Monday, 23 February 2015

Vegetarians, proceed with caution


On Sunday mornings, I would often accompany my father to the local butcher; I was in my teens then. We would walk down our long driveway, Baba greeting neighbours returning from their morning walk, me swinging the little jute bag Ma gave me, trying to not have to greet anyone.

Our butcher Munna's shop is a short walk away. Past a Mother Dairy booth where people queue to collect the day's milk in aluminium cans, past a small roadside shrine where people queue to offer flowers to the gods, past the ration shop where people queue for sugar, soap and rice. We would walk to the end of the road, turn the corner and queue for meat at Munna's Meat Shop.


We never had to queue for long, because Baba - or Doctor-saab as he is called - enjoys a few privileges. He would always be waved to the front of the queue to the chagrin of others in line; he would even get a discounted price. This was because Munna, apart from being the butcher, was also Baba's patient; quite regular in his ailments.

So, there Baba would stand, in his spotless white kurta-pyjama, with all of Munna's attention, pointing to shanks and shoulders, which were duly cut to size, or deboned and minced, according to the needs of Ma's kitchen. I would stand outside the crowded shop, waiting with the jute bag.



In India, meat shops are a far cry from butchers of the British high street. In Britain, you enter a spotless shop through a door usually covered with a curtain of metal chains. Once inside, there's a long, glass-covered cold-shelf on which sit different cuts of meat, all neatly labelled. The butchers, both men and women, are dressed in white, hair tucked inside white hats. There's a mincing machine. A cutting board. And not a splatter of blood. There's also a room at the back, but customers want to know nothing of what's happening there; it's far more 'civilised' this way. Don't wash your bloody meat in public.

Now, turn to the Indian butcher. He sells meat, and don't you forget it. There's no hiding your conscience in cling-filmed packages. Large carcasses hang upside-down from iron hooks in front of the open shop. A row of sheep heads decorate the shop's tiled platform, their eyes still surprised. The butcher sits behind this row. In front of him is a short tree stump - his chopping board. In his hands, a cleaver. You point to the portions you want - since every portion has a purpose - and with his cleaver, he cuts it up in a matter of minutes. When the cleaver hits a bone, he takes a heavy wooden rod and hits the top of the cleaver to cut through. He has no mincing machine. If you want your meat minced, his hand simply speeds up, bringing the cleaver up and down in rhythmic repeat, while his other hand dances in and out, sifting the meat between each chop, his fingers a nail-biting inch away from the blade. This continues till the meat is exactly the size you need them to be: coarse for a curry, medium-coarse for a pie, fine for a Shammi Kebab. And all this in the midst of loud conversation, and a faint sound of bleating from the back of the shop.



The British butcher, then, is a neat, less chaotic experience for me. The shopper in me much prefers this mild-smelling, white-aproned option, but the cook in me always leaves frustrated. Here, butchers are happy to sell you the few cuts they know well - a large shoulder or shank to be popped into an oven, small boneless dices to be put in a gravy, chops to be grilled. Mince comes in one variety - minced. A uniform, texture-less paste that is churned out of a machine. When I explain that I need pieces for a 'curry', but with the bone in, they're at a loss. Sometimes they bring out a saw. Yes, a large carpenter's saw. And they try to saw through the bone, slowly, painstakingly, as if they were building me a table. The saw cuts the bone in jagged edges, leaving sharp bits of bones in my curry. Yesterday, my conversation at the butchers went a step further. The young butcher asked me why I needed a mix of shank and shoulder, and then added, "I find that a bit weird to be honest".


When Baba finished buying his meat on those Sundays in Calcutta, I would hold my breath and step into the shop with my jute bag open. Baba would put the newspaper-wrapped meat in, and we would walk back home past the queues and the market crowd. Inside the bag would be mutton in a mix of cuts, a balance of textures; not too lean nor too fatty. Perfect for Robibarer Kosha Mangsho, the dry-gravied Sunday Mutton which Calcutta cooks on its day off. Tender meat and potatoes in gravy served with steamed rice and salad.

Ma's Sunday Mutton or Kosha Mangsho is a thing of beauty. And cooked in a way no other Kosha Mangsho is cooked I'm sure. Like all of Ma's cooking, it is uniquely spare in its method, and in its ingredients. It also ingeniously uses the fat in the meat for the main cooking. It is sumptuous, quick and a famed dish throughout the large, extended Ghosh family. And it's here on my blog today. 




Ma's Sunday Mutton (or Lamb, in this case)

No, all Indian dishes are not spicy; this certainly isn't. Ma's cooking has always been simple and full of flavour, as truly good Indian food should be. Where spice is chosen with care and used with restraint. I need to dedicate a whole post on debunking myths about Indian food. But try this recipe, and I promise you'll be off to a good start.


Ingredients

1 kg lamb (mix of shank and shoulder, bone in)
3-4 potatoes, peeled and halved
2 onions - 1 large, peeled; 1 medium, peeled and sliced
Juice of half a lemon
5-6 large cloves of garlic
1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced in thickish round pieces
1 tomato, diced
2 bayleaves
2 small sticks cinnamon
2 cardamoms
2 cloves
1 tbs coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp paprika for colour
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2-3 whole green chillies
1 tbs oil
Salt

Mix the meat with lemon juice and leave for an hour. Or even better, overnight in the fridge.
Put the meat in your cooking pot. Tuck in a large onion. Add 3 cloves of garlic and the bayleaves. Sprinkle liberally with salt. Add a small cup of water. Cover, and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
While the meat's cooking, heat oil in a pan and lightly brown the potatoes on all sides and keep aside in a dish. They don't need to be cooked through, only browned.
After about an hour, take the whole onion out of the meat. Keep aside.
Tip the meat and stock into a large bowl. The liquid fat in the stock will rise and sit on top. Tip the fat slowly into a bowl. That is your cooking 'oil'. (If you have time, keep the bowl of meat and stock in the fridge for a couple of hours; the fat solidifies on top, and is very easy to skim out. Sometimes, when I'm having guests over, I boil the meat a day before, and refrigerate.)
Heat the fat in the same pot in which you'd simmered the meat. Lower the heat and add whole cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and fenugreek seeds. As soon as the fenugreek seeds start to brown, add the sliced onion. Stir till the onion is brown, then add the whole onion that had been fished out of the stock. This slow-simmered onion gives the gravy a beautiful, rounded flavour. With your spatula, mush up the onion. Add tomato, coriander powder, paprika and turmeric. (Add a couple of chillies, or a tsp of chilli powder at this point if you want to add some heat.) Mix it all up and stir for 5 minutes.
Now, add the meat with the stock, and the potatoes. Give it all a good stir.
Cover and cook till the potatoes are done and the meat is almost falling off the bone.
Remove from hob. Add the green chillies. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes before serving with steamed rice.





COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don't see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you've taken time and care to write down have vanished into ether or been eaten by the Blogger Monster. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them for you, and write back. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

What can I say - (Marrakech & beyond, Part II)


This part of the Morocco post was sitting in a corner, maturing like good wine - and even as I type out that sentence, I know it was doing no such thing. This post was just sitting in a corner half-written. I've mastered procrastination to a fine art. But procrastination suits Morocco well. It's a place where everything happens when it happens.

Here it is now, the best bits. And I hope you'll think it was worth the wait.

*Long post alert* Get a cushion, make yourself comfortable.

The Riad

In Marrakech, we stayed in a traditional Moroccan riad. A painstakingly restored 17th Century house buried in the maze of the Medina. The way to the riad is in itself an adventure - when we reached Marrakech, a car picked us up at the airport and drove us through the labyrinth of the city till we reached the fringes of the Medina. Here, the driver alighted and pointed us towards a little metal 'cage' on wheels, attached to a cycle. 'Umm, what?', our looks said. Rapid hand gestures explained that the cage was not for us, but for our luggage. The Medina was a car-free zone, so the cage had been arranged by the riad so we wouldn't have to lug our suitcases. We loaded our luggage and a little girl into the contraption, and off we went, following it through arteries of narrow lanes, dodging donkeys, mopeds and cyclists. After only a minute or so, we stopped in front of a small, nondescript door in a sliver of an alley.



But then, the door opened. And the world changed. Magic.


We walked into an oasis of contradiction. From the ochre smells and tangy walls of the city, into a white, marbled courtyard that smelled of roses and opened up to the sky, with a pool of water at its center. As green as the outside was not. There were bananas and oranges hanging off the trees, and the house growing around it. Cats lazed on large cushions, and turtles snoozed amidst the fronds. Stairs wound up to sunny terraces. And warm smiles greeted you, welcomed you in.




This is Riad Berbere, a flawlessly beautiful old home run by the charming Ingrid and her team of wonderfully kind local women, who went out of their way, every day, to make us feel at home. This was where Chotto-ma was in her elements - playing with the cats, running around the courtyard, chatting with the women in the kitchen. While D and I lounged by the fireplace chatting over a glass of local wine.


The food we had at the riad were some of the finest of our stay in Morocco. Everything on the table was made by the women in the riad -  the bread would be brought in straight from the oven every morning, along with fluffy pancakes served with homemade preserves, freshly-squeezed orange juice, bowls of fruits and mint tea. At night, a traditional Moroccan meal would be made with whatever was bought from the market on the day. One of our meals was a trio of warm salads, lamb slow-cooked with plums in a tagine, couscous and for dessert crisp-fried phyllo pastry layered with a light creme-anglais and strawberries.

A part of me wants to keep Riad Berbere a secret; keep it to myself. But here it is. If there's one place you should rest your head in Marrakech, this is the one.

[You can also find wonderful reviews of Riad Berbere on Tripadvisor]




The Hike

On the day D turned a year older (and purportedly, wiser) we went on a hike to Ourika, to clamber up a brutally bouldered rock-face to a waterfall. My idea of a birthday gift; and knowing D, the perfect one too. The climb was steep, slippery with mountain streams, and a test in balance. We had a guide called Omar - the nicest person you can imagine - who took care of Chotto-ma every inch of the climb, while D and I concentrated on saving our bones and breath.


He swung her over sharp rock-faces, over gushing streams with wet logs for bridges, he picked her up and bounded up the bigger boulders, then stood her up in a safe spot while giving us a hand to pull us up. And Chotto-ma, boy, she did us proud that day - she walked and walked and walked, and never once changed her mind about making it to the end.

Reaching the waterfall feels like an achievement, a relief, an absolute joy. And then, you look down, and see the sheer rocky drop down, the boulders descending in utter tumble, and realise it's the only way down.



We wouldn't change a thing about that day. And we have the lovely people at Morocco Attractive Tours to thank for it. Abdul, who drove us through the valleys and to Ourika in a 4X4, spoke several languages, and made the trip come alive with anecdotes and facts about the land and its people we would never have known otherwise.

You can also book their tour through Viator, as we did.




A Few Good Meals

Apart from the food from the Riad's kitchen, which made us wait excitedly for dinner, there were a few food experiences that stood out. 


{Jemaa-El-Fna}


This is the Morocco most photographed. Jemaa-El-Fna, the throbbing, beating center of Marrakech. Ancient, unchanged. Spilling over with dancers and snake-charmers and bowls of snail soup. Rows and rows of stalls cooking food, tossing them onto plates, sliding them down long tables to waiting mouths. Loud, hungry for business, persistent, cajoling. It often puts foreign tourists off; tourists who're more used to a softer luring. To us though, it was like being back in India. We didn't miss a beat, and nor did the boys at the stall. They walked up to us singing songs from Hindi films. We love India, they said, kissing a startled Chotto-ma on the head.



We ate at Stall 31, which is always full of locals. (While travelling, this is our simple guide to food - eat where the locals eat; it has never failed us). You start by copying the locals: first come plates of tomato sauce, a little like a salsa, which you mop up with chunks of bread. And then, you let yourself go crazy. What I would recommend are the merguez sausages - as many plates as you can eat. The marinated olives. And a spiced mash of greens, which I know not the name of, but which was good, good, good.








{The Berber Lunch}

On D's birthday, we ate lunch in a Berber home, high up in the Atlas Mountains. A modest home, an almost barren home, but with a kitchen that simmered and smoked with food straight off the land. As far as birthday meals go, I dare say I nailed it.

We ate sitting on a terrace that looked out at the mountains from all sides. A lentil soup, homebaked bread, vegetable couscous with ladles of broth, a chicken and apple tagine. Oranges and mint tea.

Sitting there in the crisp mountain air, our muscles aching from the hike, we ate this warming food. Out of charred, earthen tagines. Soups in green, wonky bowls typical of Berber pottery. Meat falling off the bone. Fluffy couscous piled onto grateful plates.


{A Day in Amal}

Amal is many things -  a training center, a restaurant, a place to learn more about Moroccan culture, but most importantly, it's a place that does good work. Amal helps disadvantaged women find their feet. Through food, and the art of cooking, it empowers local women to earn money, earn their independence. It's a happy place, with women chatting and laughing as they work, bustling around it's garden and corridors. Amal is supported by a small group of people strewn all over the world, and run by Hassan, the director of the center, a charming, witty man who left New York to come back home to Morocco to run this bit of hope.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a day there, doing a cooking class (in between stirring, Chotto-ma also climbed every orange tree in their courtyard, but that's another story).


It was our last day, we had a flight to catch, but if we hadn't squeezed Amal in, we would've missed something very special, important even. Important because it gave us an insight into how simple homecooking can help make a powerful difference. And it brought me in touch with some lovely women, who smiled and gestured me into the art of couscous. Not the 10-minute couscous we quickly throw together before a meal here. But a couscous of patience, taking longer than lamb, steamed gently over a simmering pot of vegetable, then fluffed and steamed and fluffed and steamed and fluffed again. Till it billowed into a pile many times its original size. Shaped into a pyramid and layered with the vegetables that had been simmering, simmering, simmering.


For lunch, we ate what we had cooked - the couscous cooked with Fouzia and Jamila, who showed us how. I also tried my hand at phyllo making, to much encouraging applause - it's a tricky combination of smearing watery dough on a scalding hot metal plate (with your bare hands), and rotating the plate at the same time, till a thin muslin-like layer is made. And then peeling it up like glue off your fingers.


Amal is a place you leave feeling good. Good for having known and been a day's part of this wonderful venture. And for having met this group of good people. When we left Amal and were making our way to the airport, we realised that D had left his winter jacket behind, with important papers in its pockets. We turned our taxi back. But when we returned to Amal, Hassan told us that he had already sent a man with the jacket to the airport. Which was 45 minutes away from the center. When we made our way back to the airport, we found the man standing there with the black jacket and a big smile.

What can I say. We couldn't have left Morocco better.


PS: If you missed Part I of the post, it's here sunning itself.

PPS: This post was NOT sponsored by any of the establishments mentioned - they are all personal recommendations.