigerator after slicing is another (a good tip for your nachos americanos, too). Ice water is good, as are acids, if these treatments do not compromise the recipe.

But I would never be too aggressive about removing the sulfur. After all, raw onion, with its crunchy balance of bite and sweet, is the raison d’etre, n’est pas? If I do not want raw onion, I make a cucumber raita instead. That said, be warned that churri is not first-date food.

So, what is churri? Well, this churri is tame-enough slices of onion sitting in a bath of yogurt and buttermilk (a little acidic, yes?). The green flavours come from a puree of mint, coriander, ginger and a little chili, plus some ground cumin for warmth. It makes a more forceful accompaniment to the more comforting and meaty rogan josh.

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This is arguably the most common curry-house curry in the UK. It comes in a jar in any supermarket these days. Of course, the jar is obscene. For a much-truncated wazwan, we who cook make our own at home.

My rogan josh is lamb in a warmly spiced reduction of yogurt. I have stewed chunks of lamb leg for hours in a fatty, fatty yogurt, with cloves, cinnamon, ginger, fennel, and a not-too-smoky paprika standing-in for Kashmiri chilies. The cardamon, saffron, and coriander leaf have entered only at the very end, because I feel that they are the delicate ones. I use asofoetida in lieu of allium (alliums? allia? alliarum? Sigh. Amo, amas, amat…). I do not believe in tomato in my rogan josh, even though I expect tomatoes grow well enough in Jammu, because I have a perfect notion of a perfectly creamy north (of India? of England? of Birmingham?). My rogan josh is the anti-curry: curry without appreciable heat.

No recipe here. Screw you, scrapers. Anybody who’s curious can ask about for the details in comments. I think that sploggers ignore comments.

What do I serve with my curry? With this curry, I serve churri. What is churri? Well, I shall show you next week, I think.

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burficapp.jpgWe have come upon the Hindu, Sikh and Jain festival of Deepavali (or Diwali, or Divali), the Festival of Lights, and that means candies! Most Asian traditions do not normally close meals with dessert, but rather sweets and puddings are reserved as feastday treats. Burfi (or barfi or barfee) is a type of fudge popular throughout India, made of a sugar syrup, nuts and/or a flour, perhaps with a dairy enrichment, and seasoned with local spices. Coconut burfi (called thengai burfi in Tamil), both vegan and dairy, is popular in the south, and is typically seasoned with cardamon or saffron, sometimes thick with cashews or pistachios (lovely green colour). Here I provide two nut-free recipes, the first vegan and the second with dairy. The dairy-free burfi is sweetly crystaline with spicy, lemony cardamon. The milk fudge is buttery and floral with saffron. Neither is for diabetics.

Most burfi recipes written by Indians insist on fresh coconut, and I’m sure that is the more authentic ingredient, but I’ve tried both fresh and dessicated for each of these recipes, and I recommend dessicated for both. The cardamon recipe as written below only works well with dessicated coconut because I use the simple sugar syrup technique familiar to Western candymakers. Without getting too technical, the late addition of fresh coconut will dilute the sugar syrup too much with its moisture and inhibits its ability to set properly. Some similar recipes that I’ve read do start by driving the moisture off of the freshly grated coconut on the stovetop, but this still introduces an uncertainty, and in a way just brings us back to the dessicated coconut in the bag. And while there is more subtlety and avocado-like flavour in fresh coconut, I think that subtlety is lost in the end when making highly seasoned burfis like these, with lots of cardamon and lots of saffron. The biggest difference in my experience is texture: the fresh coconut makes a chewy fudge and the dessicated a flaky one. So while the saffron burfi recipe is more intuitve and does not require a candy thermometer (although it is more efficient to use one), I still don’t think that it is necessary to kill a live coconut for it. Personally, I need a very good reason to undertake the extraction of meat from that hairy little rock; it is even less fun than killing artichokes.

These recipes each make a very small batch of fudge. By “serves four,” I mean that four adults have a piece or two and then it’s gone, not sitting on the counter the next day tempting people away from their best intentions. I made mine in a ceramic loaf pan, and the long rectangular shape helped me to cut them in the traditional diamond shape, although it did leave a lot of little half-pieces, too. I really do recommend seeking out cardamon and saffron, but if you can’t find them, I might suggest allspice and (1/8 – 1/4 tsp) nutmeg, respectively. Happy Deepavali!

Crystalline Cardamon Coconut Fudge (Thengai Burfi)

Twenty minutes plus two hours setting; serves four

butter for greasing
1 cup water
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 cup dessicated shredded coconut (fresh is too wet)
1/2 tsp cardamon (seeds from about 6 green pods, ground in a mortar)

1. Butter a bread loaf pan, as if you were making a short loaf. Place it in the freezer.
2. In a small saucepan over medium flame heat the sugar in water and stir to dissolve it. Clamp on your candy thermometer and keep heating until the thread stage when the temperature reads 112-115C, about ten minutes. Feel free to stir.
3. Stir in the coconut and the cardamon. Turn it all into the loaf pan.
4. Leave the candy to cool and set on the counter. Cut with a buttered steak knife before it is completely cool.

Creamy Saffron Coconut Fudge (Thengai Burfi)

Twenty minutes plus two hours setting; serves four

butter for greasing
1/2 tsp saffron threads (a big pinch)
1 Tbsp warm milk
1/2 cup milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup shredded coconut (fresh or dessicated)
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp milk

1. Butter a bread loaf pan, as if you were making a short loaf. Place it in the freezer.
2. Put the saffron to steep in the tablespoon of warm milk in a little cup or pan, and keep them warm if you can.
3. In a small saucepan over medium flame heat the sugar in the milk and stir to dissolve it. Stir as bubbles come, then become so numerous the height of the syrup is doubled, keep stirring until it becomes nice and thick. This description is fairly imprecise, but you are not yet at any critical juncture, so don’t stress. However, if you have a candy thermometer, then go just to the softball stage, about 115C.
4. Once the temperature is attained, or you feel the syrup is pretty sticky, stir in the coconut, and when it is well-combined melt in the butter.
5. Keep stirring, scaping away all over, as this mixture thickens. It will start to pull away from the sides – keep stirring. When it starts to pull away from the bottom, too, and the coconut shreds start to look distinct in the syrup, turn off the heat and stir in the warm saffron milk. Quickly rinse out your little cup or pan with the teaspoon of milk to get all the goodness out, and stir that in, too.
6. Turn it all into the loaf pan.
7. Leave the candy to cool and set on the counter. Cut with a buttered steak knife before it is completely cool.

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Thayir sadam, or (yogurt) curd rice, is a delicious chilled rice dish common throughout southern India, and it is a great strategy for preserving leftover rice for the next meal. Thayir sadam can be made quite thick and chunky, as I have here, or mashed to the pudding stage, or thinned with milk through to a near-liquid stage resembling the yogurt drink, lassi. Moreover, thayir sadam can be flavoured any way you might like it, with whatever whole spices and powders are to hand. It is highly adaptable, a make-ahead dish that can last days in the fridge, and is easy to pull out as the starch of a main meal or as a snack. I’ve been enjoying it this week for breakfast, although I admit the heat of the chilies is not a great partner for coffee.

The success of thayir sadam owes a lot to the food chemistry involved. The first imperative is to work with hot rice (this is where the ‘keep warm’ function on your rice cooker earns its keep). The straight-chain starches of long-grain rice set very hard if they do not have sufficent water molecules among them as they cool; you’ve noticed this with leftovers, I know. Coating rice in a wet sauce (milk, then yogurt) before it cools will ensure that there is ample water present to run interference between the amylose starch molecules and keep the grains reasonably soft. This recipe is for long-grain rice, but shorter-grained rices (like sushi rice) respond even better to cooling or indeed even freezing. My second suggestion is to choose a fuller-fat yogurt, such as a “greek-style,” which is still mostly water but does come with some fat (typically about 10% by weight). The spices involved in this salad, especially the chilies, can curdle dairy product just like heat can, but incorporating fat in the mix will offer some protection, this time by interfering with proteins rather than starches. If all you have in your fridge is skinny yogurt, then I suggest mixing a little ghee or melted butter (maybe a tablespoon’s-worth) into the rice after adding the yogurt (not before, or you’ll coat the grains and prevent the water from softening the cooling rice). So much science in a little bowl of rice…

This salad is best a little warmer than refrigerator-temperature, but a little chiller than room-. In other words, pretend it’s a blush. Come to think of it, a rose d’anjou wouldn’t be a bad wine match. Serve as a starch with an Indian meal, where this cooler temperature will be a contrast and a surprise. Or have it for breakfast with orange juice, if you like a little spice in your morning.

Tamil Rice and Yogurt Salad (Thayir Sadam)

10 minutes from cooked rice; serves four

2 cups hot cooked long-grain white rice, such as basmati
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup fuller-fat yogurt (Greek-style)
1/2 tsp salt
2 fresh green chilies
1″ peeled fresh ginger
1 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
1/4 tsp gluten-free asafoetida powder
small handful of dried curry leaves (about a dozen)

1. Mix the milk with the rice, then the yogurt, then the salt. Consider if you might like it wetter, with more milk, bearing in mind that it will set somewhat as it cools.
2. Mince the chilies with their seeds. Finely grate the ginger, keeping the juice. Mix all of this into the rice.
3. Heat the oil in a small heavy frying pan over medium flame. Add the mustard seeds and when they stat to pop add the asafoetida and the curry leaves. Off-heat roll them around for a few seconds more and stir them into the rice.
4. Refrigerate. To serve, let warm just a little and taste for salt.

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In the south of India it is customary to pour a soup called a rasam over your rice toward the end of a large meal. The Tamil community in India resides largely in the very south and they are great drinkers of these soups, which are usually hot and spicy and made slightly tart with tamarind, tomato, lemon, or lime. Not all rasams are made thick, but when they are it is usually through the very gentle disentegration of toor dal, red lentil. Unlike lentils of other hues, red lentils fall apart entirely in tens of minutes of cooking, giving the soup a consistency something between that of broth and that of curry. Like most common soups, a family’s rasam will be some hybrid of a chefs specialty and whatever is on hand that day. Variations can be broad; in a curious cross-cultural adventure, rasam managed to spawn the not-very-similar English mulligatawny soup.

Anyone familiar with the cuisine of India knows that when it comes to spices the cook is spoilt for choice. The rasam that I have choosen to make features three distinct flavourings that are very common to cooking in the south. The first is asafoetida, a plant resin with a yellow colour and (when used sparingly) a sulfurous odor similar to allium. (Be warned that while asafoetida is usually sold ground with rice flour it can be mixed with wheat flour instead, so if it matters, read your labels and choose your brands.) The second spice is slightly bitter brown mustard seed, which is great fun: rather than grinding them, one heats them in a little oil until the seeds go pop, pop, pop! Finally, a handful of dried curry leaves (so hard to describe, nothing else tastes like the gentle warmth of curry leaves) go into the final seasoning. It is for the sake of the curry leaves that I go easy on the souring tamarind in this recipe, as I find that too much sourness somehow cancels-out the curry leaves. If unavailable one could substitute lemon juice for tamarind and add it off-heat at the end, but all of these flavourings can be found in an Indian grocer’s, especially if his or her custom is from the south.

This soup would be plenty tasty served the occidental way, alone in a bowl at noon. For a more traditional approach, serve over rice and perhaps a dab of melted ghee, in the company of the usual suspects: curries, chutneys, yogurts, popadums. We like it with a hard English apple cider (the hotter our meal, the sweeter our cider).

Tamil Red Lentil Soup (Rasam)

40 minutes; serves four

1 cup red lentils, washed
4 cups water
three whole cloves garlic
1/4 tsp asafoetida powder
1/4 tsp tumeric
3 dried bird’s eye chilies
12 black peppercorns
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 Tbsp dried coconut
3/4 cup good canned tomatoes
1 Tbsp tamarind paste
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil
1 1/2 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
handful of dried curry leaves (maybe 18 or so)

1. In a large saucepan place the lentils and water and heat to a boil. Skim the scum. Toss in the garlic cloves, asafoetida, and tumeric and simmer until the lentils have fallen apart, about 25 minutes.
2. In the meantime, place the chilies, peppercorns, cumin and coconut in a small heavy frying pan and toast them over low heat with stirring until the coconut turns brown. Remove to let cool.
3. Dice the tomatoes. If your tamarind is still on the stone, soak it off with some agitation (fingers are best) in a little water.
4. Once the lentils have collapsed, fish out the garlic cloves and add the tomatoes, tamarind and salt. Grind the toasted spices in a grinder or a mortar and add them, too. If the soup is too thick for you, add a little water. Too thin, simmer a little longer.
5. In that little frying pan add oil and mustard seeds and heat gently. When the seeds start to pop add the curry leaves and swirl them around for a minute to extract some of their flavour into the oil. Add this final seasoning (it’s called a tarka, by the way) to the soup. Taste for salt.

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