Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Pepper Chronicles

The food of the Indian sub-continent has a distinction like none other –  food was not merely a medium to fill the stomach – it was a highly evolved science that had documented recipes, preservation methods and nutrition enhancement techniques built into it – and all this as early as pre-historic times.  No wonder the Indian sub-continent is one among the “Cradle of Civilizations”!!

And hence, it is no wonder that food assumed unparalleled importance in these civilizations. From being considered offering to Gods (Prasad, Naivedyam etc) to being compared to medicines in the Ayurveda, food has been assigned the highest position of purity and worship.

In fact, food was almost always sustenance with medicinal properties. Almost all the ingredients that were added, were done not only for taste, but also with an inherent healing property. And leading that list is our very own “black gold” – the black pepper.

Black pepper is one of the reasons India was a hot destination (pun intended!) for traders from across the globe – from Portuguese to Arabs, every trader who wanted to make it big came in search of this beautiful fruit which when dried and powdered, seduced the taste buds. No surprises why pepper is the most traded spice in the world!

Our forefathers knew various life hacks that this little fiery fruit brought to our dinner tables and medicine cabinets alike. We have also (albeit with a tiny bit of contempt and skepticism), listened to moms and grandmoms tell us how pepper is better than any “firangi medicine” to cure our common ailments. 

But guess what – these life hacks work! And motherhood is when I discovered most of them, since these were quick, effective home remedies, and one did not have to worry about side effects. So here goes: 

  1. Add it to any savory dish to create a whopping flavor – continental, Indian, Chinese – you name it! Salads and steak to soups and buttermilk – use it for the zing. 
  2. Digestive issues (well, most of them) are caused by the lowered production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach (for those of you who bunked bio class – yes! Your body produces it). Pepper is known to increase production of this acid in the stomach – which is why appetizers work wonderfully well with a healthy dose of pepper. Think pepper Rasam and you know what I’m talking about. 
  3. Further with digestion, it aids in relieving gas issues. For people who complain of gas (the lower body kinds, not to be confused with the ones that people have in their heads – no cure for that!) try replacing red chilly powder in your food, with black pepper powder.
  4. Every Mom in India knows this – drink a concoction that has pepper, either with honey or with ginger, to clear up the stuffy nose and chest congestion – absolutely safe for children.
  5. Dandruff issues? Have no fear – black pepper is here. Mix about a teaspoon of crushed pepper to a bowl of curd. Apply to scalp for 30 minutes and wash off with cold (remember, never hot water!) water. Do not use shampoo. The antibacterial properties of pepper is good for any infection including dandruff.
  6. Due to the same antibacterial property, pepper is a magical fix for acne as well. Crush pepper, and mix with some rose water, and use as a scrub – do remember to scrub gently!
  7. Adding pepper in your regular diet will ensure you have a skin that is more resistant to ageing than most others
  8. Remember the way you sweat when you have pepper? Well, that is another superhero property – pepper flushes out toxins and other icky stuff out of the body by causing sweating and increased urination.
  9. Here’s a bonus for all who speak the metabolism jargon – pepper spikes up your metabolism rate. Translated into simple-folk language – it aids in weightloss (yay!!) if added in small quantities to your (healthy) meal. Adding it to Maharaja Mac doesn’t count, sadly.
  10. To maximize the good properties of pepper, store pepper whole, and crush it when you need it. Use a good pepper mill – grinding it in the grinder will produce heat, lowering the effectiveness and the flavor.
  11. Ants bothering you? Black pepper to the rescue! Just sprinkle black pepper in those corners and in between drawers to keep ants away! (hmmm..... much like pepper spray for other kinds of pests!)
  12. Kids colorful clothes fading too fast? Just add a teaspoon of black pepper to one load of colored clothes to wash and the colors remain bright.
  13. Trying to quit smoking? Try smelling black pepper – research has shown that the inhaling pepper oil causes reduced craving for nicotine.
  14. Pepper is a ‘warming’ spice. Using pepper oil mixed with a carrier oil (that's any oil like olive, coconut, etc) to massage aching muscles after a heavy workout, or using it for arthritic joints will help relieve the pain.

Hoping you stock up your kitchen cupboard with this wonder spice, and find these life hacks useful. Do write back in the comments if you have tried any of this, or if you have any more interesting uses of pepper. Happy winters!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Memories and Flavors

Here’s something to tickle your foodie brains - see if you can identify the very familiar food that finds itself into every Indian home for any special meal. The clues:
  • It stems from the Hindi word “to lick”
  • Found in almost every color and consistency
  • Can be made of anything -  from shrimps to dates, from sesame to fenugreek
  • Your Grandmother probably made the best variant, and you still haven’t found how to get it just right (this is from my various failed experiments to recreate the magic of my Ammamma’s kitchen)
  • Never mind the theme – this little addition peps up any party; whether you want a coastal seafood journey, or a vegetarian snack party – some avatar of our superhero dish brings out the best in every dish on the table

Still guessing? 

The humble Chutney that is a part of every Indian household across the length and breadth of the vast Indian subcontinent is the hero of our discussion today, folks!

Picture courtesy

From the coconut chutneys that grace the South Indian breakfast tables, to the fiery chutney that uses fermented fish and “bhoot jholakia” (the hottest chilly in the world!) in a Nagaland household; from the sweet and spicy mango chutney of the Gujarati feast, to the pungent radish Chutney with typical Kashmiri flavors, Chutneys instantly perk up any ordinary meal with its burst of flavors.

Chutneys originated as a quick fix to dress up a humble meal. But it also had to do with elongating the shelf life of perishable seasonal fruits and vegetables. In geographical conditions that sometimes became hostile, the Indian homemakers found ingenious ways to make seasonal produce last for weeks, sometimes months together by pickling, or curing them. These ingredients were then freshly ground, pounded and mixed together to form chutneys.

Chutneys also allowed clever cooks to bribe the palate a little – take for example the dried shrimp chutney in Kerala homes. In many Kerala homes that are non-vegetarian, a fish dish is the only way to coax family members into a satisfying lunch. But In the event the fish monger was a little late, or greedy, or the lady of the house was just feeling a little under the weather, she would just grind together a little dried shrimp with tangy raw mango and coconut, throw in a few curry leaves and ginger for flavor, spice it all up with a few whole red chillies – and voila! The shrimp chutney would bring a smile to the fussiest little eater.

And who can forget the spicy, flavorful garlic chutney that Vada Pav lovers swear by? I remember walking miles with a friend to find THAT particular street vendor whose chutney brought tears to the first time taster (some may claim they are tears of joy, but trust me, it’s the chilly), but once you got the hang of it, you couldn’t imagine a vada pav without it!

Sometimes, we are awed by the little flavor bombs that get placed, quite unceremoniously and without aplomb, next to its more illustrious main dishes. And when describing it to the less knowledgeable, we explain, with much pride and association, how our humble Chutneys fill our senses with flavors and tastes that stay in the mind for a long time.

And that, dear friends, is my New Year wish for you – may your year be filled with various flavors – sometimes intense, sometimes sweet, sometimes strange – but at all times enjoyable. Happy New Year !!

P.S. I have started the new year with a promise to myself that I would do stuff that makes me happy - so please say hi to my new venture with some like minded friends - More Than Just Curry - we are gourmet food tour curators... read more about us at or visit out FB page for a little more insight.