When I lift Agastya up to inspect my cooking, he looks at me expectantly. I say “that’s matar paneer.” He solemnly repeats the phrase “matar paneer” as if at a naming ceremony, and proceeds to ask for the dish by name several times, “Mommy, I want matar paneer,” as he grows hungrier in readiness for lunch. I’ve realized that the hungrier he is, the more likely he is to try something new. He seems to like the dish, and continues asking for it by name the next day and despite the fact that my addition of a little red chilli powder and garam masala has made the dish just a tad too spicy for him. In these cases, I alternate the spoonful of vegetable with one of plain yogurt while feeding him to kill the fire.
Although I am very pleased that Agastya likes the matar paneer, what makes me even happier is that his name for the dish is set in stone now. In Hindi words. Not that there is an English alternative, but I feel extremely satisfied to hear the Hindi words rolling off his tongue.
I have suddenly realized that the opportunity to teach Agastya his mother tongue is rapidly waning. I see it in the words for which he now refuses to learn the equivalent Hindi term. For instance his favorite toy, a car is a car. Not a gadi or a pum-pum as my baby brother used to say. The act of first naming seems to freeze things. Milk has remained doodh, water has remained pani and yogurt has remained dahi, even though he now knows the English words for all of those and uses them interchangeably. Now I wish that I had just taught him Hindi words for everything to begin with. Because the first Hindi words have remained sticky, despite the fact that the English ones didn’t take long to make an appearance. He even remembers the silly nonsensical baby words that I used to use nai-nai for bath, ta-ta for hot and ninu for sleep.
I decide to inject lots of Hindi into my speech when conversing with both my husband and Agastya. There are occasional triumphs. At dinner, I hold out a glass of water and tell Agastya “Drink this, pilo” while we sit at the table. He looks at me and giggles deliciously. “Pilo means drink, pilo means take a sip mommy” he says slowly, taking the glass. After taking a sip, he passes the glass back to me saying “pilo” with the same infectious giggle. We continue to play the game, passing the glass between us, and saying “pilo!” Suddenly he says “Mommy, peepee aya” and gets off his chair and runs to the bathroom. Perhaps all is not lost.
This morning I wake up bright up and early. I am going to make my mother-in-law’s matar paneer for the first time. Her delicious recipe comes from various North Indian neighbors, such as “Singh Bhabhiji” from her old residential colony in Bombay. So I call mummy who is back in Vizag to talk about the recipe. We debate on ratios first, which is a wise thing to do as I have discovered in Indian cooking. I have a packet of Nanak-branded paneer, which is about 400g or 2 cups of paneer. Mummy thinks that 2 cups of peas should balance the two cups of paneer, along with a sauce that has been made with 2 cups of chopped onions and an equal quantity of tomato puree. The tomato puree is going to be different today. I usually take fresh tomatoes and puree them in the food processor. Today I am going to dip them in hot water for a few minutes, remove the skins and then puree the tomatoes. The sauce that results from this process is different in flavor and texture, sweeter and smoother, it seems.
The recipe takes a little while to make, about an hour including clean-up, and I’ve realized that an hour is usually a reasonable time to make an Indian dish. Shorter doesn’t work, and longer is just depressing. I start feeling as though I am a kitchen slave when the clock starts ticking over the allotted hour. The trick to feeling less like a slave, I have learnt, is to indeed watch the clock. For instance I always believe that emptying the dishwasher, a task that I detest, has taken hours out of my precious lifetime. When I actually measure how long it takes — I find that it’s no more than a 5 or 7 minute task. Even the dreaded clean-up after cooking, when timed, seems to take no more than 15 minutes.
I discover that the matar paneer is surprisingly easy to make. It comes out fairly well but I find that I am searching for my mother-in-law’s dish when I taste it. To make this dish truly my own, I will have to make it a couple more times, and then I will be certain of what my matar paneer tastes like.
400g or 2 cups of paneer, chopped
2 cups of frozen green peas, soaked in warm water to defrost and then drained
2 cups of onions, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
A thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 cups of tomato puree, made with fresh whole tomatoes dipped briefly into boiling water and then the skin removed.
1/4 cup of whole fat plain yogurt, called dahi
2 tsps of coriander powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
3 tbsps of ghee
Salt to taste
1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat. Add the onions, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn a medium brown. Add the tomato puree and cook until the mixture glistens with the ghee that is released. This will take a while, about 20+ minutes.
2. Add the yogurt and keep stirring until it disappears into the sauce.
3. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala and chilli powder (if using), along with salt. Taste, and add a pinch more of the spices if needed, taking care to not over-spice the dish. Add the chopped paneer and the drained peas. Add some water, about 1-2 cups. Bring to boil and allow to cook for a few minutes in order that the paneer imbibes the flavors of the sauce. Remove from flame and serve hot.
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.
I like looking at cook books, but the Indian cooking ones usually scare me. The list of ingredients will be long and complicated and some recipes will say something to the effect of “two medium tomatoes” and “one large onion” and “a generous pinch of cumin.” I am unsure of what that means, having had a bad experience or two with such directions in the past. Invariably my proportion of tomatoes to onions will be completely off, and the overly generous pinch of cumin will have made my food too bitter. “Spices are supposed to be the seasoning not the main ingredient,” my husband will tactfully remark when he comes home to a rather heavily spiced poorly cooked aloo dum, that tastes even stranger because I’ve tried to add, what I believe to be offsets to the extra cumin and tomatoes, including lots of extra butter and yogurt. At the other extreme are recipes that spell out 350 grams of potatoes and 200 grams of green beans, and I find these impossible too. It’s far easier to visualize things in cups and tablespoons than upon a weighing scale.
So when I come across a Paneer Makhani recipe that provides directions such as “two cups of tomato puree, one cup of chopped onions and two cups of chopped paneer pieces” in the process of casually flipping through a cookbook, I get very excited because I know that one cup means one beautiful measurable cup. About 200ml or 237 ml to be more precise. Clearly the ratio of tomatoes to onions is two to one. I try out the recipe, it comes out fairly well, and then it gets added to my limited cooking repertoire. Each time I have to produce a “party dish” or when my paneer-loving younger brother comes to visit, this recipe makes an appearance. I never have to think. The key ingredients are easily measurable and the prep and cooking time is under an hour. I know the taste of the dish will vary based upon the quality of the tomatoes in season or the pungency of the onions. But by and large, my paneer is always successful, and over time I start changing an ingredient or two here and there, and soon have my own favorite version of Paneer Butter Masala.
Paneer, a pressed Indian home-made cheese, is sold packaged in the refrigerator section of most Indian grocery stores. What makes this paneer dish really flavorful is the use of a little chopped onions and dried fenugreek leaves, fried separately and added to the dish at the end, along with a tablespoonful of honey (ideas borrowed from the queen bee of Indian vegetarian cooking, Tarla Dalal). Red chilli powder is optional as I find that my toddler son is far more likely to enjoy the paneer without the chilli. I also like to finish the gravy and then add the chopped paneer pieces at the end after turning off the flame. I let the paneer marinate in the gravy, and then reheat thoroughly just before serving. You can reheat whenever the dish needs to be served, up until the next day. The paneer will absorb all the flavors of the sauce, and become juicy and succulent.
Paneer Butter Masala
2 tbsps clarified butter called ghee
Optional, pieces of whole garam masala: a 1/2” piece of cinnamon stick, 1 clove, 1 green cardamom pod, 1 large bay leaf
Wet masala, to be ground to a paste together:
1 ½ cup of onions, 1 cup cut into large chunks and the rest finely diced. Keep the diced portion aside.
2 tbsps of broken cashew nuts, or 7-8 whole pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1” piece of ginger, peeled
To be added later:
2 cups of tomato puree made from freshly chopped or canned tomatoes
½ tsp of garam masala powder
1 tsp of turmeric
½ tsp of cumin powder
1 tbsp of dried fenugreek leaves called kasuri methi
1 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
For the end:
1 tbsp of honey
1 cup of milk
2 cups or 400g/14 oz of paneer, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste
1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat and when hot, add the pieces of whole garam masala (optional). After a few seconds of sizzling, add the ground wet masala paste comprised of onions, garlic, ginger and cashew nuts. Fry until the paste turns medium brown.
2. Add the tomato puree, along with a ½ cup of water. Add the turmeric and chilli powder (if using) and cook until the oil floats to the surface of the masala. This will take a while, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to ensure that the paste is cooking evenly.
3. Meanwhile, fry the ½ cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a separate pan with a bit of ghee. Add this to the cooked paste, along with milk, a ½ cup of water, cumin powder, garam masala powder, honey and salt to taste. If the sauce seems too thick, add some more milk. Cook until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the paneer and continue cooking for a few minutes if serving immediately. Otherwise, turn off the flame and reheat when ready to serve.
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 sookhaaloo-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
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 chanadal
1 tbsp uraddal
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.
Sometimes when I am in the kitchen, the strongest association that I have with the food, in this case okra, is the memory of a two-and-half year old Agastya hovering around, helping in some way or just getting involved in the vegetable that I am making. My mother has always claimed that all little children love okra, called bhindi in Hindi, and Agastya has been no exception. He loves eating stir-fried okra on his own, fingers eagerly cramming the crispy green circles into his mouth. I do not ever need to follow him around with a plate of food that holds okra to bribe or tempt him to eat a morsel. This means that when I tell him that I am about to make okra, his little body comes expectantly into the kitchen to inspect what I am doing. He demands to be placed on the counter while I chop. Agastya excitedly fingers the okra, examines its shape and texture, and counts the chopped pieces that emerge from my board. He finds it fascinating that I cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the okra, and that the okra has several names such as bhindi and lady’s finger. His excitement reminds me of how I always imagine chopped bhindi tails to be the fallen tails of house lizards that reside in practically every home in India. I make a quick mental note that I must point out house lizards to Agastya when we next visit India.
It is very hard to find good bhindi here in the greater New York metropolitan area. The Indian stores in Jersey City always carry okra, but they are frequently old, fibrous, hard, and nearly impossible to cook. Another source is an organic store called Sobsey’s here in Hoboken that occasionally carries very fresh okra imported from Mexico. And for a short while during the summer, local Jersey-grown okra makes an appearance in the farmers’ markets, and these are just the opposite of the ones in the Indian stores: they are a bright emerald green, glistening, thin, fresh, small and very tender. While holding a basket of these delectable treasures, I will often have a quick daydream that someone has handed me a paper cone with crisply fried whole tiny green okra, tossed with a generous sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder. Sometimes I am transported to a sleepy afternoon on the Greek island of Hydra where my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant that brought us small whole okra cooked in a tomato and onion sauce. Agastya had proceeded to eat the entire plate, savoring each bite. We had watched on, relieved that our son had found something to satisfy his tummy.
The best way to enjoy okra’s natural rich earthy flavor is to simply cut fresh okra (washed and thoroughly dried) into 1/4″ inch rounds. Heat a generous quantity of oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat, say about 3-4 tablespoons of oil for 2 pounds of okra, and throw in the chopped vegetable when the oil becomes hot. There will be a sizzling sound as the okra hits the hot oil. Cook uncovered, stirring every few minutes, until the okra browns, becomes soft and starts looking crisp at the edges. This takes a little while, and it is important to not add any salt until the okra is done. Covering the okra while cooking and adding salt both cause water to be released from the vegetable. This hampers the cooking process, leaving the okra raw. After the okra is cooked, add salt and a generous sprinkling of turmeric. Cook for just a minute or two and the dish is ready to eat. Note that okra shrinks down to an alarmingly small quantity after cooking. For instance, 2 pounds of fresh uncooked okra will only serve 2 adults and one or two small children.
My kitchen feels oddly cold and empty. Everything is in its place. There is no mad confusion of spices, profusion of dry lentils and messy spread of vegetable peels on the countertop.
My mother-in-law has just left today for India, after almost three months of being here in Hoboken. When my mother and mother-in-law are here, the stark white kitchen explodes into life and appears warm and welcoming. All of a sudden there is stuff everywhere. Spice jars are left open. The smell of cooking fills the house, enters into crevices, and refuses to leave. Both women use a variety of pots, pans, prep bowls and implements. The kitchen appears to hum pleasantly with activity. My mother-in-law chatters noisily with her sister on the phone while she cooks. My mother starts innovating and tasting. She tastes, adds, stirs and tastes again. As though she is back in her eleventh grade science laboratory.
Both my mothers are excellent cooks. When they come from India, both women take over the kitchen, coaxing delicious food from the electric stove. They show no signs of laziness or fatigue when it comes to cooking. My mother-in-law executes traditional Indian food flawlessly. My mother I best remember for the interesting global food that makes an appearance in her cooking. Quinoa starts showing up in our meals after three weeks in Peru. I watch my mother pack in giant butter beans into her suitcase in Greece. Vegetarian risottos become a regular dinner-time feature after a week in Italy. I’m not sure where the vegetable stir-fry with couscous that I love so much comes from. In contrast I, before cooking anything, think about the commitment involved, the long hours, the possibility of grossly inedible food, the wasted effort, the cleaning, the disappointment. Not cooking becomes a vicious cycle. I don’t cook, then it gets harder each time I try to cook, and then I don’t feel like cooking the next time.
The kitchen seems to sense that I am an uneasy mistress. It grows silent and sterile when my mothers leave. It throws me sullen glances while I tiptoe outside. It dares me to enter, and when I do, it makes something happen, like upsetting the jar of lentils so that there’s a giant mess and I start losing my sense of balance. By the time I’m done picking up all the minute grains off the floors, I have lost my nerve and can’t possibly contemplate cooking dinner. I scuttle away and plunk myself down on the sofa thinking about my limited food delivery choices. I also think about how my mothers would have never allowed the kitchen to intimidate and bully them in any way.
So, a day later, I decide that I need to gently reintroduce myself to the kitchen. Make friends again by starting with something simple. Just a cup of tea, perhaps. Tomorrow maybe I will try to make one dish from start to finish.
Sometimes my tiny toddler clambers into his dad’s lap at dinner time and proceeds to messily eat everything on the plate, small fingers moving busily from table to mouth, with a look of intense concentration on his face. This, in spite of having finished his own dinner just an hour ago. During such moments, I have an overwhelming sense that I must be doing something right. My cooking has satisfied this small but very particular critic. From the entire being-a-perfect-parent spectrum, I have decided that all I want to do is give my son two things, a lifelong love of learning and a love of good food. As I watch him eating, still surprised that he can actually feed himself out of hunger, curiosity or whatever it may be, it seems to me that Agastya seems to especially relish the gobi or cauliflower stir-fry. Can it really be that we both suddenly agree on what defines a good food?
The gobi dish has been arrived at after a long while of wondering what I can do with a cauliflower to make it edible, let alone make it taste like an authentic Indian sabji. It’s also meant getting over my fear of the cauliflower. I have realized that just staring at the heads of cauliflower at the market and timidly considering possibilities will not do. The first step is to bring home a bright white cauliflower with tightly packed florets, unwrap it and then ruthlessly remove all the greens and chop off a large piece of the stem near the head so that most of the florets are left with thinner, tender stems. Discard all the green and white foliage over the counter before the mess threatens to overwhelm. Then chop into bite-sized florets. The satisfying abundance of cauliflower florets can now be put in a colander and washed. The cooking possibilities then present themselves. In the past, I have tried boiling the cauliflower in hot water, steaming the florets, even microwaving the entire head before stir frying, but all of these have tended to kill the flavor of the cauliflower.
Simply heating a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and covering and cooking the chopped cauliflower florets on medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally to ensure that the cauliflower doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, with a generous pinch of turmeric and salt, can yield a bland, but fairly tasty gobi dish. The recipe can be be varied to add some grated ginger in the beginning, or long chopped onions cooked until they are brown, or even a green chilli or two, split down the middle, or any combination of the three. A sprinkling of coriander powder, cumin powder and amchur at the end adds another layer of flavor. A raw medium-sized white or yellow potato with its peel, cut into thin slices and cooked with the cauliflower, adds a delicious rustic flavor to the dish. Alternatively, a half cupful of green peas can be thrown in midway through the cooking to make gobi matar.
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.
To make the sambar powder
1 tsp ghee
2 tsp chanadal
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.
When I first came to the United States in the mid-90s, I knew that the food in the college cafeteria and the three local pink-and-gold gaudy Indian restaurants would be different from the food that I had grown up on. More than my daily meals, I missed the tangy and spicy street foods that are served in various corners of Calcutta. Pav bhaji, a hot mixed vegetable curry served with bread, was one such dish.
My memories of pav bhaji consisted of first evading my mother who didn’t approve of street food, and then finding the pav bhaji vendor on a noisy and busy street corner in the early evening. The pav bhaji man was dark, thin and intense, with a big moustache. “How spicy would you like the bhaji, didi, and should I put everything?” he asked in Hindi. While I waited, he sizzled a pat of yellow butter on a giant round black griddle or tava. He threw in diced onions, peppers and ginger-garlic paste into the middle of the pan and added some chopped tomatoes and mashed potatoes. His face shone by the light of the naked bulb suspended overhead and his hands moved deftly, wielding the steel spatula with practiced skill as he sprinkled a generous spoonful of garammasala, a mixture of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, cumin and coriander powder, tossed in some amchur or dried raw mango powder, and spiced up the bhaji with red chilli pepper powder. Finally, the bhaji man scooped up the thick piping hot curry onto a crackling plate made of dried leaves, added another generous dollop of butter and a sprinkle of lime, topped the bhaji with crunchy chopped onions and bright green cilantro, and served it with a side of hot buttered rolls or pav. When I took a bite, my mouth puckered at the taste of the piquant and spicy concoction. The roll provided a marvelous antidote to the fire in the bhaji, and I experienced a glorious sense of wellbeing as the hot food slid down my throat and reached my belly. This is what I craved: a hot satisfying one-pot meal that would taste of the jostling streets of home.
Meanwhile my roommate who had grown up with Chinese immigrant parents in Brooklyn was also experiencing a similar food crisis in the cafeteria. She had her mother bring us each an electric sauté pot. Using such devices in our wood-paneled and cramped dormitory rooms was completely against fire marshal rules. We were in an old and prestigious college, and cooking food drawn from Calcutta’s underbelly in these hallowed halls seemed somewhat sacrilegious. But we were desperate.
The pav bhaji undertaking began with a phone call to my mother. I had never cooked anything, ever. But pav bhaji turned out to be a forgiving dish and one that was hard to botch. The onions could be a little undercooked, since raw onions were added for flavor on top anyway, and the tomatoes didn’t have to be necessarily cooked until the butter rose to the surface, since the dish was supposed to have a tart flavor. Potatoes could be boiled and mashed in preparation. The dry spice mixture, pav bhaji masala, came in a prepackaged box, and could be added to the dish to taste. Generous chunks of butter masked any other shortcomings.
I still remember my first dorm-cooked pav bhaji, laying magnificently at the bottom of the black plugged-in cooking pot. The smell of frying onions and masala had wafted and filled the building, perhaps suffocating the inhabitants along the way. My first few attempts yielded a bhaji that was fairly edible despite some noticeable shortcomings in flavor.
It’s been thirteen years since that first year in college, and my memories of pav bhaji are now entwined with growing up and settling into the United States. My first attempt at cooking. The first dish I made for my husband, and that he has grown to crave as well. And one that my two-year old now comes to inspect by dipping tiny bits of bread into the edges of the spicy bhaji on my plate and scooping them carefully into his mouth.
2 cups of peeled and chopped potatoes
1 cup of cauliflower florets, chopped
1/2 cup of green peas
1/2 cup of diced carrots
3 tbsps of salted butter
2 cups of finely chopped red onions
1 tbsp of grated ginger
1 cup of diced tomatoes
1 tbsp of pav bhaji masala or more to taste
Red chilli pepper powder to taste
Salt to taste
Lime juice to taste, and some slices of green lime
A handful of fresh coriander leaves, washed and chopped
Soft bread rolls
1. In a pressure cooker, place the potatoes, peas, carrots and cauliflower florets. Add about 1 cup of water, or enough to just submerge the vegetables. Bring the pressure cooker to 1 whistle on medium heat. Remove from heat, mash the boiled vegetables gently with a potato masher in the pressure cooker itself and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a pan, and add half the onions and ginger. Fry on medium heat until the onions turn brown. Add the tomatoes, and cook until the oil separates from the paste.
3. Add the cooked onion-ginger-tomato paste to the boiled and mashed vegetables in the pressure cooker. Add the pav bhaji masala, red chilli powder and salt. Cook on medium heat for several minutes, until the mixture appears well integrated and thickens slightly. Add lime juice to taste. Remove from heat.
4. Garnish with the chopped coriander. Serve piping hot with a side of split, buttered and pan-toasted soft bread rolls, the remaining chopped red onions and slices of green lime.
“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 stewstudded 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.
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.
Khichri, a dry (khilwa) or moist preparation consisting of rice and lentil in equal parts, is one of my favorite foods. With a pressure cooker, it is an easy one-pot meal to prepare. My simplest khichri is rice and moong dal, with some salt, turmeric, heeng orasafoetida and ghee or clarified butter. I then add any vegetables that I have on hand such as peas, cauliflower, carrot, beans, potatoes, summer squash and pumpkin. As per my mother’s instructions, I initially stir-fry onions, ginger and tomato and also separately dry roast the moong dal. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, only adds whole pieces of ginger and garlic and doesn’t roast her dal. Seasonings can be as varied as whole garam masala (whole bits of cardamom, bay leaf, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn) sizzled in hot ghee in my mother’s version, or just whole cumin in my mother-in-law’s.
I am especially attached to khichri, because it was one of the first real meals that I cooked for Agastya when he was a baby. There was something extra-satisfying about a novice-cooked meal that my infant would eat. “He doesn’t know any better,” I would reason, and waited for the day that he would find out his mother really couldn’t cook. As he grew older, I began layering in more spices, different vegetables and sometimes even an additional lentil such as whole green moong into his little pot of khichri. Agastya happily continued to eat the concoction that I put before him.
My khichri has now acquired a comforting and regular presence on our dinner table. I often make a big steaming mild pot so that the three of us can eat it together. My husband, who was raised on spicy Andhra cooking, eats his with raw red onions and spicy pickle, while I enjoy my khichri with sugar-sweetened yogurt.
There is no “right way” to make Indian-style spiced tea (masala chai) flavored with ginger and cardamom. You can vary the ingredients based upon taste, and create your own unique formula for masala chai. I like to use milk from organic pasture-fed cows as the milk is sweet and naturally flavorful. I also believe that this tea does not taste the same without ginger that adds an aromatic, sharp and earthy taste to the tea. Some people like to add a strand or two of saffron to the tea for a rich, unique taste. You can also add a stick of cinnamon and a clove or two for a warmer, spicier flavor.
Be careful to not over-boil the tea leaves, which imparts a bitter taste, and to not add too much ginger, which could make the tea very pungent (although I love an over-pungent tea that bites my throat). The idea is to make a cup of tea that you look forward to each morning or afternoon. Which means that you will sit down with a steaming cup in hand, perhaps with a little snack and a favorite read. The taking of tea becomes even more pleasurable when shared with a loved one.
Makes about 2 cups of tea
2 cups water
a piece of ginger
3-4 pods of whole green cardamom
1 tbsp loose leaf black Assam CTC tea
1 cup milk, whole or 2% reduced fat
Brown or white sugar to taste
In a small saucepan, place the water to boil over medium to high heat on the stove. Meanwhile, pound the ginger and the cardamom using a mortar and pestle, and add the mixture to the water in the saucepan. When the water begins to boil, wait for a few seconds, and add the milk and bring to boil again. Watch to see that the tea does not spill over the pan; if the liquid begins to rise, reduce the flame. Then add the tea leaves, and continue to boil. Keep on the flame until the color turns to a rich caramel color, usually within one minute. Remove, strain with a tea strainer into a cup. Add sugar to taste and stir. Serve immediately. This tea is best enjoyed hot.
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.
This slow-boiled milk dessert or kheer is traditionally made in winter in my Calcutta home with tangerines or santara that have been peeled, segmented and then the inner skin removed. It is usually served during the festival of Diwali. The kheer arrives at dinner on the main Diwali day, resplendent in a large silver bowl, the bits of orange fruit contrasting with the green pistachio garnish, against a rich, creamy background. To save time, I use canned whole segments of peeled mandarin oranges in light syrup. During mango season, slices of fresh mango can be used instead of oranges. The kheer is served not too thick – the milk just needs to be boiled down to about half its original quantity.
Serves about 12
1 gallon of whole milk
Sugar to taste
Cardamom seeds to taste, crushed and powdered
a few strands of saffron (not too much as it overpowers taste of oranges)
2 14-oz cans of peeled mandarin orange segments, drained
A large handful of dry roasted pistachios, shelled and chopped into slivers
1. In a saucepan on medium heat, bring the milk to boil while stirring often to ensure that the milk solids don’t stick to the bottom. Keep boiling until the milk is about 3/4 of the original quantity. Add sugar to taste, and continue boiling and stirring. The sugar will cause the milk to become thinner temporarily, but continue boiling on medium heat until you have 1/2 the original quantity of milk. This process could take an hour or so. The milk will change color slowly to become more yellow as it thickens.
2. Once the milk is done, remove from stove, and add the cardamom and strands of saffron. Keep aside until completely cooled (otherwise the oranges tend to curdle the milk).
3. Add the drained oranges and pistachios. Serve at room temperature or cold.