A few almonds soaked overnight, peeled meditatively and munched on is a little oasis of self-care on a busy morning.
Our earlier generations enjoyed almonds whole as a part of their morning routines, a special garnish for halwas and other sweets, or entire sweet dishes made with almonds as the main ingredient, such as badam halwa and badam kheer. Almonds also make the base of gravy dishes with the shahi prefix, although cost-cutting measures see restaurants substituting them with cheaper alternatives like melon seeds.
With changing times, the use of almonds has also evolved.
“Where does almond milk come from” memes are a thing. These are best enjoyed as images, so let me not spoil that laugh by writing about it here. Jokes apart, the almond milk market in India is at a nascent stage but with rising awareness of lactose intolerance, increasing adoption of veganism and growing concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability, it is poised to grow rapidly.
When my husband recently switched to almond milk for his coffee (it leads to a smaller spike in blood sugar than cow’s milk in his case), I was shocked to discover that the label showed 15 ingredients, with only 5% almond content. In an ideal world, the label should have read “almonds and water”.
It is quite easy to make your own almond milk but it can be a messy affair. All you need to do is soak a handful of almonds, blend them with water, filter it through a nut milk bag, and you have your own home-made, one-ingredient almond milk. Coffees, smoothies and almond milk yogurt are the common uses for almond milk.
If the reason to switch to almond milk is sustainability, then you must be aware of these facts. Almond trees are notorious for their water requirement, making matters worse in drought-prone California, which produces 80% of the world’s supply and 100% of the US’ commercial supply. They need water all year round, even when they are not producing almonds.
Another issue is with the bees required for their pollination. Almond farmers often rent honeybee colonies from beekeepers to ensure adequate pollination. During almond pollination season, a small window of three weeks, there is a high demand for honeybees. To meet this demand, beekeepers transport their bee colonies across the country on flatbed trucks and drive for many days or weeks to reach California.
Cross-country driving aside, this process can lead to disease in bees as well as displacement of the local wild bee population. This just goes to show how sustainability is never black or white. Living in India, milk from an environmentally responsible local dairy farm may be far more sustainable than processed almond milk from almonds grown unsustainably in California, at the other end of the globe. And way cheaper too.
With the popularity of the keto diet, almond flour has become a popular substitute for plain flour. It is low in carbs and high in fat and protein, making it an excellent choice for breading, baking, even pizza crust. Almond meal, a coarser form of almond flour, is also available and used for similar purposes.
Almond butter is another new-age way to eat almonds—spread on toast, add to oatmeal or top smoothie bowls. While almond butter is rich in fibre, vitamin E, calcium and magnesium, peanut butter scores slightly higher in protein and is much more affordable.
Whether consuming almonds whole, as a garnish or in one of the new-age avatars, it is good to eat them in moderation as they are an energy-dense food—and not entirely sustainable.
Makes 1 cup
Quarter cup almonds soaked in boiling hot water for 10 minutes
4 tomatoes, large, ripe
8-10 Italian basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Half tsp salt
Peel off the skin from the blanched almonds. Transfer to a medium hot pan and toast for five minutes or until lightly golden. Make cross-cuts on the tomatoes and immerse them in boiling hot water for two-three minutes. Remove and place in a bowl of cold water. Peel off skins, quarter the tomatoes, scoop out seeds, chop roughly and keep aside.
To make the pesto, coarsely blend together basil, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, almonds and salt in a food processor. Add chopped tomatoes and blend to get a smooth pesto. Toss the cooked pasta in this sauce and top with garnishes like basil or grated Parmesan cheese.
White base gravy/Shahi gravy
(Makes a base for restaurant-style paneer, kofta or vegetable dishes)
Makes 1 cup
For the paste
Quarter cup almonds
2 tbsp cashews
1 tbsp melon seeds
1 cup roughly chopped onions (use white onions if possible)
3-4 cloves garlic
1 green chilli
Half tsp grated ginger
Half tsp salt
1 tbsp oil
2 green cardamons
1 bay leaf
Half tsp cumin seeds
Half cup thick yogurt (not sour)
A pinch of garam masala powder
In a small pressure cooker, combine all the ingredients for the paste. Add quarter cup water and pressure-cook for five minutes after full pressure (one whistle). Open the cooker and let it cool. Blend the ingredients to a smooth paste (you may peel the almonds before blending but it’s not necessary).
In a pan, heat the oil. Sauté the green cardamom, bay leaf and cumin seeds. Add the prepared paste and sauté on medium flame for three-four minutes. Lower the flame and add the yogurt, with constant stirring. Sprinkle garam masala and stir to combine. The shahi gravy is ready for use.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.