Thursday, January 24, 2013

India’s Sublime Ajanta and Ellora Caves and Vegan Delights, Amti and Batata Vada

King Mahajanaka, announcing he will renounce worldly life, Ajanta Cave 1. 

I wanted to make ancient Indian Food, simple, right?  Nope.

Looking up “ancient Indian” got me into trouble because I discovered the Ajanta Cave and Allora Caves thanks to my curiosity about the provocative wall painting above.  Since the only book on historical Indian cooking I could find was $150 and had no preview I hit a search wall.  While I was spinning my gears, why not enjoy myself and explore these remarkable caves?  I am mad for caves and cave art starting with the Chauvet. Magic and aspirational art seem to have begun in caves.  Perhaps the creators of Ajanta were riffing on earlier art discovered there.  Caves were the original theaters with flickering torchlight providing dramatic lighting effects for the painting, carving and sculptures –– for entertainment and enlightenment.

While I was at it, the path to my vegan dishes opened before me because the Mahashrian area in Northern India (where the caves are found) is rich with Vegan food traditions –– with great dals and beautifully spiced potato dishes, ancient or not (no, potatoes are not indigenous –– although they came to India in the 16h century and spread like wildfire).  My Batata Vada was vegan and gluten-free and pretty easy to make!

The Ajanta Caves exist in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.  The 30-odd cave monuments date from 2nd century BCE during the Sātavāhana dynasty to 5th to 7th century CE ––they were abandoned to the jungle after the 480 AD fall of the Vakataka empire (although a Chinese pilgrim said the monastery was inhabited in the 7th Century) until British officer John Smith discovered them on a hunting jaunt in April 1819  (Wondermundo  has a great article on them if you want to learn more). Smith left graffiti on his find that is still visible.

Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves, Reclining Buddha, Marc Shandro photo

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist scultures, Diane Criswell photo

Ajanta Caves, Mural, Cave #10  Kunal Mukherjee photo

Ellora Caves. Kailashnath Temple (temple 16)

The Ellora Caves, built between the 5th and 10th centuries (begun during the Kalachuri  dynasty) are 62 miles away.  The Kailashnath Temple is the world’s largest monolithic structure,  carved from the top down.

Mt Kailash

The Kailasanath Temple (structure #16) recalls Mt Kailash, home of Lord Shiva.  It was created during the reign of Rastrakuta Krishna I and is considered one of the greatest achievements of ancient architecture as it sculpted out of a single rock.  These caves, unlike Ajanta, were never lost and were visited and commented upon throughout their history (Wondermundo has a great article on these caves too if you’d like to know more). I also found some amazing mid-19th century photographs of the place that I just love.

Kailashnath Temple (Johnson, 1860’s)   

Ellora caves. Kailashnath Temple (Cousens, 1870)

Kailashnath Temple (1928 photo)

Kailashnath Temple (Gill 1860)

Kailashnath Temple, (Scott, 1857)

Ellora caves, Mahabharata

Ellora Caves, elephant base

Both are absolute wonders and I am frankly appalled that I didn’t know a thing about either of them.  I was awestruck –– really truly overwhelmed by the majesty of the accomplishment.  How did they do it and why?

The rich history of Maharashtra goes back to the dawn of recorded time and their rulers nourished and supported great art and culture with their enormous resources.  These men thought big, very big –– pyramid big.

There were outside influences to their culture as well. The glorious emperor, Ashoka, visited Maharashtra (a very cool dude).  The Turks and Pashtuns (Afgans) came through and ruled (and defeated the Mongol hoards) before the British Empire took the helm.

Jeweled rock crystal, mango-shaped flask 16th century 

Now, have you gotten your breath back?  Hungry?

Indian cuisine is the result of thousands of years of India’s own culture and religion as well as those of trading partners and invaders.  Because of this it is incredibly varied ––  it is also enormous.  Just Maharashtra is the size of Mexico –– Mumbai is its largest city. 

Vegetarianism goes back in the culture thousands of years thanks to the precepts of Buddhism (Buddha lived somewhere between 600-400 BCE).

Ancient Indians ate grains, eggs, dairy products, honey, fruits vegetables and a little meat.  "Pumpkins and gourds were grown along the river banks, while lands that were frequently flooded were rated best for long pepper, grapes and sugarcane.  Vegetables and root crops thrived in the vicinity of wells, and leafy crops on low grounds like the moist bed of lakes." They grew crops in rows from at least 2800 BCE, often with grains in the wide furrows and herbs and spices like mustard plants grown at right angles between (widely spaced so the tall grains do not cast shadows on them) –– so said the Historical Dictionary of Indian Food that mentioned that same Chinese pilgrim who had seen signs of life in the caves.  Xuan Zang also wrote of the agriculture (AD 629 and 645) as he travelled all over the 118 kingdoms of India; "Among the products of the ground, rice and corn (barley?) are the most plentiful.  With respect to edible herbs and plants, we may name ginger and mustard, melons and pumpkins.... Onions and garlic are little known and few people eat them; if anyone uses them for food they are expelled beyond the walls of the town.   The most usual food is milk, butter, cream, soft sugar, sugar candy, the oil of the mustard seed, and all sorts of cakes made of grain are used as food.  Fish, mutton gazelle and deer they eat mostly fresh, sometimes salted; they are forbidden to eat the flesh of the ox, ass, elephant, horse, pig, dog fox, lion, monkey and all the hairy kind.  Those who eat them are universally reprobated; they live outside the walls and are seldom seen among men."

Maharashtrian cuisine, according to Wikipedia, is full of wheat, rice, jowar (sorghum), bajri (millet), lentils, vegetables and fruit much as it was in the middle ages –– with the addition of those New World potatoes and chilies .  Staple dishes for Maharashtra are based on bread and rice with bhaajis (vegetable dishes using masala and curries). 

I decided I would do a wonderful fried potato snack – batata vada with a dry chutney and eat them, dreaming of those amazing caves.  They are Vegan, gluten-free and you will have a very difficult time eating just a few –– they are a great appetizer.

Batata Vada (based on a recipe by Priya Vaidya)

8-10 medium sized potatoes (yukon gold is a good choice)
4-5 green chillies (vary depending on the hotness and your taste)

4-5 tsp lemon juice

1/2 cup fresh cilantro trimmed

salt to taste

1/2 t each of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, 
Pinch of asofeotida ( if you don't have it there is no substitute I can think of)
a few crumbled or chopped curry leaves (dry or fresh) or a pinch of curry powder 
1/2 t turmeric powder

1 cup besan (also called gram - it's chickpea flour) (you can use cornmeal for this)
1/2 c to 1 c water –– you want a thick batter
 (I used a bit more than a cup)

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp red chili powder

1-2 tsp ajwain seeds (if you don't have this there is no substitute –– I love them)

salt to taste

1-2 tsp hot oil

1-2 cups oil  for frying

Peel the potatoes and boil and then mash them. Make a paste of garlic, green chilles, fresh cilantro, salt and lemon juice. Add the paste to the potato mixture. Combine mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asofoetida, curry leaves and turmeric powder with the oil  and heat (you can add a bit more spice if you would like). Once the mustard seeds start popping,  add the mixture to the potatoes, and add salt to taste. Make round balls of the mixture with your hands.

For the batter, mix the besan and water (medium thick, not very lumpy neither too syrupy). Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, ajwain and hot oil and let it set for at least half an hour.

Coat the potato balls in the batter.

Heat oil. Once the oil is hot, fry the potato balls, I did about 4 at a time.

Serve with Dry Chutney and Mango Chutney

Dry Chutney 

1 cup dry coconut 
4-5 cloves of garlic

4-5 tsp red chilli powder (or red-chillies fried in oil)

4-5 tsp of toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup of groundnuts (optional - I used macadamia nuts instead)

salt to taste

Gently toast the coconut and sesame seeds and cool. Grind everything together. 

I served them with mango chutney drizzled on them and the Dry Chutney sprinkled on top but it's so good you should bring a little extra to the table for dunking.

battata vada cut in half

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13 comments: said...

A history lesson and a great dish!

Christo Gonzales said...

such a complete post - I need to learn from this

Sarah said...

I visited some wonderful caves when I was in Mumbai but there are so many and I didn't take notes (stressful in India sometimes) so don't know which they were. They are AMAZING! A dry chutney...that is new to me!

Diane said...

I am glad that you got side tracked into all this history, wow, such an interesting post.

I have never tried vegan food as such, this looks good, and yes I will give it a try, sounds like the perfect snack to me.
Have a good weekend Diane

Faith said...

Very aptly put when you asked your readers if we had gotten our breath back, Deana! Those caves are nothing short of breathtaking and awe-inspiring...I can only imagine how it would be to see them in person! A lovely post.

And I adore the idea of eating ancient food too...your dish is beautiful. I don't think I've ever had a dry chutney before and I am intrigued!

Joan Nova said...

You always educate and nurture with your posts. Nice dish for the challenge.

Sanjana said...

Absolutely breathtaking post and photograhy. I learnt so much today thanks to you!

Barbara said...

I didn't know a thing about the caves thank you, Deana. I don't do a lot of Indian cooking, but have a good friend who travels there at least once a year and she has me over for an Indian meal every now and then. Thoroughly enjoyable. She's there now, but I'll email her a link to this post. She'll love it.
Interesting dish...I've never thought about a dry chutney. And the entire recipe is easily doable.
Loved the post!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

As usual, you really throw yourself and your readers into the culture and history sounding the cuisine you choose to make! The caves and their statues and murals are amazing and beautiful. The potato balls must be a a wonderful blend of Indian flavors. Never having heard of some of the ingredients - I can only imagine!

Magic of Spice said...

Those caves are just amazing, as is your appetizer! This is my kind of snack for sure :)

angela@spinachtiger said...

Always a education and something delicious.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Deana, I always learn so much from your blog! Not just about history but also new dishes. I haven't come across a dry chutney before or this dish! :o

LaDivaCucina said...

Hi Deana, long time no see and now we are part of this group together! Cool! I love how your posts are always a lesson in history or art, truly anything wondrous and beautiful! I adore Indian food and thank you for taking the time to post the recipe, Well done, as always!