Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Soul Food

I may have spent close to a decade in Texas, but when I say soul food, I certainly don't mean Southern African American cooking.  I mean food for the soul, music.

Now that I am sitting home alone most mornings, wading deep into my thesis, I spend quite a bit of time setting the tone of the hour with music.

I love Susheela Raman's voice, especially in the song "Yeh Mera Deewana Pan Hai".  Her voice has a blues-y touch reminding me of Billie Halliday, though,after I had started exploring her (Raman's) albums, Ella Fitzgerald or actually Aretha Franklin may be a better fit.  Lady Day touches you with the depth of feeling in her voice, just like Susheela Raman in this particular song, somehow Mukesh, the original voice of this song, only manages to annoy.  (Mukesh does have a whiny voice doesn't he? It is pure and simple Bathos!  Like a country singer cribbing his truck broke down, dog died and wife ran off with best friend, all to age old guitar strumming!)  

Two somewhat classic Tamil songs appropriated by Raman in her, well, unique style - Velavaa and Marudamalai Mamaniye stopped me in my tracks.   I was chagrined, awestruck, annoyed, impressed, amused all at once while listening to the second song especially.  I pictured my dad's horrified reaction to this version and doubled over with laughter.

I am not complaining Sacrilege mind you, especially since all of us enjoy watching Zeenat Aman take a bong hit and sway to Hare Rama Hare Krishna.  Besides, I picture Muruga as a dravidian God, predating the Vedas.  The original inhabitants probably took a bong hit and danced to His glory exactly as pictured in the video.

But, Marudamalai is a song I grew up listening to on the radio, then on the tape recorder, CD and now finally my trusty iPhone and THIS was my introduction to Madurai Somu's voice.  The Susheela version took a lot of discipline to listen through.

Music is much like food, we get deeply attached to the versions we listen to when we are in the warm, carefree days of our childhood.  My father used to play devotional songs every morning - classical, semi-classical, movies anything and everything - and I used to wake up to these songs.  To this day, I find Ilayaraja's Thiruvasagam unbearable and will only listen to the sulamagalam sister's version when I am feeling particularly devotional/nostalgic and I will sing along.  Surprisingly my dad loves the new Thiruvasagam, he expects devotional songs to be treated with the dignity of classical music I suppose, western or eastern doesn't matter.  For him the Susheela version was probably Sacrilege.

I subject my kids to every form of music - Bhajan's we used to sing every Monday, Carnatic, Western Classical, Blues, Jazz, some light Rock, old Hindi, 70s-80s hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu.  Gau had learnt Bhajan's sincerely and carnatic music upto Swarajathi vocally and Varnam on Keyboard.   Now he has completely turned his back on any Indian music and listens to western music exclusively.  His ear for carnatic remains good.  I switched from Mayamalavagaula to Shankarabharanam and my Da was off key, he kept adjusting my singing until I got it perfect. (Yeah yeah, for someone with a modicum of classical training such mistakes are indefensible.  What can I say, I love music, but music doesn't quite love me back).  S. asked him to sing the line and he replied he will only correct me, not sing.   

I wonder what will be his go to music after he crosses the age of defining-his-persona, music and all, and reaches the age of nostalgia, when he looks back, with fondness, on his childhood?

Ash loves to sing.  Classical to Musical, everything is his favourite.  He simply hates sitting down and learning anything formally unlike his big brother.  He is very sensitive to Big Brother's approval though.  One look from Gau he decided he didn't want to sing like Sikkil Gurucharan, he would rather play piano like Anil Srinivasan or big brother :)

He is the biggest morale boost in the house, enthusiastic, encouraging and a big hug for everyone    He claims I sound better than Yesudas singing Pramadavanam Veendum, a song I discovered in the process of writing my thesis, and Gautham's piano playing sounds as good as the professional version on YouTube.

Pramadavanam Veendum has entered my blood stream.  You know what that feels like right?  You listen to the song, quite loudly, over and over again and it somehow merges with your pulse, your heartbeat?  Great voice (duh! Yesudas!!!!!), great lyrics but very tough to sing.  I had to sit down and write the lines with proper breaks in Kannada before I could sing beyond the first line.

When I was younger it felt like every other song had my blood singing, now my blood stream is a lot more sluggish.  Before P. V., the last time this happened was when Gau was learning a Spanish Matador (Prayer of the matador) song on his piano 10 days ago.  I hummed along, drove to the grocery store still humming along and forgot what I needed completely!  Even walking the length of the store didn't refresh my memory.

Gau and Ash are both very much like me in this.  Ash sang national anthem 3 days straight after his Acharya taught him.  Now it is syamale meenakshi.

Aside from music, Soul Food for Gautham must be roti in one of its myriad forms.  My latest is making a salsa-ish filling and a Apple Cider Vinaigrette for a fold your own burrito lunch box.
 The salsa (salad?) was just steamed Chickpeas, chopped avocado, pearl onions, tomatoes, cucumber peeled and deseeded, cilantro salt and pepper.

Apple Cider Vinaigrette 
The vinaigrette was 1/4 cup A.C. Vinegar, 1/3 cup olive oil, 6 finely chopped shallots, 1/4 cup honey lots of pepper.

Just whisk everything together and have each person serve themselves to their tastes.

This was again just put together, not a planned recipe and turned out rather popular.   We bought organic apple cider vinegar intending to drink a teaspoon every morning for better health.  It ended up giving both me and S. a feeling of discomfort in the stomach and zero appetite.  Now, I have to use it up as a condiment.  

PS:  Gau's insouciance is limited to me.  His uncle suggested he play alongside a Caranatic Violinist at a carnival he was organising.  He agreed to it though it was just a day before his Tamil exams, he was very respectful to the Violinist  listened to her suggestions, practiced an all Carnatic playlist, played to her specification and appreciated her innate skill on the Violin!  It was such a surreal experience for me, this young lady walking in, she and Gau sitting down discussing and just playing good music. Together.  The Carnatic/Western divide seemed superficial.

PPS In the course of my search, I discovered Gaanam, a malayalam movie from 1982.  I knew every song in the playlist from when I was a kid, but I never knew it was a movie.  This was when you would find small stores cutting tapes to match your interests.  I can actually sing along to these, songs I haven't heard in atleast 2 decades! 

These exceedingly excellent, mellifluous songs are pictured on Ambarish and Lakshmi!  I guess the director's aesthetics for music didn't extend to his visual sense.  Thankfully my visual sense and auditory sense work independently, I am able to continue enjoying the songs.  Otherwise I would need a brain surgery a la Zaphod Beeblebrox to get Ambarish out of the vicinity of these songs in my head. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Lunch staples - Phulkas and Indian hummus/ Nut Butter

Ash's teacher tells me, almost apologetically, he comes only at 8.45 everyday, school starts by 8.30 could I please come a little earlier.  Immediately on the defensive, I complain how difficult it is to get Ashu up.  She says he claims to wake up at 6.00!  Well, he is fast asleep by 6.25 again :)  She then says, she knows how hard it is to make ash do anything but to please try.  I relate the censored conversation to Ash and he says I am the bottle neck.  (Ashu said "You are the bottle cock", a year ago,  the first time he tried to use the phrase ;) I owned up to my delays.  So, now, if Lunch is NOT packed by 8.15, I have to go later to drop it off.  Net consequence?  I make an extra trip to school and S. doesn't eat breakfast.
I have sworn to 
  1. plan my meal the previous night, not follow any whim at 6.00 AM.
  2. do most of the prep work the previous night
  3. get up early
Well getting up early is hard most mondays and off late I have severe coughing bouts at night, a very disturbed sleep and hence late to rise :(

 I am doing better with 1 and 2.  Sundays are hard as far as prep works go.  We often step out of the house only Sunday evening and by night I have no energy for kitchen work.  

I am streamlining my meals though.  One weekly staple is a Indian Hummus - Any fresh or dried bean, a good quantity of black sesame seeds, herbs from my terrace garden, a good glug of olive oil, green chilies, lemon juice and of course one solitary clove of garlic to please Gau and keep S. from complaining about too much raw garlic taste.   (Did you notice I didn't put quantities?  I am loving the idea of cooking without a recipe, just by feel :)

What part of this hummus is Indian you may ask.  Well the cook is for one :)  Chilli in food seems very Indian to me.  Yeah I know, the Portuguese got it here from the Americas only in the 16th century.  But it's soul is deeply Indian just like Cleopatra is an African queen despite being of Greek descent.  From street foods to comfort foods to gourmet foods, chilli is in the warp and weave of the Indian food fabric.  (We reject the "Indianness" of chilli only during food preparation for last rites/yearly memoriam when everything has to be absolutely native; black pepper only, no chillies).  Sesame, the variety we grow at any rate, is native to India, Sesame Indicum.  The black chana is probably native to India as well.  

The addition of the chilli and sesame transforms the hummus from a bland, sticky-on-the-palate, baby-food-textured dubious health food to something sublime.  
Cooked Chickpeas

  1. 75 g of chickpeas, soaked with a pinch of baking soda overnight
  2. 2 green chillies
  3. 1 tbspoon of black sesame roasted dry until it pops
  4. 1 clove of garlic
  5. 1 - 2 tspoon of Olive Oil 
  6. 8 - 10 basil leaves
  7. 8 - 10 mint leaves
  8. Salt to taste

  • Wash the chickpeas and pressure cook it with a pinch of turmeric.  
  • Drain and cool the chickpeas
  • Grind the salt, chillies and sesame seeds together in the small jar of the mixer
  • Add garlic and chickpeas and blend until the mixer complains.
  • Add the oil and blend, again until the blender complains or it comes together.
  • Add lemon juice, blend.
  • Taste adjust salt/lemon juice for balance.
  • Mint optional, Basil almost a necessity.  Coriander a no-no.

Roti Rolls

Lunch Box Ready!

These rolls are popular with Gau but S. finds it too dry and Ash doesn't like it.
For S., I pack sweetened yogurt.  Capsaicin, the thing that makes chilli hot is hydrophobic.  So you need yogurt to cool the spice, water won't cut it.
For Ash, I abandon the hummus altogether.  I roasted a handful of nuts (pistachio and almonds), ground it to a nut-butter, smeared it on the phulka, topped with honey and apples and rolled it up.  Any fruit would work I suppose. I avoid whipped cream in hot chennai and I rarely use cream spreads.  Cream cheese would probably be good too.


  1. This recipe works just as well with butter beans and dried lima beans.
  2. You can add more oil if you want, it adds flavour and a smoothness to the hummus; 700 - 800 Rs for a litre of EVOO makes me parsimonious.
  3. Fresh roasted sesame works a lot better than Tahini, at least here in India.  Sesame seeds are popular, Tahini is imported and perhaps old stock.
  4. To serve, spread a generous table spoon of hummus on the phulka/roti, top with chopped shallots and tomatoes at the least (roasted vegetables, greens, spring onions all work great), a smidgeon of EVOO, roll and serve.  
  5. If this is going to be packed for lunch you could quickly pan fry the roll on a pan with very little oil, just to help the roll stay ,well, rolled
  6. Time Saver - first make the nut-butter, if you are making it, empty the jar and then make the hummus in the same jar.  Washing unnecessary since the nut butter remnants would be neutral.
  7. Despite all my planning, the nut-butter roll was a serendipity, not planned.
  8. Always blend the sesame, chilies and salt before adding the cooked beans/legumes.

I am adding this to My Legume Love Affair's 87th Edition!  Lisa and Susan's  long running MLL hosted by Swati this time around.  This would be the 87th round!!!!

Feedback:  Gau enjoyed, Ash not so much.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cooking with millets : Millet Peas Upma

Another year bit the dust, another zillion resolutions have fallen by the wayside but hope springs eternal.

I am once again going to attempt to Blog Regularly, Cook differently, Eat healthy, Get Fit and Of course, reduce procrastination.
That last one had already fallen to the onslaught of my usual vices, this post is at least 25 days in coming :)
When I ruminate over my cooking style and variety, I find I am known for a few classics: My Cocoa Brownie, Idlis, Chola + Phulka, Aaloo and the myriad varieties of side dishes possible with it, Rasam, Daal, healthy muffins, granola, rajma, veg rice, waffles, paniyaram etc... 

I am certainly not discounting the value of the ability to cook regular food well.  It is nice when my youngest appreciates the basic Dosa + Coconut chutney I make for his snack box frequently.  Time is short, appreciation is rare and when I do get it I want to record it and frame it and press the play button every time I am bored/frustrated/tired..  I wish DH and my older son would join in the praise.

There are some other dishes I cook very well but don't interest dh and kids as much as they interest my dad, traditional Iyer food. In true Calvinesque fashion, I thought a good goal for the year would be introducing my kids to traditional Iyer foods made even more healthy (or horrible, from my older son's perspective) by cooking with millets etc...
Organic Pani Varagu
One of the first things I tried was making a millet Thiruvathirai Kali, a sweet risotto with lots of coconut.  DH and I loved it, my kids simply suffered through it :)  They, surprisingly, loved the side dish, ezhukari kootu, a stew made of 7 - 9 - 11 local vegetables.  The next attempt was the typical Arisi Upma made with Millets and Peas instead of the usual broken rice and daal.

My millet of choice for this dish is the Pani Varagu, i.e. the millet which growsi in fog.  I suppose this means this millet is harvested only in the winter?  There is a brand new organic shop in Besantnagar, right beside the Besantnagar Bus Stand.  They stock organic millets, oils, rice, wheat etc...  This is a blessing since Restore moved away to Kottivakkam on ECR.

Traditionally this dish involves coarsely breaking rice and lentils,sift the powdery part and then making the upma.   My younger son has been told to eat dinner by 7:00.  I come home by 6.15-6.30 and he immediately starts hounding me to get started with dinner.  I was in no mood to break daal and then sift it to separate the finer powder. Besides, lentils should be dry roasted before grinding for optimal flavour. I decided to substitute fresh peas.

Unlike the northern lattitudes, peas season here in hot chennai starts in the middle of December and ends by the end of March. In this period, when peas are 60Rs a Kg or lower, I shell at least a kilo of peas a week!  I use them wherever possible.

Millets are small, peas are fresh, I assumed they would cook in the same time.  I was right!  Dinner was done in 30 minutes flat from start to end.  I used my Hawkins futura pressure cooker, will certainly take longer in a traditional saucepan.

1 cup millet, Kodo Millet
2/3 cup fresh peas
1/2 cup fresh coconut grated.

1 tbspoon oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp chana daal
1 tsp urad daal
3 red chillies
1 pinch of hing

1 sprig curry leaves
1" piece ginger grated

Heat oil in the cooker, then add mustard and cumin.  
When mustard splutters add the 2 daals 
When the daals turn reddish add the chillies
When the chillies darken add the hing.
Add curry leaves, ginger and pour in 3 cups of water
Add the peas and bring the water to a boil.
Add the millet, coconut and salt to taste.
Cover the cooker with its lid and wait for steam to build up,
Once the cooker whistles, lower the heat to a simmer and wait for 3 minutes.
Turn the cooker off.

Open the pan after the pressure reduces to normal (10 minutes?) .
Serve with sugar and pickles.
Tastes best warm.

Millet Peas Upma, so popular I could photograph only a spoonful!

A rare case where virtuous cooking is fast and tasty. This is my contribution to Lisa's MLLA#79 started by Susan

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