Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Untamed in the Untamed

What is it like to be with nature? How does it feel to be far away from the maddening crowd, the shining electricity and of course, the buzzing and bugging cell phone? How does it feel to sleep under the stars? The normal answers are "Wow! enticing, peaceful!".

So, here goes the second set of questions.

How does it feel to be away from the humanity, so away that the trip to civilization would be tough, and sometimes impossible? How does it feel to be stuck somewhere where even if you were hurt, the ambulance or the nearest person would come to help so late, that you've already passed off? How does it feel to see something moving in the dark that you have no idea of, from which you want to run off, but there isn't a place to run? There you go.. you've got second thoughts about getting close to nature.

And that's really why some trips are pure relaxation and others are real test of the senses; of courage; and of course of great self realization.

One fine Wednesday I and a very old partner in crime, Abir , were confused about what to do with the fast approaching long weekend.
Las Vegas? Nah.. too crowded.
Sequoia National Park? Hmm... Too far and too little to do..
Yosemite National Park? Are you crazy? There's a wildfire on!
Where to then?.....
Catalina Island.. maybe? Okay... What other choice do we have really..

So we started looking up if we should do a trek or road trip in the rocky, somewhat arid terrain.. Didn't have an SUV, like the Safari Storme Explorer edition and we didn't want to spend on renting a car that eventually we'd break..
Being the typical ignorant but ever enthusiastic city boys, we thought, let's go camping; would take all the stress off the shoulders.. And we can chat all night, munching chips, in the dark...
So be it.. The camp ground was booked and we bought all the ration for the trip..
But, there was something that we were excited about but should have been scared of.

The camp site was at a remote beach(Italian Gardens), north of Avalon(One of the two harbors of Catalina). Surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, hidden in a cove, the only way to reach it was by the sea. Catalina sits about 18 to 22 miles off the California coast. The weather due to its position has it's typical, unpredictable nuances, that we didn't know of and couldn't have ever imagined.

We reached Avalon at around 10 AM on Sunday. It was not very crowded but wasn't deserted either. People had come over for the long weekend, having fun on the small sandy beaches and the open ocean. We quickly grabbed some lunch and went looking for Kayaks for boating off to our camping spot.
Kayaks rented, bags waterproofed with twin trash bags, and tied well to the rear of the kayaks, we were all set to say bon voyage to each other. When we started out, the sun had slowly started coming out of the clouds and there was a noticeable change in a distant star spangled banner, on top of an anchored ship. We were told that as the sun comes out, a wind starts blowing from north to south... we thought, it's just the silly wind.

We kayaked happily, singing and chatting northwards, hugging the shoreline, somewhat aiming towards Long point. Once we were out of Avalon cove, the distant Long point didn't look distant, although it was 5 miles north of Avalon. It was a piece of the island, jutting out into the sea, and looked as if the Catalina island ended there. Italian Gardens, our camping spot was just a cove away from Long Point, hence all the more we wanted to reach it fast. Little did we know of the power of wind and water...

After about 3 and half hours of kayaking, with the sun looking angrily down and the motors of some boats creating inconvenient waves, we decided to rest our aching muscles. My left shoulder was getting fatigued and it needed some rest. We pulled ashore to some rocks, our kayaks rested precariously on some rocks jutting out; we didn't care. As I sat down, massaging my shoulder an my arms and munching on an energy bar, gulping down some gatorade, I noticed, something was trying to shoo us away. A high pitched shooing sound was coming from up the cliff. I craned my neck up and there I saw the first spectacle of the remarkable journey.
A couple of bald eagles were nesting on a nearly dried out tree and were perched on the top branches. One of them, probably the female was looking in our direction and was probably asking us to leave. True, it was their piece of territory, they were the rulers and we were some pesky trespassers, intruding in the privacy that the couple needed. Refreshed to some extent and longing for a place to lie down, we pushed off our kayaks and bid farewell to the nice cosy rock. As I rowed towards the open sea, I looked back at the majestic birds, expecting a customary, courteous goodbye; but they perched nonchalant, somewhat relieved... Rude birds!

Within half an hour, we were crossing the long point and jubilating about the approaching place to rest our heckled bones. As we crossed Long Point, we noticed a number of caves and rocky outcrops. I wanted to see some harbor seals deep within, but they were not there; probably hiding somewhere from the scorching sun and the din created by the frequent motor boats.

As soon as we cleared off Long Point, we realized what a mess we were in. The Long Point had been shielding us from the north south wind all the time! With it gone, we were exposed to its fury. The waves were getting higher, the current in the water was pulling us off our course. We had to keep our kayaks somewhat facing the waves to avoid the chances of capsizing in the rough waters. There was no place to escape. We were exposed, wet and rowing with all our strength to keep ourselves above water and alive.

As we  neared the cove that had the Italian Gardens, the waves were already too high for comfort. During that time, I realized the power of human mind. My aching shoulder ached no more, my hands were suddenly strong and mind super alert, but deep within I was scared, very scared. Balancing the current, waves, wind and direction of the beach, we rowed hard at a constant pace. Finally, we were pushed ashore by the current and quickly we pulled the kayaks out of water. As we flopped down on the pebbled beach, we realized it had taken 45 minutes to cross a stretch of less than 150 meters. Hopeless... We thought, if this remains the condition, we could never return.. The six and half miles of journey had taken us more than five hours to cover.

After a long time lying motionless on the pebbled lonely beach, we eventually got up, unpacked and changed. I was hungry. With the sun going down behind the cliffs, I munched on a couple of sandwiches. I was too tired to move. But then, in the partly cloudy sky, the setting sun gave us the spectacle of a lifetime. As the diffused light reflected against the clouds at various angles and then bounced off the glistening sea, a technicolor display of light of shades of yellow, orange and red ensued. With the shadows playing around the cliffs with the light, I jumped around for some good shots. One of the shots is right at the beginning of this post... Be jealous!

As we were chatting ourselves to sleep amongst a cloudy sky, watching the distant glow of California mainland in the horizon, we started noticing each and every silhouetted detail. There were the waves to our left, the rocks to our right and.. something huge, like a wall, distant, but right in front of us. We noticed, it was moving very slowly towards us. Our minds started thinking of all the possibilities. Was it just a shadow? Was it an illusion? What was it? And then the dreadful thought of a tsunami wave came to our minds... We jumped up our feet and started thinking of scrambling up the cliff. It was ominous, huge and scary.. We were scared.. We didn't want to die like this! There! On a long weekend! With just two kayaks! As we stood there confused, logic got back to us and we realized, had it been a tsunami, we would have been dead an hour ago. It was too slow for a tsunami.. We were noticing it for an hour! It was a wall of fog!! Silly us city boys! Feeling foolish, we stretched out on our sleeping mats and dozed off, watching the distant dolphins having their supper... So merry.. so at home..

The wall did reach us at around 4 in the morning. It was a thick fog. But it saved us on the way back.

The sleep was good but we wanted to go home. The cruise from Avalon to the mainland was at 10 AM and since we couldn't start at 5 due to the fog, we thought, we had already missed the cruise. As the fog cleared a bit and we had had our breakfast, we started off at 7 AM. My left arm was aching and was not moving much at the shoulder. Still, longing for a good coffee and a comfortable bed, I pushed on. The fog was still there, blocking the sun and by God's grace the wind hadn't picked up! The stretch till Long point took about three quarters of an hour! In the calm sea we were making good progress! As I struggled with rowing, a few sea gulls flew by, giving me the sea gully squawking laugh! Annoying birds, they seem to mock you with their show of agility, when you're struggling. I ignored them..

As we cleared Long point, we were rowing through a forest of giant sea kelp that floated at the surface with their roots very deep down in the sea bed! nearly 20-25 feet kelps. Numerous orange Garibaldi fish could be seen in the clear waters. They seemed so relaxed and somewhat lazy. I would have loved to watch them up close when they were young. They get bright blue spots on them which fade off when they grow up. As I watched them, something splashed to my right, as if a bullet had ricochetted off the surface of water. Then again it happened. As I searched for the source, I saw a few flying fish trying to save themselves from something. They fly really fast! Beautiful fishes.. Didn't know what they were scared of.. There was no dolphin visible... nor any bait ball, created by them... I rowed on...

I started singing, felt happy seeing so many creatures up close, and rowed hard in the calm waters to get back fast, before the wind started again. The brunt of the nightmarish journey of the previous day was still fresh in my mind and body...

As I started getting tired and slowing down, I heard a snort and a sniff to my left. Then after a few seconds, a whiskered droopy eyed, funny face came out of the water just a few feet away from me. Yes! It was a harbor seal! I regained my energy and rowed parallel to its path. It rose, grunted, sniffed the air and went down  in the water. It was having its breakfast and somehow was a great company. Watching, following and laughing at the seal, I rowed on and I really didn't realize when I could suddenly see the Avalon harbor not too far away. As I neared the harbor, the seal disappeared. Good companion for the broken soul of mine. It had kept my mind off the pain and had entertained me when I needed a distraction the most. Thank you seal!! As I reached the shores of Avalon, I was feeling relieved, happy, but like an arthritis patient... I just couldn't move. All my muscles were aching! But we had made it back! We clapped at our achievement, cursing and appreciating each other for the  courage and the foolishness..

We had dozed off on the cruise, that we hadn't missed, and didn't realize when we were on the mainland.. The next whole week, my mind was thanking the seal that kept my spirits up when my body just couldn't push!

It's all in the mind.. It's a powerful thing... Fear, joy, hope, curiosity and the sense of accomplishment can defeat any pain..
They kept me moving...
The accomplishment of something that was impossible for me at every step, kept me enthused...
The joy of experiencing unknown sights, kept all my senses tingling...

Perhaps, that is the spirit of adventure...
Perhaps, that is what keeps us moving ahead as the great human species...
Perhaps, that is what makes us humans..

Copyrights of all the images belong to their respective owners.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Takeaways from Awadh

By the time India entered the eighteenth century, the great Mughal empire was starting to fall apart. Hyderabad was an independent state and so was Oudh/Awadh. Awadhi cuisine had transformed itself into something quite exquisite. They had abandoned the greasy and spicy Mughlai dishes for more delectable and delicate art.

What happened with the Awadhi cuisine was very political but went towards the right direction and tempted the palettes to create something special. During the skirmishes with Delhi, the nawabs of Awadh had started a culture of one up-manship. They were trying to project Lucknow as the better city and a place of excellence. They were doling out huge amount in salaries to the best cooks, poets, bards, singers, painters and other artists, to come and work in Lucknow. One nobleman is rumored to have payed an amount of 1200 Rupees to his cook, "an amount greater than the salary of any cook in the highest courts in the history of India".

Lucknow took the Mughlai cuisine and transformed it by incorporating it with the products of the fertile region of Awadh. They loved cream and used it to perfect the Qaurama/Korma. The Mughals had used the Persian method for cooking this. They used to first marinate the meat in yogurt, ginger, garlic, onions and spices before simmering it gently in the yogurt sauce. The mixture was thickened with ground almonds. The Lucknowis used a lot of cream instead and created a more rich and voluptuous preparation.

There are a number of good stories behind every Awadhi preparation. The most funny one to my opinion is the discovery of Sammi Kabab. We have all had our hands on the nice, soft, creamy kebabs that stand out as renegades in the world of highly spiced and sometimes hard to chew kebabs.  Lucknow was the place where it was discovered.

In contrast with the Mughals, who ate sparingly, the Awadhi nawabs were gluttons. In fact, nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah had become so fat that he could no longer ride a horse. He gained a lot of weight even after he had lost his teeth and thus the ability to chew. But the nawab needed his kebabs and the cooks had to do something to satiate him. The cooks abandoned beef for lamb, which was softer, and minced it into keema. The cooks would grind the keema into paste, add ginger, garlic, poppy seeds, some spices and some cream, and roll it into balls or lozenges, put them on skewers and roast on fire. The resulting kebabs were silky and soft and could be eaten by even a toothless person.

I would have more of Awadhi stories in a later post. But, for now we can conclude that what had happened in Awadh was something incredible. It had come out of mere politics and power struggle. Politics had not always been bad to the people. It may not have been a direct benefactor, but did help people in discovering new ways of living and thus enhancing the overall cultural diversity; the diversity that we all are proud of. Politics is a powerful tool to construct or destruct.
Today we do have the right to choose our own nawabs; but let's choose them well; to enhance the diversity and freedom and not to stifle the flexible and innovative tradition into a bottle in the ocean of intolerance.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Refresher of Mind

I told that I would talk of the courtly cuisine of the Hindu kings in my previous post. So Here it is..

Twelfth century India; a voracious king was eating his way to glory. There were many kings who used to satiate their tastebuds using different species of plants and animals; but I choose King Somesvara III. We should be thankful to Mr. Somesvara since he recorded his ways of satiation.

Mr. Somesvara has left us with one of the best records of the twelfth century Hindu courtly cuisine. Somesvara III belonged to the Western Chalukyan dynasty who ruled of parts of the modern day Maharashtra and Karnataka. Although parts of his empire was slipping out, this king was more interested in arts and literature than war. He ended up writing the delightfully named Manasollasa, the Refresher of Mind. This encyclopedic account of the kingly affairs described the conduct of the affairs of the states and other courtly routines to some extent, but dwelled much more into describing Kingly pleasures of hunting, massage, sex, jewelry, carriages, royal umbrellas, and the favorite - food.

Meat based aphrodisiacs and concoctions to promote youth amongst kings had been well described in ancient Ayurvedic texts. Mr. Somesvara had paid attention and had in-depth knowledge of such treatise and noted that a king should have a "suitable, healthy and hygienic diet". The king used to have lentil dumplings in a spicy yogurt sauce(The modern day curry chawal made with yogurt and besan dumplings), fatty pork fried with cardamoms(extinct in India today), or roast rump steak(possibly banned in modern day India). Some of his other lip-smackers may sound a bit unappetizing; fried tortoise (said to taste like plantain or kaccha kela) and roasted black rat.

Five centuries later, the habit of eating fabulous meats wasn't yet extinct. It was still being kept alive by the kings of Vijayanagara. Alongside mutton, pork, and venison(deer meat), “sparrows and rats, and cats and lizards” could all be found on sale in the markets of the capital city.

This makes me think, what happened to this fabulous tradition? Where did Vijaynagara or the Chalukyans go wrong? Why couldn't they maintain this rich and diverse tradition? Why is India today going more and more vegan not because it's healthy but because it's not a sin?

While looking for salvation, we lost our way into the labyrinth of gastronomic politics. We forgot that we have canines to eat meat and have very perceptive senses called taste and smell, which if neglected could lead our diverse and unfathomably deep social order into something so socialistic and equal that we may end up creating a distasteful after effect towards the decline of our civilization. Let's look into the history and see that we never were averse to anything and that made us into a golden bird. Acceptance and acceptability created a great nation and the only way to gain that state back is to create an accepting and nurturing nation; the hints of which can be felt through the culinary delights that come out of humble kitchens.

Post Selected for Tangy Tuesday Picks March 12, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Beef? No Thanks.. For Now...

When I am out eating with my American friends, it is quite often that they end up ordering vegetarian food; the more informed ones wouldn't go all vegetarian, but would stay off the beef. A question has always stayed within me; since when did we stop eating beef and start being Hindu with respect to the faith that we follow.

When Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweler, traveled to India for buying precious stones, he found it difficult to maintain his cuisine. He found that in large villages governed by Muslim governors, it was possible to find sheep, fowl and pigeons for sale; but in the ones populated with Hindu merchants, or Baniyas, those stores were limited. Pietro della Valle had grumbled, “I found much trouble in reference to my diet … as these Indians are extremely fastidious in edibles, there is neither flesh nor fish to be had amongst them; one must be contented only with Rice, Butter, or Milk, and other such inanimate things.”(Tavernier, Travels, I; Valle, The Travels, p. 294.) Tavernier and Valle would have been happy today with the fine dining options available.

For the Hindus of sixteenth - seventeenth century, there was a taboo associated with the consumption of beef. Beef consumption was considered vile and vulgar. It was regarded as a low thing. But this had not always been the case. The ancient Ayurvedic documents discussed the qualities of beef. They also warned of it's difficult to digest nature. Beef broth was considered a medicine for emaciation and was suggested as a diet to people with active lifestyle.(Chattopadhyaya, Tradition of Rationalist Medicine in Ancient India: Case for a Critical Analysis of the Caraka-saṃhitā, pp. 212-213) Cattle was also apparently used as sacrifice to the Gods.(Jha, The Myth of Holy Cow). The use of cattle meat reduced over the centuries; India was transforming into an agrarian economy, cows and bulls were increasingly being used as drought animals and farmers were reluctant to slaughter them. Another reason for the slow but steady deviation from meat eating was the emergence of Buddhism. 

The courtly cuisine of the then Hindu kings of tenth to twelfth century wasn't devoid of meat. But that comes in some later post.

Historically we haven't been non-beef eaters. We ate beef and used it in rituals. But the beauty of Hinduism lies in its plasticity. With time, economy and new beliefs, we did get rid of eating something that had some better use. The clever brahmins made it into a taboo thus enforcing the apparent need into a belief.

The question today is if we still need this taboo. I say no, and the brand of Hinduism I follow can do without it (others are entitled to their own opinions). Over the centuries, we may get over this one and would add new ones. Being too rigid isn't being Hindu; hope that transcends into our culinary culture and hope that culinary culture brings forth newer and more delectable ways for us to express ourselves.

Note: The text above is my own interpretation of history and every single person has his/her right to interpret in his/her own way. But it is not intended to hurt anyone's fragile sentiments.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hungry Cook?

What happens when you go a day without food? My mom would say "nothing beta, I do that every once in a while". My dad would say it's good if you do that once a moth, quoting all the big physiologists he knows of. My sister would say, well, you don't know, it depends how your genes are made and what virus reside in you; and I would try to run off. My roommate would say, "Man, if I don't eat today, you'll have nothing in the fridge tomorrow. So, let me eat.". But I say, it makes you a dangerous cook the next day.

Hunger has a wonderful way of effecting how you think. With a full tummy, there's every possibility that the food that you cook wouldn't be as good as when you are slightly hungry. I say slightly because when you are very hungry, the food that you make would be very oily, full of proteins and spices; your body would make your mind do that.  I wonder if that's the reason why the cheap Indian eateries serve so much oil in the food; the cooks are starving!

Hunger also affects judgement. Every time I have skipped breakfast, I have seen the head of my boss replaced by a samosa and the keyboard replaced by a big bar of dark chocolate. I used to wonder why samosas and dark chocolate out of all things!?! Well, have you ever been hungry after eating two full sized north Indian samosas or a full bar of chocolate?

There are a few hunger busting tricks. Tea, Coffee and aerated beverages with caffeine are potent hunger busters. My girlfriend sips tea when she doesn't have time to eat and yet is hungry. Eating asparagus, lettuce or spinach kills hunger in cold blood. These veggies fill the stomach up fast and take time to digest. They are not high on calories so although the stomach being full would deny hunger, hunger itself would coax the other parts of body to burn the saved up fat. Foolish body! I wonder if in the hungry Indian country, we should subsidize tea, coffee, coke and spinach.

So, on an empty stomach I started cooking today. What I cooked would have made the conscientious foodies faint. I took a slice of ham, fried it on a pan with some clarified butter. Took some potatoes, boiled them, sliced them and fried them. Took two slices of American cheese, melted it with ground chicken and made a patty out of that. Took a sour dough muffin, dipped it in beaten egg yolk and fried it to make a salty french bread. Next I assembled all of the above into a sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise between each layer.

Can't move after eating that. Never cook when you are very hungry. Ask someone to cook for you or buy something.... Why didn't I do that... As a friend once said, I feel like a Python.....

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Loud Food

I've been off my blog for a month now. It burns me inside but I couldn't get time out of a crazy and busy month to write what I cooked and what I learnt and what I felt. So, here it is.

For the past one month, I have been moving around frequently, in and out of parties, restaurants, delis, resorts, and mountains of snow. Each night has been special, be it the night of my birthday when my friends got me a chocolate cake or be it the night of the Superbowl when I slow cooked lamb shank. Food speaks loud and yes I have had some loud food. Food which touched me and made my cravings stronger for them...

The Loudest Food: I call it loudest and put it on the top of all because it carries an emotional value. It tastes good and feels good. So the loudest of 'em all... My birthday cake. It's different each year, either brought by my girlfriend and soon to be wife, or by my friends. It speaks of the care and love and joy they have for me. It has to be the loudest.. Almost like the legendary Pink Floyd music.

Loud Food 1: Slow cooked Lamb Shank. The one I cooked would have got the Lebanese crying for my blood. It was a hybrid of Indian, Mexican and Lebanese. It wasn't as loud to the taste buds as it was to the eyes. Sparkling brown on yellow rice, it was something! It is amazingly easy to cook but takes excruciatingly long time. Marinating with lime juice and thyme and tandoori masala is the easy part; cooking in a preheated oven at 425 F for six hours, turning the shanks once in every 30 mins is the hard part.

Loud Food 2: Tender grilled pork ribs. The Americans would consider me outcast and would probably send my brown ass back to India, but yes I dared to make it not sweet!! I made it the way we do tandoori chicken, but with a bit less spices. It was so good that my guests made me make it twice!

Loud Food 3: The stir fried rice and veggies and meat at Genghis Grill. They ask you to take a bowl and fill it up with your choice of veggies(carrots, jalapenos, pork, chicken, mussels, shrimp, lobster, spinach, bamboo shoots etc. etc. etc.) and an assortment of sauces(soy, paprika, schezwan, honey-chilli etc. etc. etc.). The trick is to fill up as much as you can in the bowl for the stir fry by taking the veggies after the meat; the meat can be stuffed. With the the sauces exploding with different tastes in your mouth, this one is too loud for the taste buds. Mine were screaming "water water water"!

Loud Food 4: The dynamite Shrimp at P. F. Chang's. The crunchy, sweet, savory shrimp are so appetizing that you end up eating so many that they defeat their name being put under appetizers. It was loud like a Bryan Adams concert where you keep craving for more  and more and more!

Loud Food 5: The red velvet cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory. Each spoon takes you nearer to heaven. The moment the serving is finished, you come down to earth, landing softly on a soft feather mattress in gentle nurturing hands. This one is loud to your senses, the feeling is so tender and heavy, it could easily be tagged as a mood enhancing drug!

Loud Food 6: The ultimate loud food for me is Starbucks Mocha. It soothes the senses post-skiing, pre-skiing, in the morning, in the evening, with friends, without them, with food, without, while watching a bear at Estes park or while being chased by a Canadian goose, while working in the office, in a meeting, out of one... The rich, grainy, creamy, chocolaty coffee is the best Mocha that I've ever had.

Off I go again, writing about the food made me crave for a Mocha. See you in another blog. :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

They are all the Same!

I had promised some recipes in the last blog. But one good recipe isn't good enough for us. The ingredients each have a story to tell. The current form can very easily be derived from socio-political-economical-cultural changes that took place since the whole thing started. So, it all started in Persia and hence we are going to begin there.

Persia, around tenth century AD, Abu Ali Ibn Sina, for the first time documented the recipe of Pilaf. Chelow was the starting point. To make Chelow, the Rice was to be parboiled and drained. The drained rice was then steamed to get exceptionally fluffy rice with all grains separated. The Mughal cooks often used to test such rice by dropping a fistful on ground and checking that no two grains are sticking together. Adding some spices (and not Ghee, Sugar and Cardamoms) while steaming the rice made it into Polow. Basmati rice, Sugar, many of the presently prevalent spices were very expensive in Persia which caused the Polow to taste much like salted, meaty, colorful rice; color being derived from various flowers and legumes. While the Polow travelled towards the land of spices and basmati rice, over Afghanistan, the dry fruits, sugar and spices started becoming more available; mainly due to newly discovered trading routes and increased trade(and the occasional invasions).

Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian professor of oriental languages and a traveller described the Pilaf recipe of the Afghans. A few spoonfuls of animal fat were melted (the fat of the sheep's tail was preferred) in a vessel and small pieces of sheep meat are fried and water is added and boiled till the meat becomes tender. Pepper and thinly sliced carrots are added to this and is topped with rice. As the rice boils in the water and starts cooking, some more water is added till it's fully absorbed by the rice. The pot is then sealed and hot coals are put on top and bottom. The pot is left to steam for about half an hour. After opening, it is served in such a way that all layers are separate; carrot and meat on top.

The Afghan recipe although good was too greasy and insipid to be agreeable to the Indian palate, when it travelled to India. India was transforming itself to have a religion called Hinduism. The cow had become sacred and having meat was both expensive and impious. The Mughals also adapted. Ghee was the substitute used by the Indians for anima fat. Vegetables were the substitute of meat and good rice was strictly Basmati.  And thus the meat was removed; vegetables were added. Some more aromatic spices and sugar were added. The Basmati rice was colored with Saffron and turmeric. Animal fat was replaced by Ghee. The resultant metamorphosed rice is what we love to call Pulav/Polaoo.

Though I have tracked the journey of Pulav to India, it also travelled to other parts of the world. The Uzbek Lamb rice, the Lebanese Rice with lamb shank, and the humble risotto; all were derived from Pilaf. Pilaf it seems is the great grand parent of all modern recipes that constitute fluffy separated fragrant rice.

While chatting with a Lebanese Chef, the concepts of cooking the rice and Pilaf sounded so familiar that I chatted with an Iraqi and an Indian chef. The exact methods of preparation that they maintain in their restaurants remain exceptionally the same. Hardly a few percentages of difference make us all different; it's true for genetics and probably for Pilaf too.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Colored Fragrant Rice

Bengali Sweet Polaoo

Whenever the craving for fried rice(Chinese Style) used to bother me, my mother would start cooking the rice, taking the words fried rice literally. It didn’t taste like the Chinese thing, but it did taste good. In the marriage receptions or the Saraswati Puja or on Durgashtami, we used to have something special. A sweet, colorful, aromatic and savory preparation of rice. The volunteer servers used to say out loud while rushing past eager plates, “Polaoo Polaoo Polaoo!!”.
What we Bengalis love to call as homemade fried rice or “Polaoo” and the people from other parts of India call as “Pulav”, has its genesis in ancient Persia. In fact, the name of the preparation has remained phonetically quite unchanged. The Persians called it “Pilav” or “Pilaf”.

Abu Ali Ibn Sina
In the tenth century, Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) or Ibn Sina, recorded various recipes of Pilaf, with advantages and disadvantages of each of the ingredients. When Alexander the great was served the Great royal banquet in Bactria, post his conquest of Samarkand, the rice preparation was so relished by everyone that the soldiers brought it back to Macedonia and spread it all across the Balkans.

Emperor Shahjahan had dining habits, which had intrigued Manrique (That story comes in my later blogs); he was not a barbarian, he dined in the most exquisite of ways. Shahjahan was the fifth Mughal to rule India. Babur, “The Tiger” was the first one. Babur was a Timurid prince from central Asian kindom of Fergana in the current Uzbekistan. Babur wished to reestablish the Timurid line across the region. At the age of 15, he conquered the city of Samarkand; the place of refinement of Pilaf, a place of sophisticated Islamic culture, the place known as “The pearl of the Eastern Muslim world”. But Babur wasn’t able to retain Samarkand for long. Even many years of survival in the rough mountains didn’t stagger his will. He had his eyes on the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul. Eventually he did concur Kabul and by 1526 he had launched his attack on India. Babur had come from a culture that took great pleasure in eating. One of the earliest Muslim cookery books described food as the most consequential of the six senses. After losing Samarkand, Babur had spent much of his life in the rough mountains, surviving on the hearty meat based diet of the horse riding nomads of the central Asian steppes.

Afghani Pilau
In the 1920s, the local Afridis had invited the British to watch a display of guns, fireworks and evasive warfare. The British then got an opportunity to sample the kind of food Babur used to have. There were skewers of freshly roasted sheep’s flesh which went with the tea and there was, what they called “Pilau”. Years earlier, a Hungarian scholar who travelled widely in central Asia in the 1860s had described the method of preparation. The methods of such preparations I am still researching and would publish in a later post. But for now, the Pilau travelled with Babur to India.

When Babur arrived in India, he found the local cuisine utterly disgusting. People used to have boiled vegetables and rice with boiled lentils. The utter lack of meat in the local cuisine was of great dislike for Babur. Babur thus brought in his persian cooks to cook for him. Pilau became a part of the royal cuisine, which slowly trickled out of the king's kitchen to the common man of northern india. India being the land of much finer and fragrant rice, further enhanced the recipe and transformed it to Pulav.
Over the centuries Pulav used ghee instead of animal fat, vegetables instead of meat and basmati instead of some other rice. Safron and turmeric were used to color the rice and local spices were added according to the regional tastes. The humble Pulav was made India's own and became the favorite of the elite brahmins and the Maharajas.

Peas Pulav
Centuries later, when we wish to have the Peas Pulav in Mumbai, it tastes starkly different from the Polaoo of Bengal; each bearing its special set of ingredients; each bearing a special meaning to the people who belong there; each associated with the varied traditions of the places. Pulav isn't an independent dish anymore it is eaten with various other sides. The fragrant colored rice, has travelled a long way on the back of horses; through numerous bloodbaths and has metamorphosed into the present day vegetarian special rice which is so entwined into the Indian tradition that some festivals are incomplete without it.

Apologies to the readers for not adding any recipe to this post. All the fine recipes of Pilaf/Pilav/Pilau/Pulav/Polaoo comes in the next post.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Nostalgic Winter Food

Isn't Denver supposed to be colder than Delhi in winters? For the past few days, apparently it isn't  As the national capital chills, I remember my childhood days in New Delhi.

I used to catch the 7’o clock bus to school, with every morning being a Mahabharat yuddh between my mother and me, I always trying to defend my position in the warm blankets. At the bus stand, my father used to stand gobbling down the morning news from the Hindustan Times; he was visible only to a few feet in the fog, so I kept near. The bus had its lights painted yellow, since the concept of fog lights was still nascent back then. Being covered from head to toe in woolens, it was really tough to move, with the added weight of my school bag. Once on the bus, all used to be well; off went the hat, the scarf and the pesky gloves. Used to catch cold and fingers used to go numb, but the sense of freedom without those three things (especially the hat), was paramount. Wasting the whole day gossiping and somehow studying, I hoped to get back home to have that tasty winter stuff that mother made.

After more than a decade, even today I fight for staying on the bed a few minutes more, but have started cooking the winter food myself. I dare say I can cook them up pretty neat!

So here go few of them:

Rajma Masala
Have with steamed rice or parathas or just like that. My sister preferred having the Rajma with Rice Crispies(Muri/Murmura).

Soak the Rajma(Kidney Beans), overnight or like me just put them in a pressure cooker and cook them till they are tender inside but firm outside. In a pot, heat some oil and ghee/butter. Add some Cumin seeds and let them crackle. Now add sliced onions and sauté till they are brown. Add some chopped tomatoes, diced garlic, grated ginger and all spice powder and fry like there’s no tomorrow. Add some sugar and salt whenever you like. After the masala is cooked, add the cooked rajma and top it up with some chopped cilantro. Add water and let it simmer slowly till you get very consistent gravy or till it starts tasting good. Add a cube of butter on top before serving. Kids love it!

Gobi paratha
Have it with the Rajma Masala or anything. I eat it with ketchup.

Heat some oil in a pan on medium heat. Add Asafetida, Ginger and Garlic and let it crackle for some time. Add minced cauliflower and mix mix mix. Add with Salt, Coriander Powder, Dry Mango Powder, Cumin Powder and Red Chili Powder. Mix well and cook uncovered until cauliflower is tender and moisture is evaporated. Set it aside to cool down. Now in a bowl add atta, Salt and Oil. Mix until Oil is well incorporated into the dry flour. Add a little water at a time to knead flour into smooth dough. Sprinkle a few drops of Oil to coat dough, cover and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Heat a skillet on medium heat. Make the dough into small balls and roll them with a rolling pin after dusting with some atta; just roll out a medium sized paratha. Now put a bit of the cauliflower mixture in the middle and pull all the ends of the paratha to the center and join to form a small bag filled with cauliflower. Now dust with some atta again and roll out into full blown parathas. Put it on the skillet and heat it till it starts changing color. Flip over to do the other side; keep flipping till it’s cooked. Put a cube of butter before serving.

Gajar Ka Halwa

Boil some milk in a pot till it is reduced to half. Keep stirring while it boils. Melt some butter in a frying pan and stir fry some shredded carrots till the carrots are slightly tender. Now add the previously boiled milk to the carrots and keep stirring till it’s all gone. Add some sugar and cardamom powder and stir till the halwa starts leaving the sides of the skillet. Add some roasted cashews and almonds.

So you have the recipe for a full winter meal now. Bon appétit!!!!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Food and Emotions

Long back in Delhi, while I used to relish the daal, rajma and mutton curry that mother made, I used to wonder if I would ever be able to cook like that. The daal with that special fragrance of onions; the rajma with its sweet sour hot taste; the mutton curry for which I could fight a world war 3…

Years have passed and I have cooked most of my meals for the last 6 years. I have been able to recreate the rajma but the mutton and the daal; I still am perplexed.

In the years of living by myself, necessity has caused me to become a so called good cook. I churn up wonderful recipes and cook up hearty meals for me and my friends. There have been days when I have not been able to get that perfect taste, that perfect aroma out of the ingredients and there have been days when even the ones who eat less, end up finishing off everything in the pot.

So, what made mother’s meal so pleasing and my meals sometimes good and sometimes horrible? The answer to that is a bit abstract. What I have observed is that, the food that I prepare reflects my mood. A bad day at office and a horrible headache would make the worst chicken tikka and a good day and a relaxed body would make the shrimp taste five star even when the vital ingredients are missing. So, does that say that good cooks are always happy people? Well, most chefs that I’ve met are so, but the rest don’t invent, they just go on following a fixed algorithms (bringing out boring but edible food).

Mothers and sisters and wives and girlfriends derive a great joy from cooking food for their children and brothers and husbands and boyfriends. They are wired up like that. No good office day or healthy body can replicate that. Hence men can’t ever cook as good and as wholesome dinners as women. 

So, what can we possibly do to survive and to get some wah-wahi from friends?
It’s simple; keep it simple. 

Cook only when you really want to. Never attempt to cook when you are fighting with someone or just after a lost war of words. The shrimp would be cooked like biscuits and the potato would be a bit softer than bricks; the oil would be floating around and the cumin would give you a heartache.

Know what you want to cook. You are not an alchemist or a chef. Looking up a recipe on YouTube is not at all demeaning. 

Get the ingredients neatly placed in-front of you before you start cooking that Afghani. Don’t jump around the kitchen, looking for nutmeg while the masala burns off in the pot.

Try using as little self prepared spices as you can; don’t risk it. There’s chhole masala, mutton masala and garam masala ready to be used, up for sale; use them.

Always use fresh vegetables and boil/fry the potatoes before putting them in the curry. 

Make sure the onions are well fried and caramelized before you add anything else.

Use cumin as little as possible and add that to the oil and not at the end of frying vegetables.

Don’t wander off to watch TV while the masala is sizzling in the pot. Finish it and go on with whatever you want to.

Ask your mother how to cook a specific thing. Follow it like your life depends on it; and you’d never disappoint anyone.

Maybe that would not make you a master chef, but would keep you in the foodie circle. The privilege? You cook once and make others happy and others would cook for you the next time.

Having said all that, if you really want to create, as opposed to recreate, you’d need to imagine what you want and read about the ingredients and practice a lot.
The most important thing, be happy about what you’re going to cook.

Happy Cooking!!!!