It feels like light years since I was in India. Autumn is rolling in with its billowing rust-coloured leaves and the summer is now already a distant memory. The upside to this is that I’ve had time to recover from the culture shock of India; the downside is that I really miss the food.
You might remember that I took a cooking class in India with this great guy called Naveen. I asked him if he could show me how to make my favourite dish, bindi with coconut, and he gave me his own version of it, but I fear the Ashram’s recipe will forever remain a mystery. I can only guess at what exactly they put in it, but I do remember it was marvellous. I must have had five servings of it the first time I tried it.
Aside from bindi, Naveen also taught my friend Matt and me how to make chana masala (spicy chickpeas) and aloo paratha (spicy stuffed potato pancakes). He did not show me how to make dal (sort of like a lentil soup, but not really, if that makes sense), but I did make some following a recipe from an Indian cookbook, just because thali is not complete without dal (in my opinion). I’m working on a recipe of my own, which I’ll hopefully be able to share with you all soon.
The way I always had thali in India was thus: you would get a large plate with separate ‘compartments’ for the different dishes, which were usually dal, curried vegetables, aloo paratha or chapati, rice and either curd or some other type of curry. It’s a massive meal, almost a feast, and that’s how we usually enjoyed it: a big group of us from the Ashram all sitting around a table, having thali.
At the Ashram, we drank water with our meal, but I made myself a quick cup of chai to have with my thali. I say quick, because it’s my extremely lazy but speedy version of chai: make a small cup of tea, leaving the bag to seep until the tea is very strong, then add a good dollop of sugar and the same amount of almond milk as you poured of water. Lazy, and very untraditional, but it works for me.
Without further ado, I shall now share with you the recipe Naveen gave me for bindi (okra) and chana masala, with a few tweaks here and there. Mostly I reduced the amount of oil. Indians seem utterly untroubled by calories; I, however, nearly had a heart-attack just looking at Naveen pouring cup after cup of oil in the pan. You will note from the pictures that I have a rather ugly looking aloo paratha–the reason for that being that I am not nearly as skilled as Naveen at whipping up a beautiful potato pancake, and so my little mutant pancake was born. Practice makes perfect (I sincerely hope so). I also omitted the stuffing as I thought there were already enough fiery flavours on my plate.
Masala Bindi with Shredded Coconut
Serves 4 to 6 people (depending on how hungry you are)
1/2 kg (1lb) okra (ladyfingers)
2 small onions, peeled and chopped finely
1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 tsp mango powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 + 1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
(1/4 tsp chilli powder)
1 tsp salt
60ml vegetable oil
50g shredded coconut
1. Wash the okra first of all, before you chop it. If you chop the okra first and then wash it, the bits will get terribly sticky and glue together.
2. Heat the oil over medium heat in shallow pan. Cook the cumin seeds, onion, chilli, ginger and garlic for 4-5 minutes, until slightly browned but not burnt.
3. Add the chopped okra, salt and turmeric. Stir about with a wooden spatula to coat the vegetables in the spices and oil. Cover the pan with a lid and cook on low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the okra has softened.
4. Take off the lid, toss in the garam masala, chilli and coriander powder and cook for another two minutes. Add a splash of water if you fear the okra might burn. Take off the heat, sprinkle the shredded coconut over the okra and serve.
Chana Masala (Spicy Chickpeas)
Serves 4 to 6 (or two, if you are terribly greedy, like me)
250g cooked chickpeas
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
3 tomatoes, finely chopped (or half a tin of tomatoes)
50ml vegetable oil
1 + 1/2 tsp coriander powder
3/4 tsp garam masala
3/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/3 tsp chilli owder
1 + 1/2 salt
3 tsp fennel seeds (or leaves)
1 + 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1. Heat the oil. Cook the cumin seeds until they begin to turn brown (it will hardly take a minute), then add the ginger, garlic, chilli and onion. Cook until the onions have softened and browned.
2. Add the tomatoes, fresh or tinned, the coriander powder, garam masala, salt and fennel seeds. If you are using fresh tomatoes you will need to add about 25–50 ml of water; otherwise, use the juice from the tinned tomatoes. Cook on low heat for a good 5 minutes, until all the ingredients blend together in a spicy sauce.
3. Finally, throw in the chickpeas and cook for another few minutes to let the chickpeas absorb some of the sauce.
Aloo Paratha (Potato & Spice Stuffed Pancake)
Makes 4 large or 6 smallish parathas
4 medium potatoes, peeled
1/2 tsp garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp fresh chilli, finely chopped
1/2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
1/4 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp oil
1/2 kg (1lb) wholewheat flour, sifted + extra for dusting
300 ml water
1. Boil the potatoes for 20 minutes.
2. Reserve some of the flour for dusting. Combine the salt and flour in a shallow bowl/curved plate and mix in the water bit by bit. Use your hands to create the dough; it works much better than a spoon. Add the oil and keep on kneading. The flour should be wet but not sticky. Sprinkle the rest of the flour on the dough and let it rest.
3. Mash the spices into the potatoes.
4. Cover a flat surface and a rolling pin with a fine layer of flour. Take a small bit of the dough, form it into a ball the size of a golf ball, roll in a bit of flour and flatten it with the rolling pin. Put stuffing in the middle, fold and flatten again.
5. Cook the aloo paratha in a flat pan for a few minutes on each side and serve.