Articles in Indian

Nothing says summer like a fresh-fruit ice pop. Freeze pineapple with fresh summer herbs of ginger and lemon verbena for a cold sweet treat that’s light and refreshing. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

An often underrated gift of summer is the bountiful presence of fresh herbs. At this time of year, like no other, herbs infuse distinct and potent flavors into your meals.

Take a summer vacation from a traditional garnish when you’re using those herbs. Think fenugreek fried chicken. Or an icy pineapple freezer pop infused with ginger and lemon verbena. Or grilled corn slathered with basil-and-goat-cheese butter.

10 fresh ideas for summer herbs

Click through this slideshow to find 10 unique ideas for using summer herbs from the garden — and from your market:

More from Zester Daily:

» How to grow the best herbs at home

» Lavender: 7 ways to perfume your food

» Cosmopolitan purslane

» Fenugreek works its magic on sweet potatoes

Main photo: Nothing says summer like a fresh-fruit ice pop. Freeze pineapple with fresh summer herbs ginger and lemon verbena for a cold sweet treat that’s light and refreshing. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

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The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish -- you can make it in about 10 minutes -- is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Want a fresh way to spice up your summer grilling routine? Pair those grilled meats with Indian condiments.

While Indian foods are better known for their spicy heat, there are several Indian condiments that can cool off your summer table while appealing to a range of palates: sweet, spice, tart or savory.

Spices known for their cooling qualities include cumin, cayenne and black salt. The cooling spices are all part of the prescription for summer for Ayurveda: the thousands-years-old holistic approach to health and wellness.

Carrot and Cucumber Raita With Almonds

A raita is an Indian-style cucumber salad, paired with natural yogurt. In this version from my cookbook, “Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors,” I add freshly grated carrots and crunchy almonds.

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This yogurt salad is colorful, refreshing and full of protein and vitamins. Serve it on crackers or grilled bread. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium cucumbers

1 medium carrot

2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely ground or sliced

1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves, minced (optional)

3/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

A sprinkle of red pepper flakes (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers and grate into a mixing bowl, discarding any whole seeds.

2. Peel the carrot and grate into the same bowl. Add the almonds and mint, if using.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the yogurt, salt, sugar and black pepper until well mixed. Stir into the cucumber mixture.

4. Garnish with the red pepper flakes, if using.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney

Spicy, green and fresh, this classic condiment is found year-round on the Indian table and can be served with most any dish. Traditionally, it derives its tartness from unripe green mangoes. This recipe simplifies it by using lime juice instead.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the "Spices & Seasons" cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Mint and Cilantro Chutney, a simple-to-make dish from the “Spices & Seasons” cookbook, is a classic condiment found year-round on the Indian table. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 bunch cilantro (about 3 cups)

2 bunches mint leaves (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 green serrano chilies

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons oil (mustard or canola)

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients into a blender.

2. Grind mixture until smooth. This chutney will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but the color will darken because of the lime.

 

Tamarind and Date Chutney

This tantalizing recipe is a superb alternative to barbecue sauce. It’s great on chicken wings or mixed with mayonnaise and drizzled over your favorite protein. 

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from "Spices & Seasons" is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Tamarind and Date Chutney is another classic Indian condiment; this version from “Spices & Seasons” is what I call the Indian barbecue sauce. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 jar tamarind paste (I prefer Swad or Laxmi brands)

1 cup chopped, pitted dates

1/2 cup brown sugar or jaggery

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 dried red chilies

Directions

1. Place the tamarind paste, dates, brown sugar, black salt and 2 cups of water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 10 minutes. Cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, place the fennel and cumin seeds in a heavy skillet and toast until the seeds darken and smell fragrant, about 20 to 30 seconds. Add the chilies and toast for a few more seconds.

3. Grind the seeds and chilies in a spice grinder until powdery.

4. Blend the tamarind mixture in a blender until smooth. Return to the pot, stir in the spice mixture and cook for another 5 minutes.

5. Cool and store in air-tight jars in the refrigerator for up to three months.

Indian Onion Relish

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this smoky, tangy condiment is a nice substitute for your usual relish on grilled hot dogs.

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

A popular feature in many Indian restaurants, this cumin-laced relish is a nice alternative to your usual relish on a hot dog. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 2 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 large white onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

½ tablespoon black peppercorns

1/3 cup tomato ketchup

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoons black salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

Directions

1. Chill the diced onions in the refrigerator for an hour.

2. Lightly toast the cumin seeds and black peppercorns and grind to a powder.

3. In a mixing bowl, add powdered spices, ketchup, lime juice, black salt, sugar and the red cayenne pepper and mix well with the chopped onions.

4. Return to the refrigerator and chill for another hour (or up to 6 hours) before serving. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Pear and Raisin Chutney

This chutney from my cookbook pairs well with grilled tofu, pork or fish — and is wonderful added to a burger. Or serve it alongside a basket of warm tortilla chips. 

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish -- or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This Pear and Raisin Chutney recipe from my cookbook pairs perfectly with grilled tofu, pork or fish — or try it as a relish on a burger. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 3/4 cup

Ingredients

4 to 6 medium red pears, cored and diced (not peeled)

1 lime

1 tablespoon oil

1 1/4 teaspoons fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely grated ginger

2 tablespoons malt or cider vinegar

1/3 cup sugar or brown sugar

1/3 cup mixed raisins

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped dried sweetened cranberries

2 long green chilies (young cayenne or Italian), minced

Directions

1. Place the pears in a colander and squeeze the lime juice over them.

2. Heat the oil on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the fennel seeds and wait until they sizzle and turn a few shades darker, about 20 to 30 seconds.

3. Add the red pepper flakes and stir.

4. Add the pears, ginger, vinegar, sugar, raisins and cranberries and stir. Let the sugar dissolve and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the raisins swell and the pears become soft — but not mushy.

5. Sprinkle with minced chilies before removing the heat.

6. Store and use as needed. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for six to eight months.

Citrusy Roasted Beets With Tempered Spices

A cross between a salad and a light pickle, this healthy condiment adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets. This recipe is a lighter and healthier version of the traditional beetroot and cheese salad, and is dairy- and nut-free.

This healthy condiment, also from "Spices & Seasons," adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

This healthy condiment, also from “Spices & Seasons,” adds a gentle tartness to tender young beets, seasoning them with ginger, black pepper, Clementine juice and mustard seeds. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 medium red beets, greens removed

3 medium yellow beets, greens removed

2 to 3 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ginger paste

1/2 teaspoon black salt

1/2 lime

1 orange or Clementine, cut in half

Several grinds black pepper

1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Wrap the beets in foil and roast for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow beets to cool and then peel and cut into wedges.

3. Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. Add the fennel and mustard seeds. When they begin to crackle, add the garlic and ginger paste and sauté lightly until the mixture is fragrant.

4. Stir in the roasted beets and black salt and mix well.

5. Squeeze in the lime juice and orange or Clementine juice and mix well.

6. Stir in black pepper.

7. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

 

Slow Cooker Plum, Date and Rhubarb Chutney

This beautiful tangy ruby red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. It takes a lot of cooking to obtain its deep jam-like consistency, which can be challenging during the summer, but I use the slow cooker in my recipe to keep my kitchen cool.

This  tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

This tangy, ruby-red chutney can be made with plums or any stone fruit of your choice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 3 hours in a slow cooker

Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: About 3 cups

Ingredients

1 pound of rhubarb, trimmed and cut into small pieces

4 pounds of purple plums, stoned and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons minced ginger

3 to 4 star anise

1 large stick cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons red cayenne pepper

1 cup of chopped and seeded dates

1/2 cup chopped almonds (optional)

1/4 cup maple syrup

Directions

1. Place the rhubarb, plums, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, dates, almonds (if using) and the maple syrup in the slow cooker and cook on high setting for 3 hours.

2. Stir the mixture occasionally to help with the consistency.

3. After three hours you should have a fragrant, sticky and colorful medley.

4. Remove the whole spices and save the chutney in a clear jar and use as needed to perk up your meal.

Classic Cucumber Raita With Mint

Omnipresent on the summer table and year-round in India, this is the more traditional version of raita. I sometimes add dill instead of — or alongside — the mint and serve this as the perfect pair to salmon.

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this  Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Omnipresent on Indian tables in the summer and all year round, this Cucumber and Mint Raita is perfect with almost any dish. Try it with dill to mix things up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 25 minutes, plus 1 hour for chilling if you prefer the raita chilled

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 medium-sized English or Persian cucumbers (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 1/2 cups of day-old natural yogurt

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1/2 teaspoon black or Himalayan salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cayenne pepper (optional)

Directions

1. Peel the cucumbers.

2. Grate about three-quarters of the cucumbers and finely chop the rest, keeping the chopped cucumbers separated from the grated cucumbers.

3. Place the grated cucumbers in a mixing bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, add the yogurt and beat well.

5. Mince the mint leaves and add to the yogurt.

6. Add the black salt, cumin, black pepper and sugar and beat well. Gently fold in the grated cucumbers.

7. Top with diced cucumbers and sprinkle with cayenne.

8. Chill up to an hour or serve immediately.
Main photo: The heat of the chilies in this Chili Peanut Relish is nicely balanced by the creamy, crunchy peanuts. This quick dish — you can make it in about 10 minutes — is delicious with fish and vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2014 Rinku Bhattacharya

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My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna - egg curry - as a picnic treat for Bengali's New Year. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.

Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise

It’s only appropriate to go all out, food-wise, on naba barsha, as Bengalis call the holiday. Food in Bengali is synonymous with all events and happenings. But for festivals like the one for the new year, Bengalis go the whole nine yards on the dinner table.

People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.

A new year ahead, with taxes behind us

Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.

So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.

Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.

The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.

This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.

Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well

The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.

This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.

Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.

This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.

This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.

This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.

Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes

Total time: 65 to 70 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons oil

3 medium-sized onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated ginger

2 to 3 cardamoms

2 medium-sized tomatoes

1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste

8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Chopped cilantro to garnish

Directions

1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.

2. Add in the ginger and stir well.

3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.

4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.

5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.

6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice with Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.

For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.

Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.

Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.

Winging it runs in the family

There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.

That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.

There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.

Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors

We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.

Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.

At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.

I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.

My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.

My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.

So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.

You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.

Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the pilaf:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat

3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)

1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken

2 cups water

For the garnish:

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.

2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.

3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.

4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.

5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.

Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.

 Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya

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Pongal is a typical Indian food made with rice.

There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.

These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.

Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.

Overflowing with good tidings

This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.

There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.

These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.

Venpongal

Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup mung dal

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

1 cup whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)

1/8 teaspoon asafoetida

A few curry leaves

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ghee

1/2 cup mung dal

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery

2 cups whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

1/2 cup coconut milk

10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 tablespoon raisins

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.

 Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery — an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

All around the world trees are adorned with lights, candles and lamps are displayed in windows, strings of paper lanterns are cut into intricate patterns. Christmas is one of the many holidays that celebrate the return of light to the world at the time of the winter solstice.

Along the Silk Road, the largest number of Christians in any country is in predominantly Hindu India. There are around 35 million Christians in India, with those of Catholic faith comprising slightly less than half of that total number. That’s  a few million less than the population of California; and five times as many Christians live in India than in Christian Georgia and Armenia combined.

In a country of almost 1 billion Hindus and 140 million Muslims, Christians are still a minority in India. In some urban areas such as Chennai and Kerala, though, there are large Christian communities who have beautiful and distinct ways of celebrating the holiday that blend Christian religious practice and iconography with Indian material culture.

Celebrations often begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the New Year. Families gather on Christmas Eve for processions through the streets to churches decorated with the bold crimson foliage of poinsettias in bloom for a midnight Mass to begin the holiday season. People worship as choirs sing traditional religious and secular songs. In some parishes, fireworks are lit after services and people dance, feast and exchange presents well into one of the longest nights of the year.

Decorated trees

Other familiar traditions get a uniquely Indian twist on the subcontinent and Nativity scenes are displayed in Christian homes. Banana and mango trees are decorated with lights and oil lamps are placed on roofs and walls to declare the return of the light, as is also done for Hindu India’s Diwali festival.

Most startling and magical are the strings of star-shaped paper lanterns that are hung from rooftop to rooftop and in front of Christian-owned shops and restaurants, symbolically to light the way of all people. Caroling takes place in Christian communities and in most urban melting pots, as crowds of people gather to walk through the streets and make a joyous noise to celebrate their faith.

Christianity’s roots run deep in India. According to Indian Christian traditions, the apostle Thomas arrived in Kerala in the mid-first century A.D., and began preaching across the region and into Tamil Nadu. From this humble beginning, Christianity spread steadily across India, and by the time of the Sassanid Empire in A.D. 226, there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan. The first Catholic bishop of India was ordained in the early 14th century, and in the 15th century, as the Portuguese colonists along the Malabar Coast continued the spread of the faith.

Indian garland

Garland of stars. Credit: Nikhil Gangavane – Dreamstime

Christmas Day is a national holiday in India, and the day off from work and official duties often prompts people of other faiths to have large family dinners at this time as well. So, even if they make up a small portion of India’s population, Christians have freedom to worship and celebrate this season that is both known and in some secular ways shared by their brothers and sisters of other creeds.

Families prepare for weeks or sometimes months for the coming of Christmas and homes are cleaned, repaired and whitewashed. That ever-earlier harbinger of the Christmas season in the West — shopping — also takes place in India as people shop for new clothes to wear to festivities and buy presents for loved ones. For women and girls the holiday also includes preparing special foods — particularly desserts and cakes to share with  visitors and cooking can begin long in advance of the holiday.

Cookies and sweets

There are no dishes that are unique to the Christmas season in India, but the most elaborate and expensive dishes are usually prepared. Savory dishes include layered biryanis, especially Mughlai biryani, with its large complement of meat, nuts and spices. Other savory dishes include mutton or lamb curries and roasted and stuffed duck or other fowl.

Trays of cookies and sweets are present in every home and some sweets, such as naan khatai, kulkuls and various burfis are usually served. Traditional dishes vary a great deal by region; for example, the pork curry, sorpatel and the layered sweet with coconut milk, egg and sugar called bebinca are sure to be served in Goa, whereas in West Bengal, a prawn and coconut curry such as Bhapa Chingri is a likely savory dish. As for sweets in Kolkata and surrounding areas, one is likely to be served cheese balls in sweetened rosewater or rasgulla, or a rice pudding called a kheer.

 To partake in these sometimes week-long feasts, students return home for the holidays and adults living away from their place of birth often return to visit their parents to celebrate. Above all, it is a time for peace and well-being within families and communities. Christian or not, the solstice season is about the return of the sun and victory of light over darkness for us all.

Indian sweets

Indian sweets. Credit: Sunil Lal – Dreamstime

Cardamom and Pistachio Cookies (Naan Khatai)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup semolina
1 cup butter or ghee (softened)
1/2 to 3/4 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 10 cardamom pods, ground
Shelled, pistachios or almonds (halved or slivered for decoration)
2 to 4 tablespoons mixed ground pistachios mixed with a pinch or two more of ground cardamom.

Directions

Preheat oven to 325 F. Sift the flour and semolina together. Then whisk the butter or ghee in bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients until creamy. Add the sugar, salt and ground cardamom to the ghee and mix well till all the sugar is dissolved. Then add flour and semolina a bit at a time until the dough is smooth.

If it is hot and humid in your area, you may wish to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes before shaping and decorating the cookies. Roll the dough into balls about 1-inch across. Flatten the balls, and place on a greased or sprayed cookie sheet, leaving space between the cookies for them to expand when they cook.

Place some pistachios or almonds on the center of each cookie and press lightly. Now take a pinch or two of ground nuts and cardamom and sprinkle over the cookies. (Don’t overdo this step, the flavor is supposed to be light.) Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they just start to color. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.

Note: There are many variations in recipes for naan khatai throughout the subcontinent and into western Asia. Some use a bit of nutmeg, others a dash of cinnamon. Some recipes substitute corn oil in the place of clarified butter or ghee. Also, if you don’t like or don’t have pistachios on hand, the recipe works well with almonds or hazelnuts or really any nut of your choice.

Main photo: Elephant Christmas tree. Credit: Eti Swinford-Dreamstime

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Thse apple malpoas, crisp fried pancakes , offer an Indian twist to latkes served for Hanukkah. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

If celebration food is the determining factor, Hanukkah has to be one of my all-time favorite holidays. I have yet to meet a fried food I didn’t love, and the ever-popular latke calls my name, especially on nippy days like these.

Offer me a holiday that offers a reason to indulge in crispy potato pancakes and doughnuts, and my food fantasy is complete.

Over the years, I have had a few latke recipes that I have created, like this loaded variety or another with a blend of harvest roots. Depending on the meal, I pair them with foods throughout the year.

Last year, however, I actually set out to explore Indian foods that might work on a Hanukkah table for a guest who was visiting. Hiam, a young Jewish man and an intern working with my husband, stayed with us for a couple of weeks at a time that happened to coincide with Hanukkah.

His father, he told me, was born of half-Indian descent in what is now Mumbai in India, and had later moved on to various places before finally setting here in the United States. He had told Hiam many stories of India, leaving his son with a romantic view of the country and a deep wish to visit it one day. On my table, Hiam was hoping to find foods that would take him a little closer to his goal.

He wanted to celebrate Hanukkah with some foods that would be symbolic of the holiday and Indian in character. He mentioned to me that his family often enjoyed Indian lentils, or dal, with pita bread, and his father had a recipe for curried cauliflower, so his request was to sample something beyond that.

A Jewish community in India?

India has a small but long-established Jewish community in parts of eastern, western and southern India, so finding Jewish cuisine in India is not such a foreign concept. Nahoum and Sons, located in the center of Kolkata’s historic New Market, is a well-established and third-generation bakery of Jewish heritage. It still carries confectionery that represents traditional family recipes and unique savories.

I scoured through some heritage cookbooks, to grant Hiam his wish. Certain recipes, such as a roasted chicken and a potato creation called Chicken Makallah, or the stuffed creations called dolmas, have likely found their way onto Indian tables by way of Jewish influence.

None of these seemed to fit the Hanukkah bill of celebrating fried foods.

Fashioning a latke out of tried-and-true Indian food

So I was back to creating a festive meal from my tested and tried staples. The Indians love their lentil fritters called vadas or chickpea batter coated fritters called pakoras. These provide loads of options for the seeker of fried indulgences. I scoped out my two favorite recipes that are perfect for any celebration and well-suited for those looking for easy and unusual festive recipes.

The first recipe is for a traditional crisp pancake called malpoa, which actually offers you something in between a doughnut and a crepe. I like to top the malpoa with seasonal fruit, and this variation has an apple and pistachio topping. It is important to serve these hot. The syrup can be made ahead if you wish and brought to room temperature.

The second recipe is a classic Bengali onion fritter that I make as onion rings, as this rendition works best with my children. The distinct element of this recipe is the addition of nigella seeds, which add a unique flavor and pretty speckled appearance to the rings. These onion fritters are a well-loved roadside food in Bengal — hot and crisply fried, wrapped lovingly in newspaper bags.

Apple Malpoa – Indian Pancakes with a Cardamom, Apple Pistachio Topping

(Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” Hippocrene, 2012)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 15 medium-sized (5-inch) pancakes

Ingredients

For the syrup:

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

For the apple pistachio topping:

2 honeycrisp apples, diced, skin on

1/2 cup crushed pistachios (pecans can be used, if desired)

1/2 teaspoon crushed cardamom

1/3 cup coconut milk

For the pancakes:

3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 to 2 whole black peppercorns

2 cups commercial evaporated milk (about 2 large cans)

1/3 cup ricotta cheese

1 1/2 tablespoons semolina

3/4 cup all-purpose flour (enough to bind the batter)

Oil for frying

Directions

1. To prepare the syrup, place the water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and cook on medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes until it reaches a consistency thick enough to lightly coat the pancake when soaked.

2. To prepare the apple-pistachio topping, preheat the oven to 375 F.

3. Lightly toss the apples, pistachios, cardamom and coconut milk.

4. Bake for about 15 minutes.

5. To prepare the pancakes, dry roast the fennel seeds, cardamom seeds and whole peppercorns for a few minutes.

6. Grind the roasted spices to a coarse powder.

7. Blend the evaporated milk, ricotta cheese, semolina, and flour until a smooth batter is formed. The batter should be slightly thicker than buttermilk.

8. Stir in the roasted spices.

9. Heat some oil in a skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of the batter for each pancake and spread slightly. When browned on one side, turn over and brown on the other side.

10. Remove from pan and place into the syrup and let soak for 5 minutes. Serve warm, topped with a small amount of the apple, allowing 2 pancakes per serving.

 

 

Bengali Onion Rings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Bengali Onion Rings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Onion Rings with Nigella Seeds – Gol Piyaji

(Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

4 medium onions, tops removed and peeled

3/4 cup chickpea flour

1/2 cup water

3/4 teaspoon nigella seeds

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

1 teaspoon black salt

Oil for frying

Cilantro to garnish, optional

Directions

1. Cut the onions into 1/2-inch-thick rounds and separate into rings.

2. Mix the chickpea flour and 1/2 cup of water into a thick batter; the consistency should coat easily. Stir in the nigella seeds, cayenne pepper powder, and black salt; mix well.

3. Heat some oil in a wok or deep skillet until hot enough for frying.

4. Dip each onion ring in the batter and fry until crisp. You may fry 3 or 4 rings at a time, depending on the size of the wok or skillet. It is important not to have the rings touch each other while cooking. Remove rings from the oil and drain on paper towels before serving.

Main photo: These apple malpoas, crisp fried pancakes, offer an Indian twist to latkes served for Hanukkah. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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