Comfort foods … (2)

This is the second post of the series. You can read the first one here. I have made some for dinner tonight. And that’s how bhakris make their way to today’s post. Hot, puffed, straight from the flames, and onto your plate. Eaten with pithla (a besan curry) or varan or usal (lentils) or paale […]

Of a forgotten era…

I write this, as I am listening to Madhukar Shyam Hamare Chor (listen to it here). While many of you may not have heard this particular song, you must have definitely heard about the singer. Perhaps from your parents. Or rather grandparents. For he belonged to that era. Forgotten perhaps by today’s generation. Known for […]

My basanti…

Now before you start wondering if I have bought a horse or a cart, let me right away de-bunk the notion.

For my love of cycling, re-discovered after living in London and Taipei, and more to put a full-stop to my “borrowing” (ok, whisking away without so much as a ‘please?’) my husband (The Scientist)’s bike, leaving him high and dry on most days, we decided it was high time for me to own one. I had religiously started checking out ads for a second-hand bike, and one fine day, we got lucky!

With no time lost, and some negotiation, we decided to go and have a look – agreeing to buying it on the spot, if all was good. In eager anticipation, we set out to the meeting place. Our seller was already there. To be honest, I was sorely disappointed and it was no love at first sight. It looked a little dusty, the seat cover had seen better times. But The Scientist inspected it and took a test ride (outside a bustling MRT station in the evening – but no one batted an eyelid), and declared it was good. The asking price was NT$1500, but we managed to bring it down to NT$1200. Deal struck, money exchanged hands, and I was a (bit miffed) owner of my first bicycle.

First you say? Well, yes. You see, as a kid when I first started learning to ride a bicycle, we would rent a bike for Rs.5/hour from a bicycle repair shop. I must have been 6 or 7 yrs then. I remember the Saturday and Sunday evenings spent with dad holding the bike and running in tandem, and me taking the first wobbly steps in our small compound. I thought I had it figured out in a few weeks, and that’s when dad started to let go. I didn’t realise it at first, for he would keep running along side. But I looked back once (a la Milkha Singh) and realised with terror that I am on my own. The bike started wavering, and soon we both landed in a heap. Those were times, as a kid, when fear didn’t keep us down for long. Dusting scraped knees and sore bum, I climbed back on, entreating dad not to let go. He made perfunctory promises, but knew too well to keep them. A few more bruises, narrowly dodging oncomers and unceremonious landings later, I started to ride well, and in fact grew to love it.

And then a few years down the line, my brother started pestering my parents for a bike. They gave in. I still remember them coming home with a bike, and I was furious! Well not because they got a bike for my brother, but because I was not allowed to go and choose and have a say (I was a typical Aries child back then too). It took some cajoling on my parents’ part, and extracting a promise that I will, as the elder sister, have the right to ride it as I please, and on demand. Gosh, I still remember cycling away in summer vacations – morning and night (sometimes with bro as a double-seat).

That brings up a few other cycle memories. I had a friend (let’s call him R) back then, when I was 6-7 years old. He used to live in the same building and we went to the same school. And I was a super favourite of everyone in his family – mom, dad, grandparents, uncle (I was, and am charming, you see..thank you!) Now R’s uncle had bought him a bike, and I so wanted to ride it. R was really a sweet kid, who didn’t mind sharing, but one day he decided he wanted to ride it alone. I went up and complained to his uncle, and uncle promptly made him give it up, leaving him in tears ! (Was I a bully? Ahem, I was only speaking up as a woman – girl power and all that!!)

The cycle and I, parted ways after school, and I only rode my next cycle in London. London is a bike-friendly city, and on my first visit, I wanted to tick off all the boxes. There used to be cycles for hire – Barclays Cyle Hire – a pound an hour. I have explored Hyde Park on a cycle, and the memories still make me nostalgic.

After arriving in Taipei and being left alone to explore the city on my own, I made umpteen excursions courtesy U-bike. This public bike system is synonymous with bright yellow orange bikes, which have a basket in the front. You can rent it at any one of the numerous U-bike stands, and drop it off at another. Now I am particularly partial to these bikes with a basket, as you can put all your stuff in the basket and enjoy the pleasure of biking. I have made umpteen trips to the vegetable markets on one of these.

Taipei has a lot of bike trails, and my favourite is the riverside park – along the Keelung river. The Scientist brought me to this trail on my last day of first trip, and I so.fell.in.love!! (With the place, not him – that happened much earlier). On one of my next trip, I decided to explore this biking trail on my own. I borrowed a U-bike, asked some directions from him, and set off. Finding the entrance was a little tricky, as it was hidden away in some by-lanes I didn’t remember. Nevertheless, I managed to find it, and spend a happy couple of hours on one bank of the river. That’s when curiosity struck me. Why go back the same way? Let’s explore the other side as well. Again my Aries self acted. With great difficulty I hoisted the cycle onto one of the bridges, and managed to reach the other side. And went on driving. For a long time. Slowly I started realising the landscape on the other bank is very different. And the trail is not necessarily parallel to the river bank. It was getting darker, and I took a wrong turn to realise I am on some bridge in what looked like an industrial area. I cycled back the way I came, till I could see the other bank in sight. I was by now beginning to tire out. But I bravely ventured on, hoping to see a connecting bridge and going home the way I had came. None was in sight. I had managed to go as far the starting point (but on the other side), but realised that there was no hope. I had to cycle back to the bridge I had crossed on – if there was any chance of going home. I had tried asking directions by pointing to the map on the phone, only to be greeted with shakes and nods. And thus started my weary journey back. All the thrill of exploring gone, I forced myself to cycle back, one pedal at a time. Luckily mid way I found another bridge connecting the two banks, and one kind Samaritan, who understood English, helped me carry the bike over to the other side. In fact, he didn’t stop there, but came a long distance to show me the way, ensured I knew my way, and then bid me good-bye. (I got some flack from husband later for troubling the poor guy – for the Taiwanese are very helpful, and they will many times go out of the way to help you out).

Cut to the present. Cycle bought, we drove back home from the far off National Taiwan University that summer evening (well in all honesty, The Scientist did the driving – I chose to drive back on the public U-bike, hey I was miffed and all that!). We traversed through the University, stopping at an Indian restaurant (the owner offering us the best chai, on the house), huffing and puffing the last few kms.

From that day on, my bike has parked herself just outside our building, and on some rainy days at the cycle stand outside my workplace. She has managed to transport me to and from office on non-rainy days – ensuring I am not late to work (though I live a mere 15 min away). She has, though, caused quite a few embarrassing moments – having unseated me on one occasion for instance. Or leaving a big wet patch on my pants after some rainy nights. Let’s say I just keep some spare clothes in office. These days, however, it’s a new tactic. She makes these rusty, creaky, squeaking noises every time I ride her, announcing my presence – causing people to turn around and stare (I have absolutely not put on any weight, in case you were wondering).

I am growing fond of her, have come to depend on her, but that’s about it. It will need a lot of give-and-take to make this relationship work. But we are slowly getting there. In case you are wondering, here is Rusty (or Creaky or Squeaky – whatever! (eye-rolling))

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PS: I have come up with a smart solution to avoid changing clothes at work. See below.

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Indian vegetarian cooking demonstration

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.

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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 .

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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)!

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For the love of peanuts and peanut butter

Peanut butter? Peanut butter??!! Whatever was that? The real (milk-turned-curd-churned) butter-loving-me was first introduced to this strange ingredient on my first foreign travel. Suspicious then, I never gathered enough courage to actually go and buy a jar of the stuff. This was five years back. Cut to today, peanut butter was everywhere. It was a vegan favourite,  finding its way into smoothies, as a dip, and umpteen other uses on every food blog that had sprouted. PBJ (Peanut butter and jelly – jam to us non-Americans) sandwiches were supposedly a favourite kid treat, I read. I wasn’t still convinced.

Flashback to my childhood, when my mom first asked me to spread shengachi chutney (spicy peanut chutney) on my bread slice, I turned up my nose and said “Pfft!” I guess I was in the “mom-you-don’t-really-know-anything” phase. You see, growing up in a typical Maharashtrian household, peanuts found their way into everything. We made peanut laddoos (roasted peanuts and jaggery balls) and peanut chikki (peanuts and sugar/jaggery syrup came together in a nougat form), added whole unroasted peanuts to patal bhajis and usals (leafy green vegetables and lentils were incomplete without these), shengacha koot (roasted peanuts powder) would be added to all vegetable dishes (cabbage, french beans you name it) and also to all koshimbirs (a kind of salad with yogurt and raw veggies, with peanut dressing). Peanuts were also an important ingredient in the special masala for bharli vangi (stuffed brinjals) and karylachi bhaji (bitter gourd) These slow roasted peanuts were also munched with/without jaggery as a favourite snack as dinner was getting ready or for an afternoon post lunch quickie. My dad was an expert peanut-roaster, and he also showed remarkable patience in slow-roasting them to perfection. We inherited his loved for these roasted beauties so much so that mom had to sneakily keep changing the dabbas to hide them from us. Dad and I have spent many an afternoon opening dabba after dabba in the kitchen, only to come up empty-handed. But I am digressing. So, you can imagine my surprise and utter horror when mom wanted to smear peanut chutney on bread, and try to Indian-ize, or Maharashtrian-ize it.. Bread in my English-school-educated view was only to be had with butter, jam and ketchup then. How little I knew about bread’s versatility, and also that I was going to, ahem, have to eat my own words, and the shengacha-koot-turned-chutney to boot, that was to become a rage, a decade from then.

So when did the transformation happen, you may ask. Two important events took place, which had me converted. First, I discovered my peanut man, here in Yongchun vegetable market. He put up his stall only on Fridays, and would have two varieties of salted peanuts slow-roasted to perfection (and he actually came up to dad’s impossibly high standards!!). I have braved many a storm (literally – thanks to Taipei weather and otherwise) to rush to his stall on Fridays after work, when we were nearly out of peanuts, and procure a stash. The dialogue between the husband and me would, almost always, be on these lines:

ME: We need to go to Yongchun after work.

The Scientist: What on Friday?? Let’s do it Sat/Sun.

ME: Cannot. Only half a packet of peanuts left.

The Scientist (panicking): What? So soon…Ok, let’s meet up at 7 at the bus stop directly.

(You see, The Scientist loves them as much as I do, and both are together guilty of polishing off enormous amounts)

But I am digressing again. (There is another anecdote related to the peanut-man, which I will share again later).

The second important event was stumbling onto the easy-peasy tutorials available on how to make your own peanut butter, which abounded the cyberspace. You see, I had of late became far too suspicious of consuming anything that came wrapped in plastic (hence the foray into bread-making, butter making, ghee making etc, which is yet another post) with unpronounceable ingredients (and in Taipei, literally unreadable) and loaded with preservatives and flavourings. So a 3-ingredient recipe (roasted peanuts, salt, peanut oil) had me sitting up and taking notice.

Now if you have ever read Linda Goodman’s sun signs, as with any Aries girl, to-think is to-do. I lost no time in getting peanuts into a blender, and having a go! My first attempt was a gritty textured butter, from using the wrong blender jar. I also jumped too soon into making a chocolate flavoured, cinnamon spiced butter. The experiment didn’t go down well with The Scientist (my barometer or guinea pig, as he calls it,  when it comes to cooking experiments). Not one to give up after one failure, I made another batch. This time “orginal” flavoured. With crunchy apples, hmm, this was snack heaven. Apples were never my favourite fruit, but this combination was delightful, just the right amount of sweet and salty.

I now bravely buy my apples, and they don’t make it to trash, dried and shrivelled up any more. Have you tried PB anytime? Go on then, blend some peanuts, and blend some more, drizzle some peanut oil, add salt, slice up your apples, dip them in, munch, munch,  munch…I kid you not. You will definitely convert.

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