Articles in Indian

Pongal is a typical Indian food made with rice.

There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.

These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.

Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.

Overflowing with good tidings

This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.

There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.

These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.

Venpongal

Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup mung dal

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

1 cup whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)

1/8 teaspoon asafoetida

A few curry leaves

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ghee

1/2 cup mung dal

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery

2 cups whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

1/2 cup coconut milk

10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 tablespoon raisins

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.

 Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

All around the world trees are adorned with lights, candles and lamps are displayed in windows, strings of paper lanterns are cut into intricate patterns. Christmas is one of the many holidays that celebrate the return of light to the world at the time of the winter solstice.

Along the Silk Road, the largest number of Christians in any country is in predominantly Hindu India. There are around 35 million Christians in India, with those of Catholic faith comprising slightly less than half of that total number. That’s  a few million less than the population of California; and five times as many Christians live in India than in Christian Georgia and Armenia combined.

In a country of almost 1 billion Hindus and 140 million Muslims, Christians are still a minority in India. In some urban areas such as Chennai and Kerala, though, there are large Christian communities who have beautiful and distinct ways of celebrating the holiday that blend Christian religious practice and iconography with Indian material culture.

Celebrations often begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the New Year. Families gather on Christmas Eve for processions through the streets to churches decorated with the bold crimson foliage of poinsettias in bloom for a midnight Mass to begin the holiday season. People worship as choirs sing traditional religious and secular songs. In some parishes, fireworks are lit after services and people dance, feast and exchange presents well into one of the longest nights of the year.

Decorated trees

Other familiar traditions get a uniquely Indian twist on the subcontinent and Nativity scenes are displayed in Christian homes. Banana and mango trees are decorated with lights and oil lamps are placed on roofs and walls to declare the return of the light, as is also done for Hindu India’s Diwali festival.

Most startling and magical are the strings of star-shaped paper lanterns that are hung from rooftop to rooftop and in front of Christian-owned shops and restaurants, symbolically to light the way of all people. Caroling takes place in Christian communities and in most urban melting pots, as crowds of people gather to walk through the streets and make a joyous noise to celebrate their faith.

Christianity’s roots run deep in India. According to Indian Christian traditions, the apostle Thomas arrived in Kerala in the mid-first century A.D., and began preaching across the region and into Tamil Nadu. From this humble beginning, Christianity spread steadily across India, and by the time of the Sassanid Empire in A.D. 226, there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The first Catholic bishop of India was ordained in the early 14th century, and in the 15th century, as the Portuguese colonists along the Malabar Coast continued the spread of the faith.

Indian garland

Garland of stars. Credit: Nikhil Gangavane – Dreamstime

Christmas Day is a national holiday in India, and the day off from work and official duties often prompts people of other faiths to have large family dinners at this time as well. So, even if they make up a small portion of India’s population, Christians have freedom to worship and celebrate this season that is both known and in some secular ways shared by their brothers and sisters of other creeds.

Families prepare for weeks or sometimes months for the coming of Christmas and homes are cleaned, repaired and whitewashed. That ever-earlier harbinger of the Christmas season in the West — shopping — also takes place in India as people shop for new clothes to wear to festivities and buy presents for loved ones. For women and girls the holiday also includes preparing special foods — particularly desserts and cakes to share with  visitors and cooking can begin long in advance of the holiday.

Cookies and sweets

There are no dishes that are unique to the Christmas season in India, but the most elaborate and expensive dishes are usually prepared. Savory dishes include layered biryanis, especially Mughlai biryani, with its large complement of meat, nuts and spices. Other savory dishes include mutton or lamb curries and roasted and stuffed duck or other fowl.

Trays of cookies and sweets are present in every home and some sweets, such as naan khatai, kulkuls and various burfis are usually served. Traditional dishes vary a great deal by region; for example, the pork curry, sorpatel and the layered sweet with coconut milk, egg and sugar called bebinca are sure to be served in Goa, whereas in West Bengal, a prawn and coconut curry such as Bhapa Chingri is a likely savory dish. As for sweets in Kolkata and surrounding areas, one is likely to be served cheese balls in sweetened rosewater or rasgulla, or a rice pudding called a kheer.

 To partake in these sometimes week-long feasts, students return home for the holidays and adults living away from their place of birth often return to visit their parents to celebrate. Above all, it is a time for peace and well-being within families and communities. Christian or not, the solstice season is about the return of the sun and victory of light over darkness for us all.

Indian sweets

Indian sweets. Credit: Sunil Lal – Dreamstime

Cardamom and Pistachio Cookies (Naan Khatai)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina
1 cup butter or ghee (softened)
1/2 to 3/4 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 10 cardamom pods, ground
Shelled, pistachios or almonds (halved or slivered for decoration)
2 to 4 tablespoons mixed ground pistachios mixed with a pinch or two more of ground cardamom.

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 F. Sift the flour and semolina together. Then whisk the butter or ghee in bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients until creamy. Add the sugar, salt and ground cardamom to the ghee and mix well till all the sugar is dissolved. Then add flour and semolina a bit at a time until the dough is smooth.

If it is hot and humid in your area, you may wish to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes before shaping and decorating the cookies. Roll the dough into balls about 1-inch across. Flatten the balls, and place on a greased or sprayed cookie sheet, leaving space between the cookies for them to expand when they cook.

Place some pistachios or almonds on the center of each cookie and press lightly. Now take a pinch or two of ground nuts and cardamom and sprinkle over the cookies. (Don’t overdo this step, the flavor is supposed to be light.) Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they just start to color. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.

Note: There are many variations in recipes for naan khatai throughout the subcontinent and into western Asia. Some use a bit of nutmeg, others a dash of cinnamon. Some recipes substitute corn oil in the place of clarified butter or ghee. Also, if you don’t like or don’t have pistachios on hand, the recipe works well with almonds or hazelnuts or really any nut of your choice.

Main photo: Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

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Thse apple malpoas, crisp fried pancakes , offer an Indian twist to latkes served for Hanukkah. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

If celebration food is the determining factor, Hanukkah has to be one of my all-time favorite holidays. I have yet to meet a fried food I didn’t love, and the ever-popular latke calls my name, especially on nippy days like these.

Offer me a holiday that offers a reason to indulge in crispy potato pancakes and doughnuts, and my food fantasy is complete.

Over the years, I have had a few latke recipes that I have created, like this loaded variety or another with a blend of harvest roots. Depending on the meal, I pair them with foods throughout the year.

Last year, however, I actually set out to explore Indian foods that might work on a Hanukkah table for a guest who was visiting. Hiam, a young Jewish man and an intern working with my husband, stayed with us for a couple of weeks at a time that happened to coincide with Hanukkah.

His father, he told me, was born of half-Indian descent in what is now Mumbai in India, and had later moved on to various places before finally setting here in the United States. He had told Hiam many stories of India, leaving his son with a romantic view of the country and a deep wish to visit it one day. On my table, Hiam was hoping to find foods that would take him a little closer to his goal.

He wanted to celebrate Hanukkah with some foods that would be symbolic of the holiday and Indian in character. He mentioned to me that his family often enjoyed Indian lentils, or dal, with pita bread, and his father had a recipe for curried cauliflower, so his request was to sample something beyond that.

A Jewish community in India?

India has a small but long-established Jewish community in parts of eastern, western and southern India, so finding Jewish cuisine in India is not such a foreign concept. Nahoum and Sons, located in the center of Kolkata’s historic New Market, is a well-established and third-generation bakery of Jewish heritage. It still carries confectionery that represents traditional family recipes and unique savories.

I scoured through some heritage cookbooks, to grant Hiam his wish. Certain recipes, such as a roasted chicken and a potato creation called Chicken Makallah, or the stuffed creations called dolmas, have likely found their way onto Indian tables by way of Jewish influence.

None of these seemed to fit the Hanukkah bill of celebrating fried foods.

Fashioning a latke out of tried-and-true Indian food

So I was back to creating a festive meal from my tested and tried staples. The Indians love their lentil fritters called vadas or chickpea batter coated fritters called pakoras. These provide loads of options for the seeker of fried indulgences. I scoped out my two favorite recipes that are perfect for any celebration and well-suited for those looking for easy and unusual festive recipes.

The first recipe is for a traditional crisp pancake called malpoa, which actually offers you something in between a doughnut and a crepe. I like to top the malpoa with seasonal fruit, and this variation has an apple and pistachio topping. It is important to serve these hot. The syrup can be made ahead if you wish and brought to room temperature.

The second recipe is a classic Bengali onion fritter that I make as onion rings, as this rendition works best with my children. The distinct element of this recipe is the addition of nigella seeds, which add a unique flavor and pretty speckled appearance to the rings. These onion fritters are a well-loved roadside food in Bengal — hot and crisply fried, wrapped lovingly in newspaper bags.

Apple Malpoa – Indian Pancakes with a Cardamom, Apple Pistachio Topping

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” Hippocrene, 2012)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 15 medium-sized (5-inch) pancakes

Ingredients

For the syrup:

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

For the apple pistachio topping:

2 honeycrisp apples, diced, skin on

1/2 cup crushed pistachios (pecans can be used, if desired)

1/2 teaspoon crushed cardamom

1/3 cup coconut milk

For the pancakes:

3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 to 2 whole black peppercorns

2 cups commercial evaporated milk (about 2 large cans)

1/3 cup ricotta cheese

1 1/2 tablespoons semolina

3/4 cup all-purpose flour (enough to bind the batter)

Oil for frying

Directions

1. To prepare the syrup, place the water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and cook on medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes until it reaches a consistency thick enough to lightly coat the pancake when soaked.

2. To prepare the apple-pistachio topping, preheat the oven to 375 F.

3. Lightly toss the apples, pistachios, cardamom and coconut milk.

4. Bake for about 15 minutes.

5. To prepare the pancakes, dry roast the fennel seeds, cardamom seeds and whole peppercorns for a few minutes.

6. Grind the roasted spices to a coarse powder.

7. Blend the evaporated milk, ricotta cheese, semolina, and flour until a smooth batter is formed. The batter should be slightly thicker than buttermilk.

8. Stir in the roasted spices.

9. Heat some oil in a skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of the batter for each pancake and spread slightly. When browned on one side, turn over and brown on the other side.

10. Remove from pan and place into the syrup and let soak for 5 minutes. Serve warm, topped with a small amount of the apple, allowing 2 pancakes per serving.

 

 

Bengali Onion Rings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Onion Rings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Onion Rings with Nigella Seeds – Gol Piyaji

(Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

4 medium onions, tops removed and peeled

3/4 cup chickpea flour

1/2 cup water

3/4 teaspoon nigella seeds

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1 teaspoon black salt

Oil for frying

Cilantro to garnish, optional

Directions

1. Cut the onions into 1/2-inch-thick rounds and separate into rings.

2. Mix the chickpea flour and 1/2 cup of water into a thick batter; the consistency should coat easily. Stir in the nigella seeds, cayenne pepper powder, and black salt; mix well.

3. Heat some oil in a wok or deep skillet until hot enough for frying.

4. Dip each onion ring in the batter and fry until crisp. You may fry 3 or 4 rings at a time, depending on the size of the wok or skillet. It is important not to have the rings touch each other while cooking. Remove rings from the oil and drain on paper towels before serving.

Main photo: These apple malpoas, crisp fried pancakes, offer an Indian twist to latkes served for Hanukkah. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

In India, December comes with the spirit of Christmas throughout the country, and, in Kolkata in eastern India, the city finds ways to regale in its deep-rooted colonial past.

Streets are decorated with rows of illuminated garlands and stars as the malls begin to make commercial hay. As a young girl — one raised Hindu while attending Catholic school — December festivals meant year-end concerts, carols and Christmas cards. And, my father’s own childhood tradition of a winter fruitcake.

I loved the simplicity of our small Christmas tree.While in most cases, the Christmas trees were faux, festivities were warm and very real.

There is something magical about walking through historic old churches, most notably the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in Bandel or St. Paul’s Cathedral to see worshipers — both Christian and otherwise — gathering to celebrate.

My first Christmas in the United States was two decades ago on a lonely college campus. When I declined my aunt’s generous invitation to join them for Christmas, I had no idea that the entire small college campus would be emptied out with little sign of life.

A query that made me question myself

Finally, I did encounter someone, who asked me if I celebrated the holiday. This came to me as a very curious question. I nodded and then pondered my answer, unsure whether it was correct. Our household did not observe the holiday religiously, although my parochial schooling had made me quite familiar with the religious aspects of the festivities.

Christmas, to me, was about the spirit of giving and cheer. It was about cookies and tinsel. So, how could I not celebrate the holiday?

I had grown up in the colonially influenced, secular and fairly cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, where most holidays are celebrated. But, until asked, it had not occurred to me that there were strings attached to celebrating Christmas. A visit to Park Street in the heart of Kolkata would prove otherwise.

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul's Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Christmas season décor outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata en Eastern India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Last year, I visited the historical St Paul’s Cathedral and in the spirit of Christmases that I remembered, there were worshipers of all kinds offering homage to Baby Jesus. And there is always room for celebration in this food-obsessed city.

This is probably why it is easier for us to make our annual visit to India during Christmas. I find it so much easier to celebrate and be a part of a holiday where there are not religious obligations on our part. Mostly, it is about being a part of the festive atmosphere, which is still not completely commercialized, and where people still feel comfortable actually wishing each other Merry Christmas without anyone feeling offended.

Christmas also brings to mind the lines of a Bengali Christmas carol, something my grandmother taught me as a child, without any fuss or fanfare. In today’s politically correct world, I realize how simply my family had instilled the spirit of equality and religious acceptance in me.

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

We had our Christmas traditions. Nothing formal or locked in stone, except for our traditional family fruitcake that I first created for my father years ago, mostly because I wanted to ensure there was a homemade version of his family winter cake – a tradition for him.

All around the city, bakery shelves were filled with moist and dark brown fruitcakes, something my grandmother liked to call Plum Cake, possibly a throwback to the English plum puddings. These fruitcakes did not have any of the negative connotations commonly associated with fruitcakes in the United States. They were moist, soft and delightfully balanced – not even remotely related to their hardened cousins.

My father’s fruitcake tradition harked back to his childhood. As a boy growing up in a fairly conventional Brahman family, the other Christmas traditions eluded him. However, he remembered his father always coming home on Christmas Eve with a handful of goodies and three or four of those delight golden-brown plum cakes.

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

Over the years, I finally settled for a fruitcake recipe that is featured in the Bengali Five Spice chronicles. It is a close cousin of the varieties that Dad spoke of, obtained from a friend’s Anglo-Indian family. The fruitcake has become my Christmas traditions.

A recipe that is now being savored by the second generation of fruitcake lovers might be just what your Christmas table desires. With notes of rum and dense molasses, it is rich and moist and perfect for any occasion. If you are persuaded to give this cake a try, start by soaking your fruit right now, so that you have them plump and flavorful in time for Christmas baking.

My personal tradition is to savor pieces of this fruitcake with tea, especially on the last remaining weeks of the year as I send out my holiday cards and pack for our annual visit to India.

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus a week to a month for soaking the fruit)

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

I shy away from calling this recipe “plum cake.” That dark moist fruit cake is a Christmas regular in the multiple cake shops that dot Kolkata. This recipe is close, but something about it falls just a little short of the taste I remember, possibly because nostalgia cannot be bottled and infused in a cake batter to complete the flavors as the mind recalls them.

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

1. Place all the fruits in a non-reactive bowl. Add the rum and cover and set aside for at least a week, or, for best flavor, for a month.

2. Grease an 8-inch to 10-inch loaf pan and pre-heat the oven to 350 F.

3. Drain the fruit when you are ready to use and reserve the soaking liquor, if any.

4. Sift together the flour and salt. Sprinkle about a ¼ cup of the flour mixture over the drained fruit and toss to coat.

5. Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Stir in the molasses. Add the beaten eggs to the mixture and beat to combine.

6. Add the baking powder to the remaining flour mixture and add to the batter in batches, alternating with the milk, and beat until well combined.

7. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in the shredded coconut. Stir in the floured fruit. Pour batter into prepared pan.

8. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool slightly.

9. Invert the cake onto a plate and pour the reserved soaking liquor over it. Allow it to sit to absorb the liquor. This cake can be served warm or alternately wrapped and stored and served when needed.

Main photo: In Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, families of all religious backgrounds embrace Christmas traditions, including a far more moist and softer version of fruitcake than the traditional kind found in the United States. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

It has taken me some analysis of classic side dishes — especially the vegetarian ones — to realize why we tend to get so overwhelmed by Thanksgiving meal planning. We have over-complicated our vegetable dishes.

A green bean casserole or even a sweet potato gratin with marshmallows can be fussier than we realize. The heavy ingredients end up competing with the real taste and appearance of the vegetable.

The summer months, with their ever-flowing bounty of produce from my garden, have taught me to keep it simple, flavorful and fresh. This is also my mantra when I plan my Thanksgiving table.

I have wasted no time in playing around with the harvest table to give it my own personal stamp. This is an interactive process with my children, who like that our Thanksgiving table meshes the traditional with elements of Indian cooking, giving the holiday an Indian-American touch.

Spice up simple side dishes with not-so-simple flavors

My Thanksgiving table gets a nice touch of Indian flavor from all the fragrant spices and herbs at my disposal. I have also worked at simplifying dishes to create an assortment of sides that get done without much fuss — but with that nice boost of flavor.

Whole fragrant spices, such as fennel or cinnamon, tart citrus flavors, and herbs such as sage and cilantro are easy and healthy. They add loads of flavor and pizzazz to that side dish without much effort.

The purpose of the side on the Thanksgiving table is to showcase the bounty of the year — or at least, of the harvest season — and add some flair and color. I try to do that with dishes that don’t take loads of extra time. That can mean a side of serrano-spiked macaroni and cheese, kale livened up with caramelized onions and cumin, roasted beets with a fresh sprinkle of lime and black salt, and variations of sweet potatoes and winter squashes.

Winter squashes and sweet potatoes are not uncommon to Indian (especially Bengali) harvest celebrations, so I feel right at home with them. They also have been created with the perfect color coding for Thanksgiving, when orange, red and golden hues dominate. Those colors balance out the greens on the table, and they are good for you.

The cooking technique that I often favor for Thanksgiving sides is to roast the vegetables, which works very well for the squashes and roots that abound in markets this time of year. You can pop in the vegetables right alongside the turkey. An added plus: Those vegetables can be prepped and assembled ahead of time and then cooked, just in time for dinner.

Simple sides make for a happy cook

Cooking can be enjoyed best when the cook does not get too worn out or overwhelmed in the process.

I am sharing two of my favorite harvest recipes with you here. Both feature minimal prep time and mostly unattended cooking time. Both can be made ahead of time — and reheated to serve on Thanksgiving Day.

The butternut squash recipe uses sage leaves that are still growing or available in abundance in East Coast gardens — including mine — along with a nice bouquet of flavors from panch phoron or the Bengali Five Spice Blend.

The second dish features acorn squash stuffed with finely crumbled tofu, spinach, collard greens, pecans and some coconut milk. It also can be the perfect main dish for someone who is adhering to a vegan or gluten-free diet. I love to make this sometimes with mini-squashes so that everyone can have a personal squash. A dish that does double duty as a centerpiece and meal all at once!

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

(Recipe from my cookbook “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors.”)

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying your side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit:  Rinku Bhattacharya

This roasted butternut squash is perfect for simplifying side dishes at Thanksgiving, with just five minutes of prep time. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

Salt to taste (optional, I really do not think that this dish needs it)

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

2. Peel the squash, remove the seeds and cut the squash into 2-inch chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the Five Spice Blend and when it crackles, mix in the black pepper and ginger paste and mix well. Add the squash and stir well to coat.

4. Place the seasoned squash on a greased baking sheet.

5. Roast the squash in the oven for about 35 minutes. It should be soft and beginning to get flecks of golden brown at spots. Taste to check if it needs any salt.

6. Heat the butter in a small skillet on low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes until it melts and gradually acquires a shade of pale gold. Add the sage leaves and cook until they turn dark and almost crisp.

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

8. Serve on a flat plate to showcase the spices and sage.

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 small acorn squash or other winter squash (use evenly shaped, colorful squash)

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Place the squashes in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes. Cool.

3. While the squash is cooking, heat the oil and add in the onion and cook until soft. Add in the ginger and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add in the spinach; cook until just wilted. Add the tofu and mix well.

4. Stir in the garam masala and the cumin-coriander powder with the pecans, salt and coconut milk and mix well. Bring to a simmer.

5. Carefully cut the tops from the squashes using a crisscross motion to follow the grooves of the squash and remove the top.

6. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh, leaving the shell intact.

7. Add the flesh to the spinach tofu mixture and mix and mash. Add in the lime juice and cilantro and some of the pomegranate seeds. Turn off the heat.

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

9. This can be served right away or set aside and then heated for 10 minutes in a hot oven before serving.

Main photo: Simplify side dishes on your Thanksgiving table with easy-to-prepare and healthy vegetable dishes like this stuffed acorn squash. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya 

 

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The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.

When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.

But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.

 Lights … camera … stereotype

A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.

Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.

This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.

Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.

Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.

Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?

Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.

If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.

If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.

The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.

I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in theBengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower Rezala provides the creaminess without the cream. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

 

Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce

Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the marinade:

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces

For the cashew cream paste:

1/2 cup cashews

1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer

Water for blending

For the base:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)

1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater

2 to 3 bay leaves

4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised

3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

To finish:

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)

Slivered almonds and or pistachios

Directions

1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.

2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.

3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.

4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.

5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.

6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.

7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.

8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.

Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather.

Autumn in New York brings back memories — and the comfort food — of my monsoon childhood. A perfect evening for me is a walk in the rain or snow, finished off with a hot bowl of freshly made khichuri.

The bubbly one-dish meal is as comforting to me as hot mac and cheese to my children.

I grew up eating khichuri in the coconut palm and banana leaf-dotted landscape of eastern India. I fondly refer to it as the Bengali risotto, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables.

When soup weather arrives, before I turn on the stockpot, I reach for the jars of colorful lentils. If you have not heard of or tasted khichuri, do not be surprised. Like most other classic Indian cooking, the true specialties are still the domain of the home cook. They are dishes that grace the everyday tables, beyond the boundaries of commercialization. Not party fare. But dishes to be savored with the family.

Food fit for the goddesses

For all its humble trappings, this dish is the complete balanced dish that is deemed to be the perfect offering for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and Durga, the multi-armed goddess who battles evil. The Hindu gods and goddesses demand a proper meal as a part of their prayer sequence and appropriate ayurvedic fare.

It is usually light and simple vegetarian fare. A mélange of rice and lentils replete with vegetables, finished with hot seasoned clarified butter, fits the bill.

The khichuri’s simple list of ingredients, however, should not suggest that this dish has no protocol. At the heart of Indian regional cuisine rests fastidious, yet practical, rules that remain the domain of the home cook. So khichuri is as nuanced as any other traditional Bengali offerings, which tend to be simple, wholesome and specific in their making.

The general concept of the dish is rice and lentils, with vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes and peas. The two preferred lentils are yellow split lentils (moong dal) — or orange split lentils, also known as red split lentils (masoor dal or mushoor dal in Bengali). The final spice or flavor infusion for this dish rests in the finish or the tempering, and while the yellow split lentils use fragrant spices, the red lentils tend to be designated for a finish of crisp caramelized onions.

There is also a preferred proportion of two parts lentils to one part rice, with the rice usually being either parboiled or the delicate kala jeera variety that is native to the Bengali region. I tend to stay away from the fancier basmati rice when making khichuri, but you are welcome to use it, if that is what you have in your pantry.

An adaptable dish — in the way it is cooked and served

In spite of it being a traditionally slow cooked dish over the stove, it can be adapted — with some planning —  for the pressure cooker and is also a perfect natural for the slow-cooker aficionado.

Despite being deemed a complete meal, there are accompaniments, varied in textures and tastes, but usually something crisp and fried. These crisp accompaniments range from the well-fried seasonal fish to assorted chickpea flour-coated fritters. Our favorite varieties at home are eggplant or a red onion fritter called piyanjee. The fritter offers a crisp foil to the soft gooey consistency of the khichuri, offering a balance of indulgence and texture. Another popular accompaniment is a spicy omelet known as masala omelet.

My personal favorite khichuri is the red lentil version, which is simpler than the others and more forgiving to variation. With fresh peas scarce in the winter, I usually add some frozen peas, and I love to use a sweeter, softer onion such as the Vidalia to add a greater touch of sweetness to this rustic dish.

A hot bowl of Khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

A hot bowl of khichuri, the Bengali risotto, is a complete meal itself. But its soft texture is often accompanied by crisp fritters. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Ingredients
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup short-grained rice (such as Arborio or kala jeera)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets

3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 bay leaves

Directions

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan put the red lentils and about 4 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Add the turmeric and simmer for about 10 minutes. The lentils should be partially cooked but not mushy at this point.

3. Add the rice, 3 more cups water, ginger, ground cumin and coriander, tomato, potato, cauliflower, green chilies, sugar and salt. Simmer for about 25 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. The rice and lentil mixture should be a porridge-like consistency (add more water if too thick). The texture is important. You do not want the rice to completely lose its integrity, however it should be softer than a regular well-made bowl of rice. Add in the greens peas and stir well.

4. While this is cooking, heat the oil in a wok or skillet and add the onion and cook on medium heat until soft and pale golden. It is important to cook the onions low and slow to let them caramelize.

5. Stir the onions into the rice and lentil mixture and cook for about 2 minutes.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro.

7. Heat the ghee in a small skillet and add the cumin seeds and the bay leaves. Cook for about 40 seconds until the cumin seeds darken and turn fragrant.

8. Pour the spice mixture over the rice and lentils.

9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.

Main photo: Khichuri, a soothing mélange of soft lentils, rice and vegetables, is the perfect Indian comfort food to accompany the arrival of cold weather. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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