Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Crackling Spinach aka Palak Chaat




On a recent trip to Washington DC, I am ardently persuaded to eat at Rasika. I am not inclined to eating in most Indian restaurants as their mainstays are either North Indian or South Indian food. It's either palak paneer or chicken chetinaad. And since both these cuisines come to life often in my kitchen I honestly am dubious about paying big bucks for this type of fare. But give me a restaurant that makes my favorite--- Indian fast food, or an obscure culinary creation that I cannot or will not make in my kitchen and I will go willingly. But Geets persuades me to look at the menu at Rasika. Excitement mounts as I can tick off a handful of intriguing Bombay favorites, especially my favorites- Chaat or fast food Indian style.

Chaat to me means small plates of bhelpuri (puffed rice with potatoes, spices and chutney), paani poori (small balls of fried dough filled with spice flavored water), ragda pattice (potato cutlets topped with masala lentils), vada pav (bread rolls with spicy potato filling), veggie sandwich (white bread layered with green chutney, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumber), dahi batata poori (small balls of fried dough stuffed with sprouted mung beans and potatoes, topped with yogurt and tamarind chutney), sev poori (flat discs of dough topped with potatoes,onions and spices) and much more. The list is exhaustive. Hmm, potatoes are featured prominently, or is it just my penchant for all things potatoes surfacing here? In actuality chaat is an Indian smorgasbord, tapas Bombay style, appetizers to graze on or make a meal of. These small plates sustain us at tea time, between meals and even as meals. These are street side snacks usually made by a man with a cart load of accoutrements. You walk up, place your order and wait for the banyan or banana leaf plate that holds your choice. The original food cart, if I may say so. Sadly I have given up eating these tasty delights by Indian roadsides. Americanized and too afraid of lurking germs, I look for cleaner venues, my sensibilities and stomach veering towards restaurants verses foodcart vendors.

The menu at Rasika is a road map of Bombay culinary delights. We eat patra in macchi (chutney-coated fish wrapped in a banana leaf). Next comes a malai seekh kebab followed by an uttapam studded with fava beans..I drool over this fat dosa-like pancake with my favorite favas.  Goat cheese kulchas melt in my mouth. Grilled paneer squares come bathed in a spicy green sauce. Our table is too small. We haul a chair over to accommodate our many plates. I say it isn't necessary as we finish the food as fast as it comes. The waiter's face suggests we order too much. Just to prove him wrong we lick the platters clean! Then we spy a mound of green in a bowl at the next table. It is demolished. We ask them if they like it. They nod ecstatically. Our waiter looks in askance as we enthusiastically order a bowl of green. The palak chaat is a revelation with each crunch. Battered and flash-fried spinach, drizzled with tamarind chutney, spiced yogurt, chopped onion, tomatoes and chaat masala.  Seriously good fried spinach! Each spoonful is a microcosym of sweet, spice, salt and crunch. Like the table next to us, the bowl is depleted too fast. This has to have been the best spinach I've eaten in long time. 

I have to make it as soon as I get home. I look online for a recipe, a benchmark. I find Matt Fuch's fuchsfoodie.blogspot.com/.../rasika-comes-to-wrong-end-of-red-line.html. This hilarious blog episode makes me see life on the flip side. I revel in his take on 'Jackson Palak 'chaat. Then I go about it my way.


Palak Chaat
For 2 hungry people


2 cups Baby Spinach
1 heaped tablespoon Chickpea flour( Besan)
2 to 3 tablespoons Water
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 cups Canola oil for frying
1/2 cup Yogurt
A pinch of Kosher salt
3 tablespoons Tamarind chutney ( recipe below)
2 tablespoons chopped Red Onion 
2 tablespoons chopped Tomato
1 teaspoon Chaat Masala ( store-bought)

Spread spinach on paper towels and blot dry.

Whisk chickpea flour, water and salt in a bowl till all the lumps have dissolved. You should be left with a watery batter.

Heat the canola oil in a wok or deep saucepan. It should take 5 minutes on a medium high flame.


Drop a bit of batter to test hot oil. It should float to the surface immeadiately.

Dip a leaf in the batter and add to hot oil. The batter should be runny and barely coat the leaves. Refer to the above picture. Do this with at least 7 to 10 additional leaves. Let the leaves crisp up. Move them with a perforated spoon. Crisping should take 4 to 5 minutes. Drain them onto paper towels. Repeat with all the leaves.



Assemble the chaat by mounding spinach leaves on a platter. 

Drizzle ribbons of tamarind chutney all over spinach.

Spoon ribbons of yogurt over the leaves.

Top with chopped onion and tomatoes.

Lastly sprinkle chaat masala and eat immeadiately!





Tamarind Chutney

1 cup Tamarind pulp
2 cups Water
1/2 cup Jaggery or Brown Sugar
A pinch of Kosher Salt.

Soak tamarind in water for 3 to 4 hours.

Squeeze pulp well and strain into a saucepan. You should have just the liquid. No pulp.

Add jaggery and salt and simmer on a medium flame for 15 minutes or until the sauce thickens.

Store in a glass jar or plastic container in the fridge for up to a month.





NOTES

I say eat immeadiately firstly because the spinach will lose its crispness after being doused with chutney and yogurt. Secondly because its so damn delicious and addictive I cant wait to dig my fork into the crispy pile!

The spinach leaves should be dry or else you will have to contend with oil splatter.

I used a wok but an electric fryer will also do.




Addictive, crispy, crunchy and very satisfying are enough descriptive synonyms.  For me a bowl of fried food is as welcome as a warm blanket on a cold day. The spiced green mound deposited at our lunch table, disappears in minutes. It is Rasika's jewel in the crown.The speed at which we eat forkfuls of crackling spinach is astonishing. We end that memorable meal with a guava kulfi popsicle. Hmmm that calls for some more experimenting!