Thursday, 31 May 2012

If winter comes...

Minestrone Soup with sprouts

If winter comes, er.. wait a minute! If winter comes we enjoy winter! Why think about spring now! Let’s savour the beauty of winter…

Tomorrow is the beginning of winter in Oz. This morning when I went out, there was a layer of frost on the grass, our breaths puffed out little clouds, people rushed to work bundled in layers and layers and the ubiquitous black coats and jackets and the maple trees looked uncomfortable as if they couldn’t wait to shrug off the last of the lingering leaves.

I remembered landing in Melbourne one cold winter morning with my young family. Coming straight from the Middle East and then with a month of an Indian summer behind us, we were sadly under prepared for the cold! Although numbed with excitement and adventure and tired after a long holiday and travel, the one thing that we felt was “Oh! It’s so cooooldddd!”

How time has gone by! We are already about to enter the sixth month of the year and our twelfth winter in Melbourne!

It’s time to make all the soups, one dish casseroles, pastas, risottos, Indian one dish meals like dal dhokli, bisi bele bhat, khichdis, bajra khichada and undhiyu! Can’t wait! And yes, this winter I must make the santra bhat with the yummy sunny mandarins and also the santra kheer that my friend Jaya has told me about!
And winter eating is fairly guilt free, as I tell myself that being vegetarian, we need to eat a bit more fat (read butter/ghee) to fuel up our bodies to keep warm!

I would like to welcome another Melbourne winter with this very easy, hearty  one dish meal!


1 or 2 carrots cut into small pieces
1 onion – diced
½ cup pumpkin cubes
1 cup shredded cabbage
½ cup red pepper- cut into small pieces
1 cup chopped celery sticks
1 cups mixed or any sprouts
1 cup any short pasta
1½  cup or 1 can skinned and chopped tomato
4 cups homemade vegetable stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. parsley
1 tsp crushed garlic
Sugar to taste (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Chopped coriander or flat leaf parsley to garnish

For the vegetable stock
I hate the Maggi stock cube flavours of shop bought stock so prefer to make this at home. Boil This is one of the simplest things one can make
All or any of the following in amounts available and as desired:
Hard and slightly woody stems of cauliflower, broccoli, thick outer layers of cabbage, a handful of green beans, one medium carrot sliced, one medium potato diced, empty pea shells or a handful of snow peas, a few small corn cobs- throw them in whole and remove at the end of the boiling to serve on the cob with a knob of butter!

Wash all the vegetables thoroughly and trim them to medium size pieces. Boil in plenty of slightly salted water till reduced to half and you get a nice brown- green and fragrant broth.

For the soup

In a big sauce pan, heat the olive oil and sauté onions adding garlic a little later. Add the sprouts, veges and the stock. When it starts boiling, add the pasta and bring to a boil again. Then add the tomatoes. Keep stirring from time to time and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes or until tender. Add the herbs, salt, pepper and adjust the taste.
Serve hot, garnished with coriander or parsley and with garlic toasted bread.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Roots and Shoots- Nature's special bargain!

Radish roots and shoots stir fry

Nothing is more annoying than seeing shoppers tearing out leaves of vegetables like radish, kholrabi, beetroot and turnip. Some do it to weigh in more of the vegetable to get VFM while others don’t want to carry home rubbish! Little do they realise they are spurning a genuine BOGOF offer, nay gift, from Mother Nature!

Our modern lives are to be blamed for this bald, arid existence sans leaves. In our increasingly busy lives many of us prefer to shop in supermarkets for green grocery packaged in attractive but leafless ways. How often do we go to the vegetable mandi or farmer’s markets to shop locally for locally grown produce? How often do we think of the buying local produce for the variety of umbrella reasons -to eat fresh and healthy organically grown food; to reduce the carbon foot print by not patronising out of season, cold stored produce that needs transport or storage; to promote local economies and trade and agriculture? And wouldn’t it be nice to chat with local grocers and vendors, get tips from them and connect with the produce of the soil.

Leaves of most root vegetables are a store house of nutrients and fibre. They are at times more nutritious than the roots themselves and are a significant source of calcium, iron, magnesium, folate, vitamin A, C and K. And they taste great too!

Using a mooli in a pulao may seem ridiculous and unbelievable, but a friend of mine taught me to grind mooli leaves into a coarse paste and add to vegetable pulao- the  taste is unbelievingly rich!

My mother used to pick bunches of moolis and kohlrabis with the maximum amount of foliage and use the leaves either in dals or stir fries along with sprouts, dals or with the roots themselves. I follow her suit and in my home, any vegetable with leaves is venerated as if it is a special bonus.

Here is a radish or mooli roots and shoot stir fry subji, a dish from my mother’s repertoire!


1 large radish (we get huge ones in Melbourne) or 4-5 small with the leaves (you should get about 2 ½ cups of slices and up to 1 cup of good leaves)

1 tablespoon oil

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

¼ teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)

1 dry red chili (optional)

2 tablespoon fresh grated coconut

½ teaspoon cumin powder

Salt to taste

Pinch of sugar (optional)

A few tablespoons water if required


Cut the radish leaves out at the base. Pick and select the best leaves discarding hard stems. Wash the leaves and tender stems thoroughly in water. Chop finely and keep aside. Lightly peel the radish, wash and cut each radish lengthwise into four and then slice them into slices.

Heat a pan with the oil. Add mustard seeds and when they start spluttering, add the hing, turmeric, chili powder and the dry red chilly. Add the sliced radish and the chopped leaves. Sauté for a minute and add a few tablespoons of water if required. Sometimes if the radish has a lot of water content, it will let out its own juices which can help cook the leaves and the radish. Cook covered until almost done. Add coconut, cumin powder and salt to taste and the pinch of sugar. Remember, radish leaves are salty. Finish it by cooking some more, this time uncovered to dry any liquid the radish may have let out. 

Serve hot with phulkas or dal and rice.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Pyramids of Koshari

Koshari on the streets of Melbourne!

Walking in search of a quick bite to eat in downtown Melbourne one lunch time, we  found ourselves being led by the nose into a newly opened Egyptian eatery. We were greeted by the owner, an effusive gentleman speaking with a very strong yet attractive Arabic rhotic accent. The deep baritone rolling the Rs added to the ambience of the little place that replicated a roadside Cairo restaurant, as did the plastic flowers, vinyl table covers and hubbly bubbly sheesha hookas.

Nodding enthusiastically at my rather timid but hopeful query,” What’s that aroma? Is it something vegetarian?” he proceeded to describe the dish that was giving out the tantalising aroma.

“ This is Kosharrri…the national dish of Egypt… it is rrrice and macarrrroni and chickpeas and lentils and tomato sauce with cumin and garlic and maybe a hot hot sauce with more garrrlic and chilli…you like chilli, eh-  you Indian? Raj Kapoor? Amitabacchan? Hahhaa! I know, see?… and frried onions... I make frrresh frrresh for you!” The singsong intonation continued, but I suddenly started worrying about what kind of a dish he was talking about. Even in my most zealous ‘let’s clean the fridge and finish all leftovers, there are starving people in India and here we are wasting so much food’ I had not dared to mix such disparate things together and present them with so much aplomb!

But hunger and curiosity both fuelled by the appetising smells, got the better of us and after my routine tick and flick check on ‘no meat or chicken stock, no fish sauce, use fresh pan, no contamination for religious reasons (this one works for sure)’, we succumbed to his very hospitable offer to sit down and wait for him to fix us a portion each of the mysterious dish that smelt so good.  

Bursting with curiosity and as is our wont with anything new, we googled ‘Koshari’ on our phones to discover that it was a national dish of Egypt, very traditional and popular, that is was a fast food, a street food, very cheap and filling and even read a theory that the Koshari could possibly be a cousin of the Indian khichdi introduced to Egypt by British troops in the early 20th century - that makes sense, khichdi= hotchpotch= koshari! ………but then where does it leave the claim that the Koshari is a traditional Egyptian dish?

When the plates arrived, heaped like little pyramids with stuff covered with tomato sauce and crispy onions, the mystery (and apprehension) deepened… but once we began our dig and excavated the mound, we realised it tasted every bit as delicious as it smelt! The variety of textures, the chewy pasta, the fluffy rice, the perfectly salted and floury chickpeas and the thick skinned soft centred lentils set teeth and tongue to task. The tangy and garlicky tomato sauce drugged with cumin facilitated the movement of the hotchpotch around the mouth and the crunchy fried onion sent star bursts of taste in between. The hot sauce, of which we had dared take only a little, was most remarkable in its taste and heat of capsaicin.  

We just loved this dish koshari! And like all the dishes we love, I had to make this at home. So here it is…

Koshari is served as a mixture of the cooked ingredients smothered in the tomato sauce and topped with crispy fried onions. I have assembled the ingredients in this fashion to show them (off!)   :)

1 cup brown lentils (sabut or whole masoor) (soaked for 5-6 hours, cooked with salt until soft, excess liquid drained)
1 cup chickpeas soaked and cooked as above or 2 cans chicpeas (drain the brine)
1 cup long grain rice (cooked with a little salt)
1 cup macaroni (or any short pasta) cooked al dente as per package instructions
3 large onions, sliced into thin rings and fried in oil until crisp and brown

For the sauce

2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons white vinegar
5-6 large cloves garlic (or more), crushed
1 heaped teaspoon roasted and ground cumin
1 teaspoon roasted and ground coriander (optional)
2 cups tomato paste (I used crushed tomatoes with seeds and blitzed them, so the colour wasn’t that great!)
Water to cook/dilute
5-6 dry red chilies (or more), seeds removed, roasted and ground into a powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1-2 teaspoons sugar to taste (optional)
Salt to taste
Chopped coriander or flat leaf parsley to garnish


Sauté the chopped onions in the olive oil and add the vinegar to keep the onions crunchy. Add the garlic and sauté more. Add tomato paste or pureed tomatoes and some water to adjust to a flowing consistency and allowing for some reduction. Add the cumin powder, coriander powder (optional), prepared chili powder, pepper, salt and sugar (optional). Adjust the taste to your liking. The sauce should be really spicy and served hot.

Combine the cooked rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni in a large pot or in individual portions. Cover with the hot sauce and sprinkle generously with the crunchy fried onions and chopped coriander.

Serve as a snack, a main meal or even as breakfast as the Egyptians do!


Monday, 21 May 2012

Not a patch on pumpkin!

Pumpkin Bakar Bhaaji (Curried Pumpkin)

Pumpkins evoke so many good memories- of the magic coach that took Cinderella to the ball;  of yummy sweet pumpkin pooris with poppy seeds my mother made to take on picnics and long family trips or the yummy pumpkin kheer she made;  of listening wide eyed to my mother telling us about how she learnt to swim in a large well with a dried and hollow from inside whole pumpkin tied to her back like a float; of the memories of jealously guarding the pumpkin seeds drying in the sun on lazy summer afternoons and shooing away peckish birds; of my awe as a child when I learnt all about the beautiful music they produced when turned into taanpuras and sitars;  of the heart-warming stories about the humble pumpkin feeding some starving farmer’s family or helped a poor grandma escape from a tiger on her way back from her daughter’s after feasting on ghee and roti; of the exciting introduction through books and comics to the very American Halloween pumpkin and the pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving Dinners… and how can I forget our cat Ginger who loved to eat cooked pumpkin skins…

The pumpkin affective range is exponential…a pumpkin at once evokes a sense of the earthy and full richness and ripeness of autumnal bounty and the sense of mystery and magic. A pumpkin is comforting and homely as a soup and a pie, but can send a chill up your spine as a spooky jack o lantern grinning evilly at you!  

So many memories and thoughts associated with this glorious gourd!

And why not! This is one of the most versatile plants ever known to us. Almost all parts of the creepers – flowers, fruit, skin, seeds and even leaves are edible and also serve well as fodder. Pumpkins lend themselves to sweet and savoury dishes and although they have a distinct flavour and textures, merge very well with any spice and cuisines, be it Asian, Indian, Moroccan, Italian…,  And they can be cooked in many ways- boiled, steamed, fried, roasted, grilled, baked!

Its long shelf life means a good whole pumpkin can be stored for a long time and still be alive and thriving! As for nutritional values, pumpkins are low fat, low sodium, high in anti-oxidants, a good source of Vitamin A, C and E as well as carotenes and rich in minerals like copper, calcium, potassium.
Now what more can one ask of a plant that is happy to grow even if a seed is scattered carelessly in the yard! As the saying goes, if you want to prove you are a good gardener, you need to plant only one pumpkin seed!
So it was with a great relief  that I noted the wide variety of pumpkins available in Australia unlike a lot of other much-loved vegetables from the realms of Indian cuisine. And pumpkin is a regular feature in our home and goes into our pastas, pizzas, sambar, tagines, brown rice, vegetable roasts, soups, raita, kheer, halwa, pooris, pies, dumplings and yes, the lovely curries or bhaajis!

This bhaaji is a typically Marathi version of a sweet and sour pumpkin curry, popularly called the Bakar Bhaji in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra


½ kg pumpkin (any variety- but I like Jarrahdale and Butternut better) cleaned, washed, cut into 1 ½  inch long and ½  inch wide pieces. You can keep the skins on as it helps to retain the shape of the pieces)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon methi seeds

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon white poppy seeds (khus khus)

1 teaspoon chironji (if you get good ones- I haven’t used them in the bhaaji featured in the photo here)

¼ teaspoon hing

½ teaspoon turmeric

7-8 curry leaves

3-4 dry red chillies (or more)

1 teaspoon goda masala (if you can get it- if not, use 1 ½  tsp of garam masala)

½  teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1 tablespoon gur or brown sugar (depends on the sweetness of the pumpkin)

1 teaspoon thick tamarind concentrate

2 tablespoons grated coconut or desiccated coconut

Salt to taste

Chopped coriander to garnish

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan or kadhai. Add the methi seeds first and as they begin to turn golden throw in the mustard and cumin seeds. Once these begin to splutter, add poppy seeds, (chironji, if you can get them- the chironjis we get here become rancid very quickly!) curry leaves, dry red chillies, hing and turmeric. Quickly add the pumpkin pieces and sauté them. Add half a cup of water to the pumpkin and lower the heat. Alternately, place a plate half filled with water as a cover on top of the pan. Pumpkin pieces cook very fast, so keep a keen watch on the cooking.

When almost cooked, add the masala, coriander powder, gur, tamarind, coconut and salt to taste.

Remove from heat when not fully cooked. The heat of the cooked pumpkin will continue to cook it till fully done. Remember, you have to handle the pieces carefully, so as not to mash them into one gooey mess! Garnish with coriander and serve hot with roti or dal and rice or kadhi and rice or just by itself!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

They go down faster than you can say, "Fold, pinch, crimp, repeat"!

Veg Momos with Tomato Chutney

The whole family loved these when we had them for the first time in a most unlikely place – in a shopping mall in Pune! We first mistook them for the classic Marathi sweet dumplings called Modak, which is a specialty of the Marathi folk from Pune! Even the name ‘Momo’ we thought was some cutie pie version of Modak! Since then, we have had momos in many places, even in Nepal. We also discovered that momos, a favourite food in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, were very close first cousins of the Chinese steamed buns...

I have been so intrigued by the way in which the momos are crimped, that after my first, rather “clumsy in presentation but great in taste effort”, I decided to nail it today!

So, like all of us do these days when we need to learn, know, find out, research anything ranging from weather to wealth creation advice, addresses to antecedents of anyone we want to ‘Google’,  rates of things to recipes, I succumbed to the easy way and looked it up on the Internet. Lo! Behold! Youtube had it all nicely lined up with so many videos of how to crimp different types of momos!  Well, a few misshapen momos later which were willingly walloped by eager family members as sacrificial offerings, I was able to make these beauties!

What made the experience most exciting was my discovery yesterday that the commercially available Chinese five spice powder contains a spice that I was most intrigued about- Timur (Nepalese for Szechwan peppercorn) a spice made so mysterious by Atul Sikand of Sikandalous Cusine, a FB group that I am a part of.

Lovely taste! And another two things crossed out of my list of things to make and taste…

For the wrapper

1 cup self raising flour

½ cup plain flour

1 tbsp oil

Water to knead

Salt to taste

Knead the ingredients into a smooth and stiff dough and keep covered for half an hour.

For the filling

1 tbsp oil

1 small onion

½ tsp garlic paste

½ tsp ginger paste

1 small carrot, finely chopped

7-8 green beans, finely chopped

2-3 button mushrooms, finely chopped

1½ cup finely chopped cabbage

1 green (spring) onion finely sliced

A large pinch Chinese five spice powder (includes timur!)

A pinch of black pepper

A large pinch chili powder

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp white vinegar

Salt to taste

In a pan, heat oil and add onions and sauté. After half a minute, add the garlic and ginger pastes and cook a little. Then add all the finely chopped vegetables. Cook for a few minutes on high heat, working the mixture all the time to keep it dry. Add all the spices, sauces, vinegar and salt. Adjust the taste.  Cool the filling.

Divide the dough into equal portions and roll into small thin discs. Take care to keep the edges thinner than the centre. Place a spoonful of the filling in the centre of each disc and bring the sides together in the centre holding them to make a half circle. Pinch a small piece of the dough on the side closest to you and crimp it into the other side. Continue this action of pinching which will give you the pleat and the crimping which will join the two sides until you reach the end. Make sure that both sides are firmly crimped together. Place the ready momos in an oiled bamboo steamer or flat colander inside a large pot of boiling water, just able the boiling water. Steam for 12-15 minutes until the momos are cooked to your liking. Remove on a platter and serve with the tomato chutney or any oriental dipping sauce.

For the Chutney

1 tbsp oil

½ onion finely chopped

1 tsp garlic and ginger paste

1 tsp five spice powder (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, timur or Szechwan pepper, fennel)

½ tsp cumin powder

1 tsp red chili powder

2 tbsp toasted and powdered sesame seeds

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 cup canned diced tomatoes

1 tsp gur (jaggery) or brown sugar

Salt to taste 

In a sauce pan, heat oil and add the onions followed by the garlic and ginger pastes. In a minute, add all the spices and then immediately add the powdered sesame seeds. Add the sauce and stir a little. Now add the tomatoes and gur or brown sugar and let the mixture cook for 10-12 minutes, until reduced. The mixture will look glossy and let out the oil. Add salt to taste and cool.

Monday, 14 May 2012

No weighty measures, anything goes adai!

An Adai to die for!

I don’t bake much and then again bake mostly savoury stuff that doesn’t need ingredients  weighed precisely down to the last gram, at a specific temperature and of a specific brand… too much of a hassle. An intuitive cook, I have had my share of failures, but have also learnt to morph dishes – so a batch of failed croquettes can be transformed into a savoury muffins with the addition of an egg or two, only to be hungrily devoured by all! A cabbage soup made enthusiastically for the GM diet and deserted on day one as everyone thinks it’s like ditch water, actually tastes good as a minestrone soup… and to finish the pot full of soup I mentally prepare to make it into savoury pancakes, pasta sauce, risottos… a little cheese will do the trick! 

Mind you, parsimony is not a virtue of mine, but thrift and a never say die attitude certainly are virtues I cherish!  That’s precisely the reason I like this anything goes dish- the Adai,  a simple delicious dosa ( rice and lentil pancake) to die for- why don't they come up with some more exclamation marks?

No excruciating over- how much of what is soaked for how long and ground in which way and fermented for how long at what temperature and where and in which season and served with what and for which meal…..Whhhoooaaa!

A really wholesome dish that can be a whacky snack or whole meal in itself! Okay okay…I will come to how I made them todai!


2 cups rice soaked for 3-4 hours (overnight is better, but not a must)

A fistful each of chana dal, moong dal, masoor dal, tuvar dal, urad dal (you can use any legumes or pulses) soaked for 3-4 hours

1-2 tbsp grated coconut

1 small onion

2-3 large garlic cloves

½ inch piece of ginger

1-2 (or more) dry red chillies

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds (slightly roasted)

A pinch of hing

A pinch of ground black pepper

4-5 curry leaves

Salt to taste

Water for grinding

Oil for cooking Adais


Grind all the ingredients together with water to make a dosa like batter and add salt to taste. Pour and cook the adais like dosas on a non-stick griddle with a little oil. Serve with anything- even ketchup!

I served it with coconut, roasted chana, raw onion (for the first time!) chutney and a coriander, mint and coconut chutney.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Coriander, Conscience and Couscous ...

Couscous Coriander Cuts

Cous Cous hota hai!    Khus Khus Hota Hai!   Cous Khushit (Crisp and Savoury in Marathi)   Kothimbir- Kous Kous- Khus Khus Kakes…

Oops! Twisted my tongue trying to be funny- and now I am tongue tied! Not funny. I still haven’t answered my question. What do I call this dish?

It took inspiration from the very traditional Kothimbir Vadi which means Coriander Cakes, but all this confusion has been caused and compounded by the couscous. Why couscous? Well, I had this bunch of coriander that was losing its will to live. And I was trying to take a philosophical approach to its impending demise. Moreover, lessons learnt as an entrepreneur in a labour starved economy urged me to cut my losses and let it go, not worth spending half an hour of my time, cost of ingredients and the price to pay for calories, outgoings like gas, water, prime real estate occupancy rate in downtown Melbourne… too impelling a non-business case!

But then I remembered the lessons learnt from my mother and grandmother, who developed and spread the awareness of ‘waste not, want not’ in their local communities and in the family in Pre and Post-World War II tough times. I remembered my mother telling me about how her mother used to grow coriander and store it in a clay pot lined with wet gunny sacking. She used to dry the excess coriander harvest for use in the summer months when it was scarce, an exercise that involved careful picking, drying in the sun, remembering to put it away for the night and take it out to spread for another day. Protecting it from fungus, rot, pests, storage logistics, all this effort only to make the best use of resources for her family! She educated the local women about home economics, nutrition and taught them to be self-reliant. Back to the coriander, my mother also diligently sorted and picked coriander and stored it in separated bundles, the leaves with the tender stems on the one side and the flavoursome tougher stems on another to be used in chutneys or curry pastes.

These ladies had been so ahead of their times and were so ingeinus and resourceful! And how 'cool' of them to promote such awareness in the days of yore…that even the tough stems are the most nutritious and tastiest part of this wonderful herb is a fact now endorsed by umpteen cook books, blogs, internet recipes, videos and TV cookery shows! The humble coriander has been romanticised!

Conscience poked self admonishment! We have such a mixed attitude towards things that selflessly add flavour to our lives! What was scarce once is now available in plenty, but we still moan about the expense. It pains to pay $2 or more for small bunch, when you could have higgle- haggled with the vegetable vendor to throw it in as a freebie after buying all the vegetables for the day, back in the days of my childhood. But we are too finicky and don’t like dried coriander and coriander pastes, only fresh will do.  And I am ready, if somewhat grudgingly, to pay a bit more for a bunch of coriander grown in Queensland (with soil still on the roots) than to buy the local produce. And to think of it, this unassuming, incidental herb not only gets the grind for its flavour, but also sits atop a plated dish as its crowning glory.

This fickleness and these hard to please, quick -to- dismiss, taking- for -granted behaviours cause us great strife – I am not talking only about global strife, but also about my internal struggle about deciding the fate of that bunch of coriander sitting in the crisper!

Guilt kicked out all the logical consideration and feasibility and risk and loss mitigation reasoning, and I made this instant decision to immortalise the coriander into this dish. A half pack of couscous caught my attention as I stepped into the pantry…it had to be a signal! I had read this recipe of couscous by my friend Anjali in the morning. So in went the couscous, sharing limelight with the ‘never fail’ besan (gram flour), coriander and spices and making my plans of making the simple kothimbir vadi go awry!

But off-beat, off-track of-ten turns out interesting! So did these cuts or chips or whatever you may call it. The couscous gave a great grainy texture to the vadi and was an excellent or even better alternative to the traditional mix of flours such as wheat, rice and millet. All other ingredients were traditional.


1 cup (or more) chopped coriander

½ cup couscous

1 cup besan (gram flour)

1 (or more) teaspoons green chilly paste or green chilli powder

½ teaspoon cumin powder

½ teaspoon coriander powder

¼ teaspoon hing

¼ teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon Eno Fruit Salt (baking soda will do)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

For the topping

1 teaspoon khuskhus (white poppy seeds)

1 teaspoon white sesame seeds

Oil to shallow fry

In a heatproof bowl, pour ¾ cup boiling water over the couscous, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Fluff it with a fork to separate the couscous and add the rest of the ingredients except the oil. Mix thoroughly and add a bit of water to make a pliable dough.

Oil a cake tin or plate/ thali and tightly pat and pack the dough in a thin layer. Depending on the size of the pan, you may need to make one or two batches, as it can’t be too thick. Smooth the top and sprinkle the sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Steam the plate or cake tin in a pressure cooker without the weight, or in a steamer, for about 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick or skewer comes out clean. Allow it to cool.

When fully cool, slide a knife around the edges and take out the cake. Cut it into  diamond shapes or let your imagination run amuck. You can make these ahead and store them in the fridge. Just before serving, shallow fry the pieces/cuts in oil, bottom first and top (seeded) side last.

Serve hot with mint chutney and/or tomato sauce- makes a great starter. It can go in as a base for a canapé with different toppings, too!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Bean there - done poriyal...

The chances of coming across a good South Indian thali in a good South Indian (Udipi grade chilly) restaurant are higher than finding a good Indo-Chinese meal. There is something so very satisfying about an ‘unlimited thali’ that one sets one’s heart on it- now, as if one is going to eat unlimited amounts of food, but one still falls prey to this reverse psychology trick played on us suspecting but perversely willing patrons.

The deciding factor for the thali vs idly/dosa/wada gang contest is the poriyal  and the poori or ‘chapati’ (never have chapatis with a thali- not VFM)  One asks the waiter, who is either very obsequious or very indifferent  “what’s the poriyal?”  If it’s beans poriyal or beetroot poriyal – and if he says ‘poori garam hai’ go ahead and order those humongous thalis!

When the thalis arrive and everyone is settled down with sufficient number of pooris and after a head count of all the katoris  in your own thali and peering into each others thalis (and also into those on the neighbouring tables- just in case one suspect some vendetta on the part of the waiters) to make sure no one is missing any goodies, the first thing one digs one’s folded ‘poori- shovel’ into is the poriyal followed by the kootu… the rasam can wait to cool a bit or it will scald the roof of your mouth.

Crunch on some poppadums before turning your attention to that snobbishly aloof little dish of some coloured rice, which surprisingly turns out to be the Caspian caviar (ayyayo!) of the thali. This dish is suitable for trading across the table, provided you barter something equitable and interesting like the sweet dish. Vegetables floating in the sambar get picked up next, especially if there is a small log of drumstick floating around. The little katori of tomato, onion, yoghurt raita is so unnecessary that one hardly looks at it. The pickle, unless it is the still- smarting- with- the -rai -and –methi- dressing (down) kind of fresh pickle, is not worth its salt.

The North Indian curry thrown in for a good measure and in a move to placate all palates tends to surprise you. It either knocks you over by good quality and authenticity or make you gag on the curry leaves in a pompous sounding royal or shahi something paneer or rajma or chana masala.

One has to keep an eye on the poori man as he doesn’t particularly want to let you make your ‘man ki murad poori’. Satisfied that everyone is not cheated out of the unlimited pooris, you can turn to the kootu and relish the various textures of the dal, sprout, vegetable, coconut and the mild spices. This is the white collar dish of the thali.

The green chillies in the food hit you on the tip of your tongue, the red chillies in the middle and the pepper corns at the back of your throat, so be careful, keep the individually set katori of yoghurt with a ring of froth around it handy (why is it so sweet?)

Time to hail the waiter for rice and boy! is he very generous with rice, spading it onto your thali with the energy of a steam locomotive driver. What a cheapo! But rice is cheap. Don’t let this rice waiter go away before he finds and escorts the ghee man to your table so you can extract your pound of flesh- the drizzle of ghee onto the rice. The trick to extract the maximum out of the ghee-man is to fix him with a daring stare so he gets mesmerised and doesn’t say ‘say when’. After all, you need all the ghee to salve your burnt mouth and prepare for more eventualities, if any. Finish up your rasam-rice and sambar-rice, don’t bother about thair sadam as the thair is too sweet.

Talking of sweet- you will be lucky if the ‘sweet dish’ isn’t too sweet and luckier still if there are two varieties. Kesari- doesn’t have to be so-pro BJP, you know,  or payasam – don’t quite understand the need to have a dot -dot (sooji) line- line (vermicelli) and ball- ball (sago) cocktail of floatsam. Maybe I should have spoken about the fruit salad first- why the vanilla plus cardamom plus fruit flavour  triveni sangam? Well, thank your stars this isn’t payasam with fruit and finish your plate and attack the sunf and misri (is it too much to ask for paan?)

Oh, my ramblings… forgot about the poriyal. So… a poriyal is a vegetable dish, lightly cooked and tempered with mustard seeds, urad dal, hing, red or green chillies and seasoned with lots and lots of coconut. My most favourite poriyal is the beans poriyal, made with string beans or green beans – in that order of preference.


¼ kilo string beans or green beans, stringed washed and chopped finely and cooked al dente covered in a microwave with a tablespoon of water for not more than 5 minutes

2-3 tbsp fresh coconut, grated fine

1 tbs split white urad dal

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

A large pinch of hing

¼ turmeric

6-7 curry leaves

2-3 dry red chillies (or more)

1 tbsp oil (coconut oil, if you like)

Salt to taste


Heat the oil in a kadhai and add the urad dal. Even before the dal turns golden, add the mustard seeds, so that by the time the seeds crackle, the dal is perfectly golden brown in colour. Add the chillies and fry them for a few seconds. Then add the curry leaves, hing and turmeric. Add the cooked beans and mix well and stir fry it till the water is absorbed. Add salt and coconut, check the taste and turn off the heat.

Serve with hot sambar and rice or with poori or chapati.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Of rice and (chow) mein

Good Ole Indo-Chinese- Veg Fried Rice

(Beware of the parentheses (speed) humps)

Getting introduced to ‘Chinese’ was an important landmark in my life! As kids, we were very scared and wary of Chinese food. A famous Chinese restaurant had a mysterious looking sump at the rear and we would peep into it on our way to and from the annual school drill display practices in a nearby stadium. The mystery grew each year as the sump became dirtier and murkier and our fears became more terrifying. We scandalously perpetuated the gory myths (?) that they served cockroaches, snakes, frogs and other unmentionables, as if the sump sheltered the Loch Ness monster under its green living scum…

So happy were we with our twice a year idly-dosa outings to Taj Mahal, the udipi restaurant and the occasional indulgence in the then new fangled Punjabi chholey bhatureys, that it took us a while to muster up enough courage to taste ‘Chinese’.  My father was the first one to fall for Chinese and his attempts to describe the exotic cuisine to my mom (who incidentally is the greatest cook in the world according to me and many others) and her almost blindfolded attempts to recreate the dish (noodles) just from his description produced results that did little to inspire confidence in us. We did factor in that Baba was particularly bad at describing things and colours (he would typically describe a pair of brown trousers as 'my red pant').

But then, this much dreaded dragon entered our lives most innocuously one day at dinner in a Punjabi restaurant, when my father ordered fried rice. We had assumed it was some sort of a pulao. One bite and we were converted for life to (but realised years later that it needed a qualifier-Indo) Chinese!!

Much later in life, reading about the phenomenon of Indo-Chinese in foodie mags, on line and on restaurant menus added to our knowledge of how the Chinese migrants in India, mostly in Kolkota tweaked their cuisine to satisfy the Indian palate and made it so popular!

But throughout those glorious teen years and the eventful year of courtship with a bigger foodie, Chinese continued to be my fav food. We wouldn't miss the soups to save appetite or cash, at least would have 'one by two' or 'two by three' - oh, those delicious bowls of sweetcorn, wonton, manchow, hot and sour, clear vegetable soups! and how we used to love to dabble a bit in this sauce and that, lift lids of curious little pots and sniff containers to see what mysteries they held (these beauties helped as montage fillers between courses).

And ooohhh, with the soup came the spring rolls... the ones made with real thin crepes stuffed, rolled and deep fried... the crispness on the outside tapering down layer by layer to mushy softness by the time we reached the innermost layer and then your teeth would hit the crunchy vegetables... this gradual softening of the pastry allowed you to bite into the spring roll with your incisors and not be left awkwardly to hurriedly push bits of the stuffing hanging from the precipices of your teeth back into your mouth as happens invariably with the extra crisp pastry of the spring rolls of today! and how we used to eye the end of the roll pieces- waiting to sneak one into our plates when others weren't looking.. why did it only have four end pieces? The chili-garlic and sweet and sour plum dipping sauce in those dainty little dishes would also be licked clean (literally - and of course, when the waiters weren't looking)!

Main courses were the 'at once crisp and gooey chopsueys', the hakka noodles (even if they seemed like rubber bands tossed with vegetables, they were tasty!) and chowmein, the vegetable manchuria and gobi manchuria(GOPI MANJURIA on the menu of a restuarant in Kerala!) BTW-is it manchuria or manchurian ? (who is to contest the printed word on those greasy menus!) and the sweet and sour vegetables we hungrily wolfed while attempting mental math calculating the bill and adding 10% of the amount for the tip....

In our post marriage years in the 80s and the 90s, the Middle East continued to support our sweet delusion with the Indian run restaurants like China Garden, Aladin's, Sinbad Restaurant, Shangri La and Grill House serving even better Chinese than their counter parts in India! But alas! Subsequent visits to other oriental destinations and down under broke our illusion (and hearts) that what we ate fondly as Chinese was qualified as Indo-Chinese, and that real Chinese-Chinese food was quite different…

Episode after disappointing episode of queasy, uneasy (oh- did I mention that I am vegetarian?) picking at Chinese-Chinese food and the inability of most Indian restaurants down under to dish up good Indo-Chinese that even remotely meets our nostalgic longing, leave me with the realisation that the best place downunder to get Indo-Chinese food is HOME

And snob value notwithstanding, I can’t eat with chop sticks and like to use a tiny pinch of MSG at times!

Veg Fried Rice

4 cups cooled cooked rice- cooked with less water and grains separated (sona masoori is a good medium grain rice to use, but I often use basmati)
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cups finely chopped veges (carrot, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mushrooms, corn, red/yellow/green bell peppers, snow peas)
1 cup chopped spring onions for garnish
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp red chilly paste (or more)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp green chilly sauce
1 tsp tomato sauce (optional)
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp cumin powder (optional)
A pinch of Ajinomoto (MSG-optional)
½ tsp black/white pepper powder (or more)
3-4 tbsp oil (you can add some sesame oil, too)
Salt to taste

Heat a wok and pour the oil in it. When the oil is really hot, add the onions, garlic and ginger and sauté on very high flame for a minute. Add the ajinomoto (MSG) and vinegar to retain the crispness of the vegetables and add all the vegetables as per their cooking time. Add the sauces and chili paste and cumin and pepper powder while constantly working the vegetables. Add salt and rice and mix well. Adjust the taste. Work all the time on very high flame so that the vegetables retain their crispness and the rice gets a smoky flavour. Add a tablespoon of sesame oil (optional) for an additional note of flavour.

Serve hot garnished with finely chopped spring onion.