Thursday, October 29, 2009
My first job as a journalist was for a then brand-new (and now defunct) newspaper in Bombay called The Independent published by the Times of India group. Our offices were on the fifth floor of the vast, domed, Gothic Times building in south Bombay, just across the street from the buzzing Victoria Terminus where trains from all over India chug in and out all day and night.
The Times building was home to several publications, including magazines and newspapers in English and other local languages. The look of the office of each publication varied drastically based on which one, of course, brought home the most biryani. The Independent, which still had to prove itself, was just a nondescript mess of cubicles and desks. In contrast, on the third floor was the designer-decorated, purple-painted home of the publishing group's cash cow-- the Times of India -- which, despite being one of the crummiest newspapers you'll ever read, also has the distinction of being India's top-selling English daily.
On the second floor were the offices of the advertising department which resembled a posh five-star hotel. Sandwiched between the Times and the Independent, on the fourth floor, were the offices of magazines like the once-illustrious Illustrated Weekly of India and the women's magazine Femina.
But the most interesting floor of all was the sixth floor which was the cafeteria.
It was a long, plain room with white walls, steel-topped, clinical tables and a view of the roofs of other buildings crowded together. You didn't have a choice of dishes for lunch, dinner or any in-between snacks-- you ate whatever was dished out that day, which was usually a flavored-down version of a typical Indian meal: bone-dry rotis, white rice, a sambar or dal, and a subzi, all of it accompanied by a fiery-hot pickle and papads.
You ate out of huge steel plates the size of a tray, each with three or four divisions, one to hold the rice, another for the dal, and so on. The silverware-- or rather aluminumware-- was made up solely of scratched, bent spoons. While that didn't bother most of us because we either used a single spoon or -- in true, sensual-Indian style-- our fingers, Desi, who likes his silverware to be just so, improvised with two spoons.
The cafeteria staff was made up of a number of young men from Udupi, a place in the south Indian state of Karnataka that could, in all fairness, be called the birthplace of the south Indian fast food industry. That's because it was folks from Udupi who set up all around Bombay and the rest of the country those restaurants that sell healthy, cheap and delicious South Indian fast food like dosas and idlis and vadas and sambars.
Anyway, these young men who worked in the cafeteria spent almost all their time between those four walls with the exception of some of the youngest workers-- still children-- who attended night school. Most were new immigrants to Bombay, lured to the big city by jobs that surely didn't pay well. They slept at at night in the long dining room and worked extra-long days from morning through night to save enough money to send home to their families, including the wives and children they had left behind.
Despite what must surely have been incredibly tough lives, these guys were unfailingly cheerful. I particularly remember one curly-haired guy with a ready smile named Janardan who would make the rounds of the newsroom, his small frame bent under a huge steel container of food slung over one shoulder, bringing us hot tea and snacks during those long, dreary night shifts. You could tell which snack Janardan would have by which day of the week it was. One day it would be bondas-- plump, deep-fried lentil fritters served with a chutney. Another day it would be a chivda, a dry mix of rice crispies and peanuts and spices. Yet another day it would be upma, a savory dish made with cream of wheat, or farina.
My favorite day-- I think it was Thursdays-- was the day he brought us samosas which was one of the few offerings from the cafeteria that was actually delicious. It was always served with a sweet-sour tamarind chutney.
No one needs to be told what a samosa is-- if you've ever eaten in an Indian restaurant, you've most likely had one. It is easy to see why this divine, deep-fried treat made up of a crisp jacket around a delicious stuffing of potatoes would brighten up anyone's day-- or night.
But deep-fried foods don't get to feature in my kitchen on a regular basis. So when I make samosas, I prefer to bake them.
Baked samosas are actually great-- they give you the same satisfaction, the same crunch, the same deliciousness, and all of it for way fewer calories. You do need to be careful about how you make the dough which almost resembles a pie dough, and roll it out pretty thin.
Another great thing about samosas is that you can stuff them with just about anything. While a stuffing of potatoes and peas is traditional, I like putting in all kinds of things, from other veggies to lentils and, this time, chickpeas.
So here's my baked samosa recipe, a true treat and one that never fails to bring back memories of those sweet, unsung cafeteria workers in the Times building who worked so hard for so little to make the lives of the rest of us who worked there just a little more easier.
Baked Samosas with a Chickpea Stuffing
For the samosa dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour (DON'T substitute whole-wheat flour here because you won't get the flakiness that's so important in a samosa crust)
1/2 tsp ajwain (carom seeds-- these are easily found in Indian grocery stores. They have a distinctive, sharp and spicy flavor that's great in the samosas)
2 tbsp vegetable shortening (make sure you buy one without any trans fats)
1 tsp salt
Cold water to knead
Place the flour in a bowl, mix in the salt and ajwain, then add to it the vegetable shortening. With your fingers, crumble the shortening into the floor until the shortening is evenly distributed and the flour looks grainy. This will ensure your crust is crisp.
Now, adding just a little cold water at a time, knead the flour into a stiff dough. Don't overknead it-- stop as soon as you have a mass that holds together because you don't want to overactivate the gluten.
Cover and set aside while you make the filling.
For the filling:
1 cup of chickpeas, soaked overnight if possible, then cooked until tender but not mushy. Drain out all but 2 tbsp of the cooking water.
1 medium potato, cut into a very small dice, then cooked until tender
1/2 medium red onion, minced
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
2 green chillies, minced
1 tsp chaat powder
1 tsp garam masala
Juice of 1/2 a lemon or lime
1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
Salt to taste
2 tsp canola or other vegetable oil
Heat oil in a skillet.
Add the onions and saute until they just start to brown, about 4-5 minutes on medium heat.
Add the ginger, garlic and the green chillies. Saute for another minute without letting the garlic burn.
Add the chickpeas with the 2 tbsp of reserved cooking water and potatoes, then the garam masala and chaat masala. Add salt.
Stir well to mix together. Allow the stuffing to cook without covering the skillet until all the water has evaporated. Mix in the coriander and set aside.
To assemble the samosas:
Break off a lime-sized ball of the dough and roll it into a ball between the palms of your hands.
Roll it out into a really thin round, about 5 inches in diameter
Now roll in a single direction to make an oval.
With a knife or a pastry-cutter, cut into two so you have two semi-circles.
Smear water along the edges of each semi-circle. Now bring the edges together to form a cone. Press with your fingers to seal the edge.
Place 2 tbsp of filling into the cone, stopping short of filling all the way to the top.
With your fingers, push together the top of the cone, making a little pleat in the back if necessary. You want to get a tight seal so nothing stumbles out during baking.
Prepare the rest of the samosas the same way. Place them on an oiled baking sheet.
Mix 1 tsp oil with 1 tbsp soymilk. Brush the tops of the samosas with this mixture to get a nice, golden-hued crust (it of course won't be as brown as when you deep-fry the samosas).
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 minutes or until the edges of the samosas are golden-brown. If desired, flip the samosas over halfway through baking.
I served them hot with this cilantro coconut chutney. I added a couple of sprigs of mint to the blender for a slightly different but exquisite flavor.