Northern Indian Food Part 2: Your Basmati Doesn’t Even Smell!

Last time, I shared with you the first part of this series with the making of tandoori roti or phulka (delicious Indian flatbread) made in the kitchen of my friend Srividya. Here’s more from our marathon morning of cooking (i.e. she cooked, and I peppered her with questions, tasted everything, took photos and generally got in her way). Today, I’ll share the details on the basmati rice as well as some of the interesting kitchen staples in Vidya’s kitchen.

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One of my favorite conversations with Vidya as she prepared the meal was when she was telling me about locating good quality Indian kitchen staples in the U.S. and about the time her mother-in-law visited and was aghast at the caliber of ingredients stateside. “Your basmati doesn’t even smell!” commented the mother-in-law, appalled. Apparently, basmati has a rather telltale stench about it!

Basmati Rice
Basmati is a longer grain rice frequently found in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Many people who make basmati use two cups of water to one cup of rice, but Vidya prefers to put the rice straight into the butter or ghee (clarified butter), giving it a couple of turns with a spoon before adding 2.5 to 3 cups of water. She says she always cooks rice with butter to make it extra special. She also adds a few strings of saffron smudged in her fingers to the rice for special occasion because, as she says, “we always eat white rice and it grows tiresome.”

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She also says “When we have rice, we generally have something to go with it like a sauce, but some people may want to eat plain rice, so I add a little bit of salt or flavor.” Vidya cautioned to wait for the rice to cool a bit and not overhandle it so that it does not become smushed!

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Vidya says that rice should be “finished,” and that there are a lot of ways to finish it and make it attractive such as the addition of saffron. On this particular occasion, she placed a tiny metal bowl directly on the gas flame of the stovetop and added a little butter (or ghee). Once it was warm, she added cumin seeds and sliced almonds stirred with a metal spoon and watched closely to avoid spattering. After just a handful of minutes, she added this on top of the rice for serving.

Mixture (or Bombay Mix)
At one point during our cooking adventure, I became immensely distracted when Vidya offered me some “mixture.” In fact, I’m pretty sure the rest of our conversation and my photographs suffered because I couldn’t stop thinking about and craving the delicious snack.

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Vidya told me that “mixture” is a pretty broad term for a common savory snack made for diwali mela (or devali), essentially the Festival of Lights. Vidya said it is traditionally made in south India in Tamalan where she comes from in a large group in vast quantities (she offered it in a typical U.S. popcorn tin, and I could have eaten the whole thing). I’ve made her promise to let me participate the next time that a group gathers to make this delicious treat. It often contains Spanish peanuts (or other ground nuts), fennel seeds coated in sugar, rice crispies, corn flakes, puffed chana, medium dry noodles, ribbon pakoda, curry leaf, red chili powder, salt, asafoetida, boondi, maida flour chips and other delights.

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It ends up being a crunchy, savory, slightly spicy and sweet snack that both my toddler and I inhaled. Frankly, I have to wonder if Chex Mix is just a glorified, mainstream version of the delightful “mixture!” I often found the equivalent online referred to as “Bombay Mix.” Here are a few resources online to learn more about ingredients and details:

Bombay Mix

Indian Mixture Recipe

Chivda Spicy Indian Snack Mix

Kitchen Tools & Dishes

I admit that I’m intrigued with all international and ethnic foods and love learning about the traditional dishes and customs of other cultures, so maybe I find all this more interesting than most, but I loved exploring all the tools in Vidya’s kitchen almost as much as our conversation (and the FOOD).

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For example, she used several large metal bowls with her grandmother’s initials on them for everyday prep – they were probably 50 – 60 years old.

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I actually use metal cups and dishes for my kids in place of plastics, but they haven’t been easy to find. I was smitten with all the very basic, durable metal bowls, edged plates and cups that Vidya used interchangeably for prep and serving. Now I know that my local Indian market is a great source for my efforts to avoid plastic storage containers and dishes in my own kitchen.

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Indian Kitchen Staples

While making the malai kofta (which I’ll share next time), Vidya mentioned that she flavored the dish with fresh ginger root. She said “Some people add garlic, but I don’t like it – in my community, garlic and ginger are considered sensuous foods and were not allowed into the home along with onion and eggs.”

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She told me that there was always a cow in the house, providing fresh milk daily as well as the makings for yogurt and butter. However, no meat or eggs (which might hatch) were ever consumed. Vidya says to this day her father will not eat eggs, and only very rarely might have a small bit of cake. She said her mother has eaten eggs, but she only recently started giving her own kids boiled eggs on occasion.

Vidya shared that in her grandmother’s kitchen, there were two gas cooktops and that rice was always prepared separately. She said there were two pantries – one for larger bulk items and one for daily use. She shared that most preparation was not at a table, counter or a large work surface, but rather seated on the floor in a circle with other women.

Another interesting comment Vidya made about the dishes we prepared was that most of the ingredients were kept on hand, and that she keeps her larder (or pantry) full. Of course, I had to ask permission to be nosy and get into her pantry. I, too, love a full pantry (as my friend nwaFoodie will attest and shared in her recent tour of my pantry and her own)! I love the idea that I can quickly prepare a meal for guests even if I didn’t anticipate their arrival.

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However, my very favorite find in Vidya’s kitchen was the metal spice storage bowl kept handy in a drawer near the stovetop with the primary/most frequently used spices. Individual bowls and one lid plus handy spoons meant that the most often used items could be easily accessed without needing to open and close multiple spice jars and containers. You better believe this system is HIGH on my kitchen wish list!

Apologies for making you wait one more week for the details on the malai kofta, but I had too much fun in Vidya’s kitchen to confine it to just one post!

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One comment

  1. […] I nearly came unglued at the scene (brilliantly revealed deep into the movie) where the spices from Hassan’s mother are shared with him. Learning about my friend Vidya’s spice sampler was one of my favorite moments in her kitchen. […]

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