India totally enchants some visitors.
Count me among them.
My recent journey left me with joyful impressions of captivating sites and bold colors, vistas set against an exuberant backdrop of rhythms and scents. Imagine the syncopated toots of rickshaw horns mixed with buzzing motorbikes, the aroma of chai, curry and incense perfuming the air.
My visit was short, spending less than a week, with the time divided between Delhi, Agra and Mumbai. At the heart of the charm was the lure of the food.
The dishes I ate in hotels and restaurants were scrumptious.
These warm Indian-style breads were served with a luscious assortment of chutneys at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi.
The street foods on the other hand, frustrated me; due to the use of questionable water, I was warned not to eat it. IT LOOKED SO DELICIOUS!
Snacking is a part of everyday life in India, and to my eyes the on-the-street noshing seemed nonstop. Carts and makeshift tables provided the framework for the street vendors to show off their treasures. Fruits and vegetable stole the show, with ingredients arranged like squares on a vibrant quilt.
Some were simple, such as sliced pineapple or cucumbers, or ornately cut jicama pieces, all set atop glimmering ice. Each was seasoned to a customer’s liking with salt and chaat masala (a dried ground mixture of mango powder, cumin, black salt, coriander, ginger and chili).
Others were more complex. Clear containers of panni pooris (puri) set next to some carts. These hollow crisp puffs were about golf ball size.
They were filled on the spot with a mixture of mashed potatoes and garbanzo beans, and then topped with chutneys, yogurt and chaat masala. I watched as they were consumed with gusto, the whole shebang becoming a one-big-bite delicacy.
At other locations, the pooris were filled with spicy water. Called gol gappa pooris, these spheres fill a mouth with a burst of piquant, ice-cold liquid.
(What a thrill to find these luscious treats at ADYA restaurant at the Anaheim Packing House. You pour in the beautifully-spiced water into the shell and do a one-bite chomp. (The chef-owner is Shachi Mehra, former executive chef of Tamarind in Newport Coast – 440 S. Anaheim Blvd.).
Now … back to India.
One cart was topped with geometrically arranged bunches of cilantro, red-ripe Roma tomatoes, fried garbanzo beans (topped with chili powder and salt), fried peanuts, and a mixture of chopped red onions and green chilies. Chopped and tossed together for last-minute service,
the concoction was served with crunchy wedges of poppadums.
When flame-toasted, poppadums become blistered and cracker-crisp. Also referred to as papads, at first glance the plain ones look something like fried-and-wavy flour tortillas. They are made of lentils and can be used like brittle tortilla chips for dipping or spreading.
I loved the look of the fresh mint infused ice water.
The Indian spicy, salty street beverages fascinate me. I wanted to make the salty-spicy-sweet limeade that seemed to be sold on every corner. But weather factors as well as an infection of trees in some areas of Mexico have driven up our local lime prices.
So instead I turned to “The Great Pepper Cookbook” from Melissa’s Produce (Oxmoor House, $19.95) for a recipe for chili-spiked lemonade. I rimmed glasses margarita-style with a little kosher salt to get an Americanized version of the Indian elixer. I’ll prepare it with limes when prices come down.
For further help with my project, I called my Mumbai-born friend Raghavan Iyer, the award-winning author of many cookbooks, tomes that are designed to take the mystery out of Indian cooking. His latest, “Indian Cooking Unfolded” (Workman, $$19.95), is a master class in the art of simple Indian cooking, with 100 easy recipes that each use ten ingredients or less.
I wanted to master the art of flame-toasted poppadums and stuffed pooris, plus learn to make two irresistible chutneys (that would team with either). Most ingredients were available at my local supermarket, but a few weren’t. Armed with Iyer’s recipes, I headed to Indian Sweets and Spices Market in Tustin. There I purchased packages of uncooked poppadums and ready-to-use poori shells, along with tamarind paste and chaat masala.
Red-Hot Iced Lemonade
Yield: 8 servings
2 quarts (8 cups) cold water
Juice of 4 lemons (about 3/4 cup)
1 fresh red Fresno chili, stem and seeds removed, finely sliced, see cook’s notes
1 cup sugar
Cook’s notes: Fresh Red Fresno chilies are about 2- to 4-inches long. They are similar in size and shape to jalapenos but have wider shoulders, thinner flesh and mild to medium heat. I like to rim the glasses with a little kosher salt; dip rims in lemon juice and then in a small amount of kosher salt.
1. In a large pitcher, stir together all ingredients until sugar dissolves completely, about 3 to 5 minutes. Fill glasses with ice and pour in lemonade.
Source: Melissa’s “The Great Pepper Cookbook” (Melissa’s Produce, Oxmoor House, $19.95)
Crispy Poori Shells with Potatoes, Garbanzo Beans and Two Chutneys
Yield: 6 servings
For the filling:
1 medium-size russet or Yukon Gold potato, peeled, boiled until tender, drained (reserve water), coarsely mashed
1 cup cooked chickpeas (can use canned, drained)
1 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
For the crispy shells and topping:
30 round poori shells (sometimes labeled pani puri or panni pooris)
Tamarind Date Chutney, recipe included
Tangy Mint Chutney, recipe included
Chaat masala for sprinkling
Finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems for sprinkling
1. Combine the potato, chickpeas, and salt in a medium-size bowl, and blend well, mashing the chickpeas (I used a potato masher). If mixture is dry, stir in enough reserved cooking water to make a mashed potato consistency.
2. Working with one poori at a time, cup a shell in the palm of one hand, and with the forefinger of the other hand, gently tap the thin surface to form a finger-width hole, letting the crumbs and small pieces fall in. Repeat with the remaining shells, and place them in a single layer on a serving platter.
3. Carefully spoon a scant teaspoon of the potato-chickpea filling into a shell. Drop about 1/4 teaspoon Tamarind Date Chutney on top, and then top that with Tangy Mint Chutney. Lightly dust with chaat masala, sprinkle with cilantro, and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining shells. (Or, if you’re prepared to move speedily, set this up assembly-line style so you can fill and serve a number of the shells at once).
Source: adapted from “660 Curries” and “Indian Cooking Unfolded by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing, $19.95, $22.95)
Poori (Puri) shells stuffed with mashed potatoes-garbanzo bean mixture, topped with chutneys and cilantro.
Tangy Mint Chutney
Yield: about 1 cup
Juice from 1 large lime
1 small daikon radish, see cook’s notes
1 medium-size tomato
1/2 cup firmly packed fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 large clove garlic
1 to 2 fresh green serrano chilies, stems discarded (I’s a sissy and only use 1/2 of a serrano chili) 1 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
Cook’s notes: I use only a 3-inch piece of daikon – all of the daikons are enormous at my market.
1. Pour lime juice into blender. Peel daikon and lop off about 1/2 inch from both ends (see cook’s notes). Wash and thinly slice crosswise. Add slices to juice in blender.
2. Core tomato, coarsely dice it (there’s no need to peel it or remove the seeds). Add tomato to blender along with mint, cilantro, garlic, chili(es), and salt. Puree (if needed, stop motor and scrape down sides to insure a smooth puree).
3. Serve the chutney either at room temperature or chilled as a dipping sauce. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze for up to 2 months.
Source: adapted from “Indian Cooking Unfolded” by Raghavan Iyer (Workman Publishing, $19.95)
Tamarind Date Chutney
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate
1 1/2 cups chopped seedless dates
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
1. Whisk the tamarind paste and 1 1/2 cups of warm water together. Stir in dates, cayenne, and salt. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat to medium and let it continue to simmer vigorously, still uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the dates soften, 6 to 8 minutes.
2. Pour mixture into a blender, and, holding the lid in place with a towel or potholder, pulse the liquid until pureed. Transfer the sweet and sour chutney to a glass jar (nonreactive is what you’re looking for because of the acidity of the tamarind). You can store the chutney in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Serve the chutney chilled as a dip for any of your favorite appetizers.
Source: “Indian Cooking Unfolded” by Raghavan Iyer, Workman Publishing, $19.95
Phil and I pose with our dear pals, Ron and Marcia Kay Radelet at the Taj Mahal.