Monday, January 28, 2013

They are all the Same!

I had promised some recipes in the last blog. But one good recipe isn't good enough for us. The ingredients each have a story to tell. The current form can very easily be derived from socio-political-economical-cultural changes that took place since the whole thing started. So, it all started in Persia and hence we are going to begin there.

Persia, around tenth century AD, Abu Ali Ibn Sina, for the first time documented the recipe of Pilaf. Chelow was the starting point. To make Chelow, the Rice was to be parboiled and drained. The drained rice was then steamed to get exceptionally fluffy rice with all grains separated. The Mughal cooks often used to test such rice by dropping a fistful on ground and checking that no two grains are sticking together. Adding some spices (and not Ghee, Sugar and Cardamoms) while steaming the rice made it into Polow. Basmati rice, Sugar, many of the presently prevalent spices were very expensive in Persia which caused the Polow to taste much like salted, meaty, colorful rice; color being derived from various flowers and legumes. While the Polow travelled towards the land of spices and basmati rice, over Afghanistan, the dry fruits, sugar and spices started becoming more available; mainly due to newly discovered trading routes and increased trade(and the occasional invasions).

Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian professor of oriental languages and a traveller described the Pilaf recipe of the Afghans. A few spoonfuls of animal fat were melted (the fat of the sheep's tail was preferred) in a vessel and small pieces of sheep meat are fried and water is added and boiled till the meat becomes tender. Pepper and thinly sliced carrots are added to this and is topped with rice. As the rice boils in the water and starts cooking, some more water is added till it's fully absorbed by the rice. The pot is then sealed and hot coals are put on top and bottom. The pot is left to steam for about half an hour. After opening, it is served in such a way that all layers are separate; carrot and meat on top.

The Afghan recipe although good was too greasy and insipid to be agreeable to the Indian palate, when it travelled to India. India was transforming itself to have a religion called Hinduism. The cow had become sacred and having meat was both expensive and impious. The Mughals also adapted. Ghee was the substitute used by the Indians for anima fat. Vegetables were the substitute of meat and good rice was strictly Basmati.  And thus the meat was removed; vegetables were added. Some more aromatic spices and sugar were added. The Basmati rice was colored with Saffron and turmeric. Animal fat was replaced by Ghee. The resultant metamorphosed rice is what we love to call Pulav/Polaoo.

Though I have tracked the journey of Pulav to India, it also travelled to other parts of the world. The Uzbek Lamb rice, the Lebanese Rice with lamb shank, and the humble risotto; all were derived from Pilaf. Pilaf it seems is the great grand parent of all modern recipes that constitute fluffy separated fragrant rice.

While chatting with a Lebanese Chef, the concepts of cooking the rice and Pilaf sounded so familiar that I chatted with an Iraqi and an Indian chef. The exact methods of preparation that they maintain in their restaurants remain exceptionally the same. Hardly a few percentages of difference make us all different; it's true for genetics and probably for Pilaf too.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Colored Fragrant Rice

Bengali Sweet Polaoo

Whenever the craving for fried rice(Chinese Style) used to bother me, my mother would start cooking the rice, taking the words fried rice literally. It didn’t taste like the Chinese thing, but it did taste good. In the marriage receptions or the Saraswati Puja or on Durgashtami, we used to have something special. A sweet, colorful, aromatic and savory preparation of rice. The volunteer servers used to say out loud while rushing past eager plates, “Polaoo Polaoo Polaoo!!”.
What we Bengalis love to call as homemade fried rice or “Polaoo” and the people from other parts of India call as “Pulav”, has its genesis in ancient Persia. In fact, the name of the preparation has remained phonetically quite unchanged. The Persians called it “Pilav” or “Pilaf”.

Abu Ali Ibn Sina
In the tenth century, Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) or Ibn Sina, recorded various recipes of Pilaf, with advantages and disadvantages of each of the ingredients. When Alexander the great was served the Great royal banquet in Bactria, post his conquest of Samarkand, the rice preparation was so relished by everyone that the soldiers brought it back to Macedonia and spread it all across the Balkans.

Emperor Shahjahan had dining habits, which had intrigued Manrique (That story comes in my later blogs); he was not a barbarian, he dined in the most exquisite of ways. Shahjahan was the fifth Mughal to rule India. Babur, “The Tiger” was the first one. Babur was a Timurid prince from central Asian kindom of Fergana in the current Uzbekistan. Babur wished to reestablish the Timurid line across the region. At the age of 15, he conquered the city of Samarkand; the place of refinement of Pilaf, a place of sophisticated Islamic culture, the place known as “The pearl of the Eastern Muslim world”. But Babur wasn’t able to retain Samarkand for long. Even many years of survival in the rough mountains didn’t stagger his will. He had his eyes on the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul. Eventually he did concur Kabul and by 1526 he had launched his attack on India. Babur had come from a culture that took great pleasure in eating. One of the earliest Muslim cookery books described food as the most consequential of the six senses. After losing Samarkand, Babur had spent much of his life in the rough mountains, surviving on the hearty meat based diet of the horse riding nomads of the central Asian steppes.

Afghani Pilau
In the 1920s, the local Afridis had invited the British to watch a display of guns, fireworks and evasive warfare. The British then got an opportunity to sample the kind of food Babur used to have. There were skewers of freshly roasted sheep’s flesh which went with the tea and there was, what they called “Pilau”. Years earlier, a Hungarian scholar who travelled widely in central Asia in the 1860s had described the method of preparation. The methods of such preparations I am still researching and would publish in a later post. But for now, the Pilau travelled with Babur to India.

When Babur arrived in India, he found the local cuisine utterly disgusting. People used to have boiled vegetables and rice with boiled lentils. The utter lack of meat in the local cuisine was of great dislike for Babur. Babur thus brought in his persian cooks to cook for him. Pilau became a part of the royal cuisine, which slowly trickled out of the king's kitchen to the common man of northern india. India being the land of much finer and fragrant rice, further enhanced the recipe and transformed it to Pulav.
Over the centuries Pulav used ghee instead of animal fat, vegetables instead of meat and basmati instead of some other rice. Safron and turmeric were used to color the rice and local spices were added according to the regional tastes. The humble Pulav was made India's own and became the favorite of the elite brahmins and the Maharajas.

Peas Pulav
Centuries later, when we wish to have the Peas Pulav in Mumbai, it tastes starkly different from the Polaoo of Bengal; each bearing its special set of ingredients; each bearing a special meaning to the people who belong there; each associated with the varied traditions of the places. Pulav isn't an independent dish anymore it is eaten with various other sides. The fragrant colored rice, has travelled a long way on the back of horses; through numerous bloodbaths and has metamorphosed into the present day vegetarian special rice which is so entwined into the Indian tradition that some festivals are incomplete without it.

Apologies to the readers for not adding any recipe to this post. All the fine recipes of Pilaf/Pilav/Pilau/Pulav/Polaoo comes in the next post.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Nostalgic Winter Food

Isn't Denver supposed to be colder than Delhi in winters? For the past few days, apparently it isn't  As the national capital chills, I remember my childhood days in New Delhi.

I used to catch the 7’o clock bus to school, with every morning being a Mahabharat yuddh between my mother and me, I always trying to defend my position in the warm blankets. At the bus stand, my father used to stand gobbling down the morning news from the Hindustan Times; he was visible only to a few feet in the fog, so I kept near. The bus had its lights painted yellow, since the concept of fog lights was still nascent back then. Being covered from head to toe in woolens, it was really tough to move, with the added weight of my school bag. Once on the bus, all used to be well; off went the hat, the scarf and the pesky gloves. Used to catch cold and fingers used to go numb, but the sense of freedom without those three things (especially the hat), was paramount. Wasting the whole day gossiping and somehow studying, I hoped to get back home to have that tasty winter stuff that mother made.

After more than a decade, even today I fight for staying on the bed a few minutes more, but have started cooking the winter food myself. I dare say I can cook them up pretty neat!

So here go few of them:

Rajma Masala
Have with steamed rice or parathas or just like that. My sister preferred having the Rajma with Rice Crispies(Muri/Murmura).

Soak the Rajma(Kidney Beans), overnight or like me just put them in a pressure cooker and cook them till they are tender inside but firm outside. In a pot, heat some oil and ghee/butter. Add some Cumin seeds and let them crackle. Now add sliced onions and sauté till they are brown. Add some chopped tomatoes, diced garlic, grated ginger and all spice powder and fry like there’s no tomorrow. Add some sugar and salt whenever you like. After the masala is cooked, add the cooked rajma and top it up with some chopped cilantro. Add water and let it simmer slowly till you get very consistent gravy or till it starts tasting good. Add a cube of butter on top before serving. Kids love it!

Gobi paratha
Have it with the Rajma Masala or anything. I eat it with ketchup.

Heat some oil in a pan on medium heat. Add Asafetida, Ginger and Garlic and let it crackle for some time. Add minced cauliflower and mix mix mix. Add with Salt, Coriander Powder, Dry Mango Powder, Cumin Powder and Red Chili Powder. Mix well and cook uncovered until cauliflower is tender and moisture is evaporated. Set it aside to cool down. Now in a bowl add atta, Salt and Oil. Mix until Oil is well incorporated into the dry flour. Add a little water at a time to knead flour into smooth dough. Sprinkle a few drops of Oil to coat dough, cover and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Heat a skillet on medium heat. Make the dough into small balls and roll them with a rolling pin after dusting with some atta; just roll out a medium sized paratha. Now put a bit of the cauliflower mixture in the middle and pull all the ends of the paratha to the center and join to form a small bag filled with cauliflower. Now dust with some atta again and roll out into full blown parathas. Put it on the skillet and heat it till it starts changing color. Flip over to do the other side; keep flipping till it’s cooked. Put a cube of butter before serving.

Gajar Ka Halwa

Boil some milk in a pot till it is reduced to half. Keep stirring while it boils. Melt some butter in a frying pan and stir fry some shredded carrots till the carrots are slightly tender. Now add the previously boiled milk to the carrots and keep stirring till it’s all gone. Add some sugar and cardamom powder and stir till the halwa starts leaving the sides of the skillet. Add some roasted cashews and almonds.

So you have the recipe for a full winter meal now. Bon appétit!!!!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Food and Emotions

Long back in Delhi, while I used to relish the daal, rajma and mutton curry that mother made, I used to wonder if I would ever be able to cook like that. The daal with that special fragrance of onions; the rajma with its sweet sour hot taste; the mutton curry for which I could fight a world war 3…

Years have passed and I have cooked most of my meals for the last 6 years. I have been able to recreate the rajma but the mutton and the daal; I still am perplexed.

In the years of living by myself, necessity has caused me to become a so called good cook. I churn up wonderful recipes and cook up hearty meals for me and my friends. There have been days when I have not been able to get that perfect taste, that perfect aroma out of the ingredients and there have been days when even the ones who eat less, end up finishing off everything in the pot.

So, what made mother’s meal so pleasing and my meals sometimes good and sometimes horrible? The answer to that is a bit abstract. What I have observed is that, the food that I prepare reflects my mood. A bad day at office and a horrible headache would make the worst chicken tikka and a good day and a relaxed body would make the shrimp taste five star even when the vital ingredients are missing. So, does that say that good cooks are always happy people? Well, most chefs that I’ve met are so, but the rest don’t invent, they just go on following a fixed algorithms (bringing out boring but edible food).

Mothers and sisters and wives and girlfriends derive a great joy from cooking food for their children and brothers and husbands and boyfriends. They are wired up like that. No good office day or healthy body can replicate that. Hence men can’t ever cook as good and as wholesome dinners as women. 

So, what can we possibly do to survive and to get some wah-wahi from friends?
It’s simple; keep it simple. 

Cook only when you really want to. Never attempt to cook when you are fighting with someone or just after a lost war of words. The shrimp would be cooked like biscuits and the potato would be a bit softer than bricks; the oil would be floating around and the cumin would give you a heartache.

Know what you want to cook. You are not an alchemist or a chef. Looking up a recipe on YouTube is not at all demeaning. 

Get the ingredients neatly placed in-front of you before you start cooking that Afghani. Don’t jump around the kitchen, looking for nutmeg while the masala burns off in the pot.

Try using as little self prepared spices as you can; don’t risk it. There’s chhole masala, mutton masala and garam masala ready to be used, up for sale; use them.

Always use fresh vegetables and boil/fry the potatoes before putting them in the curry. 

Make sure the onions are well fried and caramelized before you add anything else.

Use cumin as little as possible and add that to the oil and not at the end of frying vegetables.

Don’t wander off to watch TV while the masala is sizzling in the pot. Finish it and go on with whatever you want to.

Ask your mother how to cook a specific thing. Follow it like your life depends on it; and you’d never disappoint anyone.

Maybe that would not make you a master chef, but would keep you in the foodie circle. The privilege? You cook once and make others happy and others would cook for you the next time.

Having said all that, if you really want to create, as opposed to recreate, you’d need to imagine what you want and read about the ingredients and practice a lot.
The most important thing, be happy about what you’re going to cook.

Happy Cooking!!!!