Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Rare Manuscript on the Tamil Brahmin Cooking

Review of Viji Varadarajan's and Padmini Natarajan's Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine
Jennifer Kumar

None of that westernized Indian food here! Viji Varadarajan and Padmini Natarajan recently released an updated version of their cookbook Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine: Pure Vegetarian South Indian Samayal.

With over 70 mouthwatering vegetarian dishes, having this book is a good place to start learning more about how Indian food gets its flavor. Of course, this ‘Tamil Brahmin’ cuisine is a specialized, regional cuisine from South India, and may be new to many Indian food lovers who are used to the rich butter, nut, tomato and other gravy-based dishes of North India. This cuisine offers a different approach to Indian food, with unique combinations of spices such as cumin, coriander, mustard seed, chili pepper, red and green chili, black pepper, curry leaves, fenugreek (methi), turmeric, ginger, and a host of lentils. Yes, it is true that lentils, known as dhals in Indian cookery and cuisine, become a spice! Lentils can be dry roasted and ground in with spices to make all-spice powders like sambar powder or pitlai powder, or roasted in hot oil to temper sambars (stews), rasams (soups) and chutneys (relishes, dips).

Viji and her co-author, Padmini, has divided the recipes into sections based on unique vegetables used in the culinary selections of daily housewives. The vegetables highlighted throughout are native to the areas of Tamil Brahmins. Having myself have lived in some Tamil Brahmin homes during my two year stay in India, the selections she has presented take me back to my friends homes and comfort foods made by their mothers, in-laws and grandmothers. It was the food I lived on in India for two years, and the food that inspired me when I returned to America to learn Indian cooking on my own and from Indians in America.

In some sections, the vegetables such as banana flower, banana stem or [fresh] jackfruit or drumstick can be a challenge to find in America, while most others can be found in typical American grocery stores (beans, eggplant, okra, spinach) or a trip to your closest Indian or Asian grocery store (bitter gourd and other gourds, and other types of beans). It is indeed amazing that over 70 dishes can be made from the small variety of vegetables and roughly 30 spice combinations. This may also seem overwhelming to a newcomer of this cuisine and culinary method, but upon closer inspection it is noted that about 7 broad categories – kari (11), kozhumbu (7), kootu (10), pachadi (5), sambar (6), and usili (4) of recipes comprise about 40 individual selections in the book! When looking at the book from this angle, South Indian Tamil Brahmin cookery can become even easier. Many recipes that fall under the same category have roughly the same method, minus the main vegetable highlighted. Once the method of “kari” or “kootu” is studied, for instance, a simple substitution of a vegetable may change the dish, but the method to get to it changes only slightly. In some such cases, with a touch of creativity and adventure, a substitution of other vegetables can be used – such as a squash for kootu, or potatoes for kari, or onions for sambar or kozhumbu (onions are traditionally not used in Tamil Brahmin food).

Many may still feel intimidated by Indian cookery because recipes may feel long or have many steps. When I learn a new recipe I try to have all the ingredients prepared before I start cooking and do each step slowly and complete each step before I go to the next. When I get more experienced at a recipe or method, I then can layer my approach to preparation and cooking- just like Indian food! The layering of flavors, blending of tastes, textures and aromas make Indian food- and particularly Tamil Brahmin food a unique draw. Once you try this cuisine, you will want more. You will crave it for the layers of taste, flavors, aromas and textures- and of course all the better that it’s totally made from scratch – no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or ingredients you ‘can’t pronounce’ (or understand), because you have handled them all!

Like the layering approach to getting the tasty Tamil Brahmin dish, the cookbook also has its intriguing layers that draw me back into its pages again and again. This book comes in handy not only in the kitchen- but in the grocery store. I don’t know about you, but I often get intimidated when I am to go purchase fresh vegetables, regardless of if they are ones I have purchased before (such as bitter gourd or okra), or ones I have yet to buy (such as ash gourd or broad beans). Sometimes my fear for getting the freshest one stops me from buying at all because I fear I will pick up the rotten one. This book helps me to overcome this fear. It has detailed some strategies for choosing the freshest harvested vegetables and storing them. For instance, I never realized an easy way to remove leaves from drumstick branch is to wrap it in newspaper overnight, and let them fall off naturally the next day or that the shelf life of Indian pumpkin was so long! Furthermore, she shares some unique cultural and historical trivia about certain vegetables like snake gourd, and how it was grown to look like a snake! In addition to these tips, at the end of most recipes look for tips on recipe adjustments or where microwave can be used to speed up some processes.

This book is both a treasure and a staple in my cookbook collection. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys cooking ethnic foods or simply learning about culinary traditions and unique cultures. I am sure the folks at Gourmand also agree, having had awarded this one-of-a-kind gem the prestigious jury award in 2009.

--End of Review--
Notes: I have tried a number of recipes in the collection over the years, and of course eaten many of the dishes in India. After trying some of the recipes, I adjusted some spices or ingredients to put my own twist on some of her recipes. A few of the recipes I have made on my own and posted online include: Sambar Powder, Keera Moolagootal (with toor dhal instead of moong), vathal kozhumbu (made with sundrakkai vathal instead of okra), and dry bitter gourd curry.

Other related links:
Link to Viji's Profile on Alaivani, with links to all her cookbooks, fan page and more!

Link to Padmini's Profile on Alaivani with links to insightful and inspirational articles on Indian culture and spirituality.

Thank you for spending time on my site, reading this review. Feel free to connect with Viji or Padmini if you have any doubts or want help! They are eager to help and can clarify any doubt!

Cookbooks of Viji Varadarajan:





Monday, March 8, 2010

Marvelous Miso Soup

I have loved Miso soup since my first taste maybe back in the late 1990s when I visited a Japanese Restaurant for the first time.

Since I have eaten Miso, I have purchased Miso soup packets at American grocery stores like Wegmans in my area. The product I purchased, in the Amazon box to the right, was so easy to make- heat water, mix the soup powder and eat! For an American like me a bit nervous to try cooking it on my own, this packet mix was perfect- and vegetarian!

Over the years, I have eaten Miso soup as an afternoon snack or a lunch item, when I wasn't so hungry. More recently, however, I have eaten the soup for breakfast a few times when I wanted something hot, flavorful and a bit "homely." Then, of course, I learned Japanese people do actually eat miso soup for breakfast! What a great, light and nutritious breakfast.

A few months ago, I began tutoring people in reading, writing and Shiro Miso Pastespeaking English. My first 'student', who has become a great friend is from Japan. She's been teaching me a lot about the Japanese culture: behaviors, speaking habits, interactions, and of course, cuisine! Even, for a vegetarian like me, I am learning there are many options in Japanese food. Japanese food is of course, much different than Indian. The cuisine's flavors come from different sources, yet there is an art of making Japanese food I am far from understanding!

When my friend shared the miso recipe with me (video, below), she noted it does have 'bonito' or fish flakes in it- but I could leave those out if I desired. So I did make this miso soup as in the video, again with her help finding 'konbu'. In our area (Rochester, NY) it seems Japanese Konbu, which you can see in the video is a bit long and thick, is not available. Instead, there is a Chinese konbu which is shorter and has a slightly different taste. She said I could use two to three pieces of this. I used three. Interestingly, she also told me the Chinese characters that spell konbu are very similar to the Japanese characters, so she could actually read the packet, this being true even with the English translation of 'konbu' on the packet (sea kelp, or sea cabbage).

I have to say this first attempt at making miso was fun and Homemade Miso Souptasty. I think I created a traditional taste, minus the fish, of course (so, maybe some may argue that it is traditional or authentic, maybe). I really like the layered taste, as I can taste the different flavors. I also particularly like the Japanese tofu, which is so silky, soft and seems to melt in the mouth when eating it.

What a treat! Thanks to my Japanese friend for encouraging me and helping me get the right ingredients!

Related Posts/Sites:
Ethnic Markets and other resources in Rochester, NY

Photo of Shiro Miso. An interesting note on the label on the packing.
Often the L and R sounds in American English (online ESL Lesson) are challenging for people from Japan to pronounce in a way Americans understand. Read the label on the packaging for an example of this. I am sharing this because I encourage everyone out there to be sensitive to non-English native speakers trying to learn English. It's not easy- and depending on where they come from, different sounds are easy or challenging for them to pronounce and for us to understand. Patience and slowing down is key! This advice is also coming from someone (me!) who has lived in another country (India) and also appreciated this (patience and talking slowly) to help learn Tamil when I was there!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Indian Spice and Cooking Class in Rochester, NY

These classes were available in April 2010. If you're interested in learning more about Indian cooking (from India) or Spices of India, keep up-to date by visiting my page on Facebook or my website- classes section. If you're interested in finding ways to learn more about me and my work, mentoring on topics of cross-cultural adjustment, visit my site here.

I am reprinting the class descriptions from the Brighton, New York Continuing Education Program in which I will be teaching two different Indian themed spice/cooking classes next month.

Mystery of Indian Cuisine – Demystified!I survived this...

Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 6:30pm-8:30pm
Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 6:30pm-8:30pm
Thursday, April 27, 2010 at 6:30pm-8:30pm
Twelve Corners Elementary School, 2035 Monroe Avenue, Rochester, NY 14618

Have you savored the multi-layered flavors in Indian cuisine and wondered how to accomplish this yourself? Indian cooking is flavorful, but it doesn’t have to be hot. Small class size allows for personalized attention while you are coached through preparing two Indian vegetarian meals – adjusted to your “hot tooth.” The last class will be on-site tutorial of an Indian grocery store. Bring with you to class: apron, and containers for leftovers (if desired). (Materials fee: $20)
Jennifer Kumar
Authentic Journeys
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
3 weeks starting April 8
TCMS 400
$60 all district residents
$63 non-resident

Photo by Krishna Kumar. Do not reuse without permission.

The Seduction of Spice
Recently, the healing powers of turmeric, a main ingredient in an Indian spice cupboard has gained notoriety. Turmeric, along with the aromatic and healing powers of a wide variety of
other spices, lentils, rices and flours creates an unforgettable layered sensory experience in any Indian dish. Come to this multi-sensory workshop to experience a wide range of ingredients: their uses and noted health benefits.
(Materials fee: $5)
Jennifer Kumar
Authentic Journeys
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
1 night - April 1
TCMS 400
$25 all district residents
$23 non-resident

These classes are open to Brighton, New York residents and others in the Rochester Area- Pittsford, Penfield, Webster, Perinton, Rochester, Chili, Henrietta, Greece, Gates, Chili and others who want to drive in! Thanks.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Recipe Review March 2010

This month's review, has a list of wonderful posts on various food-related topics, some falling outside the topic of 'recipes'!

This month, other food related topics include grocery shopping, fridge inventory, cooking gadgets tutorial and discussion with Sailu, natural (Siddha) remedies using Indian food items, and a wonderful prize for fusion cuisine by Sailaja (by the way, Happy One Year blog Birthday in the last month, Sailaja Kitchen!).