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PlaygroundEquipment Blog
Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Indian Food

photo by qasic (flickr)
One of the perks of living in the United States is the availability of food from other cultures. In any major American city you’ll find Italian, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican restaurants, all within a few miles of each other. But one of the great, and perhaps underappreciated, styles of cuisine out there is Indian food. Indian restaurants are spread all over the country, often small family-owned places slotted between two other stores in a strip mall. Most people are afraid to give these places a chance, which makes some sense. Indian food is renowned for its use of strong flavors and spices, and if you’re not familiar with it you risk ordering a meal you won’t like. That risk is compounded when you’re also taking a chance on a restaurant that you’ve never been to before. However, when those strong flavors are blended together just right they can make some of the most diverse and interesting foods in the world. For all the ‘risks’ associated with Indian food, there is even more reward. This guide is meant to help those who are new to Indian cuisine determine where to start.

First a few pieces of advice:

1.     Look at online reviews-- Before trying out a new restaurant, it’s a good idea to look at what other people have said about it.  This can give you a good idea of what to expect; although be careful about overlooking places with less than stellar ratings, especially when there are only a few reviews. People sometimes order things that they don’t like, or that are too spicy for them (see #3), and leave a bad review for the restaurant because of it. Small restaurants can be severely harmed by these negative reviews, and you can be harmed by missing out on a hidden gem because of 3-star ratings.

2.     Try the buffet—A staple of Indian Restaurants is buffets, most commonly offered around lunchtime. These buffets are usually remarkably inexpensive for an all-you-can-eat meal, and are perfect for those who have little experience with Indian food, or who might be unsure about what to order. It’s the ultimate crash course, and it generally costs less than ten bucks. Most economists will agree that an unlimited amount of anything for less than ten bucks is a good deal. With your first round to the buffet, I recommend making a ‘sampler platter’ with a little bit of everything.  You can find out which foods taste better than they look and vise versa, then go back and fill a second plate with your favorites. Plus, you’ll know what to order next time.

3.     Watch out for spiciness— Personally I love spice, but on more than one occasion I’ve ordered or made Indian food for friends only to realize that none of them could stomach it (I’m not selling this very well, but trust me). Not all Indian cuisine is spicy, but it certainly isn’t afraid to venture into that territory. If spice isn’t your thing, don’t worry; there will still be plenty to eat. But I’d recommend asking how spicy a meal is before ordering it.

Now for the specifics. I usually think of Indian food as having two main components: you’ve got your starches, and you’ve got your goopy stuff. These aren’t official categories by any means, and there was probably a better word choice than ‘goopy stuff’ that I could have used, but these two categories cover it pretty well. The ‘goopy stuff’ is usually your entrĂ©e, such as curry or something tasty in tasty sauce. Many of these will be two words: one for the sauce, and one for what’s in it. Think fettuccini alfredo or huevos rancheros. This is the likely the strongest flavor in your meal, which you can dilute however much you want with your starches. That’s why most of them come with rice.

Some examples of sauces:

·      Masala--  a creamy tomato-based sauce, with a blend of other spices mixed in. This is like the Pad Thai of Indian food, and I highly recommend paneer, channa, or tikka (chicken) masala if you’re not sure what to try. It is sometimes spicy, but not always.

·      Palak-- creamed spinach sauce. If you can get past how green it is, palak is pretty mild and tasty.

·      Curry—a general word for a soupy collection of spices and veggies. This is often a separate category on the menu.

Some examples of stuff that goes in the sauces:

·      Paneer-- Indian cheese. This cheese is white, mild, and looks a little bit like tofu, but there’s a reason for all of that. Paneer has just enough flavor to complement the sauces and flavors that it goes with, but not enough to overpower them.

·      Dal-- lentils. A lot of Indian food uses brown, green or red lentils. These are a delicious and underrated vegetable, and a great source of protein.

·      Channa-- chickpeas. These go particularly well in a lot of different dishes.

·      Meat-- cooked animals. The most common meats used in Indian food are chicken and lamb. Because of the prevalence of Islam and Hindu in India, beef and pork are less common.

These are just a few words to look for, but truthfully there are a lot of other things to try. And whatever you get, you’ll have no shortage of things to dip in it.

·      Naan— a sort of flatbread cooked in a special oven called a tandoori. Most places offer a few variations of it, like garlic naan or paneer naan. If you remember no other advice from this blog post, let this be your takeaway: whatever you get, get naan. It’s like pita bread, but better. It’s cheap, it’s tasty, and you can use it as a plate or until for eating your goopy stuff.

·      Samosas— crispy, savory, pastry-like things with a delicious filling of peas, vegetables and spices.  Almost as important as naan, these are usually served as a side or an appetizer.

·      Rice— Indian food typically comes basmati rice, a variety with longer grains and more flavor than standard white rice. As with Thai or Chinese food, mixing rice into your food changes up the texture, makes it last longer, and cuts some of the spiciness.

Indian cuisine is one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world with an extremely diverse range of ingredients and influences. This guide only begins to scratch the surface, but hopefully it provided some useful tips on where to begin.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Secret Life of Trees

photo by: Shiela in Moonducks (flickr)
photo by Sheila in Moonducks (flickr)
Trees are such basic and common things that we rarely give them a second thought. They are simply part of the landscape; not living things but backdrops and habitats for living things. It’s easy to forget that they are not only alive, but keeping us alive. In this blog post I will be exploring some questions about trees that seem so obvious that most people have probably never thought to ask them.

What is a tree?

This one seems obvious, but before you skip ahead think about it: what qualities do all trees have in common, which they do not share with other plants? If it has to do with their leaves, then what about pine trees? If it has to do with their size, then what about tiny bonsai trees? If it’s about having a trunk with bark, then what does that make palm trees? Merriam Webster defines a tree as “a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part,” which seems like an adequate description until you start to ask yourself what makes a tree different than just a really tall bush. Even this broad and unspecific definition is not without exceptions. For example, the plants which bananas grow on are called trees despite having no wood or bark. Surprisingly, there is no comprehensive rules that determine what is and is not a tree. The truth is that ‘tree’ is just a general word that we use to describe a certain shape and style of plants for the sake of convenience.

Where does the size come from?

This is another question that we tend not to think about. Of course trees grow larger over time. They’re plants. That’s basically all plants know how to do, right? But the interesting thing about trees is that they don’t seem to stop growing. They keep getting bigger and bigger until they dwarf even the tallest animals. But where does this mass come from? In the early seventeenth century, a Belgian scientist named Joannes Baptista van Hemholt attempted to answer this question. He planted a five-pound willow sapling in 200 pounds of soil, watered it for five years, then weighed the tree and soil again, to see how much of the soil had been consumed. The tree now weighed 169 pounds, but in that time the soil hardly lost any weight at all. According to the law of conservation of matter, the tree’s extra weight must have come from somewhere besides the soil. Hemholt concluded, incorrectly, that “164 pounds of wood, barks, and roots arose out of water only.” His findings were revolutionary and controversial at the time, but still not as strange as the truth. Trees, like most life on earth, are made mostly from the element carbon. They gather this carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, which is released every time an animal or human exhales. Animals breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, while plants do the opposite. Every time Hemholt breathed around his tree, he was unknowingly feeding it the material it needed to grow. Trees don’t just give us the oxygen that we need to breathe, they are made from our breath.

How do they make air?

Photosynthesis in plants is in many ways the opposite of aerobic respiration (a.k.a ‘breathing’) in animals; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. But the stark difference between these two processes becomes even more evident when their chemical formulas are compared side-by-side. Here is a chemical formula for respiration:

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → CO2 x+ 6 H2O

In other words, glucose (C6H12O6) and oxygen (O2) recombine to form carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O, of course). Another byproduct which is not shown in the formula is energy, which is released as the glucose molecules break down. This energy is needed for us to power and maintain our bodies. Now let’s look at the chemical formula for photosynthesis:

6 CO2 + 6 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2

As you can see, it’s the opposite of respiration. It turns water and carbon dioxide into glucose, with oxygen as a ‘waste’ product, which is released back into the atmosphere. But since this process is the opposite of respiration, it costs energy instead of producing it. That’s where sunlight comes in. Plants absorb its energy using the chlorophyll in their leaves, and store it in glucose molecules to be used later.

In this way, plants and animals are dependent on each other to survive. The opposite processes of respiration and photosynthesis balance each other out, creating the conditions needed for both to thrive.