Friday, May 29, 2009

Thought of Food 4: Steamed Wild Rice and Watermelon

This recipe (click on images to expand) inspired by Lalha’s more kuzhambu (buttermilk stew, if one insists on a probably incorrect English transliteration) is mainly to sing praises for the cereal which is known locally (in Maharashtra, India) as varai. Having lived in Maharashtra for nearly nineteen years now, I should have known about this cereal much earlier. Lalitha and I came across this cereal, when, walking along Jungli-Maharaj Road, Pune, we came across a road-side shop named Steamy Affairs. They were selling idlis (steamed rice-cakes, if you must have an Indian name for it) of various varieties. You stand and eat there, and the hot idlis sold as fast as hot-cakes, as they should be sold, I guess. We wanted a quick meal and glancing through the menu, I saw a variation titled as varai idli. I asked the shop-man what it was made of. He said “Varai”. It’s like asking a baker what wheat-bread is made of and he replying “wheat”. I cajoled him into giving me some more information, and he described varai as some kind of small rice. They served the idlis on a banana leaf and for accompaniment they served a typically Maharashtrian sauce made out of curd, ground peanuts and coconut paste. The idlis looked grainier and more porous than good normal idlis and tasted surprisingly good.

We went back to Steamy Affairs another day. Varai Idli was not available. They served that dish only on Chathurthi (fourth day of the moon) which is the common fasting day for a traditional Maharashtrian --- which most of them are in any case. A fasting Maharashtrian is not on any penance or self restriction. He/she is just taking a break from normal eating. Some would say they are actually having a feast since the food is most time simply delicious and rich consisting of fruits, milk, ghee (clarified butter, if you insist on an English name). They do not use normal cereals like wheat, sorghum, normal rice. Instead they use varai, sago, potatoes, peanuts and rajgeera (amaranth) seeds.
Varai is botanically known as Panicum miliaceum L. in English it is known (from internet) as broomcorn millet, black-seeded proso millet, broom millet, common millet, panic millet, proso, proso millet, wild millet, wild proso millet; in German as Rispenhirse; in French as kibi, millet commun, and in Spanish as mijo or millo. In Maharashtra it is known as Varai.

The making of varai idli is very simple and much easier to make than the normal rice idlis that are available in all the shops. These idlis require soaking, grinding and fermenting and takes up considerable time to make the idli dough prior to steaming. The outcome is not always guaranteed when one makes normal idlis as they are usually moody. The varai idlis come out very reasonably, and is much easier to make. It is ideal for people who prefer home-made food but have little time to make them.

In the recipe which we (Lalitha and I) have followed from guesswork is given below. We also tried out a kozhambu (stew) made in the usual South Indian style with curds but using water-melon instead of pumpkin. The idea of using water melon was inspired by the recipe for Matira Curry by Camellia Panjabi in one of The Times Group’s cookbook “Around the World in 80 Plates” (2004). The varai idli and kozhambu we made seemed to be a great dish for a hot summer afternoon in Pune.

The ingredients used (see Fig 1) are the following (serves two):
Varai Idli
Varai 1 cup
Urad Dal (Vigna mungo) 1/3 cup
Some Curry leaves
Water ¾ -1 cup
Watermelon ½ small watermelon
Curd 1 cup
Coconut (broken pieces) ½ cup
Manat-takkali 1 table spoon
Red chilies 4 - 6
Jeera (cumin seed) 1 tea-spoon
Cholar dal (Bengal gram) 1 table spoon
Methi 1 tea spoon

Manat-takkali is a must if you are an Iyer. It is a herb common throughout India. Its berries (used here) is a tonic and diuretic, heart diseases, skin diseases, piles, cooling high fevers when taken as a syrup, (also a poison if over used). The botanical name for it is Solanum Nigrum. In Bengali it is called Kakmachi; In Bombay, Gwalior, Makoi or mako. You need not use it. In that case, I suppose, it will be called a stew and not a kozhambu, especially by an Iyer.

Making the Varai Idli
The urad dal is ground fine using an ordinary electric grinder. It is mixed with the varai in a larger vessel and water added to give a thick consistency (Fig 2 left). When kept overnight (Indian summer when day temperature are + 40 and night temperatures +20 C) the idli dough swells (Fig 2 right). The curry leave is mixed in the dough and then poured into the idli-making vessel (Fig 3 left). A close-up is shown in Fig 3, right. The dough in this case is a bit watery

and one could not have made normal idli with such consistency. Filled trays (usually four) are stacked one on top of another in the idli maker. Varai idli is very novice-friendly. After steaming for about ten-fifteen minutes in the idli vessel the idli is ready (Fig 4 left). It is scraped easily out of the tray and served fresh on the table. There is no better food on earth than hot idli (if you leave out hilsa fish, which you have to leave out in a Iyer lady’s home).

Watermelon Kozhambu

The water melon is washed (proper Iyer procedure) cut into half, diced and placed in a vessel (Fig 5). A little bit of the white part of the water melon is included (Fig 5 right). The kuzhambu ingredients such as methi, jeera, Bengal gram (what will an Iyer do without Bengal), chilies (in this case green chilly was used), coconut pieces was put in a mixer (traditional Iyers would have had them ground properly on a stone pestle and mortar) along with the curd (yoghurt or dhai) (Figs 6 left and centre) and smashed (horrible word, but there is nothing subtle in an electric mixer) in the mixer to a uniform consistency adding a little water if required.

The kozhambu paste is then placed in the vessel containing the water melon, desired amount of water is added and boiled for ten minutes (depends on what state you want the water-melon to be in). The malat-takkali is then fried in oil (of your choice, kadalaiennai or ground nut oil is what is used here) and poured over to complete the kozhambu (Fig 6 right)

The most appetizing way to serve the food is to use banana leaf. Since there is only two banana plants in the neighborhood, it has been served on stainless steel plates (Fig 7), the nearest thing traditional Indian homes can get to silver plates which do not contaminate. The varai idli is served here cut and soaked in the kozhambu. A paste of specially prepared chili powder (made with lentils and chilies) and mixed in nalla-ennai (good oil which is sesame oil) has also been used to break the monotony.

Food for Thought

In these modern days, which always seem to proclaim a very quick end ever since Orwell’s 1984 was written (sometimes I wonder --- because of our gut-less or bone-less complying existence --- if we are not already dead and just existing virtually now), thought of self-sufficiency in food and water is perhaps the most basic concern. Wild rice like varai does not require extensive fertilizers or water for cultivation and has been the food of our tribes or adivasis (the indigenous people) who still persist with such cultivation if they are isolated enough from modern society. Indigenous food for indigenous people could solve a large portion of the energy problem. Such dreams counter globalization dreams but they are good dreams. They are not Bush’s dreams or Reagan’s dreams or Manmohan Singh’s dreams or Obama’s dreams. But as they say one climbs every mountain, follows every rainbow, till one finds one’s dream. In the meanwhile one can nurture varai plants and not pull them out as obnoxious weeds as some (Monasnto?) could have you believe.