On high days and holidays

On high days and holidays

By
Anjum Anand
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849495639
Photographer
Martin Poole

There are so many religions in India and all religious holidays are officially celebrated. The main religion alone – Hinduism – has so many gods and festivals, and that adds up to around 130 holidays in one year taking place in some part of India. Indian holy days are more than a day off for the locals, they are a reason to spend time with friends and family… and, in India, socializing always involves food.

Holi (the festival of colours) is all about streetfood, which will vary from region to region; Diwali is vegetarian and also varies; in Kerala, every year they celebrate Onam with a vegetarian feast all eaten on a banana leaf; Eid is celebrated with the tastiest lamb, mutton or goat dishes; and Christmas will be celebrated with fish in some areas and pork in others (though both will have Christmas cake). The only thing this festive food has in common is that it will always be special and delicious.

There are plenty of high days as well, as someone is always graduating, getting engaged, married, or having a child. Traditionally, on these special days, the women congregate in the kitchen with the oldest member of the extended family delegating and also cooking with the rest.

In our home, a biryani was always considered special – it’s great party food. Most Indians will cook a variety of different dishes, served altogether: normally a curry, some stir-fried and spiced vegetables and some rice, bread and raita. In Bengal they serve just one dish per course, starting with fried vegetables, moving to rice, lentils and then fish, chutney and dessert in an elegant meal. Special occasions in Kashmir can consist of 36 small courses that are very meat-heavy and eaten sitting on the ground. And the lovely Gujarati vegetarian thalis involve small portions of everything you need in a meal.

There is an old Indian saying that a guest is like a god and you should treat them in the same way, with respect and the best and warmest hospitality. When I was 12, my father decided to send us to boarding school in Simla. After visiting the school, we ate in a little café where my father chatted with the owner. The next day we had a bad car accident, hitched a ride on a bus and walked to the local hospital. When we were discharged, the café owner was waiting for us outside the hospital (he had seen us going in). He took us to his home and his wife made us chai and food while my father borrowed his phone. It was a gesture of pure kindness. My father did not send us to school there… as they say, the gods work in mysterious ways.

These days, India is changing. When people do entertain, things are often simpler; what I cook for friends gets less elaborate as life gets busier, and no one wants to leave the table too full. Don’t feel obliged to stick with tradition. Do what works for you and remember to have fun!

Green papaya

If you walk along the streets of Hyderabad, you will see stand after stand of limes, green papayas and fresh herbs. While this conveys the idea of a refreshing salad, really they are there because the people of this city love meat, and these ingredients feature regularly in their meat dishes.

In India, green papaya is used mostly as a meat tenderizer. This dark green, pear-shaped fruit with its almost translucent, light yellow flesh has little flavour of its own, but contains precious enzymes that efficiently break down the fibres of meat so that – once cooked – it melts in your mouth. This is particularly important for grilled meats, or meats which cannot simply stew to tenderness.

As with other fresh ingredients, green papaya is also known to be very good for us. It protects the body from free radicals and strengthens immunity, and is believed to be great for skin as well as the heart. Papaya and its seeds are thought to possess anti-amoebic and anti-parasitic characteristics, which are helpful for the bowel.

To use, peel off the skin, as this will be bitter. You don’t need a lot of papaya to marinate meat, but the green papayas you find in the UK are generally very large, so I often make a healthy green papaya salad or a thoran with the main body of the fruit, keeping a few cubes in the freezer for future marinating use as, once you start marinating meat with green papaya, it is hard to go back!

Fenugreek leaves

The fenugreek plant yields both leaves and seeds that are used in Indian food. The seeds are small, beige and hard and are used sparingly in curries and spice blends as they have a strong flavour and a bitterness to them. The leaves are pretty little things and – all bunched together – they look like a verdant and innocuous bouquet… but this appearance is really deceptive as, once you cook them, they are flavoursome and have their own edge of bitterness.

Fenugreek leaves are another cure-all elixir in traditional Indian medicine. They are considered to have strong anti-viral and anti-oxidant properties, so they are thought to be great for general good health. However, they are also believed to be helpful in the treatment of almost everything, including arthritis, reducing cholesterol levels, maintaining a healthy heart, treating asthma and bronchitis, healing skin problems (wounds, rashes and boils) and sore throats. An Ayurvedic doctor would add that fenugreek leaves are detoxifying for the body, while new mums are given fenugreek leaflaced meals to help with the production of breast milk.

Fresh fenugreek leaves are sold in bunches in Indian supermarkets. Wash them well before use and cook with only the leaves, not the stalks. Don’t feel that you have to use the whole bunch immediately, as they freeze very well; I often grab a handful of frozen leaves and add them straight to the pan (you can also now find frozen packets in some Indian markets). This herb is wonderful with fish, chicken, lamb, paneer, potatoes, worked into dough and added to rice.

You can also buy dried fenugreek leaves (kasturi methi). These aren’t a poor substitute – in fact they are often less bitter and more aromatic than fresh, and are used extensively as a distinctive herb. They are an important ingredient of tandoori food, many breads, or in curries for an added layer of flavour. I always have a box at home and often add large pinches to my cooking. You can replace fresh leaves with dried, as they are easier to find and can reside in your larder. I have cooked my Chicken with Fenugreek using the dried leaves; if you would rather use fresh leaves, you need to up the quantity by roughly 2.5 times.

A word of caution: fenugreek leaves are thought to bring on labour, so pregnant women are traditionally steered away from eating them, as well as from fenugreek seeds.

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