The bare bones of the plants we eat

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About this author

Vilma Bharatan is an academic visitor at The Natural History Museum in London where she gives regular talks to the general public on food plants at The David Attenborough studios.

Jovita’s Banana Cake

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I am back again to blog after a long break and with a very simple recipe to take that chill out of my bones. Here in London, it is supposed to be spring, but brrr there is still a very sharp nip in the air, but the landscape is beautiful with almost all the trees unfurling their pale green leaves after the long hard winter.

This cake always takes me back to my days at The Natural History Museum when I used to share the student’s room with Jovita and Neil. With rich pickings to be had in the common room with all kinds of food brought back by colleagues from far flung field trips, we also experimented with putting different ingredients together to not only add spice to our ever hungry senses but also create new dishes.

First concocted by Jovita, I have modified her original recipe to suit busier lifestyles without compromising on nutrition or taste. It takes about 10 minutes to put together and around 35 to 40 minutes to bake.


5 Bananas
Half a cup of oil
1 cup dark or light brown Muscovado sugar.
1 and a half to 2 cups of Jumbo oats
3 eggs beaten well
Quarter teaspoon of cinnamon powder
Good pinch of clove powder
Good pinch of nutmeg powder
1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence


A grated apple or chopped up pear adds a twist and makes it less sweet. A handful of roughly chopped walnuts, pecans or dried fruit makes it richer and really tasty. I use dried fruit steeped in brandy and these include raisins, sultanas, mixed peel, currants, cherries and stem ginger. As the dried fruit mixture gets used, I top it up with a fresh lot and brandy, so there is always a big bottle on hand to dip into. If you prefer not to have alcohol just use the dried fruits and nuts.


Lightly mash the bananas with a fork. Add the sugar, oats, oil, beaten eggs, spice powders, vanilla and baking powder and just mix to combine all the ingredients. Do not beat or stir vigorously. If the consistency is very runny just add more oats so it still flows and transfer into an oiled 8 by 8 inches cake tin or dish.
Bake at 180 degrees C for 35 to 40 minutes. To check if baked, a thin knife or skewer inserted in the centre of the cake should come out clean of any batter or cake particles.

Transformation of the humble banana!


Oil – I use the best olive oil I can afford as it is going into my stomach
Sugars – other sugars can be used but I prefer muscovado sugars as it is unrefined and not only makes the cake moist but also gives it a rich toffee like caramel taste.
Oats – Best to use the old fashioned jumbo oats as the oval flakes give the cake a lighter texture. This is because the flakes are larger and keeps its shape and so traps some air pockets between them. You can mix some semolina or bread crumbs instead of just using oats. Here again the taste of oats between brands vary so try what suits your palette.

If using a fan oven bake at 160 degrees C.

Noel and Mary’s Irish Brown Bread

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Sitting on a wooden bench in the ring fort of Cahercommaun, with our lunch all laid out in front of us, is an experience I will always treasure. The remains of this triple stone-fort is perched at the edge of a steep inland cliff, and overlooks a wooded valley that just stretches into the horizon. This is part of the Burren in county Clare in the Republic of Ireland. Noel (Senior) who was showing me around this rugged and sometimes surreal landscape had packed us a picnic lunch. Half a loaf of his homemade soda bread, a big chunk of local cheese, pats of butter from the Burren’s happy cows, two big slices of Mary’s (his wife) fruit cake and two flasks of tea. I had also picked up two more slices of cake, a tangy lemon and gooey ginger, from the farmers market in Ballyvaughan, in case we got hungry while we walked up the hill.

We ate our way through the lot and washed it down with the tea, while all around us the music of silence played its variations, interrupted now and again by the lone call of the cuckoo and our voices. The bread was just delicious and when Noel told me how easy it was to make, I was hooked and have made five loaves since I got back to London.

With Noel’s permission, here is the recipe that both he and Mary I am told take turns to make. It takes around 10 minutes to put the ingredients together and about half an hour to bake.

Ingredients (makes 1 loaf)

  • 170g/6 oz self raising flour
  • 113g/4 oz Howard’s extra coarse wholemeal flour
  • 1 tablespoon of wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon of pinhead oatmeal
  • Pinch of salt
  • Half a teaspoon of baking soda also known as sodium bicarbonate
  • 290ml/half a pint of buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil
  • 1 egg


Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl so that the baking soda is evenly distributed. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg, oil and buttermilk and add to the dry ingredients. Mix quickly and spoon the mixture into an oiled loaf tin. Spread evenly and smooth the top. Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes and test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, take it out as it is done and cool on a wire rack. Enjoy this yeast free bread!

Brown Soda Bread
Eat when slightly warm when the butter just melts.


As we cannot get Howard’s flour in London, I used the strong whole meal, stone ground, organic bread flour instead. Baking soda not only produces the carbon dioxide which influences the texture of the bread, but also sodium carbonate, which is strongly alkaline and can give bread a bitter soapy taste. To neutralise this, acid ingredients like buttermilk, live yoghurt, brown sugar, molasses, fruit juice, vinegar or chocolate are added. A rule of thumb is half a teaspoon of baking soda is neutralized by 1 cup/240 ml of fermented milk, (buttermilk or yoghurt) or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.

This evening I did not have buttermilk so used live yoghurt instead and when I next bake will add very small pieces of jalapeño peppers to see what it tastes like – or maybe jalapeño with chocolate?

Brownies – Yeliz’s very first attempt at baking

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At work, we talk a lot about food, so Yeliz decided it was time to take the plunge and start baking. So she came in last week with these mouth-watering brownies. It was not only delicious but also looked great with that wonderful glaze. For someone who had never baked this was a tall order and here is the recipe in Yeliz’s own words………..

Ok so I’ve been afraid of baking since I was young. Last night, at the age of 25 I finally plucked up the courage and made brownies after getting a simple baking book for christmas.
To my surprise they were actually firm on top and gooey in the middle..everyone loved them! Now I have told my loyal followers to beware because I am on a baking mission. I have copied the recipe below, so have a go, if I can do it ANYONE can and Happy Baking!


  • 115g of butter
  • 85g of good quality plain chocolate minimum 70% cocoa solids
  • 4 medium eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 400g of caster suger
  • 115g of plain flour
  • 25g of cocoa powder
  • 115g milk choc chips
  • *115g of white choc chips
  • 8 butterscotch sweets roughly chopped

*instead of using 115g of white choc chips I used approximately 100g of chopped hazelnuts.


*before I started mixing anything together I measured all of my ingredients and put them in separate bowls.

  1. Preheat oven to 190 degrees C or gas mark 5.
  2. Butter a 11x7in shallow baking tin & line with greaseproof paper
  3. Melt butter and plain chocolate in heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs, vanilla extract and caster sugar. Mix thouroghly
  5. Sift in flour and coca powder and beat until evenly mixed.
  6. Stir in milk choc chips, butterscotch pieces and hazelnuts
  7. Spoon mixture into tin and spread evenly

*For a fudge like brownie bake for 35minutes until the top is set but still moist in the middle.
*For a cake like brownie, bake for a further 5-10minutes.

Oh, they were yummy!

This recipe was adapted from ‘Easy everyday simple’ cookbook, published by Quadrille Publishing Limited.

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Flying pans and pancakes!

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Well, I never thought Saimir would take some of what we discuss about food on board, but he did. One day last week he wanted to know what he could have for his dinner so I suggested savoury pancakes with some filling. He said he had all the ingredients to make the pancakes and would like to use his new frying pan. So I gave him some options as to the filling and he said he could get some onions, peppers and cheese. Back he came the next day and boy oh boy. Here was this young lad with puffed out chest and heels rising off the carpet, proudly announcing that he had made the most delicious pancakes he had ever eaten.

So, I thought I could share this for all those hungry students out there as this is very simple and easy to make. The ingredients are as in my previous blog for pancakes made by Yeliz and Suzy but without the sugar. He sautéed the onions and peppers in a little bit of butter and said he added some dried parsley and oregano, salt and pepper to taste. He only made 5 pancakes but he said the 2 first ones did not even hit the plate but went straight down his gullet. Greed satisfied to some degree, he then layered the onion and pepper mixture onto the pancakes in layers with some sliced cheddar cheese.

We are so glad that we have set him well on the path to cook for himself with his flying or is it frying ceramic pan.

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Quinoa – Inca gold

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Lake Titicaca, for me even the name has a ring to it. The first time I read about this lake was when we covered all the Great Lakes of the world in our geography class in School. We had a good teacher in Sr Hazel and a great textbook in Jasper Stembridges’s -The world, A general regional geography. I managed to salvage this textbook from my school days, all 532 pages and well sellotaped covers, with its emphasis on the human side of geography. I still enjoy reading how man is conditioned by his environment and how, he in turn, responds to this environment.

12,500 feet above sea level and high up in the Andes mountains, Lake Titicaca straddles both Peru and Bolivia. This is believed to be the place or the area around where quinoa, pronounced Keen-wah, was first domesticated. Since Tania has been blogging a lot about these little protein rich seeds, I thought I would share some bare bones of this plant. Although considered a cereal it is not a true cereal like rice, wheat or corn to name just a few as it does not belong to the grass family. Quinoa is really a false cereal like amaranth and buckwheat, and unlike the true cereals are far superior in proteins and also gluten-free.

Quinoa plants near Cachora, Apurímac, Peru. Altitude: 3800m
Quinoa plants near Cachora, Apurímac, Peru. Altitude: 3800m

A beautiful plant to look at, you can imagine a whole field of this growing at this high altitude and arid conditions. This ancient staple plant of the Incas, with archaeological evidence of its use dating back to 5000 BC, the plant has evolved and adapted to protect itself from the intense UV radiation and arid conditions. Bitter tasting saponins also deter the birds. The seeds can range from white, yellow, grey, light brown, pink, black or red but what we get most commonly on the market are the white or red quinoa and sometimes the black.

The humble cabbage

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White, red or the crinkly leaved Savoy, this humble vegetable is used by almost all people around the world and eaten raw, cooked or pickled. This is the way my Mum cooked cabbage and is very easy to make.


  • 1 pointed cabbage or Savoy cabbage.
  • 1 teaspoon of ghee or oil of your choice
  • 1/2 a teaspoon of Urid dhal
  • 1/4 teaspoon of mustard seeds
  • Pinch of turmeric
  • 1 – 2 green chillies slit lengthwise (optional)
  • Salt to taste

If you don’t have Urid dhal or mustard seeds use a handful of pine nuts or sesame seeds to give that extra crunch and taste.

Shred the cabbage very finely, the finer the better. Heat the oil or ghee and place the Urid dhal in it and shake the pan until it turns pale brown. Then add the mustard seeds and when it pops add the cabbage, turmeric, chillies and salt and just stir fry for a few minutes. I like it still slightly crunchy, but cook for a longer time to suit your palate. This dish goes well with lentils rice, a dollop of yoghurt and maybe the odd papadum.

Like the cabbage , mustard seeds are also Brassicas so a very close relative. Urid Dhal is used extensively in South Indian cooking to make idlis, dosais, or papadums to name just a few dishes.

Pancake Tuesday on a Wednesday

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This morning at work, Suzy asked Yeliz if she had made any pancakes yesterday as it was pancake Tuesday. In the Christian calendar this is the last day of indulgence before the ritual fasting associated with Lent. Historically it was the last day to use and eat “rich” foods like eggs, milk and sugar and pancakes were the most convenient way to use up these ingredients. A last fling before the long fast.of Lent.
Overhearing this conversation was Saimir who had never eaten a freshly made pancake and asked if they could make some during their lunch break. Now, this is a GP surgery, and the kitchen is not kitted out to cook food, but just to heat things up. Both Yeliz and Suzy were still up for it and by then word got round and expectations were running high. But, we did not have a frying pan but luckily across the road is Roneford, the catering supply company, and Saimir very generously bought a nice ceramic frying pan that he said the girls could borrow to make the pancakes.

Rough approximations and fed 16 people with 1 pancake each, well 3 greedy ones had 2 each.

  • 3 cups plain flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 desert spoons sugar
  • 4 ½ cups milk
  • Butter for cooking (a small knob each time)
  • Lemons

Three lots were made as we did not have any mixing bowls, just small soup bowls and a small saucepan. Both were used to mix the ingredients. Roughly one cup of flour to 1 egg and a cup and a half of milk and 1 desert spoon of sugar were used each time round and mixed and gently hand whisked with a fork for around 5-8 minutes. We do not have a whisk. At one time Suzy had flour in the bowl and then added the egg and milk and gradually blended them together until smooth and at the other time she beat the egg and milk together and then added the flour. Yeliz and Saimir did the cooking and served the pancakes with a twist of lemon juice sprinkled over with sugar and they were delicious.

We could have done with more but then time is limited and an hour does not last forever.

What is Turmeric?

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Also known as Indian saffron, turmeric is the dried underground stem or rhizome of the tropical plant Curcuma longa and belongs to the ginger family. Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally and under the ground that set down roots and sends up shoots. These rhizomes are the part used either fresh or dried as a spice, or as a dye to color bodies and clothing for ceremonies surrounding marriage and death. It is also the major component of most prepared curry powders and is used extensively in many Indian and South Asian cusine.

I took this photograph during the festival of Pongal in Coimbatore when the whole plant and rhizome is offered as thanksgiving to the sun God.

To make the spice turmeric the rhizomes are steamed or boiled in slightly alkaline water to set the colour and the abundant starch pre-cooked and then dried either in the sun or in ovens. It is usually sold pre-ground, although fresh and dried rhizomes can be found in most ethnic markets.

Powdered Turmeric sold in Coimbatore market

The very first time I saw turmeric used as a dye was when we went to see the Theyyam, the traditional tribal ritulist dance of the Dravidians performed in the Kaavu or sacred groves in Kannur in Kerala. Here the bodies are painstaking painted using plant pigments and turmeric was one of them. Although used to the tribal dances of the Massai’s and Sukuma tribes in Tanzania, this was different. The particular one I first saw was the Kalichan theyyam where the man was dressed in this beautiful costume and body painted mostly with turmeric. As the drum beats increased to a crescendo and the percussion instruments reached a crescendo the man started his delirious dancing while wielding and brandishing his scary looking machetes around him, while I tried to make myself invisible by shrinking into my father’s side.

Kalichan theyyam with kannakkathi – Rajeshodayanchal at ml.wikipedia

Not being very light fast, you can get rid of turmeric stains quite easily by exposing the stained garment or tablecloth to sunlight which just fades the yellow colour. Copyright to Sreejith and taken at Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala. A close of of one of the Theyyam masks

Rendezvous in a soup pot

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It is still winter and that time of the week we call the weekend. The snow is still on the grass and the sun bright but the air is sharp and very cold. Mmm… I think to myself, what about a nice bowl of steaming hot soup, and I do have a few left over vegetables languishing in the kitchen cupboard. Why not give them a rendezvous in a soup pot and this is what I found.
Add or subtract and tailor make it to what is available in your cupboards and experiment. The quantity I made was enough to serve 6 people, but just multiply or divide the quantity according to your needs.


  • 1 fat potato with its jacket on
  • 2 carrots (these were slightly wrinkled)
  • 2 sticks of celery (more like 2 wilting sticks)
  • 2 leeks
  • 3 – 4 tablespoons of oil (I used sunflower, but you use olive or any other single oils)
  • 1 teaspoon of ghee or butter (this just adds a wonderful caramel flavour)
  • ½ cup of red lentils (wash a few times)
  • 7 unsalted cashew nuts (found in a bottle)
  • 8 whole almonds (lying in a packet)
  • ¼ teaspoon of dried rosemary (you can use mixed herbs or any other combination that suits your palette)
  • ¼ teaspoon of dried basil
  • 1 desert spoon of desiccated coconut (optional)
  • Salt to taste


In a heavy bottomed saucepan, add 3 tablespoons of oil and 1 teaspoon of ghee. Finely slice the leeks, dice the potatoes, carrots and celery and once the oil is medium hot, sauté all these vegetables until transparent but not brown. Then add the washed lentils and enough water to cover the vegetables so that the level stands about a centimetre above the vegetables and bring to the boil. Now add the nuts, roughly chopped so they are easier to blend, herbs and salt and lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. When the vegetables are soft I puréed all this with a hand held blender until nearly smooth. Add more water if you want a thinner consistency and simmer for a few more minutes.

We had it with fresh buttered baguettes and the smell of the soup wafting up my nostrils just made my senses dance with joy.

A simple lentil dish for Aubelia, Ambroise and Ellodie

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This dish is a particular favourite of mine as the ingredients are basic, quick to make and very tasty. You can use either red or yellow lentils and compliment it by adding fresh tomatoes or spinach, toasted fennel seeds, cumin seeds and coriander leaves.


  • 1 cup red or yellow lentils
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 small onion sliced
  • ½ inch piece of ginger, cut in strips
  • 2 – 3 green chillies slit lenghtwise
  • ¼ teaspoon of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon of ghee
  • 1 tablespoon of coconut powder
  • Salt to taste


Rinse the lentils well in cold water and tip into a saucepan. To this add the sliced onion, chillies, ginger, turmeric and 2 cups of water. Bring to the boil over a high heat and give it a stir now and then so it does not boil over. When nearly cooked add the coconut powder and salt and simmer until the lentils have disintegrated into a soft mash. Now add the ghee and coriander leaves and eat hot with rice, pita bread or chapattis. Some like it served like a soup in which case you add a little more water.

Hot or cold it is delicious and nutritious!