Articles in Indian
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
The variety of dried legumes used in Indian cooking can become quite mind-boggling. When you are in an Indian market, you may find yourself walking back and forth in the aisle trying to figure out what’s what.
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When I was writing my book “Some Like It Hot: Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones,” I came up with some explanations I hope are helpful.
The best known Indian dish using dried legumes is called dal and although that word simply means legume, the prepared form is a kind of mushy side dish made with the legumes, spices and chilies. Many Indian dishes also use dried legumes as a kind of seasoning, sometimes calling for as little as half a teaspoon in other, more complex, concoctions.
Some dal favorites include red gram, black gram and green gram. Sometimes the word dal specifically refers to split dried legumes. Adding to the confusion, Indian authors writing in English sometimes use the same word for two different legumes. Here’s a little guide to help (or confuse) you more. Arhal dal or tur dal (toor dal) are either split red gram or pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan L.). But tur dal, and also thuvar dal, is used by some authors to mean yellow split peas (Pisum sativum L. var. hortense). The English word gram derives from the Portuguese word for grain, which is what the early Portuguese voyagers to India called these little dried legumes in India.
More on sorting out Indian dal
Gram generally means chickpea (Cicer arietinum L .), specifically Bengal gram (also channa dal), but can also mean any dried legume.
Channa dal is the whole or split chickpea although some writers use it to refer to yellow split pea.
Black gram (Vigna mungo L. syn. Phaseolus mungo) is urad dal known also as urd, and sometimes called horse bean, horse gram, Madras gram, sword bean and jackbean (bada-sem). This is complicated by the fact that those last five identified as urad dal are a different species, Canavalia ensiformis L. and also called kulthi dal. Urad dhuli dal is the white version or split white gram.
Sometimes chowli or chowla dal or lobia is the cowpea, also known as black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata L. subsp. unguiculata syn. V. sinensis), although chowla dal also refers to the related Vigna catjang.
Green gram (Vigna radiata L. syn. Phaseolus aureus and P. radiatus) is more familiarly known as mung bean and in India is known as moong dal. Kesari dal (Lathyrus sativus L.), or grass pea. If you eat too much of it, grass pea causes a crippling disease called lathyrism.
Masoor dal is split red or yellow lentils (Lens culinaris Medikus syn. L. esculenta; Ervum lens; or Vicia lens).
To round out the dals, matki is moth or mat bean (Vigna acontifolia), sem (also valpapdi, avarai) is hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurus [purpureus] (L.) Sweet. syn. L. niger Medik. and Dolichos lablab L.) and sutari is rice bean (Vigna umbellate).
OK, got that? Personally, no matter what a recipe you’re following says, I find that the cooking of all this is quite easy. It’s only if you were to write a recipe for someone else that it gets confusing.
Beginner’s Dal Sauté
3 tablespoons black gram (urad dal)
3 tablespoons green gram (moong dal)
3 tablespoons dried chickpeas
3 tablespoons red lentils (masoor dal)
3 tablespoons pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal)
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1. Place all the legumes in a saucepan and cover with cold water by several inches. Turn the heat to high and once it comes to a boil, cook, salting lightly, until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
2. Drain and place in a sauté pan with the olive oil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot.
Top photo: Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Chickpeas once found mainly in lonely containers nestled in ice on salad bars, are the new super food in America. This legume is very low in fat and sodium, high in protein, iron, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants, and it is gluten-free.
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Pulses have been a major component of human diets throughout history. Chickpeas are one of the earliest cultivated legumes, an important component of Turkish, Middle Eastern, African, Spanish, Indian and various other cuisines for centuries. They are called garbanzo in Spain and Mexico, ceci in Italy, kichererbse in Germany, and revithia in Greece. In Arabic and Hebrew alike, hummus denotes both the chickpea itself and the dip made from it; a dip that has spread to many parts of the world.
There are two types of domesticated chickpeas — the familiar light-colored, large chickpeas with a smooth coat and the small, dark brown or green chickpeas with a rough coat, which are mostly cultivated in the Indian subcontinent. The darker variety are smaller, used both whole, split and powdered; this variety has a much lower glycemic index than their larger cousins. The familiar pale-colored chickpea was introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century from Afghanistan and is called kabuli chana (chana that came from Kabul) in India.
An inexhaustible variety of peas, beans and lentils are the mainstay and an important source of protein in Indian vegetarian cuisine. Grains and dried beans have a complementary relationship when they are served together because in combination they’re a source of complete protein.
When legumes are hulled and split, they are easy to cook and they are easily digested. Although several legumes are commonly used in Indian cuisine, Indian brown chickpeas are used in a wide variety of dishes, including breakfast dishes, snacks, curries and desserts. In India, this legume is known by many names — gram, Bengal gram, chana, kadali, among others.
The Indian domestic variety also has a higher fiber content than kabuli and a very low glycemic index. Research has shown that it helps to bring down blood cholesterol levels, and the low glycemic index is useful in the management of diabetes.
In India, whole legumes are called gram, while hulled split seeds are known as dal, though these words are often used interchangeably. The term dal can be even more confusing because, while it means split pea or bean, it also refers to the dish prepared from it. The domestic brown chickpeas are skinned and split to make chana dal. The skinned and split variety look just like yellow split peas, but are quite different because they doesn’t readily boil down to mush.
When chana dal is powdered, it is called besan or gram flour. Both of these have a milder flavor and texture than the kabuli variety. Puffed chana dal is roasted, split, and skinned chana dal, which is light yellow in color and mildly sweet.
The first step in cooking chickpeas is to soak them thoroughly. Whole chickpeas cook faster if they are soaked overnight in plenty of water. The soaking process also dissolves gas-causing elements into the soaking water. The longer you soak (within reason), the more gas generators are removed. Cookbook author Anissa Helou recommends adding a little bicarbonate of soda to the soaking water. This trick prevents the calcium in the water from cementing together the pectin molecules in the chickpea’s cell walls.
After soaking and discarding the soaking water, rinse the chickpeas thoroughly in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Usually, legumes are boiled in four to five times their volume in water and seasoned only after they are well cooked.
In India, pressure cooking is considered the ideal method for cooking legumes. After boiling, if the recipe allows, discard that water and rinse the beans again. If you are using canned chickpeas, drain the liquid from the beans and rinse.
There are a wide variety of dishes that can be prepared with chickpeas and chickpea flour. Here is a recipe for crispy chana dal vada (chickpea fritters).
1 cup chana dal
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 or 2 Thai green chili peppers finely chopped (reduce for milder taste)
1 tablespoon finely chopped curry leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
Salt to taste
3 cups of oil for deep frying
1. Soak chana dal in water for 4 to 5 hours.
2. Drain the dal and grind into a thick, coarse paste with very little water in a food processor.
3. Transfer it into a bowl and add finely chopped shallots, green chilies, curry leaves, ginger and salt, and mix well.
4. Make equal-sized balls with the ground dal. Flatten the balls by pressing them in between the palms.
5. Heat oil in a pan on a medium flame and deep fry until golden brown.
Top photo: Chickpea fritters (chana dal vada), served with coconut chutney and Indian tea. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Shiva has a temper as gargantuan as his persona, but that is to be expected from the god who destroys all evil. If you invoke his ire, be ready to be turned into stone. But if you appeal to his compassion through major sacrifices, sit back and reap the fruits lavished upon you. Shiva spent long periods of time on Mount Kailasha, a heavenly retreat where he performed penance in a solitary world away from his wife Parvati and their newly conceived child, Ganesh.
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Parvati never got used to being alone without her husband, but feared stoking his wrath. She spent her days showering attention on their beautiful, chubby baby boy. Her maternal love nurtured his body and soul and soon he grew into a vibrantly healthy young boy. One morning, as was his routine, Ganesh stood guard outside his mother’s door with a sword in one hand as she bathed in milk, honey and fresh petals of rose and jasmine. Her strict instructions not to allow anyone entrance into her private chambers rang in his ears.
The morning rays of Surya, the god of sun, filtered through the doorway. Within moments the room darkened and Ganesh looked up to see an unkempt old fakir in a white dhoti standing barefoot with a stick in one hand. He was about to march through the door, into Parvati’s private quarters when Ganesh brandished his sword. The aged man was Shiva, his father, but Ganesh had never seen him since his birth. Nor did Shiva recognize his son, and soon his annoyance filled the chambers like blinding smoke. He bellowed to Ganesh to step aside, but the boy refused to budge. Shiva yanked the sword from his little hands and with the sharpness of its blade that swished through the air with metallic splendor, severed Ganesh’s head in one clean motion.
The commotion brought Parvati running to the door and she shrieked in disbelief at what her husband had done. “You have killed your son with your own anger,” she sobbed. “Now how can I continue to live?” Shiva’s wrath dissipated as swiftly as icy water on a burning ember. He fell to his knees and wept for his son. He promised Parvati that he would bring Ganesh back by planting on his empty shoulders the first living creature’s head that would walk by their home. Just then the earth shook and Shiva poked his head out the door to see what caused the tremor. A baby elephant had strayed away from his herd and was thundering by. As promised, Shiva ran to the elephant and, with the same sword that had made his son lifeless, rendered the elephant headless with one stroke.
A god is born
He gathered the head and planted it on his firstborn’s shoulders. Soon Ganesh’s body stirred into life and he awoke to find his mother and father showering blessings on him, whispering his name, Gajanan Ganesh, the elephant-headed celestial being about to be worshipped by millions as the bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow.
On Ganesh Chaturthi, the day of his birth (which in 2013 will be celebrated on Sept. 9), my Amma always made his favorite: delicately wrapped shells of rice flour housing two different kinds of filling, one with red chile-spiked lentils, the other a sweet combination of fresh coconut, jaggery and freshly ground cardamom. She shaped the savory dumplings into boats, while the sweet ones were round to differentiate them when they are sealed. Steamed with pearly beads of water clinging to their satin skins, they lay on banana leaves in front of Ganesh’s statue as he sat on his throne, a dumpling in his left hand, right hand facing me in raised blessing, and his mascot, the furry rodent who lay by his feet, nibbling on a modak (dumpling). Once the kozhakuttais were blessed, they easily slid down our throats and into our hungry bellies, the spicy ones first followed by their sweetly innocent kin.
Pooranam Kozhakuttai (Steamed Dumplings With Coconut)
Makes 20 dumplings
For the filling:
1 cup freshly shredded coconut (available in the freezer section of any Asian market)
½ cup coarsely chopped jaggery or tightly packed dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from green pods), ground
For the wrappers:
1½ cups rice flour
¼ teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1½ cups warm water
6 tablespoons canola oil
Additional oil for shaping the wrappers
For the filling:
1. Combine the coconut and jaggery in a small saucepan, heating it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the jaggery dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Stir in the cardamom. Transfer the filling to a plate to cool.
For the wrappers:
1. Dump the rice flour and salt into a medium-size bowl; whisk in the warm water, a few tablespoons at a time, to make a crêpe-thin batter.
2. Stir 3 tablespoons oil into the batter. Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and batter into a cold wok or non-stick skillet. Heat the batter over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps from forming, until the batter thickens up, starts to pull away from the sides of pan, and comes together into a ball to form soft dough, 5 to 7 minutes. It should feel silky smooth but not sticky to the touch. Transfer the dough to a plate and spread it a bit to cool, 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Divide the dough into twenty equal parts; shape each part into a smooth ball. Grease the palms well with oil. Place a ball in the palm of one hand. With the fingers of the other hand, press and shape it into a 3-inch-round wrapper. Place a scant teaspoon of the filling in its center. Gather up the corners of the wrapper and bring them towards the center to cover the filling. Pinch the gathered edges together to seal shut, shaping it into a Hershey’s Kiss-like tip. Repeat with the remaining rounds and filling.
4. Prepare a steamer pan and fill it with water for steaming. Heat the water to boil over medium-high heat. Lightly grease the steamer insert. Arrange the sealed dumplings (without overcrowding) and steam 10 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.
Top photo: Steamed dumplings with coconut. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Indian food lovers in the United States often have a vague concept of what biryanis are — a perception that stems from Indian restaurants that spike basmati rice with spices and dot it with either pieces of meat or vegetables. From the Persian biriyan (to fry before cooking), true biryanis were introduced and made popular by several invaders; the Moghuls were a prime influence, having gathered their knowledge from the Persians. The Nawabs of Lucknow and the Nizams of Hyderabad also popularized these layered meat-rice-nut dishes all across India, where there are more than 35 varieties.
The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate the biryani — some even included pounded silver leaves. I consider such biryanis to be meals in themselves; the only accompaniments they need are a simple yogurt-based raita (even a bowl of plain yogurt will suffice), pickles (either homemade or store-bought), and flame-toasted lentil wafers (papads).
The constitution of a biryani is rather simple. First, meat is often marinated and braised, spiced and simmered in various sauces. To prepare the rice layer, clarified butter is perfumed with whole spices, and sometimes with nuts and raisins. Then basmati rice is steeped in the butter (with water) to partially cook it. Finally, alternating layers of the meat curry and rice pulao are spread in a casserole and baked until the flavors mingle and the rice grains are tender. Although many of the biryanis are meat-based, vegetarians have adapted these dishes to include legumes and vegetables.
Kichidi, a savory and soothing porridge
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love biryanis, but the dish that gets no respect is one that is a close sibling, albeit a dowdy one in some Indians’ minds. Kichidis are soothing and simple porridges usually eaten when convalescing from an illness. The easily digestible grains, when eaten with plain yogurt, make for a comforting meal. Often, the trilogy of pickles, papads and yogurt accompanies kichidis to complement the porridge’s softness with pungency and crunch.
Of all the stories I heard in my childhood days, the one that always made me sit up and listen was this one about kichidis. To set the stage, it’s helpful to know about Akbar, the third and highly revered emperor of the Moghul empire, who ascended the throne at the tender age of 13, around 1556. Over the course of his rule, he developed a deep bond and friendship with his trusted inner circle adviser, Birbal, whose wit, impartiality, compassion and intelligence were legendary. Stories were penned over the years that regaled many a child at bedtime. This one particularly stuck with me, appealing to my culinary sensibilities.
Birbal listened patiently to the poor Brahmin’s predicament. The Brahmin, with teeth still chattering from the previous night’s bone-chilling experience in the frigid waters of the lake, recounted how he was promised 100 rupees for spending the night in its icy bed. He had managed to survive the frigidity by cozy thoughts that his children’s bellies would soon be filled with the help of this small fortune. He called upon Rama for strength, hands folded in pious servitude, looking toward a lighted oil lamp 200 feet away for the only flicker in an otherwise charcoal-black night. His prayers helped him make it to the crack of dawn, when he emerged from the lake with frozen, shriveled skin but a warmed heart filled with the hope of a hot meal for his hungry babies.
The court ministers marveled at the Brahmin’s fortitude and quizzed him at length on his successful survival. But once they heard that he had made it through with the “warmth” from the flickering light 200 feet away, they refused him his meager prize.”You cheated us you insolent man,” they fumed. “You heated yourself with the oil lamp 200 feet away.” The Brahmin’s earnest pleadings fell on deaf ears even when he insisted on presenting his case to the usually fair-minded emperor, Akbar.
Birbal stroked his beard as he listened to the Brahmin’s misery. It was time to teach the cruel ministers and Akbar a lesson. He invited them to a simple dinner of kichidi in his palatial courtyard. With help from the Brahmin, he lit a small fire from dried twigs. He fashioned a supporting structure 50 feet high from which dangled a large earthenware pot filled with rice, lentils and gold-yellow turmeric. The crowds gathered and waited with growing impatience for the humble, delicately spiced porridge.
Akbar’s anger rose along with the wisps of smoke from the pitiful twig fire as he demanded explanation for Birbal’s obvious stupidity in trying to cook a pot of kichidi 50 feet away from such a weak flame. “Jahanpana,” he said with respect, addressing him as King of the World, “if a flickering light 200 feet away could warm a Brahmin standing in waist-high icy-cold water, why can’t I cook this kichidi only fifty feet away.” Akbar realized his folly, duly reprimanded his ministers, and ordered them to pay the Brahmin five times what was promised to him. Birbal once again prevailed!
Rice-Lentil Porridge with Caramelized Onion (Pyaaz kichidi)
Makes 6 servings (about ½ cup each)
1 cup uncooked white basmati or long-grain rice
½ cup split and skinned green lentils (mung/moong dal — yellow in this form)
4 cups cold tap water
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ghee or melted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium-size red onion, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 to 4 fresh green Thai, cayenne or serrano chilies, stems removed, slit in half lengthwise (do not remove seeds)
1 medium-size tomato, cored and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1. Plunk the rice and dal into a medium-size saucepan and add enough water to cover the grains. With your fingertips gently rub and swish the grains, at which point the water will get cloudy. Pour the water out and repeat three to four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
2. Add 4 cups cold water to the pan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice to separate the grains. Skim off any suds that may float to the top. Stir in the turmeric, lower the heat to medium, and simmer, partially covered, until most of the water evaporates. Cover the pan and continue to simmer about 5 minutes.
3. Turn off the burner and allow the pan to sit undisturbed an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the cumin and let it sizzle, turn reddish brown, and smell nutty, about 10 to 15 seconds. Immediately add the onion and chilies and stir-fry 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion turns purple-brown, 5 to 7 minutes. This is a good time to make sure your stove fan is on because of the pungent fumes from the roasting chilies.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and stew the mélange, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomato softens, 2 to 4 minutes.
6. Scrape the skillet’s contents into the now-cooked rice-lentil mixture and mix well; serve.
Tip: If onions, chilies and tomatoes bother your stomach, leave them out. The humble cumin seeds and ghee are equally satisfying on their own.
Top photo: Indian kichidi. Credit: Raghavan Iyer