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Summer Special: Aamer Dal (Dal with Green Mangoes)

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Indian cuisine looks upon dal, or lentils, almost the way Shakespeare described Cleopatra — a thing of “infinite variety”. Every region has loads of dal recipes and every kitchen gives its own distinctive tweak to them. The result is a staggering array of dal dishes that can range from the soothing to the seriously gourmet, from light soupy to lip-smacking preparations that are meals in themselves.
Dals are also among the most versatile of foodstuffs. Add some peas or chopped spinach to them or some meat, if you prefer. Really, you can put in anything lying around in the kitchen, and likely as not, you’ll come up with a tasty and interesting dal. Dal-roti or dal-bhaat can be basic; they can also be classy and imaginative. To me, a perfectly cooked, immaculately tempered dal often seems much more satisfying than heavy meat dishes. 
Bengal too boasts a variety of dal dishes. Masur, moong, kancha moong, channa, kabuli channa, urad, arhar, matar — you name it and there are multiple ways of …

Ramzan in Old Delhi: Gosht, Kheer and Khushi

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Last Sunday I went for an Iftar food walk in the bylanes of Old Delhi. I had been meaning to do this ever since I moved to the capital three years ago. I had heard how Old Delhi was the place to be at when the faithful break their fast in the shadow of the imposing Jama Masjid during the holy month of Ramzan. The place is famous for its food anyway — there are  hole-in-the-wall eateries that make the most amazing kormas, niharis and kebabs, and the most gorgeous sweets and savouries. But Iftar promised to deliver Old Delhi and its stunning tastes in particularly splendorous ways. And so off I went to explore them.
My guide was Ramit Mitra, who runs the excellent Delhi By Foot heritage and food walk tours. Having interacted with Ramit before, I knew he was a connoisseur of good food. I knew he would guide us to some hidden gems (well, at any rate, hidden from Delhi newbies like me.) I had already done Puraani Dilli staples like Paranthewale Gali (overrated) or Hazarilal Jain Khurchan Wa…

Summer Special: Fried Brinjal With Neem Leaves (Neem Begun)

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There is a neem tree outside my home in Delhi. Many a time I have watched people break off whole twigs and branches from it and take them away. The tree doesn’t mind. In a matter of days it throws up fresh shoots. Its masses of slim, elegant leaves remain as dense as ever.
Neem or margosa is quite a wonder plant. It’s got anti-bacterial properties and is said to be good for you in dozens of ways. It’s good for your skin, eye, teeth and hair. It’s supposed to offset diabetes too. Indeed, Ayurvedic medicine has been using neem for millennia. Every part of the tree — leaf, flower, seed, stem, bark — is supposed to be beneficial. 
Neem has an exceptionally bitter taste — which is kind of fitting since its use is chiefly medicinal! Cooking with neem seems like a culinary stretch, but in Bengal stir-fried neem leaves with brinjals, or Neem Begun as it is called in the local lingo, is quite a delicacy. The neem flower is also a prime ingredient of veppam poo rasam, a slightly bitter rasam, whi…

An Ode To Ghee

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Is ghee a superfood?
That’s what the wise folks who issue food diktats from time to time say. (Too much salt’s bad for you! No dammit, it couldbe good for you!) They say that far from being a lethal, artery-clogging, adipose-adding substance, ghee is actually great for your health. In fact, ghee’s place is now up there amongst such allegedly miraculous superfoods as quinoa, açai berries, chia seeds, kale and so on.
Now, I don’t know if ghee is a superfood. What I do know is that I have always considered it to be a SUPER food. Super as in yummy. Super as in oh-please-I-want-some-more!
So I like to have a little ghee with my steamed rice once or twice a week. Indeed, one of my all-time favourite comfort foods is plain ghee-bhaat — piping hot steamed basmati rice with a bit of good quality ghee and a pinch of salt. I’ve always felt guilty about this little indulgence of mine. But thanks to ghee’s recent elevation as a nutritional rockstar, I feel much better about it now.
And yes, I do add a…

Raw Mango Chutney

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An eternal delight of Indian summers is the raw mango. Its piquant, sweet-sour taste makes it the perfect addition to an array of dishes, turning them mouthwateringly delicious. Foods with an astringent, sour flavour are particularly appetising in hot weather. Our forebears — the nameless generations of women (and a few men) who experimented with food and matched this foodstuff to that — understood this. So they have left us with a rich culinary tradition of dishes made with raw mango.
In Bengal the raw mango chutney is a summer staple. It’s one of my great favourites too. I like it the way my mother makes it — a light, cooling concoction, a perfect blend of sweet and sour with just that hint of sharpness of ginger and mustard seeds.
It’s a simple dish and cooks in a jiffy. The devil is in the details, or as we say in Bengali — andaaj (the best translation of that word is “judgement”). Each raw mango has a different level of sourness so you have to keep tasting the brew as you cook it a…

Heavenly Hot Chocolate

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Let me say one thing straight off: I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur of chocolates. I don’t know a “single estate” from a “grand cru” (yes, yes, that’s how they talk about chocolates these days). The only gourmet chocolates I know about, and invariably gravitate towards at airport duty free counters, are Godiva and Valrhona. Or maybe, the odd Sprüngli.
Yet I shall take my courage in both hands and declare that most Indian chocolatiers don’t get the stuff right. They. Just. Don’t. But you know what’s truly astounding? Most Indian joints don’t even get a cup of hot chocolate right! 
Now hot chocolate is a fairly simple concoction. It’s a mix of chocolate, hot milk and cream. It has one simple requirement — that the chocolate hit be strong enough for a mood-lifting and heartwarming experience. It can be a heavenly drink, especially on a winter day. 
Being fond of the brew, I have tried it in many places. The big bucks coffee shops, the not so big bucks coffee shops, the ones that serve th…

Pithé Power: The pursuit of sweetness at Big Bongg Theory

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An elderly family friend used to quip: “Drinking without smoking is like juvenile without delinquency.” Me, I like to extend that conceit to Makar Sankranti without pithé — the one is unthinkable without the other. 
Last January I scarcely knew when this annual rite of passage of Bengalis came to pass. I was still a bit of a newbie in Delhi, still finding my feet in the city. I was not up to making pithé to celebrate the occasion. So a much-loved festival that is redolent of my childhood and my mother and grandmother became one more day that came and went.
But not so this year. Happily, I was invited to a pithé-making lec-dem at Big Bongg Theory, Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar’s restaurant in Shahpur Jat that serves some seriously authentic Bengali cuisine. Sanhita Dasgupta Sensarma, a lawyer by training and a passionate food lover, was the other organiser of the event. I hoped to pick up some nifty pithé-making tips, and needless to say, tuck into lots of varieties of this esoteric Bengali d…