Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Super Secret Spice Mix from Bengal

I find the regional variety in India's cuisine quite mind boggling, but then again given the diverse cultural and social mores of each state it is only natural that the food habits be equally diverse. Although for the average North Indian (defined as one who believes the region South of the Vindhya's is inhabited by a strange race called South Indian's or Madrasi's) South Indian food means idli. dosa's and sambars or variations thereof. And the average South indian returns the compliment heartily by clubbing North Indian food into one category which is over dominated by all things intensely rich, creamy and full of paneer.
I have had the good fortune of growing up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood and learnt pretty early to differentiate my rasam's from pappu's ,my avial's from the stews and my upma's and uttapam's. A mess in distant Rajasthan helped me iron out whatever little confusion had remained. A Marathi housemate in the US introduced me to kokum (yes, that awful thing which everyone here wanted banned) and for everything else there was the Internet.

At one stage I realized that most Indian cuisines use the same base of spices, dals etc. There are regional differences but the basic ingredients remain more or less uniform. What makes each cuisine unique is usually a method of combining the spices or the preferential use of one particular flavoring ingredient. After further head scratching, grey cell tickling, I realized that if one thing defines Bengali food it is the use of panch phoron - a mix of more or less equal parts of futhe following seeds:

§ jeera (cumin)
§ kala jeera (nigella)
§ methi (fenugreek)
§ saunf (fennel)
§ rai (mustard) or its bengali cousin randhuni

I said more or less as most cooks will further customize this according to their tastes. My Mom prefers using half the quantity of fenugreek, while I have known others who will have nothing to do with the mustard. The latter will only use its Bong cousin. Personally I am more forgiving, as long as I can find all the five ingredients in there I am happy. This mix is used for seasoning (you know the heat oil, add seasoning till it sputters and then continue cooking drill) or it may also be dry roasted and then ground into a powder. This powder is then used to season pickles, sprinkled as a garnish on vegetables. I love stir frying most of vegetables with some panch phoron and dry red chillies and then seasoning them with turmeric and salt. The vegetables that lend themselves readily to this treatment are okra, pumpkin, spinach (throw in a fistful of peas) and spring onions to name a few.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Fresh pumpkin mashed with freshly grated coconut and a dash of mustard oil, seasoned with sliced green chillies and salt will make many a true blue Bengali skip a heart beat. Atleast it's known to have that effect on my mother. But I prefer the vegetable in all its sweet glory and thehigh spice index of the above concotion just does not work for me. Pumpkin simply stirfried with panch phoron and dry red chillies till it becomes all squishy, served with warm puris or fresh chapptais and roti - now we are talking. I have not been very succesful in recreating this dish on these shores as the quality of pumpkin is always suspect (notwithstanding the ready availablity). On the other hand stir frying it with okra, onions and panch phoron has always yielded exciting results. The stringy part of the pumpkin which has the seeds when mixed into bhajia batter is known to make really good fritters...but I am yet to perfect my frying skills, so that will have to wait for another day. But todays' post is about the seeds.

Ah, the lovely seeds which after roasting make a really good treat. So instead of discarding those seeds next time around, just toss them with a little salt and red chilli powder and roast them on a pan. When they are lightish brown in color (by this time some should have started exploding), sprinkle some lemon juice, deftly swirl the pan a couple of times to dry out the juices and voila - your roasted pumpkin seeds are ready for eating as is or for garnishing salads.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Dal Fry

This is one of my quick and easy dal preparations. I always associate this dal with our friend Pankaj. I had rustled this up during one of his visits to Greenbelt and he always kept asking me for it on subsequent visits. It was quite difficult to reproduce the results as I had not written down the recipe. But as I broadly remembered the ingredients I kept trying and keeping mental notes ever since. After a couple of hits and misses I think I can now call this recipe my own. Hard core fanatics of Indian food may want to substitute the butter with ghee, but for most parts I don't think it makes much of a difference. Also don't try to skimp on the butter, remember I call it dal fry for reason. Infact more the merrier, but then my soul would cringe if I added anymore. And if you are like my ex-housemate Supratik you might even add a fistful of green peas to make it look prettier. So here goes:

Toor Dal - 1.5 cups
Onion -1 small minced
Garlic - 2 big cloves, minced
Tomato - 1 medium choped
Crushed tomato - 1/4 cup (from can)
Dry Red Chilli - 2-3, broken
Red chilli Powder - 1/2 tsp
Garam Masala - 1/2 tsp
Cumin Seeds - 1 tsp
Butter - 1.5 tbsps
Turmeric Powder -1/4 tsp
Cilantro - chopped, for garnish
Salt - To taste

1. Wash toor dal and pressure cook with three cups of water, salt and turmeric powder till cooked( usually 4 whistles). Mash the dals if not completely mashed. I overdo the cooking because I like it that way.
2. In a pan heat butter and wait till the foam subsides. Add cumin, dry red chilies and let sputter. Then add the garlic and fry. Take care that you don't burn the garlic. Add the onions and cook for a further two minutes. Stir in the chopped and crushed tomatoes and red chilli powder. Turn the heat down a little and let the tomatoes cook. Finally add garam masala. Add this mixture to the dal.
3. Adjust seasoning and add more water if the dal is too thick Let the dal and spices simmer for five - seven minutes. .
4. Finally garnish with cilantro and serve with hot roti's and salad.