Posts from the “Food” Category

Wellness Ritual: Tea

Posted on November 9, 2014

Now that its autumn, my favourite way to not hate the cold weather is to sip on a lot of hot tea.  “If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points” , says George Orwell. I agree. In my series, learn to cook, i want to start with tea. I am an avid tea drinker. And here are a few of my favorites i want to share. Part two will contain rituals and techniques to make tea. 

 

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The task of Zen, the task of Tea, is to be entirely in the moment. Dogen, in his Chiji shingi, reminds us that when we are cooking or washing the dishes, we are not to be bothered with thoughts of what we will do next, worried about the value of our stocks and bonds, or even envisioning the Buddhist saints. We are to be single-mindedly engaged in what we are doing at this very moment. In the Way of swordsmanship, the feet, hands, body, mind, and sword must all be manifested in a single stroke.

                                                                        – Wilson, William Scott. The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea.

 

A few years ago, i was diagnosed with ‘stomach irritation from drinking too much black coffee’. And my Chinese labmates suggested drinking tea as an alternative. I liked the idea and started trying out boxed tea bags. A year later, i met Peng Zang. Peng was a visiting scholar from China who is a practicing Buddhist and has vested interest in martial arts. He practiced many wellness routines. And these routines were very bizarre to me, but only for a short period of time before they got to me. I would see him set an alarm on the phone, that would prompt him to get up from his desk every 50 minutes, to take a walk. We would see him do some martial art-sy moves in his office, which became a spectacle around the lab. And brew a fresh pot of tea during his ‘breaks’. All these were justified because of how brilliant he was in his field of expertise. One other thing i noticed was how he took care of his heirloom cast iron tea pot and the teas he used. It was always loose leaves or flowers of sort.  And the research started.

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Firstly, the importance he gave to movement and giving himself breaks. Secondly, the Cast Iron. Finally, the tea. There was something very earthy as well as ritualistic about using loose tea. You get to pick the quantity, quality and get creative with mixing your own blend. Pay attention to the nuances of drinking tea, which is Zen in every sense of the world ! Three years later, i have accumulated a tea box as well as some knowledge about how it should be done. To the point i fantasize about attending/hosting Japanese Tea Ceremonies.

A Few Varieties I Adore

Note: I added a few links to finding the products mentioned. American mainstream stores have over priced tea bags, which according to me are not sustainable and kill the soul of tea. There are a few places online to source great quality organic teas like Harney and Sons, Bellocq, etc. But if ordering online, you pay for shipping and taxes. Teas are native to China, Japan and India. They produce some of the best teas. If going for the non organic kind, Ebay is one of the best sources. There is free shipping by most vendors and all the links included are been tried and tested by me over the years. They are great quality for the price. Next best is local Asian grocery stores. You find the popular tried and tested kinds. The only downside is not being able to read the labels. Tag along with an Asian friend, for help.

 

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Green teas from China and Japan are pride of the traditional tea producers. These are the teas that are most popular in the world and has the highest sales volumes in the recent year, over taking the popularity of Black tea. Young tea leaves are picked, wilted and heated either with steam or dry cooking to kill the enzymes in the leaf that causes oxidation. It is high in anti-oxidants and is attributed to increased metabolism, weight loss, anti-aging benefits, etc. It is my afternoon pick me up that i drink after my lunch. In general, the subtle, vegetative flavor and aroma of most green tea is well suited to mild or subtly-flavored foods, such as seafood, rice, salads or chicken. This kind is my go-to easy tea. For when i want a routine and keep awake in the lab.

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Genmaicha is the Japanese name for green tea combined with roasted brown rice.  This type of tea was originally drunk by poor Japanese, as the rice served as a filler and reduced the price of the tea; which is why it is also known as the “people’s tea.” It was also used by those persons fasting for religious purposes or who found themselves to be between meals for long periods of time. Tea steeped from these tea leaves has a light yellow hue. Its flavor is mild and combines the fresh grassy flavor of green tea with the aroma of the roasted rice.

Shop: 1 , 2

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Matcha is a finely ground tea powder made from Tencha leaves. It is prepared by whisking the tea powder with hot water in a ceramic bowl. Matcha is the primary form of tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The sweet flavor of matcha is due to the amount of amino acids present in the tea and the higher the quality, the sweeter and deeper the flavor is.The art of producing, preparing and consuming this powdered tea became a ritual performed by Zen Buddhists in China. Matcha eventually became an important part of rituals in Zen monasteries in Japan and was elevated to level of high culture and skill in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, which is still the case today. This is my official coffee substitute. I add this tea to my morning smoothie. And it gives me the pick me up i need, during cold winter mornings.

Shop: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 

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White tea is made from the young tea bud and is the closest to the natural state of the tea leaf. It is plucked just before the leaf opens on the stem and is air-dried to lock in its color and flavor. The chlorophyll is not mature in this bud and that gives its “white” appearance. It has both caffeine and healthy polyphenols.Its less processed hence retaining more of its anti-oxidants. White tea is my favourite kind of tea ever, and i definitely think its undervalued.  My favourite way to drink it is paired with a jasmine bud. The aroma complements its delicate-body, and innate sweetness. And its smoother than any other tea i have tasted so far. Because of the extremely subtle flavor of white teas, it is recommended to pair it them with only the mildest of flavors. If paired with strong foods,  the natural sweetness of this beverage, as it will be overwhelmed by the food’s aroma. This category of tea is the most delicate one, so it should be paired only with lightly flavored foods.

Shop: 1 ( absolutely the best i found, never need to try another)

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Pu-Erh is the original and ancient variety of tea tree that can only be grown in Yunnan, the birthplace of tea. The people of Yunnan traditionally eat a very fatty diet, but have low rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and the reasons is often attributed to this tea. Pu’erh is fermented green tea made from special broad leaf tea leaves that have a unique chemical composition, that makes them suitable for ageing. This tea is graded and classified by how old it is. It was definitely an acquired taste for me. The first sip ever felt like i was eating clay. Now, i absolutely love it. My favourite pairing with this tea is liquorice when drinking it stand alone. This tea pairs well with chicken and meats, stir-fried foods, and anything with lots of animal fat or greasy foods.

Shop: 1, Asian grocery stores.

yerbamate

Yerba mate has been used as a base for herbal medicines in South America for centuries. Its more nutritious than green tea. Rumored to be a nerve stimulant and apparently increases mental concentration. While there are no studies to prove this, but its linked to better absorption of carbohydrates and increased muscle endurance. Boy, i would love that. I am currently testing this tea. Its growing on me. But i am yet to experience the alleged benefits.

Shop: 1 , 2

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Indian inspired teas are the ones i was most familiar with, the ones i saw my country men drink when i was a child. The chai is a black tea blend, that is popular in England and India. And now that starbucks do a version of it in America, i see it everywhere. I make my own blend with a few varieties from Teavana. I prefer my tea without milk which sort of kills the essence of this tea, but i like it anyways. Another tea that doesn’t gets its due, is Tulsi tea. Its the holy tree for the religious Hindus and ayurveda claims many many medicinal benefits to this tea. The taste of this leave is just divine. It reminds me of visits to the temples and my travels in India.

Shop: Chai: 1 , 2 , 3  Tulsi: 1 ( very mild ), 2 ( my pick )

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Floral teas like Jasmine, Camomile, Lavender, Rooibos are great teas to drink at the end of the day and before bed when caffeine is a no-no. They also make great additives to make DIY tea blends. Chamomile is known for its soothing properties. Jasmine is very calming and relaxing on me. Lavender, makes the prettiest purple tea. Rooibos has many medicinal properties like anti-aging, soothing on the stomach, high mineral content, etc. These are the extra luxuries in my tea box and make great night time teas.

Shop: Jasmine buds (1, 2). Camomile ( 1, 2). Lavender (1) Rooibos ( 1, 2) Hibiscus ( 1


“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Dear tea, Thank you for all the small pleasures that are not so small in reality.

 

 

An Essay on my Love for ‘Pho’

Posted on July 25, 2014

A few years ago, on my birthday, Harsha took me to a Vietnamese restaurant on campus, Kai Hanon (literally means Festival Opening). We have been going there for a few years but for one dish: Deep fried lemongrass chicken. But one glance around the place, and you will find everyone else’s dishes more interesting. And a major chunk of the Asians out there slurping on a certain noodle soup. Noodles in a soup? Never saw anything like that before. I even ridiculed it in my head. But this birthday, I wanted to try something new. And there was nothing else I knew on the menu.  When the owner comes down to our table, to take our order, I pointed at the next table and asked for that dish with noodles and soup. He gave me a curious look and asked ‘beef okay?’. ‘Yes’. Harsha looks at me doubtfully and suggests we order a backup. When it finally arrived, first slurp, ‘Harsha, its like bone soup, but more fatty. Must be the beef’. Second slurp, ‘I don’t know. Can I eat your food?’. But eventually, it grew on me and I couldn’t stop taking bites of the steak and slurping my soup. The sriracha made my Indian taste buds happy, but the original flavor was so well balanced that i decided to lay off it. Harsha watched in disbelief that i ate my whole bowl and ignored the precious lemongrass chicken. And so it started. A love affair with Pho.

Whenever i can get a take out, it is almost always Pho. The salty soup, the steak, the rice noodles cooked to perfection, the toppings, …. i adore it all.  As a home cook, a quick estimation of cost looking at the ingredients makes my paying 10$ for a bowl of pho not so smart. Been wanting to make it myself but been put it off thinking its not worth buying additional spices for one experiment.


When i started looking for a theme for this blog, i picked ‘Duet Theme‘. I wanted to see what it looks like and started searching for blogs using this theme. That is when i stumbled upon ‘The Squeaky Robot‘. I adore her blog and everything about her. And she has a post dedicated to Pho. It was a ‘i found someone special’ moment i very rarely find with bloggers. I dedicated a good chunk of my weekend and read it cover to cover. Back to the story, she made pho. She is a world traveller and wanderer. And i have a well stocked kitchen. If she can do it,  i should be able to do it.


With the impending trip to fetch groceries round the corner, I suggested the asian market. Harsha is happy i did pick ‘whole (paycheque) foods’ or some farmers market miles away. We pick up our usual stuff and then i tell him to stay back since he may not be able to handle the meat section. Tell a man he cant handle it, and vola, he accompanies you where ever you want him to go. Soon, he is making faces that read ‘disgusting’ , ‘can we go now’, ‘what on earth do you want from here?’, ‘i dont want to eat it’, …. Well Harsha, the prophecy of “i want to learn how to cook every part of every animal” is coming true. Four years of marriage and now you get to see the true colors.

The meat section in Mekong is like going to another country. People from many many nationalities come out here. You will see men hunched over crabs poking the crabs belly to test the fleshiness. And all sorts of sea animals swimming in tiny glass box cages ready to be sold. You can learn the anatomy of these animal by hovering around. And have a casual conversation with the butcher about change in the quality of lobsters due to global warming. I had three parts written down in my grocery list : oxtail, knuckle bone, steak. I stood next to the oxtails and stare, unable to decide how much or how many i want. The butcher comes by and yells, “how much?”. “One”, i reply. “One tail”. “Full tail?”, he askes pointing to a tail hanging at the back of the butcher shop. “One pound”, i say, since it feels like the smarter thing to say at the moment. He smiles. “What are you making?”, he askes. “Pho”. “Cheaper bones are over there”, he says. We have a little chat in broken english. Finally, i warm up to the surroundings. And the place no longer intimidates me. Occasionally, I check on Harsha to see if he is still around. I pick up a few more ‘bits and bobs’, literally. I am all set to cook.


Some real good explanation on how to make pho can be found at: Meat Loves Salt (They are a vietnamese and it is a family recipe. They elaborate on the variations one could make and the results hence forth) & Steamy Kitchen ( I trust her recipes. And kudos to her for following up with the comments and making variations to her recipe and giving detailed explanations. All the signs of a recipe maker to be trusted.)

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Some interesting facts about Pho:

0. Its a street side breakfast item in Vietnam. These vendors open their ‘stores’ at 7am and its not uncommon to sell out by 11am.

1. The Vietnamese judge the Pho by the flavor of the broth. When locals discuss good pho places, they only talk about the broth. Rest of the add ons like noodles, meat, mint, sprouts, etc are fresh ingredients that are available at all the places and hence are not the distinguishing factors.

2. Pho is referred to as ‘labor of love’ since the broth requires extremely long time to simmer. And Pho refers to the noodle and not soup.

3. If you are eaten Pho is a traditional setting or in the US, there is a good chance it is laden with MSG. I know its the ‘no no’ ingredient, but street food vendors and restauranteurs who are not chefs use it as a short cut to make tastier broth.

4. The legend has it that its the French influence that brought this varient to the Vietnam in the 1900s. Some experts say its derived from the French word ‘Pot au Feu’ which means ‘Pot on fire’. Also, the charring of the onion and ginger, are French techniques for making soups.

Read full history: History of Pho Noodle Soup. Give it a chance. Try everything once !

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A farmers granddaughter

Posted on March 19, 2014

My macbook pro died out on me a few weeks ago after years of loyal service and putting up with my abuse. When it died out, i lost a big chunk of media and documents, but the content i missed sorely, were pictures from my hometown.Everything else can somehow be lived without. Now that i got a new macbook (wohoo!), i am back to blogging. And here i am, quickly making a post with the recovered pictures. Hope you get a glimpse of the life my grandparents live in India.

I come from a family where most of my ancestors can be traced to be farmers. This is not very uncommon because India was and to some extent, still is an agricultural society. My previous generation were the forerunners who ventured out to take up other professions. But the influence of grandparents and their lifestyle is very strong in our family. I would have had none of it if not for the summers spent in Bellary and Devinagar. My bother and me would roam the streets/fields/barn/yard/lake side all day. We spent our days day dreaming, wandering, collecting sticks and stones, all day long. We would follow our grandpa around when he went to the fields to inspect the crops. And he would take pride in the fact that we were all ears if he had to teach anything.  Lot of my family has this sort of connection and pride in our farming roots.

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I left my parental home at 17 and India at 21. Living in America definitely makes me appreciate my ancestors and miss their practices. I look for traces of it in my everyday life. And being an engineer inculcates the curiosity to ties up the ‘why we did what we did’ part of the knowledge quest. It has been an awesome journey so far. What ever i learn, and where ever i go, i still remain a farmers granddaughter. Forever.

Other places to find me:  Pinterest //  Instagram // Tumblr