Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Versatility of Rice

The smell I find the most comforting is the one that filled my mom's kitchen - starchy steam rising out of a pot of parboiled rice. Nearly every night, she would scoop a heaping cup of granules from the 25-pound bag in the pantry and boil it in a pot of water (much like Italians prepare pasta). While the rice cooked, she moved on to more daring feats like chopping onions in her palm and whacking open a coconut with a frightfully large cleaver. My mom insisted on two rules when it came to rice: it should never be sticky and it always had to be served hot. So. when she placed the plump granules into a colander to drain, I knew it was time to set the table.

Jolly Auntie's Iddiyappam, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Rice forms the cornerstone of the Kerala table. So much so that when you want to know whether someone has eaten, you ask, "Choru undo?" which literally translates to "Have you eaten rice?" On most days, we consumed Uncle Ben's parboiled rice paired, which paired, like a blank canvass, with other highly spiced dishes. However, rice takes on numerous other forms in Kerala (making the region a gluten-free paradise).

I savored many rice-based dishes on my recent trip. For breakfast, I sat down to servings of putu (rice flour steamed with fresh, shredded coconut) paired with chickpeas and iddyappam (steam rice noodles) formed with a copper press. My auntie paired the noodles with boiled eggs that she cooked with coconut milk, coriander, and a mix of other spices. When we took day trips, my relatives and I lunched at vegetarian cafes. At Mummy's Restaurant, we ate ghee roast dosas prepared from a rice-based batter. The dosas were cooked on a large griddle and layered with a pepper-onion chutney. We also enjoyed steamed idlis (rice buns) served with sambar (vegetable stew) and coconut chutney, which added zing to the meal.

Mummy's Ghee Roast Dosa, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2001)

My Auntie Iysha tracked down toddy, an alcoholic beverage prepared from the sap of coconut blossoms, and used it to prepare kallappam. A Syrian Christian specialty, the fluffy pancakes get their lift as the alcohol ferments in a rice-based batter.

Iyshakochamma's Kallappam (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

Iyshakochamma (kochamma means aunt) also introduced me to pidi. Together, we stirred up a rice-based dough, set aside a pinch, and rolled the rest into an army of one-inch circular dumplings. We seasoned a large pot of water with shallots, curry leaves, coriander, and salt, and thickened the broth with the rest of the dough, which had been liquified with coconut milk. Then, we set the dumplings in the broth to boil. When they firmed up, each of us rounded up a plate full and smothered them with chicken coconut stew for a mid-day snack.

Iyshakochamma, (Abe Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2010)

When people ask me to describe Kerala, my memory takes me to the plush paddy fields that once covered the region's fertile plains like a vast ocean. Unfortunately, the low profit margins associated with growing rice has made it untenable for many farmers. So, many have receded. However, rice continues to dominate the table in one form or another.


Serves 6-8

This pilaf features my favorite spice trio: cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Their flavors become weak in the knees yummy when combined with basmati rice. (So, you can skip the saffron if your jar is empty.) I use basmati rice from the foothills of the Himalayas, which has more floral flavors than any domestically produced rice I've come across. Be sure to let the onions soften completely. Also, take time to "fry" the rice as it helps to keep the granules from sticking. This pilaf pairs beautifully with fish mappas, and will appear again in a recipe for chicken biryani.


1 cup Indian basmati rice
3 tablespoons butter or canola oil
1 cup diced onion
4 cardamom pods
4 cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cups of water
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1 teaspoon salt


Soak the rice in water for 20 minutes.

Rinse the rice until the water becomes clear. Drain. Let it sit for another 20 minutes.

Heat the butter (or oil) in a saucepan on medium low heat. Add the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Saute for 1 minute.

Stir in the onions and cook until they becomes translucent.

Add the rice and stir to coat granules with butter. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly to "fry" the rice.

Add the water, lemon juice, saffron, and salt. Stir. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook until the rice is tender (10 to 15 minutes).

Remove the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon before serving.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Fish Mappas

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Late one morning when I was in Kerala, I heard a female voice call into my aunt's dining room window. My aunt hollered back something about fish and headed to the doorway just outside the kitchen. I followed her, intrigued by the casual, yet intimate exchange. When I arrived, Martha lifted a wide aluminum vessel from her head and set it down in front of us. Nestled inside were several varieties of fish, including the region's much beloved karimeen (or pearl spot). Like the fresh fish I happened upon in markets across Kerala, their eyes were clear and their bodies, plump.

Martha, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Kerala has a zig-zag of lakes and rivers and a coastline that hugs that Arabian Sea for hundreds of miles. So living off the land includes daily doses of fish for many Malayalees. During my stay, fish with green mangoes, coconut milk, or chili sauce, and shrimp with tamarind, all made it to the table. Yet, what I really crave, months later, are mathi (sardines). My aunts marinated them with chili powder, garlic powder, and turmeric and fried the fish to a crisp. Memories of pairing mathi with a canvass of parboiled rice and a ladling of fresh yogurt still call me today.

Men Fishing in Trivandrum, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

On my last day in Kerala, my cousins took me to Kumarakom, a dreamy resort town in the backwaters. At the Kumarakom Club, my eldest cousin Reena ordered two specialty dishes: duck with gravy and karimeen pollichathu (fish roasted in a banana leaf). When the food arrived, she unwrapped three of the fish and placed the fourth one in front of me. As a guest, I didn't have to share. As I pulled back the corners of the banana leaf, the smell of black pepper, ginger, and garlic rose to my nose. Using my fingers, I scooped up a bit of the flesh. The outer edge had a thin crust. Inside, the flesh was tender and moist. I was grateful to have an entire fish, so exquisitely prepared, to myself.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

We ended the afternoon with a houseboat ride along the lake. I'd had many dazzling adventures in India, but this finale on the water was the most enchanting. For an hour, we meandered through a carpet of frilly green water hyacinths. Lanky coconut trees lazed about, beckoning us to be still. Their wispy leaves lifted and fell with the breeze. Everything in the hidden water world moved more slowly - the paddle boats, the birds, even the children splashing along the shoreline.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


Serves 6 to 8

One of the most appealing things about everyday Kerala cooking is how I feel once I've left the table. With a reliance on spices rather saturated fat, the fish dishes in particular, leave me feeling replenished not weighed down. Try this recipe for fish with turmeric for a nourishing meal.


2 tablespoons canola oil or olive oil
3/4 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 small jalapeno, cut lengthwise
1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
1 pound Catfish or Tilapia fillets, cut into roughly 3-inch pieces
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk or coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon vinegar


Heat the oil in a saucepan on medium-low heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno. Cook until the onions becomes translucent.

Add the tomato and cook until it begins to soften.

Add the fish. Cook for about 5 minutes.

Add the water, turmeric, cumin, and salt, and stir gently.

Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Cover and cook until the fish flakes (about 10 minutes).

Reduce the heat to low. Add the milk and cook for 2 more minutes.

Remove from heat. Sprinkle in the vinegar. Tilt the pot to the left and right to distribute the vinegar.

Serve with rice and steamed peas.
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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Storing and Grinding Spices

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

In our last conversation, I shared tips to help you find full-flavored spices. In this post, I'll share insights I've learned from family and friends on storing and preparing spices.

Air, moisture, and light all cause the essential oils in spices to degrade and their flavors to fade, like a hosta in the hot sun. To preserve the earthy smell of cumin, the citrus notes in coriander, and the honey-ish undertones in saffron, follow these simple steps:

- Store your spices in airtight containers. You really don't need to buy swanky bottles. All the cooks in my family store spices in recycled jars that once held jam or pickled vegetables or condiments. Be sure to air out jars that once held vinegar and other feisty ingredients. My mom insists that labels on old jars be removed and, readily institutes that policy when she visits me. I think the labels gives the jars character, and prefer to leave them on. Potato, poe-tah-toe.

- If you buy spice jars, select glass or ceramic containers instead of metal ones, which can leave an off-flavor on spices. Make sure that the lids are airtight. Some of the sexy looking cork lids are not.

- Keep spices in a cool, dark place like a pantry or a drawer. Try not to store them near the stove as heat strips spices of their essential oils. Also, avoid storing spices in the refrigerator. It exposes them to humidity, which also saps their flavor.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Now a little about grinding spices.

First and foremost, invest in a pepper mill. Please no ifs, ands, or buts. Using pre-ground pepper (that's been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long) is like eating a glorious meal with a stuffed nose. Freshly cracked pepper, on the other hand, brings a warm, lemony pleasure to eggs, soup, and other everyday dishes. You will be amazed how much using a pepper mill pleases your taste buds.

During my recent trip to India, I watched my aunt's cook Shantha blend spices under the weight of a heavy stone rolling pin that she ran across a black stone tablet. Once a common fixture in Kerala kitchens, the stone grinders are steadily being replaced with (much less cardio intensive) electric coffee grinders. The last time my parent's visited Kerala, I bought four Brauns on Devon Avenue for them to present as gifts. (Curiously, the closer I stepped to the exit, the lower their price fell.)

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Some insist on grinding spices with a mortar and pestle, but I grew up with the ever-present buzz of a coffee grinder. Coffee grinders produce a finer powder and incorporate spice mixes more thoroughly than a mortar and pestle. Opt for a mortar and pestle if you are blending spices with fresh ingredients, including herbs. Use a mortar with a porous base so spices and herbs don't slide around as you try to crush them.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

To purge your coffee grinder of lingering aromas, pulverize a few grains of uncooked rice in it between uses. You can also whirl around pieces of bread.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Many fall desserts call for the warm flavor of nutmeg. If a recipes calls for a small quantity of the potent spice, use a micro grater (or the smallest hole of your box grater) to prepare it. Store the rest of the seed in a airtight container for your next sauce or pumpkin pie.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hunting for Quality Spices

Turmeric, Native to Kerala (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

A few years ago, I attended a book signing on the history of Indian cooking. The author passed around a half-filled jar of commercially produced spice powder that she had pulled from her cupboard. When it reached me, I scanned the list of ten or so ingredients. Then I instinctively twisted off the lid and sniffed the contents. My nose picked up the faint scent of coriander and cloves. The others spices had been rendered impotent, and as far as I could tell, the mix would do little to lure anyone to the table. 

It's widely agreed that the tastiest dishes are produced with the best ingredients. The tenant has helped spark the growth of farmer's markets which offer plump tomatoes and vibrant greens. Truth is that the same rule applies to spices. If you want to impart the floral flavor of cardamom in a dish, for example, you need to start with a jar that radiates its alluring aroma. Below are tips I've learned over the years to find the freshest, most flavor-packed spices.

Nutmeg, Kumily Market (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

Shop at stores with a high turn over - Spices lose their potency the longer they sit on the shelf. High traffic ethnic food stores tend to supply fresh spices, and there are plenty of them in Chicago. Also shop at specialty stores like The Spice House that bank their reputation on the quality of their spices.

Rely on your nose and your other senses - Always involve you nose when sleuthing for fresh spices. Sniff packaged spices and hover over spice bins.

Purchase whole spices whenever possible - My mom is 70+ and hates spending time in the kitchen. But she buys most of her spices whole and grinds them in a coffee mill. Few pre-ground spices meet her expectations because they lose their essential oils so rapidly. The flavors of ground cumin and ground cardamom (the third most expensive spice) are particularly fleeting.

Fenugreek, Kumily Market (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

Scrutinize bulk bins - Bulk spice bins may offer lower prices, but it's often hard to assess how often they're emptied. Always make sure that their lids are airtight and, that they are stored away from strong lights and other heat sources.

Scrutinize spice rubs and spice mixes - The labels on spices rubs can be very alluring, but always focus on the ingredient list. All too often, they feature low cost fillers (listed first), such as salt or cornstarch. No one should pay a premium for either item and few of us want sodium masked in our diet.

Beware of unusually low prices - My siblings and I love the adage, "You get what you pay for." Keep in mind that it applies to spices. If you come across high cost ingredients, such as saffron or cardamom, at bargain prices, you're likely getting bamboozled.

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