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The super bowl
Chase away monsoon chills with do-it-yourself broths like haleem and khow suey.
Our favorite kaathi roll place is a tiny shop in Kolkata's bustling Bek Bagan area. From early evening the shop starts a brisk business in an array of mouthwatering rolls - char-grilled meats, garnished with onion and chilli, sprayed with lime, and wrapped in soft, flaky, miraculously grease-free parathas. But when I visited last Sunday, it wasn't rolls I was looking for, but a much-awaited treat that the ongoing month of Ramzan brings: haleem. During this period, a table on the strip of pavement outside the shop is laid with little plates of chopped onion, coriander, green chilli, and wedges of lime. Next to the table, a man armed with a formidable ladle attends to a gigantic pot of haleem on a makeshift chulha. Every time he lifts the lid to stir, the air grows fragrant with the aroma of meat, lentils, broken wheat and spices that have been cooking for hours. You take a seat on a rickety stool and you're served a brimming bowlful, with pieces of meat so tender that they are barely clinging to the bone. As you fine-tune your portion to your taste with the garnishes in front of you, a couple of hot tandoori rotis are placed next to your bowl.
Eating on the spot has its own pleasure. But we prefer to bring the haleem and rotis home where it becomes the centerpiece of a relaxed monsoon dinner with family or friends. Here it is eaten at leisure, guests fixing their bowls to suit their individual tastes. I add some extra choices to the traditional garnishes, including Parsi-style kuchumber, slices of boiled egg white, and crisp peyajis (onion pakoras).
Haleem is a member of a category of soups that is a favorite of mine - meals-in-themselves broths that are found across cultures. Morocco has a Ramzan food very similar to haleem called harira. All Gerald Durrell fans know about the groundnut chop of West Africa - a meat stew covered in think peanut sauce eaten with rice and a range of garnishes. Further east is the delicious Burmese khow suey in its myriad iterations, the wonderful laksas of Malaysia - coconut milk-based prawn soups or tamarind-soured fish broths eaten with rice noodles - and no visit to Vietnam is complete without sampling the famous meat-based pho.
Typically, a combination of fish or meat and local cereal or grain staples, these broths are nutritious, tasty and designed to fuel the body with the required amount of carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. These broths are rooted in local culinary traditions and are essentially street foods serving a fast and large turnover of customers. It's not fine dining by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, for me, these broths are unqualifiedly gourmet cuisine because while the basic stocks are cooked en masse, the dishes are designed to satisfy the individual palate with the help of a rainbow of garnishes.
Khow suey, for instance, is served with a dizzying number of add-ons including bali chow (dried prawn or fish paste), fried garlic, chopped onions, wedges of lime, boiled eggs and dal muth. Groundnut chop comes with "little little tings" including pineapple, fried plantain, papaya, dried fish, roasted peanut, fried onion rings and okra cooked to a crisp.
In fact, when we're serving one of these delicious meals-in-a-bowl, I dub the event a BYOB evening - no, guests aren't told to bring their own bottles, but to build your own broth. And you can't go wrong: just the pleasure and anticipation as you pick and choose garnishes to get that desired balance of crunch and chewiness, acid and sweet, heat and sweetness is immense.
One evening we had over for dinner friends who amongst them covered an intimidating range of dietary preferences and taboos: vegetarians, die-hard meat eaters, no coconut milk for one, no carbs for another. I decided to experiment with a BYOB dinner with Italian accents. My basic broth was a regular no-frills, garlic-scented tomato soup using vegetable stock cubes. Drawing on Daily Telegraph food columnist Rose Prince's flavourful tomato and chickpea soup, I added a cup of soft mashed chickpeas while the broth was simmering. The chickpeas added a wonderful chunky body to the soup which nevertheless remained smooth.
Then came the fun part: the accompaniments. My list began with the easy ones -
fried garlic,a jug of extra-virgin olive oil, roughly-torn
basil leaves, crumbled, goat cheese, a bowl of penne. A bottle of red chili peppers in olive oil brought back from Calabria provided divine North Italian heat.
Forgoing the predictable croutons, and staying with the Italian identity of the dish, I fried small cubes of polenta that had been cooked with parmesan, oregano, parsley and chili flakes. Piled high in a bowl these golden nuggets flecked with red and green not only looked beautiful, they would provide a tasty, rubbery bite to the broth. Recalling an easy and excellent pasta topping made with cheese and herb-seasoned breadcrumbs, I whizzed some stale bread with the remains of an old piece of hard Kalimpong cheese in the food processor and added a dash of dried herbs (rosemary and thyme) before sautêing this mixture in olive oil.
For the non-vegetarians, there were tiny pieces of crisped back-bacon, garlic studded chorizos sliced into thin rounds (any spiced sausage or salami will do) and plump prawns steamed till they began to turn pink.
I wasn't sure how it would do down with our guests, but I needn't have worried. The charm of BYOB meals kicked in. Everyone loved being able to paint their own culinary canvases, creating new versions of 'zuppa a la italiano' with each helping.
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