By Edlyn D’Souza / Special to the Herald
When I first visited Everett in 2010, it was for a short stay to meet my to-be husband. I was a twenty-something who didn’t know the first thing about cooking apart from scrambling eggs and making chapati (a type of flatbread), so he made most of our meals.
My following trip in 2012 was more permanent. We were married! I left India to come live in south Everett. If I was ever going to stay connected with my roots, I knew I had to learn how to cook. I was spoiled rotten at the hands of my father, who cooked our staples every day; my mother patiently played his sous chef.
When I opened the pages of food writer Priya Krishna’s newest book “Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern Indian Family,” I felt like I was reading my own story. Seven years ago, I didn’t have the slightest idea how I would learn to cook the type of food I’m familiar with. I scoured the internet and found blogs like The Pioneer Woman and Smitten Kitchen. With every recipe I tried, I found a way to add in cumin or turmeric.
Krishna’s mother, whose recipes and story is shared throughout the book, had a similar experience, but years before I did and with no help from WhatsApp. This alone makes her recipes so much more impressive to me.
Her mother immigrated to America from India as a newlywed in the 1980s. All she knew about cooking prior to this was what she saw her grandmother make, as a girl growing up in Northern India. On her own, she taught herself to cook by watching PBS and calling relatives over the phone.
At a time when most women were expected to be homemakers, Krishna’s mother worked in retail while studying to become a software programmer and eventually a manager for an airline software company. She and her husband were working parents, raising their two daughters in Dallas, Texas — a city that’s home to many of this nation’s thriving immigrant communities.
Like any American children, Priya and her sister were always asking for pizza and spaghetti for dinner. Their mother knew that to appease their appetite, she needed to get creative and work with what was available. Contrary to the popular perception that Indian food is rich and time-consuming, “Indian-ish” shows us that it’s neither.
Her recipes make the simplest meal feel elaborate and downright genius. Well-travelled and innovative, she replaces paneer with feta in her saag-paneer and turns whole wheat tortillas into roti pizza. Having eaten four roti pizzas in 24 hours, I vouch for its brilliance.
“‘Indian-ish’ describes my mom’s cooking,” Krishna writes, “60 percent traditional Indian, 40 percent Indian-plus-something else mostly vegetarian.”
Although mostly vegetarian, the book has four non-veg (as it’s called in India) recipes. But my hands-down favorite part of the book is the one-page flowchart describing how her mother begins (almost) any Indian recipe. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure to all things Indian-ish.
There are other guides throughout the book doling out 21st-century essentials like microwaving rice and quinoa, making Priya’s Instant Pot dal, and her mom’s tips for being a gracious host.
“Indian-ish” is a true blue American family affair. Krishna’s father has his 30-year tried-and-tested recipe for yogurt and an essay for why it’s fabulous (Priya calls it his “third child;” the yogurt child was featured on “It’s Alive with Brad Leone” on the Bon Appetit video channel.)
Her witty prose and hilarious tales about her family aren’t just any backstory. They are all part of her lovable brand of “outlandish tales and lack of shame, plus her (mother’s) food.”
Most people feel intimidated about cooking food from India because of the long ingredient lists. Krishna was very deliberate in avoiding this in her recipes. The entire book contains only a total of 17 spices. If you have a modern American pantry, you’re likely to already have all but nine of them — whether whole or ground.
Having set my sights on making the Green Chile and Cherry Tomato Pickle and the breakfast dish Rice Noodle Poha, I first visited Everett’s Imran’s Market to buy nigella seeds and curry leaves.
The pickle begins with toasting or tempering spices in hot oil or ghee — a flavor building technique called chhonk/tadka aka the “greatest ever,” according to Krishna. From grinding the spice paste to stuffing the vegetables and oil in a jar, Indian pickle-making is usually a laborious task. Her mother takes out all the fuss and creates a delicious quick pickle that’s now my new favorite summer condiment.
The Rice Noodle Poha is Priya’s aunt’s interpretation of a dish that is usually made with flattened rice, potatoes and spices. There’s nothing wrong with flattened rice except that it takes one too many steps to cook. This does not, and Krishna was right — the noodles are huge upgrade with zero compromise on flavor.
With “Indian-ish,” the Krishnas further the narrative that “Indian food is everyday food.” Never once will you wonder, “Where’s the curry?” — to which Krishna reminds us in all caps that there is no such thing. You’ll end up a smarter cook of any food, but especially the Indian-ish kind. As for my takeaway, I now make a new tofu green bean breakfast scramble that, to my surprise, goes just as well rolled up in the whole wheat tortilla as it does in a roti.
Green chile and cherry tomato pickle
If you’re pepper-averse and prefer less heat, use half the amount of chiles and/or deseed them. The heat dulls the next day and like most Indian dishes, it tastes even better. Goes great with papadum (a type of cracker) or on top of yogurt. Serves 4.
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon nigella seeds
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon black mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
¼ teaspoon asafetida (optional, but really great)
4 long Indian green chiles or serrano chiles, halved lengthwise (no need to remove the stems)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (from about half a lime)
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, toss in the fennel seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds and cook until the spices are slightly browned and start to sputter (watch the cumin — that’s the best indicator), about 1 minute max. Stir in the asafetida (if using) and then add the chiles. Cook for 2 minutes, until the chiles brown and crisp on the sides.
Turn off the heat, mix in the tomatoes, and immediately transfer to a serving bowl so that the tomatoes stop cooking. Gently mix in the salt and lime juice. Serve warm or at room temperature. This will keep, covered, in the fridge for a few days, but it’s best polished off day-of.
Rice noodle poha
I used a Thai chile in place of the Indian or serrano chile this recipe calls for. For the noodle, a rice vermicelli works fine here. It is easier to mix the noodles with the turmeric, salt and sugar by hand (rather than using tongs). Don’t fret if the noodles break, they taste great just the same. Serves 4-6.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
7 fresh curry leaves
2 large russet potatoes, diced into ½-inch pieces
½ small onion, finely diced
1 small Thai green chile or Indian/serrano green chile, finely chopped
8 ounces thin rice noodles
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¾ teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 limes, juiced to get 2 tablespoons, and wedges for serving
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, stems and leaves, for garnish
Ketchup, for serving (optional)
In a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the black mustard seeds and as soon as they begin to pop and dance around in the oil, which should be within seconds, remove the pan from the heat. Add the curry leaves, making sure they get fully coated in the oil (there may be more popping and splattering, and that’s OK!). The leaves should immediately crisp up in the residual heat.
Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the potatoes, onion and chile. Saute until the potatoes start to soften and brown slightly but aren’t yet fully cooked, 6 to 7 minutes. Add ½ cup water, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes more, until the potatoes are soft and fully cooked.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water and transfer the noodles to a large bowl.
Sprinkle the turmeric, ¾ teaspoon of the salt, and the sugar onto the noodles and toss to combine, using tongs to prevent the noodles from turning into mush. If the noodles are sticking together, add a little bit of the reserved cooking water to make them easier to work with. The noodles should turn a pale yellow color.
When the potatoes and onion are done cooking, add the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, then add the noodles, tossing with tongs to combine the noodles and vegetables. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add the lime juice. Taste and adjust the salt and lime if needed. Garnish with the cilantro and serve with lime wedges (and ketchup and cilantro chutney, if you want!)
Reprinted from “Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family” by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna with permission by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
By Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 241 pages. $28.
Who should buy this?: Well-suited for vegetarian or plant-based home cooks looking to add or expand their weeknight cooking or entertaining meal selections with quick and easy Indian-ish meals.