Cooking Through India

Indian cuisine and tradition Notes from a chef

An aspiring food artist savors her travels learning to celebrate the freshest foods of the sub-continent



Emeril Lagasse says that food is love. Yes, this statement is true, but there is so much more to be said. Food is an art form, another arena in which to reveal my ideas. For me, food is my creative expression, an extension of my complicated personality. My spatula is my paintbrush, a Miles Davis CD and a beach walk. I take my cooking seriously, but in a very uninhibited fashion – letting my hands do the thinking for me, releasing ingredients into their truest free play of fusion.

Not everything works, but I accept my mistakes in stride, with an acute understanding that they are just another piece of the pie – no problem. In order to be really successful, and able to recognize and celebrate accomplishment, one must deal and learn from failure.

Harmonious flavors are meant to be savored on a daily basis- I’m just not willing to put anything but the best down on my plate…oh it s so tough being a princess. I have now taken matters into my own hands: assumed the role of grocery shopper (Farmers Market, Trader Joes and Tri-County Produce), head chef and party planner of my household. It is a labor of love though – I feel joyous and full of pride, even when rinsing a delicate martini glass or clearing the table-cleaning is a part of the full circle experience.

So when you laugh and scoff at some crazy 17-year-old girl for watching the Food Network during her spare time, stop and understand that the Naked Chef, Martha, Emeril, Bobby (hate those eyebrows), Mario and Morimoto (Japanese Iron Chef) are all my teachers and comrades. They have something to offer me, and I to them.

While traveling in India, I found similar teachers in a number of South Indian chefs. I feel truly blessed to have been exposed and educated by these culinary wizards. Each cook knew exactly what effect each ingredient would create. Food really defines a culture, and they were as happy as I was to be sharing in the exchange of cooking techniques and tradition.leelawithspicesindia

In Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, I had a lesson with a grandmother in the Chettiar caste and her male cook (secretly, a lower caste) We were taken there by Vidya Vidya Rajasekaran, a college professor, who also hosted us for dinner at there home. And I received lessons from Raghu, the captain of a converted rice boat on the backwaters in Kerala, a tropical state that produces the majority of the world’s cashew crop.

There is a level of diversity in Indian cuisine, just like one experiences in America, from state to state. North Indian food tends to be a little milder and chapatti, a flat bread, is served with every meal. In the south, where I was, the food is a little spicier because of the warmer, tropical environment.

The recipes, I learned, varied from caste to caste and state to state, but there was an inherent valued tradition and a sense of family importance each specific blend of ingredients. Recipes were passed on from generation to generation and only varied to accommodate the seasonal fruits and vegetables available.canteenmadoriindia

Many castes use similar flavors and ingredients. There are however, some distinct differences. I was told the elite caste, the Brahmans, do not use onions or garlic in their dishes.

The typical large meal is served midday around 2 p.m. and consists of rice, a chapatti, nan or papa (large fried potato chip), a few vegetable options, dhal (lentils, a source of protein), rasam, tea/coffee and some sort of fruit.

Meals are served on banana leaves or tiffin stainless steel cookware, and without silverware. At first, I found this alarmed my western standard of etiquette, but when I recognized this was just a custom and started to eat with my hands, I felt much more in touch with my food. Everything was so organic, and Western utensils seemed foreign and wrong. This was a purely natal way to eat the oh-so-delicious meal.

All of my teachers made different dishes according to their backgrounds, but they were united in one love, one theme – only the freshest ingredients were to be used. That meant growing the curry leaves in their windowsills, grinding the cardamom with the mortar and pestle, and buying seasonal fruit at the marketplace that very morning.leelaandcookinglessonmadori

These tactics need not frighten consumer-based, prepackaged Americans. I m not trying to change a country here, just instigate a little passion for what is real. Things like peaches in the summertime and turnips and beets in the winter, to name a few. I knew the values of these tasty, delicious morsels before my adventure, but I had never experienced the slow song they would groove to on my lucky taste buds. This was a dining experience to be immensely appreciated and analyzed – I had to know how these clouds from heaven were seasoned!

So I stepped inside their kitchens with my father, documenting the lessons, at my side. They embraced my Nancy Drew tape recorder and me. I learned to make chapatti bread, Indian chai tea, rice dishes, an array of vegetable dishes, lassi (a delicious yogurt drink) and a few chutneys. Each night, I would transcribe the love – the unity of spices what we all know as recipes, into my journal…

Falling asleep with a smile on my face, an expanded belly and visions of coconut scraper, cumin seeds and banana leaves floating through my head – not sugar plum fairies.


Rasam is always very spicy and served as an hors doeuvres. Every family has its own recipe.

1-tablespoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon crushed black pepper

4 red chilies

3 julienne green chilies

2 cloves garlic (minced)

1/2-teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2-teaspoon asafetida (available at Indo-China Market)

1 large diced tomato

1-teaspoon salt

2 cups dhal water (water in which lentils have been soaked for an hour)

1-cup water

1 tablespoon soaked tamarind, strained (seasonal)

Simmer the mustard seeds on medium heat in the coconut oil in a medium sized pot. Let the seeds pop, then add pepper, chilies, garlic, turmeric and asafetida, simmer fro about 1 minute. Then add tomato, salt, dhal water, water and tamarind. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1/2 hour. Serve as a starter in a teacup or over rice.


1-tablespoon coconut oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 chopped dried red chili

8 curry leaves

1 diced small onion

1 minced clove garlic

3 tablespoons freshly ground coconut

1/2-teaspoon turmeric powder

1/2-teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup chopped and slightly boiled vegetables (carrots, beets, cabbage, green beans, gourds)

Simmer mustard seeds in oil until they pop. Add the rest of the ingredients in order, stir continuously over medium heat until vegetables are tender. Optional: Serve with roasted cashews.


1 mango (cut into cubes)

1/2 cocoanut (grated)

1 green chili

splash of water

pinch of salt

Put ingredients in blender-combine until smooth yet chunky


1/2-cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup diced cucumber

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup diced tomatoes

1 small hot green chile, finely chopped

Mix all ingredients, refrigerate for an hour, serve cold.