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.
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

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. 

Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

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
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

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
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370