Haven’t had much excitement the past week or so that’s given me anything to think about, making this a kind of so-here’s-what-I-did type post but I actually did go someplace out of the ordinary Monday. I really don’t go to Little India as much as my sister imagines, despite my inclinations toward Indian cuisine, but I love going there just for the sake of it. The grocers that line Buffalo Road stay open way after sun down, and are much more interesting alternatives to the sanitised supermarkets to hunt for produce. I suppose hunt might be overstating it but the experience of seeing the produce heaped in their boxes, smelling, at times pinching and poking (lightly so as not to deface) to ascertain freshness and perhaps most importantly the breath-taking final judgment of whether selected produce is really the best out of the whole lot in front of us really makes just a grocery shopping trip something of an accomplishment to be proud of.
A journey to Mustafa is no less than a pilgrimmage
My friend J and I met for possibly the best chapatis in Singapore, which I like to describe as tasting ‘biblical’ before adjourning to Mustafa to hunt down spices, for cooking and for making fresh spice mixes out of. My previous visits, and their futility, have given me a strange impression of the place — it has absolute everything under one roof except the things I go there to find.
This time I did find the things I was looking for and for this I call J my lucky charm but anyway, the size of this place requires dogged determination to trudge right to the end where the spices are located. Even the spice racks, lined in one straight aisle seem to extend without end, starting from pre-packaged masalas of seemingly every damn company in the world spanning to the most basic kitchen spices and ending with the most elusive of sorts, some I didn’t even recognise, as though they were only there to ‘add some spice’ to the already humongous collection.
I really shouldn’t complain because that’s where I found the whole nutmeg and whole dried ginger which are probably impossible to procure otherwise. Sold already ground and in the pathetic tiny glass jars supermarkets import from the US, these are much cheaper and I can only imagine more robust in flavor since they are packaged intact. Twenty whole nutmegs for less than $4?! The jarred supermarket type sets you back for about the same price for a fifth of that amount. Spices like these are pretty versatile and feature in all manner of American/European spiced breads, cakes and muffins and South Asian recipes so I was pretty chuffed at securing a valuable stash. I also bought black cardamom, which I never knew existed save for the green ones until I encountered garam masala, fennel and cumin seeds, and a round type of dried chilli as which is as equally elusive as the whole ginger and nutmeg. I’ve secretly been envying those who use them up till this point when I’ve finally managed to get some of my own.
Wrestling with grinding up spice mixes
Faced with a new stash of fresh quality spices. I decided to make myself a Masala Chai spice mix. It’s one of those things you think I gotta make that someday, even though the Chai boom seems to have petered out quite some years ago. How difficult is that? Just weigh out the spices as per the recipe, grind them up and store.
How should I describe me trying to make it? Naive. Now I know why some Indian recipes say to patiently sieve through a new packet of spice, because there was a mother load of sticks and stones in the black pepper. Dogged persistence, not a trait I was particularly keen on showing in at that moment since my Mustafa pilgrimmage had worn me out quite some. But I managed. And I was rewarded with a damn fragrant and indescribably aromatic spice mix at the end.
Strangely, the black pepper didn’t have quite as pungent and sneeze-inducing quality as I had expected. In fact I think it actually contributed a lot of fragrance to the mix. Next most abundant ingredient in the mix was the dried ginger, which gave me a lot less trouble than I’d thought, since it was brittle and easily broken into bits and pulverised. Again, the fantastic strong ginger aroma, reminiscent of the milky, sweet coffeeshop Teh Halia (ginger tea) in all its full glory. Then the green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, the former being another finicky beast, its husks I had to personally separate since they couldn’t fully powderise. Lastly, the nutmeg which I hand grated for fear that my grinder might raise protest against me working it too hard what with its hardness.
The masala chai was pretty darn good – flavorful and warmed the insides of my stomach. I scaled down the recipe 8 times to produce this tiny jar but even so, as you can read, as little as 1/4tsp is needed for each cup of tea so this will last pretty much, I’d say, a little shorter than forever in this household? Since its pretty much the height of summer now. Those Medjool dates made a most lovely accompaniment to the spicy tea with their caramel sweetness. I liked that they were available in a small pack at Mustafa rather than the massive (size-wise) and also massively expensive packages at the local supermarkets. Ten f*king dollars for a pack of dates? They were nice although I may not buy them again because they were kind of dried up and expensive.
The masala dabba has been one Indian pantry item I’ve been coveting for quite some time, not surprisingly since my collection has expanded dramatically since my foray into the culture’s cuisine, and thus has become quite hard to track down every single bugger hiding in corners of the fridge everytime I whip something up. Finally thanks to J’s good karma, I found this needle out of the Mustafa haystack, promptly cleaned and satisfyingly filled with my most used spices. The mustard seeds, dried chillis, urad dal and cumin seeds are commonly used for tempering while turmeric and chilli powder are always added in small pinches. I filled the last one with sambar powder since that was probably my next most used spiced powder. Ah, the satisfaction of popping open the tin to find all my spices available at my beck and call anytime I need them. No more muckin’ about everytime I start.
Snakegourd Poriyal / Snakegourd Saute with Coconut
Was close to no work is one of the good points of this dish but best part is always the taste. Sensing the basic seasoning didn’t quite seem to cut it for this very vegetal tasting veg, I threw in some grated coconut (I keep handy as frozen 2T-ful cubes) towards the end which really added the missing taste with it’s slight sweetness and richness. Sambar powder gave it a savory curried taste but otherwise would have tasted bland and lacking without the coconut to perk things up. Basically prep work required just cutting up the gourd and an onion. Cooking was a matter of tempering the whole spices, sauteing the gourd, adding the powders, adding water to stew and finishing off with the coconut. Easy as pie. I might even make this again. Recipe here (just add 2T – 1/4 cup coconut per snakegourd you use).
Cowpea Herbed Salad with Balsamic Sansho Miso Vinegrette
I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought this was damn good cos my friend D said the same when she stole some of my leftovers during lunch yesterday. Legume salads keep well since the beans have got all the time in the fridge to marinate when the flavors become more pronounced. I threw in a mother load of herbs which I had after a mass basil and mint pruning session, which gave massive flavor ensuring you really need nothing more than a simple vinaigrette, as I found out earlier. Having said that, the balsamic vinegar and leftover sansho miso which I added did a spectacular job in adding more layers of flavor without the final taste being confused. This is one I probably have to sit down and churn out a proper recipe for when I get around to making more sansho miso. But otherwise, herbs + balsamic vinegar in legume salad is quite a satisfying combination in its own.
Mom cooked her healthy fried rice today. It’s not like she makes a less healthy version of fried rice on usual days. This is pretty much the only fried rice she ever does, which comes more or less unaltered from a cookbook. It’s got all the usual bells and whistles except for one or two strange ones like potato (carbs in carbs? shrug.) and dried daylilies. The day-old rice is a 5-grain mix which has millet, brown rice and black rice. It was quite dry and kind of burnt from yesterday’s botched operation but completely passable for the purpose of fried rice.
I had to take this photo while sitting at the table, just waiting to tuck in. I wondered if the three of us really warranted that much of an elaborate preparation. Well maybe not, if I consider the fact that everything on the left past the pots were all leftovers, which also doesn’t satisfactory explain the need to cook up a storm since this way, leftovers tirelessly appear and re-appear day after day. You should be able to tell by now, I don’t like leftovers. Amusingly, mom never ceases to seize the opportunity for adding garnishes. Everything has coriander leaves today. I suppose given my inertia in cooking lunches the past week, this is an excellent time for me to try making peace with them leftovers.