Sunday, July 20, 2014

Monsoon Cornucopia!

July has to be the soggiest month of the year here in Mumbai. The month when life as we know it, with all its inherent rushing and running about and stopping-to-breathe-only-on-Sunday suddenly comes to a standstill as endless curtains of rain curtail all normal activity. It is the month of endless waiting, in blocked trains and traffic snarls. The month of damp, damp clothes, damp hair, even the air seems damp (and redolent with the smell of mold thriving in corners deprived of sunlight).  The month of days when there will be no maids/ vegetables/electricity or sometimes all of those together! The month of unexpected guests turning up at your door dripping wet, stranded by rain and the month of budgets going awry (as one is forced to take a cab/ fix that leaking ceiling...). And it brings out the best and the worst in Mumbai's denizens; cabbies that play on the misfortunes of commuters and double their fares,

But it is also a month of romance and I don't mean only like in Bollywood movies. I mean a romancing with the elements. This is the month of petrichor – that aroma of parched earth soaking up the first showers. It creeps up on you unnoticed bringing in the first burst of rain that leaves the city washed and new. It is the month of forced moments of solitude; when urchins dancing in the spray of broken water pipes make you forget your wet discomfort and awaken you the happy side of the monsoon. Little girls twirling their umbrellas with all the aplomb of models walking the ramp. Little boys splashing through every little puddle, swinging their umbrellas everywhere, ensuring every inch of themselves is dripping wet. It is also the month of sudden guilt free holidays! And delicious spicy food.
And it is the month of hot spicy treats that are delicious year round but especially so at this time of the year. Piping hot fried crispy Pakoras (fritters), steaming hot coffee or masala chai, succulent spicy kebabs, butter laden Paav bhaji spiked with green chillies, spicy samosas turgid with the promise of carby potatoes, hot maggi kissed with green chill, hot ghee doused khichdi are just a few of the favourite monsoon treats we look forward to warming up and drying out with. But the treat I MOST look forward to is Bhutta, the local word for corn on the cob, against the backdrop of the monsoony sea we are surrounded with in Mumbai.

‘Bhutta’ or ‘Makkaai’ as it is called in Hindi or Marathi respectively is more than just roasted corn on the cob. It is an icon of the monsoon. And there is certain urgency in sinking your teeth into a hot corn cob when the sky is pregnant and grey, threatening to let go of its heavy watery burden and the sea looking malevolent and angry, seems to be readying to whip itself into a frenzy and throw waves taller than skyscrapers at mere mortals.

A Bhutta has to be made by a Bhuttawalah. A species of street vendor that comes into the open in the monsoon and is found parked by the road side, play grounds, outside gates of schools and colleges,  on beaches and promenades by the sea... just about anywhere he can find a crowd to tempt with the aroma of his delicious charcoal roasted Bhutta, an aroma so enticing that people are drawn to him despite themselves.

And he reigns supreme, from behind his wooden cart piled high with fresh ears of corn. In the middle of that fortress of corn cobs that separates him from us milling addicts, is sheltered a small coal stove he mans. Seemingly thumbing his nose at those of us who have the temerity to question his wares by opening the husks of cobs and squeezing a few of the kernels with sharp nails to see how fresh and right the corn is. But eating a Bhutta is not as straight forward as it sounds, this is an experience and the perfection of it lies in choosing the right cob; one that is neither too hard to chew nor too tender to get a grip on with the teeth.

Once you have the right cob, you hand it to the Bhuttawallah who will put it ion his hot coal stove. And stand back to wait as he applies all his skill, dexterously turning the cob, fanning the coals, sending embers dancing onto the aromatic air, untill an individual black spot blooms on each kernel as he roasts the cob to perfection. And then the perfect aromatic, roasted corn on the cob is ready. But the best is yet to come… the zesty end to the Bhutta story. The Bhuttawallah will take a freshly cut half of lime dipped into a mixture of hot red chilli powder and salt, and deftly massage the entire length of cob, coating each tender roasted kernel with the sour salty spicy mixture and leaving trails of it in the furrows between the rows.

And just as you are beginning to lose the last threads of your patience he will hand you the steaming Bhutta wrapped in a couple of green corn husk, taking the money you have had ready for ages. And you are so busy juggling the cob whose heat is singeing your fingers through the husk that you almost forget the to take back your change!  And the pleasure of biting into that Bhutta is something you need to experience to understand. Really!

Some will attack their bhutta but I like to eat mine neatly and efficiently using my teeth to pry whole kernels into my mouth without actually biting into them (thereby avoiding getting things stuck in my teeth. But to do this you first need space above or below a row of kernels to get a grip. And the only easy way to clear the initial space you need (all you need is a few kernels) is to take the first bite! As it comes closer to your mouth, its savoury aroma hits your nose carried by the steam rising from it and setting your mouth watering in anticipation. You get a grip on a few kernels near one end  with your teeth, keeping your lips away from the cob - it is still hot, but you cannot stay away any more!

But you have braved the heat and got those first few kernels into your mouth! The rest of your cob is now open to being eaten any way you like! My favourite way is to Insert my teeth between the row of kernels immediately above the space I cleared with my first bite (or the row above if I am in the mood for a bigger mouth full) and then with gentle but firm downward pressure, tumble the kernels into my impatient mouth. I will proceed to eat the rest of the cob, one bite at a time, following the flow of the rows of kernels drawing out the pleasure to the last tender kernels right at the tip of the cob. And when you are done, the feeling of satiation is right up there with that of getting that last bit of marrow from a bone or that elusive bit of sweet flesh from a crab claw! Your lips are aflame from the direct assault of the sour, salty, spicy mixture that was spread on the corn but your mouth is still savouring the last of the same flavours that have been diluted by the sweet juices of the corn kernels. And as you walk away, the elements let lose behind you almost as if they were waiting for you to finish the first raindrops landing on your lips as if to soothe away the flame.

A special recipe from A Pinch of This, A handful of that for you...
Makai Ni Khichdi - styling Rushina, Photograph Mrigank Sharma, India Sutra

(Spicy Corn Curry)
This is a luscious, spicy way to cook corn. I like it on white toast.
Time: 30 minutes; Serves 2-3
2 cups tender corn kernels, grated off the cob or crushed in a mixer
1 cup milk, diluted with some water
1 tsp green chilli paste
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
¾ tbsp lime juice

2 tbsp oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp turmeric powder
Combine the corn with the milk, green chilli and ginger pastes and sugar in a pressure cooker. Stir well and add salt to taste.
Pressure-cook the corn for 10-12 minutes on low heat, after the cooker reaches full pressure.
Remove from heat and set aside, till the pressure subsides.
Put the oil for the tempering in a large pan on high heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds. When they start to crackle, add the turmeric powder.
Add the cooked corn.
Mix well, reduce the heat to medium and let the corn simmer. If it seems too dry, you can add some water or milk.
Remove, add the lime juice and mix well.
Serve hot.


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