Pure Jainius – recipes from a Jain cookbook

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After six years collecting Indian recipe books, I’m lucky enough to have a couple of shelves of volumes at home. As with any collection, I have my favourites: books I cook from time and again. One day, I’ll sit down to think through my personal Top Ten.

But right now, I have a crush on one particular Indian recipe book, and I can’t stop talking about it.

A couple of times recently, I’ve found myself describing the book to friends – and spotting (behind their patient nods) that I’m giving them ‘way too much information’, and that this cookbook might not be up there with Anna Karenina and Don Quixote.

The simple fact though, for me, is that it is.

I’m the first to admit that I ‘have a thing’ about Indian cookbooks.

Time allowing, I spend hours surfing curry blogs, looking for new titles. On the day the new copy arrives in the post, I read it cover to cover like a novel – marking the recipes I’ll cook. After a month or so, and eight to ten meals cooked from the new book – I move on.

Driven by this need for new books, I know exactly what I’m looking for when I surf the masala blogs.

In a word: ‘connections’.

I want a cookbook which connects me to a specific Indian community: to the food that grows around them, to their lifestyle, beliefs, festivals and culture. I want recipes which let me taste all of that – on the end of fork (or, even better, in my fingers).

I’m getting better at finding these books that connect me to Indian communities, and several have blown me away.

But since October 2014, I’ve had a total, headlong curry crush on one book: Dadima No Varso.

I’m guessing you haven’t heard of it.

(I’m also guessing… if you’re still reading… that you might be there with my friends, asking: ‘why’s he STILL banging on about this obscure curry book?’)

In one sentence, Dadima No Varso is a guide to the cooking of the Jain community in the city of Palanpur (in Gujurat, northern India).

With roots dating back to the 6th century BC, Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions.

And in terms of ‘connecting me with a community’, Dadima No Varso is about as focused as it gets: cataloguing the recipes of one of India’s smallest religions (4 million followers in a population of over one billion), as cooked by the Jain community of one provincial city.

Even before I’d seen the book, I was intrigued by what it might hold.

When I got my copy, it was love at first sight.

Bound in hardback, A4, and almost 500 pages long, Dadima no Varso is a beautiful sight to behold. Set with Gujurati text on each left hand page, and English on the right, it’s a striking mix of the exotic and the familiar. Almost every page has original, hand-drawn illustrations of cooking techniques; every chapter has full page photographs of the raw ingredients and finished dishes. Even the font was specifically designed for the book.

Aesthetically, and in terms of practical use as a cook book – it is close to perfection.

And when you actually come to cook from the book, the results are breath-taking.

Whether you’re pan-frying guavas in dry spices, simmering banana peel to make a chutney or cooking a dal with broad beans – each dish has the hallmark of the purest, lightest cooking.

Excuse the pun, but it’s pure Jainius.

I could go on… the dals made with bottle gourd and ridge gourd, pan-fried asparagus in spices, drumsticks in besan gravy… all giddyingly delicious, and all delivering the same gravity-defying lightness of touch.

Given the heritage of Jain recipes in the history of Indian cooking (the first ever reference to the poppadum can be found in a 5th century BC Jain text) maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the heights the cooking reaches.

But there are surprises beyond the recipes.

Cook your way happily through this book (as I have) and on page 406 you flip past the last dish – and come to a summary of the Jain belief which inspires the whole book.

I’ll quote a single sentence:

‘The Jain ethos states: Ahimsa is Live and Let Live.’

As a religion with two millennia of history, Jainism is massively rich in literature and traditions.

To condense that theology into exactly 150 words, on half a page, is (for me) a masterpiece of brevity and humility.

I’m not going to pretend to know more about Jainism than I do. I know that the religion is committed to non-violence, to respecting the opinions of others and to self-control. In today’s borderless world, these strike me as very practical virtues.

And because this is a food blog, I’ll mention that the Jain commitment to respecting life not only embraces a vegan approach to cooking – but extends to respecting all living organisms (which would be killed if harvested).

This includes – maybe problematically for some Western readers – avoiding all root vegetables as food.

I’ve been cooking with the book for months, and had to scan the recipes as I wrote this. Fact: not a root vegetable used in the book. And for a curryphile who’s weekend invariably starts with peeling onions and garlic for the day’s curry – neither are used anywhere in Dadima No Varso’s Jain cuisine.

Nothing grown in the earth is used in the book.

Am I falling off the edge of the foodie map to wonder if the air-borne ingredients of Jain cooking – leaves, seeds and fruits – have something to do with the weightless feeling of enjoying their cuisine?

Does stuff grown in the ground weigh you down?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that every recipe I’ve tried in Dadima No Varso delights, and that the 80 page glossary of conversion charts, cookery terms and helpful tips is the best I’ve seen in any book.

Reading around this piece today, I’ve also learnt that Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was deeply influenced by Jain thinking – linking the religion to Indian independence, and to one of the defining historical events of the last century.

Without Dadima No Varso, I wouldn’t have made the connection.

The ‘provenance’ of a book is also important, and for my copy, it couldn’t have been richer.

I want to thank my wonderful colleagues in India, who patiently followed the online trail for Dadima No Varso to a Jain community centre in Mumbai – and then presented me with my copy on a recent visit to that city.

“We’re a bit shocked,” said one Mumbai colleague, “to find you cooking recipes from a religion that most British people have never heard of.”

She has a point.

But for all the reasons I’ve tried to list – the sheer deliciousness of the food, the beauty of the book, the definitive pages of helpful tips – Dadima No Varso is in a class of its own.

And in terms of ‘connections’, it’s introduced me to new ingredients, new recipes… and even new insights into one of the world’s oldest religions.

Not bad for a cookbook.

I’d love to share it with as many of you as possible.

The last word, I feel, should go to the authors themselves.

The text below quotes from the preface:

“Over generations, our Jain recipes have developed through innovations and interpretations. Ingredients, method and utensils all have gone through many transformations. The interest in world cuisines has changed the tastes of this generation. Yet, at times one craves for those distinctive flavours, the basic tastes, the sweet aroma, the rich colours and the stimulating textures that go with the everyday modest food of the yesteryears.

“This book has fired us, with an enthusiasm to carefully document a step-by-step description of our traditional recipes, bequeathed from dadimas (grandmothers) to her daughter and granddaughter.

“Time passes by. Combinations from the simple and original recipes bring about different aspects in cooking. Variations, adaptation and fusion are the keys to a creative urge – but the choice is definitely yours.”

 

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Posted in Jain cooking | 5 Comments

Lost… and found. How a bowl of Aloo Saag Dosa changed my world

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I started a new job this month: I’ve met some very nice people, and it promises to be a fascinating project.

And maybe it’s because the company is a global travel player, but I’ve never worked with such a nomadic group of colleagues. Every time I phone anyone, they’re somewhere new. And in 25 days in the role, I’ve only worked two consecutive days in one place.

As a result, I’ve spent many early mornings and late evenings grappling with brand new commutes – and feeling blissfully, totally lost. In four weeks, I’ve been in more ‘wrong half of split train’, ‘train going fast through next stop’, ‘no train for 50 minutes’, ‘train just left from a different platform’ scenarios than in the previous decade put together.

In the context of a #curryblog, I mention this period of ‘lostness’ because it feels weirdly like a period when I tried to shapeshift from ‘curry consumer’ to ‘curry cook’.

I can time that transition pretty much to the day.

The year was 2008, the month was December, and on the last Wednesday of the month I was eating in Glasgow’s legendary Mother India. For two years, I’d commuted weekly from London to Scotland, and filled one evening away from home in the delicious company of this local hero.

In some restaurants, you don’t get to know the team as friends, no matter how often you go there. But in Glasgow, and particularly in Mother India, you do. So it was a bit emotional when I settled up after the last of literally a hundred or so meals with them – and told the team I wouldn’t be back for some time.

They gave a me a pint of Kingfisher, and just before I left they gave me a copy of the day’s menu, signed by Ali, Amy, Dinesh, Oz, Soam and Tony – with all the messages you can read above.

Four years on, I still miss the team, and I miss Mother India.

Back in London, January 2010, I had the very pressing need to find the food that Mother India had been cooking me. If I’d known more about Indian food, I’d have known to look for great Aloo Saag Dosa with Sambhar in a South Indian restaurant. Or I’d have known to hunt for Mother India’s sensational steamed fish with mustard cooked by a Punjabi chef.

But I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know that Mother India is the name of arguably the greatest Bollywood classic ever made. All I had was the name of the destination – all the dishes that had blown me away in Mother India – but no map to get me back there.

I did what we all do. I bought books, I hunted online, I talked to friends and colleagues. The dish that haunted me was Mother India’s Aloo Saag Dosa – and particularly the intense, smokey Sambhar they served it with.

Little by little, I started to get there. I swapped bottled tamarind for the plummy, home-made original – steeped over four hours in fresh tamarind pods and beans. I hunted down the exotic ‘drumstick’ vegetable that lit up my meal in Glasgow. I stopped buying ready-made powder and ground the dozen-plus Sambhar spices I found in different recipes. Once, I even sat down for a Sambhar masterclass with Vineet Bhatia in his Rasoi restaurant. (Thank you, Vineet, for finding time to talk to a curry-obsessed customer at close to midnight!)

I’m getting there. But have I arrived? Can I recreate the giddy Aloo Saag Dosa masterpiece that I ate in Mother India?

I’m not even close.

Can I cook a Sambhar that’s so good you have to put your cutlery down, and just ponder the moment as the spices play games with your head – like the yellows in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?

Not yet. Maybe never.

But I am on my #curryjourney, and loving every second of it. Loving the new flavours, the new ingredients, the new cook books, the new cooking gear, the new shops, the new friends and ideas from Twitter. Loving the whole nine yards.

And if you’re reading this in Glasgow – and in Mother India – PLEASE share your Sambhar recipe with me. I’ll fly up, go anywhere, do anything.

Until then… a big thank you to Ali, Amy, Dinesh, Oz, Soam and Tony at my favourite Scottish restaurant. And a special thank you to the Head Chef (who’s signature starts with an ‘M’ and ends with an ‘n’ – and loops in between). Your note on my menu cum leaving-card reads:

‘Hope you enjoyed my cooking’.

I did.

I truly did.

Thank you for launching me on the journey of a lifetime.

Good Korma.

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Beyond beyond: @biryaniquest reports live on a search for the Holy Grail

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As an archaeologist I would be tempted to say that the reason I am so obsessed with biryanis is because I am fascinated by the history, opulence, art and culture of the Islamic period they were invented in.

Or as a staunch disciple of the great cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris, I could justify my mania for this extremely delicious dish by pointing to my Brahmanic genes  – my strictly vegetarian Brahmin ancestors were denied meat, onions and garlic so I am making up for generations of deprivation by focusing on a dish that has all the aforementioned in plenty.

Yes?

No!

The truth is I have no idea why I love biryanis so much – I always have and always will. Bas – as we say in Hindi to emphasize a point that does not need explaining.

To the uninitiated, a “biryani” is a dish of fragrant rice flavoured with spices atop a mound of cooked meat, fish or vegetables. It is normally accompanied by a yogurt raita (salad) or with a meat or vegetable gravy. The latter in my opinion is only served in very discerning eateries that offer top quality biryanis.

I had my first proper chicken biryani (yes, with the accompanying gravy) aged 8 ½ in a rundown restaurant called Olympus in the Indian city of Bangalore. To the shock of my Mum and my sisters I polished off an adult portion and had to be wheeled out of the place.

Back home in our little town in India, my mum sent our maid off to a family friend’s kitchen to master the art of making genuine biryanis from the Indian city of Hyderabad. The maid sniffed at their ‘dirty’ kitchen, cleaned it first and came back with expert knowledge. Thereafter my mother made biryanis for us every other Sunday.

In adulthood having moved to Bombay, the obsession continued and a completely inebriated me encountered Café Noorani in Haji Ali at 3am – this being the only self respecting restaurant open at that ungodly hour. I had a chicken tikka biryani and was hooked for life. I had it once again in the sober, harsh glare of daylight just to be sure and I still remained hooked. Thereafter for a decade I looked no further than Noorani for sustenance.

I live in London now and along with the usual homesickness for family, friends, and Indian clothes came the overpowering craving for Indian food – biryanis in particular. And hence began the quest with the realization that I would have to kiss a lot of frogs before I find my prince; smell a lot of flowers before I find the perfect rose; encounter tons of hyacinths before I find the beautiful lotus – I think you get my drift.

How will I know when I find the perfect biryani? What happens when you find your soulmate? You just know, right?

Join my quest at http://www.kundaskitchen.co.uk/biryaniquest

If you’ve had a great biryani recently I would love to hear from you!

 

 

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If you want to taste ’70s Britain – eat Heinz Beanz Curry

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I like Heinz. On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve turned to Heinz beans, Heinz tomato sauce and even Heinz tinned soups when the cupboard was bare (literally and metaphorically). Heinz has always been there for me.

So, imagine my excitement when I saw ‘Heinz Beanz Curry’ on the shelves of my local supermarket. This was going to be good.

In one can, I had the two book-ends of my culinary life: the ’70s me’ who survived on beans, and the ‘2013 me’ who lives for curry. I could hardly wait to get the curried Beanz home.

‘Heinz Beanz Curry’ also intrigues me because one of my lunchtime staples is my own, no-nonsense, homemade ‘Curried Beanz’. I pan-fry an onion and two fresh green birdseye chillies in ghee, pour over the Heinz Beanz (Original flavour!) – simmer – and serve with warm bread. It’s delicious. (In fact, it’s so good I sometimes wonder if I’ll serve it to friends as a starter. If someone can tell me the Hindi translation, I will.)

Back to my new discovery: I start to simmer the ‘Heinz Beanz Curry’, and somehow the sight of a saucepan full of bubbling haricots in red sauce brings the 70s hurtling back towards me.

From the comfort of digital, cosmopolitan, multicultural 21st-century Britain, it’s hard to remember just what a desert the 70s were in this country.

Wherever you looked, 70s Britain was a war zone. Somehow, in just a few years, we’d extinguished the beacon of 60s futuristic fashion, music and relationships for… the ‘flick parting’…. the medallion!

In years to come, I predict that open-mouthed social historians will find it beyond belief that women in the 70s of marriageable age chose to plaster their hair to the side of their head with lacquer in a ‘flick’ – like a dessicated bird’s wing stuck to a wall. Young men looking for mates, meanwhile, undid their shirts to the navel – and hung lumps of unprecious metal on their chest.

It’s a miracle that the species reproduced.

I could go on… the thuggish 70s politics, the lumpen football, the popular-music scene where The Muppets outsold career musicians. And that’s before we even glance at the tragedy that was British food in the 70s: groups of drunken British males shouting at waiters in Indian restaurants to cook them a curry with so much cayenne it would almost hospitalise them.

For those considering sawing their own heads off in the 70s, it was probably only the healing influence of David Bowie, Marc Bolan and John Cleese that kept you from the edge.

My ‘Heinz Beanz Curry’ has warmed. I try a spoonful.

BLEURGH!!

Out of sheer forensic curiosity, I go back in. It’s baffling… the taste seems both over-sweet and heavy with spice at the same time. It’s like a tango where the partners are trying trip each other up, as they trade murderous glances.

As I said, I like Heinz. I’m sure they’ve spent thousands or tens of thousands of pounds researching, refining and perfecting ‘Heinz Beanz Curry’. I’m sure that hundreds of Brit’s in focus groups have told them it’s delicious. I’m sure they’re all right, and that I’m wrong. I’m sure it’s lovely.

But for me, ‘Heinz Beanz Curry’ captures the taste of the 70s. If you’re too young to remember (or you were there, and you’ve blotted out the memory) – and if you really want to know what it was like to be in a country that had completely forgotten what taste was all about – try a spoonful.

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Multi-regional cookboks

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The great cookbooks on Indian multi-regional cuisine are, for me, where the curry journey gets serious.

Meera Taneja, Pushpeshpant Pant and Julie Sahni all take a panoramic view of the classic recipes across the country – and each book, in its own way, helps convert you from ‘spice pedestrian’ into ‘spice pilgrim’.

Google ‘best Indian recipe book’ (as I often do… adding ‘gourmet’, ‘authentic’, ‘collectable’, etc to take me to new volumes) and the name Meera Taneja comes up time and gain. Given that Indian Regional Cookery was first published in 1980, it’s a tribute to the author that copies and reviews of the book are to be found all over the web… more than 30 years later. My mint condition, first edition copy reached me a month ago, and Taneja’s ‘Moong beans and coconut’ and ‘Gujurati stuffed aubergines’ were both spectacular. I cannot wait to attempt the ‘Fenugreek leaf fritters’. Indian Regional Cookery is a landmark – written way ahead of its time – and steers you across the regional masterpieces with skill and feeling. (And if the styling of the photos reminds you ever-so-slightly of 80s album covers, then that’s all part of the charm.) The fact it’s published by Mills & Boon also gives you a bodice-ripper on your spice shelf! Seriously good book.

Moving on, we come to the ‘Odyssey’ that is Pushpesh Pant‘s India Cookbook. No other book I know shouts its metric weight from the spine (‘1.5 KG’) and no other cookbook I’ve ever used takes you on a journey through 1,000 recipes. First, though, the list of criticisms. As literally dozens of reviewers point out online (India Cookbook stirs up a lot passion), the book is rich with typo’s, missing ingredients, missing cooking stages and extra ingredients that never get never get factored in (not to mention an entire recipe that’s repeated verbatim on consecutive pages – 318/19, if you’re interested). But, for me, all this carping misses the point (kind of like criticising War & Peace for having too many characters). I love the India Cookbook, and as a family, we’ve cooked over 20 recipes from this meisterwerk. As with every new curry, we write an instant review on the page, and I’ll let the food critics at our table speak for themselves: Broad beans with coriander ‘Yum… never, EVER enjoyed broad beans so much!’; Tadka dal ‘Oh, oh, oh! Heavenly’; Thali Peeth ‘It’s bread, Jim, but not as we know it… massive, earthy flavour’. I could quote more, but you get the point. The recipes in this book take your cooking to a new level – and with 1,000 to choose from, you will never have an ingredient in your home or in your Asian foodstore that you cannot transform into something delicious. The India Cookbook is definitely not for beginners – but if you want a walk on the wild-side with the Tolstoy of India cooking, Pushpesh Pant is your man.

Peek inside the cover of our copy of Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery, and you’ll find the following words scribbled inside: “April 14. Cowabunga Julie, you is on fire!! Just ate your: braised butternut and jaggery; 5 jewels dahl; saffron mango chutney, Nirvana bread. Incredible.” Not the most balanced piece of prose – but sometimes you have to shout it rather than write it. Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery succeeds on so many levels that it’s difficult to know what to praise first. The intro’ is simply a master-class in understanding and cooking Indian food. The recipes not only work – but actually redefine your understanding of the words ‘delicious’ and ‘curry’. (If you need convincing, please try Sahni’s ‘Courgette in sweet milk sauce with chilli flakes’.) Time after time, she helps you create perfection on a plate. And if that’s not enough, every recipe starts with a mouth-watering overview that places the dish in time and place – before Sahni seduces you with her pillow talk. Maybe it’s just me, but phrases like: ‘fragrant butter-laced’, ‘silky rice smothered in’ et al make me almost as hungry as the food itself. There may be a more thrilling curry cookbook out there than Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery – but Littlewoods would need to offer huge odds for me to chance a fiver on it.

Posted in Greatest Indian cookbooks | 4 Comments

Apple 2.0 – taste the next generation chutney

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Read the blogs and cookbooks of the great Indian wordsmiths, and you often come back to a common theme: how their love of food started in earliest childhood.

Plotting the course of the seasons, these writers evoke how the different ingredients arriving in their house (green mangoes, yellow mangoes, banana flowers, banana fruit) inspired different menus and dishes.

The memories are evoked with feeling, and reconnect you with a child’s fascination for taste and smell. You want to be there, as the kids savour the spicy kernels at the end a green mango curry.

Childhood in Britain in the 60s was a lot less exotic. Trust me… I was there. The seasons sometimes changed, but the food didn’t – an endless assault of over-boiled vegetables and stewed fruit.

So imagine my surprise – when I ask the helpful staff in the Kohinoor Kerala to name the sensational fruit in the chutney I’m eating, and they reply: ‘Bramley’.

BRAMLEY? Really? This is a fruit I remember with real fear from the 60s, an apple that grew in thousands on trees in our garden, and in almost every neighbour’s garden. A fruit that was fed to me for six months of the year in a slow-moving avalanche of pies, crumbles, stews, compotes and jams. I could taste Bramley in my sleep.

And yet here it was – the same fruit – transformed by the chef in Kohinoor Kerala into the tingling centrepiece of a truly sensational achari pickle.

Which just goes to show that we did grow up surrounded by exotic ingredients in Britain – we just needed someone from Kerala to show us.

The chef and team at the Kohinoor Kerala cooked a fantastic meal, and also shared the recipe for Bramley pickle (see top of page). Their advice was to add the cubed Bramley to the pan last of all, and stir fry briefly.

Good Korma.

Welcome back, Bramley.

And forgive us for mistreating you for all those years.

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The Daily Grind: promise me you’ll never, ever use pre-ground spice

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If there is ONE THING that will lift your curry to the next level, it’s this:

GRIND YOUR OWN SPICE!!

I have used capitals, exclamation marks – the whole grammatical nine yards – to shout this truth from the rooftops.

GRIND YOUR OWN SPICE!!

For me, the ritual of grinding fresh spices is where curry starts – literally and metaphorically:

  • first, there’s the happy stock-take – checking off each spice you’ll need from the recipe book, and measuring the precise amount into separate dishes.
  • then there’s the heady moment of warming the seeds. Curry bloggers debate how many seconds you should warm the spice, and over what heat. My personal preference is to put a small, thick bottomed pan over a low flame – until the base is warm to the touch. I then wait a few seconds, and add the spice (strictly one at a time). This is the good bit… within seconds, the seeds release their volatile oils. Every single time I cook, I lean over the pan to inhale the aroma… for cumin seeds, a deep smell of freshly-sawn wood.
  • finally, a few seconds later… 10 or 12… transfer the warmed spices to your grinder. If you MUST, use an electric or coffee grinder. But why not continue the sensory journey, and grind the spices in a traditional pestle and mortar? For almost all spices (except the tough customers that are fenugreek seeds) the spices crumble under the pestle – releasing a brand new aroma. For cumin, the notes jump an octave  – releasing a sharp, incense-like flavour that will be the backbone of your curry.

With the spices lined up in separate dishes (ground and whole, as needed), you’re now primed to cook like a restaurant pro’.

Of course, as with every golden rule, there are exceptions. I’ve tried working with whole asafoetida (hing) and not only is it tricky to handle but also packs less of a punch than the pre-ground spice. The same is true, for me, of fresh and dried turmeric. And yes, for compound spices, I do use commercial garam masala.

But otherwise, there is no substitute for the daily grind. Even for the big, complex mixes (sambhar) where’re you’re combining seven or eight spices – the only way to get there is to use fresh spice.

Warm and grind your first quantity of cumin seeds, inhale the savour, and discover the key to curry heaven.

If I’m wrong – tweet me.

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