Two New Yorkers spend six months 18 months!?! in Bangalore and other places in India.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Monsoon Cooking, or My Big Fat Indian Dinner

Here's a guest post from our friend Katherine, who's hanging out with us this week:

After a week and a half of traveling throughout India and experiencing classics of northern as well as southern Indian cuisine, I thought I'd try my hand at cooking an Indian meal. On the menu: green beans in a tomato gravy, moong dal, kachumbar, rice, and kulfi (for lack of time, John and I decided to forgo attempting to make a bread). For guidance, we used Janet and Sayeed Rizvi's excellent The First-Time Cookbook (HarperCollins India, 2003) and Vimla Patil's Indian Cuisine: Dal Roti (Rupa & Co., 1985). The kitchen being equipped with only a two-burner gas range, cooking proved to be an exercise in pot and pan choreography. And the dal recipe required use of an unwieldy pressure cooker, whose sudden, frequent and violent bursts of steam made me jump every time.

While I prepared the kulfi (mea culpa: we used a store-bought package), John measured spices. It should come as no surprise that a well-stocked Indian pantry entails an enormous selection of spices. Our recipes alone required ginger-garlic paste, chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and coriander leaves (all pretty standard). For the base of the tomato gravy, I sautéed onions and spices in mustard oil, adding the tomatoes once the onions had browned. The gravy simmered a good 40 minutes, long enough for the tomatoes to completely disintegrate. Some parboiled green beans were added to the tomato gravy shortly before serving. With the magic of the pressure cooker, the lentils were quickly converted into dal, but the final seasonings (garlic, tomatoes, green chillies plus spices) were not added until shortly before serving. The kachumbar, a classic tomato, onion and cucumber salad, was the least time-consuming to prepare. John had warned me that cutting onions might seriously sting my eyes, but as I experienced no such side effects, apparently I encountered a relatively mild batch. As an extra precaution against possible pathogens, the cucumbers were peeled and the tomatoes were briefly boiled. The white rice was served plain, which is not to say the Basmati rice available here isn't something special. Yum.

From start to finish, the dinner took well over two hours to prepare. And that despite using shortcuts such as store-bought ground spices and ready-made kulfi mix! Granted, we might have been distracted from cooking by a massive thunderstorm outside: looking out the 6th floor apartment windows, we observed an enormous bank of purple clouds approach from the north. We're not sure, but it may or may not herald the beginning of the monsoon season. I for one was thankful to have been inside -- Don, on his way home from work, was not so fortunate. The roads in Bangalore are prone to flooding, which makes finding transportation home quite a challenge. One could theoretically walk home from the office, but even at the best of times, coping with Bangalore traffic is a daunting task. Let's just say crossing the road in India is much like playing Frogger. . . except that the cars, trucks, motorcycles, foodcart vendors, rickshaws, bicycles and the odd cow, camel, elephant or dog coming at you from all sides are all very real. But to quote a new-found Indian friend, "That's what makes India incredible!"

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