A chicken masala you need in your life.

with old recipe journals.

You guys deserve much better than what I give you here.

I’m almost always smothering you with chocolate. Cake. Pie. Maybe some bread. I hardly give you any veg. And even less fruit. I can literally see my future. I’m obviously going to turn out to be one of those mothers who pack potato crisps and sugary drinks for their kid’s lunch, instead of something healthy and supremely boring like boiled carrot sticks. I break out into cold sweats at night, just thinking of what to feed you or how not to fail at taking care of my imaginary children. I open the door to my freezer and peer in at cling-film wrapped pieces of chocolate cake, realizing that I don’t really have anything to whip up lunch with. I’m not saying that you can’t have chocolate cake for lunch. Gasp! Who said that?! But if I’m ever going to grow up into an adult and learn to nourish children or learn to pack a suitcase decently, then I’ll have to do more than just frozen cake.

Enter Arpi.

Continue reading A chicken masala you need in your life.

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how light and turmeric-y the curry is

Some days require plain curry and warm rice. And that’s it. You don’t need jewelled bread or cream-crowned cakes.

You turn on the air conditioning, look out at the setting sun and wait for your brother to finish laying the table.

You know it’s going to be good when you see you father making his way towards the table with the TV Guide tucked under his arm. He is excited about tonight’s cricket match. He has already set up the living room for his friends. He sits at the table and immediately he and my brother start having an animated discussion about the best batting lineup in the league.

My mother draws the curtains. Its hot and way too sunny for anyone’s comfort.

And then you dig into lunch.

Its a lunch of steamed rice and yellow chicken curry. It makes you forget about weekend cupcakes and makes you wonder why you ever needed a multi-layered birthday cake.

I chat a little with my family. We talk about summer fruits. My mum says she needs a smoothie a little while later. My brother says he needs fried chicken. Who on earth needs fried chicken when its a 100 degrees outside, I chuckle out loud. But mostly we concentrate on how light and turmeric-y the curry is.

The curry in question is your typical Indian chicken curry, except that it’s softened with yogurt and doesn’t have the resonant smokiness of garam masala. It also has one of my favourite ingredients – fenugreek. I cannot tell you enough about the magic of fenugreek, seeds or leaves or ground or anything.

You know how one of the best things in the world is the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan? The sound when it hits the hot pan? And then the second best thing is the smell of sizzling bacon reaching your nostrils?

Well, cooking with fenugreek is like one of those things. It looks unassuming. Not homely like spinach or surly like kale. It’s not as sharp as rocket or versatile like basil. But it’s a small piece of heaven alright. It hits your curry and then after a few seconds you get this really strong urge to dunk your head into the boiling curry just so you can take in all of its aroma.

Instead, you raise our nose, take a loooong breath and wait for lunch.

Yellow Chicken Curry with Fenugreek

500gm chicken breast pieces, or 4 chicken breast cut up in 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup of natural yogurt
1 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 small onions
1 tbsp of garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of red chili powder [more, if like us, you can handle the heat]
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
Salt, to taste
Chopped coriander leaves or parsley leaves, to garnish

In a large bowl, mix the chicken well with the yogurt. Make sure all the pieces are coated well with yogurt. Cover with cling film and rest in the refrigerator for 2-12 hours. Quarter the onions and blitz them in a blender along with a tablespoon of water, till it turns into a paste. You might need more water than a tablespoon.

Heat ghee/oil in a skillet. Add the onion, garlic and ginger in and stir on high-heat for about 3-4 minutes or till the mixture starts to turn colour. Add in the turmeric and chili and stir for a couple of minutes more. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken along with its yogurt-marinade and tomato puree. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes or till you cut open the biggest piece of chicken and it’s all white in the center. If the curry looks too dry, add a few tablespoons of water to i and let it cook for 2 minutes more. Add the fenugreek leaves and season with salt. Stir for a minute and take it off heat. Garnish with leafage and serve with steamed rice.

nosy neighbours and hot pasta sauce

Somewhere in the middle of 2005 I moved into what was “my first apartment”.

Roasted Tomatoes

A double-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking one of Baroda’s busiest crossings. It was an open plan with a kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living and the kitchen was anything but. It was lined with pink granite counter-tops on two sides and the sole appliance it housed was a double gas-burner. The rest of the space was used for storing mounds of sheets and rolls of paper. The roles piled one on top of the other formed a mountain that almost reached the ceiling, short of a feet or two. They threatened to topple down on our heads at any moment, but their threats fell on deaf ears.

My half of the apartment included a single bedroom that was airy in summer and warm in the winter. It had an attached bath that was approximately the size of a small bento box and a large window that occupied an entire wall. The window overlooked a large courtyard and a common corridor that was always drenched in rainwater during the heavy monsoon months.

The corridor was also my nosy neighbour’s favourite hangout apparently.

She would take a stroll through it, up and down, every hour or so, pausing near my window every time she crossed it and then extend her long neck to take a peek inside. It was her regular routine. For the first year that I lived in that apartment, this habit of hers was torture. I would look up from my work and jump in panic as I’d spot her face floating on one corner of my window. After working long hours through the night, I’d take a long nap. And as I would open my droopy eyelids and turn my head, there’d be her face. Floating at my window. Again.

I spent that entire year arguing with her, starting with politeness and ending in sharp words, as I would try to make her see how she was invading my private space. I tried sarcasm. Then I moved on to anger. I resorted to contorting my face into ugliness as I spoke to her, hoping that my expressions would scare her off. I even tried threatening her with letters to the building management. And I also started to keep my curtains drawn at all times blocking out all the daylight, which, was not fun. But in my entire comparatively short-life I have never met any woman with such great will power as hers.

By the second year, I was used to her nosiness and too tired and busy to complain. But silently kept looking for a solution to the problem. The solution arrived sooner than I expected. In the shape and form of a man – a half-Goan-half-Portuguese curly-haired student of commerce. We had met over a roadside chai stall frequented by students of the University and an episode of puppy-love had followed. And besides all the drama and petting-rituals this relationship demanded, it also kept me watered and fed. We used to share our evening over episodes of How I Met Your Mother, bowls of spaghetti in watery tomato sauce, pressure-cooked chicken and tuna sandwiches from Subway. There was also the incident where we were too busy exchanging affections to notice that the apartment had started to flood due to a leaky faucet. Um…I’ve grown since.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this. In fact, I’m positive that you’ve already guessed how I scared off my neighbour. Oh well. Let’s just say, her floating head disappeared permanently from my window since that fateful evening when my friend showed up.

He did show up with another packet of supermarket spaghetti and another jar of watery tomato sauce and we never really got to eat much, but in retrospect that was a price I was willing to pay for revenge on a nosy neighbour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Indianised salsa di pomodoro
inspired by Gordon Ramsey’s tomato soup in Chef’s Secrets

Any kind if tomatoes will do for this one, but try it with tomatoes on the vine as well. In that case, don’t remove the vine before roasting them. We like it hot and spicy over here, and if you do too, notch up the heat to two chillies instead of one. As an alternative, try roasting the tomatoes for 1 1/2 hours at 150 deg C. To turn this into a lovely tomato soup, just heat the sauce along with 1 1/2 cups of chicken/vegetable stock. The soup can be served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a toasted baguette. The recipe doubles easily if you require a larger batch.

5 medium tomatoes, in thick slices
2 medium red onions [or Spanish onions], sliced
1/2 head of garlic, skin on
1 red chilli [we keep the seeds intact, but remove the seeds if you prefer]
1 tsp of dried basil
1 tsp of dried thyme [or 2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves]
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime [or half a lemon]
2 tbsp of honey
2 tbsp of barbecue sauce [store-bought is just fine]

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Scatter tomatoes, onions and garlic on a baking tray. Sprinkle basil, thyme, turmeric, coriander over and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil, about 4-5 tablespoons, all over the ingredients. Roast for 45-50 minutes till the tomatoes start to fall apart. Let everything cool in the tray for 15 minutes before squeezing the garlic out of its skin. Blitz everything in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add lime juice, honey and barbecue sauce and stir well.
The sauce will keep for a week in an air-tight jar kept in the refrigerator. Use it as a dip or as a pasta sauce. To use with pasta, heat it up in a pan before adding cooked pasta along with fresh basil leaves and a handful of grated parmesan.

eggplants, for happily ever after

Well, good news. Spring is here. Officially. And about time too.

This calls for serious gearing-up for us food obsessed troglodytes. But before I start planning and promising anything, I must tackle eggplants. They’ve sat quietly on the couch watching – and waiting – as I batted my eyelashes at frivolous cakes and dallied with some serious potatoes. But there’s no denying that no matter who I’ve been with, I go home to eggplants every night.

I spent a good part of 2008 swooning over a certain Naval officer – a lot of which had to do with his crisp uniform – and devoting a large amount of time to vegetables. He was a staunch vegetarian and I wanted to impress. At the time I was a novice in the kitchen and had only recently graduated from burning water to under-cooking rice. My meals included leathery omelettes and whole tomatoes boiled in water with salt and garlic that was supposedly toh-mah-toh soup [cue eye-rolling]. And all this just so I could ask him about his mother’s South Indian fares, his squadron’s daily menu-plans and in general talk his ears off about food. We didn’t have much in common except for our affinity to Bollywood music and cringe-worthy wit, so I guess devoting more of my time and my all-consuming appetite to vegetarian food was my way of impressing him. And that’s the closest I got to making deep sacrifices for love.

But in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I’m trying to make it sound. Because I had eggplants.

My first memory of eggplants is obscure and I have decided not to bore you much today.  I’ve only ever heard my relatives tell me stories of how on being asked what I wanted for lunch I used to reply solemnly, “begun bhaja aar maachh bhaja.”
In English: fried eggplant and fried fish.

My priorities were pretty sorted back then.

Today I may snort and tear and chew meat off the bones like a blood-thirsty carnivore – I’m trying to make up for that whole year’s worth of meat that I missed out on – but a special place in my heart is reserved for eggplants. And okra too, but that’s for another day. I think it has a lot to do with the eggplant’s silky disposition and how they graciously host other flavours – whatever you may choose to marry them to. But their miracle is that they don’t get lost in all the chaos and can perfectly hold their body against your tongue.

My favourite way to consume an [almost] daily dose of eggplant is to pan-fry thick slices of them Bengali-style — on low heat, in a smidgen of oil, coated lightly with ground turmeric, salt and a thin thin film of flour — till they’re  soft and falling off their crispy skins. There are few things in life that can make you slam the table hard with your palm out of pleasure and a slice of eggplant prepared that way is one of those things.

But my latest discovery has been this sort of melange of eggplant cubes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It’s a sabji basically, pretty quick to prepare and has a hint of dried mango powder and chili powder in it. The twang of the mango powder lifts the eggplant’s umami and the sabji goes well with a host of breads, flat-breads and rice. It’s a cross between my kind of comfort food, something you would whip up for Curry Night with the other couples and something you want to share with your significant other over a quiet romantic dinner.

Its a great start to spring and lately it also served me well when I had to feed a heartbroken friend. My adventures with men in uniforms may not have gone as smoothly as I had expected but when all else fails, there will always be eggplant.

Eggplant Sabji with Dried Mango Powder

Dried mango powder is easily available in any big supermarket or Indian food shops. So are turmeric, coriander and chili powder. Chili powder can also be substituted with 2 teaspoons of chili flakes.

2 tbsp of vegetable oil, either sunflower or olive
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 large eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of dried mango powder
2  tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of red chili powder
1/4 tsp pinch of turmeric powder
2 tsp granulated sugar
Water, as needed
1/2 cup of coriander leaves, chopped
Salt, to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Saute the onions on high heat till they’re soft and starting to slightly brown at the edges. Add in the garlic and saute for a minute. Add in the tomatoes, eggplant cubes, spices and sugar. Combine everything well. Lower to heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Cook for 10-12 minutes. Check for moisture content. If the sabji looks too dry, add a tablespoon of water. Add more if needed but be miserly because you don’t want the mixture to be soupy. Cover and cook for another 8-10 minutes till the eggplants have softened. Check the biggest of the cubes and if it’s cooked all the way to the middle then the sabji’s ready. Season with salt, stir in the coriander and let them wilt in the heat for a minute.

Serve with rotis, on toasted baguette slices or bread. Or with rice. Or stuffed between the layers of a pita. The options are limitless really.