Q is for Quality

Street food aficionados know that when it comes to quality, variations abound on the street as much as they do behind the walls of restaurant kitchens. In New York, residents of every borough fiercely argue the best attributes of a take-away slice of pie (pizza, that is). Up here in Canada, you might find a discussion board in search of a resolution on where to find the best poutine. And in my hometown of Minneapolis, locals replace last week’s best Pho with this week’s.

A hallmark of rating street food in these parts is that the dingier the place, the better the food. In Kolkata, that litmus test is a bit trickier to use since nearly every brick in Kolkata is dingy, and dingier may just mean contaminated.

So how do you go about sampling the street food across Kolkata?

First, take a guide. I’m lucky that mine grew up in Kolkata, speaks fluent Bengali, and has no desire to see me wheeled into a hospital. The first time I visited India, Surya made sure I abided by the following rules: don’t drink the water, and don’t eat any street food made or served with ice (i.e. fruit juices, lassis, certain yogurt-based delicacies). They restricted my options, but Kolkata has so many choices for street food that I didn’t really take much notice – except when I happened to stop, panting under the bright sun, in front of a juice cart piled with luscious pineapples, mangos and guavas, and Surya dragged me away. He offered, as compensation, some fake, orange-flavored Miranda soda instead.

Eventually, Surya had greater confidence in my constitution. He grew lax in his rules and figured that I could handle what any other Indian faced. By the next summer I was eating fruit juices on the street in New Market and, in Vivekananda Park, downing three or four snacks called “water balls,” in one sitting. I’m not sure what this change says about my beloved’s desire to keep me pathogen-free. I choose to think about the positives: I’m one step closer to blending in. When you’re white in India, you take advances where you can get them.

Second, accept the inevitable. Whether you like it or not, if you travel to a developing country you are likely to, at some point, get sick. You can do all the planning and preparation, follow all the right rules but, inevitably, the grime and germs will settle onto at least one unchecked corner of your carefully arranged universe. The good news is, although you may get terribly sick for a couple of days, you’re likely not to experience the same situation again. You’re inured. Take, for example, the time a wave of typhoid (a water-borne illness) swept through the fledgling university where I worked (you’ll be glad to know this was not in India). Typhoid is not fun. It feels as though you have a massive tumor expanding inside your skull. Every external facial feature throbs as a result. Sun makes it worse. So, you have to hide yourself in the dark all day as well. But, truth be told, the second time I had Typhoid, it wasn’t so bad. A little headache is all. The threat of death always lurks, of course. But no one really thinks about that. If you die from a food-borne illness you really just have terrible luck.

You’ll be glad to know in recent years most Indian cities, including Kolkata, have confronted the hygiene concerns of eaters. And food vendors themselves clamor for assistance in delivering quality, healthy food.  For a long time the Kolkata Municipal Corporation regulated the street food sector, albeit ineffectively. A simple lack of education kept most vendors from following the rules. For example, even though it was outlawed, Metanil yellow (a coloring used in textiles) was frequently used as a substitute for saffron.  The city has since begun a more thorough inspection process of vendors across the city. Now, it’s a model city.

Much of the danger in street food lies in pathogens spread by bacteria-infested water. Most people assume the problem begins with the quality of the water itself, so that not much can be done by a seller to keep his food healthy. However, a 1992 study discovered that the problem was rarely the water but how vendors handled their instruments. Leaving a washed pot upright, for instance, allows a puddle of water to collect at the bottom. It’s a habit not uncommon in kitchens across the West. But under the heat, humidity and pollution on the Indian street that pot becomes a potential breeding ground for bacteria. The solution was to institute training programs where vendors learned hygienic methods for cooking and cleaning. Contrary to the popular conception that street sellers care less about hygiene and more about profit, most vendors recognize that the relationship is symbiotic. Their success depends upon delivering quality food.

Third, money talks. No city is free of food vendors who take risks, who deliver sub-standard fare and border on dangerous. Perhaps the potential for unhygienic food is greater in a city like Kolkata that continues to develop its regulation standards. So, for better or for worse, there is always the universal law of money to stand by. For both health and quality, you are bound to find a better selection of street foods in the wealthier areas of the city. The higher the income level of a neighborhood, the more rupees its residents will spend. Those consumers also have greater expectations. New Alipore is known as the diplomatic neighborhood in Kolkata and is filled with ex-pats and other bureaucrats who have both the hankering for bhel puri or vegetable cutlets and spare change in their pockets. Salt Lake, a newer development, has welcomed a whole new crop of street vendors catering to Kolkata’s yuppies. The price of Kolkata street food can range from a few rupees to a couple of dollars. And the rule, “you get what you pay for,” often applies.

Fourth, choose tradition. But money isn’t the only rule. Sometimes it buys a white-washed version of a Kolkata favorite. Sometimes, the oldie is the goodie, even though it stands in a grubbier part of town and costs significantly less. Decker’s Lane in Dharamtala is one example. The narrow street has been a hot spot for street food since the early days of Kolkata, when business was concentrated in this part of town. Today you still can get the best fish fry in the city there. As Surya says, “If I had to choose between the young or the old man, “I’d choose tradition.”  I’ll wager that goes for establishments as well…

Fifth, do some light reading. Don’t dismiss the guidebooks. I know, I know. It’s often the case that you follow a suggestion, get lost four times before finally finding the restaurant, and the food has gone decidedly downhill (if it was ever uphill). But every now and again, a guidebook can hit on a not-so-hidden gem. You just need to read between the lines. “A favorite hotspot,” for instance, is likely to look smart but bat poorly. “Surprisingly tasty,” however, could indicate drool-worthy praise. Moreover, all the venues usually have been tested by a human guinea pig, so you can bet on safety. But don’t stop at traditional guidebooks. Kolkatans are natural foodies, and food is a major topic of conversation on many forums. I like to check India Mike, which is a community website for travelers all over India. The site offers forums for the major cities, including Kolkata and a forum on Indian cuisine and cooking. Zomato is an online food guide that offers community reviews and menus. And if you’ve landed in Kolkata without having turned a page or clicked a link, stop by a bookstore and purchase the Kingfisher Kolkata Explocity.

Perhaps you find yourself one day standing in front of a smiling vendor sporting a dirty shirt. His succulent chicken roll rests in one hand and a mess of tamarind sauce and chili paste drips from the other. And you are still not sure whether you should hand over your change. Think of this: Bengalis are not only food lovers, but they are also amateur pharmacists. Tell a Bengali you’re sick, and she’ll spout off a list of medicines you can try, from the most tame (an anti-inflammatory pill) to the most bizarre (incantations over a handful of salt). No matter how sick their food makes you, Bengalis always stick around to point you to the nearest pharmacy or wacko. Your choice.

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Kemon Acho!

Kolkata Eats is currently on vacation.  I’ll be back to write more in two weeks.

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P is for Panch Phoran

Tucked away in the back of your kitchen cupboard, or perhaps in your mother’s kitchen cupboard, you might find a dusty little jar stamped with a familiar picture of a dragon on it. It’s the Chinese five-spice powder that you first saw when your mother tried to introduce exotic into her daily cuisine.  And perhaps you’ve since become a huge fan of Chinese, like so many other Americans. Perhaps that jar of Chinese five-spice is spanking new, ordered online from a chi-chi spice boutique like Penzey’s.

Chinese food in America hasn’t got much to do with Kolkata or Bengali food, and I mention it only for sake of comparison. Chinese food is ubiquitous in America. You can find three Chinese restaurants on one city block in New York City, but you can also find a Chinese restaurant in a place like Kansas, off the highway on the way between one small town and a village.

Chinese food was introduced to American eaters as early as the 19th century, when the gold rush brought Chinese labor immigrants to the California coast. Since then, Americans have been sampling Chinese in chow chows and restaurants as well as in their own homes. The incorporation of Chinese into American home cooking really took off in the 1970s, and I remember evenings when I would help my mother in the kitchen as she prepared wontons and beef stir fry from her electric wok. Cooking Chinese then was an event. Usually my mother reserved the wok for company. And long before it was common to have chopsticks in the utensil drawer, I pulled out the forks, the knives and, from the pantry, the box of La Choy fortune cookies.

Indian night was never event at our house. Although Indian immigration also took off in the 1970’s, America did not see its largest wave until just this past decade. In these initial years of the twenty-first century, Indian is increasingly popular choice for people wanting a night away from the kitchen. But cooking Indian meals at home is still a novelty, performed only by serious connoisseurs or, in my sister-in-law’s case, travelers who spent time in India and want to re-create the experience at home.

Regional recipes and spice blends have yet to make it into American kitchens or into the product lines of spice companies here. Panch phoran (pronounced ‘panch foron’), is a five-spice mixture used in Northeast Indian cooking and almost synonymous with Bengali cuisine. But I bet you’ve never heard of it. It is, to be wholly biased, the bomb of Indian cooking. Let me shout that from the rooftops. It’s THE BOMB of Indian cooking! I am frequently dismayed that, unlike Chinese five spice, panch phoran has not entered the lexicon of American cooks. That’s not surprising given that it’s barely made a dent in Indian restaurants (which although frequently Bengali-run, seem to offer dishes only from North India). Panch phoran has not even made it into the catalogues of boutique spice dealers. I checked out several spice houses yesterday; they each carry a good-looking Chinese five-spice (not to mention Japanese, Persian and Arab spice blends) but no Bengali version. I can’t even find it at my usual go-to for Indian ingredients, Kalustyan’s.

Dismay. *Sigh*

Translated, panch phoran literally means “five spices.” Unlike the Chinese five-spice which adds an undeniably warm and sweet flavor to your food, panch phoran is more tempered. It combines the sweetness of fennel and fenugreek with more bitter and spicier flavors of mustard seed, nigella, and cumin. Although you might be able to find panch phoran at your local South Asian grocery market, it’s easy enough to make at home. You simply combine equal parts of the spices I mentioned. I’ll give you the Bengali names for them in case you rely on a Bengali cookbook:

Fenugreek seed (methi)
Nigella seed (kalonji) – also known as wild onion seed or black mustard seed.
Black Mustard seed (rai or shorshe) – sometimes the mustard seed is replaced by another spice called rhaduni, or wild celery seed.

Fennel seed (saunf or mouri)
Cumin seed (jira)

In most Bengali cooking, the blend is usually used whole, so it’s better to keep the mix of spices whole, not ground. Generally, panch phoran is added at the very beginning of cooking. When the oil for cooking is hot, cooks will throw in the spices to temper the oil. The flavor is then imparted throughout the dish. Sometimes cooks will dry roast and grind the blend into a powder and add it as a finishing touch to chutneys. Traditionally, panch phoran is added to only vegetable dishes.

If I could, I would add panch phoran to every Indian dish I made, but it would then cease to be special. However, with its balance of sweet and spice, this Bengali five-spice has the potential to become a favorite in American cupboards. Like Chinese five-spice powder, it’s suited to being assimilated into traditionally Western recipes. Indeed, Indian-American cooks regularly experiment with it. Try it. You are going to love it. And I dare you to share your own creations here.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a traditional Bengali mixed vegetable dish. This recipe can include any vegetables you like, so feel free to experiment.  

CHARCHARI (Mixed vegetable dish)

4-5 medium potatoes, diced

2 tomatoes, roughly diced

1 ½ cups diced squash

2 cups chopped green beans (chopped roughly into 1-inch pieces)

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

4 tsp panch phoran

1-2 dried chilies, crumbled

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 cup water

1-2 tsp. sugar

Salt to taste

Heat the oil on medium-low heat in a large frying pan or pot. When the oil is hot, add the panch phoran and the chilies and cook until the spices begin to pop and emit a fragrance. Add the diced potatoes and the turmeric and sauté for about 5 minutes. Then add the squash and sauté for another 5 minutes. Next, add the water, green beans, tomatoes, salt and sugar to taste and cook until the mixture is nearly dry. Serve the vegetables with rice, roti, or parathas.

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O is for Onion

Around the end of 2010 a curious thing began to happen in restaurants across Kolkata and the rest of India. Onions, which along with slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, usually are served as gratis crudités at restaurants, disappeared from the hors d’oevres plate.

In fact, they began to disappear from markets and home kitchens, too. In November, India faced an onion shortage that brought the cost of onions from 5 rupees a kilo to nearly 100 rupees.

By January inflation had risen to 18.32%.  Kolkata was hit particularly hit hard because West Bengal does virtually no farming of onions. It imports most of its onion from the nearby state of Maharashtra, whose farmers were hit hard by heavy rains that destroyed crops. Normally, Kolkata requires a daily shipment of 30 trucks of onions, but by the middle of January only 15 trucks were entering the city. As the shipments dwindled buyers flocked early to the markets to purchase onions. Almost inevitably the stock sold out within two hours.

Onions in India were costing more than they did in Britain. Riots broke out; politicians used the onion for political sway, and newspapers across the globe penned such headlines as, “Stink over Onion Crisis is enough to make you cry.” The headlines might elicit a smirk, but for Indians the onion is serious business. Governments have been known to topple as a result of rising onion costs.

The real worry was (and still is) that inflation for food in general had been rising. Prices for tomatoes and garlic, two other essential ingredients were rising as well. But why were onions, in particular, the catalyst for riots?

Traditionally, onions have always served as the “canary in the coal mine” for the Indian economy. Since onions are in ingredient in most dishes, they are an almost universal purchase for shoppers. That makes following its cost a good gauge of how healthy the economy is. In an article published in Business Week, economist Basanta Pradhan observed, “Onions are consumed by everybody so you cannot afford [for] onion prices to go up.”

But what caused the price of onions to rise is another matter still being debated in government, among shoppers and sellers alike and in every news outlet across India. Onion inflation is at once simple and complex, depending on whom you ask. Though food prices are always to some degree tied to the vagaries of weather, a host of factors from government to infrastructure accelerated the runaway inflation.

Weather

India experienced unseasonable rainstorms during the crop season, which led to flooding and a disease called colletotrichum that leads to rotting. The problem can lead to losses as high as 80%. It was this poor growing season that triggered the problem.

Traders and Retailers

The uncertainty of weather is a given anywhere in the world, and India has experienced onion crop losses at various times in the last half century. In other words, crop failures were nothing new. Many people thus put more blame on financial speculators who drove up the cost of onions before the crisis in supply existed. Others blame traders and retailers who hoarded the product, thus driving up the costs. Some retailers have even secretly acknowledged that they altered prices throughout the day, depending solely on whether a particular customer was able to afford handing out a few more rupees for a sack of onions.

The Government

Indian governments have confronted crises in onions before. In fact, the state governments of Rajasthan and Delhi fell in 1998 as a result of a similar onion crisis. And in 1980 India’s Congress party won national elections after making the price of onions a key election issue.

Yet, this past year, even though the current government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forewarned of the expected crop failure, and even though it had witnessed previous governments topple over the problem, it made few preparations for the looming crisis.

Agriculture

Scientists also say the crisis could have been averted with better agricultural practices. Researchers at the Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research in Rajgurunagar, Maharashtra, contend that if farmers relied on raised field beds instead of flat beds, or if drip irrigation replaced traditional flow irrigation, some of the inconsistencies of weather could be contained.

Infrastructure

Scientists also argue that because onions are a perishable commodity, their price will always fluctuate unless the industry can rely on better infrastructure. Agriculture, Boris Johnson contemplated in Britain’s Telegraph, is the last unreformed part of the Indian economy, creating a stable stream of food crises each year. While his charge isn’t completely true, India certainly needs greater modernization. Storage is one problem. Traditionally, onions are stored in bags or loose in structures that are not well ventilated. They are then transported on unventilated lorries over poorly kept roads that make the transport of perishables a longer process than necessary. Onion losses from field to market can be anywhere from 50 to 90%. They are the greatest losses of any crop. Many scientists are calling for refrigeration techniques for both storage and transport or, at the very least, improvements in ventilation.

On his world affairs blog at the Foreign Policy Association, David J. Karl, president of Asia Strategy Initiative, posed perhaps the most important question concerning the crisis: “Why does one of the world’s top agricultural producers – not to mention a country that is becoming a key link in globalized supply chains – have such difficulty in effectively distributing output?”

Karl maintains that India’s farm production, not to mention its available arable land is second only to the United States.  India produces the most milk and milk products in the world and is the second largest grower of wheat, rice, sugar, corn, onions and cotton.  He quotes Somini Sengupta in the New York Times who dismally observed, “with the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world.  Instead, it can barely feed itself.”

This is the real crisis for India. The shouts and riots the erupted during the onion crisis instigated reports across the world and a response from government, but the clamor obscured another piece of news that broke in December. The British medical journal The Lancet reported on the disturbing results of the growing divide between rich and poor in India. A study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that one in five Indians faced chronic cardiovascular and metabolic disorders related to obesity, while each year 1.8 million Indian children under five died from malnutrition.

The fact is that not everyone in India buys onions. According to 2005 statistics, 267 million Indians still live on less than one dollar a day. In India during any given year the poorest of the poor can’t afford onions. They subsist on rice.


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N is for Noboborsho

Happy New Year! Or, Subho Noboborsho! as they say in Kolkata.

April 15th is the Bengali New Year; in the Bengali calendar the year is 1418. Like New Years around the world it is a day for fresh starts and auspicious beginnings. Traditionally, the New Year is a time to settle one’s accounts. The new fiscal year begins today, and shopkeepers who had a good year often hand out sweets to their regular customers

Although Western New Years and the Chinese New Years are celebrated with perhaps more enthusiasm in Kolkata these days, Pohela Boishakh (the first day of the month of Boishakh) is a day for celebrating Bengali heritage. In the morning people go out to greet the first sunrise of the New Year over the Ganges. Traditionally women, as they do for all major holidays, dress in white saris with a red border.

If you were in Kolkata today, you would meet and greet your neighbors, attend festivals of arts and crafts, and visit friends and relatives. Or they just stay home and enjoy a free day from work.

There are plenty of celebrations of Pohela Boishakh around the world, from concerts of classical Bengali music to festivals of Bengali dance. Sydney and London have the two largest festivals outside India and Bangladesh. If you are there, check them out!

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M is for Mustard Oil

Mustard smells like horseradish. Did you know? I didn’t. But perhaps I should have. I come from a solidly German family, after all. My mom hailed from probably the most German town in America, and I grew up eating lots of Sunday night dinners like kielbasa, bratwurst, sweet and sour potato salad, and German chocolate cake. But it wasn’t until I landed in Surya’s home that the similarity hit me.

It’s amazing how toothpaste can clear your senses.  

I didn’t even know you could make such a thing as mustard oil, but there it was, sitting on a shelf in the bathroom. A thin film of dust donned the cap. A couple of cobwebs clung to one side of the glass bottle, and the words on the label bled from the small amount of oil that had seeped through. In the corner behind it, a dead cockroach lay forgotten.

It had been a while since Surya was forced to put mustard on his body. He lived in North America now, and, well, it’s just not done over here.  People look at you with a weird face if you do. Surya’s mother used to rub him with the oil when he was small; it’s supposed to be good for your skin, she’d say, a habit akin to forcing a teaspoon of castor oil down tiny, kid throats.

If you’ve cooked any Indian dishes, you probably know that mustard seed is a common ingredient all over India, but the use of mustard oil as a cooking agent is particular to the Northeast. Both mustard seeds and mustard oil are frequently used in West Bengal. They have a

particular affinity with the hilsa fish that Bengalis relish. In fact, Bengalis most celebrated dish, Bhapa Ilish is flavored almost exclusively with mustard.

Mustard oil is one of the better choices for cooking healthful food because it contains the desired proportions of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Fans consider it a healthier choice than olive oil because it contains no trans-fats and a high percentage of unsaturated fats. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that mustard oil, because it contains a high amount of a-linoleic acid (ALA), can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks.

You have to be a little careful in buying mustard oil, especially in the West, because it comes in both benign and toxic varieties (I sense a trend in the Bengali inclination for pernicious foodstuffs). For years it was banned for any kind of human consumption, available only for external purposes (like a head massage). That’s because there is some confusion between mustard cooking oil and mustard essential oil. The cooking oil is made in a fashion similar to olive oil. Cold compression extracts oil from the seeds, making it safe to eat. However, to make essential oil, the seeds are macerated in warm water by steam or water distillation. And when mustard seeds are subjected simultaneously to pressure, heat, and water two of its components — myrosinase and sinigrin — react to form a toxic compound.

As a vegetable oil, however, mustard makes up for the unfortunate properties of its cousin. It’s versatile. You can keep a bottle in the kitchen and in the bathroom. It’s healthy for the inside and out. It’s actually one of a variety of oils used in Ayurvedic massage.

Of course, I had no idea of mustard oil’s diverse applications when a few years back on a vacation trip to the Malabar Coast I goaded Surya into getting an Ayurvedic massage. I’d never tried an Ayurvedic massage, and Surya had never tried any, so I thought it would be a great way to satisfy our curiosity.

Except, he wasn’t curious. Ayurveda is one of several Hindu traditions that Surya tucks into cobwebby areas of his brain and catalogues as “hocus pocus.” But – good man – he knew that Westerners were a curious sort, and he was with a Westerner now. And, lucky for me, it was raining that day across the tea estates of Munnar, so there was really nothing else to do.

While we sat in the hallway which served as the “spa’s” makeshift waiting room, I assured Surya that he wouldn’t have to strip completely naked, that he’d probably get to stare out a large picture window and watch the rain patter down onto the river that meandered past our hotel. He’d be lulled nearly to sleep by the aroma of lavender or sandalwood and by the sounds of sitar music playing in the background.

“It’s relaxing,” I said. “You’ll feel rejuvenated.”

Not long afterwards, we were taken our separate ways. The young woman steered me to a small chamber to the left. The man took Surya around the corner.  I’ll never know what happened to Surya after that. He doesn’t like to talk about it. But I imagine the experience was somewhat similar to mine: the request to strip naked and lay on a cold, metal countertop. Then silence. And a dousing in oil. There was a window, but it looked out onto a patch of concrete where a few men were busy watering the hotel’s planters. At least the shade was drawn. I closed my eyes, shivered, and listened to the rain outside. I felt not so much that I was with a massage therapist than that I had entered the hotel kitchen to be prepared as a roast. Her hands never actually seemed to touch my skin because they were hydroplaning on a good ¼ inch of oil. All that was needed were a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme tucked under my armpits and stuffed up my nose. The entire time I thought about death. Once Surya escaped from his room, he was going to kill me. I would never suggest a massage again. Ever. And then, every so often, I would be jolted back to the present when the pair oily hands slipped and punched me in the face.

I was sent to a closet after that and into gas chamber-like steam bath with only a small opening for my head. The therapist checked that the chamber lock was secure, nodded, then left and shut the door behind her. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, but since none of my limbs were available to me I just sat still, hoping I wouldn’t be forgotten. That’s when the closet slowly filled with a distinct mustard smell. I sat for a good fifteen minutes in what must have been the equivalent of an Inglehoffer production plant.

I was happily rescued, given a skimpy towel and sent to a miniature shower. Appropriately, the therapist handed me a miniature bar of soap, too. I watched it dwindle to a thin strip under the water. You don’t consider all the downsides of long hair until you meet with moments like these. Did I mention that the water was cold as well?

I stepped out to find Surya waiting for his turn. He was laughing at least. Until he asked for the soap. He looked at me, desperate.

“She said you had the soap.”

I waved a greasy lock of hair in his face. “I needed it.”

The rain was still coming down when we got back to our room. And it poured all the next day. It was surprising relief, and we used the time to hide out, showering every couple of hours, and ordering plates of pakoras while we watched Animal Planet.

The next time I had mustard oil it was back in Calcutta, in the dining room, with a plate and a side of rice. I wholeheartedly recommend mustard oil in edible form. And this recipe is like no other Indian you’ve tried. I mean that in a good way.

BHAPA ILISH

4 fillets hilsa (salmon is a reasonable substitute)

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

2 teaspoons black mustard seeds

2 teaspoons yellow (brown) mustard seeds

1 teaspoon white poppy seeds

2-3 Thai green chilies

2-3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

4 Tablespoons yogurt (or to taste)

1 lime

Salt to taste

4-6 Tablespoons mustard oil

Wash and clean the fish, and pat them dry with a paper towel. Place in a baking dish and rub all sides with salt and half the turmeric. Next, squeeze the lime juice all over the fish. Set aside.

In a spice grinder, grind the mustards seeds and the poppy seeds until they become a powder. In another small blender or food processor, combine the mustard seed mixture, the ginger, chilies, the remaining turmeric and grind. Add the yogurt, a couple tablespoons of the mustard oil and mix to form a thick paste. You can add more oil or yogurt to reach your desired consistency. Add salt to taste.

Rub the paste all over each fillet of fish. Pour a little more oil over each fillet. You can keep the fish in the dish, covering it with foil, or you can wrap each in individual foil pouches.

Bake the fish at 375F for 25-30 minutes

After 10-15 minutes remove the foil cover and bake uncovered for the remaining 15 minutes.

Serve with rice.


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L is for Lentil

The Lathyrus sativus is the Voldemort of the lentil community. In India, the plant is better known as khesari dal. You might be familiar with her cousin, the equally toxic (but visually charming) sweet pea plant.  Like most villains, the khesari is a tough little creature, and it manages to be one of the last to stick it out in times of famine. And that’s what it waits for: humanity’s weakest moment. When famine comes and individuals find themselves surviving on a diet of these pulses, they will likely develop a degenerative disease called Lathyrism. The toxin in the lentil hits the spinal cord and the lower limbs first, making it difficult for a person to walk. It eventually spreads and to cause convulsions, paralysis and even death.

Men are disproportionately affected.

If not for its toxic blemish, khesari has the makings of both a super food and a wonder crop.  Khesari contains the highest protein and iron content of any pulse. More importantly, it is drought and disease resistant and requires little care, making it an “insurance” crop in years when drought and disease decimate more delicate crops.

For India, which each year faces a growing demand and supply crisis, khesari’s virtues are significant. India is the largest producer and consumer of pulses (crops harvested solely for their dried seed), and virtually all Indians include them in at least one meal each day, the poor relying on them more because they are a cheap source of protein. But of the million tons of lentils needed to meet demand, India produces only about half that much. Several successive years of poor lentil harvests compounded the problem, and India has lately taken to importing lentils from Ethiopia, Australia, and Canada. But importing isn’t cheap, and India’s least well off confront daunting prices at the market.

In this climate, khesari seems only just out of reach for those trying to solve India’s food insecurity. Khesari has so much potential that Australian scientists have been working for years to develop a form of the plant that is safe for human consumption. It’s cheap. It’s abundant. It virtually grows itself. The only problem is. . .  What’s a little toxin in the diet anyways, right?    It’s the perfect money-maker. In small doses, the khesari is harmless.

That’s exactly what landowners in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh considered. And they continued to cultivate the plant (flouting the ban), mixing the seed with more expensive pulses in order to cut their costs.

The conspiracy becomes more insidious the deeper into Madhya Pradesh you go. In nearly every state in India, bonded labor is alive and thriving. Men, women, even children become virtually slaves after being hoodwinked into taking on an astronomical loan from a person who promised to find them work. In the typical story of a bonded laborer, the individual becomes indebted to an employer, working off the loan for years, even decades. The practice often occurs deep in the countryside where fewer watchdogs are around to notice the illegal activity. In Madhya Pradesh, powerful landowners rely on the system for cheap labor, and khesari has become the “fixed” form payment. For the landlord, khesari costs next to nothing to use as a way to “pay” his laborers. And for the laborers khesari does little more than provide a cheap meal. Because it is plentiful and virtually worthless, it can’t be used for trade or to pay off their debts. And so it becomes a significant portion of their diet.

Now these vested interests want to expand the khesari market to a larger group of underprivileged Indians. They charge that there has never been any credible link between Lathyrism and the khesari plant. And they are inadvertently helped by a small group of scientists. The group has brought at least one Indian state government to court to force a lift of the ban. Because khesari can sell at less than half the cost of typical pulses, they claim, its availability is crucial for the rural poor. The argument is compelling until you find out that the group’s spokesperson, Dr. Shantilal Kothari, also believes that iodized salt is a Western conspiracy to keep India indebted to the World Bank and that no credible link exists between HIV and AIDS. The court case has so far been at a standstill because, conveniently, the government has been unable to locate the original file which motivated the 50-year old ban.

Although the scuffle over khesari is playing out in Madhya Pradesh, two other states in India have never banned the khesari plant. I bet you can guess what one of them is. The decision to not ban khesari in West Bengal is likely a result of the presence of a large number of East Bengalis (former residents of what is now Bangladesh) in the state. East Bengalis count for at least a quarter of the West Bengal population. Their eating traditions include serving khesari dal, and so the disease is still prevalent among this group.

For today, I’ll leave you with Surya’s signature dal, a version of a West Bengali favorite.

BENGALI MASOOR DAL

Ingredients:

1 cup red lentils (masoor dal)

5-6 cups of water

1 onion, chopped

1 tsp cumin seed

1 inch fresh ginger, chopped

2 medium size tomatoes

1 /2 tsp turmeric

3/4 tsp coriander powder (optional)

Fresh coriander/cilantro,

ghee,

¼ tsp garam masala

Boil the lentils with water, turmeric, and salt (Be careful, as the stuff tends to boil over the pan) until the lentils are soft and liquid-y.  Meanwhile, on a frying pan, heat a little oil. Put the cumin seeds in until they begin to pop. Add the ginger, onions and fry until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, (coriander powder, optional) and fry on medium flame till tomatoes are soft. Add the mixture to the boiled lentils, stir and boil for a few more minutes. Before serving, add chopped coriander to taste, a little ghee and the garam masala.

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