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?