Summer before last I lucked into the trip of a lifetime. My friend Rubai was going back to India to see her family, and I jokingly invited myself along, then the joke tumbled into reality (this seems to happen a lot, and I love it). We ended up staying with various family members or friends and visited Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar, Khandala (by accident), Rishikesh, and other cities. I met a ton of great people, learned a few words of Hindi, saw a million beautiful (and some scary) temples, got my picture taken by strangers, almost fell out of an auto rickshaw in a monsoon, sweated buckets, and generally had an unreal time. And of course, I ate lots, and lots, and lots of good food.
I could easily write a book on the things I loved eating, and post pictures of some of them. Unfortunately my vanity is going to prevent most of that, because it was summer in India and I was a beautiful, sticky shade of red for most of it. I ate chicken tikka wrapped in the most tender flatbread I have ever witnessed; I would go back to India just to eat it once more. They are called roomali roti, which captures some of the poetry that I love about Hindi. Roomali is a handkerchief (a lady’s handkerchief) and this roti was like the embodiment of a fine square of silk that tears gently open at the touch of your teeth, except tastier. Or the cold coffee in recycled glass bottles for fifty cents that chases the sweat from your brow for just a moment and allows you to breathe deep and plunge back into the market, amidst the samosa sellers and bunnies for sale. Oh, and Indian goat. You can’t find it here, so I won’t go into it, for fear of sending myself back into a funk.
But the best food in India came from no stall, no restaurant.. It came from the little, busy kitchen of Leela aunty, Rubai’s aunt we stayed with in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. I could write three books about the wonder of her cooking. She thought it was no big deal, but her cast off leftovers put to shame anything I spend a week planning and executing. I could gain a hundred pounds if I were to live with her for a few months, but I would be an ecstatic blob. Everything she touches has such savor…now I’m her-homesick. Anyways. Back to the point.
I got a few recipes off of Leela aunty, which was difficult, as she has cooked so well for so long that her recipes are all internalized. So she handed over the cookbook that came with her pressure cooker – where she started many years ago. Following please find the recipe for rajma, or kidney beans. It’s a basic staple that I like to eat like I did so often: with chaval (rice) and Coke in a steel glass. Unfortunately I have no steel glasses, so I often beg Meenakshi’s mother to make it for me at their house and then we watch a Bollywood and I pretend that I’m not a white girl from Washington, and that John Abraham will come save me from an arranged marriage. Again, back to the point.
Leela aunty’s rajma chaval
Again, these measurements are in metric. Handy calculator here.
250 grams of red kidney beans (a little over half a standard bag)
100 grams onion (about half of a large onion)
100 grams tomato (1 rather large tomato or 2 small)
2 large Kashmiri red chillies (I used crushed red pepper flakes because I had them on hand)
1 teaspoon of garam masala powder (scroll to bottom)
1 inch piece of ginger (or a good pinch of ginger powder)
4 flakes of garlic (I no longer remember what that meant, but I do know that you can use 1 hearty teaspoon of garlic paste)
100 grams of oil (this may be a little much…Just use enough to get the onions good and golden)
Salt to taste (lots)
4 1/3 c water
Soak beans overnight. Then, grate the onions – I chopped them finely after I started bawling like my man had left me for my sister… and I had only grated about 1/6 of my onion – cut the tomatoes, and make the ginger and garlic into a paste.
Heat oil in a pressure cooker and brown the grated onion. Add tomatoes, ginger, garlic paste, and keep frying till tomatoes are mashed.
Add soaked beans, whole chillies, salt, and water. Bring to full cooking pressure. Reduce to medium heat and cook for 20 minutes. Allow cooker to cool gradually and open.
Garnish with garam masala powder and serve.
What I actually did:
I don’t have my pressure cooker with me at my apartment, so I was relegated to boiling the the life out of the beans with a big ole pot. Also, I left my garam masala mix with my pressure cooker, so I faked it up by adding some ground nutmeg, ground allspice, ground cardamom to the mix when I added the beans, along with a half cinnamon stick and three big black cardamoms I bought at the Indian store on the cheap for just this dish a while ago. Again, I also didn’t have the chillies, so I just used crushed red pepper, which worked well for me. Finally, I brought the whole mess to a roiling boil then boiled it on medium for about an hour and a half until the beans finally started getting tender. Meenakshi’s mom puts her in the slow cooker all day and they get delicious and tender that way. So there.
Serve with rice. The Indian way to do it is the same way we measured water for daal, and I find it easier than measuring with a cup and having to remember the ratio.
There are as many recipes for garam masala as there are cooks and cookbooks. Here’s the one I happen to have at hand. Don’t worry about what you do or don’t have – it won’t be the end of the world. Up the flavors you like, toss out the ones you don’t. I find the most important flavor to me is cinnamon, because I’m an addict, and because it brings a nice round heat to the dishes. That and the coriander I think are absolutely necessary. But I’m no expert, and my tongue and yours are most likely very different. Experiment. Have fun.
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 (3-inch) stick cinnamon, broken up
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Toast the spices for about 10 minutes in a dry skillet or in a warm but not hot oven. Grind them in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
Or just go to the store. That too.