Sunday, February 27

Mrs. Beeton vs. Mrs. Balbir

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English women going out to colonial India packed a number of cookbooks and household guides in their trunks. Chief among the choices available was the classic Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It not only had over 900 pages packed with recipes, but also contained chapters on hospitality and conversation, fashion, medical advice, preparing banquets, managing servants and animal husbandry among others. It was an all round guide for the nineteenth century housewives. More so, for the newly-married women, setting up homes in a new country, it must have been an indispensible companion.
I carried a cookbook with me too. Mrs. Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery. Not in my suitcase though because I was terrified that my luggage will get lost in transit and I will, horror of horror reach England without it. So I kept it in my handbag, where it’s reassuring weight comforted me through my journey.  

I am sure you will not find me paranoid when I tell you that it is an heirloom cookbook, belonging to my mother. A book that she used as a young bride too, it had been her guide through the tremulous time when as a nineteen year old girl, she found herself in charge of her own kitchen, cooking for a large extended family. This book must have seemed like a lifeline to her. And when it came to guiding me through my trial, she knew that she could not be there physically for me, so she gave me this book instead. Hence the paranoia!
During the early years of her marriage, Mrs. Balbir Singh travelled to England with her husband too and the family spent several years in London while Mr. Singh attended Medical School.
In London, she began to teach Indian cooking and to help her students she decided to break down the recipes in clear steps and quantities. A difficult task as Indian cookery is all about approximations and finding your own style. It’s practically a verbal legacy, passed on from one generation to the next, as daughters spend many hours at their mothers side, helping, observing and learning their mothers secrets. With time, they adapt and add their special touches, so that every woman boasts of her own personal recipe for each basic dish.
Mrs. Singh’s book like Mrs. Beeton’s was one of the first cookbooks written by an Indian woman for Indian women in a practical manner about good home cooked food.  First published in 1961 the book quickly became a bible for newly-wed women in the country and abroad. It was awarded a silver medal by the Gastronomische Akademie Deutschlands in 1964 
The book and I are sharing a kitchen together since I arrived and slowly we are becoming good friends. It gives me great ideas for dinner and reveals delicious secrets to me while I cook. Small keepsakes kept and forgotten in its pages - two recipes written on yellowing bits of paper in my mother’s hand, one for mango pickle and the other for pineapple squash. One evening, I find a photograph of my brother dressed as a maharaja! So the recipe on that page becomes our dinner that night.
It is a fabulous recipe for “Tandoori Machchi”, or fish baked in a clay oven. A delicacy made popular by the cooks who migrated from Peshawar in Pakistan to Delhi. It is one of my favorite street foods and walking down the streets in Delhi, it is very easy to locate your nearest fish shop. You just have to follow your nose! These shops are tiny one-man establishments with their fronts carefully arranged to entice the passerby. Adorned with rows of skewers threaded with marinated fish.

You choose a skewer and it is baked there and then, while you wait, mouth watering in anticipation. The baked fish comes on a palm leaf, served on a bed of mint leaves and green chilies with lemon wedges if you prefer your fish extra tangy. I certainly do!
Mrs. Singh’s Tandoori Machchi
(Adapted from her book Indian Cookery)
The fish can be cooked equally well on a bar-be-que as well as under the grill.  Use three whole medium size haddock (approx. 350 g each)
For rubbing over the fish:
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 Tsp salt
For the marinade:
1 Tsp coriander powder
1 Tbsp vinegar
1 Tsp red pepper
6 cloves of garlic
1 Tsp ginger
½ Tsp Cumin powder
3 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tsp butter per fish
Make deep cuts on one side of each fish, rub in the lime juice and salt and set aside till you prepare the marinade.
For the marinade: grind garlic and ginger finely, mix with coriander powder, cumin powder, red pepper, lime juice, vinegar and butter. Rub well over the surface and cavities. Leave in the marinade for one hour.
For grilling: Pass a pointed skewer lengthwise through the fish and grill for five minutes per 1 - 1.5 cm thickness, turning once. Most fish will take 5 – 7 minutes. Haddock turns white when cooked and will flake when tested with a fork.
Serve hot, with a salad of mint leaves, parsley and red onions tossed in lime juice and honey.

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