Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cobbling together a feast

Every once in a while, Aparna has a knack of creating a feast out of seemingly nothing. Yesterday was cook_with_what_you_have day. We had very little of a few things like Chamadumpa, Thotakura and chinese eggplant. Since none of these individually stood a chance of sating my usual appetite, she got started cooking all three of them - in parallel. I've known a few good cooks in my life but none come close to the ruthless efficiency Aparna displays in the kitchen. To me, it just seems like a blur and I learnt very early to stay out of her way. Cooking isn't a team activity as far as she's concerned.

Anyhoo, the first dish was a stuffed and sauteed eggplant. Eggplant is the king of vegetables in Telugu culinary tradition and the great cooks are rumored to be able to cook eggplant in 30 or 40 different styles. Aparna used a groundnut based stuffing and slow-cooked the 4 or 5 pieces.

Cooking alongside was Chamadumpa vepudu. This is without doubt my favorite dish anywhere - the golden exterior of the cooked taro discs lightly crisped up and adorned in a proprietary Andhra seasoning can get me to drool in an altogether unwholesome manner. The benchmark for this dish was set over the years by the formidable talents of Mom and Ammamma (Maternal Grandmom). Aparna is therefore up against very high taste thresholds set by the best cooks most people know (Moms and Grandmoms). Also weighing against her is the small matter of trying not to use too much oil - something my Mom and Grandmom never had to contend with. I have to admit that to the eye, the dish appeared a little too desiccate and I was fully prepared to bite into brittle pieces. Surprisingly, it was just right - juicy at the core and crispy on the outside. She did a great job with the seasoning as well.

Finally, there was Thotakura (Amaranth leaves) vepudu. Frankly, I don't know if thotakura is used in any other cuisine save Andhra. I grew up eating this as a dal mostly. It is part of a trio of leafy vegetables that were a staple growing up - Thotakura, Bacchalakura and Palakura. It's hard to find in the US but this little bunch was actually given to us by relatives who grow it in their backyard in NJ. Aparna cooked it with groundnuts and a savory tiragamutha. As can been seen above, the stems are very edible and give a delightfully crunchy texture to the dish.

Mmmm .. life is good.

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