Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A chutney from Manipur

My love affair with aithang-lou didn't happen overnight.

The first time I took a spoonful of an aithang-lou chutney must have been over four years ago, if not more. The chutney was hot. Very, very hot. And so pungent that it reminded me of something akin to fish food. Needless to say, that spoonful eventually found its way into the garbage bin after dinner. And, no one asked why. I suppose its an understood thing. The first time you taste aithang-lou, it is not going to go down well.


Aithang-lou chutney

Fast forward to 2015. Len and I were in Manipur for a holiday and happened to visit the Tribal Market at Imphal. I was on a herb buying spree. Keen to bring back a slice of Manipur's ethnic culinary tradition, I purchased every exotic ingredient I could lay my eyes on that summer. Aithang-lou was one among those. After returning to Delhi we simply buried some in a pot, and before a week passed we could see tiny green shoots pushing their way through the soil. Ever since, harvesting the roots has become a seasonal affair, and it is rare for us to not have a container full of aithang-lou tucked inside our fridge.


Easy to grow and fun to harvest

Aithang-lou is also called the fishy-smell herb or fish mint, and rightly so, thanks to its earthy, pungent, umami flavour that is almost reminiscent of pond weed. It is without a doubt an aquired taste like many others, but if you do happen to cross over to the other side, aithang-lou will have you hooked. Line. And sinker!

My favourite chutney using this delicacy is made using dried raja mirchi and charred, ripe tomatoes. The heat from the chilli balances the pungency of aithang-lou, while the smoky flavour of the tomatoes give an added dimension to the dish. My favourite way to enjoy  this chutney is with steamed rice and a colocasia and bamboo shoots stew.

For those interested,  here's the recipe.


What you need

1 ripe tomato
1 dried raja mirchi (a type of dried red chilli), or to taste
1 cup root
Salt to taste


How to

Burn the tomato skin over an open flame, till it turns black and can be scraped off easily. Lightly roast the chilli as well.

Mash the tomato, chilli, and salt in a mortar. Mix in the roots.




In addition to this, I also thought of sharing the different common names used for this root across the world. This is not an exhaustive list, but just some of the many names it is known by. Not surprisingly, I discovered that in addition to being a common ingredient in the north east of India, this aaromatic, medicinal herb is eaten as far as Vietnam, China, and Japan.


Scientific name: Houttuynia cordata
  • Manipur, India: Aithang-lou
  • Nagaland, India: Ngayung, Ngayungwon
  • Meghalaya, India:  Ja mardoh
  • Assam, India: Musundari, Aich
  • Laos: Khautong, Pak Khautong
  • Thailand: Phakkaawtong
  • China: Chou cai
  • Japan: Dokudami

Monday, November 27, 2017

Scrap dealer visits and some homemade peanut butter

I am an editor. And publishing is my bread and butter. So, I really should love books - reading them, buying them, making them, and whatever else. And I do too. But lately I have been feeling pretty terrible about my tendency to buy and hoard books, just because, well, they are books. 

Today, we called the scrap dealer aka the kabadiwala who took away piles and piles of old newspapers, other trashy stuff, and more than 30 kilograms of old story books. Yep. It was a massive bag filled with a LOT of books that we would never read again, and some which were probably never read at all. We did try getting in touch with libraries and NGOs without much luck. But after hoarding for months rolling into years, I decided to give them up. Perhaps they would go to the right place and get recycled...


If this is the fate of books, then is it really a good idea to buy more and more? What a colossal waste of paper. And so, very reluctantly I take the pledge. Kindle it is, as much as I can help it. But before I go on ebook buying spree, let me first finish the many unfinished still resting on my bookshelves. On that note, I am going to pick up a book that I bought in 2015 but never managed to read beyond the back cover. Italo Calvino's The Complete Cosmicomics. Let's see how that goes.


For the food byte of the day, there is some good ol' homemade peanut butter sweetened with Maple syrup. Quick and easy, and so much healthier than the store bought jars filled with preservatives.





Step 1. Dry roast peanuts.





Step 2. De-skin the peanuts by rubbing them gently between your fingers.


Step 3. Transfer them into the grinding jar of your food processor. Pulse for 30 seconds.


Step 4. Open jar. They should resemble wet sand at this stage. Scrape the sides of the jar and pulse again. 





Step 5. Continue to pulse 30 seconds at a time till a smooth paste is formed.*





Step. Add salt and sweetener (honey is ideal). And pulse one last time.


*For a thinner butter, you may need to add extra peanut oil. I wanted no additional fats so omitted this step.


Variation

To make a chocolate-flavoured butter, add 4-5 tablespoons of grated chocolate of choice. Alternately, add chocolate chips and mix gently. And, tell you what, try this with a slice of crisp, red apple. Dip. Spread. Enjoy! 

Dip dip dip

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Blissful Saturday: Chana dal and a movie

Saturdays are meant to be a certain way. And, this one was perfect. I think there is little else in domestic life that is more delightful than waking up early on a Saturday morning, looking at the clock, and then turning back and going off to sleep again! Slept for a delicious extra hour, before waking up to warm butter toast, the smell of fabric conditioner in freshly washed clothes, an hour of Cheeku games on the terrace, and all the while soaking in the warm winter sun. Aah, life is good :)

Lunch was good ol' dhaba food, made by yours truly. Thanks to Len, I am finding the dhaba style of cooking more and more appealing for many reasons. Firstly, its easy to prepare, uses minimal ingredients, is hearty and healthy, and obviously pretty darn good to eat. Made a chana dal with palak for lunch, served with some raw onions and lemon on the side. 




What you need

1 cup chana dal
250 grams spinach
1 onion, sliced
6-7 pods of garlic and a small pieces of ginger, crushed in a mortar
2 whole cardomons
3-4 cloves
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 cumin powder 
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 garam masala
1/4 tikka masala powder (optional)
2 tbsp mustard oil
Salt to taste


How to

Heat mustard oil in a pressure cooker. Let it smoke for 30 seconds. Add the cardamom and cloves, followed by the onion, ginger and garlic. 

Fry till light brown in colour. Add all ground spice powders. Fry for a couple of minutes.

Add the chana dal. Stir and then add the spinach. Allow the spinach to wilt a little bit (about 5 minutes). Stir. Add 2 cups of water and salt/ 

Close the lid of the pressure cooker and let it whistle once on high heat. Turn down the heat and cook for another 5-7 minutes. Turn of gas.

When the lid releases, check for water and salt. Serve with raw onions and lemon. 


We enjoyed our chana dal with some steamed rice, and followed it up with a siesta. Joy o joy! After two hours of deep slumber, I went for Coco.

No, not cocoa powder nor Coca Cola. Just Coco - one of the most delightful animation films I watched in a long time. Yet another gem by Pixar, Coco follows the adventures of a young, aspiring musician, Miguel, who accidentally finds himself in the land of the dead. The film is based on the beautiful Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos (Day of the dead).



Friday, November 24, 2017

Oats my mother never made

A friend got his bloodwork done recently, and discovered a borderline cholestrol issue. Since then, I have been trying to convince him to switch over to healthier breakfast alternatives. If you ask me, the one thing that's on top of my list for a morning meal is oats with fruit and nuts. My friend however has unequivocally declared that oatmeal is not something he would ever stoop so low as to consume - cholestrol or not.

Honestly. I get it. This aversion to oatmeal. If anyone would have suggested the same to me before 2015, I would have felt the same thing for sure. In fact, I donot recall ever feeling pleased when my mother would make oats for breakfast back in days. Oats felt - and looked - like something you might be served at a hospital! But, all this was before German Bakery at Anjuna happened to me. That delightful cafe, minutes from our guesthouse and where Len and I spent all our mornings, biting into yumminess. Two weeks in Goa and sometimes I think of German Bakery first, before I remember the sand and sea! Anyhow, I  discovered two things.

1. Oats with fruit and nut
2. Pesto on wholegrain bread

For now, let me focus on the first.

Over the last two years I have tried out a bunch over toppings for my oatmeal. The basic recipe remains the same, I just switch the add-ons, depending on the season and my mood. So, here are three of my favourite toppings in the hope that i might be able to convince least one oatmeal hater to crossing over the other side.

I buy a lot of my ingredients online. Click on the items for more details.


Basic oatmeal: what you need

1/2 cup oats
1 cup milk
3-4 dates, chopped. I prefer this to sugar because of the obvious health benefits. Also, I think it tastes much better!


Option 1: Apple pie oats

Quarter of an apple, chopped into tiny pieces
1-2 tbsp frozen blackberries
1 tsp raisins
5 almonds, chopped
1 tsp pumpkin seeds
A fat pinch of ground cinnamon (add this at the time of cooking the oats)




Option 2: Tropical twist oats

1-2 tbsp ripe chopped mango
1/2 ripe kiwi
1 tsp raisins
1 tsp flaxseed

For a variation of tropical flavours, try swapping the kiwi and mango combo with chunks of ripe pineapple and dragonfruit. Its a delicious combination with perfectly balanced flavours.




Option 3: Cocoa berry oats
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
4 walnuts chopped
1-2 tbsp raspberries or strawberries,  chopped or whole
White chocolate chips
1 tsp honey or maple syrup (optional) for some extra sweetness.


How to

Place milk in a small saucepan along with chopped, pitted dates. Sometimes when in a rush I just add whole dates; makes no difference to the taste obviously. The pitted ones are just a little bit easier to eat. After about 2-3 minutes, add the oats and stir.

Cook the oats till they reach a creamy consistency, which takes about 5-7 minutes.

Serve hot or cold with desired toppings.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Toasty mushroom melts for breakfast

As the cold months are drawing close, and the smog is gradually giving way to crisp winter mornings, I am faced yet again with that ever looming question: how many more minutes in bed? Under such circumstances, I have found that it is of paramount importance to have something fun lined up for the early hours! A little something that make weekday mornings a bit more forgiving. For me - and not surprisingly - is my morning cup of coffee and breakfast.

I find the best way to kickstart a Monday morning is to prep something pretty neat the night before. I first tried out these mushroom melt sandwiches a couple of months back when Rupak was over for brunch. I had forgotten about these but it seems like this is the best season ever to try these out. 


What you need

This recipe yeilds enough stuffing for two large sandwiches.

4-5 large mushrooms, sliced
Handful of tender spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 garlic pod, chopped
1/2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp butter
1/4 cup milk or light cream, warmed or at room temperature
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 slices of bread

Other optional additions

Tomato or bell pepper slices
Cheese slices

How to

The mushroom filling can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge.

To make the filling, add butter and garlic to a pan. As the garlic softens and flavours the fat, add the sliced mushrooms. Allow the mushrooms to gradually release their moisture before you give them a stir.

When slightly browned, add milk and mix. Season with salt and pepper, and cook on a gentle flame. You can add the cornstarch at this time, and allow the filling to thicken.

Add spinach and cover. Once the greens are wilted, turn of the heat.

Cool slightly before spreading it on toast.

Add a thick layer of mushroom filling, and top with tomatoes or bell pepper slices, and finish off with a slice of cheese.

Grill the sandwich in a panini press or in a pan with some additional butter for a delicious golden crust.

Serve immediately! 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Grilled tuna on a bed of spinach

There is such a thing as healthy fast food! 

A great big hiatus but my journey with Piquant Punch is far from over! After a fair bit of deliberation, a lot of self doubt, and little bit of money, I finally decided to take the plunge. Piquant Punch has its own domain space now!

Yoo hoo!

The past week has been strange. On the one hand, I was very distressed over the smog issue in Delhi, and on the other, couldn't help but look forward to the winters and all the wonderful things it brings to our lives. Len and I dutifully popped in our Vitamin C supplements, and resolved to make our lives greener and healthier in the coming weeks. This meant a few things:

1. We take our compost pits more seriously, and do our best to inch closer to a zero-waste lifestyle. Urban composting, as we find isn't as daunting as it seemed initially. Check out the tutorial here.

2. Surround ourselves with as much greenery as we can. And, of course some colourful petunias to wake up to each morning :) 

First petunia of the season


3. Cut down further on the eating out/ordering in regime that is so easy to succumb to. Hanging around in the kitchen is way more comfortable now, and usually a lot of fun. This grilled tuna and spinach recipe is super easy, and requires minimal ingredients and very little time. I think it is best made using a convection oven or OTG, but can be pan-fried as well. 

Tuna is one of my favourite fish. But, ever since I moved towards a more "vegetarian" lifestyle, our intake of fish has reduced drastically. Poor Len gets to eat lesser and lesser of non-vegetarian food around the house! So, once in a while it is nice to break the rules and when I saw tuna at the market I thought of getting some. This recipe would work wonderfully with other kinds fish too, or even chicken, if you prefer that. 

Right off the grill, and ready to be devoured


What you need (grilled tuna)

300 gm fresh tuna, cut into 1/2 or 3/4 inch thick slices

For the marinade

2 fat cloves of crushed garlic
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp vinegar (I used apple cider)
salt and chilli flakes, to taste


How to

Make the marinade by mixing all the item listed under marinade. Apply this to the tuna, and keep aside for at least 15 minutes. This can be done a day ahead as well, and stored in the refrigerator. I like to use the stack-up method while applying any kind of marinade. Basically rub the marinade on to each slice of fish and stack them up one over another in a small container(flat side down), instead of keeping them apart on a tray. This ensure better penetration of the marinade, and less wastage. Win-win all along!  

Preheat oven to 200 C. I like to keep the grill tray in the oven as it is getting heated. For tender grilled fish, cook for about 7-8 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Remember overcooking makes tuna dry and brittle! 



What you need (garlic sauteed spinach)

500 gms tender spinach leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
salt, to taste
Juice of half a lemon, or to taste

How to 

This is the easiest and yummiest spinach side, EVER. And, the best bit is leftovers can be used in a sandwich or served with any other main meal. And, I have three words for this recipe: wonderful, flavourful, versatile!

Now that the praises are out of the way - the method!

Add olive oil to a pan with the garlic. Turn on the heat and let the garlic infuse the oil. Cook this just for a minute or two, or until the garlic has softened and is beginning to colour slightly.

[You can use this time to put the tuna into the oven.]

Add the spinach leaves and cover.

Once the spinach has wilted, give it a good stir. Add salt and turn off the heat. Add the lemon juice and give it all a good stir.

By the time, the spinach is done and the table is set, the tuna is cooked and ready to be enjoyed. This makes a wonderful packed lunch as well, and can be easily enjoyed the next day at work :)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Urban composting

I like growing flowers. Len enjoys composting. Yep. We are a match made for urban gardening! A lot of people I tell this to, ask if we have a stinky terrace. We do not. In fact, that is entirely untrue. Luckily, however, we have a largish terrace and so, do not have to look at any rotting mish-mash every time we step out of our kitchen. 

Ever since we started this we have been able to easily segregate our kitchen waste and there isn't any need for emptying the garbage bin on a daily basis, and reduce our Three things that we maintain as part of our garbage etiquette (yes, I made up that term!) are as follows:


  • Dispose only non-biodegradable dry waste in the kitchen bin. This means plastic wrappers, paper, aluminium foil, and the like. Also, tightly scrunch up any waste so that the bin doesn't fill up too quickly, and there is no need to constantly empty your bin. 
  • All kinds of cooked food waste goes to one corner of our terrace. No matter what we throw, such as leftover rice or vegetables, the friendly neighbourhood crows (and squirrels) will clean it up for you. Also, since we do keep food out for the birds regularly, they make it a point to visit us, every time either one of us step out. Always nice to have someone fly down and say hello :) 
  • Biodegradable waste such as vegetable peels go into our compost pit. Since everybody uses at least some vegetables in their cooking, this is a completely achievable hack no matter how urban your space is! Here's all you need to do.

Making your own compost (pot) at home

Take a (or more) plastic container (We use old, broken planters that have been discarded). The larger the better. Poke some small holes into it all around the pot - the bottom and sides. You could do this using a hand drill. Alternately, the easiest way to do this is use to heat the tip of a screwdriver on a gas stove, and use it to poke holes in the plastic pot. 

Fill the bottom of the pot with dry leaves. Alternately you could also use small, cut-up pieces of cardboard, or newspaper. We use cartons from Amazon in our compost pit, and they breakdown just beautifully!  


Day 1

Day 10

Layer it up with wet biodegradable waste - peels, vegetable stalks, shoots, roots, or anything that is discarded. We NEVER use any kind of meat or fish, but egg shells work just as well. After adding wet waste, layer it up with some dry leaves or cardboard. Saw dust is another super food it seems because of its high carbon content. We haven't tried adding this, but we plan to do this soon.  

Place the compost container raised from the ground. And keep a tray or container at the bottom that can catch all the fluids that drip from it. Anything that accumulates in this container is a powerhouse of nutrients, and can be diluted and used while watering. Remember to keep the container covered with a large tile, or piece or wood.




Alternate dry and wet ingredients and give them a mix every once in a while. Also, spray some water every other day. It should be moist, not wet.

When the pot is full, mix with soil and use it to give your plants a healthy dose of nutrients. 

Update:

We have been composting for a few months, and thanks to Len's perseverance and commitment to this practice, we have been able to reduce our waste manifold. Since it's been a while, I wanted to put up a photograph of what the compost looks like before we are ready to add it to our plants. 

Ready to use

In fact we have also added a larger tub alongside, that is currently halfway done.



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Healthy snacking: Make some granola at home

I tried this out because I was looking for healthy snacking options for those post-lunch binging sessions at work. So, I thought, what's better than an oat-based snack, eh? I like having porridge for breakfast but it does tend to get boring at times, and I had been trying to figure out healthy alternatives to the oily pohas and omlettes available at the canteen upstairs. 

Store-bought granola is mostly imported in the Indian market, and therefore frightfully expensive. But, when made at home it costs less than a third of the price with the additional advantage of the possibility of customizing the recipe. The thing is, there is no one perfect granola recipe. What you love, goes in to your version!

My favourite obviously has lots of nuts and a generous flavouring of cinnamon and vanilla. I modified a recipe I found online and I love it. And, as I said, the possibilities are endless - dried fruit, coconut shavings, anything can be added! 



Fun bit


An assortment of my favourite nuts

What you need

3 cups, oats*
3 tbsp, brown sugar
1 cup, nuts of your choice (walnuts, almonds, cashews)
3 tbsp cup dehydrated fruit or raisins
1 tsp cinnamon powder
2 tbsp, flax seed
1/4 tsp, salt
2 tbsp, mixed melon seeds

1 tsp, vanilla essence
1/4 cup, vegetable oil
1/3 cup, honey + Maple syrup 

* I used Quaker's oats. Do not use one of those instant, pre-flavoured ones.


How to

Step 1: Take a large mixing bowl and mix all the dry ingredients in it.

Step 2: In a separate bowl, mix all wet ingredients. 

Step 3: Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones. These need to mixed till you have a crumbly, soggy mess at hand ;)

Step 4: Take a flat baking tray and line it with aluminium foil. Lightly grease it. Pour out the mixture on to the tray. You should have a thin layer that is uniformly spread out on the tray.

Step 5: In a pre-heated oven, roast the oats for about 15-20 minutes, turning it over once in between.

Step 6: Take out the granola from the oven. Let it cool. The finished product has a crumbly texture.


Here's to snacking in bed!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Quick guide to Khajuraho

Well, hello there 

I have been missing in action for the longest time, but it feels good to be back. The new year has been kind to me and things have been rather busy on all fronts. In the midst of it all, Len and I managed a quick breather: a short trip to the temple town of Khajuraho that has left us with uplifted spirits and weary bones! I thought I'd keep this post resourceful for anyone who is planning a visit to this charming town. 

Contrary to popular conception, the intricate carvings on the temples of Khajuraho are not only about erotic art as we found out. But, sex and eroticism were probably a part of the everyday lives of Gods and Goddesses as well as common men back then, and the sculptures depict that. Not surprisingly though, the Kamasutra was being sold at every nook and corner of the town, as well as imitations of the highly sexualized sculptures.


Relics of a glorious past
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip


About the town

Technically a village, and we instantly noticed this as we moved away from the main road along which are located the Western Group of Temples, museums, and Shilpgram - an artisans centre. This is the heart of the town, with most hotels and eateries concentrated within this 1-2 kilometre zone. The local occupations (apart from hospitality) are farming and cattle rearing. 


Watching the sun set in the horizon
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

Peak of architectural flourish 

Needless to say, the main tourist attraction of Khajuraho is the Hindu and Jain temples built during the Chandel dynasty in around the 11th century. These are segregated into three groups: western group of temples, southern group (Jain) of temples, and eastern group of temples.

The western cluster is the largest of the three, and is organised inside a gated garden. Tickets need to be purchased from a counter next to the entrance and cost Rs 30 (Indians) and Rs 500 (foreigners). These temples are large and beautiful with manicured lawns all around. Near the temples, there are two lakes and a number of restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops selling everything from fridge magnets to so-called pashmina shawls and clothing items. We would recommend Raja Cafe and the Madras Coffee House for a meal. 


Sunny day at the Western group
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

Under the shade of a peepul tree
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

South Indian thali at Madras Coffee House
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip 

The best EVER pasta carbonara: a must-try at Raja Cafe
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

A 20-minute walk will take you to the southern group with three Jain temples inside a single compound. One of these still functions as a live temple. Less crowded than the western group, I found this place to be very peaceful and a nice place to rest under the shaded peepul tree or at the Parshawanath or Adinath temples.  

Shantinath (Jain) temple
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip
Next to the Parshawanath Jain Temple
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip


The last of the temples we visited are located on the eastern fringe of the town. There are three temples that are slightly scattered across large green fields. When we visited, we saw many animals grazing - cows, buffaloes, and even pigs. I loved this place the most. It was open and breezy and if one sits on the steps leading to the Vamana temple, it is a calming sight to take in. Sitting here, I could hear birds chirping, crows cawing, and an occasional cow mooing. I think I even heard a rooster :) We didn't see any hotels this side, only hutment. 



Getting around

There is only one mode of transportation in this town - big autos that can be shared with other passengers or booked individually. Mostly they will ask you for Rs 100 no matter where you want to go, but this can easily be negotiated at Rs 30 or Rs 50. Auto drivers try to strike a deal with you for anything between Rs 300 to Rs 500 for a temple tour. This is quite pointless as the temples are actually all within walking distance and it is easier (and cheaper) to find an auto to ferry you to a particular set of monuments on a need basis. Even better, you could hire a cycle and ride around the town. 

About 20 km from Khajuarho town is the Ken Gharial Sanctuary. More on that, soon!

Best time to visit

As with most plains of India, the winter months are most suited for travelling, and I would recommend end of February for two reasons. First, weather-wise it is comfortable. It is easy to walk for a couple of hours even under the sun. The second reason is the Art Festival that takes place this time every year. Set against the backdrop of the Western Group of Temples, one can enjoy classical and folk dance performances in the evenings. In addition to these, there are also art exhibitions by artists across the country (and some international as well). 


Life-size Chhau dance dolls inside the Art Festival ground
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

Kathak dance performance
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip

The other fun factor for us was the local Shiv Ratri mela that was taking place at the time. For anyone who is keen to visit a true blue rural mela (fair), this is just the perfect place. It was rustic India at its best, without the pretense of sophistication! We took a ride on a massive, rickety giant wheel, among others :)





This little boy on the trampoline was so keen to pose for us
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip
Freshly made sugarcane juice with a dash of lemon and salt
Photo courtesy: Len Haokip
Hotels
We stayed at Isabel Palace Hotel, which is about 1.5 km from the heart of the town. The distance seemed reasonable at the time of booking, but if I have to return I would probably stay at Zostel (an upmarket hostel), or at the state-run Hotel Jhankar. Khajuraho shuts down completely by 11 pm and restaurants serve up to about 10:30 pm. Also, the roads beyond the market get dark and deserted after 9 pm. I wouldn't say it felt particularly unsafe, but it would have been more convenient to stay closer to the western group of temples.