Ananda Mela or The Gorging Puja

The festival season is well under way here in Delhi and with so many celebrations overlapping and coinciding, it can be tough to keep up. I’m doing my best – for my book, I’m trying to make sure I  at least catch everything in the Old Delhi calendar – but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s happening when.

So if there’s anything you think I might miss, please drop me a line – for example I hadn’t realised that  the Bengali festival of Durga Puja was celebrated in Old Delhi until new Bengali friend Surya took me in hand.

delhi durga puja samiti

It turns out the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja (also known as the Delhi Durga Puja Samiti) is in fact Delhi’s oldest, dating back to the time many Bengalis came to Delhi to work for the British when the government moved from Calcutta.  In the early days, the Puja was held in the heart of Old Delhi in Nai Sarak, then Fatehpuri.

The Puja’s new home is the Bengali Secondary School on Alipur Road and last night Surya, her husband Sean and I met at Civil Lines metro to check it out. As I frequently find myself lost in Hindu traditions and rituals, Surya first of all sat me down to explain some of the Durga essentials, calling her Mum in Siliguri a couple of times for clarification.

Durga Puja coincides with Navratra, which began last Wednesday, and both are linked to the start of winter and harvest time.   Navratri, which literally means ‘nine nights’, a nine day fasting period for Hindus,  is observed several times a year but the most significant is the Maha Navratra (‘Great Navratra’)  at the beginning of autumn.

The Goddess arrives on an elephant, leaves on a palanquin

The dates of Bengali festivals and pujas are determined by the annual Panjika almanac, compiled by astrologers and priests; it also determines auspicious days for weddings, business ventures etc. according to the lunar cycle.  The Panjika also details how Durga, along with her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, and Kartik will arrive,  by  horse, palanquin, boat etc.   If she arrives by elephant, as she did this time, it’s going to be a good year ahead. Although not such good news for her departure:  she’s leaving on a palanquin, signifying epidemic.

The Kashmere Gate Durga Puja is a traditional and low-key affair compared to many in Calcutta the Goddess was radiant without being too flashy and the music was ‘Rabindro Sangeet’, the beautiful music and words written by Rabindranath Tagore; songs of ‘love and revolution’ according to Surya. Today is the start of three days of religious rituals then Durga’s earthly visit will be over for another year and she’ll go back to heaven via an immersion  in the Yamuna river on Thursday.

Ananda mela: the gorging puja

But of course I was itching to get on with the food side of the things and I had already noticed lots of women pulling stoves, pressure cookers and platters out of bags.   Which could only mean one thing –  the Ananda Mela was about to start. The Ananda Mela is a wonderful tradition of local women sharing their family specialities on the evening before the puja begins (which this year is today).

We tried almost everything on offer: Luchi Chola (chick peas with puri), Jimikand (also known as ‘kochu’ or ‘taro’) Cutlets, Chicken Biryani, Chicken Korma ‘Rashmoni’ Kheer (‘kheer surprise’), Malpua (sweet, fried fritters), and Patishapta (a sweet pancake stuffed with coconut)  and the excitingly-named Bonanza Chilli Chicken with Lemon Rice.  Wonderful, lovingly-cooked homestyle dishes, a grand start to the glorious Delhi eating season.

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Timms and Pimms, Summer in Wales

We’re on holiday, our annual jaunt to UK to catch up on family and friends. It’s been a more hectic trip than usual this year – we’ve already taken in Edinburgh (twice), Glasgow, London, and Brighton.

Last week, my youngest, Fergus and I went to stay with my sister, Jeni at her home in Wales. The picture above is Jeni, in her woodland kitchen.  Yes, my sister, with her husband Richard and four children, lives a life straight out of Country Living magazine: they have a smallholding miles from anywhere in West Wales with their dogs, cats, bunnies, chickens, ducks,  sheep and pony (hope I didn’t leave anyone out).

Since we visited last year Richard has built a fully equipped kitchen in the woods behind their house (Richard is the kind of man who disappears after breakfast saying “I’m just off to build a zip ride for the kids”.  And does.)

To go with the kitchen, Richard has also knocked up a wonderful barbeque area and a bunkhouse for the kids to camp in.

We had some great weather while we were there and managed a couple of meals al fresco.  One was a lazy Sunday afternoon affair with our Dad and half sister Kate who had driven down from Manchester.  My niece  Evie got busy making stickers for everyone and everything; Richard dealt deliciously with the meat side of things and Jeni and I raided the vegetable patch and whistled up a Gooseberry Tart.

All in all, a perfect British summer afternoon – all washed down, of course, with a few glasses of Pimms.

By the way, if you’re ever in that part of the world (nearest town is Builth Wells), you have to pop in for some of Jeni’s wonderful eggs and plants – check her out  – Pentre Plants, on Facebook.  If you’re very lucky, you might be able to persuade her to part with a punnet of gooseberries or blackcurrants.

A Weekend in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh

A fresh haul of ber fruit

My intense feelings for India have definitely been born out of an intense relationship with the food – whether it’s eating  the incredible street food, developing new India-inspired recipes  for Mint readers, or simply experimenting in the kitchen with the extraordinary variety of ingredients available here.

But I definitely feel the closest connection with the country which has been our home for over 5 years when someone invites me into the family kitchen. To have access to recipes passed down through generations, prepared with love and confidence is a great privilege.  This is the food people crave when they’re away from home, made to comfort and reassure – food that is rarely found in restaurants or cookbooks.  These recipes are among my most treasured – the culinary equivalent of making off with the family silver.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a wonderful long weekend in a town called Sagar, or Saugor, in Madhya Pradesh –  the true heartland of India.  I was visiting the family of my friend Nita, staying in the beautiful  sixties house where she grew up (complete with Enid Blyton bedside reading). We were there for the annual memorial lecture in honour of Nita’s father but we also found plenty of time for sightseeing, eating and cooking.

I’m enormously grateful to Nita’s mum Meena, who, along with cooks Ram Naresh, Rajesh and Suman,  put up with me clicking away and asking all sorts of daft questions.

Meena and Suman

milk from the dairy

vegetables fresh from the garden

Meena’s kitchen is a traditional vegetarian one where the flavours of the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat all come together.  It was a joy  to watch the timeless rituals –  pails of milk are brought in from the family’s dairy every morning, butter churning and yogurt making –  to taste so many new dishes and learn enough to fill about 20 posts here.

Sagar itself was also a wonderful discovery  – three hours drive south of Bhopal, it’s well and truly off the tourist track.  A major university and army cantonment town, Sagar also was the exact centre of undivided India. The town now sprawls prettily around a lake fringed with temples. Some of the old town is so beautiful I wanted to rush around with a preservation order to stop the inevitable blight of new concrete monstrosities.

But, as always for me, the food was the main attraction.  I met  new ingredients (like chiraunji which tastes a little like pine nuts), learned new techniques  and scribbled down so much I don’t really know when I’ll find the time to blog it all. I learned how to make two types of  Laddoos, Besan and Semolina/Coconut, for which  ordinary sugar has to have some of the moisture removed.

I ate sensational namkeen (fried snacks) made from sago as well as learning how to make Khasta Namkeen.  I watched Meena make shrikhand and sampled some Gujarati delicacies brought by some other house guests, including a wonderfully addictive mango chutney and an unusual bread called Debra

debra

There was a snack called Bakarwadi

bakarwadi

But today I’m going to give you a dish that I’m already totally addicted to – Poha. This is a simple, soothing  rice and pea dish softly spiced with green chillies and fresh coriander, then sent soaring with lemon and chutney

Poha is eaten (devoured in my case) with namkeen (as if I really needed any more opportunities to eat deep fried snacks!). As with most Indian home cooking, recipes for poha vary from family to family.  This is Nita’s family recipe as made by  Rajesh – many thanks to him for taking the time to explain everything so patiently.

PEA POHA

Serves 2

Ingredients

1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

pinch hing (asafoetida)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 small green chillies

1 onion, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon red chilli powder

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander

1 katori (small metal bowl used for measuring – you could also use a cup measurement) of pressed rice (poha), rinsed

2 handfuls of fresh peas

juice of 1 small lemon (nimbu)

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan then add mustard seeds, hing, turmeric and whole green chillies.  Stir for a moment or two. Add the onion and peas with a tablespoon of water then fry till the onions are starting to brown.

Add the red chilli and salt and give it a good stir.

Add the rice and stir for a couple of minutes until the rice is cooked and starting to catch and brown on the bottom of the pan – the slight crustiness is delicious.  Stir in the lemon juice and coriander, adding more of the flavourings to taste.

Serve with namkeen and frothy coffee, some Gugarati Chunda chutney too if you can find it – heavenly.

I have a feeling  Poha is well on its way to becoming one of my family favourites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first guest post and a navratri recipe

I was recently invited to a wonderful food event – a celebration of  the traditional food of the families of Old Delhi.  The recipes had been collected and recreated by food writer Anoothi Vishal and hosted by The Claridges Hotel in Surajkund and although it was a bit of a trek for lunch, it turned out to be well worth braving the last of the monsoon floods for.

While I worked my way through almost everything on the menu, Anoothi, whose own family hail from the old city,  gave me a fascinating overview of Old Delhi’s different communities and the food they cook.  Many of the dishes were completely new to me and confirmed what I have long suspected – most of India’s great cooking goes on in the domestic kitchen using recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Some of the food highlights – the Paneer aur Aloo Bukhara ke Kofte shown in the picture above, (kofte made from paneer and stuffed with prunes) were unusual and divine, perhaps Persian in origin. The Mutton Pulao was the most succulent I’ve ever tasted, the meat and stock having been cooked slowly in the rice, resulting in  delicate flavours, moist rice and melting meat. One very unusual dish was Anoothi’s family recipe for Take Paise, small  chick pea flour discs (‘paise’) which are steamed then fried and served in a rich sauce.

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Making Bedmi Aloo at Home: A Masterclass with Anju Singh

Anju at the stove with daughter in law Vandana

There is something I love almost more than eating.  Yes, I know – big claim! I love, love, love when someone gives me a recipe.  Especially when it’s one of those recipes that you don’t find in any cookbook – the true family recipes  passed down from generation to generation.  And when the holder of the knowledge invites me into the kitchen for a masterclass, well I’m pretty much hyperventilating with excitement.

Last weekend, I was privileged to be able to experience all of this as I watched my friend Siddhartha’s Mum Anju Singh make short work of Bedmi Aloo and a Pumpkin Sabzi, a dish that’s  eaten enthusiastically  all over north India and one of my absolute favourites.

Before we arrived, Siddhartha had started writing down the ingredients and quantities – the first time Anju’s Bedmi Aloo had been chronicled in this way  – his Mum always cooks by instinct rather than by slavishly following Nigella, Jamie and Anjun like me.  Anju confessed it was extremely hard to start thinking in precise quantities after a lifetime of ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’!

First up was a dal-based filling for the Bedmi, the gorgeous, puffed, deep-fried bread that has been my downfall since I came to India.  Most of the food prep had happened earlier, TV cook-style,  so there was already a bowl of  course-ground (to make sure there’s a bit of crunch in the finished bedmi) Ural Dal (200g soaked overnight then a pinch of Hing/Asafoetida added in the morning) ready to use.

urad dal paste

Then the thick paste has to be fried in about 3 tablespoons of sunflower oil in  a non-stick or heavy karahi  You have to keep stirring furiously because the paste will stick to the pan, adding more oil if necessary.  While stirring, add the spice mix: 1 T ginger paste, chopped green chilli  and red chilli powder to taste  along with the following, dry-roasted and ground: 1 T fennel seeds, 1T coriander seeds, 1 and a half t cumin seeds, half T peppercorns, 10 cloves, 4 whole black cardamom.  Keep stirring until the mixture looks sandy with powdery, separated grains. Stir in 2T chopped fresh coriander.

While this was going on, with her other hand Anju was effortlessly rustling up the ‘Aloo ki Jhol’ (literally ‘potatoes in liquid’).  Into 2T sunflower oil heat 1t cumin seeds, half t fenugreek/methi seeds, 2t each of ginger and garlic paste, one whole dried red chilli crumbled, 2t turmeric.  Give the mixture a good stir then add 2 finely chopped tomatoes then 1t saabzi (vegetable) masala.  Saabzi masala is simply a basic garam masala to which has been added turmeric, coriander and red chilli.  Cook for about 10 minutes by which time the tomatoes will have completely broken down then add about three quarters kg of chopped, boiled potatoes and about 2 cups of water along with half a cup of chopped coriander.  Bring to the boil and cook for about 5 minutes (or to 1 whistle of the pressure cooker if you’re that way inclined)

By the way, things were moving so fast I struggled to keep up with photos and now realise I have no shots of the potato!

chopped pumpkin

chopped pumpkin skin

I think Anju has at least two pairs of hands because she was also making a pumpkin  dish at the same time.  For this she defied the health police (I’m always all for that!) and tempered some spices in mustard oil – in 1T of oil she fried a pinch of hing/asafoetida, heaped half t of methi/fenugreek seed, 1 and a half t of cumin seeds and 20 small garlic cloves, chopped.  Fry for a couple of minutes until the garlic starts to brown then add 2 dried red chillies, 2 medium onions chopped.  To this add about one and a half kg of pumpkin chopped into small pieces.  Anju’s pumpkin, she called it ‘kumhada’, was a lovely creamy yellow colour, definitely what I’d call a pumpkin rather than a squash.  With salt to taste, the pumpkin is left to cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until completely tender.  Stir in 1t of dried mango powder (amchoor) then mash slightly.

delicious cooked pumpkin

Now it was time for the Bedmi to be assembled and fried.

In a karahi, about 3 cm sunflower oil was heated. The dough had been made earlier with 2 and a half cups of wholemeal flour (atta), half  t of salt and 1 and a half T sunflower oil and enough water to make a firm dough. Anju’s hands were a blur as she broke off nimbu-sized pieces and rolled them into smooth balls.  She then pushed them into a cup shape with her thumbs and inserted about 2t of the urad dal mixture. she then brought the sides of the dough up over the dal to enclose it then rolled them out flat.

shaping the bedmi

Interestingly, Anju called her ‘Bedmi’, ‘Kachori’ which I know as the smaller, harder deep fried breads.  Actually, when it came to frying, I could see that these breads were a little on the kachori side of the spectrum, cooked slower and longer than I associate with the instant puffing up of bhature or puri.

Each bedmi was oiled then slipped into the hot oil. Turn the bedmi over after about one minute and keep turning until a rich golden brown then drain on kitchen roll.

cooked bedmis

Needless to say, the resulting feast was amazing – I’m still reliving it daily – the crispy, spicy bread; the soft comforting potato and the surprising sweet pumpkin made for a meal I’ll remember for a very long time.

Thank you so much to all of  the Singh family, the afternoon was an absolute delight.  But most of all, huge gratitude to Anju for sharing her family recipes and letting me invade her kitchen and watch a master at work!

By the way, if this all sounds like an invitation to bombard me with family recipes – great! Bring it on!