Saturday, 29 June 2013


Vegetable Upma

Some years ago, Gits Foods ran a TV ad where upma he makes from a pack teleports a homesick young boy to his mother’s lap screaming “Upmaaaaaaa!”

I don’t remember more details – but the ad made an impact and stayed in the minds of viewers. Why wouldn’t it – it had clever copy, unlimited ad budgets, and upmarket creatives… 

The emotive value of the word upma was milked so effectively.  The word evokes everyday chow, a dish made by mother “with her own hands” (how else does one make it?) It denotes food that is within the realm, comfort, parlance and reach of everyday life. Food which anyone can access – at home, in trains and at State Transport bus stops, in college canteens, on flights (Singapore Airlines – this is a dig at you!) roadside shacks, five-star hotels in India and overseas as well. Yes, there is nothing more heartening on long business trip than to get hot upma for breakfast in the hotel in Macati City or Busan.

A popular breakfast “item” (BTW - why is it called item?) upma literally means salty, savoury dough. It is also called uppittu, uppit or tikhatmithacha sanja (तिखट मिठाचा सांजा) in various languages and is a cousin of the Polenta. 

Upma is relished at all times as tiffin or snack. But at home, we often have it as meal for brunch or dinner. An addition of vegetables makes it wholesome and a complete meal. 

It also earns it names like tomato rava bath and khara bath… (giggle, giggle - at this point I have visions of the Tomatina Festival in Spain…)

Vegetable Upma


1½ cups mixed vegetables cut to similar size pieces(carrot, green beans, potatoes) 
¼ cup green peas
1 ½ cups coarse semolina (rawa/suji)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 tsp lemon juice(optional)
1 tsp sugar/sweetener (optional, but trust me, this lifts the upma!)
3-4 tbsps oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
10-12 curry leaves
1 tsp split skinless urad dal 
2-3 green chillies, chopped (or more)
1 tbsp minced ginger (or less)
Salt to taste

Chopped coriander and grated coconut to garnish.


Boil 3-4 cups water in a pan, or just set the kettle on, as I do. Blanch all the vegetables, or microwave them for 3-4 minutes, as I do.

Heat a pan and add the oil. Add mustard seeds and urad dal and mind the tadka as the seeds splutter and the dal browns. Take care not to burn! Add curry leaves chillies and sauté for a few seconds. Add onion and ginger and sauté for 2 minutes. When the onion starts to brown, add tomatoes. As soon as the tomatoes start to let the sauce out, add the semolina and sauté for 2-3 minutes till the semolina gets coated with the oil and sauce. Add carrot, potatoes, beans, peas and mix and sauté for a minute or so. Then pour about 3 cups of boiling water gradually, stirring the mixture constantly so that no lumps form. Add a little extra, if you like the upma soft. Add the sugar/sweetener and salt to taste. Squeeze the lemon juice in. 

Cover and cook for a few minutes. When you white steam emanating from the pan, uncover and mix again, adjusting the consistency with some more water. Cover again and cook for a minute or two. Remove from heat and allow to stand covered for 5-7 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with chopped coriander and grated coconut.  

You can also serve this with coconut chutney and sambar. Or with some sugar – yes, I am serious!!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

बरे बिचारे ठणठणपाळ !

Bhendi chey Panchamrut (भेंडी चे पंचामृत)

“Yummm! What’s this?” a friend asks as she slurps up the sweet and sour luscious okra in a spicy, nutty tomato sauce.

“This is called panchamrut”, I reply, and then true to my chatty nature and schoolmarm spirit, labour an explanation of the two component words, panch meaning five and amrut meaning nectar and how it refers to the five tastes and so on…

Even as I explain, I am struck by the onerous name this simple dish carries, especially if it is made with bhendi, a mucilage seeping vegetable abhorred by more people than not. Amrut! Indeed!

But how different is it from other euphemistic names? Now you must read this part without judging me.

I have this penchant for names, and note (and comment on) the aptness or the tactlessness of them. Ever wondered how a baby named Tarun will feel about his name as a septuagenarian? Can you suppress your smile at the puny Vishal or the mighty “Chotu” or the emaciated guy named Ashtabhuja? I don’t think I should go any further into the unfortunate looking Sundari and the dark complexioned Shweta, for the fear of risking a bullying/name-calling charge…

That reminds me of the story of “Thanthanpal” that Mai our maternal grandmother used to tell us. She was a great storyteller and I remember us kids listening to her stories rapt, pricking up our ears to the signs of conclusion in her voice as the story drew to a close and intercepting in time to beg her for another one.

We would be lolling on the गाद्या  (cotton filled futons) on the huge गच्ची  (terrace) on cool and starry nights during our summer sojourn in Latur.  A spraying of water in the early evening would have cooled the floor tiles. The gaadis would then be unrolled and covered wrinkle free with spotless sheets that would get freshened by the time the gang made their way up to the terrace after a hearty meal. It was a caucus of cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles.  

Diwan Bunglow would indeed be houseful!

Even the aunty/mummy type ladies gossiped till wee hours themselves and were on no jury to shush us to sleep. Excited at meeting each other after a while, they chatted away, sharing their joys and sorrows, picking on in-laws and then each other when all else was spent.  Then someone would deflect the “discussassination” to those who were not present. Family politics… blame game… sibling rivalry… But never to be estranged for long, they would come back, come around, bound by their undying love for each other. 

We kids used to monopolise Mai, who perhaps wanted to join these womenfolk born of her.  We would sit around, sprawl, and then finally end up lying beside her on the cool sheets listening to all kinds of stories.  Mythological, humorous, horror, fables, poetic, whimsical - Mai’s repertoire was infinite. We never had enough of her stories and would beg her to tell us one more after another, till we drifted off to sleep.

Or, till she threatened us with the कापूस कोंड्याची गोष्ट. The “kapuskondyachi goshta” was a different kind of a horror non-story, where the teller doesn’t take “no” for an answer and twists the listener’s responses into infinite, endless questions.

Like the yarn I have spun so far.

One of our favourites was that of a boy named Thanthanpal who is (understandably) upset with his parents for naming him thus. Now I am struggling to find a politically correct translation of this word. Suffice to say, that this was not a flattering name for a bright young boy, who (perhaps justifiably) ran away from home.

Mai would then invent characters this boy met on his peregrination. All of them invariably had ironic names- a wench named Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) making dung cakes and sweeping streets, a rich merchant named Fakirchand and so on… We would pitch in hysterically, adding our own paradoxical funnies. This is possibly one of the earliest fan fiction phenomena I knew of.

Somewhere, sometime, we would fall silent one by one, amidst Mai’s pleas that she had to rise early in the morning. We never really knew who covered us with the soft hand-stitched godhadi quilt made with old-sarees that smelled of Mai. They were as soft and warm as her affection…

If the prodigal Thanthanpal realised his folly and returned to the warmth of “good ol” home thinking “बरे बिचारे ठणठणपाळ ! ”, why can’t the bichari behenji bhendi luxuriate in the pious panchamrut?

Bhendi chey Panchamrut

The panchamrut is a tamarind-based sauce that is an integral inclusion in a festive meal or a naivedya platter. It could be because it does not have onions and garlic, which are an anathema for “सणाचा स्वयंपाक ” or festive cooking.

The panchamrut genre can be a generous host to most vegetables – but notably to भेंडी (okra) , कैरी  (raw mango) पेरू  (guava). I generally use tomato as a base and add a little tamarind. 


3 cups bhindi/okra – washed and wiped dry and cut into 1inch pieces
1 cup finely chopped tomatoes
1 tsp tamarind extract, or to taste
2 -3 tbsp grated jaggery, or to taste
1 tbsp goda masala/garam masala
1 tbsp red chilli powder, or more
1 tbsp (freshly roasted and ground) coriander powder
1 tsp freshly ground cumin powder
Salt to taste

For the gravy mix

¼ cup peanuts
¼ cup desiccated coconut
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 tbsp chana dal (optional)

For the tempering

2-3 tbsps oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
A few curry leaves
A few whole dried red chillies
¼ tsp hing
¼ tsp turmeric

Chopped coriander and grated coconut to garnish


Heat a pan and add the peanuts and roast for a minute, then add the chana dal and roast further until it turns light brown. Then add the sesame seeds and let them puff a little. Finally add the desiccated coconut and remove the pan from the as the heat of the mixture is enough to toast the coconut. Cool this mixture and powder coarsely in a dry grinder.

Heat the pan again and add the oil for the tempering and add the mustard seeds to splutter. Then add the cumin seeds, whole chillies, curry leaves, hing and turmeric. Then add the cut bhindi/okra and sauté it for a few minutes. Add the coriander and cumin powders and the goda/garam masala and sauté for a minute. Next add the tomatoes and sauté till the tomatoes start getting saucy. Add a cup of hot water and mix well. Then add the nut/dal mixture and let it boil and thicken into a sauce. Add more water to adjust the consistency. Add salt, jaggery, tamarind extract and check the taste. Let the sauce cook for  8-10 minutes, taking care to maintain the saucy consistency by adjusting the water.

Garnish with chopped coriander and grated coconut and serve hot or cold with rice, roti, bhakri or even with bread.

If serving with rice, it can be paired with sadha varan (plain cooked tuvar dal boiled with a hint of hing, haldi, salt and gur) and a spot of ghee. It can also be paired with dahi chawal.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Come to eat!

Borlotti Bean Soup

No wonder Melbourne is reeling under a cold wave – yesterday’s Google doodle told us solstice is upon us. I wake up to discover I haven’t kicked off my bed socks, and know it’s going to be a cold day. My early morning cuppa loses its heat so fast that I have to reheat it in the microwave by the time I switch the news on and settle down in front of the TV.

Hot meals are the mandate. Breakfast moves from cereal in cold milk to warm  porridge -  or better still raisin toast with peanut butter. Dinners are mostly hotpot type one-dish meals like hearty- creamy - buttery or tomatoey pastas, piping hot soups, stews, varanphal, bisi bele bhaat, khichadi saar…Even lunch needs to be hot – especially a work lunch - to warm the cockles of our hearts and to thaw our brains.

Working from home yesterday gave me a day of dalliance with the pretty pink borlotti beans - my first time with these most spectacular beans I had only seen on supermarket aisles so far.

I wondered if the pods were edible for they looked too good to be true. Google  showed me many recipes and photos – but the pink skins weren’t anywhere to be seen.

I gathered cooking tips on the Internet just like I shelled the seeds, delighting as each pod parted to reveal a surprise configuration - speckled pink on cream or cream on pink.

I mulled the myriad recipes just like I casseroled the stew, adding spice here and herb there until I came up with the most perfect soup.

The girls were somewhere in the vicinity of our downtown home and had said they might come home for lunch. But when lunch was ready I tried to call and SMS them without any luck.  Then I did what I should’ve done to begin with, what most of us Facebook junkies do these days… posted on FB – mentioning their names and exhorting them to- “Come home for lunch - piping hot beroltti beans soup and sourdough toast on the menu!”

I was teleported instantly to the busy, noisy, gully playtime of my childhood – in the cold dusks made dusty by our barefoot play. We would try to take in as much of the shivashivi (Catch’N Cook) tokkudu billa (Hopscotch) or lapachhapi (Hide’N’ Seek), beating the lengthening shadows to being “it”. 

Amidst our yells and screams, matched only by the chirping and crowing of birds landing on trees to roost for the night, would come mother’s call – loud and clear – Munna, Babi – jevayala chala! 

Our rumbling tummies would decisively overrule the hesitant hearts still at play - dinner was ready and we would drop everything we were doing – quick goodbyes to friends were flung over our retreating shoulders as we rushed home.

In retrospect, I think this was one cry we would respond to very obediently, at first call. And I seriously- I mean really seriously and almost guiltily - wonder why we couldn’t really hear her calls to come home to study or help her with chores or any other perfectly valid reason – until we finally heard the non-negotiable stern “Come home – NOW!”

Chala has been a pet word even with our dogs and cats. Our cat Ginger used to be the first one to jump onto “his” chair at the dining table the minute he heard me call everyone for dinner. Rajah our dog wagged his tail till it almost fell off his behind, for this was the word that signaled time for the leash free park. His chow time signal was a whistled tune, which Shadow the cat also learnt by association. To this day, 11 years later Shadow comes running from wherever he is, in response to this tune.

Jevayala chala जेवायला चला – come to eat (in our Hinglish) are words that are music to our ears – like mother’s description of jimana padharo, the booming call of the town crier extending a very warm and cordial invitation to a wedding feast to the entire Marwadi community in the neighbourhood of her childhood home.

Those simple folks wouldn’t stand on ceremony and accepted the invite on face value, without waiting for a 10-page gilt wedding invitation card decadently reposed on a salver of expensive dry fruit and lavish and lush “advance return gifts”.

And what a feast these simple folks would be treated to - sitting down on stretches of satranji rugs and eating out of patravals or pattals of Sal leaves - hot ghivar, jalebis, dal moth, spicy dal lapped up with ash-encrusted baatis dripping ghee, churma laddus… mother was as skillful at describing these foods as she was at cooking and so many things she excelled at…

Words have such affective power! A vicarious memory of a wedding feast more than seventy years ago, described to me some forty years ago. It is still ringing in my ears, just as my call out to the girls resonated with twenty of my FB friends, sending them off on their own wistful trips…

Borlotti Beans Soup

These beans are a new discovery for the family. The pretty pink beans don’t retain their colour, though. As if to compensate- they are so buttery and soft when cooked well. They absorb the flavours of the soup while retaining a distinct acerbic undernote similar to the hyacinth or papdi beans or lilva.

And that makes me think this soup can be made with any bean you can lay your hands on!


¼ cup + 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, diced
1 large red onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp oregano
2 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chilli powder/flakes
2-3 cups vegetable stock (if available) water will do too
200 gms canned chopped tomatoes/ fresh tomatoes/ passata
200g fresh borlotti beans in the pod, shelled (you can use any lentil/bean- really!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped coriander to garnish
Crusty sourdough bread, to serve


Heat oil in a large pan over moderate heat, add the bay leaves and after a few seconds, add the potatoes, carrots and onion and cook for about 5 minutes stirring frequently. Stir in garlic and the spices and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.

Pour in stock and bring to a simmer. Add beans and season well with salt and pepper. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until beans are tender. Throughout this process, adjust the consistency by adding water. 

Remove from heat.

Add a tablespoon of olive oil and garnish with chopped coriander.

Serve with crusty bread on the side.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pasta Prima Donna

Spaghetti Alla Primavera

Whenever we eat out at/ take way from the local La Porchetta pasta/pizza place, the order is unvarying.

Although they have a reasonable vegetarian variety, we order the same dishes each time and even have the same instructions for the chef each time.

My youngest and her father will have fettuccine in a creamy mushroom sauce. Their order is straightforward.  The only qualifier may be the size- entrée or main course.

My oldest and I invariably have spaghetti in a napolitana sauce, with extra/more vegetables and less pasta, lots of garlic and chilli, no parmesan and could you please make sure there is no contamination of any meat or chicken, because we are vegetarians for religious reasons- you see, and the last time we discovered small shred of chicken in the pasta….so…

At this point the girls roll their eyes…

Then I decide to try and combine all the elements of these quirks and quips. It also happens so, that my husband - who has recently taken to watching cookery shows on TV while on the treadmill- watches this recipe of spaghetti in a primavera sauce with lots of fresh vegetables…  we interrupt him and rag him that even watching these shows actually makes him put on weight…

To come back to the dish, I decide to extract all our favourite elements – the pasta has to be spaghetti, the sauce has to be creamy and buttery without being mushroomy. Loads of fresh and crunchy spring vegetables are added to grace the dish and lots of garlic, herbs and heat to make it a hit!

Voila! We have arrived at this perfect Pasta Primadonna!

Spaghetti Alla Primavera


1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup cauliflower
3-4 spears asparagus, woody stem removed and sliced diagonally
½ cup peas
1 carrot, julienned 
½ cup flat beans, sliced diagonally 
½ cup button mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
½ cup sliced leek (white or green parts)
4 tbsp olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 plum tomatoes, quartered
500 gms spaghetti
1cup Philadelphia cooking cream
1cup milk
½ cup vegetable stock
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp oregano or basil
Salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste
Black olives to garnish


Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the leek, beans, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli one after the other for a few minutes. Then add peas and some of the garlic, some oregano and salt and pepper to taste, sauté for 1 minute, then transfer to a bowl.

Wipe the same pan clean. Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in the pan over medium-high heat and sauté mushrooms until golden brown, 2–3 minutes. Add the carrots and some of the garlic, oregano and salt to taste, sauté for 30 seconds, then transfer to another small bowl.

Again, wipe the pan clean. Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of the oil in the pan over medium-high heat, quartered tomatoes, remaining garlic, oregano and salt to taste, and cook over high heat, without stirring much so that the tomatoes get pan grilled. Set aside.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat until just cooked through, 10–12 minutes. Keep about one cup of the water in which you have boiled the pasta. This tastes very brawny when added to the cream and adds substance and flavour to the sauce, but make sure to factor in the salt when you finally season the sauce.

Meanwhile, wipe the pan again and add the cooking cream. Heat over medium heat and then add the milk. Keep aside half of this cream mixture and then add the drained pasta to the pan with cream and cook, stirring often, until pasta absorbs sauce. This will take about 2–3 minutes.

Add the remaining cream mixture, water from in which the pasta has been boiled, stock and butter, and stir constantly until sauce thickens, 1–2 minutes.

Divide the pasta among bowls. Dividing quantities equally, top pasta with all the sautéed vegetables and top it with the grilled tomatoes and black olives. Finish with some freshly milled black pepper.

Serve immediately.