Thursday, March 6, 2008

Milk Products used in Indian Cooking

Indian cooking tastes so good because of the milk products that go into a dish. Dal and several curries are tempered with a dollop of ghee; dishes like karhi, curd rice and many more are cooked with a generous helping of yoghurt; Mughlai gravies and rich, Indian sweets can’t do without a pot of cream; and, milk of course is the lifeblood of several Indian sweets. Roshogolla, sandesh, kheer, kalakand – all are made with lots of milk.

Ghee: Ghee or clarified butter is made by boiling pure, white butter until the clear fat separates. Normally, the fat soldifies into granules, called 'danedar' (seeded) ghee in the north. If stirred continuously while boiling, the ghee becomes a smoother solid, which is considered less flavourful than danedar ghee.

A dollop of pure ghee (from butter) is usually added to paranthas , khichdi(a rice and lentil dish), rice and upama(a porridge made from cream of wheat)or halwa.

Malai: Malai or cream is formed when milk is boiled and cooled. Malai is used in sweets and Mughlai gravies. Malai, milk, and butter have legendary importance in Indian tradition devolving from the pastoral Aryans who measured their wealth in cows. Krishna, the most beloved avatar in the Hindu pantheon, was a celebrated 'butter thief' (makhan chor) as a child.

Yoghurt: Yoghurt, also known as dahi, doi and of course curd is a staple in Indian diet. Yoghurt is eaten plain or as raitas or pachadies or hot chutneys with vegetables and fruit added to it; beaten thin with water and seasoned as a summer drink; added by the spoonful and browned in gravies; steamed with sugar and garnished with sultanas and nuts as a pudding; eaten with rice and rotis. Curd was given religious sanctity as Krishna’s favourite food along with milk and butter.

by Chandana Banerjee

Your Indian Kitchen

If you’re just starting out with Indian cooking, there are a vast number of staples and spices that may confuse you. When I set up my kitchen for the first time and was shopping for staples and spices, I didn’t know which spice to pick up and which one to leave behind. Here is a list to help you sort through the items in a grocery store and choose the ones which you really need to begin cooking a simple Indian meal.

Mistress of Spices:
Powdered Spices:
Lal Mirch Powder/Cayenne Pepper or chilli powder
Dhania Powder/Coriander Powder
Haldi Powder/ Turmeric Powder
Jeera Powder/ Cumin Powder
Garam Masala/A spice blend
Chaat Masala
Amchur Powder/ Dried Mango Powder
Herbs and Whole Spices:
Kasoori Methi/ Dried Fenugreek Leaves
Sabut Jeera/ Whole Cumin Seeds
Saunf/ Fennel Seeds/Aniseeds
Rai/ Mustard Seeds
Kadi Patta/Curry leaves
Sabut Kali Mirch/ Black Peppercorns
Sabut Dalchini/Cinnamon sticks
Elaichi/Cardamom - Available in three types – black, green and white. Buy just a little of each type.
Tej Patta/Bay leaves - Use it to neutralize strong odors in cooking.
Dried red chillies
Khus khus/Poppy seeds
Hing/Asafoetida - Store this strong-smelling spice in a tightly closed container as it can easily impart its smell to other spices.
Imli/Tamarind – These are sold in blocks. Buy a small block to make into chutney.

Must-haves in every Indian Fridge:
Plain Yoghurt
Ginger-Garlic paste
Fresh Coriander Leaves
Fresh green chillies – Buy a few at a time.

Oil – I like to use vegetable/sunflower and mustard oil. Keep a small tin og ghee for tempering dal and for adding in special dishes.

Masoor/Split red lentils
Moong/ Split yellow lentil
Urad/Black gram
Chana/Large yellow split yellow lentil
Safed and kala chana/Chickpea
Rajma/Kidney beans

Flour and Rice:
Aata or whole wheat flour to make chapatis, parathas and other Indian breads.
Maida or refined flour for making puris and pastry.
Rice – plain rice and Basmati rice for special rice dishes

by Chandana Banerjee

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Basil or Tulsi

Basil derived its name from Greek basileus which means "king". This is because it has a royal fragrance. Basil is one of the most popular culinary herb, used the world over for its aroma and flavor. The herb is native to Asia and has a strong, pungent and sweet smell. The herb grows best in hot, dry conditions.

Basil was first put to cultivation in India. It is cultivated world over now, including Asia, Africa and Central and Southern America.

Uses and Types of Basil:Basil is a versatile herb used in food, beverage and aromatherapy. Different types of Basil are cultivated in different types of the world.

Some of the popular and widely used varieties are:
Mediterranean Basil: Sweet taste Italian Basil: Sweet Flavor Indian Basil: Strong Fragrance African Blue Basil: Citrus Odour Thai Basil/ Sweet Basil: Sweet basil, more sweet as compared to Mediterranean and Italian Basil. It grows to a height of 75cm (2ft 6in) Perennial Basil (Africa And Asia): Strong Flavor but is less pleasant Lemon Basil: It grows to a height of 30cm (12in) and posses the taste of mid lemon.

Selection and Storage: Always try to select fresh basil since it is superior in flavor as compared to dries basil. If you are selecting fresh Basil then ensure that the leaves are deep green in color and free from darks spots or yellowing. If you have bought fresh Basil, then store it in the refrigerator by wrapping it in a slightly damp paper towel.

Nutritional Value of Basil: The constituents found in basil are used for various medical purposes. Flavonoids is one of the important nutrient component found in basil that provides protection at the cellular level. Orientin and vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids that have a positive effect on white blood cells.

Volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene protect against unwanted growth of Bacteria. The eugenol component acts as anti inflammatory.
Basil is also a good source of magnesium due to which it prompts muscles and blood vessels to relax, this helps in promoting cardiovascular health.

by Chandana Banerjee

Cardamom or Elaichi - The Queen of Spices

Sprinkled over kheer and sweets or chewed like a mouth freshner, cardamom or elaichi as its better known in India, is a spice and flavouring agent that we just can’t do without.
Cardamom is one of the world's very ancient spices. Known as "the Queen of Spices", it is the fruit of a large perennial bush that grows wild in the rainforests of the Western Ghats in Southern India.

Cardamoms are used for its pods. Available in three kinds – black, green and white, cardamoms give a distinct sweet, pleasing and slightly lemon like flavour. Traditionally, Indian cooking uses only black and green cardamoms. Green cardamom is smaller and softer than black cardamom. The seeds are used as whole, ground or with pods.

Cardamom pods contain fragrant seeds, used throughout the world in both savory and sweet dish. Many Indian meat, rice and dessert dishes use cardamom as one of the main spices. Cardamoms are also essential parts of spice mixtures such as Garam Masala. Cardamom is also believed to aid digestion and act as a breath freshener.

Beside India and south Asia, cardamom is also use in Scandinavian food such cakes, pastry, pickles and also used in Middle East.

by Chandana Banerjee

Clove or Laung

Which spice in your spice box is closest to your heart? Do you have a favourite spice? Well, this is a difficult question to answer as each spice has a magical story and a special flavour that they bring to a dish. While cardamoms add a particular flavour to Indian desserts like kheer, cinnamon adds a woody, sweet flavour to rice. Green chillies add a tang to vegetables and curries and turmeric adds a mellow yellow colour and some antiseptic properties to food.

Clove or laung too is one such special spice in our spice box that adds a hot and bitter, rich and warm flavour to Indian food. Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the clove tree. After picking, they are dried in the traditional way, sun-drying them on woven mats. They loose their moisture, become hard and reddish-brown in colour. The best cloves have deep reddish-brown stems though in comparison a lighter crown; they tend to be rough to touch, exude a small quantity of oil if compressed with a fingernail and snap cleanly between the two.

Cloves have an extremely strong and pungent aroma, with notes of pepper and camphor. The taste is rich and warm, aromatic and fruity but also sharp, hot and bitter, creating a numbing sensation on the tongue.

The name clove is derived from the French word clou meaning nail, which is the shape that the bud and stem resemble. Cloves are known to have antiseptic properties and their smell is often associated with the dentist. At the time of the early Chinese civilization commoners chewed cloves to sweeten their breath before talking to the emperor. The Chinese also used cloves as a mild anesthetic for toothache.

Cloves are used in cooking the world over and can be tasted in breads and cakes and in mulled wine. In India, they are added to rice and sweets. Paan or betel leaf is filled with aromatic spices and sweeteners and held together by a single, whole clove.

Cloves should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place. Ground cloves will keep for about six months, while whole cloves will stay fresh for about one year stored this way.

Cloves are an excellent source of manganese. They are also a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids and a good source of magnesium and calcium.

by Chandana Banerjee

Green Chillies - Tango on your Tastebuds

We can’t think of Indian cooking without a dash of green chillies. Slit, sliced, chopped or diced, we just have to add a few green chillies to add that tang to our food. Pick some fresh from your vegetable patch, pick up a packet of chillies from the supermarket or just ask the vegetable vendor to add a few free ones to your vegetable bag. Green chillies is an all important star in Indian cooking and here is a sneak peak into what this green, pungent spice is all about.
Green chillies are available fresh, dried, powdered, flaked, in oil, in sauce, bottled and pickled. It spices up a bland meal and an overdose of these fiery heros can also send you into a fit if hiccups.
Fresh unripe chillies come in various shades of green from lime to olive. While buying fresh chillies look for crisp unwrinkled ones. Make sure they are bright and unbroken. Store them in a container in the fridge or in a cool, dry place.

Green chillies are very high in vitamin A and C and have more Vitamin C per gram than many oranges. Not all chillies are hot but do not be deceived - with only a few exceptions, most of the several hundred varieties of these little pods have some degree of pungency for the palate.

by Chandana Banerjee

Cinnamon or Dalchini

Burnished brown, aromatic, flavourful and woody – cinnamon is all this and more. Used in baked dishes, flavoured dishes, curries and desserts, cinnamon adds a warm, sweet and amiable aroma to any dish. It is also an essential part of the standard blend of garam masala. Garam masala is the magic spice mixture which gives many Indian dishes that rich, heady fragrance.
Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of various evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. At harvest, the bark is stripped off and put in the sun, where it curls into the familiar form called "quills. There are suggested to be between 50 - 250 different species, depending on which botanist figures are collected from. Cassia is predominant in the spice blends of the East and Southeast Asia.
Cinnamon is available in either stick or powder form. While the sticks can be stored for longer, the ground powder has a stronger flavour. If possible, smell the cinnamon to make sure that it has a sweet smell, a characteristic reflecting that it is fresh.
Cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place.

by Chandana Banerjee

Toasting Spices

Have you ever hovered about the kitchen while a family member or friend is toasting spices? Have you ever got hooked on to the aroma that envelops the kitchen in a warm, rich, nutty embrace? Well, I’m not being too flowery or poetic; just mentioning what the aroma of toasted spices is all about. Try roasting a batch of Indian spices in your kitchen and you’ll know what I mean.
Dry roasting or toasting is a way to boost flavour and improve your cooking. Heating a spice, whether roasting it dry or frying it in a bit of oil, further enhances its flavor, giving the spice a fuller character and a deeper, nuttier flavor.
Spices have two main oils – the first is an essential oil that gives the spice its aroma; the other is a series of oleoresins or non-volatile oils, which are responsible for the flavour. By dry roasting spices, both oils are released, thus enhancing the flavor and aroma of food.
Whole spices have four times the shelf life of ground spices because their seed coatings and barks protect their flavors, which aren't released until they are ground or heated. Whole spices work best for dry roasting because ground spices can burn easily.
How to toast spices: Heat a wok or heavy frying-pan so its medium hot. Don't add any oil or butter, as this is ‘dry-roasting’. Add your spice or spices. Shake the pan or stir the spices with a wooden spoon as they heat. Remember to keep them moving.
They're ready when they become highly aromatic and turn slightly darker, which usually takes just a couple of minutes.
You don't want to see any smoke coming off the spices, but when they're getting close to done; you'll begin to hear a tiny popping sound.
Once toasted, immediately pour the spices out of the pan on to a plate to stop them from cooking further. Let the toasted spices cool, and then grind them.
They can be stored, tightly covered for a few weeks without losing much of their flavor. With fresh spices, you will notice a big difference in flavor.


by Chandana Banerjee

Spice Secrets

Indian cooking is about an assortment of spices, a fusion of flavours and a certain sensibility and art that goes into the creation of a dish.

Taste and Spices: Indian cooking categorizes foods into six tastes - sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent. This principle explains the use of numerous spice combinations and depth of flavor in Indian recipes. Several spices used in Indian cooking were used for their medicinal properties as well as the unique flavour that each spice could bring to a dish. Spices were also used for preservation purposes, as refrigeration was not an option in olden times.

Wet spices: Water, vinegar, yogurt or other liquids are sometimes added to the ground spices. This wet mixture is called ‘wet masala’ and is used as a marinade or sautéed in oil before adding the main vegetable or meat so that the delicate flavors of the spices are released in the recipe.

Roasting and grinding spices: Once the whole spices have been dry-roasted and cooled, they are ground into powders to release their flavours with a mortar-pestle or in a mixie. Storing Spices: Spices degrade quickly if they are exposed to either light or air. Light has a detrimental ‘leaching’ effect whilst exposure allows the essential oils to escape. Therefore, many Indians often use a special spice storage box.

Spice Box: An Indian spice box or masala dabba is an important part of the kitchen. Round in shape and made of stainless steel, a spice box has seven round compartments and a small teaspoon measure which fits in the box. The spice box will have a tight fitting lid and a compact structure to prevent flavours from escaping or mixing. You can fill each of these seven compartments with your favourite spices.


by Chandana Banerjee

Traveling to Europe in Off-season Time

While planning a trip to Europe, consider a trip during the off-season time - November through March.
Off-season airfares are often hundreds of dollars cheaper. With fewer crowds in Europe, you'll sleep cheaper. Many fine hotels drop their prices, and budget hotels will have plenty of vacancies. And while many of the cheap alternatives to hotels will be closed, those still open are usually empty and, therefore, more comfortable.
But winter travel has its drawbacks. Because much of Europe is at Canadian latitudes, the days are short. It's dark by 5 p.m. The weather can be miserable — cold, windy, and drizzly — and then turn worse.
Off-season hours are limited. Some sights close down entirely, and most operate on shorter schedules (such as 10 a.m.–5 p.m. rather than 9 a.m.–7 p.m.), with darkness often determining the closing time. Winter sightseeing is fine in big cities, which bustle year-round, but it's more frustrating in small tourist towns, which often shut down entirely.
To make the most of a winter day, start early and eat a quick lunch. Tourist offices close early and opening times are less predictable, so call ahead to double-check hours and confirm your plans. Pack for the cold and wet — layers, rainproof parka, gloves, wool hat, long johns, waterproof shoes, and an umbrella. Dress warmly.
Most hotels charge less in the winter. So you can save some money on that front too.


By Chandana Banerjee

Tips on Making Hotel Reservations

You’re in Europe and are all set to embark on your Eurailing trip. You’ve armed yourself with a good guidebook, packed your haversack with all the essentials for your Europe vacation and have got yourself a railpass. Now you need to give a thought to accommodation and lodging. Here are some tips on making hotel reservations:
Use a good guidebook and read the hotel listings.
Call ahead to reserve a room.
A hotelier will usually request your credit-card number as a deposit when you book your reservation. You can be billed for one night if you don't show up. Some hotels will hold a room without a deposit if you promise to arrive early.
Try to email or fax your long-distance reservations. European hoteliers prefer reservation requests by email.
In your emailed or faxed request, always list these items: your dates (with date and expected time of arrival, number of nights you'll stay, and date of departure); your room needs (number of people, the facilities you require); and your budget concerns (of course, a trade-off with facilities).
Once they've offered you a room, accept the reservation and send your credit-card number as a deposit.