The flavour and aroma of fresh ingredients add a whole new dimension to even the humblest of dishes
Ever tried cooking with fresh ingredients? Most of you may well ask, “so, what’s the big deal?” At least for me, cooking with fresh ingredients is a big, big deal. I am a fanatic for fresh ingredients. And I do not mean just fresh greens that one gets from swanky vegetable counters that get away with the “fresh-from-farm” tag and offer greens that are infested with invisible pesticides. Forget the pesticides, the vegetables, and even the herbs do not have much natural flavour.
One of the biggest pleasures that fresh ingredients bring is natural aroma and fragrance. It could be coriander leaves, garlic, ginger or even tomatoes that are freshly plucked—they add a whole new flavour to cooking.
Where to get the best bay leaves
Fresh ingredients are an integral part of my cooking. I can go that extra mile to source them. My kitchen will always have fresh ingredients through the year. The bay leaves that I use (Cinamoum tamala), for instance, are straight from a local market in Imphal. Bay leaves grow abundantly in Manipur and are easily available. The communities there rely a lot on this spice for cooking both vegetables and non-vegetarian dishes. A single leaf is enough to add that dash of flavour to a simple dish like lentil.
So, you’ll find heaps of them in the market and womenfolk selling them at throw-away prices. It’s not that they are not valued. They are found in plenty and so are priced at only Rs 10 for a big bunch that lasts months. In Delhi, I remember buying a packet of dried and fragrance-deprived bay leaves for Rs 45 or 50. I junked that in the dustbin and never ever bought it again. I have discovered that bay leaf, like cinnamon, is one of the one the most versatile spices in the kitchen. The pungency of one organic fresh bay leaf could easily equal seven leaves that you get from the Delhi market. There is a marked difference in the flavour. And bay leaves are an integral part of my cooking too. Be it in dal (lentil), mutton, chicken or even in simple fried vegetable, I splutter a leaf or two in hot oil to get the flavour. I use it even in kheer (rice pudding) and love the flavour it lends to the sweet dish. And to imagine that fresh bay leaves are a good source of Vitamin-C and is believed to be a natural anti-oxidant supplier. In Manipur, bay leaves are boiled in water and the concoction is administered to combat cold.
Ever since I discovered the difference in flavour between fresh turmeric and the ready-to-use ones in the market, I have completely abandoned the packaged stuff. My stock of turmeric comes from my parents' little farm in Manipur, where they grow a variety of ingredients, including turmeric, ginger, garlic and even potatoes. If only potatoes did not weigh so much; even my potatoes would be home grown. But thankfully, I have not ventured to transport potatoes from Manipur to Delhi!
The real yellow of turmeric
Turmeric is a tubular herb like ginger so once the tube is dug out, it is cleaned thoroughly and sliced into pieces and then ground into a coarse paste. I refrigerate the paste, which lasts for weeks. Occasionally, I use it for beauty treatment by mixing some of the paste with gram flour to make a face-pack. In all the Indian dishes, including dal, vegetables and non-vegetarian dishes, a spoon of this home grown turmeric adds that bright yellow colour one rarely gets from packages turmeric powder. The ready made powder may not even have that sweet fragrance. Even if it does, it would be a mild one. That is, unless one uses loads of it.
When I run out of fresh turmeric paste, I use its powder, also from home. My stock of turmeric powder is what my father, who now juggles farming and writing after his retirement last year, lovingly prepares for me and my sister. Making turmeric powder is a tedious process that takes days. The tube of turmeric is first cleaned thoroughly by soaking in water to free it of soil particles. It is then left to dry till the surface is moisture-free. Then it is sliced into pieces and again left to dry in the sun. The sliced turmeric should not be left overnight outside as the flavour may be reduced because of constant exposure in the open. Once is it completely dry, it is pounded in a mixer to make the powder.
Even my stock of ginger comes from home. The flavour of fresh ginger is unbeatable. Sometimes, I get ginger tubes still attached to their leaves and flowers. Most people may have not seen the ginger flower. Both the leaves and flower can be used for flavouring dishes or in any oriental soup. Fresh ginger is slightly difficult to store for a long time. If left outside, it gets spoilt. The best option is make a paste and preserve it in a jar inside a refrigerator. You may even pour a drop of olive oil into it to preserve for longer duration. Following the same procedure of turmeric, ginger can be made into a powder and stored for months. Once in a while, do sun the bottle outside so that it does not get moist and spoil.
Pot them, pluck them
The pungency of fresh and organic garlic is another revelation altogether. I have not tried making garlic powder so far and that leaves me with no option but to run to the Safal shop for my supply of this herb. I tried growing garlic in a pot and succeeded too. The leaves of garlic are excellent for garnishing noodles and can substitute even the garlic itself in cooking. Even though I long to have kitchen garden and do not have one, I make sure I have some potted herbs in my balcony. I grow spring onions, chives and Khasi coriander. They come really handy. I don’t need huge quantities of them, so it suits me fine. The leaves grow and multiply fast, making it easy to maintain them. And there is a trick in getting the best flavour out of any home grown greens. Pluck them only when you are about to cook. Ensure you do not leave a huge gap between plucking and cooking. Most of the time, why the seemingly fresh vegetables you get from the market do not taste as good as they should is because they have been plucked many days ago and kept in cold storage. The natural flavour of most vegetables is killed during the immensely long journeys from farms to the kitchen. Which is why, I make sure to pluck my spring onion leaves or chives only before cooking or readying dishes for garnishing. The other day when I had friends home for dinner, I quietly excused myself just before the food was served. I plucked a handful of spring onions and chives and chopped them for garnishing noodles and a chicken dish. It sure did enhance the flavour and the presentation of the dish.
Spice up the tea
As for my stock of cinnamon, I rely completely on my mother-in-law’s sister who regularly sends them from the southern part of the country. They have a powerful flavour and are superior in quality to the ones available in Delhi. I have figured out why my father-in-law loves the masala tea I make for him. It’s the lethal combination of home grown Manipuri bay leaf, ginger power and the southern cinnamon that lend that special flavour.
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