Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Modern Amchi: Celebrating my roots

Given the fact that I'm a Mangalorean who has lived in Chennai all her life and then moved to Bangalore and now in Mumbai, the food that constitutes 'home food' for me, has a multitude of influences. So one day we may be having a typical amchi (that's what we call ourselves) meal of bendi (a spicy gravy with pulses), kosambari (salad), upkari (a vegetable preparation), rice and dal at home, the next day it could be varan-bhaat (dal-rice, Maharashtrian style) or even puliogare (tamarind rice) with potato roast the following day. While it is great in terms of variety, for me, the advantage is that I've got to learn so many styles of cooking closely. Add this to the fact that I'm a worshipper of anything food and you have someone whose idea of relaxing is romancing with the pots and pans!

Let me tell you a little bit about myself, to put things into context. No, not me as a person; but more on the lines of the community I hail from. I'm a Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin and my roots can be traced to Kashmir, yes, right up till there. It is said that the ancestors fled and then settled along the Konkan coast. My family has roots in this little town close to Mangalore called Bankikodla, if you've heard of Gokarna, then it's right next to that.

That's a village school in Bankikodla

On the blog, I've written about different kinds of food but, the other day when I stepped back to review I realised I need to do more about the cuisine that is really me. While I'm a die-hard fan of the CSB style of cooking, I also know that given Google's wide network it isn't difficult to find a recipe these days. Of late, I've been receiving a lot of queries from my readers, who've been asking about using different kinds of ingredients and adapting it to Indian food. That's when an idea struck, how about combining modern ingredients and using them in the CSB/amchi style of cooking? I tried this out at home first, got some people at work to taste it, had the family give me honest opinions and I was thrilled to observe that people wanted to know more, and were game to experiment.

That's how this series, The Modern Amchi, was born. As a part of this, I will share one recipe a month which uses modern ingredients adapted to the CSB/Amchi/Mangalorean style of cooking.

Where to begin? Really, where. I've always had a starting problem. That's probably one of the typical Capricorn traits in me! I was in a bit of a fix - I didn't want to do something way too complicated nor did I want to do something too simple. Finding that balance was the key.

The other day when I chanced upon a pile of fresh broccoli in the market, I skeptically asked the vendor about the price, and when he told me it was just Rs. 30 I was shocked! Just a couple of weeks ago the prices of broccoli were sky-high due to a shortage. That was the only signal I needed and I bought more than what I needed, confident that it wouldn't go waste.

Green gorgeousness: Broccoli
Image source:

So apart from the usual soup or salad or Au Gratin or Thai curry, I thought I should do something different. I wanted to make something home style, but what?

That's when I realised I could make a talasani. Now, this an Amchi dish (I'm sure you guessed that), which is similar to a stir-fry. The vegetable is sauteed in oil with some garlic, a bit of chilli powder is added to up the flavours. That's how simple it is! Talasani is a combination of the words 'tel' meaning oil and 'lasun' meaning garlic, which are essential to the dish. This dish can be made with a variety of vegetables, usually a single vegetable is used in a dish, unlike an upkari (similar to the south Indian poriyal or bhaji up north) which can use a combination of vegetables. You can make a talasani with potato (this is the most famous and most loved version, I've yet to meet someone who hates batata talasani), tendli (ivy gourd), French beans, bhindi (lady's finger) or even cauliflower.

Here's how it is made

1 medium-sized broccoli floret, cleaned and cut into 1-inch pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, slightly bruised
1/2 tsp of chilli powder
Salt to taste

Take a heavy-bottomed pan/kadai or kayli, as we call it in Konkani. Heat some oil in this and add the garlic to it. Move it around a bit and then add the pieces of broccoli to this. Stir it well, add the chilli powder and sprinkle a few drops of water. Cover and allow it to cook.

Keep checking occasionally to ensure it doesn't get burnt. If you find it charring a bit, then keep sprinkling water. But broccoli cooks fast, so you shouldn't have a problem with this vegetable. However if you are using potatoes or even lady's finger, then you need to keep a close watch on the dish. When the broccoli is done, check the seasoning and turn off the flame.

Serve with dal-rice or even with some rotis and dal. It tastes great on it's own too. You just need some dahi (curd/ yogurt) to round off the meal.

* You can use even the stem of the broccoli in this recipe, it is a powerhouse of nutrients and doesn't take too long to cook, though you may want to cut it a little smaller than the other pieces

*I don't peel the garlic in this recipe, the skin crisps up to a beautiful golden brown and it's delicious! If you aren't comfortable with this, then by all means peel the garlic

*You can make talasani with asparagus, pok choi or even baby corn, I've tried each of these and they're all awesome. But my favourite remains the version with broccoli, I'm biased like that!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hello 2015. And when the universe tells you stuff about strawberries

So the new year is upon us and I'm sure most of us have resolved to eat healthy, if not diet or shed those stubborn kilos, this year. I'm one of them. Yes, I am. One of the things that I aim to do this year is include more fresh, seasonal produce, explore and experiment with ingredients and combos I wouldn't otherwise touch and get as preservative-free and chemical-free as I can in my cooking. That means you will see a lot of different stuff happening here.

To begin with, I'm introducing you to a very simple salad. But what makes this different is that it's got an unusual combination of ingredients. What's common with them is that they're all fresh and easily available this time of the year!

The other day, when we were in Bandra I saw this fruit vendor who had the most gorgeous, plump strawberries and I just couldn't resist. When I learnt that he was selling them by the kilo, I knew I had to buy them. It was like the universe was telling me something. And this was my first purchase of the year. How much more better can it get? After I bought these beauties, my mind went into an overdrive. There were so many things I wanted to make - cheesecake, smoothie, serve them with thick yogurt, a sorbet, perhaps? At the same time I also wanted to make something different. Should I flambe them? Or make a strawberry and mint preserve? The mind boggled. Suddenly I remembered this salad. I knew I had all the ingredients at home. The universe was telling me something, yet again. And I listened!
So difficult to resist these!

This salad is inspired by what I once ate at a brunch in a star hotel. That recipe was simple, with just the spinach, strawberries and a balsamic dressing. I recently discovered water chestnuts, after seeing them for so long and wondering what they really taste like, and I fell in love with them. The husband seems to have taken to them too, so that was reason enough to add them to this salad. But I felt that the salad needed something more in terms of texture. Something that would give it some crunch. The answer was staring right back at me when I was rummaging through the fridge - walnuts! This salad is also super-healthy and it has enough colour and goodness to make it high on all the anti-oxidants and good things.

We polished off the entire bowl of this in one sitting. I know I'm going to make this often during the strawberry season, and you should too.

Strawberry & Spinach salad with water chestnuts

2 cups of spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped
100 gms of strawberries, cleaned, hulled and chopped
1/2 cup of water chestnuts, peeled and chopped (they're available slightly roasted in the markets)
A handful of walnuts

For the dressing
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp of balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp of basil leaves, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Whisk all the ingredients together for the dressing and keep it aside.

In a mixing/salad bowl, place the spinach, strawberries and half of the water chestnuts and walnuts. Pour the dressing over this and toss well. Now sprinkle the rest of the nuts over this. Serve immediately.

I served this with a hearty soup and croutons to make a meal. You can serve this salad as an appetiser or even as a meal by itself. If you choose to do the former, then a good idea for a main would be some grilled chicken or steamed fish or even some pita-falafel pockets.

*If you don't have water chestnuts, skip them. I can't offer  a substitute

*In case you don't have fresh basil leaves for the dressing, then use the dried variety but, limit it to 1/2 or 3/4 tsp

*Nut allergies? Then simply substitute with some sunflower or pumpkin seeds for that crunch

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Not just 'ghas-phus'

When I tell people that I can eat salads as a meal in itself, I'm met with stares and incredulous looks. "Really, you? Why would you eat ghas-phus for a meal?" they ask. Well it isn't just ghas-phus (a Hindi colloquial term for vegetables), salads are more than just that and if you've been around here for a while, then you will know that salads are a regular feature at my place. Sometimes we have a soup and salad for dinner. At times, we've even had just a nice, big, hearty salad with crusty bread as a meal in itself.

Since I make salads so often I thought I'd share with you three of them, which I've made recently and which have turned out absolutely delicious. Each one is different and unique but, what is common is that they all use fresh, seasonal produce and don't take too long to put together. So if you're tired after a long day at work, have people over or just want to make something that's easy, healthy and tasty; here are three options.

A whole bunch of textures that play with your senses
Beet, pear & walnut salad 

Beetroot is not one of my favourite vegetables and often, I have to trick myself into eating it! But, if I had to eat this salad every single day, I would, happily. The sweet earthiness of the beetroot, the tartness of the pear, salty hint of the Feta and the crunch from the walnuts make this salad a winner all the way. 

1 beetroot, steamed 
1 large pear, de-seeded and sliced 
2 tbsp of Feta cheese 

For the dressing
Mix these and keep aside for about 5 minutes 
1/2 tsp of Balsamic vinegar 
1 tsp of olive oil 
Some freshly crushed peppercorn 
Pinch of salt 

For the garnish
A handful of Rocket leaves 
1 tbsp of walnuts 

Peel the beetroot and slice it, the slices should be about 3mm thick. Soak the sliced pear in water with a few drops of lemon to prevent it from discolouring. 

On a large platter, arrange the beetroot slices at the bottom. Mix the pear with half of the walnuts and place on top of this. Crumble the Feta cheese over this, followed by rest of the walnuts. Now drizzle the salad dressing on top of this. Finish with the Rocket leaves. Serve immediately. 

Don't they say that you eat with your eyes first? 

Mix veggie & bean salad 

I love adding beans to salads - apart from giving it that punch of protein, they also make the dish very filling. All you need to do is serve this with a light soup and you have a complete meal. 

1 large cucumber, peeled and sliced into half moons 
1 yellow bell pepper, de-seeded and sliced 
1 red carrot, peeled and cut into batons of about an inch tall 
A handful of rajma (red kidney beans) steamed 
1 cup of lettuce, torn 
2 tbsp of mint leaves, torn 
1 tbsp of parsley, torn 

Put all these vegetables into a mixing bowl and pour over a dressing that's made from:

1 tsp olive oil 
1/2 tsp of mustard 
1 tsp of honey
A pinch of salt

Toss the vegetables in the dressing so that all the vegetable pieces are coated with it. Serve immediately. 

This dish is warm and comforting

Warm prawn salad

Prawns are among my favourite seafood. Using them in a salad like this just shows how versatile this is. We had this salad with hunks of crusty bread, also known as kadak pav in Mumbai! This one is perfect when the nights are a little chilly

200 gms of prawns, cleaned and deveined
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and minced
1 green chilli, sliced, de-seeded and cut into small pieces
3/4 cup of bean sprouts
Some olive oil
Salt to taste

Heat some olive oil in a pan and add the garlic to it. When this begins turning brown, add the chilli and follow with the prawns. Saute until the prawns are almost done. Now add the bean sprouts, you don't want to add them too early because they will lose their crunch. Season well but remember you will need to add Feta cheese, which is salty, later on.

Top this dish with:
A handful of Arugula leaves
Some Raddish micro greens
Crumbled Feta cheese

And serve warm with bread. We ate it right out of the pan that I had cooked it in!

*There are some ingredients in these recipes like Arugula or micro greens which may not be easily available. You can substitute with Iceberg lettuce or chopped parsley or mint for this. Yes, it will impact the flavours but fresh herbs always weave a magic of their own

*All these salads are best eaten the minute they're prepared. I would advise against storing it even for a couple of minutes and eating it later on

*While washing the vegetables, soak them in salted water for a while, rinse and then proceed. This helps get rid of germs, bacteria and all other unwanted things

Friday, November 28, 2014

When food evokes 'happi'ness

When I heard that a new restaurant opened in the Bandra-Khar area a couple of weeks ago, my first reaction was, "Really, another one? Didn't know there was place for so many!" But when I heard that this restaurant was called 'Me So Happi', I was curious. And for someone who has been a journalist for a while, this curiosity can be funny business.

So when I was asked if I would go and check out this place, I agreed immediately. I checked with the husband, the man was free on a week night so we decided to head to Me So Happi for dinner. I'm also one of those who 'researches' about a place before eating there and when I saw that this restaurant had Bunny Chow on their menu, I was thrilled - the last time I had this was in Durban, years ago! I have pleasant memories of that trip and was eager to try this South African special.

The use of wood and ceiling-to-floor windows gives the restaurant a warm atmosphere

Quirky wall decor adds to the charm

Motifs inspired by video games

Given the number of restaurants in the Bandra-Khar area, I wondered if we could find the place easily. The good part is that it is right on the main road and there's a huge sign there. Difficult to miss and that's a good thing. As we walked into Me So Happi, we noticed that the place was huger than what we imagined it to be. I took in the colours, the cheerful decor, the board games and video game-inspired motifs as we settled down at our table. The husband remarked that almost every table had a plug point next to it, so necessary these days with smartphones draining out in a matter of a handful Now, the husband and I are non-fussy when it comes to food so we asked the Chef to go ahead and send us the food.

Beet & Quinoa Salad: Light, refreshing and absolutely delicious

Our meal began with this amazingly light and refreshing Beet & Quinoa salad, it had the right notes of sweet, tangy and citrus which complemented the many textures in the dish. I could have this for dinner. It was a promising start and I was looking forward to the rest of the meal. We washed down the salad with some mocktails - a Lemon Mojito and Kokum Bounty (kokum, lime and rock salt), which were perfect for the balmy weather.

Wouldn't mind seconds: Prawns on Fire

After this we were sent a plate of the Bombillo (fried Bombay Duck with a Chinese inspired sauce), which was good, but just that. This was followed by Prawns on Fire, a dish that I'd heard was one of the best here and I was curious to taste it. At first glance it looked like another dish of fried prawns, but, one bite down and I was grinning - the prawns were beautifully cooked and the best part was the marination, which was in a spicy masala redolent with the earthy flavours of curry leaves. It reminded me of Chennai. Home. Memories. That warm fuzzy feeling. I said to myself, "Me So Happi!"

We were quite full with these starters so asked the Chef to go slow on the order. He was surprised but when we told him we wanted to do justice to the food and not waste it, he agreed. And suggested that this would be a good time to take a walk around the place. The restaurant is a cosy place but the one place I was taken by was this charming replica of a kitchen near the billing counter.

The mini kitchen

Isn't that charming?

As we walked back to our table, Chef Aniruddh told us about how they wanted to start opening up the place for events and parties. Given that they have a decent amount of space, it seems like a good option.

Seafood Sliders

Since we were on our way to being full we had actually asked the Chef to cancel the order for Seafood Sliders, which were up next, but one bite into it and I was so glad he didn't listen to us! The seafood was fried in a tempura-like batter and then topped with a Thai-inspired sauce with loads of lemongrass before being stuffed into a slider bun. Just delicious. The Stuffed Potato Skins came next. Compared to the previous dish, this one paled in comparison and I couldn't eat more than half of a single portion. Maybe it was because this was vegetarian, but then, we love our vegetables. Maybe it was that the dishes before this one were so good that this didn't live up to the expectations. I reasoned it out in my mind and concluded that it was possibly the latter.

Stuffed Potato Skins, these paled in comparison with the other dishes we sampled

I had told the Chef in the beginning that I was eager to taste the Bunny Chow and he agreed, adding that it was one of their most popular items on the menu. The good part is that the curry changes every day. I guess we got lucky with this because the curry was spicy but had a velvety texture because of the generous use of coconut milk. Delicious!

Bunny Chow. So glad some place in Mumbai finally serves this dish

The Chef asked us if we had the room to try out one of their signature burgers, we groaned in protest. He laughed and insisted that we couldn't leave without some dessert. So I went in for the Sticky Toffee Pudding, which was sweet with a hint of salt and packed with dates. The husband had the Banana Caramel Pie, when you have banana, caramel and a dark chocolate base it is difficult to go wrong, even if you try. The desserts were as good as they looked and sounded, but the winners at Me So Happi are some of the appetisers and the Bunny Chow.

We called it a night after the dessert and decided to head home but not before promising the Chef that we would be back to try all the things we missed this time.

Me So Happi is located at Shop 2, Kusum Kunj, Khar, Linking Road. Opposite Guess Showroom.

PS: I was there on invitation so I haven't given you the prices

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Memories are made of these

They say death is a great teacher. Maybe it is true. But what I do know is that, death changes you completely - inside out, upside down. Even when you know that it is the most inevitable thing.

I lost my (paternal) grandmother last week. It didn't come as a shock. We were prepared. We knew she was going downhill. When she passed on we grieved but, we were also grateful she didn't have to suffer even more than she already had. Yet, despite all this, when the void hits you like a punch in the face, you realize that you can never be prepared for losing a loved one. You want them at the oddest times, you remember them suddenly, sometimes more often than not and then that void hits you, again.

My grandmother didn't fit into the stereotype of a grandma. Perhaps that is why her grandchildren are the way they are.  She was a lady who believed in principles and standing by them. Even though she wasn't a graduate, she wanted her grandchildren to study further. "How will you be financially independent when you grow up," she would ask me when I told her I'd enough of the books. It wasn't about bagging the first rank, she was thinking more long-term. I didn't understand why then but today I know exactly what she meant.

My grandmother was careful, not frugal, generous but not lavish. She had lived through times when money was tight and had also seen the good days. Not one to shower praises, I remember when I bought my first car, she asked me how much it was. When I told her the amount, her eyes widened in surprise, "Did you really have to spend so much," she asked, her cautious nature coming to the fore again. For a moment I was taken aback, 'I'm an adult. I know what I'm doing,' I thought. A couple of minutes later, I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone, "You know, my granddaughter has bought a new car. That too all on her own." That note of pride was unmistakable. And my grin stretched from ear to ear, literally.

These are memories I'll hold close to my heart. I'll look into this box of treasure when I'm down, when I'm happy and when I need some reassurance that I have another angel looking over me.

Memories of her are of the aroma of homemade hair oil, yes, she made that at home too! Memories are  made of the delicious doodh khadi (milk barfi), the warmth of her touch when I was sick, the twist she gave a simple curd rice, the lime-ginger juice that cooled us from the summer heat, her constant humming, her meticulous nature, her penchant for noticing beyond the obvious. There are loads of these that will keep me going for a lifetime. Yet, it is ironic that in the end, it is memory that failed her.

Did I also tell you my grandmother could make bread at home? Not the regular loaves or rolls, she would make the stuffed variety in a mind-boggling array of shapes. The tenacious lady that she was, even yeast didn't frighten her! That the jams she made were far, far better than the bottled stuff we get today? That she was the one who started the concept of  'soup and bread' dinners at home? That she made tomato sauce, pickle and even ice cream at home? There is a lot to be told and I soon will.

I wanted to write this post earlier but I kept writing and deleting. Yes, I'll admit, the keyboard even got damp a couple of times. It was never enough. So I decided today that I would just let the words flow. Something like how I thought of making this Pumpkin Orange Bread.

This bread is similar to my grandmother - earthy, bold yet understated, refreshing, honest and wholesome. And I know, if I'd given her a slice of this, she'd have eaten it in a minute and then quietly told me to save her some for tomorrow!

Pumpkin Orange Bread

1 cup of whole wheat flour
1/4 cup of bajra (barley) flour
1/4 cup of rajgira (amaranth) flour
1/4 cup of jowar (pearl millet) flour
1/4 cup of ragi (red millet) flour
1 1/2 tsp of baking soda
1/2 tsp of baking powder
A pinch of salt

Mix these ingredients together. Keep aside.

In another bowl, mix the following
3/4 cup of pumpkin puree (I peeled, cut and steamed pumpkin cubes with a little water for this and then ground to a paste)
1 tsp of orange rind
1/4 tsp of cinnamon powder
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 tbsp of flax seeds, lightly roasted, powdered and mixed with 1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup of demerara sugar

Take the bowl with the flour mixture and create a well in the centre. Now add this mixture to the dry ingredients and fold everything together. In case the mixture is too dry then add some cold water or milk to get the right texture.

Pour the batter into a greased, lined loaf tin and sprinkle a mixture of flax, pumpkin and watermelon seeds on this. I also added some rajgira (amaranth) grains for texture but you can skip if you want to. Bake this for about 30-40 minutes at 180 degrees celsius. Remove from the oven when a skewer inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean.

When the loaf cools down, cut into slices and serve. This bread stays well in the fridge for about 4-5 days too and can be frozen for up to a week.

*If you want a non-vegan but eggless/vegetarian version then replace the flax meal with buttermilk or 1/4 cup of curds/yogurt

*You can use 2 cups of wheat flour instead of a five-grain flour too

*Add 1/4 cup of orange juice for extra flavour

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