Zunka Bhakar


I once spent a magical year in Pune, a then-sleepy city three hours southeast of Bombay’s concrete jungle, and nestled in the emerald-green valley of India’s Western ghats.

To a young woman from a fast-stepping city like Bombay, Pune in those years seemed a little like the backwaters, at least in the beginning. The pace of life was so slow, at times you’d think the city had forgotten to wake up well into daylight.

I was a student at Pune University’s journalism school. Classes were held at Ranade Institute, a one-story building with a terracotta-tiled roof on Fergusson College Road. The building actually looked more like an old, sprawling house which was a surprise, used as I was to the flat, cement-faced college buildings of Bombay. It was surrounded by trees and quite picturesque with an ageless, almost-rural charm.

Pune has traditionally been known as a center of learning, and the area around Ranade was home to a number of old and new colleges. There were a couple of restaurants down the street, one named Vaishali (you can see why I didn’t forget the name) and the other Rupali, I think, both popular hangouts for all the students in the area. Often, when attending classes got too tiresome, about half a dozen of us would escape to one of these restaurants and order two or three cups of tea that we’d share along with plenty of conversation.

Sometimes my friend Suchitra and I — we were both new to the city– would take off after classes to explore Pune. Getting anywhere was a tiny adventure on the red-and-yellow public transport buses which was all we could afford as broke students. The dust-smothered buses were unfailingly late, had a tendency to break down in the oddest of places, and heaven forbid you were waiting in line around lunchtime because that was when every bus driver in the city took at least two hours off. All you could do was sweat under the sweltering sun and curse under your breath.

The apartment we had rented was in a new development near the city’s outskirts. The only grocery store for at least a mile around was run by a young, bearded man named Kulkarni who lived in a room behind the store with his wife and newborn child.

Kulkarni had a way with disappointing you frequently, but with an innocent smile. You’d be dying for a cup of tea and you’d discover you were out, so you’d run to the store to get it, and of course– he’d just run out of it too. But, he’d promise with a smile, he’d have some more tomorrow.

Each afternoon, Kulkarni would lock the store and retreat into his home for lunch and a nap. The store would remain closed for at least four hours, and if you needed something, well, tough luck.

In the beginning, I’d get mad. With my Bombay blood all a-bubble, I’d wonder why everyone was so accepting about all this sloppiness. To which one of our new friends, Keskar aunty (every earlier-generation acquaintance and friend is an “aunty” or “uncle” in India), would say with a calm smile and in Marathi, the language spoken in Pune: “My dear girl, that’s how we are. Punekars are as patient as cows.”

It was impossible to argue with such cool acceptance. They know it, I remember thinking incredulously, and they don’t want to do anything about it?

But over time, Pune began to get to me. I began to fall in love with the deliberately leisurely pace, the “things will take care of themselves” attitude. I even learned to laugh about Kulkarni and his grocery store, and to wait at the bus stop without busting a gut.

Pune had charms I had never found in Bombay. Everyone seemed to care about everyone else. Everyone was family. It was a safe enough city, but when I once insisted on walking home alone after dark, my father’s friend– whose family I’d been visiting– sent his son to follow me, at a distance, so they would be sure I got home all right. When I found myself alone at home one night because my father and brother were traveling, a neighbor, without being asked, insisted that her daughter stay over so I wouldn’t be lonely or afraid at night.

Strangers kindly offered you a ride on their two-wheelers (and you didn’t feel afraid about accepting). New friends opened up their homes and hearts to you. And the city itself had a crumbling, ageless beauty that was easy to love.

One of those crumbling, beautiful places was Sinhagad, a fortress atop a hill a few miles outside Pune. It was once the site of an historic battle and is now a popular picnic site. Getting to the fortress required, at least at the time, climbing up the stony hillside, making it quite an adventure.

Once you were up there, and had your fill of the beautiful landscape and other-century relics, there was the food. In Pune, the locals would rave, there’s no Zunka-Bhakar such as the one found at Sinhagad.

This rustic Maharashtrian dish is typically eaten by farmers, although it’s easy enough to find it in fast-food stands in the cities now. And it was indeed true that after the rough climb to Sinhagad, the zunka-bhakar, cooked and sold by women whose families lived in huts around the fort, tasted extra delicious.

I go back to Pune now each time I visit India, because one of Desi’s brothers lives there. I always look forward to it, although the city has changed into a pollution-clogged, fast-moving clone of Bombay. Last year we got into a nasty spat with a goon-like guard at the jazzed-up Dagdu Sheth Ganesha temple because he insisted we couldn’t take pictures of the temple from the street. Our argument quickly drew a crowd of people who butted in to insist that the guard must be right. At the time I wondered, had Pune’s accepting attitude gone too far?

Maybe, but I will always have my memories of a wonderful place where I first found out that not rushing through life at a blind clip can be, by itself, deeply satisfying.

I found myself thinking of Pune last week when I cooked up this zunka bhakar. Zunka is made by stir-frying vegetables like green peppers, spring onions or even cabbage with chickpea or garbanzo bean flour and spices. It is simplicity itself, yet incredibly delicious.

Bhakar is a rustic bread made with jowar (sorghum) or bajra (millet) flour, which are easy enough to find in Indian grocery stores. You’d eat the zunka by scooping it up with a piece of bhakar. Both are typically accompanied by a spicy, fiery powder made primarily of red chillies and raw onions.

All together, they are exactly the stuff great comfort food is made of.

Enjoy, all!


Zunka

Ingredients:

3/4 cup chickpea flour (garbanzo bean flour or besan)

1 green pepper, finely diced

1 onion, finely diced

1 bunch scallions or spring onions (about 6), both green and white parts finely diced

1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp mustard seeds

A generous pinch of asafetida (hing)

Salt to taste

1/4 cup chopped garlic greens or chopped coriander

Roast the chickpea flour lightly, stirring, until it smells fragrant, about 5 minutes on medium-low heat.

Spray oil in a skillet. Add asafetida and sustard seeds. When the seeds sputter, add the onions. Saute until the onions turn translucent but before they start to color.

Add the chilli powder, turmeric, spring onions and chopped green peppers. Saute for a few minutes until the vegetables start to soften.

Add the chickpea flour and salt and stir in. Add 1 cup of water.

Stir well, cover, and cook on medium-low heat about 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the water has been absorbed.

Turn off heat. Garnish with the garlic greens or coriander leaves. Serve hot with bhakri (recipe follows).

Bhakri

2 cups millet or bajra flour

1 tsp salt

Water to knead.

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Add water, a little at a time, kneading the flour until the dough comes together in a ball.

Pull off a lemon-size piece of the dough. Sprinkle the rolling surface liberally with all-purpose or wheat flour and roll out the bhakri carefully into a circle about 4-5 inches in diameter.

These bhakris are extremely difficult to roll, so it might take some time to get it right. I sometimes substitute half the millet flour with regular whole-wheat flour which makes them easier to roll.

Heat a cast-iron or other griddle. Place the bhakri on it and leave alone until the surface starts to turn opaque. Flip over. Smear a little oil over the bhakri. Cook both sides until golden-brown spots appear.

Serve hot with the zunka, and some raw, chopped onions.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Pav Bhaji

Pav BhajiIn a time long ago, I worked in the Bombay bureau of a Calcutta newspaper called The Telegraph. The bureau was made up of a couple of dozen or so people, including four journalists, all crammed into four rooms of a high rise in Nariman Point.Nariman Point is a mass of skyscrapers in South Bombay, and it is where a lot of the city’s business gets done. It is cradled by the spectacular Arabian Sea, and is home to some of the city’s biggest landmarks.Mantralaya, the state legislative assembly, is here, round and with a distinctive honeycomb pattern. There’s the Air India building, with an ivory-white facade crowned by a rotating image of the airline’s icon, an archer. The National Centre for the Performing Arts, where a lot of the city’s theatrical talent unfolds. Express Towers, home to one of India’s oldest newspapers, the Indian Express, where Desi started his career as a journalist. And the posh Oberoi Towers Hotel which was one of the targets of last year’s terrorist attacks in the city.Nariman Point is the city’s skyline, and an especially panoramic one when seen from the Queen’s Necklace at Marine Drive, a curving promenade along the sea that lights up at night. The promenade is fringed by old buildings with spacious, curving balconies that are fast morphing from homes into hotels and restaurants as the city of 20 million gets busier than ever.But elegant as it may sound, Nariman Point also throbs with the red-blooded reality of everyday life in a city that is so big and so vibrant, it is almost impossible to describe its rapacious pace. The noise of thousands of voices speaking together, car horns blowing incessantly in the streams of traffic clogging each road, and the dust and pollution kicked up by these cars is a constant backdrop here, but one you soon learn to accept and ignore.All along the pavements straddling the high-rises, vendors bustle around, selling or delivering food and refreshments to make work and life a little easier for the thousands of people who pour in each day.

Chaiwallas deliver thick, milky, overboiled but still delicious tea in small glasses washed after each use by being dunked in a single bucket of water.

There’s nariyal paani, or coconut water, the most deliciously refreshing weapon against Bombay’s harsh humid summers. The vendor shaves off the top of the green coconut fruit with a sharp knife, flips open the top, and inserts a straw in it before handing it to you.

There’s sugarcane juice, squeezed right in front of your eyes by passing long, bamboo-like canes through two metal wheels. A dash of lime makes the frothing green and very sweet juice extra delicious.

Vendors in makeshift stalls also sell all kinds of luscious fast street food, like bhurji, scrambled eggs, Indian-style, spiked with spices and onions, or vada pav, a Bombay veggie burger made by sandwiching a spicy chutney and a fried potato dumpling inside a bread or pav, among other treats.

With such delicious treats just an elevator ride away, it was hard to resist their call even as we slogged over our stories at the Telegraph bureau.

All four of us journalists were women, which made life at the bureau really fun (no offense, guys!). We had a small, narrow room lined with tables to ourselves. We’d take turns to make calls to sources on the only two phone lines and write at the two computers. In between, we gossiped about everything under the sun.

We had a lot in common. We were all roughly the same age, we all had very curly hair (which made us brand ourselves the curly-hair club– sounds silly now but it seemed hilarious at the time :)) and we all loved to pop out, at the first excuse, for some food. Lucky for us, our waistlines were young enough to withstand the blitz.

We had favorites everywhere– there was a place along Marine Drive, a 15-minute walk away, where you’d get some of the best pani puris in the city. It was amazing how, as he served a dozen people at a time, all buzzing around his cart, the vendor kept count of exactly how many puris each of us had consumed, so he could charge us accordingly.

There was a new restaurant with a great salad bar we sometimes went to whose name I forget but which was en route to the Regal Cinema. In those times raw salads were not wildly popular in India (we Indians prefer our veggies cooked most of the time), and it made us girls feel just a little ahead of our times. :)

And there was a tiny shack on the sea just around the corner from us called, appropriately, Bay Bites, which served a delicious brownie. It was the perfect dessert after you’d devoured one of their tasty egg sandwiches (this was, of course, in my pre-vegan days).

But when pressed by deadlines, as we usually were, we’d just step down to a busy fast-food restaurant in the same building that served a delicious Pav Bhaji on the fly.

There are restaurants in South Bombay with a cult-like following for their Pav Bhaji, like Sukh Sagar and Kailash Parbat. But I can honestly say I’ve never met a plate of Pav Bhaji anywhere in the city that I didn’t love.

It is hard to go wrong with this dish even when you make it yourself, especially once you get your hands on some Pav Bhaji masala which is quite easily available in Indian grocery stores anywhere or online.

In the past, hit by a craving for Pav Bhaji so far from Bombay, I would make just the bhaji, depending on the soft rolls I could buy from grocery stores here as substitutes for pav. But as anyone who has ever eaten a pav in Bombay would tell you, the store-bought rolls don’t come even close to emulating the soft crust and pillowy texture of a typical pav — think of it as a brioche roll without all the butter.

Then, recently, I came across this recipe for pav from Vaidehi which made me squeal with delight. It looked perfect.

So Pav Bhaji it was this week. The pav was just perfect, and both Desi and I– veteran Bombay street foodies– agreed that it was as good as the real thing.

I think I am still on a bit of a high. Thanks, Vaidehi! If you don’t have the time to make the pav, feel free to use soft white dinner rolls from the bakery or supermarket– they work just as well.

I made just a few very small changes to the pav recipe, so I have reposted it here, along with my own recipe for the bhaji. I used regular all-purpose instead of self-rising flour which Vaidehi used, so I added a small amount of baking soda because self-rising flour has baking soda added to it and I wanted to be sure my pav turned out as beautifully as her’s had.

Here goes!
Pav Bhaji

Laadi Pav for Pav Bhaji
 
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Laadi Pav (Adapted from this recipe by Vaidehi)
Author:
Recipe type: Bread
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 8
Ingredients
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ tsp active dry yeast
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1½ to 2 cups warm water
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp soy milk + 1 tsp canola or other vegetable oil for brushing the top of the rolls
  • 3 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
Instructions
  1. Mix the sugar, ½ cup warm water and the yeast in a mixing bowl and set aside for about 10 minutes until the mixture starts to froth, indicating the yeast is alive and well.
  2. Sift the flour and baking soda into the bowl. Knead on low speed in a stand mixer or by hand for about 3 minutes, trickling in enough warm water until you have a dough that’s smooth but slightly sticky (I needed ¾ to 1 cup of water).
  3. Add the oil and continue to knead until the oil has been absorbed by the dough, about 1 more minute.
  4. Now place in an oiled bowl, turning over once to coat all over with oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and set aside for 2 hours until the dough has risen.
  5. Punch down the dough and divide into 8 balls
  6. Shape them into a slightly rectangular shape by pulling at the sides of the dough and tucking under on all four sides.
  7. Place the tolls in a rectangular 9 X 13 inch baking dish smeared with oil and lightly floured, or on a cookie sheet, close enough but not touching each other. Let the rolls rise for 30 minutes. They will join at the ends when they have risen, creating a slab that you break the baked rolls off from. (In India, laadi pav is sold in slabs by a vendor on a bicycle who makes his rounds each morning or evening. Laadi, unless my Marathi’s really rusty, translates to slab in Marathi.)
  8. Preheat the oven to 370 degrees. Brush the tops of the pavs with the soymilk-oil mixture which gives them a nice color on top.
  9. Bake 22 minutes. Then turn off the oven and let the pav stand inside for another 4 miuntes before removing it from the oven and allowing it to cool for 10 minutes on a rack.
Bhaji for Pav Bhaji
 
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A delicious mixed-vegetable dish dish that makes up one half of the delicious Indian street snack, Pav Bhaji
Author:
Recipe type: Snack
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 8
Ingredients
  • 1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, cut in a small dice
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
  • 2 green chillies, chopped
  • Paste of 6 garlic cloves
  • 3 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup green peas, boiled and then mashed slightly
  • 3 potatoes, boiled, peeled, and coarsely mashed (I like to leave a few pieces in for texture)
  • ¼ or a medium head of cauliflower, grated or chopped really fine
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into a small dice
  • 2 tbsp Pav Bhaji masala
Instructions
  1. Heat the oil in a wide skillet.
  2. Add the onions and saute, until golden spots appear.
  3. Add the ginger and garlic and green chillies and saute another minute.
  4. Add two of the three diced tomatoes and cook over medium-high heat until the oil begins to express itself, about 4 minutes.
  5. Add the cauliflower, peas, potatoes and green bell pepper and stir together.
  6. Add the remaining tomatoes, pav bhaji masala powder, salt and 1½ cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer another 15 minutes or until the vegetables are really tender.
  7. Very carefully, using a potato masher or the back of a ladle, mash the vegetables. I like to leave some texture in, so I don’t overdo it, but you shouldn’t have any very large pieces of vegetables in there.
  8. Check salt before turning off heat.
But wait, we’re not done. I also want to share with you the exact procedure for eating Pav Bhaji. As some of you already know, I am not a stickler for cooking in exactly one way or the other– we each have to find what works best for us. But for Pav Bhaji, I make an exception. You do need to eat your Pav Bhaji with a few specific accompaniments and in a certain manner, or half the joy of eating it is quite lost.Once you have the pav and bhaji cooked, slit the pav down the middle along three sides, leaving it joined along the spine, like an open book. Then toast it, cut side down, on a screaming-hot skillet with some melting hot vegan butter until golden spots appear.The Bhaji also has to be served hot, topped with a scallop of butter (or vegan butter, in my case). It is at once spicy and sour and incredibly delicious.Swirl the butter around the bhaji, mix in some chopped onions and chopped coriander, and squeeze in a few drops of lime.Now you’re ready to eat. Tear off a piece of the soft pav and dunk it into the bhaji and then into your mouth. No spoons and forks and knives here, folks. You can wash your hands before and after you eat. Even Desi, who can barely eat a chapati without a knife and fork, uses his fingers for Pav Bhaji. There just is no other way to enjoy it.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Bhel, Bombay and Bollywood


I grew up in Bombay, the capital of Bollywood, India’s hyper-productive film industry, but Bollywood never managed to cast its technicolor spell over me.

I always found the melodrama and over-the-top acting hard to stomach. But there was one aspect of the movies that I just couldn’t resist: the songs crammed between each Romeo-and-Juliet start and Cinderella ending.

Like the movies, called masala movies for obvious reasons, these songs (about half a dozen in each movie, give or take a couple) catered to every mood. There would usually be a raucous song sung by the hero and his friends before he’d found the love of his life, and perhaps one sung by the heroine with her friends. A couple of romantic numbers when the two had finally discovered-after many fights- that they couldn’t live without each other. And a sad one or two after they’d been forced apart by the “villains,” usually their parents. All songs were- and still are in today’s movies-strictly in playback, meaning the voices you heard belonged to people who were not the ones you saw on screen.

Every night, my dad – a big fan of Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, both popular actors of his childhood – would fall asleep listening to the radio playing Hindi oldies from the ’50s and ’60s. They were silken melodies, sung by India’s greatest playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhonsle and Kishore Kumar. The music would drift in from the next room and although I was supposed to be fast asleep, I couldn’t help but lie awake in bed listening to those enchanting voices. I’d want them to never stop, but they did, every night at 11:30, after which the static crackled into the night until my dad woke up to turn the radio off.

Those songs spoke about love, anger, happiness, pain, playfulness and confusion. They left such a lasting influence on me that even today, whether I am high or low, I turn to a familiar song to comfort myself. It may sound corny, but believe me, it never fails.

Still, when Sunshinemom Harini announced her super-fun Jukebox Cooking Challenge event calling on bloggers/cooks to dish out food inspired by a song, I was a little flummoxed because I couldn’t think of a song that inspired me to cook. Until I started to think about why I cooked, and when.

I cook, as I guess many others who love to cook do, when I’m perfectly happy. I cook when I’m sad to make myself happy. And I cook for those I love.

Given this strong connection between food and feelings, I chose a recipe based on a theme that is close to my heart, and ties in perfectly with songs AND food, at least for me. The sea.

Because many Indian movies were shot in Bombay, an island on the Arabian Sea, lots of Indian movie songs happen around the sea. From a pensive Dev Anand singing Jayen to Jayen Kahan, lost and a little turbulent like the vast ocean that unrolls before him, to Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai sung by a frolicking family, to a deep-in-love couple weaving dreams about their future with Do Deewane Sheher Mein, the sea provided a perfect and spectacular backdrop.

When I was growing up, an outing to the sea, which was about a mile from where I lived, was a weekend must. We’d go as a group, with family, friends or both, but no matter how often we went, or with who, one thing was a constant: you absolutely had to have something to eat. That, most often, was roasted, salted peanuts, bought from one of the many vendors who walked around with baskets slung around their necks, or Bhel.

The Bhel would be put together right before your eyes, with a splash of this ingredient and that, and then all of it mixed together with a deft hand and served up in a newspaper cone. The end result was magical and the flavors danced on your tastebuds long after you’d licked every last bit off your fingers.

For the event, to go with my bhel, I chose one of my all-time favorite Hindi songs. I love it in good part because of the absolutely ethereal voice of Lata Mangeshkar which weaves perfectly the image of a rainy, romantic afternoon by the sea (a perfect time for some Bhel! Beware the raw-onion breath, though :)).

I’ve embedded the video of the song because I really wanted to share with all of you its wonderful images of a rain-drenched Bombay in the ’70s, when it was still a glorious, beautiful city where one could walk for a few minutes on a street without getting smacked in the face by a ton of smog and pollution. The video, shot in South Bombay, includes such landmarks as Flora Fountain (a very brief glimpse) and the Rajabai Tower of Bombay University, all British-era (and now Heritage) architecture.

When Moushumi Chatterjee, the actress in the song, walks along Marine Drive, teetering on the edge of the promenade wall, I am reminded of days long gone but never forgotten. For those unfamiliar with Indian movies, the gawky guy in the video is Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s best-known star (not the greatest actor, in my opinion, although I’m sure there are many Indians who’ll disagree.)

Rimjhim Gire Saawan
Sulag Sulag Jaaye Man
Bheege Aaj Is Mausam Mein
Lagi Kaisi Yeh Agan

I hate to translate this because even beautiful songs fall flat in another language, so I’ll give you the gist: she’s singing of the fire that the pouring rain evokes in her heart. Sounds mundane, I know, but in Lata’s voice, it just isn’t.

Here’s to my home, Bombay, the pull of the sea, and those wonderful, wonderful oldies! And thanks, Harini, for hosting this lovely event.


I’m also sending this to Pallavi of All Thingz Yummy who’s hosting the Sunday Snacks- Fix It event.



Bombay Bhel

Ingredients:

3 cups brown-rice crispies

1 cup khara sev (these are the squiggly yellow things you see in the picture, available in Indian grocery stores. I also sometimes find it in the Indian grocery section at Whole Foods)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 green chilies, minced

1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped

3 small red potatoes, boiled and finely diced

For the date-tamarind chutney:

4 dates, soaked in water about 15 minutes until soft and seeded

1 tsp tamarind extract. If you’re cooking with whole tamarind, soak a lime-sized ball in warm water for about 15 minutes, then squeeze out the juices by crushing between your fingers. Discard the solids.

Blend the tamarind and dates into a fairly thick paste.

To put together the bhel all you do is mix up all the ingredients, including the date-tamarind chutney. Add salt to taste.

The bhel goes wonderfully with little puris, which are refined-wheat crackers deep fried in oil. Since my bhel is quite healthy, I decided to forego the puris which are also quite easily available at Indian stores.

Enjoy, everyone!

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.