I first discovered Indian food back in the 1990’s when I lived in England. It was love at first bite! I used to joke that I had a virgin palate because food in Brazil, my country of origin, though fresh and delicious, is generally extraordinarily bland. At that time, at least, there were no Indian restaurants or food stores in São Paulo. Indian cuisine was an awakening for my palate. In London I learned to eat popular Indian restaurant foods such as korma, tandori, dosa, dahl, nan bread, etc. I was also very curious about making Indian food at home but never ventured into doing it because the list of ingredients was so extensive and foreign and daunting to me….en fin a total mental block! So in Great Britain I basically developed a taste for Indian restaurant food. I suspected that these dishes did not pay complete respect to the diversity, nuances and subtleties that you’d actually encounter in India (Sort of like Chinese food in America). India’s a pretty big country; with so many languages, religions, cultures and climates and, no doubt, varying regional cuisine. When I migrated to the US, I first settled in New York City, another Indian food mecca. There I became acquainted with Indian ingredients by frequenting an incredible store in mid-town Manhattan, Kalustyans. Hmmm! The smell of those spices was inebriating: cumin, pepper, coconut, star anise, clove, cinnamon, tamarind, caraway as well as spice mixes such as curries, masalas, sambar, and more.
I would buy one ingredient here and there and try something at home. My first few attempts did not work out well. I could not get the proportion of the spices right. It’d either be too spicy or too bitter. Then my roommates started to complain about the smell. I’ve always been sensitive to smell issues. I gave up in frustration and out of respect. So it was back to Indian restaurants. Now, though, I was armed with more knowledge about the dishes I was savoring, perhaps in this case not such a dangerous thing. I especially enjoyed going to Mitali East on 6th Street btw 1st and 2nd Aves and later on I’d go to Milon, a teeny, tiny Indian restaurant on First Avenue with my partner Steven. Really the place was too small, even by New York standards. You could almost touch opposite walls at the same time when standing in the middle. That is if you could even stand there! It was festooned with bright Christmas lights year-round that dangled down from everywhere on the ceiling, bumping your head when you were seated. Forget about standing erect in there. Definitely a unique experience! So I’m rambling a bit, but so what, this is my blog after all. NYC was great but then after September 11th it seemed that a change might be a good idea. I’d just finished grad school and Steven was ready to go West!
So now we’re in San Francisco: no more roommates to complain about the smell and with a spouse who happens to love food, I began experimenting with Indian cooking again. I absolutely love beans and all kinds of dal, sometimes spelled dhal, which are really just lentils. This is a South Indian soup recipe called Rasam. It’s got a thin consistency. It’s made with toor dal, the Indian name for dry split pigeon peas, skin removed. You can serve this soup with nan bread or basmati rice or both. This soup was part our homemade Indian banquet. I promise that you and your guests will love it. Here goes:
a South Indian Rasam
2/3 cup dry toor dal
4 cups of water
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
1 Tbs. grated fresh ginger
2 fresh minced chili (jalapeño or Serrano) partially removed seeds and ribs
10 ripe roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt to taste
3 tsp. canola oil
1 tsp. brown mustard seeds
½ tsp. asafetida powder
1 dry red chili pepper
5 curry leaves
½ tsp. cumin seeds toasted and ground into powder
½ tsp coriander toasted and ground into powder
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1/3 bunch cilantro chopped
1- Rinse dal in running water for a minute or so. Place dal, turmeric and 4 cups of water in a pan bring to a boil, cover pan leaving it slightly ajar, reduce heat to low and cook till soft (30-40 min). Remove accumulated foam from the top if necessary. Using a food processor puree the dhal. Measure, and return to saucepan. Add enough water to make 5 cups.
2- Stir into dal mixture: ginger, fresh chili, tomatoes, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 12 minutes to marry flavors, stirring occasionally.
3- Separately toast cumin and coriander seeds in dry skillet over medium heat for a few seconds to enhance their flavor. After toasting, pulverize in a mortar and pestle and put aside.
4- Meanwhile, heat canola oil in skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds, asafetida powder, red chili, curry leaves. Cover and heat 1 to 2 minutes, or until mustard seeds begin to pop. Add cumin and coriander. Immediately pour into soup. Remove soup from heat. Add cilantro. Adjust flavor with more salt and black pepper, if desired. For a pleasant sour flavor, this soup can be served with a squirt of lemon juice.
To peel tomatoes: boil 3 cups of water. Make a cross-shaped cut at the bottom of the tomatoes, cut their tops off and dip them in the boiling water for few seconds till skin curls. Remove tomatoes from the pot, let cool, peel skin and chop tomatoes into dice.
I want to thank my co-worker Suhas Gupta who kindly brought me a bag of curry leaves from his neighborhood store all the way down from San Jose as I could not find them here in San Francisco.