Friday, December 31, 2010

Karachi Food Diaries Day 21 - 24 (Potato-cauliflower medley, aloo gobi)

December 27, 2010 Monday- Day 21
I have accepted my defeat in the battle against the curry and the meat. There is no getting away from it. It is the way things roll here. I can prepare my own meals but that is not an option in this land of  domestic help. So, I submit and savor. Time enough to revisit the ideal in the new year. Four days left till the end of the year,  social life is whirling and swirling. Parties and dinners all round. Lunch at home is usually a curry, a dry vegetable dish, sometimes kababs, rice and bread with lots of raw vegetables and pickles on the side. Dinner is either out or, if home, then the same. Trying to keep it as simple as possible.

December 28 Tuesday- Day 22
Dinner was at Cafe Flo. It is the most popular French restaurant in the city. I have always enjoyed the food here. The meal started off well with complimentary vol-au-vent for the table. Yummy. Wish I could say the same for the rest of the meal. We ordered carpaccio, crab salad special and escargot as appetizers. The carpaccio was closer to the classic recipe than Okra's but still lacking for me. It was too thin, plastered flat to the plate while the parmesan was too thickly cut. The arugula or rocket as it is called here, was mixed with mushrooms and dressed a little heavily. The lemon wedge was much needed. Also, the plate was cold as if it had been preprepared and refrigerated. Escargot was delicious in their buttery, salty, and garlicky perfection; enjoyed sopping up the excess juice with my bread. The crab salad was not right; watery, not enough meat and actually tasting a little off. For the main entree, I ordered red snapper with shrimp and calamari. The seafood was fresh but overdressed again with too many ingredients. The saving grace in the meal my friend's entree, baked red snapper marinated in soya sauce, ginger and wasabi; delicate and delectable. Live and learn another day!
December 29 Wednesday- Day 23
The night was double-booked; two dinners and lots of drinks. Food was served again at the tail-end of the night at which point my taste buds were comfortably numb and not too discerning.
December 30 Thursday- Day 24
Had lunch at my aunt's place. It was a feast. On the menu was achari bhindi (okra cooked in pickling spices), saag gosht (spinach with meat), daal, khata murghi salan (hot and sour chicken curry), sauteed zucchini, alu gobi and shrimp biryani, beans and hot roti. Delicious. Tomorrow is New Year's Eve. I will be back with a final recap as soon as I can emerge from my indulgent haze. Wishing all an early safe and happy new year!
Alu Gobi
This is a colorful, nutritious vegetable delight. It a combination of potato and cauliflower with either peas or carrots. This recipe is with carrots. Add 1/2 cup oil to a preheated pan and then1 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp. black mustard seeds and 1/2 tsp. minced garlic. When they start to sizzle, add 1 cup cauliflower (florets separated and cut up), 1 cup carrots (diced) and 1 medium potato (cubed). Season well with salt and black, saute uncovered for a little while, add a little water and cover to cook in the steam. When vegetables are cooked half way, approx. 15-20 mins, I add 1/2 a cup of balsamic vinegar. This is unusual preparation but does add a delicious piquant flavor to the dish. At this point, add more water if necessary and cover to cook till vegetables are soft. Garnish with a handful of chopped cilantro. Enjoy with daal and rice or roti.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Karachi Food Diary Day 18-20 (Minced meat patties, shami kabab)

Bangles in every hue
December 24, 2010 Friday- Day 18
At night was my niece's bismillah; a ceremony which marks the start of the religious education of a child, usually at the age of 4 years. A throwback to the days when generations of a family lived together and used every occasion as a reason to celebrate, feast and mingle, it is now a custom that is slowly fading from our busy, solitary lives. My sister's in-laws, however, keep it alive and celebrate with much gusto. The child is dressed in traditional regalia. If it is a girl, she is dressed in an outfit of bright colors heavily hand-worked in silver and gold. The outfit is completed by the donning of full jewelry including tikka (jeweled head piece that falls like a pendant in the center of the forehead), necklaces and bangles. A little princess. Excitement was building in our house the whole day and my niece was besides herself with excitement. During the day, the meal was simple; khichri, daal and kofta salan (meatball curry). In the evening, we headed to my sister's in-laws' house for the ceremony. The upstairs terrace was completely covered in a red and silver awning; the atmosphere was festive and warm. We settled down for the ceremony. My niece was to repeat some lines after her grandfather who was leading the ceremony. When she got on stage and looked around at the amateur photographers (who isn't these days?) crowding around her, flashbulbs clicking, she froze. No amount of coaxing, cajoling could bring her to repeat the lines. I think I would have done the same! It was intimidating. Anyway, she managed to mumble something towards the end and the ceremony was safely concluded. Now, for the feasting. The food was laid out. The menu was chicken salan, kabab, pulao and naan. It was regular catered food; heavy on oil and spice.
Fareed Ayaz Qawwals
After the food was the qawwali. This was the highlight of the night for the adults. Qawwali is Sufi devotional music that has found it's way out of the shrines and into the homes of devotees. The qawwals were the wildly popular Fareed Ayaz qawwals. The are globally revered for their music. I sat mesmerized and deeply moved by their performance which went on into the wee hours. At about 3 pm, a second feast was laid out. This was much more tempting than the earlier one; Baghare Timatar (Hyderabadi stewed tomatoes), kachori (pastry-like bread filled with a filling of meat) and kababs. Night went on after this with more music, drinks and paan (betel leaf concoctions). Returned home, exhausted and satiated.
Potato Dauphinoise
December 25, 2010 Saturday- Day 19
The day dawned late and lazy. Savored a home-cooked meal of timatar gosht (meat stewed in tomatoes) and saag (sauteed spinach). In the evening, some friends had booked one of the most popular restaurant in Karachi, Cafe Flo for a drinks and dinner fiesta of about 60 people. It was good to see familiar faces and share stories over some wine. Small quantity of the alcohol that comes into this city is legal, i.e., for diplomats, ex-pats, etc. but majority is smuggled in from Dubai by bootleggers and is sold at criminally exorbitant mark-ups. In wine, the choice is limited to whatever is available. Most of the time it comes down to just white or red. Further, alot of the stock is tampered with and unreliable. For the party, there was a crate of sparkling wine that turned out to be completely flat. Even with these problems, wine market is thriving and it is the drink of choice. Dinner, on the other hand, was delicious, if a little rich. Cafe Flo is the best French food in Karachi and the restaurant doesn't disappoint. The menu was fish in a creamy sauce (rich and succulent), lamb with mint chutney, potato dauphinoise and crispy carrot and beans side. It was fresh, creamy but light and delicately seasoned; so refreshing after the days of kababs and meat dishes.
December 26, 2010 Sunday- Day 20
Luncheon of comforting egg and potato curry, shami kabab and raita with piping hot naan. My favorite pickle shaljam ka achaar had been prepared on request and was now ready to eat. It was the perfect accompaniment to the meal.  At night, we ate at my aunt's house. She ordered the quintessential Karachi indulgence; nihari. This time I caved in and had it. It was delicious but sat heavy in the stomach.
Shami Kabab
Soak half cup split peas in water for an hour and drain. Combine with 1lb. finely ground beef and move the mixture to a heavy saucepan. Now add 1 finely chopped large onion, 1 tbsp. minced ginger, 1 tsp. minced garlic, 1 tsp. black pepper, 1/2 tsp. ground clove, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground coriander and salt to taste. Add a cup water and mix well. Simmer for 30 minutes on medium heat. Stir frequently to avoid sticking until moisture has more or less evaporated and the mixture is dry. set aside and allow to cool. 
Once at room temperature, add 1 chopped onion, 2 small minced green chillies, chopped mint leaves, chopped coriander leaves, 2 tbsp. chickpea flour. Knead by hand or give a quick whir in the food processor, taking care to not let it become too pasty. Refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm.
Remove from fridge and mix in 1 lightly beaten egg and 1 tbsp. whipped yogurt. Knead well. 
Divide the meat into palm-sized portion, probably around 10-12. Keep a bowl of water handy for moistening hands if mixture gets too dry. Form into balls and then flatten into patties.  Shallow fry these patties in a preheated pan over medium heat, making sure to evenly brown both sides. Serve piping hot.
Note: although cumin, coriander and clove powders are all easily available in the market, it is advisable to ground the whole spices at home. This can be done by using a pestle and mortar or a spice grinder. The flavor is more intense and fragrant. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Karachi Food Diary Day 15 - 17 (Biryani, rice casserole)

December 21, 2010 Tuesday- Day 15
Life has become much more chaotic. The house is full of people and kids. Meals are now not within my control. I eat as I am served but still somewhat consciously by keeping my breakfast regular and healthy and eating lots of vegetables on the side with all my meals.
In the evening, we ordered in food from a local restaurant called Bundu Khan. They have been in business for a good 60 years or so and are famous for their delectable, delicious kababs and tikkas. This is the place to go to for local food!
Seekh kabab
Chicken Tikka
It was out of this world. Juicy, tender, perfectly seasoned and fresh of the grill.. with hot naan and paratha. Heavenly. Thankfully, I had a small bite as we were invited to drinks later which actually turned out to be a elaborate feast of Hyderabadi food; my favorite. I couldn't not indulge in khatti daal with beans, baghare baingan (stewed eggplant-yum) and various other delicious foods.

December 22, 2010 Wednesday- Day 16
My dinner tonight was with my father-in-law. The menu was biryani and fried fish (despite having an aversion to fish, he always has it cooked for me when I visit). Biryani is an elaborate rice casserole usually cooked with a meat; either chicken or beef. The meat is first marinated with spices and cooked completely and then covered with a layer of parboiled white rice. It is then garnished with saffron, fried onions and fresh coriander, covered tightly to steam and cook without the addition of any more liquid. Before serving, the dish is mixed so that the meat and the rice combine yet retain their individual taste and appearance. It is an art and a process but the result is so worth it. Guiltily, I indulged in a double portion. The fish, on the other hand, was not crisp enough. In this part of the world, I feel the best form of eating fish is in a curry. Other versions are somewhat disappointing.

December 23, 2010 Thursday- Day 17
Light lunch and a dinner of khichri, kababs and yogurt. The reason for this being that I had a happy hour invite and then a dinner invite for later. In true desi fashion, dinner is served much after midnight after the guests have over-imbibed and danced their feet off. So, it is always wise to line the tummy before stepping out. The first event was a 1920's jazz party and the theme was taken very seriously. The guest were almost all in costume; pearls, head bands, feathers all around. The host had taken the initiative to provide accessories for the errant guest who came out of costume, like me. Much dancing, chatting and drinking later, we headed out to the dinner. The vibe here was different; bigger, smokier and a more intoxicated crowd was spread out between a few rooms and around the pool area. At this point, I had had enough. Mercifully, the food was served soon.  It was a spread of rich desi dishes; twice-cooked keema (minced meat), kababs, tikkas and the delicacies of nihari (traditional beef stew cooked over a couple of days) and pae (goat feet in curry). I had a small, restrained bite and happily called it a night soon after. It is dawning on me that this is definitely not the right season to embark on a quest for mindful eating!
Biryani originated in Persia and made it's way to South Asia, either through the Arabian Sea or Afghanistan. It was introduced to the military by Mumtaz Mahal (wife of Shah Jehan for whom the Taj Mahal was built and who lies buried there) as a 'whole meal'. The dish grew to gain immense popularity with regional versions abounding, each more delicious than the other. Wash 1 cup rice in several changes of water. In a heavy pot, bring water to a boil with 2 cinnamon sticks, 3 cloves, 4 cardamom pods and salt. When boil is reached, add rice, turn the heat down and cook till half done (the trick to determine doneness is to squeeze a rice kernel between the thumb and forefinger. If the rice breaks into three, soft ends and hard center, then it is ready). Remove from heat and spread out on a tray. Salt and pepper half a chicken, on-the-bone and cut up into several pieces. Thinly slice a large onion and fry in a preheated heavy dish on medium heat till golden brown. To the same oil, add the chicken pieces and also cook until golden. Remove the chicken and set aside. Now to the onions, add 2-3 alubukhara (dried plums), 1 tsp. ginger paste, 1 tsp. garlic paste, 2 tsp. coriander powder, 2 tsp. cumin powder, 1 tsp. ground garam masala, 1 tsp. cayenne and salt to taste. Now cook on medium- high heat till all the spices are blended into a smooth paste. Add the chicken pieces and 2 tbsp. yogurt. Mix well and keep cooking till the chicken is cooked through and the oil starts bubbling. Now the layering process starts. In a separate heavy pan, layer half the rice. Next, layer the chicken mixture*. Finally, add a layer of the remaining rice. This is then drizzled with a mixture of saffron soaked in warm milk and 1/2 tsp. sugar which should have been prepared 3-4 hours ahead of time. Next, the dish needs to be tightly covered. In the past, the lid of the pot was sealed by a roll of dough along the edges. If you want to take the extra step that is up to you. Move the dish to an oven preheated to 425 degrees and cook further for another 30 minutes. To serve, mix well. Enjoy with a side of plain whipped yogurt.

* At this point, I sometimes add another layer of thin lemon slices, julienned green chillies and chopped coriander. This is not the traditional preparation but adds a delicious burst of flavor. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Karachi Food Diary Day 12-14 (Crispy okra, Kurkuri bhindi)

December 18, 2010 Saturday- Day 12
Lazy leisurely day. Lunch was normal; daal, salan and roti. Simple. In the evening, we were invited out for dinner to my Dad's friends place. They have a new cook who is great at Chinese food. I was looking forward to the meal all evening. Chinese food in Karachi is delicious. It is the right mix of flavor with a good amount of spice thrown in. Also, I suspect, the use of Ajinomoto or chinese salt (MSG) is quite common and keeping all the negative effects in mind, it does impart a particular something to the food. So, for dinner we had fried rice, fish in tamarind sauce, pineapple chicken and noodles. All were delicious and some wine was much savored.

Snake Charmer
December 19, 2010 Sunday- Day 13
Another Sunday tradition is the beach. I love, love Karachi beach. The journey through the traffic, the financial area and the truck stops eases up as soon as you start nearing the coastline. The air becomes balmy, the light softens and the mood mellows. The dirt road seem to be leading into nowhere but soon, from afar, you see the 'huts' (fully built houses) lining the coast. Many bumps and jumps later, we arrived at our hut. It was a lovely day. Soaked up the sun and breathed in deeply, chatted, went for a long walk and then a jeep ride. Snacked the whole day on Paradise sandwiches, chips, French Bakery patties, Sind Club cookies and, of course, a few cold ones. As it started getting dark, we built a bonfire, huddled around and let the magic of the night sky and sound of the waves  wash over us. These magical moments are what make Karachi.


December 20, 2010 Monday- Day 14
Crazy, busy day. My sister arrived with her kids and the little monkeys ran all around the place, amusing everyone and generally creating a ruckus. The menu of the day was kumdah (pumpkin), kurkuri bhindi (crispy okra), shami kabab, aloo salan (meat and potato curry) and daal.

Kurkuri Bhindi
The name translates as crispy okra. The dish is served as a side and usually accompanies daal and rice. I avoid deep-fried foods mostly but melt when confronted with this delicious combination of crunchy, salty and spicy. It is an easy recipe and, when eaten in moderation, nourishing. Wash and pat dry 1 lb. okra. Cut into small pieces. In a bowl, toss the okra with 1 tbsp. chaat masala, 1 tsp. cayenne powder, 1 tsp. garam masala, juice of one lemon and salt to taste. Set aside.  Now, thinly slice a medium onion and fry in a hot wok till golden brown and crispy.  Remove the onion and drain on a kitchen towel. Keep the wok hot. Sprinkle the okra with chickpea flour till lightly dusted and add to the hot oil. Deep fry till crisp. Remove and drain on a kitchen towel. Once drained, move to a serving dish and mix with the crunchy onions. If desired, the final serving can be tossed with some more chaat masala and lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Karachi Food Diary Day 10-11 (Rice pudding, kheer)

December 16, 2010 Thursday- Day 10
Muharram 9th.. lots of majlises. Lunch was at home, deliberately light; kichri (light, fluffy rice and lentil dish), beef and potato cutlet and yogurt. There was also an interesting pasta dish. It seems the continental cuisine, or for that matter any other cuisine, is adapted in the most interesting way to the local desi palette. This dish was shell pasta with tomatoes, sliced green chillies, spring onion, cilantro and cheese (I believe cheddar) and, I suspect, a generous squish of tomato ketchup. Pasta was nice and soft; i know not the ideal, but tasty and satisfying in a very desi way.
Desi Pasta
A number of emotions well up at these majlises. It feels like there is a window opening up on itself. It is the palpable spirituality and I also credit my yoga practice that the overwhelming feelings I have are those of love and thankfulness; for being able to be in Karachi at this time, for those around me. Hisas at the two day gatherings was kheer; the most divine rice pudding in the world. Later that night went to my aunt's house for the final masjlis. Up till this point all the gatherings were, for the most part, for women. Tonight was mixed. It has been a family tradition dating back to my great-grandmother in the days immediately following India-Pakistan partition in 1947. The imambarah was glittering and even more divinely lit than ever. Various aunts and uncles took turns speaking and sharing their knowledge and experiences. The grand finale was the recitation of a beautiful lament written by my great-grandfather. After the evening ended, I did something that takes me back to my childhood; the centuries old candle-lighting ceremony. The philosophy behind it is to stay up the whole night and keep the memory alive of those who lost their lives the next day starting at dawn. This is done by visiting an odd number of imambarahs, lighting candles and singing laments. In the past we even went to as many as 9. However, keeping the time (we started at 11:30pm) and the security situation (this being Karachi, of course) in mind, we stuck to only 5. So, me, my mother, aunt and various cousins piled up in our cars and headed out. At one of the house, the men also joined in the lament and the result was powerful, harmonious and beautiful. Got home at 4:30am and fell asleep immediately.

December 17, 2010 Friday- Day 11
The 10th day. Most people observe a faqa on this day, i.e., refraining from eating and drinking water till about 4pm. At about that time, we went to a family friend's place where the necessary preparations and prayers were done. The food was delicious; rice, daal, saag (spinach), haleem (slow cooked lentil and meat dish) and baghare baingan (sauteed eggplant). It was lovely.
This rice pudding dessert is a favorite for all festive occasions. It is full of milky, nutty goodness. The most delicious kheer is the slowest-cooked one when the color changes from milky to a deep almond white. Rinse 1/4 cup short grain rice in a couple of changes of water. In a preheated heavy dish, add 1 tsp. butter and lightly sauteed the rice for a couple of minutes. Now add 4 cups of whole milk, turn heat to medium and bring to a slow, roiling boil. Once a boil has been reached, reduce heat to low and leave to cook for about 2-3 hours to achieve the creamy consistency. It is very important to keep stirring regularly during this period to prevent the pudding from sticking. As you see it thicken, add in 1/4 cup sugar, crushed seeds of 5-6 cardamom pods, 1/4 cup thinly sliced almonds and pistachios (reserve another 1/4 cup to serve as garnish), a pinch of saffron strands. Stir in all these ingredients for another 5 minutes. Take off heat and allow to cool. Taste to adjust sugar if necessary and garnish the dish with more almonds and pistachios slivers. Traditionally, individual dessert servings were allowed to cool and set in earthenware dishes. If you like to can do the same by scooping into individual ceramic or glass dessert bowls, garnishing and allowing them to cool in the fridge. Serves 4.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Karachi Food Diaries Day 6-9 (Fritters in Yogurt, Karhi)* honorable mention yogurt challenge

December 12 2010, Sunday- Day 6
Sunday is pulao day in our house. Since I can remember, we have had some variation of a rice casserole dish for lunch on this day. Today was yakhni pulao. Yakhni refers to stock, usually chicken but can also be beef and pulao is, ofcourse, another variation on pillaf. So, we had beef pulao with chicken kababs and raita (yogurt sauce). After my morning routine, we settled down to a leisurely lunch.

In the evening, we were driving down an open road with the lightly-hued Karachi skyline stretching in front of us when I noticed a flock of birds flying across our line of vision. Soon it was followed by another flock till we noticed that the whole sky was full of birds, some in V formations, some not but always with a definitive leader, flying in the same direction. They were migratory birds. It was an awesome sight. This city reveals flashes of nature when most unexpected. I called my father-in-law in the evening and he invited me out to bbq dinner at his friends. I happily accepted and had a great time. His group of friends are mostly ex-naval officers and have many tales to regale a new person. The food was very meat heavy; kababs, chicken tikka, sauteed spicy kidneys, at least 2 variations of yogurt sauce, potato dish and of course, lots of wine. I had a merry time and came home smiling.

December 13, 2010 Monday- Day 7
Had a light lunch of delicious bhindi (okra) and daal. In the evening, dropped by at my aunt's for dinner and ate karhi, again a variation on yogurt and fritters, this time delicately flavored with red chillies and turmeric.
White peacock (courtesy Maple Rose_stock)
December 14, 2010 Tuesday- Day 8
Again, the food is very similar to the past few days; lunch was chicken curry, medley of cauliflower, carrots and peas and sauteed squash and dinner was ground meat with bell peppers and turnip sabzi. It does sounds boring and repetitive but I am eating to my heart's content. An incredible thing happened today, we were driving on the same road as last time when I saw the birds and this time we came across two peacocks! One was white and the other was the more commonly seen emerald and blue color. They were just sauntering along on the side of the road! Really was the most random but joyous sight. Bizarre flashes of nature.. as I said, only in this crazy city!

december 15, 2010 Wednesday- Day 9
Today is the 8th of Muharram. The day today is dedicated to Abbas, the flag-bearer and defender of the group. Additionally, he was known for his towering physique and refined good looks and is held dear by many Shias. The activities from today build up and peak on the 10th. After that, the more strict Shias carry on mourning till another 30 days, while the moderates ease up. The day was filled with activity and visiting various majlises and homes. The biggest gathering for us is at my aunt's place. The highlight of the day is that the children of the family carry in the flags into the imambarah. They are the little flag-bearers. This is a generations old tradition; my mother remembers the days when she used to carry hers. So, lunch was a light helping of daal gosht (lentils with meat) but as the day went on, the list of hisas was neverending; sheermal, naan kabab, samosa, etc. Dinner was a niaz;  prayers are read on particular foods and then shared within a group. The food is considered blessed. The traditional foods are: paratha (pan-fried bread), kabab or pasandey, halwa and a salad of onion, white radish, ginger and mint. These offerings are accompanied by sherbet of some sort. Well, we were invited to two niazes and of course, I had to taste at both places. Delicious. Groan.

This is another variation on the yogurt and fritters combination although this dish is more elaborate (the yogurt is made into a gravy) and always eaten as a main dish. Whip 2 cup of yogurt until smooth and creamy. Add 1/2 cup chickpea flour, 1 medium onion chopped, 1/4 tsp. turmeric, 1/2 tsp. ground ginger, 1/2 tsp. ground garlic, 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper, juice of one lemon, salt to taste. Combine the ingredients by gradually adding water (about 1 cup) and keep mixing into a smooth paste. Pour the mixture into a pan and cook covered on medium-low heat for about 2 hours. Add water as necessary over this period of time to ensure the right gravy consistency. Keep stirring. Separately, combine 11/2 cup chickpea flour with 3/4 cup water in a mixing bowl and whip thoroughly with a silicon spatula ensuring that no lumps remain. To this add, 1 medium chopped raw onion, 2-3 sliced green chillies, 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds, a pinch of baking powder and salt. Mix again and let sit to settle. When the gravy is almost cooked, it is time to make the fritters. Scoop up a spoonful and drop into a wok of hot oil. Cook till golden brown, remove from the oil  and directly drop into the yogurt mixture. Continue the process till all the batter is used up. Turn off heat and remove. For the tempering, add 2 tbsp. oil to a preheated pan. Throw in 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds, 1 tsp mustard seeds, 2 cloves garlic sliced, whole red chillies split in half and 5-6 curry leaves. Let the mixture sizzle and the garlic turn golden, then pour over the main dish and cover to smoke. Serve with white basmati rice.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Karachi Food Diaries Day 5 (Spinach and meat curry, palak gosht)

December 11. 2010 Saturday- Day 5
I was awakened by my brother this morning who had flown in the red-eye from New York via Abu Dhabi. He couldn't sleep and wanted company. I joined him for breakfast. My usual, which is now becoming a happy routine. We chatted for a while. I then went in for yoga. Lunch was eaten on the veranda; aloo tikias (potato patties filled with ground beef), bhindi (sauteed okra) and daal with salad and roti. Another great home cooked meal.
Feeling satiated, I took a nap and then went for a majlis. The hisa today was the famous Karachi chicken patty- chicken mashed with lots of butter, salt, ground black pepper and other spices in a fluffy, crunchy pastry. I dream about one of these on a regular basis. I was invited out but declined to enjoy the peace of a quiet home evening. These evenings are rare and I want to make the most of them. Dinner was palak gosht (spinach with lamb) and turnip sabzi with rice.
 Palak Gosht is the ultimate hearty, nutritious dish. Salt and pepper lamb cut up and preferably on the bone. Heat a heavy pan and then add oil. Sear the lamb pieces on all sides. Remove from pan. In the same pan, add 1 ground medium onion and let it turn reddish. At this point add 1 tbsp. ground garlic and ginger each. Mix together and fry for a couple of minutes and then add the meat and any juices that may have accumulated. Add 1 tsp. turmeric, 2 tsp. coriander powder and 1 tsp. cayenne powder and cook on medium heat till the aroma changes and mellows and the meat starts rendering its own fat. At this point, have a quick taste to check the spices and if need be add more salt. Now add 1 large bunch spinach, cover tightly, turn down heat and let cook for 10 minutes so that the spinach releases its own water. Uncover, mix well so the flavor is well distributed, cover again and let cook for another 30 minutes or until the meat tenderizes. Serve with lemon wedges and white basmati rice.  

Friday, December 10, 2010

Karachi Food Diaries Day 4 (dumplings in yogurt, dahi phulki)

December 10, 2010 Friday- Day 4
Wrestling with my jetlag, I took a full lexo last night (with half a tablet the night before which had led to only 4.5 hours of sleep). Lexo, as it is fondly called, is short for Lexotanil or Bromazepam, a muscle relaxant and sedative, and is the guilty pleasure of Karachi ladies. So, I arose from a hazy full night's sleep, feeling groggy yet oddly rested. Breakfast was the same as yesterday with the addition of an orange. I ate it sitting in the breezy, netted veranda with the chirp, chirp of sparrows and the muted sounds of the neighbors going about their business.
Okra rules; at least 3 regularly broken
Lunch was at the ever-popular Okra restaurant with some friends. As appetizers, we ordered beef carpaccio, chilli prawns with avocado and grilled halumi with asparagus and baby aubergine for the table.
The carpaccio was tender and wafer thin. However, it was dressed with shredded sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, arugula and shaved parmesan; an unusual preparation, not wholly unpleasant but far from the traditional. It was a bit dry though and I did miss the lemony dressing, the bite of black pepper and the crunchy complexity of Parmesan cheese.
Prawns and Avocado
The prawns were overcooked and tough and the avocado unripe.
Partially consumed Halumi platter
The halumi was a pretty plate; the cheese was firm, if a little bit too salty and dry, and smeared with an aubergine puree. The aubergine and asparagus were nicely grilled and the pomegranate seeds were a nice garnish.
Seekh kabab
Apparently, I ordered the wrong entrée.  Instead of ordering fish or any of the other western dishes that they are known for, I went for the seekh kabab in my quest for a desi kick. Bad move. It came on a bed of haphazardly chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumbers with an accompaniment of watered down yogurt sauce. It looked like a dish bored with itself. The kababs were again dry, over-cooked and over-seasoned. My friend who ordered the other Pakistani dish, sarson saag (mustard greens) with makai roti (thick corn bread), a quintessential and rustic Punjabi dish, was also unimpressed. All the fish entrée, on the other hand, were well-received. However, the general consensus at the table was that the food that day was below par.

From there, I headed to my mother's aunt's place who was having a majlis also. It was a poignant and sad visit because she had recently lost her husband and was full of tears. I shed some with her. This month of Muharram is therapeutic. Since the expression of grief is so accepted and even encouraged, it can be a release for emotions that are unrelated to the intent of the gathering. Shias grieve openly and temporarily ease their emotional baggage. It is a cleansing, reflective month as it lifts the weight of the world to an extent and helps us go inwards. For me, the overwhelming feeling these days is that of gratitude. In the past few months, I have been very restless for certain reasons. This turmoil within has at times translated into moodiness and negativity. My thankfulness now is for being blessed with such strong, generous and wise people in my life. My family and my love emanate their particular strengths in my microcosm and challenge me to be better than myself. The hisa today was potato samosas. I accepted but didn't partake as I wanted to stick to 'mindful eating'. Also, I had sneaked a peak at the lunch menu at home from earlier in the day and wanted to save my appetite for leftovers at dinner.
Dinner... yum. The menu was tehri (spiced rice and potato pulao), sauteed carrot and cauliflower medley, dahi phulki (fritters in yogurt) and daal with roti. I ate contentedly, with full concentration and postponed my reformation program for another day.. seriously.
Dahi Phulki
Dahi Phulki is the centuries old remedy for parched, hot summer days. It is eaten as a snack or as a side dish to compliment other more fiery concoctions. Soak 1/2 cup urad dal in water for 2-3 hours. Remove and mix with 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, a generous pinch of black pepper and salt and some cayenne pepper and mash together. Keep mixing and add a litle water and some baking soda to achieve an even but thick consistency. Heat a small wok and add oil till it almost fills the wok. When the oil surface starts to glimmer, scoop up the mixture with a spoon and drop in the oil. Repeat till all the mixture is in the wok. Turn heat to medium and let the fritters cook (as the lentils are raw, they will need a little extra time). Separately, add 1 tbsp sugar to 3 cups of yogurt and whip till smooth and creamy. Also, fill another pan with cool water. Keep an eye on the fritters and when they start turning golden brown remove with a slotted spoon and immediately drop in the pan of water. Let them soak for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the cold water and gently squeeze between the palms till the excess liquid drains. Lay the fritters on the serving dish and starts layering with yogurt till completely covered. Drizzle with tamarind juice and sprinkle with chaat masala.
Chaat Masala: amchoor (dried mango powder), cumin, kala namak (black salt), coriander, dried ginger, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Karachi Food Diaries Day 1-3 (Fish curry, Machli ka Salan)

December 7, 2010 Tuesday- Day 1
I got here at the godly hour of noon after an hour delay from Dubai; in the ungodly state of not having slept for the past 24 hours. I had left New York with the intention of writing a food diary to see where I find myself with this passion and the added incentive of mindful eating. I am currently reading Beard on Food which is a fitting muse. Airline food sitting discontent in my stomach, eyes dry and itchy with sleep, I breathed in the smoky winter air of Karachi and let it settle in; nothing like coming back to this mercurial, volatile, dusty, beloved city!
My first meal was in the evening; alu gosht (meat and potato curry), kaali daal (black lentils) and karela (sauteed bitter gourd). It was deliciously home cooked and hit the spot. I asked for some sliced onions, lemon and green chillies to round out the taste. I had the velvety curry with roti (flatbread) and the the lentils and karela with rice. Yum!

December 8, 2010 Wednesday- Day 2
The next day jet lag got the better of me. Got up much after 11am. Broke my fast with tea and 2 whole wheat toasts with cream cheese. Lunch was velvetier chicken curry, smoky baingan ka bharta and masoor ki daal (red lentils). I consumed a total of 2 rotis and of course lots of lemon, chopped lettuce leaves and tomatoes and yogurt.
Since it was the first day of Muharram, in the evening, I went to a majlis (religious gathering) at an aunt's place who maintains a small imambarah at home. The month of Muharram is dedicated to the memory of Imam Hussein and his band of loyal followers who ran afoul of the ruling caliph of the day and were mercilessly ambushed and massacred. It is a period of deep mourning and galvanizing spirituality for Shias. A home imambarah is a symbolic representation of the rozas or places of burials of the saints. My aunt has inherited hers from her mother who in turn had inherited it from hers and from here onwards it is her responsibility to commemorate it every year at this time. This imambarah is set up in a large almirah. It comprises of miniature, intricately carved silver replicas of the rozas, black plush velvet alams (flags) resplendent with the names of the prophet, saints and verses in zardozi (thick embroidery with silver and gold thread). The interior of the almirah is brightly lit and garlanded with leis of fresh red roses and jasmine. The delicate fragrance wafts down and around and heightens the fragile beauty of the scene. The rest of the living room is cleared out, the seating pushed against the walls and the floors covered in crisp chandinis (white sheets) where the more agile mourners, all in black or muted colors, sit cross-legged or legs folded demurely beneath them. The effect is dazzling and heartbreaking. After the laments have been soulfully rendered, tears unabashedly shed and the salaam (obeisance) offered, the attendee disperse and mingle. One of the highlight at the end is the 'hisas' or food offerings that each participant is given. These can range from plain dried peas to sheermal (saffron-scented sweet naan) with reshmy kebab (literally, silky kebab), one of the richest, most succulent foods I have ever tasted. This evening the hisa was barfi (a condensed milk and sugar delicacy) and namak para (small, oblong pastry puffs with cumin seeds fried in oil). I had a handful of the latter with evening tea.
Dinner was simple as I was eating alone; torai (sauteed zucchini), leftover baingan and daal with roti and salad.

December 9, 2010 Thursday- Day 3
Today, I decided to taper off my self-indulgence and try and move toward more restrained and healthful eating. Also, I was starting to feel the rumblings of Karachi tummy, very similar to Delhi belly. Hmm.. mixed results. Breakfast was good. Oatmeal cooked in water topped with flaxseed meal, walnuts, dried raisins and drizzled with honey.. a treat actually. I followed this by an invigorating yoga session. As a side note, I am soo happy with  It has the best classes and is a great investment for the small price, especially if you are in a place without access to other yoga outlets. Lunch took care of my good intentions. It was bhindi gosht (okra and meat curry- yes, curries are very popular), and leftover torai, daal and roti. I was still feeling the effects of jetlag and completely overate. Immediately, took a long nap and then went to my other aunt's place where i had a chicken sandwich and dahi barah (fritters in yogurt) with tea. Dinner again was... correct, fish curry! I am a little over-indulged and curried out, Karachi tummy in full swing but tomorrow is a new day. Reset button pressed.
Fish Curry
Salt and pepper 4-5 filleted portions of a firm, white fish; halibut, haddock or cod all work well, and set aside. Add oil to a preheated pan and fry 1 white onion slivered till it turns a nice golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon and lay on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Preheat another heavy pan and add oil. Immediately add 6-7 curry leaves, 1 tsp. mustard seeds and 1 tsp. fenugreek seeds. These will sputter and brown very quickly. To avoid this, add 1 tbsp. water. Let sizzle for 30 seconds or so. Then add, 1 tsp. minced ginger and garlic. Again, if needed, add another splash of water to the mix. It is important to prevent the ingredients from acquiring the bitter, burnt taste. Stir for 60 seconds and then add the spice mix; 1 tsp. cayenne pepper, 1/2 tsp. turmeric, 2 tsp. coriander powder, 1 tsp. roasted cumin powder and 1 tsp. salt- last can be adjusted while cooking to individual taste, and fry the mixture till the raw spice aroma mellows and becomes more cohesive, about 3-5 minutes. Chop the earlier browned onions and also add to the dish. Separately, whip 2 cups yogurt to a smooth consistency. Slowly add this to the spices and keep stirring to mix smoothly and avoid curdling.  Now add water to create the desired curry consistency and bring the ingredients to a boil. Important to keep stirring throughout. Carefully lay fish fillets in the curry dish, reduce heat and cover to cook. Once the fish has been added, don't use the spoon to move it around. The dish now can be stirred only by being grasped by the handles and swiveled. Cook for 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and garnish with chopped green chillies, chopped dill. Serve with naan or roti.