Junglee/Jungli Maas. Pairs well with blanched asparagus. Well, in my humble opinion.

Junglee/Jungli Maas. Pairs well with blanched asparagus. Well, in my humble opinion.

I have been wanting to make Junglee Maas for the longest time since I saw it in Rick Stein’s documentary on Indian curries. Among all the curry dishes he featured, this had the simplest of ingredients needed: meat, ghee, water, chilies and salt–just a combination like no other.

I just followed the method done in that clip. But first I had to make sure the meat would be made tender. I had bought the leg part of the lamb but apparently, as I found out online afterwards (of course I did not do enough prior research, as usual), the shoulder part’s more ideal for lamb stew dishes. No worries, though–the best guarantee at this point was in the marinade. I cut up the leg parts into manageable portions and marinated everything in lemons, water, salt and two spices. I actually just invented the rest marinade up after squeezing out all juice possible from two lemons then tossing in their cut rinds as well. I’m just glad they did the job and enhanced the flavor of the meat afterwards.

It was a busy Sunday at the end of a boring-thrilling busy week. Slow cooking on a Sunday just puts me under the right spell. I was in the mood to do some house work while letting the meat marinate. It was already February and we hadn’t hauled the Christmas decorations back to the attic, and that’s what I did. Christmas tree and all.

I wanted to cook this dish on a special occasion. Well, February was definitely a month-long special occasion I’m celebrating my birthday.

What I did so far (last weekend): go down the crater of a volcano. What I’m looking forward to in the coming weeks: climbing twelve peaks of a mountain and watching The National live for the second time.

What I looked forward to today: getting Junglee Maas right. I’ve never tasted this dish, nor anything remotely similar when I was in Rajasthan last year (which was a bit bothersome to me). I only had an imagined taste of it while watching the documentary over and over. More than the simple ingredients needed and the long, focused method involved in making it, I was in love with the semantics and historical origins of Junglee Maas, or jungle meat.

Do watch the clip. Or even better, watch the whole documentary series.

I did get the same taste as I always imagined. Warm, buttery and tender mutton. Hint of acid in every bite with gentle waves of chili coming ashore. The feel of eating Junglee Maas. I thought asparagus had the best flavor to counter the richness. It was my first time to blanch a vegetable as well, but it was easy. I watched my sister Nayna do it before. I learn from the best.

I liked it, the family liked it. Cookingwise and otherwise, I think I’m on a roll this month🙂


Unfinished Business

The story of my life last week: I simply floated from one day to the next. Was told by the doctor to take a weeklong leave from work while waiting for the results of a medical test (which just took too damn long to get out). More than anything else, it was a precautionary measure just in case my sickness turned out to be of the contagious kind. Ah, what else could I do but comply. I even missed my long-awaited half-marathon event because of this.

I know it was supposed to be a busy week at work so I had to keep work-related anxieties aside. Best distraction of course came in the form of films and shows. I had a lot of backlog in that department and so I set out to finish off whatever I could (insert my disclaimer that I did do a bit of work and correspondence with the office but apart from that, work didn’t really reach out to me the entire week which is why I love my colleagues). At the same time, some friends sympathetic to my cause gave me lists of shows to tide me over. An early highlight that week was that I finally finished the last season of Breaking Bad. That alone took me a couple more days to recover from, which included rewatching favorite episodes from different seasons and reading their reviews online. I’ll be watching out for the Emmys–they better give Breaking Bad all the awards!

Another obvious source of distraction of course was the kitchen. Perfect opportunity to try out new things.

For instance, I finally got around to using spinach in my cooking. Oh was that underwhelming? Sorry. Usually I’d just toss them raw into my Magic Bullet blender when I used to make fruit-veggie smoothies in the morning. This time, I used it for two different dishes from different cuisines. I had been reading Calvin Trillin’s book, Alice Let’s Eat!, while waiting for my doctor at the hospital. In one of the earlier chapters, he wrote about calalou, a dish which he described as sort of “a purĂ©ed vegetable soup–a spicy marvel” which was rooted in the mixed histories of the French and Africans–creole cooking, if you will, from a culinary context. As soon as I finished that chapter, I did some quick research on the soup, opening tabs and tabs on the many variations of its recipe. Eventually I retained a few which had spinach as substitute for callaloo leaves, since I don’t think we have those here in the Philippines.

I will be writing more about calalou/callaloo some other time. The soup uses chicken or vegetable stock, something which I want to work on extensively, leisurely. When I made my calalou, I used the stock left by my sister after boiling chicken for a different recipe she was working on. But Pop and Mom liked it though, in fact all the soup I made was consumed in one happy sitting. At first I wasn’t sure what lasting taste the coconut milk would contribute to the chicken stock, as opposed to fresh cream, but in the end it was all smooth and hearty.

Since I had more spinach than the calalou recipe required, I decided to attempt another spinach dish I’ve been wanting to for some time–palak paneer: spinach simmered in mildly tempered oil, purĂ©ed or mashed and cooked again with paneer–cut cubes of those delightful acid-set cheese.

There was (and still currently) a pressing need to use up as much ingredients before they expired. I stocked up on spices and other Indian food stuff last month. I still have poha rice, yellow lentils, ghee, dried red chilis, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried mango powder, red chili powder, tamarind paste, and few more others. Oh and I also had those spice mixes for palak paneer which I brought with me from Ahmedabad.  And yet I had never used them to date.

When I started trying out these recipes, everything of course was done from scratch, and I took my sweet time putting them all together. A recipe good enough for half an hour usually extended to a complete hour and then some. Time flies when you’re under the spell of a recipe. Or two.

Have a feeling I am not alone in doing this–I can’t seem to follow just one recipe when I cook. I like to compare the needed ingredients between or among similar recipes, and pick out the ones I feel could work for me in the kitchen then and there, as well as the methods or steps I can do.

We didn’t have paneer in our fridge though. Since I was just at home and the nearest Indian grocery was around eight kilometers away–too impractical to take on the distance knowing mid-day Manila traffic–I settled for a worthy subsittute: tofu!

Sue Lau’s recipe in for palak paneer had orchestrated the steps in making the dish well enough for me to follow, and for the tofu part I referred to Richa Hingle-Garg’s palak tofu recipe. Do check out their  recipes and be prepared for their food photos. I should definitely like to cook palak paneer and palak tofu again sometime using their recipes separately. I’ll just have to have all the ingredients required.

In the meantime, I documented the progression of my palak tofu as I went from one recipe to the other and back. I’m sure one will understand me even more now why my cooking takes longer than the recipes would normally suggest.

All I can say is it was fun. I did it for me. I liked it. (I’d like to think) I was good at it:

The result reminded me of the palak paneer I had in Kashmir a couple of weeks ago with some colleagues after work, which was a good thing! Just that the gravy in my palak tofu was less watery. Looked around online some more and saw that what I made could actually be more comparable to a typical saag dish (I’m not sure at this point, the local, regional terms lose me–so I’d appreciate any other inputs). Or or, it could be those handfuls of baby corn and eggplant I thought of throwing in (might as well) before pouring back the palak gravy to complete the recipe (You’ll have to understand I couldn’t help myself). Or or or, it could be that I let everything simmer longer than actually needed.

I made enough palak/saag tofu to last the weekend and I was able to bring some to work when I finally and happily returned. I was happy to have cooked the dish finally. I’m just forever curious for now what it would’ve tasted had I thrown cut cubes of paneer instead.


Home food

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What happened last weekend, was that I couldn’t run my half-marathon as originally planned and trained for months before. It all happened slowly and yet it all happened so fast.

Me and a few friends have been talking about joining the 2014 Corregidor International Half-Marathon since last year. Heck, I was even conditioning myself already when I was still in India last September. After class I’d run 5-10kms around our campus in Ahmedabad every other day. Most of the times by myself. Sometimes with Isha who could barely fit running in her busy schedule back in Dhaka. Those days we had lots of time to kill and I’m glad we did that. During study tour, I would sneak out of our hotels before breakfast to run at a nearby park in Jaipur, or fast-walk my way while looking for the Dilwara Temple in Mt. Abu (I failed that mission but had personal, memorable sightseeings along the way anyway).

In Manila, I mixed other activities to supplement my training runs –yoga, gym, circuit training. I had a pretty solid template for conditioning myself, Christmas and New Year binge-eating notwithstanding. And then I got sick last Wednesday. It went on Thursdsay, Friday. Saturday, the doctor confirmed it was something viral so I was definitely cautioned against joining the run the following day. And as much as I hate to admit–and oftenly think about it afterwards in pain–I did not go. Even if I thought I was already feeling well enough. That is not to say I let that fact sink in easily. I was so ready yet at the same time couldn’t risk spreading sickness during an international running event in Corregidor, an island near Manila known for its ghosts and um, historical context. I haven’t been there–I’ve been wanting to, but things never fell into place. Ah, well. 2015, then.

I had planned on writing about poha after the event, a favorite Indian fried rice dish we usually had for breakfast. In my several attempts at cooking it, I have yet to achieve that same lightly sweet and poignant aftertaste that grows and fades with you while eating it hot. Yet it was ideal fare for loading carbs the day before the run. I shall write about it more when I actually get to run some other 21km event next time. By then I shall have found and learned the art in cooking poha. It’s supposed to be easy, but it’s tricky-easy for me.

* * *

Times like this, I fall back into my usual and more comfortable role of receiving food. Every weekend, I look forward to good food in the house. Especially on a Sunday. All the great cooking done at home is turned up a mile of a notch. My sister Nayna made these for a family potluck dinner (current Samsung mobile technology could not do them justice):

Made by Nayna: (Top) chicken meatballs in tomato gravy, olives and cheese; (Bottom) Pork salpicao at its finest.

Made by Nayna: (Top) chicken meatballs sunk in tomato gravy, olives and cheese; (Bottom) Pork salpicao at its finest.

In a perfect world, a spoonful of those amazing bits of garlic could have cured my current sickness. And if you can’t imagine what these cuts of pork tenderloin cooked salpicao style were like as I ate them with hot, white rice–I’m sorry. Tender, with a hint of salty, hit by garlic.

I wouldn’t say they’re comfort food but I delighted in them as they were. Ate them again and again (I had a small plate–not that it’s particularly relevant to mention but anyway), trying to bury memories of all the carbs I foolishly gobbled up, the collective calories of which I would’ve burned during the run–pasta, poha, pancakes.

And then something new. You won’t see those chicken meatballs my sister grilled in the top photo, but here’s one of them below. Mom made me an open sandwich out of nowhere:



It’s arugula, chicken meatball in tomato sauce and carabao white cheese on toast. It was so good I didn’t know what happened to the first one. I was already in the kitchen making my second, following what Mom did, still relishing the experience of having just eaten one. 

It was an awfully good day, that Sunday. The weather was just perfect. Bright sun in the morning and yet the January air was distinctly cool. Perfect running weather compared to the hot and dry morning when we trained last weekend. I had to appreciate that, in sickness or in good health.

Ah, fuck it. I’m running again soon. That’s all I really wanted to say. In the meantime, this doctor-prescribed weeklong stay-in mode means I get more time in the kitchen. Now that’s something to look forward to.


Fire in the Mouth

I’m eating leftovers from an Indian food cookout at a friend’s apartment in Malate. This happened four days ago, right at the start of the year. An excellent way to begin actually, as I never cooked for anyone outside my family. But then again I never did really cook all my life (that is, if you agree to discount frying or using the oven and microwave) until a few months back.

Our humble spread for the New Year's Indian food cookout (L-R): paratha, paneer khurchan and vegetable pakora.

Our humble spread for the New Year’s Indian food cookout (L-R): paratha, paneer khurchan and vegetable pakora.

From September to October of last year, I spent six weeks in northwest of India, mostly Gujarat as well as the states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. I was there for work-related training but on some days, some weeks, we were toured around their cities, brought to as many historical and cultural sites and events as possible. I cannot tell everything in one entry–nor even condense, as you might agree down the line–how immensely that experience changed me, but I will say that the food I had played a fine, fine role. Just incredible.

When I got back in Manila, I spent the next two weeks keeping in touch with the new friends I made there through every mode of communication possible—chat, long-distance calls, voice messages, video chats, Facebook messaging, post liking and liking-back, you name it.

Eventually, the ongoing nostalgia manifested itself through food. I bonded over meals with those guys. I remembered all the food I liked, took note of their names. When I could, I ordered them again and again with no regret. Even when I was warned beforehand not to be my usual self and try any food sold in the streets I just nodded in disagreement. Pani puri? I’ll try that. How much–oh as many as I can? Okay!” I was in the company of good people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Belize, whose love for spicy fare rubbed off on me. They practically raised the bar, as far as my tolerance for spicy food goes. “Mild spicy or medium spicy?” “Extra chili, please.”

So at least once a week hence since my return, I either dragged family or friends to eat at various Indian restaurants in the metro or searched for recipes online and attempted to make the food myself at home, as Indian food in Manila’s comparably not cheaper.

I finally learned how to cook. I was moved to do it, no other way. More than our pictures, recreating those dishes was the closest thing to celebrating, going back to the good times I had in India.

* * *

I chose to make paneer khurchan and vegetable pakora for the cookout. I had tried cooking these at home on previous occasions and they were the easier ones to make.

Paneer khurchan with side orders of cheese naan (right) and vegetable chowmien (top).

Paneer khurchan with side orders of cheese naan (right) and vegetable chowmien (top).

The paneer khurchan in the picture above was what I had in the restaurant of Hotel Apex in Jaipur. I ordered it out of curiosity as it was the first time I encountered paneer (a curd cheese commonly used in South Asian cuisine) cooked in a different way. Before this, the only paneer dish I tried in Indian restaurants in Manila was palak paneer, or paneer cooked in spiced spinach puree. This one, on the other hand, was cooked in tomato gravy with heaps of onion, tomato and capsicum slices. And with generous amounts of spicy as well, as instructed by my Sri Lankan friend Kumu, to her and my satisfaction. This was the last meal I had before we moved on to Jodhpur, but the dish never left my mind. 

I followed this nice recipe from Sanjeev Kapoor, which was straightforward enough for a beginner like me. At this point, I for one did not know (or actually care) what made a recipe simple, tricky or complex anyway. As long as I have all the ingredients, I should be fine. Lites and Garet helped me preparing the ingredients as I could not consistently slice the onions, tomato and capsicum in the proper proportions demanded by the dish. I did, however, pretty well with slicing the paneer into strips. It was just like slicing tofu or kesong puti (carabao/goat cheese), which by the way are possible substitutes for the paneer (for future reference). Paneer khurchan actually reminds me a lot of this other dish–paneer jalfrezi–I also came across online. They could be the same thing–anyone care to confirm or differentiate?

The khurchan part of paneer khurchan, as I made a quick look online, alludes to those scrapings at the bottom of the pot or pan when reducing milk. If you can look closely enough (or just take my word for it) at the photo of the paneer dish I had in Jaipur and compare it with what I cooked in the top photo, you’d see that my version still was a bit too watery. ALRIGHT I admit I didn’t follow the end part of the Sanjeev Kapoor recipe where I was supposed to let the whole mix sautĂ© until the paneer started to stick to the pan (that’s where the symbolic act of scraping would’ve happened I suppose). We’d made the pakora before the khurchan dish and I was worried that the fritters would completely lose their heat.

So at the end, the resulting gravy of my paneer cooking was a bit thinner and the curd cheese didn’t stick to the pan. The paneer was nicely soft and tender to the bite, however. And the flavors and the spice kick were already there, which made me happy. Add to that the hot, lush tangle of onion, tomato and capsicum strips.

We tore portions off our hot, buttery paratha, folded it, scooped into the watery paneer khurchan and delivered the party anyway to our eager mouths.

* * *

It was on a lightly rainy morning in Udaipur when I had my first taste of pakora. We had just finished a boat tour around the Lake Palace. From the dock there was a nearby stand where two guys were deep-frying something interesting. From that distance you could see those fritters all golden and oily, such a sharp contrast to the grey sky covering the city. My foodie friend Isha pointed them to me, “Pakoras!”, and told me they also had this back in her home country of Bangladesh.

Pakora from the streets of Udaipur. Simple, best.

Pakora from the streets of Udaipur. Simple, best.

The batter probably contained a mixture of onions, green chilies and thinly sliced potatoes. And their collective spicy kicked a smile out of my face instantly. All those little fireworks happening in my mouth–who cares about this rain!

I had those moments in mind when I decided to welcome 2014 with this cookout. I never thought of ordering those steakhouse onion rings again after I had my moment with pakora.

I referred to this recipe from Veg Recipes of India when we made our own pakoras. You can use other vegetables, even vegetable scraps from other dishes you might be making. For my pakoras I chose onion, bell peppers and eggplant. Jay poured the gram flour and spices into a big bowl. Lites mixed, mashed the vegetables tenderly into the batter with her hands while I poured the water bit by bit.

While Jay was scooping spoonfuls of the pakora batter into the pan and frying them, I made up a sauce. I bought tamarind paste, among other tandoori and curry spice mixes, from a haphazard grocery run on my last morning in Ahmedabad. I would be flying that night, together with three friends from Myanmar and Mauritius Islands, back to our respective home countries.

That tamarind paste was one of the things my sister asked me to buy that I did buy. Some of the others I figured could be bought in Indian groceries in Manila, although at a more expensive price. I thought that this paste was exotic enough, even if the tamarind  or our sampaloc was no stranger to Filipino cuisine. The months passed since, however, with none of us using that paste for any of our cooking so I figured I’d turn this into a dip for the pakora. I mixed the paste with water, cilantro, lemon juice, cayenne powder and sugar. All the proportions to my what-am-I-doing but curious taste. I ninja-did it while Jay was frying those pakoras and Garet and Lites were talking the afternoon away.

Our supposed late lunch gathering stretched to an early dinner that stretched to a late evening. Matthias came and went. Kaycee came and stayed until we signed off for the night. Everyone liked the food, I was happy with it. I left the apartment that night with the aftertaste still burning in my mouth. I’ll consider mixing in a bit of cream next time to counter any extra chili powder I might throw in while the paneer gravy’s still on the stove.

Those pakoras? I won’t change a thing in the batter we made. The same fireworks I first tasted then were the same ones that exploded in my mouth that night. I did leave India, whole body and soul after those quick several weeks. But a part of India came and stayed with me.

I can just imagine how the rest of this year will be like.