Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Variety is...

Maybe it's because I'm a gemini. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it's because Vancouver spoils us rotten, allowing us to "eat in any language". The ingredients that are available to us at home make cooking and eating a truly global feast. Shall we make Mexican tonight? No, I think Greek. Or how about Thai? Spanish? Vietnamese? You name it, we can get the ingredients. And we do cook from all of those cuisines on a regular basis. What I'm trying to say is that I don't do too well with eating the same food day in and day out. I need variety! Now it does occur to me that this is a very privileged position, most of the world is lucky to eat whatever they can, whenever they can get it. But once food becomes a not-so-hard-to-come-by commodity, it seems to be a part of a truly western desire to want to branch out a bit and explore.

I love Indian food - all the foods of India - and there are many, many different regional cuisines in India but most of them are not available in Kerala. And the "Chinese" food here, while sort of tasty, is not very Chinese either. We've supplemented at home a bit: oatmeal for breakfast (with banana and pineapple, of course), without an oven I have become very good at whole wheat griddle scones and "english" muffins. With the reggiano we received from friends, we have managed to make a good pasta dinner too. But most of the time we eat rice, fish fry, cabbage thoran, bhindi fry, prawn masala, chapati, sambhar, payasam etc. Real Keralan food. And despite really enjoying the food of Kerala, a steady diet of nothing but Keralan food has, on occasion, grown a little wearisome. Thankfully, Rajesh introduced us to The Punjab House restaurant.

The Punjab House has become our once a week please-give-me-something-without-coconut-in-it place to dine. The current proprietor's mother opened the restaurant 30 or 40 years ago and it has been an Ernakulam institution ever since. On a Friday night you have to hang over the tables of diners and scoop in to take their seats the minute they stand up or you won't get dinner at all. We know this from experience, watching seat after seat being taken by young men who came in after us and didn't care that we were waiting with children. We are now as ruthless as they were then. Lost is he who gets up to wash his hands! The restaurant is nothing fancy - about 15 formica-topped tables, a cash desk, a fridge and freezer and some young men who work really hard because the place is always hopping. The kitchen is cramped and very, very hot. The proprietor's English is excellent (as a side note, you may not know that the main language that Indians from different areas use with which to communicate is English. There are so many languages in India but English is the common thread leftover from the colonial period) and he likes to tease the boys whenever we drop in. He is a warm and affable host who runs the restaurant as a tight ship, making their own yogurt every day and handling a very busy lunch and dinner service.

You can gather from the name that the restaurant specializes in the food of the Punjab, an area in northern India that is very fertile and known as the "breadbasket" of India because it produces most of the subcontinent's wheat. The availability of wheat in the area shaped the cuisine which is not quite as rice-heavy as southern Indian food. The Punjab House is a vegetarian restaurant that is famous for its Alu Parotta. This is not the parotta/porotta that Rob wrote about in the last post. Kerala parotta is a flaky spiral flat bread, the Alu Parotta is a stuffed flat bread. A small ball of whole wheat chapati dough is rolled flat, a scoop of filling is placed in the centre and the edges are brought up around the filling and pinched together at the top. The dumpling-like ball is then gently pressed and carefully rolled out into a circle without letting the filling ooze out. Then this pancake is fried in ghee on both sides and served finger-burnin' hot with a side of curd (plain yogurt), raw chillies for those who like them (me, me, ME!), raw onions squeezed with lime juice and various other dishes of vegetables and legumes (chick peas, lentils etc). Alu means potato and the potato filling is made with a mix of potatoes, chillies, cilantro, turmeric, mustard seed and various other yummy spices, depending on who is making it. Stuffed parotta (or paratha/parantha) can be filled with a minced cauliflower mixture (Gobi), with herbs, or anything else you have around the house. I suspect, like many of the world's great foods, stuffed parottas were originally created as a way to deal with leftovers. And what a yummy way to clean out the fridge! These are one of the tastiest foods we've eaten and the whole family agrees that a week without Alu parotta is not a good week.

I've made them at the house a couple of times and they are no where near as difficult to make as the Kerala parotta. That being said, I still prefer the one's at The Punjab House. I suspect they add a heck of a lot more ghee than I'm willing to add with good conscience. A perfect example that what you don't know can still clog your arteries...

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