Lessons from a cooking disaster

 

I clearly remember the first time I tried to cook something entirely on my own (no, I don’t mean instant noodles). It was a weekend, early 2014. And I had decided to make bhindi (aka okra/ ladyfinger), a simple stir fry subzi to go with rotis.

I had no recipe, so I texted an aunt for help. She mentioned something like “Add this, then add masalas, then cook…” and so on and so forth. I had to text her again and ask, “Which masalas?”. Then I had to crosscheck their pictures online with the spices I already had in the kitchen.

Yep, I was that much of a cooking noob.

(BTW, this my sweet potato and spaghetti casserole. Doesn’t look like a newbie dish, does it?)

Spaghetti sweet potato bake

So I started my first kitchen foray all gung ho and super excited. I washed and chopped the ladyfinger, sliced onions, then turned on the heat, and began the actual cooking.

And I did everything right, just like my aunt had said. Or at least I thought I did.

At the “Iet it cook for some time” step, I left the pan unattended to do some other chores. I was away for just a few minutes. When I came back, the ladyfinger was sticking to the pan.

“Uh oh, they’re getting burnt,” I thought, and then I sought out to use my highly-developed common sense to rectify it.

I added water, of course.

Now, if you know how to cook ladyfinger, you may also know that adding water to ladyfinger spells disaster. Not the “Oh-I-spilt-some-milk” sort of disaster. But Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Adding water to the Indian ladyfinger while cooking is a catastrophic mistake.

And so… The dish became all stringy and icky and looked like a giant lump of goop. I ruined the first dish I ever cooked.

But I also tasted it. The balance of flavours was perfect, but the texture was slimy and it the little pieces of ladyfinger were as scary-looking as Medusa’s head.

Of course I was upset.  I cried. But then… I tried cooking the same dish a few days later. Did NOT add water.

And the result?

Success.

What a relief that was.

Lesson learnt: Ask the right questions. Do your homework. And yes, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Since then, I haven’t let my kitchen disasters get my morale down. I learnt my lessons. And I’m glad I did.

(Here’s an attempt at broccoli soup. Still not perfect!) 

Broccoli soup

And I’ve been learning new lessons every time I go to the kitchen.

But from all the amazing, crucial, important and significant tips, tricks and hacks I’ve learnt about cooking, the most significant ones have been those that I apply to my life as well.

I don’t necessarily live to cook, and I don’t cook every day, but it’s an important part of my life now. I’m proud that I can feed myself, wherever I am.

What has cooking taught you?

Friday Films: Chutney and La La Land for food and fashion

Food Film: Chutney

An extra marital affair, small town gossip, an annoyed domestic help and a seemingly-innocent housewife are blended expertly to create the intriguing story of Chutney. As the special chutney recipe is revealed, the home-grown green chillies are not the only secret ingredient we discover. Tisca Chopra’s performance is stellar as she shares her recipe and narrates a sinister tale. Meanwhile, I’m craving samosas with spicy chutney.

Watch Chutney here if you haven’t seen it already.

 

Fashion film: La La Land

La La Land is a delightful musical journey. Even several days after watching the film I couldn’t get City of Stars out of my head. Aside from the breath-taking view of Griffith Observatory and the Hermosa Beach pier, I was taking mental notes on the costumes. There was none of the sloppy-but-standard jeans and tee combos for the sweethearts. Emma Stone’s chic and flattering dresses in solid yellow, blue, peach and green have given me major fashion goals, while Ryan Gosling’s always-dapper look should hopefully inspire gentlemanly dressing.

La La Land fashion yellow dress

La La Land fashion peach dress

The Quinoa Debut

Life in Yangon is good. I’ve been in beautiful Myanmar (aka Burma) for 13 months now and each passing day I learn new things about the people, their culture, their religion, their beliefs, their beauty secrets, their ideology…

The isolation from Mumbai has been an eye-opener. I didn’t know I took so many things for granted back home, from the city’s crazy but robust public transport to the easy access to great food to the sheer convenience of grocery shopping. The first couple of months here in Yangon were a struggle to put food on the plate. Though S and I had stuffed our suitcases with essential ingredients, we still had dozens of things we couldn’t carry. Where can I buy dal? What about pav? Do we get curry leaves here? What about cumin seeds? The unfamiliar wet market, the cluttered supermarkets with so much foodstuff yet so little for me (dried shrimp and pickled fish aren’t my thing), and, of course, the language barrier, were a bit too much to handle.

But once I got confident with my language skills, I began exploring the market and local stores, and things began to look up. I found curry leaves at the neighbourhood market. S found a pav seller. The local supermarket began stocking most types of dal! I even found fresh tamarind and jaggery (Myanmar jaggery is yum!).

Now that I know where to find the most essential ingredients, I can breathe easy. You’d think I’m all set now.

But no, I have a terrible itch. The itch to try different things. The itch to visit an unseen country, to sample an untried cuisine, to learn a strange language, to cook a new dish…

So I signed up for a cooking class run by a lovely Australian woman here to learn shortcrust pastry and later baked a delicious rustic pie! I observed Myanmar-style salads and prepared some at home—trust me, they give a new meaning to the word “salad”. In summer, I tried making mango shrikhand without sugar, and succeeded. When Mom visited, I insisted she teach me malai kofta.

Last month, I was ready to try some new things in the kitchen. But a severe muscular spasm in my neck knocked me out and I couldn’t cook for several weeks. I visited Mumbai to see a doctor and get the treatment started. And, foodie that I am, I seized the opportunity to get my hands on some new things—such as a half-kilo box of quinoa.

I’d once used a packet of Lemon & Herb quinoa (or something similar) someone had gifted me. I needed to prepare it like any instant food (like packaged noodles). But the quinoa didn’t cook at all. Maybe I did something wrong? Either ways, I felt like such an idiot that I banished the incident to the “cooking failures” folder in my brain, never to be accessed.

But now, I’m a bit more confident of my culinary skills. And after the long break from cooking, I was hoping to try something new. Quinoa was fresh on my mind, and so began the hunt for a great recipe.

Despite my neck pain acting as an irritating companion, I wanted to make a complete meal, not just a snack or “light meal”. So I decided to debut my quinoa experiments with wraps.

It didn’t all go smoothly. I underestimated the cooking time at first, then I ended up with more quinoa than expected. No harm done though. Halfway through cooking I realized that the dish was becoming a mix mishmash of several cooking styles and flavours. I mean, hummus with herb-seasoned veggies? Wrapped in a South American flatbread? What was I doing?

But when I had the first bite with some vegan mayonnaise (yes, that’s a real thing), the elements fit together beautifully. S did a taste test and gave it a thumbsup.

Quinoa vegan wrap

Phew. All’s well that ends well.

Anyhoo, a bit about the recipe: The original recipe suggests cooking quinoa with the vegetables, but I decided to cook them separately because I wasn’t sure about cooking time and didn’t want to end up with mushy veggies and raw quinoa. It was wholesome, nutritious, delicious and hearty lunch! I used whole wheat tortillas from a local bakery.

Quinoa Debut Wraps

Ingredients

For the quinoa and vegetables:

1 cup quinoa (uncooked)

1 tsp chopped garlic

1 medium onion, chopped

1-2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 bell pepper/ capsicum (any colour), chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 tomato, chopped (or use a handful of cherry tomatoes instead)

A handful of corn (aka American corn)

1-1.5 tsp mixed seasoning (I used a readymade seasoning- you can use whatever you like: Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or a mix of your favourite Indian masalas)

Salt to taste

Juice of half a lemon

Small handful of chopped coriander leaves

Other vegetable possibilities: Zucchini and french beans

For the wraps:

4 whole wheat tortillas

4 tbsp of your favourite spread (any type of hummus or sandwich spread will do)

Method:

Wash quinoa well, then soak for five minutes in a pot. Drain the water, add two cups water to the quinoa (the ratio of quinoa to water is always 1:2). Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil, then lower heat and let it cook covered.

While the quinoa is cooking, heat oil in a pan, then add garlic and onion, sauté for a minute. Then add the green chillies and cook for few seconds.

Add the vegetables to the pan with your seasoning or spice mix and a little water. Mix well, and cook for some time, stirring often and adding water if needed. The vegetables should soften a bit, but not lose their crunch. This could take anywhere from five to ten minutes.

When done, switch off the flame. Squeeze in the lemon juice and mix coriander leaves with the vegetables.

Meanwhile, drain the cooked quinoa. You know the quinoa is cooked when it’s soft and it seems to have “sprouted”. Keep it covered for five minutes, then uncover and let it cool.

Assembling the wraps:

Mix the cooked vegetables with the quinoa.

Dab some of your spread on a cooked tortilla, then add the quinoa-veggie mixture in a straight line across the middle. Roll it up and voila! Your quinoa wrap is ready.

Serve with a light dip of your choice.

Quinoa veggie wrap

PS—This recipe is vegan.

An ode to Myanmar’s magnificent mangoes

There’s nothing better than a burst of sweetness in your mouth. Sweetness that’s like fresh breeze on a hot summer day, a taste so wonderful that it enthralls your taste buds and fills your heart with joy. It’s a treat that you wish will linger forever.

Such divine sweetness does exist, and I bet you’re thinking Alphonso, Alphonso, Alphonso.

I grew up eating dozens of Alphonso mangoes every week in summer. My maternal grandmother bought (no, hoarded) several boxes and force-fed the mangoes to everyone at home or anyone who dropped by. On a typical summer day, we had Alphonso mangoes at breakfast with mango milkshake, chopped Alphonso mangoes after almost every meal, then Alphonso with ice cream or whipped cream, or mango yoghurt-based cheesecake for dessert.

And outside the home, there were more mangoes to be had. Restaurants, ice cream parlours and mithai shops across Mumbai would be flooded with seasonal mango delicacies like the Gujarati-style aamras with deep-fried puris (mango pulp with deep-fried Indian bread) or mango shrikhand (strained yoghurt dessert). Oh, and the super sweet mango mishti doi (fermented sweet yoghurt). Or the subtly-flavoured mango sandesh (cheese-based confectionery).

So yes, I’d had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Alphonso mangoes in the first two-odd decades of my existence. After my grandmother passed away a few years ago, our memories of her fondness for mangoes stayed on. But the sweet essence of Alphonso mangoes seemed to rescind into the past as well. The flavour has changed from sweet to weirdly-sweet-and-bit-sour, and they got more juice and less pulp. I lost interest in Alphonso mangoes.

It was with a heavy heart that I privately acknowledged a shocking fact about myself a couple years ago: I just didn’t like Alphonso mangoes anymore. And mangoes in general didn’t beckon to me anymore.

Last June, S and I discovered Sein Ta Lone mangoes in a Yangon fruit market. I wasn’t too keen on trying them. I mean, how can any mango beat an Alphonso?

Sein Ta lone mangoes

But I tried it anyway. Turns out Myanmar’s gorgeous Sein Ta Lone mango is at least a gazillion times better than the Ratnagiri Alphonso.

I fell in love at first bite. Sein Ta Lone mangoes are a perfect hue of orange and gold, they’re juicy and pulpy, wonderfully aromatic, with a smooth non-fibrous texture, and, of course, richly, delightfully, gloriously sweet. Each bite is pure heaven.

Grown around Myanmar, these mangoes are fleeting visitors in local fruit markets—they’re available for only two months a year (April to June). The name is just as beautiful – sein means diamond and ta lone means one piece. So Sein Ta Lone is the precious diamond solitaire of fruits.

What an apt name.

These mangoes don’t cost as much as a diamond of course, but are still fairly expensive (by Myanmar standards). A high-quality Sein Ta Lone mango weighing 300 to 400 grams will cost around 400-600 kyats per piece. (That’s between 35 and 55 cents for a mango). But they’re totally worth the indulgence if you have the means.

The Sein Ta Lones are so sweet that I made mango chutney at home, bottled it all up, gave some to friends, and sold some as well. The best thing: the chutney is sweet, but I didn’t need to put any sugar in it. 😀

mango chutney sein ta lone

Besides the Sein Ta Lone, Myanmar has several other delicious varieties of mangoes as well, and many fall off trees on to the streets of Yangon. I’ve seen people around Yangon picking them up and taking them home to eat. What a delight!

After decades of being cut off from rest of the world, Myanmar has thousands of secrets unknown to the world and these divine fruits are one of them. I can’t imagine summers without Sein Ta Lone mangoes anymore.

Earth-friendly fashion, food and travel

Last week was Earth Day. I usually don’t pay much attention to such “days” because most of them are mere eyewash, but Earth Day got me thinking. Can I really make a difference in building a better future for a greener planet?

I assessed my passions (fashion, food and travel) and I figured- sure, I can make an impact, and quickly sat down to make a rough list. At the end of an hour, I re-read the list and scratched out a few unfeasible ideas. But a handful of practical and pragmatic earth-friendly ideas survived. An inner voice said, “Hey, this can work!” So I decided to take the list public and share it with you all.

Here goes:

Fashion

Biba kurtas

Shop within a limit. And I don’t mean your credit card limit. Plan your shopping and decide what you need to buy before you head to the mall. Even with just a dozen tops and half a dozen pants, you can be trendy and stylish. Sure, end of season sales are tempting and a wonderful excuse to buy the orange top or pink dress on your wishlist, but do you really need Blouse No. 52 in your wardrobe? Instead, do a thorough wardrobe cleanse over a long weekend, then only add new clothes and accessories to replace an older one that’s worn out.

Recycle and reuse. I’ve been hearing this mantra for years now, but never followed it. Late 2014, I reused my mom’s wedding dupatta with a new ensemble and made a modern-looking blouse to match her traditional sari, I realized that this formula works. You can transform a large silk scarf into a top or stitch neutral-coloured sari blouses to wear with well-preserved saris. Besides, you get bragging rights to declare, “I’m wearing vintage!”

pink dupatta

Buy locally-made clothes. Here’s how the supply chain of most fast fashion brands (like Zara) usually work: Clothes are manufactured in Country A, then sent to home country and dispatched around the world. Or the garments are shipped directly to warehouses or stores in Countries B, C, D and so on. Working on tight deadlines and short turnaround times, manufacturers often dispatch the merchandise via air. With hundreds of manufacturers and dozens of countries, you can imagine the amount of emissions a single brand’s business could generate. A simple thumb rule (broad generalization): the shorter the distance a garment travels, the more planet-friendly it is likely to be in terms of emissions. Buying clothes made in another part of the world may often be the easier (read: cheaper) option, but do try to opt for a local brand when possible. India has dozens of clothing and accessories brands that source and manufacture locally. “Made in India” seems appealing, doesn’t it?

Buy good quality clothes and accessories. You bought a cute pair of chappals from Linking Road and a stylish cotton kurta from Lajpat market for a steal. Both get worn out in a few months. And so you want to buy new chappals and another cotton kurta. Instead, how about you pay a bit more and buy chappals and a kurta that last longer? This way you generate less waste and save money in the long run. Think of each purchase as an investment of sorts, and calculate the returns in terms of how long it will make you happy. True, better quality may often mean more strain on your wallet, but when you’re buying fewer clothes and shopping less often, the extra bucks you spend are actually working to save you money in the future.

Food

Fresh local produce Chaing Mai Thailand

Eat local produce as much as you can. Of course, that’s not always possible. You don’t get great India-made feta or miso paste, but local fruits and vegetables are always the freshest and have travelled much shorter distances to reach you. Besides, seasonal fruits and vegetables are often delicious. So, if you have a choice, buy local.

Carry your own shopping bag. A cloth or jute bag or locally made basket is super handy in the market. My granny had gifted my mom couple of hand-woven baskets several years ago which she still uses. Myanmar has some lovely woven baskets as well, and I’ve bought not one, but two of them!

Use cloth instead of plastic and paper. Replace kitchen tissue with cloth towels to dry pots, pans and plates in the kitchen, or wipe your hands. There are some “highly absorbent” options which you can use for several days before throwing them for a wash. (Yes, I use just such a towel!). And oh, I prefer to use a handkerchief instead of paper tissue.

Reuse (yes, again!). I saw bamboo straws in Cambodia, and regret not buying them. They were reusable and very cute! Conscious foodies often carry reusable cutlery such as forks and chopsticks instead of using the disposable ones found in takeaway joints or fast food restaurants.

Travel

Boat ride Copenhagen

Use public transport. This one’s a no-brainer. And besides, if you’re using a local bus or public ferry you’ll get a better feel of local life. Better still, cycle around town.

Carry a reusable water bottle. Invest in a sturdy good-sized water bottle. In several countries, you can fill up your bottle with tap water (especially across Europe) or from a water dispenser in airports or malls. I carry my reusable water bottle all the time- when I’m going shopping or to a movie, so I’m not tempted to buy water or cold drinks, usually sold in paper cups, tin cans or plastic bottles. Besides reducing possible wastage, I avoid the extra calories in cold drinks. 🙂

Avoid takeaway. Takeaway meals are usually packed in plastic bags and cutlery, thermocol boxes and disposable plastic boxes for sauces etc. Instead, try to relax and enjoy your meal at the restaurant. You’ll savour the food experience a lot more.

Indian thali food

Book online. And don’t print your ticket, if it isn’t required. Save it on your phone or tablet instead. There are several museums, airlines, theatres, trains and other touristy places that don’t need a paper ticket. We once travelled in an overnight train from Rome to Palermo with the ticket on our iPad without a problem. And when I booked a ticket on the IRCTC website from Vapi to Mumbai, all the TT asked for was my ID proof. Most hotels are fine with electronic booking vouchers as well.

Carry e-copies. When my mother and I first travelled abroad in the late 1990s, we were advised to carry multiple copies of our passports, visas and tickets in case something went wrong. Now we save the scanned copies of our documents on email and in our phone’s photo gallery, so it’s accessible even without an internet connection. Do the same. Save paper and ink!

Stay earth-friendly and chic!

Breakfast: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Ever since I introduced a set of idli molds in my Yangon kitchen last November, rice idlis and homemade slow-cooked sambhar have become an important weekend ritual. By important, only these two dishes can be served at Sunday lunch.

Our ritual is something like this: on Saturday evening S and I head to our friendly and familiar neighbourhood market. (Despite being very “Burmese”, Indian ingredients are not so difficult to find here.) We know the couple who stocks curry leaves in their stall and the trio of sisters who have drumstick (really!). We buy the ingredients for sambhar: curry leaves, a few ladyfingers, a carrot, some french beans, a couple tomatoes, a quartered pumpkin and S’s favourite, a drumstick. While watching TV that night, or just before we go off to bed, we divide the prep activities and chop the vegetables. I wake up a bit early on Sunday and soak the toor dal for couple of hours. After a light breakfast and quick shower, I begin preparing the sambhar, first pressure cooking the dal, then cooking it with the vegetables and spices. Finally, I add the tadka.

The idlis, though, are mostly S’s job. While I step out for couple hours for a Spanish lesson to the outskirts of Yangon, S prepares the batter, double boiler pot and molds. He often makes a few extra idlis for next day’s breakfast as well.

This week we had a few more idlis leftover than usual. Three, to be precise. Not wanting to throw them away, I vaguely remembered eating mini masala idlis at a South Indian buffet in Mumbai several years ago. The mini idlis had been cooked with spices and were bright red, quite spicy and delicious.

With this vivid food memory playing on my mind, I thought I’d create my own version of masala idlis. Using standard Indian breakfasts like poha and upma as inspiration, I began to play with some simple ideas and conjured up a dish.

I prepared the ingredients Sunday night, knowing I would feel super lazy next morning. And so I did. Luckily, this breakfast dish took just a few minutes to cook and I was relishing it soon enough.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Generously spiced, delightfully colourful, crumbly and crunchy at the same time, I’m happy to say that the leftover idli experiment was a success. I’ve dubbed this dish Totally Rad Leftover Idlis.

In this recipe, sweet onions and sour-ish tomatoes provide an easy base for the dish, while capsicum (green bell peppers) add the crunch that I like, a perfect contrast with the soft idlis. The secret spice blend (okay, it’s not really a secret, see recipe below) will wake up your taste buds (as they did mine). I was very tempted to top the dish off with grated cheese, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would have messed up the uniquely Indian flavours of my Totally Rad Leftover Idlis. Instead I had it with a glass of orange juice.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Of course, I don’t think this is an authentic way of eating idlis, but like a good homemaker (how I hate that word!), I don’t like throwing away perfectly edible home-cooked food. And this recipe turned out to be a quick, fuss-free way of using up idlis in the fridge.

I tweeted a photo to S, who was away for work. I’m sure he’s going to want Totally Rad Leftover Idlis for breakfast next Monday.

PS- I’ve used stevia in this recipe because sugar is banned in my home (yep, we’re crazy health nuts). Feel free to add a bit of regular sugar instead.

Recipe: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Prep time: 7 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 teaspoon oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch of asafoetida (aka hing)

1 dry red chilli (whole)

3/4 teaspoon urad dal

3-4 curry leaves

1 small green chilli chopped

1small onion chopped

1small tomato chopped

1 small or half a large green capsicum chopped

A pinch of stevia/ sugar (optional, only if tomato is too tart)

1 teaspoon sambhar powder

Red chilli powder to taste (optional)

4 leftover idlis- chopped or broken with hand into bite-sized pieces

Small handful coriander leaves to garnish

Serves 1-2 people

Method

Heat oil in a small frying pan or wok.

Add mustard seeds. When they begin to splutter, add asafoetida, curry leaves, urad dal and dry whole red chilli.

Fry for couple of minutes, then add green chillies and onions, and cook till the onions begin to soften (we don’t need to brown them). This should take around five minutes.

Add tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes lose their tartness. If they seem too sour (from aroma and taste), add a pinch of stevia (or sugar).

Add the sambhar powder and red chilli powder (I skipped the latter because the green chillies in Myanmar are VERY HOT), along with salt.

Add capsicum and mix well. If you’d like to leave the capsicum crunchy, stir for just a couple of minutes. For softer texture, cook a bit longer.

Add the chopped idlis and mix till coated with the spices.

Switch off the flame, serve in a bowl or plate, and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Enjoy!

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

A sweet corn soup story

Sweet corn soup was my favourite dish at Chinese restaurants when I visited with my family two decades ago. There was something about the soup that appealed to my cousins and me- it wasn’t spicy but it wasn’t bland either, it didn’t look intimidating like some other Indian Chinese(?) dishes, it was served at most restaurants we went to, it tasted perfect, and most importantly, our parents approved of it.

But alas, the yummy sweet corn soup run ended a few years ago. Almost everywhere I went, a well-made vegetable sweet corn soup became elusive. Our favourite restaurants shut down, chefs changed, or perhaps nobody cared about the humble sweet corn soup anymore. I had to switch to manchow soup with the fried noodles, which isn’t bad, but it isn’t as comforting as my favourite sweet corn soup. And, hot and sour soup is too strong on flavour for me.

Sweet corn soup chicken and veg

Anyways, when I began to cook early 2014, I realized the world was my oyster (heh!), and I could cook (almost) everything I wanted at home. When the Mumbai monsoon arrived few months later, I began seeking out soups again (no fried pakoras for me, please!). And when I stumbled across a can of cream-style corn in the supermarket one day, I knew it was time to cook myself sweet corn soup just the way I liked it.

So one rainy Saturday S and I set out to cook sweet corn soup for the first time. The ingredients were all gathered, the preps were done (chopped veggies for me, chicken pieces for him), and the kitchen set-up all ready (separate dishes for cooking my vegetarian and his chicken version). Time to begin. S was tasked with opening the can of cream-style corn. We didn’t have a can opener at the time, so he used a knife to prise it open. BIG MISTAKE. A tiny slip led to a nasty cut, and soon S’s hand turned red, and his gushing blood was making tiny puddles on the kitchen counter.

First, I tried not to throw up (luckily I didn’t), then I panicked. Finally I called S’s dad (he’s a doctor) and we were on our way to his clinic, both in our chappals and wrinkled shorts, my uncombed hair tied up in an ugly knot, and just enough money in hand for the rickshaw ride. Meanwhile, it continued to rain, and the cut continued to ooze, and I continued to feel sick, but managed to hold on to my breakfast.

After a thorough cleaning, a roll of bandage and a tetanus shot, we were finally done. We got hold of a can opener on the way home. With so much loss of time (and S’s blood), neither of us were in the mood for sweet corn soup anymore. And neither of us wanted to cook. But lunch had to be had, even if it was terribly late. And so we used the can opener, poured out the cream-style corn, and began to cook. While I insisted S not bother with the cooking, he hovered around, and our first attempt at homemade sweet corn soup was delicious.

Sweet corn soup chicken and veg

The first sip transported me back to Chinese Room, an Indian Chinese restaurant we loved. The only things missing were a light brown tablecloth, fading upholstery and kindly waiters. Ah, sheer nostalgia!

Sweet Corn Soup (Vegetarian and chicken versions)

Ingredients:

1 tin sweet corn (cream style)

Vegetable or chicken stock (400 ml)

A large handful of chopped veggies of your choice (I used carrots, french beans, spring onions)

OR 200 grams boneless chicken, chopped into pieces

1 egg (optional)

1 tablespoon white vinegar*

1 teaspoon light soy sauce*

3 tablespoon corn flour

1 tablespoon of cooking oil (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Serves 4-6

Method:

Pour out the contents of the sweet corn tin, add two glasses of water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for 5 minutes, then add your vegetable or chicken stock with chopped chicken or vegetables (except spring onions) and let it cook.

Chicken will take at least 15-20 minutes to cook, while the vegetables will be done quicker (they should still have a bite and not be completely soft).

Ten minutes after adding the chicken, break an egg over the pot and quickly stir it through the soup.

Add vinegar and soy sauce, and add oil gradually.

Meanwhile, mix cornflour with a small bowl of water. When the chicken and vegetables are almost cooked (put a fork through them to determine), add the cornflour-water mixture and let the soup cook for another five minutes. The soup will then thicken. (You can add water or the cornflour mixture to thin or thicken the soup to your liking.)

Add salt and pepper to taste, along with spring onions. Serve hot.

Notes and Tips:

  1. Add vinegar and soy sauce according to your taste- some folks like it sour, some like it more umami.
  2. Be careful with the amount of salt you use, since soy sauce already has a salty flavour (umami).
  3. Those who like it spicy can add a dash of Chinese chilli or schezuan sauce.
  4. You can make this without cream-style corn, if it’s not available or you prefer using fresh ingredients. Replace the cream-style corn with 1.5 cups of fresh corn kernels (aka American corn).

Sweet corn soup chicken recipe

How to be a fit foodie

You’ve posted those food pictures on Instagram with cool filters, you’ve tweeted your 160-character restaurant review, and you’ve written a longer opinion on Facebook, tagging the friends you dined with, and all those you missed. And oh, you’ve used a dozen hashtags with all your updates.

Lettuce salad with dressing

Congrats, you’re a foodie! (And yes, I’m guilty of all of the above).

But alas, being a foodie comes with a great burden. What to eat, what not to eat. Watching the waistline expand is not anyone’s favourite activity but with dozens of amazing restaurants to visit, hundreds of appetizing dishes to try and so many big fat weddings to attend, what is a foodie to do to never gain weight? Or avoid clogged arteries and spiked sugar levels?

Simple. First, you get fit: jog, run, dance, swim, do pilates or yoga or whatever you fancy. Next, you continue being fit while enjoying your food. Here’s how.

Stop counting calories.

Think in terms of nutrition instead. Is this deep-fried gobi pakora nutritious, or is it too heavily loaded with transfats to cancel out the nutrients of the humble cauliflower? Will this lamb burger help me get my daily dose of much-needed protein?

Figure out what doesn’t work for you. And avoid it.

I’m not lactose intolerant but I know my body doesn’t like too much of it- it makes me bloat and builds up congestion. So I skip cheese-laden dishes. While I do enjoy a good pizza once in a while, it’s not high up on my list of preferred foods.

Pizza L'Opera

Skip sugar.

No excuses on this one. S and I have been following this mantra for a few months now, and it’s working wonders for us. It’s not just the crazy amount of calories that sugar adds, but the spike in glucose levels and the addiction that comes with it (you can never have just one bite of cake no matter how much you try to resist). So yep, skip it completely. And if you can, skip the hidden sugars too (ketchup, mayo, processed and packaged foods… you get the drift).

Desserts at Masala Library

Order less.

When you’re in a restaurant where you’re not sure about portion sizes or how much you can eat, order just a dish or two to start with. If you’re still hungry, you can always order more food.

Don’t fall for tempting promotions.

Happy meals don’t make happy waistlines, but bulging bellies. Unlimited platters may give you bountiful joy today, bad stomach tomorrow. And free flow of booze may give you a nasty hangover the next day. So all those crazy food offers are just going to mess with your digestion, your focus at work and your arm fat.

Food promotions - high tea

Cook cool stuff at home. Even if you don’t cook.

If you or your cook (read: mom, spouse, sibling, roomie) already prepare delicious food at home, great. If you don’t, learn. Once you realize how much fun it is to make your own scrumptious kebab or burger or lasagna, you won’t want to eat them outside. And you can control the amount of refined flour, bread, and other ingredients that go into your food. And oh, your own food makes an excellent photo op for Instagram too. The compliments will soon come trickling in.

Baked Spaghetti in tomato pesto

Go seasonal.

If someone offers you mango-based dessert in December, you know the fruit’s been frozen or preserved, right? You’ll skip the mango dessert and opt for the strawberry instead. Anywhere in the world, choose the dish that uses seasonal or fresh or easily available local ingredients.

Desserts at Sassy Spoon

It’s okay to waste.

When you just can’t eat anymore, STOP. It’s your body telling you that enough is enough. Eat anymore and you’re at risk of adding unnecessary pounds, getting a stomach ache, getting sick right there at the party, unable to drive comfortably back home, or having a terrible bathroom emergency. My rule is: Better waste than to the waist.

Debutante Smoked Paprika Risotto (chicken + vegan)

Here in Yangon, I follow a simple shopping rule: if you spot something you may possibly need, just grab it. Yyou never know if you will see it on supermarket shelves again. So when I spotted risotto rice (“ideale per risotti” on the box label) at the neighbourhood CityMart last month, I couldn’t let it go. Now I have never cooked risotto before. In fact, S and I aren’t even really risotto fans. But since I like to fiddle around a bit in the kitchen, I thought, “Why not give it a try?”

I rushed home and looked around the kitchen shelf for what herbs and spices I had. A small bottle of smoked paprika! I had pounced on that a while ago because I can never seem to find it in Mumbai and a lot of interesting Italian and Mediterranean recipes feature this intriguing ingredient (wow, an unavoidable alliteration). Anyways I googled smoked paprika + risotto and came across a couple of delightful recipes (such as this one). Some had wine, some didn’t. Some had additional seasonings… it was all very confusing so I made a mishmash of the “best” recipes and set about making risotto the next afternoon. For the first time ever.

At the risk of sounding immodest, it turned out to be a great risotto debut. Even as non-fans, S and I enjoyed the dish. It tasted great, was extremely filling and was a wholesome meal. So S put it on the “repeat foods” list. Yes, such a list exists in our household. Anyways, now that I can make risotto, I believe anyone can. Here’s the recipe. Remember that you can tweak some of the seasonings to your taste, but you can’t skip the smoked paprika. It’s the ingredient that brings this wonderful risotto together. The smoky fragrance and flavor of the paprika is what made it a magical dish for us.

 

Roasted corn and smoked paprika risotto

Roasted corn and smoked paprika risotto

PS—I made two variations of risotto in separate pots: one vegetarian, the other with chicken. You can use whichever variant you like!

Debutante Smoked Paprika Risotto (with chicken and vegan versions)

Ingredients:

1 cup corn kernels (1 de-cobbed corn should be fine)

Half tablespoon butter (lesser the better- use oil if you want a vegan version)

Pinch of black pepper powder

3 cloves chopped garlic

1 finely chopped onion

1 to 2 tbsp smoked paprika (based on your taste)

1 to 2 tsp red chilli flakes

A pinch of mustard powder (see recipe notes)

1 cup risotto rice

4 to 5 cups (approximate 1 litre) chicken or vegetable stock (see recipe notes below)

A large handful of fresh basil leaves

1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Salt to taste

1 tbsp cheddar or parmesan cheese (optional, skip for vegan)

For chicken version: 300 grams chopped boneless chicken breast

Serves 3-4 people

Method:

  1. In a bowl, toss the corn kernels with butter, salt and pepper. Then spread the kernels on an oven tray and bake at 200 degrees C for 30 to 40 minutes. Turn and stir the corn halfway through so they are cooked evenly. The kernels should be a lovely golden brown when they’re roasted.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare your stock (see recipe notes below), prep the vegetables and herbs, and wash the rice thoroughly.
  3. Time to begin the risotto! Heat some oil in a pan, and add onion and garlic. Stir on low flame for a couple of minutes, then add the smoked paprika, mustard, red chilli flakes, salt and half of the basil leaves.
  4. Mix well and cook on medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
  5. Add the washed rice, and cook for another couple of minutes.
  6. Now it’s time to add the stock. You need to pour just 100 ml at a time while allowing the rice to cook. As the rice cooks off and absorbs the liquid you will need to add more stock, so keep the bottle or bowl handy by your stove.
  7. If you’re making the chicken version of the risotto, add it now.
  8. Keep the rice on low heat and stir often, keeping an eye out for the rice and the stock. Pour in the stock as required, a little at a time. Continue till the rice is cooked. This may take around 20-30 minutes.
  9. When the rice is almost done, add the remaining basil leaves, coriander and corn. Adjust the seasoning if you like. Then cook for couple more minutes and take off the flame. The risotto is ready!
  10. Garnish with grated cheese if you like. Dig in as soon as possible.

Accompaniments for serving:

Olive oil, red chilli flakes.

The risotto is a great one-pot dish, and a meal by itself. But if you’d like a dish to go with this, choose something light and not as rich, so pasta is ruled out. You could toss a salad or serve baguette pieces with an olive dip.

Recipe Notes:

  1. Tbsp: tablespoon; Tsp: teaspoon
  2. For the stock, you can use chicken or vegetable stock made at home or with store-bought cubes. Boil up to 1.5 – 2 litres of water in a large pot with assorted vegetables or chicken. I made vegetable stock at home with roughly chopped garlic, onion, carrot, cabbage and celery along with salt. Cook for a good 20-25 minutes. As the water evaporates, you will be left with 1 to 1.5 litres of water. You can throw away the veggies as they will be limp and mostly stripped of the nutrients. It’s all in the stock, baby!
  3. There are usually two things said about risotto preparation. First, it has to be prepared with wine. Secondly, you have to eat it immediately. I broke both the rules. 😛 If you want to use wine, choose a dry white option and add it while cooking the rice. And yes, it’s better if you have the risotto immediately. But if you are keeping it for later, you could keep aside some of the stock and add it to the risotto when re-heating it in the microwave or on the stove.
  4. If you don’t have mustard powder at home, you can dry roast mustard seeds then grind in your spice blender or with a mortar and pestle.

The Perfect Spanish Meal

It was a very special evening two weekends ago. My husband and I had been married barely six months, and had finally settled down into a new home of our own. That Saturday evening was the first time close friends were coming over, and the husband and I had decided to make it Spanish night! Food, drinks, décor—it was all muy español!

The menu was a carefully-selected spread of quintessential Spanish dishes—in name, taste, falvours and aromas: an olive dip and the very famous patatas bravas for starters, an elaborate vegetable paella with mushrooms side dish for the main course. The drink of the evening was very special home-made Spanish sangria!

To start with, the potatoes had been roasted to perfection in my convection microwave for around 45 minutes. I topped them off with the right mix of herbs and a tomato-based sauce– true Spanish style! And voila, the patatas bravas were ready. The mild crunchiness of the potatoes, paired with the tanginess of the herbs and the sourness of the tomatoes were a potent combination in this dish. The olive dip may have been quick to make, but the results were mind-blowing. The mixed and mashed olives just melted in my mouth when I tried the dip with pita bread.

My home-made Spanish sangria is the most on-demand dish or drink at home. This special evening, the red wine of the sangria swirled in my mouth as the liquor-soaked fruits added the right amount of kick, and the refreshing mixers I used created a tasteful dance of sorts in my mouth.

My centre table looked beautiful when the first course was served- decked in a variety of colours, textures and aromas. The bright red of the patatas bravas was muted by the dull maroon of the sangria, while the moss green olive dip added another colour to the mix. Served on the Indigo melamine quarter plates and serving dishes, the primary colour circle was complete, and our small table was a feast for the eyes. While the sour olive dip balanced out the sweet sangria, the strong flavours of the patatas bravas tomato sauce made a delicious combination, exercising all possible taste buds on the tongue.

For the main course, the table had been set with a floral blue placemat set that I had bought in Spain that complemented the Indigo dinner plates and printed blue paper tissues. The brown rice paella had been slow-cooked with herbs, spices and beans with some vegetables, so the aroma of the bay leaf and cinnamon stick lingered in our dining area for a long time after serving. This was a contrast to the sharp garlic-and-fresh-herbs flavour of the mushrooms I had cooked in a jiffy. Together, the combination was pure gold! On the Borosil plate, the earth-toned mushrooms and brown rice seemed to be part of a rustic meal, but looked very inviting with the brightly-coloured veggies and the contrasting aromas. The raw flavours of the mushrooms worked in tandem with the lemon zest of the paella, while the red and yellow peppers added the Spanish flag colours to the plate. Gorgeous!

With sangria in our Endessa glasses, we began to eat. It was the perfect meal for a lovely monsoon evening.

This blog post is part of the My Beautiful Food contest sponsored by Borosil. Visit their lovely website My Borosil to check out their range.