Articles in Indian

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

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

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

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

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

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

A query that made me question myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping to carry on my father’s fruitcake tradition

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

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

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

For my father, it was never Christmas without them.

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

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

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

Anglo-Indian Fruitcake

(adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

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

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 10 servings

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

Ingredients

1 cup of large mixed raisins

1/2 cup chopped, candied citrus peel

1/4 cup chopped cherries or cranberries

1/2 cups of rum

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

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

3/4 cup loosely packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup robust molasses

4 eggs, well-beaten

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple sides make for a happy cook

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

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

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

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

Whole Spice Roasted Butternut Squash With Sage

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

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

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

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients

1 large butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon Bengali Five Spice Blend (panch phoron)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ginger paste

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

1 tablespoon salted butter

15 fresh sage leaves

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 375 F.

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

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

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

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

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

7.  Pour over the squash and mix lightly.

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

Rainbow Stuffed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

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

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, diced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

3 cups of chopped spinach

1 cup (about 12 ounces) crumbled tofu

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon cumin coriander powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Salt to taste

1/2 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 juicy lime)

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Stuff the prepared filling into the squash shells.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 Lights … camera … stereotype

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

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

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

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

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

Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?

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

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

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

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

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

Cauliflower

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

 

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

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

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the marinade:

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

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

For the cashew cream paste:

1/2 cup cashews

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

Water for blending

For the base:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)

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

2 to 3 bay leaves

4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised

3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

To finish:

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)

Slivered almonds and or pistachios

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food fit for the goddesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bengali Red Lentil Risotto (Khichuri)

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

Ingredients
1 cup dried red split lentils (masoor dal)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

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

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and cubed

1/2 small cauliflower head, cut into small florets

3 to 4 green chilies, slit halfway lengthwise

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons oil

1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 1/2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 to 2 bay leaves

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Stir lightly and serve the mixture hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plantains useful in curries

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

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

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

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

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley

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

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

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

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

Colonial curry recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit and vegetable pickles

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

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

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

South Indian Lemon Pickle Recipe 

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 to 5 cups

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

Notes

Total curing time: 2 to 4 weeks

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

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

Asian sauces

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

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

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

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

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Horse gram is a staple in some Indian cuisines.

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

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

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

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

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

Health benefits

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

In cooking

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

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

Stir-Fry With Horse Gram

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

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Curry powder. Credit: Courtesy of Hippocrene Books

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

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

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

What is curry?

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

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

Rinku Bhattacharya. Credit: Aadi Bhattacharya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other spices in Indian cooking

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

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

Basic All Purpose Curry Powder

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

3 dried red chilies

10 to 15 curry leaves

1 teaspoon turmeric

Directions

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

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

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

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

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