Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Love it or hate it? The karela and its avatars!

I was walking through the sabzi mandi at Kotla Mubarakpur, when I spotted this man reaching deep into a damp sack. From under a layer of packing he brought out these small perfect-sized karelas.  

He was stacking them up in an attractive circular display in his basket. What a great photo op!! They were fresh and tender, the ideal sort of karela to buy.

The karela or the bittergourd is not everyone's idea of fun. If you visit someone for dinner, this is the one vegetable that your host will hesitate to put on the table, unless they know you really well.

But me, I'm a big fan. I love the bitterness of the vegetable and how it combines with spices to create a complicated, sophisticated taste. Many karela dishes also have sugar or jaggery, adding a sweet kick as well.

And it looks like there are a lot of karela fans out there, just like me. When I googled for karela recipes, an amazing variety of photos came up, from different parts of India. Some recipes were simple dry versions of karela sauteed with spices, to be eaten with dal-rice or rasam-rice. Others were recipes for moist vegetable curries that you could eat with roti. There were also recipes for stuffed karela of many types, karela pickles, karela chips and karela chutneys.

In fact, the more I saw how cleverly people were cooking karela all over India, the more I realised that this ridiculously bitter vegetable actually highlights the very finest aspects of Indian vegetarian cuisine!

If you've not cooked karela so far, then the first thing to master is a set of techniques to reduce the bitterness of the vegetable.

The most popular technique is to slice the vegetable, smear it with salt and set it aside to marinate for an hour, so that it can "give out" its bitterness. Later, you squeeze the vegetable and throw away the salt water (and along with that, most of the bitterness). In some recipes, you also smear a little bit of lemon juice along with the salt. The trouble with this approach is that along with the salt water, you are also probably tossing away all the anti-diabetic properties of the karela.

A second technique is to scrape off the ridged outer skin, which is bitter. These scrapings are usually not thrown away - they are sauteed into a spice mixture which is then used to flavour the dish.

A third method to reduce bitterness is to keep the skin but throw away the seeds inside. Bigger karelas have hard bitter dry seeds which stick in your throat and are often inedible. If you buy small, tender ones, like the one the man has got in his basket above, then you can keep the seeds if you wish.

Recently, I was introduced to karele-ka-achaar from Uttar Pradesh. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. The karela was cut into small wedges, and there was lots of masala. It was exactly the same masala that you use in the typical stuffed red chilli achar. But in the karela achaar, the slight bitterness took this achaar to a completely different dimension. I ate it with a hot fluffy aromatic basmatic rice pulao, and it was incredible.

In many south Indian recipes, the karela is cooked in tamarind to kill the bitterness. A lot of jaggery is also added. My mum's recipe for parikya-pulikachal (a sweet-spicy-pickle with karela) involves sauteing green chillies, ginger and karela in a tempering of mustard, curry leaves and chana dal. Tamarind extract is added to this and cooked. A little later, jaggery is added to the mixture and cooked further. It tastes heavenly with curd-rice.

My maid, who used to work for a Gujarati home, adds raisins and ghee-fried cashewnuts to her karela-fry dish. It is a startlingly exciting taste, full of contrasts - the plump sweetness of the raisins, the bitterness of the karela, the fieriness of red chili powder and the nutty richness of the cashew. When she makes this dish, I eat it with a simple dal-rice, so that it doesn't interfere with the flavours. Anything else would be an affront to the dish :)

About 4-5 years ago, I had an absolutely delicious Punjabi karela-sabzi at my friend Pooja Sharma's house in Mayur Vihar. Her mother made it in a jiffy and I remember wolfing it down with hot rotis. When I asked her "What is your magic ingredient, aunty?", she said to me, "Nothing complicated, beta, this dish just has salt, red chilli powder and turmeric". I couldn't believe it, and kept trying to replicate it, but I think it takes Mrs. Sharma's special touch to get it perfect. I should just angle for another invitation! :) :)

If you have not tasted karela before, the easiest thing to start with is karela chips. They are popular in many parts of the country, but I have seen them more often in Western and Southern India. They are sliced really thin, coated with a thick batter of gramflour and spices, and deep fried until crisp. The spicy slightly bitter taste is a perfect match for an ice-cold beer. Try it sometime and tell me what you think!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The garland makers of a Delhi slum

It's quite startling when you come across the beauty of fresh flowers in a slum. 

There are more than 30 families here in this shanty town near the Sai Mandir.
It is a cottage industry, where people work with flowers.
Look closely at the street behind this lady. It has semi-permanent ramshackle structures. The houses are made of bricks, with asbestos for roofs. There is a man sleeping on a really narrow make-shift bench on the right.

A blue tarpaulin strung between the house and the street wall
provides shade and protection from rain.
A lot of things that more prosperous Dilliwallahs throw away are recycled by the slums. In the photo below, note the door which is made of recycled wood. Two pieces of waste plywood have been nailed together using other waste wood scrap pieces, to make one big door. Water is stored in buckets and recycled cans. There is a gunny-bag hanging on the left which once used to hold cement, but now is used as a container.
In the slum, recyling is a necessity, not a virtue.
The white floorboard which covers the gaping hole in the road
is probably an extra tile from a construction site.
And yet, despite the poverty, the people who work here have regular incomes not just for their basic needs, but also to go to the cinema, or to send children to school. One of the primary reasons is that there are multiple earning members in the  family, many of whom are women. 
Where the women earn money, the earnings go directly towards the
welfare of the family (instead of being squandered on drink).

In the Indian cultural context, the easiest way to prosperity is
if women can work in cottage industries, where they have more 
control over how to balance their work and family needs.
Finished product, ready for sale at the temple.
Marigolds are the most popular flowers in India used for prayer as well as decoration.

Here is a street view of the "main road" of this slum. It is twice the width of the side lanes. There are shops here, selling provisions and small daily needs items like tea, biscuits, soap and shampoo sachets. The branded FMCG companies have all learnt the importance of having small sachet sizes, starting at 5 rupees. Cycles and motor-cyles are parked here.

Electricity is probably being siphoned off from the electric pole you see in the far background. 
There are many dangling overhead cables, probably for  television and cable TV. 
Television is the main source of entertainment and information in almost all slums
One of the shops on this main street is a tailor. You can see the illegal wires that provide electricity for this shop. The tailor has an assistant, so it's not just a one-man show. Maybe they take jobs not just for the local slum, but also sub-jobs from other places.

Life in this part of Delhi is not easy, but to the people who live here, it is still better
than the conditions they have left behind in their villages when they migrated
to Delhi. Here at least, they can work and earn and hope for a better future.
Nobody really knows the size of Delhi's slum population. I wrote an article about it here, in case you want to read about the various types of slums in the city. Of the total population of about 20 million (National Capital Region), there's one scary estimate that says 52% live in slums. Another estimate says that Delhi's slum population is growing at a rate which is 4.5 times that of its non-slum population. 

Since I don't see these trends changing, I have come to the obvious conclusion: Slums are a fact of life in Indian cities, they are here to stay. A slum-dweller is not a beggar scrounging for dole; he or she is most often a migrant who has a job of some sort and is hoping for a better life in the city. We cannot wish away  migration. We are therefore faced with the problem of how to keep providing for all the new entrants who pour in every day. So far, the answer has been a less than satisfactory response from the planning authorities with haphazard "resettlement colonies". That isn't really working. Time for Delhi to think up some better answers.