Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mom’s Chicken Biriyani

Mary and Jesus

By mid-December, I feel deeply vexed by the commercialism that threatens to swallow up Christmas. To cope, I meditate on places that are deeply meaningful to me: my parent’s kitchen, a friend’s comfy couch, a peaceful aisle at the public library. I also ponder places beyond my reach. High on that list is my grandma Amachi’s prayer room. 


Counting all the family trips we took to India and the one time she visited the states, I spent a year with Amachi at most. She was a boxy woman with soft, doughy cheeks. When anyone leaned in for a kiss, she gently inhaled as if trying to breath in their essence. Like other women of her generation, Amachi fastened her hair in bun and wore a white chatta and mundu which seemed to glow when she moved about her kitchen and other dimly-lit spaces.

Rice pilaf - 5

Since Amachi never learned English and I spoke Malayalum like a toddler (‘patti’ (dog), ‘poocha’ (cat), ‘kozhi’ (chicken)) our communication rarely involved words. We pantomimed. We nodded. We laughed. We frowned. 

Spicy Chicken - 1

During our trips, I came to know Amachi best by observing her gentle, rhythmic ways in the kitchen and watching her undetected in the prayer room. By mid-afternoon, she began boiling water for tiffin. Around 4 p.m., she covered a section of the expansive table she had used to nourish 14 children with perfectly steamed plantains, unda rolled from avalose podi, and hot, milky tea. Even now, when I eat a ripe plantain I think of the safety of her kitchen
Spicy Chicken -5

Amachi’s prayer room was the size of a walk-in closet. It had a Syrian Christian cross (with curly ends) and a large statute of Mother Mary with the Christ child, arms open wide. On occasion, I walked by it at night, having misplaced a book or a hairbrush. In shadowy light, produced by the bouncing of candles, I would see Amachi’s outline: head bowed, hands clasps, lips moving in prayer. 

layer with nuts

Mom's Chicken Biriyani

Serves 6 to 8

Biriyani is a richly-flavored Muslim dish commonly prepared with lamb or mutton in Kerala. We always serve it at Christmas (swapping in chicken) and for other meaningful occasions. The ingredient list is admittedly long, but friends that’s what it takes to eat like a Mughal Empress.

final shot

For rice:

½ cup butter
10 cardamom pods
10 cloves
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
Pinch saffron
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt

For chicken:

3 tablespoons coriander
1 tablespoon fennel
1/8 teaspoon turmeric

8 cardamom pods
10 cloves

3 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 medium jalapeno, cut in half lengthwise

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
¾ cup chopped tomatoes
1 pound chicken, preferably bone-in
3 tablespoons yogurt

1/3 cup water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice

For garnish:

3 tablespoons butter
½ cup thinly sliced onions
¼ cup roughly chopped cashew nuts
3 tablespoons raisons


For rice:

Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes. Rinse until the water becomes clear. Drain. 

Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon. Cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the onions and cook until they just begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes. 

Add the rice and stir to coat it with butter. Cook, stirring frequently, until the rice granules separate and begin to look opaque.

Add the water, lemon juice, salt, and saffron, pinching it to release its essential oils. Stir. Bring to a boil. 

Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook until the rice is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not stir the rice while it is cooking. 

For chicken:

Blend the coriander, fennel, turmeric, cardamom pods, and cloves in a spice grinder.

Place the onions, garlic, ginger, jalapeno, cinnamon, tomatoes, chicken, yogurt, water, salt, lemon juice, and ground spices in in medium-sized stockpot or a Dutch oven. Stir together. 

Cover and cook on medium-low heat until the chicken flakes when pulled with a fork, about 20 to 25 minutes. If there is more than 1/3 of a cup of gravy, remove the chicken using a slotted spoon and cook the gravy to reduce it to 1/3 of a cup. 

For garnish:

Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. 

When it melts, add the onions and cook until they begin to caramelize. Transfer to a bowl. 

Melt the remaining tablespoon butter and add the cashews and raisins. Cook until the cashews turn golden, stirring frequently.

You’re almost there (!):

Place a layer of rice in a large casserole dish (or one medium-sized casserole dish and a small casserole dish). Remove the cardamom pods, cloves, and cinnamon stick. 

Top with a layer of the chicken. 

Add another layer of rice, removing the rest of the cardamom pods and cloves. 

Add another layer of the chicken.

Top with the cashews, raisins, and onions. 

Bake at 400 degrees for an hour. 

Serve with cucumber tomato salad and lentil wafers.
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Monday, December 24, 2012

Cucumber Tomato Salad


Cucumber Tomato Salad

Serves 6

Yogurt compliments the intensely spiced dishes that are served throughout Kerala. And so, plain or spruced up, it always finds a coveted place on the Malayalee table. This preparation calls for cucumbers, making it extra refreshing. For an elegant meal, pair it with chicken biriyani, lentil wafers, and lemon pickle.



1 cup finely diced cucumbers
1 cup finely diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely diced onions
Half a small jalapeno, cut lengthwise and seeded
10 ounces low-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream (optional)
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro


Toss the cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno together in a large bowl.

Mix in the yogurt and sour cream.

Stir in the salt and cilantro. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. 

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lentil Wafers



Serves 6

Crisp as a potato chip, lentil wafers (pappadam) bring texture the table. In Kerala, they share the stage with simple dhal dishes, regal biriyani, and everything in  between. Most home cooks buy the uncooked wafers and fry them at home. Being very thin, they cook quickly. Give them your undivided attention to ensure that they don’t burn. 

Lentil Wafer - 1
Lentil Wafer - 2


12 lentil wafers (pappadam)
2 cups canola oil


Cover a large plate or colander with paper towels. 

Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. 

Add a tiny piece of an uncooked lentil wafer to the oil. When it rises to the top and bubbles around the edges, slip a whole wafer into the oil. The wafer will expand one and a half times almost immediately

Flip the wafer with tongs or a fork and cook the other side for a few seconds. Continue to flip until both sides are golden brown. 

Remove from the oil. Hold over the skillet for a few seconds to allow excess oil to drip off. 

Place on paper towels to cool. Repeat with the rest of the wafers. 

Lentil Wafer - Cover
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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dhal Fritters

train 1

Dodging bicyclists, mopeds, and pedestrians, Kerala’s rickshaws and taxis offer a nonstop thrill ride. If you prefer the slow and steady but still adventurous, I suggest taking the train. The windows have bars, but no glass, and each train car has turbo charged fans welded to the ceiling. You can watch the lush countryside streaming by, and feel a whoosh of jungle air before it gets chopped up by steel blades.


When your stomach starts to grumble, you’ll hear the sound of auctioneers stalking the aisles. "Chai, chai, chaiii!" (“Tea, tea, tea!”) "Kappi, kappi, kappiii! (“Coffee, coffe, coffee!) “Vada, vada, vadaiii!” (“Fritters, fritters, fritters!) Or could they be food peddlers? 

Dhal fritters - 2_edited-1

Of all the sights and sounds that Kerala produces, the parade of noisy railway venders is by far my favorite. In the old days, the vendors waited on the platform at each station. When a train stopped, they would start their pulsing chorus. Riders shoved rupees through the windows in exchange for cups of frothy coffee or tea served in steel cups and a variety of fried snacks. If you leaned close enough to the window, you could watch the beverage vendors pouring the tea between two cups held two feet apart to produce froth. Don't try that at home! Before the train pulled away, the cups were passed back to be washed and filled for the next wave of riders.


Now the vendors board the train, dressed in neatly pressed uniforms. American snack foods – which have helped to make much of the world obese – are part of their offerings. Thankfully the oldies still endure: “"Chai, chai, chaiii!" "Kappi, kappi, kappiii! Vada, vada, vadaiii!” 

Dhal fritters - 6


Makes 18 to 20

Crunchy on the outside and cushiony inside, parippu vada is my favorite fried snack. They are made with channa dhal, ginger, and chilies. Think of them as a spiced up falafel served aside freshly plucked bananas, if you're lucky. 

1½ cups skinned and split channa dhal (Bengal gram)
1/4 cup water

2 small dried red chilies, roughly chopped

3/4 cup finely diced onions

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 teaspoon salt

Two dashes of asafetida (optional)

10 to 15 fresh curry leaves, torn into 1/4 inch pieces

2½ cups canola oil for frying


Place the dhal in a medium size bowl. Cover it with water and soak for at least 4 hours. (The dhal will expand as it softens). Rinse and drain.

Place half of the soaked dhal and water in a food processor. Pulse it for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides. 

Add the dried red chilies and pulse until the dhal is very finely chopped and almost forms a paste.

Add the rest of the soaked dhal to the food processor and pulse until it is very roughly chopped, 5 to 10 seconds. The dhal should clump when you squeeze it in your palm.   

Transfer the dhal to a medium size bowl. Add the onions, ginger, salt, asafetida, and curry leaves, and mix together. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Place a couple of paper towels on a large plate. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add a pinch of the seasoned dhal to the oil. When it rises to the top and bubbles around the edges, lower the heat to medium.

Place a tablespoon of the dhal on the palm of your hand and shape it into a loose ball. Gently flatten it into a disk about 1/2-inch thick. Carefully sculpt together the edges with the side of your free hand.  

Place it into the oil. For 4 more disks and add them to the oil one by one.

Fry them for 4 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and cool on the paper towels.  Repeat with the rest of the seasoned dhal.

Serve warm or reheated in a toaster oven.

Dhal Fritters - Cover
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Monday, September 3, 2012

Cooking with Turmeric

Grid green

Flora in Jolly Auntie’s Yard

In Kerala, every vantage point is awash with color. From the sandy coastline to the towering mountains, the earth gives birth to the full spectrum of green. Peppercorn vines ravel around straight-backed shade trees. Moss inhabits even the finest cracks. Airy coconut palms hover over tangles of yellow-green grass, low-growing rice plants, and glossy tea leaves that blanket the ground. Hibiscus and ripe bananas fight for attention alongside yellow-capped rickshaws and ruby red buses proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.”  

Grid 3

Turning Potatoes and Cabbage into Gold

As if not to be outdone, turmeric brings a golden glow to the table. It is native to Kerala, and during my last trip to there, I yanked a huge hunk of the underground stem from my cousin’s yard. At first glance, turmeric can be mistaken for ginger, but beneath its drab brown skin, lies crunchy, carrot-colored flesh that blends the freshness of dill with the earthiness of black pepper.  
Traditionally, turmeric has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes in India. When I was bitten by a perturbed ant during my vacation, my cousin quickly prepared a turmeric paste to help reduce the swelling. A significant number of studies have found that curcumin, the powerful antioxidant present in turmeric, helps to guard against inflammation linked to type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.  

Grid - banana chips

Banana Chips, K.K. Road, Kottayam

I grew up eating turmeric in the South Indian dishes my Mom prepared, day in and day out, and I include it in nearly every savory dish that I cook up, Indian or not. I prefer to use fresh turmeric, which can be prepped just like ginger, with one exception. The juice from turmeric stains everything it touches – cutting boards, counters, fingers! Some people prefer to wear gloves to keep their hands protected from its highlighter yellow. I also always have dried turmeric on hand, which wins the prize when it comes to ease of use. It has an earthier, slightly bitter flavor and, in general, a little goes a long way. 


Making Spicy Fried Potato Balls (Bonda)

Fish curry - 4_edited-1

Seasoning Mild Fish Curry (Mappas)
Another thing to consider when cooking with turmeric is that curcumin, the powerful antioxidant I mentioned earlier, isn’t easily absorbed by the body. The good news is that you can change that by pairing turmeric with black pepper and oil and heating it up. Here are ten simple ways to combine all three and increase the bioavailability of curcumin:
-   Coat chicken with turmeric, olive oil, and ground black pepper before baking it
-   Coat vegetables with turmeric, olive oil, and ground black pepper before roasting them
-   Add turmeric and ground black pepper to the vegetables you sauté for chili
-   Add turmeric and ground black pepper to the vegetables you sauté for pasta sauce
- Add turmeric and ground black pepper to the vegetables you sauté for omelets.
-   Add turmeric and ground black pepper to the vegetables you sauté for soup
-   Add turmeric and ground pepper to your favorite stir-fry
-   Include turmeric and ground pepper when you blacken catfish
-   Include turmeric, ground pepper, and a little olive oil when you bake salmon 
-   Include turmeric and ground pepper in marinades.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Cardamom Kitchen iPad App

Marketing 1

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

My parents left India in the early 60s to begin their lifelong adventures in North America. Children of Kerala’s midlands, they grew up with lush paddy fields, towering coconut trees, and the flavor of hundreds of varieties of bananas – some subtle, some strong. They watched the monsoon rains coax pepper vines out of the ground and give birth to prickly skinned chakka (jackfruit) and fleshy manga (mangoes) the color of the sun.

 Marketing 3

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Like other immigrants, my parents left much of their lives behind when they left India. To quell their longing for home and close the 8,000 mile divide, they recreated the flavors of Kerala in their tiny Midwest kitchen. My mom loaded the cupboards with turmeric and cumin and coriander that she shipped in from a retailer in New York. She cracked open hairy coconuts to shred their chewy flesh and squeeze out their thick milk. My father stocked the counter with bananas and any other tropical fruit he could find. 

Spinach in Spiced Yogurt 1
Preparing Spinach in Spiced Yogurt 

By the time I came around, the ingredients my parents knew as children were easier to find.  I grew up with the heady smell of sautéed ginger and the floral flavor of cardamom like my cousins in India. Even though we were in the Bible belt, we had parboiled rice and moru kachiyathu (turmeric-flavored yogurt) nearly every night.  

Kerala Fried Shrimp 3
Preparing Kerala Fried Shrimp

As a child, I swore I would never fix a Malayalee meal when I lived on my own. But by the time I left home, the flavors of Kerala had sunken into my bones. To recreate the flavors of my mom's kitchen, I began to write down family recipes step-by-step, line-by-line. Grandma Anne’s Stir-fried Cabbage with Coconut. Grandma Susan’s Pan-fried Plantains. My mom’s Mild Fish Curry. 


The Cardamom Kitchen iPad App includes 25 of my favorite family recipes featuring the flavors of Kerala - a place National Geographic Travel Magazine called “Paradise Found." Full-flavored and fool-proof, the recipes call for simple cooking techniques (boiling, stir-frying or sauteing) and can be easily mastered. The App also includes over 130 step-by-step photos to lead users through every dish, start to finish. So if you'd like embark on a culinary tour of Kerala for less than the cost of a tall Mocha Coconut Frappuccino, come along with me.
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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cooking with Curry Leaves

2 copy

My dad (pictured first in the second row) grew up with thirteen siblings: Daisy Maria, Esther, Jolly, Stephen, Rachel, Clara, Elias, Joey, James, John, David, Samson, and Starling. Nine of them followed him to the states beginning in the sixties. When I was a child, our extended family got together at least once a year for a christening. Everyone ate and slept in the same house. My uncles, who are a boisterous bunch, kept the booze flowing. They pulled pranks on anyone they could catch off guard and told outlandish tales that grew taller and taller with each drink. My aunts made sure we were all well-fed. Squeezed in the kitchen, they boiled rice, ground spices, and shared stories of family back home.

Curry leaves

These days, we get together for weddings and to baptize the next generation. Thankfully, the laughter, jesting and general mayhem have continued alongside my aunts’ marvelous home cooked meals: idli (steamed buns) and sambar (vegetable stew), cuppa (cassava) and red fish curry, spicy chicken and stir-fried cabbage. Everything is flavored with kariveppila or fresh curry leaves. 

Chickpea Curry - 4
Spicy beef 2
Dhal curry 2

Turmeric may add a golden glow and cardamom an alluring aroma, but curry leaves are Kerala's most common flavor booster. Tossed in almost all Malayalee dishes, they have the flavor of peppercorns crossed with bell peppers and freshly cut grass. The only ingredient that makes it to the table more often is rice. With a tree growing in nearly every yard, curry leaves are sautéed in oil, floated in beef stew, and mixed into lentil fritters before they are fried. 

Curry leaves 2

In Chicago and other major urban centers, fresh curry leaves are often sold in the produce section of Indian grocery stores. Select leaves that smell strong and have smooth edges. Avoid brittle leaves - a sure sign that they are sapped of flavor. Curry leaves thrive in warm climates. My Uncle Joey and my Uncle Jimmy who live in Florida faithfully bring huge bunches of curry leaves to our family reunions. On the last day of every get together, they are divided in a come-one-come-all sort of fashion. I’ve nearly been trampled trying to claim my share. If you fall for them too and bask in a warm climate, why not plant a small tree in the yard.

fold in paper towel

Curry leaves are best used fresh. To preserve your loot, dry the leaves and fold them in a paper towel.  Place them in an air tight bag (or container) and store them in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Meringue Chocolate Chunk Cookies

I remember feeling bewildered the first time I ate a meringue cookie. I selected an alabaster-like star from behind a bakery counter. Within seconds, the cashier folded it in parchment and handed it to me. It felt weightless.

When I bit into the confection, I tasted sugar. That was it. And it was chalky. Not realizing I had eaten a mediocre cookie, I wrote off meringue for the next few years, inside and outside of my kitchen.

Thankfully, my sweet tooth and passion for baking, led me back to it. I found that if I followed a few simple guidelines, I could use meringue to produce a variety of elegant desserts, including the ever versatile, ever delicious meringue cookie.

Over time, I've paired meringue with toasted coconut, roasted walnuts, peppermint extract, graham crackers, and flirty purple food coloring. But, if you ask me, fine chocolate is it's best companion.

Makes 1 1/2 dozen cookies


3 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon
2/3 fine sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
Cocoa for dusting


Heat the oven to 175 degrees. Place parchment on two cookie sheets.

Place the egg whites in a large bowl. Beat on low speed until frothy on top.

Add the cream of tartar. Increase speed to medium and beat until the egg whites form soft peaks.

With the beaters still running, slowly pour in the sugar.

Increase the speed to high and beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks.

Add the vanilla and beat for 30 seconds.

Carefully fold in chocolate.

Spoon a teaspoon or so of batter onto the parchment paper. Leave an inch between each cookie.

Bake for 2 hours or until the cookies no longer stick to parchment.

Dust with cocoa.
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Friday, March 30, 2012

Cardamom Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche Frosting

I grew up with guinea pigs and remember each of them with great affection. Benji arrived when I was three and I confided in him whenever I had a rift with my parents. Ginger and Pepper came next. Ginger was a mild mannered calico; Pepper, a jumpy red head. Over the course of their courtship, Ginger gave birth to 34 offspring. Every few months, we found the couple curled up with a new batch of babies. Our last guinea pig, Lola, had pink eyes. Her long white fur arched in the air and then descended over her body like water springing out of a fountain.

After living with guinea pigs (a dog, and other animals), I've come to believe that life is lived the fullest with a pet. When I started to look for a condo, I wrote off buildings that prohibited animals.

I spent the week before Easter in my hometown. Before running errands one day, I stopped by the pet store to see if it sold guinea pigs. I found a dozen or so eating pellets in open cages. When I peered in to select one among them, they ricocheted to the corners of their pen like stray pool balls. The closer I got, the more the poor critters wanted to flee. I felt unnerved and rejected.

Just to the right of their cage was a tiny, very blond bunny. Its posture was straight and its eyes steady. When I walked up to its cage, it seemed totally unaffected. It had things to do and wasn’t going to be distracted by a gawking human. I was mesmerized by its confident, content attitude. I handed over $15 to take her home. When I asked the clerks if the bunny was a girl or a boy, they flipped it over, examined its crotch, and said, “Hmmm. We think she’s a girl.” That’s how my adventure with Honey began.

After six plus years, I've learned that living with a bunny is wonder and a commitment. Over the years, Honey has grown into a strawberry blonde boo with cream colored stenciling around her eyes and noise. She has a white beaver-shaped tail and tummy that she keeps impeccably clean. Her fur is softer than silk and there is nothing more therapeutic than petting her at the end of a long day. Like a dog, she comes running when I call her name (unless she's cross with me or  has other plans). She loves children. She loves family. She loves life. Like Peter Rabbit, Honey gets into all kinds of scrapes. She loves bananas and managed to jump into a plate of honey I had resting in my lap because she smelled a banana I had in my other hand. For a split second, her feet were mired in the sticky substance. Then she jumped off the plate, sat on her hind legs behind the couch, and flung her paws in the air hoping that she could flick off the honey. When I tried to whip her paws with a moisten towel, she hid behind an arm chair.

Living with Honey is like living with an animate saw. She chews on everything - furniture, plaster, my favorite books, wires - except her chew toys. It took me a while to realize that she was nestling between the wall and the bedspread (pictured above) because it allowed her to gnaw on the elegant cloth. Despite the fact that I give her three meals a day, plenty of hay, and snacks. And provide her with chew toys?

When I see depictions of rabbits this time of year, I just shake my head. They're shown as mild-mannered, sometimes even docile, and eager to deliver treats to children. If I handed Honey Bear a basket with candy to distribute, she would rustle through the contents, chew a hole in the bottom, and then leave the scene to take a nap.


 Mung dhal pudding (payasm) is my favorite South Indian dessert. It combines jaggery, cardamom, coconut milk, and cashew nuts. These cupcake reflect many of its flavors. Try tucking a few in your Easter basket this year.


For cake: 

Dede Wilson's recipe for yellow cake
2 teaspoons ground cardamom


For frosting and garnish:
1/4 cup raw cashew nuts
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche
1/3 cup coconut milk
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted


Heat the oven to 300. Roast the cashew nuts until they turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool and chop very finely.

Increase the oven temperature to 350.

Prepare the cake batter as directed. Add the ground cardamom to the creamed butter with the vanilla. Bake as 24 cupcakes.

Beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Add the dulce de leche and coconut milk. Beat until smooth.

Add the powdered sugar and beat on low until just incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and beat until creamy.

Pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes. Sprinkle with chopped cashew nuts.
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