Friday, June 2, 2017

Curry: The Flavor of Mystique, Part II of III

In colonial India, the British had by and large eaten food prepared for them by local cooks, who not only served up elaborate Indian meals but also were quick studies when it came to learning English recipes. Though the arrival of more and more British wives to the colonies in the 19th century had seen the focus revert to familiar English style foods in their homes, a “number of hybrid dishes [were being] conjured up between the English lady of the house and her Indian cook … [dishes] like Windsor soup, Patna rice, a broth of doll (daal), Burden stew, cabobs, fish moley, curry chutney, and the renowned Byculla soufflé.”

Curry and rice continued to be common eatings too, so much so that a popular humorous book of the era was titled Curry and Rice on Forty Plates or the Ingredients of Social Life at "Our Station" in India and the term ‘curry and rice days’ signified the nineteenth century itself in British colonial lingo.

It has been widely suggested by food writers and colonial historians that it was when the nabobs returned to England and became nostalgic for Indian cooking, that a one-bottle spice blend like ‘curry powder’ became their quick fix. In An Invitation to Indian Cooking, Jaffrey imagines a droll scenario in which an Indian khansama (cook) saw a business opportunity when his Sahib (master / boss) praised his garam masala and wanted to take it back to England. The cook threw together a box of whatever spices he happened to have on hand. When the improvised blend became popular across the black water, his fortune was made and ‘curry’ was born! 

More realistically, some spice blends – probably adapted by the British from garam masala and other regional Indian masalas – came to be called, for the sake of convenience, an Anglicized name, curry powder (powder used to flavor curries). This was convenient to use and imparted an ‘exotic’ and a superficially ‘Indian’ flavor to food. In time, the British began to use curry powder indiscriminately, with all kinds of ingredients: lentils, meats and vegetables. It was a bit of instant gratification. As Gernot Katzer, chemist and creator of the Everything About Herbs and Spices website, puts it, “Curry powder is a British invention to imitate the flavor of Indian cooking with minimal effort.”

According to author David Burton, “Of all legacies of the Raj, none is more firmly or more happily rooted in British popular culture than curried food… [but] … curry powder has badly misrepresented Indian cookery to the rest of the world. To a people whose cuisine is centred upon freshly grinding and mixing different spices in varying proportions for each individual dish, the idea that a single ready-made spice mixture can be added to fish, chicken, eggs or whatever to produce real Indian ‘curry’ is preposterous, to say the least.”


So perhaps I should not have been surprised in 1998 to read in the news that ‘curry’ had overtaken fish and chips as Great Britain’s most popular food, that it could indeed be considered the UK’s national dish.

 Britons even celebrate a National Curry Day on November 10.  Ironic, isn’t it? It is not, however, “only the British who [historically] use curry powder. In France powder de curry is obtainable, and in Denmark with its long tradition of trade with the Orient, there has for long been a ‘karry’ powder available (but a relatively milder version).”

 In the late 1990s, there were reports in the Indian media that the Japanese were trying to patent ‘curry’.

 Naturally, there were protests from various Indian quarters. Imagine Indians trying to patent sushi! The truth is, however, that the name of some long-forgotten dish originally from India has evolved into a largely global idea of foods inspired by its culture. Perhaps by the very token of this metamorphosis, this lack of clear-cut national identity, it’s okay for the British and the Japanese to have their own curry and patent it too. After all, their version would be unrecognizable as anything Indian. Curry, a term “adopted into the British language from India, has changed its meaning in migrating and now become ubiquitous as a menu word. It now denotes various kinds of dish in numerous different parts of the world; but all are savory and all spiced.”


It was only natural that the import, which had made its way into the English culture and lexicon, should also begin to make an appearance in its literature. William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811 and spent the first five years of his life there. In 1846, he published his satirical poem, “Kitchen Melodies – Curry” that offers a look at the place of ‘curry’ in contemporary England and a document of the English manner of making it, à la Glasse, Kitchiner and Beeton. 

Kitchen MelodiesCurry

 THREE pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly half-a-pound,
And stews them in a pan until theyre brownd.

Whats next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With curry-powder, table-spoonsfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for half-an-hour,
A lemons ready juice shell oer it pour;
Then, bless her! then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boiland serves quite hot.

P.S.—Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish;
        Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish
        Are fit to make A Curry. ’Tis, when done,
        A dish for Emperors to feed upon. 

Two years later, Thackeray would write of curry again, using the popular and soon-to-be stereotyped notion of curry as an exotic and fiery concoction, in an amusing episode in Vanity Fair that illustrates Rebecca Sharp’s determination to snag Joseph Sedley, no matter the personal cost. 

“Now we have heard how Mrs. Sedley had prepared a fine curry for her son, just as he liked it, and in the course of dinner a portion of this dish was offered to Rebecca. "What is it?" said she, turning an appealing look to Mr. Joseph. 

"Capital," said he. His mouth was full of it: his face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling. "Mother, it's as good as my own curries in India." 

"Oh, I must try some, if it is an Indian dish," said Miss Rebecca. "I am sure everything must be good that comes from there."

"Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear," said Mr. Sedley, laughing. 

Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. 

"Do you find it as good as everything else from India?" said Mr. Sedley. 

"Oh, excellent!" said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. 

"A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. "How fresh and green they look," she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. "Water, for Heaven's sake, water!" she cried. Mr. Sedley burst out laughing (he was a coarse man, from the Stock Exchange, where they love all sorts of practical jokes). "They are real Indian, I assure you," said he. "Sambo, give Miss Sharp some water."

The paternal laugh was echoed by Joseph, who thought the joke capital. The ladies only smiled a little. They thought poor Rebecca suffered too much. She would have liked to choke old Sedley, but she swallowed her mortification as well as she had the abominable curry before it, and as soon as she could speak, said, with a comical, good-humoured air, "I ought to have remembered the pepper which the Princess of Persia puts in the cream-tarts in the Arabian Nights. Do you put cayenne into your cream-tarts in India, sir?"”


Epping butter and veal notwithstanding, the word curry and the curry plant do have historical and literal roots in India. The plant is a true native. It is called mahanimba (great lemon) in Sankrit, kadhi patta or meetha neem in Hindi, kadhi limba in Marathi, mitho limbdo in Gujarati, and kariveppilai (leaf of the black Neem tree) in Tamil. And, of course, since ‘curry’ is the colonial Anglicized version of kari or kadhi, you have curry leaf. 

This shrub, which now grows wild in much of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the Rutacae (citrus) family. While the usual suspects of this family include Citrus aurantifolia (lime) and citrus sinensis (orange), the unlikely members are the curry plant (Murraya koenigii, also called Bergera koenigii, particularly in older texts), rue (Ruta graveolens) and Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum). 

The curry leaf tree is a small spreading shrub, about 2.5 meters high. The main stem is “dark green to brownish, with numerous dots on it; its bark can be peeled off longitudinally, exposing the white wood underneath… the girth of the main stem is 16 cms... the leaves [are] exstipulate, bipinnately compound, 30 cm long, each bearing 24 leaflets…” The flowers are “bisexual, white, funnel-shaped, sweetly scented, stalked, complete… the average diameter of a fully opened flower being 1.12 cm.”

Curry flowers bear a striking resemblance to orange blossom. And yes, the leaves, disposed in a feather-like arrangement, have a subtle citrussy-pungent aroma when rubbed between the fingers. If you see its small lemon-like fruit, the relationship becomes even more evident. This knowledge makes the Hindi (meetha neem or sweet Neem/lemon), Marathi (kadhi limba or kadhi lemon), and Gujarati (mitho limbdo or sweet lemon) names for the plant more comprehensible. They also serve to differentiate it from another Indian native, the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which possesses numerous medicinal and other beneficial properties but is bitter and distasteful. The Neem tree is appropriately named kadu limba or bitter Neem/lemon in Marathi. It is not ordinarily used in cooking although Mahatma Gandhi is said to have eaten a mess of neem leaf every day at dinner. 

Curry leaves, on the other hand, are ‘sweet’ or at least pleasant, even eaten raw. So popular is Murraya koenigii that in much of the Indian peninsula, it appeared almost as frequently in gardens as did the revered Tulsi (Sacred Basil) plant. While it may have its origins in South India, its popularity is certainly not limited to that region. My father, Sudhakar Marathé, grew up in a traditional household in Poona in the state of Maharashtra on India’s west coast. He says, “Almost every upper / middle class family garden had at least one curry plant. It will grow to 20 feet in height, and cover a circle of 15 feet diameter. It looks very nice when fully clothed, and the blossoms in bunches look lovely too, as do the fruit which (surprise, surprise!) also come in bunches. Almost no family, never mind how large, is able to consume all the leaves of their tree. So chaps come round asking to buy the leaves – we used to 'sell' ours, making sure the plucker left at least one branch intact, for continued use.”

Like many other ingredients indigenous to India and employed widely for centuries, the curry leaf has numerous medicinal qualities. “The leaves, the bark and the roots of Murraya koenigii (L.) Spreng. can be used as a tonic and a stomachic. The bark and the roots are used as a stimulant by the physicians. They are also used externally to cure eruptions and the bites of poisonous animals. The green leaves are stated to be eaten raw for curing dysentery, and the infusion of the washed leaves stops vomiting (Watt, 1891; Kirtikar and Basu, 1935; Dastur, 1962). 

“A strong odiferous oil occurs in the leaves and the seeds of Murraya koenigii (L.) Spreng. The chemical examination of this oil has been made by Nigam and Purobit (1961). Gautam and Purobit (1974) reported that this essential oil exhibited a strong antibacterial and antifungal activity. An alkaloid, murrayacinine, is also found in this plant (Chakrabarty et al., 1974).”

To be continued

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.