What’s in your masala box?

Some masalas are used so often that you don’t want to unscrew lids while you are cooking. So I’m told. I never used a masala box in the halcyon days I was king of my kitchen. But now we have a cook, into whose domain I venture only on her days off. But I;ve begun to appreciate the uses of a masala box. But I do have a distinct feeling of otherness when I peek into hers. The powdered haldi, the dhania and jeera powders, and the flakes of red chili staples in my book too. You could leave some of them out in some recipes, and others out of some others. But in a week’s cooking I, and perhaps most of you, will use these. But where is the powdered garam masala? I use it more often than red chili. I would certainly put the garam masala in the box and the red chilis on a shelf, within easy reach when needed. The Family says she would have both in the box.

I don’t do dals so often; so the mustard seeds and whole jeera could also be somewhere on my masala shelf. On second thought, I often do veggies which call for whole jeera. So maybe the jeera would go in the box and the mustard seeds on the shelf. The Family says she would retain both.

The urad dal? I barely use it, perhaps only when I’m cooking a leaf, and I want to add something for texture. Even then my first thought would be to add vadi instead of dal. So that’s definitely out for me. The Family says she would get rid of it too; she would have to in order to make space for the powdered garam masala. What would I use that space for? Maybe I would put a mix of whole masalas, some cinnamon (the stick in the photo comes from a cook by The Family), some elaichi, some cloves, a bay leaf or two, a few pieces of star aniseed.

What about you? If you regularly do Indian recipes, perhaps even if you don’t, what is in your masala box?

Coffee in Pinkk

It was good to be back in the normal flow of work, with a day long meeting ending with a red-eye back home. But this time, there was a cafe I wanted to check out close to where we had lunch. In Mumbai a cafe is a misnamed bistro. But in Kolkata, a cafe is exactly it says. When I walked in with two colleagues for a post-lunch espresso, we were a little bemused by the looks of the place. One of them said “It’s name tells you what the colour scheme is.” The illuminated wall opposite the entrance was covered with pink hearts. “Grrrl power,” it proclaimed.

The waitress explained that espresso is bitter. We nodded. The statutory warning was done; clearly the usual clientele has a sweet tooth. We were given a small menu to look at, and decided to share a pastry. The dessert at lunch had been quite satisfactory. There was only one of the lemon strawberry cakes left, we were told. It suited us. The cake was good. The espresso was aromatic and bitter. The cake knew what it should be. The biscuit at the bottom was crisp but not hard. The dome was crackly, the lemon filling was aromatic and sour, and nicely cut through the sweetness of the strawberry. Rentals in Kolkata haven’t gone through the roof, so a small place like this can still survive charging a fraction of the price that you would pay in Mumbai. The experience left a pleasant taste in the mouth.

Breakfast with birds

Bird watching involves getting up before sunrise and feeling hungry while you train your camera on birds which are busy at breakfast. After a couple of hours of watching kingfishers and reed warblers busy singing while eating, we couldn’t take it any more. We drove to another part of the barrage where the water was full of reeds and grass. Jacanas and a variety of ducks were visible here. Vivek and Arjun, our guides, brought out our breakfast. Warm poha, boiled eggs, bananas, the usual fare. But The Family had picked up a lovely plum jam from Nainital, and Vivek had remembered to get a loaf of bread to have it with. Piping hot chai rounded off the morning. Breakfasts are not always about the food. The company of birders and birds provided a great memory of Haripura reservoir. Then we were off to the hills to look for the elusive great slaty woodpeckers.

Healthy dinners

With the festival season over, we went off to the newly reopened farmers’ market yesterday. So many fresh veggies! Memories of our healthy dinners from the lockdown months flooded back. I bought karela, beetroot, bhindi, guava, small potato, fresh spinach and kale. Roasted vegetables for dinner! Shouldn’t forget to get some amchur from the farmers for the seasoning. And of course I have that Himalayan salt I picked up from Nainital last week.

It is hard to recall the strict diet and portion control forced on us by the breakdown of the supply chain during the lockdown. A stall at the corner of the market had ragi papad, and our favourite baker had fresh multigrain bread. And there was a wonderful Nashik Chardonnay in the fridge, and a part of a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo which had to be finished. Dinner was an indulgence rather than a healthy minimal meal. It was all rounded off with mixed fruit cookies sourced from the farmers’ market. It wasn’t even vegan: I roasted the potatoes in ghee, and did not skimp on the butter on the multigrain bread. But it was really cold outside, in the Icelandic murder mystery we watched afterwards.

View of Nainital

On our trips to the lake district of Uttarakhand, we descend to Naini Tal only for the occasional lunch and coffee. After a less than satisfactory meal at one of the older spots on Mall Road, by the lake, we walked a few paces to an old bakery. It stands on a slight slope at the head of the lake, its once-lovely view now cut off by a car park and other municipal monsters. Still, its plate glass windows give you a glimpse of the powder blue sky of vasant ritu, autumn, in the mountains, and a line of alternating chir pines and chinar. In this season the chinar leaves turn colour. The Family thumbed through the menu. Her choice was unavailable, so I jumped in with an order of Sakley’s Special and tea. The cake was light, moist, and chocolatey. I vote that it is one of the best sights in Naini Tal.

Three courses

The Family asked me “Why haven’t we eaten out in weeks?” That must have been an oversight. So the only possible answer was “Which place do you want to go to?” There’s a new French restaurant which we haven’t tried, but you need to book a table a couple of days in advance. There’s an expensive Greek place which sounds more in fashion than having memorable food. But The Family had heard of a place which has flown below the radar. It’s menu looked interesting, and the small number of reviews were mostly rather good. A table was easy to get. Close to the business district, lunch on Sunday was not its most happening hour.

I’d had my eyes on the sambousa with spinach and Bandel cheese ever since I looked up the menu on the web site. Spinach and cheese is a good combination in general. I expected the salty smokiness of a Bandel cheese to stand out. It’s not every cook who can get a spinach filling into a sambousa and still get a crisp crust, but this one did. And the kitchen went easy on the Bandel cheese so that we could taste it without it overwhelming the dish. It went very well with the wheat beer I’d ordered. And that led nicely into the main course of a Turkish version of minced lamb with the wonderful pillowy pide that you see in the featured photo. Really good cook on the mince, too.

We were going easy on the dishes, leaving some of it to take away because we wanted a dessert. “A very light one,” The Family told me, “perhaps the Panna Cotta?” They didn’t have it. I asked for one with an Indian influence: flavoured with nolen gur and candied oranges. When it came to the table The Family told the server that we would only have a small portion and would ask her to doggy bag the rest. We dug in. It was incredibly light and tasty, and we finished it without a pause. I knew the earlier work of this pastry chef, when she was working at the Bombay Canteen with Floyd Cardoz. I was happy to see she’s still innovating. When the server asked us whether we’d enjoyed our food, The Family answered for both of us: “You’ll see us here again.”

Puff piece

Looking at the street food of Puri, I came face to face with a problem in linguistics. In Odisha rice is converted to a snack in two ways. One is called muri in Odiya, and is common across India and east and south-east Asia. The other is called khai in Odiya and is not generally available in western India. In trying to describe the food in the featured photo, I was flummoxed. I asked the Youngest Niece whether she’d ever eaten this khai, and she hadn’t.

Then I was stuck with describing it. She knew that mudi is sometimes called puffed rice in English and has a crunch. I explained that khai has a texture like popcorn: airy but chewy. She asked “Popped rice?” That’s a good name actually. I’ll start using it. Muri, puffed rice, is made by soaking or parboiling rice before heating it. Khai, popped rice, is made by heating the grains of rice directly. I find popcorn a little annoying (Youngest Niece looked astounded when I said this) because bits of it stick to the teeth. Khai also has this problem, but to a smaller degree.

Still, it is a very popular snack around the eastern part of the country. I prefer the version which is coated in molasses. It’s a sweeter snack, and more flavourful than the caramel popcorn that the niece prefers. An eyeroll from her showed what she thought of that statement.

Beach food

Beautiful silk sarees seem to be the choice of beach-wear this year in Puri. You can hardly enter the water in them. It’s also rather stormy, with a chance of hurricanes right now. So the thing to do seems to be to amble on the sand and look for things to eat. The man balancing a whole lot of pans on his shoulder offered four kinds of Odiya sweets, including rasgulla. But I’d stopped at every sweet shop on my way down to the beach, so I gave it a miss.

I was very tempted by the heap of guavas. Nearly ripe guavas, sliced up and sprinkled with salt and powdered red chili is an all time favourite beach food. I’ve eaten it from Goa, down the Kerala coast, up the east coast from Madurai to Bengal, and further east to Myanmar and all the way to Vietnam. I smelt the guavas. Not yet ripe enough, unfortunately. There are some who prefer the fruit very green, but I’m not one of them.

But there was a life save: tender coconut. Just the thing on this hot and humid day. The vendor chopped off the top and gave me the water. Then he split the coconut into two to give me the gelatinous white flesh, still sweet and tender. You scoop it up with a piece of the shell. Very eco-friendly. No single use item there. Not even the coconut. After you’ve finished with it the shell and the coir are used. Perfect beach food for the day.

Roll over Marcel

Cloche covered mysteries do not usually greet me when I get home from a trip. Strange. It wasn’t even meal time. I can’t stand a mystery (I read reviews with “spoilers” before the book). So I had to remove the cloche. It looked familiar, but tamarind? Placed on the table where a bowl of fruit would normally stand? The Family explained. She’d been to buy fruits and the vendor told her about the sweet tamarind he’d just got. We had some, and it certainly wasn’t the dark and sour flesh that we use in cooking.

The taste brought back memories. I’d last had this when I was in school. A large tamarind tree stood at one end of the playing field. It was a time-honoured ritual to throw (tamarind) sticks and cricket or tennis balls at it to bring down a fruit. They were sweet too. Exactly the taste that had lingered in my memory until it was unlocked half a century later by chance. Better than crumbs of madelines soaked in tea. But I’m no Proust, so I’ll stop here.

Fresh old food

Something different? If you want something different, take a walk in the neighbourhood of one of the old temple towns of India. Yesterday I strolled around the lanes of Puri, near the Jagannath temple. This is old enough to have given the word juggernaut to the English language in its own recent history. I had my eyes on the hundreds of sweet shops that line these roads. Pilgrims need sustenance. This shop caught my eye. Malpuas were fried and soaked in syrup as I watched, and next to them was a tray of the khajas which this temple town is famous for.

I have never understood how this famous speciality of a little-known town called Silaon in Bihar came to be associated with Puri in Odisha. Perhaps it goes back to the famous war between Magadha and Kalinga (circa 260 BCE), the war whose effect was the spread of Buddhism through the then-known world: eastwards all the way to Japan, westwards to the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Asia. Temples are the amber which preserve old customs. This man, with his ascetic’s matted hair, was hard at work passing on a bit of old tradition to the future.