Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Series on food ; Coriander -8

Coriander or Dhaniya is much in demand in Indian kitchens both as a fresh herb and as a dried seed added to curries, preserves and chutneys in a powdered or semi crushed form. Panini in his seminal work on grammar (Ashtadhyayi dated presumably around 600 BC) calls it Dhanyak and Kusthumbhir. The current names Dhaniya ( Hindi) and Kothmir(Marathi) are rooted in the original Sanskrit. Dhaniya according to Indian medicinal thought has healing properties with a  hot Taseer (nature) and is used liberally in the special brew fed to a neo nate mother as Hareera made with jaggery , ghee, nuts and turmeric.
Coriander is native to the mediterranean and presumably travelled to India like Zeera ( cummin) with caravans that connected the nations along the fabled Silk route.
An interesting superstition among traditional vegetable growers in the north says that to grow a good crop of Dhaniya, the seed must be crushed with an old leather shoe !
(next, Buddhist Food )


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

On Food.Chilly from Chile-7

What is a hot and hearty Indian meal without a red runny nose and watering eyes ? Curry without chillies is like an egg without salt. Inedible. Much as it may surprise many, till the 16th century, the top listed hot spice in the Indian kitchen was black pepper, not the red or green varieties of chillies we use today in fresh or powdered forms of varying intensity. In recipes noted in the Ain E Akbari chilly means black pepper. It was only in the 17th century that this miracle spice made its appearance in India, courtesy the Dutch who were hooked to it after Vasco d Gama travelled to Latin America and brought the seeds thereof. Chilly derives its name from Chile, the country of its origin.
The Indians who loved pungent spices, were soon addicted to chilly and began growing it in abundance .
Overcome by the abundance of their taste the medieval saint poet Purandar Das wrote an ode to the chilly saying, " ah you chilly, I saw you grow from green to red, gradually becoming prettier and hotter, ah you chilly, as I breathe you in, your flavours make it hard to keep my mind focussed on my Lord Vitthala."
Today we have hundreds of varieties of chilly available to us from the sharp and tiny Nepali Mirch to the fatter Gorakhpuri Mirch from eastern UP ideal for pickling and creating that Hyderabadi miracle Salan , Mirchi Ka Salan and Rajasthani Mirchi Bhajiyas. The Kashmiri Degi mirch, like its Polish cousin Paprika, is renowned for giving the attractive red colour to the curries all over India . Then there is the rotund and dreaded Bhoot Jolakiya variety available only in the North East, which if imbibed by unsuspecting uninitiated, makes them scream and hit the ceiling.
Given its pungency, red hot Mirchis are also a part of ritual warding off of the Evil Eye ( Buri Nazar). A fistful of salt, mixed with black mustard seeds and seven red chillies are rotated over the head of the person ( usually babies) prone to damage by some envious person's evil eye, and then consigned to flames by loving grand mothers. It is believed that if the Nazar was indeed bad, the Mirchis will burn without emitting any acrid smoke and the salt will not splutter. A string of lemons and Mirchis is sold at many cross roads in India as a warder- off of Nazar and is hugely popular among truckers and those who drive along the highway . Even in busy markets some people earn their daily living by selling these little garlands to shopkeepers who hang it on their doors to keep good luck in and bad Nazar out !
Then there are gangs of thieves who blind their victims temporarily by throwing Mirchi powder in their eyes.
Interestingly, apart from humankind, the only other species that loves green chillies is parrots . It is believed that the talking parrots begin to speak clearly like humans if fed chillies regularly. Articulation comes with a price you see !
( next- Coriander )

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

On Food,Gods' Own Garam Masala-6

Garam Masala is actually the collective name for a clutch of frgrant spices considered in Ayurveda to be Garam (hot) and grown down south . The main among them are pepper( kali mirch), cardamom(Ilayachi), clove( Lavang), bayleaves(Tejpatta), cinnamon( dalchini), Zeera(cummin), dried ginger(Sonth), nutmeg(Jayphal) and mace(Javitri).
Bayleaves are mentioned by Sushrut and Vagbhatt as Tvak, used to add fragrance to cooked rice. India has long been exporting bayleaves, pepper and ginger to Roman Europe and Syria. By the 15th Century the nobility in Europe had developed a huge crush on these and according to the Portugese trade logs , in just one trip a ship from India had carried 1500 tonnes of pepper, 28 tonnes of dried ginger, 8 tonnes of cinnamon and 7 tonnes of cloves to Portugal.
Down south Garam Masala also became a part of holy foods cooked for gods within temple premises. Thus the fabled Laddoos of Thirupati, made fragrant with cardamoms, and the enorous Iddlis offered at the Devraj Swami Vishnu temple at Kanchi spiced with cummin, pepper and dried ginger. In Orissa the holy Bhog prepared for Lord Jagannath features special Khichri which uses Gram Masala liberally as seasoning . To smell the food is to half taste it goes the saying, so to desist from smelling the food before offering it to the Lord, the cooks tie thick scarves over the lower half of their faces.
Even the Buddhists and Jains use Gram Msalas. The buddhists monks began their meals with rice sprinkled over with salt and diried ginger powder . The Jains who eat nothing grown underground for fear of killing any life forms adhering to the legumes, relent about sun dried ginger . In the first century of the Roman calendar the Portugese traders had sent a large consignment of ginger weighing some 28 tonnes to Portugal.
Ginger has always been a part of north Indian cuisine but the Moghuls popularised the Garam masala as we know it, up north . Soon it became a steady part of non vegetarian cuisine in various permutations and combinations . The Moghuls also introduced the art of making ginger Murabbas and sweet chutneys flavored with ginger.
(Next- the Chilly)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Ah the Spices -5

Women's  love for jewellery is a fact as old as men's love for war . There is this story about a rich trader whose next door neighbour was also his family physician or Vaidya . The Vaidya's wife had long been pestering him for a pair of gold Kangans. One cold winter evening as they were sitting down for their evening meal, the Vaidya, across the wall separating their kitchens they heard the trader asking his wife for a bowl of yogurt. The Vaidya's ears pricked up . A cold bowl of yogurt on a chilly evening? According to Ayurveda this spelt a major chest congestion for he who imbibed it !
"I should exoect to be called soon . And you will shortly get your Kangans now !' he whispered to his wife.
But matters didn't end there . They heard the trader's wise mother ask the daughter in law to add a pinch of roasted cummin seed powder and another pinch of pepper powder mixed with rock salt to the yogurt before she served it ."
" Ah, there goes your Kangan," said the Vaidya to his wife. "The wretched spices will guarantee that the trader will stay well through the year ."
Spice stories abound in India . The miracles they can create not only in the kitchen but also in keeping the household healthy through the year by providing hundreds of home remedies made with various 'hot' and 'cold' spices that can cure all those troubles ( Vikar) imbalance of Vat ( air) Pitt ( gall) and Kaff ( phlegm) factors can cause.
The king of the spices is Haldi or turmeric. Curcuma longa is an ancient rhizome (root) native to India. Panini's grammar also calls it Dhanyak and Kusthumbhir . It has importance not only as a cooking ingredient that imparts colour , flavor and medicinal value to meals but it is also an inalienable part of all rituals, many magic potions, healing pastes and cosmetics  . The Sanskrit name Haridra some say , has aboriginal roots and was first imbibed only by the community of fisherfolk ( Nishadas) and Savanin ( dog keepers of low castes) and punjishtha ( bird trappers). The bride's bridal bath is incomplete without Haldi and when the body is bruised badly, a good pinch of turmeric mixed with milk and honey heals the body from within and is balm for sore throats. A mixed paste of Haldi and sandal wood paste works wonders for the skin . Even Huen Tsang the Chinese traveller has vouched for this.
Haldi is also a great dye for cotton and the new bride and a neo nate mother are both given fine cotton scarves dyed in Haldi . Wedding cards in villages are still sent with a mix of Haldi and rice ( Akshat) as a sign of joy, luck and community well being.
(next-The Garam Masala )

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Season for Making Preserves--4

Come September and the women in our town got busy making Badi and Mungaudi preserves for the harsh winter months. These little dry nuggets that could be cooked with minimalist spice mixtures to produce a most delectable accompaniment to rice at lunch time, were made with lentil paste with subtle flavourings. Their greatest quality was that in the high altitude mountains they softened far more easily than the traditional Dal, thus saving much hard work and , ofcourse, precious fuel. Enormous quantities of these were made each year and stored in tightly sealed tin containers for round the year use . During the monsoon months with unrelenting showers whenever the sun came out the preserves were put out in the sun upon old home laundered cotton saris so they may lose any mould- causing moisture they may have.
The houses in the hills in those days had gently sloping tin roofs not the silly flat cement ones one sees now. The Badi making began for some strange reason on the first day of the Shraddha season, and was over before Navratri when the Badi makers observed tedious nine day fasts to please the Goddess . As we left for school and began our daily down the hill treks, we'd see pretty women of the Shahs who owned most of the shops in the bazaar, resplendant in their gold jewellery and heavy traditional nose rings, squatting upon their roofs with large brass platters of lentil paste, oiling their neatly washed roofs before delicately dripping tiny blobs of the paste upon the tin . The Badis were made with Urad Dal and the Mungauri with either Moong or red Masoor Dal . There was also a much loved variety of Badis called Naalbadi, made with spicy lentil paste miraculously made to cover the smooth stems of stem of Arabi plants to form Seekh kebab like shapes that were chopped to bite size pieces when half dry . The Nalbadi was handled only by the most skilled dowagers in families who were much sought after during the season and acted pricy .
While the women made roofs full of Badi and Mungaudi in shades of white yellow and reddish pink, they conversed across the roofs exchanging recipes, menus and information about impending weddings and child birth . My writer mother loved the season that became raw material for many of her works . She learnt the art of making Badis and Mungaudis from a garrulous and kind neighbour much to my father's dislike. Babu hated the sour smells that the house emanated during the act and also the annual disfigurement of the roof. He was also of the firm opinion that his wife with her priceless gift for writing should devote more time to cerebral pursuits and not sit gossiping with semi literate neighbours on roof tops, making preserves that could be bought any time from the local Khadi Gramodyog Bhawan .
Ah those Khadi Bhawan preserves ! Mother laughed . Like most Gandhians their products are dusty, colourless and hard. And when  I can make them at half the cost ( very doubtful given the bounty she extended to her teacher comrades) why not ? When roads break down during monsoons and snow storms, it is my preserves that feed you all ! Ghar ki bani cheez ki barakkat hi aur hoti hai ( homemade things have a glory of their own !) she ended . We laughed at Mother's eccentricities but enjoyed the hot Vadas and Moong Bhajias that were a by product of the preserve making week .
There was a local superstition that if the rain gods wised up to women's designs for making Badi Mungauri, they were sure to send showers and wipe out the first day's efforts . For that reason on the first day only a limited amount was put out . Mostly a stray shower did wipe most of it out before drying and an uncle who owned a big hotel in town would call up my mother and say with mock anger, look Gaura ! once again you and your cronies including my own wife are spoiling my tourist season with your Badi making activities !
Years later after my husband's father retired to the hills with his wife, my ever so humble and gentle mother in law told my mother that she wanted to help the local women who could do with a side income and a day job . My mother suggested to her that she organise the local women and set up an outlet to help them sell their traditional preserves to hill families living in the plains and pining for good old Pahadi Badi Mungaudi . The venture took root soon despite my father in law ( like Babu) discouraging his wife from such domestic pursuits. For the next two decades till she lived, she helped the humble semi literate women of the small town make and sell several quintals of preserves each year. She helped them get Dal at reasonable rates from the farmers in the Terai region and used our large family circuit to hoard and sell the consignments she sent . After she passed on the groups disintegrated but some of them are still producing the wares and being helped by another family to sell.
Thus women's perseverance notwithstanding frowning husbands and rising prices !
(Next-Know your spices)    

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Dumchee in the Age of the WW --3

My father who grew up in the immediate post WW-1 years, said he was puzzled by the local fruit sellers in Kumaon referring to sweet dates as Dumchee. The mystery was solved for him by an elderly uncle who had been witness to this christening.
During WW-1 the British regularly sent small contingents of British soldiers back from the Front, to recover in the salubrious climate of the hills. They stayed in the local fort area, wore their red and gold uniforms and often marched through the town . They were referred to locally as Tommies and were much feared by children and the young women out to gather fuel and fodder in the forests nearby. They called them the 'red faced ones'( Lalmunha) and young girls were under strict orders from their families to hide as soon as they heard the sound of marching boots.
History will have its little jokes even during the most tense times . A large consignment of sweet dates from somewhere in central Asia was delivered in ( no doubt by mistake) Almora town. The fruit vendors used to selling local apples, oranges, pears and plums, were quite surprised by the sight of the new fruit that came in cakes and tasted so sweet . The locals, mostly Brahmin families observing strong food taboos, stolidly refused to buy this foreign fruit.
One day as a listless wayside vendor, conned into buying a box by some wily retailer, sat with his wares fanning flies off the heap of non selling dates and ruing the day he landed up with them. Just then a troop of Tommies marched in . At the sight of dates, they all jumped up ! 'How much?' they asked the seller . 'Whatever you like,' came the answer followed no doubt by sotto voce murmuring in the local dialect about how all he needed was money to cut his losses. 'Tell me what is the name of this fruit and take it at any rate you wish', he finally said . '
'Damn cheap!' yelled the Tommies and within minutes all the dates were sold.
Aha, Dumchee ! the fruit seller said . We now at least know its name .
As the fame of Almora dates spread in the fort area, more and more Lalmunhas came asking for the Dumchee fruit . Everyone now brought out  their non selling consignment of dates, wiped out the losses in no time and considered ordering some more from the plains.
The date or Dumchee,  thereafter went on to become a best selling item in the fruit markets not only in Almora but also Ranikhet and Nainital that saw a steady pouring in of Gora soldiers. By and by the locals convinced by some educated citizens that it was a fruit like any other, also accepted it.
The name Dumchee for dates, however, continued for decades, my father said till the literacy levels went up. The women who knew little English preferred to call it Pind ( consolidated) Khajoor .
As always the local name given by the women continued even after the genteel ones began to call the fruit by its Angrezi name .
(next- The season for making Badi Mungaudi preserves) 

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Legend of Thumia of Jhijhad- Food series 2

Jhijhad is a Mohulla of the Joshi clan also known as Diwan Rath for having been Diwan to the Chand kings of Almora once upon a time. After the British signed the treaty of Sugauli with the erstwhile Gurkha rulers and the area became a part of the British Company's lands, the Joshis with their long history of erudition, continued to rise by dint of their merit .
The beautiful stone buildings of the Joshi's still stand across the road from my grand mother's house. But most of its illustrious members having departed to the plains, most homes dating back to the past era have come to have a somewhat derelict air about them. Only elderly family members, their attendants and dogs live there, except in the summers when the younger ones come visiting as tourists.
Once during the days the clan's stars were in ascendance, the house was known for its generosity. Durig that period a Thokdar ( village head) arrived in Almora for a case that required multiple hearings in the Zilla Kutchery( district courts), and asked the locals for a safe place with well cooked meals. There were no hotels and inns in small towns then. So the Thokdar was directed to the Jhijhad Joshis' . He spent the day in the kutchery and then went back to Jhijhad for meals and night stay. No one asked him who he was nor what caste or creed. The multiple daughters in law and their supervising mothers in law served him all his meals in the vast family kitchen where he had selected an innocuous seat behind a pillar ( Thuma). Since it was forbidden to talk while eating, everyone ate in silence and left for their work or bed depending on the time. The family members took it for granted that he must be a relative of one of the daughters in law and therefore merited courtesy with no questions asked about his identity. Somewhere during the months that followed someone christened this silent vistor Thumia ( he who sits near the pillar), and he began to be referred to by the kitchen brigade as such . If he was ever late, the commander in chief would enquire where is Thumia ? Sin will be on my head if he has left without eating . Thumia though, always turned up more or less on time for meals and was served as graciously as any member of the family.
Six months passed thus and Thumia having won his case left for his native village . When he failed to turn up the menfolk were asked to check if his bedding and bags were still around . When it was reported that they were not, it was assumed that the honoured guest Thumia must have left. A month later the people saw a long caravan of mules arrive in town, loaded with all kinds of gifts of food and hand woven woollens. It headed straight for the Joshis' house and was led by no other than Thumia himself. It was reported that once it reached Jhijhad,  Thumia went up to the head of the house and touched his feet saying he had never known the sort of unquestioning generosity and care that was given him for months by the members of the household . Jai Ho ! May you all remain victorious he said and asked his men to unload the gifts for the entire clan.
Thus Thumia. Thus bonds of humanity.
(next: the legend of Dumcheeas recounted by my father)