Monday, April 25, 2016

travel and food stories: Citrus County, a whiff of not so rural Punjab and a peaceful getaway

Citrus County, a homesaty in Hoshiarpur

Few months ago in the peak of winter we booked a bus ticket and almost fled to a village in the Doaba region of Punjab. It feels very liberating when you are out of the clutches of the city life and work deadlines and your bus drops you by the side of a clean straight road lined with orchards of oranges and poplars. As if the honking cars have reincarnated themselves into tall and handsome poplars and lazy citrus trees overnight while you were sleeping in a luxury bus. Well, it felt almost like that.

Harkirat Ahluwalia received us and drove us to his home where he has created a wonderful cluster of yellow tents, bordering his huge verdant lawns, trees of several varieties of oranges, lemons and limes and a fire place. Citrus County has loads and loads of oranges, kinnows to be specific and the sweetest ones. 

This is when we realised we have been transported into a typical Canada influenced Punjab village. Pun intended.

Punjab villages have been quite prosperous owing to the very hard working Sikhs, both who stayed back in the land and who migrated to earn dollars and send them dollars back to the land. It is very common to find people hoarding super bikes and flashy cars, most fashionable western brands of clothing in these villages and you will see them relishing the kachhi lassi, safed makkhan and makki ki roti with the same fervour. The best of both worlds to be honest.

Citrus County, a homesaty in Hoshiarpur

Citrus County has very nice and clean tents with spacious modern bathrooms and a personal verandah which is surrounded by some greenery that provides privacy in a very aesthetic way. It is an ideal place if you want a break from city life and want to read, walk around the village and orchards, swim and laze around till you get hungry.

What I liked about the tents is that they have a nice study table and chairs inside the tents, good for someone who wants to read or write or catch up on work. Many of us have to touch base with work too while traveling. They don't use plastic so the water bottles were actually recycled wine bottles that was a good change to see. The heating system in winters and air conditioning (during summers) is a huge facility that you appreciate in the extreme winters (and even summers) this place witnesses. 

Citrus County, a homesaty in Hoshiarpur

They have a couple of rooms too and recently have built a Biker's lounge just besides the camp fire you see in these pictures. Harkirat is himself an avid biker and keeps going for long distance drives.

They have an efficient team of cooks who feed you warmly sitting close to the campfire. Though during winter months it felt too chilly during dinner time. We visited there in December last year.

Sometimes you would see Harkirat cooking a chicken curry by himself and fishing for complements, just like it happens in family gatherings. He would come up with a Sangria or his lovely wife Jasween would bake a cake sometimes.

Citrus County, a homesaty in Hoshiarpur

You would get to taste some home made pickles and panjeeri, laddu etc made by their family elders and that is something very endearing about village life. Food at Citrus County is basic homely food, do not expect anything superlative here.

We met Harkirat's father Mr Bhagwant Singh Ahluwalia and we talked about varieties of citrus fruits and how he has planted so many fruit trees in their orchards and home garden. He is a treasure trove of stories about how this village Chaoni Kalan was established by his forefathers, how the Gurudwara was built and how he started growing kinnows on his land. I could sit and talk to him for hours if time permitted.

He also runs a highway dhaba called Dhaba Express as a hobby on the Chandigarh Hoshiarpur highway and the food is amazing. This is one dhaba you must stop at if you are driving past Hoshiarpur. If you are staying at Citrus County you can go there easily and eat the rustic dhaba style Punjabi food.

Dhaba Express

I like 'home stay' properties for the homely warmth and the stories that we share with the people who run such an endeavour. I think Citrus County brings back the joys of village life to you in a more comfortable and convenient manner. The best of both worlds as I mentioned.

You probably wouldn't get to dive into a pool (reservoir) at the 'tube well' the Punjab villages are known for but the swimming pool at Citrus County fills in for that quite aptly.

I recommend doing a tour of the orchards and see how kinnows are grown and harvested if you are visiting in winters. An early morning walk is a must do when you are there, every season has a new story to tell in such landscapes.

The village Gurudwaras and the markets are significant places you must visit. Citrus County keeps organizing events like Hola Mohalla and Baisakhi etc during significant Sikh festivals so you can plan your visit accordingly if you want to witness the festive colours.

Friday, April 8, 2016

fasting recipes | sama ke chawal ki tahiri | vrat wali tahiri

sama ke chawal

 Sama ka chawal or Samak chawal is actually a millet called Barnyard millet that is mostly consumed during Navratri fasting. Barnyard millet cooks really fast when soaked and can be made into sama ka Jeera rice, Sama ka Upma, Sama ki Idli and Sama ka Dhokla easily. Making sama ka Dosa is also easy once you know how to use this millet. We love sama ki kheer too.

sama ke chawal ki tahiri

Sama ki tehri or tahiri cooks quickly once you have soaked sama in the fridge. Yes it is advisable to soak sama overnight either in water or thin buttermilk and refrigerate so it can be used to cook meals quickly as the soaked sama ke chawal lasts about 3-4 days. It is particularly convenient in Navratras if you are fasting.

(2 servings)

1/3 cup sama ke chawal (Barnyard millet) soaked in 1.5 cup thin buttermilk overnight
2 cups mixed vegetables chopped into small cubes
1 tomato pureed
one small potato chopped in small cubes
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
pink salt (sendha namak) to taste
pepper to taste
chopped green chilies and chopped ginger if required
chopped dhaniya patta to garnish


Heat the ghee in a wide stockpot (or pan) and tip in cumin seeds. Let the cumin splutter a bit.

Add the potatoes and stir and cook for 2 minutes. Now add the pureed tomatoes and all the chopped vegetables, salt and pepper. It will be better to add the other vegetables one by one according to the time they take to cook. I added carrots first and then zucchini after the potatoes and carrots were done. Toss and cook them all together.

Now add the soaked sama ke chawal, mix everything well and cook covered on low flame. No need to add any additional water as there is enough water in the ingredients to get cooked. It takes about 5 minutes for this quantity to get cooked after adding the soaked sama ke chawal.

Fluff up once cooked, sprinkle with chopped dhaniya patta and chopped green chilies and ginger if using. Serve with cucumber raita.

sama ke chawal ki tahiri

Green chilies and fine julienne of ginger taste really good in this tahiri but you can avoid if you like it a little plain. You can always add some roasted nuts or paneer cubes on top to add some proteins. I normally like it lighter but it also depends on how hungry you are for the meal or whether you are serving this sama ke chawal ki tahiri for lunch or dinner.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Banaras ka Khana being showcased at Three Sixty One, the all day dining restaurant at The Oberoi Gurgaon

It has been a week since we served the last dinner at the 9 day Banaras ka Khana festival at Three Sixty One, The Oberoi Gurgaon. Yes Banaras ka Khana gets to showcase the cuisine and the heritage behind such a unique tradition that we have inherited.

The Oberoi group is trying to revive the Indian regional cuisines under their flagship program called Rivayat and when Chef Ravitej Nath invited me to curate a Banaras ka Khana experience at The Oberoi Gurgaon I was thrilled to the core. After all I have been trying to bring forth the lesser known traditions and recipes from my city and this was a great opportunity to talk about it at a wider platform.

Banaras ka Khana festival

The Oberoi Gurgaon called the Banaras ka Khana experience as Divine Intervention as the festival was timed with Amla ekadashi, also known as Rang bhari Ekadashi when the Holi festivities start and Shiva is considered to participate in it with loads of Bhang and Rang. Rang (colour) used to be natural and floral in the older days during Holi and is also meant how the season bring so much colour through the flowering trees and plants.

Lord Shiva had married Devi Parvati on the day of Shivratri while he goes to Parvati's home on the day of Rang Bhari ekadashi for Gauna (when the bride comes home) and they play Holi with colours on this day. This is the official start of the festivities in Banaras. So many Great and Little traditions are still alive in Banaras.

                                            (poster courtesy The Oberoi Gurgaon)

Amla Ekadashi is a Great tradition in Banaras when families go to Amla orchards for a religious picnic, they cook under Amla trees and eat the food there. Amla tree is considered as the incarnation of Lord Bramha and the food is taken as a prasad, all food is cooked in earthen pots and served in leaf plates, this tradition of religious picnic in Banaras is unique in the sense that ecological preservation was linked so beautifully with religion.

Otherwise too Banaras is known for the outdoor picnics in the numerous Mango orchards and the sands of the Ganga across the river on Ramnagar side. People used to hire Bajdas (houseboats in Banaras) to go to the other side of the Ganga (called as O paar in local parlance) and cook litti chokha or even poori subzi or dal chawal chokha kind of meals on wood fire and earthen pots. We have done some of these picnics in our childhood, sometimes we used to pack food from home too.

The picnic culture is Banaras has kept alive the non vegetarian cooking even in the families where meats are prohibited in their kitchens. We brought some of the outdoor picnic recipes of fish and meat to the festival too, but the majority of the menu was sattvic vegetarian.

Most of the recipes on the menu are already there on this blog. Chivda matar, Fara and Bhapouri were included as a representative of the rich variety of flavours that we have in our starters. Chhene ka dahi bada, Mung stuffed alu tikki and Tamatar ki chaat were liked a lot by the guests. 

Incidentally, the slight sweetness in the traditional recipes of  Banaras comes from the Gujrati influence as it was the Gujratis who came as the first set of traders and set up Soot Tola (no more exists) from where the brocade and silk trade developed to its present glory. A lot of other influences from Marwari and Baniya communities also came along as more traders came from other parts of the country later. I have discussed some of this here.

Banaras ka khana

Thandai, Aam ka Panna (with hing ka dhungar), Khas ka sharbat and an assortment of chutneys was served and we got very good feedback from all the guests. 

The Thandai was hand crafted and we made a fresh batch everyday as it doesn't keep well once made with raw ingredients.
Thandai mix
                                           (picture courtesy The Oberoi Gurgaon)

We served Bhabra and Bajka as representative of the various types of pakodas we have in the region. Bhabra is the harey chane ka pakoda that is most likely a direct exchange of ideas between Gujrat and Banaras.

 I had discovered Harad ka golgappa in Banaras more than 2 decades ago with my research guide as she use to take me for impromptu old Banaras walks sometimes and had introduced me to this dark hued golgappa that was considered as digestive after a high dose of chaat.

We served this as Harad ki Papdi at the Banaras ka Khana festival. Bringing back some of the forgotten gems was such fun. No one makes Harad ka golgappa in Banaras now as all the chaat walas have started outsourcing all their ingredients half done and rarely they make the chaats from scratch like the older days. .

Banaras ka Khana festival

Serving our favourites like Khoya matar makhana, Matar ka nimona, Turai pyaz ki subzi, Alu baingan palak ki subzi, Kaddu chane ki subzi, Besan ki katli with Banarasi kachoris and some millet rotis and khade masale ka pulao was a delight as people loved these unconventional subzis and flavours.

Banaras ka Khana festival
                                                 (photo courtesy The Oberoi Gurgaon)

We served Khoye ka Paratha as well and it was loved by everyone.

Sadi litti with alu ka chokha also became quite a favourite with the guests as well as the kitchen team. Imagine we did not serve any paneer dish in the vegetarian menu and it was still well received. There was no tomato used in any dish apart from Tamatar ki chaat and tamatar ki chutney.

We made Mung ka cheela on some days too, we kept changing the menu a little everyday so we could showcase more of the cuisine.

Banaras ka Khana festival

We served Khas khas ka halwa, Harey chane ki burfi, Kamalgatte ka halwa, Sankatmochan ka laddu, Sri Ram Bhandar ka Lal peda and Malaiyyo too at the festival. We had brought a Malaiyyo maker from Thatheri bazar who used to churn fresh Malaiyyo every morning and we used to keep it in the walk in refrigerator till the dinner time.

Banaras ka Khana festival

Though Malaiyyo doesn't keep well in the fridge as it gets a little dry after a while, this is what we could manage and people loved the malaiyyo a lot. Sankatmochan ka laddu was gifted to us by the Sankatmochan Foundation and it was really a blessing from Banaras.

Banaras ka Khana festival
                                               (photo courtesy The Oberoi Gurgaon)

I had gone to Banaras for a couple of days just before the festival and brought back many ingredients that we don't find here. The rice used for making Khade masale ka pulao was the short grain rice called Jeerabutti from Banaras.

I brought some wooden toys too that has been an ancient cottage industry in Banaras. These were given as return gifts to some of our esteemed guests.

wooden toys of banaars

I must add that the team at The Oberoi is so efficient that they planned every little detail including the table decor, the menu, the gifts and the promotion material. Chef Ravitej Nath, Chef Manish Sharma and Mallika Gowda were my support system all through the festival.

In the kitchen the team of Chefs was very quick to learn everything and make bulk amounts of every dish very efficiently. We had new challenges everyday as some of the ingredients would be difficult to find or the quality we needed was difficult to procure but the team managed to get everything I needed to bring out the original authentic flavours.

Banaras ka Khana festival

Chef Bijender known as Chacha in the kitchen is a magician at work as he works quite fast and can replicate anything intuitively. Chef Himanshu, Chef Ankush, Chef Adnaan and Chef Varun were great help always along with Monu and Inder who came from Banaras to make Malaiyyo and Tamatar ki Chaat.

All the hard work in the kitchen translated quite well on the tables I must say.

Banaras ka Khana festival

It was great to see happy faces after each meal. Bringing the lesser known cuisines into the mainstream is a great work that The Oberoi team is doing. Banaras ka Khana will be committed always to bring the cuisine to connoisseurs whenever possible.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

khas khas ka halwa | recipe of poppy seeds halwa

Khas khas or Poppy seeds is also called as Posta dana in UP and Posto in Bengal. Khas khas ka halwa or Posta dana ka halwa used to be a much loved halwa in my growing up years. I had been planning for this recipe of khas khas halwa to be shared on Banaras ka Khana for ever but somehow I could not take pictures whenever I made it.

khas khas ka halwa recipe

And then I made it in such huge amounts that I was feeling guilty for not sharing khas khas ka halwa recipe on my blog. Last month I curated a Banaras ka Khana festival at The Oberoi Gurgaon and a 37 course Banarasi meal was served at their all day dining restaurant Three Sixty One for 9 days. We cooked a lot of Banaras recipes from this blog but whenever I had to tell the Chefs at the hotel about the recipe of khas khas ka halwa which is very simple incidentally, I felt guilty I haven't yet shared it on the blog.

We actually cooked poppy seeds halwa several times during the Banaras ka Khana festival at The Oberoi Gurgaon. Each time the quantity would be about 5 kilos as we would start with 2 kilo dry poppy seeds that will be made into a fine paste using a huge stone grinder that the Oberoi kitchen has. I cooked it myself most of the times but Chef Santosh did a fabulous job with it too. I wish I had the recipe on the blog as I used to show the pictures for reference for other recipes like Besan ki Katli, Turai pyaz ki subzi, Matar ka Nimona, Khoya Matar Makhana ki subzi and Hare chane ki burfi, Kamlagatte ka halwa etc.

While cooking the khas khas ka halwa several times in the hotel kitchen I resolved to post the recipe first thing on Banaras ka Khana blog after my return, and here it is. The recipe is simple as most Banaras recipes are.

Khas khas ka halwa recipe uses only 3 ingredients, that is ghee, poppy seeds and sugar. We don't add any milk or nuts or even cardamom because we love the natural flavor of khas khas so much we don't want to mask it with anything.

(for 6-10 servings depending on how much you love poppy seeds halwa)

200 gm poppy seeds
60 gm ghee (or 2 level tbsp)
100 gm sugar


Do not soak the poppy seeds for this recipe. Soaking works if you plan to grind the poppy seeds on silbatta (flat stone mortar and pestle) but if you are planning to grind and make a paste in a mixie jar it is better to grind it dry for a few seconds and then add little water to make a fine paste.

Grind the poppy seeds dry till it starts making a loose lump, then add about 100 ml water and make a fine milky paste.

Heat the ghee in a large thick base kadhai and pour the poppy paste in it.

The paste starts coagulating at the bottom, keep scraping and stirring while you bhuno the poppy paste for about 10 minutes on medium low flame. The paste keeps getting thicker and changes colour and finally looks like a scramble.

khas khas ka halwa recipe

Note that the poppy paste doesn't need to be browned. It just needs to change colour a little but it should still be moist.

Add the sugar and stir slowly to dissolve the sugar. After about 5 minutes of cooking the sugar dissolves and the halwa becomes homogeneous. It is ready to be served.

Serve this poppy seeds halwa a little warm, sprinkled with chopped pistachio. You actually don't need any garnish for this khas khas ka halwa trust me.

khas khas ka halwa recipe

It looks a lot like sooji ka halwa but the similarity ends there. The aroma and the taste is so unique that it arrests your senses with its mild sweetness and robust nutty taste.

khas khas ka halwa recipe

Some people add milk or khoya to the khas khas ka halwa but that dilutes the taste of khas khas in it. This is the family recipe of mine and we have made it like this forever.

Some people say poppy seeds halwa makes you sleep better and swear by it but it has never made me sleep. You can find out for yourself if you want to test the sleep inducing quality of poppy seeds.

In fact my maternal grandfather's family was into poppy farming during British times and they used to supply the alkaloid from the plant to the largest Opium factory in the world at Ghazipur which is a part of Banaras Division. Poppy seeds were a by product of the crop and were much prized for the nutty taste and richness they provided to the currys, halwas and even chutneys. Poppy seeds were used extensively in Thandai, Mithais, curries and some deep fried snacks like gulgule, malpua, anarsa etc.

This khas khas ka halwa remains my all time favourite poppy seeds recipe. Of course I like the poppy seeds chutney too and that is another recipe that needs to be shared here on the blog. Some recipes are so simple and commonplace we don't really value them enough. Each summer I make loads of poppy seeds chutney and yet it is not here on the blog. Just like this poppy seeds halwa that was more of a winter staple back home.