Sunday, 26 January 2014

Maharashtra - How I made Pakora, Moong Dhal and Bombay Potato Curry

I'm a big fan of Indian food and I have a favourite curry recipe that I prepare regularly, which is a Parsi dish from Mumbai.  I also experimented with dhal as part of my research for this blog, back in June 2010, when I attempted a Rajasthani Daal Baati.  It wasn't my most successful attempt at cooking, I remember, as I didn't have the best recipe to work with. 

I had a lot more luck with my recipes this time around, due to a little gem of a cookbook that I came across called An Indian Housewife's Recipe Book (Laxmi Khurana, 1985).  Although the book doesn't have any pictures, which is something I generally prefer, it makes up for this with really clear and straightforward recipes.  I put together the three dishes mentioned in the title of this blog post and I was really happy with the results.

The Ingredients

Living in a big, multicultural city like London, it's easy to find the ingredients you need to make proper Indian food.  I appreciate that some ingredients, like Moong Dhal or gram flour might be harder to find in places where there isn't a South Asian diaspora. 

For the Moong Dhal

200g of split Moong Dhal - मूग - (muga)
1 onion - कांदा - (kanda)
Some jeera (cumin seeds)- जिरे - (jire)
Some rai (black mustard seeds, although I used brown)- मोहरी बिया - (mohari biya)
Fresh garlic - लसूण - (lasuna)
2 tomatoes - टोमॅटो - (tometo)
Turmeric powder - हळद - (halada)
Garam Masala - गरम मसाला - (garam masala)
Chilli powder - तिखट - (tikhata)
Fresh dhaniya (coriander) - धणा - (dhana)

For the Bombay Potato Curry
The ingredients for all three dishes were very similar

500g potatoes - बटाटा - (batata)
Some jeera (cumin seeds)- जिरे - (jire)
Some rai (black mustard seeds)- मोहरी बिया - (mohari biya)
Turmeric powder - हळद - (halada)
Chilli powder - तिखट - (tikhata)
Fresh dhaniya (coriander) - धणा - (dhana)
2 tomatoes - टोमॅटो - (tometo)

For the Pakoras

The original recipe was for potato pakoras - but I just happened to have a courgette that I wanted to use, so I did courgette pakoras instead.  Not sure if that's typically Indian, but they were really tasty! 

170g besan (gram) flour - हरभरा-पीठ - (harabhara pitha)
1 courgette - आयताकृत्ती भोपळा - (ayatakrtti bhopala - literally 'oblong pumpkin')
Garlic powder - लसूण पावडर - (lasuna pavadara)
Chilli powder - तिखट - (tikhata)
Garam Masala - गरम मसाला - (garam masala)
Turmeric powder - हळद - (halada)

How I made Moong Dhal

I started with the Moong Dhal, as this is the bit that takes longest to prepare.  Dhal is basically lentils and there are many different types used in Indian cooking - I thought it might be fun to make Moong Dhal, as I'm not sure that I had ever tasted Moong before.

Washing the Dhal

Although the dhal we buy in the West comes in packets and has usually been machine-cleaned - it's still important to wash the dhal thoroughly to remove any dust or other particles that might be clinging to the individual lentils.  I did this by soaking the dhal for a few minutes in water - once the water had turned yellow, I removed the dhal with a spoon and emptied the pot.  

I then put the dhal in a sieve, over the pot and washed it six or seven times until the water was pretty much running clear.  I cleaned out the pot, added the Moong dhal and chopped onion, covered with water and cooked for around half an hour, stirring every now and then.  It surprised me that the dhal soaked up the water very quickly and I had to be careful not to burn the mixture, or let it stick to the bottom of the pot.

Cook the Dhal with chopped onion

I fried the tomatoes and spices in a small pan and added these to the dhal when it had completely soaked up the water.

Spicy tomato mix when is later added to the Dhal
Dhal mixed with tomato and spices

How I made Bombay Potato Curry

I realise that there are a lot of people in Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai, who eat meat - my favourite Parsi dish is a good example, as this contains chicken - however, in keeping with my earlier blog post on vegetarianism, I wanted to make a vegetable curry, feeling this would be a more authentic choice for a dish from Maharashtra. 

Chopped potatoes with fried cumin and mustard seeds
I started by frying the cumin and mustard seeds in hot oil.  Once they'd started to release their flavours, I added the potatoes, tomatoes and spices, covered everything with water, brought it to the boil and let it simmer for around thirty minutes.  This is an incredibly easy dish to make, once you have the right spices, it's simple but really yummy.

Potato curry with tomato and spices
Cooking the potato curry, Moong Dhal and spicy tomato mixture

How I made Pakoras

Making Pakoras was more of a challenge for me, as it involves creating a sticky mixture with the gram flour and spices - applying this sticky paste to whichever vegetable you want to cook (the vegetable should be cut into fairly thin slices) and then deep-fat frying the vegetable slices in hot oil.  It reminded me a bit of the time I made Jersey wonders, as it was a similar concept, basically deep-fat frying bread. 

Mix the gram flour with the spices and add water to make a paste

Add sliced courgette to the mixture

Make sure the courgette pieces are covered in the sticky flour and spice paste

Once you get the hang of it, it's dead easy and I can definitely see myself making a whole range of pakoras in future - the possibilities seem endless, potato, carrot, broccoli . . .

Deep-fry the courgettes in a pot of hot oil

Courgette pakoras

I served all three dishes together, with some pre-baked naan bread that I heated up in the oven - I used the fresh coriander leaves to top off the meal and you can see the results for yourself in the photos below. 

My Indian dinner!

Pakoras, Moong Dhal and Bombay potato curry with naan

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me, please feel free to reuse, under the Creative Commons license:

Attribution (especially to this blog post)
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Sunday, 19 January 2014

Maharashtra - Yayati: A Universal Story?

In my quest to find the most popular book in the Marathi literary tradition, I came across Yayati: A Classic Tale of Lust by VS Khandekar who was born in Sangli district, in the very south of the state.  Like many great writers, Khandekar started out as a school teacher, before turning his hand to writing.  He wrote 16 novels in total, as well as numerous short stories and essays.  In 1974, he became the first Marathi writer to receive the Jnanpith award, one of India's most prestigious literary accolades, for his re-interpretation of Yayati, a story which appears in India's most ancient texts. 

King Yayati's story is told in the first part of the Mahabharata, the Adi Parva or 'Book of the beginning'.  It also appears in the Bhagavata Purana, one of Hinduism's important devotional texts. I must admit that it surprised me, at first, that the most famous novel in the Marathi language would be a re-telling of an ancient text, rather than a modern-story set in the 20th century, but I recognise that there is an art in re-telling ancient stories and some of the world's greatest writers, especially someone like William Shakespeare, made a career out of re-interpreting those key stories that explain all the complexities of human existence.

Marathi-language version of Yayati
Although I was reading the novel in translation, I could tell that Khandekar's Yayati was beautifully written - very clearly and aesthetically presenting the relationship between Yayati and Devayani, his wife, as well as his less official relationship with the fallen princess, Sharmishtha.  The bottom line is that Yayati and Sharmishtha should have been together but, due to Yayati's bad decision-making in his youth, he married the wrong woman. 

Both Yayati and Sharmishtha came from the same caste, the kshatriya or warrior caste, whereas Devayani was a brahmin and the daughter of a very powerful maharishi or yogi.

Devayani comes across as a spiteful and manipulating woman, whereas Sharmishtha is shown to be innocent and pure of heart.  Sharmishtha is the hero of Yayati's story, despite the fact that she sleeps with a married man and bears him a bastard son, who will one day have a claim to Yayati's throne.  I have to say that, although Sharmishtha comes out of the Hindu tradition as a very sympathetic character, I'm not sure she would have fared so well in a Western/Christian story!

Actually, despite being Yayati's legal wife, Devayani is depicted as the one who is in the wrong.  There are certain moral messages in the story, related to Devayani's behaviour.  I would summarise these in the following way:

Emperor Yayati from 19th century illustration
1. Cross-caste relationships can only ever end in unhappiness.  Recognition of one's dharma is a constant theme in Hinduism.

2. Women shouldn't arrange their own marriages - Devayani doesn't hang about and is very direct with Yayati, practically forcing him to marry her.

3. Women should keep their men sexually satisfied.  Although she's initially attracted to Yayati, Devayani finds his sexual needs repulsive and refuses to sleep with him, after they have conceived their son.  She also objects to his drinking and having a good time and they end up in a really unhappy relationship, hating each other. 

I don't blame Yayati for his behaviour - Devayani made his life a misery - but I find these morals difficult to believe in, as a modern reader and a non-Hindu. 

Whilst I enjoyed Khandekar's interpretation of the story, I would love to see a more radical rendering of Yayati's Classic Tale of Lust - setting it in a modern context.  Although the story is thousands of years old, the themes still resonate with a modern audience - unhappy marriage, lack of sexual fulfillment, making the wrong choices when you're too young to know otherwise.  I'd definitely recommend Khandekar's novel - it's very easy to read and the story contains some eternal truths that make it relevant to readers across different cultures and centuries of human experience.

I found an interesting re-telling of Yayati online and I'm posting the following YouTube video, so you can hear this story for yourself:


As I'm into my fifth year of blogging, I find that I'm slowly building up blocks of knowledge and (hopefully) accumulating an understanding of the world based on research that resonates across similar themes in different cultures. 

I first researched the sacred texts of Hinduism when I was blogging about Rajasthan back in June 2010.  I touched on William Shakespeare and the idea of 'universal stories' when I was blogging about Veneto in February 2011.  I also explored the universality of 'fairy tales' when I was blogging about Urals Federal District in December 2010.  If you're interested in reading more about these topics, feel free to click on the links connected to the place name to find out more.

Image credits:

The image of the book cover is from Marathi-language version of the book.

The illustration of Emperor Yayati is from P. Shungoonny Menon's A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times (1878).  This image is in the public domain and you can see more information at the image page on Wikipedia

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Maharashtra - What ever happened to Bombay?

When I was born, in 1975, the map of the world looked a little bit different than it does today.  European colonialism was on its deathbed and most parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas had managed to gain independence and establish their own colours on a world map that had previously been British Empire pink.

I was born into a world where Zaire, Malagasy, Kampuchea, Upper Volta and Rhodesia were countries.  I grew up with the names Leningrad, Bombay and Peking firmly planted in my mental geography!

But the map of the world is continually changing - whether it's the addition of new countries, like South Sudan, or the renaming of cities, from Saigon, in the year of my birth to the more recent changes, such as St Petersburg, Mumbai and Beijing.  I guess the older one gets, the more confusing the map of the world becomes and some habits (like calling St Petersburg, Leningrad or Mumbai, Bombay) are hard to break!

Map of Hindoostan from 1831
So why do countries decide to change their names, or the names of their major cities?  Well, I guess it's a natural process of redefining your national identity.  For many ex-colonies, like India, name-changing is an opportunity to reclaim cultural identity.  India seems to have gone through a wave of name-changes in the last 20 years - some of the main ones being Bombay to Mumbai (1995), Madras to Chennai (1996), Calcutta to Kolkata (2001) and Bangalore to Bengaluru (2007).

I wonder how much the growth of nationalism, especially Hindu nationalist parties like the Marathi Shiv Sena party, have influenced this recent tendency to change the names of Indian cities.   Whilst Kolkata and Bengaluru seem to be more accurate spellings of the names of these cities, I was surprised to find out that Mumbai is not simply a 're-spelling' of Bombay, but is a name with its own significance, from the Koli goddess Mumba and the Marathi word Aai, which means 'mother'.

In other countries, like China and Korea, redefining the way their languages are romanised (ie. written in the Latin alphabet) has resulted in name changes that sometimes seem quite different to speakers of European languages.  Particularly in China, where many of the romanised names were originally based on Cantonese rather than Mandarin, the resulting changes meant that Peking became Beijing and Canton became Guangzhou.  It's interesting to note that the names haven't actually changed in Chinese, but are a result of the adoption of the pinyin system of writing Chinese by other, predominantly European languages. 

Map of France in Hindi
Countries in the ex-Soviet world have seen many name changes in the past century.  After the Russian revolution, many cities such as Petrograd, Yekaterinburg and Tver - were renamed after heroes of the revolution, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk and Kalinin - only to regain their former names after the death of Stalin or the collapse of communism.  Likewise, Tsaritsyn named in honour of the Tsars was renamed Stalingrad (1925) and then Volgograd (1961).  Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan was once called Frunze, Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe spent more than 30 years with the official name Stalinabad.

So is all this name-changing really worth it, especially if the purpose is to establish political supremacy or nationalism?  Perhaps the most controversial name where I come from is Derry or Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second biggest city.  I grew up calling it Derry and I still find it hard to think of Londonderry as a place that exists anywhere outside my adult experience of geopolitics.  It's a contentious name and, like Bombay, Calcutta or Madras, symbolises British rule for a population that is dissenting or independent.

Free Derry corner by Paolo Trabattoni
It's interesting to think about who has the right to decide a city's name.  Logic would say that it should be the people who live in the city who decide what it's called - in which case, I'd imagine Derry/Londonderry would end up being just 'Derry' - but what about others who have a relationship with the city?  The administrators in Belfast, Beijing or New Delhi?  As with the adoption of pinyin by European mapmakers, people in other countries/places also somehow have a right to decide what they will call the cities in other parts of the world and how they will spell these names in their own languages. 

Personally I think it's important for names to change - although I grew up with Bombay, Peking and Leningrad, I recognise the symbolic nature of city name-changing and see this as an important process in countries that are going through political and cultural change.  How the rest of the world reacts is another matter.  I'd imagine most of us have a very personal mental map of the world which captures our understanding of geography in a way that no paper or digital map ever could. 

It'll be interesting to see how the world continues to change as this blog ages (there have already been some small changes to the world map since I started in 2009).  Perhaps I'm blogging about places that will cease to exist - what will the countries and cities of the future be called?  I can't wait to find out!

Image credits:

The first two images are from Wikimedia commons and are in the public domain.

The image of Free Derry corner was taken by Italian photographer Paolo Trabattoni who is a graphic designer.  You can see more of Paolo's work on his Flickr photostream or on his website.  Thanks Paolo for sharing this image with us using the Creative commons license.