Thursday, December 4, 2008

Grandma’s Rasayana

I remember grandma scurrying into the kitchen displeased that there was not enough on the evening snack menu for her four sons, when they returned from work. This comprised of my father and my three dear uncles, all younger than dad.
She wouldn’t say anything to her daughters-in-law, she would instead amble into the dingy, cool corner in the store room and take the basket full of bananas perched on the topmost shelf.

She would then in a brusque, business-like fashion march back into the main kitchen and start chopping them into thick discs, and in the same breath, order my aunt to quickly grate some fresh coconut. I remember being called in to discard all the peels into the dustbin outside. I’d always ask if I could chop the bananas or grate the jaggery maybe, but grandma would flatly refuse—her way of minimizing mistakes in her culinary preparation.

The banana slices would inadvertently all be of the same thickness, and covered with a plate to prevent them from forming a brown surface. And she would tell me how even the simple act of chopping fruits and vegetables is an art in itself. My aunt would then start grating jaggery, into light, textured flakes that would melt immediately when in contact with the bananas. Ground cardamom powder would be prepared next.

All this culminates into the mixing-which really was the climax of this lovely food episode. Grandma would first add the jaggery and toss the bananas with a spoon. She would then throw in the grated coconut, and toss the banana once again, so you see a bowlful of beautiful, sunny-yellow discs coated with molten jaggery and fresh, white strands of coconut flesh. Finally, the black flecks of cardamom would be sprinkled and the bananas tossed one final time. And me, I would savor all the drama until I dribbled on to my clothes.

But, I would be sent back to get four bowls of uniform size, washed and cleaned till they sparkle and she would dole out large spoonfuls of fruit into them. I remember handing out the bowls to the four of them in various parts of the house, and rushing back into the kitchen for my share. As grandma would say-we had to eat it all before the bananas browned.

I don’t know about my father and uncles, but I thought this treat was simply kick-ass!

4 big bananas, ripe but firm
3 tbsp grated jaggery (buy the soft jaggery oval-shaped lumps that give into the grater easily, not the hard cubes which are tough to grate)
1 tbsp freshly grated coconut
½ tsp cardamom powder

Grate the coconut first. Grate the jaggery as well and keep the measured amount handy. Keep aside the cardamom powder. And finally, go for the bananas. Peel and chop them into medium-thick discs into a serving bowl (preferably glass so you can see it from all sides). Sprinkle the jaggery liberally and toss. Add the coconut and toss once more. Finally add the cardamom powder and give it one final swirl so it spreads. Eat immediately.

P.S. I recently tried replacing a tablespoon of jaggery with two teaspoons of date syrup. It turned out great! You could even warm this for 30 seconds in the microwave and serve it warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This makes amazing dessert.

Tuck-in. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Guthi Vankaya-the way my mom makes it...

Stuffed brinjal or Guthi Vankaya, as it is called in Telugu, is one of those ambrosial dishes an egg plant/brinjal will yield itself into amazingly well. For us, when we were much smaller, it was a rare treat, something my brother and I were really fond of— a dish we would have liked at mealtimes everyday, but it was not to be. Succulent well-cooked baby brinjals in their entirety: waiting to be mixed with rice and ghee—oh so fragrant and delicious!

My mom’s version is extremely simple and basic in terms of ingredients, but it calls for some amount of skill, and presence-of-mind, a quality that completely fails me sometimes! Okay, there are two sutras that do the trick:

a) Buy purple baby brinjals, and not the ones that are slightly bigger. It is seasonal, so try finding them in the big vegetable markets or ask your local vegetable seller to source them for you.
b) Forget about using your non-stick kadhai for this one. You need a heavy-duty, thick, fat, wok or a similar shallow-fry pan to cook these. If you don’t have it, it really makes sense to buy one. You’ll be amazed at its versatility in the kitchen. A tip: if you have a thick-bottom pressure pan, try using it without the lid.

Try this out, and serve it with simple sona masuri rice and a nice big spoonful of ghee (that goes right on top of the rice mound and melts along its way downhill). To eat, use your hands and mix the brinjal with the rice, crushing the soft vegetable to mix evenly with the rice and ghee. And the taste…tell me about it!


½ kg baby brinjals (the purple ones)
1 cup gram flour (besan)
2-3 teaspoons chilli powder
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon asafetida
Oil to cook


Clean the brinjals thoroughly with water, and after this wipe them dry. Slice away the stalk portion, such that the brinjal now has a base and can sit straight in the pan. Cut the brinjal through the length, just till the end, but not fully that the pieces separate. Cut it once more so that the two cuts form a ‘cross’. Or the brinjal now has four parts but all still joined at the base.

Mix gram flour, chilli powder, salt, turmeric and asafetida and sift into even flour. Stuff the brinjals with this and place it in the wok gently, so they all sit pretty, next to each another. Once all brinjals are stuffed, dust the top with the remaining flour mix. Pour a spoonful of oil over each brinjal. And just swish a last spoonful of oil deftly across the pan, like a good luck charm.

Now cook the brinjals on low flame, with a plate gently placed on top of the wok/kadhai.
Check on them occasionally, talk to them as well… Cook until the brinjals are tender and done.

Eat. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Draakshi Gojju

Sweet, plump grapes are best eaten off the bunch, spitting out the cumbersome seeds. If they're seedless, even better. The only time grapes were brought home in my mom’s place was prior to a festival. The bunch would adorn the fruit plate kept as an offering to the god. And since festival season is not necessarily the season of the grape, the bunch was purely for decorative purposes.

But we didn’t throw the sour grapes out. There is this old recipe my grandma fished out, that could kill two birds in one stone—make use of the sour grapes, and also make a piquant, spicy-sweet curry for the next meal. Hah!

Here it goes.

1 medium size bunch of grapes-either the green or the wine-red variety is as good (about 150 gm)
1 teaspoon chilly powder
1 and ½ teaspoon jaggery if the grapes are too sour... Reduce the jaggery if the grape has some sweetness in it
Salt to taste
A pinch of asafetida

Grind well (adding very little water):
1tablespoon grated coconut
½ teaspoon jeera
2 teaspoon til seeds
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds

½ teaspoon mustard seeds
2 broken red chillies
A sprig of curry leaves
1 teaspoon of oil


Chop the grapes into halves, and discard seeds if any. Take a kadhai and add the grapes, plus the pulp and liquid that oozes out while chopping. Add chilly powder, salt, jaggery and asafetida and cook on a low flame.
As the grape mash starts to cook with the spices, it becomes a pulp of nice consistency. When the mixture starts bubbling, add the ground coconut-jeera-til-fenugreek mixture to this.

Cook for another five minutes.

Now in a smaller kadhai, heat oil, add mustard seeds and wait for them to splutter, and now add the curry leaves and red chillies. Pour this hot oil mix straight into the curry and listen to that beautiful hissing sound.

Draakshi Gojju is now absolutely ready to eat! Serve hot with rice and a dollop of ghee.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ashtalakshmis and Ashtabhojanam!

The Varamahalakshmi Pooja is celebrated with aplomb in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Worshipping the powerful Ashta Lakshmis on the last Friday of ashada is said to invoke the blessings of the goddesses.

The festival is in the air almost a week before. Aromas of the offerings for the goddess linger around, as my mother and my three aunts toil in the kitchen with my grandma supervising from her sofa just outside. Eight different sweets and eight savories comprise the offerings to the deity. Obattu, Coconut Burfi, Rava Laddoo, Besan Laddoo, Chimli, Challbindi, Mysore Pak, and Kadubu hit the sweet plate while chakli, muchoru, kodbale, and nipattu adorn the snack plate. These are made in fresh oil or ghee and stacked up in steel or aluminum containers which then go sit on the top-most shelf of the kitchen. A white powder that wards off ants is sprinkled around the containers and they rest there till the morning of the pooja.

I recall my mind wandering into my home kitchen as I sat in school, completely missing my Civics and Geography lessons. By the time we cousins got back home, the kitchen was completely normal, showing no signs of the hectic, frenzy cooking that took place a couple of hours ago. The only proof was the extra containers perched on top, and my grandma sensing the greed on our minds would promptly shoo us away with a smirk on her face. We could not touch or even think about it, until the goddess had her share.

On the festival day, you wake up to see the ladies in colorful silks, with jasmine in their hair and glass and gold bangles clinking against each other on their hands. The previous evening is spent decorating the entrance with fragrant mango leaves and bright marigold flowers, and a nice rangoli to welcome the goddess. The lack of rangoli-drawing skills at home is made up for by Saroja, our domestic help, who gladly does the needful.

I am angrily stared at by grandma- I get the point, “Go bathe and dress up before the priest comes in”, I comply. The priest arrives and after hemming and hawing about traffic and expressing unhappiness about the youngsters today, he begins…..The coconut in a silver kalasha is smeared with kumkum and turmeric and painted with eyes, nose, mouth like a woman’s face. This face is adorned with gold, and the kalasha represents the goddess.

Flowers, milk, honey, curd, fragrant leaves are all offered to the goddess amidst holy chanting. By the end of the pooja, the ladies tie yellow threads on each other’s wrists signifying that the rituals are done. The offering is now made to the goddess. On a fresh banana leaf, all the sixteen dishes are presented along with rice, ghee and payasam. Grandma says, simple rice and sweet milk work just as well as offering. The men come in to take blessings and go back to debate politics, or read the newspaper-whichever.

Pooja done, we swoop down on the goodies. It’s a tough one deciding what to eat now and what later, just so every delicacy is given a fair chance to be savored and appreciated. Obattu, which is surprisingly warm just melts in the mouth, crunchy coconut burfi with plump raisins and snappy cashews entice you, huge kadubus with the jaggery and coconut mixture is divine, and the muchoru is just the same as last year and the year before-perfect!

Festivals are beyond connecting with the divine, it is a time to renew and discover family ties, pause from the mad rush and cacophony, and a time to eat delicious food fit for the gods!

But alas, not any more… Family ties now seem cumbersome and food fit for the gods are calorific and unfit for consumption. God save us, really!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Damrote when in Distress

I remember my first day at school, rather, what I did that evening. I hated school, and I proved my unhappiness by wailing to my mother and puking all that I ate at lunch, as additional proof. But my mom knew better, “Wash up and come inside, your grandpa has got some damrote”, she said. That did it—I meekly did as told, and any hatred for my new school was forgotten.

And sure enough, the rich, sinful preparation was handed to me in a cup, as I tucked in carefully, not letting even a little crumb go waste. In fact damrote was not meant to be shared nor eaten while talking with others on the table-it commanded respect. I would run upstairs and hop on to the ledge over the window and sit and eat it, quiet, savoring every morsel- sometimes even speak to it.

That was the kind of power that damrote yielded over my childhood, not ice cream, not chocolate. It was available in only one place: Gundappa Hotel, and people would come from far and wide just to buy 100 grams or two of this sweetmeat-it was expensive. My grandpa was a connoisseur of sorts when it came to good food- he bought the best ingredients from the best places, and sweet for a special occasion meant damrote.

I was obese through childhood, and I suspect my grandpa’s indulgence and my fondness for food was the catalyst. I still am on the heavier side (tsk, tsk) and although my grandpa is no more, I seem to have inherited this whole eye/nose/mouth-for-good-food thingy. The only difference is grandpa wouldn’t eat, he would bring them for us, and I am different that way!

Giving out the recipe for damrote is impossible, first it is a secret guarded by the Gundappa Hotel Kitchens and second, somehow I just can’t believe anyone can make it like them. Oh, there are several sweetmeat stores professing to make this: but trust me, I know how the original tastes since 30 years!

Describing damrote is a challenge-one needs to taste it. Made of grated pumpkin, khova, ghee and sugar, the mixture is cooked on ‘dum’, in a sealed copper vessel. By the end of three-four hours, the result is a sizzling golden-brown damrote with a crunchy-gooey exterior and a sweet, soft, succulent inside. The taste is out-of-the-world. I felt privileged when Mr. Srikanth—one of the brothers who run the sweetshop now—showed me the old copper oven it is cooked in. The huge plate with 10-kg of the delicacy just sings and sizzles in the oven- it is pure joy to watch.

Of course growing up, I discovered a whole lot of other favorite desserts: warm chocolate cake, coconut burfi, kesaribath and more recently paal ada pradhaman from my mother-in-law’s kitchen, but damrote holds a very special place in my heart, almost like a friend who helped me forget the little sorrows of childhood, and gave me moments of pure ‘foodie’ joy! This is just a very, very small tribute.

(About Gundappa’s Hotel: You get lovely sweets at this sweet shop. And in my experience the Vimurti and Chandrahara rock! And I love the mixture they sell because it has chunks of pakodas in it—like little surprises hiding in nooks and corners of the packet. Gundappa’s Hotel has also forayed into ready-to-eat mixes: Rava Idli, Rasam and Sambar and Vangibath powders and Chutney podi. Among them, I think the Vangibath powder was amazing and the Sambar and Rasam powders are just like what mom makes at home. If you want to try any of these, call them on 080-22222055. The shop is nestled in a nook on OTC Road, Nagrathpet, in old Bangalore, India.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Uppu Nei Annam

I’m sure most South Indian households have this tradition: feeding infants with a morsel of ‘uppu nei annam’ (in Telugu it translates to salt-ghee-rice) every meal. This is a precursor to lunch or dinner.
As I child I remember distinct memories of eating this simple morsel, and wondering why this couldn’t have been a full meal in itself. You grow out of it of course, but not the taste.
My paternal grandma would insist that I eat a morsel of this everyday when I was pregnant; she said, this way the baby would have a perfect, round mouth. Didn’t make sense to me, but eat it, I definitely did!

My son will turn two soon, but I ensure he eats this everyday. At lunch with white rice, and dinner with boiled red rice! He enjoys it completely….

I know this has nothing by way of signature ingredients, and nothing gourmet, but the taste begs to differ.

All you have to do is: Once your rice for dinner pressure cooks, take a spoonful of it on to a plate, mix in some salt while it is hot (you have to play with the rice and dodge the heat while mixing), and finally add a generous dollop of homemade (I insist, homemade) ghee to it. Eat this hot. Just three basic, simple ingredients, but the flavors burst in your mouth.

It is true homecoming…..

Kumbalappam with tea

Halasinna Hannu Kadubu is a Mangalore-origin dish. It is basically jackfruit pulp, jaggery and rice flour mixed into an idli-like batter and steamed in banana leaves. Refreshingly different taste, if you love the distinct flavor of the jackfruit.
I ate this for the first time in Halli Mane, Malleswaram, Bangalore, (though I was aware it was not the best place for an authentic version of the dish) and thought it was an extremely creative version of the idli. Jackfruits are aplenty in Mangalore and they must have found an innovative way to use it.
Recently, my mother-in-law in Cochin introduced me to Kumbalappam. I fell in love with not only the taste of this little dumpling, but the way it is made as well. This dish also establishes that cuisine has thread of continuity across cultures: here coastal Karnataka, Kerala and Sri Lanka. The Kumbalappam is a smart way to use up the plenty jackfruits that grow in almost every backyard in Kerala.
I love the taste of this steamed sweet, the only disappointment is the fibre in the fruit which persists after cooking, and probably prevents the Kumbalappam from becoming a melt-in-the-mouth dessert.

The details

Chop jackfruit into bite-sized chunks, place them into a huge vessel, and keep this on the stove.
Toss the pieces continuously and ensure the base doesn’t burn
Scrape an equal measure of jaggery into the vessel, and keep stirring so they mix well and the molten jaggery coats the fruit.
Add a good measure of powdered elaichi, for a nice flavor and aroma
As the jackfruit and jaggery cooks, it thickens, reduces in quantity and assumes a sticky texture.
When the mixture is reduced to about half, switch off the heat and allow this to cool to room temperature.

Store in airtight jars…

For Kumbalappam, take a bowl of this jackfruit mixture, and add an almost equal measure of rice flour, you have to fold the rice flour little by little into the jackfruit mixture, till it becomes a soft dough. Add crushed jeera and a little more powdered jaggery if you think the sweetness has reduced. And grated fresh coconut…

Take plenty of kumbala (bay) leaves from the garden (you get these leaves in the market). Fold the leaf to form a cone hollow, and spoon the mix into the hollow, secure with the stalk of the leaf, or use a toothpick. Make all the dumplings like this and keep ready.
Steam for 15 minutes.

Serve hot. My colleague Johnson Chacko tells me that eating this a day old, makes it taste even better. So don’t forget to keep some for the next day!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Maanga jam in the Kerala monsoons

The onset of the monsoon in Kerala is magical. Perpetual rains lash across the region making the entire place lush green and feel closer to nature, almost like nature has firmly embraced you.
The monsoons also bring to an end the mango (maanga) and jackfruit (chakka) harvest. So before the mangos are spoiled on the tree and the jackfruit soaks up rain water and loses its sweetness, its time to preserve the fruit.
My father-in-law treats ripe mangoes really well. They deserve to be, unlike when in the city; I spot a bruise on one and immediately think of discarding it. He first cleans them well- because birds would have tried to have their share of the fruit on the tree. Then the skin and stone is separated from the flesh gently and any juice from this severance is collected in a bowl below, so none of it goes waste. Once all the pulp is collected (I am talking 50-60 mangoes, at least), it is blended well in a mixer. Blending serves two purposes—the pulp becomes of a uniform consistency, so does the flavour.

After this process,
The blended pulp is strained to separate the fibre
The blend after removing the fibre is mixed with sugar-use your discretion here as we don’t want the jam to be extremely sweet, killing the mango flavour.
Put this blended pulp and sugar on the stove on a low flame and continuously stir it.
It must bubble gently and form a skin on the surface, which can be discarded
Keep stirring until the mixture gets thicker and reduces in quantity- the mango is losing is moisture.
Once it reaches a pasty consistency, switch off the flame.
Allow this mixture to cool and store it in airtight jars-in the refrigerator.

My in-laws use this as jam on their bread, but I can think of a dozen and more things we could do with it: ice cream topping, cheese cake filling, as a blend in fruit salads…..why even some tangy vegetable salads as well. The golden yellow, gooey jam is beautiful and damn easy to make.

Try it…

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In search of set dosas

Here is an old article (more than a year-old) of mine that was published in the Deccan Herald as a middle.

It is well known how most women
crave for particular foods during
pregnancy. I too went through
immense dislike towards certain
foods and a desperate craving for
some foods (I hardly thought about
before) during my pregnancy. Set
dosas with coconut chutney and luscious
fruit salad had me in completely.
I imagined savoring morsels
of a spongy set dosa and tucking
into spoonfuls of delectable fruits
smothered with ice cream that
would taste exactly the way I wanted
it to.
I spent those nine months in
quest of this perfect meal. I tried set
dosas at almost every eatery in
town, but they just didn’t tingle my
taste buds the way I wanted them to.
And no hotel’s fruit salad made me
sigh with contention so I could stop
with my search.
Chewy dosas, the-too-thick ones,
the ones with a rancid taste, and
some that had a yucky yeasty flavor
— I discovered what a set dosa must
not taste like at all. The chutneys
spoke another tale: too watery, too
timid for the tongue, and shame-tocall-
it-a-chutney types were what I
encountered at most places. I finally
found my perfect fruit salad in a popular
dessert hangout in town and ordered
it almost everyday till I started
resembling a full-ripe pear myself.
But, no such luck with my
dosas, not yet.
Time ticked away and it was two
weeks for my delivery date. I could
no longer move about as freely with
my large belly, but I was determined
to savour merawallah dosa before
my baby came out. I decided to cook
them myself and turned to the website
for the perfect recipe and stumbled
upon a hundred variants. After
much research and running recipes
in my mind, I zeroed-in on the one
recipe I knew would yield me desired
results. I was thrilled. I prepared
the batter myself and checked
and re-checked the consistency. Satisfied,
I set it to ferment on the
kitchen counter and retired to bed. I
was just eight hours away from indulging
my cravings.
But by midnight, my baby decided
it was pointless to wait, and I was
rushed to the hospital for delivery. I
woke up from anesthetic slumber to
discover I had a baby boy and overheard
my mother and sister-in-law
discussing their enjoyable breakfast
that morning.
Sometimes, it's impossible
to wait for the favourite
food to taste perfect.

A Gastronomic Pause

The dusty winding roads, and the sweltering heat dissuades you from the three-hour journey to ‘my village’, but the pleasure of spending a weekend away from the city’s cacophony surpasses the dread of traveling.

The journey isn’t bad after all. And the familiar dilapidated school at the main road crossing brings a smile to my heart-we’d arrived. Lunch that day was cooked early morning in Bangalore and packed – fiery red mango chutney, a spicy brinjal koora, sambar comprising spinach and lentils, rice and curd. The chutney my aunt made had tiny chunks of mango that was mixed well with chilli powder, salt, jaggery and asafetida, thrown into hot oil with mustard, and simmered till they blended into a thick mass that can be spooned on to your plate. It was awesome.

The brinjal koora is as fiery. Big chunks of brinjal are cooked in hot oil with dry, grated coconut, spices, salt, and lemon juice. There is no electricity, and we’re sweating buckets as we eat. The people in the village believe this is a good way to eat – an overdose of spice and the heat makes you sweat profusely cooling the body. Interesting!

A weekend in ‘my village’ is all about food and sleep, probably with a walk that is strictly practiced during the evenings. A summer trip here warrants feasting of the local delicacies my maternal grandma would lovingly cook while we’re here: chinta chiguru pulusu, peanut chutney podi, kajjaya, and sajja rotti with onion chutney. It’s been long since grandma died, but we try to keep up the culinary tradition she set off and was so fiercely proud of.

The Sunday lunch is a bomb—rice, chinta chiguru pulusu, peanut chutney podi and curd all served generously with ghee. Rice is served with a lashing of ghee or clarified butter that is made from buffalo’s milk – delicious and distinct; you can’t wipe the taste off your mind for a long, long time. In spring or early summer, the tamarind tree blossoms with new leaves: yellow-green baby leaves that are just slightly sour to taste. These sprigs are picked and cooked with lentils, a paste of fresh coconut, shallots and jeera, salt, jaggery and spices till they form a pulpy mash— chinta chiguru pulusu— that mixes really well with the rice. This sambar also complements the local staple food: sangati (roughly translated into ragi balls). Well, this is a must-try.

The peanut chutney podi is ubiquitous in the village home. No mixers here. Just the stone hollow into which the ingredients are thrown in and pounded using a long wooden stump with the edge enameled with metal. Roasted peanuts, coarse salt, pungent tamarind, roasted red chillies, plenty of garlic, asafetida and a hint of jaggery are pounded together till they blend together beautifully into a coarse powder. This is a splendid accompaniment to lunch. Even the simple curd here has a creamy, satiny texture—made of buffalo milk. Extremely fattening…

In the evenings we walk to the village well-a massive, deep, one- nestled amidst what seems like an ancient mango grove. The sturdy branches of the grove serve well as seating for children, while the elders sit under its shade. The heavy lunch doesn’t deter us from eating more. We tear open the newspaper used to wrap the kajjayas—basically a sweet dish made out of jaggery, rice powder and til seeds in mixture patted into discs and deep fried. Hmm… beautiful.

The village hasn’t changed much; the people, the mindset, the innocence; it persists. Only a dish antenna is new, two have mobile phones, and a couple of bicycles have paved way for motorbikes. But there is an undercurrent of a pressing need to change: to adopt civilization. But till that happens, ‘my village’, is a perfect gastronomic pause, in the movie called ‘Life’.