Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Indian Feast

For years I headed over to Rangoli in Brighton to enjoy their plate-sized rolled dosas. These morsels were far better than what I was used to: the luncheon buffets heaving with greasy pakoras, cream-laden saag paneer and wilting iceberg lettuce. The truth is that I have struggled to find Indian restaurants that reflect the true complexity of the food.

During a recent family reunion in Florida of all places, I had a chance to have an opportunity that reinforced my understanding that so much of my Indian food experiences are stereotypical at best. I also had one of my favorite cooking opportunities of the year. Because, as the ironic case may be, my second cousins are, in fact, Indian. And so, as I looked on, my cousins created a feast, Punjabi Jain style. (All the lovely photographs here are by my uncle, Brian Richards. He also creates gorgeous panoramic photos. You can view his photographs here.)

Sanjay and Winnie cook together each Sunday. And their nephew Akshay had joined us from Chicago, trained in his mother’s own style of cooking. Thus, to watch them all cook together was to watch a comical and occasional clash of food training. For example, Aksahy insisted on using one technique for creating the bread dough while Winnie jumped in with another version. (In the meantime they tried their best, and failed, to teach me the proper mixing, rolling and folding methods necessary to create the roti-style breads!) All I know is that the final meal was fabulous.

We started with crispy and warm pakoras or fritters made of spinach, onion and gram flour. I was captivated by this flour which is made from ground chickpeas. I have used it unsuccessfully for French soccas and love the idea of this protein rich flour. Here it was nutty and moist. I loved the second version of the batter as Sanjay cooked it into a pancake in a skillet.

Akshay explained that the resulting bread was a cross between between pronti and fulka (also known as phulka or pulka). These were made simply with whole wheat flour and water. The truth is that I have only known chapatti and paratha. I loved how easily these came together and how healthy they are. I also adored watching Akshay and Winnie try to find a compromise on exactly how they should be cooked. My younger cousins Natasha and Keitan also made sure I knew just how to use the bread to scoop up my meal instead of using a fork.

One of my favorite dishes was Sanjay’s okra. This is one of those dishes that would dispel any idea of okra being a slimey vegetable. He began by heating a non-stick skillet on high heat. Then he seared the okra until it was dry and almost burnt. He addedred chilies, coriander, garam masala, onions and scallions. Finally, off the heat he topped it with a wonderful spice: anardana powder, otherwise known as powdered pomegranate seeds! It added a spicy-sour taste to the vegetable.

His mushrooms were just as wonderful. This time he began by heating sautéing chopped red onions. He added chana masala (a spice mixture). Then he added sliced mushrooms and sautéed them til they were just seared. He added more onions until they cooked down. And, as a final touch, a few more red onions, barely cooked to retain their bite.

His potatoes would put any hash browns to shame. Somehow, despite the limited kitchenware in our rental house he managed to cook the cubed potatoes until they were deliciously crisp and crunchy on the outside, but soft inside. Again, they were sautéed with the chana masala giving them an aromatic taste and smell.

Sajay used a tomato base for two dishes. He pureed tomato paste, fresh tomatoes, red onions and chilis in the blender. He cooked the sauce down and put chick peas in half, creating of my other favorite dish: chole.

Winnie made homemade paneer or cheese by heating up 2% milk just until it was boiling. She slowly poured in lemon juice until it curdled and then drained it in cheesecloth until it was firm. Cubed and placed in the same tomato base it was unrecognizable, but just as delicious as the chana fraternal twin. The only difference-Sanjay added whole milk to create a creamy sauce.

Finally, basmati rice, rinsed and cooked with tumeric and two cloves to give it a sublte glowing color and scent. More importantly, Akshay and Winnie finally taught me how to properly say the name of this aromatic rice: bas’ma-thi.

It is a rare treat to be able to eat truly homecooked, regional food. It is far more special when you get to eat it with family you see too infrequently. So I thank my cousins for bringing us all around the table, to break roti together.

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