The vanishing grain from our kids’ plates: Kaoner chaaler payesh/Millet pudding and wish you all a Happy Diwali

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Every day, it was the same routine without exception. The school bell rang and there was no sign of me. My mother screamed her heart out while calling my nickname: “Tumpaaaa…….Tumpaaaaa….” with no response from me. Suddenly one of our neighbor aunts would say “Didi, Tumpa is hiding here”. I heard my Maa calling my name but always pretended that I didn’t. Sooner or later she would come and drag me home, often spanking my butt on the way back. She would wash my dirty feet, put fresh clothes on me, give me my aluminum suitcase and send me to the local school. The school was a ‘paathshala’ which literally means a place to study (mainly for underprivileged kids). There were two rooms with only 10-12 students in each room. One year was spent in the classroom next to the pond and the next year students were promoted to the other room, that’s pretty much all there was to it. There was no graduation ceremony, no chairs, no table, nothing. We took our own individual floor mats (aashon) everyday to sit on. It was more of a fun place than an actual education. All the kids there were way below the poverty level. There was only one girl whom I still clearly remember who was from a middle-class (not rich) family, she was one of the teachers’ daughters. She looked very different from the rest of us and wore nicer clothes.

Once every week it was special for me because we were given midday snacks. One week it was boiled and salted Bengal gram and the next week it would be followed by two slices of plain white bread. Every week I looked forward to that day. I still remember the taste, I can still feel the pieces of bread in my hands. I always feared that if I went home with the food, I might have to share them with Maa, so I stopped midway while going home and finished all of it (in retrospect, how selfish of me). I formed tiny balls from the inside of the white breads and then ate them one at a time, which was my own little game with myself. White bread was rare in my house. I am sure other kids were also looked forward to those days as bread other than Indian rotis were a luxury to them and the concept of free food was exciting.

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India, being a developing country, many kids go to bed hungry. They simply cannot afford to go to school and are probably too malnourished anyhow. To address the problem, the Indian government started a midday meal scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is suffering as the demon of corruption is grabbing it with all its power and trying to paralyze the system. As the focus was on nutritionally balanced food, different whole grains were incorporated into the meals. Millet being a cheap source of healthy carbohydrates and fiber was served in different forms. Apart from the corruption issue, there is another big problem coming into play. As the West is becoming more and more aware of the health benefits of ancient grains, like many other countries, India is exporting a substantial amount of millet to the west. Coupled with the export issue, millet is also considered to be inferior compared to rice and wheat in India, so farmers refuse to grow them. They don’t profit as much as they do growing and selling rice or wheat. Hence, the problem of foodgrain availability is increasing, midday meals are encountering hurdles and kids for whom these meals were the sole incentive to go to school are dropping out in thousands. For many of these kids, that midday meal is their only meal of the day, but ironically that is also being taken away. Knowingly or unknowingly we are contributing to a larger problem but there is so little we can do about it.

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Kaoner chaal also known as foxtail millet is one such ancient grain that has almost dropped off the modern Indian food radar. It’s highly nutritious and a cheaper, healthier alternative to rice and wheat. The close relative found in the US is barnyard millet (or Sama ka Chawal/Vrat ka Chawal as it is known in India). You should try the pudding recipe below before this grain too becomes affordable only for the rich. It’s delicious and taste similar yet different to a regular rice pudding.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Evaporated milk: one 18 fl.oz. can/354 ml.

Whole milk: Same amount as evaporated milk/18fl oz.

Brown sugar: (can be substituted by gur/jaggery) ¾ cup (start with ½ cup and gradually increase according to your taste)

Kaoner chaal/Foxtail millet/barnyard millet: ½ cup

Cardamom: 2 nos.

Bay leaves: 2 nos.

Salt: One tiny pinch

Cashews: a small handful, somewhat broken.

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  • Wash the millet several times and then soak it in water.
  • Mix the evaporated milk and the whole milk and start boiling it. (you can use all whole milk or substitute with half n half too). Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce the flame to medium. Add the bay leaves and the cardamom (break them slightly). Keep stirring frequently otherwise the milk will stick to the bottom. Keep an eye on the milk to avoid boiling over.
  • Once the milk is reduced to almost half, drain the millets and then add them to the milk. Mix well and let it cook on medium flame.
  • After the millets are properly cooked, add the sugar and the salt. Let the sugar melt and taste. If you need more sugar, add more. Add the broken cashews and turn off the heat.

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PS: The millets soak a substantial amount of liquid, so keep it a bit more liquidy than you want. If it thickens too much after cooling, boil a little bit of milk and add it to the pudding. The pudding will taste a little bit more sweet when at room temp., so add sugar accordingly.

Samo-Seeds

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Kuch meetha ho jaye? Sheer khurma to celebrate Independence Day

DSC_0808As a country, India is now sixty -seven years old, an age when as individuals, most people have sorted themselves out and many are happy. Can we say this true at the national level as well? The British are gone, but is India independent from inner demons?
A person from Andhra Pradesh is a South Indian to me, a person from Rajasthan is Marwari (doesn’t matter if you are not from Marwar) and a person from the North East India is more alien to me than a Chinese (maybe). On top of that the difference in religion is like icing on the cake. We might be portraying a secular look on the outside but to my mind, right underneath the rather thin veneer of secularism religion is lurking like a malevolent demon.

My college hostel was in a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Muslims from the lower socioeconomic strata of Indian society. In the two years that I lived there, two incidents shattered whatever illusions I had of the “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” (Hindu-Muslim brotherhood) fallacy. One was a roadside accident with an unfortunate Muslim kid being hit by a motorcyclist who happened to be Hindu. Within few minutes, the incident degenerated into a full-blown religious riot, with most participants least concerned about the kid and his treatment or recovery. Another time, a group of Muslim people started praying in front of the church and there you go, another riot. I always thought riots happened elsewhere, in strange places full of oppressed people, but no, here was one happening right in front of my eyes in kaalchar-loving Calcutta. It might have been a simple coincidence that the kid who got hit and the motorcyclist belonged to two different religions, but when it comes to our faith, I guess we Indians are still very sensitive about it. Sort of like saying to a stranger “ You there, on the street, I will kill you if you hurt my religious sentiment”. I know it’s illogical but I suppose logic can take a walk when God is involved.

DSC_0811Thankfully, I am an atheist (well, sort of) but I do celebrate Durga Puja, Diwali, Eid, Thanksgiving and Christmas because I like to feel good and be happy and share my happiness with others. I do like good food and I think it is a powerful agent for bringing diverse people together. So, I made a secular dessert eaten by many cultures in India and thought of sharing it with all of you. Call it semuier payesh (Bengali), semaiya payasam (South India), sevia kheer (North Indians) or sheer khurma (Urdu-speaking people), it’s the same thing. My recipe is closer to the traditional sheer khurma eaten in Muslim households, but then Eid was just last week and one never needs an excuse to make dessert, right?
Happy Independence Day to all of you. Let us be truly independent.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Whole milk: little less ½ gallon/around 1.5 liters.

Evaporated milk: 350ml/one 16oz. can

Semai/vermicelli: around 1cup

Sugar: to taste

Dates: 4-6 nos.

Salt: one tiny pinch

Saffron: a small pinch (optional)

Rose petals: few (optional)

Pistachios/cashew nuts/almonds: 10-12nos.

Raisins: 10-12 nos.

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tbsp.

Evaporated milk is optional, if you do not have it, start with whole milk and bring the volume down. I am lazy 😦

Just so that you know: In Persian, Sheer is milk and khurma is dates…so it literally means milk with dates.

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  • Mix the whole milk and the evaporated milk and put it on the stove top.
  • Bring it to a boil and then bring the flame to medium.
  • Take 2-3 tbsp of warm milk and add the saffron to it. Cover and the let the flavor come out.
  • Boil the milk and bring it to almost half the original volume. Add sugar to taste and a tiny pinch of salt (I mean tiny).
  • Heat up the ghee in a separate pan and add the raisins. They will swell after one or two minutes. Drain them and add them to the milk.
  • Roast the vermicelli (break the vermicelli in smaller pieces) in the same ghee until light brown and gives a light roasted aroma.
  • Add them to the milk as well.
  • Chop the dry dates and add them to the milk too.
  • Let everything cook on a low flame. Cook until the vermicelli is cooked. Check for sugar.
  • Add crushed pistachios or whichever nut you are using and the milk-saffron mix to the pudding.
  • Cover it for 5-10 minutes.
  • Let it come to room temperature and then chill it in the fridge.
  • Garnish it with rose petals and more crushed nuts and serve.

Remember: The whole pudding will thicken after a while and more so after you keep it in the fridge. So, keep a little bit more liquid than you would like. If it’s too thick, boil milk, let it come to room temp. and add it to the pudding. Mix and chill it again.

If you do not get access to rose petals, don’t worry, add few drops of rose water or skip it all together.

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Celebrated holi with tilanno/rice and toasted sesame seed pudding made by Maa

DSC_0981Who doesn’t know about holi? It’s the most exciting festival to me. It’s very well known all over the world now. It’s a festival of color and love. It breaks the boundaries of poor and rich, known and unknown, friend and foe. Westerners or anyone who is not familiar with the occasion might get intimidated by the thought of it. But to us Indians, it’s just fun. We don’t get scared by unknown people approaching us with a bucket of colored water. We smear red-blue-yellow-green abir on each other. Faces become psychedelic canvases, to the extent that we cannot recognize people even our next door neighbors.

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This is exactly how we look like.

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Maa at ISKCON ground

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Holi is also the first festival of spring, heralding the advent of the season. In Bengal (where I am from) it’s also known as ‘doljatra’ or ‘basanta utsav’ (literally, spring festival). In my region, the night of the full moon is celebrated by burning dry leaves and woods. It’s called “nera pora” (burning of the bald guy). I have no idea why the name though. The purpose was to burn all the dead and dry leaves and start the spring with fresh and green. A childhood memory that sticks is of roasting potatoes in the fire and then eating them with a sprinkling of salt. It tasted heavenly. All the kids from the neighborhood gathered around the fire, we played, danced and then waited eagerly for the potatoes to be roasted. We used to chant a poem:

“Aaj amader near pora,

Kaal amader dol,

Phete gyalo, phete gyalo

Kaali raamer dhol.

Bawlo hori bole, hori bole,

Bawlo hori bole

Phete gyalo, phete gyalo

Kaali raamer dhol…

Bawlo hori bole”

I am not even going to translate the poem; it makes no sense in English if I do so. The only lines that make sense are “today is near pora and tomorrow is holi”…that’s it.

Holi brings back so many childhood memories. Wearing the clothes which you will not mind throwing away, cleaning and brushing vigorously to remove horrendously toxic colors off our skin all through the afternoon, drinking sidhdhi (a drink made from cannabis leaves) and going to the neighbors house to sprinkle a little bit of aabir (powdered paint) on the elderly people’s feet and asking for their blessings…the list goes on.

This year my parents are with me, so I have something very special to share. It’s called tilanno (til=sesame and anno=rice). It’s basically rice pudding with toasted sesame seeds. It’s very fragrant and delicate. I loved, loved and loved it, so did my friends and my husband (who does not have a sweet tooth but appreciated the delicacy of the flavor).

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Whole milk: ½ gallon

Atap rice (preferred)/any small grain rice: ½ cup

Sesame seeds: ½ cup (more or less according to your preference)

Cashew nut powder: 2 tbsp

Mewa/khoa kheer/milk powder: 2 tbsp. (optional)

Sugar: to taste (you can mix half n half sugar and gur/jaggery)

A tiny pinch of salt

  • Start boiling the milk. Keep stirring constantly on medium high heat.
  • Wash the rice with several changes of water and soak them for minimum 30 minutes. Drain the water. Let the rice become completely air dry.
  • Grind the rice to a coarse powder (do not make a fine paste, say half broken kind of)
  • Toast the sesame seed to a shade or two darker. You will get the nice toasted sesame aroma.
  • Let it cool down and then pulse it to a coarse powder as well. Do not make a fine powder.
  • Add the rice to the milk and let it get cooked. Add sugar and salt. Stir frequently.
  • Once the whole thing comes to almost the desired consistency, add cashew nut powder and mewa/milk powder/khoa kheer and the ground sesame seed powder. Stir and turn off the heat.
  • Let it cool down and then refrigerate it.
  • Sprinkle some whole toasted sesame seeds on top of it.
  • Serve chilled.

If you add gur/jaggery, add it at the end and then turn off the heat, otherwise the milk might get curdled.

The whole thing will be much thicker after it cools down, so keep it a little more liquidy and it will come to a thicker consistency after it cools down. If you se ethat it became too thick, add a little bit of luke warm milk.

I am sending this recipe to Sukanya of saffronstreaks who is guest hosting for Jagruti.

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Note: The name ‘Holi’ came from the name ‘Holika’ who was a demoness and the sister of the demon ‘Hiranyakashipu’ (a mythical character). You can read the Wiki article here and know more about the festival. Long story short, the festival is the celebration of good over evil (as most Hindu festivals are), symbolized by the dahan or cremation of Holika and the salvation of Prahlad (son of Hiranyakashipu).  Funnily, Holi lost its religious side a long time ago. Everyone plays holi now…doesn’t matter who you are.

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Holika

A modern day Holika waiting to be burnt.

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