Friday, June 8, 2012

Pitla - thoda vegla

Pitla, jowar bhakri and thecha are the staple of upcountry Maharashtra. A simple combination that makes the mouth salivate even at its mere mention. The main dish in this combine is the Pitla, a silky smooth, and extremely humble main course made from gram-flour (besan) that is even making way into the menu cards of fancy restaurants. My first encounter with the Pitla was when I was studying my engineering. If you reached late and the main dish was over, the cooks came up with a fast Pitla. That taste has stayed with me since.

In Mumbai, I have had Pitla at Diva Maharashtracha (a boutique restaurant started by Goa Portuguesa), Mi Marathi (in Vile Parle East) and at Gypsy (Shivaji Park), and my vote definitely goes to Gyspy. Gypsy makes the other two vital accoutrements, thecha and jowar bhakri, unbeatable. 

I am generally a traditionalist, but if my dishes dont have my touch in them, I think of them as a rip-off. Many of my food experiments happen because of this. Some others 'happen' because I run out of ingredients (its easy to run out even basics in a bachelor kitchen), and I substitute one for the other. About half of all my experiments are worth trying again and a quarter are complete disasters. In the Pitla version below, I ran out of mustard seeds and  cummin seeds at home and Kasuri methi was added as a substitute. It tasted wonderful. In the recipe below I have also added the two seeds that make it even better (may your kitchen never run out of these two!). 

Here is my version of the Pitla - thoda vegla (meaning slightly different in Marathi). This is the Kasuri methi, capsicum version of one of my favourite Maharashtrian dishes.

Main Ingredients 

- Besan (gram flour) - 1 cup
- Water - 3 cups

- One medium onions (chopped fine)
One tomato (chopped fine)
- Roughly cut index sized capsicum
- Kasuri methi two tbsp

Other ingredients

- Cummin seeds - half teaspoon
- Mustard seeds - half teaspoon
- 3 green chillis and 3 pods of garlic - hand-pounded into a rough mix
- Eight or nine Curry leaves
- Salt to taste
Turmeric powder half teaspoon
Refined oil - 2 table spoons


- Mix besan, salt, turmeric with the water and keep aside
- Sputter mustard seeds in oil 
- Add curry leaves
- Add cummin seeds (jeera) and saute
- Add chopped onion and fry well till translucent 
- Add tomatoes till they are well done
- Add capsicum and saute for 1-2 minutes
- Add the besan mix and keep stirring till it has a thickish consistency (remember that the mix will thicken a little even after the heat has stopped)
- Garnish with Kasuri methi

Thecha method

- Dry roast 10-12 peanuts and remove the skin
- Take a flat pan (any tawa will do well) and add 2 tsp of oil (I usually prefer peanut oil for this)
- Saute 10 green chillis and 10 pods of garlic till they begin to blacken a little
- Hand pound the above three with some rock salt till it is a rough paste. 

[The thecha works wonderful base for veg sandwiches as well. Since it is very spicy, one needs to use it in moderation]

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Indian Thali love-affair

Almost everyone knows the trouble in trying to maintain ones' girth size, let alone reduce it. Two of my recent acquisitions, an inch-tape and electronic weighing machine, both of which I use several times a week, show I've become a victim of this predicament too. I've also bought myself running shoes, track-pants, a swimming cap & swimming goggles; which I've looked at often but used very infrequently over the last few months. But, you have to credit the intent. One change that this consciousness about my growing rotundity has brought about is that my favourite food pleasures have got a temporary axe. Chocolates, for one, which I have fought to take the larger share of (from my siblings in my childhood), are now consumed in quarter-parts with several partly-finished ones lining my refrigerator shelf.

Another outdoor culinary favourite for  me is the Indian thali (also called, rice-plate, taat or meals), and I've had to limit my indulgence in the recent past as I tend to overeat when the servings have a wide-variety and are unlimited in quantity. In my initial years in Mumbai, I had survived on the rice-plate, and it was available in almost every small restaurant, the kind which I frequented. The inablity of being able to actively participate in the food about to be consumed,and yet getting a mix of some favourite food on your plate as also some not-so-favourite ones, always gave me a feeling that I was home.

Eating the thali can only be described as an experience. Each place, not only gives you a taste of the cuisine, but also of the culture and the people (especially the guests), leaving you with a feeling like visiting a relative from your native place after a very long time. What is common among all the thali places is that they are all uniquely Indian; all giving a similar flavour of the 'athithi' feeling.

There are several popular Thalis  that have been much written about and I'm just listing the ones that are top on my list. Mumbai has some places which only serve thalis, like Matunga's Rama Naik (where South Indian food is served on a plantain leaf).  There is Status (Regent Chambers, Nariman Point) & Samrat (Prem Court, Churchgate) both of which serve a sumptuous Gujarati fare. The Rajasthani culinary spread & hospitality is expressed very well at Rajdhani (Palladium, Pheonix Mills). The Ghazali fish thali (Phoenix Mills) is really delectable and this is one of the places where my current resolution about not eating thalis succumbs.

A few Five Star Hotels also serve this middle-class staple, but the penchant for experimentation by Chef's often brings some mish-mash of non-authentic dishes on the plate. While the Konkani spread at Konkan Cafe (Taj President, Cuffe Parade) just about passes muster, the  Tamilian thali at Vindhyas (Orchid Hotel, Near Airport) is among the better ones in these high-cost, hi-flying places.

Cholayil Ayurvedic meals
In other cities there are several ones that I've tried and loved. In Hyderabad, the Southern Spice Andhra thali is among the best in the city, though Chutney's (Banjara Hills) does not really come up wiith top numbers in this category (though it is quite a wonderful place for all a la carte South Indian stuff). My favourites in Chennai are Cholayil Sanjeevanam (which serves authentic Ayurvedic food which you're supposed to also eat in a particular prescribed order) and the Saravana Bhavan full-meals. Surprisingly though, none of the bigger hotel-restaurants, including the Taj chain or the GRT Hotels, meet the expectation on South Indian meals.

One such tangy recipe, the Tamarind Aloo, which I gathered from these southern thali splurges is given below. Writing this has been tough on my carb-deficient brain, but my conscience will unfortunately not allow me to go thali-binging till I am able to put some stop on my horizontal expansion.

Tamarind Aloo

Main Ingredients

- Two large potatoes (cut in small squares)
- Two medium onions (chopped fine)
- Six to seven Garlic pods (chopped fine or paste)
- One index finger length peeled Ginger (chopped fine or paste)
- One tomato (chopped fine)

Other ingredients

- Cummin seeds - half teaspoon
- Mustard seeds - half teaspoon
- Green chilli - One (chopped fine)
- Eight or nine Curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- Red chilli power
- Turmeric powder half teaspoon
- Tamirind juice extracted from small lime sized tamirind ball
- Refined oil - 2 table spoons


- Sputter mustard seeds in oil
- Add curry leaves
- Add cummin seeds (jeera) and saute
- Add chopped onion and fry well till brown
- Add cut potatoes and fry till well done and a little brown
- Add tomatoes and add salt, turmeric and chilli
- Fry till till half done
- Add taminrind juice and simmer till lid for 10-12 minutes

Serve as a gravy dish or dry (to dry keep lid open while placed on simmer) with rice or breads/chapatti.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Finding the right Hapoos (Alfonso) mango?

Ratnagiri, Vengurla, Devgad, Sindudurg - the bordering Konkan areas have more than just the scenic beaches in common - they have the aromatic, exotic Hapoos. I am yet to decipher the nuances between the varieties available from these three sources, but the several people I have spoken with swear by the fact that the Devgad variety is the best. I have had both the Vengurla and the Devgad varieties and loved both, so I dont hold any bias.

I hate buying Hapoos, because I dont know how to. In the few times I've tried to make a purchase, I've expected a lot from the mighty mango and invariably been disappointed at the outcome. At the end of it, I invariably feel cheated of the Alfonso experience. Since my last mango season almost went hapoos-dry (I dint buy even one box of this variety), I was determined to get to know Alfie better.

I now know that unscruplous sellers also chemically treat the Alfonso with Calcium Carbide, a chemical that causes the external skin to ripen into a rich yellow because of its heat. Since the trade hardly lasts for 45 days, it must be necessary for the traders to turn around their stock extremely fast and hence the use of CaCa (Thats not its chemical name, mind you). The chemical is supposed to release ethylene (mimicing nature) which helps in the ripening of the fruit. I've even heard that some farmers/buyers spray the entire orchard with the chemical to 'ripen' all the fruits of tree. If this treatment gave a result that even vaguely resembled natures miraculous aroma and taste, I would not object; but unfortunately the mango remains quite sour (though it looks ripe). Also, the artificially ripened Hapoos is also supposed cause minor irritation in the throat and may have other side effects too (which I'm not aware of).This white powder leaves tell tale marks on the skin and if not that, then the first bite will tell. If treated, even the best looking mango of the batch will give opposiite visual and taste cues.

During my visits to Goa, I've taken copious notes on how to look for the best Hapoos variety from anyone willing to give me some gyan. Here are the tips for buying the best Hapoos.

1. The final color of the fruit must be a wonderous bright yellow
2. It must have an overpowering aroma (something that typically fills the room or area)
3. A good size of the fruit is approximately the size of my palm (or any other male palm).
4. The fruit must be semi-firm, semi-soft (not too firm for then it is still not ripe, too soft and it is over done)
5. Medium to large sizes are better than the small ones
6. The stem must be firmly placed in the mango and it must be pressing in (and not loose)

Finally of course, there's this huge comfort that I draw if my Alfonsos are coming from the source. If you have someone travelling to these areas, then make sure you request your box.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Goan Summer

If you are addicted to Goa like I am then usually the weather will not matter, even though the summer can be quite oppressive. April and May bring on the heat along with a stickiness in the air which makes outdoor movement between 10am and 4pm diffficult. Beating the heat is restricted to downing chilled beers and passing time in a shady pool (its even better if you're doing both at the same time).

There's one more trick that can help you beat the Goan heat, and that's a change of venue. On the Northern tip of Goa, touching the tri-state border of Goa with Karnataka and Maharashtra are the Chorla Ghats. They are very much Goa, and yet they are not. The experience is different and yet the language, cuisine and attitude is quintessentially Goan.

Chorla Ghats are about 65 Km from the Dabolim Airport and a similar distance from the tourist-infested Baga, though this thickly forested destination takes about 2 hours to reach because of the narrow roads (some of which are currently being widened and re-tarred) and winding ghats. These ghats fall on the road connecting Goa to NH17, which goes on to meet Belgaum.

The road driving up is bordered with yellow lines of flowers on both sides making the drive resemble a bending runway strip, the forest thickly shadows the road and provides a green canopy covering the sky, and there is a sweet, fragrant smell that even seeps through the closed air-conditioning vent of your vehicle. On being told about the origin of the smell, I realize that I have stumbled upon the great Goan secret of Feni brewing.  

The picture to the right shows an authentic, government-licensed, feni brewing plant or bhatti. A surprising fact I came to know was that while Cashew is not native to India and was imported by the Portugese seemingly to prevent soil errosion, India is the only country which brews the fruit of this magnificent plant. And who else could you credit such an amazing invention to but the enterprising Goans.  Feni in its most pure stage is actually used as medicine. Its intense heat is a cure for coughs and 10-20ml portions, flamed are often given to treat bad bouts  of cold in children. Grown up men use the same drink to treat bad bouts of reality.

But here we talk about a little known brew, the precursor of Feni, a wonderful drink called Hurrak. The Hurrak is the first stream of cashew alcohol. This drink when redistilled twice evolves into Feni. The beaten cashew fruit is put in water and fermented for about 8 days. After this the liquid is distilled in earthen pots over slow fire to condense into drums which filter down to drip as Hurrak. I picked up a bottle of this brew and got a bargain in Forty Rupees for the liter (because the bottle I used was my own). The drink has luckily survived the check-in baggage handlers and rests in my refrigerator.

The Hurrak is a light, fragrant drink that reminds me of slightly over-fermented toddy. The taste is like Vodka and so is the heat. Hurrak concoctions are only supposed to be had in the summers and even its brewing is stopped as soon as the rains begin. (I am yet to fathom the reason for this). It stores well in the fridge for about 3-4 months, and like other local alcohols, it unfortunately has an expiry date.

A friend, Raju Nayak, Editor of leading paper in Goa, and a connoisseur of good beverages has recently introduced me to a cocktail with Hurrak base, which I have named Goan Summer. It is refreshing and can be had in large quantities and it has no nasty next day after-effects even after copious consumption. (I can vouch for it as I have emperical evidence to support the claim)

Goan Summer

- 45 ml chilled Hurrak (Raju suggests 90ml or half-quarter)
- Chilled Soda
- Salt (two pinches)
- Quarter of lime
- Limca or any lime based areated drink


- Add 45 ml Hurrak, salt and squeeze quarter lime (and drop it) in a cocktail glass
- Add chilled Soda and one finger of the lime based drink.
- Crust with salt (crusting requires you to run the lime on the rim of the glass and tap the glass on a thin bed of salt)

[You'll regret it if you run out of Hurrak so make some Goan friends quickly]

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Matunga mein mini-Madras!

To be politically correct, the title should have been ... Matunga mein mini-Chennai, but I don't think anyone in Matunga or Chennai would care too much. In fact I am pretty sure that the ones in Matunga may even take offence at the politically corrected title.

Matunga runs a sub-culture that has a piquant Tam-Bram flavour, laced with a undertone of an unlikely Gujarati seasoning. While the restaurants here are mainly run by South Indians, all other shops are dominated by Gujaratis (who, incidentally, speak pretty good Tamil). Though the dominant restaurant cuisine here is South Indian, the customers are mainly Gujarati. I've even been to a DVD shop run by a Gujarati, who knew all the latest Tamil movie hits. Such is the bipolarity of Matunga.

Originally the South Indians who settled here were Tamilians, but very few restaurants are run by them. Perhaps because Tamilian Brahmins are traditionally risk-averse job-seekers, most of the restaurants here are owned by the more entrepreneurial migrants from Udupi. There's perhaps a restaurant for every 500 residents of Matunga, but despite the high density, the search for the appropriate place to eat in Matunga can be quite a task.

The most famous place to eat in Matunga is arguably Rama Nayak's Udipi Shri Krishna Lodging situated adjacent to Matunga station. Tomes have been written about the place and its food (where you can ask to be served on a plantain leaf). The food here is very tasty, but has more Udipi overtones than Tamilian. There are two main food-types available here; limited and unlimited (which implies that one can have any amount of anything, barring the dessert) and takeaways are also welcome.

Judging from the crowd outside this place, Madras Cafe could be adjudged the second most famous place in Matunga . This is a small place in the road corner in King's Circle which you may even miss if you dont pay close attention. The variety, quality and consistency of the food here is delectable provided you manage a place to sit. Peserrettu (a coarse grain dosa) is my personal favourite and this place undisputedly has the best kaapi in all of Mumbai.

Rama Nayak (Air Conditioned), on the Kings Circle, is the third place I frequent to satiate my inherited tastes, especially for a late Sunday breakfast (because very strangely, this place only opens at 11:00 am). Their rice preparations are light and tasty and I quite often pack myself a few curd-rice (this is the place where I learnt the combination of fried cummin seeds in curd rice) and bisibelahuli anna (a rice dish mixed with vegetables and sambar like gravy) to last me a few meals at home. There are several others which also make grade like Sundar's, Mani's, Mysore Cafe and Idli House (a place which exclusively serves idlis).

I've had rasam, the ambrosia of South Indians, at all these restaurants and am quite amazed at the variety available, with each place having its own unique taste and flavour.  Change a few ingredients and type of rasam-powder, and your end product is unrecognizable. When I make rasam at home, I use a recipe given by Gouri, my younger sister. I had called her when I was going through rasam-pangs one day and she recited this to me. It  don't know where she got this recipe from, but it seems like a family hand-me-down, because I din't even find similar ones mentioned in  the bible of Tamilian cooking 'Cook and See' (Samayatha paar).

The traditional use of rasam is to mix with rice (like sambar), but it can also be a delightful drink with its hot and tangy flavour. This concoction is also a cure for a bad cold/cough, or even for a day which has gone below expectations. Of all the types of rasam I know, this one mentioned here is the easiest and fastest.

Mulaga-Jeera-Poond rasam (Pepper-Cummin-Garlic rasam)

Main ingredients

- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into quarters
- 1 green chilli
- Extraced juice of one small lime sized tamarind ball
- 600 ml water
- Quarter teaspoon of asafoetida
- Half teaspoon of rasam powder (or sambar powder, though preferably the previous)
- 10-12 fresh curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- Quarter teaspoon turmeric powder
- 10-12 pods of black pepper, 1 tsp of cummin seeds, 6-8 medium garlic pods (crushed together)

Other ingredients

- Two handfuls of finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
- 300 ml water
- 1 tsp of ghee or groundnut oil
- 1 dried red chilli
- 1/2 tsp of cummin seeds


1. Take all the main ingredients and half the chopped coriander leaves and bring it to a boil in a open container. Let the water reduce to half.
2. Add the balance 300 ml of water, and keep at simmer for 10-12 minutes.
3. Just before talking off the fire, add the balance coriander leaves
4. Heat ghee/groundnut oil, add the red chilli for 10 seconds and then add the cummin seeds till brown. Drop  this into the container and cover.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Puffed up!

If you're from the North of India, you probably would understand the term 'bread puff'. In my ealiest memory,  the puff-maker was a bread toaster, with two concaved rhombuses to hold the bread and the stuffing. It had two long handles, one from the top and the other from the bottom, which locked near the end with a small hook-like contraption that could be swung to a tight closure.  This would be placed over an open flame, being turned often, and opened as often, to see if the bread was done. The perfect bread-puff had to have a brown hue and crustier sides (the part which I enjoyed most).

During my school days, this was a staple tiffin, my recess lunch, the stuffing usually being the remaining dry subzi of the previous night. Aloo was everyone's favourite. My personal combination was to have cheeni puff after every aloo puff. The cheeni puff had a thin layer of white sugar in between the bread slices. Though this puff would be thinner than those with other stuffings, it would also become crispier and sometimes, the sugar inside would even melt a little, remaining half-crunchy, half-absorbed into the spongy bread.

For best results, the bread had to have a generous layer of home-made ghee on both sides (in my later years I have begun to use flavoured olive oil), and the aromas of softly cooking bread, ghee and stuffing made a heady, redolent mix. After I shifted to Mumbai, I only saw the puff-maker at roadside sandwich-walas. When I shifted from a PG into my own place, it was the first kitchen equipment I wanted and I ended up getting the electric-type, with twin slots. Though the outcome is quite tasty, it never matches the puff-taste in my memory. I use this electric, twin-slot puff maker at least thrice a week for a quick breakfast, but I am also searching for a flame heated puff-maker to pander to the taste buds of my memory.

Here is one of the simplest, yet tastiest breakfast meals.
Potato-mash puff

For all puffs, you can lightly spread some olive oil on the outer layer of the bread.

Main ingredients

- 2 potatoes, boiled and mashed well (with the skin)
- 1 medium onion [chopped fine]
- 1 green chilli [chopped fine]
- 1 small cup of coriander leaves [chopped fine]

Other ingredients

- 1/2 tsp Chaat masala
- 1/4 tsp of aamchur
- 1/4 tsp of red chilli powder
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp Olive oil


Mash all the ingredients well to make the bread stuffing and puff till outsides are brown and crispy.

One can experiment with almost anything in a bread puff. If it can be eaten, it can probably be 'puffed'.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Drinking your food

There's hardly a vegetable I don't like - but if someone asked me how I like my food best - then it must be hot, it must have lots of liquid (almost drinkable), it must be savoury(and must make your mouth water in anticipation). For example, it could be a light dal, a dish with lots of gravy, or even a good soup.

During my first dozen years in Mumbai, I used to eat most of my meals in restaurants. Every dish had to be the way I liked it, Mutter paneer was "Bade paneer ke tukde, fry kiye hue. Double uble hue mutter. Aur, pani ki tarah gravy." [Big pieces of fried paneer, double boiled peas and water-like gravy] Such would be the standard instruction to anyone who waited on me.

I remember when I went to a friend's house for lunch in Chandigarh a few years back. Her grandmother had made some plain ghar-wali daal. There was enough to last the evening meal too, but when I started with it, I unabashedly drank cup-after-cup, much to the grandmother's delight,  and my friend's exclaimed shock. They had to make fresh dal for dinner.

I think I like fluid-foods because I love to drink much of my food. If my food quenches my thirst, while satisfying my hunger, I think I like it best. If it is rasam-saadam (the south indian staple, Rasam rice), the mix would be in a large cup with little rice and lots of rasam. Dal must be drunk, and I must feel the liquid gravy of the subzi flow down my gullet. Soups are a natural favourite, and many times, I have made a satisfying meal of upto 4 cups of french-onion soup alone.

One good variant of a nutritious soup emerged from my need to finish some cut vegetables at home. The  soup made with the main ingredients of tomato and peas, has become a staple with me every time I want a quick, tasty and nutritious meal.

Tomato-Pea vegetable soup

 Main ingredients

- 1 large garlic, crushed well
- 1 small onion [chopped fine]
- 1 small boiled potato (or half of medium potato) [cut small]
- 1/2 cup peas
- 1 small tomato (cut small)
- 1 tsp scoop of butter
- 1 tbsp fine-flour (maida)

Other ingredients
- Fresh Oregano [few leaves]
- Fresh Rosemary [one sprig]
- Fresh Basil [few leaves]
- Sea Salt and Pepper to taste (freshly ground)


1. Heat the butter till it froths and the garlic
2. Add the onion and fry till transluscent
3. Add flour and stir (but do not let it get brown)
4. Add the peas and saute for 2 minutes (till a little soft)
5. Add tomatoes and fry till little soft
6. Add the cut potato pieces and turn for 1 minutes
7. Add 3 cups of vegetable stock and the herbs.
8. Bring to boil and cool down partly
9. Remove 90% of the ingredients and do a rough puree
10. Add back to 10% and simmer for 10 minutes
11. Add Sea-salt and herbed pepper to taste.

Serve hot with breadsticks or garlic bread.