Havana with kids

This post has been a long time coming. I know currently, thanks to the lifting of the embargo, American tourists are flocking Cuba and drinking it dry. We did that a little earlier than it became the new tourist hotspot. We were in Cuba last November for a weekend, and it was the most wonderful experience.

 

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Travel is not for everyone. As Pico Iyer says, “all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” We need to take in all of the experience, all of it, the good, bad and the ugly, and file it away as a complex interaction. This article is an attempt to document a travel that was never on our cards, but just happened because we were in the right place at the right time. Here is to hoping this would help some of the readers to plan your trip to Cuba as well.

Planning:

Ever since Cigar Aficionado came out with a Special Cuba issue in May/June 2015, and we moved to Cayman Islands shortly thereafter in July 2015, we were planning a visit to Cuba. Most travel guides seemed outdated, the few travel guides that came to the local bookshop sold out immediately, so the magazine became our main guide.

 

Few friends who were from Cuba gave us some basic tips:

  1. Credit Cards usually don’t work, so take enough cash for the entire trip, including hotels.
  2. Remember to take cash in Euros, because there is a 10% tax on US dollars (this, we believe, has been cancelled after Obama’s trip to Cuba).
  3. A travel agent will be able to book hotels, arrange transport to and from hotels and also book tours of Havana in classic American cars.

We spoke to the travel agent, but got no response. Just a week from our planned travel date, they called to say that all hotels were booked out for months and they couldn’t get anything. We checked the website of the Hotel Meliá Cohiba and they had a room available with a sea-view that would take two adults and two children. It wasn’t cheap, but we booked it anyway, because we had been bitten by the travel bug.

 

Hotel Meliá Cohiba

Hotel Meliá Cohiba

 

The situation for visas was not clear. We called everywhere, but there was no response. Finally, we just decided to brave it and go to the Owen Roberts airport in Grand Cayman. We had to buy visas for $25 each for each of us and one gets a small card on which we could write our name/passport number, nationality etc. It was quite easy, and we were on the short flight that would take us across to Cuba.

Reached Havana:

The airport was a blast from the past. Lot of airlines we had never seen before – Cubana Airways, LAN Air, something from Venezuela, Colombia etc. Immigration was easy enough, but it took over 2 hours for the luggage to arrive. The carousels had broken down, so porters were lifting luggage and placing it at strategic intervals on the non-moving carousel, so one had to walk around and pick the boxes. It took so long, and the kids were restive, so we were about to give up on the luggage when it finally arrived.

Once that was done, we exchanged some Euros for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). It trades 1:1 to the US dollars. Plenty of taxis were available and we got into a yellow taxi to go to the hotel. The cabbie pointed out various sights along the way –  The Ministry of Interior- the famous building with a Che Guevera mural outside, the José Martí memorial, various revolutionary posters with Fidel, Raul and Hugo Chavez and the classic American cars from the 1950s and the Soviet Ladas on the streets.

 

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Internet was a problem throughout our stay. We didn’t get a room on The Level at Meliá Cohiba, so we had to make do by buying access – 30 minutes for CUC 5. Most of the time, access was spotty, so we spent a lot of these 30 minutes trying to connect & disconnect. But we finally decided to not even try connecting, and just went with the flow, taking a lot of pictures but not posting/sharing much online.

What we ate:

Breakfast was usually a buffet at the hotel. Breakfast was at the hotel – a very nice spread with made-to-order omelets, lots of fresh fruits, including red guavas and mosambi – fruits tasted much better than in America. In comparison, the one dinner we ate at one of the hotel restaurants, Italian, was unremarkable.

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We wanted to have an ice-cream, so we decided to go to Coppelia in Havana, the big ice-cream place. It came recommended by everyone. The taxi guy who took us decided to take many detours to show us the Indian embassy in Cuba – an unassuming pink building and finally got us to Coppelia and refused our fare- because very few tourists came from India. We had to press 15 CUC into his hand and plead with him to take it.

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Coppelia was a bit of a disappointment as we were hoping to join the crowds eating ice-cream, but our sunglasses, cameras and accents marked us out as American tourists and we were directed to a small air-conditioned room for tourists only, where we were served ice-cream. The ice-creams were like the old Indian ones, not churned well, so quite inconsistent and grainy, with similar flavors. I loved it, made me very nostalgic, as did my husband. Kids, now used to gelatos and creamy stuff in Europe, didn’t like them much. It was wonderful being able to speak Spanish, we learned from the ice-cream guy that the toys the kids had bought at the hotel shop were actually the uniforms of elementary kids in Cuba – changing skirt and scarf colors as kids went to higher grades.

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Santy Pescador

Our first Lunch in Cuba was at Santy Pescador, a small fish shack in Jaimanitas. We took a taxi out to Jaimanitas, which was a long distance away. The route took us through the Quinta Avenida, The 5th Avenue of Havana, with all its fancy (but crumbling) houses and embassies. Clearly a reference to New York’s 5th Avenue, we liked this more as it was tree-lined throughout. Close to Jaimanitas, we came across Marina Hemingway and a hotel called “El Viejo y el Mar” – The Old Man and the sea- the first of many Hemingway references we will spot in Havana.

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Santy Pescador was nearly impossible to find, but for our resourceful taxi guy who had brought other guests here earlier. We had to ring a bell at a shack without any signage and were let into a small restaurant. There was no menu, so we ordered the fatty tuna sashimi – very fresh, but cut haphazardly, not the fine sashimi cuts. The Sushi was very good too – mostly different kinds of tuna but also very fresh. The kids and the cabbie had the Emperador a la Plancha – Grilled Swordfish. A group of Japanese tourists found the restaurant as well, giving it some authenticity.

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The waitresses at Santy were very excited by our copy of Cigar Aficionado, and it made many trips to the Kitchen. Finally they requested us if they could copy the page on which their restaurant was recommended, and thinking it will be impossible to find a copier in Jaimanitas, we simply ripped off the page and gave it to them and they were delighted.

La Guarida

The hotel had booked us for lunch at La Guarida, called Cuba’s best restaurant. We went to a place close to Old Havana but in Central Havana in an old building with a few seedy looking characters hanging around outside. We climbed up three floors with a lot of graffiti on the walls, and finally came to the restaurant. The restaurant is famous for the film, “Fresa y Chocolate” which was set in the same house.

 

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Food was really wonderful. Excellent Margarita & Cuba Libre, Smoked Blue Marlin Tacos (tastes like tuna, but with much more flavor), Papaya Lasagna, Grilled Lobster and Tuna with sugarcane glaze. Kids had swordfish with vegetables. The restaurant itself looked lovely with Ochre walls,  lots of paintings, statues of Christ, and a very windy balcony which they decided to close on a rainy day. The wine list was wonderful, and this was the only place we saw a Vega Sicilia Unico, but for an exorbitant CUC 350 a bottle. We loved the food, and as we walked down the stairs, we found a photo shoot in progress, may be for a movie. We got back to the hotel in a taxi, along a rain-swept Malecón.

Smoked Blue Marlin Tacos

Smoked Blue Marlin Tacos at La Guarida

Tuna with sugarcane glaze

Tuna with sugarcane glaze

What we saw:

From our hotel, Melia Cohiba, we wandered off to the nearby hotels – the NH Capri and the Hotel Nacional. Hotel Nacional is the government run hotel in a gorgeous palace like building.

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From here we walked to a roadside market selling toys made of wood, where we were saw crocodiles, drums, almost anything for CUC 1-3. As we prepared to leave, various shopkeepers made offers we couldn’t refuse and we ended up with many keychains, drums & crocodiles. Later we learned that the average salary was less than 10 CUC a month in the non-convertible currency and many Cubans rarely get to see tourists, so anything we bought was a bonus for them. It really helped that we could speak the language, everyone here spoke only Spanish.

Easy and cheap travel option was a Coco Taxi (like an auto-rickshaw), at least to Old Havana and Malecon. The kids loved the breeze from the sea on the open-air Coco Taxi and later made demands to travel only by Coco Taxis everywhere.

Malecón

Malecón

 

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On the way back from Jaimanitas, we got the cabbie to stop at a wonderful grove of banyan trees in Miramar, and got many photographs with the girls. Right in the middle of Havana, this was a place where it looked as if time had stopped. There were a few Cuban families having a picnic nearby, it was absolutely quiet except for the children running around and chasing squirrels and stray cats.

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We went to the the Iglesia de Jesus in Miramar- the second largest church in Cuba.

Iglesia de Jesus

Iglesia de Jesus

On the second day evening, we took a bus provided by the hotel to go to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The driver recommended that the best way to see Old Havana with kids was to take guided tour in a horse drawn carriage, which will show us the Plazas and the main sights, and would drop us back to the bus stop, where we could come back to the hotel again. The price was 40 CUC for the horse carriage and the guide. We agreed and set off.

We saw the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) built by the Spanish colonizers in 1558. This was a proper castle with a moat and currently functions as a maritime museum.

From here, we went to the La Catedral de San Cristobal or La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (Cathedral of St. Cristobal or Cathedral of Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception of Havana). This is the Church visited by the Obamas on their visit to Cuba. The guide pointed out the different bell towers, but they were all closed that evening.

La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana

La Catedral de San Cristobal

From here, we went to El Templete (The Temple) with a sacred La Ceiba tree, sacred to the Yoruba religion. The Santeria religion of Cuba is derived from Yoruba. On the anniversary of the day La Habana was founded (November 16, 1519), everyone stands in a queue to go around the tree thrice and try and put their arms around the tree and put a coin at the roots of the tree. This had happened just the week before when we visited.

El Templete

El Templete

Then we saw the lovely Plaza de las Armas  with bookstores, shops selling vintage watches, cameras etc. S. bought a Collected Poems of César Vallejo and a book for Children by José Martí.

Plaza de las Armas

Plaza de las Armas

Somewhere here, we got cheated buying fake cigars, but more on that later.

Now it was getting dark, so we saw a few more sights – the Plaza San Francisco, where Mother Teresa visited a church and there Is a plaque in her honor. The Conversation, a statue by Etienne. Kids got a couple of balloons. We then drove past the Hotel Inglaterra and The Capitol, which is a replica of the US Capital in DC, the Museo de Revolucion and the Granma Memorial which has a replica of the yacht that took Castro and the revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1959. But we were tired, and it was dark, and we were glad to be back at the bus stop.

Plaza San Francisco

Plaza San Francisco

 

As the bus seemed to have left already, we came back to the hotel in a Chevrolet 1959, restored wonderfully, for all of 7 CUC.

The Cigar Con

Possibly somewhere here, our guide saw the money S. was carrying in his wallet and decided to con us out of it. As I was explaining the sights to the girls, he was giving S. the usual Confidence trickster spiel: That he knew people at the Cohiba Factory, who were able to make some cigars for themselves at home and  that these were sold at a fraction of the price of the real thing etc. If I had known, I would have told S. to tell him off, but I didn’t even hear all this sales pitch.

Then we got to the Bar Dos Hermanos, where we ordered some Mojitos. S. suddenly disappeared with the guide. The Mojitos, supposedly the best in Havana were bad – too strong. The kids were given some milkshake which wasn’t too good either. Finally after a good 15 minutes, S. came back sheepishly with a bag in hand and tried to drink the Mojitos too quickly. As I gave him stare for leaving me alone with the kids in a bar, he told me the story.

He had gone to a small house- reminded him of houses back in India – one room. The guide’s friend had picked up a cardboard box full of cigars – Romeo y Julietas, Partagas, Cohiba Esplendidos. He said it looked genuine, and he bought a 25 pack Esplendidos for EUR 180 (Normally EUR 525). But you don’t smoke, I said. He said, that is true, just thought it will be a good idea to buy some cigars in Cuba. The guide came back, took S.’s box from him, promising to get his money back or something better. S. says this is the time he switched it to a fake box, complete with fake cigars, made with just tobacco shavings. I am sure the previous box was not too honest either.

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Goodbye, Cuba!

3 days later, it was a rainy morning, and our bags were packed. We saw huge waves crashing on the Malecón wall – full moon was close. We got into a taxi with an unhappy driver, who didn’t speak much and managed to drop us off at the wrong terminal – the domestic terminal which had only Cubana Airways flights and flights to the US, so we had to persuade someone in the taxi rank to take us to the correct terminal for 20 CUC. Check-in was very easy and the guy at the counter spoke warmly about India and the Salman Khan film that was shot in Havana (Ek Tha Tiger). Salman Khan became so popular that a local Cuban brand used him in ads for some time.

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The Airport had duty-free stores, for mainly Cuban rum and more Cigars. Finally we said goodbye to Havana and the plane took off in the rain.

 

Useful Links:

Plantain Two Ways

Plantain is such an under-appreciated vegetable in so many cultures. Even here, in the Caribbean, they make tostones, fried plantains and that’s it. But we, South-Indians have so many plantain recipes. And seeing plantains so often in the supermarket, in the farmer’s market, or simply on the street side shops, makes me very happy.

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Vazhakkai, has so many uses in the South-Indian kitchen. We make so many sides, bajji, pan-fried, sautéd with spice powder, steamed, and I’m sure so many more preparations. I’m gonna try all of them, as plantains are in season here now. In fact, in South India, we use every part of the banana tree. We cook with banana stems, blossoms, plantains, bananas, we eat on banana leaves.. I remember a time when we used to go to our grandmother’s house for summer vacation, and there were a few banana and coconut trees in backyard, and we used to cut banana leaves just before lunch to eat on them.

But here, in the Cayman, it’s still here. If you go down south, to the older, non-touristy parts, every house has a couple of banana trees and coconut trees, sometimes neem trees and mango trees. (New life aim to live in one such house).

In the past one month (it’s been a month since we moved here? :O), with my limited kitchen utensils (no, our shipped stuff is still somewhere mid-atlantic), I’ve tried out 2 recipes using local plantains. One is pan-fried, and the other steamed. Will give both recipes here. I am also currently ripening one plantain to make platanos maduros. More on that later. Now to the recipes.

Pan-Fried Plantain (Vazhakkai varuval)

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Ingredients :

Plantains – 2
Turmeric – 1/2 tsp
Chili powder – 1 tsp
Salt, to taste
For tempering –
Oil – 2 tsp
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Curry leaves – few
Asafoetida – a pinch

Method :

  1. Peel and slice plantain thinly. You can use a mandoline for this.
  2. Marinate it in a mixture of turmeric, chili powder and salt for salt.
  3. Heat a wide pan, add oil and temper mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafoetida.
  4. After the mustard seeds splutter, add the marinated plantains to the pan, and try to spread them so they’re in an even, single layer on the pan. (If your pan is too small, and the plantains look crowded, pan-fry in two batches).
  5. Pan-fry them, on medium high heat, turning once or twice, so it cooks evenly on all sides.
  6. When it’s cooked through, and you have the desired level of crispiness, remove from pan and serve.

Vazhakkai podi (Plantain spiced powder)

The traditional recipe, of course, doesn’t use flaxseeds. I’m adding it here because, flaxseed is super healthy with fibre and omega3, but has to be eaten powdered and raw. Also we should consume it immediately after grinding. So this podi is only meant for serving right away, not to be kept for later and eaten. But, even if the nutrients deteriorate, it would still be good kept in the fridge for 3-4 days.

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Ingredients:

Plantain – 1
Urad dal – 2 tbsp
Chana Dal – 2 tbsp
Red Chili – 2
Curry leaves – few
Flaxseed – 1 tbsp (optional)
Tamarind – 1/4 tsp of extract, or tiny bit of raw tamarind
Salt – to taste
Asafoetida – a pinch

Method:

  1. Steam the plantains with their peel on, in a steamer or in your pressure cooker for 10-15 min.
  2. Remove off steamer, and peel the plantains. The peel should slip off easily. Grate the plantains on a box grater and keep aside.
  3. Roast the dals, red chiles and curry leaves in a tsp of oil till golden brown.
  4. Grind the roasted stuff, along with a bit of tamarind, salt, and asafoetida coarsely.
  5. Add the grated plantain, spin the blender a few more times, till you get an even mixture.
  6. Vazhakkai podi can be eaten mixed with plain white rice and ghee. Or you can use it as side for curd rice, idli, dosai.

Vendakkai Kari (Pan-fried Okra)

I’ve always had a thing for cooking/buying local, in-season produce. I don’t understand people who live in India and pay Rs.200 for an avocado, or people living abroad hunting for imported Indian mangoes. Sure, once in a while is fine. But regularly, we should all try to eat local produce. They’re fresher, cheaper and definitely much healthier.

Hence, I frequent farmer’s markets. After our recent move, it took me one day to locate the time and place of the local market. It was quite easy given that the area of the island is just 75sqmi. But the local market here is so different from those I’ve been to before, the produce so different. Summer in NY means, best of fruits – peaches and apricots and berries. Here it’s mangoes. So many varieties of local mangoes. And star fruit and guavas and coconut. It’s quite a revelation. As far as veggies go, right now, okra and plantains are in season. I buy them every week and try out new ways to fix them.

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Today, I will give here my Okra recipe. I never buy frozen okra, because my favorite way to make it crispy, pan-fried, and okra and moisture don’t go well. Look how gorgeous this farmer’s market haul is! And I’ve never seen red okra before! I’ve always loved okra, and not because my mom told me that eating okra makes you a genius at Math. Now my kids love it too. It’s their favorite vegetable of all time. Here’s how I make it (and how my mom made it).

Pan-fried Okra (Vendakkai kari in Tamil)

Ingredients

Okra – 1/2 kg (about 1 pound)
Oil for tempering
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Urad dal – 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida – a pinch
Curry leaves – few
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Red chili powder – 1tsp (You can change this based on your spice level, but I keep it here otherwise you can’t really taste the okra, or anything else)
Salt – to taste

Method

1. Wash the okra well. Wipe it well with a fresh tea towel. Let it sit in a colander for 10-15 min to air dry. You don’t want any water on the okra. Dry it again with a paper towel if you must. No water!

2. Slice it with a sharp knife, taking care not to bruise it too much. And don’t slice it carpaccio-thin, thinking it would be crisper. Slice it thusly.

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3. Use a wide pan. Don’t use your vANali/wok here. You need a pan wide enough to fit the okra without crowding it in a pile. You don’t want it to steam.

4. Heat oil (medium high heat). Temper mustard seeds, urad dal, asafoetida and curry leaves. Once the mustard seeds have spluttered and the dal is brown, add turmeric powder and chili powder. Don’t burn them, but let it mix with the oil well.

5. Add the chopped okra. Mix with the seasoned oil well and spread it out evenly in the pan so it’s not all crowded. Let it sit here and cook for a bit.

6. Resist the temptation to stir the okra too much. The more you stir, the more gooey the okra becomes. Also, notice we haven’t added salt yet. And we won’t till the very end. This is because salt is hydrophilic, and will draw moisture out of the food. We don’t want more moisture in there. Keep the heat at medium-high as well.

7. Stir the okra once every five minutes. so it cooks evenly on all sides. In about 15 min, you will notice, while stirring, the okra is no longer gooey and has turned color slightly. At this point, add salt to taste, stir well, and cook for another 5-7 minutes, till the okra is at desired level of crispness.

8. Take off heat and serve with rice/roti or just eat it off the pan. I’ve done all 3.

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We’re back!

So I’ve been on a hiatus for a while now, what with having to move continents (again!) and also my trusted Dell Inspiron, which I’ve had since 2010, having broken. I didn’t want to buy a laptop in Spain and be stuck with a Spanish keyboard after we moved to Caribbean, so I waited. And now, I am finally a Mac convert and proud MacBookPro owner. Expect me to blog more regularly now, and come back and keep checking.

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Say hello to her now! Hope she inspires me to blog more! Meanwhile keep following me on Twitter and Instagram (anoosrini on both) for pics/updates on food, cooking, travel and more!❤

Rice and Beans

 

I always have canned beans on hand. Dried beans of course are the  preferred  choice, and I use those often, but canned beans are a lifesaver for quick week night meals. Especially for vegetarians. Today, for example, I had some ripe avocados that I wanted to use before they spoiled. Guacamole  is always my choice, because the family loves it. And when considering a main dish of the same cuisine, I didn’t have much choices. Hence decided to make this simple, one-pot  Mexican  rice and beans.

Rice and Beans

Ingredients:

Onions – 1 medium-sized, diced finely
Carrots – 1 medium-sized, diced finely
Garlic – 2 cloves
Green bell pepper – 1 medium-sized, diced finely
Green chilies – 2 (I just slit them in half, if you like it spicy, dice it finely)
Tomato paste – 1 tsp
Rice – 1 cup (any kind, I used basmati)
Red kidney beans – 1 can, rinsed many times
Cumin powder – 1tsp
Salt – to taste
Vegetable or Chicken stock – 2 cups (can be substituted with water)
Cilantro for garnish

Method:

1. In a wide, heavy bottomed pan (I used my pressure pan) add about a tbsp of olive oil. Add onions, garlic, carrots, bell pepper and green chilies and sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes.
2. Add the tomato paste, salt and cumin powder and sauté for a few minutes more.
3. Add the rice, and mix well, till every grain is coated well with the onion-tomato mixture.
4. Add beans, stock and bring to a boil.
5. If using a pressure pan, at this point close and cook for 2 whistles. If it’s a regular pan, cover and cook till all the water is absorbed, for about 15-20 minutes.
6. Let it sit, covered, for about 5 min.
7. Fluff the rice up with a fork, and serve, garnishing with chopped cilantro.

Tips:

1. Use any kind of rice. I used basmati. If using brown rice though, soak it for about 30 minutes first, and then follow the recipe.
2. This rice can be eaten as is, or served with toppings (sour cream, lettuce, grated cheese, the works). Or wrap everything up in a tortilla and serve as a burrito.
3. Skip the beans, and serve the spiced rice as a side for fish or chicken.

Kovil Dosai

In Azhagar Kovil (Madurai, South India) this dosai is given as prasadham. It’s not the paper thin dosais of restaurants, but a heartier, thicker dosai that has this aroma of ginger, cumin and black pepper. I don’t know how, but you can smell it everywhere around the temple. It’s quite easy to make at home, but if you’re ever in Madurai, don’t miss this.

Kovil Dosai

Ingredients:

Raw Rice – 2 cups
Urad dal (black urad dal, with skin) – 1 cup
Dry ginger (sukku) – 1″ piece
Black Peppercorns – 1 tbsp
Cumin – 1/2 tbsp
Curry leaves – 10
Ghee – 2 tbsp
Salt – to taste

Method:

1. Soak black urad dal in enough water overnight.
2. Soak the raw rice in enough water for around 4 hours. (You can do this in the morning, say around 6am and grind the batter around 10am. Whatever works for you. Rice doesn’t have to soak as much as the dal).
3. Grind the urad dal finely, till it’s light and fluffy.
4. Grind the rice next, fine enough.
5. Mix the dal batter, rice batter with enough salt, and let it ferment in room temperature overnight. (Depending on where you live, this can take anywhere from 4-5hrs to 12hrs. If you live in a particularly cold region, ferment the batter inside the oven with the light on.
6. Once the batter has fermented, and smells pleasantly sour, you can store it in the refrigerator.
7. When you are ready to make dosais, coarsely powder the dry ginger, peppercorns, cumin. Pile it on top of the batter, with the curry leaves. Heat ghee in a small pan, until it’s smoking hot and add it on top of the powdered spices. (We do this to fry the spices, bring out the aroma in them. See the picture below).

8. Mix everything well.
9. Make dosais (crepes) on the griddle/tawa. This is not supposed to be thin, but thicker, uthappam like. Cook it with a lid on, so it cooks well on both sides. Use ghee/oil to cook them.
10. Serve it hot with the chutney/idli podi of your choice. Doesn’t need a side really, because it’s spicy enough on it’s own.

Tips:

1. Instead of 2 cups raw rice, you can use 1 cup raw rice and 1 cup idli rice. Makes for a softer dosai. Temple prasadhams never use parboiled rice like idli rice, so the above recipe is authentic. Being in Madrid, I used a short grain. starchier, paella rice. Which made a good raw rice alternative for the idli rice.
2. Spice levels can be adjusted to your liking. This recipe makes a milder dosai than that of the the temple, but my kids prefer it this way.

Masala Bread

There was an Iyengar bakery in every corner of Madras in the 90s. There was one very close to my school. I’ve had so many slices of the spicy, fragrant masala bread from there, our bicycles parked outside, laughing with friends.. such happy times. Even now the aroma of cumin and onion and green chilies evokes memories from high school for me. Of course, this recipe is a bit more milder, mainly because my kids don’t like it too spicy.

Masala Bread

Ingredients:

3 &1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 small bunch of cilantro,finely chopped
1 bunch of curry leaves, finely chopped
1 onion,finely chopped
1 tbsp green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 pinches of salt
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Method:
1) Make masala:
Heat 1tbsp of oil, add cumin. Then add onions, chili, curry leaves, salt & turmeric. Saute for 4-5 min, turn off the heat and add the cilantro. Let the masala cool.

2) Make Dough:
Warm the milk in the microwave for 20-30 seconds (Milk should be luke warm).
Add sugar and yeast and mix well. Let it sit for 10 min till it becomes frothy.
In a big bowl, mix dough, oil, yeast mixture and salt. Add the water and mix till the dough is homogenous.
Add the masala and mix once more.
Then knead the dough on a floured counter for about 10 min, till the dough isn’t sticky, but soft and springy. (you can do this whole thing in a stand mixer too)
Shape into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl, and cover with a tea towel. Let it proof in a warm place for an hour- 90 min.

3) Shape the dough:
Punch the dough to de-gas.
On a floured counter, flatten the dough to a roughly rectangle shape. The width of the rectangle should be the same as the length of your loaf pan.
Fold the lengthy side of the rectangle (which is closer to you) a little past the half way of the length of the rectangle. Fold over the other side, overlapping slightly. (It is like folding a letter to put in an envelope, except for the overlap).
Seal the seam tightly by pinching together (so that the top of the loaf is nice and taut).
Place in the greased loaf pan seam side down.
Cover with a oiled plastic wrap loosely (the loaf will rise over the pan and you want it to rise).
Let the dough rise till the center is about an inch over the loaf pan sides (about an hour-90min)

4) Bake the bread:
Preheat your oven to 375F.
Brush the top of the loaf with milk/butter.
Bake for 45-50 min, until the top is golden brown. Turn the pan around 180degress halfway through baking, so it bakes evenly.
Take the bread out, let it sit in the pan for 10 min, turn out on the cooling rack, and let it cool completely before slicing.
Slice with a serrated blade (motion like a saw) for uniform slicing.

Tips:

Alternately, you can also shape the dough into buns, dinner rolls etc. Baking times would vary: about 20-25 min for dinner rolls, 18-20 min for buns.
Herbs can be varied: you can use dill or parsley instead of cilantro. And you can make your bread more spicier with more green chilies.
Since the bread has no preservatives, it will harden after 2-3 days. Don’t throw it away, it makes amazing ‘spicy french toast’.

Kancheepuram Idli

Temples in India are special in that they attract food enthusiasts and gourmands as well, thanks to their “prasadham” (offering). Each temple (let me stick to my homeland) in Tamilnadu, has it’s own special food offering. And for a relatively cheap price, sell it to all the visitors. One temple in Kancheepuram, Varadharajar temple, offers this special, spicy idli as prasadham. My mom tells me, her great uncle was the cook there for many years, making these idlis day after day, and this recipe from him, has been in the family forever. Try it, it’s both healthy and delicious, with a spicy kick from the dry ginger and black peppercorns.

Kancheepuram Idli

Ingredients:

Idli Rice – 1 cup
Raw Rice – 1 cup
Black Urad dal – 1 cup
Salt – as per taste
Sour yogurt – 1/4 cup
Dry ginger (sukku) – 1″ piece
Black Pepper Corn – 1 tbsp
Cumin – 1/2 tbsp
Curry leaves (fresh) – 10
Ghee – 2 tbsp

Method:

1. Soak black urad dal overnight.
2. In the morning, soak the rice, for 3-4 hours.
3. Grind the dal, and rice  separately, into thick batter (don’t add too much water).
4. Mix the dal and rice batter with salt, and ferment for 10-12 hours. (or until the dough rises and has bubbles on the surface). At this point, you can store the batter in the refrigerator for future use. It can be used for a week.
5. On the day of cooking, mix in sour yogurt (just leave 1/4 cup of yogurt on the counter overnight).
6. Coarsely powder dry ginger, cumin and black peppercorns and add it to the dough, along with fresh curry leaves.
7. Heat the ghee (clarified butter) in a small pan, and pour hot ghee over the spice powder on the batter.
8. Mix the batter well.
9. Now you have two choices, you can cook it in regular idli pan for 20 mins, or pour all the batter into a cake pan, or the steamer pan of your rice cooker (lined with aluminum foil), and steam for an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
10. Cut into wedges and serve with idli molaga podi, or chutney of your choice.

Tips:

1. If you can’t find whole black urad dal, you could replace it with regular urad dal. You don’t have to soak regular urad dal overnight though.

Rhubarb Thokku

I follow a lot of food bloggers and chefs on Twitter. As soon as it was spring, everyone was getting excited about Rhubarb. Rhubarb is extremely seasonal, available only in the few weeks of spring. (At least here, in New York). It tastes sharply tart, like a cross between gooseberries and lemons. It needs a lot of sugar to compensate for it’s natural tartness (in pies, tarts, muffins etc) but I wanted to make a pickle with it.

In South India, pickles are usually made with spiced oil (salt, red chili powder, fenugreek, mustard is the usual combo), but we also make a cooked, quick pickle called thokku. Made on the stove top (technically not ‘pickled’ at all), it is meant to be used quickly. We usually use tomatoes, raw mangoes, gooseberries to make thokku. So I tried to make Rhubarb thokku and it was amazing.  We usually eat thokku with rice, or idlis or dosais. But it works well as a spread for sandwiches, wraps, with rotis. Really, sky is the limit.

Rhubard Thokku

Ingredients:

Rhubarb – 3 stalks (diced, as shown in the photo above)
Gingelly oil (or vegetable oil) – 1 tbsp
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Chili powder – 1/2 tsp
Mustard seeds – 1/4 tsp
Fenugreek seeds – 1/4 tsp
Curry leaves – 2-3
Asafetida – a pinch
Salt – to taste

Method:

1. Heat a thick bottomed pan, and add the oil. Once the oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Once the mustand splutters, add fenugreek seeds, asafetida, curry leaves.
2. 30 seconds, then add the turmeric and chili powder to the oil. Don’t let the spices burn, add the rhubard immediately.
3. Saute for a couple of minutes, and add salt.
4. Continue cooking on medium heat, till the rhubabarb breaks down and starts to feel paste like, stirring occasionally.
5. Continue cooking, till all the moisture from the pan evaporates, and the oil starts to separate from the thokku. Taste now, and adjust salt, and spice.
6. Remove from the pan, and store in a tight lidded jar. (Keeps for upto a week in the refrigerator).

Tips:

1. This method of making thokku can be used for diced tomatoes, grated raw mangoes, gooseberries, fresh cranberries. (Cranberry thokku tastes incredible).
2. A tablespoon of thokkku mixed in a cup of yogurt will make a quick raita.
3. 1/4 cup of thokku can be used to flavor pressure-cooked dal. Tadka, mix the thokku with the dal, and you have the perfect accompaniment to rice or rotis.

ParuppuruNdai mOrkkuzhambu


There are some dishes bring about a bout of nostalgia. Mother’s kitchen. Sunday lunches. Weeknight dinners. Birthday cakes. Brunches. Everyone has that one special recipe that reminds you of mom, of simpler, happier times. For me, it’s this dish. I can just close my eyes and go 20 years back, sitting on my mom’s kitchen counter, watching my mom cook, waiting for her to finish, so I can eat it, with steaming hot rice, and pan fried okra. Those were the days.

But it’s still nice to know that I can make the same kuzhambu (sauce), and re-live those memories, even though mom is thousands of miles away. So here is the recipe of mom’s paruppuruNdai mOrkkuzhambu (steamed lentil dumplings in a spicy yogurt sauce).

ParuppuruNdai mOrkkuzhambu

Ingredients:

For ParuppuruNdai:
Chana dal – 1/2 cup
Toor dal – 1/2 cup
Dried red chilies – 2-3 (depending on your spice preference)
Curry leaves – 1 bunch
Salt to taste

For mOrkkuzhambu:
Buttermilk – 2 cups (or plain yogurt 1 cup and water 1 cup blended together)
Cumin – 1 tsp
Coriander seeds – 1 tbsp
Toor dal – 1 1/2 tsp
Green chilies – 1-2 (depending on how sour your buttermilk/yogurt is)
Fresh grated coconut – 3 tbsp
Turmeric – 1/2 tsp
Salt to taste
For tempering: Oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafetida.

Method:

For ParuppuruNdai:

Soak the dals and red chilies in water for 2 hours.
Drain, and grind it with curry leaves and salt (without extra water) into a coarse, thick batter. Do not add more water.
Shape into lime sized balls, using a light touch, don’t press too hard to shape them, they tend to become too hard when steamed.
Steam for 15 – 20 min. (Be it in the idli cooker, rice cooker or stove top steamer)

For mOrkkuzhambu:

Soak cumin, coriander seeds, and toor dal in water for 15-20 min.
Grind into a fine paste with green chilies and grated coconut.
Mix the ground paste, turmeric and salt in the buttermilk/yogurt.
Place on the stove (medium heat) and heat the kuzhambu till it bubbles up. Do not let it boil, as this will separate the curds and whey in the yogurt.
Add the paruppuruNdais.
Temper mustard seeds, curry leaves and asafetida in oil, and add to the mOrkkuzhambu.
Let it sit for 30 min, so the paruppuruNdais will soak up the flavor of the kuzhambu.
Serve with hot rice, or sEvai (rice noodles).

Tips:

1. Leave the yogurt/buttermilk on the counter for a few hours so it turns a bit sour. Sour is better for this dish, because it holds up well to the spices.
2. The same paruppuruNdai recipe works for paruppusili too, after steaming, temper and saute with steamed veggies.
3. You can make the mOrkkuzhambu without the lentil dumplings, and use veggies in it’s place (okra, squash, eggplant)
4. You could add the lentil dumplings in other sauces too: vathakuzhambu, kaarakuzhambu.