While watching Nigel Ng’s hilarious takedown of Jamie Oliver’s fried rice, The Family said “We haven’t had fried rice for ages.” Fried rice was a rare delicacy when I was young. I had to cajole my mother into making it. I didn’t think I could recreate her recipe, but I could try to recreate my memory of that taste. My mother would make that in her kadhai, but I’m a little afraid of that utensil (it bites!).
I heated a tiny bit of oil in a nice rounded non-stick pan, the closest I could come to a tame (non bitey) kadhai, and cooked some prawns until they were almost done. If they cook a little in the rice, they’ll give it a flavour of the sea, so you don’t need to finish them now. I added a little more oil for the chopped onions and garlic and cooked them through. Then it was time to put the old rice from the fridge into the pan to fry. When it had started releasing its smell, I rummaged for eggs and found that we’d almost run out of them. I took the last three and broke them over the rice, and began to work it around. Something didn’t look right, so I drizzled enough soya sauce into the pan to colour the rice a nice red. At this time of the year there are no spring onions in the market, so I just put in the prawns, and waited for everything to cook just that little more. When I tasted it, I found that it could have done with more egg, some chili, and it needs some crunchy veggie bits, even if spring onions are not in season.
“This was not the best”, The Family told me. I had to agree. I realized that she’d been watching me closely, in the guise of helping me find eggs and chopping the onions. So it’s clear my fried rice has been appropriated!
My mother was fond of experimenting with food. I realize now that the things that I grew up eating were the history of a new and more open India in the making. Dosas and idli crossed over into north Indian kitchens about then, and my mother’s experiments with sambar lasted through my middle school. Dahi vada, chhole bature, and ragda patties insinuated themselves into the regional kitchens that mothers of her generation inherited from their parents. Fried rice and spring rolls from the Chinese subculture in India was part of this cultural appropriation. The result was a wonderfully cosmopolitan Indian culture that came to full flower in the last decade of the twentieth century, a generation after midnight’s children.
I had two nice pomfrets to cook last Sunday morning. What a lovely prospect for lunch. When the fish is as fresh as this, it is very easy to cook. I coated them with a paste of ginger, garlic, red chili powder, and salt. They need to sit in it for a bit; I gave it about fifteen minutes. Then, one by one they went into a non-stick pan where I’d heated a tiny bit of mustard oil. Three minutes for one side, two for the other, and it was done. Quick, and wonderful to eat after a fresh garden salad. A couple of months back I’d pickled some cherries in vinegar. That hint of sweetness in the vinegar makes a nice base for the salad dressing. We rounded off the meal with a sitafal (Annona squamosa).
I can never make fish without remembering this panel by Bill Watterson.
Onam, one of the big festivals of Kerala, was yesterday. This is a harvest festival, and involves a wonderful onam sadhya, onam lunch. For the last couple of years The Family has located restaurants nearby for such a lunch. It was out of question this year. I’d not paid much attention to the calls to our favourite restaurant, and the fact that she’d ordered onam sadhya from them for us. After all, this restaurant is known for its innovative take on Indian food; how traditional could it be? Very, it turned out.
The box, when it arrived, was amazing. I made a video of the unboxing of the food. It took us half an hour to prepare the “plates”. Happy Onam to you. Enjoy!
The Bohras are Gujarati Shia muslims, largely involved in business. My gateway to their food was the Bohra biryani and the many sweets, but then I discovered so much more. As the Bohra new year approached, the beginning of the month of Muharram, our thoughts turned to this cuisine. The Family dug into her contacts list and talked to a few Bohra caterers and decided to get the typical food with which you break the fast of Muharram; we broke tradition and had it for lunch. You see in the photo a box of khichda, a meal by itself, to be accompanied by a kadhi (in the bowl), kolu (pumpkin) and chauli (amaranth leaves). The meal ends with a halwa. I realized later that we got the food on the 10th of the month, the specially holy day of Ashura for Muslims.
The khichda is one of my favourite foods from the Bohra kitchen: a mixture of rice, broken wheat, four dals (chana, masoor, tuvar, and moong) soaked and pounded to a paste before cooking with mutton, served with a sprinkling of deep fried onion ribbons, ginger and garlic, and fresh mint leaves. The kadhi was mildly sour, the kolu was sweet and the garlicky chauli bitter. Its a great combination of tastes.
Another day, another recipe. When The Family said she was planning to make a pepper prawn curry, I asked her “Why not tomatoes instead?” Our bhajiwala has started stocking some really flavourful tomatoes recently: tart and acid. They are so good that sometimes I pick up one and just bite into it (is it possible that canning plants have shut down due to the epidemic?). She asked “Do you have a recipe?” I dug into my memory. “Kalonjee, Mirchandalchini, and Tejpattam”, I ventured, channeling the Moor’s Last Sigh. “That’s a Rushdie job,” she muttered. “Don’t be paneer,” I replied.
We cobbled a recipe together. Kalonji (Nigella seed) was acceptable. Two or three leaves of curry (Murraya koenigii) were drying inside the masala dabba. They went into the bagar. A sliced green chili was dropped in before I could protest. Then six of the wonderful tomatoes, chopped into pieces, just before the lid was closed for the reduction. When they had reduced, The Family dropped the cleaned prawn into it. I added a splash of water to deglaze the pot. In five more minutes the prawns were ready. The Family likes to squeeze a few drops of lime juice into something like this. I take away my portion before she sprinkles some chili flakes on top. (“Don’t forget to mention the grated ginger,” The Family reminded me after seeing the post.)
This bit of quick cooking gave me time to think a little more about the curry tree. Wikipedia told me very little about it. The genus Murraya (Linnaeus named the genus after his student, the Swedish physician Murray) belongs to the citrus family, and its center of diversity is in southern China and south Asia. In the past, when butterflies were more common in Mumbai, I’d seen the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) visit the plant very often when it was in flower, and even lay eggs on it. Since the butterfly is endemic to south Asia, it stands to reason that the plant is also a south Asian species. I found a report of high genetic diversity in wild plants of this species in India, which also gives additional evidence for this supposition.
So our little recipe was truly fusion food: recognizably Indian in taste, but impossible without bringing Indian and south American food plants together with prawns. Authenticity is such a fluid concept when it comes to food!
The Family has reached another of those troughs that living in lockdown presents. Fortunately, this time we are not experiencing it together. So I tried my best to help out in the kitchen. Since I no longer have the patience to read a recipe and follow it properly, I have to improvise. Fortunately, the pasta was easy. We had a jar of tomato sauce in our makeshift larder. When I opened it, the smell of herbs which floated out told me that it was better than my expectations. That made a twenty minute recipe. It takes ten minutes to boil enough water for the pasta. I chopped up some salami into little bits, and dunked it into the sauce. The Family made a fresh garden salad with a mint and lime dressing. She has started to char the capsicum before adding it to the salad. It brings out the flavour better. After the water boiled I added the fusilli. It takes about four minutes to make it to our taste. The rest is straightforward: drain, add the sauce and serve hot.
The water from boiling the pasta is something we could have reserved for a soup. Since it already has some dissolved wheat solids, it adds body. I must remember to save it the next time around.
The other part of a quick lunch is the fish. We had an absolutely fresh pomfret: firm to the touch, clear eyes, and (lucky us) full of roe. Apollo Bunder and Old Woman’s Island (separate until the early 19th century, when Colaba causeway was built to join then) were supposed to yield the best catch in the 18th century. Both names were anglicized; Apollo Bunder was a distortion of Palva bunder (Palva is the Koli word for the Bengali favourite Ilish) and Old Woman’s Island was a mishearing of Al Omani, after the deep sea Arab boats which docked there to take on fish. Unfortunately, today’s fishermen have to go much further to bring back our catch.
Such a fresh fish required very little preparation. I rubbed it with haldi and rock salt and left it for abput fifteen minutes. Then I heated a tiny bit of oil in a pan, just enough that the fish does not stick, and heated the fish for three minutes on one side, two on the other. The sweet pomfret requires nothing more. The roe was also perfectly done.
When the family investigated our freezer and pulled out a wheel of notun gur we had acquired on a visit to Kolkata several years back, it set me thinking about uses. A Bengali style tomato chutney seemed to be the answer, especially since The Family is a great fan. A brief consultation with a living cultural heritage, and I was ready.
I followed instructions precisely: heat mustard oil in a heavy pan, drop in a bay leaf, and when it starts to sizzle add in paanch phoron; chop twelve large tomatoes, add them in, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and wait for it to turn into a mush. When the tomatoes had reduced to a nice consistency, I added gur (to taste) and some grated ginger. After taking the pan off the heat, I squeezed some lime into it (this really opens up the flavour, but you don’t want the chutney to taste sour). It was lacking a little something, so I stirred in a little red chili powder (again, carefully; you want that after burn, but the chutney should be sweet). The Family considers it a fair approximation of the love she discovered. What more can an amateur cook ask for?
We never ran out of eggs, even during the worst days of the lockdown. Now that the lockdown has eased, and one can get about again, in small ways, we thought of fancier ways of using them. A weekend is a time when you can kick back and relax, and I thought of devilling some eggs.
I’m not terrifically fond of the standard chili-flakes-in-egg-yolk recipe. So I rummaged about in the cupboard until I found something interesting: a sweet pickle of sour lime with chili. My gustatory cortex immediately lit up. This was the secret sauce which completed my recipe. It was only afterwards that I noticed the small print in red on the label: this is part of what an old now-vanished Marathi restaurant near CST used to call “fast food”. The Family popped one of the canapes into her mouth and pronounced it a success.
When you check back on the production of eggs in India, you find references to a revolution in poultry during the early days of Indira Gandhi. I don’t find clear evidence for this in records of government expenditure. All I see is four decades of slowly increasing expense on poultry, from about one part in 2000 of the Plan budget to about a part in 1000. But there is lot of material on the development of large poultry farms in the early seventies (I remember this as conversations between my mother and aunts on how poultry chicken was much easier to cook). The result is that India is now the third largest producer of eggs in the world. This was a key transformation in the nutrition available to children, especially in the school lunch which, for many, was the bulk of the day’s meal. Now that all schools are shut due to COVID-19, the meal scheme is totally disrupted. The resulting malnutrition will be one of the serious long-term consequences.
I like the mild taste of a Corona beer in the relaxed late afternoons of a weekend. Now that we managed to find a case, we can kick back on these lovely breaks in the monsoon and enjoy the long days of late (astronomical) summer. The lime and chili tempered sweetness of the devilled eggs were a nice accompaniment to the mild beer with its slice of lime.
The Family is a great forager. My shopping trips start with a list, and, sometimes, when some of the things on the list are not available, I replace them with the nearest equivalent. The contents of the bag do not surprise anyone. When The Family leaves home, I have no idea what she will get back. The trip that she took to work also yielded some surprises. A few landed up on our table instantly. The samosas and the hot vadas (without pav, unfortunately) were what I liked best. She put it on the last remaining piece of the first table setting we’d bought together. The usual rule of ceramics seems to be holding up: a chipped plate never breaks.
The fluffy hot dhoklas were another surprise. She’d also managed a peek into the kitchen where they had been prepared. As we demolished a large part of her findings, I listened to her stories of foot operated hand sanitizer dispensers, thin crowds in favourite shops, and clean kitchens. The first wave of infections is not over in Mumbai yet. As long as people remain masked, and spend most of their time distancing from each other, there should be no disastrous second wave.
Another Friday. Another look at delivery options. There was a restaurant on our radar which we hadn’t managed to visit before COVID times. We looked through their short emergency menu and found that it was well chosen. Miyan bibi were raazi, so the delivery was inevitable. I’m sure that they would have taken more care with plating the confit de canard than I did, but it tasted good. I saved some of the jus to soak up with bread.
The Family loves coq au vin, and judges French-style restaurants by the quality of this dish. I could see no pearl onions or croutons in the delivery, but she pronounced herself satisfied. I could get to dip my fork in the sauce, rich and flavourful on the tongue. I think we might order more from them in future. There aren’t too many interesting restaurants doing delivery right now.
The Family has been learning new recipes and amazing herself with a dedication to perfecting techniques. As a result, my role has been to assemble ingredients. On Thursday night I streamed an episode of Ugly Delicious, and something connected with a slow running discussion on parallels between Mexican and Indian food that I’ve had over at another blog. I put a methi thepla and a sweet, sour, and chili hot Parsi chhunda together with onions, tomatoes, shredded cabbgage, and a seekh kabab to make our very own Mumbai taco. Later I remembered that Chef Floyd Cardoz was there before. It is fine with me, tacos cover a lot of territory, and there is always space for a new variety.