Articles in Indian
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Note: Remember to allow for soaking the horse gram for eight hours (or overnight).
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
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By Rinku Bhattacharya
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.
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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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.
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.
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
6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance
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
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.
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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.
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
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.
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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.
Makes 12 to 15
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
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
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.
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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.
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
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
On dark, cold winter nights, nothing is more comforting than a warm kitchen filled with the aromas of a favorite comfort food simmering on the stovetop. For me, fresh fenugreek leaves cooked with sweet potatoes is one such comfort food.
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Although a few summer vegetables remain available at U.S. grocery stores, most are long gone. Indian grocers, though, still stock frozen okra and eggplant. Along with several root vegetables, the one thing they stock abundantly is one of my favorite leaf vegetables, fenugreek leaves.
Fenugreek, one of the earliest known plant species, belongs to the bean family trigonella foenumgracum. It sprouts in cold weather with leaves consisting of three small ovate to oblong leaflets. The plant can grow to be about 2 feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds. Although it is a legume, fenugreek’s sprouts and fresh leaves are used as leaf vegetables, its dried leaves are used as an herb, and the small and oblong shaped yellowish brown seeds are used as a spice.
Fenugreek sprouts have a slightly pungent-sweet taste, which adds texture, taste and color to salads. Fresh leaves have a bitter-sweet taste and in Indian cuisine they are cooked as any leaf vegetable in curries as well as Indian flat breads. Dried fenugreek leaves are used in Northern Indian curries to enhance the flavor. Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste. Dry roasting enhances the flavor and reduces their bitterness. These need close attention while toasting because over-roasting will make them turn reddish brown and taste very bitter.
Health benefits through history
Ayurveda defines a balanced meal as one that includes six tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, sour and hot. Fenugreek is an ideal source of the bitter constituent in this balance. It’s rich in iron, calcium, phosphorous and is high in protein. According to Ayurveda, fenugreek slows the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulates insulin production. Both of these positively affect blood sugar in people with diabetes. It is believed to help lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fenugreek is used for digestive problems, such as loss of appetite and inflammation of the stomach. It is also used in preparing an herbal infusion to break up respiratory congestion.
Fenugreek is indigenous to western Asia, and southeastern Europe. Today it is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop. It has a long history as a culinary and medicinal herb in the ancient world. Its bitter seeds have held medicinal promise for many cultures over thousands of years. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. In ancient Egypt, fenugreek was used for the mummification process. It is widely used in the West, Central and South Asia and Northern and Eastern Africa. Iran has a rich tradition of cooking with fenugreek leaves. The Ethiopian spice mixture berbere contains small amounts of fenugreek.
Sweet potatoes as a perfect partner
Fenugreek leaves cooked with potatoes yields a very tasty side dish that is popular in India. Although the recipe calls for white potatoes, I prefer to use sweet potatoes. The mild sweetness of sweet potatoes perfectly balances the slight bitterness of the fenugreek leaves.
It is a bit time-consuming to separate the small leaves from the stem, but the resulting dish is well worth the effort. It is ideal to use the sweet potatoes with a golden skin and creamy white or pale flesh in this dish. These have a crumbly texture compared to the very soft texture of the orange flesh variety. Though orange-fleshed varieties are most common, white or very light yellow-fleshed types are also available at most grocery stores.
Fenugreek Leaves With Sweet Potato
One large, or two medium, sweet potatoes
2 cups fenugreek leaves removed from stems
2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dry-roasted and crushed cumin seeds
A few fresh curry leaves (if available)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon cayenne powder (less for milder taste)
1. Peel and cut the sweet potato into ½-inch cubes.
2. Clean the fenugreek leaves and separate the leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the fenugreek leaves.
3. Heat ghee/oil in a saucepan at medium heat and add mustard seeds. When the seeds start spluttering, stir in cumin seeds, curry leaves and ginger. Fry for a minute and then add the cubed sweet potatoes. Stir well, reduce the heat, and cover and cook.
4. After five minutes, sprinkle salt, turmeric and cayenne powder into the mixture and stir gently. Cover again and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the sweet potato pieces are cooked tender.
5. Add chopped fenugreek leaves, stir and cover the pan. Cook until the leaves wilt, about five minutes
6. Remove from the stove and serve hot with rice or Indian flat breads.
Top photo: Fenugreek leaves and seeds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Diwali, also called Deepavali, the festival of lights, is a holiday of jubilation and togetherness celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs throughout India as well as in Indian communities around the world.
The festival is embraced by people regardless of religious background; it connects the followers of various religions in grand celebrations of victory of good over evil. With warmer days turning into a mild winter in India, the fun-filled Diwali is celebrated by each community in its own special way, and each religion adds its own color and customs to this grand festival of lights.
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Houses are decorated with myriad tiny lamps and candles placed around the home, in courtyards, and gardens, as well as on rooftops. These displays symbolize removing ignorance and gaining knowledge. The night sky lights up with fireworks streaking like lightning, splintering into rainbows before vanishing in a dazzle of flashing smoke. A wide assortment of sweets and savory snacks are prepared at home or bought from sweet shops and shared with everyone. Because Diwali signifies renewal of life, it is common to wear new clothes on the day of the festival.
Sweet and extravagant
More than sumptuous feasts, sweets prepared with various nuts and flours, milk, dried fruits and fragrant spices such as saffron and cardamom are the centerpiece of Diwali celebrations. These sweets are often decorated with vark, a very thin layer of edible silver.
In times past, preparations began weeks ahead with the cleaning, roasting and powdering various lentils and rice in the granite grindstone, making paneer (cheese) and ghee at home, and buying fresh oil straight from the oil press. The irresistible aromas of barfi, gulab Jamun, peda, jilebi, laddu, mysorepak and a host of other sweets and savories lingered in the air.
Today sweets are often bought from commercial manufacturers. It is the busiest season for the sweet shops in India. Sweets, snacks, fruits and nuts packaged in beautiful containers are exchanged with friends and neighbors.
The date of Diwali fluctuates as it is based on the Hindu calendar with solar years and lunar months. It falls either in October or November, just the day before the new moon. In 2013, it is on Nov. 3.
India is a land of mythological tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, and Diwali means many different things to people from different regions. In north India, Diwali celebrates Lord Rama’s homecoming after killing the demon king Ravana. One of the unique customs of Diwali consists of indulgence in gambling. Nowadays, cards have replaced dice.
In south India, Diwali celebrates Lord Krishna’s triumph over demon king Narakasura. Festivities start very early in the morning with entire households waking up before dawn for an auspicious oil bath. Children light up firecrackers, and everyone feasts on sweet delicacies.
In Gujarat and neighboring states, the festivities continue for a week. On Dhan Teras, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, is worshiped in the evening with lighting of lamps. This day is believed to be auspicious to purchase metals. Celebrants often buy gold or silver or at least one or two new metal utensils.
For the business communities of Gujarat, Diwali also marks the beginning of the new financial year, which starts the day after Diwali. In Bengal, Orissa and Assam at Diwali, Kali Puja is celebrated by lighting firecrackers in honor of the goddess Kali. The occasion is also marked by creating intricate patterns with colored flour called rangoli. After the rangoli is drawn, lamps are set on top of the designs and lit.
The significance of Diwali extends beyond Hinduism. The Jains celebrate this day in honor of the attainment of nirvana, or eternal bliss, by Lord Mahavir, who was the last tirthankara, or religious teacher, of the Jains.
The foundation of the Golden Temple of Sikhs at Amritsar is believed to have been laid on Diwali day in 1577. Buddhists celebrate quietly by chanting and remembering Emperor Asoka who converted to Buddhism on this day.
With more and more Indians migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated keeps increasing. Because it is not a public holiday outside India, Diwali celebrations often take place on a weekend close to the actual festival. In major cities across the United States, the festival takes the form of a great fair with vendors selling Indian goods as well as food, cultural performances and fireworks. The White House has hosted Diwali celebrations since 2003.
Regardless of the varying styles and forms of celebrations observed by different regions, there is an underlying similarity in the celebration of this festival. Diwali festivities all celebrate the victory of good over evil and symbolize a reaffirmation of hope and a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill. Diwali’s traditional dishes reflect this uplifting theme and emphasize wonderful sweets, including an easy-to-make semolina pudding.
Rava Kesari (Semolina Pudding)
Here is an unbelievably easy dessert made with farina or cream of wheat, which are readily available in U.S. supermarkets.
½ cup ghee
10 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
2½ cups milk
A few strands of saffron
1 cup farina or cream of wheat
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1. Heat two tablespoons of the ghee in a skillet and fry the cashews until they are golden brown. Add the raisins and let them plump up. Remove it from the stove and set aside.
2. Add saffron to the milk and stir well.
3. In a large, heavy skillet, toast the farina in 2 teaspoons of the ghee until it is well toasted. Add the saffron-milk mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for 8 to 10 minutes. When farina starts to thicken, stir in the sugar and the remaining ghee, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir continually to prevent lumps from forming.
4. When it is dry, in about 6 to 8 minutes, sprinkle cardamom and add the cashew nut and raisin mixture. Stir well to combine.
5. Scoops of warm rava kesari may be served in small bowls. Or spread it on a greased plate, after the mixture has cooled down, and cut it into squares or other desired shapes.
Top photo: Diwali sweets and lamps. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran