Tag Archives: India

Mangoes

Mango
When I arrived in Chennai in southern India, almost the first thing my guide pointed out was the mango trees. He told us that there are 400 varieties of mango in India, which is about half of the varieties that exist worldwide. It may seem to us in a temperate climate that a fruit tree is not the first thing you’d point out to a foreign visitor, but the mango is not just another fruit tree; mangoes are the most important fruits in the world, and in fact are one of the planet’s 15 most important food crops. And nowhere is this more evident than in India.

Mangifera indica is, as the name indicates, indigenous to India, or at least partly to India, with its most likely natal region stretching from eastern India through Myanmar. Mangoes were being cultivated long before history was being recorded, but they were slow to spread. The fruit is extremely perishable, and even the seeds don’t remain viable for long. The Greeks and Romans never saw mangoes–with the possible exception of Alexander the Great, but only because he invaded India. But if he did see mangoes, he didn’t mention them, and none went back to Europe with him (not that they would have survived the trip). Continue reading

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Charleston Chicken Perlo

The more one travels, the more one starts seeing familiar though slightly altered words and dishes in places far from where they were first encountered. This is not a recent phenomenon, however. Foods have been traveling the world for millennia. Two rice-based dishes are perfect examples of this tendency. A combination of rice and lentils known as khichari in India moved along trade routes that predate Moses and found a home in North Africa. In Egypt, koshry or koshery, is a bean and rice dish descended from khichari that is an almost ubiquitous breakfast dish. When the British came to India, they took home some of the ideas of khichari, transforming it into the classic English breakfast dish, kedgeree.

Even more widespread was a dish introduced from Persia into India when the Mughals invaded in the 1500s: the rice and meat dish known as pilau. From Persia, it moved to Turkey, where it was called pilav. The Greeks adopted the Turkish dish and named in pilafi. In Spain, it morphed into paella. When South Carolina became a major rice-producing area, the rice with meat dish there adopted yet another form of this word: perlo.

There are myriad versions of chicken perlo. There is also some debate as to what is a perlo and what is a bog. Depending on the person with whom you’re speaking or the recipe you’re reading, chicken bog is either the same as perlo, just a wetter version of perlo, or uses sausage instead of bacon. But others will disagree with any or all of these descriptions or variations. That’s okay–because what is important is that they taste good. This is a warming and filling dish that, despite its exotic heritage, is comfortably familiar.

Charleston Chicken Perlo
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 chicken, 3-1/2–4 lb., cut up (or equivalent weight of your favorite parts)
1 tsp. salt
1 large onion, chopped
5 cups water
6 strips bacon cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups long-grain white rice
1 tsp. dried thyme
salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a large (4- or 5-qt.). Brown the chicken pieces in the oil. When nicely browned, cover the chicken with the water and add 1 tsp. salt. Boil the chicken, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces from the broth, reserving the broth. When they are cool, remove the skin and take the meat off the bones, tearing the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven or large frying pan with a lid, sauté the bacon until crisp. Add the onion, celery, and carrot to the bacon, and cook over medium heat until the onions just start to brown (about 10 minutes). Add the uncooked rice, stir until every grain is coated with bacon fat, and sauté until the rice begins to turn opaque. Add the thyme, a few grinds of pepper, and salt (about 1 tsp. should do it—you can always add more later). Add the chicken meat.

Measure the reserved broth. You should have about 4 cups. If you have more, remove some and enjoy it on its own. If you have less, top up with bouillon or packaged broth. Pour the broth over the chicken and rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and allow to simmer for 30 minutes without lifting the lid. Serves 4–6.

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Gajar Halva

While many people in a wide range of cuisines cook their carrots, only a handful of cultures worldwide came up with the idea of making puddings out of carrots (and here we speak of the English kind of heavy, cake-like pudding, not the custardy, blancmange sort of dessert that we call pudding in the US). One such sweet derives from Ireland, where the carrot has been described as “underground honey.” A Jewish tzimmes, in which fruits and honey may be cooked with the carrots, is another. India’s gajar halva is the third, and is the recipe below. This delicious, rich pudding is the perfect end to a spicy Indian meal.

Gajar Halva
(Carrot Pudding)
1 lb. carrots, pared and grated
1-1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup ground, blanched almonds
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 cup unsalted pistachios Continue reading

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Going to Goa

Portuguese Architecture in Old Goa

Portuguese Architecture in Old Goa

Before I mention what happened after I landed in Goa, it seems appropriate to mention our internal flights in India. The country’s Jet Airways is now one of my favorite airlines. They have spotlessly clean jets, offer lots of leg room, have a great on-time record, offer superb Indian food, and they feed you even on a one-hour flight (always with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options). The airports in India will make you crazy (at least three security points to pass through for every flight), but this airline, at least, makes internal travel a delight.

And now, Goa.

Goa was Portuguese until 1961, which means it was controlled by a European power after all the rest of India had gained independence from Britain. A few years later, Goa was invaded by hippies who didn’t want the ‘70s to end. Signs of both groups were abundant, from Portuguese cathedrals to hippy tie-dye and head shops.

The buildings in the photo above are the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on the left and Se Cathedral on the right. Se Cathedral is the largest church in India and one of the largest churches in Asia. It is actually larger than its counterparts back in Portugal. Continue reading

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On to Karnataka

Mysore Country Road

Mysore Country Road

We landed in Bangalore, where we were met by our next guide, Sudhakar. Bangalore, with 6 million people, is India’s “Silicon Valley.” Impressive buildings lined broad streets of the bustling city. But crowded, modern Bangalore was not our destination. Karnataka was once known as the State of Mysore, and it was into the Mysore district, the heart of the one-time Kingdom of Mysore, that we headed. Boulevards lined with jacaranda trees, mimosa, flame trees, and frangipani soon led us out into a lovely and constantly changing countryside. We passed the impressive, granite Ramanaga Hills, which were featured in the movie “Passage to India.” On all sides, there was much to delight the eye: markets, small villages, carts drawn by ponies or Indian cows, workers, children, temples, fields, and farms. Continue reading

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Kerala—the Spice State

Coconut and Waterways in Kerala

Coconut and Waterways in Kerala

Spices For Sale

Spices For Sale

From Chennai in Tamil Nadu we flew to Cochin in Kerala. It is said of Kerala that there are more coconuts here than there are stars in the sky. However, despite all the coconuts, it is not the thing for which this state is famed. Kerala is India’s “Spice State.” It is from here that about 80 percent of India’s spices are shipped. It is among the most beautiful places in the world. It is also the state with the highest literacy rate in India (almost 100 percent) and a long history of multiculturalism (this is where traders have come for 3,000 years to obtain the fabulous spices that made India the goal of so many explorers—Kerala is the point of origin of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger).

It would take days to describe everything we saw and experienced in Kerala, so I shall share only some of the highlights. We enjoyed an elaborate meal in a private home, then were delighted to see family members’ wedding albums. We had a cooking demonstration of Keralan cuisine at the splendid Coconut Lagoon, a resort built among waterways, palm trees, flowers, and butterflies, where one stays in traditional Kerala teak houses. (The photo across the top of this blog is from that cooking demonstration.) Continue reading

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Indian Odyssey – Tamil Nadu

Gathering Sun-Dried Rice in Tamil Nadu

Gathering Sun-Dried Rice in Tamil Nadu

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of traveling through southern India with four other members of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Our itinerary had been arranged by Culinary Historians president, Dr. Bruce Kraig, who had just finished filming a TV special on the foodways of southern India. This had the tremendous advantage of giving us access to chefs and learning opportunities we would otherwise not have had. Though there was a considerable focus on food, the tour also took in a wide range of non-culinary delights as well. We did far too much to include in one post, so I’ll break this up into the four states to which our travels took us: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Goa.

Our first stop was Chennai, formerly known as Madras, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu means “the state where they speak Tamil,” and Tamil is the local language.

When we landed in Chennai, I stepped outside the airport, took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant air, looked around, and instantly knew that I was going to fall in love with India—and I also knew that two weeks wouldn’t be nearly enough time. Our surroundings were enticingly exotic and beautiful beyond imaging. They were also bustling, crowded, and full of life. Continue reading

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Saag, Chole, and Garam Masala

Here are two dish that illustrate the point made in the previous post that many Indian foods don’t taste at all like what many countries define as “curry.” It also illustrates that “spicy” does not always mean the same as “hot.” (Spanish has the advantage of separate words for hot spicy—piquante— and hot temperature—caliente. In English, not having a history of sizzling cuisine, we have to make do with the words we have—spicy and hot—both of which mean more than one thing.) Saag and Chole (also sometimes spelled Chhole) are luxuriously spicy dishes, but not really hot, unless you choose to make them so. Neither tastes even remotely like curry.

Masala means “spice blend” and garam means “hot.” Most general garam masala mixtures contain black pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, plus one or more of the following: coriander, nutmeg, mace. Below is my version, but you can vary it to your own tastes. It makes a lot, but it lasts for months, especially if refrigerated—or you can adjust the quantities downward (good math exercise). You can also pick up packaged garam masala at an Indian grocery store, and at many international grocery stores, if you have one near where you live. You’ll need the garam masala for the chole recipe. Continue reading

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