Monday, May 15, 2017

Curry: The Flavor of Mystique, Part I of III

Years ago, before I started Un-Curry, my Indian catering company and cooking school in California, I spent over a year exploring a subject that first intrigued me and then, as I researched, became close to my heart. I had hoped to publish my findings in Gastronomica, a quarterly journal of food and culture brought out by Berkeley. But, for reasons there is no point in getting into, though the then-editor liked my piece, it was not published there. 

After hoping for years to find it another home, I have finally decided that The Shared Table is that place. I have a new book out this week, appropriately titled Shared Tables: Family Stories and Recipes from Poona to LA (Speaking Tiger Books, 2017) and in honor of its release, I share with you Curry: The Flavor of Mystique. It is a long story so I offer it in three parts. 

Think of it as appetizer, main course, and dessert over the next three weeks. Recipes finish out the offering. I hope you will try them at home and share your thoughts.

Bon Appetit.


Curry: The Flavor of Mystique

Two of my most prized possessions reside in my dining room. One, sitting in pride of place on my cookbook shelf, is a 1784 edition of Glasse’s Cookery. The other, standing in a sunny spot near the window, is my curry leaf tree. 

I received the book in the spring of 2004, just one of a generous baker’s dozen of cookbooks gifted by my dear friends, Beth and Jerry Bentley, scholars and rare book collectors. Another dear friend, Rachel Mathew shares my Indian heritage and planted the curry tree for me, knowing that I like having the fresh, glossy deep green leaves on hand to cook with.

Shot of curry leaves by Sanjiv Bajaj

I have no green thumb but I do like to cook. Living in Southern California, I nurture and cherish my curry plant because it is my connection to home, a little taste of India. Whenever the mood strikes, I can stretch an arm out and pluck a branch. Instantly, the distinctive aroma fills the air and scents my fingers – pungent, sharp and tangy – conjuring up visions of Indian kitchen gardens, of aromatic leafy branches piled high at the corner vegetable stall, of favorite childhood dishes flavored with their pungent zest: my mother’s pumpkin raita seasoned with green chilies, mustard seed and curry leaves. The astringent curry leaf chutney powder I ate on summer vacations in Poona, my hometown. The chili- and curry leaf-flavored ‘Chicken 65’ that was a specialty of the city of Hyderabad where I spent my college years. 

Recently I discovered a connection between my curry tree and Glasse’s Cookery. The curry plant may have given birth to the infamous word ‘curry’ which has come to symbolize all of South Asia’s rich culinary traditions in its two wee syllables. And Hannah Glasse’s cookery book contains what is considered the first-ever recorded recipe for ‘curry’ in the English language.

I have lived in the USA for two decades. Often the first comment people make when they learn I am Indian is, “Oh, we love curry.” This always flummoxes me. I am at a loss for an appropriate response. Do they mean that they like Indian food or a specific dish or a certain kind of spice powder? Should I be smiling my gratification at what might be a compliment to my country’s “cuisine”? And should or shouldn’t I dive into long-winded explanations about the word and the misnomer that it is? 

I’m weary of being identified with curry, of people assuming that Indian food is curry. I want to assert that there is no such thing, that no magical ‘curry powder’ makes food taste ‘Indian’. To do so there are, of course, two questions I must answer: first, what is curry, and second, what is curry powder? The confusion over curry is a product of understandable ignorance and avoidable semantic generalization. When people use the word ‘curry’ they often mean to represent the food of India. But while it may, today, be the worldwide symbol that represents Indian cooking or flavor, it is also pure generalization (as are many other misconceptions about South Asia) in such a historically, ethnically, religiously and culturally varied region. Given the diversity and complexity of the cuisines of the subcontinent, hardly anything can be defined so distinctly or as simplistically as ‘curry’. 

Yet it has become as synonymous with Indian cooking like stir-fry is with Chinese or pasta with Italian. Such broad generic terms understandably serve the purpose of categorization in, or simplification of, a ‘foreign’ cuisine. However, they can soon become stereotypes, misnomers that undermine the very diversity of that culture. Take ‘stir-fry’, for instance. The term willy-nilly clumps together hundreds of distinct dishes for which regional Chinese dialects have individual, evocative, even spiritual names. 

And what about pasta? It can be argued that until fairly recently (perhaps till the advent of the Food Network, which has brought world cuisine into American living rooms and kitchens), it was generally assumed that all the Italians ate was ‘pasta’ and that one pasta tasted pretty much like another. Of course, we’ve since been educated. Today we know that there are hundreds of different kinds of paste; fresh, dried, long, short, stuffed, coated, baked, boiled, each produced differently, each with its own character, seasonality, cooking method, accompaniments, seasonings, and context. People are also more aware that Italian cuisine extends far beyond pasta.

Yet the definition of curry has not altered much from this description in the 1896 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, published in the heyday of British colonial rule in India: curry is a “name applied to a great variety of seasoned dishes.” Apparently by then, the word was already being used expansively and loosely to describe an entire cuisine and the trend has continued. However, if you asked for ‘curry’ in India, you would be met with blank stares. To one of Indian extraction, the word, sans qualifier or adjective, may mean nothing. You might, at a pinch, say chicken curry or fish curry – almost always a dish with sauce – but not simply curry. 

Cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey has lived in the USA for over four decades and was one of the first writers to introduce Americans to authentic Indian home cooking. In An Invitation To Indian Cooking, she writes, “Curry is just a vague, inaccurate word, which the world has picked up from the British, who, in turn, got it mistakenly from us… In America it can mean either Indian food or curry powder.” She finds the word as “degrading to India’s great cuisine as the term ‘chop suey’ was to China’s.”

The 1896 Britannica goes on to list the ingredients used in curries, citing every possible herb, spice, base and flavoring agent (albeit mostly indigenous ones) used in culinary preparations in regions ranging from Rajasthan to Assam and from Kashmir to Kerala. “In India the following are employed as ingredients in curries: – anise, coriander, cumin, mustard, and poppy seeds; allspice, almonds, asafetida, butter or ghee, cardamoms, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa-nut and cocoa-nut milk and oil, cream and curds, fenugreek, the tender unripe fruit of Buchanania lancifolia, cheroonjie nuts (the produce of another species, B. latifolia), garlic and onions, ginger, lime juice, vinegar, the leaves of Bergera Koenigii (the curry-leaf tree), mace, mangoes, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, salt, tamarinds, and turmeric.” This list also encompasses virtually all kinds of savory Indian preparations in its breadth and groups them under that inaccurate but easy label, ‘Curry’. 


Nearly 300 years earlier had come the “earliest apparent mention” in print of curry in the English language, writes renowned British food historian, Alan Davidson.

 It appeared “in a translation (1598) of a traveller’s [Jan Huygen van Linschoten] account of voyages in the E. and W. Indies.” In Linschoten’s renowned travelogue, the Itinerario, he documents the Indian subcontinent: its peoples, mores, flora, fauna, and foods. In Chapter 48, titled “Of the Fishes and other beastes in the Seas of India”, he describes a specific dish, defining its ingredients and flavors and calling it curry: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, that they seeth in broth which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sowre, as if it were sodden in gooseberries, or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well and is called carriil, which is their daily meat, the rice is instead of bread…” This accurately describes certain sauced fish dishes of Goa, the region where Linschoten lived for five years.

Though numerous similar references to, and an occasional recipe for, curry have been noted in Portuguese, Dutch, English and French texts from at least the 16th century, it was not until the British colonization of India that dishes called ‘curry’ became popular in the Occident and the word curry entered the English lexicon, along with other culinary words of Indian origin like mulligatawny, kedgeree, tiffin, punch, congee, and toddy. Early British travelers to India were taken with its food and ate it adventurously. “… From the time the very first seventeenth-century [British] traders sat down with Moghul princes to dine off delicately spiced meats and saffron rice, the story of India’s influence on the British diet has been vast, colourful and fascinating.”

We may never discover the context and character of the “curries” early travelers to India ate. What Linschoten relished in Goa was most certainly not what officers of the East India Company devoured in Calcutta. However, Hobson-Jobson, a 19th century lexicon of Anglo-Indian words or phrases, offers an explanation of the role of a curry in an Indian meal. “The proper office of curry in native diet” was as a relish for the staple, which consisted of rice or bread. Curry “consists of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric; and a little of this gives flavor to a large mess of rice… It should be added that kari was, among the people of South India, the name of only one form of ‘kitchen’ for rice, viz. that in consistency resembling broth… Europeans have applied it to all the savoury concoctions of analogous spicy character eaten with rice. These may be divided into three classes – viz. (1), that just noticed; (2), that in the form of a stew of meat, fish or vegetables; (3), that called by Europeans ‘dry curry.’ These form the successive courses of a Hindu meal in S. India, and have in the vernaculars several discriminating names.”

Hannah Glasse’s compatriot, dressmaker Eliza Fay wrote in her Original Letters from India, that colonials were frequently served curry and rice as part of sumptuous lunches in Calcutta in the late 18th century. “We dine too at two o’clock,” she writes, “in the very heat of the day… I will give you our bill of fare... A soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a fore quarter of lamb, a rice pudding, tarts, very good cheese, fresh churned butter, fine bread, excellent Madeira…”

As early as 1747, Glasse had, rather authoritatively, included a single curry recipe, ‘To Make a Currey the Indian Way’, in her Glasse’s Cookery. While the curry spices she lists are few and indigenous to India: turmeric, black pepper and dried ginger, her addition of a pint of cream and the juice of two lemons sounds more Western. Her recipe was only for chicken and contained a limited number of specific seasoning ingredients, certainly none of the notorious ‘curry powder’, which became common at a date not long after the book’s publication. “By 1773, curry had become the specialty of at least one London coffee house”and from 1780 onward, “curry powder blends were on sale [in England]”.

 Just a century after the publication of Glasse’s Cookery, the Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book, written for British ex-pats and offering familiar English recipes as well as exotic ‘Oriental’ ones, offers over 40 “different methods of preparing curry.” In 1817, Dr. William Kitchener’s The Cook’s Oracle included a recipe for curry powder that became the English standard for years to come. In her famous cookbook, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, author Isabella Beeton offered curry recipes for beef, veal, fowl, rabbit, cod and mutton that utilized the esteemed Dr. Kitchiner’s method. Clearly, Indian cuisine was fashionable in contemporary England and influenced local tastes and cooking styles. Breton’s book includes recipes for dishes that use newly available Indian ingredients like coconut, mustard seed and other spices, as well as recipes for Indian dishes like mulligatawny soup, kegeree, Indian mustard, Indian/India pickle (“very superior”) or Pickalilly, and an Indian chutney sauce. Queen Victoria was such a fan that she “employed two Indian cooks whose sole duty was to prepare the curry that was served at lunch each day…”

But the other interesting fact concerning Beeton’s curry recipes is that they appear to be a means of using up leftover or cold meat, and perhaps of disguising their staleness with aromatic spices. They bear no similarity to Indian methods of cooking – indeed the only ‘Oriental’ element is the addition of curry powder – and they display a disturbing uniformity, all using cooked meats, stock and flour and butter based sauces, with an occasional peculiar ingredient like mushroom powder or rice! As Davidson expresses it, “What had been an Indian sauce to go with rice has become an English stew with a little rice in it.”

And something had been lost in translation, or at least in transit, from colony to seat of empire. 

To be continued ... 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine's! Galentine's!

I am not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Roses leave me cold, the hoopla is something I avoid, and I got over the cutsie cards when I was a teenager.

In my view, love is something to be celebrated every day. But this year, February 14 was very special because it truly embodied a celebration of true love.

My 14 year old, Keya joked that she was celebrating 'Galentine's' and she'd started eagerly planning mid-week. Her best friend Charlotte, whom she first met at ballet class, has been sick with mononucleosis. Since it is a debilitating and highly contagious illness, Char has been home from school much longer than she or her parents wanted. The girls hadn't seen each other since the Christmas holidays. We even had to miss seeing Char on her 14th birthday earlier in February.

Through the past six weeks, the girls have stayed in touch. Keya calls and Facetimes Char every day, making sure she is all right, commiserating with her when she is down and keeping her up-to-date on the ballet audition season. Char wrote Keya a good old fashioned letter, using it to practice her cursive!

Keya's weekends in January were packed with auditions for summer ballet programs and Char unfortunately was not well enough to attend any or even come to ballet class. But the girls held each other up, one helping the other through boring days stuck at home unable to dance, the other encouraging her friend before each audition and listening to her blow-by-blow account of it after.

Now finally Char was well enough to see Keya and they came up with a plan. Let's meet under the fig tree at the library, they decided. We'll have a Valentine's Day breakfast picnic. Char was going to make her delicious gluten-free desserts but she was too tired to bake, so Keya got up Saturday morning with an idea. Before I knew what she was up to, she had taken down peanut butter chips, dark chocolate chunks and white chocolate chips from the baking cupboard.

She melted each batch of chips and layered them in cupcake papers to make her very own peanut butter cups. Then she told me about the strict diet that Char is on. No gluten, no raw vegetables, no dairy, no red meat. So she planned her menu accordingly, telling me repeatedly what we needed to avoid.

We cooked Ottolenghi's eggs in a skillet (from his cookbook, Plenty) with a base of rainbow chard and omitting the yogurt sauce. To accompany the eggs, Keya sautéed potatoes, broccoli and portobello mushrooms in olive oil and we made chicken-apple sausages, because protein is really important! Chocolate covered strawberries were my gift to the girls.

My daughter packed up the goodies in her wicker picnic basket and wrapped her gifts. Then off we headed, Keya light of heart because she was finally going to see her BAE (for those of you not up on your teen slang, that is her "Before Anyone Else"!)

Car packed with goodies for the picnic

Char was waiting for us under the tree. Keya called out to her and she walked toward us. My daughter is very critical of my photography skills these days but she loved this picture I took of the two friends meeting at long last.

Keya & Charlotte meeting after months apart

Breakfast Time

Together Again

Sweets for her Sweet

And what did I do? you might ask. I have been sick as a dog all weekend and I wanted to give the girls their space for a few hours before I had to drive Keya to dance rehearsal. So I walked across to wait at Buster's my favorite little coffee shop which Melissa, one of my BAEs, introduced me to almost two decades ago. 

A hot cup of coffee and granola for my breakfast
Too weary to work or read, I enjoyed the sunlight and watched lovers coming in, the women wearing some shade of red or pink, families with their babies, enjoying ice cream on this hot California day, cyclists, walkers. No one was alone today and I felt content for them, having their loved ones for company.

My family moved so much when I was a child that I didn't have a 'best' friend till I was almost 18. I'm glad I could give Keya a less peripatetic life. When she complained to me years ago that she didn't have a best friend, I would say, "Your best friend is just around the corner. Once you find her, that's going to be it. You'll feel you've always had each other." 

So it has. In the last three years they have known each other, Keya and Char have been through tough times, injuries and setbacks, but their love and caring, their knowledge of each other's needs and desires is ever present and enviable. 

And I smiled as I pondered the things we do for love. How simple yet essential they are, and how they create beautiful moments that make our every day a special Valentine's Day. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Spices 101: Post #3: Cardamom -- The Vanilla of India

When I lived in India, one of my least favorite spices was cardamom, which might be considered India’s national spice if such a title were being handed out. Ubiquitous across the subcontinent, cardamom finds its way into everything from masala chai to Moghlai food, from desserts to paan. Most Indians seem to love it but I shudder every time I bite into a cardamom pod or even seed. The flavor of elaichi is so intense it makes my mouth numb, rather like Szechuan peppercorns do. 

Ironically, I learned to love its flavor only after I moved to North America. That was where I discovered it had another name too: Vanilla of India. How appropriate, I thought. The spice is native to my country but its sweetness is comparable to that of the vanilla bean, the most commonly used dessert flavoring in the West. 

Both cardamom's green and black varieties are supposed to have originated where I come from, the Western Ghats. According to the Indian Spices Board, cardamom is a “perennial, herbaceous, rhizatomous plant ... often referred to as the Queen of Spices” ( India is still one of the largest producers ... but Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burma also produce it as well.”

In The Essential Marathi Cookbook (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2009), I explain, “  aromatic black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) seeds are used in savory dishes [like pulao, meat stew, etc]; the better flavored green (Elettaria cardamomum) work for sweet and savory recipes  Green cardamom [also] has many benefits including enhancing appetite and relieving acidity  [and] is often also used as a mouth freshener.”

Elettaria cardamomum has long been used as a medicine in Ayurveda because it contains vitamins and minerals, aids digestion, clears throat problems, cures tooth and gum infections, and is a remedy for gastrointestinal disorders. When I was newly married, I once had an upset stomach and threw up uncontrollably. I remember being surprised when my Sindhi mother-in-law made me mung and rice khichadi flavored with ghee, salt and just two spices: whole black pepper and cardamom. “Isn’t elaichi for sweets?” I asked. 

"Yes, it is," she said but explained that Sindhis added it to this khichadi because both pepper and cardamom are good for stomach ailments. Sure enough, I recovered almost immediately after eating the nourishing and therapeutic dish.

According to, a website devoted to the spice, cardamom was used by the ancient Greeks in their cooking when Alexander the Great took the plant to Europe after his invasion of northwestern India in the 4th century BCE. The Romans followed suit and the spice made its way deep into Europe, becoming popular in continental kitchens from Sweden to Spain. 

In Indian cookery, I find that cardamom is too prevalent for my taste; it's rare to find a dessert that isn’t flavored with its aromatic sweetness, be it sevayachi kheer (vermicelli kheer) or gulab jamun (milk dumplings in a cardamom-rose water syrup)Then one day, a friend introduced me to a Swedish bakery in my small California town. There I discovered Semla (the singular is Semlor) cardamom-custard buns that were baked for Lent, the forty days of fasting before Easter.

Swedish Semla at Berolina Bakery, Montrose, CA

I fell in love with the delicate dough, almond paste filling and light whipped cream. And what was that floral aroma? I wondered. I was surprised to learn that it was cardamom because it was so delicate compared to what I was used to. What was different? 

It took several years of eating and baking northern European buns and pastries like Semla and the Scandinavian Julekake (Christmas cake) for me to understand. In India, cardamom is often used whole or coarsely ground. Even when ground fine, it remains in the forefront of a dish where it can get between the teeth. On the other hand, European baked goods use a fine cardamom powder and something about mixing the spice into a dough mutes its intensity. I prefer this delicate, nuanced taste. 

I started making my own version of cardamom cookies every winter. I call them Vanilla of India shortbread. They are buttery, almond flour cookies flavored with a good measure of powdered cardamom. For a pretty Indian hue, I add Calvert’s rose syrup which turns them a delicate pink. 

Since many people in India may not have an oven in which to bake cookies, I adapted the recipe into an easy milkshake. IF you would like to try making the cookies, however, please email me at and I will gladly share the recipe. You can also try making the milkshake below. Let me know how it turns out.

Vanilla of India Milkshake

This easy recipe is a great, on-the-go breakfast or after-school drink for kids. The sweet perfume of roses pairs beautifully with cardamom for a sweetly refreshing sip.

8 oz milk
1 ripe banana, peeled
11/2 teaspoons sugar 
1/4 cup ground almonds
3/4 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon rose syrup (optional)
1/2 cup crushed ice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and whip till smooth and liquefied. Pour into two to three tall glasses and garnish with a pinch of powdered cardamom.

Friday, November 13, 2015

SPICES 101: Post 2: Vadouvan, Vadagam, Vadakam, Vadavam, by any name is still a spice blend!

Do you know of any culinary connection between Tamil cooking and French? 

Seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it? I discovered the intersection of the two cultures in the story of colonialism in India and one French sounding word -- vadouvan. This spice blend has been a trendy ingredient in the Western world of haute cuisine for the last few years, with gastronomic celebrities adding it to everything from chicken to stews and from grains to salads. However, both the spice and the word originated in Southern India, as did many other popular spices and the infamous spice blend called curry powder. Vadouvan is often referred to as French curry powder or in the French language as “qu-ree.” 

The French, on a smaller scale than the English, had colonial territories on the Indian subcontinent and administered them for over three centuries under the auspices of the French East India Company. Arriving in India in the mid-seventeenth century, they established factories as far west as Surat and as far south as Masulipatnam. These were taken over by the British less than a century later. There was only one territory on the Indian subcontinent that the French held onto for a considerable period of time. This was Pondicherry in eastern Tamil Nadu, which they acquired in 1673 and occupied till the middle of the twentieth century.

And the Pondicherry region was the birthplace of vadouvan. Known in Tamil as vadakam, vadagam or vadavam, this unique blend was made annually during the hot, dry summer. Vadakam consists of whole mustard seed, cumin seed, crushed fenugreek seed and udad dal (split black gram lentils) to which garlic, onion, salt, and sometimes curry leaves, were added. What was really unusual was that unlike spice blends in other parts of India, this was made of dehydrated ingredients and shaped into a ball for easy storage and distribution amongst family members. The ball was an easy, quick way of adding flavor to dishes when garlic and onions were not always easily on hand. 

To use, a ball of the spice was broken into the desired portion, added to hot oil to allow the mustard seed to pop and then used as a base for other ingredients like chicken or vegetables. 

The French version, vadouvan, varies somewhat. Rather than sun drying the ingredients, they are dehydrated in a hot oven. The recipe diverges from its pungent, savory roots with the addition of chili powder, cardamom, cloves, fennel seed and nutmeg. Lastly, the blend is not made into balls but left as a powder. And that is how I first discovered it at a farmers’ market in Versailles, just outside Paris.

Here is a recipe for the traditional Tamilian version. Add it to your favorite ingredients to give them a new burst of flavor. 

Vadouvan Spice

Urad dal (split black gram lentils), 175 grams
Fenugreek seeds, 1 teaspoon
Onion, 0.75 kg
Garlic, 125 grams
Bengal gram, 1/2 tablespoons
Mustard seeds, 125 grams
Cumin seeds, 1/2 tablespoons
Turmeric, 1 teaspoons
Salt, 125 grams
Edible castor oil as needed

Rinse 25 grams udad dal well. Soak it and the fenugreek seeds in water for 60 minutes. Then grind them into a coarse paste. Set aside.

Peel the onion and garlic. Crush them coarsely in a mortar and pestle or pulse in a food processor to break them into pieces. Do not crush them so that they release their juices. 

Place the onions and garlic in a large mixing bowl or platter. Add the remaining udad dal, Bengal gram, mustard seed and cumin seed and mix well. Stir in the ground dal paste, turmeric and salt. 

Rest the mixture covered for one day. On the second day, uncover and rest it in the sunlight. On day three, stir the mixture well and shape it into balls, using castor oil to bind them. This oil acts as a preservative so the vadakam lasts for a year. 

Dry the balls in bright sunlight for ten days till completely dehydrated. Alternatively, use a warm oven to slowly dry out (but NOT bake) the balls (200 degrees Fahrenheit for 4-5 hours). You can also dry out the powder in an oven, at the above temperature, stirring it  occasionally so it drys evenly. Cool and store the powder or balls in an airtight jar. 

Chicken, Vegetables Or Dal with Vadouvan Spice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 kg chicken, cut into serving sized pieces OR 1/4 kg vegetables (carrots, peas, potatoes, beans, etc.) OR 1 cup too dal, cooked
1/3 ball or 1.5 tablespoons vadouvan or vadakam
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
lime juice
salt to taste
cilantro leaves for garnish

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the vadouvan and let the mustard seeds pop. Stir the ball to break it into small pieces. Add a touch of red chili powder, if you like. Sauté well for 1-3 minutes. 

Add the chicken, vegetables or dal to the pan. Stir to mix with the spices and cook till tender, adding water if needed. Mix in lime juice if needed and add salt to taste. 

Serve hot garnished with cilantro.

Try the recipe and tell me how it turns out. You can reach me at

Monday, September 14, 2015

Spices 101; Post 1: Aji Amarillo

I was recently asked by a friend and colleague in India to write a column about spices for an Indian newspaper. She wanted me to give some background and history about spices and also offer recipes that Indian cooks might not be familiar with.

I looked up the broadsheet and realized that it was a Hindi-language publication, which threw me for a loop! I studied Hindi for exactly one year in tenth grade. While I did surprisingly well, there was no way I could today write about food eloquently in Hindi. Then I realized I had an ace in my back pocket. My mother is fluent in many Indian languages and grew up speaking and writing Hindi. So I asked her to translate my piece and she did a fabulous job. Here is the first piece that appeared in Dainik Bhaskar (my English version, of course!). Look out for more over the next few months. 

Aji Amarillo

I am amused by the fact that non-Indians automatically associate chilies and heat with Indian food. I teach Indian cooking in California and my students are astonished when I say that our food is not always spicy-hot and did not use chilies from time immemorial! And yet how well an ingredient can be incorporated into a culture and indigenized is epitomized by the chili in its adopted land of India. 

For millennia, Indians gave their food heat with cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and ginger. The chili is a new entrant on its culinary scene. Christopher Columbus may have been the first European explorer to taste the chili in the Americas, and Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought plants back to Europe where they were an exotic novelty, grown in monasteries. The monks experimented with the fruit’s culinary and medicinal properties and found that it was a less expensive alternative than the exorbitant black peppercorns that were brought from India. 

Though the chili came to Asia with sixteenth century Portuguese explorers, it quickly proliferated all over India, which is thought to be “the world's foremost consumer of chiles,” using “hundreds of varieties representing a huge range of tastes and heat,” (Saveur magazine). From the non-spicy chilies of Kashmir to the fiery red ones of Andhra Pradesh, the chili pepper is there to stay. Indians use it fresh and dried, whole and ground up, on its own and mixed into spice blends.

But its history is far older than its association with Indian cuisine. There is evidence of chiles having been part of the human diet in their native lands, Central and South America since 7,500 BC. and they are said to have been domesticated in Mexico about 6,000 years ago. 

The word chili itself refers to the berry or fruit of a plant belonging to the genus Capsicum. The word pepper was added to its name to describe the hot taste of the fruit. Today, chilies are a huge component of South and East Asian cuisines like Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and, of course, Indian. 

Five domesticated species are used all over the world. Capsicum annuum includes bell peppers, cayenne and jalapenos. In the Capsicum frutescens variety are the Portuguese piri piri, Thai chilies and Malawian Kambuzi peppers. Notoriously fiery chilies like the habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga chili from northeast India fall under the species Capsicum chinense. The last two varieties are Capsicum pubescens and Capsicum baccatum, not commonly seen or known outside South America.

I was speaking to my Peruvian friend Ana recently about Indian food which fascinates her. Then I asked her how chilies were used in her native country and that is how I learned about the Aji Amarillo (pronounced Ah-hee Ama-riyo) chili which I had never known about before. Named for its distinctive yellow color (amarillo means yellow in Spanish), this medium-hot, flavorful and thick-fleshed pepper belongs to the Capsicum baccatum species. As Max Falkowitz, the editor of the website Serious Eats New York (, says, “If there was a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it.”

Sunshine colored aji amarillo paste

The Peruvians’ beloved Aji Amarillo is commonly used across the nation and Ana says that her countrymen often have it growing as a hedge in their gardens. The pepper,  which turns a gorgeous orange as it ripens, can be used fresh but is also dried, which renders it sweeter like sun-dried tomatoes. It is available fresh and canned, as well as in paste form, blended with salt and garlic. 

Aji amarillo paste, pretty & spicy

The Aji Amarillo chili finds its way into many classic Peruvian dishes like Causa Rellena,  a mix of other native South American ingredients like potatoes and avocados with imported ones like chicken, lime and garlic. Blended Aji Amarillo is also made into a chili-garlic sauce seen on tables at Peruvian restaurants, the way cilantro chutney is found in Indian ones. 

However, the dish that Ana waxed eloquent about was Papas a la Huancaina (potatoes made and named after the style of the city of Huancayo in the Peruvian Highlands). Since Aji Amarillo or paste might be hard to find, try using one yellow or orange bell pepper instead, adding a green chili or one teaspoon red chili powder. If you have sun-dried tomatoes around, add a few of those for texture and sweetness too. Add more or less chili powder, to taste.

PAPAS A LA HUANCAINA (Peruvian Potatoes with Aji Amarillo)


4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
3-4 yellow aji amarillo chile peppers or 1/2 cup jarred aji amarillo paste
2 cloves garlic, mashed
2 cups white farmers’ cheese (queso fresco) OR fresh paneer
4 saltine crackers OR Ritz crackers
3/4 cup evaporated milk
Salt and pepper to taste


8 white or yellow potatoes
Lettuce leaves
3 hard boiled eggs (optional)
10 black olives (optional)


Remove seeds from yellow chili peppers and chop into 1-inch pieces. 

Sauté onion, garlic, and chilis or paste in the oil until softened, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. 

Place onion-chili mixture in a food processor or blender. Add evaporated milk and blend till smooth. Add cheese and crackers and blend till the sauce is thick and silky. 

If needed, thicken the sauce with more crackers or thin it out with milk. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or chilled.


Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the potatoes and cook about 20 minutes until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain well and cool. 

To serve, arrange lettuce leaves on a platter. Slice potatoes and place on top of the lettuce. Pour the huancaina sauce over the potatoes, and garnish with slices of hard-boiled eggs and black olive halves.

Write me at about how the recipe turned out and what you thought of the Aji Amarillo, or what ingredient you substituted for it.

All pix by Kaumudi Marathe

Saturday, March 8, 2014

My First Marathon

I am running my first Marathon tomorrow, March 9, 2014. I will join 24,999 other runners and walkers at Dodger Stadium for the 29th Annual Los Angeles Marathon. I’m excited, nervous, and extremely unsure of whether I will make it to the finish line. After all, I am no Phidippides. 

He ran the first Marathon from the town by the same name to the city of Athens in 490 BC. He was carrying a message from the battlefield where the Greeks had defeated the Persians. “Nike (victory)!” he is said to have famously shouted at the end of a 24.85 mile run. Then he lay down and died. 

Phidippides was a soldier, probably not more than 20 years old, and ran like the wind because, of course, no one could send a text back then. “Hey, we won! Break out the champagne, LOL!” He ran like his life depended on it and alas, it did.

I am old enough, at 45, to be Phidippides' mother! As many of my friends have seen fit to inform me over the last six weeks there is absolutely no reason for me to be running the modern equivalent of his race, 26.2 miles, and worrying about fueling, hydration, long runs, hills, chafed arms, sore muscles, horrendous blisters and blood in my urine. No reason at all. Until very recently I have never even been tempted. Marathons are for other people. Times, PRS (personal records), speed intervals mean nothing to me. I just run because I like it. 

Let me backtrack a bit. As a child I tried to escape exercise. I would rather have read about the history of marathons than contemplate running one. And yet, when I had to run for Phys Ed class, I was quite fast. I could have been a sprinter. But I was not. I was a couch explorer, traveling to new worlds and living other people’s lives until I was about 21 and decided to start exercising, first taking a step aerobics class, then swimming laps every morning with my husband before we diverged to our separate work days. 

I discovered chi gung and cardio kick boxing when I was 28. Chi gung was dance like and the way it grounded me to the earth gave me an energy I could feel coursing through my body, unlike my native yoga which left me cold. 

I still kick box once a week but when I was about 38, I discovered an exercise I could do on my own, with very little equipment and no gym membership required. I started running short distances on the tread mill and I can still remember the morning I completed ONE mile. That was exciting. 

Of course, being a journalist, I try not to approach anything sketchily informed. So I borrowed books on running from the library and my friend Alexis, who had competed in several triathlons, gave me a book which I read and took to heart. Danny Dreyer's Chi Running appealed to me and has enabled me to run injury free for years. 

Still, the longest distance I attempted was a 5-K run in honor of my friend Stacy's mother-in-law who died of pancreatic cancer. I do the pancreatic cancer run every year (see pic below), sometimes running a 5-K, sometimes a 10. 

Then the year I was going to turn 40, 2008, I thought that a half marathon might be a good challenge. I still thought marathons were too much so 13.2 miles was a good distance to progress from a 10-K. I trained with a team for four months and ran the Surf City down in Huntington Beach early that February.

It rained from 2 am and I was a squelching cold mess right from the start line! I was amused when the wind and rain lashed at me, as I ran along the shore, that the elite runners were passing me on their way to the marathon finish line and I was only halfway through the half! Still, at the end of it all, with Sanjiv, my friend Irene, and Keya to cheer me on, I felt like I had accomplished something. And I felt that if I could run in that weather, I could run in anything!

And then I went back to my regular runs, two-three miles, with an occasional longer run thrown in. But this January thinking about my cousin, Pramodan who was diagnosed with ALS and could no longer walk, let alone run, I decided to run for him. So I signed up for the LA Marathon. 

I have questioned my decision endlessly, especially when I look at a course map and it strikes me that I will be running past all the parts of town I usually must drive to reach: downtown LA where I take Keya to dance class; Hollywood where her school is; Beverly Hills where some of my clients live; and Santa Monica which is as far west as one can go in LA County and somewhere I try to avoid going because it is so far to drive. 

My friend, Anita, a world class swimmer, said to me, "Training is a full time job." I get it but I haven't been able to treat it as such this time around. What I have done is my best to eat well, read my Runner's World magazine, run some hills even though I abhor them, and be regular about my exercise. 

I smiled when my daughter naively asked me if I would medal. The only medal I will get is the satisfaction of having met a challenge. With that, I am content. 

I get to run through my beautiful city and admire the skies, the weather, the energy, the happiness everywhere. And knowing that people I love are cheering me on, with notes and phone calls from all over the world (from my parents and Sanjiv to Sameera, Libby, Carrie and Aimee and my whole Facebook community), offers of acupuncture (Stacy) and playlists (Vanessa), the belief that I can do it (too many dear ones to list by name), and an actual presence at the finish line (Keya & Irene again along with Julien, Manon & Dean), I feel like I have the best training team ever. Thank you all! Whether I run 24.85 like Phidippides or 26.2 like modern runners, whether I decide to stop off and get coffee in WeHo or run to the finish line on Ocean Ave, I am happy to be alive and in this race. 

Pramodan died in early February at age 45. I am running tomorrow because I still can, because my legs work and because life is short to waste.

Here's to Pramodan, to Toni, and to everyone who has met a challenge head on. 

More after tomorrow….. I plan to keep mental notes!