Articles by Author
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
More from Zester Daily:
The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
Back in 2008, I visited Pondicherry, a small coastal city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As the former capital of French India, I was interested in finding out about its French colonial culinary legacy.
While talking with a chef about such influences, he mentioned an Indo-Viet woman who had recorded the recipes of the Pondicherrian kitchen. He also noted there were a few older women who sold chả giò, Vietnamese spring rolls, door to door. I didn’t have time to go in search of them, but this “in-passing” culinary connection between India and Vietnam remained with me and came to the fore again during a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, another French colonial capital.
While there, I took some time to uncover more about these connections and the origins of South Vietnamese curries, cà ri and bánh xèo, which is reminiscent of a dosa, particularly in its preparation.
Vietnamese chicken and seafood curries, cà ri gà and cà ri đồ biển, are most likely descendants of Khmer curries, but goat curry, cà ri de, and vegetarian curry, cà ri chay, have more obvious Indian influences. The flavoring for vegetable curry cà ri chay comes from the use of a mild Madras-style spice mixture and curry leaves, from trees planted in the Mekong Delta by Tamil shop owners. Unlike the other curries, which are typically served with rice or the French-influenced baguette, the aromatic coconut milk broth is served with bun, vermicelli rice noodles.
With their rich histories, curry dishes share similar flavors
As I tasted my way through the various Vietnamese curries in Ho Chi Minh City, one thing stood out: The spicing was consistent with virtually each dish. It turns out the cooks I met all bought their spice mixtures and curry leaves from the same spice vendor at Ben Thanh market. Anh Hai spice shop, run by third-generation Indo-Viet brothers, has been blending and selling spice mixtures for these curries since their chef grandfather started the shop sometime after his arrival in what was known as Saigon in the 1920s.
More from Zester Daily:
To begin to understand the evolution of South Vietnamese curries and bánh xèo, you need to look at the history of the region. From the 7th century to 1832, the Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa was based in the south-central coastal region of today’s Vietnam and southern Cambodia. The Cham, seafaring people dedicated to trade were integral to the movement of goods along the Spice Route, which extended from the Persian Gulf to southern China. Through the centuries, the Cham people were heavily influenced by their trading partners in Cambodia, India, Java and China.
In the mid-19th century, with the French having control of the major port cities of Pondicherry and Saigon, extensive maritime trading of goods occurred between the two French colonies. Naturally, along with this came the movement of Indians from British and French Indian territories to Saigon, with total populations reaching almost 6,000 by 1939. During this period, “Indian shops,” mainly run by Tamil Muslims, were ubiquitous in the large Vietnamese urban centers of Saigon and Cholon and also spread through the smaller towns in the rice-growing regions and transport hubs of the Mekong Delta.
For me, it is in Vietnamese goat curry where the Indian influence is strongest. The dish relies heavily on the same curry powder as other curries, but instead of solely using coconut milk some cooks I spoke with also use cow’s milk in their recipes, including a couple of older Indian sisters who grew up in the former Saigon and still sell their curry near the Dong Da mosque. Why cow’s milk? This is most likely a result of increased demand for dairy products by the Vietnamese created by the European presence — a demand met primarily by Hindu Tamils.
In her thesis, doctoral student Natasha Pairaudeau highlights that from the beginning of French colonial rule in Cochinchina, Hindu Tamils tended to cattle and sold milk door to door. But why not continue to solely use coconut milk for the goat curry? It may be the result of Vietnamese wives, married to some of the Tamil milkmen, being resourceful with leftover milk or limited finances.
Bánh xèo probably did not travel from modern India — the Indo-Vietnamese families I spoke with did not eat dosas as part of their predominantly Indian diet. Nor is it influenced from the French crepe, as commonly suggested, as it requires neither eggs nor milk. One needs to simply compare the ingredients used in preparing the thin, crisp shell to those of an Indian dosa to see that these are close cousins, although comparisons stop there, as the fillings reflect accessible ingredients and local tastes.
Traditionally, both separately soak rice and a pulse — hulled mung bean for bánh xèo and urad dal for dosa — overnight before grinding each batter separately and mixing together. Dosa batter is left to ferment overnight, while bánh xèo requires a short, half-hour rest before cooking.
Chef Bobby Chinn, previously based in Ho Chi Minh City, believes the Cham probably picked up the dish trading along the Indian Ocean. He indicated to me that as they were forced to move south, so did bánh xèo. This seems to be supported by Nguyen Thi Le Thuy, the owner of Bánh Xèo 46A, known as the first modern bánh xèo restaurant in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy said her grandmother brought the recipe with her from Quy Nhơn, which was the next Cham capital of Vijaya until 1471. Notably, there is the strikingly similar Cambodian dish banh chao – again the Cham legacy.
Cơm nị, a biryani-style rice dish cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, spices, lemongrass and coconut milk, is another dish most likely brought to Vietnam via the Cham people. The name of the dish most likely comes from the Vietnamese word for turmeric, nghệ.
Very few Indo-Viet — and no long-term Indians — remain in Ho Chi Minh City. The community was ostracized after independence from the French and then post-Vietnam War, but their legacy remains in the food we associate with Vietnam today.
Goat Curry (Cà Ri Dê)
The following recipe is from Hanoi-based, chef Tracey Lister‘s upcoming book, “Real Vietnamese Cooking,” which will be published by Hardie Grant in April.
It is a variation of a dish by famous Vietnamese chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. Goat is a strong-tasting meat and available in many Asian and middle-eastern butcher shops. This is a big-flavored curry, and if you can’t get goat, try duck and replace the eggplant with sweet potato.
4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, finely chopped
1 long red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped
4 tablespoons curry powder
4 cups milk, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) diced goat, preferably the shoulder
2 onions, finely diced
¾ teaspoon salt
800 milliliters (two 13.5-ounce cans) coconut milk
5 lemongrass stalks, white part only, cut in half lengthways
2 medium-sized eggplants
150 grams (⅔ cup) butter
½ handful coriander sprigs
Oil for frying
1. To make the curry paste, fry the lemongrass and chili in a small amount of oil until fragrant. Add the curry powder and stir for 1 minute to prevent the spices from burning and becoming bitter. Add 250 milliliters (1 cup) of the milk and the sugar and bring to the boil.
2. Remove from the heat and let cool before pouring over the diced goat. Allow the goat to marinate in the curry paste for 30 minutes.
3. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Then, add the marinated goat and season with salt. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly until the meat has browned. Pour in 2 cups of milk, keeping aside the remaining cup of milk to add at the end. Add the coconut milk and lemongrass stalks and simmer the curry for approximately 1 hour until the meat is tender.
4. While the curry is cooking, cut the eggplant into 3-centimeter (1-inch) chunks. Place them in a colander and sprinkle with extra salt and let them sit for 30 minutes to remove the bitter tannin. Wash off the salt from the eggplant and pat them dry with a paper towel.
5. Heat some oil in a frying pan and cook the eggplant in batches until it is an even, golden brown color. Then place the eggplant on a paper towel to remove excess oil.
6. When the goat is tender, add the eggplant and the remaining milk and butter. After the butter has melted, transfer the curry to a serving bowl and scatter with the coriander leaves.
7. Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.
Top photo: Goat curry. Credit: Cameron Stauch
My family’s annual Christmas cookie platter always includes classic, buttery shortbread. Growing up, I anticipated the round or flower-shaped shortbread almost always garnished with half a maraschino cherry in the middle, bringing a small, sweet punch of fruit to the cookie.
More from Zester Daily:
But over the past few years I have broken with tradition by changing the flavor profile of this timeless holiday treat. We still have shortbread, but now I turn to a combination of citrus fruits, herbs and spices and a couple of easy culinary techniques to bring some nuanced flavors to these holiday treats.
Deciding which flavor combinations to use is the fun part. Look to drinks, desserts or other concoctions you like to help guide you. My advice is to limit yourself to two or three flavorings so as not to lose the personality of each. And don’t go overboard. Remember to use a little restraint because you are already working with a classic cookie canvas.
To maximize the citrus flavor, two key steps are required. First, use a sharp microplane zester to ensure no bitter pith is added. Second, pulse the grated zest with the sugar in a blender or mini food processor. This enables the essential oils in the zests to mix with the sugar granules and become more evenly distributed throughout the dough. Orange and lemon zest complement many flavors, while the zests of lime and grapefruit should be used sparingly as their flavor can be too aggressive.
Herbs and spices
Stronger herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender are great on their own or paired with citrus flavors. Finely chopping theses herbs and mixing them together with the flours in a food processor for 30 seconds, while not essential, rounds out their flavors in the shortbread.
More delicate herbs such as basil, mint and tarragon can make an appearance, but don’t count on them to have a similar starring role. If you want to add a light green seasonal hue to your cookies, blanch these leafy herbs in boiling water for 5 seconds, to set the chlorophyll, then quickly spread them on a plate and put them in the freezer for about 5 minutes. Lightly squeeze out any liquid and finely chop. Then add them to the sugar and zests, if using, and pulse them in a blender. The sugar will be emerald green and the resulting cookie dough a shade lighter. It is best to roll out the dough, cut the cookies out and then bake them at a lower temperature for a slightly longer period to try to preserve the color.
When it comes to looking to your spice drawer for inspiration, sticking with the sweeter spices typically associated with baking, such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg, guarantees a crowd pleaser. For more adult palates, reach toward savory spices such as fennel, fennel pollen, coriander or ground star anise. Toasting them over moderate heat for a couple of minutes then lightly crushing them in a mortar and pestle helps to release their natural oils.
Here are some combinations to get you started. Simply add these ingredients to the shortbread recipe as directed below to add new flavors to your cookies.
Lemon, Candied Ginger and Rosemary
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (5 grams)
2 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger (30 grams)
1 tablespoon rosemary sprigs, chopped (4 grams of sprigs)
Orange Cardamom Basil
2 teaspoons orange zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (2.5 grams)
3 tablespoons chopped basil (15 grams or 15 large leaves)
Grapefruit, Fennel and Mint
2 teaspoons grapefruit zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoons fennel seeds (2.5 grams)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (6 grams)
To guarantee a short, buttery, crumbly texture, I have written this recipe in weight measurements. Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman wrote a convincing piece about why bakers should use a scale for consistent results, something I have always done with breads, but I am now a convert for other baked goods as well.
187.5 grams all-purpose flour (1½ cups)
100 grams rice flour or cornstarch (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons)
4 grams salt (½ teaspoon)
100 grams sugar (½ cup)
227 grams butter, room temperature (1 cup)
1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
2. Sift the flours, salt and any ground spices you have decided to use into a medium sized bowl. Toss in any lightly crushed spices or chopped herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, lavender).
3. If using citrus zest, place sugar and grated zest in a blender. Blend for 30 seconds. Stop and use a spatula to break up any clumping of the sugar. Cover and turn on for another 10 seconds. If using any blanched herbs, such as basil, mint or tarragon, add the blanched, chopped herbs now and blend for another 15 seconds. You may need to give the blender a gentle shake as it is blending to help incorporate the herbs with the sugar. If they are not mixing well, stop and use a spatula to loosen the mixture and blend for another 10 seconds.
4. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and pour in the blended sugar mixture. Beat the butter and sugar together for a few minutes until light and fluffy.
5. Add a third of the flour mixture to the creamed butter and use a spatula to incorporate the flour. When the first addition of the flour is almost fully incorporated, add in another third of the flour mixture. Repeat one more time until all of the flour is well mixed with the butter to make a soft, homogeneous dough.
6. You have two options to prepare and bake the dough: Rolling the dough produces a thinner cookie that takes less time vs. pressing the dough into a pan and then cutting the baked dough into thicker finger length or wedge cookies.
Rolling and cutting out the dough:
1. If you want to roll and cut out the cookies, divide the dough into two. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten with your hands into discs and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
2. Roll each half on a lightly floured surface to a ½-inch thick and cut out using a cookie cutter. Gather the scraps together and roll and cut out shapes until all the dough is used. Prick each cookie several times with a fork and bake in the center of the oven for about 25 to 35 minutes or until lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes to allow the cookies to firm up.
Pressed and hand-cut cookies:
1. Alternatively, line the bottom of an 8-inch square or a 9-inch round baking pan (I prefer using a springform cheesecake pan) with parchment paper and press the dough evenly with floured fingers and palms.
2. Using a fork, prick the dough all over and bake in the center of the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the dough is lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before cutting into finger-sized cookies (for the rectangle baking pan) or wedges (for the round baking pan).
4. Store the cookies in an airtight container for a few weeks.
Top photo: Citrus fruits and savory herbs and spices can put a twist on classic shortbread. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Being away from your family and friends while living overseas can make Thanksgiving one of the loneliest days of the year for a North American expat. For that reason, trying to prepare your family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all the trimmings becomes an obsession for many.
The sourcing of ingredients and having the right cooking equipment are the biggest obstacles to re-creating the typical dishes found on your family’s festive table. During my years living in Asia, I have prepared traditional Thanksgiving meals for more than 1,000 people from a home kitchen, but not without having to substitute ingredients, change cooking methods or simply break away from tradition. Here are some tips to assist you when thrown a culinary curve ball.
Roughly plan your menu at least a couple of weeks ahead of celebrating Thanksgiving. During your regular grocery runs, scout the shops and markets to see if any non-perishable, specialty items you will need are on the shelves. Purchase them if they are available, as other shoppers will quickly follow, looking for those same prized items. Check with market vendors to see if they will have certain items, and place an order with them to guarantee they are part of your holiday larder.
Locating a turkey, the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving meal, is of utmost importance for many expats. A few fortunate cooks may be able to purchase an expensive imported bird from a high-end grocer or from friends who have access to an embassy commissary, but most will have to search their local markets to see if any gobblers are for sale. Whether you are able find a local turkey or have to settle for some other type of fowl, make sure you clearly communicate with the market vendor that you want the bird to be dressed, i.e. de-feathered, eviscerated and head and feet removed. If you don’t, you may need to quickly learn some new butchery skills.
More from Zester Daily:
If you are lucky enough to get a turkey, you next need to confirm that your oven, if you have one, can comfortably accommodate something this big. Most ovens sold in Asia are still on the small side to efficiently cook a large turkey.
It has been my experience that the turkeys, ducks, geese and even chickens in Asia have lived a roaming life resulting in strong, tough legs. Faced with these challenges, a day or two before Thanksgiving dinner, I routinely take the legs off, brown them with some onions, carrots, garlic, a pinch of cloves and black pepper and then braise them in water or stock for several hours until they are tender. The bonus of using this method is you can take the cooking liquid and reduce it to make a flavorful gravy. I then finish by roasting the breast in the oven. If you don’t have an oven, you can either poach or steam the breast.
If you are looking to change things up, you may want to entertain turning to a local favorite restaurant to help prepare a regional delicacy, such as a Peking duck, a roast suckling pig or tandoori turkey, to use as your meal’s centerpiece.
Trimmings and side dishes
Fresh cranberries most likely won’t be accessible to make cranberry chutney, but there are many local fruits that serve as good alternatives. Apples are currently in season, citrus fruits are making their way into the markets and pineapples or green mangoes bring a nice acidity to the meal. The key is to ensure that the flavors of your chutney compliment the menu and you create a balance of sweet and tart flavors.
Asian markets may lack the root vegetables — parsnips, turnips, celery root — that signal a fall harvest, but there are some fantastic substitutes. Broccoli, bok choy and a host of greens in the cabbage family are good stand-ins for Brussels sprouts, while the varieties of sweet potatoes and yams you find locally are excellent replacements for the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes you may be accustomed to.
If your stuffing gets its crunch and flavor from celery, look to vegetables like kohlrabi, celtuce or Chinese celery instead. Head to a nearby five-star hotel to purchase multigrain bread for your stuffing or, for a gluten-free alternative, use cooked local brown rice.
What about dessert?
No Thanksgiving meal is complete without a pie or two. Nuts such as walnuts, cashews, peanuts or a combination of the three will ease your regret at having no pecans for your pie. Likewise, pumpkin pie elicits oohs and ahs from its devoted following. Canned pumpkin is a challenge to find, and there tends to be only one type of pumpkin available in the markets. To make your own pumpkin purée, peel the pumpkin, roast, steam or boil it until tender, then drain and purée. I find the pumpkin can be a bit watery, and it is best to cook the puree over medium heat on the stovetop for about 10 minutes to reduce the moisture content. The purée is now ready to use for your pie recipe.
It’s still Thanksgiving
The most essential ingredient of any Thanksgiving larder is the people around your table. You may not be able to have immediate family fill the seats, but you can include new, close friends with whom to share your family’s traditions. Ask your guests to bring a dish from their country to add some of their culture to your feast.
Carrying family traditions abroad is a great way to re-create a semblance of “home” to celebrate Thanksgiving, but trying to prepare an exact replica creates added stress and increases the likelihood of failure. Be open to tweaking the dishes with accents from your travels or flavors of your current culinary environment or those of your guests. I can assure you that these creative menu changes bring lasting memories and may even create new traditions that will appear on your table at future celebrations.
Top photo: Fresh foods you find at your local market often make suitable substitutes for traditional Thanksgiving ingredients. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Twenty-three young students in the Indian state of Bihar died in July after eating a midday school lunch cooked with oil contaminated by pesticides. As a father of young children, I was deeply saddened by this tragic — and easily preventable — event. But through this heartbreaking incident I was reminded of my experience witnessing the work of organizations such as Akshaya Patra that contribute to feeding India’s children.
In the last decade, India has experienced economic growth, but the majority of its population continues to face chronic food insecurity. According to UNICEF, one-third of the world’s malnourished children live in India.
More from Zester Daily
» Golden Temple Sikhs put their faith in feeding 100,000 a day
In an effort to address this issue, India’s Supreme Court in 2001 directed all primary schools across the country to provide a free lunch to students. Instantly, the Midday Meal campaign became the largest school lunch program in the world, feeding more than 120 million children.
Just a year earlier, a group of Bangalore-based International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON, monks had started a small pilot project to address the number of children in their state who were not attending school because they were forced by their parents to labor in the fields or on the streets. Many of the children who did attend school rarely ate breakfast and could not concentrate because of hunger. The monks felt that if they offered a free meal to children who attended school they could have a double impact: get children to school for an education, and provide one substantial meal each school day.
The monks looked to the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabarat, for the inspiration for the foundation’s name. One of the central characters, Bhima, the second eldest brother of the five Pandava brothers, was known as a brave and vengeful warrior. Being a man of vast size and strength, he had a voracious appetite. Consequently, he was allotted half the family’s food, with the rest going to his four brothers. The five Pandava brothers shared a wife, Draupadi, who was responsible for feeding the family. To assist her in this mammoth task, Draupadi was given a cooking vessel that provided a never-ending supply of food. This pot was called the Akshaya Patra.
That group of monks had some ambitious foresight in selecting the name for the foundation, as each day Akshaya Patra now prepares 1.3 million fresh and healthy meals for schoolchildren in nine Indian states.
In India, tastes vary, so school meals do too
Having lived in India for four years, I was eager to see how one of Akshaya Patra’s 16 centralized kitchens operated. In spring 2010, I traveled to the eastern coastal town of Puri, in the state of Orissa. In the shadow of the famous Jagganath temple, I met with the kitchen manager Deelip at the kitchen set up to facilitate the preparation of the lunch meals. Deelip explained that to meet the demands of cooking such vast quantities of food in a hygienic manner, a kitchen staff of 30 starts at 2:30 a.m. to process 8,800 pounds of rice, 2,400 pounds of arhar dal and 8,800 pounds of mixed vegetables. By 6 a.m. all the food has been portioned into large, stainless-steel containers and waits on the back of delivery trucks for the journey to the 50,000 children at village schools.
Akshaya Patra realized early on that it would not be a good idea to impose unfamiliar flavors on children. Thus, the weekly rotating vegetarian menus consider regional taste differences and look to local markets for seasonal ingredients. For example, in the wheat belt of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the kitchen in Vrindavan operates a roti-making machine that can make 40,000 chapatis in one hour. By contrast, in the southern state of Karnataka, the menus regularly include rice, sambhar and curd.
In a recent conversation CP Das, vice chairman of the Akshaya Patra foundation, said that as the foundation has grown it has continued to focus on three key quality dimensions where food safety is the No. 1 priority, and the nutritional and flavor aspects of the food are close behind.
The foundation also operates a few small decentralized kitchens in rural areas under similar conditions as the one at the school in Bihar. However, they have been able to overcome the rustic settings by addressing basic operational logistics, such as access to clean water, hygienic conditions in which to prepare and store the food, and the presence of trained monitors to help prevent corruption and contamination. Das clarified that Akshaya Patra is currently training more than 200 women who operate decentralized government school kitchens in rural Bihar.
Despite its success, there have been critics that state it is illegal for Akshaya Patra and ISKCON-Bangalore to collect donations in India and abroad while at the same time receiving money from state and national governments for the midday meal program. Its critics further claim some of the monies have been used for real estate investments and to make board trustees wealthy. Das denies the charges and highlights a 2010 report by the House Committee of the Karnatakan Legislative Assembly that indicates the foundation did not misuse any government funds and there is nothing wrong in collecting donations to maintain high food-quality standards. He explains the government funding covers 60 percent of its operational costs and they rely on donations to cover the remainder.
Das is particularly proud that in areas where Akshaya Patra operates, a noticeable increase in attendance, particularly of girls, has occurred. But he knows Akshaya Patra can do more. The foundation’s hope is that more state governments will invite them to set up kitchens to fulfill their mandate that no child should be deprived of an education because of hunger.
Top photo: A child eats a meal provided by Akshaya Patra. Credit: Biswarajan Rout
Enter the Golden Temple complex by any gate and there before you is the famous golden dome, but come in through the east, and you will also be greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of community service.
A daily army of volunteers, called sewadars, can be seen peeling and chopping onions and ginger or washing the close to 40,000 stainless steel thalis used in the langar, the free public kitchen offered by every Sikh temple to its visitors. Situated in Amritsar, one of India’s holiest sites, the Guru ka Langar is perhaps the most well-attended community kitchen in the world, regularly feeding some 100,000 visitors a day.
Prior to visiting the Golden Temple, I was aware of its cultural and spiritual importance for Sikhs, but what really intrigued me was the langar itself. Many Sikh teachings are practiced through the system of langar. Food coming from the langar is sacred; in fact, the food prepared by devotees, volunteers and priests is considered a holy sacrament.
Sikhs operate langars all day, turning out huge quantities of food
Temple kitchens operate around the clock, but I decided to rise early to join in the day’s main food preparation. As I walked barefoot on the chilled marble floors, devotional hymns echoed throughout the complex, but the chorus was distinctly domestic. Throughout the kitchen complex, 750 daily volunteers — men, women and children — worked alongside the 475 permanent volunteers, having been assigned kitchen tasks suitable to their ages and skills. The fourth guru, Guru Ram Das, encouraged his followers to always be ready to do service for others. By taking part in the running of the langar, whether rolling chapatis; serving prasad, or blessed food; or washing dishes, Sikhs believe this self-sacrifice for the common good will help do away with ego and provide oneself with a sense of humility.
More from Zester Daily:
As I made my way into the vast provisions storeroom, an elderly gentleman waved me over and handed me a warm cup of chai. We spoke briefly about what brought me to Amritsar and my interest in how cooking shapes communities. He shared with me, how, more than 500 years ago, the institution of the langar was introduced by the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak. The story goes that in an effort to teach his teenage son about hard work and responsibility, Guru Nanak’s father gave him 20 rupees to start a business. Guru Nanak was deeply troubled by the poor and destitute he encountered on his journey to the local commercial center and decided to use this money to prepare and hand out food at no cost. Upon returning home, his father asked to see what profit his son had made with his money. Guru Nanak explained that his nourishing of the needy was the most rewarding thing he had done in his life. He then set off on a journey of enlightenment and self-discovery that led him to establish the Sikh religion.
As he spread his beliefs, Guru Nanak decided that regardless of one’s background, whether rich or poor; high caste or untouchable; Hindu, Muslim, or agnostic, he would share food from his kitchen with them. Arguably, these beliefs made Guru Nanak the first Indian prophet to defy caste rules and promote the elimination of social barriers. In essence, he was advocating profound social change through the simple act of sharing a meal.
I thanked the elderly man for the fruitful conversation and tea, and continued through the kitchen maze. In a series of rooms, younger Sikh women sat on the ground kneading and hand rolling the atta dough into chapatis while the older generation gossiped and gathered the chapatis coming off of the conveyor belts of the three adapted, imported pita bread machines. In the hot, dark main kitchen, regular temple staff sautéed vegetables in car-tire-sized cast iron karhais, a high-sided, wok-shaped pan. Full-bearded, barefoot cooks navigated a sea of simmering lentils in vast wood fired cauldrons.
To meet the demands of essentially feeding a city each day, a kitchen manager explained that a rotating vegetarian menu is served, highlighting local and seasonal produce. Each meal service offers two vegetable dishes, dal, rice, chapatis and a sweet. Each day, the temple goes through 220 pounds of rice, 3,500 pounds of lentils, 22,000 pounds of wheat, 7,700 pounds of vegetables and 450 liters of pure desi ghee. The expenses to cover the langar costs are met from temple funds and donations.
Hungry and tired, I entered the sparse dining hall and sat cross-legged with other peaceful pilgrims in pangat, communally sitting in the same line and eating together. Volunteers weaved in between the lines, ladling food from buckets onto each thali. Historically, the custom of communal dining has been applied to everyone, and to this day all visitors are encouraged and welcomed to partake in the free kitchen to reinforce equality and universal humanity. It is the Sikh tradition of pehle pangat pichle sangat, or first we sit and eat; then we pray.
Punjabi Carrots and Kohlrabi (Gajar Knol-Knol Subzi)
I find this recipe to be extremely versatile and like to use different combinations of seasonal vegetables. Here is a more typical vegetable combination, but do not hesitate to try any other of your favorite vegetables, such as beets, green or yellow beans, pumpkin, squash and zucchini. You may have to change the cooking times depending on the combination of the vegetables you have chosen.
2 cups or 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
1½ cups or 3 medium kohlrabi, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 to 2 green chilies, seeded and finely chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¾ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon garam masala
¼ cup water
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons coriander leaves, roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1. If the kohlrabi comes with it leaves on trim, wash and thinly slice them.
2. In a medium sized saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the ginger, garlic and chilies and cook for about 30 seconds.
3. Add the turmeric, cumin seeds and coriander seeds and cook for another minute.
4. Toss in the carrots and kohlrabi, season with salt and cook for one minute.
5. Pour in the water, reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Check and stir in the julienned kohlrabi leaves, if using.
6. If you feel that some more moisture is needed add a couple of tablespoons of water. Recover and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
7. Uncover and garnish with the garam masala, a pinch of black pepper and chopped coriander.
Top photo: Women hand-roll chapatis. Credit: Cameron Stauch