April 9, 2014

Gulab Jamun

April 9, 2014
When there is a food memory, it is usually long-lasting. Facts – whether physical, chemical or biochemical – rarely play a role; rather, the remembrance links to an experience that takes place while the workhorses of the body, namely enzymes, convert carbohydrates, proteins and fat into energy. Years later we likely recall the emotional essence of the situation. We may think that it was the extraordinary smell, flavor or texture that impressed us, but when trying to reconstruct the physical sensation in the mind, it is futile. A sensual relationship with dead matter, which even the most delicious combinations of starch, sugar, butter, pulses and plants offer via the nose, tongue, eyes, skin and ears, is a flickering experience. Until there is interaction between two or more living beings that accumulates a feeling, the impact remains meager; therefore, a larger context always surrounds the most vivid recollections. Food is the proxy that triggers them.
When I went to India in 1993, I got very sick after drinking impure water from a bottle I bought outside the Kolkata airport on my way to Delhi. Although I noticed the seal was broken, I couldn’t resist drinking while dehydrated due to the scorching weather. After the first sip, I regretted: there was no return from being accompanied by a stomach pain for the rest of my trip, and even beyond it! While visiting the temples and kundas (water wells) in Vrindavan and Mathura area, local residents eagerly served me either sweet-rice or gulab jamun which I could not refuse although I was well aware the treats would pass through me faster than I could run back to the ashram I was staying in. Then, within a week or two, I was able to walk only to a cement-walled toilet outside the room I shared with a transparent gekko on the ceiling. Ever since – regardless how fondly I remember every saintly person I met and the soft mist through which I could hear jubilant greetings “Radhe, Radhe!” long before the sunrise – I have politely stayed away from sweet-rice and gulab jamun which, with all fairness, didn’t even cause the discomfort that finally bound me to a hospital bed.
When my husband was a brahmacari, a celibate student in a monastic setting, gulab jamun were closest to a direct sense-gratification he indulged during the festival days with his friends. They used to make them from milk powder in such a way that they soaked sugar syrup like balloons and exploded in the mouth. Everyone got intoxicated by the amount of sugar!

When he went to India a year or two before me, he travelled by train from a holy place to another and stayed in dharmasala or rest-houses for pilgrims that were far from five star sanctuaries but often resembled animal-shelters without any basic facilities. Although spiritually rewarding, it was austere. It didn’t help that the airline company had lost his luggage on the way to India and he could afford only to a pair of dhoti (loincloth) and chaddar (upper garment) he washed daily. On the top, a monkey stole his eye-glasses in Vrindavan! You can imagine his anticipation when he arrived to Jagannath Puri, a famous coastline town by the Bay of Bengal, and bought one gulab jamun from a vendor outside the temple. He likely thought it will compensate the hardship of being pushed around in the crowded trains and taking cold showers from a bucket in the early hours, only to be utterly disappointed when popping the sweetmeat in the mouth. It wasn’t anything like the soft, juicy bullets that had pampered him in the ashram; rather, it was hard like a stone.
During our twenty years of marriage, I have made gulab jamun once before the past few weeks. Interestingly, it was an uneventful occasion fifteen years ago which I, however, remember clearly; probably due to the initial experience I had in India. I was surprised then, like I am now, how attractive dessert it makes. Yet, I’m not eager to make them again anytime soon!

In order to satisfy my husband’s food memory from the brahmacari years, I had to make several batches of gulab jamun to get them right. It was my understanding that you have to cook them slowly in ghee over a very low heat, but I learnt that it makes them more solid and, thus, unacceptable by our Polish connoisseur! To make them hollow inside, use fat-free milk powder, a pinch of baking powder and enough milk to quickly tie the ingredients together. Then, roll small balls from a marble size up. When fried in ghee over a moderate temperature, they double or triple by diameter. This type of gulab jamun are not the prettiest because they dent in syrup, but if you are going for a sugar rush – nothing beats them! Expect fireworks in the mouth!

I achieved the second best result by using milk powder with 26% fat, a pinch of baking powder and a little bit of milk. Fried fairly quickly over a moderate temperature and soaked overnight in thin syrup, they became spongy and succulent.

Adding a teaspoon (or two) of flour into the milk powder helps the balls to retain a perfectly round shape and prevent dumplings from collapsing when plunged into the syrup. However, in our test kitchen, these types of gulab jamun were least favored. The flour appears to reduce the flavor.

I made one serving using organic whole cane sugar in the syrup; it wasn’t a good idea because the taste was over-powering. Gulab jamun are subtle and sophisticated sweets. Nothing that is fried in ghee and imbued with sugar becomes “health food” by any trick.

Traditionally, gulab jamun are made from milk solids, known as khoya. Cardamom, saffron, rosewater or kewra-water scents the syrup. The Mughals likely introduced the sweet to Indian Subcontinent and its origins are in Persia, as the name, “flower water”, indicates. There are many similar Arab and Turkish desserts. Even the Greek loukoumades, although spiced with cinnamon and honey, seem to sprout from the same root.
Although my husband and I have now created a new gustatory memory around gulab jamun that is quite different from what we experienced before we were married, it doesn’t override the original ones which, in spite of being connected to sickness and severe penance, have a special place in our hearts. In fact, the present remembrance preserves a link to where we came from and helps us to revisit all that is important to us today: our friendship and the search of sacred we are committed to complete together.

March 26, 2014

Alu Gauranga

March 26, 2014
Born as a prince in the seclusion of Himalayan foothills, Siddhartha Gautama’s father shielded him from seeing disease, old age and death since birth. It wasn’t until at the age of twenty-nine, he met an aged man with a wrinkled face and bent back, outside the palace. The prince was shocked to hear from his charioteer that everyone’s life will eventually come to an end. Upon encountering a citizen who had fallen sick, a decaying corpse and an ascetic, he became resolute to understand and overcome suffering. Six years later, he was known as Buddha, the awakened one.
We live in the same world. 2000 years have not swept away duhkha, loss and pain. When the media brings the downside of human experience onto our breakfast table, as printed or electric news, we choose to distance from it: 239 passengers and crew members of the Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 who perished in the Southern Indian Ocean are mere statistics to us. We may be shaken while reading that 176 persons are still missing and 16 found demised after the landslide in Washington but, at the same time, we are safe. At least, now. Do we think that the 529 people sentenced to death in Egypt  are someone’s spouses, children, parents, uncles, friends and colleagues? For us they are nameless numbers. We are somewhat immune to the atrocity of death as long as it doesn’t collide with our field of action.

When Maharaja Yudhisthira was asked what the most striking phenomenon in the world is, he replied (Mahabharata, Vana-parva 313.116):

ahany ahani bhutani
gacchantiha yamalayam
sesah sthavaram icchanti
kim ascaryam atah param

“Day after day, innumerable living beings are taken against their will to the abode of death, but those who are temporarily spared never think they will die; instead they continually desire a permanent situation. What could be more astonishing than this?”
There never seems to be an appropriate moment to speak about loss. Yet, all faith traditions, science and even the materialistic enterprise, built on economic development, strive to alleviate distress.

We tend to think the Eastern thought is pessimistic because it discusses such a difficult subject; we would rather remain blindfolded than face it. But, have you ever considered that it is too late to analyse tribulation in its acute phase? Most of us are crushed in a situation we have failed to preserve what is important to us, whether it is a beloved relationship, quality, condition, position, asset, activity, revenue, quota or goal. When an emotional storm hits slamming us from disbelief to bewilderment, denial to sadness, anger to quilt, blame to shame and fear to helplessness, our feelings prevent us from accepting and processing rational information. Sometimes we even reject consolation and affection because our hurt is too raw.

For a living entity, it is natural to response emotionally. We are sensitive creatures. Therefore, knowledge is not meant to oppress but harness our feelings before they bolt and disable us. Only in a sober state of mind we can study the true nature of things and beings. Then, at the arrival of trouble and reverse, we have a solid perspective, even though we are never fully prepared for adversities.
As long as we view material energy as the only dimension of awareness, we remain confused about dualities like pleasure and sorrow that are constantly changing. In fact, Bhagavad-gita speaks of them like the seasons following one another in the cycle of time. We can’t stop them but change our attitude towards them. Trying to achieve a permanent situation in a transitory environment – as if we were building a house on ice that will melt in due course – is hardly a sign of developed intelligence. In Sanskrit, it is called maha-maya, a grand illusion.

We experience and deal with afflictions according to our perception. In ignorance, we are both disinterested and neglectful of the eternal constituents of reality. When faced with personal disaster, we become destructive and hopeless; we take refuge in reminiscence, sleep and intoxication. When passionate, we are mainly concerned of our interest, and focus on what we can enjoy and control. With such character, we are likely furious when forced to renounce anything “mine”. Because we judge in terms of friends and enemies, anyone who disagrees with our plan – be that nature, other beings or God – deserves our revenge and wrath. But, when we cultivate purity and goodness, sattva, we gradually recognize consciousness as the substance that distinguishes matter from spirit. More we discover our indestructible form beyond ephemeral values, more we appreciate others as equal sparks of Divinity and claim no ownership over anything or anyone. Only then, we are able to specify who is losing and what is being lost, if anything, at the time of despair.

The body is but a shadow of the self. It is animate only as long as the soul illuminates it. For the soul, there is no beginning or end. Self-realization, being the privilege of human life, is the only way to come in terms with the mechanics of material laws that seem unfair and harsh at times. When it dawns to us who we are, what everything else is, what our relationships are and how to act in a progressive manner even in unfavorable circumstances, the calamities appear like dreams that no longer perplex us.

When my grandmother passed away in 1995, I sobbed in the funeral. Sitting next to me, my brother handed a napkin and whispered to my ear, “Don’t cry, she has transmigrated into another form of life.” He was right, and I knew it; after all, I lived in a monastery and studied the subject of reincarnation daily! Nonetheless, I missed the association and grace of my “mummo”, and couldn’t check the tears. It was necessary to grief.

The topic of departure is complex because it involves attachment and love. Letting go anything we are keen to, is hard. If we become aware of the deathlessness and common pursuit of happiness of every soul, we can make the transition easier. It, of course, requires that we question the validity of the material concept of life and reform our paradigm accordingly.
Alu Gauranga has nothing to do with the topic we have talked about above, except that I learnt the recipe while living in the ashram. In the spiritual life everything is personal. Therefore, we also name our food and sweets after saints and incarnations in order to remember the path and goal we have taken. Gauranga means “golden limbs” and refers to the radiant complexion of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Alu is a word for potatoes. I have also used parsnips in the recipe; whether they qualify as potatoes, I leave for you to decide! In the past I have substituted part of the potatoes with fried eggplants, zucchini and other left over vegetables that seem to blend peacefully in the yellow bliss made of fresh cheese and sour cream.

An update: I was just kindly reminded that the recipe originates from the first cookbook Great Vegetarian Dishes by Kurma Dasa whom I adore.

March 14, 2014


March 14, 2014
Before starting to prepare for the greatest Bengali Vaishnava festival of the year, Gaura Purnima, which we celebrate this weekend in Finland, under the full moon, I want to rush off a papadam recipe to you.

Papads are thin, lentil-based wafers or brittle crackers served as digestives, usually in the end of a meal. Sometimes they are offered as appetizers, snacks or croutons over a bowl of rice, soup or wet vegetable dish. Coming with various flavors – hing, black pepper, chilli, jeera or fenugreek – they are either roasted or deep-fried.
Papad making is an old craft still practiced in Indian villages and, if you are lucky, you can see rows of parchment-like flatbreads drying in the sunlight. Because kneading and rolling large quantities of them by hand is a laborious task, the tradition has gradually shifted from families and cottage industries to factories. Today, machine-made papadams are commercially available everywhere; therefore, you may ask, what’s the point of making them at home? Isn’t that a regression rather than a progression?
Not to me. The title of this blog, Pure, refers to the purity of intent along with the skill of cooking and ingredients. The consciousness by which we produce, share and eat food, yields a long lasting effect exceeding the needs of the belly. What we think, feel and will in the kitchen (or at the table, among our family and friends) influence the quality of life. Sattvik actions – deeds in the mode of goodness – that illuminate and open gateways to the higher stages of experience, always include a proper attitude. It is the mood we actually taste when we put something into the mouth; that’s the dynamic, spiritually potent component that either connects us with divinity or binds us to the dualities of temporary reality. Machine-made, industrially processed food carries a heavy karmic load despite of an attractive packaging. Therefore, it is always better, although perhaps more inconvenient, to cook at home instead of buying ready-made items.
There is hardly any information available about the process of making papadams. I have always been under the impression that it’s very difficult (read: impossible) to make them in an imperfect climate and without traditional tools. After a couple of trials and errors, I learnt that the procedure is very easy! All you need is a cup of whole urad dal (skin removed), salt, baking soda, a flavoring agent, water, and ghee or oil for the dough; a little bit of time for twisting and pounding the dough; an oven for roasting the dal and quickly dehydrating the papadams; and, a stove for frying or roasting.
I noticed that split urad dal does not produce a good texture; use whole lentils instead and make sure the expiry date is well ahead! You can mix urad with mung dal, or substitute some of the dal with rice flour.

You can roll the papads as thin as you like. When nearly transparent, tiny air bubbles cover them during frying and roasting; when thicker, they puff like chapatis or pooris. Both kinds are equally crunchy.

These home-made papads don’t expand like the commercial ones. It is likely due to the lack of an alkaline salt, papar-khar, specifically used in India.

An unrelated question to the readers who are using Blogger: During the past year, Blogger has changed some image settings that affect color, contrast, brightness and compression. Is there any way to reverse these effects? It seems they have added some wild enhancement feature while I was away. Grrr!

March 5, 2014

Ekadasi Cake

March 5, 2014
Those who follow a discipline, sadhana, designed to realize one’s ideal in the bhakti-tradition, observe a fast from grains, pulses and certain spices every eleventh day of the bright and dark fortnight of the moon. Ekadasi tithi is the day of Sri Vishnu and stands for an intensified spiritual practice. Sadhus or saintly persons of higher order often uptake a voluntary vow, vrata, beginning at the dawn of the preceding day and ending in the sunset of the day following ekadasi, during which they minimize bodily demands in favor of enlightenment. The commitment advocates increased devotional activities like meditation; studying Srimad Bhagavatam, Mahabharata, Ramayana and other Puranas aiming at redeeming the perception of life; and singing lyrical expressions of love for the Divine, kirtan or bhajan, throughout the ekadasi night. Devotees sometimes make a bold statement of mauna, a promise of silence, by avoiding idle and unbeneficial words.
Many of today’s sadhakas or sadhu-aspirants live and work in the secular society that rarely accepts or endorses the interests of a modern yogi. We lack the luxury of taking three days off every few weeks to carry out self-control of such precision, but constantly balance our lifestyle and worldly obligations without compromising the goal. Thankfully, ekadasi is auspicious whether performed elaborately or simply. In fact, it is said to be fortunate even if adhered to unknowingly or accidentally by abstaining from grains.
The origin of ekadasi is discussed by the sages Vedavyasa and Jaimini in Padma Purana. If you are not familiar with the puranic literature, note that it approaches the philosophical themes of Upanishads from a personal point of view, depicting them as a part of interaction and relationships, rather than intellectual enigmas. This story, like many others, is a classic account of good and evil, personified by a beautiful goddess, Sri Ekadasi, whom Sri Vishnu manifested, out of compassion, to relieve the suffering of those who violate the laws of nature and fall in the hands of the embodiment of sin, Papa-purusha.

Left invalidated and unemployed because of Sri Ekadasi’s blessings upon the wrongdoers, Papa-purusha sobbingly begged Sri Vishnu to restore his control over those who are apt to negative karma. Being fair to all creatures, Sri Vishnu permitted him to enter food every eleventh phase of the waxing and waning moon, on ekadasi tithi, and instill destructive sensual desires in whoever eats grains on those days. It is said that all disharmony and imbalance of the material world take refuge in rice, wheat, corn, beans, peas, mustard seeds and other heavy foods on ekadasi.

Bhakti-yogis are not driven by the fear of karmic implications per se but see ekadasi as an opportunity to come closer to the Transcendence. Fasting pacifies the connective line between the tongue, belly and genitals, and helps the body to respite from dietary irregularities while releasing energy to subtle, conscious processes that nourish the soul’s thirst and hunger for self-realization. When the moon is quarterly full or dark, it gravitates very mildly and its rays sooth the nerves and feelings of the heart; when the mental tides are calm, it is easier to contemplate.
Cakes may not typically be on the menu during the fasting days but sometimes the situation calls for a sweet treat. Being gluten-free, the recipe serves guests with sensitivity to wheat on any occasion.

I have used milk-powder that has 26 % fat. I can’t confirm whether any other type of milk-powder will yield as good result. Be aware that the cake becomes dry if over-baked; keep it in the oven only as long as it takes to become firm. The exact duration depends on the height and width of the form. A regular 25 cm / 10” tin cooks in 170 C / 338 F for 30 to 40 minutes; cupcakes are ready much quicker. Insert a toothpick to determine a proper consistency. If you want to make a layered cake, it may be a good idea to bake each layer separately.

Due to the content of potato starch, this cake is delicate and somewhat sand-like. It is best eaten soon after baking.

Terry, if you are reading this: I will take up the subject of coping with a loss in another post soon. Thank you again for suggesting it.