My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Kofta Balls in Tomato Sauce

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare . . .

Did you know that devotees of Krishna have a cuisine all their own? Go to any restaurant owned by Krishna devotees and the food items will be readily identifiable.

For about ten years, I lived in Dallas Texas which has a large, vibrant Krishna community. Every year on World Food Day, they would provide free meals all day long and I volunteered my services in the kitchen of their gorgeous restaurant, Kalachandji's. So, that’s how I became familiar with their cuisine.

First of all, one will notice a vegetarian vein. Being strict believers in the principle of karma and reincarnation, nothing is served that involves the killing of animals. "Every meal gives the gift of life," is one of their beliefs.  Dairy products are used but eggs are not.

Being that the Krishna movement is a form of Hinduism, most food items will have an Indian flavor to them with one notable difference. In addition to meat and ova, Krishna devotees (along with Jains,) strictly refrain from eating onions or garlic. It has something to do with them being offensive to God or that they arouse sexual desires. Maybe both. But whatever the reason, one will find Krishna (Vedantic) and Jainist cuisine without garlic or onions.

I think Julia would have looked upon their food beliefs with suspicion, especially the non-use of garlic or onions. She had a disdain for anyone who "feared food" in any shape or form. (Conversely, did not she "fear" vegetarian or vegan cuisine?) However, the means by which our Vedantic friends did utilize and enjoy their cuisine would have, I believe, eventually brought her around. 

In the place of garlic and onions, you’ll find the ever-present and very unique spice called asafetida. It is the powered, dried gum resin of a herbaceous plant and, in its raw state, has a very strong odor reminiscent of . . . well . . . cat urine.

Believe me, if you spill it or leave it uncovered, your dwelling will smell like a tom-cat has left his mark. However, once cooked, it does impart a musky, evocative flavor reminiscent of onions and "that" flavor is the truly the mark of Krishna cuisine.

One of my favorite dishes is their Kofta Balls in Tomato Sauce. We served many cafeteria trays of it every year on World Food Day in Dallas and it was always a staple in the countless daily meals that the Krishna community provided to the homeless and shut-ins. A more tasty, appealing, nutritious, and inexpensive entree would be really hard to find.

It’s a first cousin to spaghetti and meatballs but with a Vedantic twist. Garbanzo bean flour (besan) is mixed with spices, including the ever-present asafetida, grated cauliflower, grated cabbage, rolled into balls and deep fried. These are served with a flavorful tomato sauce (yes, with asafetida) over pasta.

Oh, and another quality about asafetida is that it prevents flatulence. We've got cauliflower, cabbage and bean flour going on here, but nary a toot follows the meal. Maybe that's the non-offensive part.

The result is meat-less meatballs that are surprisingly juicy. Very juicy in fact. I frequently prepared this dish when I was a Franciscan friar and, even though one funny friar referred to my kofta balls as "coughed-up balls", they all enjoyed them. Especially the funny friar.

Start with 1 ½ cups of besan (garbanzo bean flour), Soy flour could probably be substituted.
1 Tbs garam masala (an Indian spice mixture usually containing cloves, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek and coriander)
1 ½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½  tsp turmeric
½ tsp asafetida
½ tsp cayenne

Mix in:

2 cups grated cauliflower (which is really 1 whole cauliflower)
2 cups grated cabbage

Mix it all together with your hands and really squoosh it together. (I like to don latex gloves for hand-mixing and squooshing) The grated cauliflower and cabbage exude just enough juice to bring it all together. You’ll have a moist paste which can be formed into 1-inch balls.

Tomato Sauce:

1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium carrot cut into 6 pieces
½ tsp asafetida
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 bay leaves

Fry the spices in the oil and butter, add the tomatoes, carrot, and water. Simmer for 30 minutes. The carrot draws out a lot of acidity. Discard the carrot when the sauce is finished. Taste one and you'll be surprised how sour it is. Italian grandmas have done the same with their tomato gravy for generations.

Fry the kofta balls in hot oil for at least 12 minutes, 6 minutes on each side, until dark golden brown. (You really want to avoid undercooked insides, so don't make the balls any more than an inch in diameter.)

Incidentally, Krishna cooks use clarified butter called "ghee" for deep-frying. Although deep-frying in ghee is incredibly rich and appealing, it can be hugely expensive for a one-shot deal. Trust me, Julia would have swooned had she seen a Krishna deep-fryer filled with clarified butter.

Place them in the tomato sauce for 10 minutes and serve over pasta.

Devotees offer a prayer over each food item and set aside one serving of each recipe as an offering to Krishna. However, I never saw what they mysteriously did with it afterward.

If there's a Krishna temple in your city, check it out and see if they have a restaurant --  many of them do. I’ve always appreciated their unique cuisine. The smell of jasmine incense is usually wafting in from the adjoining temple giving the restaurant its own other-worldly ambiance.

Aside from its very identifiable flavor, thanks to the asafetida, there’s just something very appealing and special about consuming “spiritualized” food, regardless of the faith from whence it comes.

Hare Krishna . . .

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