A cosy dinner

Saturday night, we stayed at home for dinner again. A bottle of lager was chilling in our fridge; a new flavour, made from rice. I’d bought it on a whim on Friday. It had a crisp and light lager taste. Nice and bitter. We had a simple dinner planned out. Toasted sandwiches with cream cheese and roasted vegetables. I’d brushed a mixture of rice vinegar and sesame oil on the veggies. Then, before bunging them into the oven I’d sprinkled some sesame seeds over them. Now it was time to sit back with full glasses and plates, switch on the screen, and watch Yesterday. That’s Danny Boyle’s most recent movie, and definitely not a Trainspotting. It was a cosy Saturday night, with a monsoon storm blowing outside the windows. On a night like that it was good to see John Lennon live to be 78, and turn into the person you always wanted him to be.

Empty table thought

Good lunches should end with a memorable dessert. A crepe chocolate cake sounded passable but not exactly like the thing that memories are made of. Crepes with chocolate? Been there. Done that. Why not the pandan infused panna cotta instead? But when it appeared on the table it looked fabulous, and it tasted wonderful on the rainiest day in this record-breaking monsoon month of July. The sweetness of the chocolate infused the warmly comfortable flavours of the layered crepes. There was a light feel of a thing which was half air. And the balancing tartness of the raspberry sauce, presented as blood-red drops on the side, was exactly perfect. I’m happy to find this restaurant.

Earlier, when The Family had stepped out for a moment, I took a photo of a Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, prosecco, orange) that we’d ordered as an aperitif. The server suggested this off-menu drink, and it was perfect for the Thai food that the restaurant serves. Masking is a wonderful idea for the staff, since they are going to meet a large number of unmasked people every day. I’m all for it as the minimal safety measure that they can use. The other is to reduce contact with unmasked people as much as possible. However, it does tend to reduce them to, literally, faceless service providers. That’s not something I like.

Retaining colour

During the sedentary months of the first lockdown we moved to a diet heavy in salads. But lately I’ve been feeling a little tired of this. The Family likes the lightness of salads, especially at times like the current months when our activity is again heavily curtailed. I tried roasting the vegetables some time ago, and was rewarded by the sweeter, deeper flavours created in the roasting. This week I discovered that a similar effect is obtained by steaming. As you can see from the featured photo, steaming can also retain the colours of the vegetables.

I put the recipe together from a few posts by wonderful home cooks that I could see on the web. Here is what I settled on:

  1. Clean the vegetables, remove the ends of things like carrots, beet, beans, and so on. You might want to peel the veggies (a step that I forgot).
  2. Put a low support at the bottom of the pressure cooker for the steaming vessel to sit on. I used a steel colander to hold the vegetables which need to be steamed.
  3. You need very little water for steaming, just three tablespoons of water was sufficient for the two carrots and the beans that you see in the photo. Make sure that the water does not touch the vegetables.
  4. Put the pressure cooker on a high flame and wait for two whistles. That took me between five and six minutes, the time could be more or less depending on the size of your cooker.
  5. Put off the flame, release the steam, and then cool the vessel under running water immediately. This helps to preserve the colour of the vegetables.

My first attempt turned out successful, and I’m not a great cook. I put a smear of mustard on the plate, and The Family and I scarfed the whole plate standing at the kitchen counter. Everything was soft, flavourful, and sweet, a better taste than the carrots that went into the same day’s salad. My excuse is that quick cooking makes me hungry. The Family says she did not want me to get poisoned by eating the whole thing. Love flowers in kitchens!

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Categorized as Food, India

Umami and starch

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 2)

Swells which ride on a tide never quite drain away. That seems to be the fate of the second wave of epidemic around us. Still, we brave the rip tide a couple of times a week: once by going out to eat, then again by meeting friends and family, one couple on one. On our last two outings we ordered, among other things, sausages and bread. Once it was Lebanese sausages with its flat bread (featured photo), the second time it was a Goan sausage with pao (below). These are wonderful, satisfying tastes. First the kick of the starch, then the garnish with its salts and sours and chili, and finally the long finish of the umami. If you are a meat eater, you know the satisfaction of well cooked starch and meat.

It led me to wonder about the universe of flavours that we build daily in our kitchens. Some searching led me to a well-written review of the current state of our knowledge about tastes. The first thing that surprised me is that taste and the perception of flavour are different. In fact, there are taste receptors in our stomach and intestines which order our bodies to metabolize food, but they don’t add to our perception of flavour. But the major surprise was how tightly the sensation of taste is connected to survival. It is not a complete surprise of course, because it is fairly common knowledge that many plant toxins are extremely bitter in taste, and we tend to avoid sharply bitter food. What is less widely known is that bitterness can involve pre-emptive nausea to remove the toxin from our stomach. The increased sensitivity to mild bitterness is said to trigger nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy when the major organs of the fetus begin to develop. It is also the identical response which we seek to suppress when we advise people not to drink on an empty stomach.

The ability to taste umami seems to have evolved in the pre-human lineage as they diverged away from our nearest living relatives and started foraging in grasslands, and decreased their reliance on fruits. Unlike us, chimpanzees cannot taste this component of our food. The umami taste appears as proteins denature slightly, either by rotting or cooking. We can tell when proteins in food reach the state when our stomachs and the pro-biotic bacteria inside us can begin to digest them by the glutamates and ribonucleotides that are sensed by the umami taste buds in our mouths. Fresh meat does not have an umami taste, so carnivores do not have these receptors. Sea-lions have evolved very far from other mammals by losing all sensation of taste, since they use their visual senses to identify prey and then swallow it whole. Perhaps only the dinosaur ancestors of birds had as finely developed developed a taste for umami flavours as us.

Our liking for starchy food is more subtle. I could not think of a specific taste of starch, but I love it when I eat it. Many animals can digest starch through enzymes produced in the pancreas. In us, and strangely, also in rats, this is supplemented by the production of the same enzyme in our tongues. This breaks down starches very rapidly in our mouths, so that we have no difficulty in swallowing dry toast or thick porridge. There are taste receptors on our tongue that sense both this enzyme and the malty predecessors of glucose (called by mouthfuls of names such as malto-oligosaccharides) that it produces by pre-digesting starch in the mouth. These receptors connect to parts of the brain which process taste without actually being identified as a distinct taste. I suspect that large scale addition of starch to our diets has been so recent, on the evolutionary scale of time, that our brains have not evolved to consciously processing these sensations as a separate taste.

Our brains may not have begun to process starch as a separate taste, but already our bodies have begun to evolve to identify these tastes. Some of us have more amylase receptors on our tongues. Such individuals seem to trigger production of insulin even before the starch reaches the stomach, and thereby lower the glycemic response to the food. Could the observation that diabetes runs in families similarly signal individuals who have heritably lower levels of these receptors? How did rats evolve this sense? Did they have it before they became ancient household pests, or did human agriculture and storage stimulate this evolution in rats? A tasty lunch seems to be a lesson about evolution in action.

Baked comfort

Baking and roasting was reserved for the Saturday. There were chicken breasts to be roasted (I’ve got that down pat now), and a bunch of vegetables.

I’d decided to do beetroot, carrots, karela, potato and onion. We bought some silicone brushes for oiling things, but realized that fingers impart a thinner coat and a better spread. Perhaps there is a technique with the brushes that I need to learn, or perhaps silicone is not the best. Can someone set me on the right path here?

In any case, a thin layer of oil, then a generous dusting of chaat masala. The idea was to take the disks of vegetable and roast them crisp. It worked, partly. There are techniques to be ironed out here before I get them correct stress free, like the chicken breasts. For crisping I probably need to nudge the oven temperature up a little. Another of the techniques I need to master is the knife work. The movie East Side Sushi came to mind, although one does not need to have that level of skill to chop a karela or a beetroot evenly into medium-thick disks.

But the star of the day was the Bihari comfort food called a litti. Traditionally these balls of atta covering a filling of sattu would be popped into the coals of a chulha while the rest of the day’s cooking was done. Farmers and labourers could carry them to work, eat them with meager accompaniment like a little mustard oil or a green chili.. The middle class would have it with baingan bharta or alu chokha, or ghee and dal, or even a spicy mutton keema. Now the nostalgia of the Bihari diaspora has changed it all to restaurant cuisine.

I’ve had them very simple, with a plain sattu filling, but my sister in law had made us a batch in which the sattu had been mixed with an interesting combination of spices in mustard oil. Comfort food never has to be just so, every family has its own method. I popped it into the oven along with other things which were cooking at 200 Celsius, and took them out when they looked done. The Family thought they looked underdone, so she gave it another go with an air-fryer. I missed the smoky flavour from a coal fire, but the tang of mustard oil was wonderful. We remembered to take a photo only when they were nearly gone, which is why the photo looks like a fake Miro.

New departures

The Family took the thick stems left over from a batch of Basella alba and stuck them into a pot full of earth. The edible leaves are known as Malabar spinach to vendors in Mumbai, pui shak to Bengalis , mong toi to Vietnamese, remayong to Malays, alugbati to Philippinos, and san choy to Chinese. Now new leaves have begun to sprout on our balcony and we might soon to able to harvest batches for our food. We’ve only tried it with other veggies, though I believe that they taste wonderful cooked with the tiny shrimps that you get in the monsoon.

Someone had dropped some cucumber seeds into a forgotten plant, and we discovered a vine curling out of it today. We have to tease it on to the railing of the balcony now, but I do look forward to harvesting the leaves quite as much as the fruit. In fact I wanted to eat the flowers more than the fruit, but The Family does not agree. Now I realize that I could grow a pumpkin vine. We can get good pumpkin in the market, but I haven’t eaten their flowers for years because you don’t get them in the market. A vine at home will solve that problem. All these leaves can go into salads and soups. I’m looking forward to these new flavours.

Litchi predicts the fate of Web 2.0

This has been a grand year for litchis (Litchi chinensis) as far as we are concerned. The bowl you see here is the final batch, which we found at the local vendor a little after the end of the season. These photogenic red skinned litchis are not the best though. For almost a century, the queen of litchis has been the variety from Muzaffarpur, a district of Bihar just north of the Ganga. The season for this variety lasts for about two weeks, and the skin is a dusty brown in colour. But for all that, the fruit is juicy and delicious.

As I began to write this post I wondered why the spelling that I use, litchi, is beginning to be eclipsed by lychee. Both are transliterations of the Chinese word for the fruit (荔枝, which in Pinyin would be written as Lìzhī). Litchi was the first published transliteration, having been used in the first botanical description published in 1782 by Pierre Sonnerat. I turned to Google ngrams, and found that the alternative spelling has been popular in brief spurts in every century. The first time lychee eclipsed litchi was in 1860s. Then again the variant was briefly dominant in the 1960s. My guess is that these spurts are due to passing cultural fads. So what could be the recent dominance due to?

The spelling lychee outdid litchi for a period which started in late 2005. Recently litchi has been catching up again. Casting a net for the name of the fad, I found that the phrase Web 2.0 closely tracks the excess of lychee over litchi. Is the declining dominance of the spelling lychee then an indicator that the social media boom is now heading to a bust?

Made to order

This post is made to the order of The Youngest Niece. “A chocolate tart would be awesome,” she wrote when I asked her what she would like to have for dessert when she came over for lunch. So she got the one in the photo below. I have standing instructions to get exactly the same thing for her and her father, so that she doesn’t have to give him a taste of what she has on her plate. She’s grown a lot since that order was placed, but she hasn’t revised her instructions yet. I give it a couple of years more before she stops caring.

The rest of us can have anything else. Tiramisu, lemon tart, chocolate mousse, fresh fruit tarts, she doesn’t bother, as long as she has a very chocolatey thing on her plate. Ah, and it shouldn’t be a weird chocolate. She didn’t like wasabi in her chocolate, or the one with olive oil, or even the one with a pizza flavour. She’s begun to diversify into salted chocolate, so I guess in a few years I can begin to give her my chocolate, pepper, and cloves mole with roasted chicken breasts. In the mean time, chocolate is dessert and vice versa.

The world of woven trees

We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

J.R.R.Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

The season of jamun (Syzygium cumini) came and went again in an eyeblink. It has been a favourite since my childhood, when my friends and I would pick fallen fruit from the ground, and in complete disregard of instructions from parents, eat them without bothering to wash them. Our mouths would turn a bright purple from the juices of the fruit, so there was no hiding the fact that we had spent a morning foraging. My memories have a strange anti-resonance with Tolkein’s verse, equally laden with nostalgia. Sitting on the shore of this western sea, I still remember my childhood in the far land of woven trees. Especially the burning heat of summer holidays, when dogs and their Englishmen dozed in the shade, and only school children and crows would venture outdoors.

Roasted

Words are slippery things. Metaphors become meanings. So let me drop all metaphors to talk about the roasting of food. In this lockdown I’ve been working at efficient use of an oven. When you think about it, an oven is highly wasteful of energy. It can take ten to fifteen minutes to warm up, especially if you need a high temperature. Then most cooking in an oven requires a half hour or more. So you spend a kilowatt-hour of energy on cooking, much larger than what you typical microwave oven, induction heater, or gas stove would take. My response is to use an oven for multiple things at the same time. I’ve begun to use the whole volume of the oven, using as many trays as I can fit in. I also keep in mind a graded cook, where different things use different temperatures. I start using it after a quick warming to a reasonably low temperature, and then warm in steps to the highest that I need.

Eggs cook in about 10-15 minutes at 150 Celcius. You can start to slow dry tomatoes on another rack while you do this, and you can add in a rack of karela (bitter gourd, if that made up name helps) at the same time if you want. You can push the temperature up to 175 Celcius in the middle of this cook. Then you take it up to 200 Celcius for the next stage. Chicken breasts take about 30 minutes at 200 Celcius. A couple of trays of vegetable can cook at the same time: carrots, radish, cauliflower, pumpkin, onion, beetroot, aubergine (brinjal), potato, are what I’ve tried. If you are started on the tomato, then let it continue inside the oven from the earlier stage for these 30 minutes. Then comes the last stage at 225 Celcius. Take out the chicken breasts and continue to bake the other pieces for another 15 minutes at this temperature, after turning them over, in order to brown them well. Continue the root vegetables and onions for the same time at this higher temperature.

All this may sound finicky, but it is actually simple if you arrange things in trays which need to be taken out or inserted at specific times. I made the graphic that you see above to help me plan. Arranging different parts of the cook into separate trays (or sections of trays) makes it much less of a chore than any other way of cooking.

I’ve reserved my Sundays for oven cooking. I love the fresh roasted plate of veggies to go with chicken. The roasting brings out an amazingly sweet taste from the vegetables. When you eat well-roasted onions, roasted to a transparency greater than in any of the photos here, the taste changes totally. I was reminded of a Hyderabadi dish called anokhi kheer, a sweet made of onions. The great upside is that at the end of the cook we also have a fridge stocked with meat and vegetables that we can use through the week, whenever we are short of time.