Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

The flavour of India

It is unfair and provincial to associate certain spices or seasonings with a particular region in the country.   | Photo Credit: K. Ramesh

If asked which Indian khana I want to eat, I always pick a region other than basic North Indian because the flavours are so exciting, so different from the homely quotidian dal-roti I’ve eaten all my life. Sometimes I try to cook everyday ingredients at home but differently, combining spices from elsewhere, and have come to some simplified formulae.

Of course, most cuisines have defining flavours, but I just got a gentle criticism from my son for generalisation and I have to agree with him; it is provincial to equate Kerala spices with mustard and fenugreek, cloves and cardamom, with coconut ground, creamed or chipped for body and a splash of coconut oil for “authenticity”. As it is unfair to make something broadly similar but add generous amounts of pepper and call it Chettinad. Or to believe that adding groundnuts and/or tamarind make it “Andhra”. And that asafoetida, fennel and dried ginger are the essence of Kashmiri curries; that copious quantities of yoghurt for body and red chillies for colour are all it takes. Or that asafoetida and cumin make it U.P. vegetarian.

But my kitchen and my repertoire have extreme limitations. So if I’m making potatoes for masala to accompany dosai, I add curry leaves to the spluttering mustard seeds and break in a couple of dry red chillies. As for Punjabi cuisine, it’s so basic that it’s boring. I hear all around me the criticism that Punjabi food always — but always — is made with garlic, ginger and onions. I wish. I’ve been brought up with much less. Winter vegetables were tempered with ginger, and summer ones with onions. That was it — no coriander powder, no cumin seeds in green veggies — and garam masala? God forbid. My mother had been brought up in sync with the seasons, and had a deep love for the natural taste and colour of every vegetable. She wouldn’t even sprinkle coriander leaves, the favourite garnish of Indian cooks, on top of every vegetable. Only dal was tempered with cumin or mustard — sometimes with onions, ginger, garlic or tomatoes — and other spices were by and large used mainly in meats. So other people’s cooking is full of pleasant surprises and my attempts to alleviate the ennui of domestic meals is just a poor home cook’s way of coping with the continent that is India.

It might have something to do with my exposure, but I find Bengali cooking has more variety: the spices change with the ingredients, the season and, I presume, the mood of the cook. Chitrita Banerji, in Life and Food in Bengal, starts with how a Bengali, if asked to describe his food, would likely answer “fish and rice”. And goes on, in the best cookbook I’ve ever read, to describe cooking, and all its attendant activities, through the seasons. And it’s not just about fish and rice. She talks of the festivals, periods of mourning, the rivers, the trees and flowers, the alpana in the courtyard, the rain, the colour, spice and smell. When she’s talking specifically about food, the breadth of the canvas and the intensity of its colours are huge. She even gives more than 40 recipes for dal. A much lesser-known book, Pumpkin Flower Fritters, by Renuka Devi Choudhurani, gives less atmosphere and many more recipes. Her chapter on dal begins with standard phorons or tarkas. She lists 30! Both mention “ bhaja”, roasted, dal, and the process does elevate the lentil.

Bhaja Moong Dal with Orange

Roasted Split Lentils

Serves 4-6

Pick moong dal, wipe with a cloth and roast in a dry frying pan or karahi for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously till it turns golden brown and you can smell the aroma of roasting. Transfer to another pan and wash thoroughly before cooking.

2 cups moong dal

4 oranges

1 tsp finely chopped orange peel

2 tsp vegetable oil

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp sliced ginger

2 green cardamoms, crushed

2-inch piece cinnamon, crushed

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp turmeric paste

1/2 tsp red chilli paste

1 tsp ghee

Salt

4-5 slit green chillies

Boil dal in about five cups preheated water till cooked. Peel oranges, removing inner skin. In a separate pan, heat oil and 1/2 tsp sugar. When it browns, add ginger slices, crushed cardamom and cinnamon, bay leaf, turmeric and red chilli pastes. When fried golden, add ghee and pour in boiled dal. Add salt, remaining sugar and green chillies. Stir gently, add orange pieces and remove from heat. Mix in orange peel and keep covered till serving.

vasundharachauhan9@gmail.com


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