Ivy gourd stir fry (by other names, dondakaya, kundru, tindora)

“Indian cooking is about the right balance of salt and chilli.  There’s not much else to it,” remarked my husband when encountering yet another subtly salted and chilli-less dish.  I had been cooking for the children and for us all together, in one big pot, for months.  That meant no chillies – no cayenne pepper powder, no red chilli powder, no green chillies, not even a stray dried red chilli in the tempering.  One never knew when Agastya, who regularly consumes plenty of spicy bhujia, would declare the food “too spicy.”  My eighteen month-old had also learnt the word “picy” along with “ot.”  About salt, now I had to confess that I liked tasting the food first and then salt.  If salt was the first taste that hit my mouth when I tasted something, I would declare it too salty and continue to eat it very reluctantly.  Most of my cooking, therefore, tasted, somewhat bland despite a careful adding of all the myriad other spices that were called for in Indian cooking.

After my mother-in-law’s visit, I have new respect for this whole deal about chilli and salt.  The reason being that some of my mother-in-law’s tastiest cooking uses only salt and red chilli powder for seasoning.  Take her aloo fry for instance, which is a simple saute of potatoes.  The potatoes are peeled, diced into quarter-inch cubes and then sauteed in oil until they are well done.  Salt, a generous sprinkle of chilli powder, a good stir and to the table.  The potatoes are simply irresistible.

I feel the same way about her dondakaya, which is a stir fry of Indian ivy gourd, also known as tindora or kundru.  I love sinking my teeth into thin, tender strips of her well seasoned dondakaya, and could probably eat a whole bowl of these on my own.  This vegetable sold year round in Indian grocery stores is a smooth vibrant green gourd, about two inches long, that looks somewhat like a cornichon without the puckered flesh.  I don’t remember eating kundru too many times while growing up in Calcutta, but it appears to be a beloved vegetable in Andhra cooking.

For 4 people, start with about 2 lbs of dondkaya.  My mother-in-law recommends splitting each dondakaya into 4 halves, lengthwise.  Heat 2 tbsps of oil in a big, non-stick pan, and add the chopped vegetable.  Cook uncovered on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetable turns soft and starts looking golden and reddish-brown, and loses its bright green color.  At this point, check for tenderness.  If the vegetable is still a little tough, add about a quarter or half cup of water, add salt, cover and cook until the water is absorbed.  Then uncover, and continue to cook until the oil is released, and the vegetable glistens.  Add chilli powder at this time, to taste.  Serve immediately.

Dosakai pachadi: a creamy cucumber relish

We had hot steaming rice for lunch today with a most unexpected side – a cooling cucumber relish made with a paste of black mustard seeds and white sesame seeds.  Not much else was needed for a satisfying meal.  I was surprised by how good the relish tasted rubbed into the rice – it was mustardy, spicy from green chillies with a hint of sour from tamarind.  Finely chopped cucumbers and the ground sesame gave it an interesting texture – creamy and nutty, but studded with bites of pale green.  A sort of refreshing South Indian summer pesto best enjoyed with warm rice.

Dosakai pachadi

1 large garden cucumber, peeled and finely chopped

Paste ingredients:

3 tbsp sesame seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

2 or 3 green chillies

1 tsp of Swad tamarind fruit paste, deseeded

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

Tarka ingredients:

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 dried red chillies, broken into smaller bits

1 tsp of oil

1.  Soak the mustard seeds and sesame seeds in water for a half hour.  Discard the water.  Place all the other paste ingredients in a blender and grind to a fine paste with minimal water.

2.  In a bowl, stir the cucumbers into the paste.  Heat some oil in a small pan and add the tarka ingredients.  Allow the cumin and mustard seeds to sputter, and then pour over the cucumber relish.

Serve at room temperature with warm fragrant rice.

Vankaya Allam Karam

Eggplant in ginger-chilli masala

This Sunday morning we all woke up tired.  My husband rushed Agasyta off for an early soccer class after breakfast while I pottered around the kitchen, thinking about what to do for lunch.   Yesterday, I had found leggy thin-skinned purple Asian eggplant in an Indian grocery store.  I pulled them out this morning, wondering if I could make my mother-in-law’s unusual eggplant in ginger-chilli masala dish.  I remembered the recipe vaguely from watching my mother-in-law make it, but made the wise decision of calling her as I sliced the eggplant into thick 3-inch long by 1-inch wide pieces.

“How much eggplant do you have?” was her first question.  About two pounds, I remembered from the cash register at the store.  She rattled off a list of the simple ingredients needed – onion, ginger, green chillies, fresh coriander leaves, white sesame seeds, cumin seeds – and the appropriate quantities.  The dish embodied everything of Andhra cooking that I had come to learn: simple, fresh and sharp-tasting ingredients, spices used sparingly, and big pieces of vegetable which meant less chopping.

A new recipe.  I was excited but afraid at the same time.  It took at least two more phone-calls to my mother-in-law to report on the progress of the eggplant.  She stayed by my side, guiding me through questions such as “should the eggplant be cooked covered or uncovered?” and “at what point is the wet masala added to the frying eggplant?”  There was a tense moment or two when I discovered that the ground onions were bitter and imparted an ugly taste to the dish (the bitterness of the onion wore off gradually as the dish cooked).  But the finished dish tasted close to my mother-in-law’s.

When my husband came home and found the eggplant on the stove, there was a noticeable softening in his eyes.  His shoulders relaxed and he gazed at me with a new tenderness.  It made me wonder, what is it about one’s mother’s cooking, even a first attempt, that can bring such comfort.

Serves 4

Fry separately in a pan:
2 lbs of purple Asian eggplant (the long and slender kind), sliced into 3-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 tsp of cumin seeds
4 tbsps of oil

Wet masala, to be ground to a paste in the food processor:
1 cup of onion chunks
1/2 cup of fresh coriander leaves
2 inch piece of ginger
2-4 green chillies
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 cup of white sesame seeds, ground to powder in a coffee grinder first
salt to taste

Heat the oil in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds.  Cook the eggplant slices in the oil on medium to low heat, covered.  When the eggplant is halfway done (soft but not fully cooked), add the the wet masala.  Cook uncovered for a little while until the masala releases oil or until the raw taste of the onion disappears and the eggplant is cooked through.

This dish is eaten in a traditional Andhra-style, with plain toor dal and white rice.

Kattu, toor dal with garlic

(clockwise from left) Garlic, turmeric and toor dal

In the winter, Agastya starts sniffling.  One sniffle turns into the next and we start on a progression of back-to-back colds. Sometimes they start with a fever, sometimes with runny sneezes and sometimes with a bad cough.  They last a week, sometimes two, and a new cold often starts before the old one finishes.  I gaze enviously at children who don’t seem to have colds and wonder what their mothers do.  Agastya’s doctor gives me a stern look when I complain.  “It could be worse,” “at least he doesn’t have an ear infection,” or “he’s so healthy otherwise,” she says.

Each time Agastya gets a new cold I go into an intense cause and effect analysis.  Now Agastya dresses warmly each time he goes out, he washes his hands more often, and we never compromise on sleep and naps.  I have also found a link, albeit somewhat tenuous, between ice-cream consumption and colds.  So no more of that stuff.  The credit really goes to his nanny who hides all the tubs of ice-cream at the back of our freezer and shows him an empty fridge when he remembers to ask for some.  “See, there’s no ice-cream,” says Rose, lifting him up to inspect the empty shelves.  Agastya with his growing powers of reasoning has decided that his mother is responsible for this lack of ice-cream.  One afternoon I hear him sagely remark to Rose that “Mummy ate all the ice-cream,” with a particular drawn-out emphasis on the word “all” in his baby lisp.  I feel suitably guilty.

Still unable to beat the cold, I start asking every mother I know about their view on colds.  Several answers emerge, and interestingly, they all seem to be related to food.  My in-laws suggest honey for coughs, my mother recommends ginger, a cousin mentions yogurt and a friend says to add a fat clove of garlic to Agastya’s food each day.   The last suggestion works a minor miracle.  In the modern day, and in the face of virulent bugs and persistent coughs and sleepless nights, I have tended to get fairly dismissive of home remedies.  But the garlic does appear to have an immediate and positive effect.  I start rethinking all of Agastya’s meals – onions with eggs in the morning with a side of brightly colored berries, a green (broccoli, spinach) or orange (butternut squash, carrot) soup with a large clove of sauteed garlic at lunch, fruit and yogurt for a snack and a lentil preparation at night, with turmeric, garlic and ginger.

The lentil requirement brings to mind the kattu that my mother-in-law makes.  It is a simple, nourishing and surprisingly tasty toor dal dish.  Boil a cup of dry dal in the pressure cooker and keep aside.  Chop several pods of garlic into chunks and saute in a tablespoonful of hot ghee on medium heat until the garlic turns faintly golden.  Sputter a half teaspoonful each of cumin seeds and mustard seeds, add a pinch of asafoetida and a few fresh green curry leaves.  Green chillies can be sliced and added for heat and flavor.  Add the dal and some water to bring to the required consistency.  Add a generous pinch of turmeric, and salt to taste.  Stir and boil for a few minutes.  Serve with rice or rotis or as a soup on its own.  Note that this dal is perfectly tasty with just the sauteed garlic, turmeric and salt, and that the consistency can be thick or thin depending on personal preference.

Andhra-style potatoes

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam

My husband introduced me to the food from his native state of Andhra Pradesh when we were dating.  The cuisine and its cooking style was a revelation for me.  For instance, a simple sookha aloo-pyaaz or dry potato-onion dish tasted completely different because of the cooking process, the treatment of ingredients and a slightly different spice mix.  In my North Indian home, we would have sputtered whole cumin in hot oil, added the onions, then the boiled potatoes along with some turmeric, a pinch of cumin-coriander powder and some dried mango powder called amchur.  All of this happened in one pan and in sequential steps.  My husband on the other hand cooked his aloo-pyaaz in three almost-parallel parts: onions fried first and made into a wet paste, whole spices roasted separately and ground into a dry spice mix, boiled potatoes stir-fried on their own until golden.  The spices he roasted also included lentils like chana dal and urad dal, that were a completely new and surprise addition to my spice palate.  Finally all three parts were combined into the dish called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala.  The resulting dish, earthy and hearty, had a strong taste of onion paste and freshly ground spices, and could be very spicy from ground dried red chillies.  We now make it without any chillies so that two year-old Agastya, who loves onions and aloo, can eat it too.

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala

Serves 4

2-3 medium-sized potatoes, boiled and cubed into 1/2” chunks.
A little oil

For the wet masala:
2 medium sized onions, diced
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1 tbsp chana dal
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
3-4 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

1. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a paste with a little salt.

2. In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dal, urad dal, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and red chillies (in this order) until a fragrant smell is released, taking care to not over-darken or burn the lentils and spices.  In a dry grinder or coffee grinder, coarsely grind the spices.  Add this dry spice mixture to the ground onion paste and mix well.

3. Heat a little oil in a pan.  Add the cubed potatoes and fry for a few minutes until golden.  Stir in the onion masala and salt to taste.  Cook on the flame for a couple of minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice or rotis.


Sambar with eggplant and okra

Every Sunday, my parents and I would go to eat dosa, or crispy South Indian rice crepes at the Super Snack Bar in Alipore, which seemed at the time a long drive from our home in Calcutta’s Ballygunge neighborhood.  My dad loved dosa, and since he was frequently away on business trips, I looked forward to these dosa expeditions when he was back.

Super Snack Bar was always very busy on Sunday mornings. The air would be heavy with the smell of frying dosas, unfamiliar spices and fermented batter.  I remember being placed on the tall black countertop at the restaurant, small legs dangling over the side, where patrons stood and consumed their dosa.  I would wait impatiently for the food to arrive, and would immediately attack my dad’s plate, dipping bits of crunchy golden dosa and pieces of steamed rice-and-lentil cakes called idli into the very spicy coconut chutney and fiery red-hot lentil soup called sambar. Busy waiters circulated with the tiny cups of extra sambar and coconut chutney.   The spicy sambar was difficult to consume in any meaningful quantity, and I would watch round-eyed as my mother drank hers easily.  “That’s what it means to be a grown-up,” I would think.  “Someday, I’ll be able to take all that heat and spice too.”  Over the years, I encountered many sambars, some tasty and found during South India travels but others mostly bland, lackluster and uninspiring.   It took the finding of a South Indian husband, and the arrival of a South Indian mother-in-law to understand how a proper sambar should taste.

The secret to my mother-in-law’s recipe lies in the sambar powder or dry masala that she makes from scratch instead of using a packaged mix.  Although it may seem tedious to make the masala, it is entirely worth the effort.  This dry mixture keeps well in an airtight container for several months.  I also enjoy adding vegetables, such as small whole eggplant, tiny whole onions and pieces of lauki or bottle gourd to my sambar when the tamarind-water mixture is being boiled, but this is entirely optional.  Sambar is usually served with rice, idli, dosa and fried lentil donuts called vada.

Serves 3-4

To make the sambar powder

1 tsp ghee
2 tsp chana dal
1 ½ tsp white split urad dal
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorn
3-4 dried red chillies

Fry separately in ghee:
Generous pinch of asafoetida
½ tsp fenugreek seeds

Do not fry
2-3 tbsp grated coconut, fresh or frozen and defrosted

1. Heat the first set of spices in a pan with a little ghee, on medium flame for 3-4 minutes until the fragrant smell of spices is released.  Follow this order: chana dal, urad dal, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorn, and dried red chillies.
2. Separately, fry the pinch of asafoetida and fenugreek seeds with a spot of ghee until the fenugreek seeds become a little dark in color.
3. Coarsely grind all of the spices in a dry spice grinder or coffee bean grinder, including the coconut.
4. Add some water and make a paste.

Note: the  dry spice mixture, before adding coconut can be stored for later use.

Making the sambar
1 cup of dry toor dal
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp mustard seeds
Pinch of asafoetida
2-3 dried red chillies
1/2 large red onion cut into long slices
1 large tomato, diced
A handful of cilantro, chopped
Lime sized ball of fresh tamarind fruit paste soaked in 1 tbsp of water

1. Place the toor dal in a pressure cooker with water:dal in the ratio 2:1 and cook on medium heat until the cooker emits 3 whistles.  Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds, asafoetida, dried red chillies and mustard seeds.  Next, add the onions and fry till they become brown.
2. Add the tomatoes and cilantro.  Cook till tomatoes are tender.
3. Add tamarind and salt to taste.  Add about 2-3 cups of water.  When the mixture comes to a boil, add the sambar masala paste (about 2-3 tbsp or to taste) and the boiled dal to the mixture.  Add water as needed for desired consistency.
4. Bring mixture to boil.  Continue to boil for 1 or 2 minutes until the sambar gets its taste.

Pappu Charu

Pappu charu

“What will your mother-in-law say? You don’t even know how to boil dal,” my mother would fret during my growing up years in Calcutta.  Strangely, she never actually required me to enter her kitchen or help with chores in any way.  “No, no, go study,” she would say.  Perhaps we both had an inkling of what lay in my future: a kind mother-in-law who would teach me to make the most glorious toor dal preparation ever.  Namely, a mouth-puckering, sweet and tangy golden lentil stew studded with pieces of lauki or green bottle gourd, chunks of pumpkin, and large pieces of sweet potato, called pappu charu.

Pappu means dal in Telugu.  I have no idea what the word charu means, but to my happy taste buds, the word always sounds like “lovely and pleasing.”  Therefore, a lovely dal that pleases.  This dal is sweetened with gur or jaggery and its sour taste comes from a generous dollop of tamarind fruit paste.  I especially enjoy making (and eating) pappu charu in the fall when the markets are bursting with fresh pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potatoes.  I love the bits of vegetable in this dish and enjoy “fishing” them out and mashing them with my fingers into the dal.  While cooking, it is important to boil the vegetables with tamarind and jaggery in order that they imbibe the flavors of both.

Serves 4

1/2 cup of dry toor dal

Lime-sized ball of tamarind fruit paste, soaked in 1 cup of water

1 medium sized sweet potato, cut in 1-inch thick rounds, with the skin
3 two-inch chunks of green bottle gourd or lauki, peeled
3 two-inch large chunks of pumpkin or butternut squash, with the skin

1/4 tsp turmeric
2 green chillies sliced in half
A piece of jaggery

For the tarka:
1 tsbp oil
4-5 pods of garlic, sliced in half

1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 dry red chillies
Pinch of asafoetida

6-8 fresh curry leaves
Salt to taste

1. Dal: Boil the toor dal in a pressure cooker, with water:dal in the ratio 2:1.  Remove cooked dal from the pressure cooker and set aside.

2. Vegetables in tamarind water: In the pressure cooker, add the tamarind water (never whole dry tamarind) and all the vegetables.  Then add water until the vegetables are slightly submerged in the water.  A 5-litre pressure cooker, for instance, should be about 1/3- 1/4 full.  Remember that these vegetables also give off water while cooking so you don’t want too much water in the cooker.  Add 1/2 tsp of salt, turmeric, about half the jaggery and the sliced green chillies.  Bring to 1 whistle on the pressure cooker, and set aside. Alternatively, boil this mixture on the stove until the vegetables are soft. I tend to prefer stove boiling as the pressure cooker can sometimes overcook the vegetables.

3. For tarka: Heat the oil in a small pan, and add the tarka spices in this order – first garlic, urad dal, fenugreek seeds and mustard seeds.  Wait for a few seconds until the garlic turns slightly golden.  Next, add the cumin seeds, dry red chillies and asafoetida.  Let the cumin seeds sputter for a few seconds.  Remove from flame.

4. Add the boiled dal and tarka to the tamarind-vegetable mixture, along with the green curry leaves.  Note: add the dal slowly, as you want a runny stew.  If there is too much dal, the mixture gets too thick and tends to lack flavor.  Stir gently, so that the vegetables don’t disintegrate.  Add salt and the remaining jaggery, both to taste.  Bring to a boil, and allow the stew-like mixture to boil for a few minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice.


Eggplant in ginger masala
Eggplant stuffed with onions

I wait all year for July when luscious firm glossy dark-skinned eggplants start appearing in the local farmer’s markets.   I see them piled in wicker baskets, and their tender freshness brings me to my first summer with Agastya and his paternal grandmother, Lakshmi.

My South Indian mother-in-law had just flown in from Visakhapatnam to spend the summer with us in Hoboken, and she arrived just as the summer heat began filling the farmers market with delicious produce. I soon discovered that my mother-in-law was an expert with eggplant.  She made them in several ways: tiny eggplant stuffed with a spiced onion paste and pan-fried, sliced Asian or Italian eggplant with a ginger-onion-coriander paste and small eggplant halves simmered in a Hyderabadi peanut sauce.  “Not again,” my good-natured mother-in-law would chuckle, eyes twinkling behind her glasses, as she noted the bags of eggplant that I had dragged in from the market.  But she would proceed to make the most tasty eggplant dishes that I, of North Indian origin and raised on standard baigan bhurta, or roasted and mashed eggplant, had ever tasted.

On Tuesdays, I would put my tiny, gurgling infant facing outward into a baby carrier and bring him to select vegetables at the market.  Four-month old Agastya loved the noises and hues of the Hoboken Farmers market, and would grow bright-eyed with happiness when passers-by greeted him.   I’d look at him, and wonder, are we all naturally just meant to be so happy and so social?  I would point out bright red peppers, yellow ears of corn and green zucchini, never quite sure that he was listening.  Now, two years later, when he points out the vegetables to me in the market, his still-small hand sturdily holding mine, I am convinced that he was.

Agastya’s presence felt as if I had come full circle, for as a child I often accompanied my mother to the wet markets in Calcutta, first Dhangar Bazaar and later Jaddu Bazaar.  Mummy took pride in selecting the best produce at the best prices for our home and would haggle with the vest-and-lungi clad vendors who sat atop their empires of glistening green, clicking her tongue in frequent annoyance.  Overhead, the high crumbling exposed brick ceiling was hung with blue and green tarpaulin sheets, to protect the vendors from the gaping holes in the roof during the rains that frequently assailed Calcutta.   I loved the moistness under my feet, the warren-like paths that crisscrossed the market and the overall tent-like atmosphere that seemed to hail from antiquity.   I was wary, however, of scurrying roaches and rats, and would jump with nervous excitement when I spotted one.   Later, after many years away in the U.S., I grew to understand this was a way in which I had sought time with my mother, who was otherwise occupied in the distractions of a busy household.   The bustling market fostered an easy companionship between us.   At home, I was often shooed away from the kitchens, but at the market I was allowed to observe and learn and participate.  Like a worthy apprentice learning a trade.

[Recipes to come]