Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

This "Bachelor" Dish Made Me Feel at Home After Getting Lost in the Forest

by 
Manu Moudgil
March 23, 2022

The stream was in spate. So was my mind. The brick and wood house across the water seemed empty. My calls may well have drowned in the gushing stream. To cross or not to cross? “There must be another, safer way,” my mind said fearing I would be swept away by the monsoon torrent.

My driver had dropped me on a narrow road outside of Mumbai, half a mile away from the 65 acre private forest where I was to volunteer for 10 days. From there, a dirt track snaked through the woods.  

So there I was, standing in light rain, away from the safety of a roof and people. There was no sound of human activity. Only the rustling of trees, a few bird calls, and this stream raising a racket. The air was heavy with the smell of damp earth and grass. Should I leave my backpack on this side to gain more mobility? Wait here in the rain until someone shows up? Would there be wild animals around?

I jumped into the water, realizing in a moment that the fear was irrational. The force of the water was not as strong, and the backpack lent me enough heft. The cloudiness of my mind, however, had made me forget to remove shoes and roll up the denims. (The shoes ended up taking five days to dry.)

When I finally got to the house, no one was there, or so I presumed. I called out from the courtyard, went through the two rooms and out to the open kitchen at the rear. Two kittens coiled next to a still-warm clay stove were startled. I asked them about their humans. They meowed back, probably seeking food. I came back to the front courtyard. The stream looked calmer from this side. Indian tropical trees, including Madhuca, teak and Ain (Terminalia Eliptica) besides many creepers gave a glimpse of what the forest held.

No items found.

I sat down admiring the unique architecture of this jungle house. Wooden pillars, brick walls plastered with mud and an attic with hanging beds. An A-frame roof with its intricate pattern of bamboo and wooden beams canopied the house. The place had no electricity or modern conveniences. There was just a soak pit toilet. Kitchen waste was composted, and drinking water was collected from a well. One could take a bath at the well or jump into the rock pool. The kittens came chasing each other and climbed up the wooden ladder.

Fatigued, hungry and sleepless from the long trip, I dozed off only to be woken up by the call of Daulat, a local tribal man who managed the place and had gone to a nearby village for some work. I was supposed to coordinate with him before arriving but the mobile networks were patchy. We stoked the hearth and cooked pulav with vegetables from the forest farm. Having a hot meal that I was familiar with on a rainy day instantly made me feel at home in the jungle. The starchy rice was infused with smoky whiff from the firewood making up for lack of extra spices. Grateful.

Pulav is a rice dish popular in parts of South, Central and West Asia. The Turks introduced Indians to Pulav in the 13th century, and today it is famous among single men with minimal cooking skills because it's delicious yet easy to prepare, without any accompaniments required. When I moved out of my parent’s home for work, this was the first and the most frequent dish I experimented with. A lot of vegetables, including green peas, carrots, cauliflower, french beans, and capsicu, can be thrown in along with some dry spices and dry fruits for a special dinner. But a simpler, no frills version is also delicious.

Forest Pulav

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Ingredients

1 cup rice (long grain, preferably), washed and soaked in water

1/2 cup carrots, chopped

1/4 cup fresh or frozen green peas 

1/2 cup fenugreek leaves, washed and chopped

1 potato, thinly sliced

1 tomato, finely chopped

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 green chilies, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

Salt to taste

1 tsp lal mirch spice, cayenne or ground chili powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1 1/2 tsp clarified butter, ghee or oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp cilantro, chopped

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Ingredients

1 cup rice (long grain, preferably), washed and soaked in water

1/2 cup carrots, chopped

1/4 cup fresh or frozen green peas 

1/2 cup fenugreek leaves, washed and chopped

1 potato, thinly sliced

1 tomato, finely chopped

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 green chilies, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

Salt to taste

1 tsp lal mirch spice, cayenne or ground chili powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1 1/2 tsp clarified butter, ghee or oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp cilantro, chopped

Ingredients

1 cup rice (long grain, preferably), washed and soaked in water

1/2 cup carrots, chopped

1/4 cup fresh or frozen green peas 

1/2 cup fenugreek leaves, washed and chopped

1 potato, thinly sliced

1 tomato, finely chopped

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 green chilies, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

Salt to taste

1 tsp lal mirch spice, cayenne or ground chili powder

1 tsp coriander powder

1 1/2 tsp clarified butter, ghee or oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp cilantro, chopped

Directions

1. Make rice either in a pot of hot water or with a rice cooker. Cook until almost done, but the grain should not be mushy.

2. Heat clarified butter, ghee, or oil in another pan and add cumin seeds, garlic, and ginger, and cook on medium flame for 30 seconds. 

3. Add onions and cook until the onions turn translucent. 

4. Add tomatoes, green peas, coriander, salt and lal mirch. Cook until the mixture thickens.

5. Add the chopped vegetables, cover, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add this mix to the rice and cook for an additional 5 minutes.

6. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve hot with curd and poppadams.

About the Author

Manu Moudgil

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