I learned to love Indian food in Michigan. It was in Ann Arbor that I ate my first real Indian food, that I went to my first real Indian restaurant, and my first real Indian cookbook was a community cookbook from southeast Michigan. (And with “real” I am excluding random dishes with curry powder as an ingredient.) In this post I cook from that same community cookbook, a cookbook from one of its main contributors, and a cookbook published by the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.
My fellow graduate student, Sivaram, gave me a copy of Marvelous Madras Cookery, compiled by Tamil Sangam (Michigan), after I swooned over his spinach kootu. He very usefully went through the book with me, marking which recipes were good and which were easy. (As Danny remarked: “Sounds like an address book.”) This cookbook is in some ways a typical community cookbook, with much of what is bad about community cookbooks, but with all that is wonderful. The book is terribly formatted, has a terrible index, has those extraneous and irritating pages that the “publisher” puts in (e.g., “To Remove STAINS From Washables”), and no recipe introductions. On the other hand, there are very few recipes with prepared foods that look almost inedible. Almost all the recipes look good, even the ones that Sivaram did not single out, and everything that I have tried from this book is excellent. Furthermore, no recipe is incredibly complicated; most are quite simple. I expect to find good and easy recipes in community cookbooks, recipes that reflect the way that people really cook; what I do not expect is such an abundance of good and easy recipes as appears in this cookbook.
“Fried Carrots” (page 52) are so good that they make you wonder whether carrots really are good for you. This way of preparing carrots brings out their sweetness, even if the carrots are old and out of a plastic bag. In fact, these carrots don’t really taste like carrots, or at least like carrots as we are all too used to tasting. Here, you fry grated carrots with those southern Indian add-ins: urud dal, coconut, mustard seeds, and hot green pepper, with a little bit of onion and salt. Not only are these carrots delicious, but they provide a beautiful bright color to your table. [Go to the recipe.]
“Fried Cauliflower (Type III)” (page 53) is an inspired way to prepare cauliflower! This recipe could fit into any number of cuisines: there are no typically Indian spices, unless you count chili powder (I used Korean chili powder). But this dish is easy and good, and certainly goes well with Indian food and lots of other types of food. Even people who do not like cauliflower, such as Shay, like this cauliflower. I am not quite sure when or how the magic happens: you cook cauliflower in oil with onion, add salt and chili powder, and mix in three eggs. But it works!
I usually just accompany my Indian food with plain rice, but this may change, thanks to this next recipe. For some reason I made “Lemon Rice” (page 22) and quite enjoyed it with the other Indian dishes. I think it would even be very good on its own. To make this rice, cook mustard and cumin seeds, some urud and chana dal, cashews, chiles, and grated carrots in butter. These are added to cooked rice, along with the juice from a lemon. Everything tasted great together, with the dals and cashews providing a satisfying and not distracting crunch.
Thilagam Pandian is one of the main contributors to Marvelous Madras Cookery, and some of the best recipes in that book (such as the carrots discussed above) are from her. She is now the co-owner of an Indian vegetarian restaurant, Udipi, on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. The restaurant has a very nice and very affordable lunch buffet, and even bears Jason Miller‘s very own kosher certification. Thilagam Pandian has also come out with her own cookbook, Mysteries of South Indian Cooking. I am afraid that I did not pick out the best recipes to test from this book; all were good but none were that good. Usually after three unremarkable recipes I give up on a cookbook, but I am not ready to do so in this case, since I know, both from the Tamil Sangam cookbook and from eating at Udipi, that there are great recipes in this book. There is some sort of lesson in statistics here.
“Tomato Mushroom Soup” (page 72) was a bit of a disappointment, although Danny liked it more than I did. I used a 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and half a pound of mushrooms. The soup is thinned out with water and seasoned with fennel, cumin, salt, and pepper, and finished off with a little bit of onion cooked in butter. I thought the soup just tasted like mushrooms and tomatoes, which is actually not a bad thing at all. Danny detected the subtle spicing.
When I was last at Udipi, there was a very nice green bean dish in which the green beans were sliced into small pieces. It was with this dish in mind that I tried “Beans Porial” (page 31), which were quite good, but not, I think, the dish that I had at Udipi. For beans porial, the green beans are combined with coconut, onion, a little bit of urud dal, mustard seeds and sambar powder. I like that the beans are cut up. Somehow little pieces of green bean seem much more edible than long green beans. [Go to the recipe.]
“Kidney Beans Curry” (page 33) is very similar to a recipe I have often made from Marvelous Madras Cookery. This is an easy dish, made with canned kidney beans, a can of tomatoes, and many of the familiar seasonings: curry leaves, mustard seeds, sambar powder, urud dal. These turned out hotter than I would have preferred, but both Danny and Shay liked them.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies does not usually publish cookbooks, but they picked a winner with Hemalata C. Dandekar’s Beyond Curry: Quick and Easy Indian Cooking Featuring Cuisine from Maharashtra State (which now seems to be out of print). A mainstream publisher should pick this book up, since it is way better than many of those Indian cookbooks that the mainstream publishers do come out with. Maharashta, about the size of France, is in the middle of India, to the west. Peanuts and coconut feature in the cuisine of this region. Although not a vegetarian cookbook, this book is very vegetarian friendly, as it is based on the vegetarian food eaten by Brahmin families in Maharashta. The more I cook Indian food, the more attuned I become to regional differences; the recipes in this cookbook are a little different, in ways I cannot quite explain, from other Indian recipes that I have tried. However, the recipes are different in ways that I very much like.
I always have a problem finding what I think of as salads in Indian cookbooks. Yes, there are the chutneys and raitas and the occasional chopped salad, but not a whole lot else. “Lettuce and Onion Salad” (page 88) is not a recipe to which I would pay much attention in a non-Indian cookbook, but that might be a mistake. This is a very simple little salad, but provides a nice contrast to all the cooked food: it’s raw, it’s crunchy, and it is not the least bit oily. This salad consists of lettuce, onions, peanuts, with a dressing of lemon juice spiked with salt, sugar, and pepper. I chopped everything, especially the onion, into very small pieces. I intend to use this recipe again.
The recipe “Lentils with Butter” (page 119) uses grocery store lentils, not some exotic Indian dal. In this recipe, salt and tumeric are added towards the end of the lentil cooking, and to finish off, cumin is browned in butter and then poured on top of the lentils. I actually used black lentils since I am not a big fan of the usual brown lentils. I liked these lentils a lot; they were quite plain, but the fancy lemon rice from Marvelous Madras Cookery provided enough interest.
The egg curry (pages 138 and 131) from Beyond Curry has been part of my Indian food repertoire for many years. This curry consists of hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and peas in a tomato based sauce, the same sauce that Hemalata uses for her chicken curry. I like the variation in which two green bell peppers are blended with the tomato sauce along with all the spices that make this dish so good. I used to stir yogurt into the sauce, but these days I think that I like the sauce better without the yogurt. [Go to the recipe.]
Finally, we come to the dish that started it all: spinach kootu. Kootu is a southern Indian dish made with dal and some sort of vegetable; it is not too soupy, not too dry. Google “kootu” and you will find recipes for cauliflower kootu, cabbage kootu, pumpkin kootu, snake gourd kootu, eggplant kootu; the list goes on and on. But it is spinach kootu, indeed, this specific version of spinach kootu, that trumps them all! This is an aetherial green purée with sublime spices. It’s best with loose spinach that you have to clean and trim, but it’s easiest and almost as good with packaged and pre-washed baby spinach. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Tamil Sangam, Marvelous Madras Cookery
2-3 tablespoons ghee or oil
½ teaspoon urud dal
¼ teaspoon mustard seeds
4 carrots, grated
2 Tablespoons minced onion
1 hot green pepper, minced
2 tablespoons grated coconut (dry okay)
Heat the ghee or oil in a large skillet. Add the urud dal and mustard seeds. You may want to cover the skillet while the mustards seeds pop; be careful that the urud dal does not get too brown. Add the carrots, onions, pepper, and coconut. Add a few tablespoons of water. Stir and cook until the carrots are soft. Add salt to taste.
Indian Green Beans
Adapted from Thilagam Pandian, Mysteries of South Indian Cooking
1 pound green beans
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon sambar powder
½ cup water
2 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 teaspoons urud dal
3 tablespoons onion, minced
Curry leaves from 1 sprig (optional)
2 tablespoons grated coconut (dry okay)
Slice the green beans into little slices, ¼ to ½ inch long. Add the beans, salt, and sambar powder to the water, bring the water to a boil, and cook until the green beans are soft. Drain.
Heat the ghee or oil in a large skillet. Add the urud dal and mustard seeds. You may want to cover the skillet while the mustards seeds pop; be careful that the urud dal does not get too brown. Add the onion and cook until the onion starts to brown. Add the drained beans, the curry leaves, and the coconut. Cook until heated through.
Adapted from Hemalata C. Dandekar, Beyond Curry
3 dried red chilies
8 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon grated coconut (dry okay)
1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 14-ounce can tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 inch piece frech ginger, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
4 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 onion, chopped
¾ pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon salt
12 ounces frozen peas
6 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
In a small skillet, toast the chilies, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, coconut, cumin, and coriander. When the spices are fragrant and browned, remove them from the skillet and grind in a spice grinder. Add the ground spices to a blender, together with the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. Blend.
Heat the ghee or oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook for a few minutes, then add the potatoes and cook until the potatoes are almost done. Add the tomato sauce, bay leaf, and salt, and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Do not undercook! Add the peas and eggs and simmer until everything is hot.
¾ cup toovar dal
1 pound spinach
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons ghee or oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon urud dal
4 hot green or dried red peppers
½ cup dry grated coconut
1 tablespoon salt
Cook the toovar dal in 3 cups of water until soft, 30 to 45 minutes. Add more water if necessary. Microwave the spinach and cumin seeds for about 2 minutes. I do this in two batches. Heat the ghee or oil in a small skillet. Add the mustard seeds; when they begin to pop, add the urud dal, peppers, and coconut. When the coconut begins to brown, remove from the heat. Purée everything, toovar dal, spinach, coconut and seeds, and salt in a food processor. Use the water the dal was cooked in; you may need to add more water to get a consistency that you like.