Throughout the winter of 2014 I was in India on a clinical placement and, considering the mild winter we have been experiencing here in London, I can honestly say that our winters can be, at times, comparable. Especially so in the states situated more towards the north like Gujarat and Rajasthan, the latter of where I was finally forced to request an electric heater from the hotel reception after layers of socks, shawls, and clothing still had me shivering in my antique wood four-poster bed. Staying at a family home in Jamnagar I swear I could feel the cold in my bones at night, my nose and feet numb, since I was practically offered a charpoy set in the courtyard with just a mosquito net and a couple of thick blankets for company. For protection and sustenance during the colder months, warming and bulking foods have always been consumed as part of an essential winter diet on the Subcontinent, and this generally continues to be observed, at least among the older generation and the rural population who are known to adhere to long-standing Ayurvedic principles. Energy-rich pearl millet, or bājra, replaces wheat flour rotis, and are eaten with pungent pickles made sharp from the generous use of mustard and mustard oil. The heavy qualities of jaggery are appreciated over cooling sugar through moreish peanut and sesame brittle confectionaries, found in abundance during the cold season, and fiery garlic chives are added to everything for aromatic piquancy.
|Gujarati man taking a stroll on a sunny winter's morning|
|Cardigans and shawls in Rajasthan|
I was discussing such observations with the same friend that brought over the shrikhand, inspiring my post on yoghurt. She relayed to me that one of her favourite Rajasthani winter treats happens to be crumbled bājra roti mixed together with ghee and jaggery. In much of India these bread-based dishes are referred to as chūrma or chūrā (chūr literally means powder, but also indicates shredded and crumbled pieces of unleavened breads), and can be prepared as either a sweet or savoury instant snack with leftover roti. The recipe I am presenting today happens to be a favourite of Kathiawar, or so I have been informed. I had never heard of it before, having fiercely detested bājra roti as a child; it was too thick, too dry, and had an unpleasantly crude bitter and smoky flavour. In Jamnagar, I was served bājra rotis with a sweet and sour fruit pickle and spoonfuls of the richest, creamiest ghee I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. The ghee had solidified in the cold, and had to be scooped up with a piece of the thick, rigid roti. This combination was taken as a light supper, along with mung bean khichri, cumin potatoes cooked in a simple tomato sauce, and a cup of hot tea. And it was delightful.
Funnily enough, I did not come across lasanyo rotlo in Gujarat. Instead, my cousin introduced it to me while I was in unbearably hot Mumbai for a short while. She has always loved cooking and impressing guests with her eclectic repertoire. On this particular occasion we had plans to go shopping in Bandra, and my cousin wanted to rustle up something quick and easy, yet nutritious enough to last us until dinner. “Hey, Cheraaaaaagh!” she exclaimed. “Have you had lasanyo rotlo before?” When I said that I had never heard of it she declared that that was exactly what we would have for lunch. The maid was asked to prepare a handful of bājra rotis, before being sent to the market to pick up a bunch of garlic chives. “And make sure you come back with a fresh, fat bunch! If you dare return with a withered yellow bunch like last time I’ll send you right back,” my cousin shouted after her.
My sister was summoned to the kitchen and instructed to proceed crumbling the rotis. I was not looking forward to lunch, especially with it being centred on bājra, and must have been in a strop of sorts after my own suggestion for lunch was rejected. My cousin kept insisting I join them in the kitchen to observe, but I persistently found some excuse to keep away. Lunch was ready in a flash and, as she snapped at the maid to prepare a jug of lassi right away, my cousin brought a large serving bowl to the table. Upon lifting the lid, the tantalising aroma of garlic and coriander wafted towards me and started to make my mouth water. She served me a generous portion of what essentially looked like toasted breadcrumbs flecked with the brilliant green of freshly chopped herbs. “What do I eat this with?” I enquired. “You eat it just like that!” came the irritated response. And then, a little gently, “But you have it with lassi, otherwise it will feel too dry and heavy.”
I remember finding it weird at first, almost like eating a bowl of cereal without milk. But then the textures and flavours started to mingle and sing: soft and chewy with crunchy crusty bits, strong with garlic and onion flavours, and a deep earthy note, possibly cumin or asafoetida. Every now and then, you caught a tiny bit of green chilli to shake things up, and it was all washed down with silky smooth, creamy lassi. It was definitely a very filling meal for something that took such little time and effort to prepare, notwithstanding the dear maid.
The Ayurvedic view of winter is that the colder months provide increased energy and digestive power; it is the best time for growth and muscle development, and the time to take rejuvenative herbs along with food items that are high in fat and protein, and those that have just come into season. It is also a time to increase the consumption of unctuous and heavy substances; oils and butters to help moisturise the skin, rich comfort foods for sustenance.
Bājra is considered astringent and sweet in taste, with drying and heavy qualities, and a heating potency. As a result, it balances kapha and vata, and increases strength in the body. Because it can be difficult to digest, bājra is preffered to be eaten in the colder months, when our digestion is strongest; our digestive fires burning more effectively from the heat generated to counter the cold. It is recommended for metabolic disorders, obesity and weight gain, and to alleviate feeling cold. It also serves as a heart tonic. To assist the body during vata and kapha-dominant seasons like winter and spring, bājra works by virtue of its increased fibre content, encouraging the elimination of toxins, and for providing the extra energy required when exercising.
Pearl millet has the highest protein content of any grain, and that too with a balanced amino acid profile. Though it is a high-energy food, it contains fewer carbohydrates and more fat per 100 grams than what is found in both wheat and rice, which is specifically why the north-western states of India traditionally prefer bājra during the colder months. Pearl millet also contains twice the amount of iron than whole wheat, and more fibre than both wheat and rice. The consumption of pearl millet has been shown to greatly benefit those with Type 2 diabetes, as it has a low glycemic index. It has been found to inhibit the development of malignant breast tumours and colon cancer cells. Because it contains beneficial amounts of such essential nutrients as B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and zinc, the inclusion of pearl millet in your diet can assist in maintaining a healthy heart and reducing the risk of such metabolic disorders as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight gain. It is also a gluten free grain.
Bājra rotis tend to be on the dry side, which is why they are often served with lashings of ghee or butter, and eaten with lassi or a cup of tea. In this recipe, the crumbs are fried in a generous amount of ghee to not only encourage bulk and lubrication in the body during the cold, dry months, but to also give the dish its wonderful crisp and chewy texture.
If garlic chives are not available, I just use regular chives or spring onion along with finely chopped garlic. This way, you still get that satisfying vegetal crunch and the welcome aromatic pepperiness of garlic.
150g (1 cup) Bajra Flour (pearl millet flour)
2 Tbls Whole Wheat (Chappati) Flour, plus extra for rolling
½ tsp Salt
½ tsp Carom Seeds (optional)
2-4 Tbls Ghee or Unsalted Butter
½ tsp Cumin Seeds
1 pinch Asafoetida
1-3 Green Chillies, finely chopped (or cut in half for less heat)
100g Garlic Chives (or Spring Onions), finely chopped
3 cloves Garlic, finely minced
Large handful of Coriander or Parsley, roughly chopped
· First prepare the rotis by adding the two flours, salt, and carom seeds to a bowl and mixing well.
· Gradually add about 120ml (around ½ a cup) of warm water to the flour mixture and knead to a stiff but pliable dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave aside for 5-10 minutes.
· Heat a skillet or frying pan over a medium-low heat. To make the rotis, divide the dough into four equal balls, and roll out into ½-inch thick rounds with the help of a dusting of chappati flour. Sometimes it helps to use cling film to roll out these rotis as the lack of gluten makes them rather sticky and fragile, and a bit of a challenge to roll out.
· Place on the frying pan and cook until faint bubbles start to appear on the surface of the roti. Turn over and cook the other side, gently pressing down with a spatula or such implement to ensure even cooking. Repeat on the other side as necessary. Stack the rotis on a plate and smear with ghee or butter if desired.
· Once cool enough, break the rotis into pieces and place into a food processor. Pulse the pieces to make rough breadcrumbs. In Indian homes, this process is meticulously done by hand, pinching the rotis to a coarse crumble.
· In a heavy-bottom pan, heat the ghee over a medium flame, and add the cumin seeds. Once they darken and start to sizzle add the asafoetida, allowing to cook for a few seconds. Tip in the garlic chives (or chives / spring onion), the garlic, and the chilli, and stir fry for about 20 seconds, or until that raw smell of garlic just begins to cook out.
· Immediately tip in the breadcrumbs and salt. Increase the heat, stir frying and pressing the breadcrumbs to the bottom of the pan from time to time in order to catch and crisp up. Continue this for 2 to 4 minutes, until a warming, toasty smell begins to rise, and sprinkle generously with chopped herbs for added succulence and freshness.
· Serve hot with a tall glass of cold salted lassi, or any available yoghurt drink. I tend to accompany this dish with spiced roasted aubergines for a complete meal; one of my favourite winter comfort foods.