Cooking in the backyard: Thai style Tuna Fried Rice

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Thailand, a country full of little family-owned café’s. These little café’s are usually set in a comforting, home-style environment. Here you’ll experience what I call ‘cooking in the backyard’. It is also how a lot of traditional homes are designed with a wet kitchen in the backyard. You’ll often see the young school going teenager lending a helping hand to his or her parents. During rush hour, the kids even help with the cooking. It’s inspiring to see these young chefs cook with such exuberating confidence.

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I stand there watching, as the man on my side of the counter passes a white slip over to the Cook. The Cook, a lady probably in her late 40s, has a very pleasant disposition. She smiles at me as she gently heats up the wok while taking a quick glance at the white slip of paper. She’s probably done it a thousand times over and over again. She looks like she could do this with her eyes closed.

As the wok heats up, she takes some garlic and chillies and gently pounds them using a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle is always by her side. She is extremely organised with each ingredient placed less than an arms distance away, just where it should be. She always has a big icebox next to her where all the chilled meat is kept. She opens it just a bit, takes out the required portion of the meat and closes it again until the next order comes in.

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An artist in her own right, she knows how to play with her tools – the mortar and pestle, the wok, the ladle and the fire. She uses the fish sauce, sugar, soya sauce, pepper and other herbs and spices to tell her story. She fires up the wok, turning and tossing the ingredients, adding them one after the other, all in good time, adjusting the heat as she deems appropriate. Within minutes, she creates food that is a treat to all your senses. A modest melamine plate in basic white, with or without patterns is placed right next to her. She plates her food and places a few slices of cucumber and a slice of lime, all in such an artistic manner.

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As the plate makes its journey from the wok to my table, my eyes see the color coordination including the Thai green chillies and the freshness of the lime. As it is placed in front of me, I get the smoky aroma that creates a suspense that I want to unfold, almost immediately. As I take the first bite, I know it has touched all my senses and a memory has just been formed.

 As the lady moves on to the next white slip where the orders are scribbled, a quick rinse and a scrub is all it takes to have her Wok ready to create the same brilliance all over again for the next waiting customer.

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Here is my version of a Thai style Tuna Fried Rice, a dish I had for many lunches during the years that I lived in Thailand.

For the printed recipe, click here.

Serves: 3

Ingredients:

Pre-cooked and cooled Thai Rice (preferably cooked the night before): 2 ½ cups
Red Onion: 1 Cup finely chopped
Thai Green chillies: 4-5, chopped fine (This makes it very spicy, adjust to your own tolerance)
Garlic, lightly pounded: 3 cloves
Olive Oil: 1 tbsp
Canned Tuna flakes in EVOO (use any other similar variety): 150 gms, oil drained.
Spring onions (Scallions), finely chopped (green parts): ¼ cup
Fish sauce: 1 Tbsp
Dark soya sauce: 1 tsp
Worcestershire sauce: 2 tsp
Black Pepper powder (coarsely powdered): ¼ tsp (or adjust to taste)
Salt: a pinch

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How I did it:

  1. The rice needs to be precooked and cold. This is important to ensure the grains of rice are separate and not lumpy when making the fried rice. When cooking the rice for fried rice, put a little less water than you would do normally.
  2. Heat a wok. When the wok is hot, add oil to it.
  3. Add the lightly pounded garlic. Reduce the fire and let the garlic cook for a few seconds without getting burnt. Add the chopped onions and green chillies. Let it soften while stirring continuously. Onions will change colour to a beautiful pink. Approx 3 mins on low heat.
  4. When the onions turn pink, add the cold and precooked rice and a tiny pinch of salt and increase the heat to high. Using the back of a ladle/spatula, push the rice towards the centre of the wok, removing any lumps while mixing it with the onions.
  5. Now add the tuna followed by all the sauces and the black pepper powder. Bring it together on high heat.
  6. Add the chopped spring onions. Give it one last good stir and serve it immediately with some sliced cucumbers and wedges of lime.

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Notes:

–        Fish sauce is quite salty. I would suggest that you add half the quantity of fish sauce first and adjust the taste as per your liking.
–        In my opinion, a fried rice cannot have the same texture and taste if it’s cooked with freshly cooked or hot rice. Therefore, try to cook the rice at least a few hours in advance.
–        If you don’t have spring onions, replace it with some finely chopped fresh coriander leaves or cilantro. That little bit of green is essential to provide a little freshness to this simple fried rice.
–        I had to cook for my 4 year old son, so I added the green chillies right in the end. If not, I would have added them together with the onions, or lightly pound them together with the garlic in the very beginning. Go ahead and do whatever suits your situation. If you are making this for kids, omit the green chillies.

The simple things in life: Mung Dal [no onion-no garlic]


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When life begins to feel complicated, I take a moment to reflect on the meaning of happiness and what it is for me. Is it really a bigger house, more money, an expensive bag or things like that? Yes, I would be lying if I said these things didn’t make me feel good at all. It does, but for that moment and may be a few days more. The only problem is if I continue to seek happiness in such things, my definition of happiness will keep getting complex.. and there’s really no end to it. There is always a want for more… and more. Nothing wrong with it but I find it important to take a moment, think back and put things in perspective.

It’s always the simple things in life that gives me true happiness. I am sure it’s the same for you too. In my quest for happiness, I listed a few things (not in any particular order) that make me truly happy:
A hug from my 4 year old child
Being a Mom
A good cup of ginger tea (chai) early in the morning
An unknown, probably insignificant, little flower my child picked up from the roadside. Just for me.
A conversation with my closest friends
A breath of fresh air
Soaking the sun rays
Companionship
Recalling childhood memories
A simple home made meal: Dal-Chawal

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Dal-Chawal or Lentils-Rice. A combination which is a staple in India. It may be in different variations depending on which part of India or which home it has been cooked, but essentially it is lentils or Dal and Rice.

Every time I travel, I immerse myself in the food and culture of that place. It’s an unspoken rule that we never order Indian food when traveling [outside of India]. However, when I come back home, the first meal cooked, without fail, is a very simple Dal-Chawal.

I wouldn’t even want to call this a recipe considering this is such a staple in Indian households. I still choose to write the method down as every home has their unique way of cooking lentils. Dal is cooked in a lot of Indian homes, almost every day. And that is also the reason, why one gets bored of eating it ever so often. In order to bring variety to Dal, I like to rotate the kind of lentils I cook. My pantry is stocked with some 7 different types of lentils/beans. I don’t cook Dal all 7 days a week but it definitely finds it’s way to our dining table at least 3 to 4 times a week in various forms.

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This preparation is quite simple – No onions, No garlic. A simple Dal flavoured with cumin seeds, asafetida and tomatoes. The cumin seeds, asafetida and tomato are the main players in this act. Asafetida gives it a pungent taste and tomatoes add a mild sour flavour to the Dal. It’s a little tough to tell which one is more dominating – the asafetida or the tomatoes, but together, they rule the otherwise modest Mung beans.

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The process of making this Dal is two fold. Part one involves roasting the Mung beans and then softening the beans while infusing it with some fresh ginger. Part two is the tadka or tempering that will add the flavours to the Mung. The tempering is done in ghee or clarified butter with cumin seeds, asafetida, finely chopped (or grated) tomatoes and some Kashmiri chilli powder for a mild spicy touch.

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I am also sending this recipe to Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen for the 61st edition of MLLA. My Legume Love Affair (MLLA) was started by Susan of the Well-Seasoned Cook and is now being carried forward by Lisa of Lisa’s Kitchen.

Mung Dal with Asafetida and Tomatoes (no onion-no garlic)
Serves: 3-4
Time: 30 mins

Ingredients:
Yellow Mung beans / dal / lentils: ¾ cup
Asafetida (hing): ½ tsp
Cumin seeds: 1 tsp
Tomatoes: 2 medium sized (about 1 + ¼ cup of finely chopped)
Kashmiri Chilli powder: ½ tsp
Ginger (grated): 1 tsp
Turmeric: 1/8 tsp or roughly a big pinch
Salt: to taste
Water: 2 cups
Ghee: 1 tbsp

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Method:

  1. Dry roast the Mung beans. I do this in a pressure cooker to avoid getting too many utensils dirty. Keep stirring the beans constantly to ensure they are evenly roasted. I did this on medium heat for about 5-6 mins. When roasted, take it off the heat. Rinse with water 2-3 times.
  2. In a pressure cooker, add the rinsed Mung beans, 2 cups of water, a pinch of turmeric, ginger and salt. Cook the beans until soft while still retaining their texture. If you are using a pressure cooker, let the steam build up on high flame. Then lower the flame and let it cook for another 5 minutes until done.
  3. While the Mung beans are getting cooked, heat ghee in a pan. Add cumin seeds. When they are done, add the asafetida and chilli powder. Let it cook for a few seconds. Then add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt. With the heat on high, cook the tomatoes constantly stirring it to ensure they are not burnt and until the raw smell no longer exists.
  4. When the tomatoes are cooked, reduce the flame. Add the Mung beans. Add water to a consistency you want and adjust the salt as per your taste. If you want to add chillies, add 2-3 slit chillies (a combination of green and red adds a nice colour.. You can add just green too and skip the drama). Let it come to a boil on high heat and then simmer for 3 minutes.
  5. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot with rice and any vegetables of your choice.

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Crispy Salmon with Garlic Coriander sauce

Crispy Salmon with Garlic Coriander Sauce
Crispy Salmon with Garlic Coriander Sauce

There are 2 kinds of people in this world: Those that love Salmon. And those that don’t. That’s probably true of most things, but I couldn’t come up with a better opening line. So, there you go!

I happen to be the former and so is little V. I hereby declare my eternal love for Salmon. R, on the other hand, doesn’t quite get what the fuss is all about! But we [V and I] find a way to work around it. We just make him eat it. 😉 And he does.

We especially love the crisp skin of the Salmon. The skin absorbs a bit more salt than the rest of the fish and that makes it even more desirable. When there’s Salmon on the dinner table, all else doesn’t quite matter, does it? 🙂

I have made this countless number of times for V and it’s quick and easy to make. If you are a Salmon lover like me, I won’t need to sell the recipe to you because you will probably love it anyway 🙂

In it’s simplest form, all you need is some crushed garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil marinade with the salmon. Pan fry (with minimal oil) and you are done. In this version, I added a slight variant – fresh coriander leaves or cilantro. If you have a particular dislike for coriander, feel free to omit the coriander leaves.

We usually have this Crispy Salmon for dinner on a weeknight when I don’t want to spend too much time cooking. This goes well with a simple vegetable pasta or just plain rice and stir fried vegetables.

To print the recipe, click here.

Crispy Salmon with garlic coriander sauce

Serves: 2
Total time taken: Under 30 minutes
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 7-8 minutes

Ingredients:
Salmon fillet with skin on (about 250 gms)
Garlic cloves: 1-2 (adjust to taste)
Fresh coriander leaves – a bunch. Discard the roots.
Black pepper powder: a tiny pinch
Juice of ¼ of a lemon
Zest of ½ a lemon
Olive oil: 1 tbsp
Sea salt: to taste

How I did it:

1. Squeeze the lemon juice and zest on the salmon fillet. Sprinkle sea salt to taste. Put a little less than required as we will also season the sauce.

2. Prepare a quick blend of the garlic, coriander leaves including stalk but not the roots, a tsp of olive oil and sea salt.

Preparing the garlic-coriander sauce.
Preparing the garlic-coriander sauce.

3. Rub the prepared coriander, garlic sauce (the marinade) on the salmon. Sprinkle a dash of black pepper powder. Let the Salmon marinate for about 15 minutes.

Rub the Marinade on the salmon.
Rub the Marinade on the salmon.

4. Heat a pan. Add the remaining olive oil (2 tsp). Make sure the the oil is hot before placing the salmon fillet in it. This step is important to prevent the fish from breaking and disintegrating.

5. Place the salmon fillet, skin down first. Reduce flame to lowest. Cover and let it cook for 5 minutes.

Heat a pan. Add olive oil and place the marinated Salmon, skin down. Cover & let it cook for 5 minutes.
Heat a pan. Add olive oil and place the marinated Salmon, skin down. Cover & let it cook for 5 minutes.

6. After 5 minutes, turn the salmon for another minute. Do not cook on this side for long as the salmon will start to overcook.

Turn the Salmon over and cook for another minute.
Turn the Salmon over and cook for another minute.

7. Serve w lemon wedges.

Crispy Salmon with Garlic Coriander Sauce
Crispy Salmon with Garlic Coriander Sauce

Street food: Ghugni [Spicy Dried Peas] and hawker memories

A bunch of tired and restless kids wait patiently. Or at least, appear to. After what seems like an endless wait, the moment arrives. School bells ring intensely thereby declaring the end of a long day. Silence gives way to the cacophony of ecstatic children. Like honey bees, we come out buzzing from every corner of the school. As we make our way out of the school gate, street food hawkers greet us with big smiles, some freshly prepared food and a lot of enthusiasm! Some call out to us by our first name. They are all set to make their daily sale and we are more than happy to oblige!

It is extremely difficult to resist such wide variety of street food. We were faced with a moral dilemma – to snack or not to snack. No amount of hygiene education on the part of our parents or teachers helped, ever! Undoubtedly, snacking on street food was the unanimous choice! When you have aromatic chaats, savory and spicy delights tempting you, you can’t possibly walk away from it! I couldn’t. Not then.

One such snack was ghugni (dried peas soaked in water, boiled and then cooked with spices, garnished with onions, green chillies, coriander leaves and a blend of spices). The combination of tangy and spicy is what makes it extremely desirable!

“Sankara” was THE man who introduced me to ghugni during my school days. A small-built, modest man, with a striking long moustache – that’s how he looked like as far as I can remember. He didn’t, by any means, sell the best ghugni but he was definitely one of the most popular ones probably because his ghugni was the most conveniently available! It was available at the right time and right place for street-food-starved children who were waiting to dive into all that junk as soon as we were out of school boundaries. I can confidently say that generations have grown up on his ghugni and will never be able to forget him for that experience. Sankara has become a legend in my eyes and probably in the eyes of most of most of my school mates.

Ghugni is a very popular snack from the Eastern part of India. It’s made in many different ways using dried green peas, dried yellow peas, chickpeas (chhole), black chickpeas (kala chana) and fresh peas. I have made it with dried green peas. Feel free to use any other type of peas but bear in mind that the soaking and cooking time for each of the above is different.

To print the recipe, click ghugni.

Ingredients for cooking the ghugni:

Dried Green Peas: 1 Cup
Red Onions: 1 large or 1 ½ medium sized, finely chopped. (about 1 ½ cups chopped onions)
Cinnamon stick (dalchini): a thin 2” stick
Dried Bay leaves (tejpatta): 2 small
Cooking oil: 1 ½ tbsp
Ginger paste: 1 tsp
Garlic paste: 1 tsp
Tamarind pulp: roughly equivalent to 1 tbsp dissolved in 1/2 cup of warm water.
Garam Masala Powder: 1/4 tsp
Salt: to taste
Hot water: 2 cups for soaking the dried peas. More water may be needed depending on the consistency of your ghugni.

In a small bowl, make a spice paste with the following and keep aside:
Turmeric powder: ¼ tsp
Cumin powder: ½ tsp
Red Chilli powder: ½ tsp
Water: 2 tbsp

Ingredients for garnishing :

Red Onion: 1 small-medium sized, finely chopped
Coriander leaves: a bunch, finely chopped
Green chilies: 6, finely chopped
Black salt – to taste (optional)
Chaat Masala – can be bought from any Indian store
Roasted and powdered Cumin Powder (In a pan, on slow heat, dry roast cumin seeds until they become darker. Let it cool. Dry grind it to a powder. I usually make more (about 1/2 cup) and store it for future use).
Roasted and powdered Dry red Chilli (In a pan, on slow heat, dry roast about 10-15 dry red chillies until they turn dark and before they start to burn. Let it cool. Dry grind or pound to make chilli flakes or coarsely grounded red chilli powder. Again, this can be stored for future use).

How I did it:

  1. Wash the dried peas in tap water. Soak them in enough hot water to cover the dried peas. Cover and set aside. At the end of 2 hours, you will notice that the peas swell up in size.
  2. Boil the soaked peas in a pressure cooker with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt for 10 mins. Check if peas are done and boil uncovered, if needed. They should be soft but not mushy.
  3. In a kadhai or pan, heat the oil. Once hot, add the bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Fry for about 30 seconds when the aroma starts to come out
  4. Next add the chopped onions and 1/4 tsp of salt. Fry on medium-high heat until the onions are golden brownish. Keep stirring in between to make sure it does not burn. This may take 6-8 minutes.
  5. Add the ginger and garlic paste. Continue to fry for another minute.
  6. Add the spice paste made above (turmeric, chilli powder and cumin powder in water). Fry for another minute.
  7. Add the boiled peas along with the water left over from boiling into the cooking pot or kadhai. Using a strainer, strain the tamarind juice adding the juice and excluding any seeds or fibres. Rub the tamarind with your fingers to make sure you extract any left over pulp. Stir and check for salt, tangy and spicy flavors. Adjust to suit your liking.
  8. Boil on low heat, covered, for about 7-8 minutes or until the flavors have combined.
  9. Sprinkle garam masala powder and check for salt and spice. Adjust if needed. Cook for another 2-3 minutes until the ghugni is done.

To serve:

Take about ¾ cup of hot ghugni in each serving bowl. Sprinkle about 1 tbsp of chopped onions, ¼ tsp green chillies and 1 tsp of chopped coriander leaves. Sprinkle a pinch each of black salt, roasted cumin powder and chaat masala. And it’s ready to eat.

The quantities mentioned in the serving suggestion above are just to give you a rough idea. The beauty of this snack is that you are able to adjust each ingredient to your liking.

Finish the ghugni experience with a hot cup of tea.

Notes:

  • The garnish is a very important part of this snack. So, do not skip or ignore any of the ingredients.
  • Dried Green peas cook very fast once they have been soaked. Do not pressure cook them for more than 10 minutes. Else, they may become really mushy! You can always boil them more later once you have checked.
  • The peas should be soft without losing it’s shape. It should not disintegrate. If you have soaked them for longer than 2 hours in hot water or for more than 4 hours in normal water, boil them for a shorter period in a pressure cooker or boil them in a pan instead of a pressure cooker to make sure it doesn’t get overcooked.
  • If you do not serve it immediately after cooking, you may need to add some hot water and give it a boil before serving to make sure the ghugni is not dry. The peas tend to absorb the curry when left for some time so you may need to add more water just before serving. Check for salt if you have added more water.
  • If you need to add more water once the ghugni is cooked, use hot water to speed up the cooking process.
  • Optional: Green chutney serves as an additional garnish on this dish!
  • Some people like to have it with a bit of yogurt or add tamarind chutney on top.