Sweet and sour curry

I find the Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauces a little too sweet. This is not the fault of Chinese immigrants in India; the version you get in Guangzhou today is quite as sweet. The version you get in Shanghai is slightly different, but, if anything, it is sweeter. While I was making liver some months ago, I decided I would try an Indian twist on this. I’d already marinated the liver in a paste of ginger, garlic, and an extremely sour tamarind, because I wanted a change of taste. While cooking the liver, on a whim I reached across to where The Family had cubed some overripe papaya, and tossed some into the pot. The Family looked on bemused, “Do you know what you are doing?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t; I’d thrown sweet overripe papaya into liver. It was an invention worth running with. The next time it was overripe pear. Then The Family took over and did one version with tamarind and honeydew melon.

Sour tastes abound in the Indian kitchen. Apart from tamarind, we also have a jar full of dried kokum. The mouth puckering sourness of amla also can be seen in our kitchen now and then. Sugar was invented in India, and sweet and sour chutneys are common, as are candied sour fruits. But I don’t know of any Indian dishes which use the common souring agents with fresh fruit to make a sweet and sour curry. The somewhat stodgy taste of liver could do with a bit of life. So our sweet and sour liver, Indian style, is now a regular addition to our family kitchen. I can also imagine that unripe jackfruit can be curried this way; its something that I will definitely try next season.

Is this a rediscovery? Are there regional Indian sweet and sour curries that you know of? Let me know.

Diwali eats

In recent years I’ve resigned myself to putting on a little weight between the end of monsoon, when the Ganapati festival kicks off a season of festivals, and January, when the last of the indulgent feasts are done. Unless you are particularly unsocial, you cannot fend off the many invitations to parties from family and friends, or the boxes of goodies presented to you by neighbours and colleagues. Of course, social customs need you to reciprocate. This seasonal increase in weight across India must be sufficient to make the earth wobble a bit in its orbit.

I wonder how long ago Indians started stuffing themselves with sweets during the seasons of sharad and hemant. In my childhood I remember that push carts full of neon coloured lumps of sugar, molded into animal shapes, would make an appearance on the streets during Diwali. As a child these took up more processing space in my brain than all the crowded mithai shops around town. There would be a permanent space for laddus on the dining table, sadly with a strict count of how many had disappeared when adults were not keeping an eye on the box. This was also the time when several coconut based sweets were made at home. So I guess the tradition stretches back at least to the late 19th century.

I found it easier to trace this history in my own memory than by searching on the net, because of the confusion between history and mythology that is now rife in writing on this subject. I could not find mention of these festivals in the writings of late medieval or early modern travelers, although that could just be because they were not perceptive enough. I must really start to read more memoirs from early colonial times to see whether they mention these customs. So, for the moment I’m happy with these photos of the last of the chakli and laddu.

Tofu improvisation

If tofu is the only thing you have, you cannot make teriyaki tofu. I learned this only after I drained the tofu and my hunt for rice powder and teriyaki sauce yielded nothing. My brother was fifteen minutes away, and the Youngest Niece is always excited and hungry when she gets to our place. I had to finish the tofu fast.

Step 1: Lightly dredge in potato starch and fry till teh cubes are golden outside and soft inside. Replace rice flour by besan. Medium heat for the oil is needed to do a quick cook. This step went well. Cook one side thoroughly before flipping the pieces. (Forgot to order the tongs!) Cook till all sides are brown.

Step 2: Drop teriyaki sauce into the pan, add katsuobushi, and let the sauce coat the tofu cubes and thicken. Impossible. Improvised a mixture of soya sauce and a spicy fig chutney to get a sweet and sour taste. Can’t add this to the pan, so I plated the tofu and poured this over the cubes. I realize I should have added more soya to make it run. But when I taste the scrapings from the mixing bowl, I like it.

Step 3: Garnish with shopped spring onions and gari (pickled ginger). Woe is me. I run to the balcony to pluck a few leaves off the ajwain plant to replace the missing spring onions. I look at the sorry gari I made, but go with it. The bit hits of taste: chunks of ginger and ajwain will be easier on the Indian palate.

I can hear the guests at the door. My hands are not very steady as I put the garnish over the tofu cubes. I haven’t seen my niece in almost a year, since I got back from Wuhan. She enters the kitchen, and I hand her the plate. Big grin. My heart melts and drips on to the plate.

This is not teriyaki tofu, but that was the inspiration. I’m happy that it goes so fast. It is a recipe I’ll use again.

Help!

I need somebody

Help! Not just anybody

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic broke the world and told us what is really important. A few days of panic as the familiar world and its patterns dissolved. Packaged food disappeared before The Family and I could react. Our household help was suddenly unavailable. The routines of work were gone. We were adrift!

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

Pink Floyd

Afterwards, in those long and unending hours there were only two of us in the house, rattling around in these four rooms. Wasn’t this our dream once? Let the world disappear, as long as I still have you? Without thinking of it, we moved back into a mode that we had forgotten in these decades. But now it was so much more pleasant. Then we were still adjusting to each other, still not entirely comfortable replacing me with we. It was different now.

But we didn’t know ourselves. The Family found that she liked cooking. And I discovered that I didn’t mind helping around the house; that doing mindless things helped me to reach inner peace. We cooked, and cleaned, and the uncertain days of the pandemic became a preview of our life in retirement. And when we sat together to eat, it was time to talk and talk. Unlike those early days when the purpose of talking was to tell the other of our life before them, now we could say “Remember this? Remember when? Whatever happened to?”

April, come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain

May, she will stay

Resting in my arms again

Paul Simon

We cleaned and chopped and cooked. Spring onions lasted well into summer. We ate lychees after years, because there was little else available. Some lunches were just a small salad, a fruit, an egg, and toast. Other lunches were elaborate, a dal, two freshly cooked veggies, some chicken, and fruit. We only had soup for dinner. Except when we uncorked a bottle of wine, and brought out the precious few munchies and packets of nuts we had left over. I had the time to devil an egg, and The Family learnt to make a Bengali style veggie which is normally served during durga puja. And then, when we could finally begin to get fish, we would sometimes have a beer and a fried fish. I discovered how acid could liven a flat tomato sauce, and invented new ways of making liver. And we dressed up on our birthdays.

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic passed like bad novels and movies. Julie and Julia? Love in the time of cholera? The hundred foot journey? The incredible lightness of being? No reservations? Lunchbox? For us, life was nothing dramatic. Just finding a recipe. Inventing something new. Praising each others’ food. Dressing up for dinner. Small and simple things which became treats, new discoveries.

Cooking in ghee

Many years ago, on a trip to Jaipur, I’d walked into a restaurant which seemed very popular. I asked the waiter for their specialty, which turned out to be mutton made in ghee. I’d forgotten this until I looked at some very good mutton for the first time after the strict phase of the lockdown. After that first experiment in recreating that experience a few months ago, I had a very good idea of what to do when I tried it again yesterday.

Ghee and aromatic spices go well together. So I rubbed tiny quantities of powdered turmeric, dhania, and jeera on the mutton, and let it stand for a while with whole garam masala. For me that is a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and star aniseed: the ancient treasures of India, which trickled across the world on caravans and dhows which passed east and west in medieval times, and which drew a newly expansionist Europe to Asia at the beginning of the modern era. I let the ingredients marinate in a mixture of history and personal memory for a half hour, while I peeled and chopped an inch of young ginger.

I chose a thick flat bottomed pot for the cook, and threw the ginger and a bay leaf into the hot ghee. I’d decided to layer the mutton along the bottom, and let it stand for about three minuted before flipping each piece over. I realize that I need a pair of small tongs for such manoeuvres (note: remember to order them today). I flipped the pieces, and let the other side brown for an equal amount of time.

The browned meat has a thin glazing of ghee over it, and turns intensely aromatic. I love it, and I was happy that The Family pronounced herself quite satisfied with the result. A little extra that happens when you cook anything in ghee is its transformation into a lovely dark mass at the bottom of the pan. I used to love that khurchan with a bit of rice when I was a child. The unfortunate problem with this cook is that it is at its best when fresh off the fire; so I’ll have to make small portions every time I want it. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing when you have such a calorie-dense dish.

Gari

It is so very easy to make gari, Japanese pickled ginger, at home! Take young ginger roots. Peel gently. Slice thin. Wash in brine. Dry. Pickle in sugar and rice vinegar. How can you spoil it?

I guess you just have to be me.

I scoured two markets and the only fresh ginger I could get is fairly old. As a result it is fibrous, and won’t slice thin. Unless you have the tempered steel blades that samurai and Saladin used (by all accounts, one of the major metallurgical exports from medieval India). So I chopped the root into thick chunks before washing it in brine.

I have given up using sugar in food a few years ago. The Family showed me the coarse brown sugar that she uses sometimes. We don’t have rice vinegar at home, and I already used the best vinegar for other pickling. So it was coarse bits of ginger in pretty harsh vinegar and brown sugar.

After a day I was surprised to find that the ginger had turned the subtle pink colour of real gari. Maybe the brown sugar was responsible for the colour change. It would have tasted better sliced thin. The flavour was good on the tongue, but when I bit into the chunk I still got the spiciness of uncured ginger.

By making all the mistakes that one can, I have now understood the recipe. I’m happy it didn’t involve expensive ingredients.

Another one bites the dust

The fish of the day was boi (Mugil cephalus, aka the flathead mullet), an incredibly flavourful bottom feeder. The Family has begun to love it. The last time she made it into a simple curry. This time she asked me, the acknowledged faulty expert in the house, how long to fry it. I poked the fish, feeling the nice firm flesh, the clear eyes. “The pomfret is much bigger and about as thick,” was my opinion, “and that takes five to six minutes. Give this three.” The Family refused. “I’ll do five, and not a minute less.” I snorted, “And if it is dry and inedible, on your head be it.”

Mud on my face. Big disgrace. The first one bit the dust. She took it out of the frying pan after five minutes, and I dissected the fish. It was undercooked and bloody near the bone. Not a good idea with fish. The Family upped the time to ten minutes for the next; and that was a bit overdone. Eight will (eight will) rock you.

Fish is finicky to cook. Too little, and it is inedible. Too long, and its flavour is muddied. I turned to Harold McGee’s book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” for more on this. He points out that fish are adapted to water and its relative cold. As a result, it seems that fish muscle has less collagen than mammals and birds, and what collagen there is, turns into gelatin more easily at room temperature. So I guess deep water fish should have a shorter cook time than those harvested from shallow water. The boi lives in shallow coastal wasters, whereas the pomfret is a deep sea fish. That’s why the boi takes about 50% longer time to cook. I love McGee’s book for its explanatory power, letting us connect the natural history of food to its cooking.

Quail on a plate

Quail was commonly available in markets when I was a child. In the late decades of the 20th century, there were many attempts to stop the depletion of wild quail from the rapidly diminishing forest cover in India. The result was a long ban on the sale of quail. This has been cautiously revoked since 2014, and currently one can buy farmed quail. It is not as simple as ordering from your delivery service, because it can only be sold under license, and the buyer needs to submit identity documents. But once you go through it, you can buy dressed Japanese quail (Coturix japonica).

I had never made this before. I’d more or less forgotten the taste of the meat. So the first decision was what marinade to use. I went with a regular harissa marination. I like the complex taste of harissa paste by itself: red chili tempered with lime, and the notes of garlic, jeera, coriander seeds, and kaala jeera. Since it goes well both on chicken and fish, it couldn’t go wrong with quail. I guess a fifteen minute marination should be fine, although I forgot about them for a while, and it became an hour. Then I found that I was not sure about cooking times, and I did not want to pop it into an oven.

Instead I improvised an oven with a thick walled pressure cooker. If you leave the top open and keep it on a low gas flame, then it stays at a reasonably constant temperature without building up pressure. I put in a tiny spoonful of oil just so that the bird does not stick to the metal. When it was hot I put the two small birds into it carefully with tongs. The thighs tend to stick, so it was necessary to turn them quickly. I could see it browning before my eyes. It is hard to control the temperature with an improvisation like this. Towards the end of the cooking I found that the pressure cooker had got too hot. I had a bottle of IPA cooling in the fridge, so I splashed some into the cooker to cool it down. The yeasty taste turned out to be a good addition.

Fifteen minutes of cook time. That was good. And at the end I had most of a bottle of IPA left over. It was time for a decadent late afternoon snack. An IPA and quail. Nice. Both. The Family raised an eyebrow, but she joined me at the table.

Later, reading about Japanese Quail I had a moment of shock. These birds had been bred in Japan for 9 centuries (since about the time that Lady Murasaki wrote the Tales of Genji), and the different breeding lines were famous for their songs. All those centuries of culture were wiped out in the aftermath of the second world war. Now they are just farm and lab animals. What a devastating cultural loss!

Fried rice for midnight’s grandchildren

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.

Two fresh pomfrets

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.