SIMPLY BEING

Tag: Indian (page 1 of 6)

Cooking Indian Food in India, by Chef Daniel Peach

(Read chef Daniel Peach’s story – Part 1 here.)

Q. Do you remember the first time you sampled Indian food? When/where was it? What was your reaction?

A: I first tried Indian food when I was 14 (2003). My friend’s dad was obsessed with this Indian restaurant in Columbia and was a regular there. We went in, and he knew all the people working there. I remember eating naan and some chicken curry and enjoying it, but it didn’t stick with me.

After that I didn’t have Indian food again until 2008. I ate lunch with a friend at an Indian restaurant called Chinar that used to be in downtown Charleston. Again we just had some naan and a cashew chicken curry. It blew me away; I felt like the spices were intoxicating.

I don’t feel, however, that I really tasted Indian food until I got to India. The first meal I ever had in India was a masala dosa at a little restaurant in Mumbai. I remember being unable to contain my smile. I loved it. Last year when I was in India, I woke up the first morning of my trip and had some kanda pohe on the street in Andheri (East). It was so simple and yet it almost moved me to tears. I think most of it was just emotional, as I was happy to be back in India since it had been a year since my last visit. Anyhow, I am off on a tangent now, but hopefully that answers your question.

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Chef Daniel Peach, Chai Pani, Decatur

Q. How does an American get a job as a cook at an Indian restaurant in India? 🙂 How was that experience?

A: I worked in several restaurant and ashram kitchens in India and all of them have different, unique stories behind them. Most frequently it would go like this: I’d eat somewhere and love the food, then ask to talk with the owner. I’d then explain to them that I was a chef back in the US, working in an Indian restaurant, and looking to learn more recipes and cooking techniques. Several times I was invited into the kitchen without having to ask, and other times I had to do some convincing that I didn’t want any money and was just there to learn. The fact that I spoke Hindi was a huge bonus, as people who works as cooks in India don’t generally speak English.

Last year I worked at a very famous restaurant in Kolkata called Kewpies. The owner, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, is well known in the city, and the restaurant is in the bottom floor of her ancestral home. Her mother wrote the first Bengali cookbook in English (Bangla Ranna: The Bengal Cookbook). I contacted her several months prior and she agreed to having me come and work in the restaurant during Durga Pooja. That was the most formal experience, whereas the trip before that I worked in a small restaurant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh near the railway station. I stopped there one day for lunch, and was blown away by the food. I met the owner and not only did he let me work in the kitchen but even gave me a free room in their hotel in the building above the restaurant.

My experiences have been as varied as the places I’ve worked, but there are a few commonalities. The first of which being I learned that the people working as cooks in India are for the most part very low class citizens. Most of them make about RS 120 ($2)/day and work from sunup ’til sundown. They generally live upstairs from the restaurant, usually sleeping on the floor and sharing a small space with all of the other cooks. Because of their low status in society I realized a lot of them couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that some guy from the US was interested in what they were doing. I got the impression from people after I had been in the kitchens for a while that, by me being so interested in what they were doing they discovered a new found pride in their craft. Some of them had families living in villages near town while some were young and on their own. They all had incredible work ethic and always, no matter how busy the restaurant got or how much work they had to do, maintained a positive attitude. That definitely put things into perspective for me, and helped me see how to handle the challenges I face in my job with grace. So many people working in restaurants in the US just stay stressed, whereas the folks in India worked just as hard (sometimes harder) and did so stress free.

Cooking in India

Cooking in India

I also found that restaurant kitchens in India are much less hygienic than restaurants here in the US. In a lot of ways, it is not a big issue and people traveling to India should not be worried about eating out (though I would stay away from meat). All of the produce is delivered in the morning and cooked that day. Everything is really fresh, mostly because there is no refrigeration. That being said most kitchens, even in restaurants that seem ‘nice’, are fairly primitive. I used to work at a sweet shop in Rishikesh, and the walls were covered in dark grease because they were frying enormous amounts of sweets in pure ghee every day. I came back a few months later, and was impressed to see the walls a shining silver color. I asked a friend if they had cleaned, and he laughed saying, “No, we just painted” (over the grease).

The Health Department in India is, like the rest of the government, corrupt. If a health inspector should visit a restaurant for an inspection, they usually just take a bribe, make a few comments, and leave.

Lastly, I found that due to the sheer availability of cheap labor in India, most kitchens have an enormous amount of people working in them. This allows people to become very specialized in one skill, which I think has allowed Indian food to evolve so much. If someone is doing the same thing all day every day for years, they eventually figure out incredibly efficient systems and get that product to a point near perfection, something that is not possible in a restaurant where the average cook is responsible for making 20-30 different things each day.

(All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)

Sharing some Virtual ‘Chai Pani’ with Chef Peach

I don’t recall when/how I stumbled upon Daniel Peach’s blog. One post in, and I was hooked. Here was an American guy traveling in India, eating at roadside joints, staying with friends, unearthing hidden recipes, cooking at local restaurants… I couldn’t help marveling at his sense of adventure and freedom that allowed him to experience India so fearlessly through his heart and senses.

One post, then another, another… I think I read the entire blog end-to-end. Wrote to Daniel and he responded. I came to know that he was moving to Atlanta to cook at the hip-n-trendy Chai Pani. We have been planning to meet up for a while now… hopefully, our plans will materialize soon. Anyway, I became curious to know more about Daniel’s journey into the world of food, Indian culture, spirituality, etc. He agreed to do an email interview for me, and voila, here is the end result.

Q. How did you develop an interest in Indian cuisine?

A: My first real exposure to Indian cuisine came through Ayurveda. This was back in 2007. Over the next two years my interest in India grew immensely after reading several books on meditation and yoga as well as Indian spiritual classics like the Upanishads and the Gita, and it seemed like everywhere I went India just kept popping up at me. I even randomly purchased a book called ‘Teach Yourself: Hindi’ which 2 years later got me started on learning Hindi.

Daniel Peach, Chef, Chai Pani

Daniel Peach, Chef, Chai Pani

In 2009 I decided to move to Asheville and started looking for a job. I had been working as a cook in an Italian restaurant in Charleston, SC so I was excited when the first (literally, very first) post on Asheville’s Craigslist was for Chai Pani, a new fast casual Indian street food restaurant that was getting ready to open. I knew how to cook and it seemed in line with my personal interests.

I got the job at Chai Pani and Meherwan, the owner, had his mom come from India to train us on her food. On numerous occasions I would taste things I’d never seen or heard of and be instantly engulfed with a strange, unplaceable nostalgia. Specifically when I first ate some besan barfi It drove me nuts because it was so familiar but I couldn’t figure out why. I sort of, by default, became the main cook at Chai Pani Asheville and spent a lot of my free time experimenting with different recipes and researching as much as I could about Indian cuisine.

I think my interest culminated in me going to India for the first time in 2011. I studied Hindi from the book I had bought years before and went to travel around India for 6 months.

Since then I’ve been to India several times, cooked in all kinds of restaurants, hotels, sweet shops, and homes and made lots and lots of friends.

Tasting the food in India and meeting the people who cook it every day completely changed the way I understood the cuisine and how I cook it. Eating in homes was especially enlightening, being brought roti after roti and pleading with my host to not pile any more food on my plate. I also love Indian street food, and tasting all of the varieties of street snacks amidst the traffic and hulla brought the whole thing into perspective. There is nothing like drinking chai out of a clay cup on the street in the morning or leaning on your friends bike next to a chaat stall and having some bhel puri in the evening. Late night desi-chinese at Juhu? Come on! I could have never gone to India and still been able to cook all those dishes, but going there and experiencing it has inspired my cooking and career in a very special way.

Indian food is not subtle. Especially street food. It’s bright, in your face. You know come to think of it really nothing in India is subtle (acting, music volume levels, clothing…even AC is either terrible or Arctic blast cold) I love that about Indian food, and the unbelievable diversity in Indian cuisine is so underrepresented in America.

There is so much history in all of the dishes yet cooks in India are, for the most part, still open to experimenting with new things and adopting whatever cooking techniques or ingredients may come their way. Also I love how much pride Indians take in their food, it reminds me of how we here in the South squabble over how barbecue sauce should be made or which coasts have the better shrimp. I recall seeing a man from Delhi in Bombay on business shouting at a street vendor selling poori sabji (“Yeh kya aloo hai?? saale har cheez mein curry patthe daalne chahiye??”) (Loosely translated as, Is this potato? Should you add curry leaves to everything?). Food tells a story, and I think Indian food is a perfect representation of the diverse, ancient, loud yet sublime country that is India.

Jai Hind.

(To be continued…) (All pictures, courtesy Daniel Peach.)

A Hefty Dose of Protein, Greens on the Side: Spinach and Moong Dal

Here is an adaptation of a recipe that I found in Madhur Jaffrey’s memoir Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India. Madhur Jaffrey’s version is more feisty with its inclusion of chickpea flour, green chillies and onion. I kept mine simpler. Also her version called for cooking the greens in the pressure cooker. I opted to chop them and add to the dal when it was boiling.

Spinach and Moong Dal

Ingredients (makes a meal for two when eaten with rice)
2/3 cup green moong
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 – 3 dashes of asafoetida (hing)
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 small bunch of fresh spinach, chopped fine
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
5 – 6 slivers of fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon ghee
2 – 3 squeezes of lime juice

Method

Cook the moong with twice the quantity of water in the pressure cooker.

After cooked, open the lid of the pressure cooker. Add water to the cooked moong dal, bring to a slight boil.

Add the chopped spinach to the boiling moong dal.

Add salt to taste. Reduce the heat. Let it simmer.

In a small frying pan, warm ghee. Add cumin seeds, asafoetida, turmeric, ginger and fenugreek seeds. When the seeds are brownish-red in color, add the dried fenugreek leaves.

Take off the heat. Add the ghee-spice mixture to the dal.

Turn off the heat.

Add a couple of squeezes of lime juice.

Serve with steaming brown basmati rice and a side of lime pickle… Yum!

Food, Rituals, and Kale and Coconut Dal

Rituals make our food more flavorful (NY Times)

Rituals make our life flavorful. They add detail to our mundane existence, making it extra-special. Food and the act of eating benefit greatly from little rituals. In traditional Indian homes, these rituals can run into long minutes (even hours!). They have their own significance and they add sacredness to an act that we undertake three times a day, every day of our life (yes, I realize that I am immeasurably blessed to be able to state that fact so blandly).

At my home, my parents were fairly casual about these rituals, so I didn’t grow up with many of them. However, I have incorporated a few into my daily meal routine. For instance, I chant the following verses before I begin a meal.

brahmArpaNaM brahma haviH brahmAgnau brahmaNA hutam ।
brahmaiva tena gantavyaM brahmakarmasamAdhinA ।।

(The act of offering is Brahman. The offering itself is Brahman. The offering is done by Brahman in the sacred fire that is Brahman. He alone attains Brahman who, in all actions, is fully absorbed in Brahman.)

annadAta pAkakartA taThA bHoktA sukhI bhava, sukhI bhava, sukhi bhava|

(The giver of food, the cook and the one who consumes it… may you be happy, may you be happy, may you be happy!)

Meal combinations don’t exactly constitute rituals, I know, but they gave a certain predictability to our kiddie days. Most often, Sunday lunches used to feature steaming white rice, tangy tomato rasam spiced with tamarind, fresh green cilantro, cumin and mustard seeds and sweetened with jaggery, leafy amaranth dal ground with coconut and cumin, a vegetable dish of green beans and suran (Elephant Food yam in English – who knew!).

I don’t have access to amaranth leaves, so I used Mummy’s recipe to recreate the dish using kale instead. Here is my take on a leafy dal and coconut concoction that made my childhood Sundays perfect in every way possible.

Ingredients
4-5 stalks of dark green lacinato kale, chopped
1/2 cup toor dal
1/2 cup coconut (fresh or frozen)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 green chilli
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon urad dal
1-2 dried red chillies
1 teaspoon oil (for tadka)

Method

  • Cook toor dal in the pressure cooker for two whistles until soft. Turn off the heat
  • Blend the coconut and cumin seeds into a smooth paste, adding adequate water to gain the right consistency.
  • Open the pressure cooker lid, drop in the chopped greens, turmeric and green chilli. Add a cup or so of water, turn the heat on and let the mixture cook. Stir intermittently. You can keep the cooker covered so as to hasten the cooking time.
  • Add salt to taste.
  • When the kale is cooked (tear off a little piece and check the taste and color), turn off the heat.
  • Add the coconut-cumin paste. Mix well.
  • Warm the oil for tadka. Add mustard seeds. As they begin spluttering, add red chillies and urad dal. As soon as the urad dal turns brown-red in color, turn off the heat. Add the mix to the kale-coconut dal. Stir well.
Kale-Coconut Dal

Kale-Coconut Dal

Notes

This is a simple yet hearty dal that ranks high on taste, nutrition and flavor. If your palate appreciates heat, go ahead and increase the number of red chillies in the preparation.

Fresher the kale, better it will be in terms of taste and texture. I have noticed that kale turns drier and tougher as it sits.

My preferred way of cooking dals, beans and legumes is in a pressure cooker. I add boiling water to the washed dal (2:1 proportion of water to dal), shut the pressure cooker with its lid, turn on the heat. As the steam begins to rise out of the top, I cap the whistle on. When the first whistle blows, I reduce the heat. Then I wait for another whistle. Right after the second whistle, I turn off the heat. In case of beans or legumes that are harder, I might wait for additional 2-3 whistles. This method is followed by my mother as well. I have seen that it results in soft and well-cooked dals.

Serve a bowl of this dal with steaming brown (or white rice), a smidgen of ginger pickle on the side and tuck in.