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Spicy Fish In Cozumel, Mexico

When I stepped onto the shores of Cozumel I was probably as far from India as you can possibly get. But geographical distance does not necessarily imply the absence of any connections, as I discovered when I heard the fascinating legend of "La China Poblana". 

The story told across Mexico today is of a young woman in seventeenth century India named Meera who was kidnapped by Portuguese pirates near Cochin in Kerala. She was carried to the Philippines in 1619 where she was bought by a Spanish ship's captain and taken to his house in Puebla, Mexico. There Meera became a Catholic and took the name of  Catarina de San Juan. After the death of the captain, Meera supported herself as a seamstress, making colourful blouses and skirts inspired by designs from her native India. She began to see holy visions and was reputed to be able do miracles, becoming famous as La China (which, at that time in Mexico, meant any person from Asia), of Puebla. When she died at the age of 82, she was venerated as a saint and her grave in Puebla became a pilgrimage site. Meera's colourful dresses are now considered Mexico's national dress and still referred to as China Poblana. 

 

 

Mexico took Meera's sense of style to heart and in return it transformed the food of India by introducing chillies to the cuisine. Puebla is also famous as the place where mole poblano was created, a dish that combines two of Mexico's greatest gifts to the cuisines of the world: chillies and chocolate.

Spices form another great link between East and West. When Columbus set sail he had no idea that he was going to discover a new continent, for he was in search of a route to Asia where he could buy spices, especially the famous pepper of Kerala. Instead he landed in the Caribbean where he discovered a new plant - chilli peppers that were as yet unknown outside the American continent, but which in subsequent years, Spanish and Portuguese traders carried around the world. 

Chilli plants arrived in India only a few decades before Meera made her voyage and Indians took to them with gusto. Indian food was never the same once cooks discovered that a pinch of cayenne gave it an unforgettable bite! India gave Mexico La China Poblana and got back a whole new world of flavour in return. I would call it a fair exchange!

Many years of my childhood were spent in Cochin where I grew to love Kerala cuisine, imbued with the flavours of red chilies, black pepper, curry leaves and coconut. Kerala cuisine has many common elements with that of Mexican food such as the use of chillies, ground cumin, fresh coriander and coconut.

I like to think that this typical Kerala fish curry, rich with tomatoes and spices, especially chilies, is something Meera would have enjoyed in Cochin and perhaps created variations of in her new home in Mexico.  

Fish curries are generally made in a traditional earthenware pot also known as a Chatti, for the aroma and flavour it imparts to the dish. The fish is never stirred with a spoon. Instead, the chatti is gently shaken from side to side to ensure even cooking and to avoid breaking up the fish as it cooks.
The first marination of the fish in lemon juice helps get rid of some of its strong aroma while the second marination adds to its flavour. Adding coconut milk right in the end helps mellow the heat, while adding creaminess to the sauce. Serve it with Coconut rice for a nice balance of flavours.

Kerala Fish Curry

1 1/4 lb skinless Halibut fillet, cut into 2 inch pieces

1 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp each: salt, turmeric

A small piece of tamarind, about the size of a large marble

1/2 cup hot water

1 tsp each, divided:  ground coriander, ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)

1/2 tsp each, divided: cayenne pepper, mustard powder, ground ginger, garam masala

2 tbsp oil

6 cloves garlic, smashed

20 fresh curry leaves

1/4 tsp black mustard seeds

1 cup (about 6) canned whole plum tomatoes, pureed

1/2 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, chopped fresh curry leaves

Place fish in large mixing bowl. Add lemon juice, salt and turmeric. Marinate at room temperature for 15 min.

Meanwhile, soak tamarind in hot water for 15 min. Mash it occasionally to soften.

Drain fish, pat dry with paper towels and transfer to clean bowl. Add 1/2 tsp each of ground coriander, ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves and 1/4 tsp each of cayenne pepper, mustard powder, ground ginger and garam masala. Toss well to coat fish with spices and marinate at room temperature for 15 min.

Strain tamarind through a fine sieve and reserve extract, discarding the fibrous residue left in the sieve.

Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, curry leaves and mustard seeds. Saute for 1 min until seeds begin to pop and garlic turns lightly golden. Add pureed tomatoes, tamarind extract and remainder of the spices. Stir to mix, cover skillet and cook on low heat for 5-7 min.

Add marinated fish and coat gently with the sauce. Cover skillet again and cook for about 10 min on low heat until fish is cooked through, shaking skillet occasionally for even cooking. Fold in coconut milk and cook uncovered for another 4-5 min until mixture starts bubbling, shaking skillet occasionally. Fold in chopped fresh coriander and curry leaves.

Serves four

 

Samosas In Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi

At the heart of old Delhi lies the Red Fort (Lal Quila), built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century as the seat of power from which he ruled India.

Directly in front of the fort is Chandni Chowk, originally designed to be a grand marketplace surrounded by the mansions of his nobles. When the emperor rode through the square in a royal procession, his path would be covered with silken carpets on which rose petals were scattered. The pool in the centre of the square reflected the silver glint of  moonlight, chandni in Hindi, which is said to have given the area its name.

Today when you walk through the congested streets of Chandni Chowk, dodging traffic while inhaling the aromas of countless food stalls, it is hard to remember that the Mughals designed the boulevards to be wide enough to parade their elephants through! But the crowds are there for a reason, for this is still where the best jewellery, the best fabrics and the best food in Delhi are to be found, in shops that have been owned by the same family for generations.

Chandni Chowk is home to a most eclectic collection of vendors. Here you will find sumptuous jewellery stores in front of which vegetable sellers display their wares and opulent shops selling the finest fabrics and clothing next to an old woman spreading out sacks of freshly ground spices on the pavement!

There is so much to experience and savour in Chandni Chowk that eating your fill in just one restaurant would be a grievous mistake. The market is legendary for its samosas, kachoris (deep fried puffy stuffed bread), chaat (small plates of spicy street food), parathas (pan fried stuffed flat bread) and mithai (Indian style sweets) and it is great fun to sample the specialty of each stall as you meander through the little lanes that surround the main square.

Some of the best discoveries are made through serendipity. When our car got stuck in traffic, the driver suggested that it would be faster to get out and walk. We descended right in front of a line of customers waiting in front of a tiny stall selling samosas and jalebis (an Indian sweet). Seeing the impressive array of fresh, hot food, and the many framed accolades from travel magazines and websites, we also joined the end of the line and were soon sampling everything on the menu!

The samosas were lifted straight out of the kadhai (wok), the pastry flaky and crisp, the stuffing of plump, spicy green peas moist and flavourful. The jalebis that followed were still warm and syrupy - just perfect to douse the chilies of the samosas!

Working our way down narrow alleys we saw a haze of smoke rising and scented  the unmistakable smell of parathas being fried. It was the famous Parathewali Gali - a street that dates back to the 18th century and consists exclusively of stalls that make parathas of every description. We were soon seated at one of the communal tables with a huge plate of parathas, chutneys and vegetable curries in front of us. Lucky for us, we had left room for just such an eventuality! The meal certainly lived up to its reputation, the parathas being some of the finest we have ever had.

If eating all the deep fried samosas, jalebis and parathas leaves you thirsty, you can indulge in a special treat of lassi. Made with sweetened yogurt and served in an earthenware cup, which adds it's own unique aroma to the lassi, this is a rich, satisfying end to a food journey spanning centuries of history and tradition.

Taking a line from the famous samosas of Chandni Chowk, I too have veered away from the standard, ubiquitous potato stuffing, using Alu Gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes) instead. The delicate, earthy flavour of the cauliflower comes through in every bite, enhanced by the spices. The stuffing can also be eaten as a side dish with naan if desired.


If you love Alu Gobhi, that old favourite from Indian restaurant menus, you will love this unusual take on samosas. They will satisfy your craving for Alu Gobhi and samosas at the same time! Surprisingly easy to make using store bought puff pastry, they have the added bonus of being baked and not fried. So you can have more than one without feeling guilty.

Alu Gobhi Samosas

For the stuffing:
1 small cauliflower
1 medium potato, peeled and diced small
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 inch piece of ginger, minced or finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced or finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala
1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric
1 tbsp each: dried fenugreek leaves, lemon juice
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Cut cauliflower into small florets (about 2 cups). Bring large pot of water to boil, add potato and cauliflower. Boil until tender, drain and cool. Mash potato and cauliflower lightly with a fork.
Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat and add cumin seeds. After a few seconds, add the ginger, garlic and onions. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onions are lightly browned. Add all the spices and the salt. Stir for a minute, then add the cauliflower and potatoes. Mix well with the spices in the pan, mashing lightly with back of stirring spoon. Cook 5 min. Mix in the lemon juice and fresh coriander. Set this mixture aside to cool.

For the pastry shell:
1 package frozen puff pastry sheets
1 egg, beaten

Thaw the puff pastry until it is easy to unroll. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Working with one sheet at a time, cut into 3 strips and cut each strip into 3 or 4 squares. Put a heaping tablespoon of the cauliflower-potato mixture in the center of a square. Fold the flap over the filling to form a triangular pouch and seal the edges by pressing on them with a fork or with your fingers. Proceed similarly with the remaining puff pastry and place all the samosas in a single layer on baking sheet. Brush samosas lightly with the beaten egg. Bake for about 15-18 minutes, until the pastry is cooked through the tops are golden. Serve with chutney.
Serves four – six

Rara Chicken Curry In New Delhi, India

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Delhi, to me, has a nostalgic charm all its own. It is the city in which I spent much of my childhood, and returning there always feels like homecoming to me. I only have to step out of the airplane for the memories to come flooding back - the cacophony of traffic, the calls of street vendors, the sight of old buildings bearing so much history, the neighborhoods where I lived and went to school  - it feels like I never left.

Delhi is one of the oldest cities in the world. Archaeological excavations reveal one layer built upon another for so many centuries that once you reach the oldest strata it is difficult to  separate history from mythology. Hindus, Rajputs,Turks, Afghans, Mughals, British - all have left their indelible stamp on the fabric of this city.

The most prominent of their monuments: Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Purana Qila, are still landmarks that define Delhi. Walk through any one of them and you will step back into history to a time when mighty emperors strolled in the gardens and fabulously dressed, bejeweled princesses lived in these palaces.

 

The cuisine of Delhi is another way to discover its history. The flavours, cooking techniques and spicing of the dishes reflect the many influences that have shaped the city. It blends the royal cuisine of its longtime Mughal rulers with the hearty fare of Punjab that lies just to the north of the city. The richly spiced, meat based dishes known the world over, such as kormas, biryanis, kababs and curries were perfected many centuries ago in the palace kitchens of Delhi, giving the city its own unique flavour.

 To fully enjoy Delhi's cuisine you have to step out of the restaurants and experience the feast that awaits you in every street. These street vendors have a loyal following and are proud of their secret recipes, handed down generations in their families. You will literally find entire kitchens contained in small handcarts with stoves perched perilously on top.

 Here you can sample Delhi's justly famous chaat: small plates of Alu Tikki - shallow fried potato croquettes, stuffed with spicy peas, served with lashings of yogurt and tamarind chutney, Gol Guppas - tiny deep fried puffy shells made with flour, stuffed with potatoes, tamarind chutney, dipped in an incredibly addictive spicy cumin mint water, Chana Chaat - spicy chickpeas and fried potatoes cooked on a griddle till very thick, Dahi Baras - small deep fried lentil balls dipped in spiced yogurt - the list is endless, with a new food discovery just around the corner.

Another of Delhi's treasures are its Dhabas - small roadside eateries, often with little clay ovens known as tandoors, serving incredible food. The kababs, curries, dals and tandoori naan that you will eat here will rival those of any five star restaurant!

It was in one of these little dhabas that I first tasted Rara chicken curry. The flavours of charcoal roasted chicken, simmered for hours in a decadently rich sauce, scooped up in a garlicky butter naan were so good that I had to try out this recipe in my own kitchen.

Here is my easy version that will soon become one of your favourites too! The term Rara means dry. This is a fairly dry curry with boneless chunks of chicken, ground meat and crumbled paneer, all enveloped in a rich, thick sauce. Eat it with pieces of warm naan to scoop up the delicious flavours!

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If you want variety, you can make this curry with lamb instead of chicken. For a vegetarian version, substitute paneer.

Rara Chicken Curry

6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cubed into bite sized pieces

4 tbsp oil, divided

1 tsp each, divided: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)

1/2 tsp each, divided: cayenne pepper, turmeric

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp cumin seeds

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 inch piece ginger, grated or minced

1-1/4 cup (about 8) canned whole plum tomatoes packed in puree

1/2 cup tomato puree from above can

1 cup ground chicken

1/2 cup grated or crumbled paneer

2 tbsp each, finely chopped: fresh coriander and mint

1 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 420F. Line a baking tray with parchment.

Place chicken in large mixing bowl. Add 2 tbsp oil, 1/2 tsp ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves and 1/4 tsp of the cayenne pepper and turmeric as well as salt to taste. Mix well to coat chicken. Spread chicken evenly on baking tray and roast in the oven for 15 min. Transfer chicken and accumulated juices to a bowl. Reserve.

Warm remaining 2 tbsp oil in deep non stick skillet set over medium high heat. Add cumin seeds, let sizzle 30 sec. Add onions, garlic and ginger. Saute for about 5-7 min until they are lightly browned.

Reduce heat to medium, then add the tomatoes, remainder of the spices and some more salt to taste. Cook for 5-7 min or until mixture is slightly thickened, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes with stirring spoon. Add tomato puree, mix well.

Add ground chicken and paneer. Cook for 5 min until mixture is partially cooked and thickened, stirring to break up lumps. Add reserved roast chicken and stir well to combine. Add 1/4 cup water and mix well. Cover skillet, reduce heat to low and cook for 30 min until chicken is cooked through and sauce has thickened. Fold in the fresh coriander, mint and butter.

Serves four

 


Tempura In Tokyo

Tokyo is a food-lover's paradise, with more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Even if you do not dine at these rarefied heights, it is possible to eat very well without bankrupting yourself. From sushi restaurants to tempura, ramen, yakitori and little bento boxes sold at street corners, there is something to suit every budget and every taste.

Whether you eat in an upscale restaurant or a tiny sushi bar, you will find every dish made with the freshest ingredients, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. This  meticulous attention to detail is what makes eating in Japan such an  amazing experience.

One of the most interesting places to eat a quick, inexpensive lunch is in the food hall basements of Tokyo's many high end department stores. These places are huge and filled with a mind boggling array of stalls selling raw and prepared food.

It became obvious to us that people in Tokyo take  food very seriously when we wandered past a street corner with a huge chef looming majestically on one side and giant teacups adorning a building on the other side. We had reached the famous Kappabashi, a street that specializes in shops selling restaurant and kitchen supplies.

As we strolled down the street, we came across many stores selling anything and everything you could possibly want to equip your kitchen. There were kitchen supply stores, food stores, knife stores and even stores specializing in selling fake food replicas! How can anyone resist buying fake food?!

A short distance from Kappabashi we ate a truly memorable meal at an old, well known restaurant  called Sansado that specializes in tempura. There is always a long line of people waiting to get in, so by the time we were seated, we were quite hungry! Our meal consisted of many different kinds of tempura, some made with an assortment of vegetables and some with shrimp. Biting into the crisp, crunchy batter to the tender vegetables and shrimp inside was a sublime experience!

Tempura was introduced to Japan by seventeenth century Portuguese missionaries who traveled from their Indian colony in Goa. It is quite likely that they brought along with them Goan cooks who were used to cooking pakoras, the ever popular Indian snack. The name has Latin roots, where "tempora" refers to the period of Lent when Catholics gave up eating meat and had only fish or vegetables. Frying these in batter made Lent quite agreeable!

My tempura recipe returns to  its Indian origins by using chickpea flour in the batter, as is done in making pakoras. The chickpea flour imparts an earthy taste to the batter which is enhanced by the addition of cumin seeds. Egg yolk and baking powder ensure that the coating of batter remains crisp and does not absorb excess oil during deep frying.

Feel free to use an assortment of other vegetables such as sliced eggplant, okra, lotus root, sweet red pepper or whole hot green chillies, along with the cauliflower. Serve with mango or tamarind chutney.

Tempura

300gm cauliflower florets (about 3 cups ), cut into small bite sized pieces

1/2 cup each: all purpose flour, chickpea flour (besan)

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: baking powder, cumin seeds

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup cold water

2 cups oil for deep frying

Place cauliflower in large mixing bowl.

Combine all purpose flour, chickpea flour, salt, baking powder and cumin seeds in deep mixing bowl. Combine egg yolk and water in small bowl and and add to dry flour mixture. Mix gently until fairly smooth. Do not overmix.

Heat oil for deep frying in wok set over medium heat. Dip cauliflower pieces in batter and lower gently into hot oil. Do not over crowd the wok. Do this in batches. Fry cauliflower for about 5 min per side, turning once or until tender and golden. Drain on paper towels. Proceed similarly with remaining cauliflower.

Serves four

Yakitori In Kyoto

Kyoto is a city of shrines. This is hard to believe at first if you arrive by  train, as we did. Emerging into the enormous, futuristic train station with an escalator that literally seems to climb into the sky, you'd never believe that Kyoto is so deeply rooted in history, culture, tradition and cuisine.

After you spend a few days in the city and start to discover its secrets, both cultural and culinary, you begin to appreciate all that it has to offer. From ancient mountain top temples built on wooden stilts to shrines dedicated to love gods, from gorgeous palaces with perfectly maintained grounds, to ancient Zen gardens, Kyoto has something to keep everyone happy. 

And if history and architecture is not your thing, there is a lively waterfront with plenty of restaurants overlooking it, Geisha clubs and great shopping to keep you busy!

We had heard so much about the distinctive Kyoto cuisine that one of the first things we did was to sample Kyoto's Kaiseki cuisine. Sort of like a chef's tasting menu, it features the creativity of the chef in the way he uses fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Also among our favourites were the yakitori restaurants we ate at. At one place we were seated right in front of the chefs, watching them prepare our food. It was almost like our own private cooking lesson. After that, I feel like I can create pretty authentic yakitori skewers!

We often had a set menu of many different types of yakitori skewers, some with pieces of chicken, some with ground meat. There were even grilled quail egg skewers and grilled hot chilli peppers which we had never come across before and found delicious.

My Yakitori recipe is influenced by my Indian palate and has ginger, green chili and fresh coriander in it. I think it just makes it even better! You can omit these if you want a more traditional flavour. Chicken thighs work best here as they are more flavourful and can be grilled without drying out. Serve them straight off the grill for best results.

Chicken Yakitori

 8 (1- 1/4 lb) boneless skinless chicken thighs

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch piece ginger, minced

1 green chili

1/4 cup each: soy sauce, Mirin, Sake (or white wine)

1 tbsp each: oil, sugar, chopped fresh coriander

6 green onions (scallions), white and pale green parts cut into 1 inch pieces

Trim fat off chicken thighs and cut them lengthwise into 3 strips. Place in deep mixing bowl. combine remaining ingredients, except green onions in mini blender or food processor and process to a smooth paste. Reserve and refrigerate half of marinade for basting and pour remaining half over chicken. Toss well to combine, cover and refrigerate chicken for 2 hours or longer.

When ready to grill, preheat grill to medium heat. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers, folding the meat and interspersing chicken pieces with a piece of green onion.

Grill for about 8 min per side until chicken is tender and cooked through, basting generously with the reserved marinade before turning skewers so that it forms a glaze on the chicken. Serve hot.

Serves four

Curried Pumpkin Sabzi In Ontario, Canada

Fall in Ontario is always breathtakingly beautiful. Cool crisp nights and warm sunny days encourage you to go explore forest trails, where you can walk for miles surrounded by trees whose leaves display the entire palette of colours, from brilliant reds and oranges to pale yellows and greens.

Driving around back country roads, stopping occasionally to buy fresh fruits and vegetables straight from farm stands and picnicking by a stream or waterfall is my favourite way to enjoy a beautiful fall day. Hiking in the many gorgeous conservation areas around Ontario, trampling on crunchy fallen leaves, admiring the tapestry of changing colours from a peak, while the dappled sunlight shines through the trees is another favourite!

Sun ripened, farm fresh produce is a real luxury this time of year and I try to make the most of it by practically turning vegetarian! Pumpkins are one of my favourite harvest vegetables and I love to cook them with spices, the way my mother used to when I was growing up in India. Just passing a field filled with ripe pumpkins evoked so much nostalgia in me that we had to stop and buy a couple to bring home!

Curried pumpkin sabzi is a delicious sweet, sour, hot and spicy creation that is best made with fresh pumpkin and enjoyed with warm naan, chapati or deep fried puris!

Curried Pumpkin Sabzi

2 lb fresh ripe pumpkin

2tbsp each: vegetable oil, butter

2 dried whole red chilies

1/4 tsp each: cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds

A tiny pinch of asafoetida (Hing), optional

1/2 cup finely chopped red onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander, ground fennel, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves (Kasoori methi)

Salt to taste

1 tbsp brown sugar

1 tsp amchoor (dried mango powder) or lemon juice

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Cut pumpkin into quarters, remove and discard peel and seeds. Dice pumpkin into small 1 inch bite sized pieces. you should have about 5 loosely packed cups (750gm) diced pumpkin to cook with.

Warm oil and butter in deep non stick skillet over medium high heat. Add red chilies, cumin, fennel and fenugreek seeds. Let sizzle for 30 sec, then add asafoetida, if using.

Add onions and garlic, saute for about 5-7 min until softened. Add diced pumpkin, cayenne, turmeric, ground coriander, ground fennel, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves and salt. Mix well, cover skillet, reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 20 min or until pumpkin is tender.

Add sugar, amchoor (mango powder) or lemon juice. Cook, covered for another 10 min, stirring occasionally. Uncover skillet, turn up the heat to medium and cook off some of the excess sauce for about 2 min. Fold in the fresh coriander.

Serves four

 

 

 

Pickles In Nishiki Market, Kyoto

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Nishiki Market is a food enthusiast's dream!  400 years old, narrow, cramped and crowded, this street is also known as Kyoto's Kitchen and is lined with more than a hundred shops and restaurants. Long before we got to Kyoto, I knew that one of my first sightseeing stops was going to be Nishiki Market.

I could hardly wait to explore it's quaint shops full of local produce and fresh seafood, shop for hand made artisanal goods such as knives, pottery and fans, and sample the famed Kyoto pickles of which I had heard so much! Just walking through the bustling, lively market, inhaling unfamiliar aromas, sampling foods new to us and marveling at ingredients we had never seen before was a lesson in culture and cuisine!

Kyoto's specialty, Tsukemono or pickled vegetables, were abundant in many of the shops and we got a taste of the briny, soy tinged, crisp pickled daikon radish, okra, turnips, cucumber, green mango, shallots and young ginger. Japanese pickles are almost an integral part of every meal, often served with rice and miso soup. Not only were they a good way to preserve vegetables in the days before refrigeration, they also added nutrition to the diet and captured the flavours of the season.

During our stay in Kyoto, we had pickled vegetables with a lot of our meals and I couldn't help comparing them with my Indian pickles. Although the principle and tradition behind pickling was similar between Japan and India, the two couldn't have been more different in taste!

Pickling in India is an age old tradition, with treasured family recipes being handed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation. Quite often, there is one designated member of the family, usually a grandmother or an aunt, who will make pickles for the entire clan. It is important to stay in their good books if you want your pickle supply for the year!

I am fortunate to be a part of this chain of pickles, recipes and wisdom handed down to me by my mother, grandmother and aunts and I hope to pass this knowledge on to my sons, who are already showing a fondness for combining Canadian and Indian pickling styles to create their own unique versions!

When it comes to home made pickles, every family has their own unique version, depending on the region of India they are from and the ingredients available. Practically anything can be pickled - fruits, vegetables, even meat or fish!

 Pickling is a deeply satisfying activity. There is something magical about witnessing the sun, salt and spices transform a raw piece of fruit or vegetable into something sublime, packed with intense flavour and longevity. 

These easy, delicious pickles are oil free and taste wonderful with any kind of Indian food, especially when wrapped in a piece of warm naan. I like to leave them at the center of the table, ready to perk up any meal! I also like to throw them into a simmering curry, soup or sauce for the depth of flavour, lemony aroma and earthiness they add to the dish. They are great to use in Indian, Moroccan, Middle Eastern or any of your favourite cuisines.

You can make these pickles two ways - plain salted without the spices, or as described below with spices. For making them without spices, follow below recipe exactly but omit all the spices.

Spiced Pickled Lemons

6 lemons

1 tbsp Kosher salt

4 each: whole cloves, green cardamom

1/2 inch stick cinnamon

1 star anise

1/4 tsp each: black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, red chili flakes, whole allspice, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, whole black peppercorn, saffron strands

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add lemons and simmer for 2 min on medium heat. Remove lemons from water (keep water simmering in pot), drain and pat lemons dry with paper towels. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, sterilize a large glass jar by placing it in the simmering water for 2 min. Remove carefully, pat jar dry inside and out with paper towels. You can also sterilize the jar by running it through the dishwasher.

Cut 4 of the lemons into 8 pieces each. Squeeze out the juice from the remaining lemons, discarding rinds.

In large mixing bowl, combine lemon pieces, juice, salt, spices and saffron, mixing well. Pack into sterilized jar, pressing down gently to cover lemons with spiced juices.

Keep jar in sunny spot for 2 weeks, shaking it regularly to evenly distribute juice and spices. Tamp lemons down when necessary to keep them submerged. When lemons are softened and changed in colour, spices mellowed and juices thickened, the pickles are ready to eat. They can be stored in the refrigerator for upto 1 year.

 

Grilled Tofu In Nara, Japan

Nara is a city of temples. People go there on pilgrimage, to pray in the ancient temples and shrines and hope for their wishes to come true.

Nara was the capital of Japan in the eighth century when the emperor of Japan first converted to Buddhism and built the Todai-ji temple which houses a 50-feet tall bronze statue of the Buddha, the largest in the world.

Over the centuries many other temples and shrines were built in the same park and today it is the center of Japanese Buddhism and a major pilgrimage site. Surrounding the temple is a huge deer park, inspired  by the park in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha first preached.

One of the first sights to greet you as you enter the sprawling temple grounds of Nara are the hundreds of tame deer wandering about. Considered sacred, the deer are allowed to roam freely, posing for photographs while hoping for treats from enthusiastic visitors. Be wary - the deer can be very persistent! If they see or smell a treat on you, they will crowd around and nose it out of your hands before you can move any further.

Nara pays homage to the original deer park in India by erecting a statue of four lions, which was the symbol of the Indian Emperor Ashoka who dispatched  missionaries around the world to spread Buddhist teachings. The original statue still  stands today in Sarnath, India.

A short stroll from the Todai-ji temple, deep in a lush primeval forest is the famous Kasuga Grand Shrine. The path leading up to the shrine is lined with 3000 ancient stone lanterns. These are lit only for a new nights each summer, creating a stunning display. Inside the Kasuga Grand Shrine are hundreds of more lanterns, made of bronze, donated by worshipers.

People come from great distances to ask for their wishes to be granted by writing them on little tags that are tied to the temple railings.

As Nara is predominantly a Buddhist temple town, it has developed a rich vegetarian cuisine over the centuries. During our visit to Nara, we enjoyed a complete meal centered around tofu. As the skillfully prepared and beautifully presented dishes were placed before us, we were amazed at the sheer variety of ways in which tofu can be cooked, each more delicious than the last!

There was chilled tofu with soy and wasabi to start us off, followed by tofu tempura, grilled tofu with miso, tofu hotpot, and my favourite - tofu made with sesame seed paste instead of soymilk. It had a subtle nutty flavour and light texture. Bathed in a delicate soy based sauce with just a hint of wasabi resting on top, it was sheer perfection!

We felt good after eating this multifaceted, deeply satisfying tofu meal and resolved to keep on eating lots more tofu once we got back home to Toronto!

My grilled tofu recipe borrows from both Indian and Japanese cuisines, resulting in delicious, irresistible fusion! It tastes best when grilled on a barbecue but you can always use the oven if you wish. A neat trick to prevent the tofu from sliding off the skewers is to use two skewers, inserted parallel into the tofu cubes. Serve tofu skewers hot while the insides are still soft, and outside is lightly crisp.

Grilled Tofu

1 pkg (350gm) extra firm tofu, cubed into 2 inch pieces

2 each: garlic cloves, green chillies

1/2 inch ginger

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh coriander

2 tbsp each: soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil

1 tbsp each: red miso paste, tomato paste or ketchup

1/2 tsp sugar

Half lemon

Wooden skewers for grilling

Place tofu in deep mixing bowl.

In mini blender, combine remaining ingredients except lemon. Process until smooth. Pour over tofu in bowl and toss gently to coat tofu with marinade. Cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.

Before grilling, soak skewers in water for 1/2 hour.

Preheat barbecue grill to medium high heat. Thread tofu cubes onto skewers and grill for about 5 min per side or until lightly charred and softened, turning once.

Sprinkle lemon juice over top.

Serves four

Saveur, Lamb Shawarma In New York

When I recently got a call from the famous Saveur Magazine, asking if I would be interested in a trip to New York to help their test kitchens prepare for their upcoming special India issue, I took exactly five seconds before saying YES!!

A long-time fan of Saveur, who has cooked her way through many, many of their recipes, I couldn't believe I was actually going to meet the people whose names have long been familiar to me! It was a wonderful experience for many reasons, but the best part of it was getting to know so many warm, friendly people who are a joy to work with.

 Saveur test kitchens are a home cook's dream. Equipped with top of the line appliances, cookware, and an extremely well stocked spice cabinet, they made cooking a breeze! We created and tested recipes for dishes like Hot Mix snack, Spicy RasamDaikon Curry, Methi Malai Paneer, Mussels, pickles, chutneys, naan, parathas  and puris .

In spite of being busy in the Saveur kitchens, I made sure I left enough time for some of the things I love to do in New York: sampling the goodies at Eataly, buying exotic spices at Kalustyan's, and treating myself to macarons at Ladurée.

While walking the streets of Manhattan it is always a treat to grab a quick bite from one of New York's many street food vendors! Our favourite is lamb shawarma from The Halal Guys, a wildly popular food cart on 53rd street at 6th Avenue. There is invariably a long line of people winding around the block,  but the food is worth the wait. We had the lamb and rice plate with lashings of their famous white sauce and hot sauce.

Home made shawarma is easy to make and the taste is quite close to the spit roasted version sold from street carts and restaurants. I like to serve lamb shawarma in a wrap with lots of toppings, most of which are easily available at our local supermarket. You can also serve it over yellow basmati rice with the toppings scattered over top.

Lamb Shawarma Wraps

1 lb boneless leg of lamb

For marinade:

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

2 tbsp each: lemon juice, oil, plain yogurt

1/2 tsp each, ground: cumin, cinnamon, mace, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, cardamom

Salt to taste

For wraps:

2 tbsp oil

4 thin pita breads

1/4 cup each: hummus, tabbouleh and tzaziki

Hot sauce, pickled turnips to taste

Place lamb in large mixing bowl. Make a few deep gashes on its surface for marinade to seep in.

Combine marinade ingredients together in mini blender until smooth. Pour over lamb, turning to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 400F. Place lamb in large baking dish, spoon marinade over it, cover with foil and bake for 20 min. Uncover and bake for another 15 min or until lamb is done to your liking. Do not overcook the lamb. Remove from oven.

Let lamb rest for 15 min, scrape off and discard any excess marinade clinging to it, then slice it thinly into strips.

Warm oil in a large non stick skillet over medium high heat. Add lamb and sauté for 2 min until lightly browned. Remove to a platter.

Place warm pitas, lamb and remaining wrap ingredients on table for people to assemble their own wraps.

Makes four wraps

(Shahi Paneer) Pizza In New York

The one travel destination that everyone in our family can agree upon is New York. Trips to other cities can trigger off heated debates as we argue the pros and the cons, but everyone is always ready to go to the Big Apple!

Everyone can find something to do in New York. Whether you love theater, art, music or history, you will find something to keep you entertained. The best thing to do, of course, is simply to walk the streets. Manhattan is one of the most walkable places in the world - it is almost impossible to get lost, and every corner brings you a new sight. From the beautiful to the bizarre, the sublime to the ridiculous, you will see it all within a few blocks.

New York is also one of the best destinations for food lovers. You can dine at five starred restaurants, but you can also find all the  world's cuisines on the streets. The sheer variety and number of food trucks is unmatched anywhere else. Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Indian - a culinary tour around the globe is possible without  leaving downtown!

New York can truly be considered a spice mecca. Every kind of spice or spice mixture from every corner of the world can be easily obtained here. My favourite place to shop for spices, whenever I'm in the city is Kalustyan's. No matter how well stocked my spice cabinet, I always find new and interesting things to buy here!

On our recent trip to New York, we enjoyed Cuban paella, empanadas and kimchi dumplings. But, you can't go to New York and not have pizza! The most memorable one we ate was a delicious Indian version with Shahi paneer.

Shahi paneer can be called the vegetarian relative of Butter chicken. The rich flavours of paneer simmered in the spicy tomato cream sauce are so good that you won't even miss the chicken!

You can also serve the shahi paneer without the pizza with some naan on the side. Or you could fold the pizza dough in half over the stuffing and make a delicious calzone!

Shahi Paneer Pizza

Tomato Sauce:

1 cup (about 4 large) canned premium whole plum tomatoes with puree

1/2 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves, cayenne pepper

Salt to taste

1 tbsp each: butter, whipping (heavy) cream, chopped fresh coriander leaves

Pizza:

1 lb prepared pizza dough

1 cup each: crumbled paneer, shredded mozzarella cheese

Additional suggested toppings: sliced olives, sliced red onions, chopped baby spinach

Prepare sauce:

Blend tomatoes with puree, spices and salt in blender or food processor till smooth.

warm deep non stick skillet over medium heat. Add tomato spice mixture and let it start to bubble. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 min, stirring occasionally. Fold in butter, cream and fresh coriander. Cook 2 min.

Sauce can be prepared up to 2 days ahead of time and kept refrigerated.

Preheat oven to 420F. Line 2 pizza pans or baking sheets with parchment.

Divide dough in half and roll out each half into an 8 inch wide circle, sprinkling it with all purpose flour whenever necessary to prevent sticking. Place on baking sheets.

Spread half of tomato sauce over each pizza. Sprinkle evenly with the two cheeses. If using additional suggested toppings, spread them evenly over top.

Bake for 15 min or until cheese is melted and pizza is done.

Serves four