The Paowallahs of amchi Mumbai.

800px-Vada_Pav
CC image by Deepesh

What is Mumbai without its pav?

Vada-pav, pav-bhaji, maska-pav, bhajiya-pav and just plain old chai with pav. The humble pav is Mumbai’s icon, it is uniquely and typically Bombay, it exemplifies the bindaas attitude that defines the City of Dreams.

The word ‘pav’ does not come from the alleged practice of bakers using their feet to knead the dough! No bakery in Bombay is known to do this (at least I hope not). The word ‘pav’ actually comes from the Portugese ‘pao’, which means bread. The technology for pao-making was brought to India by the Portugese in the late 15th century.

After the Portugese took over Goa, that state fell into economic ruin. Many Goans migrated to Bombay, and settled in a place called Cavel, near Dhobi Talao in South Bombay. One such Goan was Vitorino Mudot, an enterprising young man from the village of Assagao. In 1819, he set up the first bakery in Cavel, and started making Portugese-style pao.  Vitorino encouraged his fellow Goans by giving them jobs in his bakery and by helping them set up their own bakeries. Vitorino Mudot became a rich man in the process.

In 1843, one of his own assistants, Salvador Patricio de Souza, forcibly took over the business. He in turn grew rich and powerful, and diversified into banking, real-estate and cotton. Under his reign, Goans monopolised the bread-making business in Bombay. After he died in the late 1890’s, the Goans were undermined by the aggressive Iranis. The pav business in Bombay is now dominated by north Indian muslims, most of whom are in the Grant Road area.

The golden age of the Goan pao-makers is long gone, but the nickname given to them still remains – makapao. It’s not a polite nickname, but the easy-going Goans take it sportingly (usually, but not always!)

So the next time you bite into a spicy vada-pav, don’t forget to pay your respects to Vitorino Mudot, the young baker from Assagao.

Cheers … Srini.

A dose of Dosa.

sks-174245.JPGIt’s a multi-billion dollar industry in India, not to mention the rest of the world. It is breakfast, lunch, dinner, evening snack, fast food and health food, all in one. The dosa is, well, the dosa.

The idli isn’t really Indian in origin, but the dosa is totally desi. Dosa making goes all the way back to 600 AD, somewhere in south India.

The masala dosa on the other hand, was invented in the 1960’s, at Woodlands Hotel, Udupi, by one Kadandale Krishna Bhat. Potato curry was usually served separately with plain dosas. During a potato crisis in the 1960’s, Krishna Bhat served dosas with a layer of pureed potato curry applied inside the dosa, to save on potatoes. Thus was born the masala dosa.

In its classical form, the dosa is made with parboiled rice and urad dal, ground together in a ratio of 3:1, fermented overnight. As with the idli, the process of fermentation increases the dosa’s nutritive value, making it a super-food. There are several dosa versions without rice, like the ragi dosa, adai, pessaratu (made from moong dal), wheat dosa, cabbage dosa, and what not.

The traditional dosa is a powerhouse of nutrition. The normal dosa has about 80 calories only. It has significant amounts of vitamin B, carbohydrates, protein and almost no fat (provided it is not fried in ghee). Instant dosa mixes are simply not as good. And hotel dosas are generally not safe. Instead, make them at home, with parboiled rice and urad dal. Add some home-made potato curry, or better yet, add a lightly spiced paneer or soya curry, and you have one terrific low-cal, high-protein meal.longest dosa.jpg

There are almost as many dosa variants as there are cooks in India. Onion dosa, banana uttappa, pineapple uttappam, set dosa, benne dosa, neer dosa, and some weird ones like Amitabh dosa (six feet long. I’ve eaten one such), Punjabi dosa, and Schezuan dosa and chop suey dosa (of all the things!). They’re all great, of course.

My personal favorite: Kheema dosa – traditional dosa stuffed with chicken kheema. Superb stuff. (My mom would be scandalised!).

Cheers … Srini.

The story of saffron.

saffron flower.jpgIt’s the color of Hinduism and dearer than gold. Praised to the heavens, and priced just as high, saffron has a place in the Indian kitchen that can be taken by no other herb.

Its distinctive aroma typifies the essence of Indian cuisine, its spectacular color symbolizes the core values of my country’s culture. Reserved for very special guests, saffron is truly the King of Spices.

The many names of saffron: Despite its Sanskrit name ‘Kashmirajanman’, saffron is not native to our country. Kashmir accounts for less than 1% of the world’s saffron output. Iran leads the world in saffron production, by a long distance.

Crocus sativus is the systematic name. Saffron’s common name comes from the Latin ‘safranum’ and that in turn comes from the Arabic ‘assfar’, meaning yellow. In Ayurveda, saffron is also known as ‘kesar’, meaning ‘eyebrow’, because the useful part of the saffron flower is thin and thread-like.

Dearer than Gold:  There are several reasons why saffron is worth more than its weight in gold. Saffron is a very finicky flower to grow. It flourishes only under direct sunlight, dry windy conditions, and in loose, well-drained clay-like soil. There are not many places in the world that meet these requirements. Timing and spacing are crucial. Saffron blooms only in autumn, during a narrow window of just two weeks. Flowers must be harvested rapidly, because they’ll wilt by noon. Further, just a tiny part of the saffron crocus is used. The tiny, thread-like stigmas are about the only useful parts of the entire plant.

It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce one kg of saffron. These 150,000 flowers need two square kilometers of land to grow in. Saffron flowers are prone to infections and insect attacks and can rot easily, so they have to be dried very carefully indeed.saffron-ps.jpg

No wonder then, that only about 300 tons of dried saffron are produced each year across the world. Of this, about 240 tons comes from Iran alone, and only about 50 tons is considered top-quality. Compare this to the amount of gold produced in 2014 – 3114 tons – and you’ll understand why you’ll have to sell your house to buy a kilo of top-quality saffron.

Chemicals of Iridescence:  Saffron is an iris, and hails from the Iridaceae family. This highly colorful family of flowering plants is the source of the word ‘iridescent’.

Saffron’s glorious color is caused by a group of phytochemicals called carotenoids. Chief amongst them is alpha-crocin. This yellow-orange phytochemical is mainly responsible for saffron’s characteristic color. Also present in saffron is the red-hued zeaxanthin. This carotenoid is naturally found in your retina too. This is why saffron is believed to be good for your eyes. There is no hard scientific evidence to prove this, though.

Lycopene is another phytochemical found in saffron. Like many other carotenoids, lycopene is an antioxidant and a natural sun-block. That explains why saffron has been used since antiquity for improving complexion, and why expectant mothers in India take it even today, in the completely mistaken belief that their children will be born fair.

Saffron’s aroma is mainly because of a chemical called 2,6,6-trimethyl 1,3-cyclohexadiene-1-carboxaldehyde, better known as safranal.

Saffron’s constituent chemicals are very potent and soluble in water. The color and aroma are so strong that you’ll need just one part of dried saffron in one hundred and fifty thousand parts of water to feel its presence. So don’t get rattled by its cost. A tiny bit of one saffron thread is all you’ll ever need for your dishes.

To your health: An important ingredient in several Ayurvedic remedies, saffron is considered a Tridoshahara, a herb that balances vata, kapha and pitta, the three formative elements of the body, according to Ayurveda.https://3.imimg.com/data3/HI/YE/MY-7535803/kumkumadi-tailam-250x250.jpg

Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita, the two main treatises in Ayurveda, mention several formulations with kumkuma, saffron’s other name in Ayurveda.

Ayurveda uses kesar for several ailments, for eye problems, arthritis, as a tonic for the heart, for liver ailments, for kidney problems and for all kinds of skin problems.

Preliminary animal studies indicate that crocetin in saffron may reduce cholesterol levels. Perhaps that might be one reason why the incidence of cardiovascular disease is low in Spain, where saffron is widely used. (But then, it’s widely used in India too, where the incidence of cardiovascular disease is quite high).

Suffice it to say that saffron might be good for you – but only in small doses.

Caveats: There is no such thing as a safe herb. Like any other herb, saffron is toxic at high doses. Prolonged use of saffron can damage your liver and kidneys. Saffron is a narcotic at high doses and it can knock a person out. It was in fact, used for this purpose in old Europe.

Over-enthusiastic consumption of saffron can induce an abortion and it definitely cannot make your baby fair, so please do not use saffron during pregnancy.

Buy saffron like you would buy gold, with utmost care. Buy it only from the best shops and buy only the best brands. Do not waste your money on saffron powder. It’s easy to adulterate saffron powder with turmeric powder, so be warned. It’s safer to buy whole saffron threads. Even so, adulteration is possible. Saffron threads are sometimes soaked in glycerine, to increase their weight.

To get the best of saffron, soak a small bit of saffron thread in half a cup of warm water or milk, overnight. The next morning, the milk or water will be a deep yellow, and you’ll need one teaspoon for each dish, that’s all.

Do not directly add saffron threads to a dish, unless the recipe specifically says so. It will take prolonged cooking to release the color and you’ll lose the aroma in the process.

Used correctly, and in small doses, saffron imparts a touch of royalty to any dish.

Go ahead, pamper yourself!

 

Cheers … Srini.

 

Key references:

http://agropedia.iitk.ac.in/content/saffron-cultivation-jammu-kashmir

http://www.toxicologycentre.com/kunkumapoove/

 

Yo, yo, yoghurt!

Ayurveda prescribes its consumption after every meal, our ancient scriptures describe it as one of the five sacred foods, and modern-day nutritional studies tell us that as a health food, it has no equal.

Nutra-peddlers put it into capsules, give it a fancy name called ‘probiotics’ – and make a lot of money selling those capsules back to us in India.

Dahi, or yoghurt, has been made in India since at least three thousand years.

Dahi is filled with billions of helpful bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli and Streptococci. These bacteria break down milk proteins and make it easier for the body to assimilate them. They also consume the lactose present in raw milk, allowing lactose-intolerant people (like me) to safely consume it. Dahi is rich in several vitamins and it also has calcium in a form that the body can absorb.

Ayurveda prescribes Dahi for diarrhoea, indigestion, acidity and other gastric ailments. And with good reason. The helpful bacteria in Dahi multiply rapidly in the small intestine and quickly outnumber any harmful bacteria present. They overwhelm a gastric infection through sheer volume of numbers.

Dahi being a natural product, cannot be patented. That’s why nutra-peddlers extract lactobacilli and other friendly bacteria from Dahi and develop products that they can patent.

In addition to its beneficial effects on the body’s digestive system, Dahi is good for weight loss, cholesterol, blood pressure and for preventing osteoporosis. It might be useful in preventing tooth decay in children, according to research done in Japan.

Dahi is an effective cooling agent after a spicy meal. Capsaicin is a key phtyochemical found in chillies. It causes intense inflammation and heat. Capsaicin is not soluble in water, so there’s no point drinking buckets of water if you bite into a chilli. But it binds readily to milk proteins in Dahi and can be removed harmlessly by the body. That is why it is a tradition to eat Dahi in some form after an Indian meal.

Several countries consume yoghurt, but only in India do we use it in so many different forms like raita, lassi, mishti dohi (sweet curds) and my favorite, shrikhand. And only in India, do we use Dahi as a cosmetic in home-made facepacks and as a hair conditioner.

Do you know, the dahi that you make every day at home is made from bacterial cultures that are hundreds of years old? In many homes across India, it is basically the same dahi that has been continuously used since decades.

Dahi making is an art as much as a science. Here are some tips from Yours Truly:

Use whole milk or toned milk. Skimmed milk is no good. Heat the milk to boiling point, turn down the flame, and simmer for ten minutes more. This will thicken the milk. Cool the milk to 450C (1130F). Add not more than one tablespoon of yesterday’s dahi. Stir briefly. Pour into a casserole. Cover casserole with a thick towel or scarf. Set for five hours. At five hours, gently open the casserole and check the dahi visually. If it appears firm, transfer the casserole carefully to the fridge, and use it the next day.

Important: Ensure that all vessels used are spotlessly clean and thoroughly rinsed until they are completely free from detergent. Otherwise, the bacteria do not grow properly.

So go ahead, Dahi jamaa lo.

Cheers … Srini.

Gaga over Garlic.

garlic ps.jpgThe spices and condiments that are typically used in Indian cuisine, have their origins in the world’s oldest medical system, Ayurveda. You use them every day in your food without a thought about the real reason why they’re there. They’re there because your body needs them and because, in many cases, Ayurveda says so.

Stinker in your kitchen

Meet this pungent little bulb, lovingly known in the West as the Stinking Rose. The distinctive odor of Allium sativum will assail your nostrils anywhere you go in India. Love it or hate it, you just can’t ignore it.

It’s a spice, herb, medicine, patentable cash-cow, and it stinks, depending on your point of view and which side of the table you’re on. Garlic is one odoriferous package of surprises.

Garlic has been in our kitchens since five thousand years. From its origins in China around 3000 BC, garlic has spread its tantalizing odor all across the planet. From the Med to the Atlantic, from one Pole to the other, you’ll find garlic bulbs adorning the kitchens of every country on earth.

According to Ayurveda, garlic is a promoter of agni, the body’s digestive fire, and is used as a carminative (appetite stimulant) and for gastric distress in general.

Regular consumption of garlic is believed to improve circulation and revitalize the body. For the same reason, garlic is believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. That’s why since Vedic times, the scriptures forbid its use by students, Brahmins and anyone engaged in spiritual pursuits, lest they get aroused by naughty ideas.

The French, on the other hand, take large amounts of it, for exactly the same reason. No wonder they also make the world’s best perfumes. The Russians use it a lot in their cuisine, mainly for rheumatism and joint pains.

Believe it or not, garlic makes a good face pack. It is effective against skin disorders like acne and pimples. That’s because garlic is a fairly strong antibacterial agent. Raw garlic paste directly applied on to the affected area will drive acne and worms away (and have the same effect on the general public).

The science behind the stink.

Garlic’s benefits and its smell are both caused by a group of sulfur-containing chemicals. Chief among them is allicin. This sulfurous phytochemical is responsible for many of garlic’s effects. There are so many scientific studies on garlic and allicin that one can mention just a handful of them here.

Blood pressure: Garlic is a vasodilator, that is, it dilates small blood vessels, and increases blood circulation. It brings down blood pressure as a result, and both Ayurveda and modern medicine recommend the moderate consumption of garlic by hypertension patients.

Cholesterol: Clinical studies on garlic show that it can potentially reduce cholesterol levels.

Antioxidant: Allicin has been studied as an antioxidant and for its effects on tumors. The results are encouraging. Allicin has been shown to inhibit a process called apoptosis or cell death. It can inhibit aging, in other words. So, an allium a day, keeps old age at bay, and everyone else away.

Statutory Warning ( I mean it!) 

Garlic is known to interact with several drugs. Eating large amounts of garlic when you’re on blood pressure medication can be a genuine health risk. Garlic can decrease blood pressure by itself. In combination with anti-hypertensives, it can have a nasty synergistic effect.

Garlic can cause bleeding when used in combination with blood thinning drugs that are commonly prescribed to heart patients (like myself). Garlic can react adversely with herbal formulations and other nutritional supplements, so be careful if you’re the type who falls for nutraceutical TV ads hosted by nubile nymphets.

If you want to use garlic for its health benefits, the golden rule is: First ask your doctor. More so if you want to take garlic capsules for their claimed benefits. No matter how you use garlic, please do so in moderation and reap its benefits without any worries.

Tips

Size does matter. Large bulbs stink less. The extra-large variety has a mild, nutty flavor and can be cooked as a vegetable by itself.  The tiny variety, on the other hand, will definitely make its presence felt in your breath, so use it sparingly.

Garlic cloves can get charred quickly, so always fry them on a gentle flame, along with onion or ginger, never alone.

There’s no point in gargling desperately with mouthwash after a garlicky meal. Garlic breath happens because garlic’s breakdown products are partly eliminated by the lungs. Even if you swallow a garlic bulb without chewing it or gulp a garlic capsule, you’ll still get garlic breath an hour later. Try chewing a few coriander leaves and keep one clove (lavang) in your mouth for a few minutes, and hope for the best. If you’re a heavy eater of garlic, one would strongly recommend a regular sauna to flush your skin of garlic by-products. Or else, your body will exude garlicky fumes all day long.

A recipe for you from my part of the world: Belluli Rasam (or mulligatawny soup, if you will).

Blanch and peel ten medium-size garlic cloves. Gently heat two tablespoons of pure ghee or butter, sauté a diced onion till light brown, add the garlic cloves, and sauté gently. Add a pinch of freshly ground pepper, a dash of cinnamon powder, one finely chopped green chilli and one thinly sliced finger-size piece of ginger. Fry for a minute and add a blanched and roughly chopped tomato, sauté till the tomato turns dry. Then add a teaspoon of commercial rasam powder, sauté for a minute more or until the aroma fills the entire building, add three cups of warm water (about 400 ml), bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for ten minutes.

At the end, add half a teaspoon of salt, simmer for one minute. Then drive out your salivating neighbours, lock the door, and, as we say in Bengaluru, enjoy like anything only. Serves three, but who cares?

Stay healthy. Stay safe. As Nature intended.

Cheers, Srini.

 

Key reference:

Garlic National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, US Dept of Health and Human Services.

URL: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/garlic/ataglance.htm

A handful of groundnuts.

peanuts-1325737

Research has shown that nuts are good for you. And the best nut for you is our good old moongphali or shengdana- the humble little groundnut.

Shengdana is not native to India. This ancient nut was first cultivated in South America almost 8000 years ago. It was introduced to India by the Portugese, possibly during the 17th century. Today, India is the second largest producer of groundnuts.

Technically, the groundnut is not a nut, it’s actually a bean. And what’s the difference? A nut is a dried fruit. A bean is a seed. Unless you’re a botanist, the details are unimportant.

What is important is the fact that Shengdana packs a whole lot of nutrients in one cheap, compact package. It is truly a remarkable super-food.

During my corporate days, I did a lot of R&D on groundnuts. These little fellows are rich in antioxidants. Until recently, expensive strawberries and blueberries were considered prime sources of antioxidants. But, our desi shengdana has been shown to be superior to these exotic nuts. Groundnuts are also a source of resveratrol. This phytochemical is a hot item in nutraceuticals. Resveratrol is linked to increased life-spans and reduction in cardiovascular disease, but there’s no conclusive evidence yet.

Moongphali has nutrients like niacin (good for your brain), vitamin E (good for your heart), co-enzyme Q10 (potent antioxidant), magnesium (good for your bones) and a high amount of protein. Groundnuts, in fact, have the highest protein content compared to other nuts, including costly almonds and pistachios.

Groundnuts are high in fat but they are free from trans-fats that are linked to cholesterol problems. Groundnut oil is a healthier cooking medium than Saffola and rice-bran oil.

There are many ways to enjoy shengdana – roasted, boiled in salt water, as a chutney, as a curry, in the form of peanut butter, and my favorite, as chikki. Traditional chikki, that is chikki made with molasses, is much better for you than videshi chocolates and candies.

Peanut_Chikki
CC image by Zeel Patel

Roasting groundnuts increases their nutrient value. But avoid branded roasted peanuts. They are all high in salt and contain preservatives. Best thing to do is to roast them at home, and add a pinch of salt or chat masala. Or better yet, add chopped onions, coriander leaves, green chillies, and really enjoy. Same applies to branded chikki. Usually they contain glucose syrup and that’s not good for you. Make them at home in the traditional way – and send me some!

Cheers… Srini.

Important note: If you have a peanut allergy, please disregard this entire blogpost. If you think you might have a peanut allergy or if someone closely related to you does, please talk to your doctor first.

Another important note: Badly stored peanuts can get infected with fungi and produce aflatoxins that can make you really ill. Peanuts must be stored in their shells, away from light, in a dry place. Raw unshelled peanuts are susceptible to fungal infection, if they are kept in the open in humid conditions. As a rule, avoid buying raw unshelled peanuts that are not sold in sealed packages.