Here’s an article I recently wrote for an online women’s writing website.
Sometimes looking back, helps you move forward!
Thanks for reading and be well.
Here’s an article I recently wrote for an online women’s writing website.
Sometimes looking back, helps you move forward!
Thanks for reading and be well.
“You know, cooks should have open minds. Otherwise how can they learn new things?” ~Tarika K.
My niece is so smart! And she’s right too. A good cook is willing to experiment and learn. The reward of an open mind (and kitchen) is a delicious and wonderful meal or dish.
Cooking is also an opportunity to slow down and be mindful. Chatting while chopping can lead to bleeding, so be one-pointed. Give your undivided attention to the meal preparation and you will be rewarded with a tasty dish as well as a calmer mind.
I love mixing and matching cuisines and my cooking is heavily influenced by California fresh produce and my south Indian upbringing. At a recent meal I set out to impress out-of-country guests with an array of dishes that showcases produce from our Farmers Market as well as my cooking skills.
Here is one recipe that wowed the crowd and was as tasty as it was pretty.
These Samosa Bites are a flavor explosion in your mouth. There is the buttery, flaky filo crust, the savory potato/pea filling and the two or three toppings that add that a certain type of deliciousness. First there was a tangy sauce from Kerala called inchipully which features bits of fresh ginger in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Then a small drop of super spicy fresh-tasting coriander gave a hot bite to the dish. Finally the dish was finished off with some Greek yogurt, flecked with fresh mint, dill and parsley. One bite, so many sensations!
1 package mini Fillo pastry shells, thawed. (You can easily make these with sheets of Phyllo dough but I opted for the easier pre-made version for this recipe)
1 large potato, cooked, peeled and mashed lightly
½ cup frozen or fresh peas
1 small onion
¼ cup chopped red, yellow or green pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp. turmeric
A few fresh curry leaves (optional)
Salt and fresh pepper
Heat oil in a small saucepan, add mustard seeds and cover with lid. When the seeds have popped, add onions, pepper and curry leaves, if using. Sauté until vegetables are tender, about five minutes. Add cumin seeds, turmeric and stir and then add peas. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes and then add mashed potato and mix thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
1 large bunch coriander leaves. You can use stems. Wash thoroughly
½ cup raw walnuts
½ cup unsweetened finely shredded coconut
4-5 jalapeno peppers
1 small shallot or onion, peeled and cut into quarters
½ cup or more hot water to blend
2-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
Use a blender or food processor and process or blend all ingredients except oil, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Heat oil in a sauce pan, add oil and mustard seeds and wait for the seeds to pop and turn grey. Add curry leaves and prepared chutney. Turn off heat and stir thoroughly. Taste for salt. It will be spicy but will mellow out when refrigerated for a couple of hours. This chutney can be made a day in advance.
There are many versions of this exceptional sauce. This is the simplest (and tastiest, in my opinion) version.
1 generous knob, size of large lemon, tamarind from a block of tamarind (see note)
2 cups hot water. Plus extra ½ cup
½ cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
1 green chili
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
½ tsp turmeric powder
2-6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tsp. salt or to taste
Soak the tamarind in hot water for 15 minutes. Using your fingers crush the tamarind and extract as much pulp and juice. Use a sieve to separate out the pulp from seeds and fiber. Use an additional half cup of water to extract as much pulp from the tamarind paste. Set aside.
Heat oil in a pan, add mustard seeds and cover with a lid. Once the seeds have popped and turn grey, add fenugreek seeds, chopped ginger and curry leaves. Let it toast for a minute. Don’t let the seeds burn! Add tamarind water, turmeric powder, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. The sauce should be fairly thick. It will thicken more after it cools. Taste for salt and sugar and add more if needed. The sauce should be sour and sweet with a bite of fresh ginger.
1 cup Greek Full-fat yogurt
½ tsp. salt
½ cup fresh parsley and/or mint, finely chopped. Dill can also be added
½ cup finely chopped fresh cucumber
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice, about a teaspoon
Stir all ingredients together. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Putting It All Together!
Bake Filo pastry cups according to direction. Cool. Add a generous spoonful of potato filling to the pastry cup. Now add a drop of Inchipully or Coriander Chutney or a dab of both. Finish off with a spoonful of yogurt topping. For best flavor sensation, pop the entire thing into your mouth at once. Close your eyes and savor!
NOTE: For best results use tamarind that comes in a block and that has no sugar or salt added. Indian and Middle Eastern stores carry this item. Of course there is always Amazon too.
The past year was filled with many joyous moments! My son’s wedding in July was definitely a high point. It was wonderful to welcome his smart and beautiful wife into our family. The wedding was also a chance to renew our friendship with our relatives and make some new friends too. I also had a brief but affectionate visit with my sister. This summer I felt honored to be part of my favorite aunt’s 96th birthday celebration. Every time I see her I marvel at her grace, wisdom and amazing capacity to love. There were a few rejection letters to temper all my joy. But there were some acceptances too. I had a short story published in an online magazine, and had several poems accepted into two different anthologies. I was also invited to become a book reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. So all in all it was a great year!
My holiday gift to you is a short story published several years ago in an anthology titled The Dog with An Old Soul. The story features my mom and her dog, two of my favorite subjects.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Bark
The black-and-white photo was old and yellowing, but I could clearly make out the proud stance of the dog and his mistress. I could barely make out the words penciled on the back of the fading photograph: “Leela and Chuppa, 1951.” My mother and her beloved dog.
The cool mist swirled around Leela and smothered her in its wet embrace. She shivered and wrapped the woolen shawl more tightly around her slender body. The late November days in Kotagiri were chilly and dismal, nothing like the warm tropical nights she was used to. Leela’s sigh sounded loud in the gray silence as she paused to take a deep whiff of the fading jasmine blooms on the vine by the front gate. It was then she heard the sound, the tiniest whimper, which she would have missed if the world hadn’t been so silent. She reached up and unlatched the metal gate and stepped onto the patch of grass. In the dim twilight she could make out a small bundle lying on the wilted jacaranda blooms. When she looked closely, she saw it was a tiny shivering puppy. She couldn’t bear to leave it there on the side of the road. She relatched the gate and walked into the kitchen using the side entrance.
The kitchen was warm and cozy. Her mother, Ammalu, was seated on a small wooden stool in front of the hearth, stirring a pot of lentil stew. The sharp scent of cumin mingled with the wet puppy smell. Ammalu wrinkled her nose.
“What do you have there?” she asked, getting up to take a closer look at the black-and-tan bundle in Leela’s arms.
“Oh, Amma,” Leela wailed. “Look what someone dropped off at our front gate.”
The puppy seemed to know it as being inspected and opened its tiny jaws and yawned, stretching out a minuscule pink tongue.
“Not everyone has your kind heart, my daughter,” Ammalu sighed. “Remember what our neighbor Sister Mary told us?”
Leela nodded and held the puppy closer to her chest. Their nearest neighbor, an Anglo-Indian everyone called Sister Mary, lived a few miles down the road and was a feisty animal lover.
“Be warned. Villagers get rid of their unwanted pets by dropping them off at the bungalows in the middle of the night. Most of us are only too happy to take in these dogs and cats. It’s a shame, though, because not everyone wants a stray and that is the end of the poor animal,” she lamented.
This will not happen to this little one, Leela silently vowed. Mother and daughter dried the puppy and fed the hungry creature some rice gruel. Soon the little dog was curled up on a pile of rags in front of a warm hearth.
The next morning Ammalu mixed a little rice and vegetable broth in a beautiful ceramic pan decorated with deep purple flowers and urged the little puppy to eat out of the fancy bowl.
“Amma, why are you using such a nice dish for the dog?” Leela protested.
“Leela, you know I don’t like to use these tainted containers.”
The tainted containers Ammalu was referring to were part of a collection of dinnerware left behind by the previous owner. After the declaration of independence in 1947, many British decided to leave India rather than live in a country no longer ruled by Great Britain. Rather than pack up an entire household, some of them left many things behind. One such Englishman was the owner of the charming bungalow that was now Leela’s home on the outskirts of the remote hill station town of Kotagiri nestled among the famous Blue Mountains or Nilgiris.
When they moved into the charming red-tiled house in late 1948, they found the musty rooms filled with large pieces of wooden furniture. The cabinet doors were inlaid with ceramic tile in beautiful geometric patterns. An intricate carved folding screen in one of the three bedrooms provided privacy and beauty. The dining room boasted a large china buffet, complete with silver soup tureens, round and oval serving platers, big serving bowls and a tea set. The delicate moss-green tea set, made of the finest bone china, would never be used, though. Like most upper-caste Indians, Ammalu’s family was vegetarian. They had no intention of eating and drinking from vessels used by strangers and non-vegetarians. At the first opportunity Ammalu invited friends, neighbors and acquaintances from surrounding areas to come chose from the lovely Spode plates and Wedgwood dinnerware. So the puppy happily ate off the Spode chinaware and drank from his Wedgwood saucer.
The German shepherd turned out to be the most patient of animals. He waited for Leela or Ammalu to get up each morning to let him out. He would wander around the front yard, sniffing at rosebushes and lifting his leg against the spindly poinsettia tree. He would then come back to lie on the kitchen floor, his bright blue eyes following Leela’s every movement.
“He really is the most silent dog,” a friend remarked to Leela. That was when she came up with the perfect name for her new pet, Chuppa, or “the silent one.”
She tried out the new name, calling, “Chuppa!” Immediately the puppy sat up, straight and proud. He cocked his head and looked at Leela as if waiting for a command. From then on Leela spent countless hours with the young dog, teaching him simple commands. Chuppa was an intelligent pup and wanted to please Leela. He became the young girl’s constant companion. He would greet her joyously, albeit silently, every afternoon when she returned from school. He draped his long tan-and-black body across Leela’s doorway. The pair was a common sight as they went on long walks among the tea bushes and apple and pear orchards.
One evening, when Ammalu made a teasing gesture toward Leela, pretending to hit her, Chuppa immediately sat up and stare at Ammalu and emitted a soft warning growl.
“Chuppa thinks I was going to hit you!” Ammalu exclaimed. “What a good dog. Don’t worry, Chuppa, I would never hit my girl.”
Ammalu bent down and petted the agitated pup, who settled down, his head resting on his folded paws, as if he understood Ammalu’s words.
Leela decided to teach the dog commands to make sure he would know when the threat was real and when a family member was just playing. The dog took to the lessons as if he was a sponge soaking up spilled water.
Two years later Chuppa was a full-grown German shepherd with thick black-and-tan fur and bright blue eyes. He was a familiar sight in the little village and allowed young children to pet and fuss over him. But his soft eyes were always on Leela.
A few months later, their postman, the deliverer of news and mail, had some disturbing gossip. “Did you hear about the thefts?” he asked Ammalu and Leela one afternoon. “There has been a rash of thefts in the area and residents area asked to keep their gates locked.”
That following spring Ammalu and Unny, Leela’s older brother, had to make one final trip to their ancestral village to take care of some business, and Ammalu was not happy to leave Leela.
“Don’t worry, Amma. Chuppa will keep me company at night, and during the day Mala and her husband will be here,” Leela assured her mother.
Mala and Lingam were local villagers who came to help Leela’s family with household chores. Ammalu and Unny were expected to be gone for about five days, and after giving Mala and Lingam many instructions about the household and Leela’s personal safety, they finally left.
That evening Leela made sure all the doors were locked before retiring to the living room. A fire in the hearth made the room snug and comfortable. Chuppa settled down in front of the fire and Leela curled up on the sofa with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
“Why didn’t the dog bark?” she murmured to herself.
Chuppa glanced up with a questioning look in his blue eyes.
“Don’t mind me, Chuppa. I’m just talking about the clue in this story,” she assured her pet, who sighed and went back to staring at the golden flames.
The crackling fire was the only sound in the room and Leela found herself drifting off. Chuppa’s low growl woke her up.
“Shh…Chuppa. It’s just the fire.”
But the dog didn’t settle down; instead he stood up and looked toward the front hallway. The coarse hairs on his neck were standing up and his body was tense and alert. Leela was alarmed at the dog’s stance and got up to stand in the living room doorway. She was as tense as Chuppa and tried to hear what had disturbed the dog.
Then she heard it, the slightest grating of metal as the front gate was opened. Chuppa growled beside her. She put a hand on his head, wondering what to do.
“Is anyone home?” a woman’s voice called out from the front stoop. Leela knew whoever was there had probably seen the warm glow of the light through the living room window, even though the cloth curtains were drawn shut.
Leela took a deep breath and walked into the dark hallway. She turned on the porch light and lifted up the curtain to peer through the front window. She could make out the figure of a woman and a man standing on the porch steps. The woman raised a slim hand and knocked on the wooden door. Leela looked back at Chuppa and gestured for him to stand behind her. The dog obediently went into the hallway, where he was hidden in the shadows behind his mistress.
Even though she dreaded opening the door, Leela decided it was better than waiting for the couple to perhaps break the glass and force their way in. She pulled the door open and peered out.
“Who are you, and why are you knocking on my door at this time of the night.”
The woman laughed, a sound that was nervous and at the same time somehow threatening. “Sister, we are just poor pilgrims on our way to the temple on the hill. Can you spare us a hot drink or a few paisas?”
“I’m sorry, but my hearth is out for the night and I have no change. Perhaps you can find hospitality farther down the road.” Leela said.
“Listen here, sister,” the man snarled, pushing the woman aside. “We are not asking for a few paisa like beggars. We are demanding you hand over your necklace, earrings and anything else of value you have in the house. I don’t make idle threats.” As he spoke, he pulled out a knife, the blade glinting in the overhead porch light.
“I don’t like threats. I suggest you leave,” Leela said, trying not to sound as frightened as she felt.
The man answered by pushing the door aside and taking a step to come inside. A deep rumble from the hallway stopped him in mid-stride.
“Chuppa, come here,” Leela called out to her faithful companion, who came to stand beside her. He bared his teeth and gave out a menacing growl. The couple stared at the German shepherd.
“Now, I suggest you leave before my dog gets impatient,” Leela said to the couple.
The man hissed in anger. “A dumb animal isn’t going to stop me,” he said in a low tone as he stepped toward Leela, his knife raised.
“Chuppa, get the knife,” Leela ordered in a firm voice.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the dog leaped and grabbed the man’s hand. The knife clattered to the ground. The man yelped in surprise. Leela quickly kicked the knife out of his reach. The dog let go of the man’s hand waited for his next command.
“Good dog. Now get him,” Leela said.
Again the dog leaped and, using his full weight, brought the man down. Chuppa placed a heavy paw on the man’s chest and bared his teeth. The woman cried out, and dog looked at her with his soft eyes and pulled back his lips to show his sharp white teeth.
“Call off your dog,” the woman cried. “We meant no harm.”
The silence was broken by a murmur of voices.
“Miss Leela, are you all right?” a voice asked from the driveway. It was Lingam. He was carrying a smoky homemade torch in his hand. Behind him were several villagers.
“Lingam! I am so glad to see you,” Leela called and sighed in relief. “Chuppa caught a man who was threatening me.”
Lingam walked up to the porch steps and looked down at the figure on the ground.
“These look like the couple who have been robbing houses,” he announced. “We heard they were out tonight, and came by to check on you. But it looks like you can take care of yourself.” His white teeth flashed as he grinned at Leela.
“It was Chuppa who saved the day,” Leela said. “Chuppa let him go.”
The German shepherd looked down at the man and growled again before moving slowly off him. The animal went to stand beside Leela, looking up at her with adoration shining from his bright blue eyes.
Leela bent down and hugged the dog. She buried her face in his doggy fur. “Thank you, Chuppa,” she whispered.
“Woof.” Chuppa’s bark was short and soft. Leela laughed out loud. That was the one and only time Chuppa ever barked.
For years the dog was my mother’s faithful companion in Kotagiri. When he died of old age, my mother was heartbroken. Chuppa was the last pet she ever owned.,
Cups, teaspoons and tablespoons are the bane of my life. Who needs measurements anyway? As I try to write down exact measurements and directions for my recipes, I find I don’t like it one bit. For this I blame my mother. Every little cook learns by observing. It seemed to me that my mother would throw random spices in random amounts into a pot to create a tasty dish. Her recipes for family favorites were safely tucked away in her head. Nothing was ever recorded or written down. Cooking was an art form for my mother but that doesn’t help me now as I try to re-create childhood favorites. I have to rely on my memory and my palate.
So what would have happened if I had insisted that my mother share a recipe? I imagined her poetic and cryptic answer to my question.
Where is the recipe, I ask my mother
What recipe, she replies?
Just take a small onion
A pinch of hing
A hint of turmeric
A splash of golden ghee
Some diced onion and mustard seeds
A few okra
A couple of tomatoes
A handful of shredded coconut
Just a little coriander powder
A bit of cooked lentils
Two fiery peppers
Salt, pepper and tamarind
Mix, cook, and serve
The tangy smoky sauce perfect with steaming rice
How did she do it?
Give me a recipe, I plead.
What recipe, she asks?
Just add a handful…
You get the idea.
It will never be a collector’s item or be coveted by antique dealers. Yet, this simple bowl holds a special place in my heart (and kitchen).
Receiving and giving stainless steel pots and pans as wedding gifts is a time-honored tradition in India. Thirty years ago, on my wedding day I received a number of pots and pans but this one with its unique design and lid stood out. It was a gift from my aunt Malathi and Uncle Bhanunny. I knew this because their names were etched on the side of the bowl.
When I decided to return to California, my mother insisted that I take this particular bowl back with me. It will be useful, she stressed. Back then I had just discovered the convenience of Pyrex and plastic and thought a stainless steel bowl was old-fashioned and frankly useless. So it was with great reluctance that I lugged it back with me. I packed it away; surely I would never find use for such a thing!
But one day, when my boys were just toddlers, I unpacked a cardboard box and found the bowl. I ran my fingers over the inscription and the names brought back a flood of memories. Mrs. Malathi and Mr. E.B. Unny. I remembered my aunt, uncle and their three beautiful daughters with affection. Perhaps I could find a use for this in my kitchen after all.
So for the past 20 odd years that bowl has become an integral part of my kitchen. I can’t imagine ever being without it. It was the perfect size for tossing a green salad. I used it to knead homemade pizza dough. It has been used for making cakes and delectable frostings. The bowl was just the right size for whipping cream and even mashing potatoes. One year when my son wanted a soccer ball-shaped birthday cake, the bowl became a cake pan. It truly was a bowl of many uses!
So for our Thanksgiving Day feast, the bowl may be filled with roasted root vegetables but what it will really serve will be a huge helping of precious memories. My mother was right, as usual!
Birthday cakes were not part of my childhood celebrations.
But don’t feel too sorry for me. For birthdays, and on other special occasions, my mother prepared a creamy cardamom-spiked pudding. This addictive dessert was the perfect ending to a spicy meal.
There are many variations of the pudding but the main ingredients are rice or vermicelli, milk, sugar, ghee, cashews, raisins and cardamom. A richer version of the pudding uses expensive saffron threads, pale green pistachio nuts and tiny currants.
My mother liked the simplest version and so that is my preference too.
She used Indian vermicelli that was super thin. The vermicelli was broken up into bite size pieces and then toasted in a little bit of ghee. The scent of toasting vermicelli always brings back memories of many birthday celebrations.
Indian cooking (and other types too!) is a multi-sensory experience. My late mother-in-law never used the timer when baking her famous apple pie. She knew by the aroma when it was done and she was never wrong! When you have an instinct for cooking this is easy but for those of us who tend to forget what’s on the stove or in the oven, a timer is essential.
Birthdays meant the scent of cashews frying in golden ghee. Celebrations were never complete without the pungent and heady scent of green cardamom pods being crushed.
My mother only added the smallest amount of raisins (perhaps they were expensive) but it didn’t matter; the finished pudding was always delicious.
We enjoyed our pudding at room temperature or even warm. But if you prefer your pudding cold, feel free to chill the mixture.
You can’t place candles in this pudding, but getting older will be a little easier when you taste a bite of this creamy soothing dessert.
4 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup vermicelli (Indian is best, but Italian will work too), broken into bite size pieces
1 can condensed milk
4 tablespoons ghee
1 tablespoon raisins (you can add more if you want)
4 tablespoons whole or halved raw cashew pieces
4-6 cardamom pods, peeled and then crushed in a mortar and pestle
Bring milk to boil (TIP: Coat the pan with water before adding milk to keep from sticking). Let the milk simmer for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of ghee in a large saucepan and roast the vermicelli until golden brown.
Add the vermicelli to the thickened milk and cook for 6-8 minutes (depending on the kind of vermicelli).
Once the vermicelli is tender, add the condensed milk. Keep stirring and cooking for an additional 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat. The pudding will thicken in the fridge and as it cools. If it is too thick add a few tablespoons of warm milk before serving.
In a small sauce pan heat the remaining ghee. Add the cashew pieces and sauté until a light brown, add raisins and keep stirring until everything is golden brown. In a few minutes the raisins should get nice and plump. The kitchen will be filled with a golden nutty aroma.
Remove sauce pan from heat, add crushed cardamom and stir. Add this mixture to the cooling pudding and stir thoroughly.
Enjoy warm or cold.
Warning: Birthday candles will sink! Serves 2-4 or sometimes just one!
My maternal grandmother had the coolest name: Pearl.
Granny Pearl died in her mid-40s from an untreated benign tumor and her older sister whom we called “Muthi or granny” kept her memory alive with vivid stories about her. Pearl was an accomplished pastry chef and her skill at twirling chickpea pastry dough into perfect circles was in high demand. Her nimble fingers were able to twirl the chickpea dough into a huge circle, in some cases 101 times around, without a single breakage.
The pastry circle was made of chickpea flour flavored with cumin seeds, red chili pepper powder and sea salt. The completed pastry or muruku was air dried and then deep fried for a melt-in-your mouth treat.
As a youngster, Muthi was always reminding me to be more like Granny Pearl. According to Muthi, Granny Pearl was so gentle, compassionate and kind-hearted that even her footprints didn’t leave a mark on the earth.
Apparently fiction writing and story-telling is an inherited family trait!
When I was a child I had no idea what Muthi meant. But now, decades later, I can see the hidden truth in her words. Granny Pearl left no negative footprints. She was so full of warmth, love and kindness that being in her presence was soothing to the spirit.
I’m thinking a lot about Granny Pearl these days. The world needs more of her empathy and tenderness. Whenever I am dismayed about the state of the world, I try to conjure up Granny Pearl’s humanity. More than a century after her death, she is still remembered for her tolerance.
So when violence and hatred swirls around you, try to be more like my Granny Pearl. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be remembered, decades from now, as a loving and kind person, just like Granny Pearl?
Granny Pearl was wise and aptly named.
An additional note: My book is so close to having 50 reviews on Amazon and apparently after 50 reviews Amazon will throw a big party and you are all invited! Seriously, that number 50 is the Holy Grail for many authors. Can you please help me in my quest? A huge thank you to everyone who has already written a review!
Book blogger Kristen Galles of Bookclubclassics says “book clubs that appreciates beautiful prose, rich culture and tempting treats will love My Mother’s Kitchen!”
Check it out: http://bookclubclassics.com/Blog/2016/04/25/mothers-kitchen-review/
I was interviewed by Radio 12 host Anita Ahuja on Thursday, April 21. Here’s a link to the in-depth interview.
I think of positive book reviews as fine pearls and I love collecting them! Here is one that will be a fine addition to my pearl necklace!