Manavi is a public policy professional currently living in New Delhi, India. She is definitely a better taster (eater?) than she is a cook, and can often be found giving (unsolicited) opinions about vegetarian food and restaurants! Sampling the local treats, especially street food, in a new place is her favourite part about travelling. She can most often be found recreating traditional Indian dishes from her mother’s kitchen. With several cooking disasters to her name, she still cooks by the book.
Manavi! What are three herbs you decidedly cannot live without?
Coriander (cilantro to the Americans): I use lots of chopped coriander to garnish most dishes I make. It lends not only colour, but also a very distinct flavour to the food. I also use fresh coriander to make chutney (a relish/dipping sauce with puree-like texture, made in the grinder with salt, ground cumin, lemon juice, green chillies; ginger and mint optional) as an accompaniment, that goes well with most Indian foods! Ground coriander and whole coriander seeds are also a go-to, which add earthy notes to both, curries like sambar (lentil and tamarind broth) and dry vegetable dishes like cauliflower/okra.
Curry Leaf (kari-patta): Bright green leaves which grow on a small shrub/tree (Murraya koenigii) in south India. I typically temper the fresh leaves in sizzling oil with mustard seeds, to add on top of practically every South Indian dish right at the end — curd rice, coconut chutney, idlis (savoury rice and lentil cakes), sambar (vegetable and lentil stew). I also like to add some to my flattened rice dish (poha), along with peanuts and a dash of lemon. It has an intense flavour and a slightly pungent aroma, and adds a burst of colour to the food. We have a small tree growing right outside my house, so I pluck a few stems whenever I need it!
Mint: Lush green, so fresh, fragrant and flavoursome, I mostly use it for beverages (aam panna – a delicious raw mango cooler, lemonades, infused tea and regular drinking water), as a garnish, in salads, for mint nice cream (ft. frozen banana), to whisked plain yoghurt/curd, but my most favourite use is in chutney form. I make the chutney using equal parts mint and coriander, green chillies, lemon juice, ginger (+ a bit of yoghurt, which I love but it’s optional). It can be eaten as an accompaniment to main Indian dishes, or with sandwiches and fried chickpea fritters (pakoda/bhaji/samosa). I’m currently trying to grow my own mint plant..
Having lived with you, I think I know the answer to the next question … but what are the top spices you use in your cooking?
Cumin: I like to use the seeds, either whole or roasted lightly on the stove and then ground in a pestle and mortar. This is undoubtedly one of the most versatile spices used in Indian cooking, lending its nutty and smoky flavour & texture to everything — rice, flat breads, as a flavouring in the base for dry dishes and curries, whisked yoghurt (roasted, ground cumin!) beverages (aam panna, spiced buttermilk). My absolute favourite use of cumin is in the Indian tadka (a tempering in clarified butter or ghee) added to dishes, especially lentil curries. The basic (and most precious) one is to add cumin to sizzling ghee, followed by a pinch of asafoetida, and red chilli powder. Variations include ginger/garlic/curry leaves/mustard seeds. As with most spices and herbs, it’s really good for vision, strength and digestion!
Asafoetida: If ever there was a spice I’m accused of being partial to, this is it. Asafoetida or heeng as it’s colloquially referred to India, is a gum-like resin, with a very potent, raw, pungent aroma. It can be used in dried (grated down from its original brick-like consistency) or powdered form, as a condiment in food, in pickles and often as a digestive aid (among its numerous medicinal uses). When added to hot ghee or oil, and tempered with cumin seeds and red chillies, its pungent aroma mellows into a musky one, immediately lifting up the flavour and texture of any dish. I add it to my daals in the tadka form, to dishes like dry or curried potato, and even to my raita (a tiny pinch in its powdered form, along with roasted and powdered cumin and rock/pink salt). Caution: A tiny pinch goes a long way!
Turmeric: If the thought of Indian curry evokes hues of yellow and reds in your mind, this is the magic spice that (along with red chilli) converts a “stew” into a “curry”. This is a revered spice in India, not just because of its extensive use in the kitchen, but also because it has antibacterial & anti-inflammatory properties, is used as an antiseptic for cuts & bruises, used in face masks, and often in Hindu religious and wedding ceremonies. Personally, I love how it dramatically transforms and mellows during the cooking, and the woody taste and the deep golden hues it gives to the dish. I use it in many ways – for practically every Indian vegetable dish/curry and daal, fried fritters, pickles, in milk (excellent for digestion), and face-mask (with fresh cream and lemon juice). (Fun fact: It’s tradition for friends and family to apply turmeric paste to the bride and groom the day of the wedding – it’s meant to give their skin a luminous glow!)
Honourable mention: Cinnamon – I am obsessed with cinnamon and will use it every opportunity I get – baking in cupcakes, apple pie, cinnamon rolls, tea, coffee, hot chocolate!
What are the staples your always keep on hand in your panrty?
Whole-wheat flour (atta): Whole-grain, finely ground flour is indispensable for most north-Indian households. I knead the dough to make all kinds of flatbread – soft, thin, puffed roti, stuffed paranthas (with greens or cottage cheese or radish or mashed potato), poori. The possibilities are endless! These are typically eaten with a vegetable dish or lentil curry, but can also be eaten on its own (spiced with salt/cumin/chilli/carom seeds) with a homemade mango/lime pickle. I often use this flour to bake with as well, instead of all-purpose flour.
Rice (chawal): Rice is the best! I love to cook long-grained Basmati rice with a bit of cumin seeds tempered in ghee/oil – it tastes great with Indian-style dishes with gravy and lentil curries. I also like to make a simple pulao or biryani (using vegetables like peas, carrots, caramelised onions, mushroom, broccoli), and pair this with a fresh, cool yoghurt raita. My other favourite way to eat rice is to soak, ferment, and steam it to make south-Indian style rice and lentil cakes (idli) or crepes (dosa made using the same batter) with a coconut chutney, sambar and podi (affectionately called gun powder, this is a mix of ground lentils, spices, seeds). Buuuut, my most favourite rice preparation is curd rice – a quick tadka of oil, mustard seeds, split black lentils and fresh curry leaves + rice + whisked curd – this one’s a winner — every. single. time.
Lentils: We have tons and tons of varieties of pulses/lentils available, and they can be turned into flavourful curries with minimal effort. When inspiration drains away but the stomach beckons, I turn to lentils — pigeon pea (tur/arhar), split black lentils/black gram (urad), red lentils (masoor). I soak them for a short while, and then put them in the pressure cooker with water to make a thick stew called daal, season it with a tadka, and eat it with rice, flatbread or sometimes just like a soup. There’s one Sunday favourite called chholey (chickpea), eaten with deep fried flatbread made of all-purpose flour (bhaturey), with a very generous calorie count – it’s a once-in-a-while indulgence, but a favourite all around!
Yoghurt/Curd: Not sure if it counts as a “pantry” item, but definitely one of my favourites, adding the much-needed cool element to every meal. Most Indian households prepare their own curd (dahi) using a home-made yoghurt culture. Of course, my favourite way to eat it is in curd rice! Other than that, one can eat it plain, with sugar on top, whisked into a thinner form (raita) either plain or with vegetables (grated cucumber, diced tomatoes, blended mint) or pineapples or with little round balls of fried chickpea flour (boondi). I like to season my raita with ground and roasted cumin seeds and pink salt. Sometimes, I add it to vegetable curries to thicken it and also as a marinade (hung curd). Another fun way to use it is to churn it with sugar (lassi), or churn with cold water and spices (green chillies, roasted and ground cumin seeds, ginger, asafoetida) to have buttermilk.
Potatoes: Potato is used more than liberally in Indian cooking, playing both protagonist and supporting roles. Any time you see aloo on the menu, you can rest assured that the humble potato will make an appearance on your plate. I make it so many ways – as a standalone dish (as a dry preparation with only spices or in a tomato-based curry), sauteed with cauliflowers/capsicum/beans/cabbage/peas, in mashed form in flatbreads, as a spicy & crispy patty (tikki), in fritters (pakoda), fries(!). It is a life saviour, and ensures that even at my laziest, I never have to go hungry!
Plain white steamed rice with red lentil curry (masoor daal) and an oil tadka on top
Who or what is influencing you in the kitchen these days?
I love ordering in all kinds of food, but ever since we went into lockdown, I have been eating home-cooked only, which is mostly Indian. So every few days, I try to mix and match ingredients across cuisines (depending on what I have in my pantry). This one’s going to bother the Purist Police but a new favourite is rice with pesto, sun dried tomatoes, olives and parmesan (I switched out the pasta and used leftover rice instead), and Burmese khao suey with pasta (this time I used fusillini because I didn’t have noodles on hand). They don’t taste like they should but they still taste great. I also made a decent bruschetta recently with fresh basil from my plant!
Do you have any dietary restrictions? How does this influence or affect your cooking?
I am a vegetarian (no egg, except in desserts, weird I know!) but there’s not a single vegetable I don’t like, which works well for me. If I’m making a dish that requires meat as one (and not the central) ingredient, I usually switch it out for an alternative like tofu or cottage cheese, vegetable broth instead of chicken, and so on. Admittedly, I am (unfortunately) very partial to carbs, and I usually select what to cook based on my current craving – be it bread, rice, noodles, pizza, or pasta! [One fun fact I discovered recently was that one reason many Jain/Hindu households may have come to rely on asafoetida as a spice so much is because it approximates the pungent flavours of onion and garlic, which as root vegetables, are prohibited in Jainism. In fact, to date, ascetics and strict followers still don’t consume any root vegetables (to prevent injuring/killing small insects and micro-organisms).]
As for eating out, it can sometimes be a little difficult to find vegetarian food, especially if it’s a cuisine that’s meat or seafood-heavy, but I usually go for a scaled-down (read: veggie) version of the local dish, or a pizza (very difficult to go wrong with that) in case of very slim pickings!
What’s the best meal you’ve had in recent memory?
By far one of the best meals I’ve had in recent times was the Hot Pot at a place called Shabu Zen in Boston. I love hotpot but often struggle to find a veggie one. What I love most about hotpot is the do-it-yourself nature, in which the broth changes flavour and texture as we go along, based on the ingredients the diner adds to it. I selected the plain but delicious vegetable broth, letting the veggies (cabbage, corn, bok choy, carrots), mushrooms, tofu and additional spices and sauces (chili, red bean, scallion, fresh garlic, soy) work their magic through the 2-odd hours my friends and I spent there cooking our own food! By the end, I had before me a bowl of the most amazing flavoured broth that I could straight up eat as soup or dunk noodles or steamed rice in! [They also offer pork, beef, chicken, seafood as a protein option, but I refuse to believe mine was any less flavourful!]
Do you have any go-to food literature you rely on to guide you in the kitchen?
I usually narrow down a dish in my head based on my craving and mood, then look for a few versions of the recipe online, before narrowing down the one I will go with, based on available ingredients. I love NYTCooking, BBCGoodFood, Tarla Dalal, Betty Crocker (for baking). Lately, I’ve taken to trying recipes from amateur home cooks on Instagram. I love reading about food in literature (Heidi, Harry Potter, Pachinko, Pumpkinheads, Little Women!) and watching food on TV (Gilmore Girls!!!) – sometimes even a well-described sandwich or good-looking burger will spur me into action. Big shoutout to a book called The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes, a hilarious and irreverent take on preparing meals and making sense of recipes, and perfect for anyone who has ever been let down by a recipe book, even those by Elizabeth David, Grigson, Hazan and de Pomiane!
What is one of your most cherished food memories?
There are so many – I have come to realise that my approach to food has been profoundly influenced by my experience growing up in Delhi and learning from my mum and grandmum. Delhi witnesses extremely hot summers and very cold winters – as a result, our cooking habits and associations with food are deeply influenced by seasons (+ farming practices). Our go-to foods are water-rich veggies like gourds and pumpkins, fruits like mangoes and watermelons in summers; leafy greens like fenugreek and mustard greens, carrots, radish, strawberries and oranges in winters.
So come winter, I look forward to my grandmum’s pudding made with carrots and lots of sugar and condensed milk (gajar ka halwa); during summers, it’s fresh ripe mango as well as raw mango pickle (aam ka aachaar) that we make fresh every year, and during the rains, it’s always deep-fried fritters made with chickpea flour (besan ke pakode) and spiced tea (masala chai)!
The other food memory dear to me is eating all the fresh food at the farmer’s market every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday in Gloucester Green at Oxford. An elderly lady from Nepal served the yummiest fried rice, kimchi salad and “momos” (a type of dumpling native to the Himalayan region) – I’d eat that at least once a week! I often find myself looking at photos of the farmer’s market wistfully, longing to eat that meal once again!
Do you have any food traditions?
So many, but one that distinctly stands out for its near-universal likeability, is a dish made with a potato curry (aloo) and deep fried bread (pooris), called aloo-puri. It is everyone’s favourite Sunday dish, is super simple to make, and despite being calorie-heavy, is happily consumed by one and all at any time of the day – breakfast, lunch, or dinner! It is accompanied with lots of juicy pickles, spicy salads, and whisked yoghurt (raita). I make it a point to make it for any friends or family who are visiting to eat with me at home, and so far, I have a 100% success rate (or so I like to think)!