An Intimate Food Adventure with Madhur Jaffrey: India in Jackson Heights & Floral Park

Early this Spring I attended the annual conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in New York City.  There was one tour that I wanted to partake in but my flight schedule did not allow for me to join it. However, my friend, Kathy Blake who writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape, kindly offered to share her tasting tour of regional Indian dishes led by Madhur Jaffrey.  I am honoured and touched by Kathy’s generosity and know that you will be ready to partake in your own Indian feast at the end of this informative post.

One of the highlights of the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals (www.iacp.com) conference in New York City was having the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse immigrant food history of the five boroughs through the eyes of experts in various cuisines.  When I saw that there was a Tour of the Indian neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Floral Park in Queens guided by none other than renowed actress and Indian cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey (http://www.madhur-jaffrey.com/), whose work I’ve followed for years, I made sure to snap up one of the few available places on it.

Our first stop of the day was to Rajbhog Sweets (http://rajbhog.com/) in Jackson Heights.  We were greeted by Nirav Shah and his wife at
their flagship store.  To start off our day, they treated us to squares of a cooked-milk sweet called Barfi and super-syrupy squiggles of Jalebi along with steaming, fragrant cups of Masala Chai.

 

We were also given plates of Dhokla, a soft, fluffy savory cake made with chick pea flour which was dressed with cilantro and black mustard
seed.  Light and delicate just on its own, when paired with a tangy-hot Cilantro Sauce and a citrusy Tamarind Sauce, my mouth perked up with all the taste points on my tongue shouting for more.

 

Ms. Jaffrey advised us that she was “going to make [us] have too many pancakes and breads” during our excursion as she
“wanted [us] to see the breadth and depth of what we eat.”  So, we headed into the kitchen to watch the making of Chapati (also known as Roti), from the north of India, which comes from the word “chap” meaning to slap, based upon the motions used to make the bread.
The version that we had was formed into circles using a small rolling pin, cooked briefly on a griddle, and then finished by being laid directly on an open flame to puff up before being served to us piled high with a swipe of Ghee (clarified butter) on top.

To serve the Chapati, we were each given an opportunity to select a side dish from the gorgeous array of vegetables that
the shop prepares each day, several times a day.  The steaming Chapati, pulled apart to reveal its layers, was the perfect utensil to scoop up the dollops of creamy Dhal, spiced cauliflower, seasoned mushrooms, and hearty potatoes that I’d put on my plate.  I was so enamored of the flaky, layered, crêpe-like texture of the bread that I ignored the fact that this was just the first of our many stops on our tour, and eagerly snatched up another piece when it was offered by our hosts.


After devouring the chapati, Ms. Jaffrey introduced us to “one of best Lassi you will ever have” prepared by the shop’s kitchen.  I’ve never tasted a Mango Lassi quite so gorgeous with its floral body and notes of saffron and cardamom perfume. It was a perfectly refreshing beverage and made me wish this place was closer to where I lived so that I could pick one up whenever I wanted it.


On our way over from Manhattan, Ms. Jaffrey had explained to us that making Khandvi is “a very special art” and that the dish that we would be sampling at Rajbhog Sweets is some of the best in the United States. Chickpea flour, water, buttermilk, and yogurt are combined and then heated over a low flame until it becomes thick and pasty, almost like the dough for choux pastry.  Then, it is spread out in a thin layer on a
table to cool.  That step is the trickiest to achieve, as Ms. Jaffrey related to us.


Once cooled slightly, the mixture is cut into rectangles.  The dough is then rolled up into long pasta-like curls and served warm.  In this case, it was tossed in spicy oil and given to us with a sprinkle of cilantro on top. It was like eating the silkiest egg pasta but with a kick coming at the
end from the oil and a clean, cool finish from the herbs.  This was an amazing start to a very full day.





For our next stop, we headed over to Raja Sweets nearby.  There, we started off by having two different kinds of Paratha or
stuffed griddle breads, one filled with potato and one filled with cauliflower.  These are part of a traditional Indian breakfast but are also eaten at other times of the day, too.  The crisp, hot dough crammed with a savory, smooth filling and cooled down with a drizzle of cool yogurt was the ideal snack.

Next, a plate full of golden-brown, puffed deep-fried breads known as Poori were brought out for us to try.  These were served with two different kinds of chickpeas or Chana: the beige-colored ones that are more familiar and a small, chocolate-hued version.  The latter had a nutty taste and were more bean-like in flavor than their fairer cousins.  Alongside that we also had a bit of Halwa, a nut paste that was more savory than sweet.  We all ate everything scooping it all up with hunks of the Poori.


We then stopped by a pocket-sized Paan Shop to sample Betel Leaf, which I had never tried before.  Watching the vendor carefully prepare each leaf with a slather of rosewater jam and then adding dashes of other flavorings, I had no idea how this would taste in the end and
didn’t know quite what to expect.  After I took a bite, the woodsiness of the leaf combined with the various things layered inside filled my mouth and my senses with a cooling and invigorating sensation.  I could pick up eucalyptus, anise, and mint among the ingredients.
Not too many other folks in the group seemed to enjoy it, but I found it to be refreshing and rather palate-cleansing.

To learn a bit more about what goes into making some of the dishes that we had already tried and those we would be
tasting next, Ms. Jaffrey took our group on a tour of Patel Brothers Supermarket (http://patelbrothersusa.com/newsite/).  Walking through the aisles, we were able to see the wide variety of beans and flours as well as the fresh herbs and unique produce that play a part in creating Indian cuisine.  With our personal guide, we were able to get an insight as to how the foods of India have been translated to fit on the
tables of the United States and how many immigrants seek to preserve their culinary traditions even though they are far from their homelands.


On our way to our next dining destination, we stopped off at a butcher shop in the area, to get a feel for the kinds of meats that also play a role in some Indian dishes.  The counter at the New Al-Salim Halal Meat Shop had products that are definitely not typcially seen in the supermarkets in my neighborhood.  Goat meat and beef shank were on display along with other cuts that are staples in recipes of the
region.

For a taste of Halal food, our next stop was at Kabab King (http://kababking.com/index_2.html).  When we were seated at the table, Ms. Jaffrey explained to us that the “food we know most in the West is Punjabi,” as the people from that region traveled more extensively and set up restaurants where they settled.  We tend to think of India as just one country with a unified cuisine, however, the way that a Hindu family
cooks can vary widely from what a Muslim family prepares.  Even if a dish is called by the same name and the ingredients are exactly identical going into the recipe, it is the little twists in timing or preparation that can mean that the final result has a different flavor profile.  In the end, we were reminded, it is all The Food of India.


Even though we had eaten quite a bit at our first few stops, I was determined to sample at least something from all the wonderful plates and bowls put before us. Naan is one of my all-time favorite types of breads, but I knew I had to restrain myself and took only a small
piece of it to soak up all the other delicious foods.  I took a spoonful of Haleem, the meat and split pea porridge, which was served with
sliced onions, ginger, peppers, and cilantro. The Tandoori Chicken was perfectly charred and tender at the same time, so I added a small piece of that to my plate as well.


The saffron-flecked Chicken Biryani always seems to me to be a great celebration dish.  I still remember the first time that I ordered this colorful combination: white, yellow, and orange rice, sultanas, pistachios, and chunks of savory chicken spiced with cumin and cardamom.  Ms. Jaffrey mentioned that cream, nuts, oil, and saffron were considered expensive items in Indian cooking, which is why bringing them together in a dish like this feels so special.   The version that we ate a Kabab King was fragrant and delicious.  I think that the highlight of our visit for many of those around the table, however, was the Goat Curry, which was succulent and rich with a slight spice to it as well as a backnote of herbaciousness.


We then boarded our mini-bus to head to another area of Queens: Floral Park.  There, we would be sampling some specialties of southern India at Kerala Kitchen (http://www.keralakitchen.com/).  When the donut-shaped Vada were presented to us, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  These savory, suprisingly light-textured pastries, made by soaking and then beating dhal, are not at all heavy or greasy,
even though they have been fried.  After dipping a piece into the spicy sauce and reveling in the contrast between the soft interior and crisp-crunchy exterior, I think I found a new favorite treat.  This would be terrific mid-afternoon snack to chase away the blahs away.


This starter was followed by a plate of large Dosa, or fermented pancakes made with a batter of lentils and rice, and another of Velleyappam.  Ms. Jaffrey told us that the Dosa in restaurants tend to be shaped much larger than those found in served in people’s homes.  Along with the breads, we had a selection of curries, including a smoky Fish Curry, that was probably my favorite of them all, and another dish I really enjoyed called Thoran, which was a blend of coconut, beans, and vegetables.


Our final stop of the day was at Usha Foods (http://www.ushasweets.com/), also in Floral Park.  We were greeted by trays of Bhel Poori, a layered dish of puffed rice and vegetables with a sweet-sour dressing of tamarind chutney.  Having had the dish at a few street fairs, I
sampled only a small bite of this crunchy snack, as I was waiting to see what other delights we would be trying on at this shop.

Despite all the other terrific things that we had eaten that afternoon, when the Papri Chaat, one of my absolute, hands-down favorite snacks, was brought out to the table, I could not resist diving in for one.  As Ms. Jaffrey described it to those who had never eaten it, it is one of those “hot, sweet, sour titlating snack/streetfoods.”  With layers of crispy, smooth, cool, creamy, spicy, and tangy, this dish hits all the flavor notes that your mouth could desire perfectly in one small plate.


We were also treated to a table-side demonstration of how Bedvi, a speciality of Delhi are made.  These puffed breads are filled with spices and seasonings and then rolled into a ball before being fried.  As with the Poori that we had eaten on our second stop, they are served with side dishes, in this case with Churri, a sharp, white radish chutney, and with potatoes in a savory sauce.



We could have lingered there for much longer, enjoying our hosts’ warm hospitality, but our tour had already taken longer than the time we’d originally been told to plan for it.  Still, they would not hear of our leaving before we’d had another cup of Chai and one their delightful desserts: Gulab Jamun, balls of fried ricotta-based dough coated in a sweet, rosewater syrup, to see us on our way back to Manhattan.


At the start of our tour, Madhur Jaffrey had prefaced our culinary exploration by saying that what we refer to as ‘Indian
food’ “varies as much as, say, Danish food does from Greek.”  It was amazing to spend the day with her touring Queens and discovering through our senses and our tastebuds the wide range of rice dishes, vegetables, meats, curries, and breads that encompass the
cuisine of India.  I feel as though we still only managed to dip into a small sample of what this incredibly diverse country has to offer to our palates, which means that another trip to Jackson Heights and Floral Park, if not to India itself, might something I need to plan
for in the near future.

Buon
appetito!

Kathy Blake writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape and interacting with those who are a part of it at farmers markets, food events and artisan markets.

Photos and recap of Bowich Curry House

I wanted to give an update on how the Bowich Curry House went much sooner but work and my travels to a fantastic cookbook conference in New York have kept me busy. 

We had incredible response coming from friends and fellow tweets and Facebookers. We sold out very quickly and in fact could have filled the room twice over. Thank you to all who expressed interest but for whom we could not find room. Your names have been kept aside for priority contact when the next Bowich Curry night happens (look to end of March or early April).

Samantha, Gavin (owners (and siblings) of Bowich) and I were pleased with how the night went off. There was the odd kink the needed to be worked out. As expected for their first sit down event. But it was for a great cause. In all we were able to raise $200 dollars for the Prerna School for Girls in Bihar. It may not seem like it is a lot of money but in Bihar it goes a very long way.

We wanted to record the first Bowich Curry Night so my photographer friend Fred Dekkal volunteered to help. All of these fantastic shots are his. Thanks Fred! 

Bowich Sandwich Shop was briefly tranformed in to ‘Bowich Curry House’ for a few hours.

bhel puri, pani puri/golgappas, aloo bonda

Jess, Tayse and Sam filling the pani puris/ golgappas with diced sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and green mangoes. The first course featuring bhel puri, pani puris, aloo bonda (frying in the karhai) and kachumber salad.

Kerala Backwaters duck curry with root vegetables and lentil papadums anticipating their entrance to the dining room.

Caramelized vanilla/rum roasted pineapple and crumbled coconut peanut ladoo anxiously waits to be dressed with some silky Alphonso mango mousse.

We all had a great time tasting some treats of Goa and Kerala and hey even Shahrukh Khan decided to join us!

Bowich Curry House

For a while now I have been toying with the idea of doing a series of regional Indian dinners.  It wasn’t until I walked into the well designed space at the Bowich Sandwich Shop in downtown Ottawa that I knew I had found the space. Even better was that after speaking with Samantha, one of the owners, I learned that they were thinking of starting an occassional event called Bohemian Night Presents. So for those of you who live in the Ottawa area Bowich and I are co-hosting the inaugural Bowich Curry House on Friday February 3rd, 2012. 

 The menu features non vegetarian and vegetarian regional dishes from Goa to Kerala.  A portion of the monies raised will be donated to the Prerna School for Dalit Girls.  Stephanie Nolen from the Globe and Mail has started a series called Breaking Caste.  The poster below has more information about the menu and reservation contact details. Looking forward to seeing you there!

 

Favourites From My Indian Cookbook Collection

Recently, after a delicious North Indian inspired dinner my in-laws and some of their friends reminisced about coming to Canada over 40 years ago with practically no knowledge of their way around a kitchen.  They spoke of their culinary ‘apprenticeship’ under Mrs. Balbir Singh. Long before Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, Mrs. Singh’s Indian Cookery, first published in 1961, was THE English language cookbook Indians abroad used to recreate deeply missed flavours of home.  A decade or so later they continued their culinary education from mentors Julie and Madhur.  Leafing through each book kitchen scribbles in the margins reveal adjustments, additions or omissions of ingredients to personalize these favourite dishes. The books and written recipes are no longer needed. The quantities and spicing of their signature dishes were long established in their fingers and hands.  

 Cookbooks

   

 

These seminal books have made their way on to the shelves of our kitchen library.  But so have many many others.  Listed below are some of my present favourite Indian cookbooks, guidebooks and current affair related books. 

My Indian cookbook collection numbers over a hundred. Stacked they are much taller than my 2 ½ year old.

These are the cookbooks that I tend to use as regular resources.  In general, they are dependable, the majority of the recipes are clear and actually work and most importantly they are wonderful bridges to the different cultures and regional cuisines of India.  Some of you may be surprised of certain books not appearing on this list – I would love to hear your feedback- as I may not have them but mostly likely did not   include them for certain reasons. 

The following two books are solid, strong foundations for engaging with Indian cuisine. Both published in the 1980s they do not have the great visual impacts that today’s cookbooks have.  I would be very interested in seeing what they would look like had they been published within the last ten years.

 

A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey (1985)

A good introduction to the culinary traditions of the regional tastes of India.  The section on general ingredients provides nice descriptions of the common and unfamiliar ingredients.

 

 

 

 

 

Classic Indian Cooking Recipes adapted for the American Kitchen by Julie Sahni (1980)

The first half of the book solidly describes the principles of Indian cooking ingredients; equipment; techniques.  A large portion of the recipes are North Indian influenced and will be familiar to Indian restaurant goers. 

 

 

 

 

The Indian Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj (1996)

I constantly refer to this book. A fantastic resource which provides great descriptions of the ingredients found in the Indian pantry.  I really like how with each ingredient Bharadwaj explains how it grows; its appearance and taste; buying and storing tips; medicinal and other uses and culinary uses.  There are two or three recipes with each ingredient. They are ok but not great. But the real value of this book is the background on the ingredients.

 

 

Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent

by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford (2005)

I have enjoyed their books since the very first one, Flatbreads and Flavours, was released.  I received Mangoes and Curry Leaves prior to moving to the Subcontinent and eagerly devoured it.  Their food/ travels stories and photographs are fantastic and I often play a game with myself trying to figure out who experienced/wrote each story.  The recipes are not solely India focused (Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) but they are clear, concise and tasty.  They are fabulous culinary interpreters. I am also drawn to their suggested reading lists and bibliographies for further resources of interest.  As the book is rather large and could easily be considered a coffee table book I often re-write or photocopy the recipe I am preparing so that I do not get turmeric stained pages. I am very much looking forward to Naomi’s upcoming book Rivers of Flavour: Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma, about the culinary landscape of Burma (which I believe may be available in Autumn 2012).

 

Indian Essence by Atul Kochar (2004)

Sometimes professional chefs are not great recipes adapters- but this one is good. London based chef Kochar, owner of Banares Restaurant, has put together a book with relatively simple and straightforward recipes from different regions in India.  The outcome is often clean and contemporary flavours.

 

 

 

Vij’s Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala (2006)

Another book written by Vancouver based Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. What I really like about their books are the adaptations of traditional dishes using local, sustainable ingredients from around British Columbia.   Last year they came out with a second book, Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking.  I have not cooked from it but friends have and they seem to like it. During my one and only visit to Vij’s I noticed that there are only women who do the cooking.  Having worked in many kitchens in India I think this was a sound decision for harmony, consistency, and organization around the stoves.  It also may be the real secret ingredient to the restaurant’s success.

 

 

Regional Focused Cookbooks

The Calcutta Kitchen by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel

A wonderful introduction to the Bengali kitchen focusing on the metropolis that is Calcutta and the influences which have helped create such a unique cuisine.  A nice blend of stories and recipes.

 

 

 

 

Bangla Ranna The Bengal Cookbook by Minakshie DasGupta

This is believed to be the first book in English on Bengali cooking.  In honour of their mother, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta and her siblings founded the restaurant Kewpies, in Kolkata) to share their mother’s Begali love for eating and cooking the Bengali way.  If you are a fan of pungent sharp mustard oil, jhols (stews) and fish the book (and restaurant) are a good introduction to the Bengali kitchen.

 

 

 

Classic Cooking of Punjab by Jiggs Kalra and Pushpesh Pant

Wanting to prepare authentic flavours of the Punjab?  This is the place to start. 

 

 

 

 

 

Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine by Viji Varadarajan (2008)

I had the pleasure of meeting Viji shortly after this book came out. She graciously welcomed me into her home and prepared a dizzying array of delicious classic vegetarian Tam-Bram dishes.  She owes much of what she learned from her grandmothers, mother and mother in law (as most children in India continue to do) and fittingly dedicates the book to the ‘generations of women in our families who quietly, anonymously carved their personalities in the cooking traditions and rituals of daily lives’.  Her inspiration for the book was her own daughters, who live outside of India, but want to continue preparing the dishes from their childhood. So, she has taken traditional recipes and adapted them for a modern kitchen (and a modern dual income lifestyle). The recipes are very easy to follow, nutritious and wholesome.  This is a great book if you want to learn how to cook and prepare Indian vegetables such as okra, snake gourd, fenugreek leaves, drumstick, raw banana, bitter gourd. A visit to the South Asian shop will be a must to get ingredients for these recipes. 

 

The Best of Samaithu Paar The Classic Guide to Tamil Cuisine by S Meenakshi Ammal  (1951) 

When I want Indian food that is flavourful, easy to digest, and meat-free I turn to the South Indian ‘coffee’ shop comfort foods:  dosas, idlis, uttapams, vadas,  sambhar, rice dishes and simple vegetable ‘stir fries’. To make some recipes such as idlis you will need to buy specialized idli steaming holders and perhaps the odd Indian vegetable if you are looking for more authenticity.

 

 

The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India

by Lathika George

While reading the recipes and sentimental essays, which describe recollections of family feasts, visits to the toddy shack and under grandmother’s culinary tutelage, the reader is instantly transported to the coconut inflected culture and flavours of the Syrian Christina community of Kerala.  The traditional elements of food, family and community are clearly important to the author and she wants for these values to remain for future generations.  

 

 

 

 

Food Writing, Novels and Guides

 

A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food (2004)

Salman Rushdie, Vir Sanghvi, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, EM Forster, Amitav Ghosh, RK Narayan are a few key ingredients which comprise this appetizing anthology.  I was particularly taken with the introduction by editor Nilanjana Roy and hope that one day she can devout some time to produce a book of her own on the culture of Indian food.  

 

 

The Illustrated Food of India (A-Z) by KT Achaya (2009)

I cannot readily think of anyone in the present Indian food writing community who matches KT Achayas interest and passion for the flavours of regional and historical Indian food (maybe Pushpesh Pant).  As the back cover says, this book analyzes the historical, regional and religious influences of Indian food showcasing the intricacies of the various subcultures of India through their cuisines. Each time I pick up this book I gain even greater respect for the diversity and complexities of the cuisines of India.  

 

 

Curry: A Biography by Lizzie Collingham

This book tells the history of India and its rulers through their food. It follows the story of curry as it spread from the courts of Delhi to the balti houses in England, from the tiffin carriers of Bombay to the army canteens of Japan.  The author reveals great stories about the history of ‘curry’ and the book is very well researched. Collingham adeptly show that the majority of Indian dishes are the product of a fusion of different food traditions.

 

 

 

Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

Just as I was to embark on a trip to India last January a friend asked me if I had read this book.  Luckily, a bookshop in Kochi had it stocked.  The story is set in a village in South India just after Independence.  It portrays the lives of a village farming family as India embarks on a path of development.  Although written in 1954 the trials and tribulations that the matriarch of the family, Rukmani, encounters rings true to what is happening now almost 60 years later.  I am eager to get my fingers on another of her books, A Handful of Rice. I would not be surprised to find out that the author, Kamala Markandaya, influenced many of the future great Indian authors (some in the anthology listed above) who write in English.  This book may be hard to find outside of India.  Used bookshops and libraries would be the best place to start.

 

 

Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine by Chitrita Banerji (2007)

A relatively quick and easy read that pulls you in as she describes her explorations of different regional tastes.  It is a nice blend of food writing and travelogue. Like Curry: A Biography, Banerji shows how restructuring old customs and making innovations is what India is all about: food in India has always been and still is fusion- one that is forever evolving.

 

 

 

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Set in Kashmir, this book focuses on Chef Kirpal Singh’s trip from Delhi to Kashmir to cook for a previous commanding officer’s daughter’s wedding. As he travels by train he reminisces about his early years as a cook in the Indian army along the Kashmir border.  Through food and chef Singh’s life the author tries to show the challenges and subtle similarities of the conflicting communities in Kashmir.  At times perhaps overly descriptive using food metaphors but an interesting way of incorporating food into the long standing dispute in Kashmir.

 

 

Highway on My Plate: The Indian Guide to Roadside Eating by Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh

I first met Mayur when he and his wife hired me for an event as part of their wedding a few years ago.  They wanted me to help create a menu which was a balance of modern Indian and Vietnamese (part of his wife’s heritage) flavours.  I quickly learned that he was part of a unique team (he the vegetarian and Rocky the carnivore) which tasted the roadside stalls and restaurants throughout India and offering their honest, simple and often humorous reviews of the food (as scene on NDTV’s Highway on My Plate).  This book is not India’s Michelin guide but rather a good summary for someone who is planning to travel throughout India and wants to stay out of the pricier hotels and restaurants.  Some knowledge of Indian food will be required to read through the lines to find the real roadside/village gems.

 

 

Love Travel Guides for India by Fiona Caulfield

Guides for Delhi, Mumbai, Begaluru, Jaipur/ Rajasthan, Goa are now in circulation.

 (Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kerala and Sri Lanka are is the works)

Often the traditional guidebooks do not have the time to search out the hidden gems of these cities: Heritage hotels, delicious regional restaurants, independent artisans and wonderful insights about what shapes the personality of each city can be found in this series.  Holding a guidebook in your hands you realise that Fiona Caulfield has a passion for supporting independent artisans and craftspeople.  The book covers are printed on traditional hand woven Khadi fabric made in Andhra Pradesh and the inside information is printed on hand made paper.  A definite must have.

 

 

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce

I found this book was really good at examining the changes occurring in ‘Modern India’.  That being said, I think it best to leave it to a seasoned and respected book reviewer, William Grimes of the NY Times,  to provide a thorough summary of this book.

 

Relatively New Books I Hope to Get and Read 

 

Tasting India by Christine Manfield (2011)

This is a BIG book. Had my hands on it at the Cookbook Store in Toronto but am hoping that it may makes its way into my library via a gift.  Very much a coffee table book I don’t really see it being easy to use in the kitchen.  What I did find interesting was the extensive list of suggested accommodations and food related restaurants/ sights that the Australian author provides.  A good resource for anyone heading over to India (although many of the accommodations featured are on the high priced/luxury end of the scale).

I have read a few reviews of the following books and am eager to read them to see each author’s perspective on the ‘new’ India.

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas (2010)

 

 

The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India by Siddhartha Deb (2011)

Happy cooking and reading!

The Recipes Are Coming

The previous posts were from a trip I did with a photographer friend, Jason Taylor and his fantastic architect girlfriend Chintan. The three of us travelled from Goa to Kerala together in search of regional dishes and groups or individuals committed to preserving their culinary heritage. Finally, I am ready to share recipes culled from my experiences and travels while living in India. I hope that these recipes excite you to explore the food systems and producers in your area but also provide you with a taste of regional India. Enjoy!

Upendra has worms

I decided to put a small film together yesterday. We finally arrived in Mumbai and I think my body and mind need a rest. We lay in a cool room in Bentley’s hotel, windows open and the drone of the city’s traffic and chaos.

I met Upendra when I first started to think of the Source project. I stayed with Bubun who helps run WASCA a small organisation based in Keonjhar, the north of Orissa, one of the richest areas of this impoverished state. That really shameless mining magnet Mittal is based there pulling millions of tons of sponge Iron out of the ground and giving nothing back. The truck mafia have a hold on the mineral transportation and from 6pm to 9am there is one massive 20 Km traffic jam of dirty lorries waiting to bring coal or take iron around the town. The region of Keonjhar is one of the most beautifully serene places…as long as you move a few kilometers out of the main town.Most of the community are landless subsistence farmers and live on what they are able to grow. A patch-work of small paddy fields and mud houses, all polished with deep red and black local clays, chickens, sheep and children scatter the road.

About two years ago I was working on a small project with Concern India and had been in Keonjhar for a week. While sitting on the back of a bike and visiting villages in the early morning, I noticed whole families out in the dry paddy, on their knees with hammers breaking what looked like rocks. I went out to have a look and realised that these were not rocks but pieces of soil, the size of small boulders, dead and baked in the sun. Before being able to plough the paddy, the family needed to spend days in the hot sun smashing the dead soil.

This is what had happened to Upendra, he was told by the government, the companies and many others that if he spent his money on agricultural chemicals he would make more money. He tried it and it worked.. for five years his yield increased, the more he spent, the more he used and the more he seemed to make. Little did Upendra know that the reason for this was the combined efforts of the natural richness of the soil and the chemical fertilizers’ boosting effects. While this was happening nothing was being put back into the soil. The chemicals were killing his soil, the worms and other organisms… all the life of the soil. Soon there was nothing left and his yield went down, now he had nothing but the hybrid seed and chemicals to produce his crop and year after year he began to pay more and more to the companies while, now knowingly destroying his soil.

If we are to create a sustainable future we need to begin to come to terms with where our sources of information come from, who funds our research, drives our policy and controls our media.

This is a two minute film on Umendra, a man who has joined the dots and now realises that everything was not as it should have been. There are some amazing people and organisations out there, doing work that truly empowers the farmers of India but they are few. As funding from some of the giant donors begins to dry up or becomes conditional, linked to foreign policy we are seeing a dramatic decline in genuine interventions.

Upendra has Worms from jason taylor on Vimeo.

India is now pushing through a totally non democratic second green revolution, in the driving seat are EU and US foreign policy mixed with a bit of Bill and Melinda Gates and their corporate partners at Monsanto.

For more information on  the Indian agriculture crisis please go to www.devinder-sharma.blogspot.com

Kollam and Coconuts

So this is it, the end of the trip. Cameron is on the long flight back to Canada and -36 and we are left in Trivandrum in 36 degrees. Almost three weeks of non stop travel and good food, beautiful people and places. 

After going to sunday church we waited to meet some members of the fishing community in Kollam, a medium size fishing town. It had had lots of money spent on it, three story flats and concrete, bars on windows and locks on doors. Its strange how money and so called progress makes such fundamental changes to the community. We managed to track down a local activist Andrews Ambrose who we hoped would open all kinds of doors for us but he didn’t, he just closed his and said he would need to discuss our work with the committee, so we got in a car and found the local fish market just north of Kollam.

Sardines, millions of them, boat after boat, crate after crate, noise, smell and movement. It was amazing to see just how much in one small port, by just a few fishing boats could be landed. On an average day about 5,000 baskets each weighing around 30-40 kg are bought in, on a good day 10,000. These are big commercial boats that trawl the seas all night, from the beach after the sun has set it looks like a far off city of twinkling lights.

In the morning on Kovalam beach, I sat and watched around thirty local fishermen land their beach nets, from sunrise to about 9am they move across the beach with their ropes, singing rhythmically as they draw in the nets. The whole community working together then sharing what they bring in. This time as is now more the case, their nets were empty. Just a couple of crab, an eel and some small and terrified mackerel. There is such a disconnect with the business man who owns the boat and the people who work it to the resource they are harvesting. It merely becomes a financial transaction and is bereft of emotion, culture and respect. But hey, the fishermen have those wonderful tourists to fall back on!

On our way to Trivandrum, stopping at one of the wonderful Indian Coffee Houses. Puri bhaji and sweet milky coffee pulled us all together and we ended up in the kitchen to see what they were putting in the rather strange colored bhaji… it was all a bit suspect but turned out to be beetroot.

Then again to the amazing Laurie Baker designed Indian Coffee House in front of the train station. This circular building has a spiral dinning hall and over thirty tables, cool air and natural light, a far cry from the normal “hotel” eating joints we end up in.. blacked out glass a squeaky old fan blowing hot smoke and chillie filled air around the room while eliminated by the wonders of strip lighting. How simple it could all be if we though about more than just how to make a bit of money.

Coconuts seemed to be a good start so we headed off the main roads and stopped at coir villages. The book we will put together will be a combination of recipes and stories on food, the people the culture and the environment and how they are part of a whole. What has taken us ten thousands years of toil, understanding and respect is true sustainability, what we are being sold as food security and sustainability is little more than a resource grab. Its only when you travel deep into the villages that you begin to understand how it all works and how it needs to work.

So coconuts would be a perfect story for the book. From its religious, cultural significance, its water and milk, its flesh and its shell, for oil to cook and oil to burn, wood and leaves for building, fiber for materials and so we could go on. One tree with endless possibilities. So this is very much were we need to go with the project the connection to the source of our food and our cultures. Thank you Cameron for starting this up. And thank you Chintan, you’ve been amazing.  Its going to work!

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-coconut-revolution/

God’s own country

So finally we arrived in beautiful Kerala and it really seems to be god’s own country. We just hope it stays that way. Almost 100% of the population are educated…and it shows.

Upon arriving in Fort Kochi, we made our way down to the main waterfront where the fishermen bring in their catch to be weighed and auctioned.  Kingfish, pomfret, mackerel, and rather large cuttlefish appeared to be the species in demand. Much of the kingfish apparently makes its way to north India, Hong Kong or even the Middle East.

While living in Delhi, many times I had been told about the wonderful food served at the Philipkutty home stay.  We decided to make the hour and a half journey from Fort Kochi to meet one of the owners, Anu Matthew. Philipkutty’s farm is situated on an island in the ‘backwaters’ - a unique fresh and salt water ecosystem- interconnected freshwater rivers and canals that feed towards the sea, through a couple of larger lakes, that seasonally get charged with saline water, when the sea backs up. A system of locks and sluices keep the salt from the freshwater. Initially the farm practiced ‘modern’ rice cultivation.

However, Anu’s deceased husband Vinod realised the challenges of single crop farming and over time moved the farm towards a more sustainable inter crop system. During the last 10 years the farm has been undergoing a transformation towards using greater organic methods to grow and harvest the coconuts, fruits, vegetables, and assorted spices such as nutmeg, mace, pepper and vanilla.

As we boarded the kettuvallom, the traditional boat of the backwaters maneuvered using a single long bamboo pole, the warm scent of drying coconuts welcomed us to the farm. It was later explained that the farm made its own coconut oil for cooking and cosmetic purposes.

Anu introduced us to the culinary authority in their home, her mother in law, Aniamma Philip, aka Mummy. For the next couple of hours, in the courtyard under the shade of a large mango tree, Mummy divulged some of her kitchen secrets.” If you add the crushed spices too early to a duck curry the flavour and colour of the sauce will become cloudy”, she said.

Similarly, as she made the beetroot pachadi (a lightly cooked vegetable or fruit mixed with grated coconut, yogurt, and spices) she described how the last minute tempering of fragrant curry leaves, chillies, mustard and fenugreek seeds provides a more complex layer of flavour. Anu shared with us her favourite thoran (stir fried vegetable with grated coconut and spices) recipe made from banana blossom. Mummy also showed us her version of a red snapper curry with lots of curry leaves and red chillies. The finished dish has a wonderful balance of heat and sourness from the local sour kokum fruit.

Over lunch, they said that we were quite lucky to be visiting while ducks were available in the market. Anu explained that after the harvest of rice farmers bring in ducks to clean up their paddy area by eating the remainder rice and in the process fattening them up to become a tasty seasonal treat. As we drove back to Fort Kochi we came upon a farmer who was selling some of his paddy-fed ducks by the side of the road.
We travelled southward to the community of Kollam. This coastal area of south Kerala is made up of small fishing hamlets of the three predominant faiths: Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Since it was the day of rest, there was limited fishing activities, we decided to visit the various churches within the communities.  We are looking forward to the next few days of being back on the water and in the kitchens learning more about the fishing families of Kerala.

Udupi and onwards

It’s been a few days of hotel, train, bus, rickshaw and no internet but we have finally arrived in the beautiful Kerala. God’s own country. The following is from our last few days on the road, some pictures and some words.

From Karwar we took a relaxing train journey along the scenic Konkan railway to the temple town of Udupi. Unbeknownst to us is was a festival day at the temple and tens of thousands of pilgrims had convened to celebrate. Music played in the streets as firecrackers burst from the alleyways. Late in the evening the idol of Lord Krishna was escorted by a well trained elephant for his evening walk.

The temple bells ringing in the morning pooja (prayers) acted as our alarm clock. Being the birthplace of the famous South Indian breakfast we wandered around in search of a masala dosa (crisp lentil crepe with spiced potatoes) and coconut chutney- along with the much needed wake up from a cup of South Indian filtered coffee.

Discovering that Sundays were quiet at the temples (as Lord Krishna is fasting) we decided to go to nearby Malpe beach. All along the beach were friends and families enjoying each other’s company; boys racing each other along the damp sand; children playing in the waves of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean; and grandparents itching to get a turn guiding the family kite.

The following morning we spent some time in the main temple kitchen used to produce the food for the over 10,000 daily pilgrims. Hindu pilgrims from all over the country visit the temple to offer prayers to the boy deity, Lord Krishna. In order to keep Krishna happy the temple priests feed him his favourite food. Visitors to the temple believe that this same food served to them will fill their souls with the divine. They feel that it will bring them closer to Lord Krishna.

After a long journey via train, bus, and taxi we made our way to the home of Raju and Nethra Hegde. They live in a very small village in the Nellitotha Forest located in the interior of Karnataka. With some help of a local NGO they have set up a basic, yet comfortable, home stay. The next morning we awoke to a simple breakfast of Neer dosa (rice crepe), two variations of coconut chutney and some sweet and sticky palm sugar syrup.

Raju then led us on an hour long hike deep into the forest to visit a tiny community consisting of just a few families. Close to 70 percent of Indians still live in a rural setting. Many of them live a subsistence lifestyle off of the local resources. Ganga and her family live in a four room house made out of mud and with no electricity. Spending time in and around their home and discussing their way of living we learned that almost everything they need is in the forest. It is their grocery store, hardware store and pharmacy. Ganga showed us the laborious process of husking rice and grinding it to flour.
He son led us to a tree in the forest which he proceeded to climb and cut down a branch with a nest in it. When Raju asked us if we ate meat I assumed that perhaps we would be treated to a local egg or forest chicken dish. Little did we realise that it was a nest of red ants and their eggs. Ashwini, Ganga’s daughter, sifted the ants and their eggs with a little salt and then proceeded to make protein rich chutney with coconut and green chillies. For lunch we all sat around eating Ganga’s hand ground rice rotis, Ashwini’s ant chutney and a fiery red chile coconut chutney. Surprisingly, the ant chutney was extremely tasty with a pleasant tamarind like sourness.

It was explained that one of the ways the community celebrates a harvest is by playing their drums and singing local songs. Several male members of the community seemed eager to share their drumming and singing skills with us.

As I sipped my last cup of tea of before leaving the forest I thought about the people we met on this leg of the journey. Food should be not just for the body, but for the mind and spirit as well. The land from which we get our food needs to be valued. We must perform our everyday actions carefully, and mindfully, in order to contribute to the well being of our entire ecosystem.

and today we arrived in Kerala and Fort Cochin…

Goa and Karwar

This is the first blog from our trip around the south of India where we hope to find some of the rapidly disappearing foods of the area. As a result of the huge social, environmental and economic changes taking place across India, many of these traditional recipes, ingredients and methods of preparing food are vanishing. This blog will document our travels in the south of India.

WORDS by Cameron Stauch, IMAGES by Jason Taylor

We made our way from Mumbai to Goa and stayed with some good friends of Jason. Aggi shared with use two different versions of the Goan style chorizo sausage which had some nice heat and texture to them. He also shared with us a simple green coriander coconut chutney and some local bread to spread it on. It tasted absolutely fresh and was addictive!

Driving along the highway, just before you cross the border into Karnataka we stopped along the side of the road for some chai and breakfast. Our driver, Sanjay, said they made a good potato samosa. The potato filling was delicately spiced, yet well balanced, with turmeric, onions, green chillies, mustard seeds and fresh coriander. Unlike in the north where a flour dough is wrapped around the potato filling, this filling was made into balls and then dipped into a chickpea flour batter and deep fried. Once we all tasted Suresh’s fantastic Potato Dumplings we each devoured a few more. This simple meal had been the best we had eaten in days.

Some of the local roadside potato vada with a glass of chai for breakfast.

We arrived in the north coastal port town of Karwar. I had read about the good Konkani dishes served at Amrut Hotel so we ventured in to meet the owner, S.R. Neelavar. Fortunately for us his grandson, Bhaarath, was in charge that day and we explained to him what we were doing in Karwar. As he made some phone calls his kitchen sent out a lovely clam sukhe (clams lightly dressed in a red chilli coconut sauce). The clams were tender and every once in a while a small sweet chunk of coconut would counterbalance the heat from the red chillies.

Bhaarath introduced us to Satish, manager of Riveredge Retreat about 19 kilometres outside Karwar. Little did we know how knowledgeable, hospitable and helpful Satish could be. He led us to daily fish market where we saw the wives of local fishermen selling clams, mackerel, crabs, oysters, shrimp, shad and tiny white fish. The seafood seemed too good to pass up so we bought some for dinner along with some local amaranth greens and fresh coconut. That night we had some lovely seafood and a great dish of sautéed amaranth greens with grated coconut and tiny shrimps.

Cameron and Satish discuss some of the ingredients used in the local recipes.

Satish had arranged for us the next day to visit the home of a highly regarded cook in the village of Hankon. As we arrived Rukmani was just finishing her morning pooja. Rukmani guided us through several traditional dishes. It was amazing to see her work the stone masala grinder. She would move the large stone rhythmically counter clockwise while at the same time using her right hand to push any masala which came out of the grinding hole back into it. Although using the stone grinder takes longer than a modern mixer she feels that the flavour of a dish is far superior. She felt similarly about the fuel she cooked with. Rukmani used the gas burners in her modern kitchen only for making tea or if she was late getting the food together. She much preferred cooking over coals at the back of the house, as again, she felt the masala cooked more gently and resulted in a much tastier dish. Rukmani made us a light morning snack of rice gruel with a dried clam, chilli and coconut chutney. We followed this with some tea and a great coconut peanut laddoo delicately flavoured with fresh cardamom made by the mother of Nisha, her daughter in law.



Rukmani in her kitchen serving up one of the two fish curries.

Using virtually the same masala ingredients but in different quantities, Rukmani made two fish curries: one with mackerel and the other with a river fish. The mackerel was unique in that the sauce had a lovely citrus aroma to it due to a local dried berry, pepper-anise. The river fish curry on the other hand tasted much sweeter due to the flavour of the fish and the use of more grated coconut. Lunch was finished with a unique mung dal coconut jaggery dessert. Rukmani and her family were extremely hospitable and she was happy to share some of her culinary secrets with us. We felt very honoured to have been welcomed into their home.

Two plates with the ingredients for the mackerel and the sweet water fish curries.

After preparing the Mackerel, Rukmani washes the fish with sweet water from her garden well.

Rukmani and her family grind stone where she prepares the masalas for the curries. She believes this is the only way to prepare the spices and that using an electric processer heats the ingredients up, changing its flavour and affecting the final result.

The following day we met Sailash who invited us to go and collect clams in the brackish water (a mixture of salty sea water and sweet river water) outside his village. Sailash, along with two of his fishing friends, taught us how to use our feet to find the river clams two to three inches below the sandy bottom. We met several village women also collecting clams in the low, thigh high, tide. Sailash then took us to the mangroves along the shore to collect the much larger black clams.

Shailesh spends much of his time wading through the shallow waters of the estuary using his feet to find clams buried in the sands.

By using the heels of their feet and walking backwards, local fishermen are able to lift the clams from the warm shallow waters of the rivers estuary.

Taking the clams back home for lunch.

We then returned back to his home for lunch where his wife, Seejal, made a spicy clam and crab curry with our fresh catch. Her version of mackerel rava fry (fish coated with a semolina crust) was particularly tasty.

Clam and crab being cooked by Sejal, Shailesh’s wife, before adding a coriander, onion and chilly curry.

Mackerel fry.

As we have travelled along the north coastal region of Karnataka, we met and talked with many people. Many agree that traditions must be shared – and that biodiversity begins in the kitchen.

and some more images.

Mackerel being sold in Karwar fish market. These locally caught fish are part of the west coasts staple diet and are either used dry fried or in a curry.

Rukmani preparing the ingredients to the fish curries.

Working with the large balanced grinding stone takes little effort.

The clam chutney made by Rukmani.

Rukmani’s husband Vitthal and their grand daughter eating her clam chutney and local rice as part of their lunch.

Night time in a small village just outside of Karwar, Kanataka.

One of the local clam fishermen leaving the shallow waters after a morning’s work.

Cameron gets a ride out to the estuary shallows with two of the local fishermen to see how they find the clams.

One of the local women collecting clams.

After a morning of collecting, Shailesh begins to open and clean these clams.

Fresh limes in Karwar market.