Author Archives: Charmaine O'Brien

It’s time we had a chaat.

What’s sweet, sour, smooth, crunchy, spicy and hot – and that’s ‘hot’ as in hip? According to The New York Times it is a distinctive style of snack, traditionally sold from street stalls across India, called chaat (pronounced like ‘chart’) that has become popular on the streets of Manhattan. Across the Atlantic, Camellia Panjabi’s, Amaya, serves up a menu of Indian street food including a selection of chaat. Panjabi, author of the essential 50 Great Curries of India, is credited with making Indian food ‘smart’ in London. I have been in enamored with chaat for years. It’s one of my favorite Indian eats and I have my preferred chaatwallahs (vendors) in Delhi – a city renowned for chaat.

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Mobile chaat wallah. Rajkot Gujurat

 

The basic components of the chaatwallahs trade are universal; sticky, sweet and sour tamarind chutney; a sharp, invigorating green chutney ground from fresh coriander and green chilies; salted yogurt whipped to a smooth creamy consistency; chaat masala, a magical blend of spices made pungent with black salt and dried green mango powder; a plain boiled chickpeas and cubed potato; an urn of the spice infused broth called jal jeera. and a pile of gole or puri( crisp hollow puffs fashioned from either wheat flour or semolina dough) and papri ( crunchy discs of ajwain flavored pastry).

From these singular components the chaatwallah composes the dishes of his trade. To make papri chaat, he builds a base with a handful of papri and a smattering of the potato pieces and chickpeas. This is then dressed with a generous ladle of yogurt, a good slick of tamarind chutney; a swirl of green chutney and a sprinkle of chaat masala. All of the genus chaat are variations on this theme and the alchemy that takes place when these tastes and textures are combined inevitably induces sighs and grunts of satisfaction from the consumer. The literal meaning of chaat is ‘to lick’ and scooping up the last remaining rivulets of sauce in the dish with one’s fingers is an automatic reaction – good manners forgotten in an attempt to prolong savoring such sublime flavors.

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Railway station snack vendor Jharkhand

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The makings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaatwallahs extend this basic repertoire with bhalle, a fritter made from ground urad dal that gains its unique fluffy texture from being fried then soaked in water and wrung out; rajgole, as the name suggests, a king-size version of gole that becomes the chaat equivalent of a hamburger with the lot, garnished with ruby red pomegranate seeds and slithers of white radish and red winter carrots.

Fortunately, a visit to Delhi, London or New York is not a pre-requisite for enjoying chaat. For those who like to undertake their culinary adventurism in the kitchen chaat is reasonably easy to prepare. This recipe for papri chaat makes an interesting first course at an Indian style dinner or served as a light lunch or brunch dish on the weekends.

Papri Chaat

makes 6 servings

Chaat Masala 

Ingredients 

I tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp roasted ground cumin seeds

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp ground rock salt

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)*

1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste)

1 tsp amchur (dried mango powder)*

1/2 tsp asafetida*

1 tsp brown sugar (optional)

Method

Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight jar.

*Available in Indian or Asian grocery stores.

Papri

Ingredients

1 ½ cups plain flour

½ tsp salt

1 tsp ajwain or cumin seeds

2 tbsp ghee, melted

1cup ghee for cooking

Method

Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl; stir in the cumin seeds. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Knead the melted ghee into the dough until the dough is soft. Roll out to approximately 3mm thickness. Cut out small discs from the dough. Prick with a fork.

Heat the extra cup of ghee in a wok or deep saucepan.

Deep fry the papri a few at a time until golden.

Drain on kitchen paper.

Sonth ki Chutney (Tamarind Chutney)

My thoughts turn to heaven whenever I taste this chutney. It will keep in refrigerator for several weeks – if it lasts that long! It can be used to give a tantalizing lift to all manner of dishes.

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

½ cup tamarind pulp

¾ cup jaggery, finely chopped or grated

1 tsp rock salt, ground

1 tsp kala nemak (black salt)

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp roasted, ground cumin seeds

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

¼ tsp chili powder

Method

Soak the tamarind in one cup of hot water for 20 minutes.

Strain the pulp and water through a sieve into a small saucepan, pushing it through with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all the pulp.

Add the remaining ingredients and bring to the boil; reduce the heat and simmer over a low heat until the chutney thickens a little. Cool.

Hare dhaniya ki chutney (Green chutney)

This recipe requires a bit of labor and it should be used fresh. In India green chutney is ground on a grinding stone. If you don’t happen to have grinding stone handy a blender is the next best option (a food processor won’t give the right texture). The finished chutney should have a smooth texture.

Makes approximately ¾ cup

Ingredients

1 bunch washed coriander leaves, stalks removed

1 tbsp peanuts, coarsely ground

¼ cup green chilies, chopped*

2 tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar or crushed jaggery/palm sugar

1 tbsp fresh lime juice

Method

Grind the coriander, peanuts and chilies to a fine paste.

Add the salt, sugar and limejuice. Mix well and serve.

To assemble the chaat

small cubes of boiled potato and cooked chickpeas

yoghurt whipped smooth with a fork

chaat masala

Place the papri on one large plate or divide amongst six smaller ones, scatter over a handful of potato and chickpeas, smother with curd, add a generous dollop of both the chutneys and a sprinkle of chaat masala.

 

 

 

Nimish: seminal gastronomic foam?

 

Over years I have been researching and writing about Indian food I would periodically come across reference to a curious confection called nimish, particularly in historical or memoir material about food in the Avadh (Lucknow) region. The writer in question inevitably rhapsodised about this dish, a subtly sweet ‘lighter than air’ milk based foam, and described the essential environmental conditions for its production, yet never fully explicated it. My pieced together understanding of its production was that an earthen vessel of milk was left out on a lawn or terrace on moonlit winter’s and by morning the overnight dew had magically transformed the milk it into a whimsical froth, solid enough to hold in soft peaks when scooped up but that this form was inherent instability. If the nimish was not eaten within the early hours of the day it would collapse. Exact ingredients, technique and the chemistry that allowed this foam to form were never revealed. I was curious about nimish however the unusual combination of conditions required for its production, as I understood these from my readings, made me think my chances of encountering this dish were small.

P1010064One of my most rewarding field research methods is to wander at random through the bazaars and lanes of Indian cities keeping a keen eye out for food ‘finds’. This was just what I was doing one winter’s day in Lucknow when I spotted a throng of vendors outside Akbari Gate all standing behind identical conical glass cases containing what looked like a captured cloud. I felt a rush of excitement: was this the ethereal nimish I had read about?

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I inquired of a vendor: “nimish hai?”. He responded with that distinctive Indian gesture of moving his head from side to side: an ambiguous movement that I chose to interpret in the affirmative. I usually try to determine a more precise meaning of this non-committal waggle but on this occasion my heightened expectation about the mysterious nimish overrode my tenacity. (My Australian accent debilitates the pronunciation of my limited Hindi vocabulary and people often do not understand me causing me to feel frustrated as know I am using the right word/s and it can be time consuming to persist with the process).

 

At the first mouthful of my purchased portion I thought: “this is more like sweet whipped cream, much heavier than a whimsical milk froth would be”. I also wondered how these vendors could be selling something in the middle of the day that was reportedly so fragile that it had to be eaten before sunrise. None-the-less I pushed my doubts aside and decided that what I had eaten was nimish.

I described this experience in the draft manuscript for The Penguin Food Guide to India. My editor came back to me with a query. She had spent many winters in Lucknow as a child and recalled eating a dish identical to the one I described as nimish, however she knew it as malai makkhan. This term translates as ‘cream butter’ and indeed this was a better description of the substantive dish I had sampled. I investigated. I learnt that malai makkhan is made by whipping unsalted butter to a frothy cream, sweetening it with sugar and flavouring it with various combinations of saffron, cardamom, pistachio and rosewater, and discovered that the term nimish was used flexibly and was sometimes used to describe what was actually malai makkhan. So had I eaten nimish or malai makkhan?

IMG_0198Another year and I am in Varanasi wandering the meandering alleys and bustling markets of this ancient city.. A large karahi (iron cooking pot) sitting on the ledge of a small non-descript stall half filled with golden foam sprinkled with finely chopped pistachio nuts catches my eye. I inquire of the vendor: “Nimish hai?. He responds with an unquestionably affirmative “Hanji”. I eagerly buy a plateful. One mouthful affirms it as the ethereal concoction I had read about: a light touch of sweetness before its enigmatic body melted on the tongue trailing behind it a subtle memory of rosewater, pistachio and saffron. I feel assured now that I can pronounce my Lucknow experience as malai makkhan.

IMG_0197I‘ve learnt how to make nimish. Fresh milk is mixed with a small amount of cream and a dose of cream tartar and left overnight in the refrigerator (dew and moonlight can be dispensed with it seems!). In the morning sugar and rosewater are added to the mixture, which is beaten/whisked until foam forms. This is scooped off and collected in a separate bowl. The beating and scooping continues until all the milk is used up, a process that can take several hours. The acidic cream of tartar denatures the protein in the milk allowing it to ‘hold up’ as foam. An older practice is to add a piece of cuttlefish to the milk to catalyze the same chemical process. Given the lengthy process of making nimish it is not surprising to find most recipes of that name are based on whipped cream such as this one from Rick Stein.

It seems that nimish had been close at hand when I lived in Delhi without my knowing it. In the capital it is called daulat ki chaat and is sold by vendors in Old Delhi over a few weeks in winter. This set me pondering why I had not seen it during my field explorations of that part of the city and I remembered that I had done most of my research there in spring and summer. While I may have missed (thus far) enjoying a plate of daulat ki chaat I rejoice that seasonal food specialties are still to be found all over India. In Australia we can buy Christmas cake and pudding all year round stripping any specialness out of these once seasonal items.

If you fancy trying to make nimish/daulat ki chaat I recommend you use the recipe from Priti Narain’s classic book The Delhi Cookbook that Pamela Timms has reproduced in this post .

The Royal Falooda

Falooda are fresh sev (thin vermicelli style noodles) made from cornstarch.

Falooda could be seen as a microcosm of Indian food as it has several of the hallmark features that characterize this nation’s cuisine

1. It’s complicated.

2. Spelling variations

Falooda, faluda, faloodah

3. Variations

A small mound of cooked falooda drizzled with rose syrup can be served with kulfi (an ice-cream made from reduced milk, sugar, nuts and saffron). This dish is properly referred to as ‘kulfi falooda’ but it is often just called falooda.

Falooda is also a drink cum dessert. It is alternatively sipped and eaten with a spoon. The basic formula is some type of starchy or gelatinous ingredients such as falooda (the noodles), tapioca pearls, jelly or takmaria/basil seeds layered into a tall glass with cold milk, rose syrup and crushed nuts poured over.

Semiya (wheat flour vermicelli) are sometimes substituted for ‘falooda’ noodles.

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kulfi falooda

  1. Variations of versions

Ice-cream (of various flavor) has become a popular addition to falooda (the drink cum dessert). This turns it into something like a cross between a milk-shake and an ice-cream sundae or a somewhat more liquid variation of kulfi -falooda. This variation might be referred to as shahi or royal falooda (see recipe for my take on this). Dried or fresh fruit such as banana, mango or grapes might also be added.

A regional specialty of Madurai in Tamil Nadu is a drink cum dessert called jil jil jigarthanda (variously translated as ‘cool cool heart’ or ‘cool liver’) made from sweetened reduced milk mixed with small pieces or pearls of agar-agar jelly (kadal paasi) , nannaari (syrup made from Indian sarsaparilla/hemidesmus indicus ) and ice-cream. Jil jil jigarthanda is said to have been developed in Madurai by Arab or Muslim traders come into the city (see history) and some versions include rosewater and nuts which makes the connection to falooda more obvious.

Famous Jigarthanda Madurai

Famous Jigarthanda Madurai

  1. A history (with variations)

Falooda belongs to a family of Indian sweet items, such as halwa, jalebi and kulfi, of Persian/Middle Eastern origin. It is said to have come into India with the Mughals (who looked to Persia as their cultural model). The fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605-1627) was reportedly found of falooda eaten with cream and fruit (which suggests the noodles rather than the drink). An alternative theory is that it came into India with the Persian king Nader Shah when he invaded India and toppled the Mughals in 1738. He only stayed around for a year though spending this time looting and pillaging rather than embedding a cultural imprimatur so I am going to give it to the Mughals.

Falooda was originally an ice based concoction (it still is in Iran). Ice was an expensive and luxurious commodity in India (and elsewhere in the world*) up until the early 20th century, making chilled items the prerogative of the wealthy. Now that refrigeration is widely available the milk is usually pre-chilled although ice may still be added; if ice-cream is added that serves the same purpose as ice. Ultimately what is important is that the falooda is cold and therefore cooling.

  1. It’s all about digestion

A distinctive ingredient of falooda is turkmaria or basil seeds. These are soaked in water prior to use causing them to swell and become like a soft jelly (resembling frogs eggs). When used in falooda it serves more as a textural component than flavor element. Turkmaria is reputed to have various health benefits such as aiding digestion, cooling the body, relieving stress and minimizing appetite.

  1. Contribution to world food

Many of us (in western countries at least) understand basil (ocimum basilicum) as a fresh herb of Italian/Mediterranean origin but it is actually native to India/Asia and is considered to have first been cultivated in India 5000 years ago. Since that time it has spread widely resulting in many different cultivars in use across the globe. It took a lot of searching to ascertain the variety, ocimum pilosum, from which turkmaria is harvested from the flowers. I do not claim absolute certainty on this though because I could not understand the finer details of the scientific language used to classify plants.

Recipe

The Royal Falooda

photo photo

While researching The Penguin Food Guide to India I enjoyed a particularly fabulous and rejuvenating ‘royal Falooda’ one hot steamy afternoon at Aswad Upahar in Mumbai. For a recent lunch at Merricks General Store I used this particular experience as the inspiration for dessert. I did not think that a falooda in its drink form would be suitable so I added an influence of colonial India and turned it something more like a trifle/parfait. I serve it layered in glasses. I do not have specific recipes for any of the layers so I will just describe these as each is easy to make. If you make this in summer you could also add a layer of finely diced fresh mango (a fruit native to India)

As texture is a feature of this dessert do not put it together too far in advance or you will loose the crunch of the pistachio macaroons. If you are going to pour the jelly directly into the glasses/containers make it up and allow it to cool and then pour a thin layer and refrigerate it (it should set within 20-30 minutes). Sprinkle the cashew nut brittle on just before serving so that it retains its crunch.

Layers (from the bottom up)

  1. Poach thin rice vermicelli noodles in sweetened coconut milk flavoured with cardamom (I let the coconut milk reduce so that is thicker and sticks more to the noodles). If the coconut milk it too runny just lift out the cooked noodles with tongs or a slotted spoon and put them into the bottom of the glass and cover with a tea spoon or two of the milk (you don’t want it to be too runny).
  2. Pistachio macaroons made he old fashioned way – not the shiny uniform ones you get everywhere now- from egg whites, sugar and ground pistachios . It does not matter if these are ‘rough’ as they will be broken up into the glass.
  1. Thick (real) vanilla custard
  1. Rose water jelly.

To make this I prepare a sugar syrup (500 ml water to 500 gm. sugar) that I flavor with rose water and a tiny bit of pink food colouring. Make this up into jelly as per the instructions for the gelatin product you use. You can either pour it directly as a layer in the glass or pour it into a tray and slice it up into cubes when its set and put these into the glass.

  1. Cashew nut praline. I make a toffee with cashew nuts and when it is set I roughly crush it for the final layer.

Enjoy.

*In areas where snow and ice are naturally occurring chilling or freezing items would not have been a novelty (more likely that frozen food would have been an annoyance/pitfall in such places). It was only the rich who could afford to build ice-houses to store ice for year round use, or in the case of the Mughals the manpower to have it transported from cold mountain regions.

Sound, sight and sardines

kerala toddy shop

India is often described as ‘mysterious’, typically in relation to some spiritual/esoteric/religious aspect. Personally I find some of the more mundane characteristics of life here far more mysterious than anything to do with gurus, sadhus or saints. So I thought I would write an occasional series on the ‘mysteries’ of secular life in India and relate these to food.

Indians generally do not enjoy being by themselves; even if an individual’s natural inclination is towards solitude the societal pressure is to conform to communalism: being alone is seen and experienced by Indians as something undesirable (such an expansion population also limits the possibility of aloneness).

The mobile phone has been a boon to Indians for now one need never experience one minute of solitude: just keep talking …and talk they do … under all noise conditions (and India is a extremely noisy place). Here then is the mystery: despite the Indian ability to hear someone on the other end of a mobile phone, even under industrial strength noise conditions, many people here are oblivious to the sound of an approaching motor vehicle that is mere centimeters away from them and they will step out in front of it. Even if they deign to notice the moving vehicle that I am sitting in, that seems to me like it is about to run them down, they barely flinch. Despite some VERY close encounters with pedestrians I fortunately have never been in a vehicle that has hit someone but I never fail to feel anxious about the possibility, and after the danger has been averted I then seethe with indignation at this seemingly reckless conduct.

I originally thought that this behavior was due to a failure in hearing (hence my opening gambit) but in pondering this conundrum I think I have solved it. After years of observation I have concluded that anything to do with moving vehicles in India is related solely to sight. It works like this: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; and the only thing you need to see is what is directly in front of you. So the noise of a taxi barreling down upon you is irrelevant to your safety: if you don’t look at it, it can’t hit you.

This led me to conclude that perhaps the Indian government should run a health campaign to improve its citizens eyesight such that the eyeball is able to move beyond the fixed forward position it habitually adapts when encountering anything to do with road usage. The following recipe is my contribution to that campaign should my suggestion ever be taken up (while this is a ‘tongue in cheek’ piece an alarming number of people die on Indian roads every day).

Sardines are commonly eaten by coastal fisherfolk in India. They sell the larger fish as these bring a better price in the market and keep the less financially lucrative small fry such as sardines for their own consumption. These are packed full of nutrients such as omega oils, which are reportedly beneficial for eyesight. In the traditional Indian Ayuvedic medicine system curry leaves are prescribed to improve eyesight. Given the prolific use of curry leaves in South Indian cookery you would expect that the people of the south would have perfect vision but the incidents of pedestrian dare devilry are just as high as in the north where the curry leaf is not used so prolifically. Never the less I am still going to put forward a recipe with curry leaves as it may be that the it is the combination with sardines will activate the sight improving factor in these. A similar dish, more heavily mined with red chili, can also be found in toddy shops in Kerala: perhaps it helps men to better see their way home after a few rounds of this alcoholic beverage.

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Muthi kari (toddy shop sardines): Kuttanad Kerala

Toddy Shop Sardines 

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

½ tsp turmeric

1 kg sardines

10 black peppercorns

2 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fenugreek seeds

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium sized red onion, finely chopped

2 tsp ginger paste

1-2 red chillies roughly chopped or 1 red capsicum finely diced

2 tbsp garlic paste

1 stalk curry leaves

salt to taste

Method

Clean the sardines and sprinkle with the turmeric and salt, mix and set aside.

Dry roast the peppercorns, coriander and fenugreek seeds and grind to a powder.

Heat the 1 tbsp of oil over a medium high heat and when hot add the curry leaves. When these have changed colour mix in the onion and ginger paste. Cook for two minutes and add the red chilli or red pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent and the chilli softened.

Mix the garlic paste with the spice powder and a little water to make a paste. Add this to the onion mix, salt to taste and cook for two minutes.

Place a large shallow fry pan over a medium high heat with one tbsp of oil. Place a layer of sardines in the pan spread these with some of the onion mix, another layer of sardines and more of the onion mix. Pour over enough water (perhaps with a little white wine or lime/lemon juice mixed in as well) to cover and cook until the sardines are cooked through and the gravy has dried off a bit.

Serve hot with rice or bread.