Break the tyranny of tradition

From the Maghreb and Uttarakhand, ideas to revitalize your kitchen and soul.

Tradition is a fine thing. It lends substance to your cuisine, aroma to your kitchen and depth to your soul.

So I revel in doling out the kokum-laden fish curry that emerged from my grandmother’s Goan kitchen way before I was born. The call and comfort of tradition makes me stock the dried rind of garcinia indica, the fruit that creates my beloved kokum.

So, too, do I concede to ripples of pleasure when trying out my mother’s tangy version of pork, which, I must point out, was a break from her tradition.

After all, how many of her ilk, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus – they who have for thousands of years wielded the ladle with equal felicity as the sword and pen – dabble in piggery products?

Culinary tradition, must always justify and reinvent itself, and there is no better place to do this than your home stove. Mummy truly knows best.

I was thus pleased to have my mother with me – on a visit from Bangalore – when I broke one tradition and successfully purloined another from North Africa and made it my own.

I hope I can evolve it adequately in the weeks to come, so one day my daughter will claim it as hers.

What’s that? What if I have a son? Well, I am not prejudiced, since I am a son myself, but I’d rather not (and if I do, I’ll burn the clippings of this column, which my wife assiduously stores, and bribe the Hindustan Times; net editor to scrub it from their archives).

Discarding tradition isn’t as easy as it sounds. Even when I strayed by using kokum with Thai spices in a fish curry, the base was, comfortingly, the same: Coconut milk.

What if I don’t have coconut milk?

That was going too far. Or so I thought when I contemplated scrapping the curry plan when I realised I was out of coconut milk.

“What kind of man are you?” the fresh surmai (kingfish) asked from my kitchen counter. “Defeated by the absence of coconut milk!”

Shamefaced, I realised it was a good day to discard tradition.

With great trepidation I took the path less traveled. I am pleased to report that it made all the difference (with sincere apologies to Robert Frost).

We had a healthy, happy and admirable meal. The fish was a bit of a stew, a marriage of south Indian and Uttarakhandi flavours, light and fragrant.

It was a bigger leap of faith to try something I was completely unfamiliar with: Couscous, that wonderful North and West African tradition of wheat granules.

I’ve eaten it in middle-eastern restaurants and in Israel, usually under a meat or fish stew or as a salad, but somehow you don’t easily get around to trying something this far from tradition.

As it emerged, nothing could be easier than couscous, and the new stewy fish was the ideal thing to pour over what my father termed “khas-khas?”, after a suspicious glance.

Pick up any packaged couscous from a store

The preparation of traditional couscous is a time-consuming affair in the Maghreb, where it originated. I opted for the widely available two-minute, processed version.

Fluff the couscous after you pour boiling water

Fluff the couscous after you pour boiling water

Tradition is dead. Love live tradition.

Add the stir-fried vegetables to the couscous

Jakhya and curry leaves fish stew

500 gm fish (I used surmai)
1 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp garlic paste
2 tsp red-chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
2 onions sliced fine
2 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 cups water
Juice of half a lime 1 cup fresh, chopped coriander

For the tempering (tadka):

13 curry leaves

1 tsp jakhya seeds (Cleome viscose is the English translation! I’ve got mine from various Uttarakhand fairs; in Delhi, try Delhi Haat; or call the Alaknanda Agriculture Business Automomous Cooperative, Kaleshwar, Chamoli: 01363-241575)

½ tsp methi (fenugreed) seeds

Serves four

Heat the oil in a kadhai, add jakhya seeds. They may or may not pop. Add curry leaves and methi seeds. Fry pastes quickly. Add onion and fry till transluscent. Add red-chilli and turmeric powders and sauté. Add tomatoes, sauté. Add salt and water. Add fish, mix gently and cook on low heat. When cooked, pour lime juice and sprinkle coriander. Cover and serve hot-over couscous or rice.

The jakhiya and curry leaves fish stew, ready to eat

Juicecous with peppers and rocket

Really, you can do with couscous whatever you wish. Mix and match ingredients, ensure there is enough liquid and you’re good to go. Here’s what I did:
¾ glass couscous from packet (120 ml)
1 glass of salted, boiling water (150 ml)
2 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ zucchini, cut into thin roundels, then halved
1 red pepper, small dices 1 yellow pepper, small dices
2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tbsp of olive oil juice of ½ lime
3 tbsp red-wine vinegar
6 tbsp orange juice 5-6 sprigs of rocket leaves, washed and torn
2 tbsp mint, washed and torn (optional)

Pour boiling water over couscous, fluff with a fork till it swells. Set aside. In a wok, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil. Stir fry zucchini. Add cumin and coriander powder. Stir fry. Add peppers, saute for a minute. Take off flame. Mix with couscous. Add other juices, vinegar. Mix well. Add rocket and mint (if you wish). Grind fresh pepper. Serve warm or chilled with fish stew.

The couscous is ready; serve warm or chilled

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