Monday, February 23, 2009

Turkish un Helvasi

Always on the lookout for new things to tickle my tastebuds, one day I bought some “Turkish un Helvasi” at Damas Supermarket. On that day, the baklava looked fresh and scrumptious, but I was trying to avoid sweets so, instead of buying something that I knew I would love (and gobble down), I decided to try something new and see if I liked it.

Soft oval shaped balls of a light brown colour, they sat demurely on a Styrofoam plate, covered with plastic wrap. “What is it?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Uh, it is like halvah”, he said.

I associate Middle Eastern halvah with the sesame paste sweet that comes in round plastic boxes, but I was willing to give this new sweet a try. Unable to wait til I got home, I cracked open the package as soon as I left the store, and popped one in my mouth. It was soft, sweet, and floury. Perhaps a hint of sesame paste? But not very memorable. I have to say, I was underwhelmed.

When I got home I googled “Turkish un Helvasi” to see what the ingredients were. As I guessed, the main ingredient was flour. Butter, sugar and water are also used. No sesame.

A simple dessert, that nonetheless requires patience and a lot of stirring, it is made in Turkey for funerals and religious days. It’s usually made with nuts, but mine was nutless. Apparently, in Turkey there are three main kinds of halvah: tahini (sesame paste) halvah, which is usually bought; semolina halvah, and this wheat flour halvah. These last two kinds are usually made at home.

In India, one gets different kinds of halvah: gajjar ka halwa, made with grated carrots and condensed milk, and another kind of halvah whose name I don’t know – a glowing orange jelly with pistachios in it that is oh so tasty when it is eaten fresh.

Of the Turkish halvahs I think I prefer the sesame paste one, as it tastes much better. Turkish un helvasi was interesting for a try, but won’t make it into my usual shopping repertoire. That's okay, though; the pursuit of gastronomic delights is an art, not a science. From the realm of science, however, we can take heart in considering Edison's proclamation upon trying to invent the lightbulb: "I have not failed one thousand times, I have discovered one thousand methods that did not work!"

Keep on munching!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Salmon (Happy Valentine's Day!)

Dear readers,

Valentine's Day is coming up! I have always loved pink and hearts, so this is my favourite holiday! To celebrate this year, I will be going to a special Valentine's Day party at the playgroup I often attend. Everybody brings special food - the kind that's fit for kids, you know! So that means there will be lots of decorated sugar cookies, cupcakes, cake, and so on.

I love my sweets (especially when they are decorated with pink frosting!!) but I decided to do something a little different for my food item; I am calling them "Wild at Heart Salmon sandwiches"! (it's wild Alaskan salmon, or at least so the tin claims). Cute, eh? I used a heart-shaped cookie cutter and cut little white bread hearts out of each slice to make my pretty sandwiches. It wasn't as easy as it sounds - the bread was soft and delicate as tissue paper (and about as nutritious!)

The Carling Avenue connection? The mayonnaise is from Damas Middle Eastern store and the bread is from the shiny new Shopper's Drug Mart on Carling Ave. Surprisingly, for a drugstore, they have a good grocery section, with bacon, organic pasta, and gourmet choco-hazelnut spread. And the best part is, they're open 'til midnight!

I mixed the salmon with coriander, onion and lots of mayonnaise (that's why those commercially made salmon sandwiches taste so good - lots of fat!). Dill would have tasted sensational, but they are still very tasty with the onion and coriander.

So there I was at 10:30 pm, cutting little hearts out of white bread - I wonder how many other moms were up late at night making Valentine's Day treats for school parties tomorrow? Ah, it is well and truly happening - I am a mom!

Now, I just wonder if those kiddies tomorrow will like salmon...

Enjoy your Valentine's Day!!

Saturday, February 7, 2009


Is there a sweet anywhere that is stranger looking than a jilebi? I don’t think so.

And yet, this crisp orange delicacy, deep fried, dropped into hot syrup, designed to explode in your mouth and release rivulets of rose-scented liquid, is my favourite Indian sweet.

My earliest memory of jilebis comes from when I was a child visiting New Delhi. Our bearer went to the market and brought back a small paper bag of jilebis for our tea. The bag was soaked in syrup and looked unappetizing, but the jilebis were fresh and sensational.

In Ottawa I had fresh jilebis once - at the Indian High Commissioner’s Independence Day garden party. They had hired a person to make fresh jilebis on the spot! I recall that I was wearing a pink and white outfit with cute pink suede sandals. It is a mark of my love for these sweets that when my jilebi dribbled syrup onto my pink shoes, I didn’t mind a bit!

What makes jilebis so special? I think it is their unique construction. It seems like a recipe a child would dream up: take some neon-orange batter, make squiggly shapes with it in hot oil, remove the fritter from the fat, and dip it in hot syrup. Through some alchemy, the squiggles become hollow inside. When dipped in the syrup, the tubes fill up with the liquid. Biting into them – ah, a taste sensation!

I tried making jilebis once, and it is not as easy as it looks. I made them from a mix, and the results were disappointing to say the least. They came out golden, not orange (need more food colouring!), the tubes were too thin and, worst of all, when I bit into them, my mouth filled with oil, not syrup. Blech.

When I visit Indian food stores, there is habitually a tray of jilebis placed tantalizingly by the cash register. I know they won’t be good, but sometimes I give in and buy a small piece. How do they taste? Let me give you a hint: the jilebis sold in the stores are not made in Ottawa. I asked the shopkeeper at Vaishali and she told me they are shipped here from shops in Toronto in large cases. She keeps them in the fridge and brings them out a tray at a time, over a period of a few weeks! The results, while not exactly blech, are not quite stellar either. The sugar syrup crystallizes, they lose their crispness and become rubbery. Oh well.

The desirable qualities of a jilebi, as you can tell by now, are: crispness, sweetness, glossy appearance (okay, I hadn’t mentioned that yet), and overall quality. But don’t take my word for it. Apparently, researchers at the Department of Sensory Science in the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India, have done tests to determine this. Who knew? Undesirable attributes are: porous, and heated oil taste. They concluded that “Crispness of jilebi had high positive correlation with OQ and texture (shear value).” You see, I knew there was something special about those jilebis.

But enough of the science behind jilebis. I know you are really wondering - what was my best jilebi? Ah, friends, my very favourite jilebi experience came at my wedding! I got married in Mysore, India, in a lavish and colourful celebration organized entirely by my wonderful inlaws. Unlike weddings in the West where the bride (and occasionally, the groom) agonizes over chair covers, centrepieces, the song list, and intricacies of wedding favours, all I had to do was show up. My inlaws sent me a list of the menu for the wedding, but I didn't know what any of the items were (wobattu? majige houley?) so I just gaily agreed to all of the suggested items.

One menu item I did ask for was a wedding cake. Alas, that was difficult to arrange, so I asked for something that I had had in my mind for a long time...

"Could we", I asked my fiance, "have somebody at the wedding making fresh jilebis?"

"Of course!" he agreed. "Now is the time to satisfy all of your food fantasies!"

Woo hoo! You see, I had to marry this man!

And how were the jilebis? Dear reader, they were amazing. Instead of vegetable oil, they fried the jilebis in ghee. Instead of sugar syrup they used honey (special - for a wedding!), and you could tell they had been made with extra special care. The jilebi maker sat on an elevated perch and dripped and drizzled all night long. I only got to eat one jilebi, but I can remember just how delicious it was!

It was a sweet way to start a marriage!

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Fresh samosas are a rarity in Ottawa. These tasty fried savouries, consisting of a curried potato or meat filling and a dough casing, really should be eaten within a day of being prepared. Often however, when one buys them in Indian food stores, they are several days old - the casings stale and the potatoes grey, a pallid goo oozing out of them.

I did, however, have a good samosa once. I will tell you about it.

It was a warm and golden August afternoon. I was driving down Carling Avenue, and my baby was crying his head off. Wails, moans, and furious gibbering proclaimed his horror at being bound down into his car seat. I stopped twice to soothe him, to no avail. This, and a wrong turn, made me 45 minutes late for my appointment to view a new apartment. When I got to the apartment building there was no one to meet me and no one who could help me. We would be homeless in three weeks. I was concerned.

I left the car in the visitor’s parking lot and decided to cross the street. Out of his car seat, my baby was calm and chirpy as usual. I, however, felt like swallowing a hand grenade. Some shopping, I decided, would surely help to soothe my frazzled nerves.

At the corner of Wylie and Carling Avenue is Vaishali Superstore. And, really, it is a super store! Most Indian groceries in Ottawa have stale chappatis, bug infested rice, and mouldy sweets. Vaishali’s, on the other hand, has a wide selection, good service, and a decent readymade food counter. On this day, I decided to pick up a lush bunch of coriander, some shiny Chinese eggplant, a bag of chevdo, and peanut chikki. I was considering a tin of gulab jamuns when, suddenly, my nose twitched.

“What’s that ?” I asked in amazement. “Are those samosas?”

“Yes”, the man said calmly.

Fresh samosas? Is that what I’m smelling?”

“Yes,” he said, “they were just delivered.” He showed the golden treasures to me.

Dear reader, they were warm. Condensation on the inside of the plastic bag, the touch of my fingers – all these confirmed my astonishing find – fresh samosas – in Ottawa. These were virgin samosas – plucked from the deep fat fryer, unsullied by refrigerator or deep freeze, speedily transported to the good folks at Vaishali, rising up to greet me and proclaiming in sweet tones “Hark! We are here!”

I took four, trembling. I paid for the items, then hurried back across the street to my car. No question of waiting till I got home – they would have been fifteen minutes older! I had to eat one right now.

I pulled a samosa out of its plastic bag and bit in. Warm and flaky pastry yielded to my teeth, bursting forth to reveal a fulsome array of delicately spiced potatoes and plump peas. A few sprightly cumin seeds danced by, adding to the merriment. I sat in the golden sunshine, content, my sleeping baby on my lap, and savoured every morsel.

Behind me, the bulk of the apartment building loomed. It would likely never be my apartment building, but at least I could sit in its shelter right now, enjoying the colourful flower beds and savouring my perfect samosa.

I took the rest home to my husband and urged him to eat one right away. But he, philistine, refused, saying he wasn’t hungry (huh? that never stopped me from eating!). He had one later and said it was “just okay”. Well, of course, what did he expect?

I’ve been back to Vaishali’s a few times since then.

“Any fresh samosas?” I ask hopefully. They always nod and point me enthusiastically towards the refrigerator…. Alas, the warm samosas have always eluded me. But someday…someday I will again taste the fresh samosa and be transported to a little corner of Indian culinary heaven.

And as for the apartment? Dear reader, I got it after all. I was able to make another appointment, my baby cooperated on the trip over, and now I am typing this message to you from it, even as we speak.

So you see, sometimes dreams do come true! Now, if only I could get another fresh samosa...