Sunday, May 25, 2008

Industrial strength cooking

I enjoyed having a long chat with a master cook, who specialises in cooking for hundreds of people. His frankness and willingness to share tips he has gained over tens of years enchanted me.
Here they are
1. For cooking south Indian wedding feasts for a large crowd, always start with the dal. It takes longest to cook and unless the dal is cooked, other dishes like sambars/ rasams cannot be cooked. After the dal is put to boil, vegetables for poriyals are boiled. Sambars / rasams/ morekulambu / pulikulambu are cooked next.

Rice is cooked just two hours before the feast starts , so that it is hot the time it is served.

If dal does not cook to a mush as demanded in many south Indian recipes, addition of coconut shells , grated raw papaya, crushed ginger or baking powder would help.

When too much salt has been added by mistake, a dry brick or a couple of sheets of newspaper are dunked in the curry and removed after a couple of minutes. They act as giant sponges and suck up some of the salt out. Though very unhygienic and not advisable, this technique is frequently used in many large kitchens. A more hygienic alternative might be to dunk in a loaf of sliced bread or a bunch of fresh tissues and remove them in a few seconds.

Padi- (a cylinder covered at one end) is a commonly used measure in Tamilnadu. One padi holds 600 gms of rice and can feed 6 people. 'Padikku Pudi' is the amount of salt that is sufficient for a padi of rice - that is, a fistful of salt is sufficient for 600 gms of rice.

One kg of rice can feed 10 people.

Cooking rice :
Large aluminum vessels which cook over huge wood fires can hold up to 25 kgs of rice. The rice is first soaked for half an hour and is washed a couple of times.

Meanwhile a in a huge vat, water is boiled ( 5 parts of water for 1 part of rice). When water starts boiling, the soaked and washed rice is dumped in, stirred a couple of times, covered and let to cook. It is stirred every 5-8 minutes. Raw rice gets cooked in 10-15 minutes and boiled rice takes around 25 minutes. when the rice is almost cooked, it is scooped out with huge buckets and dumped into large wicker baskets lined with gunny sacks. The water filters away and the rice continues cooking.

When rice has been overcooked, cold water is added so that any further cooking is stopped. Addition of some salt helps keep the grains separate.

I've been invited today to observe a cooking session for 450 people. It'll be interesting to watch large scale cooking.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

1001 Leavened Indian Rotis

Leavened Indian Breads : A Primer
Leavened breads are not indigenous to India and are not commonly made in Indian homes. Like China, baking never caught on in India, probably due to the scarcity of fuel. Baking is still viewed as an exotic skill and very few Indian recipes call for baking. Ovens are very uncommon in Indian homes. The only oven used is the Tandoor, the open pit clay oven invented in central Asia. Traditional tandoor is a pain to set up, light up and operate. I prefer to use the tabletop electric tandoor which is very convenient and can cook almost everthing a tandoor can.
Any thick bread needs to be leavened, so that it remains soft when baked. Leavening is the process of filling up the dough with a gas. This gas is normally generated by yeast or by baking powder. When dough is kneaded with yeast, you can actually watch it puff up like a balloon in a couple of hours. Baking powder works differently. On heating, it generates carbon di oxide, which inflates the dough from the inside like a balloon. Yeast requires a few hours to work and fill up the dough with gas. So the dough is rested for 3-5 hours before baking. Baking powder works instantly and so breads made with baking powder can be baked rightaway.

Most leavened Indian breads are cooked in a tandoor, though some like the Bhatura are deep fried. All breads listed here are designed to be cooked on an electric Tandoor. If you don’t have an electric tandoor, you can cook these in a preheated oven at its highest heat setting, in a skillet, on a grill or on the walls of a sturdy vessel. They’d taste different, but they’ll certainly be edible !

The Base (Column 1)
Kulcha is very similar to a Naan, but is usually leavened with baking powder and yogurt instead of yeast. Kulchas are often stuffed with a variety of fillings. It is normally shaped as a round disc unlike the teardrop shaped Naan.
· Tandoori roti is a thick , round roti made from wholewheat flour. It is generally leavened by wild yeast by letting the dough sit for a few hours before baking. Baking powder is now used widely in Tandoori rotis.
· The Bati is a unique bread, designed to last. It was the staple travel food of the Rajput warriors and Marwari traders. Tomato sized balls of whole wheat dough are roasted over hot coals and are eaten dipped in ghee. (They can also be cooked in an electric tandoor). Smaller Batis can be cooked without leavening. They may also be cooked in boiling water first and then baked.
· The most popular leavened bread in Asia, the teardrop shaped Naan, was cooked in central Asia long before it found its way into India. Naan is a staple food in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan & Tajikistan. That is why Naan is not a Hindi word. It is a pan asian word which means bread in all these languages- Persian, Urdu, Uzbek, Uyghur and Burmese. Sesame seeds / onion seeds / cilantro / garlic slivers are occasionally patted on the surface just before baking.
· When you knead Nan dough with semolina, you get a less chewy and more crumbly version of the Naan- the Khasta Naan.
· Rogani Naan is a richer version of Naan kneaded with milk and ghee.
· Khameeri roti is just a Tandoori roti leavened with yeast instead of baking powder. In some regions these are deep fried.
· Sheermal is an orange coloured, saffron flavoured, sweet version of the Naan. Some versions of sheermal use eggs.
· Taftan is a unique bread made from leavened rice flour. Rice flour is not easy to work with and needs quite a bit of practice to knead and shape. Use of some all purpose flour makes it easier to knead and shape.

Flavouring (Column 2)
Column 2 lists various flavourings from 0 to 9, which can be kneaded along with the dough. Most traditional flatbreads stop at 0 and do not use extra flavouring. The flavouring choices are numerous and you can create your signature dish by choosing your favourite flavouring for your bread.

Stuffing (Column 3)
A variety of stuffings listed in column 3 can be used to stuff the dough. Stuffings from 1 to 5 are easy to work with. Others take a bit of practice to master.

Have fun in cooking up your own combinations of new flatbreads !

And that's another entry for Srivalli’s Roti Mela

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"It is extraordinary to me that the idea of creating thousands of recipes by mixing building blocks takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all. .... If it doesn’t grab a person right away, ... you can talk to him for years and show him demos, and it doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is". ( Thanks Warren Buffett !)

"What's angering about instructions in many cookbooks is that they imply there's only one way to cook a dish - their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity." Cook dishes your way - Download  1001 South Indian curries now and learn to cook, not to duplicate ! ( Thanks Robert Pirsig !)

"Recipe purity is no different from racial purity or linguistic purity. It just does not exist. Cuisines are alive and change all the time. What is traditional today was esoteric just a few decades back. So being a 'foodist' is as bad as being a racist !

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

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