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Puranpoli ThaliPerfection is a myth according to many and many more like me believe that it’s a dream, something that you can’t really touch but there’s an image set in your mind that you strive to achieve. I have an image set in my mind about what a perfect Maharashtrian Thali on festive occasions should be like. Perfect little piles of different dry vegetables, Raitas, salads, rice varieties, pickles, chutneys and the centre of it all, the sweet lentil stuffed bread, Puranpoli! When I was younger, the all important Puranpoli was the main item of interest and everything else seemed like a distraction. I used to even complain to my mother for her obsession of cooking too many side dishes in order to make it look all perfect. Now when I do the exact same thing and fuss over fifteen different elements on the plate, I smile to myself! Yes, no matter how much I deny it, slowly but surely, I’m turning into my mother. I’m also keeping the tradition alive that came from my mother, my grandmother and all those previous generations of women in my family who were obsessed with this idea of how things should be.

This time around for Holi celebrations, I decided not to fight off my instinct and instead decided to embrace my obsession. Fortunately I had time and energy to tackle so many different recipes and the all important order of how to plate them perfectly.

Puranpoli Thali Sketch

This is a rough sketch of the plate that I had prepared before plating the food so that I don’t miss the order & I don’t forget to plate something. This is the manner in which Maharashtrians would prepare the plate but I’m told that in Karnataka, the order is exactly reverse, instead of anticlockwise direction of lime, chutney, pickle, salads etc. they go clockwise.

Cooking took six long hours in total but it was at a nice leisurely pace and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I was even conversing (in my mind) with my mom & other women in my family while cooking. I can hear them when I cook, “This is not how we do this”, “This needs to be little more runny”, “Don’t put asafetida in that”, “Don’t put too much on the plate”…Constant reminders, corrections, advise & encouragement, all at the same time. After I plated everything and looked at the picture with satisfaction, I so strongly felt that they should have been here to taste it and to enjoy the feast. I remember being someone’s daughter, someone’s granddaughter, someone’s niece, someone’s daughter-in-law and someone’s grand-daughter-in-law. I remember being pampered by all those women, I remember tasting their fantastic food, I remember picking up all these skills from them and most of all I remember them enjoying the process. At times like these, I realise, how at the very core I’m so much like all of them, even though my modern life is so different from theirs, how I’m still a simple woman trying to preserve my culinary heritage!

puranpoli Thali

A little description of the dishes:

Puranpoli: This is a bread stuffed with sweet filling made with yellow lentils (chana dal). An absolute delicacy of Maharashtra & it is a must for quite a few festive meals.

Coconut chutney: Fresh coconut, chilies, coriander, raw mango (for sourness or one use lime juice), salt & sugar ground together.

Pickle: I used homemade lime pickle, a special recipe called ‘Upvasache lonche’ which has only four ingredients limes, salt, sugar and chili powder all mixed together & kept in sterilized jars until the lime are soft & have absorbed all the flavours. It took about two months for my pickle to be completely ready and although it can last for a long time, mine will be consumed very quickly as its really delicious.

Cucumber Raita (Koshimbir): It’s finely chopped cucumber & coriander leaves mixed with some plain yogurt, salt, sugar & a little peanut powder. Use of peanut powder is very typical to Maharashtrian recipes and it gives the salads a nice nutty flavour. A tempering of cumin seeds, chopped green chilies and curry leaves fried in little ghee was poured on top of the raita to give it more flavour.

Carrot Salad (Koshimbir): Same as cucumber raita except there is no yogurt in this salad instead a little lime juice is added for sourness.

Potato Bhaji: Boiled and cubed potatoes are sautéed in spicy tempering using curry leaves, chilies & urad dal. Fresh grated coconut and coriander leaves are sprinkled on top.

French Beans Bhaji: Sliced French beans are sautéed in tempering and then covered and steamed in its on juices until tender but not overcooked. Peanut powder, salt, sugar, lime juice, grated coconut and coriander leaves are added for flavour.

Courgette Fritter: This is similar to a Pakora made with gram flour batter. A local vegetable called Ghosale is used for this bhaji. Ghosale is very similar to courgette (Zucchini) & I used courgette myself. Any other vegetables like potato or cauliflower etc. can be used for a fritter.

Kothimbir Vadi: This spicy coriander cutlet is a typical Maharashtrian dish. Yellow lentils (chana dal) are soaked until soft, drained completely and them ground with chilies, ginger, salt, sugar and lime juice. A bunch of coriander is finely chopped and mixed with the ground paste and a the mixture is formed into a rolled, steamed, when cold cut into thick circles and then shallow fried in some oil. Gram flour is sometimes used instead of soaked chana dal to make the paste.

Kadhi: This is a spiced yogurt soup (very broad and crude description indeed!) that is made in many different ways, all overIndia. My version used curry leaves, ginger, green chilies, asafetida, cinnamon and cloves for flavouring.

Katachi Aamti : When the yellow dal is being cooked for  the Puranpoli, the excess water in which the dal is cooked is collected and used to make ‘Aamti’ which is a clever use of a protein-rich byproduct & is absolutely delicious. I also added some drumsticks in mine.

Kheer: This sweet is also called ‘Payasam’ inSouth India. This is similar to rice pudding but can be made with thin wheat noodles called Seveyein instead of rice. I made Seveyein kheer with cashew nuts and raisin.

Masalebhat: This is essentially a variation of Vegetable Pulao prepared using Maharashtrian spice mix powder called ‘Goda Masala’. A range of vegetables can be used but I used Tendli / Tindora, carrots & green peas.

Panchamrut: This is a tangy tamarind chutney which uses dried coconut flakes, sesame seed powder, peanut powder, chilies and jaggery (or sugar) Yummy!!

Typically a festive meal like this is offered to the Gods and due to religious reasons, use of pungent garlic & onion is forbidden. While for me there’s no such restriction, I still try to avoid the two ingredients that ‘I Love’ just to learn that an equally delicious and flavourful meal can be prepared without them.

Sweet, sour, hot, crispy, soft, tangy, cool, warm…oh.. the vocabulary in English language is really limited to describe all the tastes and textures presented on a single plate of vegetarian meal like this. A rich, grand traditional meal of my land!

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Lamb BiryaniThe Nawabi Khana is a serious business. This is royal cooking; elaborate, complex and refined. There are no shortcuts here; it takes time and patience to cook this…. but boy is it worth it! If you have ever dug into the layers of perfectly cooked meat, rice and tons aromatic spices in an authentic ‘Hyderabadi Biryani’ you’ll know what I mean. Cooking rice with meat is always a tricky business. Rice cooks quickly and the meat takes a long time to cook. Naturally, to make a perfect Biryani where both meat and rice are cooked to perfection is a cook’s ultimate challenge. Goli Biryani is a slightly easy version where meatballs in gravy are used instead of raw marinated meat. Goli means a small round shape as in a meat ball here.

Last week when I had some marinated lamb mince sitting in my fridge, I hadn’t planned to cook anything elaborate with it. I was really busy that day but the mince needed to be used up quickly so I just made a few meatballs, shallow-fried them in some oil and when they cooled just stuck them back into the frige to use later. The next day I made Goli Biryani with them which was a huge success in the household so I decided to cook it again today for an ‘Indian Night’  at an office charity get together.

There are three stages:

  1. Preparation stage where you make ginger-garlic paste, onion paste, marinate the meat, prepare spice powders (if not using shop bought), wash & soak the rice, soak the saffron in milk etc. Preparing crispy fried onion, chopping herbs is also done at this stage.
  2. Actual cooking stage where you shape and sear the meatballs, prepare a gravy and dip the meatballs in them and pre-cook rice till half done.
  3. Assembly stage where you create multiple layers of rice and meat with herbs and spices. The biryani is sealed and cooked further on Dum (on steam) till done at this stage.

Since there are large number of ingredients and processess, I’ve broken them down as per the stages:

Ingredients for Ginger-Garlic paste

  • Garlic 25 gm (about 1 large bulb)
  • Ginger 25 gm (3-4 inch piece)
  • 2 chillies

Grind together all  the ingredients above to make a smooth paste.

Ingredients to marinate the mince:

Lamb Mince 500 gm

  • Ginger-Garlic-Chili paste 2 tsp
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp cayene pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp chopped coriander
  • 1 tbsp chopped mint
  • Salt t0 taste

Mix all the ingredients above together, cover with a cling film & refrigerate.Fried Onions

Crispy fried Onion

  • 2 large onions

Thinly slice 1 large onion and deep fry it till brown & crisp. Please be mindful that it takes a little while for the onions to become pinkinsh brown but from that point onwards, the onions can become dark brown in seconds. You’ll need to watch them carefully & take them out at the right time, to avoid burning them.

Saffron Milksaffron

  • Saffron 1 pinch
  • Milk 1/2 cup

Take warm milt &  soak the saffron in it.

For Rice

  • 2 cups (225 gm) Basmati Rice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 green cardamoms
  • 2 inch piece if cinnamon
  • 3 cloves

Wash and soak the rice for 30 mins then drain. In a large pot cook the rice with the spices above in 4 cups of water till it’s half done. Drain, discard the spices & reserve the rice for later.

Make marble sized balls of the marinated lamb mince & sear them in a frying pan in a little oil. Drain the meatballs on a kitchen towel. Lamb mince will release some fat in the pan, reserve this fat for the gravy.

For Gravy

  • 4 tbsp oil / fat released from the meatballsMeatballs
  • 1 large onion (Minced)
  • 2 large tomatoes chopped
  • 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp garam masala OR Biryani masala powder
  • 1/2 cup yogurt (whisked till smooth)

Heat the oil in a pan & add minced onion and ginger-garlic paste to it and keep stiring on a medium-low heat. After a few mins add turmeric powder, chilli powder, coriander powder & cumin powder. Fry a little, taking care not to burn the spices. Now add the tomatoes and cook while stirring until the tomatoes are cooked and the mixture starts releasing some oil. Now add 1/2 cup of water &  yogurt to the gravy and stir. Add the meatballs in the gravy and mix them together. Cover the pot and let it simmer on a very low heat for 5-7 mins. Take the pot off the heat.

Ingredients for assembly

  • One tomato sliced in circles
  • Ghee (clarified butter) 2-3 tbsp
  • Rice prepared in advance
  • Meatballs in gravy prepared in advance
  • Fried onions prepared in advance
  • Saffron soaked in milk prepared in advance
  • Chopped coriander leaves 1/2 cup
  • Chopped mint leaves 1/2 cup
  • Garam Masala /Biryani Masala 2 tsp
  • Rosewater 2-3 tsp
  • Kewra essense (optional) 2-3 tsp

In a large casserole heat some ghee, place the tomato circles at the bottom. Add first layer of meat followed by a layer of rice. Sprinkle some chopped herbs, fried onions, 1 tsp ghee, a few drops of rosewater & a few drops of kewra essense. Sprinkle some Biryani masala and drizzle a little saffron milk on top. Repeat the layer of meat & rice in the same fashion & finish with a layer of rice on top. On top add all the herbs, extracts and spices as before. Cover the casserole, seal the edges with a dough made from flour. Keep a griddle on a very low heat & keep the casserole on top of it. Let the Biryani cook on steam trapped inside the casserol for 10-15 mins. Granish with rose petals and boiled egg if you like and serve it with some raita or plain yogurt.

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Biryani Masala is essentially a variation of Garam Masala.  The difference between the two is in the proportion of spices. The recipe for Garam Masala itself changes from one household to another and it is really hard to come up with a standard recipe for any of the dry masala powders used across India. As per the recipes that I follow, I can say that generally Biryani Masala has more of ‘sweet’ spices than ‘hot’ spices. What I consider sweet spices are green cardamom, nutmeg, mace, star anise & cinnamon. These spices do not have much heat in them but they are extremely fragrant and that’s why they are used in desserts as well. What I consider ‘hot’ spices are cloves, black pepper & black cardamom. Some recipes do not call for cumin & coriander in Biryani Masala but others do. Here’s the recipe I follow:

  • 10 green cardamoms
  • 1 small nutmeg
  • 2-3 blades of mace
  • 2 star anise
  •  3″ piece cinnamon
  •  1 black cardamom
  • 3 cloves
  • 2-3 dry bay leaves
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 10-15 peppercorns

Dry roast all the spices separately on a low heat until they are fragrant. After they cool down, grind them to a fine powder using a spice grinder. Store in airtight container. If you do not have a spice grinder, a coffee grinder works just as well.

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