Tuesday, August 31, 2010

South Indian Cauliflower with Scallions

The best food in India is cooked at home, often utilizing just a few spices and market fresh ingredients. Ghar ka khana (home-style) cauliflower radiates deep satisfaction yet is very easy to make. It is always the surprise hit when I serve it at parties. Guests are attracted to the vivid green tangle of scallions atop golden brown clusters of cauliflower speckled in dark mustard seeds. The underlying secret is shallots, which add a delicate complexity when slightly caramelized along with the cauliflower. A short steam bath ensures tender florets that brown as the liquid reduces, encrusting them in the spices. In South India, shallots are sometimes called scallions, probably the origin of the name of this dish. I tasted several versions on my travels through Kerala and Tamil Nadu and none used spring onions. Intrigued with the idea of adding them to the already delicious cauliflower, I tried frying slender stalks of scallion (also known as green onions) to add some color and textural contrast and loved the results. This dish can be made ahead and served at room temperature adding to its allure as a party food.


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch scallions (about 6), trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoons black or yellow mustard seeds
1 small dried chile, snipped in half and seeded
4-5 shallots (about 8 ounces), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 medium head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed, quartered, and cut into 2-inch florets
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder


Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 tablespoon)

FRYING THE SCALLIONS (GREEN ONIONS).  Crumple several paper towels and place in a shallow bowl near the stove. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over high heat and when the oil is hot, add the scallions. Cook, turning once or twice with a slotted spoon until limp but still bright green, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

COOKING THE CAULIFLOWER. Add the mustard seeds and red chile to the hot oil in the same skillet. When the mustard seeds start to crackle, reduce the heat to medium-high and add the shallots. Cook, stirring frequently until starting to turn pale golden brown at the edges, about 2 minutes.  Add the cauliflower, turmeric, salt, and cayenne, stirring to mix well. Stir in 1 cup of hot water, cover and steam the cauliflower until tender-crisp, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the cover and continue cooking until all the liquid is dried up and the cauliflower starts to brown, stirring and turning from time to time until golden brown all over and crisped in spots, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt.  Mix in the scallions and transfer to a serving dish. Serve garnished with the coriander (cilantro). Makes 4-6 servings.

Goan Chicken and Potato Rechad

Portugal and India collide in culinary beneficiary in this dish. Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India in the quest for coveted spices at the turn of the 16th century. The Portuguese introduced chiles, discovered in the Americas by Columbus who thought they were related to black pepper. From the Iberian peninsula chiles quickly spread along the spice trade routes around the world. Goan rechad--short for recheado (meaning stuffed in Portuguese)--is a bright red spice mixture (maslala) based on dried red chiles and spices ground with vinegar and garlic. It is similar to vindaloo, but used to stuff seafood. In Portugal squid tubes are stuffed with a mixture of rice and spicy chourico sausage and cooked in tomato sauce. In Goa a similar sausage called lingiss in Konkani is seasoned with fiery rechad. The spice paste is also used to stuff whole mackerel and pomfret and used as a base for cooking shrimp, mussels or clams. Chicken rechad is the invention of my friend Ayesha D’Mello who is Goan but grew up in Gujarat where her father is a doctor in the port city of Surat. When she moved to Canada to attend university she started cooking but couldn’t find the fish from home and tried sautéing boneless pieces of chicken in the rechad paste. Rechad is not hard to make but requires two grinding steps. Freshly roasted whole spices are ground in an electric spice grinder then blitzed in a blender with vinegar soaked chiles and garlic. The ensuing brick red paste is cooked with the chicken until it reduces down and glazes the morsels of meat. Ayesha serves her chicken rechad with home made French fries but I’ve adapted the recipe to add boiled potatoes and cook them with the chicken—they become melting soft, offering mellow pillows of starch between bites of spiced chicken. You can use breast but it tends to dry out so cut it into larger pieces. I find thigh meat more flavorful, and it stands up better to the muscular spice mixture. 


For the Red Hot Sauce (Rechad Masala)

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
8 small dried red chiles (such as japonés or chile de arbol), snipped and seeded
One 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken into a few pieces
1 generous tablespoon coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
8 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 generous teaspoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 large or 10 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped

The Chicken and Potatoes

3 to 3 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8-10 pieces), depending on size
1 pound red-skinned potatoes (about 3 medium ones)
1 tablespoon olive oil

MAKING THE RED SPICE PASTE (RECHAD MASALA). Pour the vinegar into the jar of a blender; add the chiles and leave to soak half an hour. Meanwhile heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds, peppercorns and cloves. Roast, shaking the pan several times until the spices darken a shade and smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee/spice grinder and add the sugar, salt, turmeric and paprika. Blitz, pulsing on and off several times and stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon, until fairly finely powdered, about 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape out into a small dish. Once the chiles have soaked long enough, add the ground spice mixture to the blender with the garlic and blend into a smooth paste, stopping once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, about 2 minutes.  Scrape out into a cup. There should be about 1/2 a cup of fairly thick brick red colored paste.

PREPARING THE CHICKEN. Blot the chicken pieces with paper towels. Prick several times on the thick meaty side of each piece with a fork to allow the marinade to penetrate. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Place the chicken pieces in a large non-reactive mixing bowl and add the spice paste (rechad masala), and using a rubber spatula mix well, turning the pieces so the chicken is coated on all sides in the paste. Leave to marinate about an hour at room temperature.

BOILING THE POTATOES. Peel the potatoes and cut into quarters lengthwise. Place the potato wedges in a 2-quart saucepan. Cover with water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until tender enough to easily pierce with the tip of a sharp knife but still al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes. Pour into a colander and rinse under cold water and leave to drain.

COOKING THE CHICKEN AND POTATOES. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet (not nonstick) over high heat. Add the chicken with the spice paste and cook, stirring fairly frequently with a slotted spoon until the flesh changes from glossy pink to milky-white, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the potatoes, and continue cooking, stirring frequently as the reddish sauce bubbles and begins to thicken, about 3 to 4 more minutes until the oil rises to the surface in small pools. Keep stirring and cook another 3 to 4 minutes until the chicken and potatoes are glazed in the thick sauce and all the liquid has dried up. Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with a few sprigs of coriander (cilantro), if you wish. Makes 4-6 servings

Ayesha D'Mello the Indian cooking teacher with bebinca cake

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Southern Peninsula of India

South India is comprised of four states, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Western Ghats (steps) merge into the Nilgiri, or Blue Mountains and Cardamom Hills near Kerala and continue to the southern tip of the peninsula. At the very tip is Cape Comorin, where Hindus believe bathing in the waters where three oceans meet will wash their sins away. Beyond the Western Ghats a plateau slopes eastward to the broken chain of the Eastern Ghats. The climate is hot and humid except when the cool monsoons blow in, drenching the forests and rice paddies.  Dravidian dynasties competed for supremacy in the south over thousands of years, but no one kingdom ever controlled the whole pendant-shaped tip of the peninsula. The Malabar Coast was strategically important in the lucrative spice trade. Today spices and chiles permeate the cuisine of South India. While each state has their own specialties, similar ingredients are used. Rice is the staple grain and many varieties are grown. Rice, known as sadam in the south is flavored with lemon, tamarind, coconut and yogurt and made into puddings and other sweets. Rice is ground into flour and used to make batter for fritters, steamed cakes, pancakes and noodles. To make string hoppers, cooked rice dough is pushed through the holes of a press, the strands swirled into flat nests and used to sop up curry or sweetened coconut milk. Fish and shellfish come from the sea, rivers and backwater canals. Tropical fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. Tea and coffee are cultivated in the cool hills.  Coconut and date palms sway in the warm breezes. Coconuts, coconut oil, curry leaves, turmeric, mustard seeds, shallots, tamarind, lime juice and smoked kokum called kodampoli or “fish tamarind” are widely used in southern cooking. Two other unusual ingredients are kalpasi, a dried fungus collected from rocks along the beach and vazlapoo, the pale yellow inner buds of banana blossoms. The moss is used in biryanis and the buds are often ground with chickpeas to make fritters. In general, South Indian food is less oily and lighter than in the north where cream and ghee make the food richer and harder to digest. Only in the south are small amounts of split lentils roasted or fried and used as a seasoning, adding a nutty flavor to many dishes. In the south curries are hotter and thinner than in the north, perfect for mixing into the plain foil of rice. Hot, thin rasam (literally “dal water”) and slightly thicker, tangy-hot lentil and vegetable sambar accompany rice at all meals. The duo is also served with paper thin rice and lentil pancakes and spongy steamed rice cakes that resemble flying saucers. Cooling tamarind and other souring agents are used in abundance to help balance the large intake of chiles. Tamarind also preserves the vitamins of vegetables and helps soften the hard water found in many parts of the south. Food is served on banana leaves, which are fed to cows when the meal is over. The size of the leaf and placement of dishes on it differ in each community, and one glance tells a person the status, wealth and origin of a family.  Chewing paan (betel leaf) after meals originated in the south as a digestive.

Goan chicken and okra with fries from Ayesha's class

Ayesha's Kitchen

Six years ago I attended the first cooking class Ayesha D'Mello offered here in Miami, not to learn to cook Indian food but to write about the experience in my weekly column in the Miami Herald called Fork on the Road.  From that article and other media notice, her classes began to fill quickly as word of mouth got around. Now you may have to go on a waiting list. The classes are hands on, fun and a real learning experience. Ayesha is confident, energetic, organized, wise and kind. Her joy for cooking Indian food is as infectious as her mega-watt smile. She is Goan and Goan's are known for their love of life and food and Ayesha is the perfect example of this personality trait.

Ayesha's philosophy: Cook quick, healthy and delicious Indian dishes

She offers scheduled as well as private group cooking classes in her home

Classes range from all about Indian bread, dinner on the spice route and classic Indian cuisine to traditional vegetarian fare and vegan village of India (check the schedule of upcoming classes on the website below)

Gift certificates are available for all occasions including birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, etc and can be personalized

Most classes include 6-8 dishes designed to get a new-to-Indian cook started using readily available ingredients and participants will go home with copies of the featured recipes to make at home

At the end of the class everyone sits down to a full meal that they helped cook from appetizer to dessert

For more information or to schedule a class go to: www.ayeshaskitchen.com

Contact info: 305-254-069/ayeshaskitchen@yahoo.com

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Link to Foodbuzz.com


Doing an Indian cooking demo (Rajasthani chicken in yogurt sauce)

Goan food (Beef curry, croquettes, green chutney and shrimp curry)

Maharashtra Beet and Coconut Soup

My Spice Box (Masala Dabba)

Indian vegetables with fresh turmeric

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Temple Parrot, Chennai India

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What my blog is about

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Tangy Goan Purple Cabbage Salad

In Goa cabbage replaces lettuce as the main salad green as it keeps fresh longer. This light crisp slaw-like salad is deliciously tart in a vinegar base with a pleasant hint of garlic, crunch of bell pepper, and juicy bits of tomato all jumbled together. The salad is beautiful with the purple cabbage and red onions perking up anything it is plated with. This is the everyday salad of Goa served as a tangy crunchy textural contrast to rich meaty curries and spice smeared grilled chicken and a must with fried fritters and fish. Use good olive oil and vine ripe tomatoes for best results.  Soaking the cabbage for a short time helps crisp it.


1 pound purple cabbage (half a large head or 1 small head), cored and shredded
1 medium red onion (about 8 ounces), peeled, quartered and finely sliced
1 small green or red bell pepper (about 5-6 ounces), cored, inner membranes removed and cut into fine strips
1 large ripe tomato or 2-3 plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), quartered, sliced into paper- thin half moons (separate with your fingers)
2 fresh green chiles such as serrano or Thai, halved lengthwise, seeded and minced
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, smashed, skin removed and minced
Freshly ground black pepper

CRISPING THE CABBAGE. Place the shredded cabbage in a bowl of lightly salted cold  water to cover and add the sliced onion. Soak 5 minutes and drain well in a colander.

DRESSING THE SALAD. In a serving bowl, mix together the cabbage, onion, bell pepper and tomato. In a small bowl whisk the vinegar with the salt and sugar until dissolved. Whisk in the oil, garlic and ground pepper to taste and pour over the cabbage mixture. Toss to coat well, using a rubber spatula and serve. This salad can be made one day ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Goan Pork Vindaloo

Unlike the molten vindaloos served in many restaurants, a vindaloo should not bite back.  An authentic vindaloo is a glorious balance of heat, tartness, spice, and subtle sweetness.  Vindaloo comes from the corruption of vinh d'alho, meaning wine of garlic in the Portuguese creole spoken in India. In Portuguese, vinho de alho means a slow-cooked stew with wine vinegar and garlic. The Portuguese introduced this method of cooking to Goa, a tiny state on India's southwestern palm fringed coast where it evolved into a spicy braise. Along the way tamarind slipped into the pot, as well as tomatoes and chiles brought from the New World. The vinegar works as a tenderizer and preservative, important in a hot humid place with little refrigeration until recently.  Cooking over low heat also helps tenderize the pork and allows the flavors to meld. To learn about genuine vindaloo, I spent a day with Premila Fernandes in the enormous smoke-blackened kitchen of her friend Mario Miranda at his 300-year-old estate in Loutolim, Goa.  Built in a baroque blend of Iberian and Indian architecture, the mansion is a reminder of four and a half centuries of Portuguese occupation of Goa. Another reminder is the pork. Rarely eaten in the rest of India, pork is a favorite of the Christians in Goa, who roast whole pigs for feasts and turn ground pork into spicy sausages. Over centuries Latin influences mingled with tropical ingredients forming a fusion cuisine unique to Goa.  Premila starts with the basic spice blend of Goa (piri piri masala), blending toasted spices and lots of mild red chiles with tamarind pulp and vinegar into a smooth paste.  After marinating in the dark red paste, the chunks of pork and the marinade are sautéed with onions, then braised until the liquid reduces down to a thick sauce with only a flicker of heat. Vindaloo tastes even better reheated a day after making it as the flavors meld.


Pork and Spice Paste Marinade (Wet Masala)

2 pounds boneless pork leg (fresh ham) or shoulder (often labeled pork for stewing)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 dried ancho chile, snipped in several pieces and seeded
1/2 cup malt or apple cider vinegar
8 whole black peppercorns
One 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1 generous teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 generous tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute lemon juice)
1 teaspoon turmeric

 To Finish the Vindaloo

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1-pound), peeled, quartered, and finely sliced
1 large tomato or 2-3 plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste, thinned with 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 whole star anise pod
2 tablespoons thick, aged balsamic vinegar, optional

 PREPARING THE PORK. Blot the pork dry with paper towels. Trim any excess fat off, leaving a few flecks for flavor and moistness. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in a non-reactive mixing bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Mix and toss with a spatula to coat all the sides in salt.

MAKING THE SPICE PASTE. Place the ancho chile pieces in a small bowl, add the vinegar and soak about 15 minutes. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in the peppercorns, cinnamon, mustard seeds, cumin, and cloves. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time until seeds start to crackle and smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and blitz, pulsing on and off several times and scraping down the sides with a small spoon until fairly finely powdered, about 2 minutes.  Pour the ancho chile and vinegar into a blender. Add the ground spices, garlic, tamarind, and turmeric. Blend, stopping once or twice and scraping down sides with a rubber spatula until the mixture is smooth, about 2 or 3 minutes (you should have 1/2 a cup of thin mahogany colored paste). Pour over the pork and, and toss with a rubber spatula until evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to three days.

COOKING THE ONIONS AND PORK. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet (not nonstick) or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the pork and marinade, and cook, stirring frequently and scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, until the pork changes from pink, becoming firm and light brownish, about 4 to 5 minutes. The pork will begin to exude rich reddish-brown juices that bubble and foam. Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, sugar, star anise with 3/4 of a cup of hot water and the balsamic vinegar, if using. Bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, checking and stirring every so often to make sure it is proceeding at a gentle bubble and the pork is not sticking (add a little water if it is), about 1 hour. The sauce will become shiny as it thickens and the pork will be fork tender.  Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with paper-thin red onion rings and a few sprigs of coriander (cilantro), if you wish.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Goa’s climate is typical of coastal monsoon lands— the endless cycle of a dry hot season increasing in humidity, followed by monsoon rains that cool the air, then a dry cooler season that gradually gets hotter and humid. During the rains, the thickly forested hilltops of the ghats are capped in clouds and mist. Lower slopes are planted with spices, cashews, teak, guava, jackfruit, custard apples, papayas, pineapples, melons, mangoes, muzambi (sweet limes) and bananas. Between the ghats and beaches, lush rice paddies and fields of vegetables surround villages with white church steeples stabbing the blue skies. The rivers and sea yield fish and shellfish year round.  Rice is the staple grain, eaten at every meal, often with fish curry. The rice grown in Goa is thick, reddish and round-grained with a nutty flavor. Ragi (red millet) is also important, ground and roasted to make thick flat breads. Coconut sap and cashew apples are fermented to make feni, a potent spirit. Dried fish are utilized during the monsoon season when fishermen remain home. Chilies are grown and used in tongue curling abundance. These of course are the legacy of the Portuguese who ruled Goa for 450 years. Before the Iberian colonists and missionaries arrived, this verdant chunk of land was ruled by waves of Hindu dynasties and Arab invaders. The Portuguese however had the biggest impact on Goan food. In Goa, pork and beef is eaten by Christians as well as many Hindus. Brahmins indulge in seafood and vegetables are often cooked with tiny shrimp. A popular souring agent is kokum, the dark purple dried rind of a tart type of tropical plum. Meals often begin with a digestive drink based on kokum extract. The local rice is served double boiled which makes the grains larger and soft, a perfect foil for spicy curries and caldeiradas (layered seafood stews). Pork vindaloo is a fiery, sweet and sour curry with a touch of vinegar. Chouriço is Goan sausage based on chorizo, laced with garlic, spices and chilies, often added to pots of simmered beans or sandwiched inside bread rolls. Muslim cooks add the sausage to rice pilaf with shrimp and spices. Pale poppy seeds are roasted and ground with toasted coconut, chilies and spices to make complex chicken and seafood curries called xacuti (pronounced “sha-koo-tee”) with a nutty flavor. Xec xec is thick coconut curry with crab or lobster. Sukem are dry curries, made with seafood or vegetables, often eaten with bread. Besides flat breads, there are many baked types including crusty bangle-shaped kankon, pao (soft rolls) and ápa (rice cakes) layered with a spicy shrimp filling. Sweets are based on egg yolks, palm sugar and coconut. The most famous of these is bebinca, a cake of layered pancakes made with a coconut milk, flour, sugar and egg yolk batter enriched with ghee. Each layer has to be baked before the next one is added, taking several hours although modern cooks often make do with a modest number of layers, not the traditional sixteen.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Galicia has deep tentacles to the sea and soccer

My musings about Paul The Octopus after a recent trip to Galicia, Spain (can you tell I'm a soccor fan?)

Paul the Oracle Octopus is a national hero in Spain after he predicted they would win the World Cup, creating an international frenzy. Altered Spanish flags with a crowned Paul have been waving in triumph. A Brazilian company is developing a Paul iPhone app and a businessman in the town of O Carballino in Galicia raised a “transfer fee” to have Paul present at the annual Fiesta del Pulpo (octopus festival). Despite the assurances of the head of a local business club that Paul would be alive in a tank and not on the menu, Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany where Paul resides rejected the offer. Germans threatened to eat Paul after their loss in the semi-finals, as did the Uruguayans and Argentines to taunt the Spanish who are famous for their love of boiled octopus. Much of the catch comes from the waters around Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The Madrid Zoo is negotiating to trump any other offers for the celebrated cephalopod but for now he is staying put. One has to marvel at the joy a little octopus pundit has brought Spain. Pulpo certifies any event in Galicia as a serious celebration, so the next four years should be quite a party.
Sadly, Paul won't be around for the 2014 beautiful games because he is already 2 1/2 years old and Octopuses only live to be about 4. Perhaps he will return reincarnated as a mind reading  monkey from India.

To meet a Neighbor Takes a Column

I will soon be marking the 10th year of writing a weekly food column for the Miami Herald. I started in October of 2000 and have met many interesting people, many who have become friends over the years. I even visited the remote village in South India that is the home of Raja Kandaswammy, the owner of Rajas's in downtown Miami (NE 2nd near Flagler). At one point, faces of the villagers were pressed to each window staring at me. When I walked to the local Hindu temple, everyone followed.  It seemed like I was a strange star that fell from the sky. I then visieted the nearby town where Raja's wife Chitra is from and spent a memorable night eating with her sister and parents. My every move was videotaped and for a year after I had returned to Miami the video played in the small restaurant as Raja proudly shared his parents, his village and way of life with customers.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth St. Theresa, the Albanian Sister who went on to found her charity in Calcutta (now Kolkata). I visited it when I was in Kolkata and you can't but feel the immensity of her faith manifested in her work with the poor.  Tonight several buildings in South Florida are lit in the blue and white colors of the sari she always wore. Let her light shine on forever. And by the way, Kolkata is not a "black hole". It is a vibrant Bengali city known as the intellectual center of India with poets, writers, film makers, actors and artists  contributing to works that are known around the world. The food is very different and based on freshwater fish and rice from the region, but I'll be getting to that later.

And today a person e-mailed with a comment on one of my Herald columns. A random stranger. I found out in replying that we live three blocks from one another. The next time he and his wife have one of their Friday night gatherings, I'll be there. The world works in mysterious ways but I'm glad to be making the connections.

Chaat Masala

                                 CHAAT MASALA (TANGY SPICE BLEND)

In Hindi chaat literally means “to lick”, referring to mouth watering snack salads and finger-licking foods enlivened with chaat masala.  This is a tantalizing blend with a distinctive flavor from earthy ground cumin, tart green mango powder (amchoor) and smoky, sulpherous black salt (kala namak) that tastes tangy, like lemon with a hint of egg salad. These are combined and ground with dried mint, dried ginger, nutmeg, cayenne, salt, and pepper for a well balanced seasoning that is tossed with chaat ingredients (boiled chunks of potato and raw fruit are popular), then smothered in sweet, sour and hot chutneys for full effect. If you for any reason, you can’t find black salt, don’t substitute table salt, as the mix will be overly salty without the special tang. Instead, add a little citric acid (sold in small crystals in Indian markets and finely ground Kosher “sour salt” in supermarkets). Commercial chaat masala blends are sold in small boxes in Indian markets and I find most are more than acceptable in flavor with a good spicy-tart-salty taste. Besides adding allure to chaat salads, try this masala sprinkled over yogurt salads and on French fries and other fried snacks, including samosas and vegetable fritters, added to stewed chickpeas and mixed into coleslaw and other creamy salad dressings.  In India, it is all the rage to dust grilled kebabs, fried fish or shrimp and tandoori chicken with a little chaat masala.

Here's a link to to find Indian ingredients on line: http://www.indiangrocerynet.com

Makes about 1 cup


3 tablespoons cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 tablespoons dried crushed mint

1/2 teaspoon asafeotida (hing powder)

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, grated on a microplane rasp-style grater or other grater

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

4 tablespoons green mango powder (amchoor)

2 tablespoons black salt (kala namak)

1 teaspoon cayenne powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals

ROASTING THE SPICES. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in the

cumin and peppercorns. Roast, stirring from time to time with a slotted spoon until the

spices smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the mint,

asafoeotida, nutmeg and ginger and toast another minute, stirring constantly. Remove

from the heat and cool slightly.

GRINDING THE SPICE MIXTURE (MASALA).  Transfer to a small electric

coffee/spice grinder and add the green mango powder, black salt, cayenne and salt and

blitz to a fairly fine powder, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides with a small

spoon, about 2 minutes. Store in a glass jar or tightly sealed  container and use within 6 months for the best flavor.

Beet and Coconut Soup from Maharashtra

There is nothing shy or retiring about beets. The bulbous burgundy roots are bold, turning everything they touch shades of ruby and hot pink. The roots sweetness is best balanced with the sharpness of an acidic seasoning to bring out the earthy flavor. Beets also need something creamy to soften the assertive edge. To make this soup I simmer boiled, chopped beets in an aromatic herb paste and puree it with coconut milk. Lime zest and juice adds the tang to balance the sweetness while mint, garlic, cumin, chiles and shallots add layers of flavor. The color is a lovely deep magenta-pink garnished with vibrant green fresh coriander (cilantro) and pale chopped shallot. A final dusting of chaat masala (tangy spice blend) adds another contrasting tartness against the bed of subtly sweet, earthy soup. Beets evolved from the wild sea-beet that thrived along coastlines from Ireland to North Africa, India and Asia since prehistoric times. They were eaten for their greens since the roots were small and spindly. The Greeks made offerings of beets to the sun god Apollo and the Romans cultivated beets, calling them beta and used the roots medicinally to treat everything from fevers to toothaches—an irony since beets contain more sugar than any other vegetable. My Indian friend Seema loved beets growing up because they were so sweet, especially compared to karela (bitter gourd) and the tongue-prickling patra leaves from the taro tuber. As a teen she smeared her lips with a slice of beet in place of lipstick that was strictly banned in her Mumbai convent school. When shopping for beets, look for smooth, hard round deep red beets. Avoid ones with soft spots or flabby skins and wilted, yellowing leaves. The smaller the size the sweeter the taste, making for beet soup that is hard to beat,  and is both hearty and and blushingly beautiful. Chat masala is based on black salt and green mango powder and is sold in small packets in Indian grocery stores. I will also post a recipe for making it yourself.


3 medium or 6 small beets (about 12 ounces)
3 large or 6 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 fresh green jalapeño, coarsely chopped (seeded for less heat if you wish)
1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
2 sprigs of fresh mint (about 12 leaves stripped from the stem)
Zest of 1 lime, removed with a citrus zester or Microplane rasp-style grater
2 limes, divided use
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 generous teaspoon cumin seeds
3 large or 6 small shallots (about 6 ounces) or 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups vegetable stock (homemade or canned)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
One 14 to 15 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk


Sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro)
2 small shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
Chaat masala (tangy spice blend), optional

PREPARING THE BEETS. If the greens are attached, cut them off leaving about 1/2 an inch of stems. Rinse but do not peel or cut off the root end. Place in a saucepan and add water to cover by an inch or so. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat and boil until tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 45 to 50 minutes (a little longer if the beets are large). Drain in a colander and when cool enough to handle trim the root ends and peel the skins off (if the beets are small, the thin skin can be left on).  Chop into rough chunks and set aside.

MAKING THE AROMATIC PASTE (MASALA). Place the garlic, jalapeño, ginger, mint, lime zest and the juice of one of the limes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal S-shaped blade (a mini one that fits on a blender is ideal). Process, pulsing on and off, stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula until fairly smooth, about 2 minutes (the light green mixture will be speckled with small dark green bits).

COOKING THE SOUP BASE. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium heat. Drop in the cumin seeds and fry until the seeds sizzle and darken, about 2 minutes. Add the shallots (or red onion) and cook, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon until soft and starting to turn pale caramel, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beets and aromatic paste and cook, stirring frequently until the paste dries up and clings to the beets, about 3 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and season with the salt, a few good twists of the pepper grinder and the pinch of sugar. Simmer about 10 minutes and turn off the heat.

PUREEING THE BEET MIXTURE AND COCONUT MILK. Transfer half the beet mixture to the jar of a blender and add half the can of coconut milk. Blend until smooth, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes and pour in a clean saucepan. Blend the rest of the beets and coconut milk and add to the pan. Taste and adjust for salt and add the juice of the remaining lime. Gently bring to a simmer over low heat. Pour in to a tureen or ladle into soup bowls. Serve garnished with sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro) and sliced shallots and sprinkle with a little chaat masala (tangy spice blend). Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chopped Salad With Chickpeas and Minty Yogurt

This is a  type of cachumber (uncooked chopped salad), with the addition of chickpeas and dressed in a creamy mint yogurt dressing, making it similar to raita (curd salad). It is a favorite in Maharashtra State. While not a festival food, I associate it with the celebrations in Pune during the 100th anniversary of Ganesha Chaturthi on my first trip to India many years ago.  This is a mass worship of Ganesha, the beloved deity born of the goddess Pavrati, wife of Shiva who is the remover of obstacles.  Pune is about three hours south of Mumbai (Bombay) by train and I found it a pressure cooker of activity the week in early September that I visited. I was met at the station by friendship guides and bedecked in flower garlands and anointed with red rice paste on my forehead. Electric-lit decorations and makeshift wood stalls festooned with tinsel and crepe paper lined the streets—stage sets for Ganesha statues, which portray the pot-bellied elephant-headed god. He sits cross-legged on lotus petal cushions waving multiple arms, blindfolded with red strips of cloth, removed the next evening in a ceremony that kicks off the festivities, ending eleven days later with a farewell immersion of all the clay statues in a nearby river. Little cafes with rickety tables and chairs set out under the stars sprawled along roadways. Vendors offered tea, cold drinks, hot snacks and various chaat-like chopped salads, including chickpeas, diced cucumber, tomato and red onions tossed in a minty yogurt dressing. The yogurt is blended with mint, coriander (cilantro), ginger, green chiles and garlic with a little lemon juice, creating a cooling, creamy tangy complement to the earthy chickpeas and crisp cucumber. The version I ate during the festival was served in a small leaf bowl and topped with sev, fine broken bits of crispy chickpea flour noodles. These are sold in the snack section of Indian groceries and make a tasty garnish, but the salad still tastes great with just a few mint springs for adornment.


The Creamy Dressing

Chopped mint leaves (about 1/2 a loosely packed cup)
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 2 generous tablespoons)
1 teaspoon peeled and grated gingerroot
1 small garlic clove, smashed, skin removed and coarsely chopped
1 fresh green chile such as serrano or Thai, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup plain yogurt (not nonfat) preferably natural whole milk or strained Greek, divided use
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil

The Salad
One 15.5 ounce can of chickpeas, well rinsed and drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
2-3 plum tomatoes, (about 8 ounces), finely chopped
1 small red onion (about 3-4 ounces), thinly sliced, then coarsely chopped
1 cucumber (about 12 ounces), peeled, halved, seeded and cut into small dice (or use 2 slender seedless Armenian type that don’t need peeling)

A few mint sprigs
Sev (fine chickpea flour noodles), optional

 MAKING THE DRESSING. Place the mint, coriander (cilantro), ginger, garlic, chile,  1/2 a cup of the yogurt, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil in the jar of a blender and blend, scraping down once or twice with a rubber spatula, until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Scrape into a small bowl (makes about 1 cup of thin light green dressing).

 ASSEMBLING THE SALAD. Place the chickpeas, tomato, onion and cucumber in a mixing bowl.  Pour in the dressing and gently combine, using a rubber spatula. Whisk the remaining 1/2 a cup of yogurt until smooth and stir into the salad. Taste and adjust for salt. Serve garnished with a few mint sprigs and sprinkle of sev noodles, if you wish.

THe Deccan and Maharashtra

The Deccan plateau of peninsular India, formed from solidified volcanic lava eruptions marks the great divide between the northern plains and southern regions of India. Deccan comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “south”. The Vindhya Mountain range acts as a natural barrier and for centuries the two halves of India were almost cut off from each other. The region below this range was once the vast kingdom of Marathas, stretching from what is now Gujarat across the plains to the east coast. Chains of hills run parallel to each coast, known as the Western and Eastern Ghats. To the west, the hills flatten out into the Konkan coastal lowlands where alluvial rivers provide enough water for growing rice and other crops. A number of large rivers flow from the ghats (literally “steps”), draining down into the Arabian Sea. Others flow across the Deccan plateau toward the Bay of Bengal, creating fertile swaths. Maharashtra, meaning “great state” is the heart of the peninsula with Mumbai (formerly Bombay) it’s pulsing nucleus. Maharashtra lies between the wheat growing northern regions and rice growing south and both bread and rice are staples, although rice is a little more favored. Many regional variations of cuisine exist. There are the fierce, chili-hot meat curries in coconut milk bases of the Marathis, a former warrior class believed to be descendents of the great king Shivaji. Hindu Brahmins prepare sparsely spiced pure vegetarian food. In the coastal villages seafood is cooked with green chilies, fresh herbs, onions, garlic and coconut. The main spice blend used is goda masala made by dry roasting and grinding together aromatic spices, dried red chilies, coconut and sesame or white poppy seeds. Staples throughout the region are hand patted sorghum and millet breads, often eaten with a few chilies, an onion and leafy green curry as a meal. Puran poli are thin breads stuffed with a filling of sweet dal or palm sugar and sesame seeds, eaten with spicy curries or as a snack. Greens are also cooked with various dals. Roasted, ground peanuts or chickpea flour is often sprinkled over dishes to soak up liquids or thicken gravies.  In Mumbai, every imaginable cuisine can be found in India’s largest melting pots. The Parsis are one of the largest communities who arrived to India centuries ago. They blend Persian influences with the sweet and sour flavors of Gujarat (where they first settled).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gujarati Green Beans with Peanuts & Garlic

In Gujarat the general term for vegetable is shak and the majority of the people are vegetarian. Kutchhis (from the Kutch region), Jains (similar to Buddhists), and Vaishnavs (worshipers of Lord Krishna) are just some of the many sects in Gujarat and while tastes differ from region to region in the state—Jains for instance don’t eat roots or tubers that grow underground—all have contributed to the vegetarian dishes that appear in subtle variations on the tables of Gujarat. This is a very simple, delightful green bean stir-fry I tasted in my hosts home in the Kutch region—the biggest district in Gujarat, bordering Pakistan and containing the vast salt flats called the Rann of Kutch. During the monsoons this area is flooded with seawater and when it recedes the land sparkles like snow with a blinding white crust of salt stretching to the horizon. The people in this part of western Gujarat are mostly tribal and each tribe wears colorful embroidered clothing. Their dwellings are round mud huts called bhungas with a central support pole and thatched roof, with a cluster of huts surrounding a large communal courtyard. The smooth interior mud walls are washed with lime paste and embedded with tiny bits of mirror that throw hundreds of shimmering reflections. When the mud stove was lit, flickering pinpoints of fire spun around the kitchen where I shared a simple meal with a tribal family. Kutchhi cuisine is slightly sweet and spicy. Water is scarce in this harsh region so cooking vegetables in a little oil with mustard seeds, garlic, and crushed hot red peppers is common. The green beans are quickly cooked until tender-crisp with a little salt and sugar and peanuts for crunch.  I often whip up a pan of these spicy-sweet green beans to bring to pot lucks and they are always one of the first dishes to disappear.


1 pound green beans, cut into 2-inch segments (about 3 packed cups), blanched in boiling water about 2 minutes, plunged into ice water and drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
4 large or 8 small cloves of garlic, smashed, skins removed and minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals (less if using salted peanuts)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 generous tablespoons skinless roasted peanuts (plain or salted), coarsely chopped

 COOKING THE BEANS. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the mustard seeds and fry until they start turning gray and sputter, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the garlic and quickly stir, scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, about 1 minute. Add the green beans, red pepper flakes, salt, sugar and peanuts, stirring and scraping frequently until the green beans are tender-crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes (for less crunch cook another few minutes, stirring all the time and sprinkling in a little water).  Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnish with chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, if you wish.

Gujarati Green Pea and Cucumber Curry

This luscious golden creamy pea and cucumber curry is an example of food that looks every bit as good as it tastes. To the uninitiated, adding cucumber to a cooked dish may seem strange as the crisp, watery cucumber is usually used raw. The vegetable is native to India where is most commonly added to chopped salads, grated and blended into yogurt to make raita, a cooling side dish salad and pickled.  Cucumber is also added to soups, stewed lentils, and curries. Both smooth-skinned slender green cucumbers and a round yellow type called dossakai are used like a squash and is the same family as gourds and melons.  Cucumbers are widely cultivated in Gujarat in Western India, adding a crisp-tender texture to many cooked dishes like this curry I cooked with Leela Patel and her daughter-in-law Sheetal near Vadodara in the country side where the two-story family house was surrounded by drumstick trees and fields of cauliflower. This falls in the general category of apnu shak, meaning vegetables dishes (shak means vegetable). We used freshly shelled peas from the pod, but frozen peas work fine are always available. Indian yogurt, made from full fat water buffalo milk is much richer than most yogurts found here so I add a little sour cream (also ensuring it won’t curdle). Diced cucumber is stirred into a mixture of lightly browning onions with cumin and mustards seeds, ginger, jalapeño, turmeric and cayenne and steamed until tender-crisp. The yogurt mixture is stirred with salt and cooked slowly at a low temperature until the cucumber is tender, with the peas stirred in the last few minutes. The thick, creamy light golden curry is irresistible with bright green peas contrasting the icy pale green cucumber cubes in both color and flavor. The peas are meaty and chewy and the cucumber mild and melting tender with just a hint of crispness. The dish is garnisheed with roasted, chopped peanuts, adding nutty crunch.


1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces), peeled, halved with each half thinly sliced then chopped crosswise into small bits
1 fresh green jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and minced
1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated gingerroot
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 medium cucumber (about 8 ounces), peeled, seeds scraped out and cut lengthwise into 4-5 strips, the strips cut crosswise into small cubes
11/4 cups plain yogurt (not non-fat), preferably natural whole milk or Greek strained, whisked until smooth and lump free
1 generous tablespoon sour cream, whisked into the yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 1/2 cups frozen and thawed green peas


1 tablespoon roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
Chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 generous tablespoon)

MAKING THE AROMATIC BASE. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the cumin and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to turn gray and sputter in about 1 1/2 minutes, add the onion. Cook, stirring fairly frequently with a slotted spoon until starting to turn pale caramel, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the jalapeño, ginger, turmeric, and cayenne and cook, stirring almost constantly and scraping up from the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute.

ADDING THE CUCUMBER, YOGURT, AND PEAS.  Add the cucumber and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add a little water (3-4 tablespoons), cover, and steam the cucumber until tender-crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes, adding another tablespoon of water, if necessary (the onions will be a rich golden brown color).  Add a few spoonfuls of the cucumber mixture to the yogurt-sour cream mixture and stir in (to warm it). Reduce the heat to low. Slowly stir the yogurt mixture into the pan, adding a little at a time and stirring in a circular motion until all of it is incorporated (the yogurt sauce will be creamy golden-yellow). Add the salt and simmer, stirring frequently until the sauce bubbles, about 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and cayenne. Add the peas and cook about 2 minutes (so they remain a bright green color). Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with the peanuts and chopped coriander (cilantro).

The first recipe!

I'm taking a break in explaining the various regions of India to post my first recipe--from Gujarat, the last region I told you about. The majority of Gujarati are vegetarians so this wil be a cool cucumber dish--where the cucumber is cooked gently in a mixture of spices and yogurt. I made this dish with relatives if Dinu and Leela Patel who own the Little Market in Fort Lauderdale  near the corner of Oakland Park Blvd. and Andrews Dr,, a great place for stocking up on spices, basmati rice, Indian types of lentils, and fresh vegetables. Almost every city or town has a an Indian market, so cooking Indian should never be a problem. Supermarkets have most of the spices and there are lots of mail order web sites where you never have to leave home to shop globally.


Gujarat is shaped a little like a Rhinoceros head, with a massive horn jutting out into the Arabian Sea. Gujarat became a state May 1, 1960—it had formerly been a part of Bombay State, which split into Gujarat and Maharashtra states. Gujarat is situated on India’s northwest coast, some 400 miles from Mumbai and is renowned for flavorful and sophisticated vegetarian fare. The terrain and climate are extreme, from the salt marsh and parched desert in the northwest to the lush green land in the southeast. This is one of the richest states, culturally and economically and is home to a large trader class. It is likely a Gujarati, with the surname Patel owns your neighborhood Indian grocery store. Gujarat is divided into roughly three regions, each with distinct climates.  Kathiawar Penninsula in the west is dry and flat, dotted with worn sandstone hills and is famous for its dairy products and pickles. Pulses and hearty millet and wheat breads are staples, often enriched with chopped spinach, ginger and a little yogurt, served with sweet grated green mango chutney. Central Gujarat has rich soil where various grains, vegetables and sugarcane are cultivated. Sugarcane juice is boiled down to make thick cakes of brown sugar and small lumps sweeten numerous savory dishes. Battered vegetable fritters found throughout India originated here and shallow-fried chapatti called thepla are staples. Popular snacks are steamed split pea flour cakes called dhokla and savory crunchies called farsan, many based on chickpea flour. South Gujarat gets bountiful rain and the regions vegetables, including chilies are grown here on vads (family farms).  The food is spicier and more sugar is used in cooking giving dishes a tangy-sweet flavor. Green chili-ginger paste, red chili powder, turmeric, fenugreek leaves, hing, mustard seeds and sesame seeds are popular seasonings. Sesame oil is favored for cooking and coconut products are used in moderation. Undhiv is a mixed vegetable and bean stew in a creamy coconut sauce, baked in upside down clay pots buried in the ground. Salads based on shredded cabbage or sprouted mung beans with grated coconut and sizzled spices accompany most meals.

Monday, August 23, 2010


In the arid desert regions of Rajasthan nothing is wasted—not even time, and curries are thick for carrying out to the fields to eat with thick millet, corn or barley flat breads, chili chutney and small raw onions, which are said to prevent sunstroke. In the driest regions meats are cooked in milk or yogurt with ghee. Small desert berries, called ker and a type of tree bean known as sangri are sun-dried and cooked in oil or yogurt to save water or are pickled. Grains, breads, yogurt and buttermilk are staples.  Bati are balls of dough mixed with ginger-garlic paste and green chilies baked in a charcoal fire, and dipped in ghee. Choorma are fried bati, crushed with sugar and almonds and eaten rolled into small balls with ghee or added to a spicy dal curry to make dal-bati-choorma, a savory-sweet combination. The Marwaris of Rajasthan are strict vegetarians from the bania, or business class and have drifted far and wide where commerce has taken them—many settled in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Typical vegetarian fare includes deep-fried puffy whole wheat breads, thick lentil and bean stews flavored with cumin and mustard seeds, potatoes in spicy gravy and vegetables stir-fried with chilies and spices.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Uttar Pradesh

 Delhi, Agra, Lucknow and Varanasi (Benares) all lie in the state of Uttar Pradesh, testimony to the cultural and historical richness of the region which was the setting for two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Agra, of course has the Taj Mahal. Lucknow is famed for its refined Moghali court cuisine and Varanasi is where all Hindus hope to die, cleansed by the Ganges. The fertile plains are watered by two mighty river systems—the Indus and Ganga-Brahmaputra plus there are vast underground water reserves for irrigation. Temperatures are extreme—searing hot, dusty and dry in summer, moderate in spring and freezing cold and windy in winter. Mid-July brings torrents of monsoon rains. Hardy millet, barley, corn and jowar, a type of sorghum are grown across the plains as are pulses and many types of fruits and vegetables. Foods of the northern plain are a contrast of rich, complex meat-heavy, cream and nut enriched Moghul-Muslim and Maharaja palace dishes with the hearty peasant fare of rural villagers and farmers based on grains, breads, and pulses. Moghuls married into the neighboring Rajput warrior kingdoms, a clever move to keep the provinces united, prevent clashes and free both parties for the pleasantries of game hunting.  Nowhere was the cuisine more refined than in Awadh, in what is now the Lucknow district of Uttar Pradesh. Here dum pukht , a method of slowly steaming food in a pot sealed shut with bread dough came into style near the end of the Moghul empire. The Nawabs of Lucknow left a legacy of extravagant foods, flowery language and a gentrified way of life that still lingers today. Delhi is India’s capital and third largest city. Here, the food is a babble of North Indian, Punjabi and Mughali fare. Behind the gates of Old Delhi are congested lanes spiraling around the Jama Masjid, or Friday mosque built by Emperor Shah Jahan. Nearby are venerable restaurants serving whole roast leg of lamb (raan), lamb kebabs and kheema (ground meat curry). The original inhabitants of the city were the Hindi-speaking warrior-Brahmin Kayasthas, a well-educated class who became administrators to the Muslim rulers.  Their cooking reflects the food of Uttar Pradesh with distinct Muslim influences. Typical dishes include mutton and potatoes in rich gravy, lamb do piaza (with double the amount of onions) and vegetables stuffed with green mango powder, chilies, coriander and aniseed, then fried with onions, spices and tomatoes.

Ganetic Plains & the Punjab

The great northern plains stretch south from the Pindari mountain ranges to encompass the Punjab, Haryana, Uttaranchal and Madhya Pradesh. This is the densely populated heartland where much of the history of India unfolded. The Harappa civilization flourished 5,000 years ago on the Ravi River in the Punjab. Kingdoms of the Vedic and Gupta ages saw great advances in music, art, culture and religion. After waves of Muslim invasions, the Moghul Empire dominated the region. This Empire collapsed as independent kingdoms arose, and finally the British Raj claimed India as the crown jewel of their empire. The Punjab, or “land of five rivers”, just below Kashmir shares a western border with Pakistan—the region was split between the two countries during partition after Independence in 1947 and later divided into the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. This is the breadbasket of India where wheat is the main crop and bread a staple although basmati rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas near Dehra Dun. The special flavor of Punjabi food comes from the tandoor—clay ovens with vents set in pits in the ground and fueled with charcoal at the bottom. Fat drips on the hot coals, creating smoke which is trapped in the bulbous oven with a narrow neck. Meats or vegetables are lanced on skewers and lowered down into the inferno for a quick blast, sealing in the juices. Every village has a communal oven where women bring kneaded dough and marinated meats to have them cooked while they gossip. Most Punjabis are farmers or involved in agriculture at some level. The food is simple and robust, based on what is in season. Many Punjabis consider a hot roti with a gob of melting butter and bowl of dal to be a meal, washed down with frothed buttermilk. Chilies, green mango powder, kalonji  (small black seeds with a herbaceous-oregano flavor), and fenugreek seeds are common spices. Most dishes begin with onions and garlic-ginger paste, often with tomatoes added to thicken the cooking sauce. Milk is plentiful and used in many forms—made into fresh cheese, milky sweets, yogurt, butter and ghee.  Mustard oil is used for cooking and pickling and mustard greens are a favorite vegetable, cooked in earthenware pots with green chilies, ginger and garlic.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

RegionFood Patterns of India: Kashmir

The far northern region of India is dominated by the glassy blue and white Himalayas, home of Indra, the thunderstorm god, where rivers roar through deep gorges and temperatures are well below freezing. The name Himalaya means “abode of the snow” and Hindus believe the craggy snow covered peaks are Shiva’s hair. When Brahma threw the goddess Ganga down, she was caught in Shiva’s strands of hair, preventing her waters from sweeping away the whole earth. She finally escaped near Gangatori, the sacred source of the Ganges, gushing from the throat of an icy glacier and departing at Hardwar from her mountain confines and rushing across the plains out to the sea. Only wild sheep and cave hermits live up near the glaciers. At the slightly lower altitude of 6,500 feet above sea level are the towns built around the Moghul emperor’s summer palaces and British hill stations—cool escapes from the intense heat of Delhi on the plains below.  The Vale of Kashmir was a great center of Hindu culture until coming under Muslim rule in the 14th century and today there are two strands of cuisine—the closely related Hindu Pandit and Waza Muslim (both sides have been converted back and forth depending on rulers so the lines are blurred). The main difference is Hindus use a pungent smelling ground resin called hing in place of prohibited passion arousing garlic and onions while Muslims use small shallot-like onions called praan and garlic. Kashmir has a temperate climate with lush flower carpeted valleys surrounded by apricot, apple, cherry, pear, almond and walnut orchards and thick pine forests where honeycombed morel mushrooms grow. For two weeks in late October the valleys shimmer in a sea of delicate pale purple saffron crocus. Floating vegetable gardens sprout from piled up water reeds daubed together with mud on the lakes near clusters of wooden houseboats. Winters are cold, so in summer and fall every type of fruit and vegetable is sun-dried for use when nothing can grow. Sheep are raised for meat, milk and their wool.  Both Hindu Brahmins and Muslims here eat meat—mainly lamb and goat, but the spicing is slightly different. Rice is grown in flooded paddies in the shadow of the mountains. To combat the cold, warming spices such as chili powder, cinnamon, black cardamom, pepper, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, mace, coriander seeds, ground dried ginger, and fennel powder are used.

Geology part two: boundries

The mighty pinnacles of the snow capped Himalayas form a natural border in north India, curving like a gigantic dinosaurs spine from the Hindu-kush and Karakoram ranges in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, then sagging down and across Jammu and Kashmir and thrusting through Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh forming a natural border with China, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. The Naga Hills define India’s far eastern border where they bump into Myanmar. Everything below the bands of mountains is considered the subcontinent, including Sri Lanka dripping like a tear off the southeastern tip of the peninsula. India is bounded to the west by Pakistan and engulfs Bangladesh on three sides in the east. The main part of the peninsula is surrounded by the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal. The Lakshadweep Islands off the Malabar Coast in the south and Andaman and Nicobar Islands sprinkled out where the Bay of Bengal merges with the Andaman Sea are Indian territories.

First things first: Geology of India

One Hundred million years ago the diamond-shaped Indian peninsula was still attached to the land mass called Gondwana, a fragment of the supercontinent known as Panagaea by geologists. Who knows the exact moment when volcanic activity along the ocean ridges caused the Indian plate to break off and drift north, smashing into what is now Tibet and giving birth to the Himalayas. I imagine a dark and primordial night filled with fire and blue ice, the calm drift, then the heaving of the earth’s core and crust as saw tooth mountains began to rise up to touch the stars. A land bridge still connected western India to Africa, but was eventually submerged by rising ocean levels as layers of glacial ice melted. For aeons the land was pummeled by rains, swept with winds, dusts and snow and scorched by the sun. Volcanic lava spewed up from cracks in the earth, spreading across large areas of the peninsula and solidifying into crystalline rock. Small mountains and hills rose along the north-south fault line where India was shorn away from Gondwana.  Rivers gushed from the mountains as snow melted, carrying rich silt that slowly filled the deep depressions on the plains caused by the thrusting up of the peaks. Some of the great rivers ran all the way to the oceans engulfing the peninsula, creating swaths of green along the way. One of these rivers, the Indus gave India its name and was where the first Indian civilizations flourished five thousand years ago. In the wake of the rivers irrigation pines and poplars sprung up in the shadows of the mountains and valleys filled with ferns and flowers. Bamboo groves and rhododendron jungles covered vast areas. Massive bodhi, ashoka and neem trees grew in others and palms fringed the warm coasts.  Thus the three main geological regions of India were formed and remain today—the Himalayas, the Indo-Gangetic northern plain and the peninsula.

Friday, August 20, 2010

India is a subcontinent

India is so huge it is called a subcontinent and like America, Europe, Africa, Asia or South America, it is made up of vastly different regions from mountains in the north to  the convergence of three seas in the far southern tip. My next few blogs on the geology and geography of India will help in understanding the connection of what is sustainable in that region to what is eaten based on the local produce and staple grains. You'll see why bread is a staple in the north where wheat is grown and why rice in the hot tropical south where it grows in rice paddies is the staff of life. I hope you will follow me around India. When you cook a recipe from Bengal you'll see why they are crazed about freshwater fish and rice and teeth-rotting dairy-based sweets. When you make a dish from the Punjab you'll see why wheat bread and buttery black lentils are favored, perhaps with sag-paneer (spinach cooked with cubes of fresh-made cheese). If someone wrote a book on American food and only wrote about Texas, we wouldn't know American food at all. Suffice to say if one wrote a book about one state in India we wouldn't get the full grasp of a great cuisine...

End of the beginning

India is an incomparable land of bewildering beauty, vast diversity and intricate complexity.  It is an immense country of composite textures, teeming productivity and plentiful paradoxes. It throbs with vitality while retaining the burnished ambience of a multi-layered history and lived-in humaness. The food of India reflects the collage of people, faiths and land it is made of, and defies any all-encompassing label or definition. Over thousands of years, India has embraced and absorbed cultural and culinary influences from as near as Afghanistan, Central Asia, Turkey and Persia and as far as China, The Middle East, Portugal, Holland and England. Waves of invaders, settlers, traders, travelers and tourists have all contributed to the great patchwork quilt of flavors that makes Indian food. The threads that weave through this quilt and hold it together are spices. The language, the very DNA encoded in Indian food lies in the lavish use and careful balancing of spices—native spices and imported spices, some aromatic, others flavorful and some for exquisite color and delicate fragrance. Regions are spread thousands of miles apart yet are connected through the lavish use of spices.  Handfuls go into cooking pots transforming ingredients into multi dimensional taste sensations.
India has always been a place in transition, soaking up foreign ideas—and foods like a sponge always transforming them into something Indian. This is true more than ever today, with the invasion of imported soft drinks, software and fast foods.  Pepsi is spiced up with hot pepper powder, salt and a squeeze of lime. Burgers are made from lamb and smothered in hot sauce, chutney and pickled green chilies. Pizza is topped with crumbled paneer cheese, corn, cumin and hot peppers, and potato chips come in flavors like tandoori and tomato-garlic. Flavors and foods might be borrowed and adapted or new riffs played on classics, but the integrity and identity of Indian food remains firmly based in tradition. Each region is proud of their cuisine and perhaps thinks it is THE cuisine of India! When you eat in India, you discover the heart of its culture and hospitality. In India, you will be welcomed like a long lost family member and fed like a Maharaja. There is no place where people with so little will share so much. Some travelers go to India seeking spiritual nirvana, but I found culinary bliss in cooking with both renowned chefs in 5-star hotel kitchens and home cooks in simple spaces. The recipes I learned and the lives I intersected resulted in this book.

Beginnings, part two

 I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but went to college in San Francisco. While a student, I dated a musician, originally from New York who had traveled around India for several months, and smoked bidi, the slim cigarettes rolled up in a brown leaf with an acrid aroma. Together we frequented Bay Area Indian restaurants and the musty little spice shops that often mushroomed nearby--once we bought what must have been a years supply of garlic, just because an Indian man was selling it cheap from the sidewalk. The restaurants at that time served mostly Moghul-style North Indian fare in exotically draped dim spaces reeking of sandalwood with soft sitar music and candles setting a fantasy mood. I recall most of the dishes tasting almost the same, rich, buttery and sweetly spicy, even when hot enough to set my mouth on fire. Desserts were also super sweet and creamy, smelling faintly of face cream and eucalyptus. After graduating, I got a job at a publishing company in Singapore. I moved there and ended up by happy circumstance living in the Little India section just off Serangoon Road. In this area a wizened old man with his head wrapped in yards of white cloth sold yogurt scooped into plastic bags from a milk pail strapped to a bicycle. Rows of open-fronted shops sold spices in large tins, freshly ground in what looked like huge coffee mills. Other shops sold sweets, saris, bangles and jasmine garlands strung on silver threads. It was here I first discovered South Indian vegetarian food, ladled from buckets onto mounds of rice on banana leaf plates for eating with ones hands-- no cutlery provided. The food was lighter and fresher, dancing with flavors that intrigued: coconut, tamarind, black mustard seeds and fragrant curry leaves.  These exhilarating banana leaf meals sparked what was to become a lifetime interest and love of Indian food— both eating and cooking it and unearthing the tangled history of a complex cuisine. In Singapore I discovered a small microcosm of India, with a mix of Tamils from South India and Sri Lanka, Sikh Punjabis, Indian Muslims, Malayalees from Kerala, Gujaratis, Sindhis and Chettiars (the latter two clans are prominent in the business community with roots in ancient trader/merchant classes). All had distinct cuisines discovered at street stalls, restaurants and in people’s homes, and all were deliciously different from the rich Moghul-style dishes I was familiar with. Singapore was a perfect introduction to India, preparing me for the assault on the senses a trip to India takes. When I finally made it to India almost a decade later, everything was new yet familiar.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The beginnings

The catalyst that ignited my passion for India was a piece of mirror cloth.  I got it when I was seven years old, a gift from my somewhat eccentric Aunt Edna when she returned from India. For years the cloth the color of the first blush of dawn and sparkling with bits of silver glass was my favorite costume accessory draped over my head or wrapped around my waist. Aunt Edna went off on a solo yearlong trip around the world in the mid Sixties, from Europe and Iceland to Africa, India and Asia. My memories are vague on details of the trip; what I vividly remember are wild mahjong games with my Aunt and the magical carpets, animal skins, elephant tusks, drums, and carved masks that filled her suburban Chicago home. Most of my childhood, I was mesmerized by the long narrow piece of pale pink cotton inset with small polished round mirrors held in place by embroidered white threads like spider webs woven around tiny silver ponds. I liked to imagine the village where it was embroidered and the person who made it. When I stared into the bits of mirror I was transported to India—the one I imagined from the pages of the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. The book was a battered thrift shop find and some of the beautiful color plates were torn, but the pictures of Mowgli, the man-cub and his animal cohorts whetted my appetite for adventure in faraway places. I spent a lot of time reading books from the library about India and other places I hoped to one day visit—Aunt Edna had set an example I intended to follow. An interest in Indian food was piqued long after the mirror cloth was just a happy memory. My culinary passage to India began in San Francisco, the city I was born in.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Day one part two

I have to mention that today is very auspicious for starting my blog because August 15 in the day India was partitioned in 1947 and won independence from Britain at the terrible price of dividing the country by religion, causing a holocaust as Hindus left Lahore in what became Pakistan and Muslims fled Delhi across the border--see the movie Earth to see how the subcontinent was shattered on many levels. One can certainly clebrate with food though--garlic naan with dark buttery blisters, dal makani (black lentils stewed over night in spices, buuter, cream and tomato paste) and lamb biryani ( I make the best with lamb marinated in spices and yogurt for a few days then cooked and layered with needle-fine fragrant basmati rice, saffron and sliced almonds), palak paneer and butter chicken representing the best of Moghul-Persian Northern cuisine with amazing vegetable dishes cooked with spices, tamarined and coconut from Maharashtra and Gujarat and going further south the paper thin dosas (crepes) stuffed with spice potatoes and rasam (spicy lentil soup) . At the stroke of midnight the people of India were divided but food can still unite the two people who are from the same land. So Happy Birthday to India and Pakistan.

Day One

I'm a food and travel writer based in Miami Beach, Florida and I am going to blog a book along with what  ever else is on my mind. The book is called A Handful of Spices and was written by me over a period of seven years. I started by traveling around India cooking with chefs, housewives and in remote villages where the "stove" was a metal pail filled with coal or dried cow dung.  I spent years researching and writing the book only to have the publisher cancel my contract because I was a year late ( I had gone through some health-related issues). But no one can take away the knowledge I gained and the stories I wrote about every recipe--where it is from, who taught it to me or cooked with me. This will all be in the blog. Today I'm starting. I'll start the introduction later.   My blog is called Food India Cook as in reading my blog you will discover new foods, get to virtually visit India, and be able to cook the dishes I tell you about. Stay tuned to find out why I became so passionate about Indian food and culture that I spent years writing a book about it. Perhaps it is because my name, Linda almost spells India, but there's much more.

Meanwhile one week ago I returned from Grand Cayman Island, a delightful patch of coral rock and sand in the Caribbean on the far side of Cuba. The water there is crystal clear. Even when I swam out to the reef, I could see the coral, fish of neon bright colors and a turtle. I got to swim with gentle sting rays that are like big slippery cats and brush up against your legs. My guide, Eric has  a "pet" one he calls Friday, a girl sting ray that comes swimming up to him every time he takes his boat out to the sandbar where hundreds wait to be fed and touched by humans. This is not a Disneyland kind of thing, it is all natural. The rays just started hanging out at the sandbar as fishermen cleaned their fish at the edge of the reef so they wised up and started coming around for a free meal. My trip was not a vacation, I was there learning about a new section of the island that has been developed in a very nice way and has some Miami chefs opening outposts on the island. They are starting to work with local farmers and use locally grown produce such as Thai wing beans, mammoth basil (huge leaves), tomatoes, and and Indian type of gourd. It is the end of the growing season so there will be lots more in the cooler months--cool being relative when talking about a tropical climate. I'm working on a format for a farm to table chef based TV show but alas the chef with a restaurant on Cayman wasn't interested so I will turn to another chef friend I think might have the time and interest.  More soon....