Category Archives: South Asian

The Discovery of India

“What’s Sri Lankan food like? Is it like Indian food?”

I never know how to answer this question. What is Indian food like anyway? There’s the food of South India, redolent of hot chilli and curry leaves. The food of the north uses more yogurt and less coconut milk. The Parsis, the Bengalis, the Gujeratis all have their specialities. So how similar is it to Sri Lankan food? The food of Kerala, based on rice flour and coconut has much more in common with the food of Sri Lanka than the food of Rajastan, where wheat is the staple. So in that sense, there is Indian food that’s a lot like Sri Lankan food. But is there even a such thing as Indian food? And what is Sri Lankan food anyway? Do you mean the food of the coast? The food of the north? The food of central highlands?

I really don’t know what Indian food is, and I certainly don’t pretend to be any expert on the regional cooking of India. Like most people, I’ve learned everything I know about “Indian” food from cookbooks, the Internet, and a few patient friends. This dinner, thrown together in honor of some fabulous halibut I got in Oregon, features what is a Bengali fish curry, according to Cyrus Todiwala. I cooked up a kidney bean curry to use some kidney beans we had boiled the previous week, and some cabbage, the way my mom would have made it (had we had curry leaves, dried chilli and Maldive fish–call it a minimalist Sri Lankan cabbage). Call it a pan-Indian supper, call it whatever you want, it was delicious.

Bengali Fish Curry

1 pound firm fleshed fish (I used halibut here. We had fillets, but you can use steaks as well)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic
1/2 inch piece of ginger
1 small green chile
1/2 teaspoon dried red chilli
2 tbsp. ghee (you can also use a neutral flavored oil such as peanut or canola)
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 tsp. garam masala
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro

Cut fish into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with turmeric and salt and set aside while you chop the onion. Pound garlic, ginger and green chilli together. Heat ghee in saucepan. Fry fish two minutes on one side and one minute on the other. Remove from pan. Fry onion briefly, add garlic-ginger paste. When onion is soft, add yogurt and cook until thick. (Warning: This is not the prettiest dish; the yogurt will curdle. Accept and move on. It tastes good.) Taste and adjust for salt.

Add fish to sauce and stir to coat. Bring sauce to simmer and cook one minute. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let sit for ten minutes. Garnish with cilantro.

Kidney Bean Curry

2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 in. ginger
1 green chilli
1 tbsp. ghee or neutral flavored oil
2 medium tomatoes, or use canned
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp salt (use less if using canned kidney beans)
chopped coriander for garnish

Pound garlic, ginger, and chilli to paste. Heat ghee in saucepan. Add onion and cook until soft. Add ginger-garlic paste. Cook one minute more, then add tomatoes. Add dried spices and cook until tomato has thickened and flavors are beginning to meld. Add kidney beans and cook five minutes more. Taste and adjust for salt. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve.

Source: Mamta’s Kitchen, Cyrus Todiwala’s Cafe Spice Namaste

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The Taste of Home

Tricomalee-style Crab Curry

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

They say that you can never go home again. In some ways, the business of growing up and growing old is about coming to terms with this reality. The place you miss, the place you crave, the place where you truly belong–that place no longer exists, if it ever did. Perhaps this is so for everyone, but for us rootless cosmopolitans who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, the old adage is a truth that defines our lives.

No wonder the smells and tastes of childhood are so powerful; they take us as close to home as we can get, however fleeting the experience may be. In Sri Lanka, our relatives in Negombo would make platters of curry with enormous lagoon crabs whenever our family would come to visit. As a child, I could never eat crab curry without getting the curry all over my hands and wrists, dirtying the glass of water I had to keep handy to douse the fire that burned my lips and tongue. An uncle looked on in wordless disgust–he himself possessed the remarkable ability to dismantle a crab with the fingertips of one hand, keeping even his palm clean. (Breaking things apart while keeping his hands clean was a specialty of this particular uncle of mine, but that is a story for another time and venue.)

In North Carolina, making this crab curry was an all-day family event, beginning with an early morning trip to the docks to catch the crabs ourselves. The tide had to either be going out or coming in. If the water level was too low, the crabs would have retreated to deeper waters; too high, and you couldn’t see when they began nibbling at their chicken neck bait. My mother, who only likes to spend time outdoors if there’s a great meal waiting at the end of it, was particularly good at tricking the crabs into her net. Then came the nasty part, from which my sister and I were thankfully excused: maiming the crabs by pulling off their claws and killing them by tearing off their top shells. Once as a teenager, I got stuck with this task when my dad was out of town. I was revolted, but it taught me that I could indeed live up to one of my maxims: don’t eat anything you couldn’t kill yourself. The reward for all this labor came when the large mound of crabs was brought to the table, steaming hot, bathed in a fiery curry fragrant with roasted coconut and spices.

Crack into a crab claw, suck out the mingled juices of the crab and coconut milk. Dig into the sweet flesh of the crab’s body, coated with the dark flavor of roasted coconut, chile, and coriander. Eating crab is a primal experience; you have to get your hands dirty.

How does it taste? It tastes of the sea, of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It tastes of lands both far and near. It’s the taste of the familiar, of family, and of childhood. It tastes of home.

Sri Lankan Crab Curry

Serves four.

Part I: Making the masala
3/4 c. unsweetened dried coconut (you may also use fresh)
1 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
6 fresh curry leaves
2 tbsp. coconut milk

Combine the dried coconut, fennel, pepper, and curry leaves and roast in dry skillet over medium-high fire, stirring constantly, until coconut is the color of, I hate to say it, hamster shavings.

Let mixture cool and grind in a blender with 2 tbsp. coconut milk.

Part II: The Curry
1 med. onion, sliced thinly
1/2 piece of ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 curry leaves
2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 tbsp. Jaffna or Trincomalee-style curry powder (see note)
1 tsp. paprika
1/2-2 tsp. cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp. tamarind pulp, soaked in hot water
1 c. coconut milk
fresh lime juice, to taste
salt, to taste

Heat oil in 6 quart pot. Saute onion, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves until onions begin to color (about 7 minutes). Add curry powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, one teaspoon salt and stir. Cook 1 minute more. Squeeze tamarind pulp and add tamarind water to pot. Add dried coconut masala and coconut milk. Stir and cook 10 minutes, until curry is thick. Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt, cayenne and/or lime if necessary.

Part III: Cleaning the Crabs

Crab Carcasses

18 Atlantic blue crabs (You may also use Pacific Dungenous, but use fewer crabs)
1 tsp. turmeric

With a pair of tongs, lift each crab out of the bag. Be sure it’s alive and kicking. If it seems to be dead, discard. Here comes the nasty bit. Carefully grasp crab from the back with your left hand. Cover your right hand in a dish towel and pry it’s claws off and reserve. Then, on a flat surface, turn the crab upside down, hold the top shell down with your left hand, and, grasping the crab’s legs with your right hand, pull the body away from the top shell. This kills the crab far more quickly humanely than the barbaric American custom of dropping them alive into boiling water.

Discard top shell. Under running water, pull off the “dead man’s fingers” that cover the body. Clean out any dark green matter and the pink organs (anyone know what these are?). However, reserve the orange eggs from the female crabs. Last, either with a large knife or your hands, split the two sides of the crab in two.

When you’ve done about half of the crabs, sprinkle with a dusting of turmeric. Sprinkle another dusting of turmeric when you’ve finishing cleaning all the crabs.

Add crabs to curry. Stirring and tossing occasionally, cook over medium heat for ten minutes.

Serve with white rice and accompaniments.

Note: Jaffna-style curry powder may be ordered here. You can make Trincomalee-style curry powder by roasting dried whole chilies and coriander seeds separately, grinding in a spice grinder and combining. Use 2 parts dried chilies to 1 part coriander seed (measure by weight). Do not even think of using any other kind of curry powder, particular not the foul substance sold at Western grocery stores.

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Curl up with a Cup of Chai

Ah, winter. The magic hush of the first snowfall. Snowflakes blowing across new fallen snow like powdered sugar across a freshly frosted cake. The refreshing -15 degree wind that greets me like a lover’s kiss on the front doorstep every morning as I leave the house. The sun zooming across the sky, racing to the horizon by 4:30. The long nights.

BWAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You didn’t fall for that, did you? I hate winter. I hate shoveling, frozen finger tips, frozen toes, the dirty slush that pools on the floor of the bus. I hate having to keep my mouth shut when the winter-loving Minnesotans get excited about the first snow-fall, or when my colleague chirps, “Cold enough for ya?” at me first thing in the morning. If I could hibernate and miss the whole damn season, I would.

Unfortunately, it seems my lot in life to go farther and farther north each time I move. As if the long New England winters weren’t bad enough, I’ve now moved to a place famous for harsh, long winters.

I was doing okay until the first snowfall. But then I realized that unlike in Boston, where the snow melts between snow falls, the snow on the ground is here to stay for five long months.

My general grumpiness about the weather was much relieved by a discovery last week on Rambling Spoon: Freshly brewed chai. Because I’m one of those lactose-intolerant people who never seems to have Lactaid on hand (especially when traveling) I never had chai in India. Chai in western coffee shops tends to be over-spiced and sickeningly sweet, especially when prepared with soy milk. But Karen’s description of chai on the streets of Calcutta, brewed simply with ample fresh ginger and a subtle kiss of cardamom had me. Where had this chai been all my life?

Real chai is the perfect thing for Minnesota winters. It’s almost worth the long, dark walk from the bus stop through the frozen landscape just to come home and put a pot of chai on the stove. Simmering the spices over the stove fills the house with the warm scent of ginger, which makes me feel like my mom is preparing a cup of ginger tea. Ginger and cardamom are both warming herbs in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, and somehow, chai prepared this way tastes much hotter than the actual temperature of the liquid. It’s like taking the warmth of the tropics into my body. The ginger and cardamom blast the cold right out of my fingers and toes, warming me up for the rest of the evening.

So if winter has you down, I prescribe the following remedy: Smash up some ginger, crack open a pod of cardamom, and put a pot of chai on the boil. Curl up with the latest issue of the New Yorker and your snuggly-est cat. And try to enjoy the moment, because it’s going to be a long, long winter.

Home Brewed Chai

Do not use your finest leaf-tea here. In fact, this is the perfect time for “dust tea,” cheaper tea that’s been swept off the tea room floor. Avoid tea bags, though, as ounce for ounce, they are actually a lot more expensive than any loose leaf tea.

Some insist that tea should never be boiled, and with your finest, loose-leaf tea, I absolutely agree. In this preparation, when I’m already using second or third rate tea, I like the stronger flavor that comes from boiling as an accompaniment to all that milk, sugar, and ginger.

1/2 c. water
3-5 thin slices ginger, either smashed in a mortar and pestle, or crushed with the flat of a knife
1-2 pods cardmom, split in half (if you’re using a mortar and pestle, go ahead and grind it with the ginger)
1 c. milk (I use lactose-free milk)
sugar to taste
1 heaping teaspoon tea

Boil water, ginger, and cardamom for 15 minutes. Add milk, and return to a simmer. Bring to a boil, add tea, and simmer five minutes.

Strain into your favorite mug, curl up with a good book, and make the most of the winter.

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A Chorus of Pickles

Kassie, her husband, another friend and I all survived the great pickle tasting, so it’s time for some recipes. Although there are three pickles in the above picture I only have two recipes for you: the achaarro and the tomato pickle. Of the four pickle taste testers, only one liked the cornichons. The rest of us found them overly sharp and vinegary. The cornichon-loving friend is going to find himself getting a bottle on his birthday, and another for Christmas, and yet another for New Year’s…

The clear winner was the tomato pickle, ranked first by every tester. I understand now why my parents wax nostalgic every time I asked about them. It has all the tang and concentrated tomato-y goodness of ketchup, but fresher and spicier. The versatility of this pickle already has already cracked my anti-fusion puritanism, as I use it in everything from mixing a homemade barbeque sauce for smoking to slathering it on a grilled pork sausage to garnishing a simple bowl of curd rice.

The achaaro came a distant second to the tomato pickle, but was also delicious. The vegetables had retained their color and crunch after their long soak in vinegar, and the spicy mustard, sweet vegetable and sharp vinegar are well-balanced. I have been munching on these with almost every meal as well.

I now understand the appeal of having pickles around the house. Aside from the practical concerns preserving the harvest through the winter, pickles make every meal special . They cut through the heavyness of meat and make every mouthful come alive. At times of the year when fresh vegetables weren’t available, they taste alive and fresh. Pickling has been around a lot longer than canning (which Kassie tells me wasn’t invented until the early 18th century); when I pickle, I think of my great-grandmothers pickling chilies, limes, and mangoes in Sri Lanka. And here I am, many years later, thousands of miles away, keeping tradition.

And besides, it’s just so pretty.

South Indian Tomato Pickle

They don’t make this in Sri Lanka. My parents found the recipe in Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Guide to Asian Cooking, my mother’s only cookbook for many years.

10 lbs roma tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 golf-ball sized sphere of tamarind, soaked in hot water
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 c. cayenne pepper
1/4 c. peanut oil

1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 large handful curry leaves
10-20 green chilies
1 small head garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
3 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
1/2 c. peanut oil
Salt to taste

1. Wring out tamarind and discard fibrous material. Heat oil in large stockpot, add tomatoes, tamarind water, cayenne pepper and turmeric. Simmer until tomatoes are dark and thick, stirring occasionally. This will take a long time. Ours were on the stove for almost four hours.

2. When tomatoes are ready, heat 1/2 c. oil in a large frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, and fresh chilies. Saute until garlic is golden. Careful not to burn it!

3. Add garlic-ginger mixture to tomatoes, simmer ten minutes. Pour into sterilized bottles and seal. Kassie and I agreed that the antibacterial properties of the spices and the acid of the tamarind and tomatoes would keep us safe from botulism and other scary germs, so we didn’t bother to process. You’re welcome to, if that’s a concern for you.

Sources: My mom, Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Guide to Asian Cooking, Kitchenmate, Saffron Hut.

Achaaro*

This is a mixed vegetable pickle. It’s impossible to give exact ingredients and quantities. Use a mixture of carrots, cauliflower, green beans, shallots, garlic, fresh chilies, and banana peppers.

Enormous quantity of cider vinegar sufficient to cover the vegetables once they’re in their bottles.
1/2 c. mustard seed, soaked overnight in white vinegar to cover
2 inch piece of ginger

1. Open all your windows and get a couple of exhaust fans going.

2. Grind mustard seed, vinegar, and ginger in blender.

3. Bring vinegar to boil and blanch vegetables in it. Arrange vegetables in sterilized jars. Place 1 tbsp of mustard mixture in each jar. Pour vinegar over the vegetables. Seal and process if you wish (we didn’t).

*Achaaro comes from the Hindi word Achaar. It’s called achaar all over the Indian Sub-Continent and all over Southeast Asia, except in Sri Lanka, where it’s called achaaro. Don’t know why.

Sources: My mom, Suharshini Seneviratne’s Exotic Tastes of Sri Lanka

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