A month’s worth of desserts

The cheesecake which you see above came close to being my favourite sweet of the month. The old-fashioned Parle-G biscuits around it gave a nice crunch to the dish. The sauce at the bottom of the dish was a rabdi which did little jiggs on your tongue. The Gems on the plate looked nice, but I couldn’t imagine they would do anything to the taste, so I let the secret sharers take them away. A lovely retro-modern dessert, which I wouldn’t mind eating again. This was The Family’s favourite of the month.

A working trip to Odisha wouldn’t be complete without digging into chhanapoda. This is lightly sweetened chhana bunged into a hot oven until it becomes crusty. It can be lightly dusted with cinnamon, or not. I like it either way. It doesn’t last more than a day, so I spent my youth hearing about it without ever eating it. It was not so far back, on my first visit to Odisha, that I finally tasted it. I can’t do without it once in a couple of years.

This is a kairi tart to beat all kairi sweets from your local canteen. The taste is amazingly tart on the tongue, with an aftertaste of sweet. The mango flavour suffuses the dish. The salt, the light sprinkling of red chili powder, and the crisp pastry all go so well together, that The Family took a photo of me grinning loopily after finishing this. This was definitely the dessert of the month for me, and the runner up for The Family.

This was a nice chocolate sweet which wasn’t very inventive. Good cooking, nice presentation; just the thing to have with two nieces who are both chocolate fanatics. I wouldn’t mind having it again when I’m ahead of the game in terms of calories.

What a lovely presentation for a coffee mousse! It is billed as a hoity-toity Kerala coffee, sweetened with jaggery and accompanied by banana fritters served on a banana leaf. It is just coffee mousse with banana fritters, but a nice end to a meal. I liked the fact that it was served in a coconut shell. And I loved the plate it came on.

The enumeration of the month’s best wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the mouth freshener. It came in this complicated stand which holds lollipops filled with Bailey’s. This is undoubtedly the most interesting digestif that I’ve had in recent times.

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Remembering village markets

I blogged about village markets of Assam some days back. I knew that The Family was also taking photographs, but I didn’t suspect that the photos would be so totally different. Here is a gallery of things that she noticed.

The piles of vegetables are things both of us saw. But she also noticed mosquito nets, bottles of honey, cane baskets, brooms. I did not look closely at people setting up their stalls, nor at tea gardens. She was not paying attention to cattle markets, or fish. Is this a gender difference?

Breakfast in Barjuri

One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to stop at a roadside dhaba in a little village and sample their food. Not only do you get a feel of local food habits, you also get to meet people. Early in the morning, on our way to one of the further ranges in the forests of Kaziranga, we stopped at a tiny village. The sky was light, although the newly risen sun was hidden behind thick clouds. I was surprised to see this young boy awake and already on his full-sized bike. I think he was delivering newspapers, but he wouldn’t reply to my questions. I tried three languages, so I think he was just not in the mood.

Across the road one shop had opened up, and the owner was cleaning out the dry leaves which had collected overnight in the area in front of the shop. I was very amused by the long bamboo which one man was carrying on his shoulder. It was probably a reasonable load, but the skill involved in moving this around was considerable. I saw the long bamboo bob up and down quite a bit. Bamboo is a common building material here, and the other people around ignored this sight.

The dhaba was already doing good business. The highway was already busy, so I wasn’t too surprised by that. The signboard told me the name of the village: Barjuri. The well-dressed couple sitting at the table in the middle had driven up in a car, and were busy with a paratha and bhaji. It looked good.

I sidled around to take a photo of the cook. He was having a conversation with one of the customers. When he realized that I was trying to take a photo he became silent and concentrated on cooking. I guess this is an image thing. No matter; I can vouch for the fact that he is a very competent cook. The traditional earthen chulha fired with coal can produce great results if the cook is good, but the amount of smoke it produces is not inconsiderable. I always wonder whether there is some better and cheap alternative. So close to Dibrugarh and its refinery, I’d expected more use of cooking gas. I’d forgotten about the entrenched problems of governance in this state.

As I waited for my food I walked over to the tiny brick room next to Gopal’s. This turned out to be Barjuri post office. It would probably open at 10, four hours later. I haven’t been inside a post office for years, and I wished I had been here when it was open. The locked door was just two planks of wood reinforced by cross pieces. I’d grown up in houses with doors like this. I hadn’t seen a post box for some time too. The ones in cities have been removed or are hidden behind new construction. It didn’t look like this post box was in use either.

It was clear why. The slit below the window is the modern post box. I guess when the post office opens the window becomes a service counter. “It can’t be such a small village,” The Family said, “if it has a post office.” That sounded correct. There must have been more of the village off the highway. There was a substantial market next to the post office: a long row of shops, all closed for now. Gopal had got our breakfast by now. We had our chai, ate the pakoras, and drove off.

Deconstructed Tuesday

Some days should be spent in quiet contemplation of the sheer awesomeness of the previous weekend. Today I find myself silenced by a wonderfully deconstructed Black Forest cake. The pink ice is flash frozen cherry flavoured ice cream, topped with sponge soil with a Maraschino cherry buried in it. The bars of chocolate ganache stacked on the side melt in your mouth. Need one say more?

Gourmet Popsicles!

We looked at a freezerful of interestingly labelled popsicles on sticks. Guava chili and Jamun seemed to be the most popular flavours here, judging by the emptiness of the containers. Madagascar chocolate and Meetha paan were almost as popular, though. I had gone out for dinner with a bunch of colleagues, and on the twenty minute walk to the pub had passed a white board with just a few words scrawled on it.

Intrigued, I’d stopped to take a photo and then to peer inside a gate where a well-lit small courtyard stood dusty and empty. What did these flavours refer to? Guava chili and Meetha paan were so intriguingly different from chocolate and cheesecake. I looked around and a large and well-lit board gave the answer to the guessing game.

I judged that half-past seven was too early for popsicles, gourmet or otherwise. We walked on. When we walked back after dinner the place had filled up. We milled through the gate for a look. Interesting, but no one was in a mood for a popsicle. One of my colleagues said something about having to watch the amount of sugar one has. The young guy behind the counter made a feeble attempt to snare a customer and said “Sir, these have very little added sugar.” It didn’t work. The average age of the clientele was probably between half and a third of our median age, so the sales staff gave up on us.

I sent the photos to my niece and next morning I got a smiley face back from her.

Camels’ delight!

The desert of full of spiny leafless green bushes. Leaves present a large surface to the sun and are great organs for photosynthesis, but they also lose a lot of water through transpiration. Green stalks can carry on photosynthesis while minimizing water loss. Of course, they also present a smaller surface to the sun. So this is a thorny problem (yes, I meant that) which plants have to solve: more photosynthesis or less water loss?

The local name for the green bush full of upright stalks which you can see in the photo above is khimp. The plant grows along the extreme arid zone which crosses from Mauritania to India through the Sahel, the Arabian desert and the Thar desert. A search for the origin of the botanical name Leptadenia pyrotechnica led me to this book, which claims that the name pyrotechnical comes from the observation that Bedouins use tinder to set alight the fibrous stems of this plant. Later compilations noted that the high fiber content of the stems has been used by people across its geographical range in various ways. Some have used it to make ropes, others in diet to cure anything from constipation to obesity. Although I never thought of breaking off a stem to look at the sap, I’m told that it gives a clear sap. This is probably one of the reasons why camels are said to be fond of it.

There is a claim that extracts from plant was found to be mildly damaging to liver cells in a lab. On the other hand it is said to be eaten. Browsing the net, I came across a recipe for cooking khimp. Here is a translation: “Cut the stems and boil them. Remove them from water and press to drain the liquid. Separately cook spices in oil and add the boiled stems. Add a little buttermilk to cook further, thickening it with besan (chickpea flour) as needed.” The double cooking of the stems probably serves not only to tenderize the material, but also to denature toxins. The pressing and draining may also remove any toxins.

They grow along with phog on dunes and other dry sandy places. In various countries around the world people are experimenting with using L. pyrotechnica as a biological barrier to the spreading of dunes. But when I stood on top some dunes and took the photo above, I did not know that this could also be a weapon against cancer.

Jodhpuri street food

The street food of Jodhpur is split between things on carts and things available from shops. Among carts crowds are densest around those which carry golgappas. These crisp spherical puris are vehicles for a variety of chutneys, hence the other name for it: panipuri. Pakoras of various kinds are almost as popular, including the special chili pakoras. We found that this is eaten cold. So is the other other Jodhpur special: the sweet mawa kachori. Shops mostly specialize in sweets. I was impressed by the crowd around a shop selling vegetable juices: carrot, spinach, mint and the mouth-puckeringly sour amla.

Click on any of the photos in the mosaic to transit to a slideshow.

Breakfast on the road

What would you have for breakfast if you were on the road out of Jodhpur early in the morning? We stopped at one of the many eateries which were already open on the main road: Nai Sarak, to check out the options. First thing, a glass of milk with some saffron thrown in. You can see from the featured photo that it is thickened slightly. It has quite a clientele. I prefer a glassful of chai, but I didn’t mind taking a little sip of the local morning’s brew for the taste. That sip told me that quite a bit of sugar had also been thrown into the mix.

Milk and jalebis are a standard north-Indian breakfast combination. Sure enough, right next to the milk wallah was this jalebi man frying his jalebis. I love watching a person frying jalebis; the elegance of movement which produces these tight spirals is fascinating. The hot jalebis soak up the sugar syrup easily. Traditionally, the sugar has some saffron thrown into it for the colour. Wonderfully tasty stuff, but that oil is hydrogenated, as you can see in the large tin next to the karhai. I don’t have much of jalebi any more, but I did give in to temptation and had one. I had to squelch the temptation to have a second one very firmly.

Two sweets left my mouth too sweet. In Jodhpur the antidotes to an overdose of sweets are easily at hand. The shop had batter-fried chilis. We’d seen a man make them the previous evening (photo above). The Family asked for a hot one right out of the frier, but was told very firmly that they are meant to be eaten cold. We shared one in the morning. The big fat chilis are not very hot, but they are flavourful. They reminded me of the fried chilis we ate in Madrid. So that’s a good breakfast: two sweets, a large glassful of tea, and a fried chili. Just what we needed to set out on a long day’s drive into the desert.

Good local cooking

We visited Muenster on a Sunday and found that the city was barely alive. I’d hoped to find an interesting place which I remembered. I did find it, but it was closed. We turned to a pub nearby since it was full of families. This was not a bad choice, because we had a really wonderful meal. A meal at a pub is unlikely to be a fancy lunch. This was the next best: very well cooked local food.

The Family really lucked out with her order of smoked salmon with Reibekuchen. You can see the crisp looking potato pancakes in the featured photo with a pot of mustard. The honey-mustard dressing for the Reibekuchen was characteristic of Westphalian food: a nice balance of salt and sweet. The Family was ecstatic about her food. Although my oven-baked meat was not photogenic, it was tasty in a very earthy and solid way. Well-cooked traditional food stands next to successful innovative food any day, as far as I’m concerned. So this this was a meal the two of us remember fondly.

Autumn’s eating

I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.

Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.

The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.