Saturday, 29 March 2014

Cocktail Tales

Gutti Vankaya (stuffed baby eggplant)

The day I make eggplant halwa or kheer, you can give up on me as a basket case and my family can have me committed.

Until then, I shall keep on reminiscing about black-soil-grown baingans from the banks of River Krishna, revelling in my discoveries of good quality eggplants in and around Melbourne and enthusiastically cooking eggplant of every shape and size, from different parts of the world and of course, from different regions of India.

This time it’s Gutti Vankaya, a very popular Andhra recipe of tangy little eggplants. (Gutti is 'cluster' or 'bunch' and 'vankaya is eggplant).

However, unlike the gutti vankayas served with pulsu or pappu and hot unpolished rice and the glorious Guntur ghee, they have incarnated as cocktail snacks.

Well why not! 

A friend's father-in-law was ardently drinking tumbler after tumbler of rasam during her very typically chaste TamBram wedding. As the bride’s bestie, I hung around her all the time and couldn’t help but notice the rather alarming rate at which the distinguished gentleman’s batman was replenishing his steel tumbler. I remember feeling sorry for the Uncle ji that he had missed eating all those delicacies what with the upset tummy. But Uncle ji seemed to be in very good spirits! Well, after all – his son was getting married to such a lovely girl, I had thought.

Several decades later when we caught up and were sharing sorrows and salving wounds that certain types of intemperance had inflicted, the tumblers of rasam made sudden sense! My friend was amazed that I remembered, and I was astonished at the ingenuity of the bloody “rasam mary”!

Well, I shouldn’t have, I suppose. An uncle of mine was habituated to enjoying his drink on the sly in a house full of elderly Gandhians. He used to pour his scotch into a brass chalice known as a “phulpatra” in Marathi.  My grandmother, whose cataract covered hawk eyes missed nothing, had once nonplussed him by peering into his cup and remarking on the muddy quality of the municipal tap water. For days after that, she had pestered him to complain to the council and buy a water filter.

With due respect to staunch Brahmins and grand old Gandhians, and undue credit to sly saturnalians, I present the gutti vankaya cocktail snack…

 Gutti Vankaya


15- 20 baby eggplants
2 onions roughly chopped
2 tbsp chopped garlic
2-3 red chillies (or more)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp methi seeds
3 tbsps desiccated coconut
1 tsp thick tamarind paste
1 tbsp jaggery
½ tsp turmeric pwd
A pinch of hing
8-10 curry leaves
½ tsp mustard seeds
Salt to taste
2-3 tbsps oil


Heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan and add the methi seeds, coriander seeds and cumin seeds and red chillies one after the other. Then add the onions and garlic and fry till translucent. Add the hing and haldi. The spices will also get roasted in this time. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Transfer this mixture into a grinder and add the jaggery, tamarind paste, salt and a little water. Grind this into a coarse paste and keep aside.

Wash and slit the eggplants from the base to the calyx but not all the way through, leaving them attached at the stems. Keep the stems.

Stuff the eggplants with the paste. Save the remaining paste.

Heat 2-3 tbsp oil in a flat langadi/ thick bottomed wide and shallow sauce pan. Add mustard seeds and let them splutter then add curry leaves. Remove the pan from the heat for a few minutes while you arrange the stuffed eggplants in the langadi. Add the remaining paste on the top of the eggplants. This paste, when cooked may not be presented along with the eggplants if you are going to serve them as a snack, but it surely helps keep the eggplants moist and also prevents them burning.

Place a steel plate/thali on the langadi or saucepan and pour half a cup of water in the plate. This is like a “water bath” treatment, popularly known as “panyache zhakan” in Marathi. Cook on low heat for 7-8 minutes.

Panyachey zhakan - aka water lid

Carefully remove lid (without letting the water splash into the saucepan!). Turn the eggplants once to ensure even cooking.  Replace the lid, this time without water for a few more minutes. Check for doneness and switch off the heat.

To serve, lift the little eggplant carefully onto a serving tray.

Serve with Rasam Mary or Saar Sour.


And what do you do with the remaining masala. Well, as kids we used to love to mop up the spicy masala dregs from pots and pans with hot rice and would almost fight over who would bag those rights and if we had our way, we would have eaten out of the pans, but for Aai’s dictum that we could eat or drink out of designated crockery and couldn’t fight over food- for these were signs of “daridrya” or destitution.

Today, I mopped up the masala with rice and when there were no takers, tucked into the mixture myself. It wasn’t half as enjoyable as the spoils of those squabbles, though!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Prosody of Prasad

Tirupati Temple Vada

As a child, watching very religious matriarchs in the neighbourhood go all meek and pious while partaking prasad, I squirmed at Aai’s gumption to discreetly avoid eating or not let us eat random kumkum smudged parcels of prasad from some mysterious ‘urs’ festival or ‘jatra’. 

These newspaper-wrapped bundles of sakhar-phutana (candied roasted chana) or khadisaakhar (rock candy), bits and bobs like dried flowers, bangles, little photos of idols had ‘play value’ as well as ‘treats’ value.  Aai would accept the prasad gracefully, but would dispose of it as ‘nirmalya’ (Marathi for holy offering gone stale), returning it with gratitude to the elements.

It was particularly painful when whole pedhas- waxy, misshapen and sullied by human hands- met the same fate.  What a waste…I would think and would even guiltily think of some god-fearing mates who instilled the fear of God in us credulous kids. Another form of peer pressure, this.  Dire pronouncements of how if we spilt salt, God would have us sweeping it up with our eyelashes in our next life scared the life out of us. We wouldn’t wonder until much later as to the logistics of such penitence, by which time Aai’s long winded explanation of why such beliefs were encouraged to help prevent wastage in traditional societies when salt wasn’t so easily available, made perfect sense.

Aai had her own stand. God was not punishing. Prasad was a gracious gift, not a punitive price.

It’s not the prasad itself that is tarnished– it’s people who pollute it with their lack of hygiene, civic sense and superstition. The farther people travelled away from home, the more suspect the prasad they would bring back. It’s the length of the journey, the change in temperature, the conditions of storage (have you ever had food stuff smelling like naphthalene balls from people's luggage?), hand hygiene … my first lessons in food safety did not come without sacrifices.

The wetter- the worse, Aai explained, making me ever envious of those who extended their hands reverently and sipped fragrant ‘tirth’ out of cupped palms and then wiped their hands on their heads so as not to treasure the last drop of unction. 

My list can go on, but I will stop now for the fear of… God?!

So when anyone brought prasad from Tirupati, our joy would be doubled – not only were the boondi laddu and urad vada extremely delicious, but we also got to eat them without reservation. The temple trust is very well organised, and prasad is prepared under stringent quality controlled conditions… was the reasoning.

The laddu had pukka pak and crystal sugar to preserve it. That’s when I must have first heard of ‘pakka paak and kaccha paak’- and everything in between the surreptitious string quartet of sugar syrups.

The vadas were more of an acquired taste. They would only be tackled when the bits of laddu were gone and we had to munch on ‘the next best’ to stem the rising disappointment in our tummies and hearts. These savoury bites were dry, shrivelled looking - all the better to keep longer, said Aai. The skin on the whole urad helps them retain their crunch and keeps them fresher. It was only a matter of time before we were as hooked on to the vadas too.

In fact, whenever anyone in the family or friends circle went to Tirupati, Aai would send some money for him or her to drop in the ‘hundi’. I did at times have uncharitable thoughts about why she did that. These people brought back the prasad of laddu and vada to distribute. Always small amounts, broken into pieces that left us wanting more. Really, why didn’t anyone ever give one whole BIG laddu – and I have to date not seen how the vada looks as a unit – round…square…. or what!

How can anyone have the heart to part with such delicious treats- I wondered.

The only time we visited the lord of the seven hills, we bought as many laddus and vadas as the temple would allow us, with the same excitement as that of travellers exploiting their full quota of duty-free, tax-free phoren goods.

Upon our return, Aai enlisted my help to make portions of the laddus and vadas to distribute to friends and neighbours and all those who had sent proxy payments, much to my chagrin.

My churlish disproval met with a patient lifelong lesson – The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word “prasadam” is mercy or grace.  Prasad also means pleasure, happiness.  Happiness shared is happiness multiplied. It blesses those that give and those that take…

Recreating the Tirupati vada after all those years, reviving those memories, I must share it with you all… no?

Tirupati Temple Vada 


1 cup whole black gram (sabut urad)
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1 tbsp fresh coconut
8-10 curry leaves
1 tbsp crushed black pepper
1 tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp hing
Salt to taste
Vegetable oil for frying


Pick and clean and soak whole black gram in water for 5-6 hours.

Grind the soaked urad, ginger, coconut and curry leaves into a coarse paste by adding little water at a time. Don't add too much water. The batter should be thick.

Add the salt and other seasoning.

Heat oil in a kadhai. When hot, turn the heat to medium.

Moisten your hands with water or oil and on the palm of your hand, shape a small portion of the batter into a round vada. Make a hole in the centre and gently transfer the shaped vada onto your fingers and slide it into the oil.
You can also use squares of butter paper to shape the vadas.

Deep fry on medium heat until the vadas are browned and crisp.

Serve hot or cold. These vadas don’t really need any accompaniment.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Gyre of Ghol

Ghol/Kulfa/Purslane Daal

As a young woman on the threshold of a new adventure in a foreign land with her young family, I hadn’t reckoned I would be feeling so homesick so early into the piece. After 18 unending months of pining to join the husband, I could barely wait to be with him and even the child’s fever on the morning of my departure hadn’t deterred me from flying out.

But here I was, a few weeks into an unbearably hot summer in an arid Middle Eastern country, living out what had been an unattainable dream in a perfectly appointed home. I was playing wife, cooking, cleaning, washing, baking (yes, I had a proper gas oven for the first time!), busy and happy- and yet for some reason, I was homesick.

I wouldn’t have known it then, but I think I missed the hustle bustle of life in India, the noisy traffic, dogs barking, the vendors coming to one’s doorstep with fresh produce, higgling and haggling with them…  the interface was missing - that was the matter! After the initial novelty of the supermarkets, malls and spotless roads had worn off, the quiet had begun to get eerie and the wait for the husband inordinately long.

What had made us wheel and gyre further and further away from the falconer?

What ambition had fuelled our flight so far out of the nest?

Wasn’t it too reckless to dream that we’d grow our roots all over again? 
June was the height of summer in Oman and the heat wouldn’t allow us to go outdoors until after sundown. Freshly showered and happy to be out of the lonely house, I would wait with my little one outside the house for the husband’s car to turn into the gravelly lane. 

One such quiet dusk, with the cicadas going mad as if cracking from the heat and the forlorn call of the muezzin from the local mosque bringing a lump to my throat, I pace up and down.

Raag Multani… no - Madhuvanti? I grope as I follow the notes into the life I had left behind.

Humming through a constricted throat, I blink back the tears so the little one wouldn’t see them.

At her level and in her own world, the little one is busy looking around curiously, and suddenly stoops to tug at something. Jolted out of ‘Mood Multani / Madhuvanti’, I see she is picking at a mat of red succulent stems and fleshy and shiny sea green leaves, dotted with small yellow flowers bursting with tiny black seeds.

Such sight for sore eyes I had rarely seen. This was ghol! This was kulfa! This was Gangabaikura!

Not once did it cross my mind that this spidery netting (I have arachnophobia) could be an alien and perhaps poisonous weed. I seemed to know, like my primordial berry-gatherer sisters who must have instinctively known the nefarious from the nourishing.

Images of me buying 5 thin bunches of Gangabaikura for 25 paise, or me swearing in irritation as the vegetable seller screams in rustic Telugu, “palakura, thotakura, gangabaikura, chukka kura, pavla ki nalgu …” piercing through my early morning slumber -  or me tucking into Aai’s hearty, earthy ‘gholacha varan’ and hot rice or the delicate ‘gholachi koshimbir’ with the bucolic bhakri flash across the eye of my mind.

I would have given anything to go back to that din and dirt just to taste that superlative food again…

As I stooped to touch those leaves, I noted that the mat had grown in the shade of the window air conditioner, braving the heat, thriving almost vicariously on the dripping condensation from the air conditioner in the wasteland. The lot looked at me and cheerfully willed me to pick them.

The soft and soothing touch, the smooth texture and the same earthy taste as ever…It was as if I had met someone from my ‘maher’ or maiden home, guiding me, the message of hope and patience loud and clear.

The incident is still etched in my mind a quarter of a century later.

Over the years and across continents, I have got used to the quiet and the clean, if lonely streets.  ‘Maher’ has become a more distant and dim ache as I am moving into the dusk of my life. But I still do miss the sights and sounds and smells of my homeland. Although we get almost every Indian conceivable consumable, including frozen hurda or ponk (tender milky jowar, roasted in the cob) I still yearn for the few things that fall in category ‘almost’ - like fresh tondli (ivy gourd), kartula (spiny bitter gourd) and ghol (purslane or Pig’s Weed).

Well we could grow some tondli in the garden – I add one more mark in favour of moving to the suburbs in hot the ‘suburb Vs. city’ family debate. 

On a routine site visit to our under-construction new home - probably the last abode the husband and I will ever build, in the most liveable city in the world that will probably receive our ashes- amidst doubts and dilemmas as to what we will do with such a big home when the nest is empty - I spot a familiar matting of fleshy red stems and mica-shiny leaves on the pavement.

I am understandably more excited at this discovery, than to see the latest developments on the home project.

I am oblivious to my girls squirming and looking around to see if any of the neighbours are looking at this funny lady who is greedily and gleefully pulling out weeds from the sidewalk.

Tugging at the spry stems, simultaneously shaking them to dust off the ants and mites, I imagine them as a safety net, a security blanket.

The succulent weed is a metaphor for us migrants, adapting to growing in even the most unlikely, inclement places – like in sidewalk cracks and between pavers, or in far-flung continents several seas apart from home.

Gholacha Varan (Kulfa Ki Daal)

A wonderful and tasty little plant packed full of goodness, Purslane contains more omega 3 fatty acids than any other plant source. It also contains vitamins A, B, C and E as well as calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. The pigments in the leaves and one in the yellow blossoms have been proven anti-mutagenic or anti-carcinogenic. As a mild diuretic, it is known to lower blood pressure as well. All this comes for about 15 calories per 100 grams!


2 cups chopped ghol leaves and tender stems
¾ cup cooked toor dal
3-4 tbsp boiled peanuts (you can cook them with the dal)
2 green chillies (or more)
1 tbsp roughly chopped garlic (or more)
Salt and gur to taste
1-2 tbsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 large pinch methi powder
1 large pinch hing
½ tsp red chilli powder (or more)
¼ tsp turmeric


Microwave or lightly steam the chopped ghol. In a pot, mix the cooked ghol and cooked dal and peanuts and add two cups of water and set it to boil on high heat. You will need to adjust the consistency once it has boiled and simmered for a while. Season it with salt and a little gur and keep it simmering.

In another pan, make a little tadka with oil and mustard seeds. Add the methi powder, hing, turmeric and red chilli powder.  Add the chopped garlic and allow it to brown well. You can add some curry leaves as well -I had run out of them.

Pour the tempering over the simmering dal and switch off the heat. Keep covered for a few minutes to infuse the flavours. Serve hot with rice, jowar roti or chapatis.