Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tap Into Your Spice Rack

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

I moved around a lot in my twenties and spent the decade adapting to different kitchens. The high point was a galley way with sublimely stained wooden cupboards. More often though, I occupied new construction where cabinet doors slouched on loosey-goosey hinges. My spice jars accompanied me into every new space, offering a sense of order and a continuity linked my childhood. Like other Indian-Americans, spices form the cornerstone of my cooking. Over the years, I've also learned how they play a vital role in regulating my diet.

I'm a big fan of fat and sugar. (If they are combined in a cookie, even better.) But over time, I've noticed how they stick to my bones. To cut back on these common flavor boosters, I have relied even more heavily on my spice rack. Spices contain minimal amounts of fat and make my efforts to control calories incredibly tasty. Combine chickpeas with a pinch of coriander and cumin, and I am perfectly happy to pass on the red meat. Saute a quartered pear with a quill of cinnamon, and I forget about the milk chocolate hiding in a drawer.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Research shows that there are other dietary benefits to using spices. Apparently, the amount we eat is controlled by the brain's satiety center. The more aromatic a dish, the stronger the message the brain receives that we've had enough. Spices, which produce alluring tastes and smells, help to tell the brain when we're full. In addition, ginger, garlic, and fenugreek all lower the absorption of fat. Chili speeds up the rate at which fat gets burned. Spices also contain dietary antioxidants. A half teaspoon of cloves, for example, contains more antioxidants that a half cup of blueberries. Allspice, cinnamon, and saffron are also high in antioxidants.

The good news is that once you get hooked on spices, you won't get bored. Every culture incorporates them and, the combinations used in India alone (at breakfast, lunch, and dinner) are endless.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Going "Home"

A Long Way Up - Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

In December, I traveled 8,000 plus miles to Kerala, the place my older relatives still refer to as "home." Though I never lived with its borders, the tiny state on the southwest tip of India shaped my food identity. This journey would be different from the five I had taken before. I would be traveling without my parents - as tour guides, translators, experts on etiquette, and reservoirs of family history. In the past, they had shared unwritten rules (you'll shock people when you use your left hand) and in their company I never worried about taking a rickshaw across town. They provided directions. When strangers pinched me on the cheek and asked, "Do you remember me?" - a dizzying question given the branchiness of our family tree - my mom provided the answer. "This is your maternal grandmother's sister's second cousin's daughter."

During the eleven years since my last sojourn to Kerala, I had sharpened my kitchen skills in culinary school. I had also documented many of my mother's recipes, trying to preserve what seems like a dying art. I numbered steps and quantified murky measurements. Two "dashes" of turmeric became a fourth of a teaspoon and I deciphered "a 2-inch piece of ginger" as being "a generous tablespoon."

Over the intervening years, I had also recognized that many mainstay Kerala dishes - such as sambar (dahl stew), idiappam (rice noodles), and the vast array of thorans (stir-fried dishes) - were deliciously low-fat. I hoped to share the recipes I collected to help chip away at the obesity epidemic current raging in the states.

Cabbage Vendor - Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

I wanted to use this trip to gather recipes from relatives still in India. I also wanted to study the origins of the Kerala pantry. To see firsthand how and where the native berries, seeds, and roots that give Malayalee food its vibrancy grew. I knew that for centuries Kerala was the world’s only source of peppercorns and that the prized berries had spurred the region’s maritime trade predating the Kubla Khan. But I wanted to know what they looked like on the vine. (I vaguely remember my father pointing them out in the yard of his family home years ago. But sadly, what registered in my adolescent mind, “Zzzzz. Boring!”) I would also seek out cardamom growing wild in the mountains. Its exotic oils perfume Kerala’s sweet and savory dishes. Over time, the spice has also found its way into Middle Eastern coffee and Swedish pastries.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2010)

I knew my pursuit would conjure up memories of my grandmother’s dimly lit kitchen where I watched in wonder as she fed dried coconut husks to an open fire. Their brown hairs flashed like threads of lightening once ignited. Using the back of a cleaver, she would crack open the shells of coconuts harvested from the lanky trees dotting the yard. Sitting on a low wooden bench fitted with a serrated blade, I happily shredded the flesh into a triangular hill of coconut confetti that ended up in many family dishes that I'll be sharing with you including the cabbage thoran below.

(Cardamom Kitchen LLC - Copyright 2011)

Serves 6


- Warning: I've gotten greedy at the farmer's market and chosen the largest possible cabbage. I end up with WAY more shredded cabbage than I need. The leaves are tucked tightly. Chopping loosens them and the quantity seemed to grow exponentially! So don't make this mistake.
- Do not overcook the cabbage. It should be served with a bit of a crunch.


2 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil
3/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon urad dahl (black graham, split)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
I jalapeno, split, seeded and quartered
10 curry leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups shredded cabbage
2 tablespoons shredded, unsweetened coconut


1) Heat the oil in a large saute pan on medium-low heat. Add the mustard seeds and cover.

2) When the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the urad dhal. Cook until the urad dhal turns light brown.

3) Increase the heat to medium. Add the garlic, onions, cumin, turmeric, pepper, curry leaves, and salt. Cook until the onions are translucent.

4) Add the cabbage and coconut. Stir to coat with the spice mixture.

5) Cover and cook for 1 minute.

6) Remove the lid and stir. Cover and cook for another minute.
7) Remove the lid and cook uncovered until the cabbage is tender, but retains a bit of crunch.

Advance purchase required!
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