Tomato garlic chili chicken and busting the myth about chili powder

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When I was growing up, I heard the same thing over and over again from my Maa. She said “it’s not good to eat a lot of red chilli powder” and she added green chilies to everything she cooked, reserving the red chili powder for the unavoidable dishes. The theory was, too much of it can rip off your stomach lining and cause ulcers. I never asked Maa how much was too much, as at the time I was quite uninterested in cooking myself. Recently I heard the same thing from one of my friends; suddenly I thought about reading up on the truth about red chili powder and deciding based on fact rather than hearsay as to whether it is indeed harmful.

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Chilies (which Americans call chili peppers although chilies are not peppers), are originally from the South America and are an indispensable item in South America and Asian cuisine. Although introduced to India and Asia much later by the Portuguese, chilies rapidly gained extreme popularity across all of Asia. Indeed, I cannot imagine my kitchen without having my stock of fresh green chilies and also a jar full of red hot powdered red chilies.

Chilies, both fresh and dried, are rich in nutrition. The main component responsible for the fumes which come out of your nostrils and ears after you consume chilies is called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for releasing endorphins (the pleasure hormones), maybe explaining why some people (like my husband) are quite addicted to hot foods. From a medical perspective, capsaicin has long been used in rubs and ointments as an analgesic and pain killer. Further, capsaicin is known to have anti-bacterial component and believed to be anti-carcinogenic for certain types of gut cancers. It also helps in digestion if eaten in moderate quantity. This resolves the apparent paradox that Naga jolokias, the world’s hottest peppers, are used by some tribes in Northeast India as a cure for stomach ailments.  Apart from capsaicin, chilies in general are rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A and contain a large amount of Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.

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Coming back to where we started-  why do chilies have such bad reputation then? Why are my Maa and my friend so cautious about using it? Looks like they had no clue what they were talking about. It’s one of those things which you learn from your mother which she learnt from her mother and the theory goes from one generation to another without being exposed to the scalpel of rationality (knowing the adulteration culture in India, red chili powders are contaminated with inedible/harmful ingredients like colored saw dust, the warning from my friend, my grandma and my mom might have a background there).

First myth: Green chilies are healthier than red chilies: Wrong. There are no significant differences between the two (although the vitamin C content might reduce while drying). The dried chilies are dehydrated, hence more concentrated in terms of heat. The drying changes the flavor as well.

Second myth: Red chili powder is bad for you: Wrong. If you are familiar with the word ‘moderation’, you are more likely to benefit from it than being harmed. So, turn up the heat and enjoy the endorphin release, just don’t go overboard. Too much of anything is bad, even water. So, don’t blame the harmless chilli powder – blame your measuring spoon instead. And yes, did I tell you how easy it is to make your own chili powder? It takes just a few minutes and you can be certain that there is no adulteration.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Organic, free range chicken: around 2.5 lbs.

Tomatoes: two medium, vine ripened, chopped

Garlic: three medium cloves (a little more will add extra flavor if you are a garlic lover like me) very finely minced

Preferably mustard oil: 2 tbsp. (replace it with olive oil if you do not have mustard oil)

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper powder: 1 tbsp. or more if you like it to be hot (the tartness of the tomatoes will cut back on the heat a lot)

Turmeric: ½ tsp. (optional)

Water: 11/2 cups (adjust to your liking)

Salt to taste

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  • Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot/kadai. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke, it will destroy all the nutrition. Let it heat up on medium flame. This is a very important step.
  • Once the oil is hot, remove the pot from the fire and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle in the warm oil for 10-15 seconds. Put the pot back on fire.
  • Add the chopped tomatoes and add a tea spoon of salt. Mix it well. Let the tomatoes sweat a bit and then break the tomatoes with the spoon a little bit. It will help the tomatoes cook faster.
  • Add the red chili powder/cayenne pepper and the turmeric (if using). Again mix them well. Keep stirring the paste every so often until the raw taste of the tomatoes is almost gone (around 5 minutes).
  • Add the chicken (try to tap the moisture a bit) and mix them well with the spices. Turn the heat to high and stir the chicken very often to dry up the water released from the meat.
  • Once you see that the excess water is gone and the spices have taken a paste like consistency and hugging the meat, you know you are ready to add water.
  • Add around a cup of hot water, add salt and give it a good stir.
  • Let the whole thing come to a boil and reduce the heat again to medium. Cook it until the meat is done and the gravy has reached almost its desired consistency.
  • Let the chicken rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving (if possible). That way, the meat will absorb the flavor and the gravy will come to its desired consistency.
  • Serve piping hot with roti or any bread of your choice (can be eaten with rice but it will taste better with bread). Dip the breads in the gravy and enjoy.

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Sali jardaloo murghi/chicken with apricot and fried potatoes and the Kissa-i-Sanjan

DSC_0705Approximately a thousand years ago, a tired and disheveled group of Zoroastrian refugees fled Islamic persecution in their native Persia and arrived in the Sindh region of Gujarat, India. Responding to their request for asylum, King Jadav Rana, the ruler of the tiny community where they landed, sent them a bowl filled to the brim with milk (a gentle hint that his kingdom was full and couldn’t accept refugees). In reply, the leader of the Persians dissolved a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back to the king, suggesting that his small flock would dissolve like sugar in the milk and enrich the king’s community without straining its resources.

These refugees were the forefathers of India’s Parsi community. Although Persians were doing business with India from approximately 500 BC, the exact time of their arrival in India is controversial. The story above which describes the arrival and settling down of the Parsis in Gujarat is called the Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān). Before Gujarat, they had briefly inhabited the Diu region of India, but soon afterwards their Dastur (leader) determined that their destiny lay elsewhere. They left Diu and after braving a life-threatening storm, they reached Gujarat. King Jadav Rana’s permission to the refugees to stay in his land came with afew caveats; they would have to learn and use only the local language, the women would have to wear sarees, and the use of weapons or conversion of any of the local people was strictly prohibited. The Dastur agreed to these conditions and hence the Parsis settled down in India, enriching India’s culture and contributing heavily toward our economy and prosperity.

DSC_0691Despite having lived on the Indian subcontinent for well over a thousand years, the Parsis remain a very distinct minority community. They speak their own dialect of the Gujarati language and follow rules which combine aspects of their ancient religion and their historical background as refugees. Their cuisine is also very distinct, again being a mix of Persian and Indian influences. Sali jardaloo murghi (Sali=potato, jardaloo=apricot, murghi=chicken) is a beautiful example of such intermixing. Being from Persia, they were quite used to using dried fruit and nuts in their food, which they introduced to Indian cuisine. This dish is at the same time familiar and different when compared to most “Indian” food items. I think it gives a nice twist to the everyday chicken curry.

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Recipe: (adapted from Madhur Jaffrey)

Ingredients:

Chicken, cut into bite sized pieces and skinned: 3lbs.

Freshly grated ginger: 2 tsp.

Finely crushed garlic: 1 tsp.

Dried apricots: 15-16 nos.

Vegetable oil: 4 tbsp. or a bit more

Onion: 2 medium sized, finely cut into half rings

Tomato puree/paste: 2tbsp. (you can use fresh tomatoes too) mixed with 1/2 cup water

Distilled white malt vinegar (or, regular white vinegar): 2 tbsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Sugar: 1 tbsp.

Salt to taste

To grind:

Hot dry red chili: 4 whole

Cinnamon stick, somewhat broken: 2 inches

Whole cumin seeds: 11/2 tsp.

Cardamom pods: 7 nos.

Cloves: 10 whole

For potato straws:

Salt: 1 tbsp.

Potato: One large peeled

Vegetable oil: enough to deep fry the potato straw

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  • Grind the spices ‘under to grind’ into a fine powder. ( I usually toast them a little bit)
  • Put the ginger-garlic paste, ground spices and one or two table spoon of oil and turmeric and massage everything well with the chicken. Leave it at room temp. for an hour (more will not hurt)
  • If you are using apricots which are very dry, soak them in hot water. The time will depend on how dry the apricots are. The ones I use here in the US, do not require soaking.
  • Once the meat is marinated, heat up the oil in a deep bottom pot. When the oil is hot, put the flame on medium and add the onions. Sauté them until they are reddish brown in color.
  • Add the marinated chicken and mix well. Sauté for another 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the tomato puree with the water, mix well again and add the salt and sugar.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the pot for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is almost cooked (add water if you want a bit of gravy, I do like have a bit of gravy)
  • Slip in the soaked/dried apricots and simmer again until the chicken is completely cooked.
  • Let the chicken sit for half n hour to an hour before you serve it.

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Making the potato straws:(if you are not in mood to make the potato straws, just go and buy some ready made straws from the stores. Recently I have seen dehydrated potato straws which can be fried at home…how convenient is that?)

  • Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the salt to it.
  • Put the grater on the bowl and grate the potatoes with a coarse setting/blade.
  • Once the potatoes fall in the water, separate the grated potatoes with your hands.
  • Heat enough oil to fry the straws.
  • Once the oil is hot enough, bring the flame to medium, take a small handful of potatoes, squeeze the water out as much as possible and drop them in the oil.
  • Immediately separate the straws with a spoon. Don’t put a lot as it will bring the oil temperature down and make the potatoes soggy. Fry in small batches.
  • Once all of it is fried, drain them on an absorbent paper until used.
  • Before you serve the chicken, heat it up gently and spread the straws on the chicken. Serve immediately.
  • Goes best with white rice.

Dahi vada/lentil dumplings in spiced yogurt: bringing street food home

Dahi_vadaEveryday, I used to take a bus from outside Howrah Station to go to college. Soon after the bus crossed Howrah Bridge, the next four or five miles from Burrabazar to Dalhousie were flooded with commuters, hawkers, buses, cars – if you are from Calcutta you know what I mean. People running and trying to reach their destination, bus conductors screaming for more passengers, people running to catch the bus, coolies carrying huge baskets on their heads, office goers eating breakfast on the footpath as if no one was watching them. But in reality, someone watched them every day and that someone was me. I always preferred a window seat in the bus if I had a chance. The window was my portal to the world outside the bus.

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Greedily, I peeked outside the bus window at the people eating hurriedly on the streets outside Writer’s Building. The sheer variety amazed me – ranging from biryani topped with an egg and potato, bread toasted on the hot griddle and then coated with a fried egg, huge deep fried puris served with ghugni to colorful fruits laid on a basket like a work of art to make fruit salad. I would have given anything to eat there, but being perpetually late and running for my life, I never had a chance to stop.

To me it might have been just a hankering, but for many, those street food stalls were lifesavers. People used to commute to Calcutta for work from far away, six days a week. Some people left the house even before dawn, some had odd working hours and some had late night shifts. They didn’t have the luxury of a full breakfast before leaving for work or eating home-cooked delicious dinners. The food stalls of Calcutta were where they ate their regular meals. More than   just snacks, many of these sold lunch and dinner items, designed to provide sustenance on a budget. If you ever get a chance, go to the office para (office neighborhood) – you’ll be more than surprised to see the spread. Starting form freshly made fulkas  (Indian flat bread) to Chinese dumplings to colonially influenced chop-cutlet, you name it, and they have it. Street food does not mean that it has to be prepared on the street. Often the vendors would bring their wares already cooked and then reheat it before serving. Sometimes they were halfway prepped and would be completed (usually by frying) in response to your order.

Street_vendor_3Although street food in India largely varies from one place to another depending on the local ingredients, there are certain things likely to be found in most cities. Chaat being the number one ubiquitous street food found all over the country can widely vary in terms of ingredients and taste. On the other hand, dahi vada is very similar in taste across the country with a little bit of tweaking here and there. The basics will always be the same, with the condiments being a little different based on whether you are in North India or South India. It is very feeling and healthy, and can be eaten as a snack or a main meal. Served throughout the year, it’s a staple in many restaurants, on the streets and in the homes of a myriad families.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

Urad daal/split, husked black gram: 1 cup

Fennel seeds: 2 tsp.

Yogurt/Dahi: 2-3 cups

Tamarind Chutney: As much as you like

Chat masala (found in the Indian store): to taste

Black salt: to taste

Red chili powder: to taste (optional)

Boondi/fried chickpea flour balls (available in the Indian stores): to taste (optional)

Coriander: a handful, finely chopped

Oil: enough to deep fry the dumplings

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  • Wash the lentils with several changes of water and then soak the lentils in enough water overnight or for 3-4 hours. Keep at least one-two inches of water above the lentils as the lentils will expand.
  • Drain the lentils and then grind them in a food processor with very little to almost no water. Do not grind them to a smooth paste. Keep the paste a little grainy…just a little.
  • Add the fennels seeds and a little bit of salt to the batter and whip the batter very well. The whipping will incorporate air in the batter and will make the balls fluffy.
  • Take a small bowl with water and drop a tiny portion of the batter in the water. If the batter floats on the top immediately, you know the batter is ready. Or else, whip it further.
  • Heat a deep bottom pot with enough oil it to deep fry the balls. Again, drop a small portion and if the batter starts sizzling vigorously, you know your oil is ready.
  • Either with your hand or with a spoon take out around a table spoon and a half of the batter and drop it in the oil. Put few more in the oil like this. Do not overcrowd the oil as it will bring the oil temp down and make the balls soak more oil.
  • Fry the dumpling on medium high heat and turn them occasionally to evenly fry all the sides. DO NOT over-fry them.
  • Keep a deep bowl on the side with luke warm water.
  • Once the balls are fried, drain them on a paper towel and then drop them into the luke warm water.
  • Soak the balls in there for 30 minutes and then squeeze them in between your palms and keep them in a separate platter. Do not press them too hard, they might break and fall apart.
  • Whip up the yogurt lightly and add salt to it. Taste it. Add the tamarind chutney and all the powders and taste again.
  • Soak the lentil balls in the spiced yogurt for almost an hour or more in the fridge.
  • Just before serving, add the chopped cilantro and the boondi.

DSC_0821You can add salt to the yogurt and soak the balls in it. Keep it chilled. Serve all the other condiments along with it while serving. People can add them according to their own taste.

Tamarind chutney

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“Jadi hao sujon, tNetul patay nawjon”

Literal translation: “If you are a good person, nine of you can stand together on a tamarind leaf”

Actual meaning: “Nothing is going be too little to share if you are a friend”

If you are not a Bengali, you probably have no clue what this means. But if you are familiar with a tamarind leaf, maybe the English translation makes sense –  the reference is to the tightly packed leaflets of the tamarind leaf. Tamarind is so ubiquitous in India that I always assumed it is native to the subcontinent. Indeed, the scientific name, Tamarindus indica would suggest so, although I found out I was quite wrong.

From time immemorial, Africa and Asia have been connected by commerce. Traders were attracted to ivory, gold and slaves in Africa while spices and precious stones from the Orient. Tamarind, native to Africa, might have been introduced to India or South East Asia through such trading. Exactly when this happened is a topic of debate, with some saying it came around 2000 BC; others argue that it came much later with Portuguese sailors who stopped by the Cape of Good Hope on their way to Asia.

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The word tamarind came from the Arabic word “tamr-hindī” or ‘Indian date’. Arab traders crossing the Persian Gulf brought tamarind back with them, and introduced it to Iran, Egypt and other Persian countries. After the Portuguese took over the trade in the African coast, the trading and exchange of tamarind took an industrial structure. Like so many other things, tamarind was introduced to Europe and South/Central America by Portuguese and Spanish traders. Particularly in South America, tamarind became wildly popular, to the extent that Santa Clara, a city in Cuba declared tamarind as their official tree (as the council of elders had decided to found the city after meeting under a tamarind tree).

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In India, tamarind has been used for ages, be it in candy form, in chutneys, in soups, curries or as an Ayurvedic medicine. It is an indispensable ingredient in cuisines of South Indian states. Maybe due to its strong and unique taste, tamarind found diverse uses across the world. It is used in Worcestershire sauce in the UK, as a refreshing summer drink in India and in the Middle East, as street-side candies in South America and in curries and sauces in South Asia. Apart from the pods, the leaves and the flowers are eaten as a salad in Burma. Due to its high vitamin C content, during the Age of Sail, tamarind was carried by the sailors as a preventative measure against scurvy. According to Ayurveda, tamarind dissolved in water with raw sugar is believed to protect the body from heat. The southern part of India being much hotter than rest of the country, tamarind consumption is more of a staple than a mere condiment.

This sweet, sour and a somewhat spicy chutney is very versatile and can be used in many ways. Use it as a dip for your deep-fried indulgences, use it in salads, add it to beaten yogurt to make a chaat, or just lick it off  your fingers like I do.

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Recipe: (adapted from Manjula’s recipe)

Ingredients:

Tamarind, seeded or buy the seedless packet: ½ lb.

Sugar: 2 cups (more if you like it very sweet and also the amount of sugar will depend on the tartness of your tamarind)

Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp.

Coriander seeds: ½ tbsp.

Dry red chili: 3-4 nos.

Salt: start with one table spoon and then adjust

Black salt: to taste

Black pepper: 1 tsp.

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  • Break the tamarind into small pieces and soak in one cup of hot water for one hour.
  • Mash it into a pulp and strain, pressing the tamarind into the strainer to remove all the pulp.
  • Add the sugar and the salt (regular).
  • Add another half a cup or one cup of water and then boil it for 10-15 minutes.
  • Add all the dry spices and the black salt. Cook it for one or two minutes.
  • Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Let it cool and the put it into a clean dry jar.
  • Refrigerate it once completely cooled.
  • It stays in the fridge for few months if handled properly.

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Keep it a little bit more liquid-y than you want your chutney’s final consistency at the end. It will thicken gradually while cooling.