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Is the price of tomato souring your mood? Are chillies singeing your wallet? Buy tamarind and pepper instead.
When daal, the poor man's cheapest source of protein, costs Rs 100 a kilo, times are desperate indeed. In the past few months, the prices of food products have snowballed because of inflation and, more recently, the spike in fuel prices. French beans, which used to cost Rs 20 a kilo now cost Rs 80, the price of peas has pole-vaulted from Rs 40 a kilo to Rs 120, the cost of okra has doubled to Rs 60 a kilo. So how does one eat without going bankrupt? Perhaps exorbitance is a good time to exercise some creativity in the kitchen.
"It's like when you're allergic to something," says food writer and consultant, Karen Anand. "I'm allergic to yeast. Then you look at what you can eat instead of bread. " For instance, what can substitute tomatoes? A key ingredient for curries and gravies, the tomato costs three times what it used to a year ago at Rs 40 a kilo. Rajni Khurana, who has been conducting cooking classes in Mumbai for over a decade, recommends coconut, kokum and tamarind. "You could also substitute tomatoes in curries with yogurt, which has a similar consistency and tartness," she says. "If you want a healthy option, try replacing it with nuts and sesame which are rich in calcium," she says. Cook book writer Tarla Dalal says that since tomatoes are primarily used for their sour flavour, they can be easily be substituted with aamchur. "Or you can use a spoon of tomato puree, which is priced at more or less the same cost," she says. Anand suggests using pumpkins, onions and stock to make gravies. Those who cook pasta, she says, could make mushroom and white sauces and simply wait for prices to drop before returning to arrabiata. Khurana has a curious substitute for a tomato pasta sauce. "Soak and boil rajma, crush it in a mixer, add olive oil and the herbs you would like and then toss your pasta in this sauce," she advises. Instead of green peas and French beans, Khurana suggests using dry lentils and sprouts. "Apart from the fact that sprouts are cheaper, they are also great sources of overall nutrition," she says.
And instead of green chillies, pepper and red chillies can be used to spice food.
Apart from making substitutions, cooks suggest revisiting traditionally thrifty methods of cooking. Dalal says that in order to cut down on the consumption of expensive daals, one should couple them with cheap vegetables. "This is a popular practice in Gujarati cooking," she explains. "For example, make a sabji out of dudhi and chana." Dalal hopes the prices of vegetables go down with the new crop in August. "It's only a matter of a month," she says. "People should try not to panic and cook smartly instead."
Daal is to Indians what junk food is to Americans. But as the cost of food has risen staggeringly, daal isn't as cheap any more. Consumers are now being encouraged to buy a cheaper substitute - dried yellow peas imported from Canada. KC Bhartiya, the chairman of Pulses Importer Association of India says that India has been importing the yellow pea for the past seven years. It has become popular now as it is attractively priced at Rs 26 per kilo as compared to daals like moong and tur that cost between Rs 80 and Rs 100 a kilo.
The pea daal looks like a hybrid of tur and a chana daal and is as nutritious. "For every 100 gm of daal consumed, one gets 20-25 gm of protein," says Ritika Samaddar, regional head, Dietetics, Max Health Care. "We may have to develop a taste for it, since we are used to eating (conventional) daals. But one will get used to it over a period of time."
The pea can be cooked just like other daals. "You can mix this matar daal with chana or tur," says housewife Vaishali Krishna Mehta. "Add a South Indian tempering of curry leaves, whole red chillies, tamarind and rye and convert it into sambar. Or mix it with chana daal to make a crisp parippu vada."
Every year around the monsoon, the lag between a new crop of vegetables being planted and their arrival at the market creates a season of soaring prices. And every year, the solution is ignored even though it's in front of us. Well, maybe not in front, but on the margins of markets which is where you will find the old ladies sitting with piles of foraged shoots, leaves and other local vegetables.
It could be branches bursting with the fresh green leaves of the drumstick tree that burst out as soon as the rains arrive. Or it could be the vines and thick fleshy leaves of Malabar spinach, also called basale, mayalu or pui shaak, that grow rapidly in the newly moist soil. Or perhaps the round little leaves of taklo, rather politically incorrectly called Negro coffee, or the subtly onionytasting shoots called phondshi, or the thick red stems and reddish leaves of amaranth, or the arrow shaped leaves and hollow stems of water spinach, called kolmi shaag in Bengal, which grows rapidly in this season around the margins of rice fields and would be considered a weed if it didn't taste so good.
Most of these vegetables are dirt cheap, even in this season, which is why the men who manage the main vegetable stalls don't bother with them. They are left to the old ladies, and often only bought by old ladies who know their worth, both for taste and nutrition. The reason these seasonal vegetables are neglected by shoppers is because they don't know them and don't care to experiment. Or they are seen as weird and old fashioned, perhaps as downmarket, and only fit for servants to eat. It doesn't help that they have a reputation for being hard to clean, some like taklo because they grow close to the earth and retain much of it which must be painfully rinsed out; others like basale because their fleshy leaves are irresistible to slugs and worms which must be washed, alive and wriggling, out.
This might seem gross, but ironically it is another proof of their health. So much is spoken about organic foods, which are sold at high prices, but these are organic too simply because no one is going to bother wasting pesticides on them. Cultivated by farmers' wives on the side, to make some extra money, or gathered by them straight from the wild, they are a cheap, healthy and tasty source of food for those who know how to take advantage of them. The fact that most of us don't, but would rather just sit moaning about high prices of vegetables, simply reflects how we have failed to keep ourselves educated on foods and the knowledge of the appropriate produce to eat in every season.
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