Tag Archives: Cuisine

The Learning and Unlearning of Lebanese Cuisine

Dig-In Meals – A column highlighting Indian spices in recipes that take traditional Indian food and add a western twist!

Today I was perusing my cookbook, an old notebook. In it, I have recipes that follow the arc of my life. Handwritten recipes by my Mom and me — of foods that I love — newspaper or magazine clippings of recipes that caught my fancy at some moment in time. And post-it marked pages of recipes that I make again and again. 

One such recipe is Falafel and Hummus by Yotam Ottolenghi. My dad loved his deli in Notting Hill known for its inventive dishes, characterized by the foregrounding of vegetables and unorthodox flavor combinations, he was and still remains the driving force behind the vegetarian Middle Eastern cuisine trend. 

After every visit to London, Papa would ask my mom to re-create hummus and falafel at home, which she did, and her “Indianized” version of falafel bhajias and “sauce” is a flavor that I still crave and create. However, the authentic taste is what I was after. So, I took a master class with chef Yotam Ottolenghi and here I share the joys of the perfect mezze of hummus, falafel, and pita.

Sahtein! (Enjoy the meal).

Hummus

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups/250 g dried chickpeas
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 1/2 cups 
  • 1 cup tahini paste
  • 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 4 cloves crushed garlic
  • 100 ml ice-cold water 

PREPARATION

Chickpea Prep

  1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in a large bowl with enough water to cover by several inches. Note: they will double in size so use a large bowl and lots of water
  2. Drain and rinse, then add to a large pot with enough water to cover by 2 to 3 inches with 1 teaspoon of baking soda and salt to taste. (You can use the Instant Pot or a pressure cooker which is what I do)
  3. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to medium, cover with a lid, and cook for 45 to 60 minutes, until the chickpeas are soft enough to crush between two fingers. Pressure cooker: 4 whistles. Instant Pot: Pressure Cook setiing:12 mins
  4.  Drain and set aside until ready to use.

Preparing the Hummus:

  • Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 11/2 teaspoons of salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the iced water and allow it to mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
  • Plain hummus can be made ahead of time and refrigerated, but cover it with plastic and gently press down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Best served at room temperature.

My mom’s “Sauce” recipe

  • 4 cloves garlic 
  • 1 cucumber 
  • 1 red bell pepper 
  • Green chili 
  • Cilantro 
  • ½ cup of sesame seeds 
  • ¾ tablespoons of yogurt  

Salt and pepper to taste

Put everything in a blender and whir till combined. 

Air-Fried Falafel 

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ¼ cup (225 g) dried chickpeas *soak for 24 hrs. 
  • 1 cup onion, diced 
  • ⅔ cup mint, roughly chopped 
  • 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped 
  • 1 cup curly or flat parsley, roughly chopped 
  • ⅓ cup scallions, roughly chopped 
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin 
  • 1 1/4 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt, plus more for seasoning 
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper 
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda 
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice 
  • 3 tbsp chickpea flour 

PREPARATION

  1. Soak the chickpeas in water for 24 hours so they soften up. When the chickpeas are soaked, drain the water, rinse the chickpeas thoroughly. Do not cook the chickpeas. 
  2. Place all the ingredients into a food processor and pulse until the chickpeas are finely minced. Do not over-pulse – the mixture should be coarse, not smooth or paste like
  3. Using a cookie scoop (for even balls), shape the falafel mixture into small balls. Arrange in a single layer in your air fryer basket and air-fry for about 15 minutes at 370-380°F. Rotate till all the falafel are golden brown and crisp.

My mom’s Indianized version

INGREDIENTS

  • ¾ cup black-eyed peas 
  • ½ cup split green peas 
  • 3 tsp sesame seeds 
  • Cilantro (one handful)
  • 1 tsp ginger 
  • 1 tsp garlic 
  • ¾ green chili 
  • 1 tsp lemon juice 
  • Salt to taste

PREPARATION

  1. Place all the ingredients into a food processor or blender and pulse until everything is ground into a smooth paste. Deep fry by scooping balls with a spoon and dropping them in hot oil.

Homemade Pita Bread

Servings: 8 pitas

INGREDIENTS 

  • 2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast 
  • 1 3/4 cups warm water about 95 degrees F 
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar 
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt 
  • 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 

STEPS 

  1. In the bowl or a stand mixer, combine the warm water, yeast, and sugar. Use a small whisk to thoroughly combine. Let the yeast proof for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is foamy and bubble. If using Instant dry yeast add yeast, sugar, and warm water to the flour directly.
  2. Add the kosher salt to the bowl, and 1 cup of the flour. Mix on low or by hand, while slowly adding the rest of the flour, until it is fully incorporated. Knead the mixture for about 5 minutes. The dough should look sticky, and should just form a loose ball. 
  3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for about an hour and a half until the dough has doubled in size. 
  4. Place a pizza stone or a perforated pizza pan into the oven. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. 
  5. Flour your work surface and slowly pour out the dough onto your work surface. Flour your hands and gather the dough into a ball, tucking the edges under. Use a bench scraper or sharp knife to cut the dough into 8 equal pieces. 
  6. Roll each piece into a smooth ball with your hands, and place it on the floured board to rest for 5-10 minutes. Dust some flour on the top of each ball, and cover loosely with a piece of plastic wrap. 
  7. Roll out one ball at a time into a flat 6-inch circle, making sure the dough doesn’t stick to the rolling pin or work surface. Quickly place 2 pitas on the hot pizza stone at a time. 
  8. Make sure that they’re totally flat. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until the pita bread puffs into pillow-y pocket. 
  9. Cool on a rack. Once all of the pitas are baked, place them into a plastic bag. The little bit of steam actually keeps the pita bread soft and moist. 

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at mona@indiacurrents.com.

Uppa is Made of Momos

Uppa calls it the Mainland. For most people living outside of South Asia, India is nothing more than the mainland. India’s recognizable triangular shape is just a part of the story.

Uppa’s India snakes into the Himalayas, toward the North-East part of the subcontinent. Not only does it touch China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of individuals who despite being ethnically and culturally very diverse from other parts of India, are Indian citizens.

She comes from one of the many tribal communities that fill this northeastern region of India. Not long before the spread of COVID-19, she migrated to the United States and has been living in New York City. When I asked about her transition to the United States, one of the first challenges she brought up was just how difficult it is to get the foods she craves. Her story, her life even, is, like many of ours, defined by her access to and emotions around food. 

Despite these challenges, Uppa still takes great pride in her favorite meals and often grows nostalgic for them. Living in the U.S., she particularly misses momos: a quasi-dumpling from Northeast India and Ladakh. Think gently masala-spiced meat and vegetables, delicately rolled into a delectable, far-less processed and certainly less sickly-sweet Hershey kiss package, steamed or flash-fried in jumping, shimmery canola oil over a wood fire or massive gas burner that will surely burn your eyebrows off if you stand within six feet of it! Served on a flimsy piece of tinfoil, these bundles of joy are often viewed as a Delhi-street food staple. Bumble some broken Hindi phrases like bahut accha (very good) or svaadisht (delicious) to the momo-wala (momo seller) like the foreigner you are and he may even slip you an extra one!  

But when Uppa spoke of the momo, this simple meal became something far more poetic and perhaps a little less sweat-inducing… 

Far from being fast-paced or born on Delhi’s sweltering streets, momos are slow, delicate, and almost like family to Uppa. She describes them as a painter might describe a long-lost piece of art. It is about the family connections and the creative process, not just consumption. Respecting this process is just as important as the bite of momo itself. 

“Momos are not a one-person task. It becomes a family thing. Like everyone is doing their bit… One person is making the dough… I tried making them on my own but when my mom makes them, they remind me of happy times.”

While I might try to make dumplings at home merely for the fun of it, Uppa seemed hesitant to try preparing them during her time in the U.S. Why make something when there might be a missing ingredient or spice made by an unfamiliar company? Why make a momo when half of its taste comes from mom’s expertise, the other half from Dehradun’s fresh green chili? For her, the U.S. momo will inevitably be lackluster.

“Momos are a treat, they were a happy occasion food. Okay, you were sick, you just got out of being sick? Let’s make momos.”

Aside from her anxiety about differences in taste, it seems that Uppa’s craving for momos is also connected with her love for her community. The people, the place, the experience: these are the modes through which food shapes who we are. 

“I look at food slightly differently than a lot of people. Coming from a tribal community… our food is definitely different from the mainland. Food is best when it is still in its natural essence… not changed at all like the mainland’s cuisine.” 

For many people in the U.S. and Europe, India conjures up images of colorful chalk, deep dishes of buttery, oily chicken, elephants, and a flyer asking them to “feed the children.” These sentiments are particularly apparent in the ways people think about food. Food constructs Uppa’s identity as much as her swanky clothing choices, move to New York, or upbringing in the Himalayas. 

“India is so much more than just kebab and naan. If people only just opened themselves up to more than what just the stereotype of Indian food is in the west, they would see that Indian cuisine is so diverse, it’s amazing. I definitely think the west needs to open up its mind to Indian food beyond kebab and biryani.” 

Uppa, like all of us, identifies with the differences, the nuances of her place, her food, her people. The mainland of India, despite its diversity, feels too homogenous to encompass her preferences. The momo is a journey to Uppa’s world and an understanding of herself. A journey into her upbringing and identity. It captures the essence that makes Uppa.


Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years. 

Indo-Mexican Fusion: Hearty Casserole

When we don’t go to India, my husband and I go to Mexico for vacations. Like in India, the weather is always warm and sunny, the people are friendly to travelers, and the food is vegetarian-friendly and delicious!

We often book a hotel room with a kitchenette so we can experiment with recipes using local ingredients. Similar to Indian vegetable bazaars, food markets are bustling in Mexican towns, full of discriminating shoppers vying for the best quality produce. Herbs and spices are easy to find, and often sold in bulk so that one can inspect them for freshness. After trying some local entrees in restaurants, we copied the dishes in our kitchenette and created some interesting recipes. Here are two examples that combine the flavors of Mexico and India, two of the best cuisines in the world! These two dishes are ideal for a potluck dinner or a picnic basket.


Chilaquiles
Chilaquiles is one of the many recipes in Mexican cuisine that makes use of stale tortillas. The dish can take many forms, from a soup with tortillas floating on top to a hearty casserole like this one. The casserole can be made with a tomato or tomatillo sauce. In addition to traditional tortilla chips, ingredients can be added to create a substantial entrée.

AvocadosIngredients
2 cups of cooked rice and quinoa pilaf (recipe below)
4 cups Mexican Salsa Roja (recipe below)
1 dozen corn tortillas (dry, stale tortillas are best)
2 tablespoons canola, corn, safflower or olive oil, plus extra tablespoons as needed
2 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese, queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese), or a melt-able vegan substitute
Chopped cilantro for garnishing
 
Basmati Rice and Quinoa Pilaf
Rice and quinoa are nourishing and easy to digest. Indian Basmati rice has a unique fragrance that has been attributed to its native soil.  Quinoa, an ancient Incan grain, is very nutritious, high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Like Basmati rice, quinoa cooks in 10-12 minutes, making the combination a perfect marriage of two grains.

Ingredients
2 cups hot water boiled with ½ teaspoon salt
½ cup white basmati rice and ½ cup white quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon oil
¼ cup chopped almonds or cashew pieces
½ teaspoon cumin seeds

Method
Bring the water and salt to a boil. Heat the oil in a skillet and stir fry the nuts for 2-3 minutes. Add the cumin seeds and sauté for one minute. Add the grains and stir-fry for 3 minutes, but don’t allow them to brown. Add the grain mixture to boiling water. Allow the water to return to a boil, reduce the heat and cook covered for 10-12 minutes. Turn off the heat but keep the grains covered. After 10 minutes, use in the casserole recipe as described below.

Yield: approximately five cups of pilaf.

Mexican Tomato Salsa Roja
Salsa Roja, Indian-Mexican CookingIngredients
2 pounds fresh red tomatoes
2 fresh jalapeno or serrano peppers, seeded and finely chopped
3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
3 to 4 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons corn or safflower oil
½ cup onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Method
Boil the tomatoes in a water until their skins split. Transfer to a bowl of cold water to cool. Peel and cut them into chunks. Blend the tomatoes and other ingredients (except the onion) in a food processor. Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the chopped onion for 2 minutes. Add the blended tomatoes and salt. Stir and cook for 10 minutes. This salsa can be refrigerated for up to a week.

Yield: approximately 6 cups of sauce.

Avocado Chutney
Guacamole always seemed to resemble the Indian chutney.  So I wanted to create a recipe for avocado chutney that would taste distinctly different. The inclusion of ginger with the traditional herbs cilantro, scallion and fresh hot chilies used in a Mexican guacamole recipe did the trick. Here is my avocado chutney with an Indian twist. Enjoy!

Ingredients
2 soft, ripe avocados
2 to 3 tablespoons green onion (scallion), including some greens, finely minced
3 tablespoons cilantro
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated
1 serrano or jalapeno pepper, deseeded and finely minced
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
Salt to taste

Method
Peel the avocados and remove the pits, reserving one pit. Place the chopped onion, cilantro, ginger and pepper in the jar of a food processor. Process them for a minute.  Then add avocado, lime or lemon  juice and salt and process the contents for a minute or two until pureed. Transfer to a serving bowl and place the pit in the center to keep the guacamole from discoloring.

In Mexico, traditionally a grinding stone called Molcajete and a pestle is used to mash the avocado and the herbs together into a puree. But you can use a food processor to puree the avocado chutney easily.

Yield: approximately 1 cup chutney

Preparing the casserole
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread a teaspoon of oil in a frying pan and lightly fry the tortillas one at a time on both sides to soften them. Add more oil as needed, but just enough to moisten the pan. Do not allow the tortillas to become too oily or too crispy. Remove and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Cut the tortillas into 1½-inch-wide strips and set aside.

Lightly oil the bottom of a 9×14 inch casserole dish. Layer the ingredients as follows:

Line the bottom of the casserole with a cup of Mexican Salsa Roja.  Cover the sauce with a layer of tortilla strips. Next, sprinkle a cup of cheese on top of the tortilla strips. Then, layer 1½ cups of rice and quinoa pilaf, spreading evenly. Repeat the process, layering salsa, tortilla strips, cheese, and rice and quinoa mixture. Lastly sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and cover the casserole with the rest of the salsa, making sure to cover the dry corners.

Cover the casserole and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Uncover and bake for a few more minutes until the top is golden brown. Cool for a few minutes, cut into squares, and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.  Serve with avocado chutney.

Makes 6 to 8 servings
Variations:

(1) Chilaquiles with Beans or tofu: Add a layer of 2 cups of cooked black beans, or tofu.

(2) Chilaquiles with Salsa Verde: Prepare a green salsa using the recipe provided below but substituting cooked, husked tomatillos in place of tomatoes. Assemble as described above.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is co-owner of Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco. Serena Sacharoff is a chef, an illustrator and an art student..