Monday, March 14, 2016

Thinking of Tamarind

As always, Bangalore has bypassed spring and stepped straight into summer.  There is nothing more reminiscent of summer than ripe tamarind, hanging temptingly from tall trees, just out of reach.  Of course, if the monkeys (and passers by) don't pick them, the pods fall with little thuds onto the carpet of yellowing tamarind leaves laid out below, and one can race with the squirrels to get to them.

It's hard nowadays to see tamarind trees in public areas; earlier they would abound because they are hardy and well suited to this region.  Providing shade, shelter to birds and animals and deliciously sour fruit, one would think people would like more of them around.  Instead we now have exotic foreign varieties of trees and shrubs which have no place for a bird to sit upon and no shade for a person to rest under.

I also love tamarind trees because they are so incredibly beautiful - large but dainty in detail.  The leaves are made of tiny leaflets, dark green initially, which turn lighter over time.  The flowers are also tiny, almost inconspicuous - yellow and red.  From these emerge long dark pods with tender fruit and the most wonderful looking seeds within - a very dark and shiny brown.

Tamarind is used for cooking and in traditional medicine.  (It is also used in parts of Asia to polish brass!)  My favourite way of eating it is just by itself, fresh off the tree, but one can't eat too much of it like that.  I like to make a chutney by boiling and straining it and adding jaggery and salt, to taste.  Much of the time in our house, the chutney is used to make chaat - the wonderful north Indian savoury concoction, made originally when the weather was very hot and the palate was jaded and the stomach needed something cool and refreshing.  Nowadays, it is found everywhere, but with so much fried stuff and chilly powder thrown in that it does my stomach no good.

No, my homemade chaat is made to my specifications - with freshly boiled and diced potato, tiny boiled chickpeas, tamarind chutney, fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint chutney, pomegranate seeds, whipped curd and a hint of fresh ginger and powdered roasted cumin.  In this I add a few crushed papries (small fried savouries) which give it a nice crunch.

Now that summer has begun, although I no longer can pick and use tamarind off the trees, I have made some bottles of chutney and kept them in the refrigerator (where they stay for months).  Bowls of chaat are being served at home in the afternoons, and they are very welcome!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Wisdom Of Traditional Eating

While everything traditional is not really the best option for a changing world, there is much wisdom stored in old ways, that we disregard or choose to forget.

Japanese scientists recently performed a very interesting experiment (that could have been done anywhere in the world, and probably should) - they took several groups of mice and fed each group with dishes recreated from menus of typical Japanese households in 1960, 1975, 1990 and 2005.  This comprised, for example, of mixed rice with dried whitebait and green seaweed flakes, bean and miso soup with taro and mustard spinach for breakfast as opposed to bacon and eggs, toast and fluffy boiled potatoes.

Not surprisingly, the animals that were fed with traditional diets lived longer and better than the ones fed on modern diets.  (K. Yamamoto et al. Nutrition 32, 122-128; 2016).

Diet induced diseases are on the rise everywhere but India with its large population and changing rural and urban dynamics, sees a huge amount of ill health in a relatively young population.  White rice, sugar, processed foods are common culprits (when consumed on a regular basis in large quantities).  The Harvard School of Public Health recently published a paper showing that people who eat one cup of white rice a day have a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  White rice consumption is possibly the single largest factor driving this kind of diabetes in India today.

Recently we got a medical check up done for our driver, who is in his early fifties.  His blood sugar levels were surprisingly high, and, to our consternation, the doctor did not even ask him about his diet!  He just prescribed a standard drug to control the sugar levels.  This is just one illustration of the thoughtlessness that goes behind treating diet and lifestyle induced illnesses and the importance of awareness in preventing and controlling such situations.

Should rice eaters switch to brown rice?  Brown rice does not necessarily have a lower glycemic index (i.e. the amount it increases the blood sugar level by); the glycemic index of rice is species-dependent.  But brown rice is heavier to eat (thus one eats less); it also contains vitamins, minerals, oil and fibre which are nourishing and are absent in white rice.  Indian scientists have now developed a new variety of rice that looks white but is unpolished and are trying to introduce this into people's diets (the rationale being that many people don't like the look of unpolished rice).

Appearances do rule the world!  There is a story about a Thai princess who once saw some workers eating unpolished rice that was coarse and ugly looking.  Out of kindness, she declared that these workers must be given white rice to eat, and thereby began their health problems!

India is blessed with a huge variety of traditional foods - many kinds of rice, lentils, millets, wheat, corn and vegetables.  A little thought in choosing what one eats would go a long way.  Of course, what we eat is very important, but almost as important, I think, is how and when we eat.  Eating with awareness (and, if possible, appreciation) of one's food, and at regular and proper times, helps tremendously.

I quote below from two very different books about some traditional forms of food and eating, that charmingly remind us of things forgotten-

"Viennese children were brought up to a rumbling accompaniment of admonitions... But the hardest to understand and to obey, "Don't spoil your appetite - Du sollst deinen Appetit nicht verderben!" was thundered so often and so sternly that it sounded like a latter-day commandment.
   It was doubly difficult for children to learn not to spoil their appetites, because their parents condemned as extremely harmful all the sweets which they really wanted to eat, while all the things they didn't want to eat anyway, such as Spinat (an even less popular word than spinach) and farina pudding, were the rewards for which their parents expected them to keep their appetites intact.  But when they had grown up and had made the happy discovery that they were keeping their appetites unspoiled for better things than farina and spinach, they appreciated the wisdom of the admonition; and they, in turn, drummed the same old lesson into their own children.  as  a result, all Viennese sat up straight at the table and kept unspoilt that most precious possession- their guten Appetit.
   The fine point at which the Viennese were no longer spoiling their appetites and were, in fact, correctly gratifying them was established geographically and horologically.  Anything eaten anywhere except in the dining room, no matter how tempting or nourishing, was frowned upon.  Anything eaten before the appointed dinner hour was considered a definite spoiling of the appetite.  Everything that was eaten in the dining room, after one sat down at the table- with clocklike punctuality and very straight, of course, was smiled upon as legitimate and proper dining, the very thing for which the appetite had been so carefully protected and preserved.  Under these circumstances, the announcement of dinner was always greeted with the greatest pleasure, unless for some unthinkable reason it was late, in which case their were frowns and an audible "Endlich- at last!" when the dining room doors were opened.  No one lingered; they leapt to their feet and began a light and elegant stampede to the dining room and to the long awaited Vorspeise...

 ...What's more the guests no longer sit quite so straight at table, and, to the horror of the cook, they are not nearly so punctual in reaching the dining room as once was the reliable custom when dinner was announced with the striking of the clock."
 (Gourmet's Old Vienna Cookbook, A Viennese Memoir, by Lillian Langseth-Christensen and Leo R. Summers)

"Burmese food is for eating mainly just before morning's pleasantness is lost to the heat of the noon, and again as the cool of evening falls, and eating together is a buttress against dusk's approach.
   Ideally, you should have, minutes before eating, a quick-pouring bath, put on clean loose clothes, and go straight to table.
   Traditionally no wines or spirits, and certainly no tidbits of food, should come between your palate and that table, simultaneously laid with the full meal.  However, present eating shows that foreign wines or Mandalay beer accompanies Burmese food agreeably.
   No flowers or other inedible decoration should be on the table, least of all for guests to whom most hospitality is due.  Eating is the pleasure, and when you in turn are a guest, do not discount the food by an undue amount of conversation.
   A meal's importance is such that, as no one should interrupt yours, so no one who walks in to find you at one should pass by without an invitation to eat.  The carpenter, masseur, bill collector, or postman will recognize the form of your invitation and reply, "I've eaten, please carry on."  A friendly  acquaintance, whom you must press till he sits at the table with a filled plate may sit long and leave the food untouched.  Your close friends who say, "All right then, just a bit of that one," will go on eating till they've shown your family how good your cooking is.
   Burmese food, therefore, must be cooked in quantity and be stretchable by nature.  Today's priorities in your budget might make this difficult.  However customs still enable you to enjoy this traditional gregarious eating.  Tell a sister or friend that tonight your family will bring its dinner over..."
  (Cook And Entertain the Burmese Way, by Mi Mi Khaing)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Catching Up

While parties have a certain zing, there's nothing I like better than catching up one on one with friends.  Last week was particularly packed with such meetings - there were six of them, sometimes more than one in a day.

I began rather hesitantly, cooking over the weekend, for a visiting uncle.  There were the usual ups and downs, as happens when one is cooking special food after a long time.  One really needs to keep at it, to keep one's hand in.

I made dum biryani - a mix of marinated, tenderized meat (uncooked) covered with layers of rice (partially cooked), fried onions, potatoes, curd and spices, and left to steam gently until everything is cooked and the flavours meld together.  It was nice but ended up being rather smoky in flavor as the pan wasn’t heavy enough.  There were a couple of lessons that I relearnt in this process : pans are as important as ingredients, and never make a one dish meal unless you are very sure your guests don’t mind if things don’t turn out perfectly.  In this case, my uncle didn’t mind in the least, and we had a very pleasant evening, catching up on family news.

I was much more confident for the next dinner, though it happened rather suddenly.  Our friend, who initially said he would be coming after a root canal (so we only had to keep ice cream for him) cancelled his dental appointment!  But I managed to put some things together, and had just baked a batch of brownies (which went well with the ice cream) so it all ended well.  In this way, things proceeded – each meal that I cooked seemed easier than the last.

It was tiring at times, but so much fun!  It was wonderful to catch up with friends, to talk about serious things – ups and downs, laugh over frivolities and discuss dreams and goals – I think one is really only comfortable with friends when one can talk about one’s dreams without worrying that people will laugh or be dismissive about them.

When all this was over, the house and I were quiet once more.  There was plenty of time for thought and introspection.  Time to catch up with oneself. 

Last summer, I had been discussing which path I may take, once my baby grew a little older.  I have so many interests that it takes me a while to figure out what I want to do at each step in my life.  And I have reached the stage where I could only seriously give time to one more new thing, if at all.  I had a vague sense that I would just want to continue where I left off before my pregnancy, but the sense of certainty eluded me.  Then suddenly it was back – yesterday, when I realized that I would indeed, like to pick up the threads where I had left them and see where they took me – in the same direction, or perhaps on a slightly modified path over time.

I realized that it felt so right to be cooking (though it sounds rather frivolous, it’s not, and besides, as a close friend said, “What’s wrong with frivolity?”).  My focus has changed a little over the past few years.  I have always been interested in baking, and have been trying, a little at a time, to bake Viennese (by far the most interesting recipes that I have come across) cakes, tortes and tarts, and French breads.  In the future I think I would like to focus on artisanal breads; bread making is heady and addictive (as is bread eating)!  Perhaps, if I have some time to spare, I would like to persuade some chefs to teach me how to use the tandoor (the traditional Indian clay oven).

I have a list of cooking related aspirations (making new baby foods, an accessible school to train cooks, a cookbook that is in progress) but baking tops the list.

And, of course, to continue writing.  Books, if possible, but blogs for sure.  It’s the best way I know of to catch up with all my thoughts!
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