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: Roasted Eggplant, or Baigan Bharta — With a Surprising Tex-Mex twist!

Eggplant was not high on my list of foods growing up. Slimy and tasteless, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to eat it. My brother and dad were not fans either  So mom would make some for herself and make another vegetable for us.

Eggplants ready for the oven.

But, thankfully, we and our taste buds grow up. Eggplant is smokey, spicy, and hearty enough to be the main part of the meal. And, apparently, the eggplant is actually an Indian vegetable in origin. Hindustan Times journalist Vir Sanghvi writes that, while parts of India’s cuisines are borrowed from other cultures courtesy of trade with the rest of Asia and the Arab world over the millennia, the eggplant is actually indigenous to the subcontinent — dating as far back as the ninth century BC.

“We gave it to the rest of the world,” Sanghvi writes. Even while the Turks, Italians, Arabs, and others have well known eggplant dishes — baba gnoush, anyone? — he says that eggplant is actually indigenous to India. “It appears in all our ancient texts — even our epics — and we have had the first ever name for it: the Sanskrit vrantakam from which the Hindi baingan came. As for the Arabic name of which so much is made, well it looks like Badinjan is derived from the Sanskrit vrantakam.”

What you’ll need:

  • 3 smallish eggplants, about 8 to 9 inches long
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped (about 4 to 5 ounces)
  • slivered garlic cloves to taste
  • 2 cloves of diced garlic
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 dried red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch asafoetida
  • 1 teaspoon dhana jeeru (a mix of ground coriander and cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon jeeru (cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala*
  • 1/4 teaspoon aamchur powder (mango powder)
  • 1 cup of Ro-Tel (or, if you live in a Ro-Tel deficient area, 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapenos and about 1/2 cup tomatoes)
  • Chopped cilantro to garnish

*Garam masala typically consists of cumin, cloves cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and peppercorns. The exact mix of spices depends on the tradition of each house, and is typically passed on from mother to daughter, something I will write about for a future blog post. You can buy it in Central Market or Whole Foods but it will be cheaper in an Indian grocery store. Garam masala is not spicy; it’s meant to give food a deep warming flavor.

Cooking instructions:

Lightly oil the eggplants. Cut slits into the skin and insert garlic slivers to taste. Set eggplants on a cooking rack that fits on a baking tray (line tray with foil for easier clean up) and broil on high for about an hour. Rotate the eggplants halfway. At the end of the hour, the skin should look and feel crackly. Take the eggplant out of the oven — and once you can touch them easily — peel off the skin and take as many of the seeds out. The remainder of the eggplant will have the consistency of thick applesauce. Set aside.

For the masala, heat up the vegetable oil, and add jeeru and asafoetida on medium-to-low heat, until jeeru becomes brown-reddish. Add 1/2 medium white onion and saute. Add the shredded ginger. Add Ro-Tel (or Ro-Tel substitute) and reduce heat to a low simmer; allow liquid to burn off.

Add salt, turmeric powder, dhana jeeru, aamchur powder, and cayenne. (Spice levels can be adjusted, so taste as you go, to see if you want more salt or spice.) Add tomato paste. Then simmer until you see the oil separating, about 20 to 25 minutes. Fold in eggplant mixture. Top dish with cilantro and serve.

I usually eat this vegetable dish with Indian breads, thin rotlis or more toothsome naan, but I can see this vegetable topping rice or even a grain like quinoa. Scoop it into lettuce wraps for a vegetarian, masala-style taco that’s topped with finely chopped radish and parsley. Or, what about using it as the filling for a different take on verde enchiladas?

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.

Circles Under Her Feet

I’m the American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, and I grew up in small-town outside of Houston. I’ve never quite fit the mold – American or Indian. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to journalism; the entire exercise is to talk to people, get a sense of their stories and who they are, and share them with other people.

I have traveled on my own since my mid-teens, first, in Europe and America, and eventually to many parts of the globe. I started this blog and called it “Parallel Universe” nearly 10 (!!) years ago when I moved from Dallas to Dubai, where I was a freelance foreign correspondent writing for international publications including TIME magazine, The New York Times and Institutional Investor magazine. I had worked for The Dallas Morning News until late 2008, but newspaper cutbacks meant my chances to be sent overseas as a foreign correspondent were slim. So, I decided to make my own way.

Back then, the idea was to write about a place striving for a place among the community of modern societies while also staying true to its traditions and culture. These objectives, as you can imagine, sometimes clashed. I was there for nearly five years. I took my office on the road as much as I wanted: those places included Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Spain, Paris, Hong Kong, Cairo, Tanzania, Kenya, and Thailand.

Parallel Universe has now been rechristened “Postcards from the Bayou” – though the old posts are still here below. I’ve moved back to Houston, my hometown, where I deal with the culture shock of being back in America and grapple with some of the forces shaping both my country and Texas. I see this blog as my little patch of the Web to muse about that, my travels, food and wine, books, and other interests that I have.

Circles Under Her Feet refers to a Gujarati saying that essentially means someone like me, constantly moving with a pretty healthy wanderlust and curiosity for all things in this amazing world of ours. I suppose the English equivalent is, She doesn’t sit still.

Thanks for reading and please stay in touch: angela.shah(at)gmail.com.

The swastika

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

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This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

A divine walk with Dad

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9334The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

Click here for pictures and more about my visit to Palitana. At a place for Jain pilgrims, Dad and I have a chance to connect.

A new journey

Four years ago today, I landed in Abu Dhabi amid the furor of celebrations for the U.A.E.’s 37th National Day. Now, I’m preparing for the next step in the adventure I started that day.

I’m crossing the Arabian Sea to India — the state of Gujarat, where my family is from. They say you can’t go home again, but can you just go home? I’ve started a new blog called “Journey to Gujarat” to chronicle the answers I find to this question. I hope you’ll subscribe and come along with me on this next adventure.

About six months ago, I was thinking about my time in the Gulf, how much I’d learned about this part of the world, a place that I had never expected to call home. And I was a little wistful that I couldn’t do the same in India, in the western state of Gujarat, a place where I have strong personal ties. But then I thought, why can’t I?

So, that’s what I’m doing. Starting in January, I’m migrating across the Arabian Sea, traveling through Gujarat’s varied regions and speaking to writers and playwrights, tribal textile workers and wildlife tour guides, CEOs and teachers. I want to immerse myself in the place that my family calls home and maybe bridge the inevitable gap formed when immigrants leave one country to make a home in another. I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey.

Fire!

Dubai woke up Sunday morning with a fire raging through a skyscraper in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers community. As I scrolled along Facebook, I realize the building looked familiar. Hey, that’s where I used to live!

The fire began at 2 a.m. and wasn’t put out until well in the day. It took firefighters 20 minutes to get there. I’m not sure if that meets acceptable levels of response times for high-rise fires. New reports over the past two days have quoted residents saying sprinklers and fire alarm systems failed to activate – outrageous considering there was a massive fireball above their heads. Amazingly, there are no injuries or deaths.

The spark is still unknown but what contributed to the fire spreading so quickly was the building’s cladding, something that is a common feature on buildings here. The Gulf News ran a story last May after there were three high-rise fires in Sharjah, saying that about 500 buildings were constructed with this cladding. It’s not fire-resistant which I imagine would break fire code in the U.S. Builders here preferred to use it because it’s cheaper. These claddings are made of low-density polyethylene, a petrochemical product that burns within minutes compared to certified fire-retardant panels that repel fire. There are no civil regulations that prevent this.

If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot.

Earlier this year, a building in Tecom and another in Dubai Marina went up in flames as well. The culprit? Cladding that is, in effect, kindling. And then this week we have the fire in JLT. It turned out that it wasn’t my building but the building right to the front and side of us. If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot. I used to wonder about these buildings, what would happen if there was a fire. I knew from experience that they were poorly constructed. It was brand new when we moved in but nearly immediately things began falling apart: sewage smells coming from inadequately laid water and wastewater pipes, the kitchen light fixture that suddenly had water pouring through it.

So, let’s recap: Hundreds of buildings in the U.A.E. are wrapped in highly flammable material. There are no regulations preventing this. And even though at least six recent fires were made worse – resulting in people’s deaths and untold damages in people’s health and property – there are no regulations preventing the use of this material or forcing building owners to replace the cladding with fire-retardant material.

And now, according to an article in The National this morning, Dubai Municipality is saying that since the building is in a free zone – an area where foreigners are allowed to purchase properties – Dubai is essentially not responsible for what happens there.

Given all this, why would anyone live in a high-rise here?

Moscow Moments

How I spent my summer vacation, part 1. In addition to three weeks in beautiful Paris, I joined my parents for a Northern European tour that took us from Norway to Russia. Our last stop was Moscow, a place I’d been interested in since grade school when the biggest threat was the Evil Empire behind the Iron Curtain.

Moscow today is a thriving, chaotic metropolis. It’s home to roughly 15 million people and the traffic jams along its ring roads ensure you experience what that means! As the tour guide led us around, I was struck by how much of the city is built or rebuilt in the last 20 years, either by Russians seeking to replace what the Soviets had destroyed as too religious or czarist or the oligarchs spreading their newfound wealth.

A disappointment for me was that the U.S.S.R. played only a small role in our tour. Red Square had hosted an international military bands competition so we were only able to get an awkward look at St. Basil’s Cathedral and a visit to Lenin’s tomb will have to wait until another day. The “Park of Fallen Idols,” where many statues of Soviet leaders were moved after the 1991 revolution, was not on our itinerary. I tried to engage our guide, who was old enough to remember those days, but she seemed reluctant to speak of things 1917 to 1991. I realize Moscow has a long history; it’s believed to have been founded in 1147, but for an American kid of the 1980s, the Soviet period holds particular sway. Perhaps, следующий раз, or “next time.”