Showing posts with label india. Show all posts
Showing posts with label india. Show all posts

Nov 5, 2018

Fall, the Flu & a Fiasco or Two....

Yes, it's that most wonderful time of the year when the monsoon clouds recede and breezy, balmy, mild, and dry days prevail. The tourists arrive to enjoy the spectacular weather and the festivities of the Hindu and Buddhist high holidays. What could possibly go wrong??? Read on for the rant!

You know it's October when you can see the mountains again here in Nepal. This was the glimpse of the Annapurnas from our backyard last week. Gone is the fetid, festering heat and humidity of the Monsoon season. Unfortunately, the agricultural burning starts in October and continues through March. The influx of tourists bringing microbes from around the world combined with the persistent smoke lead to a host of respiratory problems.

And so it happened that the Sheikh (my husband) came down with the nastiest flu. What started with simple allergic rhinitis (a runny nose) gradually escalated to an acute viral respiratory infection. High fevers (103F/39C) alternating with chills, cough, headache, and horrendous body aches. So I sent the Sheikh to clinic to get blood work done. I wanted to make sure he wasn't having a typhoid relapse (we are all due for a typhoid vaccine booster and typhoid is endemic here ) and rule out a secondary bacterial infection or pneumonia. An executive blood panel includes screening for dengue, malaria parasite, leptospirosis, and four strains of typhoid. The bloodwork came back fine but the physician on duty at the clinic wanted to admit him due to his high fever. We decided to try the clinic's new home health care option. Most westerners do not realize that if you are hospitalized in South Asia someone is going to have to bring your meals to you, buy your medications at the pharmacy, and buy/bring any supplies such as bandages or syringes. They don't send you a bill at the end of your hospitalization like in the US, it is more a "pay as you go" sort of system. So the home health nurse came to our house and installed the intravenous port in the Sheikh's hand as you see in the above photo.

The home health nurse arrived by scooter, looked to be about 20 years old, and wore a hoodie over pajamas. Not the most professional of presentations. She proceeded to take the Sheikh's temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. She never washed her hands, used a hand sanitizer nor wore gloves. The home health care physician recommended a triple whammy cocktail of antibiotics, lots of paracetamol to bring down the fever, and the antiviral peramivir. (I was surprised they even had peramivir here - I guess they're thinking the next permutation of Swine Flu is going to be truly vicious.) I thought the triple antibiotic regimen was overdoing it but I was glad they had the antiviral. So then the pajama-clad nurse looks around and asks where the pole to hang the IV is. I replied, "You didn't bring a pole or anything to hang the IV on?" Whatever. Above you see Bibi's "jugaadi" (make-do or hack) IV rig. A sturdy clothes hanger affixed to the curtain rod over the sofa. The clips on the clothes hanger can also be used to hang the patient's chart. The cord you see the drip suspended on is the drawstring from a pair of my salwars (trousers).

Oh, I love a parade! (Except when it is through my living room.) This is actually the Indian Border Securities Forces Camel Cavalry in the Republic day parade. Camels and pompoms- what's not to love?

Culture Clash: If you are sick in South Asia you can expect a parade of well-wishing visitors possibly bearing fruit or fruit juices as gifts. It doesn't matter if what you have is dire, deadly, and or contagious. It doesn't matter if you really don't feel up to having visitors. You must invite them in to sit around you, express concern,  and cheerfully chat up your morale. Your medical chart may be passed about for all and sundry to peruse too. I don't know about you but the last thing I want around when I'm spiking 103F/39C fevers and am miserably ill is any sort of guest.

And you are obliged to serve those well-wishing visitors tea, coffee, and snacks. So in addition to caring for the Sheikh whilst he is miserably ill - I get to be hostess, barista, and chaatwala. The type of tea and coffee served here both require boiling milk and must be served scalding hot. This means you can't stray far from the stove while making them lest the milk boil over. No drip machine for the coffee and the tea leaves are boiled separately.  The snacks are easier to manage as they're usually just packaged biscuits and chaat mixes placed on a tray. We averaged about 20 to 30 guests a day.

The Ongoing Melodrama of the Maid: On the second day of all these harried happenings the maid announces that she is leaving for 15 days to Kathmandu. Why? Because she's pregnant and is going to have "treatment." Congratulations and goodbye was all I had to say. I know I sound like a heartless, entitled, and overprivileged meanie. But this maid has just had a 50 day paid holiday this Summer whilst we were on vacation. Then she said she was taking four days off for Dashain and she was gone for seven days. Both times she has asked for cash bonuses and raises. She hasn't even worked here for 8 months yet! She's only here for 2-3 hours a day and usually washes the dishes, cleans the floors, and makes the beds. We are already paying her twice the going rate for a maid. Many households also require their maid to do laundry and cook but I do that myself. Sigh.

With no maid, I now have to do all the dishes for not only our family but all the guests' teacups and whatnot myself. And I'm starting to get low fevers, chills, and nasty body aches too. UGH. Surprisingly, I never seem to get as severe a case of whatever flu is going around anymore. Not sure if that is due to getting the US version of the flu vaccine for 20 years or my sturdy constitution. I didn't spike the high fevers like the Sheikh did. The body aches were so severe I felt like I'd been hit by a truck, even the bottoms of my feet hurt.

Germs? What germs?

As you may surmise, due to this cultural practice of visitation during illness all of our valley now suffers this nasty virus and local clinics and hospitals are filled to capacity. Why does this cultural practice persist despite modern notions of contagion? Well, you will find throughout Asia that they don't truly believe in the "Germ Theory." Illness is believed to be brought about by changes in weather, dietary indiscretions, and cleanliness is considered more of a spiritual matter. Yet despite these erroneous beliefs South Asian physicians prescribe antibiotics like they're handing out candy. Is there any wonder that New Delhi is the birthplace of the latest antibiotic-resistant superbug?

Curiously, there is a commonly held belief here that drinking chilled water or any other cold beverages is unhealthy and can cause illness. Given the lack of sanitation here, I can see where drinking water that has at least been boiled is safer. Conversely, taking a cold shower or bath is preferred and considered good for health. Nepalis believe that a hot shower or bath is bad for the skin. Apparently, this is idea derived from the Nepali practice of pouring boiling hot water over a slaughtered goat or pig to make the skin bubble off. The variety of ancient traditional medical systems here like Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha probably accounts for many of these practices. Living in Asia has taught me that culture supersedes education, religion, and common sense.

About three days into his illness the Sheikh decides our living room needed refurbishing. Suddenly, amidst the throngs of felicitous guests, he is embarrassed about our worn out 12-year-old carpet and ratty sofa. 
Why now?!? 
The old carpet looked manky when we first moved in 12 years ago and has suffered water damage from an indoor flood (the drains on the roof became clogged during a severe storm and water came streaming out the electrical outlets) and the cats have shredded the edges into oblivion. The sofa has had a hole ripped clean through one end by our cat Spotty for about a year now. We are currently building a new showroom in a new hotel so the Sheikh asks the carpeting crew and upholsterer to stop by. Above you see two of the carpet samples I was shown to choose from. Pretty amazing selection. eh?I believe there was a solid burnt orange sample too but I chose the boring solid brown you see in the background. South Asian home decor has been stuck in stodgy 70's earth tones since forever. So in between serving guests, I managed to dismantle the 3 huge bookcases in our living room so the carpet could be laid. The hole in the sofa has also been repaired so people can sit on it too! Woo Hoo!

And that was the week that was.......
We are all slowly on the mend here now, THANKFULLY.  I eventually convinced the Sheikh to turn the @#$%! phone off so that people would quit coming and he could get some rest. I'm still going through the 700+ photos I took of the wedding in Kashmir- hope to have a post up on that soon. If you made it this far, thank you for listening to my rant! Hope your week went better than ours did!

How are you all faring with the flu and cold season in your area?
Be sure to load up on zinc  and vitamin C to support your immune system!

May 21, 2018

Ingredients: Sesame Seeds, Til, Tal, Tillu, Teel, Gingelly, Gingili, Gingilli, Semsem, Simsim

Sesame seeds are believed to be the world's oldest condiment, and one of the first recorded plants used for its seeds. For thousands of years, sesame seeds have been an integral part of the cuisines of northern Africa, the Middle East, and across Asia. Even today, sesame seeds are used worldwide for  nutritional, medicinal, and industrial purposes.

Archaeological findings suggest sesame was first domesticated in the Indian subcontinent around 5,500 years ago. Sesame was cultivated during the Indus valley civilization where it was the main oil crop. Sesame oil was probably exported to Mesopotamia as early as 2500 BC. The genus Sesamum has many species, most are wild and found in northern Africa. Sesamum indicum is the cultivated variety that originated in India. Sesame seeds are such a part of India's history that they are revered by Hindus as droplets of Lord Vishnu's sweat.  The domestication of sesame was favored by its ability to grow in areas that do not support the growth of other crops. It is a robust crop that needs little tending. The sesame plant will tolerate high heat and drought conditions or excessive rain and moisture. Its hardy nature allows subsistence farmers to plant it along the edge of deserts and other marginally arable areas where no other crops will grow.

Scheherazade probably saying "Open al-juljulan!" not "Open sesame!"
The etymology of the words used for sesame seeds is just as ancient and interesting as the plant.  In India, where sesame has been cultivated since the Harappan period, the words for sesame derive from the Sanskrit root tila (तिल.) Therefore you hear sesame called til in Nepali, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu. In Gujurati sesame is called tal and in Telegu tillu. The English word sesame is derived from the Greek sesamon which appears to be a borrowed word from ancient Akkadia. European words for sesame like ajonjolí in Spanish, gergelim in Portuguese, ġulġlien in Maltese, and the now archaic English word gingelly are derived from the Arabic al-juljulan (الجلجلان). In the American South, you will hear sesame seeds referred to as benniseed or benne seeds. This is because benne is the word for sesame seeds in the Bantu dialect of the West African slaves brought to the United States.

Flowering sesame plant
Sesame plants are actually quite beautiful. They have attractive dark-green leaves and tubular flowers similar to foxgloves that can be white or pale pink. Mature plants can grow 3 to 6 feet tall depending on the variety. The seeds are collected from the dried seed pods at the end of the growing season.

Immature sesame pods
Seeds are ready for harvest when the pods turn brown and begin to crack open slightly. The seed pods at the bottom of the plant will often be ready to harvest while the flowers toward the top of the plant are still in bloom, necessitating multiple harvests toward the end of the growing season.

Dry, ripened, & dehisced sesame pods
The sesame pod or capsule only explodes open when the seeds are completely ripe in a process called dehiscence. Dehiscence time tends to vary, so farmers cut plants by hand and place them together in an upright position to continue ripening until all the pods have opened. The dried stalks can also be used as cooking fuel. I have read that before World War I about 30% of American households used sesame oil as their primary vegetable oil for cooking. Unfortunately, the intense manual labor required to harvest sesame seeds became its downfall in most western countries. Today, the American fast-food chain McDonald buys 75% of Mexico's sesame seed crop to top it's hamburger buns.

Bundles of sesame plants cut by hand to dry, note the pods still on the dry plants.
Since sesame has such tiny, flat, and compact seeds, it is difficult to dry after harvest. The small size and shape of the seed makes the movement of air around the seed difficult. The seeds need to be harvested when as dry as possible and stored at 6% moisture or less. If the seed is too moist, fermentation and rot can begin.

Unhulled sesame seeds on the left and hulled sesame seeds on the right
After harvesting, the sesame seeds are normally cleaned and hulled. Hulling the seeds makes them less prone to going rancid and results in a less bitter flavor profile. In some countries, they are passed through an electronic sorting machine that rejects any discolored seeds to ensure perfect color. This is done because sesame seeds with consistent appearance are perceived as better quality, and sell for a higher price. Immature, discolored or off-sized seeds are removed and used for sesame oil production.

Sesame seeds occur in many colors depending on the cultivar. The most preferred variety of sesame is an off-white color. Other common colours are buff, tan, gold, brown, reddish, gray, and black. The color is the same for the hull and the fruit.

Sesamol- natural antioxidant found in sesame oil
Sesame seeds are composed of 5% water, 23% carbohydrates, 12% dietary fiber, 50% to 60% fat, and 15% to 18% protein. Whole sesame seeds are also rich in several B vitamins, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. Sesame oil has significant resistance against oxidation as a result of containing endogenous antioxidants including lignins and tocopherols. This combination of powerful natural antioxidants and lack of triple unsaturated fats give sesame oil a long shelf life. The byproduct or sesame seed meal that remains after oil extraction is so rich in protein (35-50%) that it can be used as feed for livestock.

Sesame & peanut chikki

Sesame seeds and oil are used extensively in India. Currently, India remains the world's second largest producer of sesame oil and seeds. Nearly every region of India has a unique sweet made of sesame seeds mixed with melted sugar. The candies are made into balls, bars, or clusters and have a delightful crunch similar to peanut brittle. Chikki is a popular treat all over India made of melted jaggery and various nuts and seeds or puffed rice as a flat bar. Sesame chikki is called til ki chikki in Hindi. In Assam, black sesame seeds are used to make ball-shaped  treats called til pitha and tilor laru during the festival of bihu. In northern and southern India sweet sesame balls called pindi in Urdu, ell urundai in Tamil, ellunda in Malayalam are eaten during the festival of Makar Sankranti and at weddings.

South Indian dry chutney called podi

In the cuisines of the southern Indian regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala sesame oil and seeds are used extensively. A powdered chutney called podi made of ground sesame seeds, urad dal, chickpea, dry chilis is often served as a condiment with idli and dosa. After serving the podi is mixed with a little sesame oil to make a paste to be used as a dipping sauce. I've also seen sesame seeds dry roasted and ground to make gravy for curries in South India.

Traditional sweet Nepali dumpling called yomari

Nepalis use sesame seeds in a variety of savory vegetable chutneys, potato dishes, sweet laddoos, and a sweet dumpling called yomari. As with most Nepali sweets, yomari are only made and eaten for special holidays such as Purnima or Yomari Punhi. The steamed dumpling is made out of rice flour dough shaped like a fish and filled with a mixture of sesame seeds and chaku. (Chaku is jaggery or raw sugar that's been cooked down to an almost molasses-like dark caramel. ) The rich and sugary filling of yomari is quite the delicious contrast to the tender rice dough shell. I've only seen Nepalis using sesame oil for shallow or deep frying traditional sweets and samosas. They like to use sesame oil diluted in a ratio of 1:3 with a flavorless oil like sunflower seed or soy oil just like the Japanese do for frying tempura.

For culinary use, sesame oil is available in light and dark versions. The pale yellow or golden oil is pressed from raw sesame seeds resulting in a high smoke point and is thus suitable for use as a frying oil. Light sesame oil has a mild, nutty flavor. The dark amber or brown oil is pressed from sesame seeds that have been roasted and has a rich, aromatic flavor. Dark sesame oil also has a  lower smoke point and is unsuitable for deep-frying, it can be used for stir-frying of meats and vegetables or to cook omelets. East Asian cuisines often use roasted sesame oil for seasoning or as a condiment.

I just went and bought a kilo bag of sesame seeds for about $2 USD. I'm all jazzed to try my hand at making all sorts of sesame treats for Iftar this Ramadan from tahini to laddoos! How about you?

Ramadan Mubarak!

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.

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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.

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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.

Oct 23, 2017

Over hill, Over Dale, As we hit the dusty trail...

Yes, we hit the post-Monsoon dusty trail to visit the in-laws in Kashmir for a VERY special occasion. Right at the start of the tourist season and during the Hindu high holidays - the absolute WORST time of year to travel in South Asia! Above you see the miserable traffic, dust, and non existent road entering Kathmandu.

Well, it started out all sunny and beautiful anyway. Here's the new bridge they're building at the tiny riverbank town of Mugling. No hard hats or safety harnesses for these guys!

Then the road sort of turned into a partially drained riverbed replete with boulders and bathtub sized potholes. After the Monsoon the roads are always partially or completely destroyed. The Sheikh calls these stretches of road "camel rides" as we get tossed about so much. Traffic was horrendous due to most Nepalis returning home to their villages from big cities to celebrate the festivals. If you are a tourist planning to visit Nepal please be aware that although October is lovely for mild weather and enjoying the local festivals most banks and markets will be closed. You'll be most likely stuck eating at your hotel as restaurants are closed too. (Yes, this is the start of the prime tourist season - but holidays must be properly observed lest divine favor be denied!)

And then we flew to Delhi into even more traffic and airfares jacked up to exorbitant holiday prices. Yes, in the above photo that's Delhi traffic trying to go three ways at once with no stoplight or police officer guiding it. If you're wondering how we get around in Delhi we have a favorite native Delhi taxi driver with an unglamorous but comfy, reliable, and air conditioned CNG powered cab that costs about $30-$40 daily. It's important to get a native Delhi driver because they know their way around the city well. If you get a newbie taxi driver that just emigrated to Delhi you will end up lost or going the long way round and paying for it through the nose.

And then we flew to Srinagar to the Sheikh's ancestral home. Which was rather subdued despite the attack near the airport the day before our arrival. 

Here's why we went to Srinagar during this horrid time to travel: my niece's Nishaani or engagement party. Getting married is the biggest, most important event in your life in South Asia. The engagement and all things leading up to the big day must be celebrated auspiciously and with great pomp and circumstance and so on... (I'll fill you in with more photos and great detail on the Nishaani later).

Remember these two little guys? These are the little kittens whose mother died and left them orphaned living under the stairs at our family home in Srinagar. I posted several photos of them on our visit to Kashmir last year.

That's who these handsome brutes are now! Wow, what a pair of bruisers they've grown into! They're living a lavish lifestyle now feasting upon chicken scraps from the neighborhood butcher and sharing the TV room inside the house with my brother-in-law.

When we returned from Srinagar we spent 2 days shopping in Delhi. We usually go shopping twice yearly in Delhi but have avoided going there due to the hassle of the demonetisation scheme and now the new Goods and Services Tax. Prices have gone up considerably in India. Cosmetics are now taxed at a whopping 30% so I won't be buying makeup in India anymore. I did find a new (to me anyway) shop featuring the Korean beauty line called Innisfree. Innisfree is the #1 selling beauty brand in Korea and is owned by the famed and very $$$s luxury skin care company Amore Pacific.  Innisfree favors a 'value' pricing system with lots of buy 5 get 2 free sort of deals like you see in the US frequently. I don't think Indians like the buy more and save 'value' deal model of retailing as much as us Americans do. I picked some masks and some products from their Green Tea line, Perfect 9 line, and Golden Olive line for my spa days. I really love Asian beauty products as they are usually better quality, produce actual results, and are more elegant to use than Western skin care and makeup.

I did my twice yearly clothing shopping in Delhi too. Despite the new GST on clothing I purchased 10 pairs of pants (churidars, patialas, and palazzos) and 20 tops (kurtis, kaftans, tunics, and thobes) for about $900. That's about $30 an item (including GST) which is still dirt cheap considering the luxury fabrics and lavish embellishment on each piece. There's everything from satin-lined velvet to hand loomed silk! Even some modern fibers like tencel and modal. The detail on the tops is amazing. I love my Indian clothes. There's a style to suit every figure in Indian traditional clothing. So elegant and comfortable.

So we headed home from Delhi. The Delhi airport was cheerfully decorated for the grandest of the Hindu holidays- Diwali! The festival of lights. After a short flight to Kathmandu we had another miserable road trip on the Highway from Hell home. We'll be buying a new set of tires and shocks accordingly.

Diwali or Deepawali as they say here in Nepal was in full swing. This year our little neighborhood had a venue of outdoor concerts and dance from 9 am to 9 pm during the festival. The stage is just a red carpet thrown down on the intersection and the sound system is powered by a kerosene generator. We've been treated to everything from blaring rock, rap, and rave to acoustic traditional performances and even a drum circle. I'm still in 'grumpy old git' phase after galavanting across the country so I've not attended very many of the shows but it's surprising how much local talent we have here! I'm a big fan of music no matter how loud over those @#$%! crackers blowing up randomly all over.

Ms Dawg went over to the neighbors to be properly propitiated on Kukhur Tihar. She ate her holiday meal, got her festive garland and left with out a tilakh on her forehead. Not the most ladylike gal but we love her.

I also heard about the California wildfires while on my trip. A number of friends in California emailed to tell me that my former home in California burnt down. (Actually the entire subdivision it was in burnt to the ground.) In an odd quirk of fate I sold that house in 2006 to a family from Gujarat. I have emailed the family from Gujarat and they are all okay but had only hours to evacuate and lost everything. That was a beautiful home that I designed myself on a hilltop overlooking the valley. I lived there for 10 years. Before I sold it I spent the majority of my time planning and planting a Mediterranean-style garden on that river rock terraced quarter of an acre. Gravel paths twisted among the native oaks with patches of lavender, rosemary, Matilija poppies, sage, Italian cypress, catmint, and my English rose collection. Now it's all goners. Ah well. Attachment is suffering and truthfully- that big house, garden, and pool was a major pain in the butt to take care of.

So, that's all that's been going on with me. My phone camera is broken and I'm unable to focus it. But all the repair shops are closed for the holidays! I have sooo many photos from the Nishaani to process anyway that I'll be busy for awhile anyway.
How's your Fall going where you're at?
Are you ready for the holidays?
Calmly currying on,

Feb 27, 2017

Ingredients: Cumin, Jeera, Zeera, Zira, Jira ko Geda, Zyur, Safed Jeera, Jeeragam, Jikaka

cumin, india, Indian, ingredients, jeera, jirako geda, safed jeera, spice, zeera, zira,

Cumin is one of those spices that is absolutely essential in stocking any spice cupboard. It's warm, earthy, and smoky flavor works especially well in combination with chilis, cinnamon, and coriander. Cumin is native to southwest Asia and has made its way into cuisines around the world through the spice trade. It's a hallmark flavor in North African, Indian, Latin American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

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Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) was originally cultivated in the Mediterranean region and is a member of the parsley family. It is an annual herbaceous plant with slender, branched stems that grows to 8–12 inches tall. It's tiny white or pink flowers are borne in small compound umbels. The seeds come in paired or separate carpels and are 1/8-1/4 inches long bearing a striped pattern of nine ridges. The seeds do greatly resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in color and have minute bristles barely visible to the naked eye.

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Cumin is a drought-tolerant, tropical, or subtropical crop with a growth season of 100 to 120 days. The main producer and consumer of cumin is India. Cumin is sown in India from October until the beginning of December, and harvesting by hand starts in February. Sandy, loamy soils with good aeration, proper drainage, slightly alkaline pH, and high oxygen availability are necessary for the optimal growth of cumin. The plant tends to droop under its own weight and so is planted closely together for support.

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Field of cumin in the Indian state of Gujarat
The main producer and consumer of cumin is India. Cumin is sown in India from October until the beginning of December and harvesting by hand starts in February. India produces 70% of the world supply of cumin and consumes 90% of that. That means that India consumes 63% of the world's cumin! In total, around 300,000 tons of cumin per year are produced worldwide.

cumin, india, Indian, ingredients, jeera, jirako geda, safed jeera, spice, zeera, zira,
Workers bagging cumin at the wholesale spice market in Delhi
Cumin is used predominantly in cuisines where highly spiced foods are preferred. In the Middle East it is a familiar spice used in fish dishes, grilled meats, stews, falafel, couscous, and the spice mix baharat. In Europe, cumin flavors Portuguese and Spanish sausages as well as Dutch Leyden cheese. Cumin is an essential spice in just about every savory Mexican dish from chile con carne to enchiladas

Leyden cheese from the Netherlands flavored with cumin seeds
Indian cooking utilizes many spice mixtures which contain cumin. North Indian cooking features a spice mixture called garam masala meaning "hot spices." Garam masalas vary in composition by regional preferences but most often combine earthy spices like cumin and fenugreek with aromatic spices like green cardamom and cloves. In southern India there is sambar podi, a mix of mostly cumin, coriander, roasted lentils, and aromatics used to flavor vegetarian dishes. In Southern Nepal, Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of North East India, there is a spice mix called panch phoron meaning "five spices" which consists of cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, and nigella seeds. Panch phoron is never ground and is used to flavor vegetable, fish, and meat dishes of those regions. 

cumin, india, Indian, ingredients, jeera, jirako geda, safed jeera, spice, zeera, zira,
Spice shop in Varanasi
Dry roasted cumin seeds are also used in refreshing drinks and cooling condiments in India. Jaljeera is a popular summer drink in India usually made with a blend of cumin, lime juice, mint, ginger, black pepper, and black salt. Jaljeera is purported to stimulate appetite and aid digestion and commercial mixes are widely available. A salted lassi is a traditional savory drink of chilled water blended with yogurt and oftentimes flavored with toasted cumin seeds. A raita is a dip made of yogurt with toasted cumin seeds and raw or cooked vegetables often served with spicy foods for it's cooling effect on the palate.

cumin, india, Indian, ingredients, jeera, jirako geda, safed jeera, spice, zeera, zira,

The earthy, warm, and smoky flavor of cumin is best showcased when used with restraint and cooked or dry roasted. Cumin is one of those spices that can quickly overpower an entire dish. Some hearty meat dishes can accommodate a full tablespoon but usually no more than a teaspoon is required for legumes and vegetables. Frying or dry roasting cumin mellows it's harsh raw flavor to a pleasant nutty earthiness. Ground cumin can­ not be toasted as it would char quickly. However, dry roasted cumin can be ground and used as a sea­soning and added just before serving. Almost every North Indian curry starts with spices being fried in ghee or oil. Ground cumin can be used but it must be added after the onions have been fried to prevent burning. Burnt cumin in ground or seed form has an unpleasant bitter flavor. There really isn't anything you can do to rescue a dish tainted with the bitterness of burnt cumin but to toss it and start over. 

cumin, india, Indian, ingredients, jeera, jirako geda, safed jeera, spice, zeera, zira,
Cumin or Safed Jeera seeds
Caraway seeds
An interesting aside:
I think I've found out why cumin, caraway, and black cumin are so often confused for each other.  The root of the English word cumin is from the Latin cuminum which is ultimately derived from Semitic origins. But many other European languages do not distinguish clearly between the cumin and caraway. In German the word for caraway is Kümmel while the name for cumin is Kreuzkümmel (literally "cross-caraway). This indicates that European cooks saw cumin as an exotic spice comparable to the native caraway. (Caraway's carrot-y dill flavor tastes nothing like cumin's earthy warmth to me but the plant and seeds do look similar.) Similarly in Swedish and Danish, caraway is kummin, while cumin is spiskummin. In Romanian cumin is called chimion turcesc or "Turkish caraway." In Hungarian cumin is egyiptomi kömény or "Egyptian caraway." Like most Mediterranean spices cumin seems to have been introduced to northern and eastern Europe around the 9th century by Charlemagne's Capitulare. The Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii Caroli Magni was a complete list of administrative, legal, and agricultural rules for the new Frankish empire. Towards the end of the document is a complete list of culinary and medicinal herbs to be grown in imperial gardens. Apparently northern and eastern Europe never developed much of a taste for cumin yet it retained it's identity as an exotic variant of caraway. This probably explains why shahi jeera/black cumin is often confused with caraway also.

Black Cumin or Shahi Jeera seeds
Jeera is the Hindi word for cumin and is derived from the Sanskrit root jri meaning to digest. Related words for cumin are today found from the Caucasus to central and southeast Asia: Urdu = zeera, Farsi = zirah, Georgian = dzira, and Burmese = ziyah. In Hindi cumin is sometimes called safed jeera (literally white cumin)  in order to differentiate it from black cumin or shahi jeera.
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