Thursday, May 19, 2011

as pickled as avakaya

It was deprivation that brought home to me how addicted I was to the fiery and drool inducing Avakaya or mango pickle, Andhra Pradesh's contribution towards world peace.  For the doubtful, try tucking into a meal prefixed with hot rice, mixed with ghee and homemade avakaya (the store bought stuff has things in it that change the taste), and suffixed with curd rice and another touch of the same avakaya, and then try getting into any state of mind that is not peaceful, and you will know what I mean.  

The reason this post is going out this late is because we were stuck in a tragic yet funny jar not of our making, but then if we survive the end of the world, the summer of 2012 is always there. For the impatient and the envious, we have enough to see us through till then, and are well-mannered enough not to turn anyone away for lunch.

Like all good kids, we went asking the elders for help with making the pickle.  We were ticked off over the phone right away, - Do you know what date it is?  Well, it appears that one needs to go looking for the mangoes for the pickle a month after Ugadi, and you need to get them before they start losing the texture deeper into the season.  They need to be evenly dark-but-glowing green, hard to touch, have a tangy acidy smell when you dig your fingernail into the skin and they should neither be too small nor too large.  If you are not familiar with the stuff, it may be a good idea to take someone along who is.  Pedda rasalu and Cheruku rasalu are the two favored varieties.  However, if you don't find them in your neck of the woods, just look for good firm fibrous raw green mangoes that are reasonably sour and tangy.  Fortunately, we were not too late into the season, and managed to get ten good ones from Monda Market.  For a family of four, one year's supply would be at least 25 to 30 medium sized mangoes.  

Cutting avakaya mango is a skill that many of us will be hard pressed and possibly unwilling to acquire, and it is safest to get them cut at the market itself.  During avakaya season, almost any market in Andhra Pradesh will have a mango cutter sitting with his or her large and heavy all metal chef's knife near the mango sellers.  It is scary to see them wield these meat cleaver kind of things at a furious speed to cut the mango into small 1/2 inch cubes and, once you come home, you would be well advised to check them for pieces of fingers or stuff.

Having got the mangoes, all excited and dehydrated, out came the phone, and a very short call later, we were looking up the almanac for the nearest "good day!"  The Avakaya is a spiritual pursuit for Telugus and you will realize this as you make your own avakaya and then serve it to yourself and others.  We were also instructed very strictly on the oil and the spices and not to second best on these.  You will get all the ingredients pretty much ready to use at the markets, but that is not how the true aficionado does it.  The sesame oil from Vijaywada is the only sesame oil to be used, and the chili's (to be powdered after being hand sorted to eliminate poor quality ones) from Guntur, or maybe Warangal (the phone calls were to Warangal).  We cheated on both counts, and promised not to next summer.  We did not cheat on the salt, which has to be crystal salt or rock salt, which is readily available at most Hyderabad stores during avakaya season.  And once the auspicious day arrived, we packed our mango pieces, oil and spices, and looking like refugees, with our utensils and bulging plastic bags, transported ourselves over to Satish and Manju's place.

The day went by in a daze as the women shrieked and panicked over long distance calls, Satish's mom spreading tranquility powder over flustered and sweaty souls, the men helping pour hot oils, and stir pungent pastes, looking equally flustered and helpless.  What started early in the morning ended late in the afternoon, and as the pickle filled the jars, there was a sense of victory, accomplishment and closure.  The kitchen smelled heavenly as we scraped the bottom of the pickling utensils into our rice plates.  How we had lunch, and when we fell asleep on the living room floor will remain an unsolved mystery.

Here is the recipe

For 2 kg mangoes (made into 1/2 inch cubes including the hard inner core, wiped clean and dry with a damp cloth)
You will need:
The mango pieces (dummies like me would need this ingredient listed out here)
Ginger - 200 g (make a paste separately)
Garlic - 200 g (make a paste separately)
Chili powder - 200 g (we used Three Mangoes brand, which uses Warangal chilis)
Rock salt - 500 g
Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp
Powdered Cumin or Jeera -1 tsp (freshly roasted and ground into a powder) 
Fenugreek or Methi seed powder - 1 tsp
Sesame or Gingelly Oil - 500 ml
Whole cumin  seeds - 1 tsp
Mustard seeds - 1tsp
Whole fenugreek or methi seeds - 1/2 tsp
1.  Heat the oil and when smoking, add whole cumin and mustard.  Allow to sizzle and brown.  Add whole methi seeds and immediately take it off the heat and allow the mix to cool down to room temperature.
2.  Once cool to touch, add chili powder, salt, ginger paste, garlic paste, cumin powder, methi powder, and turmeric powder. 
3.  Mix well and then add mangoes, mix again, and transfer them into a glass jar.

You may want to add 20 to 50 cloves of garlic into this at the end of the process, or even a day or two later, if you are a garlic addict like me.  
Make sure that all jars, spoons, ladles, mango pieces are totally dry, since any water that sneaks into the pickle will decimate its shelf life as well as taste going forward.  

Keep a weekend free for this, it takes an entire day to prepare, in addition to time for procuring the ingredients and getting them ready.  You will also want to catch some rest once you are done, not easy if you have to get to work the next morning.

Even though this is a pickle, and takes a while (about a week) to get there, do not forget to taste the fresh pickle with the very first meal after you have made it.  It makes all the effort seem worth it.

This is what our pickle looked like a week later.  Do let us know what you think in the comments.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

good for non-swordswallowers too

There is a legend about why the cartoon character Popeye becoming physically stronger after consuming spinach. It is claimed that a German scientist misplaced a decimal point in an 1870 measurement of spinach's iron content, leading to an iron value 10 times higher than it should have been and this faulty measurement was not noticed until the 1930s. However, recent study has shown that this is just another long standing myth, and spinach was chosen and promoted in Popeye for its vitamin A content alone.  That is what the wiki has to say.  I love the story and will continue to believe and propagate it.  If you don’t love me, lie to me.  

However, this post is neither about Olive or natural vitamins, nor about the Bengal famine or how the Indian super rich got to be super rich but only after the famine.  It is about the food for the armies of the Nizams and Nawabs of Hyderabad, yes, it is about biryani, that too - spinach biryani.

Spinach Biryani?!?!

That is the reaction most people have had when they heard about our meal plan for May 2011.  Since there weren’t any leftovers that we could ask you to partake in, here is the recipe.

you will need
Basmati Rice (2 cups)
Cardamoms (about 4, can go up to 6 in winter)
Cashew Nuts (1/2 cup)
Cinnamon sticks (2 of the regular kerala ones, more if you are using ceylon cinnamon)
Cloves (about 5-8)
Coconut milk (1 cup of thick first press)
Oil (as little as possible, just enough so that the rice doesn't stick while frying)
Ginger-Garlic paste (a loving spoonful)
Peppercorns (5-50 depending on the guestlist)
salt (as needed)
Spinach 1 cup (destemmed, washed, blanched and blitzed)

Before you start, you will want to wash the rice and let it drain so that it dries a little.  You will also want to blitz the blanched spinach in a blender and throw it on to a cloth over ice in order to stop the oxidization of the beautiful green popeye stuff.  Having the fried onion garnish ready while the rice cooks will also help save time.

1.  Heat oil till smoking, throw all the dry spices in, and once browning to your liking, add the cashews.
2.  Add the rice, and stir till the rice gets a shiny translucent coating.
3.  Add the ginger garlic paste and keep frying till they are cooked through.
4.  Then, add the spinach paste, mix thoroughly and cook through.
5.  Add the cup of coconut milk and three cups of water.
6.  Cover and let simmer till rice is cooked.  We used a pan with a vented glass lid which makes it easier to  see how it is cooking without having to uncover it.
7.  Garnish with browned onion rings.
8.  Serve hot, with chutney and curd as suggested accompaniments.

The biryani will look like the picture above at the end, kind of not pretty, till you mix it gently taking care not to break too many of the long grained rice.  Garnish with onion rings and serve.

As a kid, I hated green things like spinach and broccoli, but this one takes the breath away even for kids with its color and aroma and indescribable taste.  Try it out and let us know how it turned out in the comments.

 You will also want to check out our cheera thoran improvisation, a real yummy spinach fry that perfectly complements both rice and rotis.