Articles in Indian
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
The cooking of Kerala Muslims owes as much to the Yemeni Arab traders as it does to the culinary traditions of its native Kerala, India. Consider alissa, a wholesome wheat and meat porridge, hand-rolled wafer-thin ari pathiri (rice bread), or muttamala served over pinnanathappam, (delicate thin strings of egg yolks cooked in sugar syrup served over steam-cooked cardamom-scented egg white pudding).
Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni attacked northern India in A.D. 1000, the southwestern coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf and East Africa was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts excelled in maritime trade with distant lands, and by the early Christian period South India was transformed into a commercial hub linking the West and the East through coastal and inland routes. A flourishing spice trade between southwestern India and the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman flourished.
More about Kerala on Zester Daily:
Arab traders left their shores in July, at the height of the southwestern monsoon season, to go to Kerala, the heart of the pepper country. They returned carrying their precious cargo of many spices as the northwest monsoons arrived in November.
When the relentless monsoons prompted several Arab merchants to stay back until favorable travel weather returned, many settled down and married local women. The alliance was solemnized with the payment of a token bride price, and the local brides and their children were initiated into Islam. Muslims of Kerala, known as Mappilas, account for nearly a quarter of the state’s population.
Influenced by the culinary traditions of traders from the Persian Gulf and leaning heavily on the Kerala spice combinations, Mappila cuisine is known for its distinct taste. It is unlike the Muslim-influenced, rich Mughlai cuisine of North India. In Mappila cuisine, rice, coconut, coconut milk and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is a predominant spice, followed by cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Rice is the staple grain of Kerala. But because their Arab husbands preferred bread, the ingenious Mappila women created breads made with rice — pathiri.
More than any other Mappila dish, alissa is most strongly rooted to Arab cuisine. Unlike any other Kerala preparation, its main ingredient is wheat and traditionally cinnamon is the only spice used.
This thick porridge is made with wheat from which bran is removed along with meat or chicken. The dish is garnished with thinly sliced shallots, raisins and cashews fried in ghee. It is one of the dishes served as a starter before ghee rice or biryani at north Kerala Muslim weddings.
Many variations around the world
Alissa is quite similar to harisa, a recipe preserved over centuries by the people of the Middle East. Recipes for this dish are found in 10th-century Baghdadi cookbook “Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen,” “Sufi Cuisine” and the Iraqi cookbook “Delights from the Garden of Eden.”
It was called hareesa in medieval Baghdad, and it’s called herise in many parts of Turkey, where it is served at weddings. In Lebanon, hreessey is a comfort food in the villages when the weather turns cold. Various versions of this porridge made with wheat, barley or semolina were prevalent wherever Arab traders traveled, from Morocco to Muslim Andalusia.
“From the 7th century until today, harisa was a kind of porridge made from pounded wheat, butter, meat, and spices” writes Clifford A.Wright in his article “Gruel, Porridge, and the ‘First Foods’ of Tunisia.” As they break the fast during Ramadan in the Middle East, there are certain dishes that are always served, h’riss being one of them. In her article “Breaking the Fast” in Saveur, Anissa Helou writes: “This deeply satisfying dish of spiced meat and creamy wheat berries is most often made with lamb, but it’s particularly delicious when made with chicken. The version we ate was drizzled with ghee blended with bzar, which gave the h’riss a warm, toasty flavor.”
And harisa of the Middle East became alissa in Kerala. A more elaborate version, called haleem, is popular in north India.
The following recipe for alissa is adapted from Malabar Muslim cookery by Ummi Abdulla.
For the alissa:
1½ cups skinless wheat
1 large onion cut into slices
Salt to taste
2 pounds of chicken or mutton cut into pieces
1½ inch piece of cinnamon stick
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons ghee, plus extra for serving
½ shallot thinly sliced
1 tablespoon raisins
8 to 10 cashew nuts
1. Soak wheat in water for an hour and drain.
2. In a stock pot, combine wheat, chicken or mutton, sliced onion, cinnamon and salt along with 10 to 12 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the wheat is very tender and broken down.
3. Remove from the stove and mash well until it reaches porridge-like consistency.
4. Heat ghee in a small skillet and add cashews. As the cashews begin to change color, add the raisins. Toast until cashews are golden brown and raisins have plumped up. Remove the fried cashews and raisins from the skillet and set aside.
5. In the same ghee, fry shallot slices until golden. Combine with fried nuts and raisins.
To serve, ladle alissa into serving bowls and top with fried onions, raisins and cashews. Drizzle more ghee over the top and serve hot.
Photo: Alissa. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Gopala, Shyam, Mohan, Govinda … the charmer with several names, is best known as Krishna, the blue-blooded reincarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver. Krishna was born into royalty; his parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were imprisoned by the evil Kamsa, a demon who usurped their thrones in Mathura, a town along the banks of India’s river Yamuna.
Kamsa was warned that the eighth son born to Vasudeva would be the cause of his demise. So the first six times Devaki, who was his sister, gave birth to a son, Kamsa made a visit and quickly destroyed the child. The seventh son was transferred magically into the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini.
Escape from death
When Vasudeva’s eighth son was born, it was during the still of midnight as the shimmering light of a full moon filtered through the bars of the humble prison. Vasudeva placed the baby, who was destined to bring order back to Mathura, in a wicker basket and perched it on his head. As he had been promised by Lord Vishnu, who was aware of Kamsa’s vengeful campaign, Vasudeva found the door to his cell miraculously unlocked, the guards drugged. When he and the child reached the banks of the Yamuna, Vasudeva’s qualms about crossing the river dissipated: it magically parted, making his task of delivering the boy to safety an easy one. A cowherd in the town of Gokhul found the beautiful baby and he and his wife, thrilled to have a son, raised him as their own. They named him Krishna.
Word of Krishna’s antics spread quickly through the tightly-knit community. A series of signs and miraculous events foretold of the boy’s pre-destined celestial purpose: to kill Kamsa and bring happiness, beauty and order, which were nonexistent under the demon’s regime, back to the people. Krishna’s handsome good looks, lightheartedness and mischievous demeanor gave every mother in town a joyous heartbreak.
Krishna, Dairy Thief
His penchant for milk, cream and butter became well known. No dairy products could be left within reach for fear of their being devoured within seconds. Whenever cream was collected to make butter, it was amassed in clay pots and strung up high, between the loftiest treetops. Krishna coaxed his fellow cowherds to form a human pyramid and he would soon be found at its apex, gulping his prize with great satisfaction.
It could be said that his love of dairy was instrumental in compelling Krishna to develop the ingenuity and physical strength that eventually led to his defeat of Kamsa in a wrestling match years later. Krishna fulfilled his purpose and restored all that was just and human to Mathura, his native land.
RAGHVAN IYER'S GHEE TIPS
DON'T use margarine or any butter substitutes that want you to think they’re just like the real deal.
DO use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent the butter from scorching. Cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic-coated cast iron are all fair game. I use a cast-iron or carbon steel wok if I happen to be making a large batch, as the fat seasons the pan.
DON'T turn up the heat beyond the low setting, as much as you may be tempted to do so; if you do, the milk solids will start to burn.
DO make sure the glass jar is clean and dry before pouring in the ghee. Let the ghee cool completely before screwing on the lid. Moisture will promote the growth of mold.
Cream to butter to ghee
The process of churning fresh cream into butter is still widely practiced in homes all across India. But this is just an intermediary step. Classic Indian cooking always calls for ghee, or clarified butter. Once the milk solids have been removed from butter, its shelf life is extended exponentially and there is no need for refrigeration. Ghee also has a much higher smoke point than non-clarified butter, making it ideal for deep frying.
In my home when I was growing up, each morning Amma skimmed cream from a saucepan filled with hot milk. Once enough was at hand, she squatted on the floor with her deep pot and long-handled wooden beater. Within minutes white, silky-smooth butter separated and floated to the top, weaning itself from the thin whey or buttermilk below. Amma scooped handfuls of the butter and placed it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I always happened to be there just in the nick of time to steal a few scoops, Krishna-like, its sweetness coated my tongue, the name maakhan chor (butter thief) rang in my ears.
Stainless steel tumblers collected the buttermilk, to be drunk in thirst-quenching gulps while the freshly churned butter melted on low heat and milk solids were skimmed and discarded. The clear fat, now turned into ghee, rested in a chipped orange porcelain jar, nutty and pure, waiting to bless every dish it would touch with its heavenly aroma and flavor. The taste is truly sublime.
Ghee is widely available in stores. It is not easy on the pocketbook, so be prepared to plunk down your hard-earned money for the convenience, should you not have 15 to 20 minutes of free time to spend in the kitchen. I often splurge and buy ghee imported from India, only because the cows (or water buffaloes, depending on where the milk came from) graze on a different diet and the ghee has a unique flavor not found in America’s dairy land. But making your own is well worth the time and patience.
GheeMakes about 12 ounces (1½ cups)
1 pound unsalted butter
1. Line a fine-mesh tea strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, set it over a clean, dry glass measuring cup or pint-size canning jar, and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure an even melt (otherwise, the bottom of the block melts and starts to bubble while the top half remains firm). Once the butter melts, you will notice that a lot of foam is gathering on the surface. Scoop the foam out with a spoon or just let it be; the melted butter will eventually stop foaming and start to subside. Now you can start to carefully skim off the foam. Some of the milk solids will settle at the bottom and start to brown lightly. This light browning is what gives Indian ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. This process will take 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Once the liquid appears quite clear (like oil) with a light amber hue, pour it through the cheesecloth-lined strainer, leaving the browned milk solids behind, and set it aside to cool.
4. When the ghee is cool, pour it into a storage jar and seal it. Keep it at room temperature, right next to your other bottled oils; it will solidify, even at room temperature. (I don’t find it necessary to refrigerate ghee, but if you wish, by all means do so. I have kept mine at room temperature for many months, without any concern for rancidity or spoilage. Because ghee has no milk solids in it, and that’s what can turn butter rancid, I do as millions in India do, and leave it out.
It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.
Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.
The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.
Rice, starch and saris
My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.
Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.
There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.
To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.
Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.
2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)
4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.
Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto
Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The traditional rituals for celebrating vernal equinox, the passage of the sun from Taurus to Aries, symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility, growth and bounty, and is believed to usher in a new year of prosperity.
In Punjab, Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Orissa, Manipur and Tamil Nadu, the vernal equinox (based on astrological calculations) in mid-April is celebrated as New Year with fun and fervor. Homes are cleaned, special foods are prepared and prayers and offerings are made at temples. In Kerala, it’s celebrated as the festival of Vishu.
Baisakhi, as it’s known in Punjab, marks the harvest of winter crops. Farmers pray and pay homage for a bountiful harvest. As the day progresses, loud cries of “Jatta aayi Baisakhi” reverberate in the sky as men and women move toward the fields to perform the energetic folk dances bhangra and gidda. In Bengal, people gather to see the sacred sunrise and sing songs ushering in the New Year. Offering prayers to the clouds for water is another ritual. People of Tamil Nadu celebrate the New Year with sumptuous feasts and elaborate kolam decorations at entrances to homes. Many famous temples in the state hold their chariot festivals on this day. In most parts of India, neem trees are blooming with flowers and mango blossoms are replaced by tiny budding mangoes. In some regions, this day is celebrated with neem flowers and raw mangoes to symbolize growth and prosperity.
Good fortune for the new year
In Kerala, with the arrival of spring, the landscape is lush with blooms of lovely yellow kanikonna flowers. Houses are cleaned, and children anticipate with excitement the Vishu firecrackers they will light on this auspicious dawn. The most important aspect of this festival is Vishukani, the auspicious first sight of the day. It is believed that the first thing one sees on Vishu morning influences one’s fortunes for the rest of the year. Vishukani is a pretty display of rice, coconut, betel leaves, areca nuts, various vegetables and fruits, jewelry, coins, and brilliant kanikonna flowers. The traditional gift on this holiday is a simple, unwrapped gift of cash from the elders to the youngsters.
According to Indian astrology, the solar event on Vishu is believed to be the ideal time to commence rice cultivation. Kerala farmers observe a ritual called chaal (furrow) on Vishu morning marking the auspicious commencement of rice farming. On the eastern corner of the rice field, they light oil lamps and decorate with flowers and rice flour designs. They pin up leaves in the shape of bowls and fill them with nine different kinds of grain seeds and place them near the lamp. They bathe their oxen and wash and clean their plows and bring them to the rice field. After praying for a good harvest, the farmer plows a portion of the rice field and sows the grains.
No celebration is complete in Kerala without a sumptuous feast around noon. The menu for this feast includes rice along with several accompaniments and one or two puddings. All dishes are prepared with fresh spring vegetables and fruits such as various squashes, large cucumbers, mangoes and jackfruit. And there can be jackfruit chips and fresh green mango pickle to add crunch and zest to the meal. For dessert, there are creamy puddings made with homemade jackfruit jam or mango jam cooked with jaggery, ghee and fresh coconut milk. In some parts of Kerala, a special dish called Vishu Kanji (rice soup with coconut milk) is also prepared for this festival.
Vishu, like any other festival, is rooted in myths and traditions. People in my hometown observe a strict rule of not buying anything on Vishu day. All shopping must be done either before or after. On the day after Vishu, the first thing to buy is salt — beginning the new season with the purchase of a basic culinary essential.
The vernal equinox, representing the rebirth of nature, is also celebrated as New Year in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Yunnan, China. Many Southeast Asian countries celebrate it in the form of the Water Festival. People pour water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the New Year. The date of the festival was originally set by astrological calculation, but it is now April 13-15.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photos, from top:
Vishukani tray with symbols of good luck for the new year.
Credits: Ammini Ramachandran
The richest contribution the British made to India, in my mind, was the introduction of the railway in 1851. Their legacy continues to chug along the millions of tracks even in the 21st century, providing billions of travelers a life of convenience, reunification, separation, joy and even pain.
A recent journey was excruciatingly long even before it really began. We piled into our cushioned first-class sleeper compartment in the Chennai (formerly Madras) Express, which would be our home for the next 18 hours. Lunchtime was fast approaching, the rumblings in my stomach provided unnecessary reminders every five minutes. I looked out the barred window as the boxcar rocked us in cradle-like comfort, and the train’s wheels rattled on the tracks over a bridge. The muddy water below shimmered under the sun’s rays as three water buffalo wallowed with siesta-like laziness in its dirty coolness. Close to the town of Guntakal, fields of sunflowers appeared magically, standing in subservience to Surya, the sun God. “They are being harvested for their seeds which will be turned into cooking oil,” my sister remarked. A pang of hunger washed over me one more time when I heard “cooking.”
Omelets at the station
As the electric engine chugged onto the platform of Renigunta Junction, I saw throngs of people waiting to greet loved ones at the station. A little boy with tattered clothes held a baby monkey in his arms as he glided under the windows, one hand outstretched for money. A taxidermist with coarse hair carried a sleeping baby on her back as she hawked stuffed squirrels. A vendor with muscular thighs, his dhoti folded in half along his charcoal-black, pushed a wooden cart filled with eggs and onions surrounding a gas-lit portable stove. A flat, round griddle rested atop the stove, with beaten eggs sizzling in oil. He served the prepared omelets folded with cilantro-flavored onions accompanied by slices of white bread and long, curvaceous, green cayenne chilies.
Another vendor dunked thick slices of plantains in garbanzo bean flour batter and fried them golden brown, offering them for sale on rectangular pieces of grease-stained newspaper. My eyes were drawn to a woman helping her husband as he prepared, with the grace of a bharatanatyam dancer, lacy-thin, golden-crisp crêpes stuffed with lime-kissed, chile-smothered potatoes. This was what I needed to appease the cavernous hole in my belly — and seconds later his wife, a ring through her nose and her face creased, handed me a masala dosa rolled in a large square of banana leaf. She grabbed the two rupees from my right hand and scurried back to her husband.
I was amazed at the briskness of the transactions that occurred on that platform within the 15 minutes that we waited for the train to switch to diesel. Shortly after we pulled away, another train pulled in, and its passengers witnessed and engaged in the ongoing performance.
Rice-lentil crêpes with spiced potato filling
Makes 10 dosas
For the batter:
For the filling:
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
For the batter:
- Place the two varieties of rice in a medium-size bowl and add enough water to cover. Gently, with fingertips, 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; do not drain the water this last time. Add the fenugreek seeds to the bowl. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 4 to 5 hours, or overnight; drain.
- Plunk the lentils into a small bowl and add enough water to cover. Gently, with fingertips, 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; do not drain the water this last time. Cover the bowl and store at room temperature for at least 4 to 5 hours, or overnight. Drain.
- To liquefy the rice, pour ½ cup warm water into a blender jar and half of the soaked rice. Puree, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, until the batter is smooth. It may feel slightly grainy and that’s all right. If the blades don’t function as the batter thickens, pour in a little more water, just enough to get the batter to cooperate. Pour this into a large bowl. Repeat with the remaining rice. Now pour ¼ cup warm water into the same blender jar and add soaked lentils. Puree, scraping the insides of the jar as needed, until the batter is smooth. (You don’t grind the rice and lentils together because rice takes longer to break down.) Add the lentil batter to the rice batter and stir in the salt. Beat in an additional 1¼ cups of water, using a whisk to end up with a batter the consistency of slightly watered down pancake batter.
- Cover the bowl and place it in a warm spot in your kitchen. (I usually place it in an unused oven and turn the oven light on. The warmth generated by the light is enough to allow the batter to ferment and lighten up overnight.) The batter should have a sourdough-like aroma with bubbles, thanks to the natural formation of carbon dioxide as a result of fermentation.
For the filling:
- Combine the potatoes, cilantro, salt, turmeric, curry leaves, chiles and lime juice.
- Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the skillet, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (much like popcorn), about 30 seconds. Add the lentils and stir-fry until they turn golden brown, 15 to 20 seconds. Scrape this nutty oily mixture into the bowl with the potatoes and stir well. Divide this addictive filling into 10 equal portions (it’s OK to snitch a taste.)
For the crêpes:
- Coat and heat a medium-size nonstick skillet with a teaspoon of oil over medium heat; ladle ½ cup batter and with the back of the ladle, quickly and evenly with a clockwise motion, spread the batter to form a paper-thin, unbroken circle roughly 8 inches in diameter. Cook until the top of crêpe is opaque and the bottom side is golden brown and starts to curl up around the edges. Flip the crêpe and brown the other side, about 1 minute.
- Transfer the crêpe to a serving platter. Place one portion of the filling in its center and fold it over to cover the filling; serve immediately.
- Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.
- If the pan gets too hot between crêpes, the batter will clump up as soon as its poured, preventing an even spread. Lower the heat or wipe the skillet with a clean paper towel moistened with cold water before continuing to make additional crêpes.
- Dosais are traditionally served with a pigeon pea stew called sambhar and a fresh coconut chutney. You can even serve them in its unaccompanied form as a substantial main-course offering.
- Leftover batter can be refrigerated for up to two weeks but when frozen, it can bring you joy even two months later!
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning ”660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at turmerictrail.com.
Photos from top:
Crepe being prepared on griddle
Masala dosa, folded.
Credits: Raghavan Iyer
* * *
On my first day of cooking class in the South Indian state of Kerala, I was already hopelessly confused. It was half a dozen years ago, my first visit to the subcontinent, and I had signed up for classes with Nimmy Paul, a prominent home cook who had been urged on me by my culinary pal Johnny Apple. Lithe and handsome in a pristine white sari, her enormous dark eyes outlined with kohl, Nimmy is an expert cook and a gentle authority on Kerala’s food traditions. Her classes take place in her pretty garden home in Cochin, where, with her husband Paul, she also entertains private guests at lunch and dinner. (You can find out more at nimmypaul.com.)
Studying with a gifted home cook is a great way to get inside the culinary culture of any region, but it was an especially brilliant stroke in Kerala, where restaurant food, for the most part, comes in one of two guises: transformed into something deemed acceptable to foreigners, or as the carbohydrate-laden fare of tea stalls and working-class restaurants, always filling, sometimes quite tasty but rarely exciting, and with a palate-numbing monotony. There are exceptions, of course — the open-air seafood shacks along the waterfront in Fort Cochin have excellent freshly fried fish and fish curries. Breakfast offerings, like the ubiquitous dosas (pancakes made of lentils and rice), fried vadas — an Indian version of falafel — and rice-flour iddli (another type of pancake), also can be delicious.
Ceremonial vegetarian banquet
But Nimmy’s home cooking spoke to another realm of the region’s cooking altogether. First, she introduced me to avial, a lively mixture of vegetables seasoned with grated coconut, turmeric, green chilis, cumin and garlic. Then came erussery, a mixture of vegetables seasoned with coconut paste, turmeric, green chilis, shallots and fresh curry leaves. After that it was thoren, a single vegetable mixed with grated coconut, turmeric, green chilis and onions. And then there was pachadi, yogurt with coconut, green chilis, and ginger, and ulli theeya, an onion side dish whose sauce involves coconut toasted till coffee brown before being mixed with green chilis, tamarind, etc.
At that point all this was jumbled in my mind — coconut, turmeric, green chilis, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, cumin, first one, then the other, in a parade of ingredients. But the dishes are all part of what is almost a ritual meal, called sadhya (pronounced sad-DEE-yah), a festive vegetarian banquet served at the late summer harvest festival of Onam, a feast dear to the heart of every Keralite — Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jew, country folk and city dwellers alike. “This is typical Kerala cuisine,” Nimmy said as she scooped out a little of each dish, placing the samples in ceremonial order on a green banana leaf, “not influenced by anyone.” I already knew enough about Kerala to understand that this was unusual.
Kerala’s rich culinary history
Sadhya apart, Kerala’s cuisine bears the traces of dozens of far-off cultures, from Portugal in the west to Canton in the east. Lying like a narrow curved scimitar along the Malabar Coast, Kerala is rimmed by the dazzling Arabian Sea and backed by a range of steep mountains called the Western Ghats. From early times (possibly since the Phoenicians, though archeological evidence is slight), this was a major stopping place on the great southern trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Far East. Down through the ages, Kerala’s market towns and ports — Cochin, Trivandrum, Kottayam, Kollam — fed European appetites for exotic spices; black pepper and cardamom, ginger and turmeric from the misty green mountains that soar above the coastline, and cinnamon, cloves, and aromatics from farther East. Following long-established sea lanes, the Apostle Thomas (“doubting Thomas”) is said to have brought Christianity to Kerala in the year 54, when Jewish merchants were already established there as middlemen, trading between East and West. Later came Muslim Arabs, Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama, the Dutch, who left a mark on local architecture, and then of course the British who ruled India for a hundred years. Through it all, Kerala thrived.
Today, the small state has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a life expectancy comparable to that of the U.S. Moreover, abject poverty, with the dirt and degradation that accompany it, is lacking. Yes, there are poor people, but the desperation of some parts of the subcontinent is largely absent. Kerala is lush, almost equatorial. In January, the temperature along the coast seldom drops below 90 degrees F., and the air is soft and moisture-laden. The land too is moist: at times it seems comprised more of water than dry earth, so widespread is the system of canals, streams, marshes and flooded rice paddies that radiate from the vast, central expanse of Lake Vembanad. This intricate network makes up what Keralites call the Backwaters. Helped by the warm climate, the moist environment nourishes an extraordinary agriculture that produces everything from commodity crops (rice, coconut, sugarcane) to market-garden staples to a plethora of exotics — black pepper, vanilla, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, mustard, fenugreek, curry (kari) leaves, just to mention a few. And all of it goes into Kerala’s cooking pots.
A tradition of balance
It may well seem, as I thought after my first class, that every dish in Kerala has coconut in some form (coconut oil; coconut milk; grated, roasted, powdered or chipped coconut), but it isn’t always true. Nor does every dish have chilies, black pepper, turmeric, shallots, cumin and curry leaves. These ingredients do show up over and over again, however, now one flavor stressed, now another, in the region’s complex cooking traditions. Sour flavors balance the spices — yogurt and tamarind are favored, but lemons and limes also come into play. So does an odd little fruit called cocum (Garcinia indica), whose purple-black pulp and dried rind are used in everything from ice cream to curries. And almost every dish receives a final garnish, called “seasoning” or “tempering,” consisting of black mustard and fenugreek seeds, sometimes curry leaves or dried chili peppers, and/or other aromatics, roasted in coconut oil till the seeds pop. The result is dribbled over the top of a dish just like an Italian cook would dribble olive oil.
Nimmy is well-traveled and sophisticated — she has given classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley — but her food is firmly grounded in Kerala traditions and history. She introduced my friends and me to a tasty series of engaging and interesting dishes, ones that aren’t too difficult or, with a little forethought, too time-consuming for busy American cooks. The only complicated dish was her lamb biryani but it is so splendid that it’s well worth the effort and makes an elegant centerpiece for a dinner party. Much simpler was a delicious marinade for plump Kerala shrimp to be grilled over the embers of a wood fire. A simple garam masala of ground black pepper, coriander, turmeric, red chilis, and cumin was turned into a paste by adding minced garlic and fresh ginger. Simple and effective, it’s an exquisite mouth-watering dish.
Nimmy’s spice-marinated Kerala shrimp
Serves 2 to 4
You’ll need big shrimp (20 to 24 count) to make this dish. They are almost impossible to find fresh, but if you can, they will be magnificent. Otherwise, use frozen. (You could also use chunks of fish — swordfish or halibut are good choices because of their firm texture. For fish, add a couple of teaspoons of oil to the marinade.)
- Rinse the shrimp briefly under running water and set aside to drain thoroughly.
- In a dry saute pan, toast the coriander and cumin seeds with the peppercorns until they give off a strong aroma and start to smoke just lightly. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder (a mini food processor or a coffee mill that you keep specially for spices; in Kerala cooks grind their spice mixes for masalas or marinades on a convex stone that looks just like a Mexican metate). Grind the spices to a powder and stir in the turmeric and chili.
- Pound the garlic and ginger with the salt in a mortar to make a paste, then add the powdered spices. Mix well to make a rather dry rub.
- Turn this over the well-drained shrimps and toss, rubbing with your hands to let the flavoring penetrate the seafood. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for at least an hour, although overnight is better.
- Heat the grill and grill the shrimps, painting them with a little olive oil if they look dry. Alternatively, add a small spoonful of oil to a skillet and fry the shrimps over a very hot burner for about 1½ minutes on each side, or until they are done to your liking.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Nimmy’s spice-marinated Kerala shrimp
Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins