While Indian food across the world is almost synonymous with Chicken Tikka Masala, it was my deepest wish to show my fellow Taipei-kars, that Indian food need not be spicy or difficult to make at all times. We also happen to eat simple, wholesome food, and how is it different in different parts of India.
The opportunity presented itself when we got membership at the Taiwan Homemakers Union Consumer Coop store. This is a cooperative society which works directly with farmers to provide produce which is grown with less chemicals and at times is organic too. They were rather intrigued with us wanting a membership. I, of course, was eyeing the whole milk supplied there, which was non-UHT. As warm and friendly as Taiwanese always are, they arranged a translator for us, at the initiation meeting. At this very meeting, we were asked if we cook at home, and how good we were. On hearing our enthusiastic replies, the coordinator promptly asked if we would be interested in holding a demonstration. We were so thrilled, that we (rather I) agreed before he could finish (that’s my Aries self). Later of course, we told him, we were vegetarians, so would it be okay to show vegetarian everyday recipes? He was okay with that. Taiwan is also home to the highest number of vegan restaurants in Asia, and many here follow vegan/vegetarian diets for a few days every month (akin to Indian fasts).
Now came the discussion part (in my head as well as with the Scientist). What can we make which is simple, tasty, easy to make, and can be made with as many local ingredients as possible? While the typical Indian spices are commonplace in an Indian kitchen, we had to be mindful if our audience was ever exposed to these, and how well they would receive it. We thrashed out quite a few options – mung dal khichadi, veg pulao, lemon rice, chhole, dal tadka, some sort of salad/raitha, vegetable sambhar, roti/chapati (Indian flat breads)…We went over and over them, noting the ingredients required for each, the ease of getting them in as many super markets, also whether we should twist and modify to suit the Taiwanese palate? I was of the opinion we should show the authentic Indian dish (replete with using ghee and the like) while The Scientist pointed out that it could smell offensive to the sensitive Taiwanese taste buds. Also they might not like overcooked Indian food. I had to give him this round (he always manages to win with his clear cut, logical thinking), simply for no other reason than he has stayed here longer. So the first narrowing shortlist included lemon rice, khichadi, raitha. I again thought it’s good to show a rice item, and a side dish and we almost had finalised that, and even conveyed it to HUCC. However on an interim visit to the store, we were asked if we would show some kind of Tang (soup). We were thrown off for a bit – we didn’t want to show the typical cream-of-tomato or Indo-Chinese corn soup. That’s when The Scientist hit upon the idea of kadhi or yogurt soup- “Let’s make it thin and drinkable”, and I nodded. Now lemon rice and khichadi were clashing (both being rice items), so we decided on Veg Pulao, which had whole spices (khada garam masala). The aroma of the spices on hitting the hot ghee would be a sure hit. Now days before the actual demo,The Scientist was warming up to the idea, and was suddenly far too excited to demonstrate a lot of dishes.
TS: Let’s make kadhi, dal tadka, and some piwli batatyachi bhaji (yellow potato stir fry curry). Then we can show how to roast the frozen chapatis and make a wrap.
Me: Really?? Do you think you can fit all that into 2 hours?
TS: Yes, leave it all to me. You just make the pulao and raitha. I will do the kadhi, bhaji and dal tadka.
Now what am I? A limbu-timbu?? But given that he was super excited to cook, I made my peace. So to my task fell the humble Pulao and raitha..and that’s when I decided to make some delicious sheera. My choice stemmed from the fact that unlike some other sweets, you can control the amount of sugar and still have a tasty dessert. Add in bananas and raisins to the mix, and you also have just the right amount of sweetness, which will not horrify our audience (I have seen and heard some reactions to the likes of gulab jamuns and kaju katli, which has been termed as “too sweet”, just to put it nicely).
The day arrived. It was the morning of Diwali (Narak Chaturdashi). We had made all our preparations late into the night before – having made a spice box (see pic below), assembled all ingredients, stored the veggies in the fridge, and also laid out our ammunition of knives, kadhai, tawa, ginger grater and the like. We were armed and ready to go. It was a cloudy day, so we decided to walk to the store. We thought we were before time, but our students were clearly there ahead of us, all eager and anticipating.
Quick introductions were made, and we started laying out the items. Out came the spice box – followed with “ooh” and “aah”, and checking each of the spices for textures, smells – and a lot of nodding and smattering in Chinese. We were asked about ghee, and how it is prepared, curry leaves and where to get them, besan and what is it, what was basmati rice… It was fun fielding these questions, and I realised that what was so commonplace for us, was actually a novelty for them.
I started off with the Veg Pulao, which after the initial frying of spices and vegetables was transferred to a rice cooker, followed by kakdi raitha. Then The Scientist took over to make kadhi, while I hovered in the background chopping and cleaning – a la sous chef waiting on the master chef (MC). When the kadhi was boiling away merrily (a must to cook the besan), the MC turned his attention to dal tadka. We had pressure-cooked the yellow moong dal in advance to save on the time. We had decided to make two tadkas for this dish, one at the beginning with oil and the second one with butter. And what a hit this turned out to be! As the MC added chopped red tomatoes to the yellow dal, everyone was agog with delight – what a lovely colour contrast it made!. There was some furious clicking and snapping. And then came the aha moment…hot melted butter, crackling jeera, and whole red chillies – when added to the dal concoction making a sizzling sound, we knew we had blown away our audience…This was followed by piwli batatyachi bhaji – a staple in Marathi homes. Now I decided to recapture some attention to myself (away from the MC), and out came the sheera. Chopping up bananas and using a ice-cream scoop to fill up cupcake liners with our dessert, I had achieved my purpose. The Pulao was done and it was time to set the table. As a last item on our list, we showed how to roast (or bake is it?) chapatis on a tawa, and spread the potato subji on it and make a lovely wrap.
The table laid, the aromas wafting, we were eager as much as our audience to sample our fare. We also informed how each dish is eaten (for I had the horror of once seeing someone eat a naan with rice on the top!!). We filled our bowls with food, and I silently said “jai jai raghuveer samarth!” and dug in…
(A norm in many Marathi households is the following simple prayer before every meal:
वदनी कवळ घेता नाम घ्या श्रीहरीचे | सहज हवन होते नाम घेता फुकाचे ||
जीवन करी जिवित्वा अन्न हे पूर्ण ब्रह्म | उदरभरण नोहे जाणिजे यज्ञकर्म ||
“Before you partake any morsel, take God’s name. This is not merely an act of shoving food in your stomach, but a yadna (or sacrifice) into itself)”)
PS: I couldn’t help but add this. When we had our Tang, both the MC and SC looked and each other in surprise. The great MC had forgotten to add salt to it, but there were no complaints from anyone else but us. It will go down in history as the day we made our fellow Taipei-kars drink alni (saltless) kadhi .
PPS: As a parting shot, we also had this give away – a pot pourri of assorted spices for Veg Pulao to try at home (the MC’s master stroke)!