Monthly Archives: January 2010

The First Naming

When I lift Agastya up to inspect my cooking, he looks at me expectantly.  I say “that’s matar paneer.”  He solemnly repeats the phrase “matar paneer” as if at a naming ceremony, and proceeds to ask for the dish by name several times, “Mommy, I want matar paneer,” as he grows hungrier in readiness for lunch.  I’ve realized that the hungrier he is, the more likely he is to try something new.  He seems to like the dish, and continues asking for it by name the next day and despite the fact that my addition of a little red chilli powder and garam masala has made the dish just a tad too spicy for him.  In these cases, I alternate the spoonful of vegetable with one of plain yogurt while feeding him to kill the fire.

Although I am very pleased that Agastya likes the matar paneer, what makes me even happier is that his name for the dish is set in stone now.  In Hindi words.  Not that there is an English alternative, but I feel extremely satisfied to hear the Hindi words rolling off his tongue.

I have suddenly realized that the opportunity to teach Agastya his mother tongue is rapidly waning.  I see it in the words for which he now refuses to learn the equivalent Hindi term.  For instance his favorite toy, a car is a car.  Not a gadi or a pum-pum as my baby brother used to say.  The act of first naming seems to freeze things.  Milk has remained doodh, water has remained pani and yogurt has remained dahi, even though he now knows the English words for all of those and uses them interchangeably.  Now I wish that I had just taught him Hindi words for everything to begin with.  Because the first Hindi words have remained sticky, despite the fact that the English ones didn’t take long to make an appearance.  He even remembers the silly nonsensical baby words that I used to use nai-nai for bath, ta-ta for hot and ninu for sleep.

I decide to inject lots of Hindi into my speech when conversing with both my husband and Agastya. There are occasional triumphs. At dinner, I hold out a glass of water and tell Agastya “Drink this, pilo” while we sit at the table.  He looks at me and giggles deliciously.  “Pilo means drink, pilo means take a sip mommy” he says slowly, taking the glass.  After taking a sip, he passes the glass back to me saying “pilo” with the same infectious giggle.  We continue to play the game, passing the glass between us, and saying “pilo!”  Suddenly he says “Mommy, peepee aya” and gets off his chair and runs to the bathroom.  Perhaps all is not lost.

Matar Paneer

Matar Paneer

This morning I wake up bright up and early.  I am going to make my mother-in-law’s matar paneer for the first time.  Her delicious recipe comes from various North Indian neighbors, such as “Singh Bhabhiji” from her old residential colony in Bombay.  So I call mummy who is back in Vizag to talk about the recipe.  We debate on ratios first, which is a wise thing to do as I have discovered in Indian cooking.  I have a packet of Nanak-branded paneer, which is about 400g or 2 cups of paneer.  Mummy thinks that 2 cups of peas should balance the two cups of paneer, along with a sauce that has been made with 2 cups of chopped onions and an equal quantity of tomato puree.  The tomato puree is going to be different today.  I usually take fresh tomatoes and puree them in the food processor.  Today I am going to dip them in hot water for a few minutes, remove the skins and then puree the tomatoes.  The sauce that results from this process is different in flavor and texture, sweeter and smoother, it seems.

The recipe takes a little while to make, about an hour including clean-up, and I’ve realized that an hour is usually a reasonable time to make an Indian dish.  Shorter doesn’t work, and longer is just depressing.  I start feeling as though I am a kitchen slave when the clock starts ticking over the allotted hour.  The trick to feeling less like a slave, I have learnt, is to indeed watch the clock.  For instance I always believe that emptying the dishwasher, a task that I detest, has taken hours out of my precious lifetime.  When I actually measure how long it takes — I find that it’s no more than a 5 or 7 minute task.  Even the dreaded clean-up after cooking, when timed, seems to take no more than 15 minutes.

I discover that the matar paneer is surprisingly easy to make.  It comes out fairly well but I find that I am searching for my mother-in-law’s dish when I taste it.  To make this dish truly my own, I will have to make it a couple more times, and then I will be certain of what my matar paneer tastes like.

Matar Paneer

400g or 2 cups of paneer, chopped
2 cups of frozen green peas, soaked in warm water to defrost and then drained
2 cups of onions, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
A thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 cups of tomato puree, made with fresh whole tomatoes dipped briefly into boiling water and then the skin removed.
1/4 cup of whole fat plain yogurt, called dahi
2 tsps of coriander powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
3 tbsps of ghee
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat.  Add the onions, ginger and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn a medium brown.  Add the tomato puree and cook until the mixture glistens with the ghee that is released.  This will take a while, about 20+ minutes.

2. Add the yogurt and keep stirring until it disappears into the sauce.

3. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala and chilli powder (if using), along with salt.  Taste, and add a pinch more of the spices if needed, taking care to not over-spice the dish.  Add the chopped paneer and the drained peas.  Add some water, about 1-2 cups.  Bring to boil and allow to cook for a few minutes in order that the paneer imbibes the flavors of the sauce.  Remove from flame and serve hot.

Kattu, toor dal with garlic

(clockwise from left) Garlic, turmeric and toor dal

In the winter, Agastya starts sniffling.  One sniffle turns into the next and we start on a progression of back-to-back colds. Sometimes they start with a fever, sometimes with runny sneezes and sometimes with a bad cough.  They last a week, sometimes two, and a new cold often starts before the old one finishes.  I gaze enviously at children who don’t seem to have colds and wonder what their mothers do.  Agastya’s doctor gives me a stern look when I complain.  “It could be worse,” “at least he doesn’t have an ear infection,” or “he’s so healthy otherwise,” she says.

Each time Agastya gets a new cold I go into an intense cause and effect analysis.  Now Agastya dresses warmly each time he goes out, he washes his hands more often, and we never compromise on sleep and naps.  I have also found a link, albeit somewhat tenuous, between ice-cream consumption and colds.  So no more of that stuff.  The credit really goes to his nanny who hides all the tubs of ice-cream at the back of our freezer and shows him an empty fridge when he remembers to ask for some.  “See, there’s no ice-cream,” says Rose, lifting him up to inspect the empty shelves.  Agastya with his growing powers of reasoning has decided that his mother is responsible for this lack of ice-cream.  One afternoon I hear him sagely remark to Rose that “Mummy ate all the ice-cream,” with a particular drawn-out emphasis on the word “all” in his baby lisp.  I feel suitably guilty.

Still unable to beat the cold, I start asking every mother I know about their view on colds.  Several answers emerge, and interestingly, they all seem to be related to food.  My in-laws suggest honey for coughs, my mother recommends ginger, a cousin mentions yogurt and a friend says to add a fat clove of garlic to Agastya’s food each day.   The last suggestion works a minor miracle.  In the modern day, and in the face of virulent bugs and persistent coughs and sleepless nights, I have tended to get fairly dismissive of home remedies.  But the garlic does appear to have an immediate and positive effect.  I start rethinking all of Agastya’s meals – onions with eggs in the morning with a side of brightly colored berries, a green (broccoli, spinach) or orange (butternut squash, carrot) soup with a large clove of sauteed garlic at lunch, fruit and yogurt for a snack and a lentil preparation at night, with turmeric, garlic and ginger.

The lentil requirement brings to mind the kattu that my mother-in-law makes.  It is a simple, nourishing and surprisingly tasty toor dal dish.  Boil a cup of dry dal in the pressure cooker and keep aside.  Chop several pods of garlic into chunks and saute in a tablespoonful of hot ghee on medium heat until the garlic turns faintly golden.  Sputter a half teaspoonful each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds, add a pinch of asafoetida and a few fresh green curry leaves.  Green chillies can be sliced and added for heat and flavor.  Add the dal and some water to bring to the required consistency.  Add a generous pinch of turmeric, and salt to taste.  Stir and boil for a few minutes.  Serve with rice or rotis or as a soup on its own.  Note that this dal is perfectly tasty with just the sauteed garlic, turmeric and salt, and that the consistency can be thick or thin depending on personal preference.