Spice is a state of mind: cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Sometimes spice is just a state of mind. Plants don’t come with Dymo-printed labels that say ‘Spice use recommended’.

Now you might think I’m making an issue out of nothing. Obviously, plants that produce a strong appetizing smell can be used as spices, and others not, right? No mind tricks necessary.

But consider what happens during the process of blooming spices, otherwise known as tempering, or tadka. A sequence of spices are thrown into hot oil. They may be seeds — like cumin or black mustard, dry leaves like the bay, or even bits of bark — like cinnamon.

If the temperature is too low, nothing particular happens, while if the temperature is too high, the spice burns. But if the temperature is just right, two things happen. One, the outer surface of the spice browns. This browning, known as the Maillard reaction, is the perfect state of cooked food sought after by chefs, whether it is grill marks on meat or the browned crust of bread or cookies: Golden Brown and Delicious. Each spice produces its own browned flavor, which is reminiscent of its regular flavor, but sharpened and deepened.

The other thing that happens during blooming/tempering/tadka is that the oils inside the spice, those that carry the aromatic compounds, escape into the pool of oil in which they are cooking. As the oil slithers and smears all over the food, as it is wont to do, it carries the essential oils of the spice around with it too.

Tadka is such a powerful method that it has become a standard way to either begin or finish off most dishes in Indian cooking. But now, listen carefully, because this is the most important part. Once the key to unlock flavor known as tadka/tempering/blooming has been found, one can really excavate flavors from non-spices, from seeds that no one would particularly think of as a spice.

Don’t believe me? What would you say about split lentil beans used as spice? Well, in the south, two kinds of lentils, the urad dal and the channa dal are both used during tempering; they each create a characteristic roasty flavor.

Not impressed? How about rice? One of the unique things about the state of Kerala, which just happens to be the home of such stalwarts as pepper, ginger and cinnamon, is the use of raw rice as part of tempering, usually in coconut oil. Used in this way, bland old rice acquires a golden roasty flavor that permeates subtly throughout the food.

Thoran

i’m also having fun learning about one of Kerala’s signature dishes known as thoran. A simple and soothing preparation, it involves any vegetable cooked with some grated coconut, tempered simply with mustard seeds, curry leaves and possibly a couple other things. In my attempt, I left out the grated coconut, choosing instead to cook it in coconut oil to provide a similar sweetness.

This is the perfect kind of simple background where the use of raw rice in tempering can be shown off. So here we go — cabbage thoran.

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Tempering spices including rice

Tempering spices including rice

Coconut oil

Coconut oil

Urad dal in oil

Urad dal in oil

The rest of the spices

The rest of the spices

Cabbage in

Cabbage in

Cabbage cooking

Mixed with dry spices

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran

Ingredients:
  • Half a head of cabbage, shredded
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida
  • 2 teaspoons split and skinned urad dal
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons raw rice
  • 5-7 curry leaves
  • 3 small dry red chilies
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Heat the coconut oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. When completely melted, add the spices in the following order: first, the asafetida; wait for it to foam up, then the urad dal; wait for it to start turning reddish, then, the mustard seeds; wait for them to start popping, then the raw rice; wait for it to all turn opaque and start to toast, then the dry red chilies; wait for them to darken, then the curry leaves.

Once the leaves crisp up, throw in the cabbage and stir to combine with the oil. Add the salt, turmeric and red chili powder and mix it nicely with the cabbage until it is evenly covered.

Cover the pan, turn the heat to a simmer and let it cook this way, in its own steam, for about 10 minutes more.

Serve with white rice, or, as I did, with chapati / roti and another side.


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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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An early summer beverage

Spiced buttermilk

Spiced buttermilk with cilantro flower

Summer has come early to San Francisco this year; sometimes it feels like it never left. With climate change looming, this is not as good news as it might seem. But let’s not worry our pretty little food-blogging heads about this just yet and cool off with this yogurt beverage.

Spiced buttermilk: Neeru majjige

This is another specialty from the southern state of Karnataka from my friend Rashmi. Just think — instead of reaching for a sugary soda you could cool down with a tall glass of spicy yogurty neeru majjige. Better to taste and way better for your body.

Ingredients for Neeru Majjige

All the ingredients

Blend it

Blend it

Strain it

Strain it

Squeeze dry

Squeeze this stuff dry

Spiced buttermilk

Done – spiced buttermilk

Spiced Buttermilk (Neeru Majjige)

Ingredients:
  • A cup of yogurt
  • A cup to cup and a half water
  • Quarter inch ginger
  • Half a green chili
  • Few sprigs cilantro
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
Method:

Simpler than simple. Blend all the ingredients together. Strain it. Squeee–eeee-ze the green remains dry. The mixture is a pale green, the squeezing will drip delicious light green drops on it. Refrigerate for half hour if you like.

Garnish with a sprig of cilantro, or like I did, a cilantro flower from the garden.

Coconut-yogurty thing from South India

Palladya with rice

Palladya with rice

The other day a friend — Rashmi by name — casually popped in a comment about a ¢#&!Ω# she makes at home, called palladya. Apparently it is similar to the kadhis of the north.

What?! Why have I never heard of this before? Me — a connoisseur of all kadhis everywhere, or so I thought? Why have you kept this secret from me all these years, Rashmi? I thought we were friends. We exchange stories about kids, husbands and various other things. And yet, you kept this from me? Sniff.

Anyway, now that the secret is out, I am glad to have been introduced to this concoction. It is a soupy thing that uses yogurt as a base just like the kadhis of the north, but instead of using chickpea flour for thickening, it uses ground coconut. Floaters are vegetables, a set similar to the ones in this kadhi from Sindh. Some typical ones are okra, white pumpkin/melon (this one), and other squashes. Ever the iconoclast, I used cauliflower; always trying to fit in at the same time, I used baby squashes (this one).

Palladya

This was my first time making it, you can see how it turned out. We had it with rice and it was yummy. Next time I will try to get a finer grind on the coconut by first grating it. And souring the yogurt by leaving it out all day before using it is a tip from Rashmi I didn’t have time to use, but I will next time.

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding

Soaking channa dal, collecting coconut and spices for grinding


The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

The grind, should try to get a finer one next time

Cauliflower

Cauliflower

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Frozen tinda (apple gourd)

Cuppa yogurt

Cuppa yogurt

Stovetop

Stovetop

Tempering

Tempering

Palladya: kadhi from South India

Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons channa dal, soaked for half hour in hot water
  • Half a coconut, grated, or 1 cup frozen
  • 3 or more fresh green chilies
  • 1 inch piece of ginger
  • 1 cup yogurt or buttermilk, soured
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1 cup summer squash cubed (I used apple gourd/tinda)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil (substitute with any oil)
Method

Grind the drained channa dal, coconut, chilies and ginger together. You will need to add some water in order to get a fine grind, I ended up adding about half a cup. Do try to grate your coconut before throwing into the blender, that way you are more assured of getting it to turn into a smooth paste.

Put the veggies in a pot combined with the coconut paste, salt and some water. Bring to a boil, covered. In about 20 minutes of cooking at a simmer, covered, the vegetables will be more or less cooked. Poke with a knife to make sure.

If so, whip up the yogurt and add it to the pot. Stir, this only needs to heat through. Now the tempering. Heat the oil in a small, thick-bottomed pan. Throw in the mustard seeds when it shimmers; wait for it to pop. When they pop, throw in the curry leaves. When they look shriveled, turn off, pour the oil and spices into the palladya, and stir.

Is it a chutney? Is it rice? It’s both – cilantro rice

IMG_1349

I am very proud of my husband. He went from being a cilantro-hater to a cilantro-tolerator (only if it is minced fine), from there to a wary cilantro-liker (if used in the right dishes), to a must-have-cilantro-flag-waver (in some dishes), to an unabashed cilantro-promoter. The other day he informed me that someone had brought a dish of cilantro-rice to a work potluck. He thought it tasted very nicely savory and wanted me to try making it at home.

This is what marrying an Indian will do to you. Go marry an Indian, all of you — there certainly are enough of us around.

I know he will insist that I put in a disclaimer — that he still can’t stand cilantro that is un-minced and placed right on top of food in all its stemmy and leafy glory. So there you have it, disclaimer placed.

I had never heard of cilantro rice before. Given that I love cilantro and make chutneys with it all the time (here is one and here is another), and also that I’m constantly looking for ways to dress up rice, this is surprising. Cilantro rice marries these two interests. Now that the match has been made, this will be a staple in my kitchen.

Cilantro rice

There are various ways to do this but I basically made a chutney out of the cilantro and cooked it then mixed in rice. You could simply mince the cilantro with a knife or not cook it.

Ingredients
  • 3/4 cup rice
  • Half a bunch cilantro
  • An inch piece of ginger
  • 1 – 4 green serrano chilies
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (I used a shallot)
  • For tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon udad dal
    • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
    • 6 or so curry leaves
  • 1/4 cup cashew
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Method

Cook the rice the normal way, but with somewhat less water than usual, to keep the grains from getting too mushy. Grind the cilantro, the chili and the ginger together using as little water as you can get away with — this basically means you are making a chutney. Finely chop the onion.

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Heat the oil in a wide thick-bottomed pan on medium high. Throw the tempering items in in the following order: first, the udad dal, when it reddens the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Stand back if you value your peace. Wait for the leaves to sizzle and be done.

Now in goes the onion. They will start to get translucent and start to redden at the edges.

Clear a little space to make a hot spot on the pan and put in the cashews. As they roast they will take on a few dark spots. This will take a few minutes; now it is time to put in the chutney that you ground before. Throw in the salt, cook the paste down for a few minutes.

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The rice goes in next. Break up the clumps with your fingers if need be. Stir to coat all the grains with the chutney. Cover and cook for a few minutes on low.

Here is the result — fiddlehead ferns on one side, squash raita on the other. They will come later.

IMG_1354

Beasties in my batter

My mother always said that South Indians are much smarter than the rest of us simpletons because they eat a lot of urad dal. This is a bean I have mentioned before. It is alternatively called black gram or Vigna Mungo; this is what it looks like:

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the left, split and dehusked on the right.

Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal: whole on the top, split and dehusked on the bottom.

It is closely related to the more well-known moong dal (mung bean), they are both in the Vigna genus, which means they are about as closely related as…say…the polar bear and the grizzly bear to each other. Urad dal, though, has a blacker husk, and white (not yellow) underneath.

Even though this bean is eaten as a dal all over India, its most interesting use is in the fermented cakes and crepes of South India — idlis and dosas. In order to ferment it, the lentil is first soaked and ground thoroughly, and mixed with rice batter.

Fermentation of the Lactic Acid type

Let’s take a little digression into what fermentation does to the batter.

Fermentation

Fermentation

  • The mixture is kept warm, and you know what happens when you leave something out of the fridge — a whole jungle gets started in it.
Jungle of beasties

Jungle

  • Creatures like lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and bacteria that like to breathe air. They do battle, and one-by-one, are felled. The air-breathing bacteria (we know them as ‘contaminants’) are killed off right away, while soaking. The yeast also goes nowhere (unless you cheat by adding commercial yeast, which basically sends reinforcements to the yeast faction). The salt kills off many other weaklings.
  • What wins out is a certain lactic acid bacteria called Leuconostoc mesenteroides; and it brings a lactic acid bacterium friend, called Streptococcus faecalis.
Leuconostoc mesenteroides

Leuconostoc mesenteroides

  • These guys get busy stuffing their faces with your batter. They mostly gorge on the sugars and starch.
  • You know what happens when creatures eat — they produce stuff. All right, let’s get graphic — they excrete. One thing they produce is lactic acid, which is responsible for the pleasantly sour taste of idlis and dosas. Another thing they do is pass gas — in this case, it is carbon dioxide. This gas — CO2 — which is also responsible for the bubbles in bread, soda and beer — makes the batter rise and become fluffy. The cool kids call this ‘leavening’.
CO2 bubbles

CO2 bubbles

  • They also somehow increase the amount of vitamin B1, B2 and B3 in the batter.
  • Even though beans and dals of all types are really good for you, they also come with a bit of a sting in the tail — they have some ‘anti-nutritional’ properties which prevent your body from absorbing the goodness. Well, fermentation reduces those bad things.
  • One of the anti-nutritional properties of beans are those that cause you to…you know…flatulate. So the beasties in your batter are helping you from doing that too much, which is a good thing.

So now I’m thinking that my mother was wrong…it is not just urad dal that makes you smarter; it is the little beasties that ferment it.

Idli / dosa batter

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup urad bean, whole, skin on (I used whole grain to add that extra bit of nutrition to it).
  • 2 cups uncooked white rice (I used basmati but a short or medium grain white rice would work as well or better).
  • (in general a 1:2 ratio or dal to rice works well; you can experiment with 1:3, but don’t alter it more.)
  • 2 teaspoons salt (lactic acid bacteria finds salt very congenial, unlike yeast).

Method:

Rinse the dal and rice once in plain water and drain. Now leave them to soak in very generous quantities of filtered, room temperature water, separately. You must leave them for at least six hours; but I let them soak for more than twelve.

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At the end of this time, the rice will have almost doubled, while the beans will have almost tripled. The black gram beans will have become lighter into a green, as seen below:

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Black gram (urad dal), soaked

Now it is time to grind them separately. I used my trusty blender. This is not the ideal choice, because there is a chance the blades get overheated and kill the beasties. The ideal would be a stone grinder (also known as a wet grinder). Maybe someday I will make the big bucks and spring for one of those. In the meantime, I slum it with my blender (that I got for free from American Express). I have never had a problem.

Let’s do the rice first. I drained it, and added a cup of fresh filtered water along with it. Blend it for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The end result will be a thick white liquid. When you squeeze some between your fingers, you should feel tiny grit, which is the ground up rice. You are not trying to get this to be perfectly smooth. Tiny grit is what you are looking for. Empty it out into a very large bowl, that will be used for rising.

Next let’s do the drained dal. This time you will need to add a cup and a quarter of water to the blender. Blend for about 4 minutes, with breaks. The batter this time will be fluffier and not as watery. When you feel it with your fingers, it should feel smooth, not gritty.

IMG_0036

Black gram (urad dal) batter mixing with rice batter

Pour the dal batter in along with the rice batter. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Mix it with your hands; this is one of those instructions that every South Indian mother imparts to her children; as far as I am aware, no scientist has tested why this is so. The beasties are already on the bean, so it isn’t that. Could it be that this step imparts warmth? In any case, using your clean (but not sanitized) hand, gently stir the batter to combine. Leave it covered in a corner in your kitchen.

Now. I left it at room temperature in San Francisco, but the ideal is room temperature in South India, which would be in the nineties Fahrenheit. So if you like, you can leave it in the oven to rise, with either the oven light on to create warmth, or, after turning on the oven to about a 110 F and turning off. In a warm oven with the light on, this will take 12 hours.

Room temperature of about 70 F worked fine for me, but it did take longer.

In about 12 hours I raised the lid to take a whiff — oof! Wet socks, toe jam, belly button cheese…not sure what else it reminded me of. Clearly, my batter had developed a yeast infection. Be not squeamish, ye of little faith! Put the lid down and keep going.

Now I am not sure if this is typical, but it sure smelled like the batter went through a yeast infection phase on its way to a proper lactic acid bacterial infection. It could be that because I do so much bread in my kitchen (including sourdough) that the little yeasties are floating about just dying to get their naughty little hands into stuff.

IMG_0043

Risen idli/dosa batter

Risen idli/dosa batter

In any case, within about 24 hours of rising, I certainly smelled some of that lactic acid goodness — it smelled sour. It had risen to almost double the original size. The batter was ready.

Idli cakes

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups idli batter from above (this will make one dozen)
  • Idli steamer which usually comes with 12 perforated cups
  • some oil

Method:

Rub a bit of oil on each of the idli trays. Pour about a quarter cup of batter on each. Now place it in a pot with water to about a couple inches already at a boil; cover, turn it down to a simmer, and steam the cakes for about 12 minutes with the lid on.

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Idlis are great with any manner of chutney on the side, or sambhar (dal made out of pigeon peas and its characteristic spice blend).

Dosa crepes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup batter (this will make about 4 decent sized crepes)
  • 4 teaspoons oil

Method:

Thin out the batter with about a third to half again as much water. So if you start with a cup of water, use between a third of a cup to half a cup extra water. Basically, the batter should flow easily, much like crepe batter.

Heat a wide nonstick pan on medium high heat. Spread about a teaspoon of oil around. Now, we pour about a third of a cup of thin batter and spread it.

Spreading dosa batter into a nice thin layer is an art form. Here is what you need to know.

  • You don’t have to have a thin layer. But the thinner you spread it, the more crisp. Until you achieve that pinnacle of thinness, crispiness and paperiness — paper dosa.
  • If you pour batter on to a hot pan, it will immediately congeal and instead of spreading, you will get a rubbery mass. So the pan needs to be hot while cooking, but cool while pouring on. Traditionally people have used the onion trick — rub half a cut onion on the pan to cool it down. I used the French way of lifting it off the flame as I pour the batter on.
  • To spread it, people have traditionally used a spiral motion — take a flat ladle and spread the batter around with its bowl in a spiral fashion. Once again, I used the French method of tipping the pan this way and that to spread it.

In some places, the batter will be spread so thin that it is lacy.

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Cover with a lid and cook on high heat for about three minutes. Or four. At this point, the underside will definitely look brown and crisp. If you try to lift it off, the crepe will easily peel off; even the thin lacy parts. You can cook it on the other side if you like but it is not strictly necessary.

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Lacy, crisp edges of dosa after I took a bite

Dosa can be eaten with similar accompaniments as idli; chutneys, sambhar; or really any manner of vegetable or meat viand. The South Indian restaurant standard is to make a wrap with a potato preparation inside.

Enjoy, and thank you beasties!

Yogurt Rice — an iterative approach

Yogurt rice

Yogurt rice

A precept that is big in the software engineering world (my other life) is that development should happen in phases, but each phase should be releasable as a full-fledged product.

This precept was very much on my mind as I made yogurt rice for dinner the other evening. I’ll tell you why.

Now yogurt rice (otherwise known as curd rice; mossaru anna in Kannada, daddojanam in Telugu, bagala bath in Tamil) is a South Indian recipe that I hadn’t even heard of till adulthood. But had I ever eaten yogurt rice? Of course! Every single day of my tender young life I had yogurt rice for lunch. Yogurt rice with cauliflower, yogurt rice with ketchup (don’t ask), yogurt rice with papad, yogurt rice with sookha aalu, yogurt rice with pickles. If you pierced my veins you would probably have had thick and pulpy yogurt rice squirt out.

Sorry about that image. Here’s the point I’m trying to make. Short of the fancy ‘yogurt rice’ recipe with every bell and whistle, simply mixing yogurt with rice achieves a serviceable product. While being quite ricey and quite yogurty and cooling, it is its own thing with a very distinctive fragrance. That is your first iterative product — simply mix yogurt with rice. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Iteration 1: Mix it up

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Cook about a cup of long-grained rice with some salt. Let it cool a bit, break lumps with your fingers, then mix in about a cup of plain yogurt nicely. You are done with your first product. This is a great accompaniment to any spicy vegetable dish or pickle. Or heck, dot it with ketchup, scoop up a dot in each bite, but don’t tell people this idea came from me.

Iteration 2: Salad it up

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Now for the second iteration we throw in some crunchy salady ingredients to brighten the flavors. Imagine luscious smooth cooling yogurt rice with the occasional crunchy freshness, perhaps a couple in each bite. Chop up 2-3 scallions, greens and all; and perhaps a quarter of a deseeded cucumber into tiny cubes, and mix it into the yogurt rice.

Iteration 3: Spice it up

Yogurt rice is soothing and cooling. Perhaps too cooling and too soothing? We need to add some sweet, sweet pain. This calls for heat from two sources: green chilies, and ginger. Thinly slice one serrano chili, or a few smaller bird’s eye chilies, or one jalapeno. Also slice half an inch piece of ginger into strips. Mix those into the rice. Still in keeping with the salad theme, we do not cook these last ingredients but keep them fresh.

Iteration 4: Season it up

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Now lets add a tadka. For the non-Indians, ‘tadka’, ‘vaghaar’ or ‘baghaar’ is a very standard method of finishing up many, many recipes: heat a bit of oil or ghee, throw in some whole or ground spices and / or aromatics, let them cook, and throw that seasoned fat into the dish and mix it in. So let us tadka the yogurt rice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a little pan; when it shimmers, put in the following: a few sprinkles of asafetida; when it foams, put in a teaspoon of deskinned udid dal; when they start to turn reddish, put in a teaspoon of mustard seeds; when they pop, put in about 6 curry leaves. When they shrivel, it is time to turn off the heat and mix it into the rice.

Iteration 5: Fancy it up

What is expensive, nutritious and will allow you to charge 50 cents more for this dish? Cashews! In the same pan as the seasonings, put in a drop more oil, and put in a quarter cup whole cashews to roast. Once they darken in various places, turn off the heat, and mix it into the rice.

Iteration 6: Sweet touch it up

Now for the kicker — the last step that I didn’t even know about when I made this dish, but was told to me by my friend Rashmi after: put in about a quarter cup of pomegranate kernels and mix it in to distribute evenly throughout the rice. Can’t wait to try the 6th iteration of this dish the next time I make it!

Hot stuff – ginger chutney

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I hope you are clutching your socks, Dear Reader, because this recipe is going to Knock Them Off. It combines the heat of chilies with the singe of ginger, spiked with garlic. Just when you think you’ve been slapped around enough, in comes the soothing savoriness of lentils, and then you get your sweet reward.

I thought I was familiar with South Indian food, having grown up in cosmopolitan Bombay. But every once in a while I hear of a preparation that reminds me that restaurant cuisine (for any regional food) is rather more limited than what families actually eat. Restaurant cuisine is a cartoon representation of the reality that plays out in home kitchens.

South Indian food is culturally quite different from North Indian. There is a heavier reliance on rice than on wheat, for one. Then there’s the prevalence of coconut. But the one thing that really interests me (and one that I’ve used in quite diverse recipes, like on salmon — details later) — is that some lentils are used as a spice.

The main one is urad dal (Vigna mungo). This is known as ‘black lentil’ when it is whole, and ‘white lentil’ when it has been split and skin removed. This bean is native to India and one of those stealth ingredients that appears in various forms all over the country — maa ki dal in Punjab, dahi vada all over the north, a third of the grain content for dosas and idlis, and in innumerable recipes as a sprinkling in hot oil as a spice. When used as a spice, it does not add heat, but a sort of sharp savoriness and crunch. Imagine a quieter peanut. It is hard to describe.

But the star of this show is ginger, another tropical beauty. So let us proceed with ginger chutney. I got this recipe from my friend Rama who hails from South India. She will vouch for its authenticity and I vouch for hers.

Ingredients:

2 inch piece of ginger

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon urad dal (split and skinned)

1.5 tablespoon channa dal (bengal gram)

4 – 5 dry red chilies, or adjust to your heat preference

half a teaspoon tamarind paste (I use the paste that comes in a jar rather than the pods) — or substitute lime juice

half an inch square of jaggery — substitute with sugar

salt to taste

Method:

Mince the ginger and garlic. Their relative proportion are shown here:

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Ginger chutney: ginger and garlic

Also have the dals and dry red chilies ready to go, and their relative proportion is shown here:

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Ginger chutney: dals and red chilies

Warm a small, thick-bottomed pan with a teaspoon of oil. When the oil shimmers, put in the dals, first. Stir for around 5 minutes on high-ish heat, until they smell roasty and get reddened. They will turn color into something like this:

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Ginger chutney: roasted dals

Remove them to a vessel while draining the oil, and in the same oil, roast the dry red chilies. In a few seconds they will swell and in several more seconds they will darken. Turn the hood on if you have one or open windows, or you will pay for it by coughing. Remove the chilies once they darken. The spices to be dry-ground are done.

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Ginger chutney: dry spices

Now in the remaining oil, add the ginger and garlic. Add a drop more oil if needed, to moisten them completely. Stir on medium heat until they look shrunken and cooked (not brown). Like so:

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Ginger chutney: ginger garlic

At this point, I put the jaggery into the hot oil along with the ginger and garlic, to get some of that caramel flavor going. The heat, and the pressing with wooden spoon, got the jaggery melted and combined with the ginger and garlic, like so:

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Ginger chutney: ginger, garlic, jaggery

Turn of the flame, and now the grinding starts. First the dry spices are ground separately in a coffee grinder to produce a coarse powder:

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Ginger chutney: dry spices

Now for the blender step. Pour the dry spices, the ginger and garlic, the half teaspoon of tamarind, some salt to taste, and some water to lubricate the blades. Blend for about 3-4 minutes to get a smooth paste:

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There, you have your ginger chutney, ready to eat with idlis or dosas. Those are just the traditional accompaniments, but this chutney could add a lot to a sandwich with roasted vegetables, or a felafel wrap, or spread on baked chicken.

Update on 3/28/14: So months after posting this, I’m entering this in this month’s Spice Trail contest which is about ginger, hosted by Vanesther at the Bangers and Mash blog:

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Go thou and explore!