Saturday, April 30, 2005

EoMEoTE#6: Indian Railways Omelet Sandwich

It's the end of the month again (yikes) which means two things for me:
a) Pay the bills
b) Make eggs on toast for the EoMEoTE#6.

What is this tongue-twister ? Well, it is a really fun food-blog event and you may please toodle off to the ova-enthusiastic Cook Sister so she can tell you all about it.

Me, I am making Indian Railways Omelet Sandwiches for the event. Ok, it probably is not the most appetizing name ever given to a dish, but the honest truth is that I associate this sandwich with railway journeys. The Indian Railways are a truly amazing system of some 11,000 trains that run the length and breadth of the sub-continent, and they have catering services on most of them. I remember that this omelet sandwich was often sold on trains from Bombay to Pune. It is very filling and tasty. Here is the recipe for making two sandwiches.

Omelet Sandwich
March05_7

Making the Indian-style Omelet
  1. Beat together 3 large eggs. 
  2. Add half a minced onion, 1 tbsp milk/cream, 1 finely minced fresh chile pepper, 2 tbsp minced cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. 
  3. Make 2 omelets using this mixture.

Assembling the sandwiches
  1. Liberally butter 4 slices of bread. 
  2. Fill each pair of bread slices with sliced tomatoes, folded omelets and a slice of cheese, if desired. 
  3. Serve with ketchup and a cup of steaming hot chai.
That was easy!

Bombay Street Food: Pav Bhaji

Bombay- now there's a city that loves tucking in! A teeming metropolis of about 20 million people (bigger than most European nations), it makes even New York City feel like a sleepy little town! At any point in time, millions of Bombayites are out in the streets eating. Even at midnight (especially at midnight), hordes of people crowd at little restaurants and roadside stalls to tuck into spicy chaat and crispy dosas and creamy fruit-flavored kulfis and above all, pav bhaji.

Whenever I visit Bombay, the main item on the agenda is : Eat Sukh Sagar Pav Bhaji. Sukh Sagar is a little restaurant near the Chowpatty beach in South Bombay, and it serves simply the most awesome snacks, the likes of which evoke feelings usually reserved for religious epiphanies.

What, then, is Pav Bhaji? It is a spicy vegetable stew that you sop up with pillowy bread. The pav bhaji chef (bhaiyya) stands at the mouth of the restaurant with a huge cast-iron pan in front of him. He is surrounded by bowls of chopped veggies and an alarming number of packets of Amul brand butter. The bhaiyya will start sauteeing the veggies together with boiled potatoes, spices and enormous dollops of butter and mash the whole mixture into a sizzling vegetable dish. He will then serve this bhaji with rolls of bread called pav that have been likewise drowned in butter. The final touch: the dish is topped with raw onion slices and lemon wedges. The whole mess is simply heaven on a plate. Or a heart attack on a plate, depending on your point of view.

Which brings me to the misery that overcomes people who move out of Bombay and would have to fly 24 hours to get to our beloved Sukh Sagar. What do we do? The best solution would be to catch the next flight out of JFK but an alternative solution is to make pav bhaji at home. Every Indian store sells pav bhaji masala, a dry mix of some 18 or so spices. The method is simplicity itself: saute onions and ginger-garlic, add veggies and boiled potates, tomato and pav bhaji masala; then taste it and wail about how it is not like Sukh Sagar's. It tastes OK but is just not the real McCoy.

I lived my life in sub-standard-pav-bhaji-hood, until last December. That's when I was visiting my parents and my Mom's close pal Aunt Madhuri dropped in with some home-made pav bhaji for me. I was like "yeah, thanks" because, you know, Auntie M is an amazing cook, but is hardly the Sukh Sagar Bhaiyya. Then my mother started reheating the pav-bhaji and I started jumping for joy...the aroma was exactly like that of the genuine article. And it tasted so darn close too! I accosted Aunt M and wheedled the recipe out of her and was dismayed at how plain and simple (and almost wrong!) it sounded. She insisted that onions are not to be sauteed for the bhaji (what!!) because they lend a sweetish non-authentic flavor. Her method used a lot of cauliflower which again seemed totally wrong. She used Everest brand pav bhaji masala so anyway, I bought a couple of packets and returned to NYC.

Once here, I barely waited for the jet lag to subside and then set out to make pav bhaji exactly as per good ol' M. The whole time I was making it I was pretty sure it was going to be a disaster (I wondered bitterly if M was protecting her culinary secrets by giving out bogus recipes) but I persevered and suddenly at the last stage of cooking, there was a miracle: my kitchen smelled like, you guessed it, Sukh Sagar. Hallelujah Hallelujah, praise to aunt Madhuri and her pav bhaji recipe. Here it is, for about 4-6 servings.

Pav Bhaji

March05_6

Ingredients:
1 small head of cauliflower, cut into florets (about 3-4 cups)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 tbsp. oil
1 green bell pepper, minced
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1 tsp. chili powder or red chili paste
1 tsp. ginger-garlic paste
salt to taste
2-3 cups tomato puree
1/2 cup peas (fresh or frozen)...optional
1 tbsp. Everest pav bhaji masala (or more to taste)
1 tbsp. butter

Method
  1. Boil the cauliflower and potatoes till tender and set aside. I usually do this in a pressure cooker.
  2. Heat oil in a deep saucepan and saute the pepper. Add ginger-garlic paste and saute some more.
  3. Add turmeric powder, chili powder to taste and salt to taste. Saute for a few seconds.
  4. Add tomato puree, peas, boiled potatoes and cauliflower, pav bhaji masala and butter.
  5. Keep sauteeing and mashing it together till it is a smooth mixture, adding water as required (you can use a potato masher to help you along). Be aware that the mixture can spurt up as it boils, so keep a lid on it while you are not actively stirring it. Simmer for 20-25 minutes to really get the flavors to meld together.

You have to keep tasting and adjusting salt, masala and tomato till you like the balance between the tomato-ey tang and the heat of the masala.

Serve with:
1. More pats of butter (as much as you can dare really, don't be chicken now),
2. Finely sliced/ chopped onions, minced cilantro and wedges of lemon.
pavB1
3. The genuine pav-bhaji is served with real Bombay laadi pav...slabs of bread, so named because the rolls are sold as entire slabs and you break the rolls off as required. This bread is so yeasty and terrific! I serve it with any crusty bread that is chewy on the inside, like ciabatta or country boule or French rolls. I don't recommend burger buns at all...they are too soft and pasty. Try and find "real" bread in a bakery :)

Variations:
1. Fry the bread in some butter first. For an even spicier result, make masala pav...melt some butter in a skillet. Sprinkle pav bhaji masala in it, then fry the bread in this spicy butter until sizzling and golden.
2. To make cheese pav-bhaji, top the pav bhaji with some shredded cheese. In India, the brand used is Amul cheese...in the US, Monterey Jack cheese comes close to this. Or try Cheddar. (Thanks Anon, for reminding me of this variation)
3. Some readers have suggested frozen mixed vegetables to increase the veggie content of the pav bhaji. I think beans and carrots would work well.
4. A reader named Manasi suggests the addition of some garam masala to the bhaji to give it an even more authentic taste. She also recommends MDH brand pav bhaji masala.
5. Another anonymous reader suggests adding Priya's Tomato Garlic Pickle for added pizzazz.

I hope you enjoy this taste of Bombay! I thank everyone who has tried this recipe, and takes the time to leave their valuable feedback, often with great suggestions and variations.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

IMBB#14: Orange you glad I made tortilla soup?

This is a lovely theme for Is My Blog Burning: the color orange.

The only problem: what to make, what to make, because with the Indian penchant for using turmeric and spices, all our food looks almost uniformly brown-orange. It is a problem, many of our desserts are orange too, with the use of mango and saffron. So theoretically, I could have made any of a thousand recipes. But it is a busy day, and I had friends over for a Mexican fiesta so the orange recipe is going to be Mexican-inspired- Tortilla Soup.

I love making this soup for various reasons: It has a history of being passed on from room-mate to room-mate ( I got it from my old room-mate Steph who got it from her old roommate Eve who...you get the picture).

It is also a very student-friendly recipe, made from all pantry ingredients and budget-friendly ones at that. Finally and most importantly, it is totally and undeniably ORANGE!

The habanero pepper (one of the hottest peppers in the world) is the only exotic ingredient and it adds an incredible kick but it can be totally substituted with chili powder or other peppers.

Tortilla Soup
March05_5

Ingredients
2 cans corn kernels/2 boxes frozen corn
1 medium diced onion
2 tsp. cumin powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. paprika
1 hananero pepper
3/4 can crushed tomato
2 tbsp. oil
1 tbsp. lime juice
Tortilla chips (lime flavored ones work well)

Method
  1. Heat oil in stockpot. Fry onion, corn kernels, spices, season with salt and pepper.
  2. Add tomatoes. Saute for a few minutes. 
  3. Add 5 cups water and habanero pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes. 
  4. Pull out and discard hanabero pepper (this is important is you want to avoid dialling 911 during dinner...habanero is one of the hottest peppers known to man).
  5. Add lime juice and a handful of chips and blend the soup partially to make it more brothy.

Serve topped with more crushed chips, shredded Monterey cheese (or another hard cheese like cheddar) and cilantro. Enjoy!

Friday, April 22, 2005

SHF#7: Gooey Gajar Halwa

The theme for April's Sugar High Friday is at once unusual and very familiar: Molasses!

Familiar because I grew up in a part of India that is a major producer of sugar and consequently, molasses; and unusual because I never thought of using molasses as an ingredient.

Where I grew up, sugarcane production ruled the local economy. Tall stalks of sugarcane can be seen waving along vast expases of land. Seasonally, the sugarcane is harvested and sent to huge sugar factories to make refined sugar or to smaller cottage industries called gurhal to make jaggery or unrefined sugar. The process of making jaggery is fascinating and people often gather at the gurhal to watch and enjoy the process. You gather around a huge pan (the diameter is about 20 feet) in which sugarcane juice bubbles over a wood fire. This is where the you get to chew on sugarcane stalks, roast peanuts in the fire and enjoy local produce. Once the juice is thick enough, 6-10 men will grab the pan with a special harness and pour the juice into what looks like a swimming pool cut like a huge trough in the ground. This is the mould where the thick juice sets into jaggery and is then cut into blocks. The newly made foamy jaggery, scooped from the pool using sugarcane stalks, is the best candy I have ever tasted in my life.

But I digress. Molasses (kakvi in Marathi) is a by-product of sugar production and not of jaggery. We always had a bottle of the stuff lying around the house. Other than eating it with hot rotis as a snack, I can't for the life of me remember what it was used for.

For SHF#7, I decided to adapt a traditional Indian dessert, gajar halwa, a stove-top carrot pudding. Traditionally it does not contain molasses so this is a twist on the classic recipe. I love making gajar halwa, and people often request it but without a food processor, grating enough carrots for the halwa is painful. I was grocery shopping today and dawdling around the produce section when inspiration stuck. Why grate your own carrots when the nice folks at Dole will do it for you? So here it is, gajar halwa with a gooey twist.

Gajar Halwa with Molasses
March05_4

INGREDIENTS
10 oz. bag of shredded carrots (you lucky ones with fancy food processors can grate your own)
12 oz. can evaporated milk
3 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. molasses
1 tsp. cardamom powder
1/2 cup chopped cashews, pecans, walnuts, raisins
1 tbsp. butter

METHOD
  1. Heat butter in a non-stick pan and stir fry the carrots and nuts/raisins for 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add the evaporated milk and cook on medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally till the mixture thickens quite a bit. 
  3. Add the sugar, molasses, cardamom and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring constantly till the mixture is almost dry. 

These days in India it is very fashionable to serve gajar halwa with vanilla ice-cream. Me, I'm gobbling it down just like it is :) The molasses gives a wonderful complexity to the halwa. Many thanks to Derrick from An Obsession with Food and Wine for coming up with this challenging theme, and for writing this delicious round-up of molasses recipes.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A "Konkani" Sunday

I took a haitus from the blog last week because I was in Toronto. I stayed with a dear who treated me to wonderful home-cooked suppers. This aunt is Konkani, her family comes from the Konkan coast of Western India and so I got to eat some pretty awesome Konkani specialties. One night she made a simple supper of dal and rice but the instant I tasted it, I knew this was no ordinary dal. It turned out to be a specialty called Moong Dal Ghassi, a dal simmered with a coconut masala. Now coconut is widely used in Indian cooking as a base for vegetable, egg and meat curries, and grated coconut is often used a garnish for dry vegetable dishes. But a dal with coconut...now that is quite unusual to me. My aunt recited the recipe for me and I mentally noted it down and the very day I was back in NYC I thought I should try it out.

Most Indians eat dal every single day and vegetarians rely heavily on dals for protein so it is hardly surprising that a vast variety of dals have evolved in the Indian repertoire. Punjab is known for dal makhani, Gujarat is known for its sweet dal, South India is known for its sambar and rasam. I'm happy to add Konkani moong dal ghassi to my list of favorites. This dal has a complex and exotic flavor and is perfect served with some plain steamed rice.

Moong Dal Ghassi
March05_3
(My aunt's recipe, serves about 4)

Ingredients:
1 cup split (hulled, yellow) moong dal
1 tomato, chopped
1 tsp. tamarind paste
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
salt to taste
Masala...
1 tsp. oil
2 tbsp. whole coriander seeds
2 dried red chillies (or more to taste)
4 tbsp. dry unsweetened coconut (or fresh or frozen)
Tempering...
1 tbsp. oil or ghee
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
4-5 curry leaves
small onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
Garnish...
slices of fresh lemon
cilantro, minced

Method:
  1. Cook the moong dal in a pressure cooker or the stove-top and set aside. 
  2. Make the masala by toasting the ingredients together in the oil until fragrant and then grinding with a little water to make a thick and smooth paste. Set aside.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp oil/ ghee in a pan. Temper with mustard and cumin seeds. Then add curry leaves, onion and garlic and saute for 3-4 minutes. 
  4. Add the dal, turmeric, salt, tomato, tamarind paste and masala paste. Stir well to mix everything together. 
  5. Add enough water to get the dal to the desired consistency. Taste and adjust the balance of salty and tangy flavors. Simmer for 10 minutes on low heat.
  6. Garnish with cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lemon to add a fresh note. Serve hot.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Happy New Year!

No, I am not out of my mind. I am well aware that it is the middle of April. Different cultures follow different calendars, and according to the Hindu calendar, this is the first month of the year!

In my home state of Maharastra, today is New Year's Day, also called Gudi Padwa. In India, every celebration and festival calls for a special dessert and I decided to make the easiest of them all: kheer.

Kheer is essentially a dessert made from some carb (rice or noodles) cooked in milk and sugar, flavored with some cardamom and saffron. The kheer most commonly made at my parents' home was sevayachi kheer. Seviyan is vermicelli, a very thin pasta.

Ingredients: vermicelli, raisins and bits of cashews. 
Vermicelli

Kheer is also made from rice, wheat kernels and makhana or puffed lotus seeds, an exotic ingredient if ever you saw one! Coconut milk can be used instead of dairy milk for some types of kheer.

Kheer is eaten hot with rotis or puris, or chilled and enjoyed just by itself. Here is my easy easy recipe which serves 5-6 regular people or 3-4 starving grad students.

Kheer

Ingredients
1 tbsp. ghee (clarified butter)
1 pint whole milk
3-4 tbsp. vermicelli (depending on how thick you want the kheer)
1 tbsp. broken cashews
1 tbsp. raisins
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cardamom
2 pinches saffron

Method
  • Heat the ghee and fry the vermicelli, cashews and raisins till golden brown (watch out, it turns color quite suddenly). 
  • Add milk, sugar, cardamom and saffron. 
  • Bring to boil and simmer till it reduces a bit. The vermicelli will thicken it further. 
Is that easy or is it easy? Have a sweet and yummy new year!

Cuisines and Cuisines

What comes to mind when you think of Indian food? What is the national dish of India? Chicken Tikka? or Aloo Gobi? or Mango Lassi? The truth is that every state and region of India are like little countries in and of themselves. Different culture, different language and most importantly, different cuisines!

So here is my modest attempt to round up the different Indian cuisines you can find in restaurants in New York City.

1. North Indian: It is the first Indian sub-cuisine to make its way onto international tables. People also refer to it as Punjabi food. Restaurants like Curry in a Hurry and Baluchi's in Manhattan, and Jackson Diner in Queens showcase North Indian cuisine. Typically, the meal consists of breads like roti and paratha, vegetables like aloo gobi, paneer tikka, lentils like dal makhani and rice in the form of pilafs and biryanis. North Indian food tends to be rich and heavily influenced by the Mughal style of cooking. Lassis (yogurt drinks) come from this region, although I have to say that I have never seen mango lassi anywhere outside of North America ( and I spent 22 years in India so I had enough time to look around).

2. South Indian: This is a very different cuisine from the one above. Go nosh at Chennai Garden or Pongal or Madras Mahal, all on the same block in Manhattan and see what I mean. Typical foods are idli (steamed cakes) and dosa (crepes) served with fragrant coconut chutneys and a spicy vegetable dal called sambar. Another sub-cuisine from Southern India is from the Chettinad region and involves the heavy use of coarsely ground black pepper. Try Asaivam for a taste of Chettinad cuisine.

3. Gujarati: Gujarat is a state of Western India and the food from here is heavily vegetarian and absolutely delicious. It tends to be mildly spiced with a intermingling of sweet and sour flavors. Vatan is a Manhattan restaurant which offers a prix fixe Gujarati thali that makes for a sumptuous tasting menu.

4. Street food: Chaat or Indian street food is becoming a food fad faster that I can say "bhelpuri"! Try chaat in any of these restaurants. Another version of Indian snack food is Kathi rolls sold in Indian Bread Company- very tasty morsels.

5. Indian-Chinese: This food is off-beat and worth trying! India and China are neighbours and it is no wonder that influences from Chinese food have crept into our cuisine, and the unsual marriage is called "Indian-Chinese". You have to try some gobi manchurian and hakka noodles at Chinese Mirch in Manhattan or Talk of the Town in Jackson Heights, Queens.

This modest list leaves out about a thousand other Indian sub-cuisines. Hopefully new ones will show up as Indian food is becoming ever-popular. Meanwhile, Chola is a note-worthy restaurant that features unusual regional dishes that can never be found on menus outside India. I hope you enjoyed this little journey. Let me know what your favorite restaurants are!