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


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

Fried Fish (Pakoras) In Newfoundland

Driving across Newfoundland has its own charm, for how can you resist stopping at places named Heart's Desire, Come by Chance, Happy Adventure, or Dildo? In Newfoundland you can never forget that you are living on an island, for the sea is everywhere. You cannot drive very far without glimpsing a secluded cove, a quaint fishing village, or a lighthouse that has for centuries marked the way home for sailors and fishers.

The sea and the fish in it are a magnet for birds of every variety, and at Cape St. Mary's reserve the rocks teem with gannets, cormorants and gulls. Together they create an unbelievable cacophony and are quite oblivious to humans, allowing people to walk right up to them.

The seabirds are not the only creatures drawn to Newfoundland by the fish - we found it equally attractive!  Succulent lobster, halibut, cod, salmon and shrimp taste unbelievably sweet and fresh when they're just caught fresh off the Atlantic ocean and never been frozen. Dishes such as brewis, britches, figgy duff, flipper pie have quaint local names and a long interesting history for they were created by the island's original settlers.

The favourite local way to serve fish, and it is almost always cod, is to dip it in batter and fry it. On our long, meandering drives around the island, we ate fried fish in many small restaurants along the way, savouring its crisp crunch and fresh flavour.

These fish pakoras, flecked with fresh coriander and cumin seeds, are a wonderful Indian version of the fried fish we ate in Newfoundland! The chickpea flour and spices used in the batter add a unique flavour and crispness to the pakoras, making it impossible to stop after just eating one!

You can substitute diced potatoes, onions, paneer or chicken for the fish in this recipe. Serve with chutney to bring out all the delicious flavours!

Fish Pakoras

1 lb skinless Basa fillet or any other white fish such as haddock or cod

1 cup chickpea flour

Salt to taste

1 tbsp each: fresh lemon juice, chopped fresh coriander

1/2 tsp each: cumin seeds, cayenne pepper, dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi), baking powder

3/4 cup water

Oil for deep frying

Cut fish into 2 inch chunks.

Combine remaining ingredients in deep mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. The mixture should be the consistency of pancake batter, thick enough to coat the fish pieces but not too watery.

Add fish and turn it around gently to coat with batter.

Pour oil in deep skillet, wok or deep fryer so that it comes up to about 2 inches in the pan (enough to submerge the fish). Warm it  over medium heat. Line a platter with paper towels.

Drop fish in gently, taking care not to crowd pan. Fry until cooked through, lightly golden and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining fish. Serve hot.

Serves four



Seafood Chowder In St.John's, Newfoundland

On our first visit to Newfoundland, there was no doubt in our minds about what we were going to eat at every meal - seafood! The waters of the North Atlantic ocean around Newfoundland are brimming with many varieties of seafood and local chefs are famous for the creative ways in which they use it in their cooking.

St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland is one of the oldest cities in North America and loaded with  charisma and personality. You will develop quite an appetite once you walk up and down the steep, narrow streets, admiring the unique and colourful jellybean row houses lining them and exploring Signal Hill, where Marconi famously received the first transatlantic wireless signal. Cabot Tower atop Signal Hill with its breathtaking view is also worth exploring in this charming, historic town. Once you have admired the sights, walk along St. John's main street, where you can find many restaurants that serve some of the best chowder as well as a whole host of other seafood delights.

Fish is what first drew Europeans to Newfoundland. Basque, French and English fisherman would land on the  shores of the remote island and spend all summer catching cod, then salting and drying it. Ships laden with salt cod would return home before the brutal winter swept in, making fish plentiful across the continent. Cooked in spices brought from India, salt cod became the mainstay of European cuisines. One of the favourite ways of cooking fish in medieval Europe  was to simmer it in a stew. The cooking pot, known as a chaudière in French, gave its name to the stew, which became chowder in English.

My chowder recipe is fairly close to what we enjoyed so many times during our stay in Newfoundland. Use the freshest seafood you can find to get the best flavours out of this delicious chowder.

You can make this dish with any combination of seafood of your choice or even with just one main ingredient such as clams or lobster. A crusty bread on the side is a must!

Seafood Chowder

2 tbsp olive oil or butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 slices bacon, chopped

1 each: sprig of thyme, bay leaf

1/2 cup each: carrots, celery, red pepper, mushrooms, peeled cooked potato, finely chopped

2 tbsp each: all purpose flour, white wine

4 cups whole milk

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

1 cup each: raw peeled shrimp, cooked shelled mussels, cooked shelled clams (optional)

10 raw scallops, halved through the center

1 each, raw: cod fillet, haddock fillet (about 1/2 lb each), cut into large pieces

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh dill, parsley, grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup whipping cream

Warm oil or butter in deep saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. Add onions, bacon, thyme and bay leaf. Saute for about 10 min until onions are softened, lightly browned and bacon has rendered its fat.

Add carrots, celery, red pepper, mushrooms and potato. Saute for 5 min until slightly softened. Add flour and cook 1 min. Add wine and cook 1 min until mixture bubbles. Stir in milk, salt and pepper. Cover pot, reduce heat to low and cook for 10 min or until vegetables are softened.

Add all the seafood, cover and cook 10 min until seafood is just cooked through, stirring gently once in a while.

Fold in the herbs, Parmesan and cream. Heat soup through gently, then serve.

Serves Six


Japanese Chicken Curry In Tokyo

Tokyo, Asakusa - 65.jpg

Tokyo is a food-lover's delight. From its grand, five-star restaurants to humble vendors on every street corner, there is something for everyone to savour. When we set out on a trip to Japan we planned to seek out the finest sushi and sashimi. We found that, and much more, but nothing prepared us for the biggest  surprise of our travels - Japanese curry!

Curry is so popular in Japan that most people assume it has always been a part of Japanese cuisine. In fact it arrived in Japan in the late nineteenth century as it opened up to western influences. British ships sailing to Japan served curry on board and the Japanese saw it as an exotic, western dish. Cafes in Tokyo were soon serving curry, prepared in the English fashion: meat and onions were fried in butter, curry powder and stock added and the mixture simmered slowly.

The Japanese fondness for curry came as a surprise to a much earlier visitor from India, the young revolutionary Rash Behari Bose. He fled India, then a British colony,  after a failed attempt to assassinate the British viceroy and sought refuge in Japan in 1915. He was hidden by sympathetic Japanese nationalists in the Nakamuraya bakery run by Aizo and Koko Soma.  He fell in love with their daughter Toshiko and married her a few years later. Rash Behari Bose became a Japanese citizen and was involved in running the bakery as it expanded, opening several new branches and adding a café to its main location in Tokyo's Shinjuku district which was becoming a major shopping centre.

Bose was responsible for the biggest draw on the café menu – real Indian curry, which was something new in Japan. Bose personally supervised its preparation, selected the ingredients that went into it, and tasted it every morning before it was served. Introducing the Japanese to genuine Indian cuisine was part of the nationalist struggle for Bose, who dreamed of a day when Asians could experience each others' cultures without the exchange being mediated by westerners.

Nakamuraya’s curry was an instant success and the elite of Tokyo flocked to the café to taste authentic Indian food. Bose became a celebrity as newspaper reporters told of his struggles against imperialism and his romance with Toshiko. His curry became famous as the “taste of love and revolution”.

The Nakamuraya chain continues to flourish,  supplying packaged foods to grocery stores across Japan. The flagship restaurant still stands in its original location in Shinjuku and faded black-and-white photographs in its foyer commemorate the story of the Soma family and the Indian revolutionary they sheltered.  The most enduring monument to Rash Behari Bose is the curry served by Nakamuraya, still made according to his original recipe.  Try it if you are ever in Tokyo, for where else will you find a “taste of love and revolution” in a single spoon?

This recipe, with its intriguing mix of ingredients and flavours is popularly served all over Japan. The unusual combination of apples with celery, carrot and potatoes is strangely comforting!

Japanese Chicken Curry

1 lb (about 8 ) boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
4 tbsp all purpose flour, divided
4 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
4 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
1 inch piece of ginger, grated or minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, sliced thin
Salt to taste
2 cups chicken broth, divided
¼ cup canned crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp each: garam masala, curry powder
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
 1 apple, peeled and grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp honey

Combine chicken and 2 tbsp flour in large mixing bowl, tossing to coat pieces well with flour.
Warm 2 tbsp oil in deep non-stick skillet set over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. Brown chicken for 5 min until lightly golden. Transfer to bowl.
Add remaining 2 tbsp oil to same skillet. Add garlic and ginger, sauté for about 1 min until they brown lightly. Add the onions and sauté for about 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.
Add carrot, potato and celery, sauté 2 min. Add chicken, salt, 1 cup broth and tomatoes. Cover skillet, bring contents to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 min, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile make the roux. Warm butter in non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add remaining 2 tbsp flour. Stirring occasionally, cook until flour turns to a light golden colour, about 10 min. Add curry powder, garam masala and cayenne pepper, cook 2 min. Add remaining 1 cup broth, cook 1 min, stirring till roux thickens.
Add roux, apple, soy and honey to chicken in skillet, stirring to mix it in gently. Cover skillet and cook for 5 min for flavours to blend and apple to soften.
Serves four


Nyonya Chicken Curry In Singapore

Singapore has always been a meeting place of cultures. Founded by the British and located strategically midway on the shipping lanes from India to China, it's population is predominantly Chinese, Malay and Indian. As you wander through the immaculately clean streets of the city, you find elaborately carved Hindu temples minutes away from Chinese street markets and colonial era British hotels.

Singapore is a food lover's delight, for you can find every variety of cuisine. In a single city block you can sample Chinese dumplings, Indian curries and  Malaysian satays. The variety of street food is incredible and one of the great delights of visiting Singapore is strolling through the hawker centres, sampling an incredible variety of dishes or wandering along the waterfront savouring the different aromas wafting from the restaurants lining it, while trying to decide where to eat.

Singapore does not just serve dishes from other countries but has evolved its own cuisine, popularly known as Nyonya or Peranakan food, which is a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking styles. Peranakans are descendants of early Chinese settlers in Malaysia, who intermarried with the local people and created a unique hybrid culture and cuisine. Nyonya food is deliciously spicy, rich with coconut milk, tamarind and nuts and fragrant with the use of lemongrass, galangal and fresh coriander.

Nyonya style chicken curry with its subtle nuances of flavour was one of my very favourite dishes to eat in Singapore. Served with some steaming hot rice, it was a great way to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

It is not difficult to make at home and here I have modified the recipe to incorporate readily available ingredients and make it easier to prepare. It tastes every bit as good as the original version we ate in Singapore! Oven roasting the spiced marinated chicken helps intensify the flavours. If you wish it to be hotter, just increase the amount of cayenne pepper.

For a change of pace, you can substitute lamb, paneer or tofu for the chicken and follow the basic recipe below. Serve with a bowl of Nasi Goreng for a hearty, satisfying meal!

Nyonya Chicken Curry

1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8), cut into quarters

4 tbsp oil, divided

Salt to taste

1 tsp curry powder, divided; tamarind paste, sugar

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

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 inch piece ginger, finely chopped

6-7 blanched macadamia nuts or almonds

1 cup canned coconut milk

2 each, whole: cardamom, cloves

1 each: cinnamon stick (1 inch piece), star anise, bay leaf

1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2 inch pieces and smashed lightly, optional

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

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

In large bowl, combine chicken, 2 tbsp oil, salt, 1/2 tsp curry powder and 1/4 tsp each of turmeric, paprika and cayenne. Mix well, spread chicken and all its marinade on tray. Bake for 15 min. or until it is cooked through and lightly golden. Reserve chicken and all its juices.

Meanwhile, warm remaining 2 tbsp oil in deep non stick skillet. Add onions, garlic, ginger and macadamia nuts or almonds. Saute for 5 min. or until softened and lightly browned. Remove from oil (reserve skillet for later use in recipe) and transfer to a blender or food processor, along with coconut milk, tamarind paste, sugar, salt, remaining curry powder, turmeric, cayenne and paprika. Blend to a smooth paste.

Warm leftover oil in skillet and add whole cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaf, sizzle them for 30 sec. Add sauteed onion paste from blender, lemongrass (if using) and the chicken with all its juices.

Mix well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered for 15 min. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the chicken at the end of cooking. If it is not thick enough, cook for a few min. longer.

Fold in the chopped coriander and serve.

Serves four

Spicy Tomato Soup (Rasam) in Belur

Some of the most historic and artistic sights in India are to be found near Bangalore: the ornate temple complexes of Belur and Halebid, and the great awe inspiring statue of Bahubali at Shravanabelagola. If you are ever in Bangalore, you must spend a day visiting all three of these places, for they are sights that you will never forget.

Belur and Halebid are both elaborate temple complexes that date back to the 12th century. They are famous for the elaborate stone carvings that adorn the buildings, illustrating stories from the great Hindu epics. Images of gods and goddesses, bulls, and mythological  beasts, carved in amazing, intricate detail fill every inch of wall space. Here, you will feel transported back in time as you marvel at the thousands of miniature statues carved straight out of rock.

Shravanabelagola is a pilgrimage site for followers of the Jain faith, where you climb steps up a steep hill at the top of which towers a 57 foot high statue of Bahubali, a Jain saint. Over a thousand years old, it is carved from a single rock and is the tallest monolithic statue in the world.

The climb up the steep hill to the Bahuabali shrine can be quite exhausting, so it is a good idea to fortify yourself with a paper cone of freshly roasted peanuts or a refreshing drink of green coconut water at the base of the hill.

When driving from Bangalore to all of these places, there are plenty of opportunities to stop at the many roadside cafes along the route and sample authentic local fare. We made sure to stop at several of them! I always started with Rasam (spicy tomato soup), to warm me up. Our meals often expanded to include dosas (thin crepes made with a fermented batter of rice and lentils, stuffed with spicy potatoes), idlis (steamed rice cakes), vadas (deep fried lentil cakes, often served dipped in rasam or with coconut chutney on the side) and upma ( semolina cooked with spices and vegetables). Just getting to Belur was half the fun!

Rasam, a staple in every South Indian meal is considered to be a digestive. The recipe varies from region to region - sometimes it is just tamarind water cooked up with pepper, herbs and spices and other times it is tomatoes, lentils and spices cooked together to make a thin soup. My personal favourite is the one that combines all these elements in one recipe, the one I have provided here.

This is a hearty blend of tomatoes, lentils, tamarind, spices and herbs. In addition to being healthy, one bowl will banish all colds and put a smile on your face for the rest of the day!

This delicious spicy tomato lentil soup is fantastic for chasing away winter blahs. Add some leftover rice to it and you've got a perfect lunch to warm you up! If you'd like to make it spicier, invest in some rasam powder - it's a ready made spice mix for preparing rasam, available in Indian grocery stores.


¼ cup *Tur Dal (split pigeon peas) or red lentils
1 lb. ripe Italian plum tomatoes (about 6), substitute canned if desired

1/4 inch piece of ginger
salt to taste
½ tsp turmeric
30 *fresh curry leaves
1 tsp *Rasam powder, optional

1/2 tsp *tamarind paste or 2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 dried red chilies
1/4 tsp each: black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, *fenugreek seeds (optional)

1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, ground cumin, ground coriander, sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves

Wash lentils and soak in water for 15 minutes. Chop tomatoes into small pieces. Drain lentils and place them along with the tomatoes and ginger in a deep saucepan. Add 3 cups water, salt, turmeric and 15 curry leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook till very soft, about 30 minutes. Puree mixture with a hand blender and then strain. Stir in Rasam powder and tamarind (if using) .
Warm oil in non stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the chillies, mustard, cumin and fenugreek seeds. As soon as they begin to splutter, add the chopped onions, garlic and remaining curry leaves. Sauté for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Add dal mixture to skillet along with pepper, ground cumin, ground coriander and sugar. Stir to mix, and cook for about 5 minutes, then mix in the chopped fresh coriander leaves and lemon juice (if using) and serve hot.
Serves four

*available in Indian stores

Chaat In Varanasi


The word chaat in Hindi means to sample or to savour, and is also the name of India's favourite food. Chaat is not a single dish - the term covers an amazing variety of street food that is sold in small plates everywhere in India, from little carts on the street, handed out from hole-in-the wall stalls, or served in expensive restaurants. Most chaat dishes are designed to be eaten in a single bite, setting off a little explosion of flavour in your mouth that you savour as you move on in search of the next plate to sample.

Every city in India claims the honour of having the best chaat in the country, but in my opinion the ancient, holy city of Varanasi has some of the best chaat I've ever had as well as a well deserved reputation for creating some of the most innovative and delicious chaat in all of India. If you happen to visit Varanasi, be sure to start your trip with a sampling of chaat!

Varanasi is a city of temples, filled with pilgrims from every part of India. Temples line the banks of the Ganges, located at the top of the terraced ghats, where the faithful come to bathe. And chaat is a way of life in Varanasi, found in the maze of narrow lanes that form the old city, or on the banks of the Ganges river. People go on pilgrimage to Varanasi, to find salvation by bathing in its holy waters, but there is nothing to say that you can't have a nice snack along the way!

The most popular varieties of chaat are gol guppas (little puffed up discs stuffed with chutney and spicy tamarind water), samosas, tikki (potato croquettes), papdi (tiny deep fried discs topped with yogurt, chutney and chopped onions), chana masala (spicy chickpeas), pakoras and bhel puri (puffed rice mixed with chutney, chopped onions and tomatoes).

However, the one outstanding form of chaat that Varanasi is justly famous for is Tamatar (literally tomatoes). This divine dish is made by cooking down a whole lot of fresh ripe tomatoes and spices, mixing them with pan fried mashed potatoes and topping the whole thing with various chutneys, sauces, finely chopped red onions and fresh coriander. To have just one bite is enough to make you want to move to Varanasi permanently!

These days chaat can be found in most Indian restaurants all over the world. However, making it at home is easy too. Here's a recipe for Tikkis (stuffed potato croquettes) to start you off! Tikkis are usually served with a dollop of spiced yogurt, some tamarind chutney and chopped red onions. Sprinkle some chopped fresh coriander and cayenne pepper over top for added zest!

Alu Tikki

4 large Yukon Gold potatoes

2 tbsp all purpose flour

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp ground white pepper

1/2 cup frozen green peas

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, lemon juice

1/2 tsp each: grated or minced ginger, roasted ground cumin seeds, cayenne pepper

Oil for pan frying tikkis

Boil potatoes until very tender. Cool, peel and mash them.

Add flour, salt and pepper, mix well. Reserve potato mixture.

Boil peas until tender. Drain and transfer to a deep mixing bowl. Mash coarsely then add salt to taste, fresh coriander, lemon juice, ginger, cumin and cayenne. Mix well.

Divide potato mixture into 16 equal portions. Roll each into a smooth ball, then flatten slightly. Place about 1 tbsp of the pea mixture in the center of one flattened potato ball, cover with another and press seams gently to seal. Repeat with remaining potato balls and pea mixture.

Warm  about 3 tbsp oil in large non stick frying pan over medium high heat. Add potato tikkis in single layer; you may have to do this in two batches. Fry gently until golden and crisp, about 5 min per side. Repeat with remaining tikkis. Serve with chutney.

Makes 8 tikkis


Biryani In Hyderabad

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The perfect biryani – that is what we were looking for in Hyderabad. A biryani - rice layered with a spicy curry and cooked over low heat, is delicious anywhere but has reached perfection in the city of Hyderabad and has to be tried at least once.

True Hyderabadi cooking, local residents told us, would be found near the Charminar, the medieval gateway that is the most recognized symbol of the city. The four towering spires of the Charminar were a helpful landmark as we started our sightseeing, but despite them we soon lost our bearings, swept along by the crowds spilling out from the nearby mosque into the maze of alleyways that form the heart of the old city.

Being lost in the famous Laad Bazar is no misfortune, for there is something new to see around every corner. The lanes are lined with little shops brimming over with the treasures that Hyderabad is famed for – pearls, jewellery, inlaid metal work, silks, brocade, bangles, glassware and perfumes. Delicious scents wafting down the street told us that we had serendipitously found our destination: a restaurant whose biryani had been voted as the best in the city in a popular newspaper poll.

The centre-piece of our meal was, of course, the famed biryani: basmati rice fragrant with saffron and studded with tender morsels of lamb. Accompanying the rice, as is traditional, was mirchi ka salan - hot green peppers cooked with toasted spices, peanuts and tamarind extract. Next came a platter of succulent kababs and a bowl of pasanda (lamb pounded thin and simmered in a sautéed onion-almond cream sauce), which were eaten with naan. Dessert was faluda, vermicelli and tapioca seeds served in rose syrup mixed with milk.

After eating such a memorable meal, I couldn't wait to get back home to my kitchen and try my hand at making Hyderabadi biryani. In my recipe here, I have tried to simplify the cooking process while still holding on to the authentic flavours. Although lamb is rarely eaten in India - goat is the preferred meat - I have used lamb here because it is easier to obtain. If you can find goat meat, feel free to use that instead!

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You can substitute chicken for the lamb and make a chicken biryani following the same recipe. I like to serve biryani with yogurt raita and fresh coriander-mint chutney on the side.

Lamb Biryani 

For the curry:
1 -1/4 lb. boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and cubed into 1 inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered
2 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1/4 cup plain yogurt
6 large canned whole plum tomatoes, lightly drained
Salt to taste
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala, dried fenugreek leaves
½ tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric
2 tbsp oil
½ tsp cumin seeds

Place lamb in a large mixing bowl. Add all remaining ingredients except oil and cumin seeds, to food processor and mince well.  Pour over lamb and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours up to overnight.
Heat oil in deep non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add cumin seeds and let them sizzle for 30 seconds. Add lamb and all its marinade, stirring continuously for 5 mins. Cover and let mixture come to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook until lamb is very tender, about 1 hour or longer. Stir occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the lamb at the end of cooking. If there is still a lot of liquid left at the end of cooking, uncover skillet, turn up heat to medium high and cook off some of the excess. Reserve and refrigerate lamb curry until ready to make biryani.
For the biryani:
1 cup basmati rice
1 tbsp oil
½ tsp saffron strands
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp melted butter
Optional garnish:
¼ cup golden fried onions
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in deep saucepan set over high heat. Add rice and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the rice is just done but not mushy, about 7 mins. Drain and spread on a tray to cool.
Meanwhile, soak saffron in the warm water for 15 mins.
Choose a large heavy bottomed, deep saucepan with a tight fitting lid for assembling the biryani. Set it over medium high heat and add the oil. Add reserved lamb curry and spread it in an even layer in the bottom of the pan. Cover it completely with the rice. Sprinkle the saffron water over the rice. Drizzle melted butter over top. If you are using the optional garnishes, scatter them over top as well. Cover pan and let it heat up for 2-3 mins until the curry starts to bubble. Reduce heat to very low and let biryani cook for 1 hour. Uncover pan, making sure all the sauce has been absorbed by the rice.  Transfer to a platter, mixing it gently as you go.
Serves four

Adapted from  A taste of Hyderabad, Desi Life magazine, May 08, 2008