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The Art of the Chapati

Usually food classes here on the Island tend to be typically American recipes due to the bounty of farm fresh produce that is grown and raised here. There is a large Brazilian population with a couple of great markets, but that’s about as far as variety goes, especially in the winter when most of the restaurants are closed. So when the Vineyard Haven Library hosted an Indian cooking demonstration it was a full house. Uma Datta made a repeat appearance with her older daugher Shivi assisting her.

Chapatis brushed with ghee
Chapatis brushed with ghee
Elizabeth Norcross
Uma Datta
Elizabeth Norcross

For anyone with aspirations of becoming a vegetarian or vegan this is the place to be. The Island is a veritable paradise of garden fresh produce in the summer with workshops on canning and preserving to help extend through the winter.

They brought an array of commonly used spices, herbs and legumes with enough Baingan ka Bharta (eggplant curry); Safed Chole (white chickpea curry); Dal Makhani (black chickpea paste) and Basmati rice to feed everyone. The secret to Basmati rice, we're told, is to use extra water when cooking, then drain and rinse in cold water when it’s done. It washes the starch off, hence, “no guilt” rice.

It wasn’t until Uma started making chapatis that things really took off. We were downstairs in the library’s kitchen and like a magician she put a bit of whole wheat flour and a few drops of water into a small plastic container and working it quickly with her fingertips pulled out a perfectly smooth round ball. Her hands flew as she stretched the dough and rolled it out. Using her hot tava (flat Indian griddle) she quickly browned each side for about a minute, then wiped it with ghee. All around the kitchen people were taking pictures and videos while others hastily took notes.

Chapatis, an unleavened flatbread, are served every day, if not for every meal, in Indian households. A piece of chapati is torn off and used to pick up meat and vegetables or dipped into sauces like cucumber raita, chutney or paneer (fresh Indian cheese made from yogurt or milk).

There really isn’t a precise recipe for the chapati. It’s whole wheat flour with enough water to form a ball. Some people use a few drops of oil, but Uma doesn’t use oil or salt. It’s worked through the fingers until a smooth ball is formed and can be seamlessly rolled out.

In the midst of everything on the kitchen table sat a big jar with brown balls in a syrupy liquid. It looked unfamiliar but somehow inviting. No one seemed curious. Their loss! It was Gulab Jamun, an extraordinary sweet, popular at weddings, holidays and festivals, reminiscent of baklava in flavor but without the crunch. They were gobbled up instantly once discovered. There were so many tantalizing tastes and textures, and so satisfying.

Uma gave a private lesson a few days later in her own kitchen with an array of piquant, sweet and spicy recipes. The bright color of the Gajar Ka Halwa was a vision; a delicacy of grated carrots cooked in whole milk for hours with ghee and pistachios (or cashews, almonds) added, then sprinkled with cardamon powder.This is a sweet usually made for weddings or Dilwali. Easy to make and delicious. Served in another bowl along side it was a sweet tamarind orange dipping sauce for Pakoras or stuffed parathas.

It was while eating Pakoras – the Indian equivalent of french fries - that I had a culinary epiphany: an affirmation that I'm finally over meat. Pakoras are vegetables or paneer, usually onion with another vegetable, deep fried in oil. They are light, crispy, delicious, and just plain fun to eat. The batter is made from besan, ground black chickpea flour, a staple in Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisine. It can also be used as a facial exfoliant or an egg-replacer in vegan cooking.

This time Uma's chapati demonstration was mesmerizing – partly because she was in her own kitchen and partly because she made this unleavened bread billow over the high heat. It was truly amazing. There is a YouTube video here showing exactly how she does it. Stuffed Paratha’s are a variation of the chapati placing minced vegetables and spices in the center of a chapati and placing another thin chapati on top and rolling it out. Cook the same way. Paratha literally means “layers of flour”. It can be spread with ghee or chutney, or dipped in tea, it’s very versatile and very good.

Raised an Orthodox Hindu, neither meat nor alcohol have ever passed Uma's lips. Nor has she ever smoked. She credits her father for her resolve and discipline telling he has had the same routine for forty years. Just this past winter she traveled with her parents to the Himalayas via plane, taxi and helicopter for prayer and meditation in two temples. When a friend or relative has a birthday or anniversary her father goes to a grocery store, fills up a cart and donates it to a local food pantry or leper colony in the name of the person. His duty in life, he says, is to help others … or …Karma.

When Indian holidays are celebrated, like Lohri or Diwali, the five-day Festival of Lights, Uma and her family celebrate with her husband’s brothers and their families, who live on either side of them, and her mother-in-law, who as Indian custom dictates, lives with her family (mother-in-laws live with sons). They worship together in one another’s homes sharing a plethora of holiday feast foods. Her own parents and siblings are in Canada and India, but she speaks to them regularly in their native Hindi and catches up with them in the off-season.

Renovations are starting on Uma's new kitchen, and after it’s done we can all learn how to turn our gardens into vegetable curries, cucumber raitas and baingan bharta, when she begins her cooking classes.

Asked how she managed to be so disciplined living in the Western world Uma answered “I live the God Way.”

Uma Datta can teach us much about food and the quality of life.

Uma Datta 508.696.1826 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 508.696.1826 end_of_the_skype_highlighting

Vineyard Haven Library 508.696.4211 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 508.696.4211 end_of_the_skype_highlighting


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