An Intimate Food Adventure with Madhur Jaffrey: India in Jackson Heights & Floral Park

Early this Spring I attended the annual conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in New York City.  There was one tour that I wanted to partake in but my flight schedule did not allow for me to join it. However, my friend, Kathy Blake who writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape, kindly offered to share her tasting tour of regional Indian dishes led by Madhur Jaffrey.  I am honoured and touched by Kathy’s generosity and know that you will be ready to partake in your own Indian feast at the end of this informative post.

One of the highlights of the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals (www.iacp.com) conference in New York City was having the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse immigrant food history of the five boroughs through the eyes of experts in various cuisines.  When I saw that there was a Tour of the Indian neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Floral Park in Queens guided by none other than renowed actress and Indian cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey (http://www.madhur-jaffrey.com/), whose work I’ve followed for years, I made sure to snap up one of the few available places on it.

Our first stop of the day was to Rajbhog Sweets (http://rajbhog.com/) in Jackson Heights.  We were greeted by Nirav Shah and his wife at
their flagship store.  To start off our day, they treated us to squares of a cooked-milk sweet called Barfi and super-syrupy squiggles of Jalebi along with steaming, fragrant cups of Masala Chai.

 

We were also given plates of Dhokla, a soft, fluffy savory cake made with chick pea flour which was dressed with cilantro and black mustard
seed.  Light and delicate just on its own, when paired with a tangy-hot Cilantro Sauce and a citrusy Tamarind Sauce, my mouth perked up with all the taste points on my tongue shouting for more.

 

Ms. Jaffrey advised us that she was “going to make [us] have too many pancakes and breads” during our excursion as she
“wanted [us] to see the breadth and depth of what we eat.”  So, we headed into the kitchen to watch the making of Chapati (also known as Roti), from the north of India, which comes from the word “chap” meaning to slap, based upon the motions used to make the bread.
The version that we had was formed into circles using a small rolling pin, cooked briefly on a griddle, and then finished by being laid directly on an open flame to puff up before being served to us piled high with a swipe of Ghee (clarified butter) on top.

To serve the Chapati, we were each given an opportunity to select a side dish from the gorgeous array of vegetables that
the shop prepares each day, several times a day.  The steaming Chapati, pulled apart to reveal its layers, was the perfect utensil to scoop up the dollops of creamy Dhal, spiced cauliflower, seasoned mushrooms, and hearty potatoes that I’d put on my plate.  I was so enamored of the flaky, layered, crêpe-like texture of the bread that I ignored the fact that this was just the first of our many stops on our tour, and eagerly snatched up another piece when it was offered by our hosts.


After devouring the chapati, Ms. Jaffrey introduced us to “one of best Lassi you will ever have” prepared by the shop’s kitchen.  I’ve never tasted a Mango Lassi quite so gorgeous with its floral body and notes of saffron and cardamom perfume. It was a perfectly refreshing beverage and made me wish this place was closer to where I lived so that I could pick one up whenever I wanted it.


On our way over from Manhattan, Ms. Jaffrey had explained to us that making Khandvi is “a very special art” and that the dish that we would be sampling at Rajbhog Sweets is some of the best in the United States. Chickpea flour, water, buttermilk, and yogurt are combined and then heated over a low flame until it becomes thick and pasty, almost like the dough for choux pastry.  Then, it is spread out in a thin layer on a
table to cool.  That step is the trickiest to achieve, as Ms. Jaffrey related to us.


Once cooled slightly, the mixture is cut into rectangles.  The dough is then rolled up into long pasta-like curls and served warm.  In this case, it was tossed in spicy oil and given to us with a sprinkle of cilantro on top. It was like eating the silkiest egg pasta but with a kick coming at the
end from the oil and a clean, cool finish from the herbs.  This was an amazing start to a very full day.





For our next stop, we headed over to Raja Sweets nearby.  There, we started off by having two different kinds of Paratha or
stuffed griddle breads, one filled with potato and one filled with cauliflower.  These are part of a traditional Indian breakfast but are also eaten at other times of the day, too.  The crisp, hot dough crammed with a savory, smooth filling and cooled down with a drizzle of cool yogurt was the ideal snack.

Next, a plate full of golden-brown, puffed deep-fried breads known as Poori were brought out for us to try.  These were served with two different kinds of chickpeas or Chana: the beige-colored ones that are more familiar and a small, chocolate-hued version.  The latter had a nutty taste and were more bean-like in flavor than their fairer cousins.  Alongside that we also had a bit of Halwa, a nut paste that was more savory than sweet.  We all ate everything scooping it all up with hunks of the Poori.


We then stopped by a pocket-sized Paan Shop to sample Betel Leaf, which I had never tried before.  Watching the vendor carefully prepare each leaf with a slather of rosewater jam and then adding dashes of other flavorings, I had no idea how this would taste in the end and
didn’t know quite what to expect.  After I took a bite, the woodsiness of the leaf combined with the various things layered inside filled my mouth and my senses with a cooling and invigorating sensation.  I could pick up eucalyptus, anise, and mint among the ingredients.
Not too many other folks in the group seemed to enjoy it, but I found it to be refreshing and rather palate-cleansing.

To learn a bit more about what goes into making some of the dishes that we had already tried and those we would be
tasting next, Ms. Jaffrey took our group on a tour of Patel Brothers Supermarket (http://patelbrothersusa.com/newsite/).  Walking through the aisles, we were able to see the wide variety of beans and flours as well as the fresh herbs and unique produce that play a part in creating Indian cuisine.  With our personal guide, we were able to get an insight as to how the foods of India have been translated to fit on the
tables of the United States and how many immigrants seek to preserve their culinary traditions even though they are far from their homelands.


On our way to our next dining destination, we stopped off at a butcher shop in the area, to get a feel for the kinds of meats that also play a role in some Indian dishes.  The counter at the New Al-Salim Halal Meat Shop had products that are definitely not typcially seen in the supermarkets in my neighborhood.  Goat meat and beef shank were on display along with other cuts that are staples in recipes of the
region.

For a taste of Halal food, our next stop was at Kabab King (http://kababking.com/index_2.html).  When we were seated at the table, Ms. Jaffrey explained to us that the “food we know most in the West is Punjabi,” as the people from that region traveled more extensively and set up restaurants where they settled.  We tend to think of India as just one country with a unified cuisine, however, the way that a Hindu family
cooks can vary widely from what a Muslim family prepares.  Even if a dish is called by the same name and the ingredients are exactly identical going into the recipe, it is the little twists in timing or preparation that can mean that the final result has a different flavor profile.  In the end, we were reminded, it is all The Food of India.


Even though we had eaten quite a bit at our first few stops, I was determined to sample at least something from all the wonderful plates and bowls put before us. Naan is one of my all-time favorite types of breads, but I knew I had to restrain myself and took only a small
piece of it to soak up all the other delicious foods.  I took a spoonful of Haleem, the meat and split pea porridge, which was served with
sliced onions, ginger, peppers, and cilantro. The Tandoori Chicken was perfectly charred and tender at the same time, so I added a small piece of that to my plate as well.


The saffron-flecked Chicken Biryani always seems to me to be a great celebration dish.  I still remember the first time that I ordered this colorful combination: white, yellow, and orange rice, sultanas, pistachios, and chunks of savory chicken spiced with cumin and cardamom.  Ms. Jaffrey mentioned that cream, nuts, oil, and saffron were considered expensive items in Indian cooking, which is why bringing them together in a dish like this feels so special.   The version that we ate a Kabab King was fragrant and delicious.  I think that the highlight of our visit for many of those around the table, however, was the Goat Curry, which was succulent and rich with a slight spice to it as well as a backnote of herbaciousness.


We then boarded our mini-bus to head to another area of Queens: Floral Park.  There, we would be sampling some specialties of southern India at Kerala Kitchen (http://www.keralakitchen.com/).  When the donut-shaped Vada were presented to us, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  These savory, suprisingly light-textured pastries, made by soaking and then beating dhal, are not at all heavy or greasy,
even though they have been fried.  After dipping a piece into the spicy sauce and reveling in the contrast between the soft interior and crisp-crunchy exterior, I think I found a new favorite treat.  This would be terrific mid-afternoon snack to chase away the blahs away.


This starter was followed by a plate of large Dosa, or fermented pancakes made with a batter of lentils and rice, and another of Velleyappam.  Ms. Jaffrey told us that the Dosa in restaurants tend to be shaped much larger than those found in served in people’s homes.  Along with the breads, we had a selection of curries, including a smoky Fish Curry, that was probably my favorite of them all, and another dish I really enjoyed called Thoran, which was a blend of coconut, beans, and vegetables.


Our final stop of the day was at Usha Foods (http://www.ushasweets.com/), also in Floral Park.  We were greeted by trays of Bhel Poori, a layered dish of puffed rice and vegetables with a sweet-sour dressing of tamarind chutney.  Having had the dish at a few street fairs, I
sampled only a small bite of this crunchy snack, as I was waiting to see what other delights we would be trying on at this shop.

Despite all the other terrific things that we had eaten that afternoon, when the Papri Chaat, one of my absolute, hands-down favorite snacks, was brought out to the table, I could not resist diving in for one.  As Ms. Jaffrey described it to those who had never eaten it, it is one of those “hot, sweet, sour titlating snack/streetfoods.”  With layers of crispy, smooth, cool, creamy, spicy, and tangy, this dish hits all the flavor notes that your mouth could desire perfectly in one small plate.


We were also treated to a table-side demonstration of how Bedvi, a speciality of Delhi are made.  These puffed breads are filled with spices and seasonings and then rolled into a ball before being fried.  As with the Poori that we had eaten on our second stop, they are served with side dishes, in this case with Churri, a sharp, white radish chutney, and with potatoes in a savory sauce.



We could have lingered there for much longer, enjoying our hosts’ warm hospitality, but our tour had already taken longer than the time we’d originally been told to plan for it.  Still, they would not hear of our leaving before we’d had another cup of Chai and one their delightful desserts: Gulab Jamun, balls of fried ricotta-based dough coated in a sweet, rosewater syrup, to see us on our way back to Manhattan.


At the start of our tour, Madhur Jaffrey had prefaced our culinary exploration by saying that what we refer to as ‘Indian
food’ “varies as much as, say, Danish food does from Greek.”  It was amazing to spend the day with her touring Queens and discovering through our senses and our tastebuds the wide range of rice dishes, vegetables, meats, curries, and breads that encompass the
cuisine of India.  I feel as though we still only managed to dip into a small sample of what this incredibly diverse country has to offer to our palates, which means that another trip to Jackson Heights and Floral Park, if not to India itself, might something I need to plan
for in the near future.

Buon
appetito!

Kathy Blake writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape and interacting with those who are a part of it at farmers markets, food events and artisan markets.

Favourites From My Indian Cookbook Collection

Recently, after a delicious North Indian inspired dinner my in-laws and some of their friends reminisced about coming to Canada over 40 years ago with practically no knowledge of their way around a kitchen.  They spoke of their culinary ‘apprenticeship’ under Mrs. Balbir Singh. Long before Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, Mrs. Singh’s Indian Cookery, first published in 1961, was THE English language cookbook Indians abroad used to recreate deeply missed flavours of home.  A decade or so later they continued their culinary education from mentors Julie and Madhur.  Leafing through each book kitchen scribbles in the margins reveal adjustments, additions or omissions of ingredients to personalize these favourite dishes. The books and written recipes are no longer needed. The quantities and spicing of their signature dishes were long established in their fingers and hands.  

 Cookbooks

   

 

These seminal books have made their way on to the shelves of our kitchen library.  But so have many many others.  Listed below are some of my present favourite Indian cookbooks, guidebooks and current affair related books. 

My Indian cookbook collection numbers over a hundred. Stacked they are much taller than my 2 ½ year old.

These are the cookbooks that I tend to use as regular resources.  In general, they are dependable, the majority of the recipes are clear and actually work and most importantly they are wonderful bridges to the different cultures and regional cuisines of India.  Some of you may be surprised of certain books not appearing on this list – I would love to hear your feedback- as I may not have them but mostly likely did not   include them for certain reasons. 

The following two books are solid, strong foundations for engaging with Indian cuisine. Both published in the 1980s they do not have the great visual impacts that today’s cookbooks have.  I would be very interested in seeing what they would look like had they been published within the last ten years.

 

A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey (1985)

A good introduction to the culinary traditions of the regional tastes of India.  The section on general ingredients provides nice descriptions of the common and unfamiliar ingredients.

 

 

 

 

 

Classic Indian Cooking Recipes adapted for the American Kitchen by Julie Sahni (1980)

The first half of the book solidly describes the principles of Indian cooking ingredients; equipment; techniques.  A large portion of the recipes are North Indian influenced and will be familiar to Indian restaurant goers. 

 

 

 

 

The Indian Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj (1996)

I constantly refer to this book. A fantastic resource which provides great descriptions of the ingredients found in the Indian pantry.  I really like how with each ingredient Bharadwaj explains how it grows; its appearance and taste; buying and storing tips; medicinal and other uses and culinary uses.  There are two or three recipes with each ingredient. They are ok but not great. But the real value of this book is the background on the ingredients.

 

 

Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent

by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford (2005)

I have enjoyed their books since the very first one, Flatbreads and Flavours, was released.  I received Mangoes and Curry Leaves prior to moving to the Subcontinent and eagerly devoured it.  Their food/ travels stories and photographs are fantastic and I often play a game with myself trying to figure out who experienced/wrote each story.  The recipes are not solely India focused (Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) but they are clear, concise and tasty.  They are fabulous culinary interpreters. I am also drawn to their suggested reading lists and bibliographies for further resources of interest.  As the book is rather large and could easily be considered a coffee table book I often re-write or photocopy the recipe I am preparing so that I do not get turmeric stained pages. I am very much looking forward to Naomi’s upcoming book Rivers of Flavour: Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma, about the culinary landscape of Burma (which I believe may be available in Autumn 2012).

 

Indian Essence by Atul Kochar (2004)

Sometimes professional chefs are not great recipes adapters- but this one is good. London based chef Kochar, owner of Banares Restaurant, has put together a book with relatively simple and straightforward recipes from different regions in India.  The outcome is often clean and contemporary flavours.

 

 

 

Vij’s Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine by Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala (2006)

Another book written by Vancouver based Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. What I really like about their books are the adaptations of traditional dishes using local, sustainable ingredients from around British Columbia.   Last year they came out with a second book, Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking.  I have not cooked from it but friends have and they seem to like it. During my one and only visit to Vij’s I noticed that there are only women who do the cooking.  Having worked in many kitchens in India I think this was a sound decision for harmony, consistency, and organization around the stoves.  It also may be the real secret ingredient to the restaurant’s success.

 

 

Regional Focused Cookbooks

The Calcutta Kitchen by Simon Parkes and Udit Sarkhel

A wonderful introduction to the Bengali kitchen focusing on the metropolis that is Calcutta and the influences which have helped create such a unique cuisine.  A nice blend of stories and recipes.

 

 

 

 

Bangla Ranna The Bengal Cookbook by Minakshie DasGupta

This is believed to be the first book in English on Bengali cooking.  In honour of their mother, Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta and her siblings founded the restaurant Kewpies, in Kolkata) to share their mother’s Begali love for eating and cooking the Bengali way.  If you are a fan of pungent sharp mustard oil, jhols (stews) and fish the book (and restaurant) are a good introduction to the Bengali kitchen.

 

 

 

Classic Cooking of Punjab by Jiggs Kalra and Pushpesh Pant

Wanting to prepare authentic flavours of the Punjab?  This is the place to start. 

 

 

 

 

 

Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine by Viji Varadarajan (2008)

I had the pleasure of meeting Viji shortly after this book came out. She graciously welcomed me into her home and prepared a dizzying array of delicious classic vegetarian Tam-Bram dishes.  She owes much of what she learned from her grandmothers, mother and mother in law (as most children in India continue to do) and fittingly dedicates the book to the ‘generations of women in our families who quietly, anonymously carved their personalities in the cooking traditions and rituals of daily lives’.  Her inspiration for the book was her own daughters, who live outside of India, but want to continue preparing the dishes from their childhood. So, she has taken traditional recipes and adapted them for a modern kitchen (and a modern dual income lifestyle). The recipes are very easy to follow, nutritious and wholesome.  This is a great book if you want to learn how to cook and prepare Indian vegetables such as okra, snake gourd, fenugreek leaves, drumstick, raw banana, bitter gourd. A visit to the South Asian shop will be a must to get ingredients for these recipes. 

 

The Best of Samaithu Paar The Classic Guide to Tamil Cuisine by S Meenakshi Ammal  (1951) 

When I want Indian food that is flavourful, easy to digest, and meat-free I turn to the South Indian ‘coffee’ shop comfort foods:  dosas, idlis, uttapams, vadas,  sambhar, rice dishes and simple vegetable ‘stir fries’. To make some recipes such as idlis you will need to buy specialized idli steaming holders and perhaps the odd Indian vegetable if you are looking for more authenticity.

 

 

The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India

by Lathika George

While reading the recipes and sentimental essays, which describe recollections of family feasts, visits to the toddy shack and under grandmother’s culinary tutelage, the reader is instantly transported to the coconut inflected culture and flavours of the Syrian Christina community of Kerala.  The traditional elements of food, family and community are clearly important to the author and she wants for these values to remain for future generations.  

 

 

 

 

Food Writing, Novels and Guides

 

A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food (2004)

Salman Rushdie, Vir Sanghvi, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, EM Forster, Amitav Ghosh, RK Narayan are a few key ingredients which comprise this appetizing anthology.  I was particularly taken with the introduction by editor Nilanjana Roy and hope that one day she can devout some time to produce a book of her own on the culture of Indian food.  

 

 

The Illustrated Food of India (A-Z) by KT Achaya (2009)

I cannot readily think of anyone in the present Indian food writing community who matches KT Achayas interest and passion for the flavours of regional and historical Indian food (maybe Pushpesh Pant).  As the back cover says, this book analyzes the historical, regional and religious influences of Indian food showcasing the intricacies of the various subcultures of India through their cuisines. Each time I pick up this book I gain even greater respect for the diversity and complexities of the cuisines of India.  

 

 

Curry: A Biography by Lizzie Collingham

This book tells the history of India and its rulers through their food. It follows the story of curry as it spread from the courts of Delhi to the balti houses in England, from the tiffin carriers of Bombay to the army canteens of Japan.  The author reveals great stories about the history of ‘curry’ and the book is very well researched. Collingham adeptly show that the majority of Indian dishes are the product of a fusion of different food traditions.

 

 

 

Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

Just as I was to embark on a trip to India last January a friend asked me if I had read this book.  Luckily, a bookshop in Kochi had it stocked.  The story is set in a village in South India just after Independence.  It portrays the lives of a village farming family as India embarks on a path of development.  Although written in 1954 the trials and tribulations that the matriarch of the family, Rukmani, encounters rings true to what is happening now almost 60 years later.  I am eager to get my fingers on another of her books, A Handful of Rice. I would not be surprised to find out that the author, Kamala Markandaya, influenced many of the future great Indian authors (some in the anthology listed above) who write in English.  This book may be hard to find outside of India.  Used bookshops and libraries would be the best place to start.

 

 

Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine by Chitrita Banerji (2007)

A relatively quick and easy read that pulls you in as she describes her explorations of different regional tastes.  It is a nice blend of food writing and travelogue. Like Curry: A Biography, Banerji shows how restructuring old customs and making innovations is what India is all about: food in India has always been and still is fusion- one that is forever evolving.

 

 

 

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Set in Kashmir, this book focuses on Chef Kirpal Singh’s trip from Delhi to Kashmir to cook for a previous commanding officer’s daughter’s wedding. As he travels by train he reminisces about his early years as a cook in the Indian army along the Kashmir border.  Through food and chef Singh’s life the author tries to show the challenges and subtle similarities of the conflicting communities in Kashmir.  At times perhaps overly descriptive using food metaphors but an interesting way of incorporating food into the long standing dispute in Kashmir.

 

 

Highway on My Plate: The Indian Guide to Roadside Eating by Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh

I first met Mayur when he and his wife hired me for an event as part of their wedding a few years ago.  They wanted me to help create a menu which was a balance of modern Indian and Vietnamese (part of his wife’s heritage) flavours.  I quickly learned that he was part of a unique team (he the vegetarian and Rocky the carnivore) which tasted the roadside stalls and restaurants throughout India and offering their honest, simple and often humorous reviews of the food (as scene on NDTV’s Highway on My Plate).  This book is not India’s Michelin guide but rather a good summary for someone who is planning to travel throughout India and wants to stay out of the pricier hotels and restaurants.  Some knowledge of Indian food will be required to read through the lines to find the real roadside/village gems.

 

 

Love Travel Guides for India by Fiona Caulfield

Guides for Delhi, Mumbai, Begaluru, Jaipur/ Rajasthan, Goa are now in circulation.

 (Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kerala and Sri Lanka are is the works)

Often the traditional guidebooks do not have the time to search out the hidden gems of these cities: Heritage hotels, delicious regional restaurants, independent artisans and wonderful insights about what shapes the personality of each city can be found in this series.  Holding a guidebook in your hands you realise that Fiona Caulfield has a passion for supporting independent artisans and craftspeople.  The book covers are printed on traditional hand woven Khadi fabric made in Andhra Pradesh and the inside information is printed on hand made paper.  A definite must have.

 

 

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce

I found this book was really good at examining the changes occurring in ‘Modern India’.  That being said, I think it best to leave it to a seasoned and respected book reviewer, William Grimes of the NY Times,  to provide a thorough summary of this book.

 

Relatively New Books I Hope to Get and Read 

 

Tasting India by Christine Manfield (2011)

This is a BIG book. Had my hands on it at the Cookbook Store in Toronto but am hoping that it may makes its way into my library via a gift.  Very much a coffee table book I don’t really see it being easy to use in the kitchen.  What I did find interesting was the extensive list of suggested accommodations and food related restaurants/ sights that the Australian author provides.  A good resource for anyone heading over to India (although many of the accommodations featured are on the high priced/luxury end of the scale).

I have read a few reviews of the following books and am eager to read them to see each author’s perspective on the ‘new’ India.

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas (2010)

 

 

The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India by Siddhartha Deb (2011)

Happy cooking and reading!