Thursday, July 5, 2007

Make it Spicy

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I was in Kuwait a couple of years back and my standard tone in every restaurant and every meal was ‘make it spicy’! And then there was this one episode which made me stop saying it all together. We were at a fabulous Mediterranean restaurant called ‘Mezz Al Ghanim’ and I was drooling quietly at my table when a friend of mine asked if everything was okay. Assuming that the staff was not too familiar with the English language I told her that the food here was great but not ‘spicy’ enough for me. Out of nowhere came this handsome Iranian waiter and he said “Do you mean pungent maam? Because you come from the land of spices, everything here has spices from India, inhale now and I swear your nasal passage will open just by the fragrance of our cooking.We can make it pungent but it will kill the spice.” That’s when I realized he was right, I wanted ‘hot’ food and that had nothing to do with spice or flavor. This is a common misconception, spices are meant to add to the base ingredients of a dish and have a wonderful aroma and flavor, just the way continental food uses herbs.

There are a variety of Indian spices, cloves; cinnamon, cardamom, black cardamom, mace, black pepper are some of the common ones. Out of the 109 spices listed by the ISO, India produces as many as 75 in various regions. India accounts for about 45% of the global spice exports, though exports constitute only some 8% of the estimated annual production of spices at 3.5 million tons. Over all, spices are grown in some 2.9 million hectares in the country. India produces around 2.75 million tons of different spices valued at approximately 4.2 billion US $, and holds the premier position in the world spice market. Because of the varying climates in India - from tropical to sub-tropical, from 0-45 degree centigrade, almost all spices are grown in this country. In all of the 28 states and seven union territories of India, at least one spice is grown in abundance. So you can see a large part of the agricultural base in India is ‘spices’. In ancient times, spices were as precious as gold; and as significant as medicines, preservatives and perfumes. India - the land of spices played a significant role in the global spice market. No country in the world produced as many spices as India.

Indian cuisine encourages the use of whole spices for meats etc. and ground spices for vegetables, lentils and curries. Most Indian home still get their spices ground personally to ensure purity and consistency. I go over 20 miles to get my monthly spices ground and it has to be every month because spices lose their qualities with time. Whole spices are better if they are roasted before use. The oils of the spice get released and add to the dish. The potency of a spice can be gauged by where it was grown and how it was stored and preserved, I tend to buy spices that are slightly small because I feel they will be more potent and they usually are. One killer recipe I must share uses few of the common spices of India. It’s a lamb dish though in India we use an older animal and call the meat, 'mutton’. Wash 1 kilo of mutton, marinate in 1 cup of yogurt and 1 teaspoon each of roasted spices – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black cardamom, 1 bayleaf, black pepper, cumin seeds and mustard seeds. Keep it in the refrigerator for 2-4 hours. Fry 3 pureed onions mixed with a puree of 4-6 garlic pods, in 2 tablespoons of ghee, add the marinated mutton (reserve the marinade though). Fry on high for 5-7 minutes, leave to simmer on low (covered) for 45 minutes. Add 1 cup of coconut milk, 2 teaspoons of ‘garam masala’ (a combo of cinnamon, cumin, cloves, mace, cardamom and black cardamom) and salt to taste. You can either leave it to simmer for another 20 minutes or put it in a pressure cooker for a whistle or two and there you have it ‘Mutton Shirazi’…have it with white rice or a nice, crisp 'naan' (type of Indian bread). On this topic, I must clarify, ‘curry powder’ is not the most common spice mix of India, ‘garam masala’ is! In fact as an Indian in India, I wonder what curry powder is? All our curries have different powdered spices, so who made a generic one?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sweet Surrender

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My mother was an avid cook, actually she was a closet ‘chef’ and only very late in life did she pursue a part time venture in catering. I had spent most of my childhood on the kitchen parapet and most of my adulthood leaning against it. Unfortunately I never bothered to actually learn from her, I just stood there and watched. So what I ended up with was loads of cookery wisdom and zero practical knowledge. Anyway, a Bachelor’s course with ITC-WelcomGroup changed that but going back to my mom, one huge pearl of wisdom was – “Cook with all your senses. Feel with your fingers, inhale with your nose, taste with your mouth, look at the colors and textures with your eyes and most important hear the sizzling, the frying with your ears and you will never go wrong.” Though this can be applied to any cuisine in the world, I apply it most to when I make Indian sweets. You can’t beat the sound of ‘gulab jamuns’ frying in hot oil, the monotony of the ‘kadchi’ or ladle moving tirelessly through kilos of chickpea flour (‘besan’) sounds blissful to me and of course the fragrances … cooking spices can tickle your nose and whet your appetite but Indian sweets will make your mouth water right away.

The variety of Indian sweets available is unbelievable. But then you must have heard that about everything in India, the cuisines, the cultures, the languages! The most common ingredient for all the sweets across India could possibly be milk and dry fruits but the combinations with other local ingredients produces an assortment of tastes, textures, colors and shapes. North India produces sweets that are extremely dairy based maybe because Punjab is the dairy hub of India and the heart of the north. The milk is reduced over hours of simmering in a heavy pan to produce an ingredient called ‘khoya’ or ‘mawa’ or milk solids. ‘Khoya’ forms the base of almost every ‘burfi’ (I would avoid spelling it as 'barfi, though!), ‘laddoo’ and ‘peda’, it is also used as a garnish for a variety of winter ‘halva’s’. A lot of dry fruit is used as fillings or garnish, especially cashews and almonds, which also form the base of an extremely popular ‘burfi’, quite like its continental cousin the marzipan. Towards the East, the sweets get more exotic. The famous ‘sandesh’ from West Bengal (yes, that’s in the East of India) is a classic favorite and found all over India now. They are made from a variety of ingredients like chickpea flour (‘besan’), cottage cheese (paneer) and even coconut, curd and ‘khoya’. In the West, sweet foods are extremely popular, especially in Gujarat, where even regular food has a sweetened tinge. Their sweets use a lot wheat and refined flour along with jaggery and candied fruits and nuts. Down south the basic flavors remain constant but in a very different presentation, the ‘laddoo’s’ there look like the same ones seen up north, but one bite is all you need to have to know just how different the entire recipe actually is. South Indian sweets use fruits and vegetables extensively too, pumpkins and yams as well as bananas and coconut.

All in all, Indian sweets are rich and delicious, most confectioners have maintained their standardized recipes and still produce quality sweets made of high grade ingredients. All confectioners clearly state that their goods are perishables and need to be consumed within 24-48 hours. It is only now that some brands are marketing Indian sweets with longer shelf lives, it may be an endeavor to reach distant markets but it does compromise on the quality and actual taste of the product. Personally, I would say a ‘laddoo’ is way healthier than a chocolate bar, given the preservatives and the shelf life, I may just be right!