I toss the coriander, mustard seeds and cumin in the hot iron skillet and a pungent, aroma joins the sweet warmth of the cinnamon already toasting there with blistering cardamom seeds. Next is the hot, dried, chili that releases a sharp odor, tinged with sugar. After a few more seconds I remove the spices from the pan and place them in a grinder to whir into a fragrant powder that will be the basis for my channa masala, a classic East Indian dish. After a quick check of my nicely rising naan dough, I set about grating coconut for chutney. It’s a meal like grandma would make.
Well, somebody’s grandmother anyway.
Despite my Indian name and appearance, I know little of India. My father was the grandson of an indentured laborer brought from the Punjab to the Caribbean island of Trinidad more than 150 years ago and where he functioned as a priest and leader in his own community of fellow indentured. Like my father, I grew up identifying myself as Indian, believing the hybridized religion and food ways we practiced were authentic. Only when I became a food writer did I realize nothing could be farther from the truth and what I thought I knew amounted to nothing at all.
When I was in college I was invited by the Indian Student’s Association at my school to attend a Ganesh Chaturthi puja at the local Hindu temple. Ganesh Chathurti is a month long devotion to the elephant-headed god culminating in a major feast day as determined by the phases of the moon. I arrived at the temple—a square concrete building that might once have been a youth center or small school—and took of my shoes. And that’s where my comfort ended. My Trinidad-father was East Indian by descent and he practiced what I had thought was true Hinduism in his childhood home. Yet as I stood in that temple, unsure of what to do, lamely following the lead of the other young people praying over a puja fire before the god, I realized that I didn’t know anything at all.
When it was my turn, I stood in front of the Pundit and held out my hand as I had seen others do. He placed a mealy substance in it and gestured with his own hand toward his mouth when I stared at him blankly. “rasad” he said to me.
It didn’t look like the prasad I knew from the prayer meetings I had attended with my father on visits to Trinidad. That Prasad was the sole reason he could entice me to the lengthy events—a delectable farina chock full of coconut, raisins and fried cashews.
I left the event discombobulated and avoided fellow Indians for the remainder of my college career. Still, sometimes I got called out: there was the Indian deli owner who insisted on knowing what part of India my family was originally from (I only generally knew); the various knowledgeable people who insisted my surname was “odd”; or well meaning folks asked me for my family recipes for tandoori chicken, channa masala or naan bread.
I started identifying myself as Trinidadian, eschewing my childhood habit, learned from my father as proudly identifying myself as Indian. Certainly “real” Indians often reminded me I was not.
Things got worse as I embarked on a career as a food writer, and people wanted me to do stories about traditional Indian food from my “own experience”. My experience is one of self-teaching and learning from new friends—because I love Indian food as much as the next girl, thanks to what I learned eating in restaurants and from well-loved friends.
I joke that I’m only a sometime-Indian—an erstwhile Indian. But it’s not really a joke at all.
The real question, though is does it matter? I’m not so sure it does, leastways not when it comes to food. I could argue that as a trained chef I can cook near about anything. I make French food and I’m sure not French. Italian food too for that matter, and a world of others.
But training isn’t the real reason why it doesn’t matter. The real reason is that I’m a child of the New World untethered, in many ways, by the rules and taboos about who can eat what and when. It means that I’ve spent a lifetime gleefully exploring food without inhibition—just because I want to.
And isn’t that the best reason to explore anything at all?
Ramin’s Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken Tikka Masala is a dish that Americans can easily identify as “Indian.” Creamy with the tang of tomato, and absent of yellow curry that many westerners must learn to palate, chicken tikka masala is as close South Asian comfort food as our American minds can comprehend. I found the version I fell in love with at a restaurant called The Curry Club, in Stony Brook, New York. The owners Kulwant and Chani Singh were Sikhs who had spent years living in Afghanistan and so spoke a version of my mother’s language of Farsi. It was they who taught me their version of the dish for an article I was writing on global grilling for Newsday where I had been a food writer at the time. That was going on 15 years ago now—it’s still a staple in our house. Now that we are trying to go vegetarian, I substitute black or Urad dal for the chicken. Is the recipe “authentic” in the strictest sense? I couldn’t ell you. Probably not, coming as it did through a restaurant, by way of Afghanistan. It’s close though–and it’s extremely good.
3 pounds chicken, cut into eighths, skin removed from breast, legs, and thighs
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 tablespoon red food coloring
2 cups nonfat plain yogurt
1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil
½ teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 cups cream
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves
1. Place the chicken pieces in a large deep bowl and sprinkle with the garlic powder, salt and garam masala. Mix well so all the pieces are coated.
2. Add the food coloring and mix well, using a spoon so all the pieces are deep red. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
3. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and add the yogurt. Mix well so all the pieces are coated. Cover again with the plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or, preferably, overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
5. Place the chicken pieces, with the yogurt marinade in an ovenproof dish that is large enough to accommodate all the pieces without touching. Bake the chicken pieces for 40 minutes or until cooked through. The yogurt will separate and caramelize, leaving a watery liquid behind.
6. In the last 10 minutes of the chicken cooking, place a heavy deep saucepan on over medium heat on the stove. The pot should be large enough to accommodate all the chicken and 2 ½ cups of liquid.
7. Add the ghee or coconut oil to the heated pot and add the garlic and ginger. Fry for 30 seconds and add the tomato paste. Cook while stirring with a wooden spoon or a whisk for 1 minute.
8. Add the garam masala and cook for 30 seconds more, while stirring.
9. Using the whisk, start whisking the tomato paste mixture while slowly pouring in the cream. Whisk until the mixture is smooth without lumps of tomato paste.
10.Remove the chicken from the oven and, using, tongs add the pieces to the cream mixture. Add ½ cup of the clear cooking liquid from the baking dish to the cream mixture as well. Mix well.
11.Allow the chicken and cream mixture to simmer on medium-low for 10 minutes.
12.Rub the fenugreek leaves together between your palms and add it to the pot. Simmer 1 minute more. Serve with white basmati rice.
5 cups of water
1 1/2 cups black Urad dal, picked over to remove any small stones then rinsed
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon asafetida (optional)
1. Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan and add the dal.
2. Lower the heat to simmer and add the bay leaf and asafetida. Skim the surface of the dal of any scum that forms as it cooks.
3. Cool dal until tender, about 30 minutes and discard bay leaf. Drain the dal and rinse with cool water.
4. Prepare the cream mixture as you would for Chicken Tikka Masala
5. Add the cooked dal to the cream mixture and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Rub the fenugreek leaves together between your palms and add it to the pot. Simmer 1 minute more. Serve with white basmati rice.