A few weeks ago, I received a gorgeous book called “Vibrant India” by a food blogger, entrepreneur, small business owner (basically, Swiss army knife in a human form) Chitra. The book focuses on the basis of South India Cuisine, with interesting twists from her immigrant life in Brooklyn.
I am no stranger to Indian food. In fact, my mom works as a physician in an Indian neighborhood of Yangon, and I grew up eating actually lots of Indian food. But, after reading this book, I realized I don’t know jack shit about Indian food. What is the difference between Northern and Southern Indian food? What type of meat do they eat? Are spices different between the North and the South? And, you cannot use onion or garlic in strict vegetarian customs of Hindu Brahmins (these are placed along with meat and alcohol, and believed to cause lethargy)? The answers are just as fascinating as the questions themselves.
But, what I have found, through trying Chitra’s recipes, is that despite many dietary restrictions, the dishes achieve this incredibly balanced, vibrant and bright flavor profile through using a variety of spices. For instance, I could never imagine cooking vegetarian food without using onion or garlic, but somehow, out of nature’s miracle, adding a slight pinch of asafetida powder, made from sap of the root of a perennial plant, almost faithfully imitates the characteristic pungency of allium family. Yes, it is true that asafetida powder in its powder form smells almost like dry cat pee, but when heated in oil, it changes into this intense citrusy and musky aroma. It is mind-boggling that I can somehow substitute tedious dicing activity with a salt-babe moment.
Also, while reading the book, I have to remind myself that this way of resourceful cooking is not brought upon by geographical restraint or unavailability of ingredients, but rather dictated by the way of life. By that I mean, if I were to eat casually at a South Indian restaurant, I would never have thought about using these uncommon spices when I recreate the dish at home. In fact, I don’t have to. I can recreate a similar flavor profile by using different herbs or spices, not normally used in a South Indian kitchen. However, I think ignoring the constraint, resourcefulness and ideology of South Indian cuisine would strip its essence and the innate value.
I was listening to a story on NPR the other day that a wife came out to her husband that she wanted to undergo sex change to become a man. Drama ensued, but ultimately the guy decided to stay with his “wife” because he feels that he is not married to just random body parts, but to a person as a whole. I just find the story very poetic. I guess, with all the cheesiness, I also feel that to love a South Indian cuisine is to love more than a flavor profile, but also to encompass all those restraints and ideologies. I know, it is very much stretching the boundary to compare a cuisine with a sex-exchange/marriage, but I think you get my point.
I am giving away Vibrant India to one of the followers. To enter, go to this link.
4 cup of leftover basmati or jasmine rice
1 tsp. of turmeric powder
¼ cup unsweetened dried grated coconut (you can buy in bulk at Wholesfood)
2 tbsps + 1 tsp of mildly flavor oil
¼ cup of raw peanuts or unsalted roasted peanuts
½ tsp of black mustard seeds
Pinch of asafetida (hing) power
1 tsp chana dal
1 tsp urad dal
4 or 5 curry leaves (I actually used 20 curry leaves)
1 dried red chile, broken in half
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsps of chopped cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
Salt to taste (start with ½ tsp)
Soak chana dal and urad dal in hot water for about 15 minutes, and drain the excess water on a paper towel.
Soak the dried grated coconut in water.
Put 1 tsp of oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the peanuts, and fry until they are fragrant (about 3 minutes). Set aside on a plate. You may line with a paper towel if you want to drain out the oil.
Put 2 tbsps. oil in the same wok, and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot (test by placing one mustard seed, and testing if the seed sizzles), add the ingredients in the following order
1) Mustard seeds and asafetida powder(they will pop like hell, so make sure you have a lid)
2) When the popping stops, add chana dal and urad dal. Cook for about 1 minute, until the dals start to take golden brown hue, and gives out nutty aroma.
3) Rub the curry leaves between your hands to release their natural oils, and drop them into the oil.
4) Drop in broken dried red chili.
5) Stir and coat everything with oil.
6) Add the cooked rice, followed by 1 tsp. of turmeric powder and ½ tsp. of salt. Stir repeatedly until all the rice grains are intensely yellow (about 1-2 minutes).
7) Stir in the coconut and fry for another minute.
8) Stir in lemon juice, cilantro and peanuts.
Garnish with more cilantro leaves or fried curry leaves. I like the latter because it really echoes the resiny flavor of asafetida. Fry about 10 curry leaves in a about 1 tablespoon of oil under medium heat until the leaves start to wrinkle (about 3 minutes).