Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Mango and Cardamom Bread

Mango and Cardamom Bread
Every other week or so, we make a detour on our way home from our weekly grocery store run, and turn into a narrow lane with a string of ethnic stores. There's one that exclusively stocks Middle-Eastern products, another one that sells Chinese groceries, and there's an Indian store, which is where we always make a stop. Like others of its kind, this Indian store too, is housed in a modest neighborhood, many streets away from posher addresses in the area. The shop front is small. The only parking for customers is in a small lot next to the back entrance. The owners are Indian immigrants from Fiji, a family of four - middle aged parents and their two grown sons - who've come to recognize me over many visits.  

It is always a quest for an elusive Indian ingredient that takes me to the Indian store. Most recently, I was in search of a mild chilli powder, what we in India call Kashmiri red chilli powder - the sort that adds a rich red hue to curries while sparing us the heat. Red chilli powder, I admit, isn't the most exotic of ingredients. But in the American supermarket that we rely on for our everyday grocery needs, red chilli powder is sold in unsatisfyingly small and expensive mini jars, no taller than my index finger. With the quantities of chilli powder that go into my cooking, I can hardly hope for one of those to last me longer than a few days. At the Indian store, on the other hand, they sell chilli powders by the pound in giant plastic pouches, just the way I like it. 

Another time, I was there in search of kokum, a souring agent used in Indian seafood curries, particularly in Maharashtra and Goa. Growing up, I'd never come across kokum. At home, my mother used tamarind in the sambar that made our masala dosa breakfasts a celebratory affair. The tart edge in her fish curries came from kodumpuli, a pot shaped, mouth puckeringly sour fruit. My first tryst with kokum happened, of all places, in Massachusetts, where my Maharashtrian room mate handed me a generous packet of the stuff that her mother had shipped all the way from Mumbai. I was so thankful for the introduction. To that packet of kokum, we owed several tangy fish curries that we silently devoured with steamed rice at the rickety second-hand dining table in our shared student apartment. 

Several months later, having moved to San Francisco, I searched for kokum at our local Indian store. The husband and wife, joined by the sons, searched the aisles crowded with Indian spices, oils, and ready-to-eat food mixes, for the kokum. They pushed past the asafoetida, searched behind the dried pomegranate seeds, and even hunted a while in their store room. Ultimately, they gave up. They were out of stock.

But a visit to the Indian store never ends in defeat. Surrounded by favorites from my childhood - Roohafza, the rose flavored syrup that made Delhi summers somewhat bearable, Parle-G biscuits that are dunked into 4'o clock chai everywhere in India, fresh bhindi/okra, the only vegetable that I tolerated on my plate as a child, and curry leaves which bring an irreplaceable edge to Malayali food - seconds turn to minutes before I realize it. 

Even though the hunt for kokum ended in defeat that day, I returned home a winner with a large can of mango pulp, which I spotted while aimlessly ambling through the store. I decided to try my hand at an invitingly simple and relatively light recipe for mango and cardamom bread that I found on Vaishali Honawar's website. I added a few tweaks here and there, but stuck to the plot for the most part. We loved the bread. It was like eating mango lassi by the slice. Because the mango pulp was already sweetened, I realized that the bread would have been as delicious with a touch less sugar. That's a note for next time. 

Oh, and the good news doesn't end there. The next time I visited the Indian store, the owner cheerily greeted me as I walked in, announcing that a new stock of kokum had just arrived.

Mango and Cardamom Bread (based on this recipe)


Dry ingredients
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 level tsp powdered cardamom seeds (freshly powdered is best)
¼ tsp salt
Wet ingredients
4 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup brown sugar
2 well beaten eggs
2 cups canned, sweetened mango pulp 

To top the bread
¼ cup slivered/roughly chopped almonds

Whisk together the dry ingredients.
In a bowl, mix together wet ingredients until well blended
Fold dry ingredients into the wet, being careful not to overmix.
Pour the batter into a standard 9X5 inch greased loaf pan, add slivered almonds on top, and bake in a 350-degree oven around 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, or with a few crumbs stuck to it. In my oven, the bread took close to an hour.
Cool on a rack before unmoulding and cutting into slices.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Fish Curry

When it comes to fish, I am unabashedly parochial in my tastes. I have flirted with chowder, seafood pasta of all manner, and steamed fish, Thai style. Every now and then, I will enjoy a meal of fish and chips. But as far as my taste buds are concerned, none of these measure up to a good Kerala fish fry, or a mild fish molee paired with lacy appams. And if I happen to have the good fortune of choosing my last supper, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be the rustic Malayali kappa and meen (fish) curry, which is what my grandparents, and before them, their parents and grandparents would have favored, long before comfort food became fashionable.

Many of my childhood summers were spent vacationing in my grandparents' home in Trivandrum. One especially vivid memory from those holidays is of the weekly shopping ritual in their home. My grandfather, the patriarch, in his half-sleeved shirt and mundu, would round up all of us - those of his children and grandchildren who were visiting at the time. We'd climb into his Fiat and make our way to Palayam market to buy the meat, vegetables, fruits and fish that we would devour over many meals. Once we got to the market, we split up into twos and threes, and headed in different directions to execute this weekly ritual as efficiently as possible.

Given my precocious taste for fish, I'd often accompany my grandfather as he made his way to the crowded fish market. The fisherwomen, with their checkered lungis hitched up, would screechily announce their catch of the day through betel skinned teeth, straining to be heard over the market's everyday din. We stared at the fish. The fish stared back at us out of wicker baskets with their bulbous, unblinking eyes, mouths agape, scaly skins shining in the sunlight. I can't say I enjoyed shopping for fish. The smell of fish was everywhere, and there were too many bodies crammed into too small a space. Inevitably, pools of dirty rainwater, seemingly positioned at strategic spots, would catch us off guard and seep into our Bata sandals. Avoiding the slush involved a veritable game of hopscotch that even the adults joined in, although unwillingly.

My grandfather's responsibilities ended with procurement. It was my grandmother's job to clean, gut and descale the fish. If she was averse to this gory game, she did not make it known. Perched, bird-like, on a wooden seat, she'd attack the fish with a large knife, releasing a spray of fish scales, and proceed to pull out its muddy brown insides before slicing it up into generously large pieces that she'd drop into a clay pot, blackened with age. I watched her, but from a distance. The sight of blood at close quarters made me queasy, but with the benefit of distance, there a delicious thrill in seeing my grandmother - a slight woman - reduce an intimidatingly large fish to pieces.

Job done, she'd work her magic to create a curry, with the sweetness of freshly and painfully extracted coconut milk, the sourness of raw mango, and the aroma of curry leaves.

I'd dive into her fish curry with gusto, and in my zeal, often got tiny pieces of fish bone stuck in my gums. I was rarely fazed by these skirmishes with the food on my plate, and tended to gamely proceed with the battle until the enemy had been comprehensively decimated. My brother and some of my cousins tended to be more practical when it came to their meals. They preferred the more docile chicken dish that would invariably be served alongside the fish, voting for their gums over their tastebuds.

Like many others of their generation, my grandparents weren't a particularly expressive lot. Certainly, they never put into words their fondness for their grandchildren. But the depth of their feelings shone brightly through the food - it was evident in the elaborate meals that my grandmother slaved over in her kitchen, and in the haggling that my grandfather endured to ensure that my vacations always started with a delicious fish curry.

I wish I could say that I have my grandmother's finest recipes noted down in a journal somewhere. Instead, here's a recipe for a fish curry (by no means authentic) that I've concocted, improvising to make up for ingredients that aren't readily available in the grocery store where I pick up my pre-cleaned fish, without any haggling, Palayam market style.

Fish curry 

1.3 pounds of tilapia fillets cut into medium size pieces
coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
tamarind pulp, extracted from 1 lime sized ball of tamarind
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 small red onion, finely sliced
1 cup canned coconut milk (or more, depending on taste)

To Mince
7-8 cloves garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1 serrano chilli (deseeded, if you want a mild curry)

2 tsp turmeric powder
1.5 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
2 tsp sambar powder

Heat oil. Add mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Once the fenugreek seeds turn a shade darker, add the minced ingredients. Stir for a few minutes until the garlic and ginger turn golden. Next add the powders and the sliced red onion. Add salt. Cook until the onions turn limp, this should take no more than 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Now add the tamarind extract (and the water used to extract the tamarind pulp - around 1-1.5 cups). Let the mixture come to a rolling boil and simmer for around 5 minutes further. Now add the fish pieces. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the fish is just cooked. Do not overcook the fish. Finally add the coconut milk. Serve hot, preferably with rice.