Adais and avial, beach sand and hosepipe baths!

 
It’s funny how so many memories of great food seem tied up with childhood summers, isn’t it? While i’ve grumbled ad nauseum about Madras, it’s also Madras which has introduced me to foods that are among my favourites today.
 
One summer, many long years ago, my mother had come with us on a holiday to Madras – usually only the kids were packed off – from many households across the country to ONE aunt and uncle whose job it was to look after us for the summer. The parents who got to do the packing off must have danced celebratory jigs on returning home from the station while the ones on whom this phalanx was descending might have also had one last celebratory dinner before kids started coming out of the woodwork for the next month or so!
 
And so, one morning, mom decided that we haven’t seen anything till we saw the beloved Marina of her childhood and shook us all out of bed at the unearthly hour of 6 o’clock to take us to the beach. Many hours of fun, frolic and trailing tonnes of beach sand home and being hosed off en masse on the porch before we were allowed to step in through the back door, hunger was at unprecedented crescendos. The aunt with whom we were staying – Kalyani pinni of the legendary hospitality – had anticipated hungry mouths and made a mound of adais over 1 ‘ ( that’s right, one foot – you’re not misreading it!) high with many chutneys and things to accompany it!
 
The locust swarm descended on the table and in  5 minutes flat, there wan’t an adai in sight and definitely none left for the ‘big people’ who made do with bread and butter!!!
 
I never grew very fond of them till i started making them myself and now, the combo of adai and avial is definitely of the ilk of Lay’s – no one can eat just one!
 
The perfect diet food – high in protein and fibre, low on fats and carbs and very filling in the bargain – load up guiltlessly – the diet gods are watching and applauding!
 
Adai 
 
Toor dal – 1 cup
Chana dal – 1/2 cup
Whole urad dal – with skin if possible – 1/2 cup 
Rice – 1 tbsp ( i add a tsp of any other millets
– jowar or bajra or barley – for added fibre)
Salt
2 green chilies
2 red chilies
1 pinch of asafoetida
2 sprigs of curry leaves
Onions 2 – finely chopped
Sesame oil – about 2 or 3 tbsps
 
Soak the dals together and the rice/millets separately for about 4-5 hours. Grind together to a knobbly rough puree along with the chilies, asafoetida, salt and curry leaves to a thick, spreading consistency.  Let it rest for about an hour. Add chopped onion.  Letting it rest for too long will probably make your teeth go unpleasantly ‘ping’!
 
Heat a flat dosa pan, preferably non-stick unless you’re a purist! Spread one ladleful of the batter into a thick dosa and pour a few drops of oil around. Make a small hole in the centre and pour in a few drops of oil there. Cover and cook on a low flame for 2-3 minutes. Peek under one edge to check if it has browned. Turn over and cook, uncovered, for a further 2-3 minutes. Ta-dang!
 
Keep making – what did i just tell you – no one can eat just one!
 
Avial 
 
Drumstick (the Indian vegetable, not the chicken spare part!)- cut into 3 cm lengths – 1
Green plantain – 1 – cut into 1 cm long thin pieces to match above
Carrot – 1  – ditto
Beans – a handful – string and snap
Pumpkin – 1/2 cup each of white and yellow – cut like above
Grated coconut – 3 tbsp
3 green chilies
Cumin seeds – 1/2 tsp
Sour yogurt – 3 cups – whipped
Curry leaf – 1 sprig
Coconut oil – 5-6 drops (yes, that’s it!)
Turmeric – 1 pinch – optional
Salt
 
Cook the vegetable together with about a cup of water. Grind together coconut, chilies and cumin into a fine paste. Add this to the vegetables. Add another cup of water and salt and cook till vegetables are done. Switch off, let cool for a few minutes and add yogurt and mix. Smear the curry leaf with coconut oil and drop into the avial.
 
Enjoy one of the simplest, tastiest dishes to come out of God’s own country!
 

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Hunger pangs and podis and aunts with magic wands!

 
Hungry kyaa? Pizza kha… ya Maggi kha… ya chips kha….
 
More and more choices, less and less nutrition… What happened when parents 20 or 30 years ago heard the perennial, “Mom, I’m hungry” cry? Trying to think back and I’ve got as far as murmura, chikki, fruit or just a “wait till dinnertime, it’s a few minutes away” (seemingly hours to tummies reaching a crescendo of hunger). Of course there was always the bit of leftover rice that could be had with a pickle or curd or a… podi – my favourite! For some weird reason, i loved podi rice with ghee and … hold your breath… soggy appadams! Something about trying to hold up flagging crispness was manna to my tongue!
 
Down the lane from where we grew up, there was an old (she might have been anywhere from 30 to 70 but anything above 20 was ‘old’ to 10-year old eyes!) widow who supported herself and her son by making appadams and podis – known to us only as the ‘podi mami’. I wonder how many thousands of such women lived by the skill of their cooking back then – brave souls. My mother was one of her biggest customers – particularly for “menthikootu podi” – with 3 perpetually hungry kids and a phalanx of relations always visiting, the podis ran out as fast as they came in! My brother Anand was one of the biggest depredators, as I remember…
 
For years after we moved away, I used to dream of this podi (I did, really – how the heck could any diet have a chance of surviving with me???) My mother’s culinary skills, such as they were, did not extend to this piece of art and no one else seemed to know or care even, about it. Till about two years ago, when I was talking about it (that’s step 2 after dreaming, btw) and my youngest aunt – Indu – said she made it all the time! Talk about traveling the world to find the pot of gold in your own backyard!! Since I said I wanted it RIGHT THEN, Indu aunty obliged me and gave me the recipe for it!! Strike 2!
 
Here’s my pot of gold – really looks like powdered gold too, btw!
 
Menthikootupodi (menthi hittu)
 
Chana dal – 2 cups
Asafoetida – 1 cm piece
1/4 cup coriander (dhaniya) seeds
4 red chilies
Cumin seeds – 14 cup
Rice – 1/4 cup
Wheat 1/4 cup
Turmeric powder – 1 tsp
Mustard seeds – 1 tbsp
Fenugreek (methi) seeds – 1/4 cup
Salt – about 1 tsp
 
Roast each of these (except turmeric) separately and powder together along with the turmeric into a fine powder. Cool and store in a bottle. Mix together 1 tsp with a handful of rice and 1/2 tsp of ghee to serve as an appetiser or an any time snack.
 
You can also mix 2 tbsp of the powder with 1/2 tsp tamarind paste and 1 tsp jaggery to make an instant no-cook ‘pulusu’ or gravy.
 

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Childhood summers, smells of Madras, mangoes and powercuts…

 
“Never, never, never am I ever going to Madras in the summer again!!” My vehement declaration at about ten years of age after one particularly gruelling summer holiday spent with my aunts in Madras. Drawing into Chennai by train, the first thing that greeted visitors was the foetid smell of Basin Bridge followed by the dank undergrowth smell of Egmore, the acrid dustiness of Nungambakkam – i swear till today that I have an olfactory map of Chennai!
 
The gods of Madras must have been listening and plotting vengeance because here I am today, having spent all of 26 years in this city, moaning and grumbling through every summer!
 
As a child,coming from the dry dust bowl of Hyderabad where one never sweated, it was particularly agonising – how was it humanly possible that one could sweat through one’s bathwater???! so did one actually apply soap with bathwater or sweat – these seemingly trivial questions occupied many hours of childhood!
 
What made summers here bearable was the fun times with cousins – and there were MANY of us!! The pillow fights, card games, vast quantities of yummy food provided by generous aunts, unending sessions of carom and the piles of new Enid Blytons, Williams and Billy Bunters there were to devour. 
 
One summer’s night, i was deeply engrossed in an Enid Blyton – my fourth for the day! – and just a vague feeling that there should be more noise in the background and why aren’t people coming in to dinner… After what seemed like many hours, a bunch of aunts and uncles who’d been chatting in the garden troops in. What on earth ARE you doing still awake? It’s past 11! Being rather shy, it took me some courage to ask aren’t we going to have dinner. Well, not unless you want another one because you’ve already had it some four hours ago was the answer – i had completely forgotten! Was unceremoniously sent off to bed and woke up a few minutes later thinking i was at the bottom of sea! Well, all that had happened was there was a power cut and we all woke up bathing in a sea of sweat…
 
There was no question of being able to sleep so we sat around in the moonlit garden till someone had the bright idea of plucking mangoes from the tree above our heads – well, Madras began to seem not such a  very bad place after all!
 
Madras has also taught me to search out recipes to beat the heat – recipes from around the world… one from our own backyard – the Punjab… is the divine aam ka panna – raw mango juice.
 
Aam ka panna
 
2 medium sized raw – very raw – mangoes – pressure cooked in one glass of water.
4 glasses of water
Sugar – 1/2 cup – this will vary depending on how sour your mangoes are – taste and adjust at the end
Roasted cumin (jeera) powder – 1 tsp
Kala namak (black or Himalayan salt) – 1/4 tsp
Salt – 1/2 tsp
Cool the cooked mangoes, peel and collect the pulp. Use a spoon to scrape off the flesh sticking to the inside of the skin. Cooking mangoes with the pulp instead of peeling them ensures that you retain much of the essential oils which lie just below the skin.
 
Add water and all the other ingredients and whiz with a blender till smooth. Pour into a jug – this is a concentrate and can be diluted in 1:1 proportions to drink. If you want to keep it for a week in the frig, just add water, sugar and salt to the pulp and whisk. Then boil it up again. Add the cumin and black salt at the end and bottle this concentrate – lasts for over a week in the frig. 
 
Cool off!!! Airconditioners help! Power cuts don’t! Use the power cut time to meditate and become philosophical about things you can’t change – like living in Madras!
 

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Train journeys, Kolkata and the continued magic of mustard

 
Twenty five years ago and counting, on a train to Calcutta, as it was then. I had just joined my first job and was off to a training program. 
 
There were four of us women in a cubicle in the 2nd a/c compartment and the rest of the bogie was empty as a party of MLAs was supposed to board the train halfway down the line somewhere. Well, they didn’t and so the four of us traveled in solitary splendor (each with a loo to herself!) in a compartment meant for some 50-odd people all the way from Madras to Calcutta! By the time we reached Vizag, we were firm friends – all of us different ages and at different stages in life. By the time we drew into Howrah station, we had exchanged life stories (being only about 22, i didn’t have much of a life story yet!!), recipes and i’d got tips on childbirth (i wasn’t even planning on a baby just yet!) and handling moms-in-law and whatnot! 
 
As we drew into Cal, a vendor got on to the train with a headload of murmura and other stuff. The senior-most lady turned to me to ask if I’d have jhaal muri.I must have looked blank because she immediately broke into warm and voluble Bengali saying i couldn’t come to Cal and not sample this world-famous-in-Calcutta street food! I tried feebly to protest saying i had a training program to go to and Calcutta belly was not really on my agenda but she swept all my misgivings away with magnificent indifference and a flood of Bengali and instructed the muri-wallah to make his very best jhaal muri because this poor girl had had a deprived childhood and look at her – she is so skinny (I was all of 95 pounds!) because the poor thing has been brought up in the South where they have only ‘dhosas’ and idlis and sambar, bichare! Poor things!
 
The muri-wallah, not to be left out of all this Bengali hospitality, whipped and mixed up things with a flourish which would have done a Yehudi Menuhin proud and presented a newspaper screw full of something that seemed quite unremarkable as though he was presenting it to the queen. Keeping my Southern flag flying high, i accepted with a matching twirl of the wrist and dipped my fingers in. Scrunch, munch, mustard oil hit, lemony tickle, peanut-ty crackle and jeera hint later, i was hooked – for life! Have made this many times more than i care to remember after that… one of those anytime snacks of which no one can eat just one!
 
Here goes:
 
Murmura – 2 packets – about 5 or 6 cups
2 boiled potatoes sliced into small pieces
Sev or chanachur – 1 cupful
2 large onions – finely chopped
2 green chilies – finely chopped
Cumin powder – 1 tsp
Chili powder – 1/2 tsp
Amchoor powder – 1/2 tsp
Chaat masala – 1/4 tsp
Juice of 1 large lemon
Roasted peanuts (optional) – 3 tbsp
Finely chopped raw mango (optional) – 2 tbsp
Mustard oil – 2 tbsp
 
Mix everything together except the lemon juice and mustard oil in a large pan with a flourish – imagine you’re conducting the London Philharmonic. Once they’re well mixed, add the mustard oil and mix again . Squeeze lemon juice over the top and give it a final swirl. Serve in screws of paper to save on washing up! Ta-dang!
 

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Lowly chowchows and the alchemy of mustard

 
What’s this weird thing that looks like something that Hanuman carried to Lanka across his shoulders to squash Ravana’s head with? Or maybe Fred Flintstone as a club to deal with enemies? It has a name as unappetising as it’s looks – chow-chow – meaning’eat, eat’? In Brazil, they call it a ‘chuchu’….hmmmm….wonder what they call…..can just about imagine a baby being held over the pot and being encouraged to produce a knobbly, light green vegetable??! chuchu….
 
Sometime soon after i got married, i had a tummy infection and got served chowchow boiled with turmeric and salt – some kind of vendetta against a new bride was my first thought was till i realised even in such a lowly avatar, this was one vegetable that could actually taste pretty decent. !!
 
Today, my shopping basket is incomplete without this most incredibly versatile of all vegetables – you can curry it, mustard it, soup it, bake it au gratin, and even use it as a substitute for part or all of the apples in apple pie! Don’t believe me? check out wiki aka Son of God on this (Google being God)! 
 
But the strongest argument for eating this is that Colombians believe till today that because they eat so much chow chow or chayote as they call it, the skin on their mummies (err… the preserved ones inside cases a la King Tut – yeah, yeah, i know, wrong continent but honest-to-god they have mummies in S.America too!) is still super smooth. Who knows, what works for one variety of mummy……might work for others too!
 
So here’s a recipe – for chowchow called ‘Bangalore vankaya’ in Andhra but the Bangaloreans were so surprised to have a vegetable named after them that they don’t use this name – they modestly call it a ‘seeme badnekaya’ – paying reverse tribute back – it literally means the brinjal of the plateau!
 
Chow chow – 2 medium sized tender ones. Peel, core and chop into small cubes.
Mustard seeds – ground in a stone – 1 tsp
Green chili – 1
Red chili – 1
Grated fresh coconut – 2 tbsp
Cumin (jeera) seeds – 1/4 tsp
Urad dal – 1/4 tsp
Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
Salt
Oil – sesame or any refined oil – 1 tsp
Whiz together in a mixer for just a couple of seconds – the mustard paste, chilies, and coconut till till the chilies just break up.
 
Heat the oil in a pan, add the urad dal, cumin and curry leaves and stir for a minute. Add the chopped vegetables, one tbsp of water, cover and cook till tender. Add the salt and stir about again. Add the ground coconut mixture and mix well. Switch off. Voila – one more low-fat, nutritious but yum recipe from my urban kitchen! Serve as a side with rice and a sambar or a rasam or a dal. What’s unique about this is the mustardy ‘kick’ that it delivers. Oh, and watch heads turn as a ‘well-preserved’ you walk by!! 😉
 

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