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.