I am not a Bolly-watcher, by any means. I am not hungry for the latest news on whichever middle-aged "hero" and painfully young "heroine" is dominating India's movie industry. I couldn't care less who's going out with whom. And I don't remember the last time I watched a Hindi movie I could half like (trust me, I've tried for nostalgia's sake).
But our times make it hard to dodge information, even when it is information we'd rather not have. Recently, I started to see a common thread in messages posted on Facebook and on some Indian news websites: apparently, a number of top Indian actresses are gaining weight. And not losing it, or at least not losing it as fast as their fans want them to.
Aishwarya Rai, Lara Dutta, Vidya Balan, Kareena Kapoor... the reports listed the who's who of India's filmdom. And as much as I didn't want to, I had to take notice: after all, weight is a loaded topic in our culture and one that always evokes a visceral reaction. What really struck me was how vicious some of these reports were in a country where a little flab around the middle was once considered a welcome sign of prosperity. In fact, all the way through the 1990s and early 2000s, actresses like Sridevi, Rekha, Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit made curves fashionable and beautiful.
I understand the value of fitness and I am not championing obesity. It is true that carrying too much weight can be an indicator of health problems as well as lead to a whole slew of diseases. And it is also true that countries like India are getting fatter faster than ever before and rates of diabetes and heart disease are rising correspondingly.
But none of these actresses who are being reviled for gaining weight are obese-- not even remotely. They look like most women do and they still look perfectly beautiful. A couple of them gained a few pounds during pregnancies. One said she was in a happy relationship. It didn't sound like they were at all obsessing with their weight; on the contrary, they sounded blissfully happy. It was just everyone else that was outraged.
Now I am not going to go where others would after this rant and beat up on the media because, let's face it, the media today has been reduced to a barometer of what's trending on Google and Yahoo news. And to a large extent these actresses and the industry they work in are to blame for setting these impossible standards in the first place that they themselves are now not living up to.
Even so, I think it's refreshing to see that these actresses are, for a change, not obsessing with their weight -- even if it is a temporary phase-- because they are riding another high: the high of life. It offers us a welcome respite from that impossible obsession with impossibly thin, and reminds us that there's something more important in life than being a size zero:
Being completely, and perfectly, and incandescently happy.
Mirch ka Salan is a popular dish from the city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, a south Indian state known for its spicy foods. The name translates approximately to a sauce of chilies, and if that makes your jaw drop and your mouth run dry with fear, pour yourself a glass of water and hear me out.
The sauce here is made of "sweet ingredients" like coconuts and peanuts and sesame seeds and they add a rich nuttiness that becomes a perfect base for the chilies. In India, the chillies used are long, skinny, hot green peppers, but because neither you (I presume) nor I could deal with that much excitement, I used a mix of green bell peppers and poblano peppers which both add great flavor without adding incredible heat. If you are braver, feel free to substitute the poblanos with a spicier chili like jalapeno or even serrano.
To scoop up the spicy-sweet sauce I made a whole-wheat Peshawari Naan. A Peshawari Naan is a puffy flatbread that traces its origins into Pakistan and north India. It's a little more special than your average, everyday naan because it is studded with nuts and dry fruits, making it the perfect complement to the spicy saalan.
I made the naan half whole-wheat-- I have an all-whole-wheat naan on this blog that I posted a while back, but I find that using part whole-wheat and part white flour gives a more authentic texture and look while still being healthy.
Here's the recipe. Enjoy, all!
Mirch ka Salan
1 very large green bell pepper or 2 small ones, deseeded and cut into long strips
2 large poblano peppers (substitute with a hotter chili if you want to), deseeded and cut into long strips
1 large onion, sliced thinly
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup peanuts
2 tbsp sesame seeds
4 green cardamom pods
1 1-inch piece of cinnamon
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
10-12 curry leaves
1/2-inch ball of tamarind
1 1/2 tsp canola or other vegetable oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
Heat 1/2 tsp of oil in a saucepan and add the peanuts and sesame seeds. Toast them until they just begin to change color, remove to a plate to cool, and add the coconut to the saucepan.
Roast the coconut until it turns very lightly golden. Coconut burns very fast, so don't walk away from it and stir constantly.
Place the sesame seeds, peanuts and coconut in a blender along with the tamarind (make sure there are no seeds) and process with some water to a very smooth paste.
Heat the remaining oil. Add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and saute until they just start to brown and become fragrant. Add the cumin and mustard seeds and when they sputter, add the onions.
Saute the onions for a few minutes or until they start to brown at the edges. Then add the sliced peppers and stir fry until they start to brown slightly.
Add the turmeric, chili powder, coriander powder and cumin powder and stir until they are evenly distributed and roasted, about a minute or two.
Add the peanut-coconut-sesame paste and mix it well. Add some water if the sauce is too thick. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook until the peppers are tender but still have a bite to them.
Stir in the lemon juice, garnish with coriander, and serve hot with the Peshawari Naan (recipe follows).
(Makes four naans)
1 cups whole-wheat flour
1 cup bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 tbsp vegetable oil
3/4 cup soymilk or other nondairy milk
Water as needed
1/2 cup finely chopped dry fruits and nuts (I used apricots and cashews but you could use pistachios, walnuts, raisins, figs...take your pick.)
In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular bowl, place all the ingredients and knead, using as much water as needed to make a soft, smooth dough.
Continue kneading for about 10 minutes on low speed if using a stand mixer, or a little longer if doing this by hand.
Place in an oiled bowl, turning once to make sure the dough is coated in oil. Cover with a cloth napkin and set aside in a warm place to rise for about 2 hours. (In winter, I leave the bowl in my unheated oven with the light on)
After 2 hours, punch down the dough and divide into four pieces. Let the dough rest for another 10 minutes, covered.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees and place a baking stone or unglazed tiles on the middle rack.
Place a bowl of water next to you, and place a ball of dough on a lightly floured surface.
Dip your fingers into the bowl of water and press into the dough with all fingers, making little bumps and indentations on the surface even as you stretch and shape it. I shaped my naans into rounds this time, but you could shape them into the more traditional teardrops or just about any shape you wish.
Sprinkle the surface with a fourth of your nuts and dry fruits and press them in so they sink into the surface.
Carefully, taking care not to burn your fingers, place the naan directly on the hot baking stone. Place as many of the naans as you can on the stone, taking care that you leave at least an inch of space between them. They should not overlap.
Bake about 6-7 minutes or until the naans are all puffy and the top and bottom are a pale gold-brown.
Remove with tongs and serve hot.