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Lucky dip - Indian pancakes

"The moment of truth comes in spreading out the batter." Madhur Jaffrey

"Cooking these India-style pancakes ... is quite an art but one which is not at all difficult to master." Madhur Jaffrey

There are, of course dozens at least, different kinds of Indan pancakes, and finding the line where pancakes blend into flatbreads like chapatis and parathas and naan is difficult. When I was looking for photographs of this particular kind of pancake, first of all I found that there are lots of different names - well there would be. After all I think there are hundreds of actual languages in India. Not dialects - languages. The name Madhur Jaffrey gives this dish is Mung dal na poora, but mostly I found that it seems to be called Moong dal chilla. And then, of course, there are lots of different versions as well.

My lucky dip book is this one - another that I bought in my phase of overtly trying to be more vegetarian. I'm trying again, but I think in a different way. This time I don't deliberately search out vegetarian cookbooks. But then you don't have to do you? So many of them these days are. It sometimes seems that all of the celebrity chefs are jumping on the vegetarian bandwagon. Which is good - I completely approve, and I wish I could make myself go totally vegetarian. Though I think vegan is completely over the top. Alas I can never resist, at the last moment throwing in something like a touch of ham, or salami, or smoked fish. But then again, perhaps I am trying more overtly to be more vegetarian by including at least one vegetarian meal in the week and one that includes legumes. Which might, of course be a sort of cheat in that the two options can be combined in one day - like the soup we had earlier this week for example.

This book also differs from most of hers in that it covers all of Asia, although the emphasis is still, naturally enough on India. It just so happens that my lucky dip page is Indian. I should also add that it is old-fashioned, in that there are no glossy pictures, although there are a few helpful diagrams scattered through the book. Not enticing though. But if you are on the hunt for a particular kind of Asian vegetarian dish it's a really good source. It's quite thick and very comprehensive.

Before I get to the actual dish we are talking about here, let me add a word about difficulty. This is actually quite a daunting recipe. It is at least two pages long and not helped by comments like:

"Please read the section on Indian pancakes, especially the part that deals with cooking the pancakes, (page 283) before you make these pooras."

It's a tiny bit off-putting. And when you turn to page 283 you find a couple of long paragraphs that explain the process. Here is just a bit of it.

"bean batters do not flow. You cannot tilt your frying pan around expertly and have the batter flow to the edges as it would for a crêpe. Instead, the batter will sit obstinately like a lump in the centre of your frying pan. It has to be coaxed to move. This is best done with a round soup spoon." Madhur Jaffrey

She also talks about what kind of pan to use.

"As the batters have a tendency to stick to the [cast-iron] griddles, Indian cooks use various methods to make their griddles as 'nonstick' as possible. ... My own feeling on the matter is that since one can now buy real nonstick griddles and frying pans, why work so hard on cast-iron ones?" Madhur Jaffrey

I missed out her various stories of what different cooks do in India to make their cast-iron griddles non-stick. Not very practical here most of them, but interesting to read.

It must be really hard for cookery book writers to achieve the correct balance. If you take the time to read her detailed instructions, that also tackle some of the things that could go wrong, and how to deal with it - and don't worry anyway - then it actually doesn't sound too hard and it's very instructive. These days however you can see how to do it on YouTube anyway. This particular video is pretty good for the method - it's short, breezy and demonstrative. No quantities or time given, so it's not quite enough as a standalone recipe but it certainly shows the technique that Madhur Jaffrey has to explain word by word. And because she has to explain, and it takes a long time you get put off. A bit like Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its lengthy recipes that explain every step and why.

There are lots of recipes out there for this particular kind of pancake - different spices, different flavourings, stuffed, unstuffed - but for me, having now perused the net and read Madhur Jaffrey carefully it seems that the technique is perhaps the most important thing. So if you want to have a go, watch the video. The rest is basically soaking your dal overnight, and then processing it with various flavourings or adding various flavourings to the resulting batter. Here are a few of those that I found. The picture at the top of the page, and the last one shown here are from Veg recipes from India and it does have a series of step by step photographs.

Some are just the 'plain' pancake with various flavourings, some are stuffed in various ways from the simple to the elaborate. I have to say the ones at top right look a bit indigestible and sort of 'wholesome' wholegrain virtuous food. But then they don't appear to have added any turmeric to the mix - the turmeric makes it look more enticing, and they also look to be thicker and really rather more like a flatbread than a pancake. The cheese stuffing looks a bit stodgy too, though it's quite an 'arty' photograph. The rolled ones are from an Indian chef and look much more enticing - paneer and spinach in the filling apparently.

In India these pancakes are eaten at breakfast time with various chutneys and pickles. Or as a snack. They are sometimes seen as street food.

Quick? Well yes and no. The actual cooking process is pretty quick and I suppose, with the help of food processors the mixing of the batter is quick too. But then you have to soak the beans for at least 4 hours - which is time. Not that you have to do anything in that time, and it only takes a second to put the beans in water. It just needs planning and forethought. And I suppose if you make these for breakfast every day then it would just be a matter of routine. Yesterday I watched Delia make bread (more tomorrow), with her assuring her viewers that this was very quick to do. 6 minutes max she said. Well that is also true, but also not true. Because of course you have to leave it to rise a couple of times. So when somebody tells you that something is quick, make sure you understand what kind of quick they mean.

But maybe you shouldn't be put off by statements like those at the top of the page. Still you worry don't you when somebody says it's an art? I mean yesterday I watched French Food Safari again, in which an accomplished pastry cook/chocolatier made a 'simple' chocolate kind of pudding, saying that it was very easy as he carefully placed a piece of gold leaf on the pudding, scattered gold coated nuts around and then placed a ridiculously thin swirly piece of chocolate over his immaculately turned out whipped cream. Simple? - don't think so. Not quick either.


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