Noshtalgia Food

Some like it hot, some like it with bee pollen

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Some days, we wolfed down Mary’s warm rava porridge with toasted almonds; other days, we relished her gloopy oatmeal porridge with cold milk and treacle

On a particularly ferocious winter morning exactly 54 years ago, the nuns of St. Angela Sophia boarding school in Jaipur had finally reached their wits’ end. The object of their collective exasperation was a preternaturally rebellious 12-year-old. This time she was vehemently refusing to touch her breakfast bowl of salted oatmeal porridge And she was in trouble. Again.

Muttering under her breath that it smelled like old socks, the girl was ‘banished’ to the kindergarten section. There, her punishment was to hold the bowl of porridge high above her head with both hands while kneeling in front of a phalanx of giggling toddlers. She had to continue doing so till she decided to give the porridge a go. She never did. And she hasn’t to this day. That defiant little terror was my mother.

Despite Mum’s rather Dickensian boarding school tales, and, more pertinently, her utter revulsion for porridge of any kind, I simply love the gooey, unctuous stuff. And I have our Mangalorean cook Mary to thank for that.

Having worked for an expatriate British family for years before she came into our family, Mary had amassed an astounding cache of porridge recipes — both Indian and international — that were soon a firm fixture on our breakfast menu.

One of her greatest hits was the delicious-tasting Goan vonn that’s very similar to the divine Tamil sakkarai pongal. Also known as soji in South Goa, this rather complex porridge is made with a host of ingredients, chief of which is chana dal (split Bengal gram), bits of which are cleverly left whole in the final preparation for texture. The porridge is further enhanced by the addition of thick coconut milk and palm jaggery; the latter lending an earthy, warm flavour that almost tastes like what petrichor would perhaps.

Now, long before the story of fussy Goldilocks and her trio of porridge-loving bears became a favourite of ours, my older sister and I played out our own version almost daily. Some days we were particularly partial towards Mary’s iteration of a simple milk-enriched, warm rava porridge, where toothsome grains of semolina competed with slivers of toasted almonds.

On others, which were more often than not, we relished the gloopy consistency of her steel-cut oatmeal porridge sliding down our throats. One that she’d top up with cold milk and a splodge of treacle to sweeten the deal. It would be decades later, on a work trip to Belfast, when I would discover the Irish way of truly ‘enjoying’ a bowl of oatmeal porridge... with a splash of peaty Irish whiskey added for a smoky finish!

Savoury delight

However, it isn’t just the sweet porridges that have managed to rouse me out of bed every day over the years. I am equally fond of the savoury stuff. I love the wholesome taste of ragi ambali. Though mostly consumed as a thick drink in Karnataka, I prefer the light pink-hued concoction as a porridge. This is achieved by adding a little more than the usual amount of sprouted ragi (finger millet) flour to the water-buttermilk slurry to which a bit of salt has been added. But it is the final tempering with mustard seeds, curry leaves and green chilli that makes the ragi ambali truly scrumptious for me. On the absolute opposite end of the spice spectrum of savoury porridges is another Goan porridge called pez. Simply put, pez is just another name for a bland gruel made with rice and water and one that is known multifariously as kanjee or kunji south of the Vindhyas. We Goans like to have our pez either with a bit of dried, salted mackerel pickle called parra or served with a side of tora shiro mango water pickle.

Decorated congee

Whenever I find myself travelling in East Asia, I am quite surprised when I’m offered a breakfast porridge of the Chinese iteration of good old kanjee that they call, funnily enough, congee. Only here, one is presented with a virtual smorgasbord of condiments and toppings like fried shallots and garlic, cubes of sweet lap cheong pork sausage, chopped spring onions, salted duck eggs, and the ubiquitous soy sauce to enhance the flavour of the simple rice gruel.

It really is testament to the prowess of porridge that we now have several porridge-only cafés and restaurants across the world in places as diverse as Edinburg and Copenhagen, which serve the breakfast dish in the most interesting and, dare-I-say, often contrived combinations. A recent trip to New York City saw me tuck into a bowl of cold oat and almond meal porridge topped with rice milk and a sprinkling of raw Colombian cocoa nibs and bee pollen at the world’s first all-oatmeal café simply called OatMeals.

At London’s 26 Grains porridge café, I tried a warm quinoa porridge accentuated with a tart burst of antioxidant-rich acai berry purée, which I was told had been foraged from the Brazilian Amazon forests. Every spoonful of the exotic bowl was like discovering the joys of porridge all over again.

Now, if I could only convince Mum to try some.

Sunday recipe

Vonn

Ingredients:

Chana dal 1/4 cup

Water 3 cups

Salt 1/2 tsp

Rice flour 1/4 cup

Palm jaggery (chopped into bits) 3/4 cup

Coconut milk 1 1/2 cup

Cardamom powder 1 tsp

Chopped cashewnuts 1/4 cup

Method:

1. Soak the chana dal in water for at least two hours before using.

2. Boil the soaked dal with the three cups of water and salt for around 15 minutes on a medium-high flame till the dal is cooked, but not mushy.

3. Make a thick paste of the rice flour by adding a little water to it.

4. Add the chopped palm jaggery to the chana dal and stir till fully incorporated.

5. Add the coconut milk and bring to a slow boil, making sure the milk does not split.

6. With the fire on low, add in the rice flour paste, stirring to ensure no lumps are formed.

7. Once thickened, sprinkle in the cardamom powder and chopped cashewnuts.

8. Serve either warm, at room temperature or chilled.

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 6:10:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/some-like-it-hot-some-like-it-with-bee-pollen/article30297570.ece

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