Everyday Simple Recipes, Festival Recipes, Palakkad Iyer Recipes, Snacks, South Indian, Sweets, Tiffin

Kesari Bath/Sooji Halwa

Kesari bath/sooji halwa is one of my favorite sweets. It is a common neivedyam (food offering made to God) and a sweet served along with breakfast at Palakkad Iyer weddings. It is made even when there is no special occasion but just to satisfy sweet craving or when you have unexpected guests. It can be made easily, does not consume time, and most people love it. The best kesari bath that I have had is at Iyer weddings and at the Juhu ISCKON temple. Mani’s Cafe (next to Palakkad Jn railway station) serves melt in the mouth kesari bath. Palakkad Iyers add a little bit of pacha karpooram (Borneo-Camphor/Kacha Karpoor) and this gives a nice smell and taste to the kesari bath. Yellow or red food color is also added to this recipe but I do not prefer this.

The traditional kesari is warm, greasy, soft, and has a melt in the mouth texture. It has oodles of ghee that adds to its taste yet it doesnt drip ghee. Many a times the amount of ghee is cut down in homemade variations of kesari bath. Water, ghee, and sugar proportions are critical to make the perfect kesari. Too much water, sugar, or ghee can spoil the taste and consistency of the kesari. Although I have seen my mother make this dish very often, I always get confused about the quantity of water to be used for this dish and for upma. I referred to this blog to make this recipe and my kesari came out just right.

Ingredients:
Rava (sooji/semolina) – 1 cup
Sugar – 1 cup (depending on your taste)
Ghee – 3/4 cup
Water – 2-1/2 cups (you can opt to add milk to this)
Saffron (Kesar) – 3-4 strands
Cashew/raisins/almond pieces – A few
Cardamom powder (elaichi) – 1/4 tsp
Pacha karpooram (borneo-camphor/kacha karpoor) – very little (optional)
Food color – optional

Method:
Add the saffron strands to a small cup of warm milk/water and keep aside. Add half a cup of ghee to a thick bottomed wok and let it melt in medium heat. Turn down the heat to minimum and add the cashews/raisins/almond pieces and roast until golden brown. Remove them from the ghee and keep it aside.

sooji halwaTo this ghee, add rawa and keep stirring until the rawa turns color to golden brown. This will take about 5-7 minutes. I like to roast the rawa to golden brown although it is sufficient to roast just until the rawa starts to change color. While roasting the rawa, boil water in a pan. If you are adding milk, ensure that you use 1 cup milk and 1-1/2 cups of water. Ensure that that amount of water and milk put together is not more than 3 cups. Turn down the heat and add this boiling water/milk to the rawa cautiously. Make sure that you stand a little away from the stove while doing this as it might splutter. Stir this and make sure there are no lumps. Cook this for about 2-3 minutes. When the rawa is cooked and the water/milk content reduced, add sugar and mix well. The sugar starts to melt and the mixture once again becomes a little watery. Cook until the mixture thickens and water content reduces. Add the remaining ghee and stir. Add cardamom powder, cashew/raisins/almond pieces, and saffron dissolved in milk/water.

I prefer to have kesari bath warm although you can refrigerate this and serve it cold also.

jaggery kesariP.S. (added July 14th) – I tried making kesari bath with jaggery instead of sugar and it turned out to be really nice. So had to share it with all of you. The method remains almost the same. Measuring jaggery can be slightly tricky and if you use blocks of jaggery, you will need to make a wild guess. One thing you can do is pound the jaggery blocks and measure it using the same cup you used to measure the rava. Water should be three times the quantity of rava used.

Ingredients:
Rava – 1 cup
Ghee – 3/4 cup
Jaggery – 1 cup
Water – 3 cups
Saffron (Kesar) – 3-4 strands
Cashew/raisins/almond pieces – A fistful
Cardamom powder (elaichi) – 1/4 tsp

Method:
Soak saffron in a tablespoon of warm water. Keep aside. Dissolve jaggery in three cups of water. Using a strainer, strain this mixture to remove any dirt. Keep this water-jaggery mixture on the stove on low fire. Meanwhile, pour ghee into a thick bottomed pan. Keep fire on low. Put the cashew, rasins and almond pieces into ghee and roast the dry fruits. Remove the dry fruits from ghee when they turn golden brown and keep aside. Note that if you are using almonds, you will need to either soak them in water for 3-4 hours or blanch them and then peel and cut into smaller pieces.

In the same thick bottomed pan, to the melted ghee, add rava and roast on low fire for 4-5 minutes until rava changes color to light brown. When the rava has lost its raw smell and you start getting a finely roasted smell, add the jaggery water mixture which is kept on low fire in the next stove. Stir and add the hot jaggery-water mixture. The mixture starts to bubble and thicken. Add the soaked saffron. Keep stirring until moisture content reduces and the mixture starts to leave the sides. At this stage, you could add one more tablespoon of ghee. This is entirely optional and adds more sin, glaze, and taste to the kesari bath. Add cardamom powder and roasted dry fruits. Mix well. Jaggery kesari bath is ready. This is slightly more healthier as compared to the sugar version.

Breakfast, Chutneys/Thogayals/Dips/Podis, Dosas, Drinks, Snacks, South Indian, Tiffin

Amba Bhavan

Amba Bhavan Coffee Club | click to enlarge

No, it’s not the name of a dish. “Amba Bhavan Coffee Club” is a simple, unpretentious eatery in Matunga, Mumbai, one that was started way back in 1934. Whenever I visit Matunga, (which is around 15 km away from where I live, but in Mumbai, 15 km is not a big deal) I make it a point to visit Amba. The taste of their sada dosa and sambar is a major pull, and you just can’t ignore this simple, no-frills place, which still has an old-world charm. Amba is managed and run by down-to-earth people who serve food that your palate will never forget!

Amba doesn’t have a very elaborate menu, just the usual sada dosa, rava dosa, mysore masala, ghee sada, idli, etc., etc. The special items that they serve are kela bajji (raw banana dipped in besan batter and fried), kadi vada (lentil vada soaked in a yoghurt-based curry), and rasam rasam vada

vada (mixed lentil vada soaked in spicy hot rasam). My personal favorites are ghee sada, rava sada, and rasam vada. What is unique about Amba’s dosa is the use of methi seeds in the batter, which no other restaurants use. The methi seeds add to the wonderful flavor of the dosa. This combined with the sambar that has JUST enough jaggery to neutralize the pungent taste of tamarind without spoiling the spiciness is nothing short of yum! The amount of jaggery in sambar is where, I feel, the normal Udupis in Mumbai fail. They just don’t get it right. I would much rather eat a sandwich from a Mumbai Udupi than order a dosa and be forced to eat it with the sweet sambar or worse eat the chutney that is full of pottu kadalai (roasted split peas dal). But the sambar at Amba is like no other, and if you are a frequent customer, the waiter would even give you some molaga podi (gun powder), sometimes even without you asking for it! The gun powder is another one of their masterpieces.

filter coffee

South Indian filter coffee is something every coffee lover goes gaga over. So it just wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t say anything about Amba’s filter coffee. Well, what about it, you might ask. Try it once and you will know! Its one of the best I have tasted. But more than anything, I love the way the coffee is served – in two stainless steel tumblers, one big and one small. Which one should you drink from is entirely up to you. Mix well till the sugar dissolves and then take that first sip, which is what I would call the ultimate coffee experience! Well, at least for me, it definitely is.

And Amba offers all these heavenly items at prices that are down-to-earth without compromising the taste. The crowd at Amba is a queer mix. You share tables with either the temple priest from Asthika Samaj dressed in his dhoti and anga vastram or you are sitting next to a bunch of chirpy teenagers out to have their fill after boring tutions. But at Amba you just do not feel odd sharing a table with strangers. Amba has wide open doors and huge windows too and is airy and leisurely.

I have always been intrigued by the names of some South Indian eateries that became iconic with time. Take Amba’s case itself. Seventy years back, who would have related the sound of Amba Bhavan with food? I wonder how they came up with these interesting names like Saravana Bhavan, Arya Nivas, Hariharaputra, and the like. Who would have imagined Mavalli Tiffin Room will be an everyday household name throughout India and indispensible in the NRI kitchen? What an unlikely name for an eatery, YEM-TEE-ARR (as a mallu would say it)!

Almost every place in South India has such a restaurant to boast about where people like my parents (who practically never eat out) are comfortable going to. Since the time I can remember, Hariharaputra is the ONLY hotel where we have eaten out. It is called the Brahmanaal Hotel (which means a hotel run by Brahmins). Palakkad has 3 such places. TNVR, Mani’s Cafe, and Hariharaputra. Their kitchen walls might look black, they might not have the cleanest of hand-washing areas, and they might not give you hand tissues, but the food served in these places have no substitute at all! I remember eating out once with my college friends in a restaurant where the waiters wore white dresses with red borders and a cap. I found it so odd compared to the friendly waiter at Harihariputra who wore a dhoti that was begging for some Ujala!

I need to be born again and have oodles of Saraswati Kataksham to be able to describe the taste of the mysurpa that Hariharaputra serves. There will be enough water in my mouth to steer a ship each time I think about their mysurpa. Same goes with the Rava Kesari (Rava Sheera) at Mani’s Cafe. Nothing short of marvellous, I say!

Coming back to Amba, just like the place, the rules of the place are also very simple. It opens at 7:00 in the morning and is open until 8:00 in the night and serves only tiffin (in other words, snacks). Amba does not have a separate menu for lunch or dinner. Though a lot of the Gujju crowd (who dig South Indian food) eats out regularly and frequents restaurants only after 8.00 PM, Amba sticks to its own set of rules and closes its doors by 8:00.

I was fortunate enough to speak to the humble and ever smiling owner of this place. He was kind enough to share some of the incidents and challenges from the time Amba was conceived until now. He also invited me to his house to meet his wife who could share lots of culinary tips.

If you live in Mumbai and are a fan of South Indian food, please visit Amba at least once to taste authentic South Indian food. If you live elsewhere, hunt down the Saravana Bhavan or the Hariharaputra of your place. If you are new to the place, just ask the elderly, and I am sure you will find a Bharat Hotel or an Amma Mess. Long live places that serve good food!

And look, Amba is on Facebook too!

Addendum: Amba is very close to King’s Circle and is in the same lane as Asthika Samaj Kochu Guruvayur temple. The address is: 373, Patel Mahal, Matunga, Mumbai, India, 400019.

I invite all my readers to share their thoughts and experiences about food or eateries that are special to their heart. I plan to have a reader’s corner very soon and all of you are welcome to share your thoughts here.

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