Friday, 29 March 2013

Good (Woman) Friday

Hot Cross Buns
Photos by Amruta Nargundkar 

Good Friday used to be a big day for Baby, my Woman Friday, my help, my saviour… Her usually vivacious and happy persona underwent a dramatic change on the day, but there was a distinct theatricality even to her mourning. 

She would grieve for the “one who paid for the sins of the world”.  She would fast and not even drink any water. She would reminisce about how her mother would fast throughout the lent period and on Good Friday dress her brood in their church clothes and get them to church at dawn and then again at the vespers.

Baby would then light heartedly remark that it wasn’t difficult to fast, as they were used to going hungry. Moreover, it also meant they saved on food bills. But over Easter her mother would make sure they ate well. 

On a Good Friday morning more than fifteen years ago, I was driving Baby to church (taxis were not safe for women). Sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of my car, wearing a new white dress I had bought her (in a very filmy way she ensured she had one white dress for Good Friday every year), Baby’s nostalgic tone while describing for the umpteenth time how this holiday was spent in her village betrayed her homesickness.

I suspected she, and the thousands of her tribe in the Middle East, used their day off from work congregating at the local church and later flocking together in the churchyard to vent all their homesickness and frustrations - an unwitting attempt to purge their negative feelings.

It didn’t matter if they were Philippina, Sirlankan or Indian; they were in the same situation in this land of opportunity – martyrs for their family’s needs, repatriating all their income and enduring a “morning to evening, seven day work week”. They would talk about their loved ones in far away countries and how much they missed them. They would discuss their employers – sympathising with those that suffered at their hands and envying the more fortunate who boasted about their working conditions and perks.

“So did you crib about me?” I would tease her…

“Ayyoo! Kyaa mayydem! Nai mayydem! I am enjoying life here, our house is so comfortable, you are like my amma and this is myyy fyamily, and I have a room of my own, with plenty of food to eat…”

Baby would embarrass me…

While enjoying the luxury of domestic help, very few of us - more privileged expatriates ourselves- and the locals, spare a thought to the situation that migrant labour puts these women in. 

Being poor and largely unskilled, this is the best source of income for their families. More often than not, these women are the principal breadwinners for their families- families that get opportunistically extended to include near and distant relatives and needy ones.

The recruitment agent’s fee, travel expenses and other costs and the debts they had incurred to meet the costs offset the money they earn in a big way. The repatriated funds are invariably all but spent by the time they return home. It doesn’t help that these women cut a poor societal image because of stories of “misconduct” by some women.

Do people forget that the sadness and stress of being away from their families for so long and the burden of trying to keep their jobs and stay safe corrode these women’s will to fight for their rights?

When I picked Baby up from the church late that afternoon and she was all agog, chattering about her friends, gossiping a little and invariably some sad stories crept in - Flavy was accused of stealing, Maricel was deported to Cebu when she refused her employer’s advances, Nipuni’s mother died in Negambo and she wasn’t told for over six months as her family feared she would return home…

Just then, we reached Modern Oman Bakery – much to my relief, for the stories were getting gloomier than those from the morning.

I asked Baby if she had eaten and sure enough she hadn’t. We then picked up some fresh hot cross buns and returning home feasted on buttered warm buns and tea.

Just as we feasted on homemade hot cross buns at teatime today.

All of us had had a light lunch in anticipation of this treat. The light lunch was all but digested from the trips to the kitchen to see if the dough was rising and if the buns were proved.

Conferring, discussing, disagreeing, arguing, giggling and drawing on each others knowledge of baking and skills of research on Google, Amruta and I finally managed to get the buns into the oven in the baking mode. 

We were lying in wait - the table laid, the butter softened, the kettle boiling…

Ten minutes out of the oven and the buns had been photographed and demolished.

I am so gorged and full - I wish Baby were here to clear the mess in the kitchen…


Amruta and I conferred and used flax seed meal whisked with water as a substitute for egg (there were no eggs at home and no store was open) but did we have amazing results!


4 cups plain flour + plus a little extra to dust
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon powder
A large pinch of nutmeg powder
1 clove crushed fine
14 g dried yeast (2 sachets)
½ cup packed cup brown sugar
350 ml lukewarm milk
2 tbsp flax seed meal whisked with 6 tbsp water
2 tbsp oil to knead the dough
¾ cup sultanas


¼ cup plain flour
¼ cup water


1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp apricot jam (I used sugar free apricot jam)


Mix the sifted flour and spices with the yeast, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add warm milk and the flaxseed mixture to the flour mixture. Mix until it forms into a rough dough.

Add the raisins and knead the dough on a floured board until smooth and elastic. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size.

Knock back the dough to its original size. Knead until smooth then divide the dough into 12-14 portions. Shape each portion into a ball, then place onto a greased tray about 1cm apart.

Cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until buns double in size.


Mix flour and water together in a small bowl until smooth, adding a little more water if paste is too thick.

Spoon the flour paste into a small plastic zip lock bag and seal it. Snip off a corner of the bag to make a small hole. Pipe the paste over tops of the buns to form crosses.

Bake in a moderately hot oven 200°C for 15-20 minutes or until cooked when tested.

Allow to cool a little on a wire rack.


Combine the sugar, jam and water in a small saucepan and stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and simmer for minute. Cool a little and then brush the warm glaze over warm hot cross buns.

Serve warm with a generous slap of butter. Don’t forget that cup of tea.

If you are serving the buns after they are completely cooled, toast the buns a little and serve with butter.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The laddoo of our lives!

Boondi Laddoo /बुंदी चा लाडू/ బూంది లడ్డు 

Photos by Amruta Nargundkar

It’s fascinating to watch those large platters of the golden globes of the boondi laddoos – in front of Lord Ganesh in calendar art; in the hands of random people dexterously rushing from here to there in a wedding scene in Hindi films; in pooja thalis of filmy mums returning from prayers at the temple or performing an arati on homecoming or war bound heroes (always wonder why they have to have so many laddoos, for they break off only a small piece to stuff in the blessed hero’s mouth and the rest gets forgotten when the shot is cut)…

Then there are laddoos lying flush and snug in a traditional red “tie-and-die” or bandhni print mithai box or a modern bejeweled casket during festive seasons; laddoos filling deep and huge yellow-red cellophane- wrapped baskets atop the shoulders of a train of turbaned gift bearers; laddoos in a pyramid pile at the mithai wala; bright yellow (almost fluorescent yellow) laddoos crammed inside general store candy jars; laddoos in a white or brown paper packet distributed in schools on Republic Day; laddoos that need replenishment just before the server reaches you at a sit down meal (not to mention that for some reason the servers recommence after replenishing starting from the person beside you)…

Motichoor, Tirupati prasad, shaadi key laddoo; laddoos in thanksgiving and those for celebration, hard ones and soft ones, big boondis and small boondis, laddoos orange, yellow, speckled with green and red, dotted with sugar crystals, seeds and nuts and dried fruit; flavoured with camphor, cardamom, cloves, saffron or occasionally chocolate and vanilla; pure ghee laddoos and oil fried ones – occasionally one made in a trans-fat medium (dalda!)…

The laddoo is as primordial an orb as the earth, and as celestial a body as the moon.

The word laddoo itself is so sweet – even Elmo from Sesame Street couldn’t stop saying ladduladduladduladduuuuu – don’t believe me? Do watch the episode titled Rakhi Road to see what I mean!

I made these laddoos for my darling daughter’s birthday today. As she wished.

And to think, there was a time, when as a gangly teenager, she suffered her (almost) greatest embarrassment at school on her birthday!

It so happened - the husband went to buy some sweets for his darling daughter’s special day, and on a whim, bought a few kilos of premium quality motichoors, thinking she would love to take them to school. What was he thinking!

I suppose I must have greatly added to her ignominy as well, when in my – everyone gives chocolates – you do something new - you shouldn’t be scared to be different - what’s so shameful about following your culture- why waste all these kilos of good mithai-poor people in India don’t get to eat even dry and stale bread – I coerced the fourteen year old to take the motichoors to distribute in class.

Now a lovely young lady who fortunately doesn’t mind being affectionately called “laddoo” and still adores laddoos, this child of ours has never forgiven us for this grave wrong.

But she does give us a bit of reprieve, when she tells us that she never let the huge box reach the class room – disposing of the uncool treats in several ingenious and not wasteful ways and places- one of them we are sure, being her own tummy!

Boondi Laddoo

As I have said enough above, the laddoo comes in various sizes, shapes, colours, textures and flavours. But our favourites are the Marathi laddoo and the Tirupati laddoo which is a little stiff and made with thicker syrup, as it is meant to last a while. It’s similar to the Tirupati prasad laddoo, in texture, but the latter has a distinct camphor flavour to it!

It has been my dream, shared by my enthusiastic girls, to make boondi laddoos at home. So much so that on my recent trip to India I even bought a boondi (jhara) ladle from Bharat Bhai (remember him?) And I also researched how to get the effect of the edible camphor and discovered that a mixture of ground cloves and black cardamom can achieve this flavour…

Here goes the boondi laddoo…


2 cups besan
1 cup and a little extra water
A pinch of soda bicarb
1 tbsp rice flour
1 tbsp oil
A few drops of yellow food colour

To deep fry

Oil +2-3 tbsp ghee (to cheat the flavour)

For the syrup

2 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cup water

For the garnish

2-3 tbsp chopped cashews
2 tbsp raisins (I didn’t use any- as one of my girls detests them)
2 tbsp misri or crystal sugar
 ½ tsp freshly ground green cardamom
1-2  ground cloves


Sift the besan and mix in the rice flour, colour and the oil. Add the water gradually making a smooth paste making sure there are no lumps. Keep covered for about 15-20 minutes.

In another pan, add the sugar and water and let it come to a boil, then turn the heat down and let the syrup simmer till it almost reaches a one thread consistency. Turn the heat off and add the cardamom and clove powder to the syrup. Keep it warm.

In a flat kadhai or wok, heat the oil and add the ghee, to give it flavour.

Now add a pinch of soda bicarb to the batter and mix well.

Test the batter by dropping a few drops into hot oil. If the drops fall into little balls with tails, the batter is too thick. If the balls are too light and full of holes and is oily, the batter is too watery. The perfect batter will fall into drops into the oil and form round boondis that are light and crisp. Adjust the consistency of the batter and then hold the boondi ladle (jhara) over the hot oil and pour some batter into it. Gently tap the sides of the ladle with a spoon, nudging the drops to fall into the oil.

Fry the boondis, batch by batch, until golden and remove them from the oil using a perforated spoon and drain in a bowl lined with kitchen paper. Once the excess oil is drained, add the boondi to the sugar syrup.

Fry the cashews in a little ghee and add to the boondi and syrup mixture. Add the misri or crystal sugar and raisins.

Let the boondi soak in the syrup for about an hour or so, until it cools down completely and seems very dry and fluffed. Grease your hands with a little ghee and roll the mixture into uniform sized balls or laddooooos!

Store in an airtight box, if any remain to see the light of the day.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The long and short of it

Pumpkin Mushroom Risotto (By Amruta Nargundkar)

After being cooped up in the house the whole day, we kids - cousins spending summer holidays with grandparents, and a resident aunt not much older than us - have been sent out to loosen our limbs (read - get out of the adults’ hair). 

Returning home, we are oblivious to the lengthening shadows dissolving into the growing darkness and streetlights flickering to life. We chat, laugh, skip and play step games, while the aunt urges us to walk faster. 

“Be home before it gets dark” is our curfew. सातच्या आत घरात !!

Strange people – adults. They can't wait to get you out of the house, but then they want you right back in…

We are passing the “waddar wadi”, a hutment of stone workers. We get distracted by the tableau –kids running around, dogs wandering aimlessly, men huddled on their haunches, women crouching over earthen pots propped on three stones over a wood fires, stirring some mysterious stuff that smells very nice… we are hungry! When you are that famished, even humble food seems very appetising.

Those pastoral smells and sounds are soon replaced by the orderly rows of bungalows with hedges, fences and gates, where the only signs of life and activity are pressure cooker whistles from inside the houses. And then, that fragrance assails our senses and leads us by the nose like the Pied Piper.  

It’s the warm aroma of mango blossoms – it’s the ambey mohor rice! 

From that moment onwards, how we get home, wash our hands and feet, recite the “parvacha” (परवचा) or “shubham karoti” (शुभं करोति ), our evening prayers, is but a blur...

I am sure the lord must have forgiven us for praying only a lip service, one ear on the clanging of the crockery from the dining room and the nose hungrily sniffing in the clouds of the aroma of the rice and the sweet and sour goda masalyachi amti (spiced dhal) and the generous dollop of fragrant homemade ghee…

The situation isn’t any different to now, when I sit with my girls, home after a long and tiring day at work. I am hungry and no amount of snacking helps. The husband is not home for dinner, so we plan on something  he doesn’t care for much.

But who will make these “things”?

Not me, says me. Not me, says the younger one. No takeaway, we all agree. Eating out is out of question, we three are too tired.

The older daughter then rises to the occasion- to regale us with her rendition of risotto.

I sit watching, waiting.  A mise en place of thoughts and ideas - a story cooking as she labours over the arborio rice.  

Ah, the lovely fragrance of the buttery bay leaves, the sage adding a bit of snoot…the robust roastedness of the pumpkin and mushrooms, the piquant pepper and the sweet caramelising of the onions…

It’s a privilege to be served a most delicious creamy risotto- by your child, this time….and riding on the aromas I waft back to my childhood, to the mango blossom.

Pumpkin Mushroom Risotto (By Amruta Nargundkar)

200g butternut pumpkin, peeled and cubed
100 g sliced button mushroom 
2 tbsp olive oil
2+1 tbsp butter 
1 onion, chopped  
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
2 bay leaves
5-6 sage leaves
1 ½ cups arborio rice 
4-5 cups vegetable stock (kept hot)
1cup hot milk (full cream)
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar 
A pinch of grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped parsley 

Note: You can make fresh, salt free stock at home by boiling stalks, discarded hard stems of broccoli, cabbage, some onion, garlic, one potato, some beans and any other vegetables, peels and skins.

Pan roast the pumpkin without any oil in a Stonewell pan – or in a non-stick fry pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Keep aside. Do the same with the mushrooms.

Heat remaining oil and 2 tbsp of butter in large non-stick saucepan and add the bay leaves and the sage leaves. Once the sage leaves are sautéed, remove them. Then add onions and garlic and sauté on very low heat until the onion has caramelised. Add the vinegar and brown sugar. Add the arborio rice and stir through until the rice is coated glossy. 

Add half a cup of hot stock to the rice and stir through until absorbed. Continue to add the stock little by little, stirring and waiting until it has absorbed before adding next cup. In the last batch, add the cup of hot milk – again very gradually. 

Add the salt, nutmeg, pepper to taste and mix well. 

Add a spoonful of butter and mix vigorously. 

Add roast pumpkin, mushroom and the sautéed sage leaves and mix through. 

Cook for a few minutes more and then remove from heat and rest covered for a few minutes. 

Garnish with parsley and serve hot.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Tools of the trade

Gobhi Paratha - (Cauliflower stuffed bread)

My shopping trips when I visit Hyderabad must include a trip or two to the local “Steel Palace”, a home ware store in the neighbourhood. 

It’s as if Bharat Bhai, the owner, knows I am going to be visiting and is just waiting for me, for he always seems to have “fancy items” or “best items” that have just come in and almost sold out, but I shouldn’t worry- for he has already (clairvoyantly) set aside one of each item aside for me and this may well be the last piece in the whole city….

In the last so many years Bharat Bhai has beguiled me with non-stick handis, innumerable dosa/ paniyaram/ appam tavas, a larger pressure cooker and why not a small pressure pan, rosetta irons, boondi maker, chakli/murku press, a food mill, a herb cutter, an South Indian style coffee percolator… the list is as endless as the enthusiasm with which he takes me from shelf to shelf, aisle to aisle, climbing up and down ladders agilely and impressing me with his vast and ready knowledge of his products, his mental inventory and stock control and his very sweet and polite manner!

On his part, and only when it comes to his customers, Bharat Bhai engages a “need to know” policy. I go from being his sister-in-law to his younger sister to his older  sister– the relationship terms changing from trip to trip and sometimes, I am all three in a single trip in that order-as my “shopping cart” gets fuller… 

Bharat Bhai knows I am a jackdaw for these shiny contraptions, so he supervises my shopping with a hawk’s eye. He offers me a cold drink and a special stool, scolds his minions for not being prompt in their service, gives everything an extra wipe with his dirty duster and puts all his phone calls on hold till he finishes preparing a kacchi raseed (a temporary receipt) in a scrawly hand. He then rounds off the totals and even offers me a discount. But then, you see, he apologetically has to charge me a fee for the credit card transaction, but quickly softens the sting with a loyalty card, which will give me five bonus points if I shop for a certain amount every month…

“So what has Bharat Bhai saddled you with this time?” Mother asks when I return home. Well, this has kind of lost a bit of its barb in the translation – she will actually say “what has he tied round your neck”…

Thanks to Bharat Bhai’s special home delivery service to me, I never have to carry the shopping home. When the consignment arrives, I show Mother my shopping, a trifle timorously.

And sure enough, I have reason to fear, for a quick look and the verdict is out. “This anodised tava is exactly like the one you bought in your last trip! That  sweet charmer has talked you into buying the same thing twice… “

I have to listen to a whole heap of worldly wise, street smart business nous… this is their sales spiel, how can you fall prey to their pitch, this glib talk is their “tools of trade”, they see gullible NRIs like you and…

Sigh… yes Aai, I do dabble a bit in business, I do know these tricks… (I will be half a century old next week)…

But it’s not until I reach Melbourne and rush to check if the tava I bought in my last trip is the same as this one, that I discover that the hard anodised paratha tava from this trip only "looks" just like the chapati tava from the last trip.

This one’s much thicker, nearly 5 mm thick and you know what – this one’s called Punjabi Tava, tough, scratch resistant, stronger than iron – ideal for making Punjabi parathas…

Wasn’t it Mother herself who taught me that the best way to ensure a dish turns out perfectly is to use the right tools of the trade? 

Gobhi Paratha

I probably had a tava as “thet” (authentic) Punjabi as it can get, but the recipe is perhaps a little experimental and eclectic!

Since I had this tava to blame it on if the parathas remained uncooked, I tried the strata method (which I have hitherto frowned upon) of stuffing between two layers of dough, rather than my usual style of enfolding the stuffing in the dough and rolling it out.

The perfect heat distribution quality of the very thick sheet metal and the non-stick coating of the tava helped achieve the most perfectly cooked paratha!


For the dough
2 cups whole wheat Flour (Atta)
1 tsp kalonji
½ tsp ajwain
A pinch of black pepper powder
Salt to taste
1 tbsp oil
2 tbsp yoghurt
Water as required for kneading

For the stuffing

1½ cup finely chopped cauliflower florets
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ tsp fresh ginger paste
2-3 green chilies finely chopped
2-3 tbsp coriander leaves chopped
½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
Oil to cook the parantha

Note: I don’t grate cauliflower (or cabbage for that matter) - I find it changes flavour. I use an onion chopper or food processor to chop it fine.


Mix all the ingredients for the dough and knead into a firm but pliable dough.

Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing except the oil.

Divide the dough into equal sized small balls. Roll out two balls into small poori like discs of the same size. Spread a tablespoon of the stuffing on one disc and cover it with the other and press the edges, sealing the stuffing completely.  

Dust the disc generously with flour and roll out into flattening the disc and making it larger, until it can’t be rolled any further.

Heat a hard anodised Punjabi paratha tava (or your favourite/regular tava) and cook the parantha on it- dotting it with a little oil or ghee.

Serve hot with the works, or eat it just off the tava - like we did!