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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.

New Recipes For the Daily Grind

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

I’ve always believed that using freshly ground spices elevates a meal, even everyday food, so I blend whatever combo a recipe calls for almost daily. My trusty Secura grinder stays on the countertop, at attention. However, this daily grind is not always the best option, especially now, when we are all working from home and eating multiple meals a day. Slaving, even for a few hours, in the kitchen is a thing of the past.

However, I wasn’t really enthralled by what I found in the supermarket or at my local Indian store. Buying a jar of McCormick’s Perfect Pinch Cajun seasoning or Shan’s Chana Masala was anathema. How long had it been sitting there, I wondered? When we peruse supermarket spices, do we really think about freshness in the real sense of the word?  

My best bet was to buy from a company with the shortest supply chain possible—ideally, one that sources spices straight from their origin and sells them directly to the consumer. Freshly ground, small-batch spices and blends with clarity of flavor and no additives. To my surprise, I didn’t really find too many places selling them, but I did find a renewed interest in single-origin spices. Individuals that had formed small companies with a strong commitment to social and economic equity, promoting sustainable agricultural practices and supporting the just treatment of farmworkers and food pricing that provides the farmers with a livable income. Once I tasted these, I was hooked! Flavorful, fresh, high-quality spices…now there’s no looking back.  

So, during this holiday season, a very different one due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are still plenty of ways to make the evening feel special for you and your family. Whether it’s a Zoom dinner with friends or a nice sit down with the people you live with, here are some recipes that are quick and easy showstoppers.

Roasted Cauliflower Soup

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 large head of cauliflower chopped into small pieces
  • 1 yellow or red onion, diced
  • 2 small or 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 2 small red or Yukon gold potatoes diced
  • 1 ½ cups vegetarian or chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil (I have used Amy Riolo Selections Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup milk
  • toasted walnuts or cilantro, for garnish

PREPARATION

  • Roast the cauliflower by tossing it in olive oil and baking for 20 mins or till the edges turn golden brown.
  • In a skillet melt butter and olive oil. Add the onions, sauté till translucent. Add diced carrots and potatoes and sauté them for a couple of minutes. Add the broth.
  • Add 1/2 cup milk and 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • Blend with an immersion blender. (I save some chopped cauliflower pieces and add after the soup is blended.)
  • Garnish with toasted walnuts and cilantro.

Black Pepper Tofu

Picture Credit: Jonathan Lovekin

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 packet extra firm tofu drained and pressed to release all the water
  • oil for shallow frying
  • corn or rice flour to dust the tofu
  • ½ stick of butter
  • 10/12 small shallots, thinly sliced
  • 8 fresh red chilies thinly sliced (I have used Diaspora Co.’s heirloom Sannam Chillies)
  • 12 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
  • 3 tbsp sweet soy sauce, kecap manis (or make your own by boiling 1 cup of regular soy sauce with ½ cup of brown sugar)
  • 3 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 4 tsp dark soy sauce 
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 5 tbsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns (I have used Burlap & Barrel’s  Ea Sar black peppercorns)
  • 16 spring onions, cut into thin angled matchsticks

PREPARATION

  • Start with the tofu. Cut into thin cubes and toss them in corn flour or rice flour. I use a combination of both, I find the rice flour gives it a nice crunch. Shallow fry or air fry till they are crispy and golden on all sides.
  • In a separate pan, add butter. Once it melts, add the shallots, chilies, garlic, and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat till they turn soft. 
  • Add the soy sauces, caster sugar, and crushed black pepper. Stir to mix. 
  • Add the tofu to warm it up in the sauce for about a minute. Stir in the spring onions. 

Inspired by the recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty 

Pindi Chole

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup dry chana (chole)
  • 2 tea bags (earl grey or any black tea that you have)
  • Salt (to taste)
  • 4/5 cloves whole cardamom 
  • ¼ tsp Baking soda 
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon 
  • 3 tablespoons of Chana Masala (I have used Anupy Singla’s Indian as Apple Pie’s blend)
  •  ½ tsp Black salt (kala namak)
  • 2 tablespoons Tamarind puree (I have used Anupy Singla’s Indian as Apple Pie)
  • ½ cup Tomato puree
  • 1 onion pureed
  • 3 tsp ghee
  • ½ teaspoon ajwain seeds
  • ½ teaspoon jeera seeds
  • Oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp chili powder
  • 3 green chilies 
  • 2 tablespoons of julienned ginger

 PREPARATION

  • Soak the chole in water overnight till they double in volume.
  • Add them to your Instant Pot or pressure cooker. Add the tea leaves, salt, baking soda, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves. 
  • Cook the chole over high heat for about 5 whistles, or 14 mins in IP. Once done allow the pressure to release naturally.
  • Once the pressure is released open the cooker and remove the tea bags and all the other whole spices. Discard.
  • Strain the chole, mash them a bit. Make sure to keep the water, we will use it as it is very fragrant.
  • In a pan heat some ghee, add the ajwain and jeera seeds, once they crackle add the tomato puree and the pureed onion. Cook for a few mins till the raw smell is gone.
  • Add the Chana masala, tamarind pulp, and 1 cup of the reserved water.
  • If you want some more gravy in the chole then add another ½ cup of water and cook on high flame for 2-3 minutes. 

TADKA

  • In a small pan oil, once hot add the finely chopped garlic and green chilies. Be sure to watch carefully as garlic burns very fast. 
  • Once the garlic turns golden brown, add the red chili powder and cook for another 30 seconds.
  • Pour this tadka over the chole. Garnish with julienned ginger and cilantro. Serve Hot.

3 Ingredient Almond Cookies- Flourless almond butter cookies 

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup Almond Butter (I use homemade)
  • 6 tbsp sugar
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten (to make it eggless: reduce the sugar and add half a banana)

PREPARATION

  • In a medium bowl, mix the almond butter, sugar, and egg until well combined. 
  • Take a small cookie scoop or a large tablespoon and spoon the mixture 1 inch apart onto baking sheets. 
  • Flatten the mounds with the tines of a fork, making a crosshatch pattern on the cookies. 
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 10 mins.

Easy Lemon Cookie

Makes 12 large or 16 small

INGREDIENTS

  • 18.25 ounces lemon cake mix
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lemon  
  • powdered sugar for garnish

PREPARATION

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees  
  • Pour cake mix into a large bowl. Stir in eggs, oil, lemon juice, and zest until well blended. 
  • Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes, or up to an hour
  • Form dough into small balls and roll them in confectioners’ sugar till lightly covered. 
  • Line a cookie sheet with greased parchment paper. Place balls an inch apart.
  • Bake for 6 to 9 minutes in the preheated oven. The bottoms will be light brown, and the insides chewy.

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

Magic Pot: Make Indian Food Instantly

How many times have you craved a good home cooked Indian meal and then settled on an easy sandwich? The time consuming cooking that “ghar ka khanna” involves is sometimes just not feasible in the fast paced, do it all yourself, American life. But what if it was? Imagine a freshly cooked Butter Chicken with rice, ready in 20 mins? Reading Chandra Ram’s, recently released, The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook made me realize that an Instant Pot can really turn those impossible food goals into a reality.

When I was given The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook as a gift for Christmas, I read it like a novel. Wth beautiful pictures and easy steps it was a comprehensible and fast read. It reminded me of my childhood in the 1980’s and 90’s in India when there were endless TV and print ads about the pressure cooker. The pressure cooker really was an object of liberation for Indian women, they could now have some time to themselves (imagine that!) and still not skimp on making a perfect indian meal for their families. The whistling trails of the pressure cooker followed every child in any Indian household with the promise of an instant snack.

This book offers 130 traditional and modern recipes. Even though I had been an Instant Pot user before I was truly surprised by the creative things that one can do with this pot in terms of Indian cooking. The book is neatly divided into sections like Yogurt and Cheese, Pickles and Chutneys, Snacks and Chaats, Soups, Vegetables, Porridge and Rice,  Biryanis, Lentils and Pulses, Meats, Breads and Desserts. It offers a diverse range of dishes to cook, whether you are a beginner or an advanced cook, new or old to Indian cooking. The real surprises for me were paneer, yogurt, lassis, cheesecakes, ras malai, roasted meats and many more unexpected items. The modern element involves some twists on traditional dishes like Matar Feta instead of Matar Paneer, using Chipotle Chilies in the Butter Chicken or making a Ginger Lime Cheesecake. 

Chandra Ram’s warm introduction about her own half Indian and half Irish upbringing is very relatable. I found much pleasure in reading vignettes from her childhood trips to India where she ate peanut butter sandwiches to avoid the confusing  and overwhelming flavors of Indian food. Her mismatch of a childhood reflects the state of many Indian American experiences imbedded with the love of Indian food and its pursuit to perfection.

A word of caution I would have for users of this book would be to understand the Instant Pot before attempting to use this book. Ram has a section in the beginning where she explains the functions of the pot such as the saute feature, releasing the pressure naturally and/or not naturally and the manual setting. Just like the pressure cooker, understanding the mechanism of the machine really helps to make sure your food is not overcooked or too watery. So don’t skip that section, because no one likes an overcooked Butter Chicken!

Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Times of India, Yoga International, Khabar Magazine, India Currents and anthologies of poetry and fiction.


The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook: 130 Traditional and Modern Recipes: By Chandra Ram. Robert Rose Publishing. 288 pages.

Chandra Ram image by Geoffrey Smith.

Summer Cookouts and Picnics

Summer Cookouts and Picnics

The idea of a summer cookout generally conjures a vision of meat on an open fire, but the joy of cooking and sharing food outdoors can be enjoyed by vegetarians as well. Among my fondest childhood memories of my village is that of farmers sitting around an open fire roasting freshly picked corn in the field.

Summer picnic basket
Summer picnic basket

Summer’s a perfect time to get together with friends to enjoy food that is cooked outdoors on a grill. The host need not feel isolated within the kitchen at home; instead all guests can help with cooking outside, adding to the feeling of communal sharing. Plan a varied menu that includes complementary dishes. It helps to familiarize yourself with your grill ahead of time, so you can avoid surprises at the event. Since grilled food is very hot, keep some oven mitts, potholders, towels and tongs handy. In your picnic basket, you can include
* water, juices, soda and root beer
* organic wine and micro-brewery local beer
* for the grill, purchase vegan deli items like firm tofu, tofu dogs, soy burgers and veggie burgers in addition to homemade deli items such as Tabbouli and Baba Ghanooj (recipes below).
* a variety of local and imported cheeses
* freshly baked bread, crisp-bread or crackers, with some gluten-free options
* gluten-free chips
Here are recipes for three Middle Eastern dishes that are perfect for your outdoor party.

Tabbouli
Tabbouli is a visual feast, a beautiful salad of bulgur and vegetables made with aromatic mint leaves and fresh olive-oil dressing. It can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for up to a week.

Ingredients
1½ cups bulgur (cracked wheat)
4-5 cups warm water
1 large bunch (2 cups) curly parsley, (remove stems)
1 cup fresh mint leaves (remove stems)
1 bunch scallions, chopped finely,with some of the green tops included
1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into very small cubes (1-1½ cups)
1 red bell pepper or a fresh tomato, cut into very small pieces (½ cup)
Dressing
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, freshly squeezed
¼ teaspoon crushed oregano leaves, dried or fresh
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Method:
In a bowl, cover the bulgur with warm water and let it soak for 30 minutes.
Wash, drain and mince parsley and mint leaves; combine the leaves and vegetables in a large bowl. Drain the soaked bulgur completely by wrapping in a cheesecloth and squeezing out the water or take a handful of bulgur at a time and squeeze most of the water out. Add the drained bulgur to the bowl of leaves and vegetables. Toss all the ingredients gently to mix.

Combine the dressing ingredients in a covered jar and shake or whisk until thoroughly blended. Add the desired amount of dressing to the bowl of tabbouli and mix thoroughly but gently. Serve right away or chill to serve later.
Makes about six to eight half-cup servings

Variation for Gluten-Free Tabbouli
Bulgur is made from wheat, but a gluten-free version of tabbouli can be made with rice and quinoa. Instead of using bulgur, use rice and quinoa. All other ingredients remain the same as above.

Ingredients
1½ cups water
¾ cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
¾ cup white quinoa, rinsed and drained

Method:
In boiling water, add rice and quinoa. Cover and simmer over moderate heat for 15 minutes. Then, keep covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Prepare vegetables and dressing as discussed above. Cool the cooked grains by spreading them out on a platter. When they are cool, combine the grains with the vegetables, add dressing and mix thoroughly but gently. Serve right away or chill to serve later.
Makes six to eight servings

Grilled Vegetable Kebabs

Grilled Vegetable Kebabs
Grilled Vegetable Kebabs

Ingredients for marinade
.¼ cup balsamic vinegar, or rice vinegar for a milder flavor
.½ cup olive oil, or peanut oil if using rice vinegar
.¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
.4–6 cloves garlic, minced
.2 tablespoons fresh, minced herbs, such as oregano, basil, and thyme
Ground pepper, salt or soy sauce

Ingredients for kebabs
2 zucchini, cut into 1-inch slices or into long thick strips
2 gold-bar squash, cut into 1-inch slices or into long thick strips
2–3 yellow-fin or red potatoes, washed and cut into thin slices
1 or 2 Japanese eggplants, unpeeled, cut into long strips
12 large mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
12 cherry tomatoes
16–20 oz. firm tofu, drained, dried, and cut into 1-inch cubes

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients except for the salt or soy sauce. Add vegetables to the marinade bowl along with the tofu. Stir gently to be sure that everything is coated with marinade. Cover and set aside for an hour, or keep in the refrigerator overnight.

Method:
First, add the soy sauce or salt to the kebab bowl. Next, thread the vegetables onto skewers and place the loaded skewers on a platter. Save the leftover marinade. Just before grilling, baste the vegetables liberally saving the leftover liquid.
Place the skewers on the grill and turn them frequently so that all sides cook Drizzle the cooked kebabs with the remaining marinade and serve immediately.
Makes approximately 12 servings

Baba Ghanooj
Baba Ghanooj is a dip made from fire-roasted eggplant and tahini (sesame paste). You can roast the eggplants on an open fire outdoors, or cook them above the stove-top flame in your kitchen. However, cooking the eggplant in an open fire adds a special flavor and aroma that is hard to replicate indoors.

Ingredients:
1 pound (about 4 to 6) small whole eggplants, preferably Japanese eggplants, washed or 1 large whole globe eggplant, washed, dried and top knobs removed

Dressing:
3 tablespoons toasted or raw tahini (sesame seed paste)
2 tablespoons water
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon honey or sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon parsley leaves, minced

Prepare the dressing ahead of time by whisking together all the ingredients except for the parsley and refrigerate.

If you are roasting the eggplants by the open fire, cook directly over the flame or glowing coals (without covering them with a foil). Turn the eggplants frequently using tongs, roasting to allow the skin to blister all over and crack. Remove from flame when the flesh is softened completely. Set them aside in a platter or a cutting board to cool.

After the eggplants have cooled down, remove the charred skin with your fingertips and mash the pulp. Add few tablespoons of the dressing at a time, stirring with a fork until a creamy consistency is formed. Garnish with the parsley and serve with bread or crackers.
Makes eight to ten servings.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is co-owner of Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco.

First published in August of 2017.

 

 

 

Will Sambar Die With Me?

My cousin Ravi and his wife Radha were visiting America  for the very first time. One day, as I was waiting to pick them up for a drive around town, Radha was unusually late. As she slowly stepped into the car, she handed me a small box, saying “this is what made me late, wanted to warm it up for you.” I could smell the treasure. “Elai Adai!” I screamed with joy (translates to leaf pancake). The last time I had savored this heavenly dish was at Radha’s daughter’s wedding in India about three years ago. I was teary and grateful for her thoughtfulness. All through the car ride we reminisced over my grandmother’s cooking and the culinary precedent her ancestors had set. The taste goddess had blessed my family tree with amazing cooks. In Tamil, there is a term for this, kai manam, which means “aromatic hands” meaning that whatever one cooked was filled with flavor and taste.

We talked about my great-aunt Rashamma who lived alone in a big house surrounded by her paddy farms, mango and jackfruit groves, rubber plantations, and cows. Rashamma was known for her “kai manam.” She worked and managed the farms by herself; she was quite the busy landlady. Cooking was the last thing on her mind. But when she stepped into the kitchen, she created magic with the least amount of ingredients. I can never ever forget her keerai masiyal (a mashed spinach dish), that she whipped out with the bunch of spinach that she had just picked. Every time I make this dish it always takes me back to her kitchen.

All this talk about food and family tree made me wonder—what will happen to my cooking lineage? My cousin and I wondered what our kids will cherish when it comes to our culinary heritage. Will  elai adai and keerai masiyal die with me, along with sambar and rasam? Will my two boys ever know the value of the dishes I ate as a child or savored as a grown-up? Will it matter to these Indian American kids, who prefer In-N-Out burgers to idly sambar, that the idly is also a part of who they are?
I almost had a panic attack thinking of the-almost-extinct dishes of my heritage. For example, I fear the endangerment of the quintessential Avial (a mix of many vegetables like long beans, winter melon, pumpkin, drumstick, raw mango, raw plantain, in a coconut green chili paste with yogurt) which is scorned at my dinner table with a “Yuck! Who invented this dish that looks bad and tastes bad?” sending a dagger through my heart bred in Kerala. The pavakkai pitla (bitter gourd in a tamarind coconut sauce), which is welcomed at the dinner table with “I think I’ll make myself a sandwich” or “I’m going out to eat,” I relegate to the dinosaur category. And the list goes on.

That evening as I walked into my home, I could smell garlic and basil simmering on the stove. My son was cooking dinner. He asked me to taste the one-pot pasta he had made. He noticed the longing in my eyes and continued, “I will cook all your dishes one day, but for now it’s just pasta.” I chuckled and smiled hugging my son, for it really didn’t matter if its pasta or pitla that he was cooking. What did matter was that I had passed on the love for cooking to the next generation. Hopefully, the “heritage” recipes will come in time!

Rashamma’s Keerai Masiyal

Ingredients
2 cups tightly packed fresh spinach
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon urad dhal
3-4 dry red pepper

A pinch of asafetida
3-4 green chilies sliced
3-4 curry leaves
¼ cup fresh coconut scapings
Salt to taste

Method
Clean, chop and cook the spinach in little water. Puree it and set aside. Heat coconut oil and add mustard seeds and let it splutter. Add urad dhal, dry red pepper, curry leaves, asafetida and green chilies. Add the fresh coconut scrapings and sauté for a few minutes. Once it is a little toasted add the pureed spinach, mix well and season with salt. Serve as a side dish with rice.

Avial
This is a famous Kerala side dish that is served at feasts and weddings. There are many variations to this basic recipe.

Ingredients
Vegetables used are winter melon, raw plantain, long beans, pumpkin, carrots, and drumstick.
Raw mango (a few pieces)
2 cups of vegetables julienned
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3-4 curry leaves
1 cup sour yogurt
Make into Paste
1 cup fresh coconut scrapings
3 to 4 green chilies

Method
Place the vegetables in a large flat sauce pan with winter melon at the bottom. Season with salt and add coconut oil, salt, curry leaves and turmeric. Cook the vegetables in a medium flame without mixing too much. Use a flat ladle to gently mix so that the cooked vegetables don’t become mushy. Now add the ground coconut chili paste and mix. Lower the flame and add yogurt and mix. Cook for a few minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.

Elai Adai
This is a delicacy made in homes and it cannot be found in restaurants. It requires a banana leaf (elai) that is warmed over a gas flame to make it pliable without letting it tear apart. The outside shell is made with raw rice that is soaked in water, drained and made into a thin batter with salt (adai). The filling consists of fresh coconut, jaggery, small pieces of ripe jackfruit and cardamom. A ladle of rice batter is spread into a circle, on a banana leaf. The coconut filling is spread on the bottom half on the rice batter circle. Then the leaf is folded on top of the filling. The sides are folded and secured with a toothpick. This leaf pack is then steamed. It tastes like a modhak.

For all of us who want to cherish our culinary heritage, the best way is to write down family recipes in a Word document to  share with your children. Maybe one day in the future, they will look through the document, feel inspired and try one of mom’s ancient recipes!

Maybe, they will even ask me to show them how to make Elai Adai—a recipe that cannot have precise, written measurements—a recipe that needs to be learnt by watching to be able to emulate—a treasured treat from the taste goddesses hailing from my family tree!

Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area.praba@cookingmastery.com