To celebrate Holi, the festival of colour and love- a piece on India. Recently I spent a couple of weeks in India in Ahilya Fort, a small heritage hotel overlooking the Narmada, one of the most sacred rivers in India. From dawn to dark, there’s endless activity below the fort on the ghats, along the river bank. Local devotees and pilgrims worshipping and offering prayers to the holy river which nourishes and waters their crops. They perform a variety of puja and aarti and bathe in the river to wash away their sins. Women wash their clothes along the waters edge, children feed the fish and dive into the chilly waters giggling with delight. It’s a riot of colour, women bath in their saris and then hold them up in the gentle breeze to dry. Little wooden boats with gaily painted canopies ferry people across the river to the Shalivan Temple in Naodatodi, a village of a few hundred friendly people who earn their living from basic farming, growing bananas, corn and cotton. There’s a brick works close to the village where it’s intriguing to watch the handmade bricks being individually made by both men and women then dried in the sun and baked in a hand built kiln.
The village is tranquil, with a wonderfully welcoming friendly atmosphere, children run out of their houses to meet us…..another household invited us in to share a cup of chai. ..
The little town is still deliciously rural, all the needs of the local community are catered for by the numerous small shops and stalls. But Maheshwari is most famous for its hand weaving industry both silk and cotton which employs over 5,000 people.
Women come from all over India to choose a Maheswari silk saree from Rehwra. Buyers from posh shops from all over the world order superb handwoven cotton scarves and fabric from Women Weave.
There’s a tiny shoe makers shop at the bottom of the hill below the fort, close by the miller, where local farmers bring their corn and wheat to be ground, a Pan maker, several little flower shops where chrysanthemum flowers, roses and other blossoms are threaded onto cotton to make garlands to embellish the temple gods or to welcome visitors. Several potters made utilitarian earthenware vessels both for the household and temple ceremonies. Many jewellers sell gold and silver, drapers sitting cross legged sell wildly colourful sarees and bolts of materiel side by side with tailors peddling away on old treadle sewing machines. Half way down the main street a man chats to passers-by while he presses clothes ‘en plain air’ with a heavy iron filled with hot coals – all the shop fronts are fully open and customers remove their shoes before they enter.
Barbers lather up their customers chins and snip their hair in full view of passers-by…It’s all very colourful and convivial. Hardware shops are packed from floor to ceiling with kitchen utensils, farm implements, rat traps, kari (metal woks), water coolers. Now more and more brightly coloured plastic is replacing tin, metal and earthenware.
Not a supermarket in sight, lots of little grocery shops also selling snacks, sev, namkin and lottery tickets.
The Fish Market is down by the river but the huge bustling produce market takes place on Friday. Fresh fruit, vegetables and roast water chestnuts are sold from street carts by women sitting cross legged on the ground surrounded by the freshest produce. Sadly, many of the older houses with their delightful timber shutters and balconies are being demolished to make way for soul-less cement structures all in the way of progress, none the less Mahesware is still utterly enthralling in a charming, chaotic sort of way. An enchanting mix of medieval and 21st century plus – There are even lots of satellite dishes and five ATM machines which occasionally deliver money.
But the focus of this column is on the variety of street food one finds. In the morning, stalls sell poha, a mixture of soaked flattened rice and spices sold on little squares of newspaper, nourishing wholesome food for a couple of Rupees, I love street food and eat it where ever I go, with street food you taste the real flavours of a country….
Poha is served for breakfast all over India, there are many versions, some also include diced, cooked potato and red and yellow pepper.
500g (18oz) Poha (Beaten Rice)
100g (3.5oz) Green Peas, unless really fresh use frozen
200g (7oz) Sev (Indian chick pea vermicelli)
1 tbsp Fennel seeds
1 tbsp Mustard seed
1 ½ tbsp Salt
1tsp Cumin Seeds
1 tsp Turmeric Powder
1 tbsp Sugar
3 tbsp Oil
3 tsp Fresh green coriander
Seeds of 1 large pomegranate
110g (4oz) finely chopped onion
110g (4oz) water chestnuts
3 Green Chilies Chopped
5 or 6 curry leaves (murraya koenigii)
Wash poha two to three times in cold water and strain, press out much of the water as possible.
Heat the oil in a wok or kadhai until hot. Add the mustard, cumin and fennel seeds, turmeric powder, curry leaves and chopped green chilies and immediately add the chopped onions. Stir until the onions are tender and slightly golden, add the diced water chestnuts and continue to stir for 2 – 3 minutes. Add the poha with the green peas and fresh coriander, stir for about 5 Minutes. The dish is served warm, add the pomegranate seeds and garnish it with sev and lots of fresh coriander.
Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Tumeric
Serves 4 – 6
50mls (2floz) of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
225g (8oz) onion
1 (2 inch) piece ginger, finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons ground turmeric, plus more for serving
1 tsp chilli flakes, plus more for serving
2 400g tins of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 400g tins of full fat coconut milk
500mls (18floz) vegetable or chicken stock
350g (12ozs) of Swiss chard, kale or collard greens torn into bite-size pieces, stalks chopped and added
handful of fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Yoghurt (for serving, optional)
Toasted pitta bread, lavash or other flatbread for serving (optional)
Heat the oil in a large pot over a medium heat. Add garlic and onion. Season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until the onion is translucent and starts to brown a little around the edges, 3 – 5 minutes. Add ginger and cook for a further 2 – 3 minutes.
Add turmeric, chilli flakes and chickpeas, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, so the chickpeas sizzle and fry a bit in the spices and oil, until they’ve started to break down and get a little browned and crisp, 8 – 10 minutes,.
Using a potato masher or spatula, further crush the remaining chickpeas slightly to release the starchy insides (this will help to thicken the stew).
Add coconut milk and stock to the pot, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, scraping up any bits that have formed on the bottom of the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until stew has thickened and flavours have started to come together, 30 – 35 minutes. (Taste a chickpea or two, not just the liquid, to make sure they have simmered long enough to taste as delicious as possible).
If after 30 – 35 minutes you want the stew a bit thicker, keep simmering until you’ve reached your desired consistency. Determining perfect stew thickness is a personal journey!
Add green stalks and cook until nearly tender, then add the leaves and stir, making sure they’re submerged in the liquid. Cook a few minutes so they wilt and soften, 3 – 7 minutes, depending on what you’re using. (Swiss chard and spinach will wilt and soften much faster than kale or collard greens). Season again with salt and pepper.
To serve divide among bowls and top with mint, a sprinkle of chilli flakes and a good drizzle of olive oil. Serve alongside yoghurt and toasted pitta if using; dust the yoghurt with turmeric if you wish.
Indian Spiced Vegetable Pakoras with Mango Relish
Mangoes are a great source of betacarotene and Vitamin C. They aid digestion, reduce acidity in the system and help cleanse the blood.
1 thin aubergine cut into 1/4 inch (5mm) slices
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium courgettes, cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) slices, if they are very large cut into quarters
12 cauliflower florets
6 large mushrooms, cut in half
6oz (175g) chick pea or all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
1 scant teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
6-8fl oz (175-250m) iced water
vegetable oil for deep frying
lemon wedges and coriander or parsley.
Put the aubergine slices into a colander, sprinkle with the salt, and let drain while preparing the other vegetables.
Blanch the courgettes and cauliflower florets separately in boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain, refresh under cold water, and dry well. Rinse the aubergine slices and pat dry.
Put the flour, coriander, salt and curry powder into a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil, lemon juice and water until the batter is the consistency of thick cream.
Heat good quality oil to 180°C/350°F in a deep fry. Lightly whisk the batter and dip the vegetables in batches of 5 or 6, slip them carefully into the hot oil. Fry the pakoras for 2-3 minutes on each side, turning them with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a moderate oven (uncovered) while you cook the remainder. Allow the oil to come back to 180°C/350°F between batches. When all the vegetable fritters are ready, garnish with lemon wedges and fresh or deep fried coriander or parsley. Serve at once with mango relish.
2fl oz (50ml) medium sherry
2fl oz (50ml) water
2fl oz (50ml) white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of ground mace
1 mango, peeled and diced
1 small red pepper, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Put the sherry, water, vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, salt and mace into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the mango, pepper, and lemon juice, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Spoon into a screw top jar and refrigerate until required.
Everyone needs a recipe for this spiced tea – beware it becomes addictive.
250ml (9fl oz/generous 1 cup) full fat milk
2-3 cardamom pods
2.5cm (1inch) piece of cinnamon
3 teaspoons loose tea leaves
500ml (18fl oz/2 1/4 cups) boiling water
Put all the ingredients except the tea leaves and the sugar into a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Bring back to the boil, add the tea leaves, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the leaves to settle. Serve in tea cups.
350mls (12floz) whole milk or almond milk
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
sugar or honey to taste
a grind of black pepper
Put all the ingredients in a heavy saucepan and whisk constantly over a gentle heat until it comes to the boil. When hot, pour the frothy latte into a heavy glass and enjoy.