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The Call of the Kitchen

By Mandira Banerjee Email By Mandira Banerjee
March 2008
The Call of the Kitchen

Bunches of cilantro, coconut aviyal, whole heads of garlic, shrimp balchao bruschettas, handfuls of aromatics sizzling in the pan, dals, chaat, cloves, chilies, saffron, and eggplant bhartas. These multiflavored, multihued words provide just a glimpse into the world of Indian cookbooks and blogs, which generate wide interest and often feature traditional and innovative cuisines from various parts of India. Sure, with innumerable blogs and about 6,000 cookbooks published every year, it’s difficult to focus on all that’s out there, but certain titles do stand out from the crowd. Not only do they do a great job of highlighting India’s regional cuisines, they’re also gradually introducing mainstream Americans to the convenience of cooking Indian food in their households.

Suvir Saran is an experienced restaurateur and cookbook author, whose new book, American Masala, has generated a lot of positive feedback. He says that with his cookbooks, including the earlier Indian Home Cooking, he hopes to reach food lovers who are somewhat nervous about preparing Indian dishes at home. He wants to “open their homes, hearts, and tables to the magic and flavor of India, one spice at a time.”

The same desire inspired Pushpa Bhargava to write From Mom with Love. She came to the United States in the ‘70s and raised her children here. Cooking, in general, was no problem for her grown children, but they shied away from making Indian food. “They claimed it was too complicated and labor intensive,” she says. “It is with that in mind that I put together From Mom with Love, which provides the ABC’s of Indian cooking to those who have never cooked it before.”

So how did the journey begin for these experienced food authors? Several hadn’t touched pots and pans, let alone make Indian dishes, before coming to States as young people. Niloufer Ichaporia King, an anthropologist who wrote My Bombay Kitchen, began cooking on a daily basis only after getting married and coming here. She recalls, “I began to cook for others as a way of supplementing a graduate student’s stipend, doing something I loved, completely self-taught by reading and as much exposure to as many styles of cooking as could be managed at the time.” Ammini Ramachandran, author of Greens, Grains and Grated Coconuts, also came here after marriage. And she continued to rely on her mother, who was in India halfway around the world. “When I came to the U.S. in the 1970s, there were no Indian grocery stores in Rhode Island,” Ramachandran explains. “The closest one was in New York City, some two hundred miles away. Being a vegetarian, I had to learn to cook in a hurry if I wanted to eat Indian dishes. My mother’s weekly letters always contained a couple of recipes.”

Indira Singari, author of the popular blog Mahanandi, also learnt cooking from her mother while growing up in India. But it was her in-laws who helped her see cooking in a completely new light. “Intelligent, health-conscious and open, this charming couple certainly played a major role in how I perceive food and contributed to expand my culinary palate,” she says. Singari experiments with new ingredients and features traditional Andhra recipes on her blog, which has had more than a million visitors in a short span. For Suvir Saran, who came to America to pursue his education in graphic design, it was sheer frustration with the Indian food being served in New York restaurants that led him to the kitchen. He started serving Indian food based on recipes from his mother and Panditji, his family chef. Soon he was catering food out of his apartment. “This world consumed me and became a career that was a way of life, rather than a mere profession,” says this owner of Devi, a well-regarded restaurant in Manhattan.

Several of these cookbooks and blogs encourage readers to try the recipes at home. From complicated biryani to simple raita, from fresh salads to delicious vegetable curries, these recipes cover a range of dishes. There are detailed procedures, pictures, comments, even debates. In the process, they dispel the notion that it is hard to cook Indian food. It’s a sentiment that Nupur Kittur, who blogs at One Hot Stove, shares and is eager to convey to her readers. Kittur has hosted events like ‘A-Z of Marathi Cooking’ on her blog to promote regional cuisines. “Many non-Indians think that Indian food begins and ends with oily and spicy curries,” she says. “I would love for them to get a sense of Indian home cooking and see how different it is from what you might find in a typical Indian restaurant.”

It is the same thought that led Ramachandran to write her cookbook on Keralan cuisine. Realizing that people usually associate Kerala with non-vegetarian recipes, she decided to introduce readers to her state’s vast vegetarian options, which, except for a few choice dishes like the aviyal, remain largely unknown even in other parts of India. “Most of our vegetarian recipes were passed down to the next generation in an oral tradition,” she points out. “This book is an attempt to document them before they are lost forever.” Her self-published book has generated rave reviews in newspapers and magazines. Anne Mendelson of The New York Times wrote: “The purpose of this modest no-frills book is to place a region, its history, and its family and cultural heritages into a coherent context for understanding food.”

Regional flavors

For many of these authors, their books are a result of long meticulous research on a specific regional cuisine. Ichaporia King’s work, an exposition of Parsi food, is seen through the lens of one particular family over three generations. Bhargava’s From Mom with Love showcases recipes from various states. Talking about the motivation to write a cookbook on regional cuisine, Ichaporia King points out that it was partly triggered by her mother’s 90th birthday, which she wanted to honor. For Ramachandran, her book is a culmination of a long journey that began soon after September 11, 2001. “I decided to take early retirement from my career as a financial analyst and concentrate on writing about Kerala’s food and culture. Slowly my family journal evolved into a website, Peppertrail.com, and then into this book.”

When asked why she highlights Andhra recipes on her blog, Singari puts it succinctly: “One may be fluent in several languages, but when it's contemplation time, the mother tongue—the language of home—always wins. I may be familiar with many cuisines, but I speak and cook my family's cuisine.”

Among the varied reasons offered for focusing on regional cuisines, the ease of making—not to mention the pleasure of tasting—home-cooked food ranks high. Monica Bhide, an experienced food writer, notes that her third cookbook, to be released in 2009 by Simon & Schuster, will make Indian cuisine accessible to working adults pressed for time. Saran, too, documents in American Masala the many shortcuts employed in his restaurant’s kitchen. “My friends are often amazed at how frequently I entertain a dozen (or more) people in my tiny one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.” He adds, “With no formal dining room to speak of, and a cooking space that most non-New Yorkers would consider a closet, they are shocked when they witness and taste the breadth and variety of dishes that parade out from the kitchen.”

It’s the amenities and gadgets present in a typical American home, the authors note, that make these time-saving measures possible. The easy availability of substitutes for certain hard-to-get ingredients is also a big help. “Sometimes I cook dishes in the microwave oven that were traditionally cooked on a wood-burning stove in my mother’s kitchen. I grate coconut in food processors and grind batters in electric grinders. Maybe the end products are not always truly authentic in every sense of the word, but they are very close,” says Ramachandran.

Bloggers and authors are also incorporating American cooking styles and preferences in their recipes. When asked about her inspirations, Ichaporia King says, “The very context of an American kitchen and its equipment will influence the way a dish is cooked. For example, I render the fat from American chicken thighs in a cast-iron skillet instead of proceeding in the usual Indian sequence of browning onions, and then the meat, before adding liquid. And being salad lovers, we work a salad into every dinner menu, Indian or otherwise.”

Saran, whose restaurant serves pan-Indian food with much success, notes, “To me, American cuisine represents a culture of food that blends spices, techniques, and ingredients from different parts of the globe to become something fresh and exciting, yet comforting and homey. It’s a melting pot of fast-paced and slow-cooked, of convenience and tradition. It’s about being free to play with new flavors and ideas.” And he does it, one might add, with great élan. Mark Bittman, food critic at The New York Times, writes that he has cooked Saran’s recipes from his cookbooks many times with perfect results and would recommend it to anyone.

Given that these cookbooks, published in the States, cater to a predominantly American audience, the following question seems inevitable: Are non-Indians prepared to taste regional cuisine and cook it at home? The unanimous answer from bloggers and cookbook authors seems to be a resounding yes. “If I can make any of these dishes, anyone, anywhere can do that,” declares Saran, “with or without any prior knowledge of Indian cuisine.”

There is rising curiosity in spices and natural ingredients, too, and some cookbooks cater to that interest. Bhargava’s From Mom with Love, for instance, has a section on herbal remedies. “The spices used in Indian cuisine are a balance of taste and preventative medicine,” she points out. Bhide adds, “Indian food, spices, and drinks are hot right now so it is up to us to make sure we make the best use of the opportunity and continue to grow and nurture it.”

Apart from the greater awareness of regional diversity, according to Ramachandran, the growth of vegetarianism in America is a good harbinger of future prospects for Indian cuisine. “Indian restaurants don’t need to ‘cook down’ to some lowest common denominator, and it’s a mistake to underestimate either the interest or the sophistication of the eating public,” says Ichaporia King, adding that America has grown from being a nation of bland food lovers to one that embraces pungent flavors and culinary adventures. As examples of this sophistication, Bhide points to the popular, regionally diverse Indian restaurants in the New York and Washington, D.C. metro areas.

Not everyone is so optimistic, though, about the future of Indian cuisine in mainstream America. Both Singari and Saran share the concern that regional flavors and subtleties tend to get lost in chains that masquerade as authentic Indian restaurants. However, adds Saran, “If we can each do our part to keep our cuisine fresh, accessible, simple, real, and what mom and grandma prepared in India, we will find our cuisine become a sustainable trend that shall inspire many future generations.”

Spices, spices, everywhere

The wide availability of ingredients in Indian, specialty, and even mainstream grocery stores has helped build the momentum for Indian cuisine. And almost every month there is a new Indian food blog, spreading the good word and sharing recipes from homes and kitchens across the world. “Food blogs have definitely increased the visibility of Indian cuisine on the Internet,” says Ramachandran. “Indian ingredients and recipes are certainly more accessible these days. Even if people don’t actually cook, this visibility will encourage people to try them at restaurants.”

Ichaporia King agrees that increasing familiarity brings comfort. “For instance, in New York City, I have seen Americans enjoying everything from idlis and dosas in an Udipi restaurant, to traditional Gujarati thalis, chaats, and street food like kati rolls. It is only a matter of time before regional cuisines start gaining popularity in all parts of this country. And I know for sure that my non-Indian friends relish all the regional Indian food that I serve them at home.”

With such innovative, enthusiastic food ambassadors, the future for Indian regional cuisines in this country looks not just secure but also bright. Saran adds, “Like music, if our cuisine has to keep some of its past magic, one has to find a way of documenting these treasures without robbing them of their glory, and yet be fastidious in the detailed presentation of the instructions, ingredients, and visual documentation.” Fortunately, not just a few Indian cookbook authors, chefs, bloggers, and other enthusiasts share that noble goal. Bon appetit!

Mori Dar

Recipe from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King

Mori Dar, plain dal, lies at the very heart and soul of Parsi cooking. It is so transparently simple, yet so delicious, suitable for anyone of any age from anywhere.

To serve 6

Ingredients:

1 cup masoor dal (red lentils), tuvar/tur/arhar dal (husked split pigeon peas) or mung dal

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Optional: 1 onion, quartered

Optional: 1 green chilli

1 to 2 tablespoons ghee or butter

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 to 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Optional: 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot

Method:

Pick over the dal to remove stones and chaff. Wash the dal and put in a pot with the turmeric, the onion and chilli, if using, ( my mother didn’t approve of anything but dal and turmeric) and at least 4 cups water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer, partly covered, until dal is tender. Watch out for over-boiling, even with the heat down. It’s no big disaster but it makes an awful-looking mess. Masoor dal and mung dal soften in about half the time it takes to cook tuvar dal, which needs a good 45 minutes to 1 hour.

When the dal is tender, pass through a sieve or a food mill, or liquefy in a food processor or with an immersion blender, which saves you the trouble of pouring and transferring. The texture should be thick, smooth, and pourable. Dal to serve with rice should be thick. If you want it as a soup, it can be thinned with water or stock to a consistency you like.

To finish, heat the ghee or butter. Sizzle the seeds and garlic until the garlic begins to brown around the edges and the seeds start to crackle. Don’t look away for a second. The sizzling seeds and garlic are known as vaghar in Gujarati, tarka in Hindi. Tip the vaghar into the dal and serve.

Aviyal (Mixed Vegetable Medley in Coconut Cumin Sauce)

Recipe from Grains, Greens and Grated Coconut by Ammini Ramachandran

Aviyal is one recipe that captures the spirit of Kerala. A tangy, full-flavored dish, it is a medley of vegetables cooked with coarsely-pureed fresh coconut, cumin, green chili peppers, and yogurt and seasoned with curry leaves and a liberal drizzling of coconut oil. Like most scrumptious Kerala recipes, the flavors are robust but not heavy-handed, and the ingredients mix perfectly, melding without any one flavor standing out.

Traditionally, ash gourd, snake gourd, yellow cucumbers, green plantains, string beans, telinga potatoes (suran), and drumsticks (Moringa oleifera) are used in the preparation of aviyal. In the United States, green plantains are available in Latin American grocery stores and sometimes even at American supermarkets. Long string beans, ash gourd, snake gourd, yellow cucumbers, drumsticks (fresh, frozen, and canned), and telinga potatoes (suran or zimikand) are available in Indian food stores, and ash gourd (with light green skin and white flesh) is readily available at Chinese markets. Although not traditional, zucchini, carrots, butternut squash, green beans, and potatoes also may be used in this curry. The idea is to use as many vegetables as possible. This is one dish that definitely needs curry leaves. Curry leaves, fresh coconut, and coconut oil give aviyal its authentic flavor.

Makes 4 to 6 servings if served with another curry, as is traditional.

Ingredients:

1 green plantain

2 medium-sized carrots

1 zucchini

1 medium-sized potato

1 cup ash gourd pieces

8 pieces of drumstick*

1 cup telinga potato pieces*

1⁄4 pound green beans or string beans

Salt to taste

1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric powder

11⁄2 cups plain yogurt

3 cups grated fresh coconut

4 to 5 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai) (less for a milder taste)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

For seasoning and garnish:

3 tablespoons coconut oil

12 to 15 fresh curry leaves

Method:

Peel and cut the plantains, carrots, zucchini, potato, ash gourd, drumstick, and telinga potato into pieces 2 1⁄2 to 3 inches long (approximately the size of thick French fries). Cut the green beans or string beans into pieces of about the same size. Place the vegetables in a colander and wash them under running water, and drain. Place the cut potatoes, carrots, drumsticks, telinga potato, and beans in a heavy saucepan, and add just enough water to cover. Sprinkle with salt and turmeric and cook over medium heat.

When they are partly cooked, add the remaining vegetable pieces and combine. Cook for five to six minutes, until all the vegetables are cooked; add a couple of tablespoons of water if necessary.

Stir the yogurt with a tablespoon and pour it over the cooked vegetables. Simmer for three to five minutes. Grind the coconut, green chilies, and cumin seeds with just enough water to make a coarse, thick purée. Remove the purée from the blender, and stir it into the cooked vegetables. Simmer gently for five minutes over low heat (to prevent the yogurt from curdling). Remove from the stove and garnish with coconut oil and fresh curry leaves. Cover and set aside for ten minutes, to allow flavors to blend. Serve with plain boiled rice.

*Both frozen and canned drumsticks and telinga potatoes (labeled suran) are available at Indian grocery stores. If using the canned vegetables, first drain them, wash them under running water, and drain them again. After cooking the fresh vegetables, add them along with the ground coconut purée and mix.

Shrimp Balchao Bruschetta

Recipe from American Masala: 125 New Classics From My Home Kitchen and Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran

Serves 8

Portugal once governed Goa, and like many Goan recipes, this one is heavily influenced by Portuguese ingredients like vinegar and bread. The cayenne pepper and dried red chili peppers are optional—completely omit them if you prefer a milder flavor, or, for a truly authentic Goan taste, add more. Shrimp Balchao is extra indulgent on buttered brioche toasts. For a passed hors d’oeuvres, chop the shrimp into bite-sized pieces. For a main course, forget the bread and serve the shrimp with rice.

Ingredients:

For the shrimp

1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

Juice of 1 lemon or lime

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

For the sauce

1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons canola oil

12 curry leaves, roughly torn

3 to 6 dried red chilis (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon cracked peppercorns

2 red onions, chopped

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups boxed or canned chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 slices of bread, preferably brioche, brushed with melted butter, toasted, and sliced diagonally into 8 pieces

Method:

Place the shrimp in a resealable gallon-sized plastic bag. Add the lemon or lime juice, salt, pepper and cayenne, shake to incorporate and refrigerate while you prepare the sauce.

Place the water next to your stovetop. Heat the canola oil, curry leaves, chilis (if using), cumin seeds and cracked pepper in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until the cumin browns, about 2 minutes. Add the onions and salt and cook until they’re browned and sticky, 7 to 10 minutes. When the onions start sticking to the bottom of the pan, splash with water and stir and scrape up. Stir in the sugar and vinegar and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook until the texture of the sauce is thick and jammy, about 4 minutes. Add the butter and once melted, add the shrimp, cooking until curled and opaque, 2 to 4 minutes. Place 3 or 4 shrimp on each toast, spoon some sauce over the top and serve.

RECOMMENDED READING: BOOKS & BLOGS

Rather than being exhaustive, these lists are meant as a guide for further exploration.

Books:

Eating India: An Odyssey Into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices by Chitrita Banerji, 2008, Bloomsbury.

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey, 2007, Vintage.

American Masala: 125 New Classics from My Home Kitchen by Suvir Saran, 2007, Clarkson Potter.

Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji, 1997, Serif Publishing.

My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking by Niloufer Ichaporia King, 2007, University of California Press.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey, 2002, Clarkson Potter.

Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts by Ammini Ramachandran, 2007, iUniverse.

Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, 1980, William Morrow.

The Joys of Vegetarian Cooking by Tarla Dalal, 1983, Vakils Feffer & Simons.

The Spice is Right: Easy Indian Cooking for Today by Monica Bhide, 2001, Callawind Publications.

Chilis to Chutneys: American Home Cooking With the Flavors of India by Neelam Batra, 1998, William Morrrow.

From Mom with Love by Pushpa Bhargava, 2007, Crest Books.

Blogs:

Mahanandi by Indira Singari (nandyala.org/mahanandi)

One Hot Stove by Nupur Kittur (onehotstove.blogspot.com)

Sailu’s Kitchen by Sailaja (sailusfood.com)

Out of the Garden by Linda (outofthegarden.wordpress.com)

Foodie’s Hope by Asha (foodieshope.blogspot.com)

Malabar Spices by Shaheen (malluspice.blogspot.com)

Sunita’s World by Sunita (sunitabhuyan.blogspot.com)

A Mad Tea Party by Anita (madteaparty.wordpress.com)

What’s for Lunch, Honey? by Meeta (whatsforlunchhoney.blogspot.com)

And lastly, a plug for my own food blog Ahaar (ahaar.blogspot.com)


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