Monday, December 31, 2007

Striking a relationship with your grocer

I am vacationing at my home in Calcutta. In the last days of the year, I've been visiting the vegetable market and the fish market I had become used to before I moved to Mumbai.

I am getting to say hello to the fishmonger who had become a friend. He would never cheat at the weighing scale. He is the one on whom I placed my trust. I would sometimes buy fish from other vendors and have it weighed at his stall. If he said I had been cheated I would go back to the stall where I had bought the fish and claim the deficit. I would demand the correct weight.

During my holiday, I am getting to buy from my regular fishmonger again. Over the past two days, I bought from him katla, a fish of the carp family. I also bought parshe, or gold-spot mullet, and tiger prawn, or shrimp, from a woman, a stall owner who I know would never cheat.

Above all, during the glorious days of the waning year, I am getting to chat again with Ashok, my "sabziwala," who buys his produce from farmers he knows. His stuff is always fresh and tender and the best variety. I bought giant, brilliant white cauliflowers, peas in their pristine shells, and tomatoes that aren’t the hybrid variety available all year round. This variety of tomato, though somewhat pale in color, is seasonal, tastier and juicier.

One reason I am enjoying my vacation so much is that I am connecting again with the vegetable vendor and the fishmonger I patronized on a regular basis. It’s a joy to shop when you have a relationship with your vendor. Supermarkets, with their sanitized and spic-and-span environment, can never match this experience of clamor and camaraderie. What do you say, reader?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The many faces of mustard

In an earlier post, I wrote about mustard oil, especially in the context of how different it is from olive oil. No matter how much I love olive oil, I can never sever ties with mustard products, for I am a Bengali. I come from the land of the fertile delta, where mustard and fish abound. The quintessential image of Bengal’s countryside is a profusion of yellow mustard flowers.

Last week, I was smitten with the humble mustard, something we take for granted. I delved into different kinds of mustard products – “compounded” mustard powder, American-style prepared mustard, Dijon mustard, and, finally, freshly prepared mustard paste, pure-Bengali style. I bought jars of all kinds of mustard with the earnestness of a cook and researcher.

Mustard is eaten in so many forms: whole seeds, powdered, and prepared. The whole seed is one of the most familiar forms. One of my earliest memories of my mother cooking involves the popping sound brown mustard seeds make when dropped in hot oil. The nutty flavor is elemental to the Indian kitchen.

Powdered mustard available in the market usually contains both black or brown and yellow-white seeds, wheat flour and turmeric. English mustard is an example. To savor this mustard, I bought Weikfield’s compounded mustard, which contains essentially the same ingredients in powdered form.

Prepared mustard is generally made from powdered mustard combined with seasonings and a liquid such as water, vinegar, wine, beer or must. The American-style prepared mustard has a distinctly turmeric flavor, tart but mild. That’s because it’s made from white mustard seeds, which aren’t as pungent as brown or black seeds, the kind I have grown up on. On the other hand, the French Dijon mustard, which is also a prepared mustard, is made from brown or black seeds. Yet it is less pungent than English mustard – maybe the vinegar does something to the sharpness of mustard. While the American-style is bright yellow, Dijon mustard is pale grayish-yellow. Both are distinctly tart.

I tried yet another form, the paste. I tried to replicate with the compounded mustard power the ground mustard paste Bengalis use in fish delicacies. I added just enough water to make a paste and let it “bloom” for 10 minutes, according to directions on the Weikfield's plastic jar. It did bloom to full-bodied mustard flavor, I am glad to say. In fact, I found little difference between this paste and the one I produced by grinding a spoonful of brown mustard seeds with a little water in a mortar and pestle. The only difference was that the freshly ground paste had bits of skin, which made a curry I later cooked a little acrid, while the one I made with the paste from the powder tasted just right: mustardy, golden, and smooth. You could achieve the same result from freshly ground mustard, though, merely my straining the paste. (That’s how our house cook makes “sorshe mach,” or fish in mustard sauce.)

My experiments wih mustard have left a side-effect: large jars of mustard I have no idea how to consume. I don’t eat hotdogs; nor do I like mustard on my sandwich. The jars now sit idle in my refrigerator.

Can you tell me, dear reader, in what ways can I use up the many kinds of mustard? Salad dressing, maybe?