Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shtuffed ...

Burrrrp ... write later. Sleep now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Adapted from Hello, Cupcake! by Karen Tack & Alan Richardson.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Year That Was ... Part II

" ... It smells of rain and steamy earth
and hot June sun
In the whole tomato garden
it's the only one.
I close my eyes and breathe in
its fat, red smell.
I wish that I could eat it now
and never, never tell ..."

From First Tomato, written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells

... Fat, red-tomatoes, jackfruit, papaya or sweet, sweet mangoes -- everything in Asrondi smells of rain, the steamy red earth, and the ocean. AM's ancestral village is a good seven to eight hours from Mumbai, the way dotted by villages and cities, treacherous ups and downs as the earth undulates, and leafy, leafy trees that always look like they've had a dip in the nearby river.

As children, my husband and his siblings spent every summer here, playing in its terracotta dirt. The color staining their fingers, feet and shorts. It has a certain vibrancy, the earth there. A strength and this indescribable, distinctive smell that never really leaves you. Perhaps, that's the secret behind the fragrance of its flowers and the succulent, organic taste of its vegetables and fruits. AM often reminisces of many unforgettable summer mornings in Asrondi -- the whole kitchen smoky, but deliciously heavy from the smell of kindled wood and food. Lit by a solitary sunbeam that streamed in through an amiss tile in the roof, scattering the woodsy, grey smoke hither-thither, conjuring patterns as you ate. Breakfast would be simple. Hardy bhakri with chunky, bright-red, garlic chutney, freshly made on the grindstone ... a pure explosion of crisp flavor. Or simply made beaten rice, tempered with mustard, and cumin seeds and flavored with chillies and curry leaves. Then, it would be off to the pastures in the company of cousins and cows. Walking and wandering, unusual treasures and stones saved in pockets, to be savored and looked at after lunch.

Lunch would be simple, or elaborate depending entirely on the day of the week. As with most families, Sundays were special food days. And absolutely incomplete without protein of some kind. My husband says, it would be unnatural if the day ever began without the smell of caramelized onions and roasted coconut. The morning would then escalate slowly into noon, punctuated by sounds of cantankerous spoons against heavy aluminum vats, and a happy amalgamation of smells.

As the meat would hit the hot fat, its aroma would loosely herd the ménage in the big room and the courtyard outside. Oblivious to the gastronomical havoc stirred outside the kitchen threshold, the women rolled out the dough made from rice and mixed lentils into thick, round circles or vade, and fried them in smoking hot oil. As the lentil bread would puff and take a victory lap around the oil, the men and children would gather around the table in anticipation. Even then, no one ate until the patriarch of the family, Bapu, graced the table. Then, it was all about enjoying the flavors of the meat. Soaked and falling off the bone in its rich, brown gravy. To be scooped, slurped and had simply with your hands.

Since then, our family has grown exponentially. Where there were siblings and cousins, there are now grandchildren and great grandparents. Less than 10 kilometers from the ancestral property, the family has built a lovely little farmhouse and a nursery, aptly named "Vrikshvalli," or the orchard of trees. From its depths grows the golden Alphonso known as much for its taste, as its heady scent of of hay and sweetness; golden plumeria or "son-chafa," its petals, a shade between the color of butter and saffron, and when it blooms, it infuses into everything around it. Much like honey does in milk; coconuts, cashews, kokum, chickoos and papaya -- the fruit ooze such sugar, one might think they were dipped in honey.

As I write this, I remember it was only six months ago that we sat on the red-tiled terrace at Gavkund. Sipping the last dregs of thick mango milkshake, deep in concentration over a game of scrabble. The kids giggling in the background, as the Indian sun mellowed and readied to set. Below, AM's cousin, Babi Dada, readied the charcoal grill for an evening of barbecued chicken.

While I awaited my turn at the board-game, I took a moment to take it all in -- the sounds of my excited, laughing nieces, my one-year old busy observing a couple of ants, nearby. An orange sky, that kissed the tops of trees and arms of outstretched green branches.

Ever so gently, as if it sensed my mood -- the smell of Asrondi washed over me. The wind lifted slightly, bringing with it some loose, red earth for company; a soft stain appeared on my white tunic, where wind and earth had touched. Like the others, they left me an imprint to last a lifetime, and keep coming back for more.

♣ The Simple Life

No matter how tightly-packed our suitcases, AM and I ensure we bring back as much of Asrondi as we possibly can cram. "Ole kaju" or fresh cashews to be made into curry later on; kokum to flavor dals, fish curries and fried fish; some "utna," a mudpack of sorts to be smeared on the face and body, with coconut milk and oil on the first day of Diwali. And my favorite -- kulith or powdered horsegram. Most well-known spice blend manufacturers (Kepra, Bedekar, etc) have their versions of a Kulith blend. We seldom buy these as I find them lacking in taste. In Asrondi, they first toast the horse-gram carefully (so as not to burn it) in a clay pot, until it's fragrant. Then, it's pounded to a smooth powder with turmeric and coriander powder, and packaged to be cooked into pithi. The following recipe is going to make an appearance for Sra's Legume Love affair at The Well Seasoned Cook.

Kulith Pithi

You need:

A handful or so of powdered horse-gram/Kulith
1-2 Tbsp oil
1-2 garlic flakes, crushed
1-2 green chillies, chopped on the diagonal
1/2 red onion (American onions are typically huge, use about 1-2 onions if in India), roughly chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
1-2 tsp chili powder
Salt to taste
A handful of cilantro/coriander leaves, chopped


Dissolve powdered horse-gram in water with chili powder, turmeric and salt -- mix around until there are no lumps and the mixture is of thin, pouring consistency. Heat oil in a pan or wok, add crushed garlic, and stir around until the flakes turn golden. Stir in chopped onion and chillies and saute until onions are pink and golden around the edges.

Kulith has a tendency to settle down at the bottom when dissolved in water, so give it a quick stir or two before pouring over onion, garlic and chillies. Bring to a simmer, check seasoning and throw in a handful of chopped cilantro. Heap over a mound of rice, with chunky raw onion as a side. There, you have it. Simplicity and Asrondi on your plate.

A small note about Vrikshavalli:

Has about 1,000 mango trees -- Alphonso (Hapoos as it's known locally), Ratna, Keshar, Paayri, Sindhu, Totapuri, Rajapuri -- being some of the many varieties; Approximately 6,000 cashew trees and saplings and a wide variety of almost every spice found in India. Recently, Vrikshavalli acquired all varieties of Hibiscus in the world, and has quite the plethora of other fruit trees -- Jamun/Jambul, Chickoos, Papaya, Jackfruit/durian, Kokum (Garcinia indica) to name a few -- and ornamental plants such as roses, marigolds, and Plumeria ("Chafa," "Son-Chafa").

Vrikshavalli Nursery, Vaghde,
Taluka Kankavli
District Sindhudurg
Maharashtra -- 416602
On Bombay-Goa Highway
Opposite Hotel Priya
Phone no: 91 2367 232 314
Cell phone: 91 98 2258 9041 / 91 94 2239 0122