17 September 2007

Art, sweets and some Math

An acquaintance of ours, Mrs. Y, has been asking me for a while to conduct an "Understand India" session at one of the various organizations she's a patron of. Understand India? It sounded too broad a brief, and I agreed, without a single clue what I was going to do or talk about. My abysmal Japanese notwithstanding.

Once I was given the brief it didn't sound that bad. "Think of a typically Indian activity for kids, and make one Indian dish that the kids can also help make." All right. That didn't sound too bad. But as D-day loomed, I hadn't thought of a single thing that was "typically Indian". Then I realised, that I'd comitted to this session on the same date Ganesha chaturthi, and inspired by that, I said I'd show kids about Rangoli. That idea was a really winner. The kids really enjoyed it, and had a whale of a time giving free reign to their limitless imagination.

For the typically Indian dish, I had major constrains. The venue had just a small hot plate. I had work with that. That ruled out most traditional stuff. And it had to be kid friendly. Decisions, decisions!

I finally decided on 'maalaadu', an old favourite, that was simple enough to make. I powdered the pottu kadalai (roasted-chana-dal) and sugar in advance, and all that there was to do, was the assembly. And that too went down quite well. So after sweating it out in the sun, we all sat down to a very welcome snack of 'maalaadu' and lassi.

Maalaadu/Besan laddoo

1/2 kg Roasted chana dal/pottu kadalai (finely powdered)
1/2 kg sugar (finely powdered)
1/4 tsp cardomom powder
1/2 kg ghee

Mix the dry ingredients well in a large bowl.
Heat the ghee.
Pour over the powders, and stir in well with a wooden spoon, or spatula.
Mix well.
Shape into laddoos while still warm.

During the introduction, Mrs Y introduced India and Indians to the kids as mathematical geniuses. Genius?? Well, the kids started throwing numbers at me, asking to multiply them mentally. And these were numbers they could manage. All under 20. At this point, the imp in me took over, and I started demonstrating the finer points of vedic mathematics to these kids. Just a couple of 'sutras', but sutras that I was very very sure about. The very elementary, simple ones. Soon I had kids writing numbers on the board, and writing out the answers before they could key in and get the answer from a calculator. God, that was some ego trip! The awe on the faces of the students, and teachers alike, had to be seen to be believed. So in this neck of the woods at least, we have kids thinking that Indians have a second brain for mathematics.

Thank goodness they didn't want to look at my marks cards.

13 September 2007

Egg Curry

One of the first thing that someone tells me, once they hear that I'm from India, is "I love butter chicken." The sum total of interest in Indian cuisine seems limited to butter chicken. There are people here who actually believe that I eat 'butter chicker kare' for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can't get them to understand that I'm vegetarian, or that there's more to Indian food that 'Butter Chicken'.

And after being asked about Butter Chicken once too often, I decided that I have to try making a egg or paneer version of the dish. The results weren't anything to blog about. Unfortunately, most of the gravies/masalas that taste awesome with some meat based dishes, don't work that well with vegetable substitutes.

After a lot of trial and error, I earmarked one set of proportions that seemed to work well with eggs or paneer. But it still lacked a certain something. One fine day, as I was making my monthly grocery list, I saw that my grocer had listed a new item, "Chicken Curry masala". Also, by this time, I was so bugged with the absurdly limited vegetable and spice options here that I was willing to try something new. I was willing to try ANYTHING new. So I ordered one packet of the masala. The next time I made a paneer dish, I ignored the usual 'Kitchen King' and Garam Masalas, and seasoned it with the Chicken Curry masala. A was quite impressed. He had no clue what had gone into it, but said it tasted wonderful. I tried it again with Egg Curry, and the result was simply fabulous. I should mention that it tastes wonderful with other vegetable gravies too. Chicken curry masala is a pantry staple now. Always on hand to jazz up a dish when we get bored with the same things over and over again.

Egg Curry

8 Eggs (hard boiled, peeled and slit with a sharp knife)
1 tbsp ginger, garlic paste -
2 large onion
2 large tomato
1 tsp kasuri methi
1 tsp chilly powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder
3/4 tsp chicken curry masala
3 tbsp cup cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter
6 cashewnuts paste
1 tsp khus-kush
3 tbsp oil
salt to taste

Grind onion to a smooth paste. Puree the tomatoes.
Soak cashewnuts and khus-khus. Drain excess water and grind to a smooth paste.
Heat a heavy bottom kadhai. Quickly toast the kasuri methi and keep aside.
Heat oil in the kadhai. Add onion paste and saute till oil separates.
Add ginger-garlic paste, and saute till the raw smell is gone.
Add all spice-powders (except chicken curry masala) and saute for a minute.
Add tomato puree and khuskhus-cashew paste.
Adjust salt to taste.
Crush roasted kasuri methi to fine powder and add to kadhai.
Bring the gravy to a simmer. Add eggs to the gravy and continue to simmer.
When gravy starts to thicken, add chicken curry masala powder and simmer for a minute more.
Remove kadhai from heat, and stir in butter and cream.
Serve hot.

More Dal, please

Dal, wonderful dal. It's something we take so much for granted. I've ranted about how this wonderful dish is not given it's due. Recently, we had some of A's colleagues over for lunch. After I'd finished cooking, I suddenly wondered if most things would be too spicy for my guests' palates. I thought it'd be prudent to make some dal. Just in case.

At lunch, my husband simply ignored other fancy stuff and kept helping himself to dal. So did my daughter. Out guests were quite surprised about how a simple process like tadka (tempering) could infuse a plain dish with so much subtle flavour. And seperating the tempering did make it look a little fancy too.

Basic Dal

1 cup moong dal (washed and cooked with salt and turmeric)
1 tsp ghee
1 pinch hing
2 (or more) dry red chillis
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp finely chopped coriander

Heat ghee.
Quickly saute the chillis, remove from ghee and add to dal.
Add the cumin seeds, and let them brown. Add hing. Remove cumin from ghee and add to dal.
Add mustard seeds to the ghee, and after they splutter, add them to the dal along with the remaining ghee.
Add chopped coriander for garnish.
Stir well before serving.
Serve hot.

Lunch Box Solutions

Weekday mornings are all about lunch boxes. Before the school bus drives up to our doorstep, I need to get my daughter's lunch-box (or Obento) ready. Getting a lunch box ready is not that much of an issue. What's really needed is an obento that my daughter is sure to like.

If that didn't tell you what the problem is, then allow me to elucidate. The little darling is a picky eater. Very picky. Most days we have this early morning battle over the planned lunch. She takes one look at what I'm cooking, and asks, "Is that cute? I want a cute obento." No, I have no clue what a cute obento is. Depending on her mood, it could be anything from crispy potato rolls, to spaghetti to dal-and-rice. Depends on her mood, the tides, phase of the moon, and anything else you'd care to throw into the mix.

One simple fix is Pooris. Pooris are always a hit with kids. Little ones and big ones. To add to the 'cute' factor, I roll out a really large poori, and cut out smaller ones before I fry them. Using a 1 1/2 inch cookie cutter, it adds up to around 2 regular pooris.

My daughter liked these tiny pooris so much that she prefers them to regular sized pooris. I'm certainly not complaining. The potato curry for this one is stripped down to absolute basics.

Very Simple Potato Curry

1 medium potato (chopped fine)
1 small onion (chopped fine) (optional)
1 tsp oil
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
1 pinch turmeric
1 pinch hing
Salt to taste

Heat oil. Temper with mustard, hing and turmeric.
Add onions, if using, and saute till onions turn transperent.
Add potatoes and salt. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or till done.

Add some fruit, and lunch is ready to go!

Chappatis for lunch turned out be another challenge. The little gourmet wanted small chappatis. And then the real fun started. I rolled out a really huge chappati, and with a 'katori' cut out smaller disks. I started off cooking 4 or 5 at a time on my tava. I was about then I asked myself that all important question. How on earth am I supposed to fluff these tiny things over an open flame? My tongs would surely tear them up. And my fingers had way too much to do over the course of the day, so using them was out. One fell right through my little wire phulka frame. Necessity breeds solutions. I put my little tea insufer to good use. It was tiny enough to hold one tiny corner while I fluffed them over an open flame.

And after all that early morning drama, the lunch box came back totally empty! At the end of the day, thats all that counts. Whether it was it all eaten up.

On a recent festival, I thought it was really unfair that the little one missed out on the multi-course lunch. She could always have some when she got back from school, but why not AT school? And a typical south Indian lunch is not that difficult to make into an obento.

Dal-rice with ghee, crisp urad-dal vadais, tomato salad, carrot salad, cabbage curry and fruit. Next time I need to figure out how to pack payasam so that it doesn't spill.

Uninspired mornings sometimes breed inspired solutions. In a totally bored frame of mind, I made a little potato curry, and stared stupidly into my fridge and freezer, and wondered what to do. Should I make rice, chappati, poori?? Should I just give up and go back to sleep? And then I saw some frozen puff-pastry sheets in a corner of the freezer. And came up with this. I have no idea what to call this, so go right ahead and name it. Be my guest.


1 sheet puff pastry (20cm x 10cm x 0.5cm)
1 cup potato filling (recipe follows)

1 large potato (chopped very fine)
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 pinch turmeric
1 tsp oil
salt to taste

Heat oil.
Add the spice powders, and stir for a few seconds, and immediately add the chopped potato.
Add salt to taste. Cover and cook for 10 mins, or till done.
Preheat oven to 175C.
Thaw puff pastry, and roll to 2mm thickness.
Spread prepared filling over it.
Shape into a roll. Cover roll with cling-film and put it in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Line a cookie sheet with baking paper.
Cut into slices. Arrange on sheet, leaving 2-3 cms between rolls.
Bake until golden brown. About 12-15 minutes.

Next time I want to try a grown up version of this, with some garam masala, and chilli powder. Lets see how that works.