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Vir Sanghvi on Gujarati food


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Vir Sanghvi has written a really interesting article in the Hindustan Times on Gujarati food which underlines why I think he's probably the best regular food writer in India. I really like this one because I'm half Gujarati myself and have shared Sanghvi's mixed feelings about Gujarati food.

I have eating the most amazing Gujarati food, both in homes and in some of the excellent thali places in Mumbai. It can be so good, and Gujaratis really obssess about their food so much (as opposed to, say, Maharashtrians who never seem to particular like eating all that much) and they have the money to really spend on their eating and there at least they do not stint. And yet...

Well, Sanghvi spells out the problems with Gujarati food and also does full justice to its outstanding qualities - its relatively light use of oil and masalas (this applies to home-cooking, restaurants go overboard on the oil. I simply cannot eat oondhiyoo in restaurants, while I adore it when made in homes), its wonderful way with vegetables and, a really excellent point, that makes SO much sense, its appreciation of the importance of contrasting textures in food.

I was going to post the link to the article, but that HT link is uncertain and slow so, with apologies to the moderators, here's the whole article, followed by my comments:

Rude Food/Gujarati food: Taste the texture

Vir Sanghvi

  

I am always accused of being insufficiently respectful to the cuisine of my forefathers. A month ago, Rajiv Desai, a fellow Gujarati, berated me for daring to suggest that the food of Gujarat would not make the first division in a listing of global cuisines.

My apologies to Rajiv and any other Gujarati who reads this column, but yes, while I love Gujarati food because it is the cuisine I was brought up on, I have to say that it has certain very obvious limitations. Of course it is better than Punjabi food or, say, Bihari food but I don’t think that anyone can claim that it is in the same league as the food of, say, Lucknow, Hyderabad or Kerala.

There is, however, one area where Gujaratis get it right and most other Indians get it wrong. The most common criticism of Indian food all over the world is that it all tends to look and smell – and sometimes even taste – the same.

...........................................

.

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Good article, thanks for posting it.

--

Here's my beef (no pun intended) with Gujerati food, it's particularly true in restaurants but also at the homes I've eaten in.

It's always too sweet, there is a hint of sugary aftertaste to virtually everything you eat except for the breads. All those vegetable dishes mentioned, the shaak, eseepecially the kadhis - it all has been sugared.

My palate can't take it, after one or two meals in a row.

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Comments (most enthusiastic agreements):

Even when chefs try and make north Indian food less oily and less masaledar, it all ends up looking like bowls of brown sludge. The truth is that north Indians have no sense of texture when it comes to food. They pride themselves on the spicing but they forget that for a meal to be truly interesting, it must combine textures as much as it combines flavours.

This is so true, and we've been discussing this on another thread - the brown/yellow/green glop nature that makes photographing (north) Indian food difficult. But I am just tasting (mentally, alas) Gujju dishes I've eaten in the past, and Sanghvi is so right, the textures are always an important element. Like the slightly slippery pasta quality of dhal dhokli, or the the soggy lightness of kanji-vadas, or above all, oondhiyoo, which is basically all about sealing a bunch of veggies with contrasting flavours and textures in a pot and then cooking it while tightly sealed (in the villages they put the pots in hay and set fire to the hay). So you get the mealiness of kandh (purple yam) with the squashiness of aubergines with the firm little flat beans with the muthiyas (dumplings) and the raw bananas, cooked to softness, all mellowed while cooking by the garlic chutney. Bliss! And unfortunately a winter dish, so many months to go.

which entire colonies of fried pakora have taken up habitation.

Oh yeah!

Any Gujarati maharaj who dared make the gigantic monstrosity that Punjabis call a samosa and Bengalis call a shingara (probably the only Punjabi invention that Bongs like to claim as their own with the possible exception of the badly-tailored outfit they call the ‘Panjabi’) would be exiled to Ludhiana at once. (Or to Behala if we were really annoyed with him.)

Isn't the other characteristic of the shingara that it often has meat fillings? And Behala (a Calcutta suburb) is a serious threat, I started close to there and I KNOW.

Essential to a balanced Gujarati meal is the concept of farsan. Every Gujarati thaali will contain one bit of farsan. Critics say that this illustrates the Gujarati love of fried food but farsan is not always fried; the term itself denotes a savoury. Farsan can include batata-wadas, paatra (slices of a leaf rolled and stuffed with masala), dahi-wadi (also known as khandvi) and of course, the most famous farsan of them all, the dhokla.

The point of a farsan is only partly its taste. It derives its place in the thaali from the texture it adds to the total meal. Whether you eat puris or rotis with the shaak (the Gujarati word for sabzi), you need something that is firm and starchy to complement those textures. Farsan fills that slot.

For a start, we actually eat vegetables. We are not like Punjabis who eat paneer and alu. (Paneer, I am proud to say, is unknown in the land of Gandhi and Sardar Patel.) Nor are we like Rajasthanis who make wadis out of daal and aata and pretend that they are vegetables.

He he he. And he's quite right, I can't remeber ever eating a traditional paneer dish from Gujarat.

Then, we cut our vegetables small. When I first went to school in north India, I was horrified by the size of each sabzi. In Gujarat, cauliflower was cut into delicate bite-sized portions.

This is also very true, although the practice can be a real pain to do. Gujarati Jain's reinforce that by going into the cutting of vegetables in their usual, slightly obsessive way. Their principle is that their commitment to not killing animals extends eve to the tiny ones you sometimes see in fruit and veggies. I remember seeing a Gujju Jain friend of the famly sitting in his kitchen one day, painstakingly slicing his way through a pile of cauliflowers so as not to kill the really tiny insects that burrow their way in. A big pile of cauliflowers was soon reduced to tiny florets and stem shards. And when cooked, they were done almost at once and had such a wonderful, fresh taste.

I don’t, for instance, actually like many of the most famous dishes of Gujarati cuisine. As far as I’m concerned, a dhokla is merely an idli that has failed its entrance exam. The kairi no ras (mango pulp) that Gujaratis will delightedly dip their puris into during the mango season strikes me as a complete waste of mango: the base of a mango bellini, badly in need of the restoring properties of a shot of champagne. The puran poli or sweet roti that Gujaratis regard as a delicacy (and which Maharshtrians always claim is a Maharashtrian dish) is one of the most disgusting dishes known to man.

And that goes for me too! In general I like Gujju food a lot, but there are many items I don't like much and feel no loss in avoiding like I've done since I was a boy. Tinda. for example - small little gherkin like gourds, or the shrikhand that Sanghvi attacks a little later, and I'm all for that too, shrikhand is just too creamy and sweet.

No matter how well you cook your vegetables, no matter how subtle your daal (only Gujarais really understand how to use the flavour of kokum to enhance a yellow daal), no matter how inventive your farsans are and regardless of how much the world enjoys your srikhand (yet another Gujarati classic that I loathe), you cannot call yourself a great cuisine if you have no recipes for fish, chicken or meat.

And amen to that.

Vikram

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an interesting article vikram and i'll comment more extensively once i've had a chance to read it again carefully. but an initial thought:

it seems to me that sanghvi (at least early on) is setting up an opposition between gujarati home food and punjabi "catering" food. it may well be that punjabi home-cooking has all these elements of texture etc. that he bemoans in the wedding reception cuisine. certainly almost everything he says to this effect about gujarati food is true about bengali food (doesn't make sense to distinguish much between bengali home and restaurant food). texture, light cooking, a balance of sweet, spicy and sour flavors--all these things obtain in bengali food, and i suspect other indian cuisines might make the same claim.

and while i am a carnivore's carnivore i don't agree that a vegetarian cuisine is limited because it is vegetarian.

and what's wrong with behala? calcutta snobbery about these suburbs is not unrelated to the fact that they often had large populations of east-bengali refugees. i'm not sure where sanghvi comes by his.

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Guest nimki

Vir Sanghvi is a delightful writer and I really enjoy his food column. But this attack on all things North Indian is a bit off the mark.

For starters, he refers to Punjabi cuisine as though it is the hallmark of all things 'North Indian". Passing references are made to Rajasthani cuisine. What about Kashmir, Haryana (not a very popular state it seems), Himachal and UP?

<<<<<<<<<<<<<QUOTE

For a start, we actually eat vegetables. We are not like Punjabis who eat paneer and alu. (Paneer, I am proud to say, is unknown in the land of Gandhi and Sardar Patel.) Nor are we like Rajasthanis who make wadis out of daal and aata and pretend that they are vegetables.

QUOTE

He he he. And he's quite right, I can't remeber ever eating a traditional paneer dish from Gujarat. >>>>>>>>>>>

Case of give the dog a bad name. why not paneer i say? well made paneer has a texture all its own. ever tried tari wala matar paneer? or paneer bhurji - with onions, tomatoes, green chillis, turmeric, salt and a squeeze of lemon? my friends from the south and west, have some sort of a chip on their shoulder about paneer.

but gujjus equally and quite happily eat all kinds of things made out of besan.

I don't eat namkeen or papad with my meals. am I missing something here? I don't think so.

tried a rajasthani dish called 'kair sangri' or desert beans? It is yummy AND with a great texture.

Oh and wait...is alu (potato) not a vegetable? What could be more delicious than alu in its various avatars?

<<<<<<<<<<<,QUOTE

Then, we cut our vegetables small. When I first went to school in north India, I was horrified by the size of each sabzi. In Gujarat, cauliflower was cut into delicate bite-sized portions. >>>>>>>>>>>

again, this is purely a personal definition of taste. I personally dislike vegetables that are cut too small. They end up tasting like a mish mash.

When you make cauliflower which is cut into large pieces, it doesn't dissolve into a gas, but retains the taste and texture of what cauliflower should taste like.

just a small diatribe. would really be interested in everyones take on this.

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I adore Gujarathi food too - I love its simplicity, the textures, everything about it that the article describes so well. But I have to agree with Bhelpuri on the sweetness issue. I have eaten some fabulous Gujarati food with no hint of sugar in it. But most of the times, I find everything sweetened too much to my taste. In one of the homes, all the vegetable dishes were sweeter than the kheer I normally make ! It made me wonder if the kids could ever learn to love savoury food.

Suman

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Is the author of the article actually saying anything other than "this I like, this I don't like"?

Cuisines from other regions have just as much emphasis on texture - it just happens to be a texture he doesn't prefer.

Who decreed crunchy as good and non crunchy as bad?

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I have eaten some fabulous Gujarati food with no hint of sugar in it. But most of the times, I find everything sweetened too much to my taste. In one of the homes, all the vegetable dishes were sweeter than the kheer I normally make ! It made me wonder if the kids could ever learn to love savoury food.

Yes, yes, exactly.

This ruins otherwise attractive-looking and promising Gujju thali meals. The last time I ate at Status, the popular Nariman Point thali restaurant, every vegetable tasted like a dessert.

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i am glad to see, however, that we are all agreed that shrikhand is vile.

If a food exists, a certain percentage of the population, however small, enjoys it. Saying "I don't like shrikhand" is one thing. Saying "shrikhand is vile", is an insult to those that do.

Is it your intention to insult these people by insulting their food?

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Last week one of the top Indian chefs in London said to me "Gujarati food -- that''s the real Indian food. " I totally agree. It will be interesting to see whether these upscale Indian restaurants start adding real Gujju dishes to their menus -- not just horribly overpriced bhelpuri.

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i am glad to see, however, that we are all agreed that shrikhand is vile.

If a food exists, a certain percentage of the population, however small, enjoys it. Saying "I don't like shrikhand" is one thing. Saying "shrikhand is vile", is an insult to those that do.

Is it your intention to insult these people by insulting their food?

it is my intention to make a joke. cue laughter.

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So the sweeteners in the Gujarati food, does it cause issues with tooth decay in kids and adults if most things are sweet, or are there other things done to the food which mitigate or prevent cavities?

Pat

"I... like... FOOD!" -Red Valkyrie, Gauntlet Legends-

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First, Gujju thali places in Bombay. My favourite one at the moment is Friends, Union Joshi Club, popularly called FUJC (and that name sounds a little less odd when you realise its a literal translation of Joshi Mitra Mandal). Its a simple, but excellent place (and also very well priced). You have to go down the Kalbadevi Road and if you're coming from the Crawford Market side it'll be on the right hand side, on the first floor of a building.

After that Rajdhani near Crawford Market and, er, that's about it. Chetna is too heavy (though admittedly delicious), Samrat, Panchavati Gaur and Golden Star too pedestrian and Thacker's (upmarket one near Marine Lines station, corner of road to Metro) is just ridiculously rich, they don't use milk when cream will do.

Also it makes me shed bitter tears for the long lost and wonderful Sri Thacker Bhojanalaya in the back lanes of Kalbadevi. I have recently been told that this has restarted but I've been reluctant to go and check since (a) my cholesterol levels are too high and (b) I did try once and found that there was a pathetic excuse for the old one which was being run the old owner's son, and it was the best proof that culinary skills aren't genetic.

Luckily I have Gujju relatives and friends who can be prevailed on to feed me, cholesterol levels permitting. OK, answering other points randomly:

So the sweeteners in the Gujarati food, does it cause issues with tooth decay in kids and adults if most things are sweet, or are there other things done to the food which mitigate or prevent cavities?

I don't know about tooth decay, but diabetes rates in Gujarat are soaring. In its current form it is really not a very healthy cuisine (and you can see why Parsi cuisine is REALLY unhealthy, since to Gujarati food, its adds lots of rich meat and egg dishes). And yes, there's too much besan eaten.

I do say in its current form, because one can see how orginally it wasn't that rich. As Sanghvi notes it goes easy on the oil and it also uses lots of wholegrains, in particular jowar. Gujarat borders on the deserts of Rajasthan and parts like Kutch are quite barren, so the food was originally quite simple and healthy.

But as Gujaratis have prospered with trade, they have spent their money on food and don't stint on the rich and sweet parts. Its a defining characteristic of Gujjus to do whatever they do to excess. Lots of Gujju food today is simply too rich, which is why I'm ambivalent about it.

certainly almost everything he says to this effect about gujarati food is true about bengali food (doesn't make sense to distinguish much between bengali home and restaurant food). texture, light cooking, a balance of sweet, spicy and sour flavors--all these things obtain in bengali food, and i suspect other indian cuisines might make the same claim.

and what's wrong with behala? calcutta snobbery about these suburbs is not unrelated to the fact that they often had large populations of east-bengali refugees. i'm not sure where sanghvi comes by his.

I concede the point on Bengali food and this isn't just from a desire to co-opt Mongo. I did think while reading Sanghvi's article that Bengali food was another example where extreme care was taken in cutting ingredients into small sizes - if anything, it goes even further, because there are all sorts of obsessions about the precise shapes and sizes in which different veggies have to be cut for different dishes. And what's wrong with Behala? Well, maybe nothing much, but please try and find many things to say in favour of this, or any of the other ramshackle neighbourhoods all the way down the Diamond Harbour Road?

For starters, he refers to Punjabi cuisine as though it is the hallmark of all things 'North Indian". Passing references are made to Rajasthani cuisine. What about Kashmir, Haryana (not a very popular state it seems), Himachal and UP?
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First, Gujju thali places in Bombay. My favourite one at the moment is Friends, Union Joshi Club, popularly called FUJC (and that name sounds a little less odd when you realise its a literal translation of Joshi Mitra Mandal). Its a simple, but excellent place (and also very well priced). You have to go down the Kalbadevi Road and if you're coming from the Crawford Market side it'll be on the right hand side, on the first floor of a building.

After that Rajdhani near Crawford Market and, er, that's about it. Chetna is too heavy (though admittedly delicious), Samrat, Panchavati Gaur and Golden Star too pedestrian and Thacker's (upmarket one near Marine Lines station, corner of road to Metro) is just ridiculously rich, they don't use milk when cream will do.

Also it makes me shed bitter tears for the long lost and wonderful Sri Thacker Bhojanalaya in the back lanes of Kalbadevi. I have recently been told that this has restarted but I've been reluctant to go and check since (a) my cholesterol levels are too high and (b) I did try once and found that there was a pathetic excuse for the old one which was being run the old owner's son, and it was the best proof that culinary skills aren't genetic.

Luckily I have Gujju relatives and friends who can be prevailed on to feed me, cholesterol levels permitting. OK, answering other points randomly:

So the sweeteners in the Gujarati food, does it cause issues with tooth decay in kids and adults if most things are sweet, or are there other things done to the food which mitigate or prevent cavities?

I don't know about tooth decay, but diabetes rates in Gujarat are soaring. In its current form it is really not a very healthy cuisine (and you can see why Parsi cuisine is REALLY unhealthy, since to Gujarati food, its adds lots of rich meat and egg dishes). And yes, there's too much besan eaten.

I do say in its current form, because one can see how orginally it wasn't that rich. As Sanghvi notes it goes easy on the oil and it also uses lots of wholegrains, in particular jowar. Gujarat borders on the deserts of Rajasthan and parts like Kutch are quite barren, so the food was originally quite simple and healthy.

But as Gujaratis have prospered with trade, they have spent their money on food and don't stint on the rich and sweet parts. Its a defining characteristic of Gujjus to do whatever they do to excess. Lots of Gujju food today is simply too rich, which is why I'm ambivalent about it.

certainly almost everything he says to this effect about gujarati food is true about bengali food (doesn't make sense to distinguish much between bengali home and restaurant food). texture, light cooking, a balance of sweet, spicy and sour flavors--all these things obtain in bengali food, and i suspect other indian cuisines might make the same claim.

and what's wrong with behala? calcutta snobbery about these suburbs is not unrelated to the fact that they often had large populations of east-bengali refugees. i'm not sure where sanghvi comes by his.

I concede the point on Bengali food and this isn't just from a desire to co-opt Mongo. I did think while reading Sanghvi's article that Bengali food was another example where extreme care was taken in cutting ingredients into small sizes - if anything, it goes even further, because there are all sorts of obsessions about the precise shapes and sizes in which different veggies have to be cut for different dishes. And what's wrong with Behala? Well, maybe nothing much, but please try and find many things to say in favour of this, or any of the other ramshackle neighbourhoods all the way down the Diamond Harbour Road?

For starters, he refers to Punjabi cuisine as though it is the hallmark of all things 'North Indian". Passing references are made to Rajasthani cuisine. What about Kashmir, Haryana (not a very popular state it seems), Himachal and UP?

Well Punjabi cuisine, like Punjabi culture does tend to have a fairly strong hold over North India. This is possibly the influence of Delhi, which became a Punjabi city post-Partition - or maybe its just the influence of energetic Punjabi migrants who had to spread out across the north. The result is that, Kashmir apart, most North Indian cooking is equated to Punjabi.

I'm not saying the other traditions don't exist, but they're hardly made much of, mostly existing at the local or home level. And do we really need to go into why Haryana isn't the most popular of states. The boyfriend is Haryanvi and while we squabble about this from time to time, even he finds it hard to uphold Haryanvi pride for too long.

Vikram

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Sorry about that double post, I hit the Add Reply button mid-message by accident. A couple of other points:

well made paneer has a texture all its own. ever tried tari wala matar paneer? or paneer bhurji - with onions, tomatoes, green chillis, turmeric, salt and a squeeze of lemon? my friends from the south and west, have some sort of a chip on their shoulder about paneer.

Paneer is wonderful and it has all sorts of different textures, there's a thread just on this subject somewhere. And potatoes are wonderful too, who would dispute that except insane Atkinsoids. But there's more to life than them and you wouldn't guess that in the average Punjabi household and certainly not in the average Punjabi restaurant.

I'm not saying Punjabis don'y cook other veggies, but they don't respect and do justice to them the way Gujjus do - in their hearts they're lusting for the butter chicken and maa ki dhal. I mean, look at sarson ka saag, the one famous Punjabi veggie dish. You could make something interesting out of these mustard greens, but mostly they're served up with all the life cooked and pureed out of them.

again, this is purely a personal definition of taste. I personally dislike vegetables that are cut too small. They end up tasting like a mish mash.

When you make cauliflower which is cut into large pieces, it doesn't dissolve into a gas, but retains the taste and texture of what cauliflower should taste like.

Exactly! Small cut veggies dissolve into indistinguishable mush when overcooked in the standard Punjabi way. Gujjus would stir fry and cook only very lightly - that in fact is the point of cutting small, so it cooks quickly - so the original flavours are retained.

tried a rajasthani dish called 'kair sangri' or desert beans? It is yummy AND with a great texture.

It is yummy (sort of), it has a texture (of some kind) - and it is usually the only real veggie on a Rajasthani thali. I'm not blaming the Rajasthanis for this, its not their fault that most veggies don't grow in their desserts, but the point is that if you want to eat good veggies rather than the pretend veggies Sanghvi refers to, you better go further south to Gujarat.

i am glad to see, however, that we are all agreed that shrikhand is vile.

So why is it served so often in Indian restaurants? To use up extra curds?

Vikram

Edited by Vikram (log)
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Guest nimki
And do we really need to go into why Haryana isn't the most popular of states. The boyfriend is Haryanvi and while we squabble about this from time to time, even he finds it hard to uphold Haryanvi pride for too long.

ouch!

that cut straight to the core. vikram (if i may call you that), Haryana is.....ok.....well it isn't everybody's idea of a great place but it has redeeming features. and i will look into that and post a few.

hurt pride and all.

btw Haryana does have food traditions though not made much of.

:(

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It's not just the sweet food, it's also the fried stuff (farsan) that makes the Gujarati diet so unhealthy. The state has the dubious distinction of being the biggest consumer of cooking oil in all of India and consequently, has the highest rate of heart disease in the country. No wonder that my husband's cousin who is a cardiologist is much in demand.

Suman

Edited by rajsuman (log)
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I don't know about tooth decay, but diabetes rates in Gujarat are soaring. In its current form it is really not a very healthy cuisine (and you can see why Parsi cuisine is REALLY unhealthy, since to Gujarati food, its adds lots of rich meat and egg dishes). And yes, there's too much besan eaten.

I do say in its current form, because one can see how orginally it wasn't that rich. (...)

Would this be something that cuts across all economic strata, or could we extrapolate a likelihood of the average poor person in Gujarat preparing food which more closely resembles the cuisine before the trade prosperity?

Pat

"I... like... FOOD!" -Red Valkyrie, Gauntlet Legends-

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      Main Pickle

      1. Heat half the oil and fry ginger till slightly browned, slowly.

      2. Add garlic, onion, and half the salt and fry slowly till these begin to brown a bit too.

      3. Add eggplant, turmeric, and spice mix (Masala) and combine well. Fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

      4. Add rest of ingredients, including rest of the salt and olive oil and heat slowly to a boil.

      5. Boil for about 5 minutes. Add a little water if too thick - it should be nearly covered with liquid, but not quite - it will thin upon cooking so wait to add the water till heated through.

      6. Bottle in sterilized jars and seal according to your local pickling instructions. This recipe will be sufficiently acidic.
    • By loki
      Sour Tomatillo Achar

      Made this one up from a recipe for lemons. It really works for tomatilloes. A unique spice mix, and really sour for a 'different' type of pickle, or achar. It is based on a Marwari recipe - from the arid north-western part of India. Tomatilloes are not used in India (or at least not much) but are quite productive plants in my garden while lemons or other sour fruits are not possible to grow here. No vinegar or lemon juice is used, because tomatilloes are very acidic and don't need any extra.

      Ingredients
      3 lbs tomatilloes husks removed and quartered
      1/4 cup salt
      1 Tbs black mustard seeds
      2 star anise buds
      10 dried chilies (I used very hot yellow peppers)
      1 tsp fenugreek seeds
      2 inch ginger (ground to a paste)
      2 TBL dark brown sugar
      1/2 cup sugar

      1. In a large bowl, put the tomatilloes and sprinkle salt over them. Cover it and leave for a day, mixing occasionally.

      2. Next day drain the tomatilloes.

      3. Dry roast the star anise (put in first as these take longer, the black mustard, and the chilie pods (add last and barely brown in places). Cool.

      4. Grind the roasted spices with the fenugreek and put aside.

      5. Add tomatilloes, ginger, sugars, and everything else to a large pan and heat to boiling.

      6. Cook till fully hot and boiling.

      7. Fill half-pint jars and seal.
    • By rxrfrx
      South Indian Style Broccoli
      Serves 2 as Main Dish.
      Broccoli isn't a traditional Indian vegetable, but I designed this recipe to use up leftover boiled broccoli in the style of cauliflower.

      3 c broccoli, cut up and cooked
      3 T oil
      2 T cumin seeds
      2 tsp tumeric
      2 tsp corriander powder
      2 green chilis, sliced thinly
      1/2 c chopped cilantro
      salt, to taste

      Fry the spices in the oil until they smoke a little. Add the broccoli and chilis and fry for a couple minutes to get the flavors mixed. Add salt to taste and stir in the cilantro before serving with chapati.
      Bonus recipe: just before adding the cilantro, crack 2-4 eggs into the pan and stir them around.
      Keywords: Main Dish, Side, Easy, Vegan, Vegetables, Indian
      ( RG2107 )
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