Mom’s Cooking School: Doodhi na debra (Indian squash flatbread.)

When I was a child, my parents had planted and maintained two vegetable gardens in our backyard in Texas City. One of them was devoted solely to Indian squash. And, under the tutelage of my Mom’s very green thumb, the squash (doodhi in Gujarati) grew like wildfire.

I have to admit, I was not a fan. Whenever I saw the long light-green gourd sitting on the kitchen counter — and given how well they grew, it was often — I unhappily realized what we were eating for dinner.

An while I’m still not a fan of eating the vegetable, typically chopped up into a daal dish, Indian squash is a great addition to bread. Simple, hearty, satisfying. This Indian flatbread — which is not baked but made on a stove — has the added tastiness of grated ginger and chilies and squash. Doodhi na debra comes with its own portion of vegetables.

Eat it alone or with some yogurt and/or chutney as a great light meal or snack. I could also see using the debra as a tortilla-substitute and filling it with some eggs or shredded chicken.

Peel squash and then grated. About one cup. Can use regular squash from an American grocery if you don’t have access to Indian squash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add grated ginger and chopped jalapeños.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whole wheat flour, about 1 1/2 cups. (It’s best to source this flour from an Indian grocery: it’s milled differently than the ones in American stores. I don’t know the reason for the difference.) Add in small amounts of flax seed, soy, oat, and barley flours.

 

 

 

 

 

Add spices: cayenne, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, salt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add sesame seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mix and add a little canola oil to bind the flours and spices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add squash mixture to flour. (You’ll want to squeeze out as must moisture from the squash as you can.) Knead the dough. There will still be some water in the squash so mix first and if you need additional moisture, add water sparingly.)

 

 

 

 

 

Add a touch of yogurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the dough looks like when it’s ready for cooking. Pinch out small pieces, about an inch in diameter. Smooth into a ball in your palm. Flatten ball on flat surface area and roll out into a thin circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cook on cast iron skillet on medium heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How each side should look when done.

Mom’s Cooking School

How many meals can one cook in around 60-plus years? I don’t need to do the math to know that it’s a lot. That’s about how long my mother has been cooking. It’s a culinary repertoire that began in India but, upon coming to America, expanded to include Italian-American foods, Tex-Mex, and all sorts of typical American meals families ate in the last 40 years.

My childhood was fairly Normal Rockwell, albeit with Indian-American immigrant touches. My mom made us fresh meals every day; we ate dinner as a family pretty much every night of the week. We mostly ate food from Gujarat, the state where my family is from, a cuisine that is heavily composed of vegetables, lentils and rice. My parents tended gardens during my school years and many of the vegetables we ate — squash, okra, tomatoes — came from that garden.

I didn’t know it then, but those meals set up my own views toward eating and nutrition. I don’t drink sodas and eat very little junk food (ahem, apart from Goldfish and the occasional Whataburger on a road trip.) Healthy eating is important to me.

Of course I didn’t truly appreciate all of that until my 20s, when I was establishing my own homes and living on my own. I didn’t really learn to cook all of our Indian foods when I was younger mostly because I just wasn’t that interested in the domestic arts. (And also, partly because my mom’s sense of perfection didn’t allow for the sort of lopsided and warped-looking rotlis and other breads a novice like me would produce.)

But, for a while now — for likely too long — I’ve been wanting to set about to more formally learn about my mom’s recipes and, more importantly, connect with the family history and culture that these foods represent.

She doesn’t do measurements. She just *knows* how much spice or water or oil to add to vegetables or to a flour mixture to make bread, or how high the stove’s flame should be. She works so fast I can’t try to approximate measurements. So now I’m working to get her to slow down and take measurements — or at least allow me enough time to guess the amounts so that I can take down recipes on paper. I’m sure I’ll annoy her with all of my questions.

This is not about being able to cook like her. I won’t be able to; she is truly a master in the kitchen. (One metric that I cite about my mother’s gifts? She can make delicious dishes, even ones that she’s never even tasted. A strict vegetarian, my mom doesn’t eat meat or meat products and eggs are considered meat. But her omelettes, something that she’s never tasted herself, are amazing.) She made chili and hamburgers for my brother and me when we were kids, though she doesn’t like to cook meat anymore.

But one of my goals for this year is to record this part of my family’s heritage. For many of us, our childhood memories are twinned with meals and I’m no different. The spaghetti lunches after playing tennis on Sundays when an uncle and aunt lived with us in Texas City. The delight I would have upon finding out mom was making one of my favorite foods for dinner or realizing she made chocolate chip cookies. 

I didn’t always like everything that was on my plate; I still dislike Indian squash and don’t really like daal. But, even now, no chicken soup is really as satisfying as mom’s kichardee (a rice and lentil dish) when I’m sick. The foods we ate reflect the lives we lived: our mainstay of Gujarati food, the masala-influenced cheese enchiladas my mom added to the repertoire, the homemade pizza that she makes. They show our journey as an immigrant family with two Indian-American kids as the four of us navigated experiences very different from the ones my parents had in India. That’s worth holding on to.

Best Food Paris: Candelaria

It is probably heresy, but truth is truth. The best meal I’ve had in Paris so far has been Mexican.

I’m serious. A day later, I’m still drooling. Please meet Candelaria, a closet of a restaurant in the Marais, and the home of beautifully tasty tacos and tostadas and margaritas. We will be back.

Welcome to tasty goodness. Candelaria in Paris’ Marais

The menu is simple: two kinds of tacos, a tostada and a choice of entrées between frijoles and guacamole.

el menú

We settled on tacos de hongas and del alambre. (A second set of alambre was drizzled with queso fundido.) And we also got a tostada de queso fresco. Combine with a couple of freezing cold Bohemias and a margarita, whose glass rim was smeared with cayenne.

tostada con queso fresco = YUM!
Margarita extraordinaire

The Paris Bureau

Not even a month ago, L.R.O. messaged me about a friend who was looking for someone to cat-sit for them … in Paris. Since I went out on my own two years ago, I’ve thought about working remotely, getting out of the heat of the sandbox summer. And, now, I had an opportunity to do so. M.L. said he “smelled a scam. But a glorious one.” I have to say, he’s right.

My charge is glorious, a Maine Coon cat named Mimi. A French kitty with American roots! Her home is a tiny place in the 8th arrondisement, near Etoiles. Back in college and shortly thereafter, when I was trying to figure out a way to get a job in Paris so I could live here, this was exactly the sort of place I’d imagined I would live in. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve spent any time longer than a layover here so I’m loving becoming reacquainted with my first urban love.

Each day, I write and edit beside a tall, Haussmannian-style window, open to let in the cool breeze. After years in the sandbox, it is so nice to be able to keep the windows open day and night. As the beautiful morning light fades into evening, J.B. and I ponder our dinner options. (You didn’t think the traveling stagiare would not take advantage of my stay in Paris, did you?)

Yes, many places are closed this month, the traditional time when Parisians go on holiday. Fermé hangs on the door of many big culinary names here. But there are plenty of places open and I’m looking forward to exploring ethnic Paris and her offerings. And away from the most touristic areas – though I will no doubt go there, too – Paris’ streets are fairly empty, giving you the impression that the city is only for you.

A visit to Kathmandu

Here is a travel story I wrote for Gulf Business magazine following my trip to the Nepali capital last April.

The Other Face of Nepal

Kathmandu’s growing hotel options offer tourists a luxury experience away from budget paths.

By Angela Shah

THE NEPALESE CAPITAL has long been known as a backpacker’s paradise. Scruffy tourists fresh from Himalayan treks are easy to spot in Kathmandu. But if you set off the patchouli-scented path, a more luxurious respite can be had in the city.

Our first taste of Nepali luxury came at the grande dame of the capital’s hotels, Dwarika’s. Hidden by brick walls from the city’s streets, the hotel is a cluster of brick buildings of various sizes scattered across a tree-filled compound. Originally built in 1952 as the family home of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha, the hotel has expanded over the decades. Today, Dwarika’s is a living experiment in preserving Nepali heritage, especially its architecture.

In 1952, Shrestha saw carpenters sawing off the intricately carved window and door coverings for firewood. Alarmed, he created a workshop on his property that would not only house these carvings and others he bought throughout the valley, but also the master craftsmen of this dying art so that they could teach others.

The end result is a secluded mini-village in the middle of bustling Kathmandu that provides guests a serene spot to relax and rejuvenate. We especially enjoyed meals outside in the sun-dappled courtyard where the resident dogs and cats would come around and beg playfully. On Friday nights, Dwarika’s holds its weekly barbecue, now a Kathmandu tradition, which features grilled meats from beef to boar and a wide selection of both western style and Nepali vegetable preparations.

But for us, Dwarika’s signature culinary experience is that at Krishnarpan, its Newari cuisine restaurant, which offers diners the chance to sample traditional Nepali hospitality in sumptuous surroundings. (See Datebook below.)

So if Dwarika’s is the yin of Newari hospitality, the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu represents the yang. The American hotel chain built its property here as a “city resort” stretched over 37 acres and looks like it might have been an old Nepali plantation home.

What appeals about the Hyatt is its familiar luxury. After a day immersing all five of our senses along the streets of Kathmandu, the hotel was a tranquil home to which to return. While Hyatt has infused the property with indigenous touches with the herbal bath products and a Nepali-style front lounge, the hotel has kept faithful to the look and feel of premier Hyatt rooms worldwide. “The room looks like a Hyatt room,” my travel companion said. “There’s something nice about knowing exactly how everything will be.”

The Hyatt is conveniently located just a few kilometres from the Kathmandu international airport, making it an ideal stop for the start of a Nepal trip, or an end to one, as it was for us. The day before our evening departure, we took another quick trip to the Boudhanath stupa – the most holy of Tibetan Buddhist shrines outside Tibet and also a UNESCO World heritage site — only a 10-minute walk away.

Families will find the hotel especially appealing as a place to relax and unwind amidst the Himalayas. The “backyard” contains two pools, one reserved for children, three tennis courts and a 1,600-metre jogging track around the hotel grounds.

During our stay there, a monsoon pounded its way through the city, so we stayed in and enjoyed a cozy dinner at Rox Restaurant and Bar. And we got the chance to savour a rare but welcome luxury for Dubai-dwellers: rain.

DATEBOOK

World heritage: Spend an afternoon at one of Nepal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Bhaktapur, an hour’s drive outside of Kathmandu. No cars are allowed in the city, which is full of architectural gems from the 15th century, including the gates of Durbar Square and the Temple of Nyatapola, one of the tallest pagoda-style temples in the Kathmandu Valley.

Holy shrines: The Boudhanath Stupa is one of the holiest shrines in Buddhism and one of the world’s largest. The eyes of the Buddha are painted on each of the four sides of the tower and keep a watchful eye over the penitents spinning prayer wheels or merchants hawking prayer beads, handmade pouches and hats and idols.

Holiday peaks: No trip to Nepal is complete with a sighting of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak. For those of us without the stamina to trek to base camp, several airlines offer hour-long flights around Everest and its sibling peaks. (buddhaair.com)

Eating out: Feeling hungry? Then the 22-course tasting menu at Dwarika’s Nepali restaurant, Krishnarpan, is for you. Following local custom, diners are asked to take off their shoes at reception and proceed to low tables in a traditional style. Our favorites included chicken and yam curries in addition to dishes made with vegetables sourced from Dwarika’s own farm.

‘The Help’

Forgive me, but in the last few weeks Donna Summer has been ringing in my head.

No, I’m not on an ’80s nostalgia trip. But reading this and this does makes me wonder how Summer’s everywoman would have reacted to this statement:

“The problem is not whether maids will use their days off to run away. Rather, the exponential increase in days off may lead them to squander their hard-earned pay instead of saving it to help finance a better life when they return home. The higher risk of promiscuity, extramarital affairs and unintended pregnancies are also possible consequences.”

This was one reason cited by a letter writer to Singapore’s Straits Times about why housemaids should not get ONE day off a week. This particular person cited the hardship on her family. Who would take care of the children or the elderly if the maid has the day off??

Uh …. you?

How do you get to a place where you believe that is a valid argument supporting essentially slave-like conditions for your employees. And not just any employee: These are the people who care for your children and your elderly parents! They live in your home!

The sad thing is, I’m not surprised by such attitudes. That Singaporean letter writer has plenty of company in the Gulf. Most expatriate and Emirati families here, too, have at least one nanny to take care of the kids. At the malls it’s not uncommon to see two or three Filippina/Indonesian women steering the baby stroller or keeping hold of an unruly child’s hand — in addition to carting around the shopping bags — as the parents glide undisturbed in front.

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The best pizza in Dubai is Swedish!

Napkin holder at Verona Pizzeria

Yes, really. I’ll get to the Swedish part in a bit. A good wood oven-baked pizza and a bottle of red (shared, preferably) is one of my favorite meals. Sadly, I’ve found that hard to find since I moved to Dubai. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of Italian restaurants here, but I’ve been underwhelmed each time. For me, pizza is the benchmark by which you judge the entire menu — sort of like cheese enchiladas and Tex-Mex places — and, sadly, there have been few repeat visits to places once tried.

Last night, J.B. suggested we try this “Swedish pizza” place. I mean, I know he tries to stay on the forefront of gastronomy and all, but I did raise an eyebrow. Uh, what? He said a mutual friend had recommended it, so we looked at the website. Verona Pizzeria did indeed feature pies with names such as “Stockholm,” “Malmö,” and “Gothenberg.” The variation is largely in which vegetable toppings are included, but the base is döner kebab, the white kebab sauce, tomato sauce, onions, a sprinkling of mozzarella and tomato slices. And it was located in Barsha, a newish neighborhood born out of the sand only about five miles from where I live. (I was especially intrigued because I am particularly fond of this neighborhood despite the fact of its very un-Dubai lack of glamour — or, maybe because of it.)

Winding through Barsha, which is designed like a rat torture maze, we finally find it at the corner of I’ll-never-find-this-again and Which-turn-should-we-take? Fluorescent lighting illuminated the tiny seating area, which had three tables covered in red-and-white checkered tablecloths, menus and the Swedish-siblings napkin holder (pictured above.) But we were unconcerned about the ambience, because we were overwhelmed by the mouth-watering scent of baking pizza.

Swedish twist! (and, uh, Turkish)

Properly hungry now, we settled in and ordered a large Kebab pizza to share. (Sadly, Verona is unlicensed, as most non-hotel restaurants here are. A glass of cab would’ve paired nicely.) The pie crust was what we noticed first: crispy, with the right chewiness, and strong enough to hold up even with a generous helping of ingredients piled on top. The kebab slices were tender and spicy, and the mix of the tomato sauce and the yogurt-based kebab sauce gave the pie a creaminess not unlike what you would find on white pizza. We devoured our pizza. (Did I mention the crust?) And I can’t forget to applaud Verona because, unlike every other pizza place in this city, it has crushed red pepper! For this reason alone, I will be loyal to this pizzeria.

Det här är bra!

Here’s the Swedish part. Brought in by Turkish and Arab immigrants, kebab has transformed most pizzerias in Sweden, and is one of the most popular pizzas in Scandinavia. So it’s not unusual to hear Arabic spoken behind the counter at pizza places, which is what we found at Verona. Its manager is a Syrian who lives in Sweden and he’s hired fellow Syrians to man the restaurant.

I’m eager to try the rest of the menu, which includes the remaining kebab pizzas which include pineapple or feta, olives or cucumbers, as toppings.  And no worries if you’re not feeling very Swedish. The menu has more than 30 pies, such as the Margarita and Quattro Formaggi, as well as the Mexicana (minced beef, fresh tomato, green pepper, banana pepper, leek green onion and tabasco) and the Indiana (chicken, peanut, pineapple and curry) in addition to a slate of beef fillet pizzas.

The variety is impressive, and at about $13 a pie or less, I’m looking forward to sampling as many as I can.

Food for life

I hit a milestone birthday this year, the ripe old age of  … cough, cough … . It hasn’t driven me to some existential crisis but it does get you thinking, about the past and where you thought you’d be, the present, and what might be in the future.

I certainly never would have guessed that today I’d be writing this as a freelance journalist living in Dubai. But I’m convinced all these roads-I-didn’t-know-I’d-travel have enriched my life and, in ways I’d never expected, have spurred me even more to follow my dreams as a writer.

Today’s guest blog post is related to this. J.B. has finally started his blog, “Mise en Place.” And, like the journalist he is, he’s got big news in the first entry: This summer he’s headed to Europe to learn from Michelin-starred chefs in two stages, food-speak for unpaid internship. Please take a look at the blog, and, if you can, support him along this journey.

Changing careers, working for free at our age?! Emphatically, yes. He’s a great cook – believe me, I’m having to add miles to my workout for a reason – and I know he will thrive among his new food tribe, create wonderful and tasty food, and realize his dreams.

A culinary pilgrimage in San Sebastián

At the vanguard of new Basque cuisine, this seaside town has been luring foodies for decades. A tour of some of its Michelin-starred restaurants and cheery pintxos bars reveals why San Sebastián’s culinary appeal is as strong as ever.

By Angela Shah

There might be fine silver cutlery on the tables at Mugaritz, but when they bring out chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s “beer and olives” —a canny trompe l’oeil of tapa beans disguised to look just like black olives and accompanied by a frothy broth of toasted chickpeas—we’re expected to eat it with our fingers, tavern-style. The soup course is likewise hands-on: waiters present us with individual pestles and mortars, which we use to grind a medley of spices before drowning the mixture in a flask of fish broth.

Chef Pedro at Akelarre

It all makes for a delicious, entertaining extravaganza that lasts through 16 courses, ranging from “edible stones” (baby potatoes coated in edible clay to resemble the gray pebbles found on San Sebastián’s beaches, and nested in a “soil” of coarse salt and pepper) to “Shhhhh … Cat Got Your Tongue!”—an assemblage of delicate strands of slow-cooked beef tongue tweezered into the shape of a tiny bird’s nest. It’s the most theatrical meal I’ve ever had.

The stage for this is the Basque Country of north-central Spain, where I’ve arrived with a trio of friends from Dubai and Dallas. More precisely, we’re in the tiny mountain village of Errenteria, about 20 minutes outside the seaside resort town of San Sebastián (or Donostia, in Basque). We’ve come here on something of a food pilgrimage: with fewer than 200,000 residents, San Sebastián and its surrounds are home to an impressive 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, among them some of the leading lights of nueva cocina  vasca, or new Basque cuisine. Starting with the avant-garde cooking of Mugaritz, whose chef apprenticed under the Catalan maestro Ferran Adrià, we’ve planned to sample as many of these as we can fit into a week. Or should I say afford: with Mugaritz’s multicourse degustation priced at about US$250 a person, our budgets (and waistlines) will stretch to just four of San Sebastián’s haute ristorantes.

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Taste of Old Dubai

Gordon Ramsay, who was the first British celebrity chef to have a Dubai culinary outpost, recently announced he would be closing his restaurant, Verre. It opened in 2003 in the Hilton Creek hotel along Dubai Creek, back when this area was the epicenter of life in Dubai. Presumably, business hasn’t been good since the center of Dubai has shifted west to Old Town and Marina. But more than that, I happen to think that the clients dropped off after paying a significant sum for mediocre food. Mushy peas as haute cuisine? Bleh. It didn’t work.

Majeed at Special Ostadi

Dubai boasts it has an impressive culinary pedigree. And, certainly, the names are there. Gary Rhodes and Pierre Gagnaire both have signature restaurants here. Bice, Nobu and The Ivy have replicated in the U.A.E. from their American or British home bases. The tastes just don’t meet the expectations of the hype or the bill. Considering J.B.’s culinary prowess, I don’t go out to eat very much anymore.

Happily, I’ve embarked on a different culinary journey in recent months, along with the capable sherpas of my friends V.P. and A.G. Both Texas Exes, they were raised here in Dubai and remember this town before … the boom, the craziness, the kitsch. Instead of Gordon Ramsay, Dubai diners should get to know Majeed, the Irani proprietor at Special Ostadi in Bur Dubai.

Ostadi is located just outside of Meena Bazaar, one of the main Indian shopping districts in old Dubai. It opened in 1978, making it eligible for historic status if Dubai did that sort of thing. The tiny dining area has posters of U.A.E. sheikhs, pictures of Dubai, then and now. This is no hyper-styled interior design: one of the wall features is a display of old cel phones, including, as V.P. pointed out, the first ever cel to be available in Dubai.

Three generations can be seen working the tables and the restaurant does one thing: kebabs. Your choice is mutton, chicken or both? We left our fate in his hands and were rewarded with a platter of yogurt-marinated chicken and mutton, along with a pair of those cooked in lemon juice. A saffron chicken kebob accompanied a minced lamb kebab. We also had garnishes of tomato and cucumber slices and chopped green onion and Irani raita to accompany the meat

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I thought the kebabs were great, simple grilled meat. What really made the meal memorable was the hospitality of Majeed. Calling himself “Mohan Singh,” with the unlikely heritage of being a Irani Sindhi, he spoke Hindi to us. He joked around in Arabic and Farsi to patrons at other tables. As soon as he saw me taking photos of the dishes, Majeed selected me as his favored victim. Perhaps it was the most micro manifestation of our two countries’ animosity toward one another.

He stole my iPhone off the table, only later to “return” it wrapped in foil as a KitKat for dessert along with the dates and mint tea. He snuck a lemon into my purse and planned to accuse me of stealing it when we left. (I foiled this part of the plan when I reached into my purse for my lip balm and found a lemon laying there.) Most outrageously, my friend V.P. was conspiring with him, mistakenly thinking I didn’t understand Hindi. Hey, I might be A.B.C.D. but I’m not that confused.

We laughed through dinner, watching Majeed practice his trickery on us and the other patrons. I personally think Majeed and I did something positive for U.S./Iran relations. In any case, you never get this kind of local, neighborhood-y feel in Dubai’s pricey, celebrity restaurants. So, farewell, Mr. Ramsay, as long as we get to keep Majeed.

We also visited (not the same night) Al Tawasol, a nondescript Yemeni place in Deira. We sat in traditional Yemeni tents set up in the family section in the back. The front part of the restaurant is a communal majlis-style seating area for men only. The menu here, too, was very simple. We ordered two half-chickens, one grilled and one baked, over a mound of rice. We ate off of one plate with our hands, Yemeni-style. My favorite discovery about Yemeni food was zhug, a type of salsa. With tastes of chiles, coriander and black pepper, it gave our chicken and rice a nice kick and I’m thinking would be a good addition to tacos as well. I found this recipe online and plan to make a batch soon.

ZHUG
3 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
4-6 hot chilies
1 ½ cups coriander sprigs, washed and drained
6 cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cold water
1. Place cardamom pods, peppercorns and caraway seeds in the jar of a blender and blend to a coarse powder.
2. Cut stems from chilies, leaving rest of chili intact. Add to blender jar with remaining ingredients and blend to a coarse puree
3. Turn into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, then place in a jar, seal and tore in the refrigerator.
Use as a bread dip or as called for in recipes.