Monday, December 31, 2007

Striking a relationship with your grocer

I am vacationing at my home in Calcutta. In the last days of the year, I've been visiting the vegetable market and the fish market I had become used to before I moved to Mumbai.

I am getting to say hello to the fishmonger who had become a friend. He would never cheat at the weighing scale. He is the one on whom I placed my trust. I would sometimes buy fish from other vendors and have it weighed at his stall. If he said I had been cheated I would go back to the stall where I had bought the fish and claim the deficit. I would demand the correct weight.

During my holiday, I am getting to buy from my regular fishmonger again. Over the past two days, I bought from him katla, a fish of the carp family. I also bought parshe, or gold-spot mullet, and tiger prawn, or shrimp, from a woman, a stall owner who I know would never cheat.

Above all, during the glorious days of the waning year, I am getting to chat again with Ashok, my "sabziwala," who buys his produce from farmers he knows. His stuff is always fresh and tender and the best variety. I bought giant, brilliant white cauliflowers, peas in their pristine shells, and tomatoes that aren’t the hybrid variety available all year round. This variety of tomato, though somewhat pale in color, is seasonal, tastier and juicier.

One reason I am enjoying my vacation so much is that I am connecting again with the vegetable vendor and the fishmonger I patronized on a regular basis. It’s a joy to shop when you have a relationship with your vendor. Supermarkets, with their sanitized and spic-and-span environment, can never match this experience of clamor and camaraderie. What do you say, reader?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The many faces of mustard

In an earlier post, I wrote about mustard oil, especially in the context of how different it is from olive oil. No matter how much I love olive oil, I can never sever ties with mustard products, for I am a Bengali. I come from the land of the fertile delta, where mustard and fish abound. The quintessential image of Bengal’s countryside is a profusion of yellow mustard flowers.

Last week, I was smitten with the humble mustard, something we take for granted. I delved into different kinds of mustard products – “compounded” mustard powder, American-style prepared mustard, Dijon mustard, and, finally, freshly prepared mustard paste, pure-Bengali style. I bought jars of all kinds of mustard with the earnestness of a cook and researcher.

Mustard is eaten in so many forms: whole seeds, powdered, and prepared. The whole seed is one of the most familiar forms. One of my earliest memories of my mother cooking involves the popping sound brown mustard seeds make when dropped in hot oil. The nutty flavor is elemental to the Indian kitchen.

Powdered mustard available in the market usually contains both black or brown and yellow-white seeds, wheat flour and turmeric. English mustard is an example. To savor this mustard, I bought Weikfield’s compounded mustard, which contains essentially the same ingredients in powdered form.

Prepared mustard is generally made from powdered mustard combined with seasonings and a liquid such as water, vinegar, wine, beer or must. The American-style prepared mustard has a distinctly turmeric flavor, tart but mild. That’s because it’s made from white mustard seeds, which aren’t as pungent as brown or black seeds, the kind I have grown up on. On the other hand, the French Dijon mustard, which is also a prepared mustard, is made from brown or black seeds. Yet it is less pungent than English mustard – maybe the vinegar does something to the sharpness of mustard. While the American-style is bright yellow, Dijon mustard is pale grayish-yellow. Both are distinctly tart.

I tried yet another form, the paste. I tried to replicate with the compounded mustard power the ground mustard paste Bengalis use in fish delicacies. I added just enough water to make a paste and let it “bloom” for 10 minutes, according to directions on the Weikfield's plastic jar. It did bloom to full-bodied mustard flavor, I am glad to say. In fact, I found little difference between this paste and the one I produced by grinding a spoonful of brown mustard seeds with a little water in a mortar and pestle. The only difference was that the freshly ground paste had bits of skin, which made a curry I later cooked a little acrid, while the one I made with the paste from the powder tasted just right: mustardy, golden, and smooth. You could achieve the same result from freshly ground mustard, though, merely my straining the paste. (That’s how our house cook makes “sorshe mach,” or fish in mustard sauce.)

My experiments wih mustard have left a side-effect: large jars of mustard I have no idea how to consume. I don’t eat hotdogs; nor do I like mustard on my sandwich. The jars now sit idle in my refrigerator.

Can you tell me, dear reader, in what ways can I use up the many kinds of mustard? Salad dressing, maybe?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cookbooks a healthy pastime

A colleague of mine says she has dozens of cookbooks on cuisines from around the world. She collects cookbooks like art. And, during her spare time, she reads them. She has read all about Spanish cuisine. She knows a lot about international foods. She knows what gazpacho is and she knows what baklava is; so, no food is Greek to her, although she doesn’t cook a whole lot. She doesn’t try all the recipes in those books.

I, on the other hand, love to try recipes in cookbooks that I have. I like to replicate an Italian dinner, for instance, in my home. And, I have learned to cook from books. I have learned even Bengali cooking, something that is accessible in the family.

But, I have to admit, I do read cookbooks and food magazines during my leisure merely as a pastime. I love to read recipes and food history, and I love to gawk at those lavish photos, as people read fiction to pass the time. For me, consuming such books itself is a gastronomic delight.

How about you, dear reader? Do you have a lot of cookbooks? Do you merely collect them, read them or cook from them?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Herbal tea an exotic product, but homey concept

Many years ago, when I first heard about herbal tea, it sounded exotic. On some gourmet store shelves in the United States, I found orange pekoe, raspberry, lemon-ginger, and other teas.

Actually, when I think about it, I have been drinking herbal tea since I was a child growing up in India. I remember drinking ginger tea, for instance, as a boy. My mother gave me ginger tea when I had a sore throat. The way my mother made was simple. All you do is grate or grind (on the stone grinder) an inch of fresh ginger root and squeeze it into hot tea liquor. You may add creamer or milk, but just black is better, I guess, for remedial purposes.

Similarly, making lemon/lime tea is simple. In hot tea liquor, just squeeze a few drops of the citrus. For an Indian touch, you may add a pinch of black salt. I make cardamom tea from whole pods dropped in boiling water. How refreshing and aromatic the tea becomes!

These days, even in Indian grocery stores, you find several kinds of herbal teas, including masala chai. I bought the other day a “variety pack” comprising masala, lemongrass-ginger, ginger and cardamom. To alleviate my sore throat, I tasted the ginger tea. It had flavor, but not nearly so strong and fresh as the home-made version.

Dear reader, do you make herbal tea or buy it?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil: Two cousins, poles apart

I learned about olive oil as a cooking medium many years ago, during my graduate school days, when I learned to cook pasta. I bought regular (or light) olive oil then, for I couldn’t afford extra virgin (which results from the virgin, or first, press of tree-ripened olives).

I fell in love with extra virgin olive oil later, when I made just enough money as a professional to indulge in it once in a while. I learned to make salad dressings, like vinaigrette.

Until a few years ago, olive oil was little-known in India as a cooking medium. In Calcutta, for instance, people thought olive oil is for body massage.

In my family, olive oil was a novelty when I started cooking with it. For Bengali folks used to the strong aroma and taste of mustard oil, olive oil was something exotic and untried; so, they weren’t sure if they would like it. I introduced them to the oil that is so prized in the Western world and the Mediterranean region.

Later, I thought of a commonality between mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil: both are strong-flavored. So, I experimented to see how big -- or small -- the difference is. I used "kachhi ghani" mustard oil, the most strongly flavored oil (extracted in small mills and sold unbranded), in a Greek salad instead of extra virgin when I made the dressing. The salad had cherry tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, feta cheese (the only affordable brand I could find), lettuce and olives.

After having made the good-looking salad, I tasted it, and, man, was the flavor strong! I had my family taste it, and they all felt the flavor was too strong. Uncooked mustard oil is truly overpowering. Mustard oil is spicy, while extra virgin olive oil is fruity.

In the fight for supremacy, mustard oil comes up tops. It just doesn’t jibe with red wine vinegar, though. Olive oil is olive oil.

Dear reader, do you use extra virgin olive oil? What do you think about other strongly flavored oils, like coconut and sesame oils, used as a cooking medium?

Monday, September 10, 2007

A pancake eggless, but perfect, with a fine flavor

I remember the first pancakes I made, many years ago, when I was in America. I made them with pancake mix available in supermarkets.

They were easy to make: just add eggs, milk, and, maybe, a little water. I ate them with globs of butter heaped on top and maple syrup drizzled on the pyramid.

They were perfect. But, several years later, back home in India, when I tried to make pancakes from scratch – I had never found a pancake mix in a grocery store in Calcutta, where I lived then – the result turned out to be less than palatable. The pancakes smelled of egg. I had used flour, eggs, and milk, no flavoring agent. When offered, my wife ate wrinkling her nose, while my mother refused totally, for she doesn’t eat egg.

Recently, I discovered a pancake recipe for recreating the perfect pancakes of my American life. And, this pancake would be acceptable to all, for these are eggless. To make them distinctive, I added my own twist, substituting a flavor and skipping another.

So, vegetarians, take heart; you can make and eat great pancakes. Just read on.

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp water
2 tbsp butter

Method

  1. Mix dry ingredients.
  2. Add milk, oil, and water.
  3. Whisk together until just combined. Do not overmix – let the batter be slightly lumpy.
  4. Let it rest for 15 minutes.
  5. Gently heat butter in a wide pan, and pour two tablespoons of batter into it.
  6. Cook until bubbles appear, and the underside is golden.
  7. Carefully flip over and cook other side.

    Makes 10 pancakes; Serving suggestion: Butter and honey.

(Recipe adapted from cooks.com)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Doodh bhat: A childhood "dessert" revisited

Recently I ate doodh bhat, something I hadn’t eaten in many years. If I remember correctly, the last time I had eaten I was a young boy.

I ate this time fully knowing what I was doing: I was eating by choice. As a child, I used to eat it when my mother forced me to. We – my siblings and I – ate it as a “dessert” after fussing over lunch or dinner, rejecting everything that was offered or eating with a puckered up face.

Doodh bhat is essentially rice with milk and sugar. At the end of our dinner, my mother would offer it to make sure we had enough nutrition: She thought we needed the protein and minerals.

She would pour on my plate a little bit of the milk along with some of the cream skimmed off the surface. Those days, we had buffalo’s milk. I was growing up in Bhilai, in the middle of India, where buffaloes outnumbered cows. I enjoyed the creamy, cold milk poured over rice, all mixed up nicely with a spoonful of granulated sugar. I remember the crunch of grainy sweetness with the creamy coldness of milk. Sometimes, my mother would put gur, or molasses, instead of sugar. Gur tasted just as well.

So many years later, the doodh bhat of my adulthood was comforting and nostalgic. At the end of a hard day, it calmed my nerves and took me back to those childhood years just for a moment.

Dear reader, do you have any such memory?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A shrimp curry, born in Bengal, moves to Mumbai

Oh, dear reader! How many of you must have returned disappointed from my site over the past several months, thinking I have abandoned my blog!

I owe you an apology. I haven't written a single post during this period.

For I have relocated. This blog originated as Cooking in Calcutta, but I now make my home in Mumbai, where I moved in late June to take up a new job. This move has been a tectonic shift or me and my blog. After I moved, this blog lost its sense of place, of mooring.

Yet, this blog must go on, for it's about Bengali food, which, like any other cuisine, is not bound by geographical boundaries. I cook Bengali food now in Mumbai.

Here is a recipe for something I cooked recently. A shrimp curry, home-style:

Ingredients

1/2 pound shrimp, medium-sized, shelled and de-veined
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium-sized potato, diced small (1/4 inch)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/3 tsp red chilli powder
salt, to taste
1 cup water


Method

  1. Saute shrimp in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes. Remove and keep warm.
  2. Saute onion for three minutes, until softened and just beginning to brown.
  3. Add potato and saute for another three minutes
  4. Add the spices and salt, and stir-fry for another minute.
  5. Pour in the water, and let cook, covered for 10 minutes, or until the potato is tender.
  6. Mix in the reserved shrimp, and continue cooking another 2 minutes.
  7. Serve hot with steamed, long-grained rice.

If you do try the recipe, let me know how the curry turned out. The recipe comes from my 73-year-old mother, who still lives in Calcutta. I hope this recipe will make up for my long absence.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Guava jelly triggers boyhood memory

After many years, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich recently. As I took the first bite, several memories flooded my mind – my first taste of peanut butter as a child in India; eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during my stay in America; and the guava jelly my mother used to make in India’s heartland, where I grew up.

The most remarkable is the memory of guava jelly. Guava is essentially a tropical fruit; so, I didn’t see any in the United States, although, it does grow in semi-tropical America, like California and Florida. I grew up eating guava, for we had a huge guava tree in our backyard. I grew up in Bhilai, which was then a part of the state of Madhya Pradesh. The tree was more than a tree – it was a prime presence in our garden, almost a human friend as we climbed the tree, picked fruit, or swung from its branches like monkeys. The fruit was so delicious I have never tasted that variety anywhere else since then. It had few seeds, even the ripe ones; the shape was round, and the flesh flavorful. We would eat even the half-ripe ones with salt – the taste was sweet and mildly tart. What other fruit could beat it in vitamin C content?

My mother packed all the goodness of the guava in her jelly. I was too young – I hadn’t developed the strong interest in food that I have today. But, I remember the distinctive taste of the jelly, a dark brownish red stored in glass jars.

As I recently ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, made with store-bought guava jelly, I asked my mother how she made the jelly. (She no longer makes the jelly, for she is 72 and a city-dweller far from our small-town garden we once owned.)

She first diced ripe guava and boiled it in water until soft. Then, she pressed the guava juice and pulp through a cloth or strainer. Next, she added sugar and lime juice, and reduced the juice until the jelly formed.

Back in the present, as I ate the sandwich made with store-bought Druk (Bhutanese brand) guava jelly, I imagined it was the jelly from my boyhood. I recalled the great guava tree in our backyard.

Dear reader, do you have such a memory?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Pumpkin gives all – leaf, flower, fruit, seed

In some regions of the world, every part of certain animals killed for food is eaten. In parts of rural Eastern Europe, for instance, nothing from a pig is wasted. Apart from the meat, almost all organs are eaten.

Offal is an acquired taste, but how about vegetables that yield every part of them in every stage of their lifecycle? Hats off to them, for they surrender themselves totally to human consumption.

One such example is the humble pumpkin. In Bengal, every part (except the root) of the pumpkin plant and its fruit, including seeds, is eaten. (I learned only recently from a recipe that pumpkin seeds are eaten in America, too). In Bengal, the leaves are eaten as “shak,” which is a generic term for edible leaves cooked simply with few spices.

I have never been a big lover of pumpkin, except as a Halloween symbol. But one part of pumpkin that I really like is the flower. In fact, I like pumpkin flowers more than the fruit. The way Bengalis eat pumpkin flowers is to make fritters of them.

They make a batter of besan, or chickpea flour, seasoned with chilli powder and salt. For texture, a little bit of khaskhas, or poppy seeds, is added. Some cooks add some rice powder for extra crispness, but this is optional.

Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

10 fresh pumpkin flowers (only petals)
2/3 cup besan
½ teaspoon chilli powder (or paprika, if you prefer mild)
⅓ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon poppy seeds (available in Indian grocery stores)
⅓ cup water
Oil for deep-frying

Method

  1. Remove the calyx and the centers of flowers, keeping only the petals.
  2. Make a batter of all the ingredients, except the flowers.
  3. Heat oil.
  4. Dip each flower into batter, shaking off excess, and deep-fry in batches.
  5. Serve hot, with ketchup or mustard.

Serves 2-3

Try this, and let me (and others) know how it turned out. Until then, bon app├ętit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

From Bengal to Boston and beyond

This post is prompted by a reader comment. The anonymous reader says I seem to lack nationalistic pride in Indian cooking.

This blog is about cooking Bengali food, but it’s also about cooking in general, and, to me, cooking knows no boundaries of country or region. True love of food and cooking embraces many cuisines, for food, as an art, benefits from wide knowledge. A healthy curiosity about global cuisines is a hallmark of a good cook, I think.

Today, so many chefs are experimenting with world cuisine: They borrow techniques or ingredients from other cuisines to come up with their own special creations. See how appetizing exchange of culinary knowledge is?

In a later post, you will see how my long stay in America has helped a frail, 70-year-old Indian woman who has never set foot outside her country learn about American food in her home. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In search of the classic marinara

In my last post, I mentioned marinara, one of the basic Italian pasta sauces. Spaghetti with marinara is a staple in many American homes.

I wanted to replicate that dining experience recently in my Calcutta home. I bought imported Italian spaghetti and fresh Indian tomatoes – I haven’t so far seen canned Italian tomatoes in Calcutta. And, I made the marinara from a recipe by acclaimed Italian chef Lidia Mattichhio Bastianich, but it wasn’t the same as I had tasted in America several years ago. The marinara ended up too dry and chunky; so much so that it didn’t quite mix with the spaghetti as other sauces do.

Here is my recipe for the classic marinara, as adapted from Chef Bastianich:

Ingredients

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1½ pounds fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Salt, to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
5 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn (or ⅓ tsp dried basil)

Method

  1. In a medium-size, non-reactive saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
  3. Carefully add the tomatoes and their liquid (Because I didn’t have canned tomatoes, I tried to catch as much of the juice while processing them, using a strainer).
  4. Bring to a boil and season lightly with salt and crushed red pepper.
  5. Reduce the heat to a simmer, breaking up the tomatoes with a whisk as they cook, until the sauce is chunky and thick, about 20 minutes.
  6. Stir in the basil about 5 minutes before the sauce is finished (I cheated here – I used dry basil.)
  7. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.


After I finished step 7, I had an extremely chunky and dry sauce. It tasted fine. It had the nutty flavor of browned garlic and of the blend of tomato, basil and olive oil. I realize that the sauce is expected to be chunky, but, as I said earlier, my creation was too dry to mix with the pasta well.

What went wrong? Was there something inherently wrong with the recipe? Is 20 minutes too long for the simmer? I do know from Internet research that some chefs use tomato puree instead of, or in addition to, chopped tomatoes. Post your comments.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Winter’s bounty a delight in India

At no other time does God’s hand in what we get to eat seem more apparent in India than in the winter. This is the season of plenty. This is the season when vegetables are freshest and juiciest – and cheapest. When I lived in America, I used to shop for vegetables in supermarkets, also called grocery stores. Every vegetable seemed available all year round.

But, in India, certain vegetables, until a few years ago, appeared only in winter – tomato, cauliflower and green pea, for instance. Now, thanks to hybrid varieties and advanced farming, some of these vegetables are available all year round.

In any case, though, never are they cheaper and prettier than in the winter. I go grocery-shopping in Central Calcutta on Saturday mornings. Although, there are now several supermarket-style grocery stores in Calcutta, they don’t match the freshness of produce found at farmer’s market-style vegetable “stalls,” which are merely heaps on emptied jute bags laid on the ground. The vegetables make the street come alive with bright colors.

I buy from a sabziwala -- or vendor -- I have known for the past several years. He brings his fare from rural Bengal. The eggplants he sells are huge and purple or green with red streaks. Both varieties are wonderful – soft and mildly sweet, never astringent. In the winter, especially, they shine in the morning sun in all their purple or green glory. The cauliflowers are white, firm and hefty. And, the tomatoes blush in their scarlet best. The desi, or indigenous, variety is orange, and has notches running down – they aren’t perfectly round and beautiful, but, as Ashok, my sabziwala tells me, they are juicier. True, they are. Once I tried to make the classic marinara sauce with them. That’s another story; I reserve it for the next post. Until then, dear reader, I have a couple of questions for you. If you live outside South Asia, are certain vegetables seasonal in your country? Do you buy vegetables from supermarkets or farmer’s market-style vendors?

Monday, January 01, 2007

New year resolution

Today is New Year’s Day. Wish you all a happy and appetizing New Year.

New Year is a time for eating, drinking – and resolutions. Last night, as the year drew to a close, I made one: to write and keep this blog updated. As the clock struck midnight and crackers went off in my neighborhood, I had a pen in hand and a notebook under it.

True, I had a drink by my side, but that was merely a glass of white wine, and I was writing, all by myself, because, as family lore has it, you would be doing all year long what you would do on the first day of the year.

I wrote in my journal: “This year, let the beginning be calm and solitary … Let 2007 be one long night of writing …”

So, keep coming back. And, above all, post comments.