If two decades ago someone had asked Laxmi Hiremath if she wanted to become a gourmet cook, she would have just laughed. A food writer? Not a chance. How about an entrepreneur? Are you kidding?
Now she is all three.
But when she came to Columbus, Ohio, 20 odd years ago from India, she admits she didn’t know anything about cooking. And her husband had to suffer through charred chapattis and odd-tasting vegetable dishes. Now Hiremath’s second cookbook, The Dance of Spices, has just been published and her spicy nuts are sold at over 200 upscale grocery stores.
And it’s all due to some cabbage rolls.
While living in Columbus, she noticed a call for cabbage-roll recipes in the local Columbus Dispatch. “I handwrote it and sent in my recipe,” she remembers. “At that time I didn’t even know how to write a recipe properly.” She wrote the recipes like she remembered from old issues of Femina and Eve’s Weekly—the ingredients listed somewhat haphazardly. But Hiremath’s cabbage roll stuffed with potato caught the editor’s eye among the smorgasbord of beef- or chicken-stuffed cabbages. The recipe was published and soon she had some 200 recipes published in the paper.
Once she moved to the Bay Area, Hiremath pitched a column to India Currents, where it went from half a page to a full page. Meanwhile, her recipes were appearing in the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. Readers started clamoring for a book and Hiremath became more serious as a food writer.
But all along her guiding principle remained the same. “I was trying to replicate what I had learned in my mother’s kitchen. She was my standard of excellence,” Hiremath says. “I just pictured her standing next to me. She was my role model.”
At the same time, with the plethora of Indian cookbooks out there, Hiremath knew she had to do something that would make The Dance of Spices distinctive. She decided that she would devote entire chapters to tandoori and chaat, both of which have become increasingly familiar to Western audiences. In fact, chaat recipes were a special request from her editor. Now readers can make Bhel Puri, and Pani Puri, as well as more unusual treats like Papaya-Kiwi Chaat with Pistachios, or Tandoori Turkey with Pomegranate Juice.
Items like that have made some readers ask her if this is eclectic cooking. “Not at all,” stresses Hiremath. “This is classic Indian cooking from different regions of India.” Of course, America does influence the classics. Take Kandahar Chicken Kofta in Ruby-Red Grapefruit Juice. Traditionally that would have been done with pomegranate juice but once, when Hiremath didn’t have any at home, she substituted grapefruit juice and loved the results. She says the milder taste of grapefruit meant she didn’t pair it with the bold flavors of garam masala as she would have done with the pomegranate juice. But with a touch of cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg her grapefruit Kandahari Kofta was so delicious she discarded the original pomegranate chicken recipe.
Of course, while cooking might result in serendipitous culinary accidents, writing a cookbook is a much more labor-intensive, painstaking task involving book proposals and measuring spoons. She knew many Americans love Indian food but think the list of ingredients is dauntingly long. “I tell them it’s not so. With the five Cs—cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, and coriander—you can go a long way,” says Hiremath. To add to the challenges, Hiremath is vegetarian. Her husband and kids are the guinea pigs when it comes to the lamb, chicken, and fish dishes. “I have a critical audience at home who give honest opinions. So it’s not a problem that I don’t eat meat,” she says.
She prepares each recipe just as her mother and aunts would in India. Then she goes back with a measuring spoon so that what her mother does by intuition, an American reader can do with pre-calculated confidence.
Nowadays, luckily for Hiremath, the growing popularity of Indian food has meant ingredients are not hard to come by. She remembers when she first moved to Columbus there was only one Indian grocery store. “A few sprigs of cilantro cost $1.50,” she chuckles. Now even in the Midwest, people are interested in Indian cooking. Her first radio interview was in Kansas City on a classical jazz station. There they even put on Ravi Shankar to create the proper ambience. “It’s not about just the coasts anymore,” says Hiremath.
For Hiremath, the greatest high in cooking comes from the people who eat her recipes. She remembers one admirer telling her that after trying her cauliflower and broccoli recipes, he could tell his father proudly that he now ate the much-maligned broccoli. She hasn’t sent her Broccoli Cauliflower Mangalore Curry to former President Bush Sr. but she says she learned that even the least popular of vegetables can be transformed by the right spices. “People look down on the rutabaga but I treat it with the same admiration as truffles,” she says. Probably even more. I don’t know if truffle kootu would taste as good as her Rutabaga Kootu.
With vegetables like rutabaga and brussel sprouts, Hiremath is giving her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes a modern twist. Her book includes both Grandma’s Tamarind Laced Potato Curry as well something her grandmother in India probably wouldn’t ever have thought of—which white wines go with Indian food. Or warm mango soup, which, Hiremath says, was inspired by lassi but is perfect for a chilly winter night rather than a hot midsummer afternoon.
Her parents are a little bemused by her culinary success. They are proud of her but her dad remembers how when he would suggest she learn something in the kitchen, she would only make brief forays and wander off to do oil paintings instead. At that time her mother had said, “Time will come, she will learn.”
That time is now. Now when Hiremath goes to India she banishes her mother from the kitchen one day and cooks for her, especially those innovative recipes like warm mango soup. And then she can be her mother’s daughter again and enjoy the childhood favorites only a mother can make, like puran polis. The difference is, this time she’s not just savoring the taste. She’s writing down the recipe as well.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.
Papaya-Kiwi Chaat with Pistachios
Serve this as a first course, as a light salad or over toasted minibagels, or crackers for a delectable and novel hors d’oeuvre. In summer, use a mélange of seasonal fruits to make this mixed spicy fruit chaat and offer it as a cool side dish. Instead of the chaat masala you can also use toasted ground cumin seeds with salt to taste.
Makes 8 appetizer servings
2½ cups peeled and diced (¾ inch) firm-ripe papaya
2½ cups peeled and diced (¾ inch) firm-ripe kiwi
½ cup finely chopped red onion
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 or 2 fresh green serrano or jalapeno chilis, stemmed and slivered
½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted pistachios or almonds
1 to 2 teaspoons chaat masala store bought
1/3 cup thin chickpea flour noodles (sev)
1. In a wide serving bowl, combine the papaya, kiwi, onion, mint, and chilis and mix well. At this stage, you may cover and chill for up to 2 hours.
2. Gently stir in the orange and lime juices. Cover and let stand at cool room temperature for about 10 minutes to let the flavors blend.
3. Just before serving, fold in the nuts and sprinkle with the chaat masala. Divide the mixture onto serving plates, sprinkle chickpea flour noodles, and serve immediately.
RUTABAGA IN SILKEN YOGURT
Rutabaga is not available in India, but I was pleasantly surprised when I first tried preparing it using this southern technique. I introduced it to some of my cooking students. Though it sounded unappealing to some, when they tried it, the students were amazed. One of them quipped, “It makes me look at the lowly rutabaga with the same admiration I usually save for truffles or heirloom tomatoes.” Once you make this recipe, I’m sure you too will be hooked.
Serves 4 as a side dish
1¼ pounds (4 medium) rutabagas
½ cup plain yogurt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon yellow or brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly grated coconut or defrosted frozen unsweetened coconut, for garnish
1. Wash and cut the ends of the rutabagas. Peel and cut into ½–inch dice. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the yogurt and toss well. Set aside to marinate at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Have a spatter screen ready before you continue. Heat the oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds, immediately cover with the spatter screen, and cook until the seeds stop popping, about 30 seconds. Add the turmeric and cayenne and stir for a few seconds until fragrant. Add the water and salt, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the rutabaga along with the marinating yogurt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rutabagas are tender and sauce thickens to the consistency of ketchup, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a heated serving dish. Garnish with coconut and serve.
Make Ahead—This dish can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 5 days. Rewarm over low heat.
Reprinted with permission from The Dance of Spices.