Sitting in the thinnai (a concrete sit out constructed in Tamil Nadu homes), gazing at the neighbor’s huge koolam ( a sand painting done with rice powder in front of the house), admiring those tiny ants running around it, I am sipping my hot steamy tea and savoring the moment of silence before the world wakes up. The moist early morning air gently caresses my cheeks and runs through the hair which I had left loose. The soft curls of my short hair tickles my neck every time the breeze passes through me. Inside, perched on an antic table was the 1980’s 2-in-1 radio playing the ALL INDIA RADIO (AIR)- morning news and outside, my grand father, white-haired man was busy plucking hibiscus for his morning prayers. In the dining area, my bossy grandmother, clad in a soft cotton saree, dictates the list of vegetables to be chopped to the house maid and announces the menu to us. She is as tough as an old bird and one can never win an argument with her. She is a very intelligent cook, who knows her spices and brilliantly plays around it. For a women of that age, one wouldn’t expect different cuisine every other day from her kitchen. Surprise is the word during the meal time.
We would eat our breakfast/lunch/dinner on the floor, on a bamboo mat and eat with the fingers of the right hand. The food will be served on a fresh cut banana leaf placed in the front and my granddad would carefully cut the leaves and wash them clean in the backyard before bringing it inside the house. This fresh, green organic platter as he calls it, is our alternative to use-and-throw plates.
Everyday at 10.00 am the electricity goes off and this is a routine which is done to save power for the EID-Parry factory. That’s the time when everyone in the family would gather to sit and gossip about that relative, this movie, those local news and crack silly jokes about each other. To cool herself and to stop the sweat from dripping through her forehead, she would grab a brown hand-fan, and quickly wave it across her face and also on mine. A gentle breeze of love touches my heart and salty smell of my grand mother passes through me. When the power comes back, which will be in 1.5 hours later, she would plan to re-enter the kitchen and on that day , she had planned to prepare a delicious vegetable brinji to go with her signature chicken curry.
My grandmother made my perimma’s (mother’s elder sister) version of brinji. Brinji is an intermediate dish between pulao/pilaf and biryani. The former is lightly perfumed with spices while the latter is heavily spiced. Brinji is made with mild spices and good amount of green chillies and coconut milk. Brinji generally comprises of carrots, beans, peas, butter beans and double beans. Birinji or Brinji is basically a mixed vegetable rice, the spices are ground with onions and fried and cooked in the spice paste. Coconut milk is used to give it a creamy flavor.They are served with koorma or spicy curry and onion raita. In my family, we also love to have fried poppudums/appalams with it.
My achi loves to learn new recipes from friends and family. Her enthusiasm to learn has always amazed me. She hails from a village near Chidambaram and in most Tamil Nadu homes, no one had the luxury to own a oven and baking was Greek and Latin to us. Even now my mom doesn’t have an oven in her kitchen as she doesn’t bake. But I do have one here. We grew up in homes that made spicy sambhar, steamy rasam and aromatic curries and not chocolate cake, brownies or panacotta. She once came up with an idea to bake a cake in a pressure cooker. She understood the science behind cooking and came up with the concept of indirect heating. She would place sand inside the pressure cooker and she would place her baking pan on top of it. The heat from the sand would bake the cake. Well, that’s about her for now.
My dad’s birthday is on February 1st. Later year I wrote an emotional post on his birthday with a easy recipe for Sakkara Pongal. This year, I am celebrating his birthday with a lovely poem which conveys my love for him and delicious chocolate banana bread. Happy Birthday Appa!
“You held me up when I was weak.
You hugged me close when tears I’d weep.
When things got hard, you pushed me through.
You always showed me you loved me true.
I know there were times I made you cry, and to this day,
I don’t know why.
For without you, where would I be?
I am thankful God gave you to me.
Thanks Dad for you are one in a million.”
VEGETABLE BRINJI / BIRINJI RICE
- 2 tablespoon olive oil or butter or ghee
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 cardamons
- 1 inch cinnamon stick
- 1 star annise
- 2 Thai green chillies
- 1 large red onions, chopped
- 1.5 cups vegetables cut into fingers (potato, carrot, beans, peas, capsicum)
- 1/2 cup raw butter or double beans (optional) – I always like its taste in my brinji
- Salt to taste
- 2 cups Basmati rice, washed and soaked for minimum 30 minutes
- 3 cups coconut milk + 1/4 cup to cook the vegetables
For the spice paste:
- 2 tablespoon dessicated/fresh coconut
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 Thai or regular green chilies , chopped
- 1 inch ginger, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/4 cup cilantro /coriander leaves, chopped
- 20 mint leaves, chopped
- Soak the rice in 6 cups water for minimum 30 minutes. I generally soak them for 1-2 hours.
- Grind the ingredients mentioned under the spice paste with little water. Set aside.
- Heat the oil/butter/ghee in a large dutch oven or pressure cooker. Throw in the cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaf. Sauté for 1-2 minutes.
- Then add the green chilies and saute for 30 seconds. Add the onions and sauté till lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
- Mix in the ground spice paste and fry for another 4 – 5 minutes on a low flame. Keep stirring to prevent the onion mixture from getting burned.
- Add the mixed chopped vegetables, beans and saute for 2-3 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and cook covered for 15 minutes. Cook the veggies until 3/4th done.
- Pour 3 cups of coconut milk. Add salt to taste.
- Bring the liquid to a boil.
- Add the rice to the boiling coconut milk mixture, simmer the flame to the lowest flame/heat. Cover and cook on low flame for about 15 minutes.
- Switch off the flame and let it rest. Don’t open and meddle with the rice. After 15 minutes, using a fork fluff out the rice. Serve hot with onion raita and spicy chicken/shrimp or vegetarian kurma.