© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen

The meals we prepare and eat with our families growing up become synonymous with home. Food writer Monica Bhide says she loves to get recipe advice from her dad. But she rarely cooks her creations for him when they're together -- because she misses his cooking so much.By Monica Bhide/NPR

Mussels cooked in a saffron coconut stew, shrimp fritters with just the right crispness, chicken kebabs laced with brandy ? these are dishes I tell my dad about all the time. They are my passion, my creations as a food writer. He often advises me on the recipes, telling me what to add, what to change, what to increase and what to substitute. I listen, because my dad is one of the best home cooks I know.

Just a few months ago, he and I were discussing our favorite chicken curry recipe that shines with flavors of green and black cardamom. I love the way he makes it, and we were discussing changing the texture of the onions. He is in Delhi and I am in Washington, D.C., and these discussions form the crux of our conversations. Yet, in our last talk something was different. Dad kept asking when I was going to cook all these dishes for him.

Strangely, I rarely cook for my parents. It isn't because I am afraid to, feel that they won't like my dishes, that they will complain or that my dishes won't be up to their standards. That isn't it at all.

I grew up nourished in spirit by my father's travel stories involving food and my mother's unerring, mouthwatering dishes. His stories evoked a world of Irish pubs, French bistros, Indian curry houses, Swiss chalets, Austrian pensions that I had never seen, and my mother's hand created perfectly spiced dishes without ever holding a measuring cup, spoon or bowl. She practiced the art of what I call andza cooking, estimation cooking ? always adding a little of this and a little of that ? and always created a memorable dish. My sister and I would take turns doing dinner chores. We would spend time around the dinner table talking about our day, about life in general, about the cost of okra, but always together.

I left home when I was 17 and wandered the world: college, marriage, babies, careers. I grew up in the Middle East, my parents settled in India, and I settled in the U.S. When I visited them, I just wanted them to cook for me. I longed for my mother's crisp fried okra, my dad's cardamom-scented oatmeal, or the best dish ? having both of them in the kitchen discussing and making a mutton curry. I love that they have been married for more than 40 years and possibly making that same curry for that long, and yet they always discuss how to make it and what to do.

Rarely, I will volunteer to cook my creations for them. I tell them about my food, they cook from my cookbooks, but when I am there with them in their home, I don't cook for them. I was raised on their food ? it is the memory and the home of my childhood. While they may miss my chicken kebabs, I know they don't long for it as I do for my father's butter chicken.

I cook for my own children in the hope that I create similar memories. I cook for my kids in the hope that when they go off into the big wide world, the memory of their mother's chicken curry, the scent of her caramelized onions with garlic, the whiff of her cinnamon-scented rice pudding will tug at their heart and bring them back home ? just like my parents' cooking does for me.


RECIPE: Saffron Mussel Stew

When I was first testing this dish for my new book, I kept thinking it was missing something. One conversation on the phone with my dad, and he picked up on it instantly: add saffron, he said. It will give it depth and aroma. He was, of course, as always, right. This is a super simple dish to make, perfect for a fall evening when the weather is getting cold and you feel like something warm and spicy to comfort and soothe you. Buy a nice loaf of crusty bread to mop up this curry. The recipe is from my book Modern Spice, Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster 2009).

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

1⁄2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

3 or 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

20 fresh curry leaves*

2 or 3 small green serrano chilies, finely chopped

1⁄2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander powder

1 1⁄2 cups chicken broth

1⁄4 cup heavy cream

1 pound frozen mussels on the half-shell (or 1 1/2 pounds fresh)**

Table salt

A few strands of saffron

*Curry leaves are available at most Asian sand Indian markets.

**To clean fresh mussels, soak in cold water for an hour. Discard any that open up. Remove beards and rinse well. Pat dry and proceed with the recipe.

In a deep saucepan, heat the oil over high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onion, ginger, garlic, curry leaves and green chilies. Saute for 4 to 6 minutes, until the onion begins to change color.

Add the turmeric and coriander. Mix well and saute for another 30 seconds.

Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the cream. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to a blender and blend to a smooth consistency. If you like an even smoother texture, pass the mixture through a sieve. I prefer not to do so.

Return the sauce to the saucepan and bring to another gentle boil.

Add the mussels and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, shaking the saucepan occasionally.

Add salt to taste and the saffron threads and mix well. Serve hot.


RECIPE: Shrimp Fritters

This is a take on my mother's potato fritters. I have tasted hers, but she has never tasted this alternative that I created. This dish is best served as soon as it is made. The fritters will lose their crispness with reheating.

Makes 4 servings

1 pound medium shrimp, tail on and deveined

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 serrano chili pepper (fresh or canned), seeded and minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic cloves

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt to taste

2 medium eggs

3 heaping tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups vegetable oil

Butterfly the shrimp. (Hold the shrimp with the rounded back facing you. Using a small, sharp knife, slice along the length of the shrimp, cutting almost but not completely through the shrimp. Gently press the halves of the shrimp outward to flatten it; it will resemble a butterfly.) Set aside.

In a shallow bowl, combine the turmeric, chili powder, serrano, ginger, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Mix well.

In a second bowl, beat the eggs. Place the flour in another shallow bowl.

Coat each shrimp with the spice mixture, brushing off any clumps that form. Then dip the shrimp in the egg, allowing any excess to drop off, and coat with flour. Place the coated shrimp on a platter. Continue until all the shrimp are coated. Discard remaining eggs and flour.

In a deep fryer or deep pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Lower the heat to medium and, working in batches, place a few of the shrimp in the pan and deep-fry until golden brown.

Remove with a slotted spoon and set on paper towels to drain.


RECIPE: Chicken Kebabs (Sindhi Murgh Kebabs)

This dish is a favorite with my kids (minus the brandy sauce). I hope to someday make it for my mom and dad; I think it would be their favorite! Lavina Melwani, a friend and New York City-based Indian journalist, taught me how to make these hasty tasty kebabs, which require no oven, grill or special utensils. The recipe is from my book Everything Indian (Adams Media 2004).

Makes 4 servings

3/4 cups water

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon red chili powder, divided

2 tablespoons brandy

1 pound ground chicken

1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped

3 serrano green chilies, seeded and finely chopped

1-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and grated

2 garlic cloves, minced

Table salt to taste

2 teaspoons coriander powder

1 tablespoon cilantro, minced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the water, soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder and brandy. Set the sauce aside.

In another bowl, combine the chicken, onion, green chili, ginger, garlic, salt, other 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder, coriander and cilantro. Mix well. Divide into 8 equal portions. Roll into small round balls.

In a deep pan, bring remaining 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Add the kebabs to the water. Reduce the heat and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. The kebabs will begin to darken as they absorb the water. Remove the kebabs from the water and place on a paper napkin.

Heat a medium nonstick skillet, and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the kebabs and saute until golden brown.

Add the sauce. Mix well and cook for another minute. Serve with love.


About the Author:

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.