Marjorie Shaffer’s book “Pepper”…. a review and a giveaway

DSC_0744Too often, we have looked at them without realizing how intricately they are connected to our history.  In case you are wondering, I am talking about those two little guests on your dining table, the salt and pepper shakers. Did you know that of these, pepper, was not an easily available spice in the past? As Marjorie Shaffer mentions in her eponymously named book Pepper, black pepper was the botanical Helen of Troy. Before we get too deep into the details, I must admit that as a food history buff, I was quite hooked by the book. I never realized that so much could revolve around a simple spice. The book, which is very well researched and written, starts with a simple introduction to pepper and then moves on to the twists and turns in European history linked to the discovery of this spice.

DSC_0758_blogWhile I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, at the same time it was very intense. Sometimes I had to stop and re-read a couple of pages to get back in sync with the story. The more I read, the more I was surprised how those history classes I sat through in school almost two decades ago suddenly made more sense now. If you are a casual reader, it might be a bit too much for you but you can still flip through the book and find interesting peppery tidbits of information. I wish the book was written more like a storybook than a serious history, but to be fair that was probably not the author’s intention. The book is deeply engaging, with a simple and comprehensible style that helps the reader to absorb the huge amount of information that flows from its pages.

DSC_0760_blogOverall I would highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in culinary history. Not only did I get a broader perspective of world affairs relative to pepper and a comprehensive idea about the different types of pepper, their biological and medicinal roles, but I also learnt that Yale University was named after Elihu Yale, a governor of the East India Company who made his huge and illegal fortune in the pepper business. Also, to my surprise, I came to know that paan (Betel leaf, Piper betel) belongs to the pepper family as well. I think I will have to read the book one more time to  absorb more knowledge from it.

DSC_0766_blogNow guess what – I am doing a giveaway of the book and will randomly choose a lucky winner who will receive a copy of this book (readers from all over the world) and a bottle of peppers (US readers only). All you have to do is send in the name of a dish, which has pepper in it as an ingredient or condiment. And also you don’t  HAVE TO  ‘like’ my page on Facebook but it would be nice if you do so. You’ can also read more stories about delectable Indian foods and drool at some pictures, if you are so inclined. The last day to send in your entry is August 2nd, 2013.

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Pora aamer shorbot/ Aam panna/roasted mango drink:

Aampora_bottle_glassIt’s not poila boishakh (start of the lunar Bengali year) but this aam-porar shorbot takes me back to my childhood memories of that day. On poila boishakh every store opens a new account book (haal khata) to record the coming year’s sales. At the same time, they balance and close the previous year’s books. Regular customers are invited to stop by and treated to sweet and savory snacks (no doubt softening their minds before they are politely asked to pay their remaining debts to the storekeepers, which is a big help to the book-keeper who has to tally the credits and debits before the day is done). I don’t know much about the state of this custom nowadays, but when I was a kid, it was a pretty big deal. We got invitations from several different stores ranging from neighborhood grocers to cycle stands. To many of you cycle stands might be a new term, but not to people who used to or still commute daily from the suburb to the city for work or to school. These unique establishments were essentially valet-assisted bicycle garages right next to the suburban (or “local”) train stations. We parked our bicycles there and boarded the trains. There was a monthly rate which was cheaper than the daily rate. It was amazing how they knew almost every customer and their time of commute. They would park the bikes according to your time of arrival so that they don’t have to go through the entire lot to find your bike when you came to claim it. They used to get a little pissed off if you arrive at a different time than your usual time (if you had to do this, they preferred advance notice). This made sense, as you broke routine, they literally had to move hundreds of cycles packed like sardines in order of approximate return time to extricate yours.

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Bicycle stand next to Chandannagar station. Photo courtesy: Ramkrishna Basak

Photo1439When I was a kid, there were only a couple of cycle stands next to the station. Among them was Khan Cycle Stand, a large and pioneering establishment where my Baba used to park his bicycle every day. Being a veteran customer, he got the ‘haal khata’ invitation every year. Poila boishakh is usually around April 15th, when the summer has started showing its furious temper. I was an only child for a long time and used to accompany Baba to the stores. Among many other poila boishakh memories, the one which sticks in my mind like yesterday is the taste of the aam-porar shorbot served at Khan Cycle Stand every year. We never had aam-porar shorbot at home. Poila baisakh was the only day we had it and it tasted like heaven. After so many years, I wanted to recreate the aam-porar shorbot at home. I wish I could do it on Poila boishakh, but life in the United States does not always allow for such indulgences. I don’t think I can recreate the exact taste of that particular shorbot, but it tasted very good. Nostalgia always makes things taste better anyway. So, here you go, a small sip from a glass full of my childhood memories.

Aam_porar_shorbotThere is as such no exact measurement. I am giving you the recipe and you can adjust your portion.

 All you need is a couple of green mangoes, black salt, roasted cumin-coriander-red chili powder and sugar. Oh! And few ice cubes if you want it to be chilled.

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DSC_0125Roast the mangoes on open fire, either on stove top or on charcoal. Roasting it in the oven might not give you the best result but if you cannot make it any other way, go for the oven. Roast the mangoes until the entire skin changes color becomes almost yellowish and feels mushy when touched. Cool it off and peel the skin. Scrape off the pulp and keep it in a container. I scraped it with a spoon. It gets really messy but it’s well worth the mess. You can keep the pulp in the refrigerator for few weeks if there is no water and the container is tightly closed.

 Aampora_bottleWhen you want to prepare the drink, take a couple tablespoon of the pulp, add water, sugar and the black salt and give it a good stir. Check for seasoning. Keep it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes or more to chill the drink. Take it out, add the roasted powder, few ice cubes and drink it. If you use ice cold water, you can avoid the chilling part. Trust me, it tastes heavenly on a hot summer day.

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