Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lahori Chargha Lahore Style Seasoned Fried Chicken

In Lahore there are many restaurants where you can get this delicious deep fried chicken. I believe chargha is another Urdu word for chicken (hen, like murghi), but for some reason I have also seen this dish called "chicken chargha," which means chicken chicken. Kind of like chai tea and naan bread. Usually it's the goras who say chai tea and naan bread, but I have seen desis saying or writing chicken chargha. I know chargh/chargha is used in Pashto. Maybe chargha as chicken is too obscure since murghi or English "chicken" are so widely used. So maybe it got stuck that way the same way some English speakers say "with au jus." Au jus really means "with juice" so they are saying "with with juice." Long tangent... Anyhoo...in Lahore you can also get this same dish made with quail (batair).

In this recipe, I make use of a pressure cooker to briefly cook the chicken through while causing the marinade gravy to cling nicely to the bird's flesh. The pressure cooker nicely tenderizes the bird as well, so you don't get dry, over-cooked chicken from the double cooking process.

For this recipe you need bone-in, skinless chicken pieces. You can use a whole or halved chicken if you feel brave and have a large vessel for deep frying. In my recipe I usually use a quartered chicken or sometimes just leg-thigh pieces (5-6).

1 cup yoghurt
1 tbs vinegar
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp ajwain seeds
1/2 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
1 tsp red chile powder
1 tbs red chile flakes
1 heaping tbs chaat masala (Shan brand is fine)
1 tsp salt or to taste
tiny pinch of orange food coloring (like biriani rangi)
Oil for deep frying

Lemon juice and chaat masala for final garnish

Make slits in the chicken so that marinade can penetrate. In a large deep bowl, whip the ingredients into the yoghurt. Add the chicken and slather it with the marinade. Marinate overnight in the refridgerator.

Place chicken pieces directly into the pressure cooker. There is no need to add water or oil. Cover the pressure cooker and cook on medium-low heat until you get one whistle (about 10 minutes). Lower the flame and continue to cook for five for minutes. Turn off the flame and release the pressure. When the lid opens, remove the chicken pieces and set out to cool down. The chicken should be just barely cooked. Notice the marinade is clinging so nicely to the chicken. These flavor bits will stick to the flesh even when you deep fry later.

When the chicken has completely cooled, heat oil in a deep pan (big enough to submerge the chicken pieces). When oil is hot, deep fry the chicken and remove from the oil. At this stage you are just giving the chicken a spice-crust, the chicken should be fully cooked so there is no need to fry for more than a few moments.Using a strainer or a slotted ladel, scoop out some deep fried bits of marinade and spread these on the chicken as well for extra tasty bits.

Drain chicken pieces and then set on a serving dish. Squeeze lemon juice and sprinkle chaat masala on top of the chicken.

If you have some roghni naan, serve with that, plus raita, tamarind chutney. Shauqeen log can serve this with white bread and ketchup.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Myths and Misconceptions That Americans Have about Desi Food

In the interest of promoting enjoyment of desi cuisines among my fellow Americans, I would like to discuss some misconceived ideas that some times crop up among non-desi Americans regarding desi food.

Indian food is healthy
Most non-desi Americans don't really even consider other desi nations in a culinary manner, they only focus on India. One of our stereotypes about Indian food is that it is very healthy (another reason that we goray log tend to have our racist, ridiculous, self-contradictory stereotypes about South Asians: we often think Indians are all skinny). Indian food IS healthy. Indian food is also unhealthy. There are too many factors at play in any cuisine to categorize it as healthy or unhealthy, especially the cuisines of India and the rest of South Asia. A home made stir fry type vegetable dish is healthy. A samosa or a gulab jaman, not so healthy. Rich, oily, meat and gravy dishes in desi cuisines are not so healthy. Neither is a dish in which all of the vegetables have been briefly deep fried before being added to a gravy. But considering that one may be eating a small ladel of such a dish with healthy boiled rice or whole-wheat flat bread, along with a stir-fried vegetable dish or a boiled lentil dish and some freshly cut vegetables, a balance exists. Many desis do eat too many carbs, especially deep fried carby foods. So do Americans. Carby, rich foods that sustained our ancestors through a day of manual work are not necessary any more. Although our lifestyles have become less active, we still eat as if we were working in a physical capacity all day. We don't burn off the calories we take in. Sound familiar? That a region has healthy as well as unhealthy foods should be obvious. Some non-desi people who are only familiar with desi cuisine through restaurant offerings may think that desi cuisine is filled with ghee, cream, and coconut milk. That is not true either. Home cooked desi 'main dishes' tend to be significantly lighter than what is found in South Asian restaurants. But I think that since Americans have our stereotype about these skinny, healthy Indians, we can even feel disappointed or duped to find that many desi foods are rich or prepared using unhealthy techniques and ingredients. Anyhow, desi food is not entirely healthy or unhealthy. We had our false notions of desi cuisine let down. But it was our own stereotypes that let us down, not the desi food itself.

India is a vegetarian country
This misconception is also related to the above two stereotypes. Vegetarian food is stereotyped as being healthy, so since Indian food is supposedly vegetarian, Indian food is healthy. Since Indian food is healthy, Indians are skinny. The dominoes of stereotypes fall down, clanging against one and other. Okay, there are many vegetarian Indians. However, most Indians are not vegetarians. Certain communities of Indians are associated with being vegetarian. For example, many Gujarati Hindus and especially Jains, Tamil Hindus of certain specific communities (like Iyers), and so on tend to be strict vegetarians. Non-Hindu Indians eat meat. There are a lot of them (+/-20% of the total population). Many, many Hindus eat meat. Some Hindus go through periods of being more religious, and give up meat for this, just like some Americans also go through phases of stronger religiosity. In some regions of India, even Brahmin food is non-vegetarian. Some regions are known for a broadly meat and fish based cuisine. Bengali food as well as the food of Kerala is mainly non-vegetarian. And on and on. Quite simply, India is a place with a wide variety of vegetarian foods, and some cuisines within India are largely vegetarian. However, India is not really a vegetarian country.

I would like to take a moment to address a common myth that I hear Indians or other non-Pakistanis repeat about Pakistani cuisine: Pakistanis only eat meat. This is so untrue. Most of the typical North Indian vegetable standards are eaten in Pakistan, too, with regional variation on exactly how they are prepared. A "proper" Pakistani meal would have a meat dish plus a daal and a vegetable served with rice and chapatti, plus some yoghurt, pickles, possibly a kasaundi (type of pickle) and some fresh salad vegetables layed out on a plate. The meat dish would be the "star" of the table, but the other dishes would be necessary to make the meal well-rounded and complete. Also, many of the "pure" veg dishes of North India are also iconic dishes of Pakistan: vegetarian chaats, dahi baray, karhi pakora, and so on. Although one does find dosai made by Pakistanis of South Indian origin, especially in Karachi, the dosa has not taken over Pakistan as a light meal or snack as it has in North India. But generally speaking, whatever meat and veg. dishes one finds North Indians eating, one will find Pakistanis eating. So it is totally untrue that Pakistanis don't consume vegetables.

South Asian food is spicy
South Asian food can be spicy. Chile heat levels vary again from region to region, family to family, and even between individuals. Non-desi Americans expect that all Indian food should be spicy and chile hot. They feel that milder Indian food is being served to them at restaurants as an adaptation of Indian food cooked to suit the American palate. This is partially true. Some non-desi Americans are grateful for this because they cannot tolerate spicy foods, so they appreciate the adaptation. However, many non-desi Americans do like to eat spicy food. They feel that being served mild food is an insult to their ability to stomach "authentic" desi atomic chile heat. They believe the restaurants are duping them. Okay, it is true that many Indian or Indo-Pak restos that cater to a non-desi clientele cook milder food. However, it is simply untrue that all desi food is fiery hot. Some foods are known to be hot. Some foods are commonly eaten mildly spiced or spiceless on purpose because that is how they are served (like a simple khichri or a daily daal). I recall reading recipe reviews from goras in which they complained that the original Indian recipe for a daily type daal was "bland" or "not spicy enough." Some particular daal dishes are cooked with a lot of chiles and spices. However, often a daily daal is very mild. It is simply boiled and has a light tempering that may include a few dried or fresh chiles, but the dish itself is not supposed to blow your head off. Some desis do like very hot foods and cannot stomach chile-less foods. However, many desis feel that a dish being overly spicy and hot (as well as oily) is a marker of it being poorly cooked. Low quality restaurants serve oily, fiery food for undiscerning customers. Being delicately seasoned is a sign of refinement. "Delicately seasoned" is a subjective description, as to an American person who cannot tolerate any chiles, a "delicately seasoned" desi dish may still be too hot and require copious glasses of water to quench the burning sensation caused by said dish.  Anyhow, my recipes on this blog are probably not spicy enough for chile-heads. The red chile powder and green chile amount can be increased to taste. But Americans shouldn't just assume that desi food has to burn off the tastebuds to be "authentic" or enjoyable.

A side note: I have read on food oriented forums and websites that American goras think that Pakistani food is chile-heat hotter than Indian food. This is not true. What I think is that many "Indian"-labeled  restaurants in the US are serving a less spicy, creamy restaurant genre of food loosely based on authentic Punjabi and Mughlai cuisine, particularly the non-regional-specialty restaurants that target a multi-ethnic (here meaning not just desi) clientele. Regional-specialty Indian restaurants, which mainly target an Indian clientele and are not widely popular among non-desi Americans, use a more "normal" chile heat level, and I am not referring to these types of Indian restaurants here. Pakistani restaurants may keep some of these restaurant-genre Indian items on their menu (jalfrezi, chicken tikka masala, etc). However, in the US I have noticed that restaurants that label themselves as "Pakistani"are often serving more homestyle desi type foods. "Indian" labeled restaurants are more widely popular in the US, and Pakistani restaurants are more likely targeting a Pakistani clientele. Be aware that any "Indian" restaurant can be owned by actual Indians, as well as Pakistanis, desi origin East Africans, Bangladeshis or whoever else. I mean restaurants that are promoted as Pakistani, and not "Indian"-labeled. Anyhow, since these restaurants are serving Southern Pakistani home style cuisine, they are using "normal" amounts of chiles and are not adapting the chile heat for the non-desi customers. So when goras are familliar with a typical generic Punjabi-Mughlai inspired Indian restaurant, which sets the parameters for what they know as Indian food, they must not compare this to the authentic, unadapted Pakistani food. In my hometown, many of the Indian origin people who I know joke that the only desi restaurant that serves "real Indian food" is the Pakistani restaurant. That is because the Pakistani restaurant is serving cream-less homestyle food which very much overlaps with what North Indians eat. So they feel it is much more like "real Indian food" than any of the creamy faux Punjabi-Mughlai "Indian" places. Anyhow, it is not true that "Pakistani food is spicier than Indian food." This is just a misconception based on what is available to us goras at restaurants.

South Asian food is oily
See, I told you the stereotypes we Americans have can co-exist even though they contradict each other. Among the gora's battery of stereotypes about desi food are that it is both healthy AND oily! Non-desi people who delve into authentic desi cooking and look at recipes made by and for desis and not oil-shy, Pam spraying Americans, are often wary of deep fried items, and shocked to find that traditional meat plus gravy recipes can call for 1/4 cup to even 1 cup of oil (like many 'Muslim' recipes). One has to look at it this way: the oil is not to be consumed by one person. The amount of oil is used for a dish meant to feed a large family. The cooking process in many desi cuisines requires some short and long term browning in oil, and reducing the moisture of ingredients by frying in oil. This requires a lot of oil to be done properly (although there are low-fat techniques to use as an alternative), and unlike frying techniques in which the foods are removed from the oil, the oil in these desi dishes is not removed and one adds more ingredients to this oil stage by stage. One can opt to pour off the oil at the end of cooking, or try to get less oil on the serving spoon when ladeling food from dish to plate. I have a friend who drops a dry paper towel on top of a finished dish to absorb some of the oil. One can opt to eat less of these oily meat dishes and go for more vegetables. There are ways to get around the oil. Some regional South Asian food is not particularly oily. However, foods from these regions are not widely available or known to Americans. So not ALL desi foods are oily.

Desi food is too salty
A desi "main dish" is rarely meant to be consumed without rice or bread. The desi dish is conceptualized as dish plus accompanying carb: wet dish with rice or flat bread, dryer dish with flat bread, fancy dish with special naan or kulcha, etc. Since the dish is meant to be mixed with a quantity of carbs, the dish must be highly salted or when it is combined with the carb it will taste under-seasoned. So yes, desi food is salty, but only if you are eating it the wrong way.

A common mistake in desi food consumption
Do not eat a rice dish with a piece of flatbread. Do not mix daal into your biriani. I recall reading a local review of a new restaurant in which the non-desi reviewer said that he mixed his daal into his biriani and mopped it up with his naan. He can eat it that way if he wants to, I guess. But biriani is meant to be eaten alone or with a bit of yoghurt...with some exceptions like a squeeze of lemon juice to lift a dull biriani, or a small bowl of mirch ka saalan in a Hyderabad resto, but I digress. Don't mix daal into your biriani at the Indian resto, O goray doston. It isn't mean to be eaten that way. And choose rice OR bread as your accompanyment. Ne'er the twain shall meet on the plate of the savvy.

I suggest interested readers also have a look at this post, which further discusses regionality among desi food and how that affects non-desis or non-cooking desis who are married to desi men and who would like to learn to cook their husband's regional cuisine.

A Vegetarian pullao - Channa Pullao: Yellow split lentil pullao

A pullao is rice which is cooked with broth, or yakhni in Urdu. This recipe is vegetarian, so the yakhni used here is made without meat. It is simply water perfumed with garam masala. And I cheat to make this yakhni: I do it in the microwave.

Channa daal pullao with a dollop of Hyderabadi tomato chutney.

I pre-fry my onions and keep them in the freezer. You should finely slice onions, put them in deep oil on high heat, and when they turn translucent, turn down the heat to very low and continue to fry, stirring occasionally until they have become brown-red and crispy (12 minutes for Indian onions, takes longer for yellow onions). They should not blacken, as this will yield a bitter taste. I prefer this method to quick frying because with quick frying the onions often blacken at the edges and the insides stay undercooked. You will need about 2 large-ish Indian onions for this recipe, or 1 large yellow (American type) onion, about 4 tbs fried. I recommend you use home fried even though pre-fried are available at the store, because store fried tend to be bitter.

You will also have to prepare the channa daal. Take 1/2 cup dry channa daal and soak for one hour. Put daal in water on stove and boil, turn heat to low, and cook on low heat for 20 minutes until lentils are tender. Strain from water and set aside. These should be fully cooked, but just barely. I also boil larger quantities of this and freeze to use in pullao, salads, queema, etc.  1/2 cup raw daal will yield 1 cup cooked. You need 1 cup cooked for the recipe.

Now the microwave garam masalon ki yakhni: take garam masala spices, say 2 bay leaves, 3 pieces of cinnamon, 10 cloves, 10 peppercorns, 10 green cardamom pods, 2 large black cardamom pods, 2 whole dried red chiles, a tsp of cumin and a tsp of fennel, a tsp of whole coriander seeds, and put this in water and microwave on high for 5 minutes. (I often just use a heaping spoon of whole spices from a bag of mixed whole garam masala.) Strain the spices from the water. You can toss them out because they have done their job. However, you can keep the larger sized spices "for looks" in your pullao if you like. Keep this yakhni aside. For 2.5 cups basmati rice, 5 cups of yakhni.

So you have prepared all of this stuff in advance. The actual pullao only takes 30 mins or so if you have your daal and fried onions ready.

Channa daal pullao ingredients all ready to go.

You need:

2.5 cups basmati rice, soaked for 10 mins
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1/2 quantity of pre-fried onions (about 2 tbs), crushed gently
1 tsp red chile powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tbs salt or to taste (the daal will soak up salt, too, so you need a lot)
1 cup pre-cooked channa daal
1 tsp lime juice
2-3 tbs oil
5 cups garam masalon ki yakhni

1 tsp or more ghee for finishing
2 tbs fried onions for finishing and garnish

Heat oil in pan. Add in cumin seeds and let sizzle. Add in garlic and ginger paste, allow it to turn golden, then quickly add in the pre-fried onions, cumin and chile powder, let sizzle for one short moment, then pour in the yakhni. (do not let the spices burn). Salt the water, add in the soaked rice and the pre-cooked daal, allow this to come to a rolling boil. At this point, stir in the lime juice. I always add lime juice to pullao rice at this point because I have been told that it prevents the rice from sticking together. Dunno if that's true, but that is what I do. Cover, lower heat to the lowest setting, and cook covered for about 18 mins. After you turn off the heat, lift lid to let steam escape, then cover again and allow rice to rest for 10 minutes more to finish steaming and so it won't break when you stir it.

Transfer to serving dish. Drizzle ghee or melted butter on the rice. Add on the remaining pre-fried onions, mixing some of them and the ghee to distribute in the rice, but some onions should remain on top as garnish.

Serve with plain yoghurt or a raita of your choice, such as eggplant raita or spinach raita. This also goes great with various types of chutney. Here is the recipe for the Hyderabadi chutney that I serve with the channa daal pullao (pictured above).

Tip: You can use the same recipe with pre-cooked or canned chickpeas (chhola pullao).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Low Fat Gobhi Bhaja - Oven Roasted Cauliflower Desi Style

In Bengali cuisine, vegetables like eggplant, potato, and cauliflower are spiced and lightly doused in chickpea flour (besan) or perhaps rice flour, and then deep fried (bhaja means fry). These tasty morsels are served at the start of or as an accompaniment to a meal. Begun bhaja (eggplant) is most famous, but any vegetable that does well when roasted can make for a faux bhaja in the oven.

In the interest of health, I have devised this oven-roast bhaja recipe. You can do the same thing with potatoes or eggplant in place of cauliflower, but be sure to adjust the cooking time. Traditionally, the veg would be fried in mustard oil. You can use that if you like, but I have used olive oil.

First prepare the cauliflower: 1 head of cauliflower, washed cut into bite sized florets, and set in a colander to strain until comletely dry. You must completely dry the cauliflower because any moisture left on it will prevent your faux bhaja from becoming crispy.

Set oven on highest heat setting, and prepare a cookie sheet/baking tray with a layer of aluminium foil.

Since cauliflower varies in size, I suggest that you adjust the ingredients slightly for a large or small head to ensure adequate seasoning. The recipe below is for a medium-ish cauliflower:

1 heaping tsp or so sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp red chile powder
1 tsp turmeric
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs chickpea flour (besan)
1 pinch of chaat masala

In a large mixing bowl, pour oil onto dried cauliflower florets. Toss in all of the other ingredients except for the chickpea flour and the chaat masala. Mix well so that the florets are well coated in seasonings and oil. Now add the chickpea flour and mix again to coat. Transfer cauliflower florets to baking tray and put in oven for 25 minutes or so, until the cauliflower is cooked but still slightly crunchy, and it looks crispy and golden brown on the edges. The brown crispy bits are amazing!

Remove from oven, sprinkle with chaat masala, and serve hot.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Strained Yoghurt Delights

In desi English, strained yoghurt is called hung curd. It is another desi ingredient that you can do lots with. Use it in place of sour cream, or as a base ingredient for dips and spreads. What an amazing substance it is...and you don't have to strain yourself to make it :-P . But how ever do you make it? Start out with some yoghurt, a strainer, a dish to simultaneously hold the strainer and catch the water which separates from the yoghurt, and some kind of thin cloth. For the cloth you can use a very well worn cloth kitchen towel or even a thick, high quality paper kitchen towel, as pictured above. You just lay the cloth into the strainer, prop strainer on top of dish, and dump in some yoghurt. Place this in the fridge and let it strain for about 3 hours or overnight. Seeing the liquid accumulate beneath my strainer gives me a sense of self-satisfaction, though it is a completely effortless procedure to strain. You can make strained yoghurt with full fat or low fat yoghurt.

Now you've strained your yoghurt. What are you gonna do with it? How about...

Yummy Mint Dip

I got this idea from a lovely cooking class I attended. The instructor showed us several dip recipes for strained yoghurt, and after experimenting, I have decided to create my own.

1 cup strained yoghurt
1 heaping tbs dried mint
1 clove of garlic
1/2 tsp or so salt or to taste
1 tsp white vinegar
1 heaping tsp chile flakes (you can use chile powder but it will turn your dip pinkish)
1 tsp honey OR plain sugar OR Splenda
1 tbs sugar free peanut butter (crunchy or pasty is fine)

Take your garlic clove and put it in a small microwaveable bowl of water. Put in the microwave and nuke for 1 minute. Remove the garlic clove from the water and mash it into the strained yoghurt. (Microwaving the garlic reduces its strength and prevents your dip from having an overpowering raw garlic taste) Add in all of the other ingredients and mix very well. Serve as a dip for chips, celery sticks, carrot sticks, etc, or use it in place of mayonnaise on a sandwich.

Sri Khand

Sri Khand is a dessert. I usually associate it with Gujaratis, but I think these days it is widely enjoyed by people of many communities, and you can enjoy it, too because it is killer easy to make. It is silky and somehow light and rich at the same time.

2 cup strained yoghurt (make sure it is very fresh yoghurt and not sour)
2.5 tbs sugar
10 strands of saffron soaked in 1 tbs milk (just add to milk and allow to soak for a few minutes)
1/2 tsp cardamom powder

for garnish: Roasted almond slivers and pistachios, a few strands of saffron

Whip all of the ingredients into the strained yoghurt. Whip for a while to ensure that the sugar completely dissolves. Pour into a serving dish and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Before serving, garnish with the almonds and pistachios and a few more strands of saffron if you like. Dish out into small dessert bowls, or even eat it with hot puris.

In both recipes, low fat yoghurt and Splenda can be used.