Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chicken Stew

My parents were the first to leave India on my dad’s side, making them the Lewis and Clark of the Pachikara clan. In the early sixties, they were among a handful of Indians who had chartered a path to North America (encountering women smoking and teens staying out all night!!!).  Like many immigrants, they left the old country in pursuit of a dream: obtaining the best possible medical training for my dad. It led them on many grand, yet unpredictable adventures, including a six month stint in the Canadian Yukon.


In 1969, my dad accepted a position as a surgeon in Churchill, Manitoba. Neither of my parents really understood where it was located. But my mom believed that if a place was far away (and hard to spell), it was worth exploring. Just before they left for Churchill, a friend told them polar bears would be there to receive them. It sounded absurd


To this day, there are no roads leading into Churchill. So a few weeks before embarking, my dad shipped their black Beetle Bug on ahead by freight train. Due to heavy snow fall, it would remain hidden, like a hibernating black bear, for much of the year. 


When my family arrived in Churchill in July, there were large slabs of ice topping the Hudson Bay. Freezing temperatures arrived just a few months later, and to prepare for dips to 30 below, my parents replaced the down-lined coats that had warded off frost-bite in the American Midwest with fur-trimmed parkas. My mom’s coat was custom-made by Eskimos and, included the snow white pelt of an arctic fox.


Just before the Hudson Bay froze over, polar bears showed up by the hundreds, thick-necked and hulking, to hunt for seal. The sea ice made for the perfect perch. On occasion, bears would wander into town looking for food. My brother remembers hearing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) warn parents via loud speaker when they were sighted and, watching a mama bear and her baby lumbering across the snow through a large picture window at the Trading Post. 

NEW Chicken Stew - Cover


Serves 6

Flavored with three belly warming spices, this is a wonderful cold weather dish. Serve it with parboiled rice or basmati rice.


3 tablespoons canola oil
5 black peppercorns
2 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks
8 cloves
8 cardamom pods
2 cups roughly chopped onions
1 jalapeno, cut in half lengthwise and seeded
1½ tablespoons minced ginger
1 cup roughly chopped tomatoes
10 to 15 fresh curry leaves or 5 sprigs of cilantro
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, rinsed and cut into 2-inch pieces
½ cup roughly chopped potatoes
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup coconut milk
½ teaspoon vinegar


Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and cardamom pods. Stir and cook for 2 minutes.  

Add the onions, jalapeno, and ginger. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions become translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and curry leaves, if using, and stir. 

When the tomatoes start to soften, add the chicken, potatoes, water, and salt. Stir.  Bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to medium and cover.  Cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chicken flakes when pulled with a fork. 

Add the coconut milk, vinegar, and cilantro (if using in place of the curry leaves). Stir gently and cook for another minute.  

Remove the jalapeno, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon before serving.
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Spicy Fried Beef


In the 4th century, the Syrian merchant Thomas of Canaan is said to have arrived in the port city of Cranganore, Kerala. His ship held 400 passengers, including clergy from the Syrian Christian church. The locals were used to welcoming foreigners from Greece, China, and other far off lands due to Kerala’s central role in the spice trade. Both the Hindu rulers of the Chera dynasty and the Christian community that had been established in the first century by Saint Thomas the Apostle greeted them with warmth. Overtime, the descendants of these voyagers became known as Knanaya Christians. 


Fast forward to present day and you’ll find white washed steeples projecting into the skyline across Kerala to accommodate the state’s diverse Christian community. In the early morning and late afternoon, throngs of children teem about in Catholic school uniforms. Brightly-colored lorries hog the road, in what appears to be a game of chicken, and proclaim “Jesus is King” above their dashboards or honor a patron Saint. On long journeys, travelers can stop to pray at grottoes dotting the countryside dedicated to Hindu Gods or to Mother Mary.  


My family is part of Kerala’s Knanaya Christian community. During family trips to India, I always received numerous wooden rosaries and (itchy) wool scapulars from my paternal grandma, who spent time as a Novitiate (more on that later), and great Aunts, Sister Sophia and Sister Loretta. In their later years, Sister Sophia and Sister Loretta gave alms to the church in the hopes of improving my marriage prospects. (If only it had worked!)


During family vacations, my aunts served us many Syrian Christian specialties including chicken stew, sauteed pork, and roast mutton. 


We also ate our share of beef, and like my dad, I had a sweet spot for Amachi’s Spicy Fried Beef. It calls for stewing cubed beef with a mix of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and other spices, and sauteing the cook meat with shallots. When I sit down to a plate of steaming parboiled rice and her beef recipe, I am transported back to Kerala.



Serves 6

My father always wanted a meat dish on the table, and this zesty beef preparation was a family staple. The coconut slices take on an addictive jerky-like texture after being stewed with the beef. That being said, both the coconut and curry leaves are optional, thanks to the hearty flavors of the other spices. So don’t fret if you don’t have them on hand. (I didn’t at the time of this post!) Serve Spicy Fried Beef with steaming hot rice and plain yogurt or flatbread. 


10 black peppercorns
6 cloves
6 cardamom pods
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 pounds stewing beef, rinsed and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup sliced coconut (optional)
Dash of ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 small dried red chilies
Pinch of fenugreek seeds
10 to 15 fresh curry leaves (optional)
1  cup finely diced onions
2 tablespoons minced ginger
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons canola oil


Blend the peppercorns, cloves, cardamom pods, and coriander seeds.

Place the beef, cinnamon sticks, coconut, turmeric, salt, dried red chilies, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, ½ cup of the onions, ginger, water, and ground spices in a large saucepan over high heat. (For extra heat, tear the dried red chilies apart before you add them.) Stir. 

Bring to a boil. 

Lower the heat to medium. Cover and cook for 35 to 40 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. If there is ¼ cup or more of liquid left after 40 minutes, remove the beef with a slotted spoon. 

Raise the heat to high and cook until there is just enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat. 

Put the beef back into the pan and stir to coat it with the liquid.

Heat the canola oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the remaining onions. 

Cook until they become translucent. Add the beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until the moisture evaporates, about 5 minutes. 
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

Friday, August 23, 2013

Berries and Cream


Serves 4


1 cup fresh strawberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1) Mix strawberries, 1 1/2 teaspoons water and 1 1/2 tablespoons powdered sugar in a saucepan. Stir on medium heat until berries begin to soften. Cool.

2) Repeat with blueberries. (Mix blueberries, 1 1/2 teaspoons water and 1 1/2 tablespoons powdered sugar in a saucepan. Stir on medium heat until berries begin to soften. Cool.)

2) Pour whipping cream into a chilled steel bowl. Stir in remaining powdered sugar. Beat with a hand mixer or whisk until cream develops soft peaks.

3) Divide berries between four dessert bowls. Top with whipped cream.

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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cooking with Urad Dhal (Black Gram)

Legumes (lentils, peas, and beans) are an essential ingredient in the Kerala pantry. Referred to as "dhal" in India, they bring protein and fiber to the table and offer a low-cost alternative to meat. They are used to make hearty dishes that are poured over rice or sopped up with bread.


Of all the legumes used in Indian cooking, urad dhal is my favorite. In the South, the ancient bean is used to make crispy papadum. It is soaked, ground, and fermented with rice to produce dosa and idli – the most swoon-worthy of breads. 


Urad dhal is also used to season oil. Commonly fried with mustard seeds and dried chilies, it adds a toasty flavor and crunchy texture to potato masala and a wide array of other vegetarian dishes


Purchasing Urad Dhal

Native to India, urad dhal can be found stacked among other legumes in Indian groceries stores. It has charcoal-colored skin and cream-colored flesh. The dhal is typically sold in three forms:  whole, split, and skinned and split. If you’re making idli or dosa, be sure to purchase it skinned and split. 

Cooking with Urad Dhal

Like other imported legumes, urad dhal should be thoroughly washed before it’s cooked. I like to put it in a medium sized pot, cover it with water, and swish the beans around. I slowly drain out the water and repeat the fill-swish-drain process until the water becomes clear. 
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

Friday, August 16, 2013

Siddo's Cake

In June, I got a call from my nephew Siddo who lives in Seattle and was on the cusp of turning eight.

“Susie Auntie, can you make my birthday cake?”

He was scheduled to be in Illinois with the rest of the family to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

“Of course, Siddo. What kind of cake do you want?”

“I’d like it to be square.”

“Ok, but what flavor should it be? Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry?”


We continued to work out the details in conversations that followed.

“Susie Auntie, I know what I want on my cake. It’s something very old and something that you can use to buy things.”

A riddle. I liked the challenge.

Before I could respond, Sidd began again.

“Think about it, Susie Auntie. Do you need a clue?”

“Siddo, do you want it to have a dinosaur?”

“Yes! You’re right! Now try to guess the other thing?”

“Could it be money?”

“Yes, money!”

In the last few years, Sidd has developed a fascination with money that no one wants to claim.

With our creative juices flowing, Sidd and I discussed the possibility of frosting a sheet cake with green trimming to resemble a dollar bill and replacing Jefferson's profile with the side view of a dinosaur. But after more thought, we decided to make a cake with a giganotosaurus counting money. It would be cooler.

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

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tomato Pachadi


A few blocks from my condo there’s a corner store that sells lottery tickets, liquor, and an odd mix of pantry items. Every few months, I stop by to purchase a phone card to call India. The proprietor has dense black hair and a bushy mustache (like many of my uncles). I pegged him as a Keralite at first sight. 


Not surprisingly, he looked skeptical when I mentioned my Indian roots. Nearly everyone assumes I am Hispanic (although I’ve also been dubbed Italian, Middle Eastern, and even Irish (?) over the years). He warmed up when I mentioned preparing sambar, idli, and other everyday South Indian dishes. As our conversation continued, we both waxed on about the allure of spicy food and a dreamy look covered his face. By the time I walked out, I’d earned his approval despite my Midwestern accent and fair complexion. 


A few months later I returned for another phone card.  I was looking forward to having another food-focused conversation. Perhaps he would even share some recipes. When our eyes met, the owner gave me guarded look. I mentioned being Malayalee again and he responded with disbelief, “You’re Malayalee!?!”Clearly too much time had passed since our last encounter.  

I quickly refocused the conversation on my mom’s tomato pachadi – a spicy yogurt-based dish.  His body relaxed and a warm smile covered his face. Once again, I had earned his friendship. 



Serves 4

This tangy yogurt dish is best prepared with vine-ripened summer tomatoes. Because it’s full-flavored, I like to pair it with plain rice for a light, but hearty vegetarian meal.   


2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 tablespoon skinned and split urad dhal (black gram)
3/4 tablespoon minced ginger
½ cup finely chopped onions
2 small dried red chilies
1 cup finely diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 cup low-fat yogurt
¾ teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin


Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the urad dhal and dried red chilies and stir. (For extra heat, tear the dried red chilies apart before adding them.)

When the urad dhal turns honey brown, add the onions and ginger. Stir frequently, until the onions become translucent (about 5 minutes). 

Add the tomatoes and stir until they soften, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the cilantro and cool completely.

Place the yogurt in a medium size bowl and mix in the tomatoes. Add the salt, garlic powder, cumin, and stir. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve cold. 

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

Friday, May 17, 2013

Culinary Tour of Devon Avenue

Uthapam: Gluten-free bread

Shopping on Devon

Tour Chicago's "Little India"

Over the last decade, I’ve helped many of my friends navigate their way through Chicago’s most exotic commercial center. The shops on Devon Avenue offer a vast array of unique ingredients, making it the destination spot for anyone that wants to explore India’s food ways and create an authentic Indian meal. 

Basmati rice and fresh produce

I’ve led novice cooks, gourmands (and everyone in between) to peppery curry leaves, bumpy bitter melon, and fresh cardamom. I’ve helped them find feather soft atta flour for chapathis and basmati rice for fluffy pilaf. Together, we play, learn, and explore what feels like one of Bombay’s bustling side streets.  

Fresh mangoes and papayas and steel tiffins (lunchboxes)

I’m always thrilled to share my knowledge having longed for an ambassador, coach, and tour guide to help me discover hidden culinary treasures nestled in Chicago’s other ethnic neighborhoods. 

Produce, Lord Ganesh, and gluten-free snack mix

Beginning the week of June 23, 2013, I will begin offering a 2-hour Culinary Tour of Devon Avenue to assist home cooks and food lovers who want to create spirited Indian meals at home. The tours will include stops at my favorite supermarkets as well as tip guides for selecting and storing spices and copies of my favorite family recipes. I’ll provide you with more details in the coming weeks (here and in my newsletter) about this exciting adventure! If you’d like to receive my newsletter, please email me at

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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mung Bean (Dhal) Pudding


Having grown up on juicy mangoes, plump papaya, and other freshly plucked tropical fruit, my mom often ended family meals with a serving of fruit. (To do this day, I don’t know anyone who can skin, core, and carve pineapple with as much ease and speed). Baking required an irksome degree of precision that she generally reserved for birthdays. In the lulls between, we snacked on Oreos, Twinkies, and other prepared desserts until I took over all the baking. 


At least once a month, my mom prepared an elaborate meal for dinner guests which required retrieving a long list of groceries and being marooned in the kitchen for hours. If everything seemed on task by mid-afternoon, she mixed together dough for gulab jamun (more on that later). If the menu felt out of hand, she would send my dad on a run for a 3-layer Pepperidge Farm cake. I loved how the frosting formed right angles on all four corners of the cake as a kid. 


Like all the women that came before her, my mom has always used food to express love and other deep emotions. So for my dad’s birthday and other very special occasions celebrated with family, she makes payasm (mung dhal pudding). A labor of love, I’m convinced that it has helped sustain their 50 plus year marriage.  



Serves 4

Mung Dhal Pudding (Payasam) is my favorite Indian dessert. It has a rich caramel base flavored with cardamom, cumin, and ginger. The dhal gives it a chunky, chewy texture. Although it is traditionally made with slivers of coconut pan-fried in butter, I grew up eating it with chopped cashews and raisons which is equally delicious. The dhal takes a while to cook. If you're short on time, prepare it ahead of time.


1 cup whole, skinned mung dhal (green gram)
2½ cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons sweet molasses
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cardamom pods or ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1¼ cup half and half
½ cup cashews, chopped
½ cup raisins


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the dhal in a single layer on a large cookie sheet. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice to ensure even browning. The dhal will turn brownish-green when it’s cooked. Cool.

In a blender, process the dhal on the lowest speed until the lentils split and their skins become powdered (about 1 to 2 minutes). 

Pour the dhal in a medium size saucepan and cover it with water. Swish the water around with your fingers to force the powdered skins to the surface. Slowly pour out the cloudy water and repeat until the rinse water is almost clear. Drain. 

Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook until the dhal is soft, about 1½ to 2 hours. 

Gently mash the dhal with the back of a spoon. 

Add the molasses, sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter, and stir. Cook over medium-low heat until the butter melts, stirring frequently. 

Crush the cardamom pods using a mortar and pestle. Discard the papery husks and powder the seeds. 

Add the cardamom, cumin, ginger, and half and half. Stir and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. When it melts, add the cashews and raisins. Cook until the cashews turn golden, stirring frequently. Mix into the dhal. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Kerala Fried Shrimp


At the heart of winter, when Chicago skies are still sullen, I like to reminisce about trips to the  beach.  Among those memories, one of my favorites is a family vacation we took to Kovalam, Kerala. I was ten at the time, and vexed to be spending so much of my summer vacation in India. Back in the Midwest, my friends were playing Jacks, biking with abandon, and plotting to win over all the cute boys.


By the time our family got to Kovalam, we’d spent hours shuffling between a tangle of relatives squeezed in the back of Ambassadors fitted with bony seats. We’d been stuffed with rice, charred by the sun, and pelted by thunderous monsoon rain. We were in need of respite. 


What we came upon back in the eighties, was a mellow beach town that borders the Arabian Sea. We kicked off our chappals (sandals), crossed the warm yellow-white sand, raised our skirts modestly, and frolicked in the low-tide. 

In the evening, we dined on shrimp and other freshly caught seafood that so deftly defines Kerala cuisine. Afterwards, we fell into bed with our stomachs full.  


Around 3 a.m., the electricity got cut. The fans stopped working, and we became a Smorgasbord for a hoard of mosquitoes making it impossible to sleep. With no end to the onslaught in sight, we got dressed and headed back out the beach just into time to catch the ghostly silhouettes of local fishermen heading out for their first catch.   



Serves 4 

It took me a couple of years to realize that hot peppers are my mom’s secret weapon. They not only add heat to her culinary repertoire, they heighten the flavor of other ingredients, much like salt. Cayenne plays the starring role in my mom’s recipe for fried shrimp. For added flavor, puree the shallots and mix them into the marinade before coating the shrimp. 


2½ teaspoons cayenne
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons water
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 large shallots roughly chopped (optional)
2 cups canola oil


In a small bowl, mix the cayenne, garlic powder, salt, and turmeric. Add the water and mix to form a thick paste. 

Place the shrimp in a medium sized bowl. Rub it with the paste, thoroughly coating each piece. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. 

Line a large plate with paper towels. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. 

Place the shallots and several shrimp in the oil and lower the heat to medium. Cook until the shrimp become opaque, turning them in the oil to ensure even cooking. 

Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and place them on the paper towels to cool. 

Repeat until all the shrimp is cooked. Remove the shallots with the last batch of shrimp.
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cooking with Mustard Seeds

2011 Jan 11_2010-12 India_5776_edited-1

My Aunt Iysha (pictured above with her grandson Sean) makes the loveliest lemon pickle. Tart and tangy, it’s the perfect accompaniment to freshly steamed white rice. To show affection, she often sends guests off with a bottle of the potent condiment.

In 2008, my sister traveled through Bangalore airport with a jar of the pickle in her carry-on luggage. As she inched her way toward security, she caught sight of a large sign banning FIREARMS, SHARP OBJECTS, AEROSOLES, and…PICKLE. She obediently, though regretfully, pulled out Iyshakochamma’s beloved gift upon reaching the counter. The airport clerk confirmed that she couldn’t take the pickle on board. Before my sister could throw it out, he asked where she got it. She explained that it was a gift from her aunt. To her surprise, he offered to take it home, insisting that it shouldn’t go to waste.

Mustardseeds 1 - e

Like so many Malayalee specialties, pickle gets some of it’s punch and a bit of crunch from brown mustard seeds. The tiny, gray-purple seeds are related to the yellow variety that is pulverized to produce ballpark mustard. However, brown mustard seeds are smaller than yellow ones and have a stronger flavor. They are available in the bulk spice section of most Indian grocery stores.

fry 1

Whole mustard seeds must be heated to release their pungent flavor. In Kerala, they are commonly “popped” in hot oil using a process that’s akin to making fresh popcorn. Oil is heated and the mustard seeds are added. As the seeds release their moisture, they start a riot, ricocheting off the bottom and sides of the pan. Aromatics, such as chopped onions, ginger, and garlic, are often added to produce a chutney or a vegetable sauté.


Mustard seeds are also used to flavor oil with dried hot pepper and curry leaves, which is stirred into stews, such as sambar (pictured below). 

ms 3

Mustard seeds cook quickly and burn easily, producing a bitter taste. Typically one or two seeds will pop and, after a few seconds, the rest will start to shoot about. Once that starts to happen, watch them carefully. Quickly move on to the next step, whether it’s adding onions or removing the seasoned oil from the heat, after about a fourth of the mustard seeds have popped.

ms 2
Advance purchase required!
Book your Chicago Food Tour today!
buy tickets at zerve
or call Zerve at (800) 979-3370