April 22, 2014

(Almost) an instant mung dal crépe

April 22, 2014
This winter I have fed my addiction to South Indian cuisine by plunging snow white, steamed cakes (known as idli) in spicy broths, like rasam and sambar. Entranced, I have observed how the simple patties, made of rice and lentils (or sometimes semolina), draw multi-layered flavors from the liquid, like sponges, and carry the perfect union of attraction and diversity into the mouth. There must be a genius mind behind such harmony and compatibility! I am astonished by how a couple of humble ingredients create such an interesting character, story and mood.

Another favorite that has been a weekly fair in our home is dosa. Now that I think about it, rice and dal batter has been fermenting in a clay pot in a warm nook of our kitchen every fortnight; and, when I have run out of it, I have made an “instant” batter. Or, almost instant, because there are degrees of “immanency”, which I will explain later. Before that, let’s have a closer look at dosa!
Whether paper-thin or a bit thicker, they look like crépes or pancakes but feature the crispiness of a wafer. They are usually made from urad dal (split, dehusked seeds of black gram, not to be confused with black lentils used in European – especially French – cuisine) and rice that are soaked and, then, ground into a fine paste and fermented in room temperature until the mixture expands and adapts a mildly sour temper. The process increases nutritional value and digestibility, which is necessary because urad dal is one of the heavier lentils containing a large amount of vegetarian protein.

Sometimes mung dal is used instead of urad. There is also a variety of dosa made from wheat or semolina. In my upcoming book, there will be a recipe of both, the traditional urad dal dosa and the semolina one (rava dosa) which is especially fun to make: the batter is plastered onto a hot pan, by hand, as if it were wet cement!

Of the pulses, mung dal is most suitable for all body types or humors; its’ chemical breakdown is faster and, thus, the nutrients are easily absorbed into a blood stream. It has a mild aroma in comparison to other beans. I have found it very good for dosa because it leaves a content but light feeling after eating. It can - but does not have to - be fermented which is helpful when you want to have a substantial but quick meal or snack: after soaking for thirty minutes, you can grind and use it. Of course, it is better if you have a hunch the day before and immerse the lentils and rice in water for overnight and ferment the batter for a day! But, in an emergency, you can safely use the shortcut and even substitute rice with rice flour. That’s the shortest definition of “instant”.
Unlike crépe batter, dosa batter is not poured onto a hot, buttered pan and spread by tilting; it is placed in the center of a dry pan and quickly distributed by doing a circular motion with a flat base of a ladle, leaving small ridges in a spiral. Ghee, butter or oil is sprinkled on the top and sides of the pancake during the frying. Like a charm, the crépe releases itself from the pan when it’s cooked. Usually, dosa is not flipped over but filled directly on the pan, and folded in half or rolled like a wrap, and served immediately with chutney, pickles or as a part of a larger meal.

Potato curry is perhaps the most common way to stuff the pancakes; they go well with coconut chutney. But, I find dosa delicious with any other filling, too! Crépes that envelope fresh, savory cheese is one of our favorites. Sometimes, like the day I was photographing for this post, I crumbled them in a salad, like croutons, as an effort to incorporate energy into a low calorie lunch. For me, this type of side-dish is as creative as it gets, and provokes imagination.
Ps. I forgot to mention in the recipe that it makes 10 to 15 pieces, depending on the size.

April 18, 2014

Helsinki in April

April 18, 2014
Welcome to Helsinki I saw through a manual 35mm f/2.5 lens (read: vintage) that I got from a second hand shop for a handful of coins in the morning. Today the weather was windy and overcast. The temperature hovered around +5 Celsius but the sea air felt colder.
You may wonder if I photographed during some strange hours because there are hardly any people in the pictures. No, I didn’t. This is as busy as it gets between the noon and three in the afternoon in one of the smallest and most provincial capitals of Europe. I must have seen more statues than living persons of whom one was playing a cello, hands frozen (far below).
Below (left) is one of the main entrances to the center of Helsinki. The farmers’ market is on the other side of the road. Today there was only one vegetable vendor; looking at the number of clients, it’s understandable! Even 'the only client' looks bewildered.

The yellow bench made my day! Adorable, isn’t it?
There isn’t an old town in Helsinki, like in Stockholm or Copenhagen, or even Tallinn. There are only a couple of small streets that remind of the past. I found some interesting color details there.

Narcissus are everywhere, it seems.
Peppermint candies! I didn't "notice" them before I uploaded the images on the hard-disk. When photographing, I only saw red and white! It didn't cross my mind it was something edible. Perhaps it was a blessing.

Poor Japanese tourist (far right) wasn’t prepared for the weather.
Marimekko had placed cushions on the street: a great idea! I was tempted to try them but restrained myself because a human statue (golden Elvis?) was staring at them. He probably wanted to sit down too! For someone having a standing profession, it is a convenient place to work.
Thank you!

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.