May 30, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Ginger, Adruk, Adrak, Soonth, Inchi-ver

Variously known as ginger, adrak, adruk, inchi-ver, gingembre, zanjabil, Ingwer, khing, and myin this is probably the most versatile and distinctive spice in the world. In South Asian cuisines ginger plays a major role. There is no other flavor quite like it. Ginger is simultaneously lemony, hot, pungent, slightly woodsy, and sweet. Thought have originated in the lush jungles of the Indian Subcontinent, ginger is now known worldwide. Ginger's name derives from the Sanskrit term srngaveram, derived from the words srngam "horn" plus vera- "body" referring to the antler-like shape of its rhizome.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an herbaceous perennial belonging to the same family as cardamom and turmeric, Zingiberaceae. It grows to about three feet tall, has a reed-like habit, yellow flowers, pink buds, and strap-like leaves.

Ginger thrives in rich well drained soils and subtropical conditions as you can see in the above photo of a ginger field growing in India. As ginger is a perennial plant the stalk withers with the onset of Winter and the ginger rhizome is harvested in early Spring. 

There's a bit of confusion as to whether there are different types of edible ginger. Rather than different breeds there is what is called "green" ginger which you see in the left side of the above photo and mature ginger on the right. Green ginger is just young ginger from a plant that's probably less than two years old: it is less fibrous, juicier, and milder in flavor and heat than mature ginger. The hotter, more flavorful, and fibrous mature ginger rhizome is from a plant older than three years. 

Fresh ginger is called "adrak" or "adruk" in Hindi and gets it's heat and flavor from the aromatic compound gingerol. Heating or cooking fresh ginger causes the gingerol present to transform to zingerone. Zingerone is similar in structure to vanillin (an artificial vanilla flavoring) and eugenol (the compound responsible for the flavor of cloves). So when we cook raw ginger it becomes sweeter and spicier. Candied ginger is a good example of the flavor of zingerone.

The Desi mirepoix: ginger, onions, garlic, & chilis.

Fresh ginger or adrak is a part of what I call the "Desi mirepoix" of ginger, garlic, onions, and green chilis. When sautéed in oil or ghee these ingredients form the flavor base in the layering of many a Desi dish from dals to meat curries. Fresh ginger's pungency and heat mellows when cooked this way to rich, mildly lemony, and subtly sweet notes. These harmoniously subdued flavors provide a perfect background for the earthy notes of traditional South Asian spices like cumin, fenugreek, and red chilis. Fresh ginger is often an ingredient in spice mixtures for milky chai in Winter or chilly regions like the Himalayas. When julienned, fresh ginger is often used as an attractive and tasty garnish atop dishes at fancy restaurants and posh dinners in South Asia.

Dry ginger is called "soonth" or "sunth" in Hindi and has a different flavor than fresh or cooked ginger. When fresh ginger rhizomes are dried a dehydration reaction is triggered, causing the gingerol present to transform to a compound called shogaol. Shogaol is twice as hot as gingerol which is why dried ginger tastes so much hotter than fresh ginger. 

Dry ginger or soonth features in many Desi cuisines. Although dry ginger is only used in baked sweets in the West in South Asia it lends it's almost peppery heat to chutneys, chai, dals, curries, and spice blends. Punjabi cuisines often use it in marinades for tandoori meats and in masalas for lentils, beans, and vegetables. Dry ginger is one of the traditional spices commonly used in Kashmiri dishes along with fennel, black cardamom, and the famous red chili known as Kashmiri mirch. "Sukku kaapi" is a tea made with dried ginger in South Indian states specially brewed for cold winter mornings. 

Mmmmm...ginger-y hot chai, my favorite!
As you can see I'm a big fan of ginger. It truly is a "super food" which has all sorts of health benefits and fantastic flavor.  One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh ginger is in chai in the Winter. A few slices of fresh ginger boiled with black tea, a few black peppercorns, and milk is my morning beverage of choice. Try it!

Calmly currying on,

May 27, 2016

Meet The Local Lady Chatwala!

This enterprising young lady is our local lady chatwala. "Chat" or "Chaat" means snack and "wala" is any sort of worker. As you can see she is also a mobile snack provider with her little kitchen and inventory bungeed onto her bicycle. A stone behind the rear tire, kickstand in place, and logistically placed umbrella and she is ready for business. That's right, in Nepal we have "drive to" fast food rather than "drive thru."

Here's our intrepid ingenue in action. She mixes various chutneys, sauces, broken ramen noodles, and sprinkles with a packet of ready made chicken flavored bhujiya in that blue bucket. She's making a sort of bhelpuri-like chat. (You can see the packets of chicken bhujiya in the lower left hand corner of the photo.) Each chatwala has their own special secret blend of ingredients. She's also got her cell phone at the ready there too, might be expecting some urgent snack requests perhaps?

And here it is! In India a chat or snack of this sort would be served in a newspaper cone, here in Nepal the open packet of readymade bhujiya is strategically cut to make a nifty serving container. Nothing much goes to waste around here. Every rupee counts!

Most of the time in India you are given a rather wonky plastic spoon to eat your snack with. Here in Nepal you get a cardboard square cut from the box that held the chicken bhujiya packets. Recycle, repurpose, reuse, eh?

A close-up so you can see all the textures and colors going on in that chat. Bhujiya or bhujia was originally a Rajasthani specialty. It is crispy fried noodles made from a dough of chickpea flour, dals, and spices pushed through a sieve. Now it is a popular snack all over South Asia with many different varieties available. (Even Pepsico Frito-Lay makes a few varieties of bhujiya in India.)

Here's our chatwala having a well deserved rest. Around four everyday the neighborhood small business ladies gather in that set of blue plastic chairs on this crossroads on the edge of town to have tea and chat (as in talk and snack.) Honestly, I've never seen a lady chatwala anywhere else in India or Nepal. When she first started coming to our area years ago she sold snacks from a tiny pushcart with little wheels that would barely roll on the rough roads here. Now she's got a bike with handbrakes!

Calmly currying on,

May 25, 2016

Dahi Bhindi (Curried Okra with Yogurt)

"Dahi" means yogurt and "bhindi"means okra. This delectable dish combines the two in a velvety and spicy sauce. Zesty kalonji seeds accent the tangy sauce is this recipe giving it an unexpected and added appeal. So easy to make, be sure to try this delicious way to eat okra with rice or rotis. 

Yes, it is okra again because we are a bit between seasons and the Summer veggies aren't quite producing yet. Whatever the weather there's always okra in South Asia! This was a hard dish to style. The cilantro in my garden has bolted in the heat, the mint is still sulking after it's biannual butch, and my Summer crop of marigolds hasn't bloomed yet.  That's a gaillardia flower boldly standing in there. I don't think gaillardias are poisonous but don't eat them as they're a bit stickery. This is one of my favorite ways to eat okra. It's not at all slimy due to the initial stir frying of the okra. The spicy sauce is the perfect pairing with the rather mild flavored okra and the brilliant accent of kalonji seeds give it an unexpected punch. Best of all it's so easy to fix and ready in about twenty minutes!

1/2kg or 1lb okra, tops and tails removed, sliced into 1 inch lengths
3 TBS cooking oil
1/2 C onions, sliced thinly
1 TBS garlic/lahsun paste
1 TBS ginger/adrak paste
1 tsp nigella/kalonji seeds
Grind or chop finely and mix for masala sauce:
1 C yogurt/dahi
1/2 tsp flour/maida (this will keep the yogurt from splitting)
1/2 C tomatoes, chopped finely
2 tsp ground coriander/djania
2 tsp cumin/jeera
1 tsp Kashmiri mirch (or 1/2 tsp paprika plus 1/2 tsp cayenne)
1/2 tsp salt
Here's what to do:
1) Grind or chop finely and mix all ingredients listed for masala suce, set aside. In a heavy bottomed, deep skillet or kadhai heat oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Fry onions until just beginning to brown. Add cumin, nigella/kalonji seeds, garlic paste, and ginger paste to fried onions and cook for 2 minutes stirring frequently.

2) Add chopped okra to fried onion mixture and fry for 4 minutes. 

3) Stir ground masala mixture from step 1 into fried onion and okra mixture. Stir well and bring to simmer. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1/2 C water and stir well.

4) Allow dish to simmer until sauce is to desired thickness and okra is tender, that's usually about 7 to 8 minutes on my stove. Sauce will thicken a bit upon standing. Salt to taste and serves with rice or rotis.

Helpful hints:
Be sure to choose the small, tender okra pods as the larger one tend to be tough and fibrous.

May 23, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Kalonji, Mongrelo, Nigella, Onion Seeds

nigella, kalonji, onion seeds, charnushka, black seeds, Schwarzkummel, krishnajiraka, and mungrelo

These triangulate black matte seeds are the spice commonly referred to as nigella, kalonji, onion seeds, charnushka, black seeds, Schwarzkummel, krishnajiraka, and mungrelo. Used since antiquity for both medicinal and culinary purposes this spice was found in Tutankhamen's tomb and claimed by the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) to "cure anything bit death."

Although they resemble onion seeds and are often mistakenly called as such this spice is actually the seeds of Nigella sativa, an annual flowering plant of the Ranunculacae family. Gardeners will recognize this familiar flower as a paler relative of the old fashioned annual "love in a mist" or Nigella damascena. Same genus but different species. Nigella sativa appears to be native to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Today it is cultivated as a spice in India and the Middle East.
The dried fruits or capsules of the Nigella sativa plant are composed of three to seven united follicles which contain the numerous seeds used as a spice. The seeds contain high levels of conjugated linoleic acid, thymoquinone, nigellone (dithymoquinone), melanthin, nigilline, and trans-anethole.

What does it taste like? I've heard the flavor described variously as peppery, smoky,  earthy like cumin, burnt onions, slightly bitter, and similar to thyme or oregano. Unless crushed, ground, or bruised with mortar and pestle the seeds have very little aroma. To me, when the seeds are raw and crushed they have a slightly astringent flavor and are reminiscent of oregano. When dry roasted or fried the seeds smell and taste just like dried oregano with a mild bitterness.

Panch Phoron

How is kalonji or nigella used? Primarily it is used whole as an accent spice atop flatbreads such as naan, in the South Asian oil preserved pickles called achari, in curries, or in the famous "panch phoron" spice mix. Panch phoron literally means "five spices" and contains equal amounts of kalonji/nigella seed, fenugreek seed, cumin seed, black mustard seed, and fennel seed. This spice mix is traditional in the cuisines of Bengal, Southern Nepal, and Eastern India. It is always used whole, never ground, and tempered in ghee or mustard oil before using in dals, meat or vegetable curries, in pickles or with fish.

Nigella or Kalonji
Shahi Jeera or Black Cumin 
Onion seeds (from onions)
Nigella or kalonji seeds are often mistakenly called or confused with black cumin, shahi jeera, and onion seeds. Here are photos of all three seeds for comparison. None of them are similar in flavor, I suppose onion seeds do look a bit like nigella/kalonji but they are much smaller.

Calmly currying on, 

May 20, 2016

Sunflowers & Showers

Sunflowers in mid May?
Who'd of thunk it? Well, that's what we have here in Nepal. It took me like two years to figure out how to plant around the Monsoon. Everything but okra, cleome, morning glories, and Malabar spinach rots during the Monsoon season in July and August and we might have a light frost through the month of January. The trick is to plant seeds as early as possible in February to make sure whatever you're planting flowers or fruits before July. Cross your fingers whatever you've planted won't be smashed to bits in one of the hellacious hailstorms we have through March too. So here are this year's survivors in my sunflower patch.

Burpee's Autumn Beauty mix sunflower

These are all from a packet of Burpee's Autumn Beauty mix. Looking a bit raggedy and gnawed upon but beautiful none the less. Spectacular in autumnal hues, these would not be blooming in my native California until mid to late Summer. I wouldn't even dare to plant these in my northern California garden until after March due to frosts. Light frosts, but enough to kill seedlings. 

Burpee's Autumn Beauty mix sunflower

Slightly squished, hail damaged and bug bitten these sunflowers range from four to six inches across. My mom hated sunflowers, "Weeds!" she would yell as she ripped them out. I love them because they're so brazen in their glory. Yes, they're a bit rangy in habit but they look so happy!

Burpee's Autumn Beauty mix sunflower

A monocolored fuzzy sort of double thing going on here. All of the sunflowers in the Autumn Beauty mix are from four to six feet tall and have multiple flowers as you can see in this photo.

Burpee's Autumn Beauty mix sunflower

I'm not sure why but these pale lemon colored or creamy white smaller sunflowers in the mix always suffer more insect and fungus damage. All the sunflowers this color are a bit wonky like this.

Here's the villain of the piece. Darned caterpillars. If the sunflowers survive all the fungal issues and weather mishaps this is what they are plagued with. I don't spray, the gardener and I hand pick these pests and throw them to the chickens. You have to be careful when picking up the fuzzy caterpillars, some have spines that will give you a sharp poke. I do have to stake these sunflowers as they are prone to being blown over by the brief but powerful gale force winds that blast down off the mountains during Spring storms.
Hope that inspires all of you to go out and garden!
Calmly currying on,

May 18, 2016

Rasedar Rajma (Curried Pinto or Kidney Beans)

"Rasedar" means juicy or saucy and "rajma" means kidney or pinto beans. In this dish simple beans get the masala treatment! Simmered in a savory sauce redolent with traditional Indian spices these beans are spicy but mild in heat. A piquant dash of ajwain and cilantro are the final touches in this protein rich vegetarian recipe that pairs well with rice and rotis or can even be served with saltines like a bowl of American chili.

This delicious recipe is embellished upon and adapted from Neelam Batra's 1998 cookbook The Indian Vegetarian: Simple Recipes for Today's Kitchen. Ms. Batra's book has some great recipes but it is rather meandering in it's instructions and has no photos. I think the lack of photos and poorly written directions kept this book from being as successful as it should have been. So I rewrote this entire recipe, changed a few ingredients, and simplified the steps a bit. As I have written this recipe it should take about thirty minutes to prepare if using canned beans, an hour if cooking dried beans. (If my recipes are unclear in any way please leave me a note in the comments! I want to publish a cookbook of the recipes on my blog for friends and family at the end of the year that will be easily understandable by both novice chefs and experienced cooks alike.)

My family really likes this way of serving rajma, it's a nice change from the usually cumin heavy recipes for curried beans. The dish is spicy but not hot and the ajwain adds a interesting and very uniquely Desi accent to the flavors. If you don't have ajwain a bit of thyme is a good substitute, if you don't have or don't like thyme a pinch of whole cumin seeds will do. You can also make this dish as thick or thin as you like by varying the cooking times. Remember that traditionally thicker curries are served with rotis and flatbreads while soupier curries are preferred when serving with rice.

2 C dried kidney or pinto beans, or two 15 oz cans of kidney or pinto beans
3 TBS cooking oil
3/4 C onion, diced finely
1 tsp salt
1 TBS ginger/adrak paste
1 TBS garlic/lahsun paste
1/2 tsp ajwain seeds, bruised with mortar and pestle or dried thyme
3 TBS chopped cilantro/dhania leaves (optional)
Grind to smooth paste or chop finely and mix for masala:
2 C tomatoes, chopped finely
1/4 C yogurt/dahi
2 TBS ground coriander/dhania
1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds/methi
1 tsp Kashmiri mirch (or 1/2 tsp paprika plus 1/2 tsp cayenne powder)
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric/haldi

Here's what to do:
1) Rinse and cook beans with 6C water and 1 tsp salt in stock pot or with 3C in pressure cooker until tender. Leave beans in their cooking liquid while you cook the masala sauce. If using canned beans skip to step 2.

2) Grind or chop finely and mix all ingredients listed under masala until smooth. Set aside.

3) In a heavy bottomed skillet or kadhai heat oil with 1 tsp salt and fry diced onions until just beginning to brown. Add garlic and ginger pastes and fry for 2 minutes.

4) Add mixed masala paste from step 2 and bruised ajwain seeds to fried onion, garlic, and ginger mixture. Stir well and allow to simmer for 5 minutes or until oil separates from mixture.

5) Drain 2 cups of liquid from the cooked beans. Stir 1 cup of the cooked bean liquid into the fried masala mixture. Add masala sauce and the reserved cup of cooking liquid from to cooked beans. Bring to simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes or until sauce has thickened to desired consistency. Salt to taste, stir through chopped cilantro if using and serve.

Helpful hints:
If you don't have ajwain a bit of thyme is a good substitute.  If you don't have or don't like thyme a pinch of whole cumin seeds will do.

You can certainly make this dish as thick or thin as you like by varying the cooking times. Remember that traditionally thicker curries are served with rotis and flatbreads while soupier curries are preferred when serving with rice.

May 16, 2016

Ingredient of the Week: Ajwain, Ajowan, Carom, Omam, Bishop's Weed

Ajwain looks like fuzzy caraway seeds but tastes nothing like caraway.

Ajwain is a member of the parsley family and is often confused with many other spices like caraway, lovage seeds, and celery seeds. Adding to the confusion ajwain goes by many different names: ajowan, carom, bishop's weed, omam, omum, Königskümmel, Indischer Kümmel, Egyptian caraway, and al-kumun al-muluki. The spice's name can be traced to the Sanskrit word "yavani" meaning "Greek." This suggests that the spice originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and arrived in India in during the ancient Greek conquest of Central Asia. It isn't really known why the Arabs call ajwain as al-kumun al-muluki or the "king's cumin," but the German name Königskümmel or "king's caraway" probably derives from it.

The flowers of the ajwain plant
To add even further to taxonomic confusion the ajwain plant has several different botanical names too: Carum copticumCarum ajowan, Ptychotis ajowanAmmi copticum, and Trachyspermum ammi. Ajwain is an annual herbaceous plant about 1 to 2 feet in height and is mainly cultivated in Rajasthan. What is referred to as the spice or seeds are actually the tiny fruits of the plant. Both the seeds or fruits as well as the leaves are eaten in India. Analysis of ajwain seeds or fruits commonly eaten as a spice in India reveals a thymol content of almost 98%. Thymol is the same compound that flavors the herb thyme as well as original Listerine mouthwash.

The flavor of ajwain seeds has been described variously as having notes of thyme, anise, cumin, and oregano. I get an initial blast of almost mentholated thyme as in original flavor Listerine mouthwash out of ajwain seeds. A bit of an earthy cumin note follows this mouth numbing blast adding to it's complexity. The flavor is similar to but definitely less subtle than thyme,  none of the subtle floral nuances of thyme are present in ajwain. The thyme note is so strong it borders on the camphoraceous or eucalyptic. Ajwain is certainly what I'd call an accent spice.

Ajwain is used in a variety of dishes in South Asia.  It often flavors pickles, dals, beans, tops flatbreads or savory pastries, and adds complexity to bland or starchy vegetable curries. Because of ajwain's pungent flavor it is definitely a spice that must be dry roasted or fried to mellow it's harshness before use in a dish. Never grind ajwain either, just bruise it lightly in a mortar and pestle or it's strong flavor may overtake a dish. 

Bhelpuri, a snack sold on the street in South Asia typically served in a newspaper cone with a spoon for eating on the go.
(There are no drive thru windows in South Asia YET.)
The one exception to not grinding ajwain would be chat masala. "Chat" or "chaat" is usually a snack often sold by street vendors that this spice blend or "masala" is often used upon. Above is a picture of "bhelpuri" a chat which is usually a mixture of chopped tomatoes, broken papdis, cilantro, potatoes, peanuts, peas, bean sprouts, raw onion, puffed rice, chutneys, and sev. (Sev is the squiggly yellow noodles made of chickpeas on top.) A hefty dollop of chat masala is in there too!

My particular favorite is Catch's Magic Masala.  It boasts a sweet, sour, salty, and umami mix with not only ground ajwain but asafoetida, mint, kala namak/black salt, amchur, long pepper, and a variety of other piquant ingredients. Want to pep up potatoes, rev up a raita, fire up a fruit salad, jazz up some juice, tart up some tofu, or exuberantly enhance eggs? Sprinkle a little of Catch's Chat Masala on them and you're in for a taste sensation!

A cheerfully embellished chat wagon specializing in bhelpuri .
This chatwalla is not taking any chances, he has Ganesh & Laxmi painted on his sign!

Calmly currying on,

May 14, 2016

Book Review- Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

 A few months back I won a signed copy of Mandy Aftel's book Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent and it's companion kit on Perfume Shrine!

I have to first mention how beautiful the book is. The cover is a gorgeous foiled metallic magenta and brilliant saffron orange with a medieval illustration of people harvesting cinnamon. The pages are a lovely cream colored quality paper with deckle edges. The endpapers and spine are coordinated in a rich purple. The are no photos in this book but plenty of hand drawn illustrations and prints of ancient woodcuts.

The companion kit shows equal thoughtfulness in presentation. The box with it's sliding cover matches the book. The star shaped divider partitions the substances discussed in five chapters of the book-  cinnamon, mint,  frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. The cinnamon and mint essential oils are not to be worn but used in food. The nugget of frankincense can be rubbed to release it's fragrance. The jasmine and ambergris dilutions can be worn directly on your skin and layered to create your own perfume.

I was so excited to receive this book as it has received rave reviews from such notables as Howard McGee, Alice Walker, and Alice Waters. This sentence from the first chapter summarizes her book:

"As I researched and thought about the deep ways that perfume touches our most primal selves and the collective self of our species, I realized that I had the makings of an adventure story of sorts, an entrée to writing about scent as a series of excursions into the fragrant world that I think will return you more awake and alive, more profoundly able to “smell the roses.”

Each chapter is filled with musings upon scent from countless angles- literature references, religious uses, modern and ancient recipes, differing cultural insights worldwide, and various historical tidbits on all of the five scents discussed in the book. She states that cinnamon represents our longing for the luxurious exotic, mint speaks to our affinity for the familiar, frankincense taps our longing for transcendence and spirituality, ambergris embodies our never ending curiosity and fascination with the unknown, and jasmine exemplifies our yearning for beauty no matter how transient. 

The most interesting part of the book for me is when Ms Aftel delves into her zen philosophy of perfume making, the beauty of the hand crafted, the perfection of the imperfect, and the nature of luxury. She's certainly correct when she asserts that part of the allure of beauty is it's impermanence, more isn't necessarily better, expensive certainly isn't always better, and a cup of mint tea is true luxury. 

This is a fascinating book for browsing as well as in depth study which never veers into the overly technical making it a great read for hard core perfumistas to those with just a casual interest in scent. I'm excited to try making Ms Aftel's original recipe for Coca-Cola with essential oils, the lavender and frankincense shortbread, and her mint vetiver perfume. I wonder if Ms Aftel would be interested in trying my attempts at making a lavender infused garam masala and parfum d'Nepal?
Ms Aftel also has an online shop full of all sorts of goodies, she even has long pepper/pippali essential oil!

Calmly currying on,

I had never smelled straight ambergris before. The scent of ambergris surprised me as being reminiscently human- first a bit like dirty hair, then baby spew, a blast of placenta, and a sea breeze. I know it sounds disgusting but I wouldn't call it unpleasant. It reminded me of how newborn babies, newborn animals, and delivery rooms smell. I expected something a bit withered, perhaps fecal, and marine in fragrance and was completely flabbergasted. Since we were all steeped in placenta for 9 months prior to birth perhaps this scent memory is why humans find ambergris so attractive? Who knew weathered whale poo smelled so human? I can see how this would make a perfume come alive and really pop backing up an ethereal floral or resinous woods now.
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