Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Desi Chinese

Goris may be surprised to discover the desi penchant for Chinese food. These days, many non-Chinese origin Americans are aware that the food in American Chinese restaurants varies in degree of authenticity. Those restaurants that serve inauthentic Chinese food are dishing out Chinese as well as locally available ingredients, and Chinese dishes which have been adapted for the American palate and. Some American Chinese dishes do not even have any roots in original Chinese dishes. They were totally created for the American palate. Since most US Chinese immigrants were from Southern China, the Americanized Chinese has a Southern Chinese (especially Cantonese) backbone. Well, waddya know, the desi sub-continent also has small pockets of Chinese immigrants. Just like there are a lot of Chinese Americans, there are also Chinese desis, people of Chinese origin but born and raised in the des, perhaps second or third generation. They are mostly Southern Chinese, just like in the US. And due to this...there is a genre of Chinese cuisine that is served in Chinese-Indo/Pak restaurants that is inauthentic in terms of being traditional Chinese food, but has been adapted to suit the desi palate and uses ingredients available in the des. It is totally different than Americanized Chinese food in many ways. For one thing, it is spicy-hot. Generally speaking, desis like chile heat, hai na? Desis like rice mixed with gravy dishes, so desi Chinese food is also pretty heavy on the gravy, though there are dry dishes as well. The gravy is often heavily cornstarch laden. A lot of desi Chinese food is also made with ketchup based gravy. Garlic-chile sauce is another common addition to desi-Chinese stir fry sauces. Stock cubes are added to stir fry gravies as well. Stock cubes give depth in flavor. In Hindi and Urdu, the way to say MSG is "Chinese namak" or Chinese salt, and it seems that no desi Chinese dish is complete without a heavy dash of the stuff. I am not an anti-MSG person, and I think that MSG has gotten a bad rap in the USA. It is actually a very excellent flavor enhancer. But beware, if you have any sensitivity to MSG, desi Chinese food tends to have a good pinch of it in each dish. There are also many types of noodle dishes in desi Chinese cuisine, and it seems that there must be a noodle dish eaten with every desi Chinese meal. Egg noodles are a favorite. In the desi type Chinese restaurants I have been to, the food is served with Indian long grain variety rice rather than Chinese rice. This affects the flavor of the entire meal as well, since the dishes are meant to be eaten with rice. The vegetarian branch of desi Chinese food is filled with very creative dishes. "Velveting" meat is an authentic Chinese cooking technique. In Desi Vegetarian Chinese dishes, vegetables like cauliflower are velveted (often simply dusted in dry cornstarch rather than a traditional wet cornstarch marinade) and fried. Cauliflower Manchurian and Singapore Cauliflower are two popular examples of this. Manchurian Balls (follow link for nice looking sample recipe) is another unique desi Vegetarian Chinese dish.  Desi home-cooks (meaning wives and aunties) pride themselves on having a few desi Chinese dishes in their battery of recipes. As a gori, you may or may not like desi Chinese food, as it tastes neither like authentic Chinese food, nor like the American Chinese food you grew up with. Bear in mind that a lot of desis ONLY enjoy desi Chinese food. They find American Chinese food to be "pheeka" or bland, and authentic Chinese food to be too foreign and exotic. With an open mind, you may join the desis and develop a strong penchant for it. I have come to enjoy desi Chinese food as a cuisine in its own right. For example, I love chicken corn soup (what Americans call eggdrop soup) seasoned the desi way now, with a splash of green chilies in vinegar and maybe a dash of hot sauce.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Arvi Curry: Taro root cooked in a desi style

Arvi is taro root. Since I have been doing South Asian cooking, I have eaten many vegetables that are very exotic for me. These vegetables have been very exciting to discover and add to my repertoire of things I cook and eat. Arvi is one of them. Arvi is similar to a potato in taste and texture, but still different. Like potatoes, arvi soaks up gravy flavors very well. You can find the furry little guys at your local desi or East Asian grocer. Choose small, evenly round firm ones. To prepare:
3-4 arvi, peeled and split in half
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 dried red chilies
1/2 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1tsp Shan Curry Powder
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup water
1 tsp or so salt to taste
2-3 tbs oil
1 tbs cilantro chopped
1-2 fresh green chilies chopped
Heat oil in wok (wok must have a cover) or deep pot (that has a lid), when the oil is very hot, add in cumin seeds and red chilies. Allow to sizzle, toss in garlic and ginger. Cook until golden, a bit less than one minute. Do not burn. When garlic/ginger start to color, toss in turmeric and chili powder, stir and allow to sizzle. Then add in tomatoes, stir and let tomatoes "melt" by stirring on high heat to allow the water to evaporate from them. Add salt at this point. After about 5 minutes, add in the arvi halves, stir to coat with the gravy. Add in the water and Shan Curry Powder. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat. Cook until arvi are tender, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with chopped cilantro and fresh green chilies and serve with chappatis or plain basmati rice.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Homemade Butter

I read on (see sidebar Links) about how to make homemade butter. I told our housekeeper A. about it and she said, "Oh yes, it is sooo easy!" She helped me figure out the odds and ends of removing the buttermilk and storing. Basically, you just have to buy some good cream. Get the cream cold in the fridge. Then, you put it in the food processor and blitz away, pausing intermittently. When the butter starts to form, you stick in a few icecubes, blitz some more, and then the butter and the buttermilk separate. Then comes the fun. You stick your hands in and form the butter into clumps, squeezing out all of the buttermilk. You might need to add a few more ice cubes to keep the butter solid. You must squeeze out as much buttermilk as possible to prevent the butter from going rancid later on due to the residual buttermilk. You can was it in cold water as well. Then you just stick the clumps in a tupperware container and use as usual. Cream is expensive, so this is just for fun, something to do with your kids or whatever. You can also cook the butter on a low flame for a while and strain out the milk solids once they appear if you want to make pure ghee. That will keep for a really long time as well, and you can spoon it over your rice or chappatis.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Good cookbooks for beginner gori wives and other faux desi-chefs

So gori marries Pakistani ... there are a lot of online resources for her to use for recipes. But she doesn't have the desi cooking basics down to execute the online recipes because the sites are generally meant for people who grew up with desi cooking and typically know how to achieve a perfect pot of basmati rice, have an idea of where to begin with caramelizing onions, and understand what garam masala is.

What do you do if you don't know all of this stuff? Where do you even start? I learned from a few cookbooks that I highly recommend:

1. Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

This book will teach you all of the basics. Sahni tells you the secrets of achieving separated kernals of fluffy, aromatic basmati rice. She explains how to properly caramelize onions, an essential technique in North Indian-Pakistani cooking. She tells you the ins and outs of South Asian vegetables, and offers good substitutions and tips for preparing these in the North American context. She also lets you know which recipes freeze well. This book will arm you with great basic recipes. However, for those looking to cook authentic North Indian Muslim / Pakistani dishes, Sahni does not offer useful recipes. Sahni's "Mughlai" recipes (recipes brought to India by the Muslim invasions and refined in India) are what would be served at Punjabi / Mughlai restaurants ... you've had this cuisine at your local Star of India or India Palace. The recipes are tasty. But these dishes with cream and almonds and so forth are not what your desi Muslim in-laws eat at home. Once you have mastered the basics, know how to "bhuna the pyaaz," how to get tamarind water from the dried clumps in the package, know how to make a "baghaar" or "tarka" from Sahni's book, you can get your authentic Indian Muslim / Pakistani recipes online or from a Pakistani cookbook. See some of the sites in my side bar. However, the veg, daal and snack dishes eaten by North Indians like Sahni and eaten by Pakistanis from a Hindustani or Punjabi background will be similar, so you can use all of those recipes to impress.

2. Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking

This book is a classic must-have. Madhur Jaffrey moved to the US not knowing where to begin with the replication of the foods of her childhood home. She documents the knowledge she gained on her home cookery learning journey in this book. Though Jaffrey is from an Indian Hindu Delhi family, the recipes in this book are basically the exact cuisine that my husband, a Pakistani "Urdu speaking" origin guy grew up with. Jaffrey's tips for the North American cooking environment are useful, and the recipes are punctuated pre-emptive "dos and don'ts" to assist you in avoiding screw ups. Actually, I love all of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks, and her A Taste of India (see below) and the classic Far Eastern Cookery (not South Asian so I didn't review it here, but great for East Asian food lovers) are both practically falling apart since I have used them so much.

3. Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of India

In the blog post Gori Cooks Desi: My Notes for the Gori , I describe the importance of understanding that desi food is very regional. In this book, you get a real sense of the regionality of Indian cooking. You come to understand which region is famous for certain vegetables, which region's cooks are heavier handed with specific seasonings, and so forth. The book has a U.P. as well was Punjab / Dehli section, which has recipes that cross over to Pakistani cooking. There are also Hyderbadi Muslim recipes in the Hyderbad / Andhra section. I emphasize knowing your husband's family background and the foods associated with that background. At the same time, I love a lot of different South Asian foods, and this book helped me get to know them.

4. Vicky Bhogal's Cooking Like Mummyji

Vicky Bhogal is a British Indian who learned to cook the Sikh Panjabi food of her dear old mummyji. She shares mummyji's recipes and tips in this excellent, easy book. The food of the Punjabi Sikhs is basically the same as general Pakistani fare, plus the constraints of cooking desi in the British context parallel those of the North American context, so you get a lot of useful short cuts and tips as well. The desi names of foods have some "Indianisms" so you may wonder why Bhogal calls sabzi "sabji" ... don't worry about all of that. The recipes are the same as what your typical diasporic Pakistanis are using, even though the pronunciation of certain terms is different.

My own tips for the gori:

Once you have the basics down, you can use and adapt the recipes you see on Pakistani websites online, as well as Shan Masala recipes. None of the books I mention contain beef nehari or haleem recipes, or other specialties of North Indian Muslims or Pakistanis, or Pakistani regional specialties like chappli kebab, Lahori fish fry, Lahori chargha, etc. But you will get all of the bare bone basics, from chappati making to making and storing your own garlic-ginger paste, from the books above. Then haleem and nehari making and all the rest will seem like a cinch.

Fried Rice

I love fried rice. Fried rice is easy to make, but also easy to screw up. There are a few things that I do to ensure that my fried rice comes out well everytime. Firstly, I always use leftover refridgerated plain boiled rice---I mean last night's rice. That way, the rice kernals are easy to handle, and don't break up when you stir fry. Secondly, I prepare an omelet and set it aside. I never break an egg into the wok with the rice. It just comes out more beautiful and less "eggy" tasting that way. In the above pic, I prepared a thin plain omelet, rolled into a tube shape, and cut it into chunky pieces to achieve a decorative swirly look. For the rice itself, I use 2 tbs of oil or so and fry the aromatics (in this case, crushed ginger and garlic, sliced onions, and roughly chopped dried red chilies), then I add the protein, here prawns, cook for a moment and add soy sauce---about 1tbs per cup of cold rice. For chicken or beef, I sometimes pre-cook then stir in the chicken/beef strips at the end. That is a good tip for all home stir-fries. That seals in the meat juices and prevents the meat from getting boiled in its own juice. Our home cooking ranges don't get as hot as restaurant ranges, so it is a good idea to stir fry protein in small amounts and add it to the rest of your stir fry later on to prevent the boiled meat affect. Anyhow, after the prawns and soy sauce, I add in the rice, stir well until all the rice is coated well and colored by the soy sauce. Quickly, I toss in dried prawns (you can fry these in the oil with the aromatics earlier, but it gives an underlying savoury yet slightly fishy taste to the dish, which not everyone likes ), roughly chopped green chilies, and pre-cooked peas (I just blanch them till tender to maintain that electric green decorative color), and stir on high heat for a few moments. Add in cracked black pepper if desired. If you have used enough soy sauce, you shouldn't need to add salt. Then, turn off the heat and toss in your pre-cooked eggs. Oila.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gori cooks desi: My notes for the gori

It is hard to learn to cook a cuisine that you didn't grow up with. I am a foodie at heart and I love trying new things. Enjoying desi food took away some of the difficulty in actually learning to prepare desi dishes. I think as a gori, if you are open to desi flavors, you can become a successful desi cook.

I learned by sheer trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes. I questioned the aunties. I tried to learn the names of all of the foods and find out how to make them. Authentic South Asian foods are very different from what is served in the average American Star of India restaurant with its creamy dishes like the ubiquitous saag paneer and so forth. It was in peoples' homes that I got exposure to "real" South Asian food. I read a lot of Indian cookbooks. Unfortunately, there simply aren't very many Pakistani cookbooks. There were certainly none available to me when I was learning. Luckily, North Indian cuisine overlaps a lot with Pakistani cuisine due to the obvious shared geography and history and all. Now we have so much more on the web. But nothing beats a good, detailed cookbook.

So, a gori marries a desi. She tries new desi foods and wants to replicate those foods at home. She wants her husband to say that she is a good cook. Not in a "surrendered wife" way. Just cuz it's nice when someone likes your food, especially if that someone is a loved one. Where should said gori start? First of all, from our typical knowledge base goris only know the desi nations, maybe not much more than that. We do not know about the never ending diversity of people in South Asia. I know a gori-wife friend who wanted to surprise her husband by learning to cook Pakistani foods. She took an cookbook of Indian curry recipes from the library---700 Yummy Curries or some such title. Her husband is from a place near to Peshawar. She surprised him with a chicken in coconut milk dish filled with mustard seeds and curry leaves. It didn't go over well. Why not? Typical Pathan cooking doesn't contain coconut milk, curry leaves, or mustard seeds. The food was just as alien to my friend's husband as it was to her. He was actually grossed out by the curry leaves. She was crushed. Where did it go wrong? Well, you may be asking, what the heck is a Pathan? Her husband was one and she didn't know that. In South Asia, communities are divided into regional ethnic groups, castes, and so forth. These identities are paramount to people. Each group has its own unique customs, often its own regional language, and most importantly for the gori wife: its own distinct foods.

If two Pakistanis intermarry, say the husband is Punjabi, and the wife is from an Indian Gujarati origin family, if the family follows a traditional structure, then the wife will have to learn the ins and outs of her husband's family cooking. She may cook some of her Gujarati dishes sometimes, but she must pick up the recipes of her husband's community. That is just the way it is. So, if you are a gori wife and you want to impress your dear husband with your cooking skills, you must know what community your husband is from. You must know the standard recipes of that community, and if possible, the specifics of his family's recipes.

My own husband is pretty broad minded and likes a lot of different foods. I cook a lot of New American, Italian, Cantonese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, South Indian, whatever at home. He eats it all, and has international favorites. He loves Korean barbecue, he savors a good steak. But he loves recipes from his particular community, and also from his family. So I have learned those as well.

So, the first step a gori should take is to learn what her husband's family background is, and what repercussions that has on the style of desi cooking she will learn.

My husband's family is what in Pakistan is known as "Urdu speaking," "Hindustani," or "muhajir." Both of his parents were born in India and emigrated to Pakistan when they were young. If you know your husband is "Urdu speaking," don't leave it at that. Where in India are his family's roots? That is an important question that will affect the cooking you aim to learn. His family could be from Bhopal, Hyderabad, Delhi, or any of a million places...each with special recipes. My husband's family's roots are from the general U.P. area, specifically Dehli, Dehra Doon, and Lucknow. This has huge implications on the way his family cooks and eats. His family settled in Punjab in Pakistan. Punjabi cuisine is all seems the same at first to us goray---but it is distinct. For example, some Pakistani favorites of my husband's family are made with a yoghurt based gravy instead of a Punjabi style tomato gravy. There are foods that my husband's family prefers to eat with rice, whereas people from the Punjab would have these foods with whole wheat flat bread---though my husband's family usually has both rice and flat bread at every meal. I could go on an on. Anyhow, if you were raised knowing all of this stuff, great. But it is mind boggling for a neophyte gori wife. Give yourself time to research. Don't be afraid to ask people for recipes and request that they specify their community. It is normal for desis to know each others' communities when they interact. In terms of what is available to you, most North Indian style cookbooks are suitable for both U.P. and Punjabi recipes. Most online Pakistani recipe sources also cater to the U.P. emigrant or Punjabi style---what is thought of as "standard Pakistani food" are the foods of these two communities. Shan Masala caters to that generic style as well. But if your husband's community is from Hyderabad, India, or he is a Pathan, or a Memon, or whatever, you will have to find out the culinary nuances of his particular community and may have a more difficult time with recipe sources. Don't worry, there is so much out there on the net these days.

I personally don't appreciate a picky man---hopefully your guy is satisfied with whatever you put forth on the table, even better for you if he gets in the kitchen himself. But come on goris, you know you want to learn to cook desi and get stuff right. So here I am presenting my humble advice on how to learn to cook in a way that honors your husband's family tradition.

Kofta: Meatballs in sauce the desi way

I posted this recipe for Kofta at one of my favorite foodie websites, Chowhound. This is originally my mother in law's recipe. I have used it many times and it yields excellent results.
Yes, that really is a centimeter or so of oil floating on top of the gravy. Welcome to authentic Indo-Pak cooking. You can pour off the fat at the end if it really bothers you, but you won't get the same results without it in the initial stages of cooking.
This is really aloo kofta or potato and meatballs in the pic. I added the potatoes peeled, quartered potatoes at Step 11 of my chowhound recipe post.
A trick I discovered for really tender, silky textured koftay is to use 1/2 of a white hamburger or hot dog bun, the cheapie kind that kids like to eat as your white bread in the kofta mixture.

If you do not regularly cook desi (subcontinental) food and don’t have typical desi ingredients in the home, you will have to go for a trip to your Indo-Pak grocer to pick up a few things. Namely ground poppy seed powder (khash khaash powder), which is an optional ingredient, a good quality garam masala, a box of Shan brand Qorma masala (it is an authentic and widely used Pakistani spice mix, highly reputable, and far from the yellow curry powders), and a packet of chickpea flour a.k.a gram flour (besan). If you like heat, I would also recommend that you invest in a desi type of chili powder. Lastly, you should only use real yoghurt (Greek type), which you can also get at the desi grocery.

The recipe’s ingredients are broken into two parts: koftay (meatballs) and saalan (wet gravy).


KOFTA Ingredients

2 tbs. chickpea flour (besan)
2 onions
1 lb ground beef or mutton
1 tsp crushed fresh ginger
1 tsp crushed fresh garlic
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground red chili powder
1/2 tsp poppy seed powder (khash khaahs powder)—-optional, just gives that extra umph
1-2 fresh green chilies
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp salt or salt to taste
1 tbs butter
1 slice white bread soaked in milk and then squeezed

SAALAN (Gravy) Ingredients

1 cup real yoghurt whipped
1 onion
1 tsp crushed fresh ginger
1 tsp crushed fresh garlic
2 heaping tbs Shan Qorma Masala
salt to taste (about 1 heaping tsp)
1/4 cup oil
2-3 cups water
1 tbs fresh chopped cilantro for garnish


In a dry hot pan, roast the chickpea flour for a few minutes until it browns a little bit and you can smell the toasty aroma. Set aside.

Finely slice two of the onions, then caramelize them in oil until they are crispy brown: deep fry on high heat for about 7-10 minutes, then lower the heat and allow to brown. this takes about 20 more minutes—-this is a typical step in South Asian cooking and you should know how to do this if you would like to cook authentically from this region) Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and set aside.

In a food processor, grind the raw onion, half of the browned onions, and green chilies

Place the ground meat in a largish mixing bowl: add the ground onion/chili mixture, the squeezed milk-soaked bread, and all of the other KOFTA ingredients. Knead very well with your hands, mixing, mashing, breaking down the fibers of the meat to achieve maximum tenderness. You should mix and mash for about 10 minutes.

With wet hands, roll out the ground meat mixture into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball. You should get around 12 meatballs or so. Set these aside.

Heat on high 1/4 cup oil in a deep pot. Add in the other half of the browned onions, the garlic, and ginger and stir for around 30 seconds until the garlic and ginger cook. Do this quickly and do NOT blacken the onions or your gravy is ruined.

Stir in whipped yoghurt (when you add this it will prevent the browned onions from blackening.

Add the salt and the Shan Qorma Masala, and about 1/2 cup of water. Mix well.

Cover, lower heat, and allow to cook for 20 minutes until oil separates from gravy. Stir occasionally to prevent gravy from sticking to pan.

Next, add meatballs in pan a single layer. Add 1/2 cup more water if necessary. Meatballs should be about half way covered in gravy. Turn up heat, allow the gravy to boil, then cover and lower heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, turning the meatballs by shaking the pan gently.

Lastly, add 2 cups of water to the pot, allow to boil, then lower heat and cover. Allow to cook for 1/2 hour.

When done, you should have a lot of gravy. It should be liquidy, but velvety.

Garnish with cilantro.


I have no idea if people in Pakistan eat is more of an Indian thing. It is some yummy stuff. To make it, you will have to get a bag of poha (powa/powha---sometimes labeled as chewra/chura/cheora...anglicized spellings can be so confusing. In Hindi Cheora is the raw form and poha is the cooked form, but I have seen both terms used interchangeably for both forms of the yummy stuff. It is flattened/beaten rice. Not to be confused with puffed rice (bhel/murmura). Poha is a great breakfast food. It is also had as a snack or at tea time. I prefer it for breakfast. There are lots of regional variations of this dish and you will find all sorts of ingredients stirred in with the poha from tomatoes to cashews to peas to coconut. This recipe was taught to me by my former housekeeper, A. and I always make it this simple way because I really enjoy it like this.


2 cups poha

2-3 tbs oil

1-2 small potatoes

1 small onion or 1/2 medium onion

1 tsp salt or to taste

1/2 tsp turmeric/haldi

6-8 fresh curry leaves/kari patte

2 fresh green chilies, chopped

2 tbs peanuts, roasted (or fried)

1-2 tbs lime juice (or to taste, I like mine with a lot of lime)

2 tsb fresh chopped cilantro

To prepare:

Soak poha in water for about 2 minutes, then drain in a strainer. Set aside. Chop potatoes into bite sized pieces. I prefer to leave the skin on for texture, flavor, and nutritional value, but generally desis prefer skin off. Slice onion thinly. Fry potatoes and when they are almost fully done and look golden in color, then add in onion and cook till soft and transparent and potatoes are fully cooked. On high flame, add curry leaves and turmeric to the oil and let sizzle for one moment. Stir in strained, wet poha. Toss around for a few moments, adding in salt at this time. When poha has absorbed the turmeric coloring and has softened, it is done. (If it is a bit stiff you can stir fry further after adding a few tablespoons of water till it is light and fluffy. Add in fresh chopped chilies, cilantro, and peanuts, then lime juice. Toss once more. Now serve fresh and hot.