Ah, the utterly alien feeling of opening my home page and clicking on 'create new entry'. We all know the adage 'time flies when you're having fun', but not many of us know its corollary: 'time also flies when you have more things to do than time to do them in'. That second part is the only way I can explain how five and a half weeks have passed since my last post, since if there was fun involved it certainly kept itself well hidden. But never mind about the fun, the important thing is that the work somehow got done. Technically the thesis is still not quite finished, but it is close, and you'll be glad to hear that despite the last niggling bits, I am determined that it will have as little impact on my cooking, eating or blogging as humanly possible from now on. Oh, and before I forget, thank you all for the avalanche of luck you sent my way. It seems to have done the trick.
So what does a panicked, exhausted, house-bound thesis writer cook for herself? I certainly never forgot to eat (as Nicky will be glad to hear), but something about staring into a computer screen until my brain bleeds just saps away the motivation for cooking. Most nights, in fact, when I finally tore myself away from the thesis all I could do was sit slack-jawed and glassy-eyed in front of the television, and whatever made its way onto my plate was fine as long as it didn't require any effort on my part. I certainly appreciated good food when it appeared before me - Manuel, for example, had the chance to flex his culinary muscles a few times and took advantage of every opportunity to whip up his secret family recipe for spaghetti bolognese (I've never been able to confirm it, but I do believe there's some curry in there...). But alas, he also spent a good part of the month in Germany and when he was gone, I had to fend for myself.
Not having the time or energy to even light the stove most nights, I learned the hard way how easy it is to get into a habit of eating easy, nutritionally-dubious food. If I had the strength to make it to the store I could be found scarfing down tasteless meals-on-a-tray and refrigerated pizza; if I didn't, you would have found me around dinnertime plating up everything from ice cream with a side of cheese sandwich to chocolate-flavored oatmeal (which in itself was an exciting change from the plain oatmeal I'd had the previous two nights). At a certain point I realized, though, that as important as this thesis is, it's not worth compromising my general well-being over, and so I quickly decided I was going to have to come up with a new plan. I needed something quick, tasty and healthy, that preferably would engage me in actual preparation mode only once every few days.
Enter chickpea chaat salad. This marvel of a bean dish had all I needed and more. Not only was it quick to whip up and lasted for days in the fridge, but it had everything I required to keep me going: protein from the chickpeas, carbohydrates from the fruit, and plenty of flavor from a beguiling mix of spices, chile, tamarind, and cilantro. Chaat, in case you're not familiar with the term, actually applies to a whole category of snack foods in India that combine something starchy (usually potatoes or pieces of fried batter) with fresh vegetables, spices, fiery chilies and a souring agent such as lime, tamarind or yogurt. In India you would buy chaat in a million different variations from street stalls, and every region has its own typical offerings. Bombay, I recently learned, is widely regarded to be the center of the Indian chaat-universe, with hawkers on Chowpatty Beach dishing up every combination of salty, crunchy goodness under the sun.
The thing that sets this particular chaat in a league of its own, at least as far as I'm concerned, it the inclusion of fruit. While the few chaats I've eaten previously have all been delicious, the little unexpected nuggets of sweetness in this one add that extra dimension that literally pushes this riot of flavors over the edge. The banana, in particular, is a great substitute for the more common potato. I wish I could claim credit for this innovation myself, but actually I was given the idea after trying the unusual version on offer at our favorite local Indian restaurant, where the combination of vegetables, banana and spices goes by the name Simla chaat (after the stately Himalayan hill town, I assume). I don't know if everyone in Simla adds banana to their chaat, but if they don't, they should - it's fantastic.
Though I certainly appreciated the convenience, flavor and nutrition this chaat provided to fuel those long, dark hours of work, I realize now that the best thing about it is that somehow it just keeps getting better with each and every meal. It may not be part of any accepted thesis-writing methodology, but for me it sure seems that a little jolt of deliciousness goes a long way toward coaxing out every last stubborn drop of academic brilliance. Then again, I suppose we'll have to let my examiners have the last word on that.
Chickpea Chaat Salad with Banana and Pomegranate
Source: adapted from 1000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra
Notes: To make this dish you'll need to track down one specialty ingredient, the chaat masala. You should have no trouble finding it boxed alongside other spice mixes in Indian grocery stores, but if you can't you can try your hand at making it yourself (assuming, of course, you can track down the spices you need). Other uses for this delicious salty-sour-pungent powder include sprinkling on pakoras, roasted potatoes and even nuts. A recipe to make it yourself can be found here.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peeled minced fresh ginger
2-4 fresh green chilies, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons chaat masala (see note above)
1/2 cup (125ml) cilantro/fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 14-oz (400g) cans chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup (125ml) water
1 heaping tablespoon tamarind concentrate (available at Indian or Asian shops, as well as many supermarkets)
1 small English cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
5 scallions/spring onions, white and pale green parts sliced
1 large ripe banana, peeled and diced
1/2 cup (125ml) fresh pomegranate seeds
Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, then stir in the garlic, ginger and green chilies, stirring until fragrant and golden, about 30 seconds. Add the ground coriander, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the chaat masala, half the cilantro, and stir about 30 seconds more. Add the chickpeas, water and tamarind, and cook, stirring as necessary, until the chickpeas are tender and all the juices evaporate, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.
When completely cool, stir in the cucumber, remaining fresh cilantro, scallions, banana, and remaining chaat masala. Sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds just before serving. Best served cold or at room temperature.