Monday, October 20, 2014

Lemon Rice

Adding tumeric to mustard seeds and dhal

I started culinary school with a required course on classic French technique. It was led by a chef instructor who had worked for several renowned restaurants in Paris. A few weeks into the semester, Chicago banned the sale of foie gras. It became a topic of discussion, with the chef advocating for its reversal. Force feeding animals seemed inhumane to me. Nonetheless, I held back my opinion, taking cues from students who clearly felt it foolhardy to break rank. 

Combing fried spices and cooked rice

In the weeks that followed, we made sauces and soups that were invariably doused with dairy. I had never reached for so much cream and butter in my life. At home, I flavored my meals with a cocktail of spices that left me light on my feet. I found the dishes that we made in class numbingly filling, and worried that I might settle in for a nap after a marathon of tastings.

Sprinkling in fresh lemon juice

Towards the end of the course, the chef gathered us all around for another demonstration. When he reached for the cream, I found myself blurting out, “Chef, why don’t you just use some cumin?”

Humored by my outburst, he smiled, and muttered under his breath, “She wants me to use cumin.” 

Then he poured in the cream.


This spice filled vegan dish makes for a great meal on its own. If you’re sensitive to crunchy things, omit the channa dhal or wait a day before digging into it. By that time the channa dhal will soften. 

Serves 4


1 cup uncooked parboiled rice
2 tablespoons olive or coconut oil
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon urad dhal
1 teaspoon channa dhal
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida
1 dried red chili
10 curry leaves
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon minced ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice


Place the rice in a pot. Cover it with four cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the rice is soft. Drain the rice in a colander. 

Place the oil is a skillet over medium-low heat. When it is hot, add the mustard seeds

Add the cumin, urad dhal, channa dhal, asafoetida, red chili, and curry leaves. Cook until the urad dhal turns golden brown, about 3 minutes. 

Add the ginger, turmeric, and salt. Cook until the ginger softens, about 5 minutes. 

Remove from heat and stir in the rice. 

Sprinkle in the lemon juice and stir to combine. 

Serving South Indian Lemon Rice

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Cooking with Asafoetida

If you’re new to Indian cooking, chances are you have yet to use asafoetida – an ingredient integral in the South. Brace yourself as your initial encounter will be jarring. Remember the dust cloud that encircled Charlie Brown’s friend Pig Pen? Well, times that by two and it will seem like a bouquet of roses next to this oh-so-stinky spice. Not convinced? Asafoetida’s sulfuric stench is so strong that it’s also called devil’s dung. Really, it’s that stinky!

Bottles of asafoetida

So, why, you may ask would anyone consume such an off-putting ingredient? For several surprisingly sensible reasons! First, asafoetida goes from acrid to full-flavored when cooked, and takes on the unique flavor of onions, garlic, and perfectly popped popcorn. Some even pick up the notes of truffles. It also blends well with other spices, magically rounding them out. Sambar (vegetable stew), for example, wouldn’t be sambar without the unifying spice.

Asafoetida is also used to prevent gassiness caused by eating cooked beans, peas, and lentils. Take a close look at the ingredients in urad dhal pappadam (lentil wafers) and you’ll find it listed there. It’s also a key ingredient in many pickles and chutneys. 

Urad dhal pappadam with asafoetida

Purchasing Asafoetida

Asafoetida is stocked in the spice section of most Indian grocery stores. It is sold powdered, in crystal-like chunks and as a paste. I opt for the powder, which is easiest to find and simple to use. 

Asafoetida crystals and powder

Cooking with Asafoetida

Asafoetida is typically sauteed in a fat, such as coconut oil, to round out and mellow its flavor. It pairs well with brown mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried chilies.  

Cooking asafotedia with other spices
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