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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tani's Very Green Parathas the double virtue (!?) of being half Bengali and having spent the better part of my life in Southern India, you'd think - and quite justifiably at that - that I must love my rice.
And I do! Very much indeed.

But - here's an unexpected secret:
I love my Roti more!

And not just a little more. A lot, lot more. And have, ever since ever.

Which is pretty darn bizarre when you think about it because I belong to as staunch a family of rice eaters as they come. And which, in turn, leads the romantic in me  to believe that marrying my Punjabi, Roti devouring Sid was written. There's really no other explanation; it was simply meant to be.

That little passionate declaration of love out of the way, let's
take a(nother) moment to digress. Because digression as you know is one of my most favourite activities. So in the spirit of digression, I'd like you to take a moment to ponder the notion of hierarchy.

Now, hierarchy, according to Wikipedia, "is an arrangement of items (objects, names, values, categories, etc.) in which the items are represented as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another." So hierarchy provides structure to things, a pecking order of desirability, if you like. And  whether one wishes to admit it or not, there is always some sort of hierarchy to most aspects of life, whether in government, organizations, militia or countries.
And - before you laugh - so it is with Roti.
Now, the hierarchy in the Roti family (unlike Japan) is entirely subjective. My number 1 may not be your number 1 and your number 1 may not be my number 1 and we can all agree to disagree and live happily ever after. In fact, on yet another random aside, I'd love nothing more than to hear your personal Roti hierarchy - knowing whether you place the Roomali over the Kulcha (and so on) would make for some very interesting bedtime reading, so do drop me a line if you can. (Yes, I think I have just allowed you unfettered access into the mind of a deranged foodophile...)

But, getting (finally) to the point of it all, I have to admit that my number 1 in the Roti clan is without contest, the Paratha - that beautiful
unleavened flat-bread made by pan frying whole-wheat dough on a tava or griddle, layer upon flaky layer of delicious buttery goodness -  what's there not to love?  

I could not tire of the Paratha you know. Even if I tried. And I mean that sincerely. 

I love it. 
Truly, madly, deeply. 
In fact I went through a bizarre two-week phase in my life where all I did was eat Parathas ordered from various Sub Continental restaurants across New York City for dinner every night. I consumed many quantities of parathas of all types - plain paratha, methi paratha, lachha paratha, aloo paratha, gobi paratha, unda paratha, keema paratha, mooli paratha, even (a rather awful) "ponir" paratha from the chaps down on Brick Lane. 

It was a veritable "Woman vs. Paratha" fest, it was.

Needless to say, I'm quite the authority on NYC Parathas, so if you're ever in the market for such valuable info, please be aware that I shall be glad to dispense it for free. 
I'm nice like that.

Restaurants aside, (and I promise) getting to the core of this note - the best Paratha in the world comes from the kitchens of my friend Tani, who makes Parathas which are most distinctive. Yes, I do mean in taste. But - more importantly - I mean, in appearance. Tani's Parathas, you see, are a curious shade of green.

Now what's remarkable about this whole thing is that the Green Parathas or "Paronthi" as she calls them in Punjabi, were not even meant for me. Oh no!
I stumbled upon them by pure accident. Or sheer luck. Whichever you prefer. But, whatever you'd like to call it, my dear friends, the truth was that I chanced upon this delightful creation in a monumental act of serendipity.

The events unfolded as follows:

I was over for dinner at Tani's house, hanging out with her in the kitchen, chatting about this and that, while she fiddled with an excellent looking chicken curry...when suddenly I noticed, tucked into the far corner of the polished granite worktop, a most wondrous sight. For wrapped most neatly in a sheet of cling film, was a mound of very green dough.

Now as you would rightly expect from a passionate and obsessive food freak such as myself, on seeing such a delightful thing as very green dough, my senses were immediately piqued.

"What's that," I asked.

"Green paronthi" she replied, "for the kids. Aunty makes them."

Noting the perplexed look on my face, she kindly proffered an explanation:

"They won't eat their vegetables any other way, ya.
So we have to mix spinach and broccoli and stuff into the flour."

(Aunty by the way, is the lovely lady who quadruples as cook, nanny, babysitter and general matriarchal protector of the Singh family, encapsulated quite lovingly by anyone who knows her as "aunty")

Anyway, back to the very green dough. Now: given that I had not that long ago spent a good two weeks of my life eating the Paratha varietals of every establishment from 9th street to 96th street, there really wasn't that much in parathaland that I hadn't tasted.

But this - even for me - was remarkably novel.

"Ohhhhhh" I remarked
in deep contemplation.

Then: (contemplation duly complete)
"Can I try?", I asked - adventurous (as ever)
"Yes, of course" she replied - gracious (as ever), reaching for the very green dough, taking some in her fingers, shaping it into a ball, and rolling it out with the expert dexterity that only a Sardarni from The Punjab can ever hope to achieve.

And so she rolled and she folded and she rolled again. And she folded and she rolled and she folded again. And I tried not to look at the butter that she so lovingly added
each time she rolled and she folded and she folded and she rolled.

But when that baby sizzled on the griddle, my friends - time, for a few but precious moments - came to a breathtaking halt.

For Green History had just been created.

Hot, crispy, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth goodness...this was the one of the most gorgeous things my lips have ever touched.

A landslide victory for the Botanists, I tell you!

So here is Tani's recipe - or technically, Auntie's recipe. And for precisely that reason, you'll have to use some approximation with the exact quantities...but then it's small price to pay for something this authentic. Make it please! This is one of those things that everyone has simply got to taste at least once in their lives!

Here's what you need (verbatim from Aunty, duly translated by Tani):

- Vegetables: Broccoli, Spinach, carrots (for sweetness), beans, zucchini, peas - any or all of these can be combined with spinach as the main ingredient - washed and roughly chopped (they'll be boiled later so don't worry about fine chopping)
- Lentils - moong daal, binds them together - a 1/4 katori (bowl) washed and soaked for 10 mins.

- Adrak (Ginger) - one finger phalange size (for making the food easier to digest)
- Salt to taste

Here's how you do it (verbatim from Aunty, although I am inclined to believe that Tani is the rightful owner of the truly terrible spinach joke):

"In a pressure cooker, put all the ingredients and put enough water so they are all covered with water. Not too much water (spinach also leaves some of its own - no pun intended!). Bring it all to a boil - 2 whistles. When it cools - put it in a blender and make a puree. Now use this thickish puree to 'goondo your aata'...don't use any whatever quantity of aata you choose - it should not be so much that you need to use water.

And that's it - use that for your yummy, healthy parathas."

Right, so that's how you get your very green dough. Now, here's where I come in to tell you how to go from dough to Parathas. So here are the steps, numbered because it involves several folds and rolls and I know it's all pretty darn confusing...but what the hey, here goes!

1) Roll the dough into a circular disc of roughly 3/4 inch diameter. 
2) Spread some butter uniformly on this disc. 
3) Next, fold it in half so its a semi-circle. 
4) Now again spread some butter on the surface. 
5) Fold it once more, so its quarter shaped, like a quesadilla triangle. 
6) Now sprinkle some wheat flour over it and roll out the double folded dough into a circle.So you're really back to square one, but not really - because in all the folding (not to mention the buttering) you've created some truly beautiful layers which will be crisp, flaky and delicious when done. 
7) Final step - Fry the Parathas on a tava or griddle with a tad more butter (but of course). 

And there you have it!

So to my gorgeous friend Tani, who by some magical combination of great looking genes, a radiant personality and a wonderful temperament, is a fountain of beauty and youth - here is my wish for you:

May you always remain as evergreen as your parathas!

All my love now and always 

YA x

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Diwali Rice

I love this dish not only because of the memories it brings back, but also because the pleasure of its flavour far exceeds the pain of its preparation - a culinary equation that wins me over every time!

This is vegetable pulao, folks - delicate, nourishing, aromatic - but I call it Diwali Rice because my very first memory of this dish is from my first memory of Diwali...

Which really was a very long time ago.
But then, first memories stick.
Clear and vivid.
As if it were just yesterday that they were created.

Come back with me, then, to my very first memory of Diwali...

The excitement would really all begin a week or so before the actual day, with a visit to the Diwali maidan to pick out fireworks. We'd walk from stall to stall, giggling with anticipation, surveying the goods, picking things out - a bit of this, a bit of that.  Some spinning chakras, a boxful of anaars, which when lit, would burst upwards into droplets of golden fire, rockets that would shoot streaks of brilliant reds and blues and greens and golds into the heavens...all of these, bought, then carefully boxed and stored, and put aside until Diwali eve.

We'd hardly sleep a wink the night before Diwali, hugging our pillows tight, impatiently waiting for morning to come.  And then as the first light of dawn would shine into our bedrooms, we'd jump out of bed, get into new clothes and savour the feel of festivity. Most of the day would be spent setting things up for the evening, the house in a state of friendly chaos, people scurrying between rooms, deities being brought out of store cupboards, silver being polished, kitchens busy at work, the smell of cloves and cinnamon wafting enticingly through the air...

With dusk finally settling in, we'd get even more impatient. "Crackers, crackers!" we'd scream, jumping up and down in glee, "when can we do the crackers?" "Be patient," the adults would say, "we'll do the crackers soon, but first the Puja." And so, the evening would commence with the Puja, the offering of prayers to the goddess Lakshmi - milk and honey and the ceremonial fire in return for health, and happiness and prosperity. Puja done, we'd feed each other sweets  - cool, nutty kaju barfi, creamy peda, yellow ladoos stuffed with plump raisins and nuts...
And then, finally, it would be time for the highlight of the evening; indeed for many of us, the highlight of the year. Fireworks time!
We'd step outside the house, leaving windows and doors ajar, expressly for goddess Lakshmi to pay us a visit if she so desired! Then we'd carry the fireworks out into the driveway, stopping to marvel at the street we lived on, transformed, overnight, into a shimmering fairy wonderland, filled with laughter and life - whole families joined together, joyous and jubilant in this celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights. 

We'd stand and we'd stare, taking it all in - this image of row upon row of houses glittering in the light of a thousand diyas, their flames dancing in the balmy October breeze.

Then, the fireworks would start, much to the delight of giggling children and the dismay of terrified dogs. Sparklers and rockets and flower pots and spinning wheels, would go off, one after the other, and we'd look upwards and gape at the night sky ablaze with colour and light. We'd stand there for hours, untiringly lighting cracker upon cracker with the same unrelenting enthusiasm and eagerness with which we'd do this every single year.

And then, when the very last sparkler had been lit and twirled around and around and around to make little circles of fire in front of us, that finally fizzled away, we'd go back inside and sit down to dinner, tired but happy. And hungry, oh so hungry!

We've always been vegetarian on Diwali, either as a mark of respect or a token of sacrifice, I don't know which. And so while dishes like ghosht biryani or prawn malai curry were more likely to be served on occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, on Diwali, it was always Diwali Rice that would take center stage - fragrant with the aroma of saffron and nutmeg.

And it would be the perfect conclusion to a perfect day.

You just have to taste it to see why...

Here's what you need:

- 500 gms long grained basmati rice
- 4 black cardamoms
- 2 tsp caraway seeds
- 3 bayleaves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 cloves


- ½ tsp brown mustard seeds


- Pinch of powdered nutmeg

- 1 inch piece of fresh ginger  

- Pinch of saffron strands dissolved in a tsp of milk 

- 2 tbsp ghee (for the real stuff) or 2 tbsp olive or groundnut oil (if you really insist) 

- 1 large onion, peeled and finely minced
- 100g potato, peeled and diced
- 1/2 carrot, peeled and diced
- 50g peas
- 40g green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch segments
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
-  3 tbsp natural yoghurt
- Salt, to taste
- 50g packet salted roasted cashew nuts, to garnish
Here's how you do it:

Soak the rice in water for about 30 minutes. Then drain and set aside. So, for a good pulao, it's really important to get the right rice. You're aiming for each grain to remain separate from every other when cooked, and you will really only get that with long grained basmati, so please try and get your hands on some if you can.

Meanwhile, heat some ghee (or, sigh, olive oil) in a large, deep bottomed pan, and add the chopped onions until they are slightly browned. Add in all the whole garam masala - (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, caraway seeds, bay leaves, and mustard seeds saute on a medium flame, till the spices are aromatic.
Stir in the ginger and all the other vegetables, sprinkle in the turmeric, salt and nutmeg and continue to cook on medium heat. At this point, I lower my flame and add in some natural yogurt. This is totally optional, but I find it lends a tart, creamy, distinctive flavour to my pulao, which I really like, but if you choose to use yogurt too, be really careful. Heating yogurt too rapidly can cause it to separate, which will completely ruin your dish - yes, yes, I speak from experience :( so stir in small bits of the yogurt, in batches, stirring constantly.

Now, pressure cook the rice along with 3 cups water for 3 whistles. Allow the stem to escape before opening the lid. The rice should be soft and fluffy but not sticky - this is why I'm banging on about the kind of rice you use! Long grained basmati has never let me down!

Stir in all the rice into the pan with the vegetables, mixing everything together. Sprinkle the saffron evenly on top and garnish with cashews.

And there, its done: flavourful, fragrant, festive Diwali Rice!

I guarantee the aroma is enough to make your senses sing!
And it's all upside from here, because what smells good, usually tastes even better!

So go on, dig in. Because, I certainly am. And even now, years later, my first mouthful is as amazing as I remember it all those years ago. It is the taste of Diwali. 

A thousand dancing diyas
The sparkle in the sky
The burst of fireworks carried along by the wind.
And long after it's all over - the strains of laughter lingering in the air.