…my unexpected tie to Indian cuisine.
A few weeks ago I wrote about some unexpectedly social cooking and eating escapades, specifically a three-week October frenzy of excessive commensality. It was a welcome, but exhausting departure from my oh-so-comfy empty nest routine. By the end of the month I really needed some quiet time and found recovery with the most unlikely holiday. It was not Halloween, but Diwali, a joyful Indian festival to which this Savannah girl had absolutely zero cultural connection…except for one highly unlikely element. It’s chutney.
Chutneys are fixtures, if not anchors, on every Indian dinner table, but I grew up with them in my non-Indian house as well. A chutney is basically a relish, sauce or condiment made with various fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, sugar and/or vinegar. By this definition, and particularly when paired with savory foods, jellies and preserves may also qualify. Sometimes a chutney can highlight or enhance a particular flavor in the meal, but it can also serve as a foil, providing a surprising balance to the plate.
I remember homemade southern peach (grandmother) and tomato (Mother) chutneys served with any- and everything. My grandfather loved a dollop of guava on the side, Daddy’s plate was never without some sort of zesty accompaniment, and I feel like chow-chow and red pepper jelly were as common as salt and pepper. That, my friends, is definitely a southern thing. I know it’s not exclusively ours, but like this article suggests, I don’t recall seeing too many jars of Braswell’s Vidalia onion relish when I lived in NYC.
“Chutneys started turning up in the south at port cities along the East Coast. Over time, the chutneys have taken on characteristics that distinguish them from those found in India.”
Joy Wang, Southern-Style Chutneys Make It Up North
My chutney revelation happened during that “quiet week” I planned at the end of October. I was searching for a nice, easy fig recipe when I came across some stunning photos of mint chutney. They were featured in an elaborate holiday spread which posed the question, “what’s on your Diwali dinner menu?”
Well damn…I don’t really know. What IS on my Diwali dinner menu. Let me think.
That’s all it took; my cooking tsunamis usually start exactly like this.
Now, I do sort-of know my way around an Indian menu, but that’s not sufficient if you are trying to honor a significant religious or cultural event. A basic combo-plate-number-2 vocabulary is woefully inadequate and frankly, a little disrespectful. At the very least you need to embrace some history, understand why a holiday is meaningful and maybe even master some of the words you are throwing around the kitchen. So first, I read. Disclaimer: What I learned is grossly elementary, I am not claiming any authority, I am sharing my thoughts with respect, and I know I’ve made multiple errors and gaffs – my apologies. Don’t @ me; I’m trying to grow here.
Diwali is one of India’s most important and popular holidays of the year which celebrates victories of good over evil. I thought that was something we all can and should all get behind, so why not indulge in some delicious subcontinental food as well? While it is often associated with the goddess Lakshmi, Diwali’s origin story and how it is celebrated today differ by geography. In northern India it marks King Rama’s return from exile to light of clay lamps, in the south it marks Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura, and in the west it marks Lord Vishnu ousting the demon Mahabali. All were pretty big wins for humanity, so light over darkness led to Diwali, the Festival of Lights.
Services are held for five days making it an important religious holiday for several faiths, but over one billion people celebrate Diwali as a major cultural event with colorful clothing, decorative house lighting, fireworks, traditional delicacies at family feasts, and gift exchanges. One billion people – that’s 1/8th of the world’s population in case you are wondering how pathetically provincial I felt when I cooked my Diwali meals last month. For my novice purposes, planning more than one Indian meal in a week was overwhelming, so I researched some Hindi et al. terms to sure up my choices. Armed with just enough information to be dangerous I set off on a shopping trip:
- Masala is a spice blend. A Masala Dabba is round container to hold these spices. Mine has 9 smaller containers where I keep cumin, Kashmiri chili powder, turmeric, garam masala, curry powder, paprika, fenugreek and coriander. The 9th is subdivided for seeds and such like cardamom, fennel, peppercorns and saffron.
- Ghee is clarified butter which is now found at most supermarkets. You could make it yourself, but why? Many recipes suggest a neutral oil as an acceptable substitute, but I swear the flavor of ghee makes a huge difference in flavor.
- Paneer is a firm Indian cottage cheese that can be seared and still retain shape. I found bricks of paneer at my giant farmers’ market – very, very large bricks.
- Tikka means “small chunks” whether poultry, cheese, tofu or seafood. The first night I tried paneer and later on, shrimp.
- Saag can refer to any spinach-like leafy vegetable while Palak is specifically spinach.
By the scattered array of photos you can tell I tried to make as many recipes as I could using the ingredients I had: spices, fresh herbs, chicken, shrimp, rice, naan, chutneys and paneer. It was mostly variations on a theme but I still think I should get a participation trophy. My favorite by far was perhaps the least technically authentic, Spicy Shrimp Masala. Again, I apologize for the NYT Cooking paywall, but it is my favorite…only I always like to sear separately and then add at the last minute to avoid pale, rubbery shrimps. This recipe is close.
I should mention that I have always loved Indian food and growing up in the 70s it was in heavy rotation, at least for a while. Mother had an Indian cookbook on “long-term loan” from the library and would come home from The Brighter Day market with little dime-bags of spices. She became so confident in her skills that little things like measuring were inconveniences which only mere mortals employed. Her specialty was Aloo Gobi which got hotter and hotter with every attempt until it became inedible and permanently banned. Turmeric will get you every time. Daddy has always had a very special relationship with lime pickle which is a trait I’ve inherited. Back in the 90s it was often difficult to find, so we made a pact to keep each other supplied. I guess my father was my lime pickle dealer. That was not his worst job.
This year Diwali was October 24-28 and Halloween followed shortly thereafter, although the hype made it feel like the entire month. Halloween might have been a hollow, childless event punctuated only by my twisted sense of humor and the occasional miniature Butterfinger, but a deep amber Octoberfest with leftover Diwali chivda saved the day. To officially break away from the lingering spice of Diwali week, I switched to a savory Italian-American chicken specialty on the 31st. Cooking a fancy meal was not a big stressor that evening since our cul-de-sac typically gets fewer than ten Trick-or-Treaters. This year we had a single mercy visitor, our young cat-sitter from across the street. Needless to say, he made out quite well. But so did we – guava jelly goes great with Chicken Marsala.
- 1 cup packed fresh mint leaves
- 1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste (or 1 clove crushed and 1 tsp fresh minced ginger)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 Tbs+ minced fresh jalapeño
- 1/2 cup thick plain yogurt (Greek works)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1 Tbs lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a blender and whirl to creamy perfection. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.