Wednesday, November 25, 2015

South Indian Vegetarian Recipes for Your Holiday Feast

A road map for a vegetarian Thanksgiving. The entire essay is up at The Aerogram, including a recipe for Cranberry Pickle. 

One of the best memories of all our years celebrating Thanksgiving is the year we realized that the holiday had less to do with exactly what form the dinner took and more with getting to spend time with family and friends. It seems like a simple idea, but it was counter-intuitive to imagine Thanksgiving without turkey or beans or cranberry sauce. The menu at our house that year read like one for an Indian festival with a vegetarian spread, complete with an array of condiments.

If you’re contemplating vegetarian dishes for upcoming holiday feasts and love South Indian food, this roundup of recipes offers suggestions for dishes to include in your plans. Go forth and try your hand at one or two! Or if you’re feeling adventurous, supplement every section of your holiday feast with the help of these dishes. While some Indian recipes can be complicated and take hours to make, that’s not the story with most Indian home cooking, particularly vegetarian cooking.

Monday, November 09, 2015

FotoWeek DC 2015

For folks in DC, MD and VA, a week-long photography festival and exhibition is currently on at  various locations in DC and Virginia. If you're in town, more than a few look like they could be worth your time.

A complete list of events is at this link: 

Starting today: "In a special nighttime display from November 9-12, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will project images onto its exterior walls that feature religious and ethnic minorities persecuted in Iraq. These stunning photos were taken as part of a bearing witness trip to raise awareness about attacks on civilians in the region. The exhibition will begin with an opening program the evening of Monday, November 9, featuring a discussion with experts who will explore what is driving the conflict and what can be done to end it." More at:

I was at the main photography exhibition space at what used to be the official residence of the Spanish Ambassadors to the US (now a Spanish Cultural Center) in DC. The photographs are everything from cute to stunning to gut wrenching.

There is one particular section on the fight for LGBT rights in Russia (part of the Pulitzer Center exhibit) and this alone is worth going out to see. There will be a panel discussion during this week that will include one of the activists who is currently in the US seeking asylum.

And then there are the delightful ones, such as the series on dogs who freestyle dance with their humans - yes, that is apparently a thing. Titled 'Everyone Likes to Cha Cha Cha,' the photographer of the exhibit, Bogo Anton, explained that she was exploring the contradictory relationships we humans have with animals ("we eat some, hate some and love the rest") and stumbled upon this dog-human freestyle dance community. She spent three months traveling across the US, photographing and documenting the pairs and their performances.

As part of FotoWeek, there are movies, panel discussions, photo exhibits (including those of contest winners), photojournalism exhibits (images from Afghanistan, Iraq), and a documentary about Dorothea Lange made by her grand-daughter.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Two Avalakki (Pressed Rice Flakes) Recipes from North Karnataka, and a Peek Into a Kitchen of the Past

The entire essay and the recipes are on The Aerogram. Here are a few excerpts.
Avalakki is a staple in North Karnataka cuisine. Avalakki Uppittu, a type of semi-dry porridge, is a popular breakfast dish. The rice flakes are also used to make quick snacks eaten late in the afternoon. A few basic spices and ingredients are all it takes to turn avalakki into dishes that are flavorful but light. More elaborate preparations of avalakki (such as Chivda) are made once in a while in large quantities to pack and take while travelling or to share among family and guests during festivals and religious observations.

Avalakki is available in three varieties — thin, medium and thick — and is sold in Indian grocery stores as poha. The thin and medium varieties (and a super thin version known as ‘nylon’ avalakkki) are ideal for dishes that do not require the avalakki to be soaked in water. The thick variety is called for in dishes such as Avalakki Uppittu where the pressed rice flakes will be soaked in water before being steamed with spices and vegetables.
Shakuntala Bai's Kitchen
Once she finishes prepping the dough, Shakuntala Bai places the cast iron pan on the stove, checks the fire and fiddles with it a little until she’s satisfied. She moves a little so she’s in front of the large, round, smooth Shahbaz stone placed strategically near the stove. She flours the surface and pats small balls of the dough into circular shapes on the stone, her palm going pat, pat, pat on the stone, constantly moving in quick semi-circles so the bhakris turn out evenly round. With darting movements, her fingers dab drops of water on the now expanding circle to fix cracks and then some flour so it doesn’t get stuck on the stone. Water, flour, water, pat, pat, pat. A white cloud of fine flour dust swirls in the air around her.

By this time, Shakuntala Bai’s kitchen is humming. The dal bubbles softly, perhaps there’s milk boiling on one of the other stoves, fires crackle under the various vessels and pans, her hands and bangles providing a steady rhythm to the melody.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

South Indian Recipe Series: What is Tamarind?

My new essay with two recipes, one for Tomato Dal, which uses tamarind, and the other for a delicious accompaniment to the Dal, a recipe for Baby Radish Raita.

The essay and recipes are available on The Aerogram.

Tomato Dal

Baby Radish Raita
The flavor of tamarind — a fruity sourness — is a cornerstone of South Indian cooking. It’s more often than not paired with jaggery, especially in the cuisines of the northern part of Karnataka. Tamarind makes an appearance in South Indian staples such as rasam (a thin lentil soup), sambhar or dal (lentil and vegetable gravy), gojju (a condiment in which tamarind is the central ingredient and jaggery the able sidekick; it is served as an accompaniment to rice and rotis), chutneys and chutney powders.

Whenever I think of the tamarind and its role in a meal, I am reminded of a guitarist or a pianist, who as they are playing pieces in the center of their instruments, suddenly swoop down to the edge, to the bottom of the neck in the guitar or the edge of the piano keys, and strike a note that reverberates long after their fingers have gone back to the center. The tamarind is that note at the end — sharp, high pitched, with a taste that stays long after you’ve gone back to the somber breads or rice.

Chapati and Rice served with Tomato Dal and Baby Radish Raita

Friday, May 01, 2015

Recipe: Flax Seed Chutney Powder

You will find many websites touting the health benefits of flax seed, the tiny, shiny seeds of the plant that gives us linen, but this post is a recipe for an Indian condiment called Chutney Powder (Chutney Pudi or Podi in the various South Indian languages, pudi/podi meaning powder).

Chutney Powder is served with a variety of Indian dishes such as Idlis (rice/lentil cakes), Dosa (rice/lentil crepes), and the various rotis. It can also be eaten with rice and ghee or with bread toast and butter. As the name suggests chutney powder is the dry version of a chutney.

The flax seed I used in this recipe are the golden ones, unroasted. Light brown, dark brown and roasted varieties are also available. They might have need to be cleaned of stray stones and dried stalks. Flax seeds have a limited shelf life, so it's best to buy small quantities and store leftovers in the fridge. You can tell they've gone rancid if they have a strong smell, and trust me on this, it stinks and doesn't make you feel good either if you eat anything made of it. Good flax seeds have a mild nutty aroma.

Flax Seed Chutney Powder
Original Recipe by Kalindi Jagirdar Bagal 

Use the pulse function and grind the ingredients in short bursts, taking time to move around the ingredients with a spoon so they are well blended and don't get too oily or pasty. The powder should be slightly coarse, not smooth. 


½ cup flax seeds, cleaned

1½ tsp chili powder

1 tbsp tamarind, cleaned and deseeded

½ tbsp jaggery (if you have a sweet tooth, use more according to taste)

Salt to taste (about 1 tsp)


Grind together all the ingredients coarsely in a grinder. Pour into a plate and let cool. Store in an airtight jar.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lincoln Cottage: Washington, D.C.'s Hidden Gem

A truly humbling aspect of living in a place like Washington, D.C. is that the city is a living, breathing shrine to history. Monuments, memorials and museums scattered throughout the city tell stories of mere mortals that built a nation from ground up and of their triumphs and tragedies that hold significance centuries later. The museums that line Constitution Avenue house artifacts that bring history alive, the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin are a living testament to the strength of the relationship between nations.

Lincoln Cottage, from the front.
But every once in a while, no matter how long you’ve lived in the area, you come across a witness to history that somehow managed to remain off the beaten path.  The Lincoln Cottage, a home on the grounds of a residence for military veterans, a few miles from the White House and the Capitol, is one such gem.

During some the most intense periods of his presidency, in the summers of 1862, ’63 and ’64, this cottage served as the Lincoln family home, and an escape from oppressive Washington summers and from the stranglehold of DC politics and society.

The cottage itself is a simple home – especially when compared to the surrounding stone structures (one of which looks like a castle) of the Armed Forces Retirement Home – with the usual complement of rooms in the upper and lower floors, and a porch.

A sculpture of Lincoln and his horse.
What sets it apart from all those other monuments and memorials is that it is almost completely bare. Save for a few chairs and tables, the rooms are empty. And this, oddly enough, turns out to be Lincoln Cottage’s strength.

It allows your imagination to fill in the gaps and ease into the times Lincoln must have paced these rooms mulling over the war the gripped the country; or sat out on the porch with his breakfast looking on to the grassy expanse dotted with soldiers’ tents as his eyes settled on the horizon and on the Capitol that was being built; or received guests and favor-seekers who followed in his path when they found he’d left the White House for the cottage.

The field that held soldiers' tents. Beyond the trees is a
view of the Capitol
Much of the information about Lincoln’s time at the cottage is gleaned from the diaries of the soldiers who camped out in the field beyond the porch at the back of the house and from the personal notes of Lincoln’s visitors. The soldiers formed part of his security detail and wrote of what must have been mundane interactions for them then but now provide us with rich insights into daily life in the Lincoln household.

The knowledgeable tour guides at the cottage also paint a vivid picture of Lincoln’s thought process as he poured all his energies into the war and into the drafting and passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Those were tough times in the Lincoln White House and in the Lincoln household, as the family also struggled to come to grips with the loss of a son and brother.

The cottage, located as it was away from the center of all the action and at an elevation that provided succor from the muggy heat of the swampy area near the White House, was a welcome refuge.

Any history buff or Lincoln fan is fortunate indeed to have this portion of the President’s life preserved and restored to how it must have looked during his life there. Because of its size and non-official nature, the cottage seems to afford a much more personal connection to the man who just happened to be one of the most important thinkers and leaders of this country.

The back of the cottage.


Lincoln Cottage is located at the intersection of Upshur Street and Rock Creek Church Road in NW Washington, D.C., on the campus of the Armed Services Retirement Home. For visitors’ hours, tour information and tickets (required), visit their website.

Friday, April 17, 2015

South Indian Vegetarian Homestyle Cooking: A Guide to Essential Spices

My new essay on the basic spices used in South Indian vegetarian cuisine includes a recipe for Potato and Onion Curry. An excerpt is below. The entire essay is on The Aerogram.

Indian cuisine is vastly diverse, not only in terms of ingredients, traditions, and techniques, but also in terms of levels of complexity — ranging from simple curries and chutneys to the biryanis that demand multiple discrete steps and hours to cook.

Most Indian home cooking, however, particularly vegetarian home cooking, boasts of a repertoire of recipes that allow one to achieve sophisticated flavors with a few basic fresh and dry spices and herbs. Those recipes and a few slightly higher on the complexity spectrum — from the South Indian kitchens of my childhood and now my own — will be the focus of this essay and the ones that follow.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Semolina Porridge: How to Make Your Upma and Eat It Too

On AntiSerious, my essay on a childhood dish I learned to hate and then learned to love as an adult. The entire essay is here: The Pagan's Progress: How To Make Your Upma and Eat It Too

Then on one of my trips back to my parents’ home, I stumbled upon the problem with my Uppittu. Or the answer to the problem. As my mom stood over her stove, her die-hard cast-iron wok held firmly in one hand with tongs and the other gripping a steel ladle trying to scrape the roasted-on bottom layer of Uppittu, a flashback occurred in an instant. That used to be my favorite part of a not-so-favorite dish. Mom carefully transferred the crisp bits onto a plate and wordlessly handed it to me. She’d remembered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New Recipes for Dips and Appetizers Inspired by Indian Condiments

My new food essay is up on The Aerogram with two recipes.

In my quest for dips that are a delicious departure from the ordinary, I decided to re-purpose a couple of types of condiments that play supporting roles in South Indian cooking — chutneys and bharthas. Bharthas are somewhat of an unknown quantity outside of desi circles, and while various types of chutneys are popular items on grocery store shelves, the many different South Indian cuisines boast of so many varieties that are still only found in home cooking.

The entire essay is here: Dips With a Twist: New Ideas for an Old Party Standby

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Evolution of an Immigrant's Thanksgiving

My essay on Thanksgivings past. 
We had left behind a culture that boasts of many festivals and rituals that bring families together. With extended families still living in close proximity, impromptu family gatherings are still the norm in our hometowns. Once we moved here we got busy with school and work calendars and we regularly lost track of those festivals (and still do), only a call from home prompting us to remember when it was too late.
The rest is at The Medium.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Sam Kean's The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

The older one, who's now 14, discovered Sam Kean first through The Disappearing Spoon and was hooked. The Violinist's Thumb followed quickly and there was no question about not pre-ordering The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons.

Here is a portion of his review of The Dueling Neurosurgeons:
The fastest and most powerful computers in the whole world cost millions of dollars to build and millions more to maintain, but a lump of tissue enclosed in bone crowning every human being can run a thousand times faster than the best machines in use today. And all it needs to survive is a good burger every now and then.
The entire review is on

If you are interested in science and science writing, Sam Kean is a writer to follow. On Twitter he's at @Sam_Kean and his website is

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Documentary: The Last Man on the Moon

Anytime I hear about a human in space, I take all of about 10 seconds to marvel at the level of technological sophistication that is necessary to accomplish space flight. The rest of the time, it's the human story that leaves me awestruck.

In fact, it's the same with any endeavor (such as climbing mountains or plumbing the depths of the ocean) that involves extreme hardship and whose demands are many: an undying commitment to the cause, a faith in science and numbers, street smarts and book smarts, an adventurous spirit, the willingness to sacrifice comfort, and the ability to stare down a fear of the unknown.

Needless to say, documentaries, books and movies that give the human angle in these journeys the treatment it deserves rank high on my favorites list.

Soon to make an entry into that list is a documentary titled The Last Man on the Moon that's already seen advance screenings in the UK. According to Universe Today,
“The Last Man on the Moon,” from UK-based Mark Stewart Productions, tells the story of Gene Cernan and his accomplishments against the backdrop of the Apollo era, when superpowers competed for dominance in space and hotshot flyboys became international heroes. With firsthand accounts from Cernan himself and his family, along with several other astronauts and NASA celebrities, it’s an emotional and intimate account of America’s last lunar voyage.
I'm hoping it'll make its way into the US sooner rather than later.


For updates, visit the documentary's Facebook page and hit 'Like'

For a trailer, visit Vimeo:


Update, June 18, 2014: I was able to find a link that I can embed in this post. So here it is!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Theater Courses for Children in Kolkata (Calcutta)

This information is from The Creative Arts' Facebook Page


Theatre Skills, Life skills, Creativity and Imagination :

The Creative Arts Theatre Workshop is dedicated to providing an atmosphere for children to explore, imagine, create and have fun through the world of theatre arts. We impart Theatre Skills like Expressions, Acting, Voice, Speech, Body Training, Rhythm, Music, Dance, Creative Writing, Poetry, Dialogue and Script Writing, Teaching various genres of Theatre and Appreciation and knowledge of other Art Forms.
Though we do enjoy entertaining with our end of the session show - the process is what we focus on.. Our goal is to instill the joy of theatre and in doing so, help to grow happy, healthy, confident kids.Since it's beginning TCA has focused on the philosophy of "Creative Drama". Creative Drama is different from traditional theatre classes in that the primary focus is the Participants NOT the performance.
Creative drama has many benefits for children. Not just the child who wants to be an actor...but for EVERY child. The mission of the Children’s Theater program is to make the theater a setting where opportunities for telling a story in words, motion and emotions can bring awareness beyond the parameters of their own home/school environment. To provide an opportunity for the children from the first grade through twelfth grades to receive the benefit that theater activities can provide. These benefits include

Life Skills:
• Learn about emotions
• Be more confident
• Work on problem solving
• Learn to relate to other people
• Speak in public
• Support positive body image
• Learn to work in a group
• Gain Self- Esteem...
• Create sensitivity to others through teamwork, co-operative interplay, and conflict resolution.
• Explore the varied facets of imagination, and individuality.

Life Values can be imparted through drama and Appreciation of social values can be learned in the play message. An ensemble of students learning to appreciate the power of drama techniques can display the respect, tolerance and patience for all ages, genders, social and ethnic backgrounds, as they work together toward a common goal.

Theatre Days

Days Time Age Group Status

Monday 4pm-5pm 8-13 yrs No Vacancy
Wednesday 3pm-4pm 5-7 yrs Fast filling
Wednesday 4pm-5pm 8-13 yrs Few seats remaining Wednesday 5pm-6pm 5-7 yrs Few seats remaining Saturday 3pm-4pm 8-13 yrs Fast filling

Creative Writing

Days Time Age Group Status

Monday 5pm-6pm 9-13 yrs Few seats remaining Saturday 4pm-5pm 9-13 yrs Few seats remaining

For ADMISSIONS call 9830775677

Friday, November 15, 2013

Easy Tomato Pickle Recipe

The recipe that accompanies the 'Food is the Tie That Binds' essay on preserving family recipes for future generations is also up on The Aerogram.
Pickling is usually a process that takes days if not weeks, but in less than a couple of hours, you could have on your hands this tomato pickle designed to delight your taste buds and impress your guests.
The entire recipe, with detailed notes, is here:

I hope you take a shot at it!


Monday, November 11, 2013

Working Out the Kinks in the Inter-Generational Recipe-Transfer Protocol

My new essay on The Aerogram:
So each time we sat down at my breakfast table I would bring out not only all our assorted notes, my computer, and pens and pe...ncils, but also my measuring cups and spoons. One day, even a golf ball ended up on the table. My mother-in-law held up her fingers for the nth time to indicate a piece of jaggery or tamarind, I forget now, and since we had decided that ‘lemon-sized’ as an indication of the required amount was just not going to cut it, we were casting about for something more standard.
Eventually, though, the golf ball too went out the window and we resorted to the cookbook mainstays — tablespoons and teaspoons — instead. We would eye-ball the amounts that seemed right, set it out on a plate and measure each ingredient with cups and spoons, and we were on our way.
The rest is here: