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.)