Category Archives: indian

Putting Food on the Map (literally)

It’s probably shameful to admit on a cooking/food blog, but I haven’t really cooked in awhile.  I’ve been living off a supply of frozen veggie marinara sauce, curry and veggie burgers since about halfway through my midterms.  I’ll get back in the groove at some point, but it’s become a little bit more challenging now that the bounty of summer produce is on its way out.  As much as I love food, I’m just not a huge fan of the bazillion and one types of squashes, gourds (unless they’re tabletop decor— warning: contains strong language) and root veg that are everywhere in the markets at the moment.  In the interest of not neglecting this space completely, I’m going to be posting about some interesting food-related tidbits I’ve come across recently on the web and recycling some recipes of mine from when I was living in South Africa.

I’ve written here about Indian food before, whether it was my Bangalore-inspired rainbow curry or the sustainability of an Indian meal eaten in the traditional way.  What I haven’t touched on is the incredible diversity of Indian food (and culture!).  In a country with 1,576 classified languages and 22 “official” languages, uniqueness is something of a hallmark.  It can be found in dress, in both written and spoken languages, religion, geography and last but not least, the cuisine.  This is why I was so excited to discover the following map (via David Leibovitz and the Tasting Cultures blog) that maps out (har har) must-try Indian specialties.  I sampled most of the Karnatakan delicacies when I was living there, but as you’ll see from the huge list, I’m a long, LONG way from even making a dent in it (Mysore Pak is a particular favorite).  What have you tried?

picture from the Tasting Cultures blog


Rainbow Curry


from top center, clockwise: yellow mustard, red pepper, cardamom, brown mustard, turmeric, whole cumin


I’ve always liked Indian food but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I got truly addicted.  I spent six weeks in Bangalore, India for school (with a week or so spent on some farms and in Mysore) and ate Indian food for every single meal of the day.  Some people, when they travel, get sick and tired of local food and suddenly crave things like toast or a Big Mac—anything that reminds them of home.  That would not be me (though I will make an exception for coffee anywhere except for India, where I’ll take a hot cup of chai any day).  My host mother in India was a phenomenal cook and introduced me to the delicious flavors of Southern Indian cooking, which is very different from the Northern style that we mostly get in the US.  Southern cooking, to me anyway, is a lot lighter than Northern cooking—it still sticks to your ribs but doesn’t leave you feeling as though you just ate a lot of (very tasty) cement.  There is a lot of coconut used in the South, and it tends to be predominantly vegetarian as the south is majority Hindu.  This recipe is loosely based on curries that Chaya, my host mom, made while in India (note: you could easily swap out the ghee/butter for sunflower or canola oil to make this vegan).  I crave curry as soon as the weather gets colder and make it in huge batches to freeze for quick dinners when I’m tired and/or lazy.  It tastes just as good as the day after I made it—curries are always better once the flavors have a chance to mingle.  See the instructions below for the scoop on “resting” time and freezing.

Note:  The recipe below is pretty spicy, so if you prefer yours less so, cut down on the chilies and pepper flakes. Alternately, serve with fresh plain yogurt or raitha to cut the heat.




Rainbow Curry

Serves 4-5

4 tbsp ghee/butter

1 tbsp mustard seeds (I split this between yellow and brown but either are fine)

1 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust to spiciness preference)

½ tsp ground turmeric

1 tbsp whole cumin

5 whole dried chilies (again, adjust to spiciness preference)

3 thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger, cut in 3 pieces

5 whole cardamom pods

4 bay leaves (dried)

4 tbsp minced shallots

1 tbsp fresh minced garlic

2 pints tomatoes, halved (canned are also okay – about 16 oz should be fine. I used multi-colored fresh for the “rainbow” effect but you don’t have to)

1-2 fresh peppers, cubed (not green)

2 tsp salt

1 cup canned coconut milk (I used low fat)

3 pounds potatoes, cubed, skin-on (again, used multi colored for the rainbow effect but any kind and color are fine)

2 cups frozen peas


red, orange, yellow and green baby heirlooms.








Melt butter in a large saucepan or stock pot over medium-high heat.  Add pepper flakes, garlic and shallots and sautee until aromatic.  Add cumin and mustard seeds and sautee quickly until mustard seeds start to ‘pop’ (about 20 seconds).  Add tomatoes, salt, ginger, turmeric, bay leaves, cardamom and ginger.  Cook for about 3-4 minutes; for fresh tomatoes, cook until skins start to pucker.  Add coconut milk, peppers and potatoes and cover.  Cook for about 25-30 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through/nearly cooked through.  Stir periodically (you can add water if it looks like things are drying out a lot, though the potatoes will release a decent amount of water as they cook).  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary during this time.  Add in peas and cook for about 2 more minutes, until peas are heated through but still retain their bright green color.  Grey peas are gross!  Remove from heat.

Curry always tastes best if it is let to sit for a bit.  Ideally I’ll make my curry in the morning and let it sit out on the stove, covered, until that night.  I’ll quickly reheat and serve over basmati rice (removing cardamom, bay leaves and whole chilies first).  Life being what it is, however, the ideal thing never happens and I usually make it the night before.  It’s fine to sit out overnight and during the day as long as you keep it covered (rules change slightly if it has meat in it).  Reheat in your microwave or on the stove.  To serve, top off with fresh coriander/cilantro.

You can also add in any number of veggies to this dish.  Mushrooms, carrots, eggplant, cauliflower … it can all go in.  If you’re using delicate veg like mushrooms, though, don’t abuse them by adding them at the beginning of the cooking process—toss them in about halfway through the 20-30 minute simmer session.  Carrots, on the other hand, take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to cook so you can add them in with the potatoes.

A Lesson in Sustainability

Yes, that’s my plate.  Yes, it’s a leaf (albeit a big one). Yes, silverware is mostly lacking, as is a napkin.  You use your hands, rinse them off with water afterward and dry them on a (cotton) towel.  Out in the countryside, that leaf will probably come off a banana tree in your yard or neighborhood, and then you’ll feed the leaf to your cow after the fact (if you can afford one).  Either way, it doesn’t get thrown in the trash.

I took this picture in southern India back in 2005, slightly before sustainability became the hot-button, slightly trendy topic it is today.  This meal pretty much epitomizes sustainability; as I mentioned, the plate is made of a freshly picked (and cleaned) banana leaf.  The food is all locally grown, consisting of rice, pulses, coconut, onion, spices, veg, yogurt and wheat flour.  You eat with your hands, sometimes using the roti as a sort of pincher (ignore the spoon), or just using your fingers to delicately scoop the food into your mouth.  While the latter skill took me awhile to master, it’s really a very graceful way of eating.  From left to right, and slightly clockwise:

Salt, spicy lime pickle, coconut chutney with carrot and moong dahl, potato curry, green pepper and tomato curry, onion raitha, roti, peanut rice.  We’re drinking water, and the white substance is lassi, a popular yogurt drink in India.  The round ball you see is a dessert called gulab jamun, which is basically a donut soaked in cardamom syrup.  This, for the record, is one of the best-tasting meals I’ve ever had.

**the “featured image” you see above is of a typical Indian-style market.  Quite different from the sanitized, orderly world of Western grocery stores (okay maybe not always orderly, have you been to Trader Joe’s or the 14th St Whole Foods during a rush?).  In India, you always bargain, everything is fresh, and it is 100% full of awesome.

lunch, sustainably.