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Around the 4th century BCE, poetic sage Valmiki penned the Ramayana, the story of Rama, an epic that transpired during the fourth eon in Hindu chronology, about 880,000 years ago. When Rama’s wife Sita was kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana and taken to Lanka (what is now Sri Lanka), it was Hanuman, the monkey god, who gathered his troop of monkeys and flew Rama in the palm of his hands over the Indian Ocean to Lanka. Once there, in the heat of the battle, Hanuman wrapped a long piece of cloth along the length of his gargantuan tail and dipped it in kerosene. He lit fire to his tail and flew around, burning Lanka, to create a diversion that would enable Rama to save his beloved Sita.
In modern-day India, during the month of October, the 10-day festival of Dassera includes a tribute to Hanuman’s tail. Tamilian Brahmins do so by adorning a framed image of his tail with a wreath of savory, doughnut-shaped lentil fritters called vadaas that harbor coarsely cracked, pungent peppercorns, earthy ginger and aromatic curry leaves.
Making vadaa starts early with a job for everyone
At the crack of dawn on a chilly morning in October, my mother’s premier task was to bathe and wrap a clean 9-yard sari around her diminutive body before entering her very small and cluttered kitchen.
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Amma rested her left thigh on her armamanai, a plank of wood with a sharp blade at one end, to pry open the large pile of fresh banana leaves that my brother had purchased the previous evening for serving food for this special event to our family priests. She deftly cut in half a large leaf and sprinkled it with cold water. She removed the plate that covered the batter in the stainless steel stockpot, releasing the unmistakable citrus smell of the fresh karhi leaves, awakening all my senses. The crows were getting louder each time they flew by the window; I heard my stomach growl.
Amma placed a heaping tablespoon of batter on the lush banana leaf and spread it evenly to 3 inches in diameter. She made a hole in the center of the vadaa, similar to a doughnut’s. She dripped a drop of water in the hot oil to make sure it bounced off gently from the surface. When I asked her if it was ready, she nodded her head in affirmation.
She slipped the vadaa into the hot oil, and the scent of ginger root and black peppercorns filled the tiny kitchen. She quickly shaped more vadaas to cover the surface of the oil. “We need at least 30 vadaas,” Amma sighed, “for the maala [garland].” It seemed an impossible task, but within moments she had reached that goal. The vadaas had to be in increments of 30. When asked why, Akka, who was within earshot, mumbled, “That’s just the way it is.” Oh the vadaas looked so tempting — all evenly round and golden brown. I knew I could not eat any of them until the priest blessed the offering.
The armamanai took on the role of a pair of scissors for the long piece of string that would hold the vadaas together. I was in charge of stringing the perfect vadaas and tying the loose ends to make the garland. “What a horrible way to torture a poor hungry boy,” I mused out aloud, holding the garland high as I walked barefoot away from the kitchen toward the priest who sat in front of Hanuman’s framed portrait. His incessant chanting in Sanskrit was haunting and kept me mesmerized for the duration of the tribute. The word samarpayamee signified the end of the ritual and granted me permission to run to the kitchen to grab a vadaa fresh from the wok. “Heaven on earth,” I thought, as I sought to appease the Ravana in my belly.
Makes about 10 vadaas (3 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick)
1 cup urad dal (split and hulled black lentils), sorted
½ cup uncooked long-grain rice
2 to 3 dried red Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped ginger root
3 to 4 fresh Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies
2 medium potatoes, peeled and shredded (1 cup)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh karhi leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon hing (asafetida)
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1. In a medium bowl, place the dal and rice; cover the mixture with water by about 1 inch. With fingers, gently wash grains 10 to 20 seconds; drain. Repeat five to six times until the water in the bowl looks clear.
2. Add dried chilies. Cover with warm water and soak at room temperature at least one to two hours or overnight (about eight hours); drain.
3. In a food processor, grind the mixture with ginger root and fresh chilies until smooth. The batter will be fairly thick and feel slightly gritty.
4. Transfer the batter to a bowl and fold in the remaining ingredients. With a wooden spoon or spatula, beat the batter two to three minutes to incorporate air.
5. In a wok or 3-quart saucepan heat vegetable oil (about 2 to 3 inches deep) on medium heat until a thermometer inserted in the oil registers 350 F.
6. Generously grease the palms of your hands with oil. Place 2 tablespoons batter in one palm and with the fingers of your other hand make a round shape 3 inches in diameter and roughly ½-inch thick. The mixture will be very sticky, so use as much oil as necessary to shape vadaa. With your forefinger, bore a hole in the center of the shaped vadaa similar to a doughnut’s. Gently “peel” the vadaa from your palm and drop it in the hot oil.
7. Fry 5 to 7 minutes, turning once or twice, until richly golden brown.
8. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining batter. If shaping vadaas seem to be a problem, drop tablespoonfuls of batter in hot oil and fry until golden brown. No matter what the shape, they will taste the same.
Top photo: A vadaa fresh from the cooking oil. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Shiva has a temper as gargantuan as his persona, but that is to be expected from the god who destroys all evil. If you invoke his ire, be ready to be turned into stone. But if you appeal to his compassion through major sacrifices, sit back and reap the fruits lavished upon you. Shiva spent long periods of time on Mount Kailasha, a heavenly retreat where he performed penance in a solitary world away from his wife Parvati and their newly conceived child, Ganesh.
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Parvati never got used to being alone without her husband, but feared stoking his wrath. She spent her days showering attention on their beautiful, chubby baby boy. Her maternal love nurtured his body and soul and soon he grew into a vibrantly healthy young boy. One morning, as was his routine, Ganesh stood guard outside his mother’s door with a sword in one hand as she bathed in milk, honey and fresh petals of rose and jasmine. Her strict instructions not to allow anyone entrance into her private chambers rang in his ears.
The morning rays of Surya, the god of sun, filtered through the doorway. Within moments the room darkened and Ganesh looked up to see an unkempt old fakir in a white dhoti standing barefoot with a stick in one hand. He was about to march through the door, into Parvati’s private quarters when Ganesh brandished his sword. The aged man was Shiva, his father, but Ganesh had never seen him since his birth. Nor did Shiva recognize his son, and soon his annoyance filled the chambers like blinding smoke. He bellowed to Ganesh to step aside, but the boy refused to budge. Shiva yanked the sword from his little hands and with the sharpness of its blade that swished through the air with metallic splendor, severed Ganesh’s head in one clean motion.
The commotion brought Parvati running to the door and she shrieked in disbelief at what her husband had done. “You have killed your son with your own anger,” she sobbed. “Now how can I continue to live?” Shiva’s wrath dissipated as swiftly as icy water on a burning ember. He fell to his knees and wept for his son. He promised Parvati that he would bring Ganesh back by planting on his empty shoulders the first living creature’s head that would walk by their home. Just then the earth shook and Shiva poked his head out the door to see what caused the tremor. A baby elephant had strayed away from his herd and was thundering by. As promised, Shiva ran to the elephant and, with the same sword that had made his son lifeless, rendered the elephant headless with one stroke.
A god is born
He gathered the head and planted it on his firstborn’s shoulders. Soon Ganesh’s body stirred into life and he awoke to find his mother and father showering blessings on him, whispering his name, Gajanan Ganesh, the elephant-headed celestial being about to be worshipped by millions as the bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow.
On Ganesh Chaturthi, the day of his birth (which in 2013 will be celebrated on Sept. 9), my Amma always made his favorite: delicately wrapped shells of rice flour housing two different kinds of filling, one with red chile-spiked lentils, the other a sweet combination of fresh coconut, jaggery and freshly ground cardamom. She shaped the savory dumplings into boats, while the sweet ones were round to differentiate them when they are sealed. Steamed with pearly beads of water clinging to their satin skins, they lay on banana leaves in front of Ganesh’s statue as he sat on his throne, a dumpling in his left hand, right hand facing me in raised blessing, and his mascot, the furry rodent who lay by his feet, nibbling on a modak (dumpling). Once the kozhakuttais were blessed, they easily slid down our throats and into our hungry bellies, the spicy ones first followed by their sweetly innocent kin.
Pooranam Kozhakuttai (Steamed Dumplings With Coconut)
Makes 20 dumplings
For the filling:
1 cup freshly shredded coconut (available in the freezer section of any Asian market)
½ cup coarsely chopped jaggery or tightly packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from green pods), ground
For the wrappers:
1½ cups rice flour
¼ teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1½ cups warm water
6 tablespoons canola oil
Additional oil for shaping the wrappers
For the filling:
1. Combine the coconut and jaggery in a small saucepan, heating it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the jaggery dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Stir in the cardamom. Transfer the filling to a plate to cool.
For the wrappers:
1. Dump the rice flour and salt into a medium-size bowl; whisk in the warm water, a few tablespoons at a time, to make a crêpe-thin batter.
2. Stir 3 tablespoons oil into the batter. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and batter into a cold wok or non-stick skillet. Heat the batter over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps from forming, until the batter thickens up, starts to pull away from the sides of pan, and comes together into a ball to form soft dough, 5 to 7 minutes. It should feel silky smooth but not sticky to the touch. Transfer the dough to a plate and spread it a bit to cool, 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Divide the dough into twenty equal parts; shape each part into a smooth ball. Grease the palms well with oil. Place a ball in the palm of one hand. With the fingers of the other hand, press and shape it into a 3-inch-round wrapper. Place a scant teaspoon of the filling in its center. Gather up the corners of the wrapper and bring them towards the center to cover the filling. Pinch the gathered edges together to seal shut, shaping it into a Hershey’s Kiss-like tip. Repeat with the remaining rounds and filling.
4. Prepare a steamer pan and fill it with water for steaming. Heat the water to boil over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the steamer insert. Arrange the sealed dumplings (without overcrowding) and steam 10 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.
Top photo: Steamed dumplings with coconut. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
The recent downpours in Mumbai invoked the college memories of chai, that impeccable cup of milky brown brew, black tea steeped with ginger, cardamom and comfort. One typical gray June morning, a double-decker bus waded through the murky waters — ah, monsoons in Mumbai, you’ve got to love them! Pervasive dampness clinging to moist skin and polyester clothing, climbing petticoats under 6-yard saris, seeping through leather clogs.
Raincoats, umbrellas and gumboots are ineffectual in their battle with the pregnant clouds, unable to keep the virulent waters from invading the core of your being. I gingerly stepped from the bus into knee-deep water and waded to the entrance of the college canteen, joining my friends there, huddled together, deep in discussion on the upcoming practical (exam) on frog, earthworm and cockroach dissection. The gory details never bothered even the daintiest stomach as gulps of steaming hot chai provided tranquility against the angry downpour.
Chai is the lifeblood of India’s social, political and business gatherings. In a store selling silk saris, as you debate the choice of the flame red silk laced with gold or the midnight purple with a sea green border and green leaves, the owner will offer you a cup of hot chai in a stainless steel tumbler to enlighten your decision. Visit your best friend or close a hostile business deal, but first sip chai. Stroll down the dry streets of summer Mumbai or wade through a foot of standing water in the harsh monsoons, but always take a moment to sip chai, available on every street corner, hawked by vendors everywhere.
There are different variations on chai, but chai always means tea, so, if you will permit me two seconds on my soapbox, it would be redundant to say “chai tea.” It is chai, pure and simple.
Makes 4 cups
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger
10 to 12 green or white cardamom pods
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup Darjeeling or Assam loose black tea leaves (or 8 tea bags)
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk or 4 teaspoons white granulated sugar
If you have a mortar, dump the ginger and cardamom into it and with the pestle, pound it a few times to release some of the juices and oils. Alternately, put the two ingredients into a mini chopper or food processor’s bowl and pulse a few times to break the spices down a bit and release those incredible aromas.
Bring the 2 cups water and the milk to a rapid boil, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, uncovered, stirring regularly to prevent scorching. As soon as it comes to a boil, stir in the tea leaves and the pounded ginger-cardamom blend. Bring it to a boil again, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the milk’s color changes into a light brown tint and is scented with the strong, heady aromas of ginger and cardamom, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the sweetened condensed milk or sugar and turn off the heat. Strain the chai into serving cups and serve piping hot.
Tip: Even though I have recommended ginger and cardamom, spices like ground cloves, cinnamon, and even black pepper are great sprinkled in chai. Add it at the same juncture you would the ginger and cardamom.
Top photo: The essential chai. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Gopala, Shyam, Mohan, Govinda … the charmer with several names, is best known as Krishna, the blue-blooded reincarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver. Krishna was born into royalty; his parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were imprisoned by the evil Kamsa, a demon who usurped their thrones in Mathura, a town along the banks of India’s river Yamuna.
Kamsa was warned that the eighth son born to Vasudeva would be the cause of his demise. So the first six times Devaki, who was his sister, gave birth to a son, Kamsa made a visit and quickly destroyed the child. The seventh son was transferred magically into the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini.
Escape from death
When Vasudeva’s eighth son was born, it was during the still of midnight as the shimmering light of a full moon filtered through the bars of the humble prison. Vasudeva placed the baby, who was destined to bring order back to Mathura, in a wicker basket and perched it on his head. As he had been promised by Lord Vishnu, who was aware of Kamsa’s vengeful campaign, Vasudeva found the door to his cell miraculously unlocked, the guards drugged. When he and the child reached the banks of the Yamuna, Vasudeva’s qualms about crossing the river dissipated: it magically parted, making his task of delivering the boy to safety an easy one. A cowherd in the town of Gokhul found the beautiful baby and he and his wife, thrilled to have a son, raised him as their own. They named him Krishna.
Word of Krishna’s antics spread quickly through the tightly-knit community. A series of signs and miraculous events foretold of the boy’s pre-destined celestial purpose: to kill Kamsa and bring happiness, beauty and order, which were nonexistent under the demon’s regime, back to the people. Krishna’s handsome good looks, lightheartedness and mischievous demeanor gave every mother in town a joyous heartbreak.
Krishna, Dairy Thief
His penchant for milk, cream and butter became well known. No dairy products could be left within reach for fear of their being devoured within seconds. Whenever cream was collected to make butter, it was amassed in clay pots and strung up high, between the loftiest treetops. Krishna coaxed his fellow cowherds to form a human pyramid and he would soon be found at its apex, gulping his prize with great satisfaction.
It could be said that his love of dairy was instrumental in compelling Krishna to develop the ingenuity and physical strength that eventually led to his defeat of Kamsa in a wrestling match years later. Krishna fulfilled his purpose and restored all that was just and human to Mathura, his native land.
RAGHVAN IYER'S GHEE TIPS
DON'T use margarine or any butter substitutes that want you to think they’re just like the real deal.
DO use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent the butter from scorching. Cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic-coated cast iron are all fair game. I use a cast-iron or carbon steel wok if I happen to be making a large batch, as the fat seasons the pan.
DON'T turn up the heat beyond the low setting, as much as you may be tempted to do so; if you do, the milk solids will start to burn.
DO make sure the glass jar is clean and dry before pouring in the ghee. Let the ghee cool completely before screwing on the lid. Moisture will promote the growth of mold.
Cream to butter to ghee
The process of churning fresh cream into butter is still widely practiced in homes all across India. But this is just an intermediary step. Classic Indian cooking always calls for ghee, or clarified butter. Once the milk solids have been removed from butter, its shelf life is extended exponentially and there is no need for refrigeration. Ghee also has a much higher smoke point than non-clarified butter, making it ideal for deep frying.
In my home when I was growing up, each morning Amma skimmed cream from a saucepan filled with hot milk. Once enough was at hand, she squatted on the floor with her deep pot and long-handled wooden beater. Within minutes white, silky-smooth butter separated and floated to the top, weaning itself from the thin whey or buttermilk below. Amma scooped handfuls of the butter and placed it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I always happened to be there just in the nick of time to steal a few scoops, Krishna-like, its sweetness coated my tongue, the name maakhan chor (butter thief) rang in my ears.
Stainless steel tumblers collected the buttermilk, to be drunk in thirst-quenching gulps while the freshly churned butter melted on low heat and milk solids were skimmed and discarded. The clear fat, now turned into ghee, rested in a chipped orange porcelain jar, nutty and pure, waiting to bless every dish it would touch with its heavenly aroma and flavor. The taste is truly sublime.
Ghee is widely available in stores. It is not easy on the pocketbook, so be prepared to plunk down your hard-earned money for the convenience, should you not have 15 to 20 minutes of free time to spend in the kitchen. I often splurge and buy ghee imported from India, only because the cows (or water buffaloes, depending on where the milk came from) graze on a different diet and the ghee has a unique flavor not found in America’s dairy land. But making your own is well worth the time and patience.
GheeMakes about 12 ounces (1½ cups)
1 pound unsalted butter
1. Line a fine-mesh tea strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, set it over a clean, dry glass measuring cup or pint-size canning jar, and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure an even melt (otherwise, the bottom of the block melts and starts to bubble while the top half remains firm). Once the butter melts, you will notice that a lot of foam is gathering on the surface. Scoop the foam out with a spoon or just let it be; the melted butter will eventually stop foaming and start to subside. Now you can start to carefully skim off the foam. Some of the milk solids will settle at the bottom and start to brown lightly. This light browning is what gives Indian ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. This process will take 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Once the liquid appears quite clear (like oil) with a light amber hue, pour it through the cheesecloth-lined strainer, leaving the browned milk solids behind, and set it aside to cool.
4. When the ghee is cool, pour it into a storage jar and seal it. Keep it at room temperature, right next to your other bottled oils; it will solidify, even at room temperature. (I don’t find it necessary to refrigerate ghee, but if you wish, by all means do so. I have kept mine at room temperature for many months, without any concern for rancidity or spoilage. Because ghee has no milk solids in it, and that’s what can turn butter rancid, I do as millions in India do, and leave it out.
It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.
Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.
The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.
Rice, starch and saris
My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.
Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.
There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.
To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.
Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.
2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)
4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.
Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto