There’s a slight chill in the air these days, which affirms my suspicion that fall is here and there’s no turning back. It’s a beautiful season when we rely on warmth not so much from the sun, but from our sweaters, blankets, warm drinks and slow-cooked food. I’m feeling cozy just thinking about it….
Welcome to the fifth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I talk about one of my favorite Indian comfort foods: paneer bhurji.
My first day of school was a blazingly hot and sunny one, just a few days before the monsoons were set to begin. My pale skin and ill-equipped body were feeling the heat, big time—as evidenced by my flushed red color and profuse sweating. It was the type of heat that eliminated any sense of hunger, thirst, or productivity (yet somehow, left my sense of drama completely intact).
Our class broke for lunch, so a few classmates (who would eventually become my friends) and I took a walk to a restaurant near campus. They ordered me a glass of buttermilk, which is said to be effective at cooling your body down. I sipped the salty-sour liquid, embarrassed, but also humbled that these people I hardly knew were trying to make me feel comfortable.
I really wanted the buttermilk to be a magical cure, if for no other reason than to prove that I was tough enough to handle the hot Indian sun—and the tall glass whose contents (in my opinion) were so remarkably unrefreshing.
So I sipped it anyway as I stared at the menu—realizing that not a single dish looked familiar to me. In a short while I was going to have to admit that I needed help ordering—which I was reluctant to do after being such a wimp already.
At some point I caved, receiving two recommendations: masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake stuffed with seasoned potatoes, onions and chilis; and paneer bhurji, a scramble of fresh cheese, tomatoes, onions and chilis….
Welcome to the fourth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I share my recipe for chicken biryani, inspired by an unforgettable meal I ate on an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa.
You can find the story about this meal in the third installment of this series.
For 8 years I’ve been dreaming of a single serving of chicken biryani. I ate it from a tin on an overnight train—a setting I least expected for one of the best meals of my life.
Since that meal, I’ve eaten a lot of biryanis, hoping that I could relive those bites from the Konkan Kanya Express. Nothing has ever come close, so I’ve spent the last 6 months re-creating it at home.
Biryani is a special rice dish whose ingredients vary from region to region and family to family. There are lamb, chicken, vegetable and even fish biryanis—each one a distinct representation of the person in charge of making it. As someone from an Italian family, I have come to understand biryani the way I think about tomato sauce. Every cook has their own recipe, and they’re probably going to prefer the one they grew up eating.
Since I didn’t grow up eating biryani, my source of inspiration was this single dish from 8 years ago. I remembered that it was red-ish, juicy and unmixed—with bone-in chicken and flavorful white rice. As for the spices, I’d only recognize them by taste….
Garam masala is an aromatic spice blend used for adding warmth and depth to Indian dishes. Every family has their own unique blend of spices and proportions, but most garam masalas will at least include cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and black pepper. It’s also not uncommon to find cumin, coriander, bay leaves, mace, and even saffron in a garam masala blend.
Though I’m still fairly new to the world of Indian cuisine, I’d like to introduce my own house blend that will hopefully stay in my family for many years to come. It’s warm with a little back-of-the-throat heat, and a gentle aroma that pairs equally well with meats, curries, and even desserts.
As an added bonus, this garam masala plays really nicely with fall flavors. So when sweater season hits, toss it with a little extra cinnamon into an apple pie, pumkin pie, or your next batch of banana bread.
My best advice for making a flavorful and long-lasting garam masala is to buy whole spices online or from an Indian market, and to spend $20 on a coffee grinder. Keeping the spices whole will contain their flavor, lending to a much more vibrant mixture (think freshly ground pepper vs. a pepper shaker on a restaurant table). If for any reason you’re not able to get your hands on whole spices, I’ve included measurements for using pre-ground spices. Store your garam masala in an airtight container.
makes about 1/2 cup
2 tbsp whole cloves (about 2 tbsp ground)
1 tbsp + 2 tsp whole black peppercorns (about 2 tbsp ground)
2 1/4 tsp cardamom seeds* (about 1 tbsp ground)
2 tsp whole fennel seeds (about 2 tsp ground)
1 1/2 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
- Working in batches, if necessary, grind the cloves, peppercorns, cardamom seeds and fennel seeds in a coffee grinder until pulverized.
- Whisk in the ground cinnamon and ground nutmeg.
- Store the garam masala in an airtight container. It will keep for at least several months.
*1 1/2 tbsp whole green cardamom pods will yield about 2 1/4 tsp of seeds. To extract the seeds from the pods, crush the pods with the back of a knife to split them open. Collect the seeds in a small bowl prior to grinding.