Ginseng and the children.

This post started as a serious essay on the cult of health among Asians, Koreans especially. After some research, I decided it would be better as an essay on endangered plants like wild ginseng that have been harvested to near extinction by overzealous Asians obsessed with the supposed health benefits. People like my parents often illegally searched for wild ginseng on protected parklands just to get their fix, never mind that it was becoming harder to find, never mind the future. Then I realized that this wasn’t fair, that every culture has its flaws, that taking care of the environment is a multi-faceted problem that obviously has its roots in the acts of every nation, ethnicity, and human being on our rapidly-dying planet dear God will our children live in a vast Sahara with only tumbleweed for food? WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!

Ginseng in honey

It wasn’t a very funny topic. So I was glad when I remembered that I (try to) write a humor blog, not a blog that makes people poke out their eyes in despair (I try). I’ll leave it to the rest of the Internet to provide you with your eye-poking needs. We might be running out of wild ginseng, but we are NOT running out of eye-poke sites.

There’s a large jar of 20-year-old honey in my parents’ basement. Gnarled, ancient roots of ginseng are buried in the honey, now hardened into nearly black crystals. It’s too valuable to eat. I think my mom planned to bequeath the jar to her future great-grandchildren with instructions to them to bequeath it to their future great-grandchildren.

She caught a terrible cold recently. Since honey had been in the news as an effective treatment for coughs, I hauled the dirty jar upstairs, washed it, and set it in a pan of hot water to dissolve. Whether ginseng really is a tonic or has any health benefits, I can’t say—the literature seems mixed. But I never underestimate the power of the placebo on a Korean woman who believes in the mythic properties of ginseng. (I do know that it can raise blood pressure, so I avoid it. My mom’s blood pressure is low.)

I expected her to argue and wring her hands over my daring to touch the sacred honey, but she didn’t. She ate it and she liked it. She really liked it. I think she’s secretly glad that she got sick and had an excuse to eat it. Maybe she was even faking being sick.

She’s better now, but she keeps dipping into the jar. Ha ha ha. Screw the great-grandkids. Screw the children.

My great grandmother’s garam masalas. Or whatever.

I was asked about garam masala recipes after my post on Spinach Moong Masoor Dal, so I’ve decided to post the two recipes I use. Garam masala, ground “warm” spices, are generally used as a finishing aromatic touch much like ground black pepper is used in the west. Recipes vary from region to region, household to household, and probably even person to person within households (think in-laws, heh). I wish I could tell a story about how my great grandmother created these recipes to the acclaim of my family, but she died well before I met her, and, more to the point, she wasn’t Indian. But any homemade garam masala will be better than most store bought masalas which have been ground God-knows-when. To keep them fresh, I make small batches at a time.

Cardamom podsConsider these base recipes only, especially as they reflect my personal tastes. For instance, I always avoid black cardamom because the smokiness is overpowering, I reduce quantities of coriander seed because I find the flowery flavor cloying, and I routinely increase green cardamom because I love it so very very much. There are thousands of other recipes, some with mace, saffron, white peppercorn, fennel, ajwain, chili, coconut, and even dals. For the sake of my sanity, I stick to these two recipes alone. Here’s a good life motto: Take life one masala a time. My great grandmother taught me that. She was a wise woman. As far as I know.

By the way, for beginners or even veterans, I recommend the outstanding The Indian Spice Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj, which provides full color photographs of spices, herbs, dals, grains, vegetables, nuts, etc., and covers many obscure regional ingredients as well. It even includes medicinal uses for each ingredient and some 200 recipes. My main complaint about the book is that I didn’t buy it early on when I started cooking Indian. It would have saved me many headaches.

Based on recipes by Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey

This is a more classic recipe for garam masala, notable for its use of expensive spices such as green cardamom, which is why this style is not generally commercially available. Of course, expensive is a relative term. If you buy your spices at an Indian grocer, this batch will cost pennies, another benefit of making it at home. It’s lighter, sweeter, and more delicate than most store bought garam masalas and best in cream, milk, or fruit-based dishes, particularly those of northern India. According to Sahni, most of these spices are so inherently fragrant and easy to digest that they do not need roasting, but other sources say roast away. Due to my inherent laziness, I roast only the cumin seeds. To roast spices, shake them in a small pan over medium heat until fragrant and a shade or two darker in color. Cool, then grind all spices and store in an airtight container away from heat and light. Use within three months.

2 Tablespoons cardamom seed
2″ cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons black cumin seed OR regular cumin seed
2 teaspoons black peppercorn
2 teaspoons cloves
1/4 of a nutmeg

Based on many recipes

This is a cheaper and more common garam masala that works well in tomato and onion dishes. It resembles commercial versions more closely than the Mughal version. Roast all spices in a pan over medium heat until fragrant and one or two shades darker. I like to roast each spice separately since they differ in size, but they can be roasted all at once too. Let cool. Grind all spices and store in an airtight container away from heat and light. Use within three months.

2 Tablespoons cumin seed
2 Tablespoons coriander seed
2 teaspoons black peppercorn
2 teaspoons cardamom seed
2 teaspoons cloves
2″ cinnamon stick
1 Indian bay leaf OR 1 regular bay leaf
1/4 of a nutmeg


bullet Link du jour
Lisa has an interesting Pakistani-style garam masala recipe over at Kitchen Chick.

A recipe for cauliflower, potatoes, and abused friendship.

Mush gets no respect. It’s one step up from gruel, rhymes with slush, and features a character who regularly dresses in drag. “Why is that man wearing a dress? And why do those Koreans talk funny?” (Wait, that’s M.A.S.H. Never mind.) Most of my favorite foods are mushy: smashed potatoes, mushy peas—it’s even in the name!, bean puree, braised cabbage, the sludgy bottom of a big pot of lentil soup, the list goes on and on.

Bengali Cauliflower and Potato ChechkiI realize now that the reason I love cauliflower is not just for its sweet buttery taste, but for the mush that it was always destined to be. It’s not the low-carb mashed cauliflower people who taught me this either, it’s the Bengalis. When my friend Shalini offered to share her favorite family recipe for cauliflower and potato chechki, I eagerly accepted. Don’t tell her this, but I’m nice to Shalini mostly to score Bengali recipes, especially since Bengali cuisine is not nearly as well known or imitated as the cuisine of northern India. She may be on to me though. I’ve noticed that she gives me only one recipe every two years, spacing them out all sneaky like. That reminds me, I need to pick up a tiara.

A chechki is a dish with vegetables cut into small pieces. This chechki uses the classic Bengali spice mixture panch phoron, generally equal parts black mustard seed, fenugreek seed, fennel seed, nigella, and cumin. Radhuni, hard to find outside of Bengal, is the traditional panch phoron spice used instead of or in addition to the mustard. Gernot Katzer at his phenomenal spice site suggests celery seed as a replacement. Not having tasted radhuni myself, I can’t verify that this is good advice, but if I’m extra nice to Shalini (whose mother just happens to have a large stash of radhuni), that may change. Being nice is both cheaper and easier than actually going to India, though that depends a great deal on how many carats each diamond in your bribing tiaras have.

Panch phoronPanch phoron always entrances me, both with its physical beauty and its complex flavors. In this dish, every bite is different—one bite has the flavor of sweet mustard, another bite the surprise of minty fennel, still another bite the bitter fragrance of fenugreek. Those spicy surprises are even more intriguing popping out from within soft bits of cauliflower smooshed into warm potatoes. It’s mush, and mush is comfort, and comfort studded with spice is a treasure. Think of it as a tiara on a plate.

From Shalini’s mother

· 1-2 Tablespoons oil
· 1/2 teaspoon panch phoron
· Pinch or two of asafoteida
· 2 medium potatoes, cubed (I like Yukon Gold)
· 1 small cauliflower, cut into small pieces
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon sugar
· 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1 1/2 teaspoons grated ginger
· Minced cilantro

1) In a large pan, heat the oil until nearly smoking. Add the panch phoron, which should sputter, and add a pinch or two of asafoteida.

2) Add the potatoes and cauliflower. Stir for a few minutes, then stir in the salt, sugar, turmeric, and tomato. Cover the pot and lower heat to medium-low. Cook 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables are tender.

3) Remove the lid. If there’s any water in the pot, raise the heat to cook it off. Sprinkle with the grated ginger and cilantro to taste. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the dish rest for several minutes to develop aroma. Taste, adjust for seasonings, and serve.


bullet Link du jour
More delightful mush, a recipe for Khichdi-Kadhi from Nupur from One Hot Stove.