World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: August, 2008

Mumbai Magic

Homogeneity makes for healthy milk but anemic friendships. We need relationships that cross culturally imposed lines to enlarge our hearts and expand our vistas."       — Dan Schmidt

Mumbai.  It’s an energetic, complex, and pardon the cliche, a masala of a destination.  Oldways mix with the new and create something else entirely.  Knowing my time here was limited I signed up for a private tour with Mumbai Magic.  This decision made at the last minute will now be added to the best decisions-in-trip-planning list.  It was fate and luck that I eneded up with Deepa, the company owner as my guide.  As a result I not only received an insider’s view of middle-class Mumbai but also perspective and understanding, something that would take me several long visits to gain.  Deepa gave me insight into religion, textiles and sari history and also made me see things about how we may appear different culturally we share a common bond through our connection as women.

We also shared a love of food, culture, creativity and our thoughts on what we want from ourselves and life.  It was a special day. 

Deepa also blogs. This post, "The choices women make–an Indian viewpoint" offers an incredible amount of insight in understanding our sisters here in urban centers in this country.  How much does this sound like a Western point of view too?

At the end of the day she shared with me the other side of Mumbai–Dharavi.  I hadn’t expected to see this first hand.  My only understanding comes from Shantaram (someday I’ll stop talking about this book!) and from the National Georgraphic article, Dharavi | Mumbai’s Shadow City.  Only through Deepa could I get a new perspective.  No it isn’t all a happy story.  There’s no running water so the air is heavy with human stench. She warned me that she had nightmares.  I did have nightmares last night.  But what I did see was a community that works. Women taking care of their children while working in small cottage industries such as pottery and pappadum making.  A man preparing a dessert in two big steel pots outside the Hindu temple for the evenings final night of prayers (Sunday was Krishna’s birthday and Monday was the final day of prayers.), shared a taste.   

So thank you Deepa.  You are a generous, compassionate sister.  The gift you gave me through the sharing so intimately of your family, home, city and it’s communities has left its mark on me and I am forever changed because of it.

NAMASTE!

Note: If your travel plans include Mumbai or other points in India look up Mumbai Magic.  The company is socially-pogressive and is making a difference in young teens lives in the cities they service.

Ed. Note: the computer at this internet shop is old and this is the third time I’ve written this–spell check crashes explorer…onward and excuse grammar and syntax.  I need to pack and get to street food, kebabs at Bade Miya before 9:30pm.  The 24 hour + transist begins at 10pm tonight!

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When a Home is not a Home

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This photo is how I am choosing to remember the most beautiful building in the world.  Because the truth of the matter is that today I behaved badly as a tourist.  I don’t stay within the lines.  I don’t like being led. I am not a good sheep in a flock.  There that wasn’t so bad.  I also see that this is as true on the road as it is back home.

I officially hit that wall that travelers hit when on the road for more than two weeks. The point where you can’t take the stares, the not being understood, the language barrier…you like that you are out in the world but at the same time you’ve been gone long enough to miss those creature comforts that you take for granted.  I will never get comfortable with people standing over you as you eat. You start to miss electricity, running hot water and your cell phone. You can no longer tolerate the smells of body, diesel and animals.  You are continually confronted with the issues of poverty and are saddened when you see that naked child running down the road, or the 9 year old selling the postcard book instead of being in school (he needs to work.)  India is an land of complex realities.  Happiness and sadness. The best of humanity. The worst of humanity.  It’s all a cliche and then it’s not.

It hasn’t been all temples, spice and chai delights.  Today nearly sent me over the edge.  And really I knew it was going to happen.  I’ve been traveling solo for a few days now and as much as you know it is going to happen it just sneaks up on you. As Mr. Singh (he laughs cutely when I shout "Singh is King" which is a just released-here Bollywood blockbuster…) entered the state of Uttar Pradesh.  It’s a rural state and main road plies heavily to the tourist trade.  (Ed. note: I’m not near Lucknow and today’s monsoon.)

All tourist vehicles coming into the state are required to stop and submit paperwork.  Mr. Singh left me behind in the car and wham-o I had 3 souvenir sellers, one snake charmer and six monkeys on the car.  I’m here to tell you monkeys flat against your car window with their private parts at eye level are very difficult to ignore.  But I pretended to bury myself in my book as I flicked them away using the wrist movement I have seen locals use.  It magically worked.

Then the tour at the Taj Mahal by guide, Mr. Sanjeev.  I didn’t like that you are stripped of everything except what you can carry.  I WANTED my crutch tour book. I wanted my water bottle and socks. And call me a dumb American but in all the ads and mentions I’ve seen related to this building it is referred to as a home, and one man’s testament to his one true soul mate. (I’ll buy that.). But today I learned it’s essentially a grave site.  Gosh golly, I’m in marketing so I know that doesn’t sell but why didn’t I know that?  Mr. Sanjeeve kept on looking at all my pictures and then asking for the camera.  "You are not capturing the beauty. This is the most magnificent building you will be being at in your life.  Please. The camera to me.  This after I asked him why there are no signs in India to help people out. He replied, "ma’am this is India, it is our duty to serve you."   As we approached the main gate I was stared at, pointed at and asked by many to have their picture taken with me.  I thought this was cute at first.  Now I’m starting to feel like the Siamese Twins at the circus. Don’t worry, I’m being a good ambassador for America.

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Anyway, I’ll stop the whining. I’m a lucky girl.  I walked around the Taj Mahal today. There’s me at the "Princess Diana bench" with my handy scarf.  This is Mr. Sanjeev’s idea of what a good posed photo is.  My feet shouldn’t be on the ground as my husband should think me "relaxed" and in "good hands."  Tomorrow it’s Mr. Sampson.  And I am NOT going to one more government showroom.  I am going to the bazaar in Jaipur.  I’ll be "being better" tomorrow.  I just miss my life, my bed and wine but it’s all around the corner. I’m going back to my room and eating a Kit Kat.  I think I’m ready for Mumbai. Hmmm…maybe not.

Becky, another fellow Kerala tour traveler has posted some thoughts about her experience. 

Image by Trey Ratcliff  Stuck in Customs. For more more remarkable, breathtaking images used under Creative Commons with credits.

Delhi Postcard

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I’ve been remiss in mentioning my other half.  My "husband" of less than one year.  We’ve been on this trip together after all. As the days lapse the story of my dear one are growing more elaborate.  You see before I left I had been cautioned that when traveling if you aren’t married I should sport a gold wedding band as a means to explain myself.   I’ve been wearing one and it’s on my list of smart moves for this trip–after Cipro and malaria medication (the mosquitoes are quite hardy all over India during the monsoons).

While I took the visible action of trotting into a jewelery shop with J.C. who wisely advised that the band should be gold as India favors this metal, I didn’t think through the questions I would get.  All over India one of the first things ask after,  "What is your good name?" or "Are you alone?"   is "Are you married." Yes, I say as I raise my left hand to rest just at my neckline.

Today in Delhi while being sold a magic carpet I was asked to talk about my husband and our plans for children in great length.  The saga Charles, my workaholic but successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist spouse took a turn.  Charles travels a lot to Mumbai  for business and we want children but he’s never home.  He also dislikes it when I make major purchases for our three-story Victorian.  We’re newlyweds, married on New Year’s Eve. He’s romantic and he loves my cooking. His favorite is my fish curry.

Seriously, all these responses rolled off my tongue as fast as the questions  interrogation over saffron-cinnamon-cardamom tea with the shop manager.  He thinks that if I can bring a boy into the world for him my life with Charles will be happy.  For good luck I should purchase a magic carpet from the small artisan village in Kashmir.  So I did and now I really need another suitcase. Also the only way I was able to take the image above was  so that Charles could see the many available choices as I really "should be buying many magic carpets."  Good thing Amir, the sales manager, likes software people, "they have very good love in their hearts and smart in the head."

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My other highlight from today is diverting from the outlined itinerary with my local guide and driver.  I may or may not have seen Asia’s largest spice market in Chandi Chowk.  I saw a lot but when your guide is not food oriented and it’s 98 degrees with 80% humidity patience is a commodity.  He had also just misplaced his mobile phone–the one with a snake charmer ring tone.

The images above were taken in the market–the one with the cheese speaks volumes.  It’s on the ground, but so sweetly wrapped in a tea towel at the feet of a stray dog.  Cheese anyone?!

Vivek, the 27-year old guide, does suggest that you only need to be rich in your heart in life (I am finding Hindus poetic…)  stated that he doesn’t take tourists there.  I replied, "that is exactly my reason for wanting to go."   Today’s adventure  also included a harrowing bicycle rickshaw ride where we got into a 3-way collision–no damage at all but a lot of wobbling of the heads and discussion.

Tomorrow it is off to Agra with my nerves-of-steel driver, Mr. Singh.  His prescription for driving in Delhi is that "one must have a good heart, a good horn and great luck.   Oh yes, He has a boy and a girl and has been married 21 years.  He’s 43.

Charles if you are reading by the time we get to Bombay we’ll have worked things out through precious gems of India–rubies most likely.  

P.S.:  Mike Pardus of the Culinary Institute of America was on the Kerala Spice & Culinary tour and has begun the first of several posts (not sure of the next posting but it’ll happen–he took a lot of notes.  He runs the Asian Culinary education program at CIA so having him on the trip was great as he could help out in elaborating on the "why" and answered a lot of "what’s this?" in the markets. Check out his first post here.

Postcard from Kerala

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Today is the last day of the tour and everyone is preparing to head home or to other destinations.  A handful of us headed out very early this morning to visit a stop at a Hindu temple and the market.  We are having our farewell dinner tonight. In preparation we all took the shopping list and divided it between us–I thought I had it easy–carrot, shallots and curry leaves.  Right,  until the vendor is waving all plant life in your face and you are nodding no, no, no.  And another man is behind your shoulder smiling widely and nodding, "where you be from?" United States. Ohhh, are you alone? are you married?"  Well, I am not alone. "My name be Akbar, like the king." I smiled and said "of course."  You help me find curry, OK?" After many stall visits we did and he pointed to my camera and said, you should have photo of me, so you be remembering me."  So I did. 

The image above is not Akbar but a brother and sister whose proud parents wanted me to take their photo.  As galfriend Jen says, "darling."

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Right now, lunch is on the stove, a Keralan fish curry, pictured above.  One thing about cooking here–spice is used in generous portions but it is not overwhelming.  Before my visit to India I found cardamom a nice alternative, something to use occasionally.  Today I am a smarter woman.  I ADORE this spice.  I have not only eaten it but the Aurevedic massage oil that I was slathered in yesterday like a piece of sirloin sent me into a state of bliss.

OK, must get ready for lunch, and then mehendi the henna painting done for weddings.  Tomorrow’s a travel day to Delhi for the second phase of the trip.  I’m still looking for my copy of Bollywood’s Om Shanti Om. I do like the looks I get when asking for it!

Read the rest of this entry »

ah Kerala…

Part 1

I have two more days in Kerala.  At this point every day and event is seen as singular but of the same time.  I have been less than honest with the travel journal in that I have not been paying it much attention. I can say that I am relying on my Canon G9 to document where I have been and what I have seen.  It’s day 8 and I am have taken nearly 2300 images. And I have more than a week remaining.   Internet connections have been erratic and unreliable. Working USB ports a surprise. I am hoping Delhi and Mumbai are more wired.

Kerala is a green, beautiful, welcoming place. It’s the perfect passport to experiencing India.  The air is filled with frankincense, curry and the sounds jingle-jangling anklet bells.  I always thought travel writers made that part up. In the group, we have taken to saying, "Holy Cow. We’re in India." 

This morning (Sunday) after a homemade breakfast of poori, alloo and fried plantains the women were all measured for saris.  We will receive them tomorrow, with a lesson on how to wrap that yardage of textile around ourselves.  Monday will be our last full day together as a group. Some will travel to Mumbai, others North such as myself to see the Golden Triangle.  I am so glad I hired a driver and a guide.  If it makes me appear as the Raj so be it!  The drivers here make Bostonians seem meek!

Part 2

Religion in India is part of everyday life here.  Wherever you go there are images of Genesh, Vishnu, and Jesus–in tea shops,  in hotels, and also in the auto rickshaws.  Every morning wherever we may be at 5am I am awakened by the call to prayers.  Many times, depending on where you are in Kerala you will also here similar prayer calls for Muslims.

In order to reach the village church this morning for Mass I needed to take a dugout–a type of wide wooden boat where movement is generated by punting with a long bamboo pole.  After a short walk, and many waves and smiles from and to locals, I reached the 600-year church established by the Portuguese.

After leaving behind my shoes on the steps, I covered my head with the shawl that has become permanently attached to me here. Men were to the left and the women, wrapped in a pastiche of saris with heads covered to the right.

The gathering of worshipers, Syrian Christians, is similar to Roman Catholic.  There was such energy in the room.  The majority stood or knelled for the duration.  While spoken in the local dialect I could make out many of the prayers based on intonation and from the common structure.  Communion was tasted the same as always but the wafer was thinner, almost transparent.

Now, you should know, for whatever reason I do get emotional in Church.  Maybe it’s the being present to faith and belief.  It could also be the energy and how much this Mass was spoken by the congregation.   It was inspiring to see everyone’s faith illustrated–there were no hymn books, no Mass books to recite the prayers from–it all came from the heart. And it was loud inside that church–nothing like Masses I’ve been to outside of Easter and Christmas.

Closing

The air is now filled with the smells of a vegetable curry lesson going on in Anu’s kitchen so I must close.  The next post will most likely be Tuesday or Wednesday from Delhi.  If anyone knows where to find fresh curry leaves in the Bay Area I need a source! 

Masala Magic #2

I suppose there is some experiential time line for Western travellers as they move through their days in this country.  The initial shock, the chaotic confusion, the permanent haze that continues to linger on this day the start of day 6.  I am likened it now to stepping through the looking glass. 

What you see at first is poverty, dirty streets, garbage and a standard of cleanliness that changes the meaning of that word. But if you start to look past that and look at how people live you start to see something different.  And at the risk of romanticizing this all it’s not all good believe me.  And these are the lessons that travel teaches us.

I am a Westerner.  I do know this but today I am  more aware of being so and what that means. My first night in India I saw an interview with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates (who could sleep).  Asked by an audience member what we can do to end poverty he replied:  "You were given two gifts by God. You were born in the West and you were born with intellect.  Use both of those."

Wrestling with my conscience, my guilt and my privilege is a minute by minute task.  And while I can’t change the state of the world I can offer grace and gratitude as I meet others in this country.  I travel the world to learn about culture, place and history. The gift is that as I do this I learn about myself and who I am–the good, the bad, the ugly.  Hey I’m not perfect but I can change.

So two days ago when we were at the banana auction I was given my first gift.  The group of 15 of us were in the interior market.  The market is organized chaos.  It is loud, hot, sticky and smelly. Men are bee-lining for delivery destinations with burlap-tied bundle of cauliflower, bananas, and apples on their heads.  We tasted the small, sweet finger bananas that Kerala is know for and frankly make  my daily Cavendish look mealy.  Taxi drivers hang these bananas from the passenger side of front seat and feed on them during long shifts.  Efficient, eh?

The group was causing a stir.  Most think we are European and then are surprised when we say "United States." I think they don’t see a lot of our type.  I was in the middle of the group and then well I turned to someone behind me and well they weren’t there. In a second I was completely alone in this market.  I knew this would happen sooner or later.  On. my. own. in. India. with. no. way. to. blend. in.  And then something happened. I told myself that you make of it what you create.  I went to my Zen-base. Hold no judgment.  People are people and at the heart want to be kind. 

I started to nod and gently smile.  One banana seller stretched out his hand and yelled "HELLO." I shook his hand.  As I moved along another man had stepped out from his stall to take a look at the spectacle.  He smiled asked me to take his picture and gave me a banana.  I felt like I was on parade.  I started taking others photos and decided to show them their image on the back of the camera.  The laughed, called over others and pointed shyly at their images.

I was "lost" for 15 minutes.  Nothing really.  I’m as much the spectator as the spectacle. 

Random Thoughts

No photos, this computer at the hotel is pieced together and USB ports aren’t working.  I nearly rolled down a tiered tea plantation yesterday.  Religion is so predominant here. Wild jasmine is more heady than what we know in the states.  Fresh wild black pepper is vibrant and dances on the tongue.  I found my masala dabba.  I have problems negotiating in this culture–I do it but don’t go to the haggle stage. Really the pashmina was US$2.30.  Today we tour a spice plantation–as they say here cardamom is queen and pepper is king.

It’s August 14th here.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY-O!

Masala Magic #1

Stepping off the plane from the West to the East is not as easy as I thought.  Delhi International will shaken you awake.  Even with eyes wide open and all the preparation that you think you’ve done to anticipate what you’ll see and experience nothing will knock the Western orientation like 90% humidity and what I call Delhi Dizziness. You consider yourself an informed, well-read citizen of the world.  But once you travel outside of Europe your world changes.  And well I don’t believe there have been a lot of solo Western red-headed women in these parts.  In my mind overcoming the Delhi airport, securing a taxi to the hotel represented my first test of cultural integration. 

Fast forward two days, a 10-person check-in, a dozen wandering cows and 1 working elephant moving trees and rocks and I am in Kerala with the culinary tour.  It’s late Monday night and the day has been filled with many scents, sounds and sites.  Today in Cochin, the port city of Kerala we spent taking a handful of must-dos: JewTown, St. Thomas, and the Chinese Fishing Nets.  Two unexpected detours held the best surprises. 

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One was the dried ginger auction house where these men, who spend their days breathing the most gingery-citrus fragrant air tried to convince me in their local dialect that the dried ginger was good to smoke.  Perhaps it was my overzealous breathing (really it should be bottled!).  The ginger is air and sun-dried and sold at auction for use in tea and in medicine.

The other was lunch.  The group of 14 who comprise this culinary tour come from many different experiences and geographies.  Lunch and the afternoon was open for whatever came our way.  Fortunately for me Alam, a Vietnamese-Indian cookery instructor and personality in India was focused on getting us the freshest seafood and have it prepared nearby.  Just past the Chinese Fishing Nets, which everyone says you can’t miss–and while the whole counterbalance thing is interesting–it is a bit of a smell, past it’s prime place, "it’s mostly for the tourists now." said our guide. The stray cats were quite content.

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There are many day boat fisherman who sell their morning catch to locals and tourists.  What was terrific was that not only does Alam speak the local dialect she knows the culture of negotiation in this country.  It let me tell you in just 3 days I have decided that there is no need for any more "How to Negotiate Anything" books needed.  Just put yourself in the middle of a market, in front of a currency stand, or try hiring a taxi.  EVERTYTHING, is a discussion that should preferably involve more than two people (see above–10 front desk staffers to check me in!).  After paying for the largest-I’ve-ever-seen-in-my-life-prawns (above) and two King Fish a few of us took off after one of the runners, presumably there was a kitchen and a restaurant somewhere.  After losing everyone for a minute, Mike, who works as the Asian Culinary Director at CIA, waved me over to some stairs and we followed the boys upstairs into the kitchen. 

There’s still more to share from today such as the 5-course dinner at a local couple’s home (more later!). Tomorrow, it’s off to a tea plantation and some insight into chai.

So while I could write more here about the regional differences of dosas (crispy ones are distinct to Chennai), or my new found adoration of fresh curry leaves, or the permanently lingering curry scent on my fingertips, or the magic of a monsoon during an Auryvedic message and steam.  Instead, what’s pulling at me in this land of wandering cows, goats and blaring horns after just 3 days.  This place is life changing.  I can’t place my finger on it.  Something to do with seeing the world through different eyes, something about the huge, broad smiles that light up a room, or the billow of a sari scarf as she ducks under a banyan tree for shade, something. I just don’t know yet, but there’s days and nights ahead to experience it.

American Masala

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I leave in 3 days for India. The task at hand for the last few  months has been to build a foundation in the essentials of Indian cookery. (Note to self: you seem to be adopting a distinctly British orientation to your spellings and vocabulary.)  In my research, and additions to my cookbook library, is American Masala by Suvir Saran. Also the author of Indian Home Cooking Chef Saran is co-executive chef at the 2007 1* Michelin restaurant Dévi in New York. 

The two cookbooks are approachable, fun and more than likely if you cook on a fairly regular basis your spice pantry will suffice. American Masala isn’t about traditional Indian food—it’s about adding new flavors to the great American melting pot, using spices to liven up the old standbys—from meatloaf to macaroni and cheese—and enjoying dishes that are exciting and diverse yet as familiar as your own mom’s cooking.  It’s a fresh take on contemporary Indian cuisine. 

Sambhaar is a spice blend that is the southern Indian equivalent to Garam Masala, a spice blend used often in northern India, which is to herbes de Provence or Chinese five-spice powder– a foundational, essence of the cuisine spice blend.  The nutty flavor of a sambhaar comes from the addition of channa dal (yellow split peas) and urad dal (small white lentils).  If you are unfamiliar with the Indian cooking, you may think this  blend is bitter tasting.  If making it at home, and you want a more traditional taste–double the amount of fenugreek seeds.   I have found over the last few months that preparing these blends in generous portions allows for quick prep during the week.

Chef Saran seems to be somewhat less strict than his peer Floyd Cardoz of Tabla when it comes to curry powder.  He taught a session at the Gourmet Institute two years ago and what I vividly recall was his distaste over curry powder.  While I understand the plea if it means making the dish or not after work or when pinched for time well he’s all about eating at home.

Other recipes that were tasty include the very quick Double-Basil Mussels with pasta shells–double basil as the herb is added twice in a tempering oil method–a central technique in Indian cooking which adds depth and intensifies the ingredients’ flavors. And once it gets cooler Tamarid-Glazed Meat Loaf takes a standard America comfort food in another direction.

Stock Image: Goa coast, India

Amermasala

Goan-Syle Shrimp Curry

Serves 8

For the marinade

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 pound large or extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined

For the sauce

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 24 curry leaves, roughly torn (optional)
  • 4 dried red chiles
  • 1 teaspoon ground peppercorns
  • A 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 cups canned chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon Sambhaar, or 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

To make the marinade, place all of the ingredients in a gallon-sized resealable plastic bag. Add the shrimp, toss to coat, and refrigerate.

Set 1/2 cup of water next to the stovetop. Heat the oil with the curry leaves (if using) and chiles in a medium pot over medium-high heat until the curry leaves start to sizzle, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ground peppercorns and cook for 1 minute longer. Stir in the ginger, onion, and salt and cook, stirring often, until the onion is browned, about 8 minutes, sprinkling with water and stirring whenever the onion and ginger begin to stick to the bottom of the pot.

Add the garlic, coriander, and turmeric and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the tomatoes to the pot. Cook, stirring and scraping the browned bits up from the sides and bottom of the pot, for 1 minute. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the Sambhaar (see below) and cook for 1 minute, and then pour in the coconut milk and 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil and add the shrimp and any accumulated juices. Bring to a simmer and cook until the shrimp are curled and opaque, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and serve.

Sambhaar (makes about 3/4 cup)

  • 3 dried red chiles
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon white lentils (urad dal)
  • 1 tablespoon yellow split peas (channa dal)
  • 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
  • 2 teaspoons ground peppercorns
  • 40 curry leaves (optional)

Place all of the spices in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Toast until the mustard seeds begin to pop and the skillet starts to smoke, stirring often, 3 1/2 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or coffee mill and grind until powder fine. Store in an airtight glass jar for up to 4 months.