Monday, July 27, 2009

A vegetable both plain and exotic

I am on vacation in Calcutta, my home town, and I can’t find a topic better than parwal, or pointed gourd. For this vegetable is native to this part of India. While this is a familiar vegetable for people in eastern India, it’s relatively exotic in other regions, like Maharashtra, where it is four times as expensive as in Bengal (an eastern state). And in the United States, it sells for $7 a pound!

Parwal’s Latin name is Trichosanthes dioica. Called parwal in Hindi and potol in Assamese, Oriya, and Bengali, it is widely cultivated in the eastern part of India, particularly in Orissa, Bengal, Assam, and Bihar, and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

It is a vine plant, similar to cucumber and squash, though unlike those it is perennial. The fruits are green, mostly with white stripes; the size can vary from small and round to thick and long — 2 to 6 inches.

It is used as ingredients of stew, curry, or eaten fried and as “dorma” with stuffing. Pointed gourd is also converted to a sweetmeat in Bengal.

For more on the possibilities of parwal, please be patient. This post is merely a prelude. For what you can do with parwal, watch out for another post. I will need to ask my mother for help on that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Let us make an omelet

I love egg in all its forms: omelets, and fried, boiled, and poached egg. But, I have a special weakness for omelets.

Omelets come in varied forms, too – what infinite variety egg provides! There is the classic French-style omelet, folded, with stuffing inside – cheese, sautéed vegetables, chicken, fish, or pretty much anything that tastes good. And there is the frittata. But, the homiest – at least for me – is the Bengali-style omelet, which is a cross between the French style and the frittata style.

The Bengali style involves mustard oil, which adds a strong, distinctive flavor. (Unlike extra-virgin olive oil, mustard oil doesn’t lose much flavor even on heating.) The omelet has chopped onion, green chilly, and tomato – sometimes chopped cilantro, too – along with seasoning, all stirred into the egg and whisked vigorously. The frothy mixture is then poured into a pan lined with heated mustard oil. The omelet is cooked in the usual way (tilting the pan and lifting the edge of the omelet to let uncooked egg run underneath) or flipped; it is then folded.

The result is a fluffy, tangy, strongly flavored breakfast – or lunch accompaniment. This is no gourmet stuff; roadside eateries, even vendors on the sidewalk armed with nothing but a “chulha” or kerosene stove, make the omelet perfectly. (Egg is egalitarian; that’s one more reason I love it.) Try making this omelet!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mango makes summer mellow and fruitful

Earlier I wrote about the bounty of summer in India. In spite of the sweltering weather that summer brings, it is worth living because of the several juicy fruits that nourish, sate, and delight us during the season.

One of those fruits, mango, deserves special mention; it’s definitely worth a blog post. Mango is the king of fruits. Mango brings memories of a boyhood spent in the heart of India, where my father bought different varieties – langra, dussehri, himsagar, etc.

In my present life, in Mumbai, I have access to another, the alphonso. In Mumbai, alphonso is king, considered the choicest variety for flavor and juiciness. But, it’s also the most expensive (a dozen cost, on an average, about Rs. 350.) So, I have few alphonsos and a lot of other varieties, some of which are cheaper but equally delicious, e.g., himsagar and badami.

(Now, that could be a bone (or pit) of contention. Those who swear by the alphonso or export it for business may draw their daggers on reading this. But the business focus on alphonsos is good for us lesser folks: the humble himsagar lets us indulge our love of mangoes without burning a hole in our pockets.)

Anyway, expensive or affordable, mangoes are a delight of the summer. If there is one thing that makes summers bearable, it’s the mango's magnetic charm.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Luchi and puree: Close cousins, but still different

I grew up eating luchi, a round, deep-fried pastry, eaten as bread in Bengali homes. Its cousin, puree, is more common in India. The difference between the two is luchi is made with refined (all-purpose) flour, while puree is made with whole-wheat flour. So luchi is white, while puree is brown. Furthermore, luchi is generally rolled out thinner.

I prefer luchi, even though puree is healthier. How about you? Have you eaten either?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Shrimp in mustard sauce: An explosion of flavor

Yesterday, I had a taste of a quintessentially Bengali preparation after a long while -- sorshe chingri bhape, or steamed shrimp in mustard sauce. During this period of deprivation, I had survived on ready-to-eat packets of rajma masala (curried red beans), spicy vegetable curry, and tadka dal (tempered, or spiced, lentil). All this while, my family was away in Kolkata and I was busy with several things that I wanted to accomplish during my demanding 3-year-old daughter's absence.

On Sunday I got a jolt of the strong mustard sauce, an explosion of flavor I was dying for. My wife's preparation was intense. I had it for lunch as well as dinner. This experience was the one bright spot of my day.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Stewing or braising versus baking or serving with a sauce

One thing I noticed when I worked in restaurants or cafeterias in America was that chefs would often sauté a boneless breast of chicken and pour different kinds of sauces over it for a variety of dishes, e.g., chicken piccata. And, of course, I found baking and roasting as two of the most common cooking methods. As opposed to these methods, the Indian way of cooking mostly involves braising or stewing. In other words, the main ingredient (e.g., fish) would be first fried and set aside. Then spices would be sautéed and water added. Once the liquid starts boiling, the fish or vegetables would be added for a simmer. The cooking is done when the meat or vegetables have become tender and the liquid (or gravy) has thickened a bit.

Does anyone think otherwise? Comments welcome.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A moment of reflection at the dinner table

This post isn’t about Bengali food; this post describes a moment in time, a fleeting thought about food, while eating on a hot summer’s night. (In the heat of the Mumbai summer, when sweat soaks you the moment you step away from air-conditioning or the ceiling fan, one hardly wants to cook. This is the only time of year when I cook only when absolutely necessary.)

As I ate a dinner last night that I had cooked, I ruminated. The house was empty and silent except for the rustle of a pest and the whir of the ceiling fans – my family was away in Kolkata, thanks to my daughter’s vacation.

I ate an Italian dinner: a chicken salad I made and some focaccia I had bought. For the chicken salad, I threw some cooked shredded chicken, sliced celery, crushed black olives, chopped onion, and a mixture of herbs into a pan, and sautéed them in olive oil. To add the tang of acid, I drizzled only a little white wine vinegar. I seasoned the salad, and lo and behold, a simple dinner for a hot summer’s night was ready.

As I ate my dinner in solitude, inhaling the smell of oregano and basil, one thought came to my mind. How different the flavors of the world’s cuisines are. The smell of herbs seemed so far removed from that of the garam masala and the Bengali paanch foron. But they all constitute human food: something that not only nourishes us, but delights us as well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Asafetida: A flavor bordering on odor

One of the flavors I have enjoyed since my boyhood days is hing, or asafetida. Its smell today reminds me of a childhood comfort food – toor dal. Hing is a strong-smelling, garlicky condiment. In fact, it can be used instead of garlic. When garlic is forbidden, e.g., on days of Hindu fasting, asafetida comes to the rescue. Just beware. For uncooked asafetida has a fetid odor; the dictionaries call the smell “obnoxious” or “foul.” The condiment is obtained from the resin of a plant of the parsley family.

The strong odor, though, becomes mild and pleasant – redolent of leek – when hing is sautéed in oil. In small quantities, it adds an undercurrent of distinctive flavor to dal, or lentil. My mother has always made urad dal and toor dal spiced with hing and fennel.

Asafetida may provoke extreme reactions, though. Dear reader, do you like the flavor of asafetida?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Poor peanut, despair not

Peanut has a bad name. It has become a metaphor for something of little value. For instance, people say, “I get paid peanuts.”

Yet, peanuts are ubiquitously valuable. In many countries all over the world, roasted peanuts are a staple snack served with beverages. And people, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, love them and raise a toast to them: “May I have some nuts, please?” That’s a question frequently asked, glass raised, in bars when a bunch of drinking buddies are having the time of their life. And, at home, many of us resort to the humble peanut-butter and jelly sandwich when hunger strikes.

I love peanuts. I eat them as tea-time snack in the afternoon. And peanuts are used in several Indian dishes, including the upma, a dish made from sooji, or semolina. It’s a pan-Indian favorite. I love my mother’s version, which I have grown up eating. For it, roasted or fried (if used raw) peanuts are chopped with a mortar and pestle. In India, another dish, chikki, is crammed with peanuts – or other nuts. It’s a sweet snack of nuts and molten jaggery, cut into squares, often sold in packets in grocery stores.

And remember peanut has a royal connection. Peanuts are a distinctive feature of one of China’s best-known dishes, kung pao chicken, which bears the name of a high-ranking officer of the Ching dynasty. The Szechwan preparation was created in his honor. (Some cooks substitute cashew for peanut, but that reflects merely a personal preference.)

Dear reader, do you like peanuts? (Of course, peanuts would be forbidden for those who are allergic to them.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Watermelon sherbet a gift of summer

Last week I made a promise to you. This post is the fulfillment of it. I am going to share with you the recipe of a sherbet my mother made when I was growing up in India’s heartland, a region of unrelenting summers. This sherbet is made best with a watermelon that is dark red inside. The watermelons I pick in Mumbai – these have never disappointed me – are light green, with dark green stripes. These are unspeakably red and luscious inside, with small, sparse seeds.

½ of a small (3 lb) watermelon
3 tbsp castor (superfine) sugar
1 lemon or lime
3 cups water
A few mint leaves for garnish
Ice cubes


  1. Cut watermelon into wedges.
  2. Grate them roughly over a flat grater placed over a large bowl (choose a size just large enough for the grater to rest on the edge of the bowl) to catch the juice and pulp, discarding the seeds from the top with a fork.
  3. Stir in the sugar and water.
  4. Squeeze a slice of lemon or lime and stir.
  5. Put ice cubes in tall glasses and pour the sherbet. Garnish with a slice of lemon or lime, or mint leaves.

Makes four glasses.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bounty of summer a silver lining

Summer is here. The torrid, cruel days of April are upon us in India. This is the time of year when vegetables lose their winter sheen and begin to wear a half-withered look; some show up in faded colors. The orange carrots give way to yellow ones, for instance.

But, summer is not all evil. For in this season, some of the juiciest, tastiest, and loveliest fruits show up in the grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Among them are mangoes and watermelon. Several varieties of these fruits flood the market. The watermelons come in light green with stripes or solid dark green; ripe mangoes come in yellow, red, orange, and light green.

Whatever colors or shapes the fruits don, they nourish and cool us with their sweet flesh and juice as though God has created them to respite us from the cruelty of April. The watermelon, especially, quenches our thirst with a delightful color, flavor, and sweetness. Next time, I will share a recipe for fresh watermelon sherbet.

Dear reader, what summer fruits do you like most?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Aloo bhate and mashed potato: Close cousins

I grew up eating “aloo bhate,” a version of mashed potato born in the Bengali home. Bengalis eat this on a regular basis as a side dish. The name, I am told, comes from “bhate,” which means “in the rice.” People in an earlier generation used to drop whole, unpeeled potatoes into a pot of rice cooking on the stovetop to make this dish.

There are a few differences between the Western mashed potato and aloo bhate: the fat used, the condiments added, and the shape (aloo bhate is cupped into a ball). The basic aloo bhate is made with potatoes mashed with mustard oil and seasoned with just salt. Some people add roasted or fried crushed red pepper or chopped green chilies, some even caramelized onion. The Western mashed potato, I learned in adulthood, is made with butter, and milk or cream, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The more creative cooks add garlic sautéed in the butter. The more health-conscious (or lovers of olive oil) avoid butter; they use extra virgin olive oil instead.

One thing is common to both mashed potato and aloo bhate: they are delicious and homey. Both are simple but satisfying. Both can be made sophisticated, however, by merely adding the richness of cream or the tang of condiment.

Dear reader, do you like mashed potato?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Grilling on a chulha

When I was a child, I used to see my mother prepare rotis (a roti is also called chapati, the Indian flatbread) on a chulha, a charcoal-fired furnace made from a steel bucket lined with clay. On the chulha also went vegetables, like eggplant, for roasting. Little did I know then that the chulha was very close to a grill.

Years later, well into adulthood, I saw a grill being used in the United States. As I passed by fast-food restaurants, the smell of meat and poultry being grilled or roasted filled me. It became an integral part of America in my mind.

Recently, I learned about how well-known food writer Mark Bittman prepares chapatis on his grill. As I read the recipe, I felt as though life had come back full circle – from my mother’s kitchen to the pages of the New York Times.

The chulha can rival a grill any day. Unfortunately, the once-ubiquitous chulha has all but disappeared from Indian homes, thanks to the advent of LPG. Soon, the chulha will be a relic of the past.

Dear reader, if you have seen a chulha, do you miss it?