Friends of my parents invited us for an impromptu lunch. There was standard Indian khana but the meal was memorable. This was 20 years ago, but I remember that there was a platter of rice with three separate and distinct toppings: peanuts, crushed badis (spiced and dried lentil nuggets) and karelas (bitter gourd). All fried. Yellow dal was served separately. It's all about contrasting textures - creamy scrambled egg on crisp toast, crackling papad with hot, soft khichdi, the firm bite of peanuts in sabudana khichri or vada.
A friend had colleagues over for dinner and bought some packaged namkeens. His mother was visiting and played hostess, supervising the cooking. The moment the dinner guests left he asked his mother why she hadn't served the crisps and bhujia. She said because she had served kababs with the drinks. His reaction was incredulity: didn't she know that namkeens were to be served with dal-chawal? That's what all his friends' wives did. So it's all about contrasting textures.
Croutons with soup or hard, chewy bagels with cream cheese are familiar couplings. And crunchy lettuce leaves in ham sandwiches are not just traditional; they're also a nod to “balance” and “nutrition”.
I often ask my friend Bunty for recipes. She's a discerning eater and a cook with a wide canvas. And she makes far more interesting sandwiches. Sometimes she slices small red radishes into a sandwich of Brie in walnut bread. The bread is grainy, the cheese is soft and flavourful and the radishes add a bite which is different from the crunch of the walnut. Or she adds alfalfa sprouts to a cheddar sandwich. I've tried it with sprouts, and their sweet juiciness is a nice foil to the salty firmness of the cheddar.
In a salad the same trick works. We've always liked crisp cucumbers, juicy tomatoes and green leaves that haven't been wilted with too-early dressing. But I find that nuts and cheese add another dimension. Feta cheese, crumbled on the salad - or cut up if it's too paste-like - adds a creaminess and strong salty tang to the whole thing. And a small handful of walnuts, roughly broken with a rolling pin and then toasted dry on a griddle, sprinkled on the salad just before serving. Their feel is different from the raw vegetables. Like toasted sesame seeds.
Azzurro was a family favourite when they had a branch in Delhi. They did a salad full of delightful surprises. It had rocket (arugula) leaves, which were sharp and a bit bitter. If I remember right, there were also a few iceberg lettuce leaves. It was dressed with orange vinaigrette whose sweetness tempered the rocket. Almonds were toasted, slivered and scattered on top. Grilled chicken was an optional addition – but, to my mind, not necessary.
It's like adding fried nuts and soaked raisins to a halwa or payasam. The raisins burst with sweet and sour juice and the occasional nut gives a change to the general softness of the sweet.
Chokola, whose many branches include one at the airport, does the best brownies I've ever eaten. The outside is so firm that it forms a crust that's about to crack and the inside is gooey, like a solid chocolate sauce. When you eat on the spot they drizzle it with more sauce. The only problem with it is the high sugar – so it's perfect with an unsweetened coffee.
An apple cobbler, so much simpler to make than an apple pie because it requires no rolling and layering of pastry, has a crusty, sugary topping while the tart green apples in the filling are tender – cooked through but not soft. When it's baked and served, I have to serve helpings of the crust topping because they attack it out of all proportion to the filling.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.
5 cups peeled, sliced apples
Juice of one lemon
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp soft butter
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp soft butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
Method: Preheat oven to 200°C (375°F). In large bowl, mix lemon juice with apples. Add sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and 1/4 cup water. Stir to combine.
Turn into a 9x9x1 3/4 inch baking dish. Dot apples with butter. Make batter by combining all batter ingredients and beating with large spoon until smooth. Roughly separate batter into 9 portions. Drop portions of batter on to apple, spacing evenly. Bake 35 minutes or until crust is golden-brown.
Serve warm, with or without cream.
1 litre boiling water
1-2 tbsp besan (chickpea flour)
Oil for deep frying
Method: Slice karelas into thin discs. Add 2 teaspoons salt to boiling water and blanch karela for about a minute. Drain and pat dry. Spread in a plate and sprinkle generously with besan. Toss to make sure all the karela is lightly coated.
Heat oil, preferably mustard, till very hot. Fry karela in small batches until it turns golden brown. Spread on kitchen paper towel. Serve hot with rice and dal.
Traditional fried karela is made without besan but is oily and chewy. Besan makes it instantly crisp and forms a barrier, preventing oil from being absorbed.
Raw okra, bhindi, can be sliced into long matchstick-like juliennes and made the same way, but without blanching