On my first two visits to India in the early to mid-2000s, I had idly or dosa for breakfast almost whenever possible. I’m a huge fan of South Indian breakfasts. Unlike most North American and European breakfasts, which tend to be on the sweeter side (think: cereal, toast with jam or even chocolate spread, pastries, muffins, pancakes), Indian breakfasts are typically spicy and savory… and did I mention: delicious?
Amazingly, it wasn’t until my third and fourth trip to India that I got to know the Indian breakfast hit, poha. These kinds of things happen if you’re too focused on your favorite dishes and foods! That’s why it’s so important to try new things. Be open to suggestions, take chances, and enjoy invitations to home cooked meals! I encountered poha so late in the game probably because it’s much more of a family dish – prepared at home kitchens across India. It’s less likely found on restaurant menus. That said, some hotels (code word for restaurant on the sub-continent) and breakfast spots do offer poha.
The best poha I ever had, as with many Indian dishes, was not at a restaurant, but at a home. A very special home in fact, where I was welcomed and treated like family. If you’ve been following my stories on this blog, you know I lived for a year in Amravati, India – deep in the state of Maharashtra. I had amazingly generous and attentive neighbors, and my host family was particularly endearing and kind.
Of all the famous and celebrated Indian street food in the world, vegetable pakoras are ranked at the top, along with samosas, chaats — and perhaps dosa and idly, depending on if we’re talking about North Indian street food or South Indian street food. Is there a difference? You better believe it. But where do the two meet?
Conceptually, veg pakoras (or pakodas or bhajji or even veg fritters, depending who you ask) are something found in both North and South India, and the love and lust for them is equal. It’s not a culinary civil war as with the chapati (roti) vs. rice battle of the traditions.
With veg pakoras, the spices vary and the vegetable ingredients certainly vary, but the idea and the appreciation are shared. While we’re on the subject of pakoras: in many places in India you’ll find not just pakora made with all kinds of vegetable bits, but also fun things like deep-fried pakora-battered sandwiches and slices of bread.
In my many trips to India and especially in the year living there, I’ve had the opportunity to eat veg pakoras from hundreds of different places. I actually ate them a lot more eating out than eating at home with families. I will say, some of the street vendors and store fronts have some pretty grubby setups, and I wouldn’t recommend eating the samosa and pakoras from just any train station vendor. But still, there’s almost always a decent enough place to be found. If not… just step into your own kitchen!
Masoor Dal, or Indian red lentil curry, is one of the most classic dal recipes and a standard and favorite all across India — and the world. It accompanies almost any excellent Indian meal, and goes well with rice, chapati, naan, roti and all of your favorite breads. You can even serve it in a bowl with crackers or croutons and be a true East-West fusion superstar.
There are endless variations on this dal recipe. The tomato is optional but improves the flavor dramatically, going well to smooth the Indian spices and compliment the fresh ginger. Many Indian cooks make an even simpler, stripped-down version of dal, relying only on the key spices: cumin, coriander, and turmeric — possibly with a dash of garam masala. The smooth texture is obtained by cooking the lentils long enough that they literally fall apart. You can speed things up with an immersion blender, as noted below. (You might need to start with less water, as immersion blending a hot, liquidy soup is a messy and dangerous matter.)
Even when cooking non-Vedic, I do use asafoetida and mustard seeds. Many Indian lentil and bean dishes just don’t need the strong garlic and onion flavors, especially if one or more vegetable dish you’re serving with the meal does rely on garlic and onion. Garlic quickly overpowers other tastes. I encourage you to experiment with less – or even none – and discover the true flavors of the more exotic spices.
With some practice it’s quick and simple to make and perfect when you want a nutritious meal and haven’t got much in the kitchen. You do always keep plenty of lentils, spices, and rice, right? Exactly. Continue reading
I’ve had the pleasure of many, very different Vegetable Biryani dishes, all across India and at various places across North America and Europe. A boring biryani is quite a disappointment. Yeah, I’m a bit of a biryani snob. This is the story of the dish that reset my standards for that typical South Indian meal. If you’re lucky, it’s served on a giant banana leaf, maybe on top of metal Thali plate, maybe not. And if you’re wise and willing, you’ll eat it with your fingers.