Village folk in India who live in the countryside do not have the need to have a picnic. During the busy harvest and sowing seasons, farmers bring their meals to the fields out of necessity. Fresh food, such as the first corn of the season, is included in their lunch before it even gets to the town. Among my fondest memories of the monsoon season in my village is the sight of an open fire in the cornfields around which a group of farmers would gather roasting the freshly picked corn. The misty air, the smoke, and the smell of the cooking corn were perfectly blended. After the corn was cooked, the lightly charred ears were rubbed with lemon juice, salt, and cayenne. Apart from these impromptu food samplings, country folk do not have time to organize picnics.
In contrast, city folk grab every chance they get to go on a picnic. It can be a company event, a sunny Sunday, or a national holiday. They try to get away from the crowded streets, to find a park, a reservoir or even to a nearby farm to get together with friends and have a picnic. Lavish Indian picnics can take a couple of days of cooking. But here is a manageable sample Indian picnic menu. You can revise the menu by adding complementary items or taking short cuts, such as by replacing theplas with spinach tortillas—now available in many flavors in fancy food markets.
Thepla (green chapaties), Matar Gobhi (cauliflower with peas), Raita (yogurt salad with cucumbers), Papadams (crispy lentil wafers), Masala Chai, fresh fruits: mangos, papaya, or melon
Flat bread with leafy greens
Theplas are a good bread choice for picnics because they can be served hot or cold. The leafy dough content keeps them moist for a long time. You can vary the amount (and the type) of flour as well as the greens you choose in thepla dough.
1 cup cooked and cooled rice (left over rice is perfect)
1 cup whole wheat or white flour, or rye or buckwheat flour (for wheat-less version)
1 cup finely chopped spicy leafy greens such as mustard greens, reddish leaves or watercress after discarding stems
½ teaspoon salt
2 to 3 cloves of garlic minced
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
¼ to ½ cup water
few tablespoons flour for dusting the rolling surface
few tablespoons of oil for pan frying thepla
First make the dough. If you are using a food processor, place all the ingredients from the above list except for the last three in a jar of the processor. Gently blend for a couple of minutes. Then, add the water, a tablespoon at a time till the dough ball starts to form. Add a little flour to the mixture to prevent sticking. When the ingredients form a ball, take out and place on a surface where you will roll the theplas. If you do not have a food processor, place all ingredients from the above list except the last three into a mixing bowl. Then add water, a little at a time, and knead the mixture into a play dough like consistency–not too sticky but soft enough to roll.
For rolling the thepla, first divide the dough into eight pieces and form compact little balls by pressing them between your palms. Set them aside, you will be rolling them out one at a time. Now dust the rolling surface and roll out the dough pieces into five-inch circles. Set the rolled out circles on a dry surface, being careful that they do not touch or stick to each other.
To fry the theplas, keep few spoonfuls of oil near the stove. Heat a heavy bottomed griddle (such as iron) on high heat and place one thepla onto it. Cook for a minute and turn on the other side. Cook the second side for a minute and turn again. Then turn the heat down to medium. Now, spread a teaspoon of oil evenly on its surface, turn the thepla and spread a teaspoon of oil on that side. Turning a few times, cook the thepla two more minutes so that both sides have dark speckles. Cook the rest of the theplas in same manner and stack them on a plate. Place theplas in tin or keep them wrapped in a cloth before putting them into a picnic basket.
Yogurt Salad with Cucumbers
2 cups unflavored and unsweetened yogurt
1 cup water
1 large or three pickling cucumbers, peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon mustard powder or ½ teaspoon Dijon (wet) mustard
¼ teaspoon cumin powder
2 teaspoons minced cilantro leaves, reserving a few sprigs for garnish
pinch of cayenne powder
In a wide bowl, beat the yogurt with water and mix in all the ingredients except the cucumbers, and set it aside. Cut most of the peeled cucumbers into cubes reserving few thin slices for décor. Add the cucumber cubes into yogurt mixture and correct seasoning.
Transfer to a serving bowl and decorate with cucumber slices, sprigs of cilantro and pinches of cayenne pepper. Keep chilled until ready to pack into the picnic basket.
Cauliflower with Peas
2 tablespoons oil
¼ teaspoon each mustard seeds and cumin seeds
1 medium head of cauliflower (about a pound), stems removed, and cut into flowerets
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
½ teaspoon each turmeric and coriander powder
½ cup chopped tomatoes
¼ cup water
juice of 1 lemon or lime
Salt and cayenne powder to taste
Few teaspoons chopped cilantro
Heat the oil in a frying pan and add mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the cumin seeds, cauliflower buds and sauté for a few minutes. Add the turmeric, coriander, peas and stir-fry again for two minutes or until all ingredients are well mixed. Then add the chopped tomatoes and cook for few more minutes. Add the water, cover and cook for about 7 to l0 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. Add the salt, cayenne, lemon juice and cilantro. Pack Matar Gobhi in a jar or bowl with a lid before packing in the picnic basket.
Spicy Indian Tea
4 cups water
2 cups milk
A few pinches of packaged chai masala or few pinches each ground cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and ginger.
3 to 4 heaping teaspoon good quality black, India or Sri Lanka Tea
Sugar to taste
Boil milk and water in a pot with spices. When the mixture comes frothing to the surface, add tea-leaves and turn off the heat. Cover and steep the chai for full five minutes. Strain and add desired amount of sweetener. Transfer the chai in a thermos before placing in the picnic basket.
Crispy Indian Wafers
1 packaged plain or flavored papadams (available at Indian grocery stores)
Oil for frying
There are several ways to prepare dry packaged papadams in minutes. Deep fried papadams are crispy and suited for picnics.
Heat a cup of oil in a wok or a pan and deep fry the papadam, one at a time, only for few seconds on each side, using a tong to turn and remove from oil.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff is a co-owner and co-manager of Other Avenues, a health food co-op and teaches Vegetarian Indian Cuisine in San Francisco. She is the author of a vegetarian cookbook,
Flavors of India, which is now in its sixth printing.