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When we lived in Coimbatore my mom and our neighbor, who was at least twenty years younger than her, became the best of friends. Many an evening, as I walked home from school, I would see mom and her bestie sitting on the stairs with a cup of coffee and a plate of their innovative snacks, chatting and giggling away like teenagers. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their latest creations.

One lazy afternoon in California, my son walked in saying, “Mom, I wish I could have some animal style fries, right about now.” And I had a quick flashback to Coimbatore and the snacks that my mother whipped up.

I could have picked up my keys, driven to an In-N-Out, stood in line, picked up some fries with the so-called secret sauce, then made a detour to an Indian store, picked up some kachoris and samosas, stood in the next never ending checkout line, irritated with the people who cut into the line, and then driven back home in crazy 4 p.m. commute traffic. But I decided to stay home and be creative, instead.

It’s not as hard as you might think. Here is an animal fries recipe—a healthier version of what you might get at an In-N-Out, which will make your grumpy teen smile from ear to ear. The recipe is for my nieces who can never resist making a pit stop at In-N-Out when they come to visit.

Praba Iyer is a chef instructor who teaches team-building through cooking classes and custom cooking classes in the bay area. She is a consulting chef at Kitchit ( You can reach her at

Animal Fries with Secret Sauce

Ingredients for the Fries
4 russet potatoes cut into matchsticks.
2-3  tbsps oil
salt to taste
3-4 slices of American cheese
1 large white onion chopped fine

Ingredients for the Secret Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup ketchup
2 tbsp dill (chopped) pickles with juice
1 tsp mustard
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
¼ tsp salt
a dash of sugar

Place all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and whisk it together. Set aside.
Heat oil in a non stick flat pan and add the chopped onion and saute until it’s completely browned. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 430 degrees along with an empty sheet pan in it. Place the potatoes in  a bowl mix in the oil, and salt. Carefully remove the hot sheet pan from the oven with a mitten. Brush it with oil. Spread the potato matchsticks flat so each stick is separate. Place this  sheet pan with the potato matchsticks in the heated oven.

Cook the fries for 25 to 30 minutes until the bottom of the fries is brown, then flip them and let them roast evenly.

Place the fries in a bowl, layer  the American cheese slices on top, sprinkle the browned onion, and finally drizzle the secret sauce.

Variations: Add a little minced garlic and minced fresh basil to the potato matchsticks before roasting them in the oven for some added flavor. You can also make the same with roasted wedge potatoes, tater tots, or even hash brown.

Idli Chaat
This is a crispy crunchy delight that I often crave.  I used the leftover idlis in my fridge to make this recipe.

4-5 idlis sliced into matchsticks oil for brushing on idlis
1 red onion chopped fine
1 small tomato chopped fine
1-2 thai chilies chopped fine
1 sprig of fresh cilantro chopped fine
a dash of chaat masala
a squeeze of a lime

In the same preheated oven at 430 degrees, place the matchstick idlis on the sheet pan and brush it with oil. Brown it evenly by flipping the pieces once they are brown on one side.  It takes about 15-20 minutes each side.

Place the oven fried idlis on a plate, sprinkle the onions, tomato, chilies, cilantro, chaat masala. Squeeze the lime over. Yum! You got the chaat without the fat.

Variations: Sprinkle the idli chaat with sev for an extra crunch.

Bread Upma
This is one of my favorite snacks. It’s crunchy, full of carbs and a perfect match for a hot cup of tea or coffee.

10 slices of any kind of bread
(chopped into cubes)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp mustard
1 tsp urad dal
1 tsp chana dal
¼ cup roasted peanuts or roasted cashews
a pinch of asafoetida
3-4 curry leaves
3-4 green chilies chopped fine
1 red onion chopped fine
1 roma tomato chopped
salt to taste

For the Garnish
¼ cup cilantro leaves
chopped juice of ½ a lime

Heat oil in a pan, add the mustard and let it splutter. Then add the urad dal, chana dal, peanuts, asafoetida, curry leaves, green chilies and red onion.

Saute for a few minutes until the chopped onion pieces are slightly browned.

Add the cubed bread, mix well, and fry until the bread cubes are crisp.

Finally, add the chopped tomato and mix gently without making it soggy.

Remove and garnish with cilantro and lime.

First published in September 2015 under the title, ‘Sunday Afternoon Snacks.’ This article was first published on January 11th 2017.