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5 easy tips for ordering healthy in an Indian restaurant

Photo credit - Lee Sam. Used under Creative Commons license.

Ever walked in to an Indian restaurant and then waddled out an hour or so later? For me, this happens almost every time. I feel like Eve discovering the proverbial Apple on almost every line of the restaurant menu. With many Indian food babies under my belt (or is it over?), I have a few tips to share for those resolving to eat healthier this new year. But if you’re one of those people who can eat and eat and eat without gaining a pound; firstly, I’m jealous and secondly, don’t bother reading on.

So it’s the new year and you’ve resolved to eat healthy and/or lose a few pounds. Follow these common sense tips* (disclaimers below) to continue to enjoying your favorite Indian restaurant while staving off the pounds.

For starters

DO choose a mulligatawny soup or chicken tikka

DO ask if you can get pappadums that are microwaved rather than fried.

DON’T choose pakoras or samosas as they are deep fried

Be wise with the sides

DO order tandoori roti instead of naan as its made with unleavened whole wheat. If they smear on butter, ask them to leave it off.

DO enquire if brown rice is an option. Brown basmati rice is becoming widely available nowadays.

Strike a balance

DO order at least one healthier dish if ordering more than one. Daal or saag (minus paneer and when cream not added) are yummy and healthy too. If the restaurant has vegan options, select one dish that is vegan to avoid excessive cream and butter.

DO order tandoori chicken or chicken tikka. They are marinated with yogurt and spices and cooked in a clay oven – relatively healthy.

DONT order rich Mughlai curries. This cuisine developed in the kitchens of the Mughal emperors are made to befit a royal table. Though deservedly alluring whether you’re of royal blood or a commoner, curries made mughlai style are laced with cream. Avoid if possible.

DON’T order anything with korma in the name or dishes like butter chicken, tikka masala, and malai kofta. I know, they’re yummy but they’re also laden with cream and thus lots of calories.

Take up the spice level a notch

DO order spicy food if you can take it. The heat will kick your metabolism into gear. A vindaloo is a great option. It’s spicy and there is no cream in the gravy. But please don’t set your throat on fire. I’ll feel really bad.

And finally…

DON’T order desserts or if you do, share. Indian desserts are rich and sweet. All that sugar will convert to fat in your body if you don’t burn the calories right away.

DO end your meal with finishing up a side of yogurt. It will cool your stomach down and with its probiotic powers will help digest that yummy meal you’ve just had.

So there you have it. To summarize the entire post in three words: avoid cream curries.

Does this help? Other tips you can think of? While I’m advocating making healthier choices, I know it’s all about balance. So go ahead, indulge a bit if you must. And then consider walking home.

Happy New Year!

Veena

*Disclaimers

1) I’m NOT a nutritionist.

2) There is a lot of variation in menus and in how restaurants might choose to prepare these dishes. For example, some restaurants choose to add cream to saag while others don’t.

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A Winter Twist to Delicious Daal

It was the third cold, dark and rainy day in a row. The kind that leaves you with a slight case of the blues. But nothing that a pot of soul-satisfying Daal wouldn’t remedy. I’d had a hankering for my lentil curry anyway and got to work making it.

While the lentils were boiling away merrily, I peeked into the fridge to see what vegetables I could add. There were none but there was a big bunch of curly kale that I needed to use soon. Now, around here, we LOVE kale but I usually prepare it by itself and enjoy it with slices of fresh avocado. While there are plenty of leafy green vegetables in India, there is no kale. So it was a serendipitous idea to sauté the kale with the spices in the Daal Recipe kit and add it to the lentil curry. Or maybe it was just a matter of time. I’m sure others have discovered this already, but here’s my version. This recipe is a slight variation of the one included in the Daal kit.

I like curly kale best but any variety of kale will do. Lacinato kale (aka Dino or Cavalo Nero) is pictured.

Ingredients (serves 4)

½ bunch of kale (rinsed, stem ends cut and discarded, leaves cut lengthwise in the middle and then chopped into 1 inch pieces)
1 Delicious Daal kit OR
1 cup toor daal or split pigeon peas
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
5 curry leaves
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1.5 cups basmati rice (cooking instructions not included in this post)
1 small tomato (diced)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
½ lime (or lemon)

Recipe

Place lentils in a thick bottomed pot and add 5 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat

Turn heat down to medium-low, cover pot with lid ajar and simmer for 35 minutes or till the lentils are fully cooked (flat and mushy)

Heat the oil in a big pot or wok over medium high heat. You know the oil is hot enough when you throw in a mustard seed and it sizzles. Don’t get the oil too hot as it will burn the spices.

Add the mustard seeds and wait a few seconds or till they just start crackling.

Add the cumin seeds, curry leaves and turmeric.

Add the kale after 2-3 seconds and stir to coat well with oil. Saute for 3-4 minutes or till the leaves have wilted slightly and are half the original volume.

Add ½ a cup of water, reduce the heat to medium low and cover the pot with a lid ajar. Cook for 3 minutes and then remove from heat.

Once the lentils have boiled, add the kale to the pot of lentils along with 1 teaspoon salt and the tomato. Mix.

Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for 8 minutes or till the kale stems are cooked and the leaves are not tough (I do like a bit of crunch though)

Taste for salt and squeeze in juice of ½ a lime (more if you like). Serve over rice.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath before diving in spoon first into your hearty Daal. And feel the blues slipping away. Mmmmm.

p.s. What to do with the leftover kale? Simply saute in olive oil with a couple cloves of garlic. Add a cup of stock (or water and salt), bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover with lid ajar and cook for 7 minutes or till the kale is cooked but still slightly crunchy.

Or make kale chips. Toss with olive oil, freshly ground pepper, and a big pinch of sea salt. Roast in oven preheated to 350 degrees F for about 10 minutes.

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Celebrating Diwali, the Festival of Lights

Diwali or Deepavali, the festival of lights, easily the most popular of Indian festivals, is celebrated tomorrow this year. While the main festival is on Saturday, the ceremonies run for five days to commemorate various events in Indian mythology. Here are some of the stories behind the celebration of Diwali.

As told in the great epic, Ramayana, the Prince Rama having been exiled from his kingdom returns home after winning a battle with the demon king Ravana. During his years of exile, Rama, his brother Laxmana and wife Sita lived as ascetics in the forest. Wanting to take revenge upon Rama, Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his faraway kingdom of Lanka. Rama and Laxmana head to Lanka accompanied by the monkey god Hanuman who had found the whereabouts of Sita. After a long battle, Rama claims victory after killing Ravana and returns to Ayodhya with Sita and Laxmana. The citizens of Ayodhya welcome their rightful King with diyas (small clay lamps) lit to show him the way home.

Many celebrate the birth of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth during Diwali. The story goes that Devas (minor gods) convinced the Asuras (bad deities) to work with them to churn the ocean to bring up the pot of the nectar of immortality. The beautiful goddess was brought forth to earth from the depths of the ocean holding the pot of nectar. She helped ensure that only the Devas were able to partake of the nectar thus restoring a previous imbalance in power between the Devas and the Asuras.

Diwali is not just celebrated by Hindus. In Jainism, Diwali is celebrated as the day the sage Mahavira attained enlightenment in 527 BC. Diwali is important in Sikhism as it commemorates the return of Guru Hargobind from rescuing 52 Hindu kings after defeating the Mughal Emperor Jahangir who imprisoned them.

The stories surrounding Diwali abound but the common thread of good over evil prevails. Since light symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, Indians light many diyas around the house. In India and other countries, people exchange sweets and light fireworks.

Here in Seattle, USA, how are we celebrating Diwali? No fireworks here but the diyas are lit at home and I will be celebrating with friends.

But I want to share one of my favorite festivals with others. I’ll be cooking up a big batch of curry from one of the Veena’s Market kits and giving away samples at the Savour store in Ballard (2242 NW Market Street). If you live in the area, stop by between 3 and 6pm and I’ll be there till I’m out of curry!  If you need more reason to stop by, there will also be wine tasting going on at the same time.

Happy Diwali!

Veena

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The Beauty of Brinjal

This is a post inspired by an old friend. Preethi and I went to the same school in India. My family moved to the US when I was in high school and I lost touch with most of my old school mates. The last time I saw her was in Warsaw, where she now lives, in 2007 when I was there on a business trip. We went to a cute little restaurant in downtown Warsaw for Pierogies. I had to share this summer recipe idea she sent my way.

So what is a Brinjal? It’s the Indian word for eggplant! Eggplants are called brinjals in India and South Africa and aubergines elsewhere.

India is the second largest producer of eggplants in the world. As an aside, there is a raging battle over whether genetically modified eggplants developed by a Monsanto subsidiary should be cultivated in India. Scientists are divided in their opinion and the public is largely against it. For now, the Indian Government has halted BT brinjal as the genetically modified version is called.  On a more fun note, if you didn’t already know it, there are many different varieties of eggplant. The commonly found variety in the US, the dark purple eggplant, is much bigger than the Japanese, and Thai eggplants and I think has less flavor. There are some eggplants that are also green in color.

The recipe is inspired by a dish Preethi’s mother used to make in summer. I made this Brinjal Fry in Yoghurt sauce for the first time a couple of weeks ago when all I had was half an eggplant and 20 minutes to cook dinner. My husband and I loved it and we literally licked our plates clean. The recipe below should serve 3-4.

Ingredients

1 eggplant
2 tsp salt
2 cloves of garlic
1 tsp garam masala (or your favorite spice blend. Feel free to use more if you like your food spicy!)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 cup yoghurt
Pinch of paprika (or cayenne powder for more heat)

Recipe (35 minutes preparation, 15 minutes cooking)

Cut off the ends, halve the eggplant lengthwise and then slice into quarter inch thick pieces. You can also leave the eggplant whole and just slice it, but I find it easier to deal with smaller pieces and they cook faster too.

Place in a colander and mix in the salt. Let it stand for 30 minutes if you have the time. (This brining process draws out the water in the eggplant helping it cook faster and use less oil. It also removes the edge off the eggplant’s bitterness. If you’re like me and love the flavor of eggplant, you can do away with this step.) While you wait, you can prepare the remaining ingredients, set up the table and fix yourself a summery cocktail, preferably with involving rum, mint and sugar.

Crush and mince the garlic (crushing releases the powerful antibiotic properties of the garlic)

Put the yoghurt into a bowl and beat slightly till it is smooth.

Rinse the eggplant slices well, pat dry and mix with the spice blend.

Heat the oil in a frying plan on medium heat

When the oil is hot, sizzle the cumin seeds for 10 seconds

Add the eggplant and the garlic

Sauté for 10 minutes or till the eggplant is cooked through. If the pan gets dry, add a bit more oil. Taste and add more salt if necessary keeping in mind that the eggplant will be mixed with yoghurt.

Remove from heat and place the slices in the yoghurt. Sprinkly the paprika or cayenne powder on top for some color.

Garnish with sprigs of cilantro or mint and serve with rice or naan.

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New Potatoes with Sauteed Fenugreek

New red potatoes still in their jackets, chopped into bite size pieces if necessary. Fenugreek, an herb available in Indian stores for a short while in summer, vivid green and slightly bitter. Bell pepper, red and juicy, roasted till just south of tender, not an ingredient in the original recipe but thrown in anyway because I had it. Fresh dill, finely chopped and added almost at the end,giving a secret oomph to the dish.

I was home alone when I cooked this for dinner one evening last week. It was so good that I felt guilty about eating alone. Called Aloo Methi (“Potatoes Fenugreek” in Hindi), this simple dish is really easy to make and doesn’t require a lot of ingredients. The flavor comes from the vegetables and herbs, so get them fresh and organic if you can. The recipe is adapted from Camellia Panjabi’s “50 Great Curries of India”. I’m hoping for redemption for eating alone by sharing my version of the recipe here.

New potatoes (can substitute with other potatoes if necessary. I used red, but white is typical) – 3/4 lb to 1 lb, cut into 1 inch or bite size pieces.

Bell pepper (any color) – 1/2, cut into roughly 1 inch pieces, optional

Onion (yellow) – 1/2 (or 1/4 cup), thinly sliced, optional

Fenugreek – 1 cup leaves only, roughly chopped

Dill – 2 tbsp chopped

Green chili (or jalapeno) – 1 or 2, slit lengthwise

Cilantro – 2 tbsp chopped

Garlic – 3 cloves crushed or minced

Turmeric – 1/4 tsp

Vegetable Oil – 3 tbsp

Lime – squeeze to taste

Salt – to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok. The oil is hot enough if you throw in a piece of onion and it sizzles. Add the garlic, chili and onion and sweat till the pieces of onion are transparent. Add the fenugreek. Fry for 2 minutes. Add the potatoes, bell pepper and turmeric. Saute for 5 minutes. Cover the skillet and lower the heat to medium. Add a bit of water if necessary at any time. There is no ‘sauce’ in this dish. The water is just to prevent burning.

The potatoes should be fork tender after 25 – 30 minutes total.Once the potatoes are cooked, add the dill and cilantro. Also add salt and lime to taste. Mix well, let sit another 2 minutes on low and then serve after removing the pieces of chili.

This dish is great with Indian chapathis or even tortillas. I would also pair it with rice and plain yoghurt.

If you’ve never had fenugreek before, you should know that it is bitter by itself. But the flavor blends in really well when combined with other ingredients. You could optionally soak the leaves in water with some salt to remove the bitterness like you would do with eggplant.

Did you know that fenugreek helps decrease blood sugar and cholesterol while, erm, also being an aphrodisiac? It is an amazing herb really.

One of the things I’m trying to do with this blog is to show how easy it is to cook Indian food. Apart from finding fenugreek, this recipe is as easy as it gets. I hope you’ll try it out. Who knows, you might like it so much that you’ll write to me for more recipes that include fenugreek.

I promise to write back.

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A Basic Curry Recipe

There is just so much to write about when it comes to the Indian cuisine (or any cuisine for that matter) that I’m having a difficult time deciding what to write about next :-P.

If you’re reading this and are really interested in authentic Indian food, what is the biggest issue you’ve ever had with cooking it? What are some things you wish you could learn about? I would love to hear what you think would be useful information. And if I can help, I will certainly do so.

Today, I thought I would share a very basic recipe for creating a curry base or sauce. It’s not hard at all. And you can use it for different vegetables or meats – it is really flexible. The recipe is very similar to the curry base for many North Indian dishes.

Some basic ingredients I always have around the kitchen are onions, tomatoes, cilantro and of course spices. (Check out the first blog post for must-have spices for Indian cooking.)

And with just the ingredients listed above, you can make a yummy curry! Here’s the recipe.

You’ll need:

Onions >2 (about 1 cup finely diced)

Tomatoes > 2 (about 1 cup finely diced although I like having slightly more onion than tomato in my sauce)

Garlic > 1-3 cloves (peel and mince or purée)

Ginger > 1 inch (peel and grate or just extract the juice)

Cilantro > about 10 stems (remove the thick stems and chop)

Green chilies > 0-3 (remove stems and dice)

Bay leaf > optional

Butter > optional

Spices (Lightly roast the following whole spices in a skillet over medium low heat for 2 minutes and then grind them to a powder)

  • coriander (1 tsp)
  • cumin (1 tsp)
  • cloves (2)
  • cinnamon (1 inch) – optional
  • cardamom (2) – optional

You can also just use 2-3 tsp of a good quality garam masala blend if you have it instead of making the mixture above.

Heat 3 tbsp vegetable oil in a large skillet on medium high heat. When the oil is hot enough a piece of onion added to the oil will sizzle. Throw in the diced onion and green chilies along with a bay leaf, add a pinch of salt and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and stir till the onion is golden brown. The constant stirring helps avoid burnt onion and ensure an even brownness that will add a rich, deep color to your curry. Add the spices and continue to be careful to stir for 2-3 minutes to prevent the spices from sticking to the skillet. Add tomatoes and another pinch of salt. When the tomatoes get mushy, add ½ a cup of water. Lower the heat to medium and cover the skillet. Check every few minutes that the sauce is not burning. If it is getting dry, add a bit more water.

You’ll know the sauce is cooked when you see a thin film of oil form on the top. You now have your sauce base. You can add a vegetable or meat to this sauce, or just make a big batch and refrigerate/freeze it for later use. I like to purée the sauce once it has cooled down a bit (and before I add vegetables). It makes for a smoother taste and look.

Adding vegetables to this sauce:

Chickpeas (1 can, drain and rinse well), potatoes (diced into 1 inch pieces) and peas are particularly well suited to this curry. Tofu might work well too. Once you try this curry, you’ll get a feel for what you think will work with the sauce.  Unless it is a vegetable that cooks very easily, I would recommend that it be cooked when you add it to the sauce. When the sauce is simmering on low, add about a cup of the vegetable or vegetables of your choice. Let simmer for another 5 minutes (if using only vegetables) or till the meat is fork tender. If you’d like, add a tbsp or two of butter at the end. This will take any edge off the curry and help meld the flavors together. Check for salt. Squeeze some lime juice. Mix.

Adding meat to this sauce:

I’d recommend bone-in chicken for this recipe. Marinade the meat with a tsp or so of the same spice mixture as above and 2 tsps lime juice for about an hour. Heat up 2-3 tbsp oil, add the meat and cook till opaque or slightly brown before adding to the sauce. Simmer for another five to ten minutes or till the meat is fork tender. Similar to the vegetables, add butter if you like, check for salt, and if appropriate, squeeze a tsp or two of fresh lime juice.

There you have it, your very own Indian curry, vegetarian or with meat! Serve it hot over rice or with pita bread.

#9VEENH3W5PA2#

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An Indian Spice Pantry


People often tell me they love to cook but have no idea where to start when it comes to Indian dishes. They are also put off by not wanting to buy a million different ingredients. And this is really why I started Veena’s Market. The whole process of trying a new cuisine and getting familiar with a few recipes is such a thrill. For those of you interested in cooking Indian recipes on your own, I want to help!

It’s no secret that the symphony of spices is what gives Indian food its complex and mysterious flavor. If the spices are the musicians, you are the conductor. Spices impart different flavors based on when they are added to the cooking process, if they are added whole or ground, and in what proportions. Today, I’ll leave you with a primer on basic spices and practical suggestions for buying and storing spices.

Buy whole rather than powdered spices and avoid pre-made mixtures. And please please please never buy anything called Curry Powder! As you learn to make the blends for different recipes, you can adjust the relative quantities of the ingredients to suit your taste. And then you don’t need to stock up on a different blend for a different curry.  Most commercial blends have too much of the cheaper ingredients anyway.

Store your spices in airtight jars and they will last a good two to three years. To make spice blends, I generally roast whole spices in a non-stick skillet on medium-low heat for 5 minutes and then grind them in a coffee grinder. I don’t use this grinder for anything else. I’ve tried a few grinders and read many reviews. The one I like is a Delonghi coffee grinder that I bought at Crate & Barrel.

The following list of spices is what I consider essential to have in your pantry if you are serious about cooking Indian food. There are many more spices but you can add them to your collection later as you need them. These you will likely need in every other recipe. This list also includes spices common to South Indian cooking.

Cumin

An ancient spice native to Egypt, cumin is widely used in Mexican and Indian cuisines. It is said to aid in digestion and be a rich source of iron.  If you like yoghurt, spice up plain yoghurt with a bit of salt and whole cumin that has been roasted over medium heat on a skillet for a few minutes.

Coriander

An herb and a spice, this versatile plant has antibacterial properties[1].  The herb and the spice are referred to as coriander though in the Americas, the term cilantro is often used for the herb. Add a pinch of coriander powder to mashed potatoes for flavor and you’ll get a good sense of its taste profile.

Black mustard seed

These seeds are added whole to hot cooking oil and will ‘split’ or crackle when cooked. This process is called tempering the oil and is a very common first step or last step in cooking Indian recipes. The Divine Dosa and the Delicious Daal kits from Veena’s Market both use this process. You can substitute brown (but not yellow) mustard seeds.

Green cardamom

These wonderfully aromatic seeds are contained in pods that are typically sold dried. The blend in Veena’s masala used in many kits contain both the green and black varieties for extra aroma and flavor. Cardamom is a must have ingredient for making Indian chai and adds great flavor in many desserts. If you make milk shakes or lassi (a yoghurt drink that can be sweet or savory) at home, add a big pinch of freshly powdered cardamom.

Red Chilies

Chilies are originally from South America and only made their way into India in the 16th century thanks to the Portuguese. The Guinness Book of World records named a chili called the Bhut Jolokia from the Assam region of India as the hottest chili in the world in 2007.  This is the one spice where I will sometimes use the powdered version vs. the whole. Some chilies are OK, but the hotter ones do burn your skin. Another reason is that many Indian recipes call for Kashmiri chilies which can be hard to find in the US.

Cinnamon

True cinnamon grows only in Sri Lanka and is also called Ceylon Cinnamon. What is typically sold as cinnamon in the US is actually Cassia. Cinnamon is lighter in color, flakier and easier to break. Its taste is more complex and sweeter than that of cassia. You’ll notice the aroma is different as well. It’s also more difficult to find. If you do make that cup of chai using cardamom, add some cinnamon as well. It’s just perfect for a rainy day!

Cloves

Cloves are strongly aromatic and help add wonderful heat to a dish. While often added whole to a dish, they are not really meant to be eaten as the flavor is too strong. But it precisely because of their strong flavor that some people will chew on them to freshen their breath. My grandmother would always have a few cloves handy in her purse!

Black pepper

The rounded pepper we consume today is a variation of the long pepper that is native to India. Long pepper was the primary method of adding heat to a dish before the introduction of chilies into India. The best peppercorn still comes from the Malabar Coast of India.

Indian Bay leaves

The Indian bay leaf is not of the same species as the bay laurel but is closely related to the cinnamon tree. While you can often do without bay leaves in a dish, I’ve added it here as I think it adds a wonderful fragrance. The dried leaves are commonly used in the Mughal cuisine of North India. It is usually OK to substitute bay laurel for Indian bay leaves.

Curry Leaves

These aromatic leaves are used in South Indian cooking mostly and impart a heady aroma. The fresh leaves are added to hot oil right after the tempering process. It is often difficult to find fresh leaves. When I do, I buy a lot, dry them at home and store them whole. Before I cook, I crush the leaves in my palm to release the flavor. Often dried and crushed curry leaves are sold. Don’t bother buying this as there is no flavor left.

Turmeric

This rhizome which is also a powerful natural dye (so be careful when cooking with it!) is a key ingredient in South Indian curries. It has a lovely earthy smell and a distinct flavor. Many commercial curry blends add too much turmeric causing a slightly bitter aftertaste especially when the spice blend is not fully “cooked”.

Asafetida

Due to its strongly pungent odor, the name for asafetida in many languages translates to “devil’s dung”[2]. Indeed, if you don’t store this spice in an airtight container, it will contaminate the flavors of other spices stored close by! But don’t be put off by this description! This is really an amazing spice. Amazing flavors are released when it is cooked in oil. Asafetida is an ingredient in many curries due to its flavor and um, how shall I say it, its very useful property of helping to digest food! If you are gluten intolerant or celiac, please note that commercial asafetida is often stabilized with wheat. Please check the ingredients or ask.

So that’s it. That is the basic list of spices for Indian cuisines. There are of course many more but I’m TRYING to keep this list short! Do you have a favorite spice? If you could add one more spice to this list, what would it be?

I hope you enjoy stocking up on these spices, cooking and experimenting with them! And if you’re looking for one of our recipe kits that already includes all the spices you need, you’ll find them here.


[1] The World’s Healthiest Foodshttp://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=70

[2] Gernod Katzer’s Spice Pages, http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Feru_ass.html

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