Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scientist as Foodie - Physicist's Perspective

Puducherry-born Siva Shakthi works on nonlinear optics and microwave photonics. But how does food come in?

Lab snacks 
Scientists and food form a great combination, Siva exclaims, when asked for her spin.
When I talk science, I automatically switch to food-talk after a while – not even the science of food but food itself!
My family and I love cooking shows. Mom ardently follows healthy recipes and granny prepares mouth-watering traditional sweets.
Mom's millet and methi paratha
They are pros at what they do. But as I grew up, I also fell for street food.
Roti maker in action - Old Delhi

After school, Siva joined the Women’s Christian College, Chennai as undergraduate in Physics. Timid and shy, she didn't venture out much and was scared of posh restaurants.
But there were enough more modest eateries to amuse me. I particularly remember an omelette shop just outside the college.
 The college was very strict and we were allowed to go out only on Wednesdays and weekends. The weekend was reserved for visiting far away restaurants while Wednesday meant a bit of book hunting and an omelette. 
I love the bread omelette at the shop: two slices of bread, a mildly runny omelette, and a splash of mint chutney. Every Wednesday for three years, I ate at that shop. Yummy!
Her next big food adventure began when she came to IISER-TVM. In her final year now, she's been a hosteller until very recently.
For the first four years, the campus was close to an upcoming IT park and that meant more people and more new places to eat. I went out to eat almost every night unable to put up with the food in the mess.
We fell for the chai shops. Suleimani soon became everyone’s favourite: On a rooftop with yellow bulbs and a terrace filled with plants. It was the most sought out place since it was open till two in the morning!
I went there for their ginger tea, rich with aroma and flavorful. I don’t like tea made with milk - it's too thick. Suleimani offered it just right for me.
Working on a PhD involves travels – workshops, schools, and conferences. 
ICFO lab visit
Though these journeys are mainly academic, they involve culinary experiences too.
Besan pakoda chaat - Old Delhi
During the last five years, I travelled to different cities in India and fell head over heels in love with the street food. Oh, Delhi! Oh, the aloo tikkis and kebabs from Old Delhi. 
Old Delhi - Tikka getting ready
I have the habit of reading books about a place before visiting that place. Before visiting Delhi, I read Korma, Kheer, and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamella Timms.
Such a delicious read and I want to go to Delhi again, for the food!
Old Delhi - masala papad
Funny thing, I was interviewing a Nobel laureate and he said he has been eating too much since he landed in Delhi.
Old Delhi - street food
Another interesting food-related incident occurred when she went to Barcelona for a summer school.
Barcelona - fruit shop
I ordered paella, a special type of shrimp dish. The waiter who served us was German. He asked if we were Indians and what we did and why we were in Spain. Then he told us how he is an ardent fan of Shahrukh Khan. He said he and his friends in Germany love Bollywood movies and he has watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai multiple times.
When Siva travelled to Hong Kong she followed the path laid out by the legendary Anthony Bourdain.  
His shows inspired my explorations of Hong Kong's nooks and corners in search of good food. 
Hong Kong's Egg puff aka waffle
From egg momos to Korean rice rolls to flat rice noodles, Hong Kong buzzed with a myriad foods.
Hong Kong's rice noodles and fish balls
Siva Shakthi's Instagram page, Feasts and Fables, is her tribute to food and features foodie quotes from her favourite books. 
Feasts and Fables

She also volunteers at the Optical Society of America Student Chapter and at STEPS - Students Teach Experiential Physics in Schools.

In upcoming posts, we continue to explore the adventurous appetites of Indian scientists and it promises to be a very enchanting gastronomic journey. 


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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Drinking Pineapple Skin

Pineapples are wickedly delicious as sweet juicy slices. When I was growing up canned pineapple was an almost unaffordable treat. But I do not remember my parents ever buying a pineapple. Tinned goods, even today, have not caught on in India making buying tins or cans of food quite unwise. Such goods rarely sell and can continue on warehouse shelves for unsafe periods of time. But, there's the prickly issue of the peel that will confront you should you buy a whole uncut pineapple!


27707, pixabay

And, in India, it would be very unwise to buy cut fruit. So the pineapple often lures but you rarely get a bite. Should you go buy a whole pineapple there's still the fact that the pineapple might be gratingly sour. However, there are several nice dishes to make with pineapple that's not so nice to eat as is. 

But there's still the problem of the skin. You pay for the fruit but what you can consume is very little of it. 

One very fine idea is pineapple skin wine. I discovered the recipe online and it came out yum. I followed the recipe in the link above but perhaps the video will also help. It has subtitles. 


For those who whine about wine there's always the spiced pineapple drink. 

Apparently, pineapple skin wine is popular for Christmas in India, served with cake. In any case, it's nice spiced wine for any celebration.
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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Salt - A Sprinkling of Thoughts

Preserving balance where salt is concerned is increasingly hard. It is best to take with a pinch of salt all media reports on how much is too much. Whatever the personal stand, salt is a spicy topic with tons of health conditions where salt is reported culprit.

Before throwing the salt out with the bathwater, it is wiser to see what authoritative sites have to say about it. But that can be hard as popular science articles often do more harm than good, festering as they are with the fads they foster.


The (Political) Science of Salt says:
Three decades of controversy over the putative blood pressure benefits from salt reduction are demonstrating how the demands of good science clash with the pressures of public health policy.
Yet what's food without salt? Here, again, there are many salty issues: which salt, for example. Rock, Himalayan, iodised? Pass me my smelling salts before I faint with all these thoughts simmering in my mind!

While 'smelling salts' are a remedy about which I have read but have never used, I find table salt helpful for a few medical conditions. Gargling with comfortably warm water to which some salt has been added soothes my sore throats and I find that it helps my voice. It makes my mouth and gums feel good as well. In fact, there is A taste for salt in the history of medicine.

While there's a lot science has to say about salt, superstition peppers salt use liberally. Salt is thrown over shoulders, tossed into the corners of rooms and even bought every Friday. It appears to chase away bad vibes and invite prosperity.

While those are all fairytales, the truth is that salt makes many foods taste good and helps preserve foods too.

The question that remains tormenting to each new cook and to many veterans is: How much salt does a dish require?

Recipe writers appear to take it for granted that the reader knows how much salt to add. So they write: Salt to taste. This can be a major puzzle to many and lead to dishes that are either undersalted or ones that are too salty.

There is a lot of information about what to do when a dish is too salty. However, when a dish is undersalted, adding salt somehow never brings to the dish the same flavour that adding salt during cooking does.

So here are some tips to try out:
For a meat marinade, try a couple of teaspoons per kilo. That sounds alright to me. Vegetables, it is said, would take about the same. Here I'm not too sure.

I look forwards to reading what you, my readers, think on this issue. Please share, as comments, your own thoughts on how much salt a dish needs.

DapurMelodi from Pexels
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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Three Easy Dishes for a Sweet Tooth

My mother's cooking was very straightforward and, for most of my conscious life with her, restrained by economic concerns. Yet she never failed to produce a sweet or savoury snack for us. Of these, three sweet dishes made by her continue to cheer my days: French toast, pancakes and caramel custard. 


safran7

My mother's recipe for French toast was very simple: one egg, a tablespoon of milk, sugar to taste, and slices of bread. It is claimed that stale bread is better but I use whatever's at home. As for the sugar, start with about a spoon - it depends on how sweet you want your toast. The milk is optional and I don't think the sky will fall on our heads if milk is not used.

Beat the egg and milk with the sugar till the sugar is mostly dissolved. 

Warm a skillet/tawa. Add some oil/butter to condition it. Dunk the slices of bread into the egg-milk-sugar mixture. If you soak the slices, they can turn too mushy to handle. 

When the oil bubbles a bit, gently slide in the slices. Watch out as the oil can splash on you. Keep the fire on low to medium and turn the slice over after a minute or so. The crisper the outside the tastier the French toast. 

A variation: instead of sugar, add a dash of salt and pepper.

Serve with ketchup in both cases, if you like ketchup.

Here is a video of another simple method - I'd go with the cinnamon or other spice powder but I refuse to add vanilla. At least as essence.



My mother's pancakes are neither like the French crepes nor like the fat American pancakes. Her recipe was: one egg, a glass of milk, and a cup of plain flour or maida.

Mix these up well to avoid lumps. Heat a skillet as we did for the toast above and pour a bit of the batter and swirl. It's something like a dosa and the batter is better when thin as for a rawa dosa.

I later learned to add a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of oil and a dash of some handy booze.

My mother served her pancakes with lime juice and sugar. You can use anything you fancy as filling.

This video might provide a different spin but it's basically the same thing:




And now for the best one: caramel pudding. As my Amma made it: one egg, a glass of milk and two tablespoons of sugar.

Mix the egg and milk with one tablespoon of sugar till the sugar dissolves.

Take a pan and put it to heat with a tablespoon of sugar. Keep the fire low and keep moving the pan around till the sugar dissolves and turns brown.

For the pan, I usually use something that has a tight lid. When the pan cools down, pour in the egg-milk mixture and steam with lid on for about fifteen minutes.

Let the container cool before opening it to serve.

This basic pudding can take on diversity - once you master the basics it's an easy dessert to serve and enjoy.

Here is a variation that I've tried:



With the monsoon, we Indians get cravings. And what is better than something sweet when it's drizzling outside? 


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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Cabbage Soup - Please, Sir, may I have some more?

I've always loved cabbage. In fact, I was not even deterred by mentions of it being a staple for prisoners in Siberia. Anti-Soviet writings were popular when I was quite young. 


Shchi or Russian-style cabbage soup - Victoria Vasilieva, via Wikimedia Commons

The prisoners had to build their own camps, cut down trees and were fed just enough to survive, Simmeth said. "We were served one-quarter loaf of bread and cabbage soup," he said.

Mostly, my mother made a dry cabbage and potato dish and it was tasty. What is more, during my graduation years, I had a Gujarati friend who introduced me to a version from her region. Even so, it was much the same dish. Of course, the South Indian dry dish, featuring only cabbage, must surely have been there and continues to hold a dominant position in my cooking repertoire.

Cabbage, as coleslaw, came into my world with the then popular Nirulas in Delhi. Cabbage with channa dal and coconut was stirred into my life by marriage. And, all this time, the size of the cabbages I bought remained decent for a small family. Also, cabbage rapidly reduces in volume when cooked.

However, somewhere along the way, the cabbage became gigantic. Where it was one of the easiest veggies to chop, even when the dish required mincing, cabbage now grew tough. At home, my partner and I often argue whether it is the region - Pune - or whether some tweaking has led to this unpleasant avatar. Whatever the reason, I struggle to use up cabbage now.

Yet cabbage is a valuable vegetable. It is also versatile and adds delightful crunch to salads and to Indo-Chinese  fusion dishes.

Even with such a range of things one can do with it and with all its health benefits, I struggled hard to use up the one cabbage I would pick up per week. I even tried cabbage juice and it's really not so bad at all!

Finally, being on a soup binge, I decided to go for this method. Only I can't quite imagine myself liking a clear soup with chunks or slices of cabbage. And so I chose the 'creamy' version.

Richard Lee - Chef Daniel's Kitchen: Cream of Cabbage Soup. 

My 'Cream of Cabbage Soup'

4 C chopped cabbage
1 green chili
1 small onion chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic to taste
A small bunch of coriander leaves
1 T coriander seeds
Salt
Butter/oil
Stock or water

Saute the chopped veggies. Cool and blend. Boil with stock. Season.

Here is a more formal version: Cabbage Soup 

Cream of Cabbage Soup - With Meat



A Vegetarian Version



Cabbage offers a lot of versatility. Here are some recipes that I've bookmarked over the years:
Cabbage Manchurian
Cabbage Pakoda
Cabbage with Moong Dal

Cabbage juice, as I mentioned, is quite nice and when you make it and have it over the next day or two it sort of ferments and can be pleasantly but mildly fizzy. And the soup is soothing and sumptuous. Not at all like something served to prisoners! 

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Yellow Pumpkin Soup

My first powerful memory of this vegetable is as halwa. I've never eaten such a dish again but it remains delicious in recall. Yellow pumpkin was never cooked by my mother so far as I can remember. And it is only much later that I understood why. 

Indian pumpkins - Christopher J. Fynn, Wikimedia Commons

What's in a Name? 

In Delhi, I discovered that this gourd is called sitaphal there. For me, having grown up in South India, sitaphal was custard apple or sugar-apple as it appears to be called elsewhere. By now, I could see why my mother never cooked the vegetable. Shopkeepers were loathe to cut it, in those days, as once cut, the vegetable would rapidly degrade and spoil. And one gourd looks fit enough to feed a village as a whole!

Big and Bountiful

Somehow, I continue to be fond of this yellow fellow. It is reported that yellow pumpkin has many antioxidants and can be good for health. And yet it is a vegetable that is hard to use up as most recipes require but a few pieces. There are, indeed, a good many Indian recipes that call for a goodly amount but, in our family, for example, it is only I who am partial to the sweet and sour bhopla preparation that is popular in the Hindi belt and features mainly the bhopla. There are diverse recipes from all over India and all of them can be very delicious but few use more than a few pieces of the vegetable. Moreover, here, the focus is on soup.

I learned my technique from my sister who made it for me once. The recipe is not precise but it is easy and there's nothing like a bowl of this broth for a fine winter's day or night. Indeed, you can have it in any season.

Ingredients

1 C pumpkin, without seeds, peeled and chopped
1 small onion
A few cloves of garlic
1 green chili - optional
A small bunch of coriander leaves
1 T coriander seeds

Chops everything coarsely and saute in some oil or butter. Pressure cook or boil until cooked. Cool and blend. I didn't really need to sieve it. Add about two cups of stock or water. Season with salt, pepper. A dash of cinnamon or nutmeg powder is nice and you can add a bay leaf or tej patta if you like. Boil for a bit. Serve hot.  Now, that's my version but you can find many more ideas on the Net. 



A dash of lime juice or a bit of grated zest can make the soup fancy. These days one finds a huge variety of commercial soups in shops. They are great in a pinch but some contain chemicals that might not be so good for us. Also, it is a good habit to make things one eats from scratch. The engagement makes for more mindfulness.

If soup is not your cup of tea, here are some recipes that I found I'd bookmarked:
Pumpkin-oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Pumpkin Leaf and Vegetable Mish-Mash


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Delights of Sloppy Food - A Lazy Lady's Meals

Often, when family is away, I delight in 'sloppy' cooking. A simple meal slap-dashed together. And that is why I enjoyed a Japanese drama called Hana no Zubora Meshi or Hana's Sloppy Meals


Hana no Zubora Meshi
Hana no Zubora Meshi (Hana’s Sloppy Meals) is a popular josei (women’s) manga about a housewife who loves food, hates housework, and lets appearances slide while her husband’s away. (To be fair, his work keeping him away makes her a bit depressed and lonely, too, which isn’t a great motivator.) So she reads piles of romance comics and sleeps a lot, periodically emerging to do battle with the apartment or buy food.
It's a real entertainer with a TV crew randomly intervening to comment on Hana's ways. Surprisingly, for all that this might sound boring, it's a show that goes down well. Basically comic, it targets the modern miss. And, indeed, all real women around the world. India boasts many a Madam Miraculous and I, for one, am delighted to find that we can also be as sloppy as the next Joe!

So, until you get to watch the show, here are some recipes that were featured in the drama. 

Easy Pizza Toast 

Okonomiyaki Bread

 Yaki Gyoza 

Ochazuke

Mizore Nabe

Kenchin jiru



Frankly, I might never get to taste these dishes but I do love watching food related TV dramas and the Japanese do a splendid job of it. As do the Koreans. The shows are worth watching for another reason: here are stories without violence or excessive tragedy but which yet engage and entertain! 

So, what's your secret sloppy meal recipe?


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Monday, November 26, 2018

Resistant Starch - Hard to Resist Potato Salad

At some point in time, the potato, once so popular, acquired a bad reputation: eating potatoes bred couch potatoes. People avoid the poor potato like the plague. But potato is hard to resist.

Now, scientists say that potato need not be resisted: it can provide us with resistant starch. Resistant starch resists stomach conditions such as acid and reaches the gut where it nourishes good bacteria that protect us. From diabetics to those who want to lose weight, from people with chronic stomach infections to those with insomnia, many are those who can benefit from resistant starch. But what is resistant starch?

I stumbled on some clues to this wonder food in Giulia Enders book. In Gut, she mentions that her grandmother's remedy for all ill health was potato salad. Giulia says that it might be good for our gut. You can peek into the book using the Preview function on the cover below:





The book is informative and laced entertainingly with anecdotes such as the one about the grandmother's potato salad.   

So, the theory is that there is something called resistant starch in some foods. And it is good stuff which gets enhanced in some foods - potatoes, rice - when we cook them and then cool them. It makes me wonder if that's what many Indian villagers in rice eating areas already knew as it was once habitual for them to eat leftover rice  - left overnight in water - for breakfast.

For those with chronic gut infections, the small intestine can have bacterial overgrowth. Nasty organisms flourish as medicines disturb the balance of gut bacteria. Also, tummy infections damage delicate linings, making us vulnerable to organisms the body otherwise easily resists. Research suggests that a moderate intake of resistant starch can bolster the chances for healthy gut bacteria.

Of less interest to me is another bonus that some claim - resistant starch might be a good ingredient in a weight loss diet.

Now, I do love my aloos! Also, I've read of potato salad and I imagine it to be like the Russian Salad I used to have as a child in Bengaluru.



We, in India, have many variations of our own kind of potato salad. In fact, such a thing is probably the first dish I cooked in my life and that was sometime in the Seventies and it was a recipe from Femina!


The one I made did not use mustard oil. I do not remember that it had any oil but mustard oil gives great flavour!

However, I am opting for the other kind of potato salad and I plan to combine the boiled potatoes with a coleslaw as I have some excess cabbage on hand. Cabbages are too big these days!  And cabbage also plays a helpful role for tummy health.


In any case, we need some Mayo! 


Now, one could stop there but some folks put boiled eggs in their potato salad. However, mayonnaise has egg anyway and so I used chicken from a leftover chicken curry. The result was very yum!

The much maligned potato now boasts benefits!



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Monday, September 17, 2018

Sandwiches Packed - Ready for Adventure!

Sandwiches are very fancy, nowadays. Many eateries specialise in them. 

However, it is easy to make simple sandwiches and they are splendid to pack for a lunch or for overnight travel. 

All you need is: 

1. Sliced bread that is not too fresh. This is because newly baked bread will only help the sandwich get soggier and it's also harder to cut neatly. 


2. Butter or any other spread such as a green chutney, mayo, cheese spread and so on.

Steve Karg, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Condiments like salt, pepper - freshly cracked is divine - chili flakes or even some Indian masala powder such as Chaat Masala. One can even dribble some favourite Indian pickle over the filling.

Josuiván Sierra Barrera , via Wikimedia Commons

4. Filings will depend on one's religious persuasion: vegetarian or not and other such taboos. 

For the vegetarian, some options are:

a. tomato and/or cucumber
b. leftover cooked vegetables
d. baked beans
e. cheese or paneer if acceptable

Attribution: ​English Wikipedia user rebroad

For the others:

1. cooked or smoked/preserved meats
2. Egg - some vegetarians can live with eggs.
3. Deboned fish - tinned fish works well. 


 kspoddar, via Wikimedia Commons

Basic preparations:

You'd naturally need to have bread, butter, other spreads selected, condiments and the fillings at hand.

Vegetables need to be washed well if they haven't already been cleaned.

Cooked vegetables or meats need to be fairly dry. A 'curry' or gravy based dish may not be wise unless all the liquid is taken off.

Keep the butter out of the fridge to soften well in advance and that will save time and struggle.

Here are some basic sandwiches that I love to pack for a picnic:

Tomato Sandwich

Butter two slices of bread, each on the inner side only. Alternatively apply mayo or a chutney. A green chutney goes well for this sandwich. 

"Pudina Chutney" by Ramesh NG Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons 

If the bread is quite dry and the chutney firm, the sandwich will hold well. 

Season the bread with the spread with a dash of salt and pepper. Add a cheese slice if you like. Now add thinly sliced tomato - it may be wise to cut away the liquid portion with seeds. Use just enough so that there is just one layer. Season. Top with the other slice.

One can add a few thin slices of cucumber too but then the sandwich may be hard to manage.

A simple cucumber sandwich can be whipped up in much the same manner.

Egg Sandwich

These can have hard boiled eggs, omelets or scrambled eggs. For the boiled egg, it appears a tradition to use mayonnaise. 

Jason Terk, via Wikimedia Commons
The simplest is the omelette sandwich where an omelette is the filling between buttered slices of bread. This was often my lunch when I was doing my post graduation. The same works for scrambled eggs, which are basically omelettes broken up into bits. 

The boiled egg sandwich can be as simple as the other egg sandwiches above with either butter or mayo as spread. Alternatively, one makes a kind of egg salad by coarsely mashing the boiled egg with mayo and other condiments and perhaps some crunchy bits of salad greens.

Meat/Fish

Dry meat/poultry such as tandoori meats/fish or smoked preparations such as salami and ham go well in a  travel sandwich. However, in a hot climate, only choose if to be eaten within the day. Make sure the fillings are hygienic and safe to eat. 

There are all kinds of variations that you can try out but always remember:

Do not overuse fillings or the sandwich will be messy.

Finally, pack your sandwiches well with foil or cling film. Pack the packed sandwiches in a container so that they do not get crushed. Keep a lot of tissues handy to wipe greasy fingers clean. 

A flask of hot water and some tea premixes would be wonderful to wash this meal down. I wish there was a hot chocolate or Horlicks premix!

For the more adventurous, pack a few tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled eggs, a loaf of bread, butter and/or a bottle of some spread, a knife and have a blast with the makings en route!

Added baggage: a tin of tuna or baked beans to provide more occupational therapy! 

There are many ways to make and enjoy a sandwich and here's one that is wonderfully unique:




Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Delicious Food from Midnight Diner

Midnight diners have always been popular with second show audiences and travelers in India. And we do have food shows which cover all kinds of places and phases of day.


However, though we have a rich culture of food, we have few or no dramas or films where food is the main theme. And it was only when I started watching Japanese dramas that I found that they devote whole series to food. There are too many of them for me to list but I will introduce you to a few of my favourites. Let's start with Midnight Diner or Shinya Shokudo.


The show is exquisite. With each episode, regulars and newcomers visit the Midnight Diner and each episode showcases a dish.

Episode One has Tan-Men:


We have Nekomanma in Episode Two. Since this 'cat food' - neko is cat in Japanese - is too simple, I cannot find a video of the recipe.

And Episode Three deals with Tonteki:




With Episode Four, we come to Potato Salad:


The Butter Rice in Episode Five is, also, too simple and, so, let's move on to Katsudon, Episode Six.



Episode 7 brings us the humble Egg Sandwich:


Midnight Diner has become quite a hit the world over and further seasons were released. It is interesting to note that, usually, a J dorama has no more than some eight episodes but their food dramas end up with many seasons. 

Other seasons of Midnight Diner also feature fine recipes and here are some from those:

Hot Pot for One

Cream Stew

Last but not least the famous Omurice!

Midnight Diner is on Netflix and I hope you'll watch it soon! 


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