Sunday, March 20, 2011

Celebrating Purim and Nowruz with Americanized Falooda

Mixed faloods with rose syrup
This year saw the fortuitous almost coincidence of Purim (Jewish Mardi Gras cum Halloween) celebrating the deliverance of Jews from their enemy du jour (so what else is new) during the ancient Persian empire and the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which, although it has Zoroastrian roots, is, or was widely celebrated in Iran by Muslims, Christians and Jews as well as Zoroastrians.  Purim usually comes in late February or early March, while Nowruz is tied to the Vernal Equinox in later March so they rarely come out together.  However, this year is a Jewish leap year where we add not just an additional day, but an additional month, all the Jewish holidays are late (they are never on time) and Purim and Nowruz almost coincide. Interestingly, some historians argue that Purim is actually the Jewish Nowruz, and that the Book of Esther (clearly written as a diaspora novella rather than as "scripture") was written to explain why the Jews of ancient Persia were celebrating this particular holiday. 

This opens up endless gastronomic possibilities, so for Shabbat dinner last week, we marked the occasion with food that was mostly Persian, Parsi, and Irani. The Parsis are a Zoroastrian community that emigrated to India millennia ago to escape persecution, the Iranis one that left in the nineteenth century. It seemed particularly appropriate to  acknowledge the Persian roots of Purim with foods of communities that originated in Persia but fled to escape religious persecution.  (BTW, and speaking of escaping or ending religious persecution, you haven't lived until you have seen the St Petersburg Hillel Purim video.)

The main dish was a salmon baked with green coconut chutney, which we served with crusty Persian rice, Indian cauliflower and a dish of black-eyed peas with spinach, dill, curry leaves and dried lime, a very typical Persian spice that smells like an old cathedral. (This is a good thing.)  For dessert, we had falooda (also spelled faluda) using the recipe from Niloufer Ichaporia King's My Bombay Kitchen .   It is a milk shake with creamy milk, falooda sev (noodles softened and soaked in syrup), basil seeds, ice cream and rose syrup.  Amy and I had something similar once in a Pakistani sweet shop in Jackson Heights whose name we forget but which we remember as the Al-Qaeda Cafe, since it was dominated by a huge replica of some mosque or other and Amy and our friend Marilyn were the only women there who were not veiled.

Falooda is sort of a weird dessert, and I was probably the only one who liked it, at least with the original rose syrup.  But one of our guests last week was our friend Nancy, who is a maple syrup fanatic -- she and her husband Gary have even tapped maple sap from the trees near their house in the Adirondacks.  Just so you believe this, here is a picture which they sent me of how they do it:

a bucket on a tree with tap

a bucket of sap

We had some cans of maple syrup in the cabinet from our last trip to Montreal, so we tried it and it was far more popular with most of our guests than the rose syrup. And voila, American Falooda.  Try it both ways and see what you prefer.

The dish really defies recipes, and is nice made at the table with everyone mixing it to their own taste but here is how you make it.  It is sort of like making really weird sundaes.

Falooda, Irani and American style

Shake 2 tablespoons basil seed (sold in Indian groceries as takmuriya -- I have no idea if these are related to regular basil) in a sieve to remove any debris.  They are nondescript, small, hard black brown seeds. Soak them in between 1 and 2 cups of cold water for about 15 minutes.  They will swell and become gelatinous, squeaky and crunchy at the same time.   I prefer the lesser amount of water which I find preserves the crunch and squeak of the seeds and what little aroma there is. They can be a great conversation starter, as people discuss whether they look more like insect larvae, fish roe, or fish eyes.  (If you cannot find basil seeds, you can try to substitute chia seeds which are vaguely similar.) After they are soaked, this is what they look like:

Soaked basil seed.
 Soak a packages of falooda sev (falooda noodles, available in Indian and Pakistani groceries) in very hot water for about 5 minutes until soft.    I If you like them Drain, cut into shorter lengths and cover with a cooled simple syrup, equal parts sugar and water zapped in a microwave until it boils.  Both the noodles and the seeds can be made in advance and kept well covered in the fridge, but I find that the seeds absorb other odors, so make sure they are well-covered.

If you cannot find falooda sev, you can substitute cellophane noodles:  take a small package, soak in warm water about 1/2 hour. If you like them chewy, you can use them now.  If you like them slithery, boil them in water for no more than one mine, and drain and rinse immediately.  Cut into 1 or 2 inch lengths before using.  You will of course no longer be eating falooda, rather cellophanoodla, but it will still be fun.  (This of course depends on your definition of fun.)

When you are ready to serve, assemble each serving as follows:
  • Put a few noodles in a large wine glass.
  • Top with a large spoon of basil seeds, to preference. (I would say to taste but there really isn't any.  It is more about texture.)
  • Top with about 1/2 cup whole milk, half and half, or a combination of the two.
  • Pour the syrup carefully, and it will sink to the bottom as in the picture below.  It is hard to give exact quantities and depends largely on the sweetness of the syrup and your own taste.  We found that 1-2 tablespoons of the rose syrup that we had was good, but that closer to 3 tablespoons of maple was needed.  
  • Top with ice cream.  This is what they will look like if you have done it right:   

With maple syrup on left, rose syrup on right.
When you eat it you will mix it, and the rose syrup version turns an attractive or shocking pink, depending on your perspective.

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