Friday, March 31, 2017

Black Pav Bhaji: Thankful Tastebuds (and Skeptical Stomach)

- by Aishwarya Pramod

Yesterday, I tried black pav bhaji at Maruti Pav Bhaji in Vile Parle. It was recommended by my friend Pooja, a long time Parle resident. I trust her judgment on food. (We have bonded over college canteen sev puris and Gurukripa samosas. My mother has been awestruck by Pooja's capacity to eat). On top of that, a Google search told me that Maruti is now featured on a few lists of Mumbai's best places to eat pav bhaji. So when the mood for pav bhaji struck, I decided to try out this joint with another friend.

We arrived a little early; the stall only opens at 7:30 PM
It's a roadside stall called Maruti. I don't know why his pav bhaji is black. Some people on the interet attribute it to black pepper while others talk of "secret black spices".

Its colour is different from the regular red pav bhaji
We asked for some extra butter in the bhaji
The pav bhaji itself was delicious. It was indeed a little different from what is usually served as pav bhaji. But a special mention goes out to the masala pav (below). It was a real bomb. It was overflowing with spice and flavour. My stomach is not yet sure how it's going to respond to this level of chilli but I already know I'm not going to have any regrets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Kanatha vadam: My family's guilty indulgence

-by Aishwarya Pramod and Janaki Krishnan

Like all Palakkad Iyers, I love kanatha vadam. But whenever I think of it, it's always with a twinge of guilt. Not because kanatha vadam is unhealthy. Rather, it is because the dish takes a humongous effort to make, but almost no time to finish off. All that work for only a moment of deliciousness? So self-indulgent. :P

Non-Palakkad-Iyers might ask, what are kanatha vadams? At the risk of sounding clinical, they are steamed rice flat-cakes that are sundried to make papads :). During the papad-making process, a few of them are set aside for immediate eating (without drying).

My grandmother has loved kanatha vadam since she was a young girl. She penned down the recipe and her memories associated with it. Here is what she wrote.
Writing down the recipe

Kanatha Vadam by Janaki Krishnan

I learnt to make kanatha vadam at a schoolgoing age. Kanatha vadam means "thick vadam". It's made on a set of leaf-shaped metal trays. It's also called elai vadam, meaning "leaf vadam".

The "leaves" for making kanatha vadam
Vadam-making was a group affair. Children were given simple jobs to do like peeling off cooked vadams from the leaves. There were 8 of us who helped our mother make large batches of vadam-papads. We would set aside a few vadams for immediate eating, and keep the remaining ones in the sun to dry. While peeling off the cooked vadams, a few small pieces would inevitably remain on the leaves. We loved snacking on those even as we were supposed to be setting the vadams aside.

  • 1 glass puzhungal arisi. This is parboiled unpolished rice. It is slightly reddish because a bit of the husk remains on the grain. We use this rice to make idli too
  • 1 glass polished rice
  • Salt, chilli powder, hing (asafoetida) powder
  • Metal leaves to cook the vadams. Right from my mother's time we have been using metal leaves, though traditionally, leaves are used. These leaves are available in the market or with flower sellers.
Soak the parboiled rice overnight. Soak the polished rice the next day for about half an hour. Mix all the rice together, drain the water. Grind into a paste in a mixie/grinder. Add about half a cup of water while grinding, little by little.

Once the paste is ready, add more water to it till it becomes the consistency of dosai batter. This will make it easy to spread on the leaf. Add a spoonful of sesame seeds (optional).

The rice paste with sesame seeds
Ready the metal leaves, by dabbing them with a cloth dipped in a mix of water and a little oil. Spread the batter evenly in circular shapes. Steam-cook it for two minutes.

Spreading the paste on the leaves
Steam for 2 minutes
Remove the leaves from the steam-cooker and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Spread a little oil of your choice on the vadams, and gently peel them off the leaves. Trying to remove the vadams before they cool down will make them stick to the leaves. They are now ready to eat!

Ready to eat
Some of the vadams can also be dried in the sun and later deep-fried.

I still love kanatha vadam. I prefer eating them directly rather than drying and deep-frying. The steamed ones have very little oil and I can easily eat half a dozen.


Aishwarya back again :)
Like my grandma, my mom has also been a long time fan of kanatha vadam. I myself wasn't a big fan, until I was suddenly converted a few years ago. I'm back home after finishing my MBA. It turns out that Amma has developed a slight addiction and asks Shyamala (her cook) to make these vadams every fortnight or so.

Here she is answering mails, taking phone calls and watching Star Trek all at the same time. I bring a plate of sample vadams to my her, and she tastes one. "Needs more salt in the batter. Also, not sour enough. Maybe add buttermilk." She feeds me a couple and eats the remaining two. "OK so are there more vadams?" she asks furtively. I grin at the guilty look on her face and go to fetch another plate.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Fair markets for farmers?

- by Aishwarya Pramod

We've all heard stories about exploitative middlemen in Indian agriculture. They're charged with shortchanging farmers, and causing high food prices for end consumers.

I wanted to figure out how agricultural produce makes its way to our local bazaars. Who is in charge of ensuring that the farmer gets a fair deal?

The answer, at least in the 50's and the 60's, came in the form of Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Agriculture is a state subject, and several states set up their own APMC Acts to regulate the sale of agricultural produce.

At APMC market yards, licensed agents connect farmers to wholesalers and other buyers. Prices are decided based on auctions, instead of giving the middleman the ability to set the price. APMCs also mandate the use of fair weighing machines, as well as fair payment for loading/unloading labour.

Today there are ~2500 principal APMC markets and ~4800 sub-market yards in the country.

Vashi APMC Market
However, as it turned out, the APMCs weren't as good as envisaged. For starters, the APMCs impose multiple high fees on all actors that operate in them, distorting prices. Farmers often ultimately bear the costs of these levies. The intermediary agents can form cartels. Prices can be manipulated, because the markets function quite opaquely. The market is regulated by the APMC committee, who are elected from the agents operating in the APMC, leading to a conflict of interest.

To encourage states to reform their APMCs, the central Ministry of Agriculture formulated a Model APMC Act in 2003. It requested state governments to amend their laws to bring them in line with this model law.

Some of the suggested reforms in the APMC Model Act include:
1) No more government monopoly on setting up APMCs. Anyone can apply to set up a market
2) Farmers are not compelled to sell in the APMC but can go to any market, outside the APMC, or take up contract farming
3) The Act attempts to better regulate contract farming to give farmers more options
4) The Act also streamlines fees and levies.

Several states are now in the process of amending their acts, though progress is slow. In 2016, Maharashtra for example, exempted farmers from having to sell fruits and vegetables at APMCs, despite opposition from APMC traders.

Some states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana have experimented with 'rythu bazaars' or 'apni mandis', where farmers sell their products directly to consumers. But not all farmers have the capability to bring their products to urban markets. So the middleman provides a necessary and useful service to them, and the direct-to-consumer model has very limited applicability.

The central government is also working on connecting multiple APMC markets across the country using a single electronic platform called the electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM). The e-NAM is still taking baby steps. I wonder how the agricultural markets will evolve in future. More options for farmers and more transparency in general seem like the way to go :)