Gulabi Chikki – Coming Up Roses In 2012

Happy New Year everyone – wishing you all great things in 2012! One  of my wishes for the year ahead is  to spend more time here on my poor neglected blog. Thank you to everyone who wrote to find out if I’d dropped off the face of the earth – I really appreciate all your messages.

The truth is, I wouldn’t let myself do any blogging until I’d made some serious headway with the book.  I spent most of the autumn in Old Delhi, taking part in all the festivals, soaking everything up and filling dozens of notebooks but as soon as Diwali was over I knew I had to just sit down and try to make sense of it all. For a while I seriously doubted I could do it (I still have my doubts actually).  How could I possibly do justice to my beloved Old Delhi? How would I ever get beyond my journalist’s comfort zone of 1500 words?  Was my spine , and sanity, going to survive sitting at a desk for months on end?

Eventually I gave myself a good talking to,   strapped myself to a chair, switched off the internet and vowed to do no blogging or  excursions to Old Delhi until  I’d made significant progress.  It worked, sort of, and  it was a massive relief when  I sent off the first chapter a day before Charlie arrived back for the Christmas holidays.  Baby steps, but still an achievement.

My back’s still killing me but at least I’d earned a trip to Old Delhi. So last Friday, Dean and I left the kids sprawling on the sofa and headed out into the chilly morning. When we  arrived  in Chawri Bazaar  the streets were still thick with cold winter fog so we decided to warm up in Standard Sweets, a few steps from the Metro station.   We ordered two plates of Chhole Puri, a soft and comforting chick pea dish served with piping hot deep fried breads.  The Standard version of  this ubiquitous Delhi  dish is the addition of   potato, paneer and an extremely tasty kofta (a creamy vegetable dumpling).  We parked ourselves at a table to watch the shop and street get ready for the day.  A huge platter of carrot halwa was set on a stove to keep warm while young men in mufflers trooped in bearing trays of freshly made samosas and balushahi. Our breakfast, washed down with sweet spicy chai was delicious – I particularly enjoyed the kofta.  All round, a perfect winter warmer. From Standard Sweets we decided to wander through  Gali Peepal Mahadev where several temples were doing a brisk trade in early morning pujas.  Here, on the left,  we spotted the young owner of Standard Sweets making his offerings

We came across  an embroidery workshop and a dyeing shop

From Ballimaran we headed towards Kinari Bazaar and found a Daulat ki Chaat vendor.

I say ‘found’ but they’re not exactly difficult to come by these days.  Has anyone else noticed the multiplying of  Daulat ki Chaat wallahs in Old Delhi this year?  A happy renaissance to be sure but I’ve noticed some of them, particularly those clustered round Chawri Bazaar metro station,  taste a bit synthetic – cutting corners perhaps? The one we ate in Kinari Bazaar, however, was top notch.  The vendor, a serious young man in a Nehru waistcoat, was almost hidden from view in a side lane.  He took great pains to make sure each plate was just so, waited for us to finish then folded up his stand, put the platter on his head and disappeared into the main bazaar.

Dean stopped for a haircut, which as cruel friends have pointed out, never takes that long

From Kinari Bazaar we turned into Paranthe Wali Gali, not for paranthe but for sweets at Kanwarji which is at the end of the street on the corner with Chandni Chowk. Here I bought the beautiful rose chikki you can see at the top of this post. Chikki are like  nut brittle –  usually  nuts, seeds or puffed rice set in sugar or jaggery.  In the winter months, when the roses are at their best in India, the sweet shops sometimes add rose petals to their chikki.  Delicately rose-flavoured and beautiful to look at, they made the prettiest of new year gifts.

We also popped into the historic Ghantewala sweet shop a few doors up on Chandni Chowk to try their Habshi Halwa, a dark sugary, nutty, spicy sweet which, it turns out, both looks and tastes like Christmas pudding.

Then, just as we were about to head home, we decided to  take a peek in one of the lanes between Chandni Chowk and Kinari Bazaar. And in that little detour  we found  this lovely little place;

this young man with his thriving knife-sharpening business. Can you see the sparks flying from the scissors he’s sharpening on a stone that he’s turning by pedal power?

an old abandoned desk;

and a happy doggy  soaking up the winter sun…

It’s not just the food of Old Delhi  I’ve missed over the past few weeks, I’ve also missed  these endless discoveries.  It doesn’t matter how often I go to Old Delhi there’s always something I haven’t seen before; a doorway, a clock, a shaft of light, someone making something or fixing something, the boy with one blind eye  watching the crazy foreigner have his hair clipped.

Here’s to a year of discovery!

Standard Sweets, Gali Hakim Baqa. From Chawri Bazaar metro station   turn into Chawri Bazaar and take the first little turning on the left and you’ll see the shop on the left.

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Locavores and a Recipe for Carrot Halwa Muffins

 

One of my resolutions for 2011 is to join the “locavores”, an international foodie movement urging people to eat food produced “within a leisurely day’s drive of home”. The unpredictable nature of road travel in India notwithstanding, I’m willing to do my bit to reduce the environmental impact of our increasingly globalized food industry; pledging to eat more seasonally and locally and cut out obscenely priced imports.

In the US and Europe, locavorism has led to an upsurge in farmers’ markets, and even supermarket giants urging customers to “buy local”. Here, in India, most people have never been anything but locavores, relying on the local sabziwallah to bring whatever is picked on the farm that morning, but I have noticed a creeping trend towards winter mangoes and year-round salad.

For a slide show on how to make muffins Click here

The science and politics of it all are endlessly debatable but eating local food feels right to me. Beans and peas that arrive on the ghoda gaadi (horse cart) in my neighbourhood every day look and taste far better than those which have been on a dusty truck from Bangalore or a fuel-guzzling plane from Kenya.

I’m kicking off today by turning the beautiful red desi carrots which are in season right now, into these magnificent muffins, using everyone’s winter favourite, gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa).

The process for making muffins differs from other sponge cakes in the mixing of ingredients. Whereas a cupcake is generally made by first creaming the sugar and butter, muffins require the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients to be mixed separately before gently folding the two mixtures together. The most important thing to remember when making muffins is not to over-mix, stir only until you can’t see the flour. The batter should look fairly lumpy when it goes into the oven—this is what keeps the muffins light. If you want to skip the egg, just add a little more milk.

The result here is a rich, spicy, creamy marvel; locavore-ish without an ounce of holier-than-thou preachiness. The muffins hint at carrot cake but the halwa gives them a tantalizing and mysterious depth. The carrots are local; I’ve used oil and milk rather than my usual imported unsalted butter and the kwark (Dutch curd cheese) in the icing which is from the innovative Flanders Dairy outside Delhi. Baby steps, I admit—I’m not milling my own flour just yet and this week’s adventure in butter churning was a fiasco—but a start.

Muffins need to be eaten on the day you make them, ideally still a little warm. I can’t think of a good reason not to eat a whole batch of these muffins at one sitting but if you do, freeze them, un-iced, until you need them.

At the risk of teaching grannies to suck eggs, I’m also including my recipe for carrot halwa, although you could, if pressed, use shop-bought. I’ve added walnuts because that’s the nut usually found in carrot cake but you could also use pistachios or almonds.

Carrot Halwa (Gajar ka Halwa)

Ingredients

1/2 kg red, desi carrots

1 litre full-cream milk

6 dessertspoons caster sugar (or to taste)

4 dessertspoons ghee

Seeds of 4 green cardamom (elaichi) pods, ground

A handful of sultanas

A handful of chopped walnuts

100g khoya (milk solids), finely grated

Method

Finely grate the carrots and place in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat until the milk has evaporated and the carrots are soft and dry. Stir regularly so the carrots don’t stick to the pan. This can take an hour or so.

Add the sugar and ghee and cook again until the sugar has dissolved and the carrots are bright reddish orange.

Stir in the cardamom, sultanas and walnuts and leave to cool slightly before stirring in the khoya.

Carrot Halwa Muffins

Makes about 12 large muffins

Ingredients

250g plain flour (maida)

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

100ml milk

100ml sunflower oil

100g vanilla or caster sugar

400g carrot halwa

For cream cheese frosting

50g cream cheese or kwark

100g sifted icing sugar

A squeeze of lemon juice

Method

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Line a large muffin tin with paper muffin cases.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with the vanilla, milk and sunflower oil. Stir in the sugar.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones and stir gently until there is no visible flour. For the last few strokes, lightly stir in the carrot halwa until the mixture is just combined. Gently spoon the mixture into the paper cases.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until the surface of the muffins springs back when pressed.

For the cream cheese icing, beat together the cream cheese, icing sugar and lemon juice until soft but not runny. When the muffins are cool, spread a generous teaspoonful of icing on top.

Read  previous Lounge columns at www.livemint.com/pieceofcake