Book Review | First Food, A Taste of India’s Biodiversity … and Chaulai ka saag {amaranth greens}

“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Mark Kurlansky

First Food , A Taste of India's BiodiversityLife can be strangely coincidental at times, or maybe it is just the trend of the times. My recent amaranth obsession is at an all time high, and then I got an invite for the launch of a very very interesting book Centre of Science and Environment - First Food, A Taste of India’s Biodiversity. The locavore in me jumped to it. What’s not to love about celebrating local produce?

Sunita Narain @ First Food , A Taste of India's Biodiversity, India Habitat Centre, DelhiA live wire opening introduction to the book by CSEs petite and very talented Sunita Narain had everyone’s attention. A cause close to my locavore heart, I was thrilled to see how beautifully local and rather unknown ingredients have been woven into the book. A lot of historical cuisine connect runs through the book, emphasising time and again that food is personal, and that everyone has a food story. The book, authored by Sunita Narain & Vibha Varshney,  attempts to share India’s rich, diverse and largely unexplored culinary tradition. Paired with vivid food memories and a deep emotional connect, it does a brilliant job!

Sunita Narain is an Indian environmentalist and political activist as well as a major proponent of the Green concept of sustainable development. She has been with the India-based Centre for Science and Environment since 1982. She is currently the director of the Centre and the director of the Society for Environmental Communications and publisher of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. The recipes in First Food have been curated from Down to Earth.

Beets, carrots and kanji ...fermented drinksImportantly, it makes the mind think. Think out of the box, as also question how far we will be pushed as a community before we realise that we are losing a whole lot of local food wealth falling prey to imports. To make the environment flourish and to add economic value to local produce, getting to the roots of traditional food is essential.

traditional Indian cusineThat somewhat explains First Food, an interesting title in itself. Thought provoking too. To understand the vast economic system that runs behind each fruit, flower, leaf and grain, the book does a good job in bringing together a rich resource of information; food stories, environmental issues, intriguing trivia and of course interesting recipes.beets, amaranthFor me, it is also the ingredients that inspire. I love cooking with beet greens {thanks to Sangeeta’s vast knowledge}, and with turnip greens too {thanks to my mother who used to do it; still does}. Fermented pineapple kanji and beetroot kanji are on top of my list, thanks again to Sangeeta. These days, it’s popped amaranth in cakes and brownies, whole grain in cookies and so much more!

Lamb with turnip greens, shalgam ke patton ka goshtAt the launch that night other than the very talented Sunita Narain, we had Prof Pushpesh Pant {a noted food critic and historian} and Vinod Dua {a food critic and one of the best known names in indian media} regale the rapt audience with their tales. The professor had the audience in splits “When Sunita first told me about the book I thought it was priced too high. Then when I read it, I discovered that it was priceless!

First Food , A Taste of India's Biodiversity with Pushpesh pant, Vinod Dua and Vibha VarshneyVinod Dua, the great orator and entertainer that he is, took to food centric quotes, prose and couplets, both Indian and foreign. Beginning with one my favourite food quotes by George Bernard Shaw, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.“, he went on to read some best loved ones much to the delight of the audience!

First Food, India Habitat Centre, DelhiIt was a short and crisp launch ceremony, followed by a live food demonstration by master chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent fame, and then dinner, all made from recipes in the book. It was impossible to get within hearing distance of this very popular chef, so we had to make do with queueing up for the dinner which was served alongside.  The chefs special touch was discernible…

Cooking from First FoodIt was a vegetarian spread, as is the cookbook, and the food was mind blowing good! There was so much flavour, so much inspiration there that day. The bajre ki khichdi, the gahat ki dal, ker sangri ka paneer, til ke aloo, chaulai ka saag, drumstick leaves curry all delicious. There were  accompaniments galore too. Savoury pancakes, stuffed parathas, chutneys, raita … plenty of flavour and plenty of old world charm. You’ll find all the recipes in the book!

Cooking from First Food I came home rather inspired. Early the next morning, I bought fresh amaranth greens or chaulai ka saag {also lal saag as it’s commonly referred to here} as it’s in season. Stirred up some chaulai ka saag, some chaulai ka raita, aloo chaulai ki sabzi and karonde ka khatta meetha achaar; most recipes from the book, others just inspired. Made mixed grain puris on the side {makki ka aata, chakki ka aata and besan}. Oh so satisfying and all wiped clean!

Cooking from First Food Here’s a quick recipe of Amaranth greens /  Chaulai ka saag from the book.  The books a great buy for recipes ideas and inspiration, a good feel narrative that takes you back to your roots. From herbs, flowers, leaves, fermented foods to summer coolers, it  packs a pretty punch! I also like that the listed ingredients are short & sweet.

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Also find me on The Rabid Baker, The Times of India

Cooking | Ishrat Aunties Chicken Korma … simple finger licking good curry

Proust had his madeleines, I am devastated by the smell of onions frying in butter!

Chicken korma 2Chicken Korma … simple, flavourful and just the kind of thing I’ve missed sharing here for a bit. It’s been some time since I blogged a curry on PAB. Feels like a wonderful new beginning. My sis in Houston shared the recipe with me a few years ago. It comes from an old family friend’s repertoire. Everyone who digs into it requests her for the recipe, as my sis did too. We’ve shared it,  swapped it, minimally adapted it to suit our palette.

Chicken korma Like all cooking, use this as a springboard. Make it just as is and enjoy it. Then play around and customise it if you like. Kormas are gently spiced and slightly rich. With roots in the Mughlai cuisine, this meat based curry dish often has yogurt, maybe a seed and nut paste, and a few gentle spices. Oh yes some red chili too.

Fried Onions for Korma The yogurt is traditionally slow cooked so that it doesn’t curdle. It acts as a tenderiser as well as contributing to a nice thick slightly piquant gravy. The colour of the curry comes from the fried red onions … the star of the show IMHO. They lift this korma to new delicious levels, giving it a rich colour and moorish flavour.

Chicken kormaAnother tip that the aunt uses is to sift the coriander powder instead of just throwing it in. Maybe it lightens the powder for better distribution or something. I also like that the recipe uses staple pantry ingredients. Try this very simple traditional Chicken Korma, mopping it up with some yeasted whole wheat rotis/flatbread or over basmati rice. If parathas are your calling, go right ahead!

Mutton KormaYou could also try a similar korma with lamb. The cooking time will wary of course but the basic recipe will be quite the same. For lamb, you could consider marinating the mutton in yogurt paste for a few hours, then cooking on dum/simmer until done. Kormas like these are integral parts on Lucknowi cuisine, the city of my mothers birth. Kebabs, curries, kormas, biryanis all form part of their rich Awadhi cuisine.

LucknowThis particular one is as simple as it gets. It’s one I make often. Today I made a Chicken Ishtoo, Al-Jawahar style {an eatery in Old Delhi} from a recipe on Sangeeta’s blog. That turned out finger licking good too. So many curries, so little time, but will share that one day soon!

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Cooking | Butter Chicken & Punjabi Chole … The Chakle India Cookbook {a book review}

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”
John Ruskin

Butter Chicken {Pan fried version}It’s a delicious book on Indian cooking. An almost impish face smiles back at you from the cover, the earnest cook, with a twinkle in his eyes. It’s Aditya Bal the Indian model turned chef stirring up some magic. ‘The Chakhle India‘ Cookbook is based on the most popular food show Indian TV. From the book I offer a quintessential Indian curry – Butter Chicken {Pan fried version}, and a chickpea dish – Punjabi Chole.The Chakle India CookbookI looked at the book with initial skepticism as I don’t follow too many TV cookery shows. Took it along when I went to pick up the older teen from detention! {Yes that happens too as she didn’t submit a project in time. She had completed it but forgot to submit it!}! I love the lessons school can teach that we can’t! Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookGot there 30 minutes early armed with the book; it was the most fruitful 30 minutes I’ve spent of late. It was an instant connect! He seemed warm, real, ‘talked’ to with you, a peoples person, had a wonderful rapport and was entertaining. Explains why he runs the most popular food show!Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookFood is good when it is real, when stories are woven around it, when you know where they are coming from and what influences the style … a face behind the name makes it even better! Not so long ago we met Shamita, Ms India Universe, at the Four Seasons Wine Tasting event and marveled at how grounded she was. More recently we got ‘up close and personal‘ with one of India’s top chefs Saby at the Olive Bar & Kitchenanother fabulous person!Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India Cookbook Haven’t met Aditya but already feel like I know him a li’l bit. He talks fondly of growing up in Kashmir {I love Kashmir and it is on my list of places to revisit but with the hub}. I have beautiful memories of Srinagar which we visited as kids; Aditya stirred those up beautifully.Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookThe author lived an idyllic life in Srinagar, the culinary side reflected by Wazwan, potlucks, Sunday roasts reminiscent of his maternal grandmothers cooking; then had an unfortunate displacement from the state he loved due to civil unrest. He modeled for a few years and eventually found his calling in food. The book is packed with recipes from different corners of India, reflected in the title Chakle India {literally translates into Taste India}…Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookI love the simple explanations, the ‘deglazing’ of the pan now and then, asking you to check the balance of flavours, taking in the magic of Indian spices. Other “foodies” like Chantal Royer do a great job at analyzing some of the traditional Indian spices from her travels.  For all you meat lovers there, there is plenty of ‘meaty goodness’ that he tempts you to try. I made butter chicken from his book when I got home.
Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookWhy Butter Chicken? Because it is one of India’s most popular dishes, the kids love it, I haven’t made a ‘butter’ laden butter chicken in ages, it was the weekend, there was no electricity and the recipe was a pan fried version, it uses fresh tomatoes which are in abundance … more simply, because I wanted to!Butter Chicken {Pan fried version} from The Chakle India CookbookIt’s a good, homey, comforting recipe … a nice balance of flavours, not like the original butter chicken as that uses oven baked tandoori chicken, but finger licking good nevertheless. The son asked for it 2 days in a row! I make a low fat version often, yet to be blogged, but for now this version is for you!Chola Masala from The Chakle India CookbookThere are plenty of vegetarian recipes too. I reached for the book a second time as I had chickpeas soaking for a salad for the dieting diva. Made the Punjabi Cholas and they were fabulous! Loved the astoefitida {hing} in them, and also loved that it didn’t use commercial chana masala. I served them with boiled rice but they would taste great with flatbread too, or just as a snack.Chola Masala from The Chakle India CookbookNice to see a book with seemingly more emphasis on the meaty dishes, yet one that offers a liberal dose of vegetarian main course and snacks. The dessert section is SWEET! I have my eye on a mango kheer which I find rather intriguing and haven’t heard of before! Chola Masala from The Chakle India CookbookPick up the book and you’ll find it easy to cook from it. The ingredients are simple pantry staples and the methods aren’t cumbersome. Some recipes do appear long with many ingredients and instructions … a little complicated but really aren’t. The only downside, if ever so slightly there is one, is the pictures. I like my food photographs to show the dish from a short distance to get a better idea of the dish. Most frames are shot really close up, though there are plenty of them. Chola Masala from The Chakle India CookbookThe book is a delicious take on homey, comforting and make-able Indian cuisine, food from the heart, flavours that speak for themselves and the energy to make you want to cook! It’s a good addition to my ever growing collection of cookbooks.

Thank you for Anushree for sending me a copy to review. I really enjoyed the book!

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Also find me on The Rabid Baker, The Times of India

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