Articles in Indian

Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley

When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats.  What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America.

In addition to buying authentic food items, the colonists tried to recreate these dishes based on taste and the ingredients they had on hand. Unique dishes were devised that approximated Asian curries, soups and sauces; chutneys; and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles like mango and lemon pickles.

These Western adaptations of Asian dishes are usually edited out of reconstructed colonial menus offered at historical restaurants. Perhaps proprietors fear that modern customers would not associate these dishes with colonial menus and, therefore, would not buy them. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, these Asian-inspired dishes were popular menu items at local taverns and were often enjoyed as home-cooked meals.

Despite what we have been led to believe about our founders’ culinary choices —  they often liked it spicy.

Colonial curry recipe

The earliest mention of a colonial recipe for curry can be found in the mid-18th-century manuscripts of Anna De Peyster. It is a recipe for Butter Chicken, which is probably of Parsi origin, although versions of the dish are now enjoyed throughout Southern Asia and the Himalayas. De Peyster’s recipe uses mace, lemon zest and lemon juice, cream, and a bit of parsley and ground black pepper to produce a dish that is delicious but pales in comparison to the authentic South Asian standard.

Photo of advertisement for the first Curry Powder, 1784. Credit: British Library

Photo of advertisement for the first Curry Powder, 1784. Credit: British Library

More developed Western recipes for Butter Chicken are found in the 1774 edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” and the 1824 edition of Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife. Glasse’s recipe calls for ginger, turmeric and black pepper to flavor the stew of chicken and onions, and then finished with cream and lemon juice. Randolph’s recipe calls for a complex mix of spices, including turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, ginger, nutmeg, mace and Cayenne pepper, to which onions, garlic and a small amount of lemon or orange juice is added to complete the curry. (For more information on historical curries see the Silk Road Gourmet website.

In the years between the publication of the curry recipes by Glasse and Randolph, curry powders became the rage in both British and American cuisine. The first commercially available curry mixes were sold in London in 1784.

Although the origins of curry powders are a bit obscure, research suggests they are a Western invention and were intended to recreate the Indian masala spice mixes that form the basis of many curries. While the ground spice mixes were often marketed under exotic, foreign banners, they were not used by Asian cooks. The intention of the makers was to provide a standardized spice mix that made it easier for Western cooks to make curries.

Fruit and vegetable pickles

Other types of Asian dishes that were popular in 18th century Britain and America were chutneys and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles called achar in Hindi.  Glasse’s 1774 book includes recipes for mango pickle and lemon pickle.

Her lemon pickle recipe uses 12 lemons sliced into quarters and salted for several days. To this is added sliced and salted ginger, parboiled and salted garlic cloves, a small handful of lightly bruised mustard seeds, and ground chili peppers. She calls for all ingredients to be mixed together after salting, covered with the best white-wine vinegar and then stored for one month before using.

If you compare Glasse’s recipe for lemon pickle with a modern recipe for South Indian Lemon Pickle (below), you will see the similarities between the two dishes.

South Indian Lemon Pickle Recipe 

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 to 5 cups

Ingredients

  • 1½ - 2 pounds lemons
  • ½ - ¾ cup salt
  • 4 teaspoons light mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ½ cup mustard oil
  • ¼ cup light sesame oil
  • ¼ cup grape-seed oil
  • ½ teaspoon asafetida
  • 2 teaspoons red chili pepper, ground
  • 4 teaspoons fenugreek seeds, ground
  • ¾ cup lemon juice
  • ½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)

Directions

  1. Cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave a couple of inches at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift. 
  2. Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 10 days to 2 weeks. Shake daily to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable.
  3. Once the lemons have cured, lightly roast each of the whole spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool.
  4. Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the rest of the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another five minutes, as you prepare the lemon slices.
  5. In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well.
  6. Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 1 to 2 weeks before serving.
  7. As an alternative, place the mixture into properly sealed Mason jars, and set in a cool, dark place for 1-2 weeks before serving.  Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Notes

Total curing time: 2 to 4 weeks

It is clear that Glasse is recreating the recipe based on the flavor of the pickle as opposed to adapting an Indian recipe to available ingredients and preparation methods. Unaware that the sourness of the pickle came from the play of salt and lemon juice, Glasse used vinegar as a souring agent.

What is interesting to me is that Glasse’s pickle isn’t all that bad. The South Indian recipe is certainly richer, sweeter and more complex, but for someone who had only tasted a foreign dish imported from thousands of miles away, Glasse did a great job approximating the recipe for lemon pickle.

Asian sauces

In addition to curries and South Asian pickles, the British and Americans of the 18th century were very interested in recreating Asian soy sauces and fish sauces. For example, an early attempt to produce an ingredient that introduced salt and umami to dishes was mushroom ketchup.

Indeed, the word “ketchup” is derived from the Indonesian word “kecap,” which is used broadly to describe fermented sauces but also specifically is used to denote the family of Indonesian soy sauces. Not knowing that soy sauces are usually produced from beans —  the most common being the soybean —  Westerners salted mushrooms for days or weeks and then harvested the liquid produced after degradation and crushing.

Mushroom ketchup was used to flavor savory stews of meat and vegetables and as an ingredient in savory sauces as well. It was an indispensable ingredient in the colonial kitchen —  and a Western recreation of what was then considered an exotic Asian flavor.

Main photo: Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley

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Horse gram is a staple in some Indian cuisines.

The two comfort foods I missed most when I first came to the United States revolved around legumes: muthira upperi (horse gram stir-fry) and idli, steamed rice cakes made with black gram and rice. Horse gram was unavailable in the United States during the 1970s, and idli batter never fermented properly in my New England kitchen.

To those who are not familiar with Indian cuisine the variety of dried legumes used in India can be quite overwhelming. Although red gram, black gram and green gram are all familiar names, one of the legumes that is not very well-known, but is quite nutritious, is horse gram (macrotyloma uniflorum). Unfortunately, rarely will you find recipes for horse gram dishes in Indian cookbooks, and Indian restaurants mostly avoid serving this healthy legume. But in the rural kitchens of India, people prepare some very tasty and nutritious dishes with this legume.

Dried beans, peas and lentils are one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops and a major component of human diets throughout history. An excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, legumes and pulses are tasty, nutritious, inexpensive and versatile. Horse gram native to Africa, Asia and Australia is an important and unexploited tropical legume crop grown mostly in dry agricultural lands. It is a relatively short duration summer crop and fits well into crop rotations. It is often intercropped with various cereals, such as sorghum, maize, pearl millet and millet, which ensures increased soil fertility and increased production. It is also grown in citrus orchards in the vacant space between trees. It is an extremely drought-resistant crop.

Horse gram derives its English-language name from its use as a staple food for horses and cattle. The green plant—its leaves and branches, as well as the beans—are highly nutritive and are used as fodder. These small and somewhat kidney-shaped beans, which are greenish brown to reddish brown, are equally good for human consumption. In comparison, horse gram ranks as high as “super foods” such as quinoa and chickpeas that only health advocates have known about for years, but which have become common fare now.

Horse gram is gluten-free, high in iron, calcium, and protein, and contains no fat, cholesterol, or sodium; horse gram has the highest calcium content among pulses. It is also a good source of natural antioxidants. One-hundred grams of cooked horse gram has 22 grams of protein, 57 grams of dietary carbohydrates, 287 milligrams of calcium and 7 milligrams of iron.

Health benefits

The health benefits of horse gram have been well-known since ancient times. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, cough, gastric and urinary problems, and kidney stones. Studies by scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have found that unprocessed horse gram seeds not only possess anti-hyperglycemic properties but also have qualities which reduce insulin resistance. The study found that horse gram is rich in polyphenols, which have high antioxidant capacity. It also found that horse gram has the ability to reduce high blood sugar following a meal by slowing down carbohydrate digestion and reducing insulin resistance. The majority of antioxidant properties are in the seed coat, and any dish made of whole grain horse gram is better than dishes made from the sprouts, which have less of the anti-diabetic medicinal property.

In cooking

Horse gram is cooked and consumed as whole seed, sprouts or as whole meal, largely in the rural areas of India. It is very hard in texture and requires lengthy cooking time. A pressure cooker can cut down on the cooking time substantially. Even after cooking, it does not get soft like chickpeas. It does not absorb water like other pulses, but soaking reduces cooking time and improves protein quality.

In India, traditionally different dishes were made with this pulse to suit different seasons. Horse gram is used to make idlis, dosas, various curries, soups and chutneys. The following is a recipe for a simple stir-fry made with cooked horse gram, mustard seeds, green chilies, asafoetida, cumin seeds and fresh coconut.

Stir-Fry With Horse Gram

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Remember to allow for soaking the horse gram for eight hours (or overnight).

Ingredients

  • 2 cups horse gram
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried red cayenne, or Thai chili powder (less for a milder taste)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons oil (preferably coconut oil)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 green Thai chili pepper sliced lengthwise
  • ⅛ teaspoon asafoetida
  • 12 to 15 fresh curry leaves
  • ¼ cup freshly grated coconut for garnish

Directions

  1. Soak the horse gram for eight hours (or overnight). Wash and drain well. Place the beans, turmeric powder, and red chili powder in a saucepan, and add water to cover. Cook until the beans are soft to the touch. If necessary, add more water. When the beans are soft to the touch, stir in the salt, and cook for five more minutes. Alternatively, cook in a pressure cooker (following the manufacturer’s directions) for six to eight minutes. Most of the water should be absorbed by the time the beans are well cooked. Drain any remaining water.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the cumin seeds, sliced chili pepper, asafoetida and curry leaves. Transfer the cooked beans to the skillet, and panfry over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with fresh grated coconut.

Main photo: Horse gram is a little-known but very nutritious legume. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

I love playing with flavors, adding an Indian touch to almost anything that comes my way, minced chilies to my grilled cheese sandwich, a touch of ginger to the kids’ mac and cheese, and cilantro to almost everything that I set my eyes on. So the idea of a curry-flavored chicken sandwich sounded just right for lunch, and quite an exciting choice for a meal to be eaten on the go. I ventured to our local deli and picked up a nice-looking curried chicken sandwich, made on crisp well-toasted whole grain bread. The salad had the proverbial yellow color that seems to be the color of almost all things “curry” in commercial outlets. However, since it is most often derived from the addition of turmeric (a very healthy spice), it did not faze me when I bought my lunch.

But a few bites of the curried chicken sandwich convinced me that I was wrong about turmeric! I had misunderstood the intense taste of turmeric, overlooking the fact that this beautiful yellow powder tastes awful when uncooked. This unfortunate culinary experience also made me realize (not surprisingly!) that my mother was very right in her advice about never using spices without cooking them. Spices, as she always emphasizes, can be cooked and used in many different ways – they can be roasted, toasted, steamed or fried, but should never be used raw. A few ill-considered spices, with an emphasis on turmeric, does not quite make a dish curried. That had been my mistake with the chicken sandwich.

Looking at the bright yellow creation dotted with white almond chips and deep red cranberries, I could not help but observe that curry is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts about Indian cooking. Raw turmeric masquerading as curry has made me eloquent and thoughtful. But, seriously, I have probably heard it all when it comes to misconceptions: that curry is a single spice, or that it is essential to all Indian cooking. Leading the charge is probably the question about whether my cooking and cooking classes include a lot of curry.

What is curry?

So let me tackle a few of my favorite peeves in an attempt to give curry a sense of identity. At this point, I am really restricting this to Indian food and cuisine, as stretching this to a global context makes it an even broader exercise. Indians use the word curry in a multitude of ways, but most commonly it’s used in referring to a saucy spiced stew. So, a chicken curry would essentially mean a spiced chicken stew. However, something like the well-known chicken tikka masala would also be a curry, just a curry with its own specific spicing. But, of course, not everything on the Indian table is a curry. It really is a term used in lieu of sauce or gravy.

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

So, what is in the world is the spice or concept that we call curry? Well, here is the first often-confused perception: that curry is a single spice used in all Indian food. Curry, even as we think of it in mainstream parlance, is not a single spice but rather a blend of spices, possibly concocted to offer a quick-fix formula to Indian cuisine. The popularity of the blend and the curry concept can be largely credited to the British, who fell in love with the culinary flavors of India (in the 1800s during the colonial period of Indian history that extended over a hundred years) and wanted to bottle and synthesize them into a single concept. There is no standard preset formula to curry.

Most Indian homes have several spice blends that are essential to their cooking repertoire, and they may not be called curry. These blends vary from region to region and often chef to chef, possibly with most of them having cumin, coriander seeds, and turmeric and cayenne powders as some common ingredients. It is very uncommon to add these blends in their uncooked form to dishes, so really the curried chicken salad that started this line of thinking would not have a place in most typical Indian tables.

Commercial curry blends seem to have affection for turmeric, since it yields the yellow color associated with curry powder, and fenugreek, whose characteristic mildly maple-like scent is  associated with the supposed fragrance of curry. This brings us to the second misconception about curry: that it has a particular smell. There is no specific fragrance associated with a curry. Since a lot of the core spices are the same, we often call it the fragrance of “curry”; however, what is typical and easy to define is the scent of these individual spices, rather than the curry smell.

In various parts of India (most commonly in the South), the cooking and sauces use a fragrant leaf called the curry leaf. Aromatic, with gentle citrus-like notes, the curry leaf is used to add flavor and fragrance to stew, much like bay leaves. This brings us to the third misconception about curry: the belief that all curries have curry leaves. There are curries without these leaves and then dishes that use the curry leaf but are not called a curry. Curry leaves are added to some, but not all, curry blends.

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya's "Spices and Seasons" cookbook, uses curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Rinku Bhattacharya

Shrimp With Creamy Bell Pepper Sauce, a dish from Rinku Bhattacharya’s “Spices and Seasons” cookbook, is just one of the many uses of curry powder. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Other spices in Indian cooking

This brings me to the last and final misconception (at least that I will discuss here): To like Indian food, you need to like curry. Well, that really gets us back to the first point. While there are spices in most Indian cooking, it is more complicated than just curry. By identifying the object of your dissatisfaction, chances are you will be just fine with some of the offerings on the Indian table, such as maybe a light stir-fry, sweet and tangy chutney or even a delightful grilled and smoky dish, marinated with light and balanced seasonings. All sans curry, and all very Indian!

Having said all of this, I do have my own all-purpose blend that I call curry powder (see, I told you this was confusing). It is a hybrid of flavors from my mother-in-law’s North India and my mother’s Bengali kitchen. It is one of the flavors in my kitchen and is one of the spice blends in my upcoming cookbook, “Spices and Seasons.” But I do not use it in everything.

Basic All Purpose Curry Powder

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

3 dried red chilies

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 teaspoon turmeric

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, dry roast all the spices except the turmeric on medium heat for about 2 minutes. The spices should smell fragrant and toasty.

2. Mix in the turmeric and grind to a powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder.

3. Store in an airtight jar in a cool dry place.

Main photo: Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

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Gulab jamun. Credit:R.V. Ramachandran

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Festivals and celebrations offer a time-tested mechanism of sharing and preserving family culinary traditions and memories. As spring approaches, the vernal calendar brings its share of festivals, all designed to welcome the fresh colors of the seasons and the spirit of renewal. There are simple backyard traditions such as foraging and starting a new garden and then the myriad holidays that fill the calendar with a call to the kitchen.

In my home, I think of the Indian festival of colors, Holi, and the Bengali New Year, two holidays that come around in March and April. I look forward to a new season, and time in the kitchen with my children sharing and talking about food memories and working with them to re-create foods of my childhood.

I have to confess, it has not always been this way! I have spent many years confused about why people would feature unchanging dishes every year at their holiday table, the same variations of festive items, at the same time of the year. I marveled at people raving over something as basic as their grandmother’s tempering for lentils and simple food memories without which their table felt incomplete. It all seemed monotonous to me. I did not have the context or need for re-creating tradition, until my children came along.

Grandmother’s gnocchi

As my children have grown, my view has changed. I have wanted them to feel grounded, to have a sense of food beyond that it is something cooked in my now-12-year-old kitchen. It’s more clear than ever why my kitchen helper, Martha, preserves the mole recipe from her husband’s mother and prepares it for many a special occasion. I now understand why my friend Patricia has taken over making gnocchi for Sunday suppers. She began this tradition after her grandmother’s recent passing because this was something her Nonna always made, until she was too fragile.

It is less about mole or gnocchi than it is about the memories and historical context the dishes carry. That context is especially important for newly transplanted expats to give their children and families a way to bring gaps and connect their newly adopted land to their homeland. It is also about the value of home-cooked food rather than something you might find in a commercial kitchen or restaurant.

Yet I remained unsure about succumbing to peer pressure, unsure how sustainable such food traditions would be. The ambience in my home seemed so different from my grandmother’s kitchen, where all my food memories were made. Suddenly I was unsure about my much-loved food processor and whether it really would work to re-create the real deal. It seemed so sterile and incapable of replicating and translating the ethos of food created on my grandmother’s time-tested grinding stone.

Bringing little hands into family culinary traditions

Then last year, around springtime, possibly to cheer myself up and break the winter doldrums, I decided to make gujiyas, a traditional sweet empanada that is typical of my mother-in-law’s north Indian kitchen. It is a traditional spring dessert, and it carries with it memories of my first time learning and working with my mother-in-law.

A dessert with multiple layers of shaping and cooking, the gujiya works beautifully as something that can be made in a group. I had often thought of making it at home, but resisted the challenge because it seemed so daunting, almost too complex, but I decided to give it a try.

As I went through the ingredients, sorting out the grated nuts, Indian cheese and flour, my kids came by. As we chatted, I began involving them in rolling the dough and stuffing the empanadas. Some of the guiiya were uneven, as the children’s little hands lacked the precision for uniform shaping. But they were excited and began asking countless questions about the dessert, about spring, about their grandmother and, most important, about the festivals. Through the shared act of cooking, I realized I was transferring traditions and some level of culture.

While I noted the irony that this was a dish few of my friends in India still made from the scratch, it was important for me to do so, in the same way it was important for my grandmother to have me around the kitchen, sharing stories about family, cooking and history.

Working with my children suddenly made it all click. It was less about the elaborate meal, the new clothes or a date on a calendar. It was the need for a reference point easily found in the context of a festival. We need traditions and memories to keep us grounded. They do not always have to be in the kitchen or centered on a holiday. I wait for the daffodils and forsythia in our back yard every year to tell me that spring has arrived. It is cheerful and uplifting for me.

The magic of connecting over a holiday and food is its predictability, and the fact that it allows us to plan. It offers our children a connection point, and the shared act of cooking offers them this context, probably the same way Pat’s Nonna was able to share stories about her childhood in a village in Italy as she rolled and shaped the gnocchi with Pat. Food is about comfort, and it is also one aspect of culture and tradition that can be easily transported from one land to another, from one generation to another, as we talk, share, cook and eat together.

Top photo: Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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Neyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghats mountain range in India called Sabarimala, a Hindu shrine lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November through the first half of January. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it barefoot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship at Sabarimala. The temples provide food offerings called neyyappam, made with rice, jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and cooked in ghee.

With close to 70 million people making the pilgrimage annually, this is one of the largest in the world.  To help make their important offerings, about 4 million neyyappams were sold to pilgrims as Hindu offerings by the end of the first 10 days of the pilgrimage season in 2013.

Sabarimala is one of hundreds of temples all over South India that prepare this sweet dish and several others as offerings. The enshrined deities of the Hindu temples are faithfully fed with formal offerings of food every day. The offerings at temples are always the most excellent food.

The favorite food of the gods

The priests and their helpers prepare them in the temple kitchen. The traditional cooks who prepare them do not follow any written recipes, nor are they trained at any culinary schools. They perfect their art through practice under the watchful eyes of senior priests. But the proof of their culinary skills is in the most delicious prasadam (food that has been offered to God), which devotees receive from the temples.

Those little morsels of prasadam have a very special taste, maybe because visitors receive only a small serving, or maybe because it is the gods’ favorite food. Biting through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and savoring the soft and chewy middle of the neyyappam is sheer delight.

There are no written records of their origin, but sweetened cakes made of grains as Hindu offerings were prevalent since very ancient times in India. Apupa, a prototype of neyyappam, was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. In “Food and Drink in Ancient India” Om Prakash writes that apupa possibly was the earliest sweet known in India. Apupa was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies.

It was made with barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a low fire and sweetened with honey, and later with sugar cane juice. The cook made apupa assume the shape of a tortoise by cooking it on clay pot with a curved bottom. Even centuries later, the recipe and the method of cooking this ancient dish have remained practically unchanged.

A world of cooking vessels

Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds.

Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes.

The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers.

Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”

In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.

Neyyappam

Makes 12 to 15

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice

1 cup jaggery

1 medium-sized ripe banana, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)

1 tablespoon thinly sliced coconut pieces (optional)

½ cup ghee, divided

Directions

1. Soak the rice in water for two to three hours, and then rinse it in several changes of water until the water runs clear, and drain.

2. In a sauce pan melt the jaggery with ¼ cup of water. Strain through a fine sieve and cool.

3. In a blender, combine the rice, banana, and jaggery with just enough water to grind it into a fine, smooth, thick batter.

4. Stir in the cardamom powder and coconut slices if using. This batter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter.

5. Heat an aebleskiver pan over medium heat.

6. Pour ½ teaspoon ghee in each cavity of the pan.

7. Pour in the batter, ¾ of the way in each cavity. Pour a ½ teaspoon of ghee on top of each neyyappam and cook over medium heat.

8. When the bottom of the neyyappam is cooked (in a minute or so), turn it over, and cook the other side.

9. When neyyappam turns brown in color, remove from the griddle, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Top photo: Neyyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Goat curry. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Back in 2008, I visited Pondicherry, a small coastal city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As the former capital of French India, I was interested in finding out about its French colonial culinary legacy.

While talking with a chef about such influences, he mentioned an Indo-Viet woman who had recorded the recipes of the Pondicherrian kitchen. He also noted there were a few older women who sold chả giò, Vietnamese spring rolls, door to door. I didn’t have time to go in search of them, but this “in-passing” culinary connection between India and Vietnam remained with me and came to the fore again during a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, another French colonial capital.

While there, I took some time to uncover more about these connections and the origins of South Vietnamese curries, cà ri and bánh xèo, which is reminiscent of a dosa, particularly in its preparation.

Vietnamese chicken and seafood curries, cà ri gà and cà ri đồ biển, are most likely descendants of Khmer curries, but goat curry, cà ri de, and vegetarian curry, cà ri chay, have more obvious Indian influences. The flavoring for vegetable curry cà ri chay comes from the use of a mild Madras-style spice mixture and curry leaves, from trees planted in the Mekong Delta by Tamil shop owners. Unlike the other curries, which are typically served with rice or the French-influenced baguette, the aromatic coconut milk broth is served with bun, vermicelli rice noodles.

With their rich histories, curry dishes share similar flavors

As I tasted my way through the various Vietnamese curries in Ho Chi Minh City, one thing stood out: The spicing was consistent with virtually each dish. It turns out the cooks I met all bought their spice mixtures and curry leaves from the same spice vendor at Ben Thanh market. Anh Hai spice shop, run by third-generation Indo-Viet brothers, has been blending and selling spice mixtures for these curries since their chef grandfather started the shop sometime after his arrival in what was known as Saigon in the 1920s.

To begin to understand the evolution of South Vietnamese curries and bánh xèo, you need to look at the history of the region. From the 7th century to 1832, the Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa was based in the south-central coastal region of today’s Vietnam and southern Cambodia. The Cham, seafaring people dedicated to trade were integral to the movement of goods along the Spice Route, which extended from the Persian Gulf to southern China. Through the centuries, the Cham people were heavily influenced by their trading partners in Cambodia, India, Java and China.

In the mid-19th century, with the French having control of the major port cities of Pondicherry and Saigon, extensive maritime trading of goods occurred between the two French colonies. Naturally, along with this came the movement of Indians from British and French Indian territories to Saigon, with total populations reaching almost 6,000 by 1939. During this period, “Indian shops,” mainly run by Tamil Muslims, were ubiquitous in the large Vietnamese urban centers of Saigon and Cholon and also spread through the smaller towns in the rice-growing regions and transport hubs of the Mekong Delta.

For me, it is in Vietnamese goat curry where the Indian influence is strongest. The dish relies heavily on the same curry powder as other curries, but instead of solely using coconut milk some cooks I spoke with also use cow’s milk in their recipes, including a couple of older Indian sisters who grew up in the former Saigon and still sell their curry near the Dong Da mosque. Why cow’s milk? This is most likely a result of increased demand for dairy products by the Vietnamese created by the European presence — a demand met primarily by Hindu Tamils.

In her thesis, doctoral student Natasha Pairaudeau highlights that from the beginning of French colonial rule in Cochinchina, Hindu Tamils tended to cattle and sold milk door to door. But why not continue to solely use coconut milk for the goat curry? It may be the result of Vietnamese wives, married to some of the Tamil milkmen, being resourceful with leftover milk or limited finances.

Bánh xèo probably did not travel from modern India — the Indo-Vietnamese families I spoke with did not eat dosas as part of their predominantly Indian diet. Nor is it influenced from the French crepe, as commonly suggested, as it requires neither eggs nor milk. One needs to simply compare the ingredients used in preparing the thin, crisp shell to those of an Indian dosa to see that these are close cousins, although comparisons stop there, as the fillings reflect accessible ingredients and local tastes.

Traditionally, both separately soak rice and a pulse — hulled mung bean for bánh xèo and urad dal for dosa — overnight before grinding each batter separately and mixing together. Dosa batter is left to ferment overnight, while bánh xèo requires a short, half-hour rest before cooking.

Chef Bobby Chinn, previously based in Ho Chi Minh City, believes the Cham probably picked up the dish trading along the Indian Ocean. He indicated to me that as they were forced to move south, so did bánh xèo. This seems to be supported by Nguyen Thi Le Thuy, the owner of Bánh Xèo 46A, known as the first modern bánh xèo restaurant in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy said her grandmother brought the recipe with her from Quy Nhơn, which was the next Cham capital of Vijaya until 1471. Notably, there is the strikingly similar Cambodian dish banh chao – again the Cham legacy.

Cơm nị, a biryani-style rice dish cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, spices, lemongrass and coconut milk, is another dish most likely brought to Vietnam via the Cham people. The name of the dish most likely comes from the Vietnamese word for turmeric, nghệ.

Very few Indo-Viet — and no long-term Indians — remain in Ho Chi Minh City. The community was ostracized after independence from the French and then post-Vietnam War, but their legacy remains in the food we associate with Vietnam today.

Goat Curry (Cà Ri Dê)

The following recipe is from Hanoi-based, chef Tracey Lister‘s upcoming book, “Real Vietnamese Cooking,” which will be published by Hardie Grant in April.

It is a variation of a dish by famous Vietnamese chef Nguyen Dzoan Cam Van. Goat is a strong-tasting meat and available in many Asian and middle-eastern butcher shops. This is a big-flavored curry, and if you can’t get goat, try duck and replace the eggplant with sweet potato.

Ingredients

4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, finely chopped

1 long red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped

4 tablespoons curry powder

4 cups milk, divided

2 tablespoons sugar

1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) diced goat, preferably the shoulder

2 onions, finely diced

¾ teaspoon salt

800 milliliters (two 13.5-ounce cans) coconut milk

5 lemongrass stalks, white part only, cut in half lengthways

2 medium-sized eggplants

150 grams (⅔ cup) butter

½ handful coriander sprigs

Oil for frying

Directions

1. To make the curry paste, fry the lemongrass and chili in a small amount of oil until fragrant. Add the curry powder and stir for 1 minute to prevent the spices from burning and becoming bitter. Add 250 milliliters (1 cup) of the milk and the sugar and bring to the boil.

2. Remove from the heat and let cool before pouring over the diced goat. Allow the goat to marinate in the curry paste for 30 minutes.

3. Heat a small amount of oil in a large pot and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Then, add the marinated goat and season with salt. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, stirring regularly until the meat has browned. Pour in 2 cups of milk, keeping aside the remaining cup of milk to add at the end. Add the coconut milk and lemongrass stalks and simmer the curry for approximately 1 hour until the meat is tender.

4. While the curry is cooking, cut the eggplant into 3-centimeter  (1-inch) chunks. Place them in a colander and sprinkle with extra salt and let them sit for 30 minutes to remove the bitter tannin. Wash off the salt from the eggplant and pat them dry with a paper towel.

5. Heat some oil in a frying pan and cook the eggplant in batches until it is an even, golden brown color. Then place the eggplant on a paper towel to remove excess oil.

6. When the goat is tender, add the eggplant and the remaining milk and butter. After the butter has melted, transfer the curry to a serving bowl and scatter with the coriander leaves.

7. Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.

Top photo: Goat curry. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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