Phog ka raita
When it comes to heat and cold, I follow two principles. In winter, I wrap myself up the way hilly folks do (have you noticed that in the hills, the tourists are always under-clad, and the locals look like they are prepared for a blizzard?). When it comes to heat, I take the advice of people who’ve lived in arid zones. For they know best how to tackle a heat wave.
We have all been advised to take as much of liquid as we can in this weather. The heat — dry or humid — saps our energy and dehydrates us. Liquids, as even the nursery kid with his Mickey Mouse water bottle knows, give us back the water and salts that we lose from our body through the day.
People from regions such as Rajasthan know what it’s like to be thirsty. And that’s why I am taking the advice given by a chef originally from Rajasthan, and now based in Calcutta, very seriously. Pranay Kumar Singh, the executive sous chef of Swiss˘tel, Calcutta, knows how to tackle the heat. Fight it with all kinds of liquids, he says.
But the problem with chilled liquids is that we end up drinking all the wrong kinds. Beers and colas, for instance, may quench our thirst but do little to rehydrate the body. Juices work but pump our bodies with unnecessary sugar and salt. Shikanji — or nimboo pani — does its bit, no doubt, but how many glasses of lime water can you have in a day? Clearly, what you need is variety.
The chef, who has been studying the cuisine of Rajasthan (he used to be a sous chef at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur), has quite a few suggestions for us. In Rajasthan, traditional coolers are mostly prepared with yoghurt or sometimes even cereals. Yoghurt goes into the healthy and nutritious raab, which is made with either maize or millet flour (see recipe). In winter, people have it hot; in summer, it works to cool the system.
Many parts of Rajasthan, as we know, have little in terms of vegetables and fruits. Elsewhere, fruits are often used to make coolers in the summers. In Rajasthan, the people replaced these with their own local plants. Take something called phog, a hardy plant that grows in sandy soil. Its seeds are a bit like ajwain, and its flowers, known as phogalo, are used in raitas. The chef soaks the phog in water, washes them well, and then mixes them in yoghurt. This again is served chilled during this season.
The state may not be known for its vegetation but the quality of its milk is far better than that in many other parts of the country — mainly because of the open field grazing that takes place in Rajasthan. That’s why its curd is so delicious. And when you add curd to your summer drinks, you end up infusing a distinct taste to the local coolers.
The chef, who studied at the Institute of Hotel Management in Bhub-aneswar, has been culling recipes from various parts of Rajasthan. One of his cooler recipes has come to him from a friend of his, who used to travel across the state (and outside) with his musical troupe and came across many traditional recipes during his trips. This is for a drink called amal vanya. The name at once conjures up images of a lush green expanse, and cools almost the way a wooded forest does.
This drink is a bit like the jaljeera that is immensely popular in the North. For one glass of amal vanya, you have to take 250ml of iced water, 25g of jaggery, 10g of tamarind pulp, 2g of roasted cumin powder and 2g of black salt. Mix all the ingredients together with water and serve it chilled.
I like what the chef has been working on, for these are coolers that few outside Raj-asthan would know of. Most of our ghols — which is a word for lassi in Bengal but is used as a generic term for anything mixed with water in the North — are the old predictable ones. Every region had its own gamut of summer drinks but many of these coolers have lost out to packaged and marketed drinks. Quite a few of our traditional drinks are slowly fading out because of the easy availability of juices, squashes and colas.
The fruit drinks that were common when we were young — aam panna, phalsey ka sherbet and bel sherbet — are very rarely prepared at home. I can’t remember when I last had a glass of kokum sherbet — a tangy fruit juice that’s as good to look as it is to taste. Two of the popular summer drinks that marked my childhood have disappeared from my life altogether. One was a simple mix of cold water and boora (unrefined sugar), and the other was a drink that was prepared with cold water and fresh milk.
I am all for ringing in the new. But I wish change didn’t have to come trampling on some of our old traditions.
Bajre ka raab
• 500g curd • 50g millet flour • salt to taste • 10g crushed ginger •50ml ghee • 20g cumin powder • 5g green chillies
Make a batter with curd, millet flour and water. Allow it to ferment at room temperature for two hours. Now mix the batter well. Heat ghee in a wok. Pour the batter into it. Add crushed ginger and green chillies. Allow to simmer on a slow flame for five minutes or so. Remove from heat and season with cumin powder and salt. Allow it to cool. Have it chilled in the summer and hot during the winter season.