Global unity through hot sauces

Sambal

Sambal Hebi

The other day I was doing my favorite thing — making a hot sauce, in preparation for doing my other favorite thing — eating a meal with a hot sauce. And I started to think upon the unity of all humanity. While I have been known to have the occasional Deep Thought, I usually need some prodding to produce one. The prodding that produced this particular Deep Thought was the following.

Over the course of the past couple months I had occasion to make a few hot sauces. These were from different cuisines: we made burritos at home, so I made a Mexican hot sauce once; another time, for dosas, I made a tomato chutney; and then the other day, experimenting with Malaysian food, I tried making a chili paste called Sambal Hebi. I seem to be doing the same thing over and over, I thought. With just a couple twists each time to add some local flavor.

Tomato chutney

Tomato chutney

Well, given that they all use dried red chilies for heat, and perhaps some garlic or onions as aromatics, there certainly is commonality. Humans from these three rather disparate regions of the world really do seem to think alike — perhaps we are all the same under the skin?

So here is my global hot sauce template; if you are able to adapt this method to yet another hot sauce from another cuisine I’d love to hear about it.

Step 1: Soak the dried chilies in hot water.

Same for all the hot sauces. Choose a mix of large, not-so-hot dried red chilies, and small, hot dried red chilies, according to your heat tolerance. Bring a cup of water to a boil and soak chilies in it until softened, about 15 minutes. Pull off the stem and remove seeds and ribs if you like. They are ready for the sauce.

Soaking dried red chilies

Soaking dried red chilies

Step 2: Broil the vegetables.

Mexican hot sauce: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. South Indian tomato chutney: I used 2 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. Malaysian sambal: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic.

Leave the garlic, onion, tomato unpeeled. Rub some oil over and broil for about 6 minutes. At this point, the papery skin of garlic/onion will have darkened, and the tomato skin can simply be peeled off.

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Step 3: Blender

Vegetables and softened chilies go into the blender together. Along with salt to taste. If you need liquid to make the blender happy, pour in some of the oil and collected juices from broiling the vegetables; if you need more, add some of the chili soaking liquid.

Step 4: Cook

Empty out the blended hot sauce into a pot and bring to a boil. Then simmer. It only needs to cook for a few minutes. The color will change. Give it a preliminary taste to make sure the salt is right.

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Step 5: Finishing for the Mexican hot sauce:

If you are doing a Mexican hot sauce, add a teeny bit of vinegar or lime; that’s it, you are done. Slather it over some refried beans.

Step 5: Finishing for the South Indian tomato chutney:

You can let this chutney cook longer to dry it somewhat more than the Mexican hot sauce, as it doesn’t have to be of a pouring consistency.

Heat a tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan. When hot, put in a half teaspoon of split and dehusked urad dal (Vigna Mungo), when that reddens, half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, when they pop a few curry leaves. When they shrivel turn off the flame and pour the coconut oil into the tomato chutney. Stir to combine.

Step 5: Finishing for the dried shrimp sambal (Sambal Hebi):

First, a bit about this chili paste, because it was new to me. ‘Sambal oelek’ is a simple chili paste used all over Singapore/Malaysia as a base for many of their dishes; while ‘Sambal Hebi’ has added dried shrimp, garlic and shallots. With the excellent umami additions, this paste can be had as a simple and delicious accompaniment for rice (that’s not how I used it, but the story of what I did with it will have to wait).

Bags of dried shrimp should be available at an Asian grocery store. Here is an online source of it: The Asian Cook Shop. While you are preparing the rest of the sauce, soak about half a cup of dried shrimp in hot simmering water to soften. In 15 minutes, that should be done; take the shrimp out and smash them in a mortar and pestle if you have patience, if not, whirl them in a blender.

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Now remember for the sambal we did not use any tomato, just the garlic, onion and chilies. So the paste will be drier to start with. When you cook the paste, use a bit of oil, and cook it longer than the above two until the oil separates. Also, I did not use any salt at all, preferring to add enough soy sauce to cover the needed saltiness.

Next put the dried shrimp into the pot: stir to have them cook and the entire paste dry up — about 10 minutes. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce, stir to combine, and you are done.

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Sambal Hebi is done, ready for use as a base for noodles, as a sauce for vegetables, or simply with rice. Recipe source: Indochine Kitchen.

Pounded shrimp added

Pounded shrimp added

Soy sauce added

Soy sauce added

Mexican hot sauce

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • Half a medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice or 1 teaspoon vinegar
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop for a few minutes. Add lime juice/vinegar.

South Indian tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon urad dal (split and dehusked black gram)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • Few curry leaves
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop until reduced a bit. Heat coconut oil until shimmering. Add, in this order, the urad dal, when they redden the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Turn off and empty the coconut oil into the chutney and stir well.

Malaysian sambal hebi

Ingredients:
  • Half a medium onion or couple shallots
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend to a paste.

Meanwhile prepare the shrimp: soak in hot water for 15 minutes until softened. Pound with a mortar and pestle.

Heat oil in a small pot. Empty the chili paste from the blender into it and cook until the oil separates. Add the shrimp to the pot, stir well to combine, and cook for 10 minutes until dry. Now add the soy sauce and stir nicely.


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A meditation on tempering and a good-tempered moong dal

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Very little meat is eaten in India; many families are entirely vegetarian, but even the others (like mine) hardly got around to buying meat for the dinner table once or twice a month. I have met a lot of people in the United States who find that hard to believe. In this country all three meals are sometimes centered around meat. In addition to forming the main course, meat products are used to flavor the food: whether it is the use of chicken broth, or bacon cooked into the sauce base or thrown on salad, or ham hocks as a base for tough greens like collards.

Many modern cooks here are learning to leave aside the bacon in favor of aromatics like onion and garlic. In my mother-in-law’s generation people were a little afraid of these ‘strong’ and ‘aggressive’ flavors; nowadays, they generally lead to a flurry of swooning.

But what if you were to leave out the meat, leave out the eggs, then in a fit of pique throw out the onions and garlic too?

What would food taste like then? Is one supposed to develop a taste for grass? Well it turns out that this type of cuisine is one of the most flavorful in the world. Jain food, which is pretty much synonymous with the Sattvic or ‘pure’ food of Hinduism, leaves out any foods that might cause harm to other creatures; clearly this is an extremely high bar, but in practice, that means no meat, eggs, fish, onions or garlic.

That still leaves the wide world of vegetables (including my beloved cauliflower), all kinds of lentils (dals), grains from wheat and rice to millet and sorghum, the nutty fragrance of ghee, and of course what India is famous for, which is spices.

Tempering

My personal opinion — the ingredients are great and all. But really what sets apart Sattvic cuisine and Indian cuisine in general is the technique of tempering. Known by various names — tadka, chhaunk, bhagaar or vaghaar — this is the method of heating fat and throwing in whole spices until they release their essential oils.

Most non-Indian people ask me if I grind my own spice mixtures for Indian food. The answer is yes, I do. But for most everyday food, I don’t need to — because I just use them whole while tempering.

This is the basic process of tempering. Heat oil or ghee in a thick-bottomed small pan. When it shimmers (in case of ghee it should completely melt and a fragrance arise) the spices are put in. There is a certain sequence to the introduction of spices to the oil. There is, I admit, a bit of magic to this. Asafetida, if it is used, usually goes in first. Dry red chilies, if used, go in next. Mustard seeds (for me) usually go in last because they will pop with a vengeance. In between come the other whole seeds. Then in go the aromatic vegetables, such as garlic, ginger, chilies, onion, if any, that the recipe demands.

Tempering can be the first step of the recipe. Or it could be the last, as in the one below. The tempered oil is poured over the completed dish and stirred in.

Now spices are great even if you prepare them in the more well-known way — which is to grind them up into a mixture. I’m not going to run this method down (a classic of many cuisines, including Indian) but here is the difference from the tempering method. When you grind the spices, you are pulverizing every bit of them into the food. This includes the essential oils but also the fibrous seed-coating and other parts. Yes, there is a bit of the cardboard taste in most of the fibers. When you have a strongly flavored meal with onions or meat and so forth, you don’t notice this powderiness. But in a delicately flavored dish where the highlight is a lentil or a vegetable, the ideal method is to draw out the spice flavor into fat, leave the seeds whole where they add a bit of crunch, leaving the tastes pure.

And if you think about it, purity is what the Sattvic type of food is centered on.

Moong dal tempered with whole spices

This dish uses a mix of the dehusked (yellow) moong dal and the split but skin on (green) moong dal. Moong dal, of course, is a synonym of mung bean. It is one of the fastest cooking dals and needs no pre-soaking. This makes enough for a dinner for two.

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2  cup moong dal split and dehusked
  • 1/4 cup moong dal split but with skin on
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida (hing)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ajwain (carom) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin (jeera) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard (rai) seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 cups water
  • For garnish: dry mango powder or lemon juice, more red chili powder, minced cilantro.

Method:

Rinse and drain the mix of dals in plenty of water. Put the dal in a pot along with 2 cups water and the turmeric. Bring it to a boil with the lid off; once it foams up heartily you can lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover with a lid and leave it for 35 to 45 minutes. At this point it should be softened. Add the salt.

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Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers add the asafetida and the red chili powder; when they foam add the cumin and the carom seeds; when they sizzle add the mustard seeds; when they pop turn off the heat and pour the oil into the dal.

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Stir and taste for salt. At this point your dal is ready, all that is left is the garnish. I have suggested some but feel free to experiment!

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Curds and whey

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I have before rather blithely thrown around assertions about how easy it is to make yogurt at home. Room temperature, time, blah. blah. So, madam, how about you put your money where your mouth is, hunh? Hunh?

Fine. Let’s do it. And in the process, get answers to a few persistent questions.

Those of you who hire a house cleaner — you know how easy it is to have your house cleaned, right? You prepare the house and leave. They come over, do the job while you are out working, whooping it up, or waiting watchfully outside the door. Come back home and enjoy your clean house.

Did you do any hard work? No — you waited. Of course, you had to hire the cleaners and set things up for them. But you didn’t actually dust a single chair or sweep a single room. Someone did though.

Delegation! That is what making yogurt is about. We delegate the making of yogurt to the lactic acid bacteria. We ourselves do nothing but wait while they are about their task. Of course my analogy breaks down somewhat because the lactic acid bacteria are not really hard at work with their dustpans and brooms, but rather simply enjoying a meal. It is as though you hired house cleaners to come over and dine at your house, and magically when they were done eating, your house sparkled.

Yogurt-making process

Yogurt-making process

The picture above describes the process.

  1. Milk is full of two kinds of proteins floating about in the liquid — casein and whey.
  2. It also has a special type of milk sugar called lactose
  3. We add in yogurt starter, which contains lactic acid bacteria. They simply love to dine on the lactose
  4. As they do so, they give out lactic acid
  5. The lactic acid amount in milk builds up over time, turning the whole thing somewhat acidic (sour) — you see how it turns yellow?
  6. In that acidic (sour) environment, the casein knots of protein relax and spread out into long strands. Once they are all open they knit with each other into a web that traps the whey proteins and the liquid in milk. This is why the curds are jelly-like.

The experiment

Enough theory. Let’s get to action. In my home in Bombay we made a batch of yogurt every night. Most times it was delicious but every once in a while we would have a runny mess that us kids refused to eat. What went wrong? I have also made yogurt at home in California many, many times. Sometimes with spectacular success. Other times not. Why?

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The ideal yogurt recipe is this: Heat milk to 185 F (scalding), wait till it cools to 110 F (warm). For each cup of milk, add a tablespoon of whipped yogurt and stir. Keep it warm for about 8 hours.

But what happens if you add less starter? What if you skip the step of heating to scalding first? Will room temperature work, just take longer? Time for…

The experiment! I made 7 cups of yogurt:

Cup 1: Left at room temperature to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 2: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 3: Left at room temperature to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 4: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 5: In warm oven to set, not scalded first, one tablespoon starter

Cup 6: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, half tablespoon starter

Cup 7: In warm oven to set, scalded to 185 F first, one tablespoon starter

The Results:

The most important factor that good yogurt depends on is warmth while leaving it out to set. In my home in San Francisco room temperature is around 70 F. The first 3 cups, that were left out on the counter to set, turned out terrible. It took 2 – 3 entire days for them to set, and those that eventually did, had by then developed off flavors. Cups 1, 2 and 3 ended up down the drain. To avoid that fate, yogurt must be set in a warm environment!

The second factor that mattered was whether milk was scalded up to 185 F first, then cooled, or was it just warmed up to 110 F directly. Funny thing is, yogurt formed either way. But the yogurt that formed when milk was scalded first was firmer with a more even texture. The reason for this is: when milk is scalded, some of the whey proteins get relaxed (denatured), and they help the casein proteins form a more even web, rather than clustering together. The actual effect of this is that when milk has been scalded first, the yogurt is firmer and more even, while if it hasn’t been scalded, the curds are more clumpy and separate from the whey.

The third factor — whether we used one or half tablespoon of starter, hardly seemed to matter at all. If the other two things were done right, you could not detect a difference. For the borderline cases, one tablespoon helped it some. It did not solve all problems though.

The Ideal Yogurt:

Now I am equipped to give you the most ideal yogurt recipe as tested by my household.

Start with whole milk. And if you are starting with store-bought yogurt, make sure it says ‘live cultures’. Warm up an measured amount of milk till the point it starts to rise and foam up. Turn it off. Wait till it cools down to just lukewarm. If you want to be precise, the first temperature is 185 F and the second temperature is 110 F.

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Fine. Turn on the oven to about 150 F or so. Turn off as soon as it reaches that, and turn on the oven light. Leave it on. Put the milk in the jar that you want the yogurt to set in. For each cup, put in a half tablespoon of stirred yogurt and stir to meld. Cover and leave in the warm oven for at least 6 hours. In 8, 10 or 12 hours, it will turn more and more sour, so it depends on your preference. Store in the fridge thereafter.

I have often woken up in the morning and, completely forgetting I have yogurt setting in the oven, turned it on with melted plastic lids, ruined yogurt and other disastrous results. So now, I use oven-proof glass Weck jars, and put a sticky note on the oven to remind myself.

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No more accidents. Just good creamy sour yogurt which is not accidental at all.

Garlic-fenugreek gravy with absolutely anything

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This is a Sindhi gravy that you can throw anything into, and make a wonderful meal, sort of like this gravy. And it is so simple to do, that you will be left wondering if you left out any steps. You didn’t!

Greenish in color from the fresh herbs, it also has the wonderful warm aroma of garlic. The herbs and the garlic together make an intense and unfamiliar aroma that most people are intrigued by.

As for what to put in it — some common Sindhi preparations use okra, or King mackarel fish, or zucchini; I have made a successful combination of paneer and peas in this gravy or potatoes and peas. You also have your choice about how wet or dry to make the result; and whether to have it with roti as a side, or over plain white rice. But use your imagination and let’s get started.

Thoom-methi gravy with potatoes and peas

Ingredients:

  • Half a large red or yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 – 4 largish cloves garlic
  • 3 (or to taste) fresh chilies, jalapeno, serrano, bird’s eye or cayenne
  • half a bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon dry fenugreek or half a cup fresh if you can find it
  • One large tomato
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • half teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups of chopped vegetables: I used 3 cubed red potatoes and half a cup of peas.
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil

Method:

Combine in a blender the following roughly chopped vegetables, with about a quarter cup of water: onion, garlic, cilantro, fenugreek and chilies. Blend to a paste consistency, as shown below.

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Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pot and when it shimmers, put in the paste and cook it on medium-high. In about ten minutes it will dry up and start to darken; keep stirring it once in a while. When it goes from looking like this:

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to looking like this:

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put in the chopped tomatoes. The tomatoes will first liquefy and then turn pasty and combine nicely with the rest of the spice. Stir for about 5 minutes; when they are more or less dry, put in the coriander and turmeric powders and stir. Now put in about a cup or cup and a half of water, bring to a boil.

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Now the gravy is ready, and it is time to put in whatever chopped vegetables you want. I put in cubed potatoes, and simmered them with the lid on for 15 minutes to cook; then I put in the frozen peas and only cooked them enough to heat through.

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Oh — I added the salt along with the vegetables so that they absorb the salinity properly.

Browned onion-tomato gravy — let’s get this over with

Browned onion tomato gravy

Browned onion tomato gravy

Sindhi food has a ton of recipes that start with first making a browned onion-tomato gravy, then putting in whatever edible goodies you find in the fridge that day.

Browned onion gravy can make anything taste good. Those left over hard-boiled eggs from a week ago? Throw them in. The unidentifiable pulpy vegetable with the brown spots? Cut out the brown spots, throw it in, heat it through, and gloat. Lentils, beans of all descriptions, chicken, dumplings that are fried, dumplings that are boiled, in they go. Call them meatballs or call them koftas, throw them in. You could make a giant batch of the gravy, freeze it in meal-sized portions, thaw and add stuff to it — there you go, your main meal for dinner.

In fact this gravy is such a magician that it is a bit of a cop-out for an aspiring master chef, and makes me reluctant to use it too often. Think about it — if you are a doctor, how respected would you be if your advice for every ailment is — ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning’? It might work but it is too easy. But this is still an indispensable skill to have in your Indian cooking repertoire, so let us take our two aspirin and learn to do this right.

Browned Onion-tomato gravy

Start with reading this recipe — how to caramelize onions. That is going to be our first step. This recipe makes enough for a base for the main meal for 2 – 4 people.

Ingredients:

  • One medium-large onion, chopped fine, or sliced thin.
  • One large or two small tomatoes, roughly chopped.
  • 3 – 4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • Half inch piece of ginger, minced
  • 1 – 4 serrano chilies to your heat tolerance, sliced
  • Half a teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • Half a teaspoon coriander powder
  • Quarter teaspoon turmeric
  • Half a teaspoon salt
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons oil

Method:

Heat oil in a wide thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers put in the cumin seed; when that sizzles, the onion and caramelize it.

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At this point add the ginger, garlic, chili, and let them cook on medium heat for a couple minutes. Now put in the tomato. Sprinkle some salt over. The thing about the tomato is that is has to liquefy, then mostly dry up. First, the combination of the heat and the salt will make it release its liquid. Then, cook some more on that wide-open pan of yours, and the liquid will evaporate. The remains of the tomato will combine with the caramelized onion to create a rough paste.

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Browned onion tomato gravy

Browned onion tomato gravy

At this point the dry powders can go in. Give them a stir, and then put in some water; the amount depends on what you are trying to use the gravy for, anywhere from half a cup to a cup.

Bring the water to a boil, and let it simmer for about 5 – 7 minutes.

The gravy is basically done. But you can take it into multiple directions from here:

  • run it through a blender to get a smoother sauce
  • add some cream or milk to make it creamy
  • or add a cashew puree to make it creamy that way
  • add garam masala, extra chili in the form of red chili powder, cumin powder, or other spice mixture of your choice
  • or use it as is.

Rustic ginger-garlic paste with optional green chili

I have a bone to pick with most ginger garlic pastes — one normally uses a blender to make them, so one needs a simply giant amount of ginger and garlic to make the blades go, and, one has to use water to make it slushy.

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But who wants slushy ginger-garlic paste while cooking? And, who wants a simply giant amount of paste situated in the fridge, week after week, slowly oxidizing, and stinking up the air each time you open the fridge?

I often resort to the blender method, but I do believe this method is way superior — here we use the mortar and pestle. Aside from looking decorative, you make only as much as you need, and seriously, it doesn’t take that long.

No precise ingredients in this one. Use as much as you think you will need.

Step 1: Peel, destem and chop ginger, garlic, and chili. No need to go super fine.

Step 2: Place all ingredients in the bowl of a mortar (or is it pestle? I can never remember).

Step 3: Sprinkle with a bit of salt and wait a few minutes. Salt has three functions here. If you use kosher or sea salt, it will add a bit of roughage, all the better to grind with. Second, salt draws out moisture, and once again, this helps the grinding. Third, salt actually starts to cook certain foods. You can notice this specially with garlic — raw garlic has a sharp and aggressive taste; but if you salt it for a few minutes, it mellows out considerably, just like it does with cooking.

Step 4: Pound away with the pestle (or the mortar, I can’t remember which is which). It will not be a super smooth paste, but that’s where the rustic charm comes in.

Rolling the roti half a world away

In my home in Bombay, we never bought flour, we bought wheat. And we didn’t buy wimpy five-pound bags either. We bought enough wheat in bulk to fill up a tin canister as tall as one’s knees. Once a month or thereabouts, we would hire a neighborhood working lady to hoist that tin canister up on her head and carry it to the neighborhood burr mill. They would stone-grind the wheat into flour, completely whole — germ, bran and all — which they would testify to by weighing the product before and after. The burr mill would single-file through the customer requests, in order to be able to testify to flour wholeness.

This is chakki ka atta (translated: burr mill flour), that we used rest of the month to make chapati (roti), poori, or paratha.

Let’s start with the simplest of them, the chapati. There are just two ingredients — water and flour.

Kneaded together, a new ingredient magically comes alive inside the dough. This is gluten, the protein that is formed inside dough in the presence of water. Gluten is what gives dough its stretchiness and its stubbornness. Wheat dough is not just pliable — it wants to fight back. It takes a shape, but wants to go back to its previous shape. The pliability; the ability to hold a shape; the elasticity; all this is because of its gluten.

I like to imagine multitudes of tiny balloons inside the dough, all of which can be blown up without breaking, while keeping the dough from breaking into bits. These gluten balloons fill up with air so bread can rise and hold all the air inside instead of escaping. The gluten balloon allows chapatis to puff up with steam.

That brings me to a common misunderstanding — chapatis/rotis are often called the unleavened flat breads of India. But they are not unleavened. Leavened just means risen, and rotis are indeed risen, at the last minute of cooking, when they puff up with steam. Steam leavening is a respectable form of leavening that is probably the most ancient. I picture housewives in the Indus Valley civilization slapping circles of dough on their wood-burning griddles and watching them puff up.

They are unfermented, however, and no external leavening agent like yeast or baking soda are added.

During my childhood we had a chapati meal for either lunch or dinner every day. Two circular chapatis with a few dark brown spots, folded into quarters. A dal, a vegetable and a cup of yogurt completed the meal. When this is everyday food, one scorns it; half a world away in California, deprived of one’s neighborhood burr mill, a source of wheat, and the proper chapati-making expertise, it becomes an undertaking.

For years I tried to approximate chakki ka atta in California by mixing half and half of whole wheat and all purpose flour. But I was never thrilled about the lack of wholeness there (yes I’m a bit of a fanatic); and one day I used straight whole wheat, the rotis came out perfectly fine, so I have stuck with that. This makes sense — the species of wheat used for bread-making in the West (triticum aestivum) is the same as most of the wheat grown in India, mainly for the use of making chapatis. (There are many different subspecies though.) The grain size of chakki ka atta is probably smaller. But I haven’t found this to be a huge problem. I use King Arthur’s Premium Whole Wheat flour and get perfectly good, puffed up, rustic rotis.

Ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour

3/4 cup + 3 tbsp water

Method for dough:

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Making roti: whole wheat flour and water

Put the flour in a bowl, make a sort of well in the center, and pour the water in. Use a spoon or a chopstick to stir the water into the flour till you get a shaggy mass and most of the flour is moistened. Cover with a plate, and walk away for 10 minutes or so.

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Making roti: a shaggy mass

Why? The short wait gets the process of the flour absorbing the water started, and just allows the kneading to happen faster. It’s the lazy person’s method — allow time to do the work that you would have otherwise had to expend elbow grease for.

If the 10 minutes stretch to 20 minutes, that’s fine too, but do cover the flour, to prevent it from drying out.

Come back to your dough and combine it into a rough ball with your fingers. This should be relatively easy to do (should take just a minute) but will still have a shaggy appearance.

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Making roti: a shaggy ball

Now the kneading begins. Clear a 2′ by 2′ square on your counter and place the dough there. Push it, squeeze it, fold it; squeeze it and fold it over and over again, for about 7 minutes. Use your strength. Be firm with the dough. From a shaggy mass the dough will become satiny smooth and hold together in an oblong. It should feel a lot like human muscle when squeezed, but more like slack than taut muscle. If too sticky, add some dry flour, spoon-by-spoon; if too taut, spread it out flat, sprinkle some water on it, and incorporate it with more kneading.

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Making roti: completed dough

Keep it aside for half hour or so before making rotis with it. The extra wait allows the gluten to relax. This is a lot like exercising: the way one pushes one’s muscles to work, until they feel a little too taut; then one waits a few minutes to relax before exercising some more.

Coat with oil on the outside to keep from drying out. If you want to stash it for another day, it will be good in the fridge in tupperware for a week or even two.

Method for rolling and roasting chapatis

Step 1: Make a few golf-ball-sized balls. I make around 8 (the evening’s dinner amount), roll them to make smooth balls, flatten them slightly into disks, and cover with flour to keep from drying out.

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Rolling rotis: make flat disks covered with flour

Step 2: Roll. Start with the first disk you made. This gives it a few minutes to relax after being handled. Use a good heavy rolling pin and roll out into a thin disk about 6-7 inches in diameter. You will need to sprinkle some dry flour on the counter and on the dough to keep it from sticking; here I use all purpose, but whole wheat will do as well.

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Rolling roti: thin six inch circle

Step 3: Roast. Have a griddle on medium-high heat. No oil needed. When hot, slap a disk on. Wait thirty seconds; the chapati will start to show small bubbles. Flip. Wait another thirty seconds; this time the small bubbles will combine into a few bigger bubbles.

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Roasting roti: ready for first flip

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Roasting roti: ready for second and final flip

Now you have a choice. Either flip once again for the last time, wait thirty seconds (hopefully it should puff out more) and take the chapati off the griddle.

Or, turn on the flame on a separate burner, and flip the chapati onto the open flame using the burner grate to place it on. It should puff up in a few seconds. Turn off the flame and pull it off with tongs. Don’t leave it on longer than ten seconds or so, because it will burn.

Roti: puffing up on burner

Roti: puffing up on burner

If you want, sprinkle some ghee on top of the still hot chapati.

Some of these steps take practice. So get thee to the kitchen and get started!

The welcome home salad

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What better way to end a trip — come home to a garden with lettuce spilling out of its borders, waiting to be picked. I picked some of the arugula and some frisee and made a giant salad, which was definitely a relief after airport food. The standard dressing I use is the epitome of simple, but there is a technique to it, so file this under ‘basic methods’.

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Step 1: Salt

Salt the greens lightly, and toss it around with your fingers. You could use tongs but there is no implement quite as blunt, rubbery, strong, and with as fine control as your fingers.

Step 2: Oil.

Pour some good, green-tinged xtra virgin olive oil around on the greens. How much? Well, just like distance can be measured in light-years, I can tell you the amount of oil in seconds — for a big bowl of greens, squirt oil for around ten seconds. Once again, toss with your fingers. What this step does is coat the greens with the oil, and thereby, the grains of salt are trapped under the sheen of oil, and the seasoning has been captured; and will not easily slip off the greens into a super-seasoned pool in the bottom of the bowl.

Step 3: Vinegar.

I used balsamic. Sprinkle about five seconds (half of the oil) of balsamic vinegar on the greens and toss with your fingers. Considering that the oil is already coating the leaves, the vinegar will bead up on them (oil and vinegar don’t mix), and create little bursts of flavor.

Step 4: Accessorize.

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Scoop the greens into bowls and add your choice of toppings. We used one avocado, cubed; and cherry tomatoes, halved. Please do halve them; the juicy insides absorb flavors better than the plastic peel on the outside; and when you’ve got good olive oil and good balsamic, that is a good thing. Place them on the bed of greens.

Hat tip: Nick Stellino, the TV chef.

Healthy, natural granola

Most newbies to California eventually discover granola, as I did, years ago. Popularized by the hippie movement in the 1960’s, this mixture of crisp roasted oats, dried fruit and nuts is usually combined with yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfast. I first tried it at a cafe and loved it. Of course I tried to recreate it at home, and reached for the many, many, many varieties of packaged granolas in the grocery aisles. I got quickly disenchanted. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Too sweet!

2. There’s always one ingredient I don’t like. Either it’s coconut; or dried raspberries paired with vanilla; or sesame seeds which I like, but not in this context; or chocolate, good lord.

3. Often stale. The oils used are often rancid.

4. Never tastes quite oaty enough. As my husband says, too much binder, not enough oats.

5. .Some granola makers want to ride on the ‘rustic appeal’ train and make it artificially clumpy, to replicate that homemade look, but honestly people, those clumps are hideous. I’ve had packages of granola that were nothing but clumps. Clumps hide sugar and salt bombs. Yuck.

So I finally decided to make my own and never looked back. The fresh, roasted smell of oats brightens up the kitchen on the mornings that I make it, and I have never had store bought granola that tasted quite that oaty.

Thank you Alton Brown! I first saw this recipe on his show Good Eats, but I have refined, simplified, and de-sweetened it (Americans like their food too damn sweet, even Alton Brown. We are not children people).

Here is the basic recipe, and please experiment by tossing it with fruit and nuts of your choice.

Step 1. Oats

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I use 6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats from Quaker. Put 6 cups oats into a giant bowl.

Step 2: Basic flavoring.

Add one teaspoon granular salt and stir it around with your hands. Then add half a cup of almond oil, and a quarter cup good maple syrup. We use Grade B. Mix it very well with a spatula, until all the oats are shiny and covered.

Step 3: Roast.

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Start oven at 250 F. Spread the oats on a roasting pan in a flat layer about a quarter inch thick. Let it roast for one hour and ten minutes. About 40 minutes into the cooking process, take out the tray, and stir the oats around to break clumps. Put the pan back in to complete the cooking process.

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Once it is done, you have the opportunity to mix in dried fruit or nuts of your choice — some that we have tried are, currants; slivered almonds; flax seeds.

Wait till it cools and save in an airtight jar. It will keep for at least two weeks, never had a chance to keep it longer — we always finish it within that time.

Primer on caramelizing onions

At some point in their life, every able-bodied human will be called upon to caramelize onions. If you are Indian, this might happen three times in one evening. So let us learn to do this right.

Onions:

Let’s say you start with one yellow onion. Peel it and chop it. You do not want chunky pieces of onion. What you want is to maximize the cut surface area to expose more of it to the saute it is about to undergo. You can do this one of three ways: slice the onion paper thin; or first give it cross cuts with a sharp knife to produce a fine dice; or, get lazy and puree in a food processor with a few tablespoons of water. All methods work, but the wet purees will take a few minutes to lose their water, and only then will the onion start to caramelize. With the food processor, make sure to pull out a few chunks the blades inevitably leave behind and chop them by hand.

Saute:

Choose a thick-bottomed pan that will not allow the onions to burn. Stainless steel is best; Calphalon will work; you do not need Teflon. About three-four tablespoons of oil per medium onion is the proportion of oil you need. The flame should be medium-high at first. Be careful not to overfill the pot! If the uncooked onions come up halfway up the pot sides, they will steam instead of searing. Also, no lid needed.

Choices, choices:

Now, if you caramelize the Indian way, you will saute on medium-high for fifteen minutes or so, every few minutes giving the onions a vigorous stir. If you caramelize the Western way, you will turn the heat down to low after they first start sizzling, and keep the oil at a simmer for a good 45 minutes to an hour, only stirring every ten minutes or so. I think the Western way draws more sweetness out of the onions and is great when onions are the star of the show. In contrast, in Indian dishes, caramelized onions usually are the base for a spicy gravy.

Sprinkle of salt:

After they have started sizzling, I usually add a sprinkle of salt. This draws moisture out of the onions and helps them caramelize faster.

Proceeding:

As the onions cook, they will first get translucent, then the edges will start to brown. And their volume will shrink. There may be brown bits stuck to the pan as well; don’t worry about them! As long as you used a thick-bottomed pan that distributes heat well, this is fine. Remember, dark brown = good, black = bad. No doubt it is a subtle difference. But if you notice the edges turning black instead of brown, turn the heat down a bit. As it proceeds, it is wise to turn the heat down a bit anyway.

Finishing:

You can stop when you see some brown, or wait till you see mostly brown. It is a judgment call. The middles of the onion pieces will still be translucent till the end. If you want to scrape up the brown bits stuck to the pan, you can either wait till the next liquid comes in — whether it is tomatoes, yogurt, or other meat or vegetables — as they steam, the brown bits can be easily deglazed. If no further liquid is coming in, cover the pan for a few minutes, allow the onions to sweat, and the resulting liquid can be used to scrape them up.

The caramelization process:

After having done this a few hundred times, one might wonder — what on earth is going on? Well essentially the sugars in the onion oxidize and break down, browning occurs, and produce that familiar aroma. It is the same kind of caramelization process that is used while making creme caramel, otherwise known as flan; and a multitude of other desserts. Here is more information about it.
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