Three years ago, on the 2nd of April 2018, I took up a teaching assignment in Malaysia as a Professor of Gynaecology. It had been a dream of mine and, after years as a practicing doctor, I was looking forward to the experience of teaching.
With the help of my family, I moved to an apartment near Kuala Lumpur. My son helped me set up my new home, my husband visited every other month, and all was well until the pandemic arrived and threw all my plans for a toss.
My intention was to return to Kodai in April 2020 when my contract ended, but, like many people across the world, I found myself locked down at home, alone, at the age of 71.
Life changed drastically for me. Within a week, all housekeeping staff had stopped coming to work and I spent my days cleaning, cooking, washing utensils, and fielding calls from family, who were constantly reminding me not to go outside. In addition to my age, I have also dealt with asthma throughout my life, and it made me feel additionally vulnerable to the virus. Thankfully, I was on the ninth floor of an apartment building, in a pollution-free, hilly region close to Kuala Lumpur, but it was still a trying time for me.
I was distraught, apprehensive about being alone, and unable visit even neighbours, let alone friends who lived close by. My daily walks had stopped and, without the exercise, my BMI (Body Mass Index) began creeping into the Obese category. To keep my spirits up, I tended to the flowering plants in my balcony and soaked in the green views around me, but I soon realized that this was not going to be enough.
The experience forced me to rely on myself. I took up drawing and rediscovered my artistic talent, but I craved connection with people. That’s when I thought about starting a YouTube channel. I called a friend of mine who has her own channel, and she explained how I could use my phone to record videos of myself. At first, I made videos about menstrual health; as time progressed, I diverted my attention to food, since I was spending so much time cooking, anyway.
Initially, I would hold the phone in one hand and do the cooking with the other, but I watched more YouTube tutorials, ordered a tripod for myself and taught myself how to edit, add music, and graphics to my videos.
In hindsight, I feel that both these hobbies were lifesavers for me. They kept my mind and body busy and helped me tide over feelings of anxiety and loneliness, and I survived the COVID-19 lockdown, finally returning to India in early 2021 – much against my family’s wishes – as I couldn’t bear the loneliness any longer.
I am happy to be back in good old Kodaikanal, where I continue to cook my food, and share my recipes on my YouTube Channel Dr Maheswari Ravi. I wish to share the joys and benefits of eating healthy, nutritious food that is good for everyone, but especially those with diabetic conditions, who are mindful of their sugar consumption. I like to use millets, pulses, leafy vegetables, and gourds, along with protein-rich foods, such as paneer, eggs, and meat. I believe that food need not be oily or spicy in order to be tasty and, most importantly, I believe that a well-balanced diet does wonders for one’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Here are three of my favourite recipes for comfort food, prepared frequently during the lockdown.
Mixed Millet Dosa
- Barnyard millet, aka kudravali – 1/2 cup
- Little millet, aka samai – 1/2 cup
- Kodo millet, aka varagu – 1/2 cup
- Whole urad dal – 1/2 cup
1. Soak millets in plenty of water for 8 to 10 hours, or overnight. Barnyard and little millet can be soaked together; kodo millet to be soaked separately.
2. Soak 1/2 cup of urad dal for two hours. This can be done the next morning.
3. First, grind urad dal until it is a fine, fluffy consistency. Wet-grinder is best, but chutney jar of the mixer-grinder also works. Test by adding a spoon of batter to a cup of water: if it floats, your batter is ready; if not, it needs to be ground for a little while longer. Transfer the batter to a large vessel, and set aside.
4. Next, grind the millets in a wet grinder or mixer-grinder until it attains a smooth consistency. (If you are using a mixer-grinder, use the wet-jar to grind the millets.) Add it to the urad dal batter.
5. Add salt to taste and mix well. The vessel should be twice the volume of the batter, as the batter will rise when fermented.
6. Cover the vessel and let the batter ferment in a warm place for 8 to 10hrs. Fermentation time varies with the weather if you were making this batter in the plains, it would take only 4 to 6 hrs to rise.
7. The batter is ready when it has risen to nearly double the volume. You can make dosas immediately, or store in the refrigerator for later use. This will arrest further fermentation.
8. If the batter thickens, mix just enough water to give it a pouring consistency. Proceed to make dosas, ideally using a cast-iron tawa.
9. Pour one ladle of the batter on the tawa, and spread in a circular motion to make a thin layer. If the tawa has been heated properly, and the batter has fermented to the desired extent, the dosa will take on a lacy texture. Add a teaspoon of oil, around the edges and centre, and cook with a lid on. Millets take a little longer to cook, because of their fibre content.
10. After 2-3 mins, the dosa should be a golden-brown colour. Lift the dosa off the tawa, fold, and serve with chutney, idli podi, or sambar.
Coriander and Mint Thokku
Coriander and mint are rich in antioxidants, aid digestion, and have a cooling, anxiety-relieving effect on the body. This flavourful thokku can be refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to two weeks. In Kodaikanal, it can be safely kept at room temperature for 3 to 4 days. Pairs very well with millet dosas.
Thokku changes colour to a darker green when it is cooked
- Coriander – 2 cups, cleaned and chopped, including tender stems
- Mint – 2 cups, cleaned and chopped, including tender stems
- Dry red chillies – 3 to 4 (more if you want the chutney hot and spicy)
- Tamarind – lime-sized ball, soaked in ½ cup water.
- Salt to taste
- Sesame oil – ½ cup
- Mustard seeds – 1 tsp
- Methi seeds – ½ tsp
- Extract the pulp from the tamarind, discard seeds.
- In a mixer-grinder, blend the coriander and the mint leaves together with red chillies, tamarind pulp, and a teaspoon of salt. Use the chutney jar of the mixer -grinder. Avoid adding extra water, unless necessary.
- Heat half the sesame oil, preferably in a cast-iron kadai. The vessel should be large enough to hold the wet paste.
- Temper the mustard seeds, and when they splutter, add the methi seeds.
- Add the ground coriander and the mint, and cook on medium heat until the paste thickens. Do not cover with a lid.
- As the water dries up, the colour of will change, and the oil will begin to separate from the paste. Add the other half of sesame the oil at this stage, and continue to cook for another ten minutes. The longer it cooks and dehydrates, the longer it’s shelf life.
- It is now time to take the thokku off the fire. Allow the mixture to cool, and serve with millet dosa. This chutney can also be had with roti, idli, and hot rice and ghee.
Urad dal dumplings, soaked in sweetened milk
Urad dal is good for diabetics as it helps to control blood sugar. It also improves heart and kidney functions, and supports the nervous system. Most of us consume some quantities of urad dal in the form of idli, dosa, and vadai, but there are many more applications for this wonderful ingredient.
I learnt this from my paternal grandmother, who would prepare this dish as an evening snack on fasting days, to break her fast. The dumplings are shaped like figs (athikka in Tamil), which is what gives the dish its name.
- Whole urad dhal, skinless – ½ cup (about 100gm) soaked in water for 2 hours
- Milk – ½ litre
- Sugar – 3-4 tbsp (sugar supplement such as stevia can also be used)
- Oil – for deep-frying
- Seasoning: saffron, cardamom, or vanilla essence
- Bring the milk to boil, and then simmer uncovered until it starts to thicken. Insert a spoon into the milk: If the liquid sticks to the spoon when it is removed, the milk has reduced enough.
- At this point, add 3 tbsp sugar, and any one of the flavourings. Set aside.
- Grind the soaked urad dal in a wet-grinder or mixer (chutney attachment), adding water little by little (only if necessary), until it attains a soft and fluffy consistency. The final batter must be thick, of dropping consistency.
- Meanwhile, start heating the oil as the dumplings should be made as soon as the batter is ready. Keep the flame on medium heat.
- In another vessel, heat 1 litre of water ready, with 1 tsp salt, and 1 tbsp sugar. Keep the water hot and ready on standby.
- Drop a bit of the dough into oil through the tip of the fingers, as in the photo. It should take the shape of a fig, gradually turn brown in colour, and float near the surface of the oil.
Note: The oil should not be smoking. If it is over heated, the outer part of the dumpling will brown quickly, but the inside will remain uncooked.
Once the dumpling is fried, drop them in the bowl with hot water. This process drains most of the oil, and makes the dumplings soft to eat.
Taste to confirm that it is cooked, and resume making more dumplings. Multiple can be fried at the same time, but ensure the pan is not overcrowded as the dumplings will not brown.
Allow the dumplings to rest in water for 5 min, then transfer them into the warm, sweetened milk using a large, slotted spoon.
Athikka paniyaram can be served as an evening snack, or as a dessert after meal. On a warm day, it can be chilled before serving.