The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, September 23, 2007

My Own Private India (Not Really)

by Melissa Bell

I’ve been asked to “oversee” dinner this coming Wednesday at Bob’s place. Friends are visiting from Vancouver (a surprise birthday party for one of them on Saturday), and Bob suggested I do Indian cuisine. Seems he’s bought some of the newly-introduced naan from his local Loblaws and decided we should build an entire dinner party menu around it. Okay. I’m cool with that. I adore Indian food. But aside from the one time I attempted a shrimp recipe with its origins in Goa that left my friends clawing the tablecloth toward the water pitcher or racing for an ice-cold beer, I’ve never really ventured into the “Indian kitchen” on my own. Oh wait. I did serve a lamb curry to an old boyfriend once. He was violently ill the following day and the day after that. I don’t think it was my doing because I’d eaten the same thing and was perfectly fine. Still. Me and Indian food. I’ve got a bit of a sketchy past. And I didn't even mention the soup-based tribute to the Ganges that Bob and I pulled together for an Indian buffet many years ago. Oh wait, I just did. Anyway, let's move on, shall we?

This past week, as I pored over my collection of cookbooks and magazines, I had no trouble imagining the lovely things I wanted to make. But almost every intriguing recipe involved an ingredient that I had never heard of or seen even in my own very ethnically-diverse and super-stocked neighbourhood Superstore. Like asafoetida. Or black sesame seeds. Besan. And gram flour. Dried curry leaves. Some of the recipes suggested substitutions, but sometimes those suggested substitutes seemed ridiculous. To go to the trouble of attempting to create food that I dearly love, I want to be authentic! Do I dare use Sealtest cottage cheese in place of paneer as one recipe urged? Could I make my own paneer? Do I really need to hunt down chickpea flour so that my effort at kanda bhajia doesn’t wind up tasting like onion rings from Harvey’s? While I do have some time on my hands these days, I was hoping to not have to deal with the parking issues and anxiety involved with visiting my city’s beloved Kensington Market in order to procure all the necessary “stuff”. But I certainly didn’t want to be stuck with serving dinner guests a meal where all the components taste like they’ve been created from the same bag of Cheetos-coloured curry powder and jar of jammy-tasting chutney.

So imagine my bliss upon discovering a huge Asian market almost right in my own backyard. Amazing. Talk about the Law of Attraction at work. I’d be happy to share the name of the place with all of you, except the front signage is in Chinese and I don’t speak Chinese (yet). The only info available outside in English tells you that they have fresh fish and they sell pho and they repair watches. This is why I missed going in there for the year it’s been open. I thought they just sold fish and pho. And my watch works fine, thanks.

Enlightenment is a wonderful thing. Now I have a beautiful place so deliciously handy that regularly carries fresh kaffir lime leaves, winter melon, durian (!) and countless variations on the joys of salty tamarind candy. A foodie supermarket paradise! And the prices? Unbelievably fantastic. I could have spent all day there. I cannot wait to return on Tuesday to shop for all the party ingredients, secure in the knowledge that what’s needed will be available, and that I won’t be breaking the bank gathering all the required elements.

Indeed, the aisle of Indian products alone is enormous. Everything I’ve been encountering in all the recipes I want to try is all right there. Whee! We can have the kanda bhajia after all! One thing I didn’t investigate was the paneer situation. I might actually have to make my own. But the ingredients necessary for that are pretty much just whole milk and lemon juice and the ability to follow instructions. I have to trust that I still know how to do that.

In any event, we’re starting the evening off with these (recipe shamelessly nicked from Food & Drink magazine’s Holiday issue 2006):

Indian Pea and Potato Pancakes

The recipe calls for serving this with labneh, so if you’ve got some handy, go for it. If not, the recipe people suggest minted yogurt which sounds reasonable to me. “Stir coarsely chopped fresh mint, white onion and pepper into full-fat plain yogurt.” Exact quantities were not provided. But what the heck. It's just a yogurt dip, not world peace.

4 russet potatoes
1 onion
1 egg
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ tsp coriander
¼ tsp cumin
½ tsp garam masala*
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
½ cup peas (frozen petit pois work well say the recipe people)
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Minted yogurt (see above)

1. Peel and grate potatoes and onion in a food processor or by hand. Transfer to a sieve or kitchen towel and squeeze out excess water. In a large bowl, combine grated mixture with egg, flour, spices, ginger and cilantro. Stir in peas and season well with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat. Drop mixture into skillet, a few spoonfuls at a time. (The recipe people say you can achieve crisp lacy pancakes by flattening with a spoon. I will do this!) Fry in batches, turning once, for 4 minutes a side or until golden brown.
3. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with minted yogurt.

Makes 16 pancakes. (I expect to be doubling this, even though it's only going to be five of us. We do loves our fried food/pre-dinner nibblies.)

*Garam masala, whenever it was mentioned in an issue of Gourmet magazine prior to recent times, always had an asterisk next to it saying it could be found at Asian markets. Well, we don’t need to worry about that detail anymore at all, do we?

Have a great Sunday, everyone.


Blogger Anne said...

I can find black sesame seeds and chickpea flour at my local grocery store, which is tiny, but somehow manages to carry almost everything I need. All that other stuff, however, would be a challenge, which is why I've yet to try a recipe from my Indian cookbook.

Have a great party!

Sun Sep 23, 09:33:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Chumplet said...

You're a brave, brave woman. In my house, an exotic dish usually involves a jar of salsa and some nachos.

I Love the recipes in Food & Drink! I made the cucumber/tomato/parmesan thingies from the summer issue at 'Bitches' Night Out' and they were pretty good. Those pancakes sound delicious.

Sun Sep 23, 10:53:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew said...

My mouth is watering. I'm crazy for potato pancakes! An Indian version would be insanely good! Mail the leftovers to

Best of luck to you, MelBel!

Mon Sep 24, 04:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Yum! I am so spoiled here in Vancouver that it's easier to go out and eat Indian that to make it myself. I'm much too impatient.

My good friend's mum's garam masala is the best. As you probably know it's like a family crest, masala. No one is ever exactly alike.

Good luck with your culinary adventure, Mel!

Mon Sep 24, 06:31:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Thanks everyone. I begin tomorrow. It's really been the planning that's been complicated. Once I set up, expect it'll be a fairly quick assembly. I put together a somewhat ridiculously ambitious menu (Note to self: Stop menu planning when on a diet!), but I just couldn't help myself! Food porn, y'know?

Mon Sep 24, 09:42:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

It all sounds delicious, Mel, but I've never gotten close to Indian food. The smell of the curry spices turn me off. Colin keeps urging me to try a local Indian restaurant. I was interested in your mention of durian. It and its smell figure quite prominently in Larissa Lai's book about a fish girl. I'll check the title and come back.

Thu Sep 27, 01:37:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

"Salt Fish Girl."

Thu Sep 27, 01:37:00 am GMT-4  

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