Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesday: These are a few of our favorite things

Karela pulao (bitter gourd and cashew curry).

Three amazing new entrants to the D4SA universe are featured in this meal: bitter melon, curry leaves, and jaggery.  We've used these ingredients many times, but for some reason they haven't made it onto the blog until today.  (Apparently we haven't been shopping in Jackson Heights frequently enough in the past year...)

Bitter melon (also called bitter gourd or karela) is one of the weirder vegetables you may ever encounter.  In this country, it comes in two common varieties: the Indian, smaller and bumpy version, which is dark green and might remind you of a crocodile, and the Chinese, larger and smooth type, which is a lighter green and looks something like a puckered cucumber.  Its most important characteristic is its flavor: a shocking, strong and fascinating bitterness which is utterly unlike the flavor of any other food.  (The closest analog might be the taste of quinine in tonic water, but even that is a pretty impoverished comparison.)  In both of our experience, the first time you try a taste of bitter melon, the flavor spreads through the mouth and seems totally overpowering.  That first bite must trigger some kind of reaction in the brain that renders subsequent encounters permanently less intense.  The next few times we cooked bitter melon after that fateful first taste, we still had to select recipes that include methods of dulling its flavor, such as draining it using salt and turmeric.  But these days we could eat plain sauteed bitter melon and not find it overly strong.  We're not really sure why the human brain would experience bitter melon this way, but we promise you have to try it to believe it.

Curry leaves are less dramatic, but they are one of our favorite food flavorings.  We don't have them as often as we'd like, so we pick them up every time we see them.  Apparently they're a Mediterranean member of the lettuce family, but they have a potent, spicy and complex flavor that plays a role more like bay leaf when added to a dish.  (Note: don't confuse curry leaves with curry powder, which doesn't contain any of this leaf, and is instead a widely varying mix of ground spices.) This is the characteric flavor of many South Indian dishes, which can't really be replicated with any substitution.

Finally, jaggery is just palm sugar.  It's sold in a large brown block, and pieces can be broken or grated off for use.  Like molasses, it has its own totally distinctive aroma in addition to being a sweetener.  We ran out of jaggery quite a while ago and had been using brown sugar as a substitute, which is acceptable, but this recipe made us remember how much flavor we had been missing by doing so.

That was all quite a mouthful for describing a simple pilaf (regionally known as pulao, pillau, paella, etc).  This Mahanandi recipe may be pretty easy to put together, but your three new BFFs above are more than enough to make it totally distinctive.

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