This article is part of a special series called "Books and Food". I have loved books long before I ever got interested in the culinary arts. Short stories, novels, biographies and travelogues, I love them all. Human life is inextricably linked to food, and books often use descriptions of feasts and famines, dinner rituals and food memories to bring a point across to the reader. In this series, I talk about my favorite books and the food passages therein, and make a dish or a meal inspired by the book
Today's book: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
The food: A Parsee meal of Vegetable Dhansak, Brown Rice and Kachumbar
English language books by authors of South Asian descent is one of my particular obsessions, so the first book I have chosen is from this genre. Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry is a story of a middle-class Parsee family in Bombay. The Parsees are a small minority community in India; they practice the Zoroasterian faith, the worship of fire. This small but vibrant community has produced several talented authors, and Rohinton Mistry is my favorite. Mistry has an incredible gift: he has the ability to take the ordinary and make it lyrical. He speaks of the everday business of life and in doing so, paints a vivid picture of life in middle-class Bombay, especially that in a Parsee household.
In the following scene, Roxana, who lives in a tiny apartment with her husband and two boys, has her elderly injured father come to live with her. One of her boys offers to help feed him.
"Jehangir filled the spoon again and raised it to his grandfather's lips. A grain of rice strayed, lingering at the corner of his mouth. Jehangir took the napkin to gently retrieve it before it fell.
And for a brief instant, Roxana felt she understood the meaning of it all, of birth and life and death. My son, she thought, my father, and the food I cooked…A lump came to her throat; she swallowed."
Food and its trappings are often found in this story. One paragraph that really made me laugh (because I identified with it so closely) was when Roxana's boys read story books by the English author End Blyton and dream of the food oft-mentioned in Blyton's books: "Muffins, porridge, kippers, scones, steak and kidney pie, potted meat, dumplings. Their father said if they ever tasted this insipid foreign stuff instead of merely reading about it in those blighted Blyton books, they would realize how amazing was their mother's curry-rice and khichri-saas and pumpkin buryani and dhansak. What they needed was an Indian Blyton, to fascinate them with their own reality"
The Parsee-inspired meal that I served included brown rice pilaf, a vegetable-dal stew called dhansak and a simple salad called kachumbar. The "brown rice" traditionally served in the Parsee meal is white rice which is browned by the addition of caramelized sugar, but I made "real" brown rice, because it is so much healthier, and because it goes perfect with the dhansak. Speaking of which, I tried looking for an authentic dhansak recipe on the internet. A google search yielded this recipe for a pretty non-authentic dhansak. But this webpage has a true treasure: scroll down to the last two lines of this page, and someone has provided a recipe (there is a link to a word document) for vegetarian dhansak. I have simplified and modified the recipe somewhat. The meal was delicious enough to be a special treat, and yet bursting with health, with all those wonderful lentils, whole grains and vegetables, both raw and cooked. The recipe for dhansak sounds tedious, but it is a snap to put together once you have the ingredients at hand.
(1) 1 + 1/2 cups mixed dals (I used toor, masoor, moong, chana and urad; use your favorites in any proportion)
(Soak the dals for a few hours, then cook and set aside; you could use a pressure cooker or the stove-top method)
Tomato (Dice all the veggies for a total of 5-6 cups of mixed veggies)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, diced
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
(4) Dhansak Masala: Toast the following together (I throw it in the microwave for 1-2 minutes on low power...it works!)
2 red chillies
1 inch cinnamon
8 black peppercorns
2 dried bay leaves
1 tsp fenugreek (methi) seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
Grind roasted spices together. Add 1/2 tsp turmeric powder and 1/2 tsp nutmeg powder. Set masala powder aside.
1 cup packed spinach (fresh or frozen)
1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (or 3-4 tbsp fresh, minced)
1 tbsp dried mint leaves (or 2 tbsp fresh, minced)
1. Heat oil, then saute the onion till transluscent. Add the ginger-garlic and fry for a minute.
2. Add the diced veggies and 1/2 cup water, cover and cook till the vegetables are tender.
3. Now add the masala, salt to taste, the herbs and the dals. Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Brown Rice Pilaf
2 cups brown basmati rice
4 and 1/4 cup water
dash of salt
1 tsp ghee
2 tsp whole spices (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns)
1. Heat the ghee and gently saute the bayleaf and whole spices for a few seconds.
2. Add the rice and saute for a few seconds.
3. Add water and salt, cover the pot and cook for 30-40 minutes till the rice is tender and the water is all absorbed.
Mix together diced tomatoes, onions, cucumber and radishes. Season with salt, pepper, a dash of sugar and a dash of vinegar. Sprinkle with some minced cilantro.
Here are links to two other Parsee recipes:
Patrani Macchi: Deccanheffalump gives a wonderful introduction to Parsee cuisine, with a bit of history thrown in, and this fish recipe.
Pateta par Eeda This is a tasty eggs-and-potatoes brunch dish that is a favorite with V and me.
Please let me know how you like this series. Ideas for books that you would like to see featured are welcome too!