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Friday, March 5, 2010

Cooking, Cow Dung and the Simple Life

 In October 2009 I had the exciting opportunity to experience cooking outside in the traditional Indian village style here in Mayapur, West Bengal. Yes that’s right, outside. . . no fancy stove, no electric, no gas. . but a hole in the ground finished with a simple earthen structure to place the pot upon.  And the pot was a hand made red clay bowl with no handles. Dried cow dung patties, dry sticks, and reeds were the fuel! With no kitchen counter or running water at hand, squatting and working on the bare earth with a bowl of water for washing, and all the utensils, veggies, spices etc., in newspaper bags and baskets placed nearby was the modus operandi.  It was quite the adventure and it reminded me of my childhood days of playing house and cooking mud pies on an open fire in the garden.

It was a juggling act to keep the fire going with the right amount of flame, to stir the pot, and see what I was doing with all the smoke making my eyes stream tears.  My eyes hurt for 2 days afterward, but if I was asked to do it again Id say yes! Does it sound like fun?  Not sure, but  I thoroughly enjoyed myself and together with my mum and sisters we managed to make a two subji's and two sweet preparations. I was quite proud of us and our teamwork! Mind you, I'm not sure if Id want to do it every day, especially not in bad weather. Its really an art to cook like this and still in many of the Bengali villages the young girls of the house are trained in the art, beginning with the essential the task of tending the fire. With a life like that you can really say in its truest sense that the kitchen, or the hearth, is the heart of the home. The home in a typical Indian village was and still is in many places a simple earthen/mud/bamboo hut which just blends in with nature very pleasantly. 

Recently I walked through the woods along the Jalangi river here in Mayapur, Bengal and explored some of the villages along the way. Observing the rustic village life it struck me how living in a hut is really about living outdoors most of the time. Knowing how to work with the raw elements is very much part of life. The pace of life is much slower, peaceful and soothing to the soul compared to the frenzy of a city. The simplicity of such a life pulled at my heart somehow.  Maybe I was an Indian villager in my last life! I'm impressed how resourceful Indian people are and how most of what is used is what is found in the surrounding environment. In these days of search for viable environmentally friendly alternatives I would say that the unsophisticated Indian village life has answers.

Though it most of us would be hard pressed to really take up such a lifestyle, aspects of it could be implemented into our lives. I believe that if we lived in harmony with the principles of natures interdependent relationships then we could solve many of today's man-made environmental disasters. Sadly in a world caught in the widening grasp of corporate rule, such simple life and high thinking is not much valued and village life is on the decline. But maybe we should pause and take time to consider what progress is. With what goal and to what kind of  future are we progressing? Will it bring happiness to the next generation? Village life may be simple but it fulfills mans basic requirements.As Srila Prabhupada said, a man may have much wealth but in the end of the day his stomach is only so big and he cannot eat more than a few chapati's.

 In the Indian village, traditionally even the ashes from the fire
(as well as earth / clay / Ganges mud), are used to clean the pots,
to wash clothes and are very good for the skin . . .  does that
sound weird to us who are used to foaming scented soaps and
detergents? You bet, but it works wonders!  And cooking in a clay
pot  gives a unique flavor to the food . I think its great because the
pot is disposable and simply merges back into the earth in time.
How green is that?!

 And who in the Western world would ever  think
of using dried cow dung as fuel? It burns excellently.
I know that it is said that the methan gas from cow
farms is detrimental to the environment but I think that
has more to do with the modern agricultural methods
than with cow dung itself. In a more natural village style
goshalla (name of the place of were cows are kept),
were the dung is used up quickly Id say it’s a different
story.  Believe it or not, cow dung is probably the only
dung in the world which is 'clean' in that it has antiseptic
and medicinal properties and it is used for many
purposes in an Indian village. Of course that’s dung
from cows who are not fed with growth
hormones and slaughterhouse waste and what-not
which create a cycle of destruction in nature's food
chain.  So how else is cow dung used in the villages?
Keep an open mind. . . :-)

Believe it or not, the floors and even walls of the mud huts that
families inhabit are regularly smeared with a thin layer of fresh cow
dung….I know, I can hear you groan…but it loses its extreme
pungent smell when it dries. It keeps away insects and is cooling
in the summer heat and warming in the winters chill.  Apparently on
a subtle level it even keeps away the unwanted the elements who
float around in white bed sheets in the night and I don’t mean a
Hare Krishna in white robes!  It would keep me away too I hear you
say…ha ha-ha! No seriously, it actually creates a very pleasing feel in
the home for some reason.  The smoke of the dried cow dung patties is
bitter and acts as a mosquito repellent, and it gives the food cooked
upon it additional health benefits.  Isn't that amazing?!  Now that you
know some of the glories of cow dung, never mind cows milk or urine,
maybe you have a better idea as to why the cow is traditionally
honored like a sacred mother in India.

 I could say more, but I think its time to share the fruit of my labors over the outdoor stove that day. So without further ado, here are the recipes of the Alu Subji and laddu's. They probably wont taste the same cooked on a gas or electric fire, but I'm sure they will still be good. Or do you fancy making a camp fire and cooking a meal outdoors in the woods somewhere?!  ;-b

Alu Subji  (Alu = Potato)

4 potato's washed, peeled and cubed
1 red bell pepper washed, de-seeded and sliced into strips
3-4  tomato's washed and chopped (remove green part where the stem was - its toxic)
1 handful of roasted peanuts roughly crushed
1 handful fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves washed, chopped
1/2 tsp black pepper freshly and coarsely ground
2  tbsp fresh ginger root grated fine
1 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp asafetida
1 tbsp rock salt (or to taste)
Water as needed
3  - 4 tbsp ghee or oil or as needed
1/4 tsp brown sugar
Freshly squeezed lime juice to taste

Heat the ghee/oil in a thick bottomed pot or heavy wok
(or a clay pot suitable for cooking!!)When hot enough,
but not smoking, drop in the grated ginger, stir-fry a few seconds.
Then add in the powdered spices then the crushed black pepper,
and a few seconds later the tomato's and bell peppers. Stir-fry
for about 3 min on medium heat and add the potato's.

Stir-fry a few minutes, add a little water and cover. Stir
occasionally and add water as needed. Add peanuts towards
the end of cooking. When potato's are tender they are done.
The texture should be slightly moist but it’s supposed to be a dry
subji, so no water should be visible at this point. Add salt, sugar
chopped coriander leaves, and lime juice and mix. Serve hot
garnished with lime wedges.

Besan Laddu (chickpea flour sweet)

1 cup sifted chickpea flour(Besan)
1/2 cup butter or a vegan alternative
1/2 - 1 cup sifted powdered sugar (to taste)
A pinch of cardamom powder (or another flavor e.g. vanilla essence)

Otional - chopped nuts, raisons etc.
Buttered tray

Melt butter over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pan.
Add in chickpea flour and roast stirring constantly over
medium low heat.  If it seems too dry add some more butter.
The besan should be saturated with butter. Be careful as it
burns easily.

It is ready when the color changes from yellow to a light tan brown
and has a pleasant nutty aroma.

Turn off heat and mix in the cardamom powder. Scrape onto a
buttered tray, flatten it out and allow to cool. Either cut it into
squares or otherwise form into balls while its still warm. You
may roll the balls in crushed nuts or coconut if you like.
Serve cold.


  1. Hey Gopi! I just started a blog and posted a short piece about cooking and eating in India. Sraddha pointed me in the direction of your post and I added a link to it in mine. (
    - Nandanandana

  2. Oh thats cool Nanda! Im honored! I'll be checking out your blog too. :-)