Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reading Railroad

During a ten hour train ride from Ahmedabad to Udaipur I was able to dig into some excellent Indian literature. Here are a few of the books that I am juggling between Kindle and paperback:

Amitov Gosh: The Hungry Tide (audiobook)- a novel set in Sunderbans area south of Kolkatta, uber articulate, good for 10hr train rides through sparse scrubland.

Arundhati Roy: Listening to Grass Hoppers- New Delhi novelist’s non-fiction essays on Democracy, Progress, and Nationalism, again uber articulate, depressing but fills you with righteous indignation.

Ramachandra Guha: Makers of Modern India- historian provides intro to selected writings of influential Indian politicians and philosophers, Gandhi and beyond. It’s shear size makes me grateful that I am not trekking at the moment.

Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom – Indian Nobel laureate in economics argues that freedom is both the end and means of development. The articulateness in these books is stupefying, and this is no exception. To balance this out, I have been switching back and forth between these titles, and two equally substantive, if not as expressively eloquent, textbooks on microbial ecology (intro to theory and lab procedures).


Anand is a smallish town (pop 200,000) in southern Gujurat which just so happens to be the center of the Indian Dairying Universe. In 1947 Dr. Kurien started the AMUL dairying cooperative in Anand, and through his influence, this model swept the country in the “white revolution”. Now, AMUL is one of the worlds largest dairy cooperatives, processing over 500,000 liters of milk per day. On a recent visit to Anand, I got to visit the AMUL plant along with the Institute of Rural Management, and the Microbiology Department at the Anand Agricultural University. At AAU, I the good fortune of meeting Dr. J. B. Prajapati, coordinator of the Swedish South Asian Network for Fermented Foods (SASNET), and head of the lab at (get ready, take a breath) ICAR Niche Area of Excellence Functional Fermented Dairy Products with Synbiotics, Department of Dairy Microbiology, SMC College of Dairy Science, Anand Agricultural University (or…ICARNAEFFDPS,DDMSMCCDSAAU). It was awesome…

Isolating Cultures

To begin with, two of Dr. Prajapati’s graduate students showed me around the lab. In one room: the CO2 chamber where they cultured anaerobic strains of probiotic lactobacilli bacteria. In the next room, the High Performance Liquid Chromotography apparatus used to analyze the metabolites produced by those cultures. Imagine a weirder and much geekier “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Max and the Microbe Mill?) except that the stuff in the test tubes won’t turn you blue, just improve your digestive health and possibly boost your immune system. I couldn’t believe it-there were actually people who were more excited about the science of fermentation and probiotics than I was. When my guide showed me his freeze drying set up for packaging commercially available probiotic bacterial strains my heart skipped a beat, and when a student explained how she was doing her thesis on a probiotic whey drink with a mix of bacteria and yeast cultures I had to be resuscitated.

Me and Dr. Pajapati

After lunch in the mess hall, and the full tour of the Ag college, I got to sit down with Dr. Prajapati for a brief history of SASNET and a general survey of fermented foods in India. SASNET is a network of researchers who meet biannually to promote the study of fermentation and its connection to human wellbeing. From what I can tell, they have their work cut out for them. The list of fermented foods that have originated in the subcontinent, or have successfully transplanted here is stunning; Handwo, Khaman, Dahi, Dokla, Dosa, Idli, Jalebee, Kulcha, Bhaturar, Warrie, misti-dahi chaas, uttapam, bhallae, vadai, chaang etc… and this is not including the hundreds of regional variations, or the over 10,000 different kinds of ferments that Dr. Jyoti Tamang has catalogued across the Himalayas. Which is pretty exciting, considering my plans traverse this geography from Rajasthan to Kerala, and K
olkata to Laddakh.


Finally, Dr. Prajapati had to say goodbye. But, to top it all off, I got to hop on the back of a motorcycle and visit the market for some tasty Khaman (fermented gram flour, fried with spices, sprinkled with cilantro)-a specialty of Anand. Then it was back on the bus to Ahmedabad, to catch a train to Udaipur early the next morning. Which is where the story will pick up next time.

Dosa dough spinner

P.S. I wish I could recall the names of the two graduate students who graciously served as my guides and interpreters. They were fantastic and I can’t thank them enough, though unfortunately anonomously.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interlude... Fermentation Fugue

I arrived in Ahmedabad almost two weeks ago. One of the fastest growing cities in the world, this sprawling metropolis of 4.5 million is the largest population center in the state of Gujurat-a territory in West India with a per capita GDP more than twice that of India as a whole, and with more people than California, Washington, and Oregon combined. In other words, it is big, and loud, and busy, and did I say loud?

Getting to know the city can be tough. To explain why, I need to cite a well-known neuroscience experiment referred to sometimes as the “kitty gondola study”. In this study, researchers manipulated the ability of kittens to explore their environment and found that the ability to process visual information was contingent upon the kitten’s agency. In other words, if a cat is unable to explore it's environment through its own volition, the visual cortex develops abnormally. Even if the freedom-deprived cats are put in a sling coordinated to mimic a free partner's movements, those ‘gondola kitties’ are unable to develop the fully functional visual cortex’s necessary for spatial reasoning. Analogously, I find it impossible for me to know a city, to perceive its atomic units and their logic, until I have navigated it under my own direction. This makes Ahmedabad a bewildering place for me. The city is nearly impossible to walk through. Perched in the back of a rickshaw like a human version of the “gondola kitten”, my mental map of the city undergoes daily permutations something like an urban Rubics cube.

So, for the last few days I have ditched the rickshaw as much as possible and taken to the crowded streets by sandal. Most walks have been unplanned and haphazard, but this morning I was able to participate in a guided heritage walk through the old walled part of the city. Ahmedabad is divided in two by the Sabarmati River. On the east bank lies the old city ca. 1400, a warren of interconnected neighborhoods known as Pols (ie: house). With ancient terraces (girded in mythical elephant-dragon-lion figures hand-carved from Burmese teak) overhanging narrow alleys, the old city is markedly different from where I spend most of my time here- the bustling broad-laned sprawl to the west of the Sabarmati. However, there is an underlying rhythm to life that unifies these disparate arrangements of space, and it has a sound track.

For me, space is intricately linked to pace, and I am beginning to orient myself to both by way of sound. Ahmedabad starts it’s day like an old car, increasing noise with motion. Put. Put. PUT!. With the highest density of two-wheeled transportation in south Asia, the symphony of horns begins at six, builds till 10, and crescendo’s until after midnight. For a few moments in the evening, when the sun goes down, the speed of the city downshifts audibly. Roadside temples open up, people crowd around blocking traffic, and the music(?) begins- drums, gongs, symbols, bells- so loud it hurts. Then it is back to random firework explosions, cows mooing, and the constant undertone of a million differently tuned rickshaw horns. In a funny way, my spatial perception of the city- it’s distances and volumes- grows and shrinks in coordination with the landscape’s musical score.

Now I measure the distance to Gandhi’s ashram on the Sabarmati by tamber and tempo. At ten in the morning, it is ten minutes of soft rickshaw rumble. By mid-day, it is a twenty minute free jazz solo by a Million Mediocre Miles Davis Mimics (car horns), and at sunset the full band has taken over, but the length of the song depends on how many people are getting married along the way (nightly wedding processions gleefully take over entire roads, with the groom riding on horseback to his brides home, accompanied by a marching band and firework tossing mobs).

At Gandhi's house

In the unification of space, time, and noise, all of this is but a prelude to the real show (as far as I am concerned). Setting the stage for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. This post is long enough as it is, so I will leave the gustatory highlights of my experience thus far until next time. But, as a preview I can tell you that the Thali has rocked my world, and that fermented foods of mention include Dosa’s, Idli’s, and Dahi. For now though, I can tell, by picking up on the intro to a tune I have titled “Slight Lull in Mobile Saxophone Burping”, that I have to go to lunch.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fufu...Sans Fingers

I am not sure if Fufu is fermented, I have heard that it is, but I had a hard time identifying the point at which it was left to ferment. However, it is an essential part of Ghanaian cuisine, and it was so much fun to make, I thought I would include it anyway. As the title suggests, I did not leave any of my fingers in the Fufu, but it was close. Here’s how it works. Cassava and plantain are peeled, chopped, boiled and placed into a mortar. All well and good. Now here is the important step, take a six foot wooden pestle and beat the hell out of the dough until it is a delicious mucusy dumpling. The skill comes from the person sitting close to the mortar, whose job it is to fold the just pounded dough so that the pestle can land in the center, making a pocket for the next fold. Rinse, and repeat at as fast a pace as humanly possible. During an awesome five-hour cooking course, the owner and chef at the Nice N’ Rich chop bar scolded me as I lightly dabbed at the dough “Harder. Harder. Harder, come on damnit, be a man.” Fed up, she demonstrated how it should be done, while I flipped the dough and tried to cross myself at the same time.By the time the fufu is ready to eat, you are drenched in sweat, and you love every ounce of starchy carbohydrate that is packed into that little ball.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

When the bees come, we use DDT...how do you like your sample?

With great thanks to my friend, guide and interpreter, Jackson (on right in photo), here is a trip to a palm wine distillery up in the hills behind Cape Three Points, by the numbers. Two: workers present. Two hundred: palm trees to cut down. Roughly three: months for the entire operation before everything is loaded up and moved to a new location. Four: how many days the sap ferments in large blue barrels before being distilled. Twice: distilled, like whiskey. Fifty: the gallons in each unit of sale. Ten: roughly the number of gallons distilled per day? Eight: the number of ounces it seemed like I was given to taste of the raw sap. Zero: the number of bees in that sample…

I Never Met a Ferment I Didn't Like...Except

…Kenkey. Which is a shame, because on paper this little cornball is so cool. Ghanaians make several types of this indigenous ferment depending on geography and ethnicity of the producer, each differing slightly in substrate and fermentation time. Essentially, Kenkey is fermented maize dough, which is rolled into a fist sized dumpling, wrapped in banana leaves, steamed, and sold on every street corner from Accra to Takoradi. Eaten with fried fish and a spicy sauce, the starchy nugget has a distinctly artichoke-like aroma, and a firmer consistency than its phlemier cousins, fufu and Banku. So what makes Kenkey so cool? Well, first it is nutritionally dense. Richer in protein than other staples like cocoyam, cassava, or plantain, maize dough also provides the bulk of many Ghanaian’s Calorie intake in the form of carbohydrates. Like oatmeal, a breakfast of Kenkey will keep you going right through to late lunch or dinner. For low-income workers in Ghana, this is an economical way to start the day. The economics of Kenkey are also beneficial on the supply side. Maize is the most commonly produced cereal in Ghana, and most maize is consumed as Kenkey. Kenkey producers are predominantly women, working on a cottage industry scale, which means that sales of this dough-ball go directly to supporting a systematically disadvantaged demographic. Finally, the microbial ecology of Kenkey fermentation lends itself to my geeky tendencies. Starting out with a veritable jungle of filamentous fungi, yeasts, molds, and bacteria, a selective process occurs by which yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria come to dominate the mix, becoming integral to the development of acceptable organoleptic qualities (how it tastes).

Unfortunately, for me, Kenkey’s taste is exactly what makes it unappealing. Perhaps with time I could develop my pallet to appreciate the Terroir of Ghanaian Kenkey. After all, I didn’t always appreciate wine either. What we need is a Robert Parker of fermented maize dough…or a Kenkey with high ABV. I will be looking forward to both…

My source for the information on the nutrition, economics, and biochemistry of Kenkey is the wonderful chapter: Kenkey: An African Fermented Maize Product, by Mary Halm, Wisdom Kofi Amoa-Awua, and Mogens Jakobsen in The Handbook of Food and Beverage Fermentation Technology, CRC Press, 2004.