in love with…Delhi

I love old cities like Rome, Athens, Delhi, where you can feel that you are standing upon history.  There are old stones everywhere with hints of blue glazed tile and flocks of bright green parrots, and you keep passing monuments that have stood witness to centuries.  I always imagine that if I start digging in these places, archaeological treasures will start poking out of the ground.  Layers of civilization will peel away to reveal even deeper secrets.

This time I spent several days in Delhi and managed to visit, with and sometimes without my boys, Humayun’s Tomb, Lodhi Gardens and Qutub Minar.  My discoveries left me breathless and with all sorts of desires: to know more, to paint, to photograph and quite simply to see, again and again. These were not the monuments of my sixth grade history textbook or even the ones that I had visited when I was ten. Seen through my older, perhaps more nostalgic lens, these were works to be yearned for and to be let loose inside my imagination.

In the midst of all this cultural immersion, my sister brought me to eat at her favorite small restaurants, those that only the two of us in the entire family would truly enjoy.  There was one little restaurant called Gunpowder in the Hauz Khas village complex.  Gunpowder’s menu held offerings from the southern, peninsular part of India with food that was rustic, everyday and coastal.  The curries were bold, spicy and full of a subtle heat, doused occasionally with coconut milk or tomatoes and served up with tangy fluffy appams and crisp, many-layered Malabar parathas.  The food defied conventional Udupi or Hyderabadi or Keralan or Andhra or Chettinad definitions…it seemed to be a selection of earthy and not refined dishes from all of those areas, plus from several other undiscovered ones.  Eating there was akin to going on a journey through an unknown south India.

Sanjeev Kapoor’s Punjabi Kadhi

There is a set of little books in my house written by Sanjeev Kapoor, the beloved Indian celebrity chef, that belong to my husband.  The books are so small and unassuming, marked Rs. 89 each, that you could miss them entirely.  One of them has the title “Accompaniments.”  That one I had never even bothered to ever open.  That is until my mother-in-law arrived last summer and bustled around, looking for Sanjeev’s Kapoor’s kadhi recipe.

“But make mine, my Gujarati kadhi,” I wailed, not entirely aware of the differences between kadhi from the north Indian state of Punjab and that from the western state of Gujarat.  I knew that Punjabi kadhi had fried dumplings, but otherwise how different could they be, I thought.  Both were essentially yogurt based curries that were thickened with besan.

Yet the Punjabi kadhi recipe that was found in this useful little book of Accompaniments, had an entirely different tarka of fenugreek seeds-cumin-peppercorn-red chillies, and made generous use of ginger and onion.  Floating balls of chunky, satisfying onion pakoras that had soaked up the tart yogurt curry added another layer of flavor and texture.  The distinct onion flavor of this kadhi ensured that it couldn’t be confused with any other type of kadhi.

I’ve modified the original recipe slightly – doubling the quantity of water added, and cutting down on the turmeric.  Also, I don’t always have fenugreek leaves on hand, so I substitute those with coriander leaves or sometimes with nothing at all.  The kadhi tastes best when  served with hot, fluffy basmati rice.

Note: there is deep frying of the onion pakoras here.  I’m frequently intimidated at the thought of deep frying anything, but my mother-in-law devised an easy set-up.  We filled my tiny 6-inch cast iron skillet halfway with oil to use for deep frying small quantities of fritters.  The pakoras remained halfway covered in oil as they cooked and then we flipped them over to fry the other half.  This way I could discard the oil after completing a small batch of pakoras without feeling wasteful.  Also the smaller set-up made the idea of hot bubbling oil seem less frightening.  In any case, the frying for this recipe was quick and simple.

Punjabi Kadhi

Serves 4

For the pakoras:

3/4 cup besan, black chickpea flour

1 cup onions, finely chopped

1 cup loosely packed chopped fenugreek leaves, optional

1 tbsp of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp ajwain seeds, carom

1 tsp red chilli powder, optional

1/4 tsp baking powder (don’t omit)

Salt to taste

Enough oil to deep fry (I use canola oil)

For the kadhi

1 cup yogurt

1/4 cup besan, black chickpea flour

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

2 whole dried red chillies, broken in half

2 tbsps oil

1/2 tsp methi seeds, fenugreek

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

6-8 whole black peppercorns

1 tsp red chilli powder, optional

Salt to taste

Make the pakoras:

1. Mix the onion, ginger, methi leaves into the besan along with the baking powder, red chill powder, ajwain seeds and salt.  Add about half a cup of water to form the pakora batter.  The batter should not be too dry.

2.  Heat the oil in a small skillet or kadai and drop in a few small balls of the pakora batter (about 1 tbsp) when the oil is hot in a single layer.  Fry, flipping once or twice, until the balls are a deep golden-brown all over.  Remove with a slotted spoon and put on a plate lined with absorbent paper (like a paper towel) to cool.  Break one apart to see if the pakora has cooked all the way through – the center should not be too moist.  Repeat until the batter is finished.

For the kadhi:

1.  Whisk the yogurt, besan and turmeric until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps.  Add 4 cups of water and stir.  In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds, black peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and red chillies.  Add the ginger and onion and stir fry for a minute or so.  Add the besan mixture to the pot.  Add salt, and bring to boil on medium-high heat while stirring occasionally.  Then lower the heat, and allow the mixture to simmer for 15-20 minutes or so.  Stir occasionally.  The mixture will thicken slightly and should taste well-cooked through without any raw taste of besan.  Now add the pakoras and chilli powder and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve hot.

How to: Samosas

Before I return home to India, my mother calls and asks me each time”What would you like to eat?  What should I make for you?”  I always find the question amusing and quaint and sweet, and put it down to one of my mother’s quirks.  But recently, I am becoming the same way.  When I’m feeling uncertain, I start with food.  I find that I can’t go wrong with a home-cooked meal for someone that I want to fuss over.  The food says things that I can’t put into words.  It makes things easy and affectionate.

This time when I was home, my mother looked at me on one of those early mornings, and said “what would you like for breakfast?’.  Now breakfast is usually a fruit-cheese-toast type of affair in our home, and so I when I tentatively said “nothing?” and received an odd look from my mother, I knew that she was talking about the real stuff.  Poha, upma, idli… and in my fantasy version of the breakfast menu…samosas.

Now my mother doesn’t care all that much for this delicious deep fried, potato-pea stuffed pastry best eaten hot with a cup of tea, or not anymore at least, and certainly not for breakfast.  Her love affair with samosas are a thing of the past.  Once upon a time, claims my mother, she would make her own samosas from scratch for an after-school snack.  My masi lends credence to this story, and adds that my mother never shared the precious samosas with her two younger sisters.

I’ve always loved hearing the story of those samosas, about how my  mother boiled the potatoes while kneading the dough and then heated the oil for frying while she rolled and stuffed the pastry with the spiced filling.  “It took no time at all,” says my mother, “what’s in a samosa?”


Makes 6 samosas

For the filling:

2 small boiled potatoes, or about 1 cup diced

1/2 cup of peas

1/2 tbsp of grated ginger

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp amchur powder

1/4 tsp garam masala

1/2 tsp red chilli powder, optional

1 tbsp oil

Salt to taste

For the pastry

1 cup all purpose flour

3 tbsps of melted ghee

1/4 tsp of salt

Enough water to make a firm dough

Enough oil for deep frying

Filling: Heat the oil, and add the cumin seeds such that they sputter in the hot oil.  Add the ginger and sauté for half a minute.  Throw in the diced boiled potatoes and the peas, and add the rest of the dry spices after a minute or two.  Stir fry for several minutes until the mixture appears cooked and the spices adhere to the potatoes.  The mixture can be coarsely mashed while stirring.  Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Dough:  Pour the flour onto a flat surface and make a well in the center.  Add the salt and ghee in the well.  Slowly, rub the  ghee into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  The flour should loosely bind together when you gather it into your fist; add more ghee if it doesn’t bind.  Make a pliable dough with enough water.  Cover and keep aside for 15 minutes.

Divide into 3 balls and roll out little circles, about 6 inches each.  Cut the circles in half and run water with your fingertip around the edges.  Now turn the semicircles into cones, seal the middle by joining the two ends and stuff them with the filling.  Stick the edges together.  This is a simple-to-master but important technique.  Here is a video of my grandmother stuffing the samosas.

Finishing stuffing all the samosas and keep aside.

Finishing: Heat oil for deep frying.  The oil should be hot, but not too hot as the samosas will deep fry for a little while.  Slip in the samosas and let them fry for several minutes, flipping so that each side turns golden brown.  Serve hot with ketchup.

Back from India

I returned from my trip to India.  It was wintry, dark and bleak when we landed.  My house felt stark and empty and there was no food.  I struggled to adjust to the cold, the dry heat from the radiators, the need to cook again.

I’m more homesick than usual this time.  It’s growing harder to leave from the many households that I slip into in India.

The India of my memories is filled with noisy warmth and color and food that is startling in flavor.  In reality, when I arrive in Calcutta and take in the smell of the gray smog, and find myself tangled in the snarl of traffic on my way home, and taste the new cook’s mediocre cooking, I wonder what I was missing.  Then I see my grandparents and get enfolded in their warm embrace.  There’s my mother’s beloved face.  Even her two dogs do a customary dance around my heels, as though to say “where were you?” Agastya races through my mother’s house with the dogs.  I can hear his laughter.  My favorite aunt drops by for a visit.   Endless cups of tea steaming with ginger and cardamom arrive on neat little trays.  I cut into wedges of stinky cheese and pile them up on toast with my father at breakfast.  My grandmother’s cook plies me with hot samosas.

The first few mornings are the ones that I treasure the most.  I wake up early and gaze outside the window.  The same trees have grown older and appear a little fuller.  The boys are still asleep.  The air is cool in December and the feeling of being home, of becoming somebody’s child again, wraps around me like a blanket.  I’ve felt this way each time that I’ve returned.  It’s been more than fifteen years since I left.