Category Archives: South India

Ammalu and the Jackfruit

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February 2019

Over time a family story can become a folktale of epic proportion, a true inspiration to all who hear it. This one is about my great-aunt Ammalu.

The story begins in a sleepy little village deep in south India.  Here Ammalu and her sister Pearl grew up surrounded by countless cousins, aunts and uncles. Ammalu was the older sister, the one with a sense of adventure. She loved going on outings to visit neighbors and relatives. She had a knack for storytelling and an easy going nature. Pearl was shy and more at home in the kitchen with a flair for pastry making.

Little Ammalu was rumored to have a sweet tooth. In those days there was no candy or chocolate bars and so she indulged in what grew in her backyard from large juicy mangoes, tasty papayas to bananas in all sizes, but her favorite was the jackfruit.

The jackfruits from our family orchards were legendary in their size and flavor. It would take two men to cut down the gigantic fruit and lug it into the family courtyard. The fresh fruit would be placed on an old cotton sari and one of the men would use an enormous knife to cut into the tough skin. As the jackfruit was cut open the entire courtyard would be filled with its fruity fragrance. The milky fluid from the jackfruit would flow onto the sari and children would be held back so that they wouldn’t get any of the sticky sap on their fingers. The women would be waiting, ready to dip oily fingers into the cut fruit. The coconut oil was necessary to keep the sap from sticking onto fingers and eager hands. The tiny strands would be pushed aside to get into the thick pods of creamy yellow fruit. Each pod contained one large seed, which would be cleaned and saved for later use. The seed had a sweet nutty taste, very similar to roasted chestnuts.

The best jackfruit was sweet and juicy with a hint of tartness and a pleasing crunch. Overripe jackfruit was sometimes stringy and too sweet. Ammalu loved this unique and delicious fruit. When everyone had enough of the fresh fruit, the leftovers were cooked down with jaggery sugar and stored in crock pots. In the cool pantry, the jackfruit jam fermented into caramel-like goo with a pungent odor that was pleasant only to the true fan of jackfruit. Ammalu must have had a discerning palate because she loved eating scoops of this odoriferous jam. It was also made into special puddings.

Life in our tiny ancestral village was simple. There was not much in the way of entertainment and so everyone looked forward to visits from roaming troupes of actors. These troupes of mostly men would enact scenes from Indian myths and legends. Perhaps it was one of these actors who told Ammalu about the wonders of travel and of a special city dedicated to Lord Shiva.

This holy place was called Benares (or Varanasi or Kashi) and situated near the Bihar border in the faraway state of Uttar Pradesh. Visiting this holy city and bathing in the even holier Ganges became an obsession with Ammalu. Perhaps one of the actors or someone in the family pointed out that after visiting Benares the pilgrim would have to give up a favorite food. Ammalu knew what she would give up.

She was in her early forties when she finally had an opportunity to take her dream trip. In the years after her pilgrimage when relatives offered her a piece of fresh jackfruit, she would shake her head and say, “I just returned from Kashi,” and everyone immediately understood why she said no to her favorite snack. She died at the age of 88 and never tasted jackfruit again.

A decade or so ago my family and I visited Benares to scatter my uncle’s ashes. We found the city to be a study in contrasts. The grime and dirt didn’t deter from the city’s beauty and timeless quality. The Ganges was a lazy ribbon of water with a lot of floating debris but as I watched the orange glow of the tropical sunset, I couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of peace and calm. A holy city will do that to you. I imagined Ammalu must have experienced that same serenity as she bathed in the Ganges and vowed never to eat jackfruit again.

She would have never dreamed that her pilgrimage and personal sacrifice would inspire the next generation. Recently I decided to challenge myself by giving up sugar for a few months and great-aunt Ammalu’s uplifting story has been a marvelous example for me.

The least tangible (and material) legacy we leave behind will endure the longest. Perhaps the next generation will remember you for your kindness, your grace under pressure or your selfless love. That is a legacy worth striving for!

 

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Filed under Aunts and other relatives, Benares, Celebrations, cooking, Delicious desserts, family, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, Ganges River, harmony, harvest, Holy City, jackfruit, Lord Shiva, meatless, my mother's kitche, Personal experience, pilgrimage, remembering our ancestors, South India, Uncategorized

Aunty with a capital A

On Becoming an Aunt

New Year Post

Recently I had the fun pleasure of hosting my niece for her very first Thanksgiving in America. After her week-long stay, when I was dropping her off at the train station, she turned to me and said, “Thank you aunty for everything. I felt like I was royalty.”

I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t thank me. She should be grateful to the woman who taught me how to be a good aunt.

There are plenty of aunties in my life. Anyone who is from India knows we call family friends, neighbors and relatives “aunty” as a sign of respect. But I have one Aunty who stands out.  I’ve known her for most of my life (we met when I was six months old) and I’m the only person in California who has had the honor to be at her wedding day.

Even though I have known her a long time, our friendship/relationship really blossomed when I came over in the 1980s to attend college.

I was an insulated young girl (okay, maybe a little spoiled) but my Aunty C and I took to each other as if we were long-lost friends. We spent hours together.

“I’m bored, Aunty,” I would say and she would whisk me away to one of our favorite haunts– the local public library, Dillon Beach, the Goodwill store (her favorite shopping place) or somewhere for a sweet treat. One summer we discovered a hole-in-the-wall bakery that produced the most delicious fresh strawberry pies. Both of us loved these pies so much, she gladly bought the ingredients so I could try making my own pie. That is how I learned how to perfect my pie crust and work with mascarpone cheese. We ate a lot of pie that summer.

From Aunty I learned to love Southern literature and to make the perfect cup of strong tea. Together we navigated the college catalog, choosing the best classes and professors. We enjoyed our bittersweet chocolate, especially the truffles from Cocolat.

But mostly,  I learned by observing her in action and the way she interacted with people. She taught me how to give my one-pointed attention to everyone, to listen with both ears. She never boasted or dominated a conversation. Now at 97, she is still the same–kind, gentle and still humble.

So, being a good aunty is easy for me because I learned from the best!

Happy New Year to all my readers! May 2019 be filled with books, laughter and peace.

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Filed under Aunts and other relatives, family, Happy New Year! 2019, harmony, mindfulness, my mother's kitche, Nieces, Personal experience, remembering our ancestors, Shopping, South India, Strawberry pie, Uncategorized

Cooking with an open mind

 

October 2018

“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.

Samosa Bites.

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!

Recipe:

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)

Potato filling

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.

Coriander Chutney

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

Curry leaves

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.

Inchipully

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.

Yogurt Topping

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.

 

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Filed under California cuisine, cooking, Davis Farmers Market, family, Fillo pastry cups, Fresh produce, harmony, Indian food, meatless, Mindful cooking, mother's kitchen, my mother's kitche, new traditions, Personal experience, recipes, Samosa, South India, Uncategorized

Poetry

Dear all,

I’m at that fortunate stage in my life where my college professors are my friends now!  Jonah Raskin was one of the first teachers to encourage me to keep writing. I’m proud to call him friend now (and by his first name!) nearly 30 years after graduating from Sonoma State University.

He’s a talented writer and you can read his work here. Enjoy!

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/poets-corner-a-reviewessay-on-a-world-assembly-of_us_5a5278cce4b0ee59d41c0be5

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Filed under book review, Jonah Raskin, poetry, published, Sonoma State University, South India, Uncategorized, world peace, World Poetry, writing

Small World, Big Connections

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Happy Vishu!  Dear reader, may the coming year be blessed and prosperous for you and your family.

April 2017

Life in the Blue Mountains, Nilgiris, of South India was much simpler during my childhood. Back then it was a small world where service was close and personal. Our milk was delivered by a young woman named Helen who’s family also grew the most beautiful and fragrant roses. (Years later we bought huge bouquets of the colorful blooms for our wedding).  The baker was a family man who made sure he gave us the freshest coconut buns. Every winter the tangerine man came to our front door with a basket filled with tiny orange fruit, juicy and tart.

Even though our town was a sprawling tourist attraction, it was like living in a small village.  After my father’s death the entire town kept a close eye on my sister and me.  The stationary store owner, Rajan, knew when we had important exams and was ready to sell us the latest in fountain pens. The Alankar Bakery owner gave us an extra cookie or raisin-studded bun and always inquired about my mother and uncle (it didn’t matter to that he had never met my uncle!).

There was an invisible grapevine that was almost as effective as Twitter!   My mother heard all the important news of the day from her bus driver on her way home from work as a school teacher.  So of course she knew right away the one day I had left our school campus during lunch hour to visit the local bazaar. Surprisingly I didn’t get in trouble but it gave me pause because I knew there were a lot of eyes on me.  Small world, big connections!

I missed those personal interactions when I moved to California more than 30 years ago but I found another village in the city of Davis. For the past 19 years I have discovered that this college town has a small-town heart.  Small world, big connections.

Case in point: Recently I participated in a community theater production and was pleasantly surprised to see the cashier from the local supermarket in the audience. After the performance she hugged me and told me she’d see me at the store soon.  Another example of small world, big connections.

Social media can fool us into thinking that we are making personal connections while seated in front of our laptop computer or smart phone, but I have found that nothing beats face-to-face interactions.

So this coming year (April 14th we celebrated Vishu or Kerala New Year) I hope you will find the joy of life in the real world, away from the small screen.

THE END

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Filed under Blue Mountains, Celebrations, community theater, cooking, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, Indian food, meatless, mindfulness, my mother's kitche, Nilgiris, Personal experience, recipes, Seven, South India, spring, renewal, Uncategorized, vegetables, world peace

Recipe? What recipe?

March 2017

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.

What Recipe?

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.

THE END

 

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Filed under cooking, dinner, food poems, Indian food, meatless, mother's kitchen, my mother's kitche, Nilgiris, Personal experience, poetry, recipes, South India, Uncategorized, vegetables

This Kitchen Does Not Discriminate

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Meatless Meal in Minutes

January 2017

Welcome to a new year!

Our household is a melting pot, a microcosm of America. Here East meets West in harmony (mostly).

This fusion and mingling of cultures is most evident in my cooking. My kitchen does not discriminate. Mustard seeds co-mingle with Italian pasta. Monterey Jack Cheese melts in homemade Indian Chapatti bread. Kale and eggplant simmer in coconut milk. Feta cheese adds a tangy bite to warm potato salad.

Take tonight’s dinner for example. The menu consisted of angel hair pasta with an Indian twist and cauliflower and chard tossed with toasted almond slices. The entire meal took less than 20 minutes to cook and was tasty as it was colorful. Can harmony in the kitchen translate into world peace? Perhaps not. But I like to think it is a step in the right direction and that I’m bringing people together, one plate at a time.

So here’s my recipe for world harmony!

South Indian Pasta

1 package De Cecco Angel Hair pasta, cook for barely 2 minutes and then drain and soak in cold water.

Meanwhile…

You will need:

1 large onion chopped

1 sprig curry leaf

2-4 tablespoons channa dal (Indian yellow split peas)

2-4 tablespoons coconut oil

1 can of beans, any kind, drained. I used white beans

1-2 tsp. turmeric powder

¼ cup chopped coriander leaves

1-2 tsp. Himalayan Pink Salt

Juice of one lemon

Heat a large pot, add desired amount of oil.  Warm. Add mustard seeds and allow the seeds to pop. Immediately add chopped onion, sprig of curry leaf and sauté until the onions are translucent. Add channa dal and continue cooking until the dal is brown and toasty. Stir in turmeric powder. Add beans and coriander leaves. Stir. Drain pasta and add to the pot. Sprinkle Himalayan Pink Salt. Stir. Add lemon juice. Stir and taste for salt.

Cauliflower Almandine

I head cauliflower, cut into florets

I bunch chard, rinsed and chopped roughly into pieces, stem and all

Steam the vegetables for about 5 minutes, don’t overcook.

While vegetables are steaming…heat a tablespoon of butter plus one tablespoon olive oil. Add generous half cup sliced almonds. Stir and cook the almonds until they are golden brown. Be careful not to burn them. Add steamed vegetables to the almonds. Stir. Add 1 tsp. Himalayan Pink Salt. If you want you can squeeze some lemon juice over the vegetables but they taste fine without the juice.

Dinner is served. Sit in quiet peace and enjoy.

 

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Filed under Book clubs, Celebrations, cooking, dinner, harmony, Himalayan Pink Salt, Indian food, meatless, my mother's kitche, pasta, Personal experience, pots and pans, South India, Uncategorized, vegetables, world peace

Shopping is a personal experience at your local farmers market!

NOTE: An edited version of this article appeared (August 14, 2016)in  The Sacramento Bee’s Forum Section.

Sorry to be sending this out again, but the numbering was messed up in the previous post.

You don’t need 10 reasons to shop at a Farmers Market

Want to know the tale behind your kale? Or what is the back story on that white nectarine? Well, then you need to visit your local Farmers Market because here every bit of produce has an earthy beginning or a seasonal anecdote.

Our area market is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month and it is a perfect time to visit your local market and make that important connection between food and farmer.

Shopping in south India was an intensively personal experience. We knew the farmer who grew the spinach we used in flavorful dal (lentil) dishes. Everyone knew the Egg Man (with an odd egg-shaped head) provided not only the freshest eggs, but also legal advice on the side.

While I miss shopping in my hometown market in the beautiful Nilgiris or Blue Mountains of south India, I find solace at the Davis Market. Here the personal touch is not lost, it is celebrated. Along with nutrition the melons, onions, leeks and cherries provide a dash of nostalgia.

Top Ten Reasons to shop at a local Farmers Market:

10.Taste before buying. Cheese, bread, apples, peaches and berries are there for you to taste.

9. Variety. Everything from fresh peas to tortillas is for sale. Buy an artisan loaf of crusty bread, a container of eggplant pesto or even a lemon tart. It’s all there at your local Farmers Market.

8. You get to meet the farmer. Shopping at the Farmers Market is a chatty experience.

7. Even kale tastes better if it comes from the Farmers Market. Everything is so fresh that you’ll never eat supermarket produce again.

6.  You can buy a lot or just a single tomato. Choose exactly what you need.

5. Eat seasonally. This can mean a lot of broccoli in winter and lots of corn and tomatoes in the summer.

4. Yearning for days of old? The leisurely pace of shopping at a Farmers Market will satisfy the Norman Rockwell part of your soul.

3. You will never know who you will meet at the Market. A long-lost friend? An acquaintance from Little League days.

2. You will be missed if you skip a Market. If you are a regular customer, farmers take notice and will actually want to know why you didn’t come last week.

1. Forget about politics for a few hours. You may find that choosing a bunch of turnips is more important than talking about Trump or sampling some chili-lime pistachios is better than re-hashing Hillary’s emails.

So no more excuses. Visit a Farmers Market and enjoy the last of summer’s bounty.

THE END

 

 

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Filed under Celebrations, Davis Farmers Market, Fresh fruit, Fresh produce, garden, harvest, my mother's kitche, Personal experience, Shopping, South India, spring, renewal, Uncategorized

Birthday Pudding

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July 2016

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.

RECIPE

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

PREP:

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!

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Filed under Cardamom pudding, Celebrations, Delicious desserts, Indian dessert, Indian food, mother's kitchen, my mother's kitche, South India, Uncategorized

An evening of slow food

It was a party at Samantha’s house on Thursday evening when members of Slow Food Yolo gathered to listen to stories from My Mother’s Kitchen and watch a cooking demonstration.

They watched me prepare feathery light rice dumplings called idlis and Ishtu stew made of ginger, coconut milk and potatoes. There was also spicy tomato chutney and sweet milk pudding with vermicelli and cardamom. What a tasty and fun evening!

http://www.slowfoodyolo.com/

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Filed under garden, harvest, Indian food, mindfulness, Sacramento Slow Food, Slow Food USA, Slow Food Yolo, South India, Uncategorized