Cooking with one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables: Lau-Tetor Daal/ Moong Lentils cooked with Bottle Gourd and Bitter Gourd

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I had very little hope when I started my Google search for “bottle gourd” and didn’t expect very many things written about this C-list celebrity vegetable. But I was pleasantly surprised and learned quite a few things about it.

Bottle gourd (also called lauki, lau or ghiya in India) is one of the most ancient domesticated vegetables and sits right next to dogs in terms of two of the most ancient domesticated species. A native plant of Africa, it migrated first to Asia and then to the Americas, most likely through ocean currents. The wild variety of bottle gourd was not initially used as a food source. The dried skin was instead used as containers and like a ladle to scoop out things long before our ancestors invented pottery. The hollow fruits were also used as musical instruments (indeed, I own two of these myself).

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Bottle gourd from my garden

Domestication usually takes a long time, sometimes hundreds of years (ask Dr. Sen, he has a violent opinion on this). It can inadvertently alter the species, both genetically and morphologically. The geographical location, the sheltered existence, the controlled temperature, the lack of environmental competition, are a few of the zillion reasons which can alter the species being domesticated. Among many other things, the wild variety of bottle gourd had a much thinner skin compared to the current domesticated edible variety. Like many other vegetables, these gourds also traveled hundreds of miles across the ocean and reached a different country (or sometimes continent), and upon finding land again, the thin skin/rind made the dispersion of seeds easier. But once humans started domesticating the gourds, the need for natural seed dispersion disappeared and the rind gradually grew thicker to adapt to the domesticated environment. Over centuries, it grew so thick that the modern day Bengalis decided to make use of that outcome and a wonderful delicacy showed up on the Bengali vegetarian menu, i.e lau-er khosha bhaja (stir fried bottle gourd rind).

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Bitter gourd from my garden as well

An easily digestible vegetable, bottle gourd is eaten almost all over India. But as is their wont, Bengalis decided to go beyond the usual norm and eat almost all parts of the fruit and the plant itself. It will take several blog posts for me to cover the entire gamut of recipes Bengalis use to cook this humble and rather neutral vegetable. They stir fry the rind with whole poppy seeds, cook the leaves and stems with other vegetables and fish heads, wrap spice-coated fish or shrimp in the tender leaves and steam them or add the chopped fruit to lentils. Think I’m done? No way at all. We also make a bitter curry by combining bottle gourds with bitter gourds (karela), a “West Bengal special” by adding poppy seed paste, mix it up with sun-dried lentil dumplings, tiny shrimp or fried fish heads or make a dry-ish curry with mung lentils. The list is literally endless but all of them are equally delicious. While I cook all of these, a few are my personal favorites and the bottle gourd cooked with mung lentils (lau-muger daal) is one of them. Like most Bengali standards, it can be cooked in different ways; I cook it like my Maa does, which is what you’ll find here. I’ll try to post a few other recipes before the summer is gone (and with it, my treasured supply of home-grown laukis).

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The recipe below is an approximation and can be altered. Also, the photos of the daal were taken hastily and I promise I’ll post some nice ones later.

Ingredients:

Mung lentils: 2/3 cup

Bottle gourd: 8-10 cubes (peeled and cut approximately into 2” pieces)

Bitter gourd/Karela: One medium (4-5 inches long), cut into thin slices. It’s hard to quantify the karela here because it will depend on the bitterness of the karela or how bitter you like your daal to be. So adjust accordingly.

Radhuni/Pnach phoron/methi: 1 tsp. (I use radhuni but it’s hard to find it in the US. My next preferred spices is methi for this daal and in absolute pinch, add pnach phoron)

Ginger: one inch piece, ground into a paste

Dry red chilies: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf/Tej patta: 2-3 nos.

Turmeric (optional): 1 tsp. (in some household the daal is cooked without turmeric in it but I prefer my daal to have some color)

Green chilies: few

Mustard oil: couple tablespoons

Salt to taste

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  • Dry roast the daal very lightly, taking care of not to over-roast or burn them. You can skip this step as some people prefer to cook it with unroasted daal.
  • Start boiling some water in a deep bottom pan.
  • Wash the daal with couple changes of water and add them to the boiling water. Add turmeric powder if using.
  • Once the daal is half-cooked, stir it with a whisk or traditional daaler kata. Do not make daal mushy.
  • Add the lauki pieces to the daal. Let the laukis and the daal get completely cooked. Do not overcook either of them.
  • In a separate pan, heat up the oil to a smoking point but don’t burn it. Add the karela slices and shallow fry them. Drain the oil and add them to the daal.
  • Add salt to taste and boil the daal for couple more minutes to incorporate the flavors.
  • Add the ginger paste and keep the flame on medium for the daal to have a gentle boil. Do not boil the daal for a long time after adding the ginger paste. You want the fresh ginger taste to be there.
  • Reheat the leftover mustard oil and add the radhuni/methi/pnach phoron, red chilies and bay leaves to it in the mentioned order. Once the spices are well roasted and you can smell a nice aroma, add the spices with the oil in the daal.
  • Immediately cover the daal to trap the aroma.
  • You can also add the daal to the oil (my Maa does it this way).
  • Serve the daal with fried eggplants (begun bhaja) and plain white rice.

PS: If you do not like the bitter taste in your daal, you can skip the karela and cook the daal like I mentioned above. Use jeera as a tempering spice in that case.

 

No Hard Goodbyes for Alcohol

Today is one of those days which give me hope that I might yet make something worthwhile out of myself. I have no clue why, but I’m hopelessly prone to chasing – dreams, goals, people, you name it, I’ve chased it. Not saying I always won, just chased. Anyhow, having been worried about my own somewhat excessive drinking for a while, I chased (and this time, won) the 100 Days of Club Soda Challenge, which is roughly what it sounds like – one hundred consecutive days where alcohol and I have had nothing to do with each other. And yes, Shameek, that includes beer.

Having been off the booze for a hundred days today, I’m wondering – why did I need to do this? What did I get out of it?  After all, for many years now, I’ve enjoyed a stiff drink (or seven) on a hard week’s Friday night just as much as the next person (see exhibit #1 below). Unusually for my otherwise meandering and slightly messed-up brain, it didn’t take too much thinking at all before I realized that a single word explained my sudden need to stop drinking – “boundaries”.

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As I cross my mid-thirties and head towards the big four-oh, I’m becoming acutely aware of the importance of setting clear boundaries, both with oneself and with others. As with all of the best lessons I’ve learnt, this has mostly been through making mistakes. I’ve failed to define and protect boundaries in too many of my own relationships, and watched them go into autodestruct mode more often than I care to acknowledge here. And it’s not even always about two people – I’m guilty of having let third parties infiltrate boundaries that I should have kept sacrosanct and paid a horrible price for it (and no, I’m not talking about extramarital affairs here). Damn, come to think of it, given my own personality, I’ve probably invaded far more than my fair share of others’ boundaries over the years too (never with malicious intent, though – just didn’t realize I was overstepping). I’ve watched with admiration as people confidently walked out of bad marriages with their small children and very little financial security because their boundaries were trampled upon once too often. Sadly, in extreme cases, I’ve watched people literally begging for their personal boundaries to be invaded, which always makes me almost as mad at that person as at the creeps that invariably end up taking over their lives and destroying them.

Within the walls of my own little kaleidoscopic world, at multiple points in my eventful thirty-seven years, I’ve failed to set boundaries with substances (and then had to say Hard Goodbyes that I could have done without). Cigarettes were a bitch, I should have had more sense. Sleep meds were the older sister that taught cigarettes all there was to learn about being a bitch. I say this because nothing, absolutely nothing, I’ve ever gone through is as bad as years of severe chronic insomnia. About the only thing I still miss sometimes is high-quality weed, and to be frank, if you’re sharing, I’ll still take a drag or two. But to me, alcohol was always a gentler, sweeter sin, a beautiful but slightly twisted woman with a heart of gold and fuzzy morals just like mine, if you will. And so, like the cherished ex-girlfriend who I never had the balls to completely banish from my life, it would break my fragile heart to say another Hard Goodbye to my weekly Friday night rendezvous with a crystal tumbler of golden, barrel-aged rum. And so, around 3am on a drunken Saturday morning, I had the following memorable conversation:

“Excuse me, my lovely Ron Zacapa Aniversario, and thank you, Mr. Baccarat Decanter but you don’t define me, see, it’s the other way around – I define you. Now, please get back to your places on my bar shelf, or else I’m going to have to pour you down the sink and break you into little pieces, respectively, and we wouldn’t like that, would we? There, such sweethearts the two of you are. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing each other again in just a few days – but this time on my terms, dahlings.”

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And so, one little red check mark at a time (exhibit #2), I went about my little quest to redeem some measure of confidence in my own ability to set healthy boundaries. I won’t even dwell on the minor rewards I got out of doing the whole Club Soda challenge thing, such as the approximately $600 not spent at my friendly neighborhood liquor store (enough for sixty slices of richly marbled otoro sashimi at Tachibana, talk about serious addictions). Or the ten pounds I lost, which have me back at my college weight for the first time in fifteen years. At the end of the day, those are merely numbers. All things considered, my big winner’s prize is the kick I got out of firmly removing Alcohol from that precious little zone that no one gets to share except me, myself and a person masquerading as Shurjo. I’m sure I’ll pour myself another drink at some point, but as for today, I’m not even craving one. And that, my friend, is a sweet, sweet feeling.

 

 

 

Kedgeree might be the best way to repurpose your leftovers

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Food and language are, in my opinion, more susceptible to changes than most other things (and India is probably the prime example when it comes to outside influences on both). Central Asian invaders brought with them the culture of kabobs and we added our spices to them. Sometimes we added gravy to the kabobs to suit our palate. The Portuguese brought a whole new collection of vegetables and we made them our own. They are now so ingrained in our cuisine that half of us don’t even realize that they were not native Indian vegetables. The British Raj left its footprint on quite a few things, some we still cherish while others have taken the backseat. Kedgeree is a delicious example from the latter category. While we still spend hours watching cricket, we hardly cook kedgeree, which was a staple in British kitchens.

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Back in the day when refrigeration was almost impossible, leftovers made it to the kitchen the next morning and got converted into something else for breakfast. Every country has recipes to make use of leftovers. The most common way of re-using leftover rice from dinner for Bengalis is to add water to it and let it ferment slightly overnight to make panta bhaat (fermented rice) which is fabulous with deep fried fritters on the side in the hellish heat of a Bengali summer. But the British had a different idea to use either the leftover rice and or fish from last night’s dinner. Kedgeree (which originally got its name from khichdi or khichuri) is far from the rice-and-lentils original  eaten almost all over India. Although Indians prefer their khichdis to be vegetarian, the Bangladeshis spice it up with meat. But the British decided to give it a completely different twist. They omitted the lentils, added fish instead and anglicized the name to kedgeree. I’m not going to take a puritanical stand here – I have happily embraced the British take on khichdi, because it’s delicious.

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During one of our recent long drives, Dr. Sen and I had a long and extremely heated discussion about ‘authenticity.’ Until recently, I was more rigid when it came to food (or anything else under the sky) or cooking anything Bengali or even Indian. I followed recipes so militantly to the point that I brought a grinding stone from India to make my dishes taste as my mother’s. I’m still very proud of my decision. But like many of my viewpoints toward life, this has changed too and that too quite unknowingly. I started experimenting more but am still cautious not to let things go too far from what I knew was “authentic”. Gradually I pushed my boundaries and added this and taken out that, with more confidence. Although I’m still far from being an experimental cook like Dr. Sen, I’m more accepting to changes and variations. My kedgeree is no way authentic and is loosely based on a recipe from Jamie Oliver. Tell you what – since he’s a British chef, that alone probably makes my recipe authentic. There is a little difference, though – unlike the old days, my kedgeree was not made to use the leftovers, it was made to recreate a bit of history. I just love doing things like this.

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Recipe:

Cooked basmati rice: 3 cups (I went with my judgement and might have added a little more or less. You can play around with the quantity. The recipe is very flexible and you can change the proportion of any of the ingredients)

Curry powder (brand may vary): 1-2 tbsp. (will greatly depend on the brand. You’ll need less of it if the powder is strong. Start with less and then add later if you want more flavor)

Onion, finely chopped: 1 cup

Boiled eggs: 5

Chopped green chili: per taste

Ginger, fresh, finely chopped: 1 tbsp.

Cod fillet (or any white-flaky fish): 1lb

Oil: 2-3 tbsp.

Cilantro: 1/2 cup

Lemon: half/one whole, depending on the size and how tart you want your kedgeree to be

Salt to taste

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  1. Start by boiling enough water to cook the rice. When the water has boiled, add salt to it and then add the rice. Add generous amount of salt because the rice will swell and absorb a lot of salt. I usually don’t soak the rice for a long time because they tend to break. You can soak the rice if it works for you.
  2. Once the rice is cooked (but still has a bite), drain the water and spread the rice to let the steam escape. Fluff the rice periodically to avoid overcooking it. I usually cook the rice the day before and refrigerate it to make my life easy while cooking the kedgeree. A day old rice also holds up better and doesn’t break easily while cooking.
  3. Cut the fish fillet into 3-4-inch-long pieces and season with salt and pepper. Keep them aside for several minutes.
  4. In a large enough pot (don’t skimp on the container size because you don’t want to cramp everything there), add the oil and heat it up.
  5. Add the fish and cook it through. Don’t overcook the fish as it will get chewy. Once cooked, remove them from oil and keep them warm (if possible, wrap them in a foil).
  6. Add a little bit more oil to the pot if needed.
  7. Add the chopped onions to the oil and sauté them until translucent on medium-high heat.
  8. Add the curry powder and a little bit of water to avoid burning the spices. Lower the heat as you sauté the spices.
  9. Slice the eggs in four (lengthwise) and keep them aside.
  10. Add the cooked rice to the pot and gently toss and turn to evenly mix the spices with the rice. If you want it to look speckled, don’t mix it thoroughly. Check for salt. Add more if needed.
  11. Roughly break the fish with your hand into smaller pieces and add them to the rice. Add the eggs too. Gently fluff everything without mushing the rice.
  12. Add the finely chopped cilantro and chopped green chilies and sprinkle a generous amount of lemon juice on it. Cover the pot with a lid and very gently shake it to make everything mix evenly.
  13. Before serving, crack some freshly ground black peppers on it.

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Qorma Lawand (braised Afghan chicken), the very best friend for your still-warm naan-e-Afghani

I was sitting teary-eyed in New Delhi Station, waiting for the Rajdhani Express, waiting to say goodbye to my brother and unsure when I would see him again. I was travelling alone and was sitting in the side lower berth, my favorite seat in Indian trains, because I love looking outside through the big side-windows.

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My brother and I few years ago

The rest of my compartment was full with a group of burly Afghan men of varied age. They were talking in a language which I couldn’t understand at all. Most of them were wearing the traditional afghan shirts and pants and all of them were wearing sneakers. They were piling up colorful area rugs and carpets on the floor. I realized that they must be businessmen taking the rugs from Delhi to Calcutta to sell.  Finally the train started rolling and tears streamed down my cheeks faster as well as I was leaving my little brother behind in Delhi. The Afghan men were looking at me…probably with curiosity but I started feeling a little uncomfortable. I had read enough horror stories and watched YouTube videos of men harassing women in Indian trains. To make myself comfortable, I spread the bedsheet on the seat, put the pillow on my back, leaned my back on it and stared outside through the dusty glass window…still missing my brother and crying uncontrollably.

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After a while, a middle-aged Afghan man came to me and said in broken English, “Sister, one of our brothers is in the next coupe, would you exchange your seat with him so he can travel with us?” Instantly, my heart melted for reasons that I still find hard to understand. There was something in his voice or maybe it was just the way he said it. Whatever might be the reason, I just could not refuse him his request. When I started gathering my stuff, the man immediately took everything from my hands very gently and said “sister, you go and sit there, I’ll bring all your stuff to you.” I was embarrassed but again humbled by his hospitality. He took most of my luggage while I walked behind with a couple of small things. He even spread the bed sheet for me and put everything the way it was in my previous seat. Although technically I was the one who had done him a favor, I was left touched by his genuine warmth and gratitude.

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I spent another twelve hours in that train and never once felt slightly threatened. It was something in that man’s behavior that made me feel secure. I even left my purse in my seat when I went to the bathroom, ignoring my mother’s rambling before I boarded the train, “take your valuables with you all the time, don’t talk to strangers and don’t eat anything from a fellow passenger.” A simple gesture can change our attitude so much. Being naturally curious, I was itching to walk up to them and start a conversation, but I failed to do so. As a Bengali, I was always fascinated with kabuliwalas (people from Kabul) and wanted to know about their lives and their food. But I hesitated to talk to them, I don’t know why. Anyhow, before I knew it, the train arrived at Howrah Station, which was the last stop and I lost my chance forever. I still regret my decision now, but my hope is that someday again, while tearing pieces from a freshly baked naan-e Afghani and dipping them in the bright green soupy gravy of qorma lawand, I’ll be able to listen to their stories. For now, I’ll keep my imaginations of Afghanistan going.

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Recipe:

Ingredients

Chicken: close to 3 lbs

Yogurt: ½ cup

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Cilantro, finely chopped: ½ cup

Bay leaves: 2

Cinnamon: 2 inches, broken into one inch pieces

Cloves: 3-4

Cardamom (green): 2

Green chili: 8-10

Mustard/vegetable oil: 2 tbsp.

Nutmeg powder: ¼ tsp.

Mace powder (optional): ¼ tsp.

White pepper powder: 1 tsp.

Ginger: 2 inch piece ground to a paste (preferably freshly ground)

Garlic: 4 fat cloves ground to a paste (you can grind the ginger and garlic together)

Onion very finely chopped: 1/2 cup

Salt to taste

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  • Wash the chicken pieces well and drain the water.
  • Heat up the oil and add the bay leaves, cinnamons, cardamoms and cloves. Turn the heat to medium and let the whole spices sizzle a little bit.
  • Once the spices leave a nice aroma, add the chopped onion (keep the heat to medium or else the onions will burn and make the gravy bitter). Sauté the onion for five minutes and then add the ginger-garlic paste.
  • Sauté everything for another five minutes or until the raw smell of the spices is almost gone.
  • Add the chicken and turmeric and mix everything well. Keep stirring the whole thing for several more minutes. The meat will release water. You can turn up the heat to medium high to dry out the water a little bit.
  • Either turn the heat very low or remove the container from the heat. Beat the yogurt very well to make it smooth/lump free and add it to the chicken. Mix everything well again and bring the pot back to the burner if you’ve removed it. Or, turn the heat back to medium. This is a very crucial step as high heat can curdle the yogurt and make the gravy grainy/lumpy.
  • Keep stirring the whole thing, coating the meat pieces well with the yogurt and the spice paste. After a few minutes, you’ll see oil oozing out from the sides.
  • Add half cup hot water, salt to taste and 4-6 green chilies, split halfway through (you’ve to alter the number of green chilies according to your taste). Give it one good mix and bring the flame to high.
  • Once the gravy comes to a boil, lower the heat to medium again and cover the pot.
  • Cook it until the chicken is almost done. (I said almost because you might have to adjust the gravy. If the chicken is already cooked and you boil it further, the chicken will fall apart and get messy).
  • If the gravy looks too thin, boil and adjust the amount. If it looks dry, add more hot water and boil it until it reaches the desired consistency.
  • Add the nutmeg+mace+pepper powders, chopped cilantro and few more green chili split halfway through.
  • Boil for another minute or two and let it sit for ten minutes. The chicken will soak more gravy and the flavor will be complete.
  • Serve it preferably with either Indian roti or naan. It doesn’t taste very well with rice; at least I like it more with rotis.
  • Also, I like the gravy to be on the thin side (not watery though) because I like to dip my rotis in it. You can make a thicker gravy if you want.
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The final outcome

Delhi belly (part I) and my quest for Daulat ki chaat

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Delhi or “Dilli” as we lovingly call it, is a melting pot of a city that never fails to amaze me, a place where cultures converge and contrast in a kaleidoscopic way. I’ve been to Delhi many times, from the age of five to thirty five. Every time I went there, I had a different agenda and a different experience.

This time I arrived in Delhi with a single overriding culinary objective: to explore Old Delhi’s street food. Of course, the other big reason was to meet my brother who helped me to stay motivated. With an upset stomach, I was a little hesitant to start right away. Instead, I kept one day to look around, scanning for things I should or should not eat. There is no better place to explore and gorge on street food than the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi. For foodies who also love history (like me), this unique collection of alleys is truly no less than paradise on earth.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The things that I decided to try next time.

The first day was spent with my friends and brother; the day next was for myself, well most of it. It was a Monday morning and the whole city was busy saying goodbye to Mr. Obama, my US neighbor who had followed me to India being a big fan of my cooking. But I was determined not to let him slow me down. Armed only with my camera and a hungry stomach, I started my culinary journey for the day. The moment I came out of the Chandni Chowk metro station, I was excited, puzzled and anxious at the same time. Anyone with half a brain would have understood that I was not from the city (or even a resident Indian anymore). But I pretended to be a Hindi-speaking local (which, given my Bengali accent  must have made me look like a fool) and started bargaining for the rickshaw fare. I was successful; at least I think I was. As soon as the rickshaw-wallah agreed to take me to the Jama Masjid area, I hopped on his rickshaw and my eyes started scanning all around me. It was crowded, well extremely crowded and with utter chaos reigning hand-in-hand with supreme organization as they can do only in India. I loved it. It was a chaos I had looked forward to for three long years. I had the luxury to enjoy it because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I don’t have to push through the carts, hawkers, rickshaws or being deafened by the noise, survive a stampede and then go to work.

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With a serpentine motion, the rickshaw-wallah was pedaling through tiny, congested lanes and bi-lanes. And then all of a sudden, I screamed…”roko,roko!” (stop, stop!) and before even he realized what had happened, I jumped off his rickshaw. I had spotted “daulat ki chaat” which I was frantically looking for, being sold by the roadside. I asked him to wait for me and rushed to the chaat-wallah. I was overjoyed and excited. I asked him for one serving, to which he replied “kam mitha ya zyada mitha?” (do I want it to be very sweet or less sweet?) Not being a very sweet toothed person, I said “kam” (less). The vendor very delicately scooped out a few spoons full of foamy cream into a paper bowl, lined with silvery foil, crumbled something (khoya/milk solid mixed with sugar I think) on top of it and stuck a spoon into it.Quickly, using my phone camera, I took a few pictures of him, his cart and the chaat. I was in a hurry as I had kept the rickshaw-wallah waiting on a very busy lane with people honking behind him. Before I ran away, I asked him his name which turned out to be Prabesh Kumar. That’s all I had time to ask. The moment I jumped back in the rickshaw, very apprehensively I took a spoon full of that foam with a little bit of the crumble and put it into my mouth. I was worried –would I be disappointed, let down after this quest which had brought me all the way from Calcutta to Delhi? Well, I should have spared myself the anxiety. It immediately melted in the warmth of my mouth. It was delicate. It was slightly cool, not refrigerated coldness but a naturally cool taste (I know I am not making much sense but you have to experience the chaat to know what I am talking about) and then the occasional bite of the crumble adding the perfect sweetness and crunch. It was literally heaven in my mouth.

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Daulat’ which is literally translated to wealth and ‘chaat’ is a common word to describe a type of savory street food. So, if translated, it is a street food for the wealthy, but it’s not savory, rather delicately sweet. No one knows why is it called that way and where did it originate? I guess it’s called daulat ki chaat because it is made with an expensive ingredient, milk cream, and requires hours preparing it. So, only the wealthy could afford to make it or eat it. May be during the ancient times, the wealthy people had servants who painstakingly stirred the milk all evening to scoop out the cream and then hand churn it all night to make it frothy and airy? Who knows? But if you are in Delhi during winter, please hunt down a vendor and give it a try. My brother, who was on his own food quest a few lanes away from me, tried it and fell in love with it too. I spotted a few more vendors along my way to the Jama Masjid. So daulat ki chaat might not be as elusive as I thought it was.

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While savoring my chaat, I asked my rickshaw-wallah if he had ever tasted daulat ki chaat, but to my surprise, he said no. How can you be in the lanes and bi-lanes everyday pulling rickshaw and not taste the best thing Chandni Chowk can offer? Few months later, Dr. Sen thought about it and his take on it is that the twenty rupees it cost was not a trivial expense to him. But back then, I was on a high and had forgotten that my India and his are probably very different. Forging ahead on my quest food nirvana, I moved on to my next target, which was Ram ladoo (story to be continued in my blog post, so stay tuned).

To read more about Daulat ki Chaat, please read this beautiful article from Eat and Dust. It inspired me to go o that memorable rickshaw ride…..

Of delightful ruins and village temples

A guest post from my husband:

This is Calcutta, my home and yet not so much my home anymore. Everyone around me is genuinely happy to see me back after almost two years. At the same time, everyone has at least five agendas in which I play a role of some sort. One of these, they will share with me; two, they will share with others in my “network”; the final two are secrets that no one will know but them. My own agenda is even worse; it fills a whole clipboard and is full of morally ambiguous but tantalizing items, ranging from the completely harmless to the potentially devastating. Like most things Indian, none of these agendas, mine or of others, exist in isolation. Indeed, they are all not only connected but even intertwined. As you can imagine, the permutations and combinations are a mathematician’s or systems biologist’s paradise.

The thing is, I was always legendarily bad at math. So I have resorted to forcing my own, rather simplistic linear regression frameworks to model a system that even complex quadratic equations would be hard pressed to solve. Whether this will work, I have no clue. I don’t really think it will. But it is the only way I know to deal with things anymore, having been away for over a decade. If you ever had the mistaken impression that “lonely” is a negative word, let me correct you in no uncertain terms. The only way I survive (and indeed enjoy) my immediate surroundings on these kaleidoscopic trips home is by literally treating myself (as in an ice cream treat) to generous helpings of loneliness.

Quoting here a beautiful couplet by Ram Niwas Awasthi, one of the vanished poets of Hindi literature:

bheer mein rehta hoon main viraane ke sahare / jaise koi mandir ho kisi gaon ke kinare

(I can live in this crowd because I have my ruins / like the little temple just beyond the village) 

And so, wherever I go in this maddening crowd, I carry my little portable ruins with me, and like the little temple observing the villagers it knows and loves so well, but from just outside the village itself, I sit in the shade of my cherished ruins and watch the heartwarming charades around me. If this makes you jealous, I do not blame you.

And now, speaking of ruins, a lovely picture of an old house taken on a random road trip (or should I say boat trip) to the Sunderbans. Far past it’s prime, completely beyond repair but still beautiful. Just like my Calcutta.

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Holiday wish and history of ice cream with my Bourbon-walnut-vanilla ice cream

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Dr. Sen’s sole purpose in going to a Chinese restaurant is most often ordering a plate of extra spicy Singapore rice noodles or may be a bowl of tongue-numbing Sichuan beef tendon noodle soup. For most of us, the thought of Chinese food doesn’t revive memories of bowls of ice cream, more likely you’re thinking of stir fries or orange chicken. But, to my surprise, Chinese people have been eating ice cream far longer than you and I can imagine. The documented history of ice cream goes back to AD 618-907 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty. Among the army of 2,271 staff in his kitchen and winery, 94 were ‘ice men’. It was the ice men’s job to go and collect ice from the mountains, cut them in uniform sizes and then store them in ice houses made of stones. The ice was then used to freeze a milk-based dessert made from water buffalo, goat or cow’s milk. The milk was first fermented and then flavored with camphor (although I hate it, adding camphor to desserts is still practiced in India), thickened with flour and finally frozen into something very close to modern-day frozen yogurt. So basically, Tang was eating ‘tangy’ frozen desserts long before ‘froyo’ became popular. Caucasians (not “whites”, the original inhabitants of the Caucasus region) are known for drinking a fermented milk drink called “kumiss” made from mare’s milk for thousands of years. The Russians still drink something similar to it. The Mongolian equivalent is called “airag” or “tsegee”. This culture of fermented milk must have traveled to China and then Persia and to India.

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But this was all still using natural ice/snow to make frozen drinks or desserts. The real trick was to make ‘man made ice’ which in above-freezing climates needed an endothermic reaction to be created. Although Indians and Egyptians were making ice for a long time, the first documented evidence is found in a book written by Ibn Abu Usaybi’a (A.D 1230-1270), the famous Arab historian of medicine. Here, we find the first record of ice being made with cold water and saltpeter. Persians were known for making exotic and delicious frozen drinks made from fruits or fruit extracts. The Westerners got their taste of “sorbets’ from the Persian “sherbets” which are basically frozen fruit desserts in various forms.

Although making ice is pretty historic, it was not common to make it on an industrial scale even until the late 1600s and early 1700s. Ice was still being sourced naturally and stored in ice houses.  Harvesting and transporting ice became a great business model for the Americans. From United States, ice was travelling to Caribbean, South America and to India via large cargo ships in the 19th century. Making of artificial ice and then ice creams slowly started from the late 1600s in France and Italy. The ice cream back then was pretty much frozen creams with flavors added to them. There was no egg involved. The the French chef Vincent La Chapelle mentions for the first time in 1742 the addition of eggs, which became immensely popular as ice cream additives as it added a desirable texture and reduced the use of more expensive cream as an ingredient.

American started eating ice cream probably in the early 1700s when it traveled from Europe to New England. George Washington was so fond of this frozen treat that he bought a couple of pewter pot freezers from France and a “cream machine for making ice” to make ice cream at home (probably he lost all his teeth from eating an excess amount of his favorite flavor). His handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream, preserved in the Library of Congress, is a burning testament to his passion.

Thank goodness making ice cream is not so tedious anymore and I do not have to climb mountains to harvest ice. While I standardize another flavor, go and make this ice cream, you’ll thank me later. And, wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year 2015. Let’s celebrate this festive season one (or maybe two or three) scoop(s) at a time!

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Recipe: (adapted from Food52)

Ingredients:

Vanilla-Bourbon Ice Cream

  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 5 cups cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup raw walnuts, lightly toasted and broken into smaller pieces

I have ‘almost’ copy-pasted the recipes as I haven’t changed anything in the recipe except making the walnut crumble. I just added toasted walnuts but if you have time, you can make the crumbles.

  1. In a medium pot, combine the milk, the cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, the salt, the vanilla bean (split it open first, and scrape it), and 1 tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon. Heat the liquid over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it froths. Turn off the heat.
  2. In a separate small bowl, collect the egg yolks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and whisk for about 2 minutes, or until the yolks look a lighter yellow.
  3. Take a tiny measure of the milk mixture, and whisk it into the egg yolks. Keep adding the milk, little by little, whisking without pause as you go. When you’re finished, run the custard base through a sieve, add then add it back to the pot.
  4. Turn the heat again to medium-low. Stir the custard almost constantly as it heats. You want it to coat the back of your spoon; after that, it’s done.
  5. Move the custard to an ice bath. If you give it the occasional stir, it should be good and cold in about 45 minutes-1 hour. (You can also chill overnight in the fridge.) When the custard is cold, I like to stir in another tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon.
  6. Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker. Let it go for about 20-25 minutes, or until the ice cream reaches the consistency of soft-serve. (Don’t let it go too long, or you will start to make butter.) At the last minute, add the walnuts.
  7. Spoon the ice cream into a plastic container, leaving as little air between the ice cream and the lid as possible, and move it to the freezer for at least 2-4 hours.
  8. As it is as natural as it can get, it melts really fast, so you have to be quick while serving.