Feb 25, 2018

Soachal (Kashmiri Mallow)

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Mallow or soachal is a much-loved vegetable in Kashmir. Simply sauteeing with a bit of garlic and red chili is the Kashmiri way of rendering this common weed into a delicious dish.

Kashmir, Kashmiri, mallow, recipe, sochal, soachal, vegetable, traditional, easy, india, pakistan, weed, malva, forage, edible,
Common mallow (Malva neglecta)
What a  surprise it was when I saw my Kashmiri sister-in-law washing and prepping a pile of leaves from this weed on our last trip to Srinagar. This plant is called cheeseweed or common mallow in my native California. You'll often see this pretty little weed growing wild along roadsides or in newly disturbed soil around the world. I had no idea it was completely edible nor that it tasted so good! Most wild greens I've tried have been bitter, sour, fibrous, metallic, or earthy to the point that they required a lot of cooking and seasoning. Mallow leaves or soachal (pronounced tsot-zall) in Kashmiri are tender with a delicately green flavor thus requiring minimal cooking and seasoning.

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Common mallow (Malva neglecta) in my garden
 So now I have soachal (mallow) growing alongside Kashmiri haak (collards) and gogji (turnips) in my winter garden here in Nepal.  The plant freely reseeds and suffers minimal pests. About once a week I pluck leaves from the little plot of soachal (mallow) in the morning to prepare for lunch or dinner. If you are interested in learning more about mallow I've written a post about it here.

Kashmir, Kashmiri, mallow, recipe, sochal, soachal, vegetable, traditional, easy, india, pakistan, weed, malva, forage, edible,
Common mallow (Malva neglecta)
This recipe is for the simple yet delicious saute my sister-in-law prepared that day. Garlic and Kashmiri mirch add just enough umami boost and spicy heat to perfectly compliment the mild flavor of the mallow leaves. Mallow is in the same family as okra and has a similar mucilaginous sap. Allowing the mallow leaves to completely dry before sauteing prevents them from getting gooey. Leaving the pan uncovered while sauteeing keeps steam from causing slime too. The leaves turn slightly crisp when cooked in this manner giving the dish a unique and interesting texture. The Kashmiris also do another tasty dish that combines soachal or mallow leaves with nadroo (lotus root). If I can find some fresh lotus root/nadroo here in Nepal I'll put that recipe up too! Until then, off to the recipe:

4-5 C mallow/soachal leaves,
2-3 TBS cooking oil, or just enough to cover the bottom of your pan
2-3 garlic/lahsun cloves, minced finely
1-2 tsps Kashmiri mirch (or red chili powder of choice)
1/4 tsp turmeric/haldi
salt to taste

Here's what to do:
1) Rinse fresh mallow leaves with cold water and allow to dry for three to four hours. Pick out any damaged or diseased leaves or woody stems.

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2) Heat cooking oil in kadhai or shallow skillet over medium heat for about 4-5 minutes. (Oil should be hot but not smoking). Place clean mallow leaves and minced garlic in hot oil in pan. Stir so that leaves and garlic are coated with hot oil. Some liquid will come out of the leaves. (Do not cover the pan or the leaves go a bit slimy- I learned that the hard way.)

3) Allow mixture to fry for about 3-4 minutes then add salt, Kashmiri mirch/red chili powder, and turmeric. (I usually add about a scant teaspoon of salt) Stir well. Continue frying for about 4 minutes more or until garlic is cooked through. Salt to taste and serve hot or warm with rice.

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Helpful Hints:
When asked the Sheikh (my husband) how long to cook the soachal he said, "Until it is done." Duh.  So basically I figured out that when the garlic is limp and cooked through the soachal is probably "done" too.

Feb 19, 2018

Ingredients: Mallow, Soachal, Malva, Lapha, Khubeza, Chalamit

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Mallow is common plant renowned for its medicinal and culinary uses. You'll most often see mallow growing wild as a weed but it is also cultivated as an ornamental. Its leaves, flowers, stems, seeds, and roots are all completely edible. The mallow plant is known throughout the world by various names: malva, soachal, lapha, auk, dōngháncài, ebegümeci, khubezachalamit, cheeseweed, and buttonweed.

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Kashmiri soachal or sauteed mallow leaves

Imagine my surprise on my last visit to Kashmir when my sister-in-law served me a tasty saute of mallow leaves simply seasoned with garlic and Kashmiri mirch (red chili).  I had seen her preparing the dish of this common roadside weed earlier but was completely shocked at how mild and tasty it was. It was not at all bitter, sour, earthy, metallic, or alkaline tasting as some wild greens can be. I had no idea that mallow was completely edible!  Mallow leaves are a much-loved vegetable dish in the north Indian region of Kashmir and are called soachal in Kashmiri. (The pronunciation sounds like tsot-zall to my ear.) 

Common Mallow (Malva neglecta)
A little research revealed that mallow has been a common foodstuff since ancient times around the Mediterranean, China, and northern India. The plant was popular in ancient Rome: Horace, the Roman poet, said his modest diet was made up mainly of olives, endive, and mallow. Mallow is also mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Job where the plant was called chalamit

If the word “mallow” reminds you of marshmallows, it’s no accident! Before marshmallows were made out of sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin the ancient Egyptians made them from the pounded and boiled roots of the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis). Which is a kind of mallow! The pounded and boiled roots would produce a mucilaginous substance with the consistency of egg whites. This was whipped and sweetened with sugar and rose water to produce the prototype of the confection we now call marshmallows. (Personally, I think the Egyptian version sounds light years better than the synthetic abominations we call marshmallows today.) 

Distribution of Common Mallow (Malva neglecta) : Red= native habitat Blue = non native habitat

Mallow is a member of the family Malvaceae and the genus Malva. There are about 30 species of herbaceous annual, biennial, and perennial plants in the genus Malva. All are completely edible. The broader family Malvaceae includes hibiscus, okra, cotton, cacao, and durian. Cotton is the only poisonous member of the Malvaceae family. The genus Malva is now widespread throughout the temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Several species are widely grown as garden flowers, while some are invasive weeds, particularly in the Americas where they are not native.

Mallow nutlets on the left and dried seeds on the right
The name "mallow" is derived from Old English "malwe", which was imported from Latin "malva" a cognate with the ancient Greek word malakhēMauve, the shade of pale purple which took the fashion world by storm in the 1890's was named after the French word for mallow flower. Common English names for mallow include buttonweed and cheeseweed as English-speakers thought the nutlets and seeds looked like buttons or wheels of cheese. The Arabic word for mallow is khubeza as the Arabs thought the nutlets and seeds resembled the traditional round bread called khubz. The Hebrew word for mallow is chalamit because the seeds and nutlets look like a little challah or loaf of bread.

What does mallow look like, and how can you identify it? There are quite a few different types of mallows and each of them has a slightly different appearance. Mallow leaves are fan-shaped with rounded lobes, obut can be slightly pointy. Sometimes, even the same plant can have leaves that are shaped differently. All mallow leaves have veins radiating from a central point, with lots of tinier veins branching off of those veins. Each leaf has a slightly reddish, brownish, or darker colored center where it meets up with its stem and is covered with minute hairs. The mallows' flowers all have 5 symmetrical petals radiating from one central point. They can be pink, purple, or white or any combination thereof.  Most of the wild mallows have a low, mounding habit and all mallows freely reseed.

Mallow cultivars L to R: Zabrina, Maria's Blue Eyes, Braveheart
Amazingly beautiful strains of Malva sylvestris are available as ornamentals for your garden. The mallow can be a perennial, annual, or biannual depending upon region. Mallow likes a well-drained soil, even slightly dry and poor. Plants dislike transplanting, so do not move them and only grow from seed. Mallow appreciates full or part sun and moderate temperatures. Although mallows are drought tolerant they tend to get rangy and ratty looking in hot weather. An ideal place for mallows in the garden is the back of a sunny border. I always planted the variety Zabrina in my California garden picturing swathes of mauve-y spires in my cottage-style garden. The seeds would all pop up almost immediately. However, when the seedlings got to about six inches high without fail the deer would come and nibble them down to the root. ARGH! Nonetheless every Spring I'd see gorgeous photos in the catalogs promising 3 months of neverending flowers in swoon-worthy shades of pink and purple and I'd plant them again. Those darn deer wouldn't eat the wild mallows growing by the road but they'd munch my expensive plants!

The poisonous Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)
The only poisonous lookalike I've found for mallow is creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens). Creeping buttercup leaves have deeper clefts and are shinier with a lighter green coloration. Mallows have slightly fuzzy leaves like a geranium while creeping buttercup has a smooth, shiny leaf like a strawberry plant. If you aren't sure about a plant, wait a few weeks to see how the plant matures. If it develops yellow flowers and sharply cleft leaves then it is the toxic creeping buttercup. Mallows also tend to concentrate nitrates so if they are growing near a place where chemical fertilizers are in use (i.e. lawns) they're best avoided.

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Fresh picked soachal or mallow from our garden
You can use mallow leaves as you would any other green like spinach or chard. Their flavor is mild so they can be paired with pretty much anything. The fresh flowers and leaves make lovely a salad when mixed with other sturdier and sharper flavored greens. Because it's a weed that grows plentifully in neglected areas, mallows have been used throughout history as a survival food during times of crop failure or war. There are many different species of mallow all over the world that differ in size, shape, and taste. Don't expect to see mallow leaves at your local grocery store or even farmer's market. They're best eaten the same day they're picked. Mallow leaves tend to wilt and turn to mush after picking in about a day. I have found that you can prolong their freshness by rinsing the leaves with cold water then refrigerating them in a paper towel lined and airtight container for 2-3 days. I have heard of freezing the leaves for future use but have never tried it. Mallow is also a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Best of all, they're about the easiest green you could possibly grow or forage.

Dolmas made with mallow leaves
Kashmiris certainly aren't the only ones who eat mallow! The Bodo people of northeastern India cultivate a species of mallow called lapha and use it extensively in their traditional cuisine. Mallows are mostly used as a stewing green in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, and the Piedmont region of Italy. The slightly mucilaginous sap of mallow leaves acts as a thickener much like okra when boiled or stewed. Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens is the best source I've found for mallow recipes. In Turkey and Greece, larger mallow leaves are also used to make dolmas or dolmades, also known as stuffed grape leaves. The Moroccans make a sort of tapenade out of stewed wild mallow with olives called bakoola du rif  enjoyed as a spread on fresh bread. Malva verticillata is grown on a commercial scale in Korea and China for use as an herbal infusion. The recipe for the Kashmiri sauteed mallow dish is here and a new recipe that a Palestinian friend sent me for mallow will be up soon!

Have you ever seen mallows growing in your area? 
Have you ever tasted any form of mallow? (tea, soup, dolmas)
Would you feel confident enough to go and forage mallow after reading this post?

Feb 12, 2018

Chinese Almond Cookies

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Celebrate Chinese New Year with Chinese Almond cookies! These delightfully crisp treats have a melt-in-your-mouth texture with the sweet, creamy flavor of almonds. A true dupe for the delicious after meal cookies you're often be served at Cantonese restaurants.

Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco's Chinatown
Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (春節) is this Friday, February 16th! Around the Lunar New Year, everything is about wishing prosperity, good fortune, good luck and long life to your loved ones and those near you. One should avoid crying children, cleaning clothes, sweeping floors, and using scissors on this auspicious day. I thought it'd be great to bake some cookies in honor of this festival so I asked a Chinese college chum of mine for her favorite New Year's recipes. One of the recipes my friend recommended was this recipe from Taste of Home.

I thought it a bit odd that an authentic tasting Chinese cookie would be found in a publication specializing in Midwestern cuisine and based in Greendale, Wisconsin. But my friend Eileen said it was "spot on" if you doubled the almond flavoring and added 15 drops of yellow food coloring. And she was correct! These almond cookies taste just like the ones in Chinese bakeries and Cantonese restaurants. The recipe is quite simple and the dough is very easy to work with. I did not have yellow food coloring so I did not use it. I used 2 teaspoons of LorAnn's Almond Baking Emulsion instead of 1 teaspoon almond extract. (If you are looking for an excellent quality halal/alcohol-free almond flavoring that doesn't fade when baking or go bitter - I highly recommend LorAnn's Almond Baking Emulsion.) Instead of topping the cookies with sliced almonds I pressed one whole almond into each cookie. If you wanted to be really posh you could use whole blanched almonds. The egg wash gives the tops of the cookies a beautiful crackled and glazed look while helping the almonds to adhere. If you wanted a crispier cookie I'd suggest using vegetable shortening rather than butter. All in all, this was a great recipe- came together simply, rolled easily, baked beautifully (even with the occasional power outage and an erratically heating toaster oven), and tastes wonderful! Off to the recipe: 

1 C butter or vegetable shortening, softened to room temperature
1 C sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
 1 to 2 tsp almond flavoring
3 C flour
40 almonds
For egg wash:
1 egg white
1/2 tsp water

Here's what to do:
1) In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Beat in egg and almond extract. 
2) Gradually add flour to creamed mixture. Chill dough for at least an hour or overnight. 
3) When ready to bake preheat oven to 325F/180C.  Roll into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on parchment or silicone mat lined baking sheets. Flatten to a generous 1/4 inch with the bottom of a glass covered in cling film. 
4) In a small bowl, beat egg white and water. Brush egg wash over over cookies. Place an almond on top of each cookie and press down to flatten slightly. Bake for 16-20 minutes or until edges and bottoms are lightly browned. Cool for 2 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks. Yield: about 3 dozen. 
Hope you try this recipe and love it as much as my family does!
Until then: 
"Greet the New Year and encounter happiness" 

Calmly Currying on,

Feb 5, 2018

Kathmandu: Asan Tol

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This week I'm going to take you on a visit to the most famous bazaar of old Kathmandu: Asan Tol. Six streets converge on this ancient square resulting in perpetual bustle from dusk till dawn. Vendors sell exotic wares while artisans toil in hidden workshops alongside sacred temples. Cat Stevens allegedly wrote his hippie-era song Kathmandu in one of the many teahouses of this historical district. Asan Tol straddles one of the two legendary India-Tibet trade routes that pass diagonally through Kathmandu. Because of this history, Asan has been one of the city's main marketplaces since ancient times.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Apart from being a busy marketplace, there are many temples and shrines located in Asan Tol's many squares and courtyards. Above is pictured the temple of Asan Tol's patron deity, Annapurna Ajima. She is the goddess of abundant grain. If the sun is right, the temple can appear to be made from solid gold. The three pagoda roofs and finial gilded. A richly fashioned doorway beckons while decorative birds, metal frills, and divine faces adorn the ribbed roofs. Instead of an idol in the goddess' image, inside there is a silver purnakalash filled with grain and entwined by a silver serpent. Temple records from 1839AD and show that the building required renovation by the end of the nineteenth century. In the black and white photo at the top of this post, you'll see the Annapurna temple covered in a net of puffed rice for the Taya Ma festival which takes place once every 60 years. You’ll often see devotees of the goddess seeking divine favor by walking around the shrine, touching a coin to their heads, throwing it into the temple and then ringing the bell above them.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Asan Tol is still the place where folks from all over the Kathmandu valley and beyond will come to buy or sell their crops and wares. Above you see bags of green jimbu, brown timur, and chunks of pink and purple Himalayan salt for sale. You'll also see many varieties of locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables here.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Unique and handcrafted kitchenware is one of my favorite things to shop for in Asan. This handmade pot is specially made to fry the ring-shaped Nepali sweet bread called sel roti. You can often find second-hand pots and utensils with gorgeous timeworn patinas very cheaply here also.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

This vendor is selling things you would need for a puja or prayer ceremony. Peacock feather fans, incense, yak tail fly swishers, candles, nuts, and sweetmeats. Those yak tails look so soft and fluffy, don't they? Don't be fooled! Yak hair is like metal wires. I tried to knit with yak yarn once and it was like knitting steel wool- actually left me with bleeding fingers!

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

As you walk the lanes around Asan Tol you will see tiny, narrow passageways branching off like this. Let's see where this one goes. Don't be shy! They're used to tourists wandering about and gawking in Nepal. I've never had anyone ask me to leave or be offended by my meanderings in Nepal.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Et Voila! This is one of the seven Buddhist courtyards of Asan Tol. This particular one is called Haku Baha or Harshabaha. A baha is a is a type of courtyard found amongst Newar communities in Nepal. A baha is generally constructed by a family and their descendants reside in it for generations. Hence, it is not just a unit of residence but also a unit of kinship. As you enter the baha you see a bronze stupa with a different portrayal of Buddha facing four directions. Look at that amazing hand-carved window above! As you can tell by all the motorcycles parked in this beautiful ancient courtyard people really do live here. You didn't used to see so many motorcycles in Nepal until 5-7 years ago. Indian motorcycle manufacturers began offering easy, low interest financing to Nepali buyers about 7 years ago so now the roads are clogged with the darned things.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Looking in back of the bronze stupa we see this rather unusual white stupa. I've never seen much written about it but it has always intrigued me as it looks to be carved out of a solid piece of white stone. The stone has a glow to it like marble but isn't streaked like marble. These are the only two religious structiures in this little courtyard. Haka means twice or double in Nepali but I'm not sure if that's what this courtyard's name means.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Continuing back down the main lane you can peer into the ancient workshops of all sorts of artisans. On each street or tole, specific crafts and business are carried out. These gentlemen are goldsmiths of the Shakya clan which claim direct descent from Buddha himself. Let's go see what other hidden courtyards we can find, eh?

Oh my! Venturing down another narrow pathway we come to the Kathesimbu Stupa. This is one of the most popular Tibetan pilgrimage sites in the old tow. Bult in around 1650AD this a miniature copy of the much larger Swayambhunath complex. With all the sand and construction workers about it looks as if there is some earthquake repair work going on.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,  
Taa Daa! Isn't this amazing? You don't have to pay to see this ancient square, you aren't bothered by touts, this is just someone's neighborhood. All sorts of smaller temples are around the courtyard also. Just as at the Swayambhunath complex, there is a two-story pagoda devoted to Hariti, the goddess of smallpox, in the northwestern corner of the square.

A close up of the prayer wheels that go around the stupa. The prayer wheels are brass cylinders inscribed with or containing written prayers. A revolution of a prayer wheel symbolizes the repetition of a prayer. According to the lineage texts on prayer wheels, each turn of a prayer wheel accumulates wisdom and merit (good karma) and purifies negativities (bad karma). Always use your right hand only to spin the prayer wheels and only turn in a clockwise direction.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

Some school children playing badminton alongside the Kathesimbu Stupa. That red brick building at the back of this photo is the elementary school at which they are pupils. Wish we had a stupa like that in our neighborhood.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

In the northeast corner of the courtyard is the Drubgon Jangchup Choeling Monastery. Tours of this Tibetan Buddhist monastery are available for a fee. All this is just a couple of minutes’ walk south of Thamel and Durbar square. 

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

A close up of one of the brass lions guarding a temple in the courtyard. Such incredibly detailed metalwork is typical of Newari craftsmen. You don't see as many brass and bronze lions guarding shrines and temples anymore- hope those aren't being stolen also.  

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

These are all private homes along the courtyard perimeter. It appears they suffered some earthquake damage and are being buttressed by strategically placed poles. If you look closely at the white building near the top you can see a huge German shepherd dog perilously leaning out the window. He was barking furiously at the pigeons in the square.  Glad that's not my neighbor.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

This building on the square looks to have been so severely damaged by the earthquake it had to be demolished completely and rebuilt. The Nepali government has been trying to encourage residents to choose construction that at least appears to be traditionally Newari in style. Various stipends and grants are available to those whose plans feature the exposed red brick and hand carved wooden ornamentation of old. Behind the traditional facade the buildings can be completely modern with proper earthquake resistant structure. Above you see the detailed brick work and carved window sills being applied to one such modern reconstruction. I think it looks great! I just hope the bricks don't pop off the facade in the next (inevitable) earthquake like I've seen in California.

asan, ason, Kathmandu, Nepal, tol, tole,

A mushroom-seller that followed me around for about twenty minutes around the bazaar. I'm not sure what his fascination with me was. I certainly didn't have much use for mushrooms while staying in a hotel room in Kathmandu. Note the planks butressing the ancient building behind him. Yet more earthquake damage awaiting repairs. What a wild conglomeration of goods for sale too- everything from coathangers to coconuts! Anyway, this was just a sample of what you can see and buy in Asan Tol. For those in search of authentic Nepali spices, fruit, vegetables, dry goods, metalware, fabrics, teas, or household goods, there is no better place to visit. Ancient shrines and temples are just part of the neighborhood in this typically Newari neighborhood. Hope you enjoyed my little tour of old Kathmandu!

That's it for this week! I know I promised a recipe but we've got houseguests which doesn't leave much time for food photography. (Sorry!) next week I'm planning a post for Chinese New year!
Calmly currying on, 

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