Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cooking fast...

You can cook in less time than you take to reach a restaurant. I've long
believed it, and I decided to time myself today. This week has been
parotta week and I'm thrilled that I've cracked the parotta problem -
how to make flaky parottas at home, without any manual skill. So I
decided to make parotta and kuruma.

Ready, set go !

Heat a skillet, pour some oil. Chop onions tomatoes, crush garlic, cut
up ginger. Add cumin and nigella to kadai. Add onions, tomatoes.
Total time elapsed : 4 minutes.

Add some boiled dal, salt, chili powder, turmeric powder and garam
masala. Let simmer for a couple of minutes :
Total time elapsed : 10 minutes.

Kneading half a kg of atta takes 5 minutes and half a kg of maida takes
4 minutes.

Half a kg is enough to make six large parottas. You can live on half a
kg of flour for 2 days.

I estimate rolling out the parottas and cooking them might take 5
minutes. So there you go - in less than 20 minutes you can have steaming
hot flaky parottas and lovely kuruma cooked up !

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Starting on sweets...

I've not cooked desserts as I thought they were time consuming and messy. How wrong ! Had four packets of milk leftover and decided to cook rasgullas- with the taste of the soft spongy K.C.Das rasgulla that I had in Calcutta a decade ago still fresh in my mind..

Once the basic principles are understood, it is very tough to go wrong. I've never made these sweets before, but these came out perfectly edible.

The Principle :
Bengalis rule the world of milk sweets because they learnt and accepted the principle of 'spoiling' or curdling milk to extract milk solids. Curdling milk intentionally is alien to most Indian cuisines and is seen as a mistake - not one you intentionally do. To this date, most Indian language have a distinct negative connotation to curdling - that is apart from Bengal and Orissa, where sweets made from milk solids were popular.

Legend has it that the rasagulla was traditionally made in the Puri temple, from where it moved with the brahmins to West Bengal, where it soon became very popular.

The basic principle of most milk sweets is simple : curdle the milk and separate the milk solids. Further cook the milk solids with sugar.

For rasagulla, the milk solids are kneaded into a smooth dough, and cooked in hot sugar syrup. I've listed two ways of cooking up rasgullas below :

The long way
Boil milk on a gentle flame, skimming off the skin as it forms on the surface. Add lemon juice to make milk curdle. Filter the solids.Cool and knead well to the consistency of chappati dough. Kneading is the key to supersoft rasgullas. Shape into small tight balls.

Boil a cup of sugar in 1.5 cups of water. Add cheese balls to the syrup and pressure cook for one whistle. Cool and let the balls soak in the syrup.

The short way.
Buy a block of readymade paneer and blend it into a smooth paste. Add a spoon of maida and a couple of pinches of baking powder. Knead into a smooth dough. Shape into small tight balls and boil in sugar syrup as above.

Variations: Try using various cheeses ( ricotta, mozarella, cheddar..), mixing them with flour, if they do not hold their shape.

Related sweets
Make the balls double normal size and they are called Rajbhog.

Let the cooked balls soak in thick sweetened milk and it becomes Roshomalai.

Mix some orange extract with the milk solids before kneading and you get Komola bhog.

Sponge rasgulla :
Knead the milk solids with a bit of maida and baking powder to puff up the balls while cooking and you get sponge rasgulla

Get comfortable cooking with paneer and a whole world of sweets is waiting to be discovered.

Blend paneer, sugar and corn flour together. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Coat with nut crumbs / dry fruits. Shape, refrigerate and serve.

Mishti Doi
Boil milk till reduced to half.
Heat a pan and add sugar. Cook on low heat till sugar caramalizes. Mix well with milk. Add yogurt and let the magic begin.

Cham Cham
Cook exactly as you do rasgullas. While serving garnish with slivers of nuts/ dry fruits and serve.

Boil milk till reduced to half, add blended paneer, sugar and keep stirring till it thickens. Set in a tray. Garnish and serve. (No need to knead cheese.)

Hang curd to drain off all water.Mix with sugar, saffron and cardamom. Churn. Garnish with dry fruits.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

God, Morality and International Law

Is God moral ?
Does God stand above morality, defining for us what is moral and what is immoral in accordance with His will? If so, whatever God does is moral. If God is bound by moral rules, then He is not omnipotent as certain immoral actions would be beyond him.

I believe it is morally wrong to physically impose one's will upon other life. Taking this point to its extreme, it is morally wrong to slaughter life.

God imposes 'right' and 'wrong' on all humanity, and does not bother with other forms of life ( 'giving man dominion over all other life to do as he pleases'). God in the Bible routinely slaughters, encourages incest, rape cannibalism , sacrifices and revels in eternal torture.

Is God really satan ?
Satan in contrast, gives the fruit of knowledge to Eve. God does not want this to happen, as He insists on blind obedience. So He punishes not only Eve, but the rest of humanity, forever. Satan does not commit any act even remotely approaching the cruelty of God.

If Hitler had won the war, we no doubt would have deified him and have treated him at par with Mae zedong or Stalin, who committed equally henious crimes.  So did satan really win the war and suceed in becoming God, convincing us to accept the real God as Satan ?

Morality and Natural selection
Morality is a product of human evolution. Almost anything that lets our race flourish is considered moral and those that do not are immoral.

The emphasis is on 'our'. For centuries 'our' race was defined as those sharing our beliefs, food, customs, Gods and way of life.

It now has to include all of humanity and later all life- possibly even non-life, as I believe morality is about how an action makes you feel in addition to what good or harm it causes .

The tamil poet Vallalar's immortal lines " vadiya payirai kanda podhallam ulam vadinen" ( I wilted when I saw wilted plants)- is closer to my idea of morality than the ten commandments or other such restrictions.

God and the Principles of International Law
 ( Source : Charter of the Nüremberg Tribunal - shorn of legalese and edited)

    Principle I - A person committing a crime as defined by the International Law is liable to be punished.

    Principle II - If this law does not specify a punishment, that does not mean that the corresponding crime can be committed.

    Principle III - No one is exempt from this law, be it kings or heads of state. ( or God ?)

    Principle IV - Even those 'merely following orders' are not exempt from this law.

    Principle V - All those charged have a right to fair trial.

    Principle VI - Punishable crimes are Crimes against peace, War crimes and crimes against humanity.

    Principle VII - Just complying with the above crimes itself is a crime.

According to these Principles, God, Church and most religious leaders do not stand a chance !

Friday, June 22, 2007

A long, long, time ago....

Long long time ago, 1500 crore years back to be exact, there was a big
bang, bigger than any bang you can imagine. There was nothing before the
bang and after it appeared everything needed to build our universe -
matter, space and time.

For the next 100 crore years, nothing much happened and suddenly
thousands of stars started popping up all over the place. It took
another 900 crore years before our sun could gather enough material and
spring into life.

There was no earth yet. Another 30 crore years went by before clumps of
dirt stuck together into bigger and bigger lumps and formed a ball which
would one day become the Earth. Before Earth could gather its wits, it
was body slammed by a planet half its size . A huge amount of matter was
thrown into space and Earth had a ring like Saturn does today. For
millions of years the matter in this ring slowly clumped together
patiently forming the moon.

Meantime the Earth was busy producing life. 200 crore years after Earth
formed, the first cells arose. They started becoming more and more
complex and moved out of the sea. 170 crore years after the first cells,
the first land animals were born. Within another 6 crore years Earth had
Dinosaurs, which would rule Earth for the next 15 crore years. There was
a long wait of another 6 crore years during which time a variety of
mammals evolved and a less-hairy upright mammal, which would one day
become human, evolved from Chimpanzees.

For the next 47 lakh years humans evolved, learnt to use tools and fire
and the Neanderthal man was here. For the next 3 lakh years humans
spread across the globe, braving the ice age which occurred towards the
end of this period.

8000 years after the last Ice age, large civilizations arise and the
first pyramids are built. 3000 years after the pyramids, the Moghuls
under Babur invade India, setting up the Moghul rule.
450 years later, after suffering under various kings and the British,
India wins Independence. 57 years later this author traces our journey
from the Big Bang.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Better perspective

Here's another way to appreciate the immense distances and sizes of objects in our galaxy. (Images gathered from various sources and photoshopped together).

Putting Astronomical distances in perspective...

In space distances are vaaaaast. An atlas gives us a very distorted view
of the solar system because it is impossible to show the sizes or
distances to scale.

This picture makes an attempt to show the sizes to scale.

Let us now understand how large the distances actually are...

Let us assume the distance from Earth to Sun is 1 cm.
( The actual distance is 15 crore Km)

At this units, our spacecrafts can travel one inch per year.

Earth to Moon distance is just .001 cm ( roughly the thickness of a
hair) ( Travel time = 2 days)

It costs a lot to transport material from Earth to Space. If you
want to courier a parcel to moon, it would cost you Rs. 6 lacs/ Kg.

Earth to Mars : Half an inch : 6 months travel time

Earth to Jupiter = 2 inches :: 2 years travel time

Earth to Nepture = 1 foot ( Voyager took 12 years to pass Neptune)

Our solar system is a foot in radius. It will take us 12 years to move
out of our solar system.

Our nearest star Proxima centauri is 2 miles away.

The nearest Earth like planet is 10 miles away. It will take us quite
sometime to get there !

The American Zombie

Excerpts from an excellent article... (emphasis mine)

Millions of Americans spend their lives semi-conscious, unable to awaken from the darker version of the American Dream – an endless parade of office buildings, meetings, shopping malls, and television commercials.

Instead of pursuing purpose, we pursue material things: plasma televisions, new cars, and granite countertops. We work at jobs we hate so we can buy things we do not need. We exchange our souls for empty production and consumption.

We are controlled by media. Our electronic sorceress( TV) orders us out into the world to bring back more of everything: cosmetic surgery, shiny appliances, expensive meals, weight-loss pills, hardwood floors. The messages sent are simple and menacing:

    * You are not pretty enough.
    * You are not good enough.
    * You do not own enough.

We slowly rise from our comfortable sofas and leave the flickering darkness, stumbling into the streets to satiate our hunger. We shamble through the isles of Home Depot and Lowes because our 3-bedroom homes (quite large by global standards) just aren’t nice enough. In the harsh lighting of the Gap and Aeropostale, we search for clothing to make us feel better. We shuffle mindlessly through car lots searching for a vehicle to reflect our identity. Are we Ford tough? Are we Lexus smooth? But the zombie has no identity, for the zombie is a shell, identical to all the other shells in Sunday suits with wallets thrust forward, mouths hanging open.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

BMX Mania

I'm amazed the kind of stuff boys do on a BMX bicycle - they leap,
slide, jump and seem to go over almost anything. I've decided to buy one
to see if I can at least jump a foot ( over pesky road dividers). The
bike is also very portable and so can accompany me on suburban electric
trains. Take a train to chengalpet, cycle to vedanthangal, pitch a tent
and stay overnight, and take the train back to Chennai the next morning.

I've learnt to comfortably cycle up to 20 Kms at a stretch, without
exerting myself. I'm fantasizing about the day when I have two bicycles
mounted on my caravan parked near a scenic spot (Ooty/ Rajasthan), from
where my friend and I would set out exploring, checking out the local
sights, eating at roadside joints, and generally blend in with wherever
we are. This is tough to do when you are carbound.

Let's see if a BMX would set me free....

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Food, Clothing and Shelter

Epicurus , Martin Seligman and many others emphasize once the basic needs of food , clothing and shelter are taken care of, money does not buy additional happiness. After my retirement, these are the areas I focussed on...

Food :
Learning to cook has been very rewarding. I've stopped eating out ( unless the cooking is extraordinary) - and the thought that world cuisine is just a googling away is a comforting thought. It has also given me great pleasure to teach / cook for friends and family.

Clothing :
It has been ages since I spent over Rs.200 on clothing. I've shifted to Bermudas as a symbol of my retirement two years ago, and have worn formal trousers only on a handful of occasions ( and hated everytime I did it). You get great denim shorts / casual shirts for as low as Rs.40, if you know where to look. With my garment industry exposure I know to sort the duds from the excellent ones.

I get my Tshirts, undies  made at my factory and it costs me next to nothing.

56 Sq feet + a 15 Sq ft = 71 Sq ft is all I require to live, work and entertain friends. Everyday , without exception , my studio is filled with friends and I would'nt trade this tiny bit of heaven for anything else.

Shelter .... 2
I have another 70 Sq ft of mobile space as I converted a Tempo Traveller into a caravan with a kitchen, toilet, drawing room and driver's cabin. Today we faced a power shutdown and I spent the whole morning in my caravan - where I have no power cuts ! Jayaraman and Ravi loved it !

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Cycle Jayaraman, (the man who introduced me to the pleasures of cycling,
and who took me on a cycling trip from Chennai to Tirupur - I gave up
after 120 Kms - but that's another story) was raving about momos he had
during his Himalayan trek. I decided to do them.

Momos are nothing but Kozhukattai, made from maida instead of rice
flour. They are very popular in the North East , probably due to the
Chinese influence. China never discovered baking ( or probably did not
use it as it uses up too much fuel) but steamed breads instead . These
are called Dim Sums and are very popular. These are rice flour or wheat
flour based Kozhukattais, filled with a variety of meat/ vegetables.

Momo is just a Dimdum and easy to make. Knead maida into a dough, roll
it into a small, thin disc, place filling and envelop it with the dough.
Steam it in a idli cooker ( or a Dim Sum steamer) without the weight,
for around 10 minutes. Serve with a hot Chutney. Took me about 20
minutes to make and the four momos I made disappeared in a flash.

Assembly line Rice cooker

Travel & Living channel showed the way Udupi temple prepares lunch for
50,000 people .

Cooking on such a scale is done in huge vats. This batch process seems
inefficient to me. And what if an insect fell into the vat ( very
possible since the kitchens, though divine, are certainly not hygienic)?
Do you make the devotees wait for hours before another batch is cooked up ?

An easier solution might be to move from a batch process to a continuous
process. Something like a pizza oven where the dough sheet covered with
cheese goes in at one end of the oven and comes out as a pizza from the
other end.

Volume foolds like Idli, rice, dal etc can all be cooked in a similar
fashion. You have a conveyer belt running through a steaming box. cups
of rice go in at one end and emerge as cooked rice at the other end. The
speed of the belt can be changed depending on whether you are cooking
idli, rice or dal.

This might be hygienic, efficient and space saving. All large hotel
chains would want one.

First rejection Slip

Rupa & Co are not too impressed by my one page cookbooks. but they were
decent enough to send it back, with a personal covering letter .

I'd secretly thought any publisher would jump at the thought of
publishing these, but am prepared to sit through atleast a hundred such

So one down and 99 more to go !

First rejection Slip

Rupa & Co are not too impressed by my one page cookbooks. but they were
decent enough to send it back, with a personal covereing letter .

I'd secretly thought any publisher would jump at the thought of
publishing these, but am oprepared to sit through atleast a hundred such

So one down and 99 more to go !

Sour cream to die for...

I learnt to make yogurt the last month with the delicious 'valarmathi'
curd. It was simplicity itself. Add curd to lukewarm milk - that's it !
All through Summer, I must have drunk litres of buttermilk each day,
after learning this technique.

Fresh made buttermilk is a great refresher. Just add a few spoons of
curd to a tumbler with a lid, add salt and shake all together. Coming
back from a vigorous game of badminton, drenched with sweat and having a
tall cool glass of fresh buttermilk is as close you get to heaven !

A couple of days back, when the curd looked thick, I decided to thicken
it further - by filtering out all water. I took a thin towel, poured the
curd in and gently squeezed all the water out. What I got was sour cream
- with a texture exactly like fresh butter but with the unmistakable
taste of curd.

I served it with Rumali roti to Bai and Ravi - who were flabbergasted -
They've never tasted anything like it. Jayaraman pronunced it delicious
and Cycle Jayaraman, who boasted about the thick curd he'd eaten in the
himalayas did not have any comment - but appeared suitably impressed.

I gave it to ma with some eradymade MTR badam milkshake popwder mixed
it. It became Shrikand - a dish I've always wanted to eat !

I ate it the next day mixed with some powdered sugar - really does taste
delicious !

Next Post - learning to make Roomali Roti and Momo.


Learning to cook an old dish in a new , easy way is sure fun.

Kothu Parota is a often eaten dish in my studio, with Siva being an
ardent loyalist. Parotas were complicated dishes requiring great manual
dexeterity in spreading the dough, or so I thought. Today, when Giri
asked for a parota and the corner shop did not have anything ready I
decided to do it myself.

The french open was on and Federer was clashing with an unknown in the
last 8. During a commercial break I kneaded 3 handfuls of maida with a
handful of atta. I let it rest for a couple of commercial breaks.

For the kuruma, all I had was cabbage and onion. chopped them up, fried
some cumin in oil, added the vegetables and sauteed them. Added some
salt, chili powder and garam masala, a glass of water and half a handful
of readymade grated coconut. I let it cook for a couple fo commercial
breaks till siva commented about the lovely smell . Added some bajji
mavu mixed with water to thicken the kuruma ( I'd run out of gram flour).

Next I rolled out the dough into a thin sheet, smeared it liberally with
oil, cut it up with a pizza cutter into a dozen squares. I stacked the
squares one over another and rolled it again into a thick disc. Cooked
it with more oil. Once ready, I crumbled it by smashing it together with
the base of my palms, just like they do in the corner shop. Lovely flaky
parotas were ready. Giri, Siva and Ravi wolfed it down !

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cooking Fish

I used to think fish is fish, and once you've learnt to cook one, you've learnt to cook them all. Apparently I'm wrong.

I came upon a blindingly simple tip to cook fish :

If fish has fat, do not add more fat. ( avoid frying / cooking with a lot of oil)

If a fish has low fat, avoid cooking it without fat ( Baking/ grilling).

African cuisine :: Notes to myself

Africans like their soups/ stews slimy. Sliminess comes from dried, powdered leaves of Boabob tree or from Okra powder.

In some recipes Rice is cooked in coconut water. ( Instead of cooking rice in plain water, cooking it in coconut water / stock adds much more flavour to rice).

Maize was introduced in the 1700's and has become a staple food.

Black eyed peas are the most common lentils.

Surprisingly Ghee is used in many african cuisines. I thought it is not used outside India.

Ground nut oil/ Palm oil are popular cooking mediums.

Sudanese Recipes

Came across an excellent site with Sudanese recipes.

It is always exciting to see how different cultures mix and match.

Gorraasa :: Godumai dosai
Wheat flour + baking powder + water + salt : cooked into a dosai

Dama : (Onion Tomato Chuthey with cardamom, cinnamon and garlic)
Cook onions, tomatoes, green chilies . Add salt, cardamom, cinnamon. Simmer. Add crushed garlic. Best with Gorrasa.(Dama is usually cooked with chopped beef )

Dama be Potaatas
Add fried potatoes to the above stew .

Soak and pressure Cook Rajma till soft.Mash coarsely. Add chopped tomato,dates, sesame oil,
onion, chili, fried egg, salt, feta cheese ( or paneer), chili powder.

Prepare Fuul as above. Put pieces of bread in a bowl and pour Fuul over it.

Aseeda :: Thick Ragi Koozhu
Add 1/2kg flour, 1/2 litre of water and yeast into bowl and mix together. Leave in warm place for 5 hours to rise. Boil 1 litre of water with salt. When water is boiling, add aseeda mixture and mix with a wooden spoon. Once thickened (add more flour if dough is too thin), add 1/2 cup of water and simmer until bubbling.Pour into bowl, and let stand until cool and thick. Turn upside down and plonk onto plate to serve, covering with a sauce such as tagalia. ( Made from Rye flour, but substitute Ragi/ chola mavu)

Tagalia : Onion Tomato chutney with Okra powder.
Fry onions. Make Paste. Add tomato paste. Addcrushed garlic and balck pepper. Add okra powder. (Traditionally this is cooked with mincemeat).

Kissra :( A new way of cooking dosai.)
Mix with water to a thin paste and keep for a day. Add oil to an inverted wok, put a blob, sperad thin with mobile top up card. Fry, peel off and stack. ( Original recipe calls for 3 parts rye flour : 1 part wheat flour )

Naeamia be wayka ( Slimy Onion tomato curry)
Fry onions. Add tomatoes. Simmer. Add yogurt, black pepper, salt and garlic. Add okra powder. Serve with Aseeda or kissra.

Naeamia be wayka ( onion- Tomato curry with peanut butter)
Add peanut butter to the above instead of okra powder.

Boil milk. Add baking powder and heat till it becomes yellow.Add okra powder and stir till slimy.
Optionally add sugar. Serev with Kissra.

Kissra be Omregayga
Heat ol. Add beef / chicken. Stir and Brown. Add water. COver and cook for an hour. Take out meat and fry it. Add okra powder. Add fried garlic. Serve with Kissra and fried meat.

Pasta Bake
Cook Pasta. Add butter, tomato paste , salt and green chilies. Grate cheese on top. Add ketchup.
Bake til top is crispy.

Sudani Rice
Fry rice in oil/ butter for a couple of minutes. Add salt. Optionally add a pinch of turmeric,
coriander powder or cardamom powder.Cover and cook.

Khoodra Mafrooka
Heat pan. brown onions and meat ( chicken or beef). Add water. Cover and cook for an hour till meat cooks. Take out meat and fry in oil.Add chopped spinach to remaining onions, add baking powder and cook. Blend. Add crushed garlic and pepper. Serve with gorraasa/ Kissra and fried meat.

Blend peanuts with water into a thin paste. Chop spinach. Cook in chicken stock till
dry. Add peanut butter. Add salt. Eat with bread.

Beetroot Salata
Chop beetroot, carrot, tomatoes, chilies, Spring onions. Add vinegar, lemon, sesame oil & salt.

Jeer Jeer Salata
Chop cucumber, tomatoes, spring onions, rocket leaves. Add lemon juice and salt. (Add feta cheese ( sub : paneer) and it becomes Jibna salata)

Salata Aswad
Roast and peel eggplant. Mix peanut butter with lemon juice.Add eggplant and mash. Add vinegar, cumin powder, salt, pepper and crushed garlic.

Salata Aswad be Zabadi
Peel chop and fry eggplant. Mix tomato paste, yogurt, peanut butter and salt. Add lemon. Add
pepper and garlic. Mix with fried eggplants.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Alain de Botton

It is always a pleasure discovering a new author. I discovered Alain de Botton through his Architecture of happiness - an amazingly insightful book an why we build what we build. It changed the way I look at buildings forever.

My library had another of his books, and it is even more readable - The consolation of philosophy. I've always wanted to read philosophy but was never able to appreciate the serious philosophers. After numerous attempts I gave up on Will Durant's History of Philosophy. ( Bertrand Russell was an exception - lucid, logical and a delight to read). Alain de Botton is even more readable.

I've been long puzzled by the fact that wealth does not make people happier, though that's the general assumption driving the economy. Alain talks about it and quotes Epicurious - the Pleasure philosopher - one of the rare breed who spent his life in philosophising about what gives us happiness.

Alain argues most of us are incapable of understanding what makes us happy - We've been so conditioned by parents, peers, society that we are led to believe a bigger car / house / promotion/ fame / Power etc etc would give us happiness. Time after time, it has been shown they do not - but that does not stop us from trying.

Epicurious lists what really makes us happy - Friends, Freedom , Thought ( about the main sources of anxiety ), . Of course, basic food, shelter and clothes are essential, but after they are provided for, any increase in wealth does not translate to an increase in happiness ( Martin Seligman's survey, reconfirms what Epicurious said 2000 years ago).