Saturday, 30 June 2012

Fasting and Feasting!

Sabudana Khichdi

People of various religious inclinations and dispositions believe that fasting has a special significance in their efforts to attain communion with their higher power. Fasting is thought to alter moods and receptiveness and help people stay in the proximity in of the almighty, in thought, emotion and action. The Indian word ‘upvaas’ to denote fasting actually echoes this meaning.

Ironically, fasting is invariably followed by feasting.

Today is Ashadhi Ekadashi. For those of you who don’t know this, tYou +1'd this publicly. Undohe eleventh day of each lunar month is called ekadashi and is observed by devotees as a day of fasting. The most significant ekadashis are those in the Hindu months of Ashadh and Kartik.

Some observe a ‘nirjala ekadashi’- a very strict regimen wherein people do not even drink water! But many others spend this day as a big fat day. As a Marathi saying goes, “Ekadashi-Duppat Khashi which means one eats twice as much on the occasion of ekadashi!

As kids we used to look forward to these fasts. Lest one thinks we were very ‘goody goody’ religious kids, I must clarify that we were simply big hogs and loved eating all the ‘fast food” that used to be made!

The day started with cleaning the house and a pooja. Then we had a brunch comprising samo seed upma (bhagar) peanut curry (danyachi amti) cucumber and peanut salad (kakadichi koshimbir, potato subzi with cumin tadka and no haldi (upasachi bhaji), all downed with tasty rich buttermilk. Some variations were the pancakes made of water chestnut flour or amaranthus seeds. The meal would be finished with sweet potato caramelised with jaggery and ghee and cardamom, or sweet potato chips fried in ghee and sprinkled with castor sugar or sweet potato kheer! Then we would eat a lot of fruit or fruit salads because we were fasting throughout the day! Dinner was invariably the glorious sabudana khichdi!

These foods were meant to be rich in carbohydrates so they could be a suitable substitute for a full meal. They usually did not have the full range of spices or onions and garlic to keep the diet satvik and simple.

But one wonders how our abstemious day turned into an almost saturnalian revelry with the ostensibly sentient foods!

Does the punitive foregoing of our daily victuals give us a justification to eat with abandon as a reward? Do we endure the period of abstinence only with the anticipation of the indulgence at the end? Do we willingly enter the famine mode only to prepare our bodies to be able to gorge optimally? So much of our life revolves around eating or not eating…

Oh dear! This epistemological questioning is too heavy for my mind which becomes child like when it comes to the sabudana khichdi!

And I wax eloquent about this dish!

Sabudana aka sago pearls is made out of tapioca starch and is a eaten widely all over the world. It is another popular food eaten during fasts because it’s tasty as well as filling. Sabudana is almost pure starch and has very little protein, vitamins, or minerals. Peanuts add protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber to Sabudana Khichdi. But that’s not the only reason for the peanuts- very early on in my experience of making sabudana khichadi, I postulated a theory  that the coarsely ground roasted peanuts also separate the sticky sago pearls and give the khichadi a good texture- without peanuts the khichdi would be lumpy!

Having said that, I have enjoyed a version without the peanuts in the homes of my Telugu friends – made like an upma, with curry leaves and urad dal AND mustard seeds - a sacrilege, according to the greatest Marathi humorist and satirist, the prolific and talented writer P.L. Deshpande (pu la)!

I haven’t yet come across a person who doesn’t like sabudna khichdi! As kids we used to look forward to fasts so that we could tuck into some of the khichdi made for the fasting adults in the family, even after we had had our meal!

Another observation about sabudana khichdi - whatever the quantity cooked, there never seems to be enough to go around at a family gathering or function! Even at home, I can’t really remember leftover sabudna khichdi!


2 cups sabudana
2 potato medium sized potatoes (you can use cucumber, too!) parboiled and diced
3-4 green chillies ( or as many as you like)
1 tea spoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons oil (khichadi tastes nice with olive oil, too!)

1 table spoon ghee
¾ to 1 cup roasted and coarsely ground peanuts

½ cup grated coconut
1 tea spoon sugar/sweetener

Salt to taste

2 table spoons chopped coriander


Wash the sabudana with plenty of cool water and drain completely. Keep covered for at least 3-4 hours. Overnight is the best. The sabudana absorbs the moisture and swells. Test a pearl by rolling it between your thumb and index finger. It should be soft, non-sticky and pliable. If it isn’t, sprinkle some more water and keep covered for some more time. I usually rehydrate the sabudana by sprinkling water and stirring the caked sabudana at least once or twice to loosen the pearls. When you are satisfied that the pearls are separate, soft and pliable, add the ground peanuts, salt, sugar and salt.

In a heavy bottomed pan, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds to splutter. Add the chopped green chillies and the diced potato and fry till almost done. Add the sabudana mixture and mix thoroughly. Cook covered for a few minutes. Mix again and add the lemon juice, grated coconut and the tablespoon of ghee for the aroma. The sabudana will turn translucent when cooked and let out white steam. Keep mixing it to avoid lumping.

Serve with the garnished coriander and with some yoghurt or a wedge of lemon!

Some people make it with red chilli powder, some use only ghee, no oil and yet others add ginger! Whatever the condiments or style or form, sabudana is simply great!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Afterschool snack!

Savoury Besan Squares/ Pithlyachaya vadya

With due respect to the utility of instant noodles as perhaps the quickest hot meal one can make, IMHO the shiny and fancy TV commercials advertising two-minute noodles and their bright packaging should carry a statutory warning about transfats, refined flour, excess salt and MSG (added or natural) in bold letters. These ads feature beautiful mothers clad in gorgeous georgettes smiling fondly when their rosy and healthy looking children return from school and ask for a snack. The mothers produce a bowl of noodles with a flourish. Mind you, the redemptive feature is that the noodles have some healthy veggies, read as peas and carrots in them. When the kids lick the bowl empty, the mothers smile even more fondly. This time they shake their heads as well!

This is not a diatribe against two minute noodles, certainly not against any particular brand of them! They are a food of convenience and the masala is quite tasty - I use the sachets in other dishes at times. My piece only talks about the message that is sent through the ads that two minute noodles are an acceptable form of routine after school or anytime snack! 

What does it take to fix a healthy snack for ravenous kids? As kids we used to have the stock standard roti and homemade mango and sugar or mango or jaggery jam, or the mineral rich kakvi, or a shikran made of mashed banana, milk and sugar.  On many occasions we would be surprised and boy! did we value the surprise! One such memory I have is of returning home very hungry and asking sullenly what I should eat with the roti and mother had smiled and produced, quite like the mother in the two minute noodle ad, these delicious golden yellow savoury squares! They were pithla or zunka vadis! I absolutely loved them!

These vadis are made by moulding a thick pithla or zunka into cakes. Full of protein and taste and low in fat, I make them rich in fibre and vegetables by adding methi (fenugreek) leaves or any other greens such as palak, spring onions, coriander. This time I added roughly chopped cauliflower leaves!  

And they take no longer than two minutes to polish!


2 cups besan (chickpea flour) sieved

1 small onion, chopped

½ cup finely chopped cauliflower leaves or any other greens (optional)

2 tbsp oil

½ tsp mustard seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp finely chopped green chili (or more)

½ tsp turmeric

A pinch of hing

1 tsp lemon juice (optional)

Salt to taste

About 2 cups water

1 tbsp grated fresh or dry coconut to garnish

1 tbsp chopped coriander


Grease an appropriate sized tray or a thali with a little oil and keep it ready.

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan and add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds. When the seeds splutter add the onions and chopped green chillies. Sauté the onion a bit and then add the turmeric and hing. Add the chopped leafy greens if using. Then add 1 ½ cups water and allow to boil. Mix the besan with a little water into a not very smooth paste. If some lumps remain, it’s alright. It only adds to the texture of the vadis. Add the besan paste to the boiling water and start mixing vigorously. Beware of burns as the pithla starts spitting up like lava. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook the mixture till it becomes translucent and gathers in a ball. At this point, you will see white steam emanating from the pithla. Remove the pithla from the heat and  pop the ball onto the greased plate or tray and spread it evenly to form a slab about 1 ½ cms thick. Sprinkle grated coconut and chopped coriander and press them lightly into the cake. Allow to cool completely and cut into squares or diamonds.

This versatile dish can sit jauntily on the side of a traditional and ceremonial full thali, or make a quick and filling low fat and high protein snack. It stays well for a few days in the fridge.

It serves well as a canapé base, too!

Leftovers, if any, can be dunked into a tomato gravy to make a gattey ki subzi, into a yoghurt based gravy or even a green - coriander stem curry!

This is my entry to Jagruti's Know Your Flour Round Up

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bygone Blues! Bhadbhunjas and Bhadang!


Bhadang is made with murmura, muri, kurmurey or churmurey, aka puffed rice. Raw rice is soaked and then puffed or popped in a roasting pan which is fixed in baked soil on top of the little wood fired furnace or ‘bhatti’. The pan would sometimes be filled with sand (which allows for perfect and even, slow dry roasting).

Hawkers selling freshly puffed crisp kurmure were a regular feature of our cities in the past. As a finished product in bhel or chudva, these kurmurey were sold by bhelpuri carts or by hawkers who had a huge platter piled high with the chudva  sandbagged into place by tiers of peeled pink onions, brightest red tomatoes and yellow, plump and juicy lemons. Did they take lessons as construction workers in safe loading or scaffolding or as foodies in plating and presenting food? The platter would be carried on the hawker’s head while he would carry a cane stand slung over his shoulder. This stand was multipurpose. It could be used to prop the platter on rest mode and also store the hawkers tools and implement and packaging materials, i.e. bits of news paper. Oh the fragrance of these mounds of crispies, undiminished by their exposure to the harsh elements! And the call of the hawker still echoes in my ears… chudvaaaaa… phalliiiiii… sssseeV!

The packed kurmura we get these days often absorb smells of the grocery stores -desi stores have this horrible nagchampa of some such agarbatti/ tacky soap or detergent smells latching on to stuff and ruining their taste! If it’s not the awful scents, the kurmurey get rancid and soggy, the packs have too much food dust when the packaging gets crushed. The height is when sometimes it hosts evil weevils that even   Australian Customs and Quarantine are so mortally scared of!

These days ready made packed savoury stuff abounds and one is spoilt for choice with so many brands and varieties of snacks vying for our attention from the shelves of the desi store! Regular, Masala, Garlic, Spicy, Diet, Jain! And these snacks come in hermetically sealed, nitrogen packed, crush proof packs, spill proof packs, resealable zip lock packs, blister packs, pearl pet reusable jars! Wow! The consumer hasn’t been pampered like this before. But everything in bright and hi-tech packaging doesn’t always turn out good all the way inside. Never go shopping on an empty stomach, is a lesson I have learnt after a few episodes of trashing ‘just opened’ packets of snacks as the rancid odours of peanuts, oil, coconut accost the nose.

At times like this my mind goes back to those visits to the ‘bhadbhunja’ shop where the local bhadbhunja made pohey and kurmurey of various types -thick, thin, fragrant – basmati, ambey mohor (mango blossom) varieties of rice, transparent, opaque – a myriad varieties of these crispies!  Popped jowar was in demand especially during naag panchmi in the month of Shravan. Paddy puffs suddenly became pricey during Diwali as they had a role to play in the Lakshmi Pooja, bursting with self- importance, filled till they spilled into little ornamental pile-up clay pots along with coriander seeds and round airy light batashas candies. We kids used to be sent to the market to buy these during Diwali and used to help mother decorate the altar in the afternoons after a heavy morning of easting on Diwali goodies or ‘pharal’. Patiently answering my incessant curious questioning, Mother used to explain that this was a thanksgiving gesture or symbol of prosperity and plenty that was being celebrated post the harvest. The paddy puffs symbolised the staple rice, the coriander seeds stood for all the spice of life and the sugar puff batashas were representative of the sweet things in life! What a lovely explanation that was to my child’s mind!

Some sweets at the bhadbhunja’s store were the juicy revadis or sesame nougat chewys and the til halwa  or candied sesame seeds and sakhar phutanas, wherein sugar syrup was cleverly crafted to coat sesame seeds and roast whole chickpeas into white and coloured star shapes. Other usual fare was the salted peanuts (khari muri) roasted split chana daal and whole chana, chana jor garam- so many healthy goodies! The local bhadbhunja shop had the seal of mother’s approval after some overt checking, which obviously embarrassed us! The shop failed on some counts and we were not allowed to eat the wickedly gleaming red savoury peas and the neon green batanas, as they had some spurious dyes according to mother.

Truly green enterprise this, the packaging was also environmentally friendly! We used to take large clean cloth bags to bring the kurmurey while sundry stuff was unceremoniously packed in old newspaper and tied with cotton thread.

And the price! Oh, this stuff had all the pathos of being the food of impoverished and students who ate a handful of kurmurey and drank gallons of water for their stomachs to bloat. They surely won some Jannath Shankarsheth scholarship and became great souls as adults. And it had all the romance of struggling actors or artists who subsisted on kurmurey and chanas and returned as natives to these shops at the height of their successful careers! We simply can’t replicate the glory of this humble snack food with the colourful boxes of sickly sweetish rice krispies from the brightly lit aisles of our supermarkets.

Kurmurey and stuff like that was oil free, easy to digest, quick to make into a dish and fun to eat! A far cry from what members of the Snack Food Association produce in tonnes to slowly fatten or salt the masses before killing them!

Have some bhadang while reliving these lovely memories. Bhadang is spiced kurmura – a Kolhapur/ Sangli speciality laced heavily with garlic. Even with the bit of oil, it still is healthy!


4 cups kurmurey (the thick opaque type) picked and cleaned

¾ cup peanuts

½ cup roasted chana daal

1 tablespoon chopped garlic or garlic powder

1 tablespoon chilli powder (or more)

½ teaspoon haldi

½ teaspoon cumin powder

Salt to taste

Sugar to taste (1 teaspoon or less)

2 tablespoon oil (or a bit more)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch of hing

1 tablespoon methkoot (optional)

½ cup sliced kopra (optional)


In a large pan or kadhai heat the oil and add the mustard seeds to pop. Add the peanuts and fry them a bit (take care not to burn). Add the kopra slices and fry very lightly. It will fry more along with the other stuff. Add the garlic, hing, haldi, chilli powder and fry a bit. Add the chana dal and fry some more. Add the kumura and roast well until the oil coats all the kurmuras. Add a bit more oil if you like. You will notice that the whole mixture will start feeling a bit lighter as you keep on roasting it as the kurmura loses its moisture. Add the salt, sugar and the methkoot and mix well. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Store in an airtight jar after the bhadang are completely cool. Bhandang makes an anytime snack, picnic food, good to serve as a snack with drinks with some chopped onion and coriander sprinkled on it! The garlic flavour is distinctive and very tasty!

Friday, 22 June 2012

No dough pizza! Pseudough pizza!

Portobello mushroom pizza

A few weeks into my first job in Australia teaching English to international students at the Monash University’s language centre, I was still not as adept at recognising accents and facial/racial features. All my Asian (read South East/North/Far East Asian) students seemed similar looking. It’s interesting how we give in to lumping things, people and what not into bundles based on broad categories that we believe they will fit into! No wonder I was astonished when on a class excursion my daughters had come with me and some of my Asian students remarked fawningly that my daughters and I looked ‘ditto’ like each other’…  after laughing uproariously at the use of the quaint use of the word along with Ditto 1 and Ditto 2,  it struck me- Is this how they saw us? Did they really not see the noses are different, the facial structure somewhat similar, but the chins and jaw lines… I took a reality check- how carefully had I tried to decipher their accents, relate their faces to their ethnicity and tried to see patterns? Didn’t I still call them ‘my Asian students’? If the strong emphasis on the use of inclusive and politically correct language had not got my buy-in and approval, I would still be using possibly discriminatory terms like….oops! I almost said it!

So when Ditto 2 wanted to eat pizza tonight but was too hungry to wait for the dough to rise; and as we had only portobello mushrooms, which I was unwilling to butcher  to top the pizza;… too complicated- I took an executive decision to make the best use of all available resources and under all constraints (I am currently writing courseware for a transport and logistics course) and decided to settle for a trade-off!

I put together a no dough pizza.

Wordplay! A wordster that I am, this is something to dig my nails into…Hey, how about pseudo-pizza? Or better still no-dough, pseudo pizza! But my fanciful thoughts got caught on this word ‘pseudo’ like a silk scarf renting on a thorn. Why do we have this fascination with this word? Is it because we get attracted by appearances rather than reality, or is it because the ‘make believe’ allows us to indulge in thoughts and actions we normally wouldn’t entertain for a minute? Or is it because we can get away without any real price to pay, real trouble or real guilt?

Talking of guilt, somehow, I wonder how meat eating can be completely disassociated with guilt. But then, I also could never understand why people love to eat fake meat. After several  awkward dinners (or rain checks thereof) with business associates in countries like Vietnam, Korea and China who feel obliged - and privileged at the same time- to take to you to these Buddhist veggie eateries serving soy products, I quickly settled down on the stock excuse that I did not wish to eat as I had an upset stomach. Not happy to offend people who supported our business, I preferred the rather indelicate and possibly unladylike ruse to stay back in my hotel room and dine on crackers and cuppa soup.   And to this day I struggle to understand how, if you don’t eat meat because you don’t like the idea in principle and have a stand on this issue of eating meat, can you eat something that looks, tastes and smells like meat? Even if you don’t eat meat for religious reasons isn’t it perhaps an aberration to lust after it and enjoy sinking your teeth in the flesh?

Hmmm… very complex ideas and I am not a social scientist nor competent enough to make some very profound observations about why we have this fascination with the word ‘pseudo’. So I must return to my recipe of the no dough pseudo pizza. However, I can’t resist the temptation of admitting an indulgence in passing. I do like the idea of fake turf. Imagine having the luxury of an ever green patch of lawn that requires no mowing and no weeding! You can forever keep up with the Joneses, you know. And you are willing to spend a bit, you can cover the nature strip as well. In a few years the outlay cost will be evened out by the savings you have on council fines for an unkempt nature strip. What more, you are actually doing the environment and ourselves a favour by saving water!

I’d better get back to the no dough- pseudo pizza. Very tasty and carb-free, this dish can be served as an entre or as a snack. Suitable for people on low carb or gluten free diets.


4 large portobello mushrooms- stalks removed, caps wiped clean and gills cleaned thoroughly

2 tbsp EVOO


1 cup pizza sauce - I made it by sautéing ½ onion, garlic, ¾ can of chopped tomato, oregano, salt, sugar and pepper in the same pan in which the aubergine and zucchini were roasted- adds to the flavour of the sauce!

4 slices aubergine, slices of half a zucchini – pan roasted lightly in EVOO

4 slices of baby red capsicum (got these beautiful babies in the market)

4 tbsp grated mozzarella cheese


Chilli flakes

Flat leaf parsley to garnish


Place the mushrooms gills up and oil them generously. Sprinkle salt and place them in a hot oven and bake for about 10 minutes until quite soft. Remove from the oven, spread the sauce and arrange the slices of aubergine and zucchini. Sprinkle grated mozzarella cheese, chilli flakes and oregano. Top with slices of baby red capsicums. Grill for about 10 minutes until the cheese melts.

Serve hot garnished with parsley.

I am posting this as my contribution to healthy eating -in Spotlight healthy snacks!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The dog, the cardamom and the gulab jamuns!

Gulab Jamuns

I believe coincidences are nature’s way of striving to achieve harmony, synergy and symmetry all the time and in every possible way. No wonder then that I came across these ‘I love cardamom dogs T-shirt designs’ on the internet, just when I had made some gulab jamuns and was unfailingly remembering our best friends and son and brother respectively, Rajah and Sharad.

Seldom have I been able to peel a green cardamom without remembering Rajah. Right from the time he was a gangly and uncouth little pup, Rajah belied his Aussie ancestry by drawing a complete blank when spoken to in English, intensely disliking tradies of the dominant race and taking to the language spoken at home as if he were a Marathi mutt. And this love of everything Indian extended to all food I cooked, from sprout usals, besan pithala and all vegetables to hot idlis and chapattis that he caught mid-air like frisbees. But his special love was for sweets, especially the Indian sweets, the mithais. Rajah’s tail would start wagging as if it were a living thing in its own rights and was furiously trying to detach itself from his rear end. The impetus for this activity was the very simple act of opening the little jar of cardamom, selecting a handful of cardamoms, peeling and crushing the seeds in the little mortar and pestle.

So, what is this post about? Gulab Jamun? Cardamom? Dogs?  I will tick on ‘All of the above’, while sheepishly remembering how we used to love the MCQs that had a fifth choice of a response at E! It used to be the next safest bet after C!  

Yes, I know,  I haven’t forgotten  to tell you about the cardamoms…

These days we hear that sugary foods and sweets are bad for people and for dogs, in no particular order. Most vets, dog lovers and ‘holier than thou’ disciplinarian dog owners obsessed with showing the poor pooch who is the boss, will fanatically keep their dogs sugar free.  But there is something so innocent and appealing about a dog’s love for sweets that one can’t palate the linkage of gloomy predictions of organ failure with a pure and joyous activity like eating sweets.

One whiff of cardamoms and the doggone mutt starts an intense eye balling of every action of the person making the sweets. It’s very hard to shoo this kind of a entranced dog out of the kitchen. Traditionally, sweets made at home or even shop bought are first offered to God as naivedya.  It’s impossible to do it this with a desperado sniffing the kitchen floor for every bit of visible and invisible crumbs that one may have dropped inadvertently while making the sweets. By now the impatient pooch is drooling puddles and emitting soft high pitched whimpers and is about to drive the person preparing sweets mad. So the first sweet is offered to the dog served in the chow bowl or casually tossed and perfectly caught by the ever watchful one. Occasionally, the dog might decide to help itself when you are not looking and spare you the trouble! Laddus, pedhas, pumpkin poris, shakkarparas et al are hogged with unashamed abandon. The dog stays totally spooked and hounds the lives of the keeper of the kitchen for more till the last of the sweets is finished.

Sharad, our ‘free to a good home’ black mongrel who surprisingly looked like his pure bred black lab father, loved sweets unconditionally, too. Why was he named Sharad? Thereby hangs a tale for another day! He had come into our lives when we had become most conscious and keen to cut out sugar and ghee from our diets. Seeing his strong interest in sweets and his willingness to be a dumpster or a vacuum cleaner to dispose of any and all human food and of course, knowing no better, we pampered his sweet tooth.

It all started when one day when he was sick and wouldn’t eat his milk and roti- hmmm, no Purina in India back then- and mother sprinkled some sugar over his food. The sick puppy polished off the plate, pausing from time to time for more sugar. Soon his obsessive love for sweets became a charming indulgence. An aunt would get justifiably offended that her homemade, pure ghee (for some reason many people often used Dalda in those days!) besan laddus were lobbed at the family pooch! He was known to take sneaky licks of lollies and laddus and chocolates and karanjis from the family kids’ hands. He even stole sweets from neighbours houses, but respectfully nibbled them with disinterest as if to show mother that he liked her sweets the best and that he was just humouring the neighbours. 

Oh yes, that reminds me- all dogs have this very clear classification in their minds as to what constitutes ‘tuck’, treats or ‘khau’ (in Marathi) . Treats are not to be wolfed down. They are to be relished on a patch of lawn or grass, or on a mat. They are meant to be looked at and licked at leisurely. Sometimes they are to be buried in the umpteen potholes in the garden patches or even in the folds of the sofa to be dug up in the future.

Only when sweets can’t be carted off, they should be deposited in canine stomachs. I remember Sharad polishing off at least a few kilos of gajjar halwa during my brother’s wedding celebrations over a few days. And not to mention that by then a lot of the house guests gathered for the wedding had heard about his phenomenal love for sweets and caught on to  ‘feed the dog ’ game. Some had even heard of how we ingrates (mother, brother and I) passed on the sweets they lovingly sent/brought for us to the dog. Some well meaning relatives (overtly and covertly) showed their utter disapproval at Sharad’s upbringing! Undaunted by all these controversies, Sharad optimised this opportunity to eat sweets and be the centre of attention in a house full of wedding guests.

Rajah was also of mixed heritage - Kelpie, German shepherd (and we suspect a little bit of Dingo, the Australian wild dog with roots in India). This Aussie pup completely floored us when he started wagging his tail madly and sniffing in the air with half-closed, dazed eyes, an unmistakable grin of an equally unmistakably silly nature on his face. This was the second time I had peeled cardamoms in the kitchen since he arrived from the RSPCA one day. He remembered the fragrance from the first time he got some sheera (sooji halwa or semolina pudding) and loved it.

Pavlov should feel totally validated!

Never did Rajah fail to wag his tail on smelling cardamoms. A favourite family game emerged. We would hold some cardamom under a sleeping Rajah’s nose. His tail would start wagging in his sleep. Deep, pleasurable sighs would emanate from him and his facial muscles would relax into a lazy grin. His paws would twitch as if he were romping in the leash free park- we were convinced he was dreaming of chasing sweet gulab jamuns,  kaju katlis and balushahis with cardamom.

Rajah loved to eat whatever we ate, even fruit. One summer he got hooked on to catching grapes we threw at him with the ease of a Roman senator plucking grapes from a dangling bunch with his lips. Then the kulfi was taken out and he got a small piece to lick. He went crazy with the sensations! Someone wickedly threw a grape at him which he caught in a reflex action. To our utter amazement and amusement, the instant he realised it was not a piece of kulfi, he spat out the grape with such a forceful ‘thooo!’ the grape ricocheted off the timber floor a few meters away!! We were wiping our tears and ROFLing!

Memories of Rajah’s antics bring tears to our eyes, but smiles to our lips. And we celebrate the time we spent with him with sweets, of course, with cardamom. J

Gulab Jamun


1 cup skim milk powder (purists, don’t look down upon the lack of khoya- these gulab jamuns come out well- ask Rajah and Sharad!)

¼ cup plain flour (you can use self raising flour as well and dispense with the baking soda)

1 tbsp semolina

3 tablespoons ghee

A few tablespoons milk at room temperature

Pinch of baking soda

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cup water

½ tsp grounded cardamom seeds

A few strands of saffron (optional)

1 tsp rose water (great if you can get gulkand or fresh rose petals)

Oil for deep-frying


For the syrup

In a large pan, add water and sugar and bring it to a boil. Add the cardamom seeds and saffron and let the syrup boil for a minute. Remove from heat and add the rose water. Keep the syrup warm. The syrup should be of one- string consistency.

For the Gulab Jamuns

In a bowl, mix milk powder, flour, semolina and baking soda. If you use self-raising flour, don’t add the soda. Rub the ghee into the mixture until it resembles bread crumbs. Add a little milk to make a stiff dough. Roll the dough into one big ball. Dunk this ball of dough into a bowl of chilled water and let it ‘soak’ for an hour or so. The soaking will not dissolve the ball of dough, although the water will turn milky. I was shown this trick by my friend Charu Khandekar, whose culinary skills I hold in great esteem! I think the soaking allows the dough to rise beautifully, fluffs up the semolina and gives the gulab jamuns a grainy khoya like texture. Some solace for us NRIs who can’t access khoya!

After about an hour, remove the ball from the water and crumble it. Although the outside becomes a bit slimy, you will see how the dough has fluffed up- not risen but just become textured.  Knead the crumbled dough with a very light hand so as not to flatten the grain. Divide the dough into small smooth balls, bearing in mind that the dough will grow in size during frying and also when soaked in the syrup. All the while work with a firm but light hand.

Heat the oil in a suitable frying pan on medium heat. The oil should be about four fingers (sideways) deep. Gently place a batch of balls in the oil and shake the pan a bit to move them around so that they fry very slowly and evenly. Make sure the balls have enough space to expand in the oil. The balls will rise and start rolling in the oil as if they have come alive! Lower the heat and continue to fry them till they are very rich dark golden brown. If you fry them too quickly, the balls will burn from the outside and remain uncooked from the inside. Remove the balls from the oil onto kitchen paper and let them cool a bit. Soak the balls into very warm syrup for about cool down for a few minutes before placing in the hot syrup. Allow the gulab jamuns to soak in the syrup for 15-20 minutes.

Pluheeese DO NOT sprinkle desiccated coconut on the gulab jamuns! Sacrilege! 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

A slice of spice

Eggplant Slice - Vangyaachey Kaap!

It’s bitter cold and raining in Melbourne but we have been warmed by a meal of our favourite ‘vaangyachey kaap’. I sit down to write the recipe. This is a dish from Maharashtra. Vangi means eggplant and kaap is slice.  What do I call it in English? Egg plant chops? No, sounds too porky.  Eggplant chips? No, these aren’t deep fried. Eggplant fritters? No, they aren’t really battered like fritters.

Eggplant slice? Yes!!

‘Slice’ is such a mouth watering word. Perhaps not when it is a mundane slice of bread one handles in the morning rush. But it certainly is mouth watering when you remember slicing a loaf of the still warm, moist and slightly sour, soft bread from John’s bakery and generously spreading it with Amul butter or white butter. Dunking this slice into a glass of thick hot sweet boiled chai gives you a brekkie fit for a king.  (Aside- have you ever wondered why tea tastes different when sipped out of a glass, a stainless steel tumbler, a porcelain mug, a bone china cup or a kullad?). This brings to mind another childhood memory. In one of his books, James Herriot the famous vet/writer has recounted his hard struggle one bitter cold night to help a birthing cow. The grumpy farmer is of no help, but afterwards the farmer’s wife makes up for all the trouble by plying Herriot with thick slices of homemade bread slathered in home churned butter and topped with golden home harvested honey. I remember reading the book, as was my wont, into the wee hours of the morning when hunger pangs struck and I had no better choice than to vicariously share Herriot’s gut warming pleasure.

Another childhood memory clamouring for a slice this word space is that of waiting impatiently one summer for the two volumes of fairy tales Mother had ordered from Readers’ Digest and finally when they arrived in the mail, reading each one in one sitting ! Somewhere in there was this story of an ogre devouring slices of watermelon. “Slurp! Slurp”, they would go. This was my first realisation, years before commencing literary studies and learning about onomatopoeia, that the sound of some words echoed their sense!

As a young girl I went through the rites of passage reading Mills and Boon publications and Barbara Cartland’s novels. Tacky as they seem today, I firmly believe these books increased my vocabulary. ‘The tension in the room was so thick it could be cut into a slice’ or ‘He shook her by the shoulder and his harsh words sliced through the heady...something… something… ‘ . Embarrassing, but this was a real slice of my life!

The ‘manga cundy’, which is how a Belgaum ice cream parlour spelt ‘mango candy’ in Marathi on its menu card and A-board, was our favourite treat as a newly wedded couple with limited means. This was a great VFM - real home churned Alphonso mango ice cream served in triangular slices crusted with a biscuit wafer, all for just Rs. 2.50. To this day we associate this lovely slice served with bits of chopped mango with our first efforts as a couple to manage finances within our budget!

Somewhere down the track I learnt to add refreshing slices of lemon in the pitcher of cool water. The idea was so exotic and felt posh! And did I tell you I get teased for my antics, verbal and non-verbal, trying to explain to waiters in Indian restaurants even in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Seoul, Makati City or Tokyo, how I like the juicy and crunchy slices of onions.  I have to devise ways to explain that I would like ‘just a few thin slices of a small red onion (don’t waste a whole onion and don’t charge me for a whole salad) no chaat masala and no green chillies’. I may be the only patron in the annals of restaurant history to ask for a doggie bag of an almost plateful of perfectly fine onion slices- such a pity they would be trashed by the restaurant, but more insidiously, what if they aren’t !!

For years now, a breakfast of a slice of madeira or fruit cake with tea is my fond indulgence especially during Christmas holidays. However, not all slices meet the expectation I have of this word. Some slices are remembered only because of their imminent forgettableness. The vanilla slice in the old English style tea rooms, Miss Marple’s Tea Room or the Pig and the Whistle on Mount Dandy sounds and looks nicer than it tastes. I fell only the first time for the vegetable slice, drying and curling on the corners from hours of neglect in the hot bain marie and served with a flourish on knowing I am a vegetarian.

Back to ‘vangyaachey kaap’ – how shall I describe this dish? The word 'kaap' means cut (verb) as well as slice (noun) in Marathi. Therefore, I think a verbing noun like ‘slice’ is most apt. A unique slice of eggplant dredged in spice! So eggplant slice it shall be!

Eggplant Slice or Vaangyachey Kaap


1 large Italian eggplant cut into thin round slices

1 cup besan (gram flour) – ¾ cup

¼ cup rice flour

2 tablespoons bread crumbs (optional- you could also use semolina)

1 tsp red chilli powder (or more)

¼ tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp garam masala powder

A pinch of ajwain powder (or dried oregano)

A pinch of hing 

Salt to taste

Oil for shallow frying.


Keep the slices of eggplant immersed in water. In a shallow bowl or a deep plate mix the flours, bread crumbs, spices and salt.

This mixture has to be kept dry. Drain the eggplant slices on kitchen paper and dredge each slice in the dry spiced flour mixture. Press the slice firmly into the mixture on each side to ensure the flour coats both the sides of the slice. Heat a pan and pour a little oil. Place a dredged slice on the pan.

Repeat this with each slice until the surface of the pan is filled. Shallow fry the slices on one side. You may want to press the slices with a flat spatula to let out the moisture so that the slices take up less oil to cook. Flip the slices over and pour a little more oil. Make sure each slice gets its fair share of oil to turn a uniform golden brown. Remove on kitchen paper and repeat with the remaining slices.

Serve hot as a side with a meal or as a snack with hot tea!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Childhood treats...

Baked Bhature

Although we had a huge variety of homemade foods as kids, possibly more than many of our friends, going out to eat used to be a great treat for the simple reason of the rarity of such events. Our ‘eating out’ treats in the 60s were limited to the Udupi restaurants. We particularly loved the buttery crisp masala dosas, wadas that were crunchy on the outside and perfectly spongy and spicy inside (we hadn’t developed a taste for idlis then) and the ‘slab’ at the end (inevitably accompanied by the terrible Dad jokes about slab or slap! Sadly, we hadn’t yet learnt to roll our eyes at our parents then). Slab, I think was our own little word for the slices of ice cream, cut off a block, that were popular in those days. Our favourite slabs were vanilla and ‘tutti frutti’ (orange flavoured ice cream with candied fruit peel).

Simple but tasty and satisfying joys these, an outing like this for the four of us would set Dad back only by a few rupees! The other treat was the annual or biannual movie in the theatres. These movies had to undergo the tough scrutiny of my mother, something that would have struck more terror in the hearts of movie makers than the Indian Films Censor Board if they were to formally solicit our custom! Movie nights also had the bonus of potato chips and coke (yes, we used to get Coca Cola in those days!).

Then suddenly the choice of ‘eating out’ treats got wider- from one to two! Soon after the first human set foot on the moon (well, for the purpose of this post, let’s assume that they really made that lunar landing) a new restaurant called Apollo opened in the neighbourhood. It was as cute as a button, with stylised décor. The entrance had been designed to look like the entrance to a space ship, the ceilings were decorated with galactic motifs, the walls were adorned with prints of moon craters and Martians, the  menus had a very intriguing sections like ‘countdown’ and ‘launch’ ‘cruise’ and ‘land’! The ultimate touch was very simple- paper serviettes folded into perfect origami rockets! How much more excitement could a eight year old ask for! The fare offered was limited and mostly north Indian and Punjabi. Chhole Bhature was our favourite no.1. The chholes were pindi style and the scrumptious and huge bhature were shaped like flying saucers. This delicious duo was served with miniature onions pickled in beetroot juice and vinegar. Apollo’s vegetable cutlets were crunchy from the outside and soft from inside and came with yummy mint chutney. The generously proportioned samosas had the tastiest filling and were clad in the most perfect and jauntily shaped pastry. The one sweet dish that more often than not lost out to our other spicy and savoury favourites was the cream sandwiches, perfectly cut, fluffy white bread triangles with a baby pink sweet cream filling.

The beverages and ice cream selection was larger, with rich milk shakes made with fresh mangoes, sapotas and apples getting our votes. We also loved digging into giant wedges of cassata ice cream on really special occasions.

Apollo was probably modelled after another restaurant in town called Havemore and for a decade or so they were imitated by many others dotted round the town. This coincided with the strategic transition of the udupi restaurants from serving mild Mysore style food to catering to the more mouth scalding and eye watering Andhra tastes, influenced by the rapid urbanisation. The udupi restaurants were slowly phased out by us folks with the timorous tastes.

As we do with all the foods we like, mother used to try making them at home and she was very good with the guessing game. I don’t remember a single recipe book at home to this day, nor did we have access to TV and the Internet in those days. But she had this uncanny ability to figure out the ingredients even after having tasted something just once. Coupled with this was her infinite enthusiasm to try out new dishes, her wide experience as a skilled cook and her never-say-die attitude to turn even a failed dish into a different success. Once, after her annual summer ritual of making sundried potato chips, she decided to make potato soup from the left over potato starch. Much to her dismay, we rejected the soup, and then much to our surprise we got delicious savoury pancakes for dinner that night. Guess what the secret ingredient was? The shunned potato soup story and many other like it have been my inspiration to do things like turning failed gulab jamun into halwa, failed rasgullas into kalakand, and many other such recycled gems. I have digressed from my Apollo story, but one of these days I will do a post on the famed family tradition of “Naulakkha” or recycling of good food (name inspired by a joke from the Pak TV drama Tanhayiaan’) .

Only a few days after we first ate at Apollo, mother surprised us (or shall I say delighted?) by making bhature at home for the first time. This was a surprise on two counts actually, because she had loved the bhature at Apollo so much that she set aside her parsimony with oil to make them at home. What’s more, they were perfectly puffed up and golden brown; their fried goodness was every inch a replication of Apollo’s bhature.

I’m happy to say my bhature aren’t bad either! My girls love them, and they usually turn out very soft and melt in your mouth. But my younger daughter, Apurva, has inherited her grandmother’s aversion to deep frying for other reasons – no matter how good the exhaust system is, everything still smells of frying for a long time after (her hair and clothes). But I was making chhole and the girls wanted to eat them with bhature. Hmmm. A bit of a fix! Then I remembered watching Sanjeev Kapoor do a baked bhature recipe on hisTV show ‘Khana Khazana’. So I scoured the interweb for it and found a very satisfying, low fat bhature recipe!

Just this morning I was chatting with my friend Irfan and said to him in Hyderabadi Hindi, “Apney khaaney piney ke din nahi rahey abhi” to which he replied, “Hau, kitna khinch ke sutatey the nai apun!”

Baked Bhature

I scaled down and adjusted Sanjeev Kapoor’s recipe to half, used dry yeast instead of fresh, doubled the quantity of poppy seeds and baked them in a very hot oven under the grill cutting down the baking time by almost half. Two next time points for myself:

·         make the dough just a little more stiff so the dough would retain its shape better

·         make the bhatures with atta (wholemeal wheat flour) to optimise the health benefits

·         Brush the bhature with as much butter as your conscience will allow J

Irfan, I hope you are reading this.


2 cups plain flour

1 sachet dry yeast (7 gms)

1 tsp sugar

2 tsps popply seeds

¼ cup sour yoghurt

½ cup milk

Salt to taste

A little oil to knead the dough


Sieve the flour and salt in a bowl. Add dry yeast to a little warm water with sugar and keep covered till it rises. This should take only 7-8 minutes. Add the yeast solution to the flour. Add poppy seeds, yoghurt and milk as required to knead it into a soft dough, using a few drops of oil to smoothen it. Cover with a damp cloth and set the dough aside in a warm place (it is winter in Melbourne!) to ferment. Divide into 10 portions and roll them into balls. Rest the balls to allow the dough to relax. Roll each ball into an oval shape. Place the bhature in a greased baking tray (I lined the tray with baking sheet).

Place the tray under the grill in a very hot oven. You can also bake them on bake mode. Monitor the bhature and flip them when the top gets nicely browned.

Serve hot with chhole garnished with sliced onion and chopped coriander (and of course the mandatory hot green chillies and ginger juliennes).

Chef's Tip