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Plantain Republic!

2016 June 30
by Shalini

One of my favourite places to shop in Vancouver is a somewhat chaotically run Persian store that carries a smallish but interesting range of products. The selection of foods – including cheeses and preserves from Eastern Europe and Turkey, rice, spices, lentils, and most of all, the fresh produce – makes it a magnet for a multi-ethnic clientele.

Inching along in the invariably long line-up for the check-out, you’ll  hear what I can only assume is “Oh my goodness! Is this where the line ends?!” in languages ranging from Russian and Farsi, to Spanish, Cantonese, Tamil, and Punjabi!

Unripe plantains

Whether you’re sorting through a pile of okra, flipping nopales, or picking up big, fragrant bunches of herbs, or unripe plums and grapes, there’s a a good chance you’ll get into a bit of a chat with a fellow shopper.

Besides joking about the bazaar-like muddle (complete with trampled fruit and vegetables underfoot) that is the store,  the most common topics that come up in conversation tend to be centred around the fresh produce. Queries like “What do you make with that?” and “What do you make with that?” are traded back and forth.

Most recently, while delving into a box of plantains in the store, a curious fellow shopper who was reaching for the riper fruit, asked  what I was going to make with the “greenest ones” I was searching for. The short answer was “pan fried plantain with Indian spices”.

A few more shoppers joined in the conversation, and every one had a favourite and unique recipe suggestion, using both unripe and ripe plantains.
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Biscuits with a bite: savoury butter biscuits

2016 May 31
by Shalini

This scenario plays out all too often. Shuffling along in the lineup for a cup of coffee or tea, I can feel a steadily rising sense of panic as my turn at the counter approaches. I’d really like a little something to snack on, but I can’t decide what. The display case looms, and my mind skips long like Goldilocks, looking for that “just right” bite.

Attintion!

One of those giant muffins? No. A scone? Cake? Doughnut? No, no, no. Those cookies are all too big and sugary. The sandwiches look good. But I’ve eaten lunch so I don’t need one just now. Everyone else seems to know what they want. This is moving along too quickly. Fruit? Muesli bar ? My turn to order…Aaaargh!

One tea please. Yes, that”ll be all.

Pffft.

And that’s the moment when I know what I really want -  a biscuit with a bit of a bite. A khara* biscuit, actually.

When buying biscuits in bakeries in India, you usually have several savoury options to choose from.

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What sap? Palm sugar gets the maple treatment!

2016 April 30
by Shalini

Arguably one of Canada’s most famous exports, maple syrup is produced primarily in Eastern Canada from the sap of varieties of maple trees. The main harvest is in spring.

This year’s unusually warm weather has prompted an early harvesting of maple sap. The quote below is from an article titled  “Sugar sommeliers: How warming weather influences Ontario’s maple syrup production“, posted on rabble.ca, by blogger Jen Halsall:

‘Syrup is a bit like wine,’ says Ray Bonenberg, a maple sugar producer in Pembrooke and spokesperson for the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers’ Association. ‘You get different flavours from different soils. It’s not dramatic; it’s subtle. But there are different flavours, there’s no question about it.’

No question about it at all. And it’s a multi- million dollar industry that takes the business of grading and marketing maple sugar very seriously.

In India, which is perhaps better known as a leading grower of sugarcane, there is also a long history of sugar production from the sap of a variety of palm trees. These include the Indian date palm, the Asian Palmyra palm, and the Fishtail palm.

Collecting pot

Each of these palms produce sugars every bit as complex and varied as maple sugar, but they are nowhere close to being as widely appreciated (or promoted, for that matter).

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A rose cookie by any other name…

2016 March 31
by Shalini

What’s in a name? Rose cookie, rose de coque, Scandinavian rosette, beehive cookie, nan-e-panjereh, achappam…these are names from around the world for a light as air, barely there, confection of deep fried pastry. They all consist of a thin layer of batter formed on heated decorative moulds of brass, iron, aluminium or even copper. These cookies, with so much style and little real substance, are a true delight!

Festive

Often associated with festive occasions like Christmas in Scandinavia,  or Chinese new year celebrations in Malaysia, rose cookies were something my grandmother made on a regular basis as an any time treat. Her recipe consisted of a lightly sweetened milk, egg, and flour batter with vanilla flavouring.

It takes a little practice to get the basic procedure right. But it’s definitely worth the effort, and the little heaps of mangled, scorched, “tries”! A good place to start is with a well seasoned iron that will release the batter easily.

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Bollari: a cucumber so cool, it’s hot!

2016 February 29
by Shalini

Earlier this month, market stalls along the highway between Mysore and Coorg were laden with locally grown seasonal produce, including a variety of cucumbers.

There were dark green ones, pale green and white striped ones, and skinny, fuzzy ones an even lighter shade of green. All of these were arranged in neat pyramids, soothing to the eye and conjuring visions of cooling salads for the increasingly dry and warm weather ahead.

Warm glow

Between the harvest and replanting of a staple crop, it’s common practice to turn over part of fields to the cultivation of pumpkins , gourds, melons, and cucumbers. Quite a  Cucurbit family plot, so to speak!

One of my personal favourites in this extended family is  Bollari*, a pleasingly plump field marrow with flamboyant yellow, green and ochre striped skin and cool, crisp flesh. Unlike its more delicate cucumber cousins, it takes cooking to bring out the best in it. And it handles heat just fine,  holding its own and not falling to pieces even after a long simmering in a spice bath.

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