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Street Food Chronicles: Roti Sai Mai in Ayutthaya

2016 November 30

Outside the temple ruins of Ayutthaya historical park, which is otherwise known for its one remaining Buddha head captured with terrific symbolism in the roots of a Bodhi tree, are these women who move at the speed of light making a locally distinctive roti called Roti Sai Mai.

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“Sai Mai” refers to the “silky threads” of colored candy floss around which each roti is wrapped, creating a soft-crunch of a little on-the-go snack.

Although the “roti” of roti sai mai is usually clubbed with other rotis of Muslim-Indian origin, this one is colored green with pandan, and made quite differently — by spreading a gooey dough directly by hand onto a well-seasoned, heated surface with apparently no grease at all.

Three or more rotis spread at a time, what is astonishing is the speed with which some of the Muslim women who make these pancakes work. One hand works the dough, while the other wields a spatula to release the pancake from the griddle and toss it onto a growing pile.

Sounds simple? Here’s the woman who mesmerized us with the effortless speed of all her expert movements. With one hand mixing a bowl of dough set by her side, she slaps a handful down on the hot griddle, and works it into a circle:

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She then uses her dough-free hand to smoothen the rotis with a small spatula:

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Before you can really tell what is going on, she uses the spatula to ease off an already-cooking roti–and it flies from her hands onto a pile at her side.

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Blink, and she’s prepping the next roti.

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And there goes the next…

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All without missing a conversational thread or a single beat.

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And another roti flies off the griddle, and onto the waiting pile.

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The resulting roti is not crispy like the Thai Roti Banana, but a softer, lighter, pandan-scented pancake.

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The ladies packaged our rotis with small packs of pulled cotton candy in three colors: green, pink, and beige.

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We took our rotis and sai mai back to our garden hotel, and rolled them for ourselves there.

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Then my older one put on a slow-mo-show before devouring the lot:

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Learn how to spin sugar without a machine here and here. And try your hand at your own roti sai mai!

Street Food Chronicles: Thai Roti Banana at Phuket’s Weekend Night Market

2016 November 26

From the grandeur and vast imaginings of Angkor Wat, we found rotis in Phuket’s night market: little signs of cultural dimension and historical movement in a town that otherwise has very little of its own. “Rotis” are what we, in India, would call the maida paratha or the white flour paratha: a typically Kerala Muslim preparation with variants in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

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Except in these parts the roti is served sweetened with condensed milk, or with a banana rolled in, drizzled with chocolate. read more…

Street Food Chronicles: Fried Ice Cream in Siem Reap

2016 November 23

We travel, we eat, sometimes on the street. This time, we found something called “Fried ice cream” while wandering about Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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How to Churn Butter from Raw Cream, and Six ways to use Home Made Butter

2016 November 19
File this one also away under "food curiosities of the global south"--unless--

You find yourself living in a small town which vies for global smart city designations while beating with the heart of a provincial fishing village–and your milk comes daily from a cow.

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At first, you’ll approach your new life with old information. You’ll skim off the cream that forms after daily boilings of your 1.5l milk quota and toss what you’ve learned to treat as cholesterol-heavy fat into the trash — until all your many mothers stand agape at your American wastefulness and set the ease of your trashing habits against the ease of churning butter. You’ll smart at their jibes and roll up your sleeves: no American are thee. read more…

The Coral Jasmine Honey Mood Cocktail

2016 October 15

After I’d done blue and red, my younger one said: do yellow–and the bar was once again set.

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The challenge was the find or grow something in the garden, and use that to extract a natural yellow tint that could be used to make a drink. Turmeric would have been a natural choice, especially given that “turmeric lattes” are all the rage. But I wanted a clear drink to match the others, not a milky one,and turmeric seemed the wrong taste for a cocktail (or mocktail) anyway. We considered others: marigolds, calendulas.. but none seemed possible or safe to drink or interesting enough.

Until a dawn of garden wandering brought me to my suddenly-so-large coral jasmine or parijat tree–which in Bengal is the beloved shiuli or shefali of worship and poetry alike, and in the North is harsingar. Tamilians also call it pavazha malli, or pearl jasmine. The ground beneath my tree was strewn with the night’s fallen blossoms ..

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Patra [Spicy tangy taro leaf and gram flour roll-ups]

2016 October 10

I’m not at all sure that this lovely little Gujarati-Maharashtrian snack called “patra” (or patraveliya, or aḷuvaḍi–अळूवडी, or patrode) is to be made as an offering to the victorious Goddess of Dussehra or Vijaya Dashami — who is worshiped so much more fervently in the Eastern states than the Western. But when ingredients present themselves, I follow their leads — and hope humbly that She will not mind. For those fasting or otherwise observing strictures during this festival season, this is after all an entirely sattvic food as understood by Ayurveda: no-onion-no-garlic; “pure, essential, natural, vital, energy-containing, clean, conscious, true, honest, wise.”


So, I’ll get to it. The “patra” of patra are the leaves of the taro or colocasia plant (the root of which is known locally as arbi, in Tamil cheppankizhangu). They are large, and almost elephant-eared (not to be confused with garden elephant ears which are inedible!). Smeared with a spicy chick-pea flour paste, they are rolled, steamed, and then lightly fried and seasoned. The result is a crisp, hearty little snack: perfect as a starter or with a steaming cup of afternoon tea. read more…

The Best Balsamic Vinaigrette Ever

2016 September 28

Adapted from Chinese Grandma, this classic tangy balsamic vinaigrette with just the right touch of honey-sweetness takes less than 10 minutes to assemble, and stores well for a long while. We use it on everything that looks like a salad, feels like a salad, or might just become a salad, and to give any combinations of steamed or grilled veggies a little zip-zap. No more intro needed now, just the illustrated recipe. Thank you, Chinese Grandma!

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Manjula and the Goddess: A Story about Sulking, Sharing, and the Love of Good Brinjals

2016 September 23

This is a story my mother used to tell, of a village woman and a village goddess and of the unexpected friendships that can develop over a good brinjal curry. Here it is, along with the vivid and lively watercolor illustrations by my dear friend, colleague, and fellow-discoverer-of-children’s-worlds, Khushboo Biyani.

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This is the story of a woman who loved to eat brinjals. Her name was Manjula, or Manju for short. She lived in a time when daughters were married into the homes of their husbands, and lived with mothers and fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law and a whole mess of an extended family. And at a time when young daughters-in-law would feed everyone in the household first, before eating themselves.

Now Manju’s brinjal curries were delectable. So much was her love for the vegetable, it poured itself into what she made. So much so, that the dish was gone almost as soon as it was made–and there was never much left for the cook herself.
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The Pondicherry Fling Cocktail

2016 September 11

Make no mistake, this is a story of a most passionate love affair–but not the sort you’d expect. It’s a love story of a woman and a place and all the things in the place she finds, and of earthy enjoyments so sublime.

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Now the woman lives in a place where things grow, almost against the odds. It is hot here and salty. It’s a fishing village and can be filthy. Visitors come in droves for cheap booze and the seaside, a little heritage by the wayside. They make this place in their own image, with shacks and bars and resorts aplenty, and all things the same but the air seasoned salty. Not so for those who stay. Those who stay simply know that this is a town where things can grow.

So they planted Auroville full of trees, reforested a world of scorching breeze. They cultured strange cheeses, they yeasted unusual breads, seeded cold kombuchas, found strange new sheens in the polished wood of fallen trees, and buried themselves in the red, hot soil. They sought no assurance that anything would ever taste the same, ever again. read more…

Gaund Ki Laddoo [Roasted Wheat, Almond, and Edible Gum Balls]

2016 September 5

There ought to be a book somewhere about the culinary uses of gums and resins–think xanthan gum or gum arabica, which you’ve likely seen on a food label here or there, for instance–but I confess I’ve not searched hard enough to find one. But where xanthan and gum arabica are hidden ingredients, for us Indians, gums are widely known and commonly used. Think “hing” or “asafoetida,” which is a daily-use seasoning ingredient, the somewhat stinky (but oh!-so-redolent when it’s fried) gum of the ferula communis, a carrot family plant. Tamilians will recognize the “badam pisini” as the gum of the almond tree, used to make a rather outrageous drink called the jil-jil-jigarthanda. But more on that later.


For now, I’m concerned with the gum of the axlewood tree, known particularly to Rajasthanis as gaund and used to make lots of sweets and snacks–of which my favorite, and the one I’m falling over myself to offer in honor of Vinayaka Chaturthi to the Lord who we’re told loves all things laddu, is gaund ki laddu or sweet balls made with crackly gaund as star ingredient. read more…

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