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Pistachio Rose: Rethinking Indian Desserts

26 May

At a chocolate tasting event in London in February, I met Rekha who was in the process of starting her own range of Anglo-Indian desserts inspired by her bi-cultural heritage. A month later, her boutique bakery Pistachio Rose was born.

Last month, Rekha and I chatted over chai because I felt that her inspiration behind establishing Pistachio Rose resonates closely with the essence of this blog – how cultural heritage and identity influence what people eat, cook and share culinarily with others. Typically, Anglo-Indian cuisine is a term used to describe dishes that adopted aspects of British cuisine and blended them with Indian spices and ingredients during the British Raj. However, Rekha’s inspiration draws not from nostalgia for a past era but her personal reference points of growing up in an Indian-English household.

Born to an English mother and a Gujarati father whose family migrated from Uganda to the UK in the late-70s, Rekha has had a penchant for cooking and baking since as long as she can remember. “For me it’s always been about flavours and delicately balancing them, which requires time and attention” she remarks also recalling how even as an 11-year old she prepared a 3-course meal on Mother’s Day.

Rekha began her career in food buying for a large UK supermarket before transitioning into working as buyer for Amazon. A few years down the road, she no longer found her chosen career path fulfilling and craved a change. A trip to India in 2010 for a cousin’s wedding provided the required impetus for her to consider formalizing her passion for baking and cooking into a formidable product line.

As much as Rekha’s inspiration is derived from childhood memories of spending time on the counter-top of her paternal grandmother’s kitchen in Bracknell nibbling on churma, a major motivation has been what she feels is the underrepresentation of Indian desserts in the London foodscape. As she observes, “often, what you find in the market is Indian sweets that are artificially coloured and sweetened and dripping in oil. I wondered what sort of desserts could be created that are authentic but also clean and simple in their flavour profile.” She believes that Pistachio Rose is all about recreating Indian sweets improvised and perfected over time in a manner that retains their heritage. The English influence is reflective in the clean flavours and presentation and making the sweets less overwhelming.

Rekha started her baking business with cakes such as the eponymous Pistachio Rose cake, recreating the classic sweet gulab jamun  – a deep-fried cardamom-spiced sponge served in rose syrup and sprinkled with pistachios, and then developed a range of chocolate products such as the tarts and naans.

I have tried the chocolate naans and spiced chocolate tarts and was blown away. The white chocolate tart is infused with a blend of crushed fennel seeds, aniseed & menthol and the dark chocolate tart is infused with a signature chai blend. The subtlety with which she has introduced the spices into the tarts is admirable since you can taste a hint on your palate without the flavours being overbearing.

Her latest creation, which I have yet to try, is the mukhwas – a beautifully aromatic biscuit containing a gentle blend of betel leaf, areca nut & other spices, decorated with candied aniseed & fennel (pictured below).

Rekha gets excited at the prospect of being able to create and present an afternoon tea banquet experience featuring her signature desserts and a lot more. She has many other interesting creations up her sleeve that are a twist on the Indian dessert, which I won’t divulge now but remain excited to see how they shape up.

She has participated in the Chocolate Festival in Bristol and the Taste of India in the last two months. To remain updated on where she will be next and what’s next on the horizon you can follow Pistachio_Rose on Twitter or browse through her blog Crumbs and Chronicles

**Note: All photographs in this post are courtesy of Rekha

Haleem – A Subcontinental Delight

14 Oct

The advent of Muharram every year was a period of excitement for all the young ones who were fairly oblivious to the religious significance of the occasion but eagerly anticipated the food adventures that awaited them.

Muharram, for the unacquainted, marks the commencement of a period of mourning for Shia Muslims to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muhammad’s grandson in the epic Battle of Karbala (modern day Iraq). In Karachi, where I grew up, the first ten days of Muharram witnessed a series of gatherings eulogizing this historical event. At the end of these gatherings, tabarruk, which literally translates as a token of blessing would be given to all attendees. It included an assortment of food items both sweet and savoury including haleem. 

Haleem – words can’t do it justice but at best it can be described as a combination of cracked wheat, lentils and shredded meat (usually beef or mutton) cooked tirelessly over slow heat for hours preferably even overnight and pounded to reach a thick consistency. It is then decorated with caramelized onions, slivers of ginger, finely cut green chillies, and sprinkled with lemon juice and served with naan.

I can’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t craved eating plate after plate after plate of haleem. Partly because of childhood memories and partly because it’s the most satiating dish I have ever tasted – the ultimate comfort food.

It remains unclear why haleem came to be associated with Muharram. A tradition, though unverified, reveals that a member of Hussain’s family ordered the dish to be cooked after the tragedy of Karbala. Even to this day, amongst Shia Muslims in the Subcontinent haleem is associated with Muharram.

The origins of Haleem, however, may not necessarily have been subcontinental:

“According to food historians haleem was a pastoral West Asian dish, primarily Persian, that travelled across continents and time to finally find fame and sophistication in Hyderabad. Given the Persian origin, haleem is eaten during Muharram and Ramzan by Shias, which explains why it didn’t gain popularity in places with predominantly Afghan or Burrani influence, such as Delhi, Rampur, Bhopal.

In its robust rusticity, haleem is much like the other Ramzan dish, nihari, began life as an unsophisticated, one-dish meal prepared by soldiers and sailors. Its popularity in the Barkas area near the Charminar in Hyderabad, where the Nizam’s barracks were, is probably testimony to its military past. Later, as it started being served in the finest homes of Lucknow and Hyderabad, two royal courts with a larger congregation of Shias, the recipe evolved.

(Source: The original ‘slow food’ staple – http://bit.ly/qHvluK )

What is fascinating to me is the inherent contradiction in when the dish is cooked and served. It is associated with celebratory occasions such as weddings and iftaars (the ritual of opening the fast at sundown) in Ramazan but equally with periods of mourning such as Muharram. Yet, no matter what time of the year or time of the day, the narrow lanes of Burns Road in Karachi are inundated with haleem vendors serving plate after plate from ladles dipped in large pots. The hygienic standards may be questionable but the taste never is.

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