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.