This post has two inspirations: my first and truer one is just to explore what amaranths can do when taken out of the ambit of Indian cookery, while the second snarkier one is to poke fun at the hyper-trendy naming conventions that glorify all these purported latest super-foods (that the rest of the world has been eating routinely for decades before they became superfoods–bit like Columbus “discovering” the Americas).
Take-home point: Just eat lots of greens, ok? They’re good for you. But if you’re using arakeerais, bear in mind they’re warming foods, so better consumed in cooler months than in hot summers. In the summer months, substitute mulaikeerai or sirukeerai, instead. They’re all wild enough, and can be micro-enough. So that way you can have your trending superfood and eat it, too. read more…
There is a road just past the toll booth that provides access to the Tindivanam highway and the turn-off to Auroville that all the people here would call the “Koot” road. So many non-Indians living around here, the road name always sounded a little oddly foreign–until I realized its Tamil origins: kuudu means to join or combine, so koottam [கூட்டம்] is a crowd or a joining together of people, and indeed the Koot road is one that joins the Tindivanam road. With the Auroville turning at the other end, the intersection feels like a spot where four roads come together.
So now you’ll understand the use of kootu [கூட்டு] to describe a dal preparation in which lentils are combined with usually just one vegetable and some ground spices and coconut. Kootus are a bringing together of disparate elements, and a recombination of them all into something that makes beautiful sense–and yet retains a sense of the distinctness of each ingredient.
Understanding greens, or keerais as they’re called in Tamil, means also understanding the poṟiyal [பொரியல்]–which is a category of Tamil cookery as much as it is a dish, usually dry, made of steamed-and-seasoned or gently stir-fried vegetables. Equivalents and variants of the poṟiyal exist in all regional Indian cuisines, but for us an essential ingredient is a handful of fresh coconut. And no turmeric!
Poriyals are fast to prepare, very lightly seasoned, and very gently cooked–in essence, antithesis to the idea of “curry,” as Westerners understand Indian cuisine, and answer to every common outside critique of Indian food: “It’s always so yellow!”–“They overcook their vegetables!”–“Everything has a sauce..”–“It’s too spicy!” read more…
I know Noila’s voice long before I know her. I’ve heard her in the early mornings as she walks house-to-house in the fisher locality I call home, calling the names of the greens and garden vegetables she carries: arakeerai, sorakaya, vazhappuu, keeraaaaai! ‘mma, keeraaai! “Keerai” is the Tamil word for greens.
I have to teach myself to listen for her, child of the modern grocery store that I am: well-schooled in thinking of agency and control in terms of choices I make, instead of parameters drawn circumstantially for me. Noila belongs to an era which feels more bygone than it really is, one in which so many people walk neighborhood streets and bring so many more daily needs and small services home. read more…
The jamuns are here, again.
The longish plump varieties we get in the markets here come to us from the jamun-growing regions of southern Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Years and years ago when I was a graduate student doing fieldwork in Hyderabad, I would find myself in the galis (small side roads) around Charminar listening to the dull metallic rhythms of the vark workers–thap-thap-thap, tha-thip-ip-tha-thip-ip-tha-thip-ip–hitting bits of silver into wafer-thinness in unplanned harmony. I hear that people living near such areas complain of the incessant repetitive sound, but for me it always had a strangely hypnotic, telling musicality. It’s a work sound: a day-long repetitive, monotonous rhythm that adds sparkle and delight to food. Somebody’s costly livelihood, someone else’s costly pleasure.
I stopped once–my entry pausing the thap-thap-thap of the shop briefly–and bought myself a stack of vark foil, each paper-thin leaf sandwiched between two uniformly cut pieces of newspaper. Being not much of a cook at the time, I had no particular plans for the vark, except maybe New Year cards or a little painting. So it was that the stack traveled with me to Houston, and then back to Pondicherry a decade later, safely stored with fieldnotes and old address cards, forgotten–and then rediscovered just the other day in a mad spate of cupboard cleaning. It had been with me, like all the little-little ideas and stories that never made it into my dissertation or my book, for nearly 20 years. read more…
Doesn’t the title just say it all? It’s not store-bought, it’s not pre-mixed, it’s not made from powdery packaged hibiscus teas of uncertain provenance. This is a margarita made of lime, love, and hibiscus flowers blooming in the garden.
After the immense success of her Lavender Blues series of drinks and deserts, the mother’s younger son set her her second primary color challenge. “You’ve done blue,” he said, ever the tinkerer and experimenter, “Now do red.”
“Oh but that’s easy,” said the mother.
“Show me,” said the boy.
So they wandered out into the hot summer garden to pick hibiscus flowers, thanking each bush in turn for the flowers which seemed not to care whether there was water or cool breeze to keep coming, and coming, and coming. read more…
[This post is for Mandakini, through whom I finally discovered what I’d had at home all along–and for Kavita, who shares my interest in new ingredients and brought this to me much too long ago. With love and grateful thanks.]
I promised myself once that when I traveled, whether for work or for fun, I’d come home with at least one of two things: a song, or an ingredient–which of course implies a recipe.
Ingredients are generally easier than songs, but I’ve had my share of challenges and successes with both. I learned a Shona lullaby from a loud story-telling Nigerian-mimicking cabbie who drove us from Nelspruit to Ermelo in South Africa one early fall night. Up in the Himalayan foothills enroute to Sandakphu, a catchy Nepali song we all loved turned out to be about a love of alcohol–there was both song and ingredient. Pandan came home with me from Bali (more on that growing experiment later). read more…
[Updated with tomato and hemp seed variation, April 25]
Fact was, there were too many tomatoes, and bushels more coming in daily from the overgrown, exuberant, heedlessly growing garden. There were only two choices, if we couldn’t eat them fast enough: give them away (some were), or chutney.
The second part was a no-brainer, and if you want to follow along, here’s the path. Only one warning: chutneys are, by definition, mash-ups, made up anew each time. The only formula for making them is a rough guide, and your best sense of taste. Got that? Still with me? Ok then.
[Update on May 2, 2016: if you don’t want puddings, mould these and make little cakes of ’em! Scroll down-down to see how.]
This was a serendipitous case of working with only what ingredients were on hand, to create a dessert that pleased everyone.
There were people coming to dinner. A meal had to be made; dessert had to be vegan. It was pouring, so there wasn’t a chance of running to any store–who knew what would be open? This was no MasterChef Pondicherry set-up, but the pressure was on, time was tight, and the possibility of public shaming not precisely absent. read more…