Chai to Chai-latte!

Ashish Damle is a dear friend and the executive chef at Belgo Brasserie in Calgary, Alberta. He has worked in some of the reputable restaurants in the region and it goes without saying is a foodie at heart. When I asked him to write a piece about Indian food, he responded with a passionate ” there is a lot to talk about it!”. Following is what I am assuming could very well be just part-one of a long conversation.

Chef Ashish at work

Chef Ashish at work

Believe it or not whenever Indians meet the conversation never starts with “let’s make butter chicken” but there is a good chance it might start by saying “who is making Chai?”

Ever Memory I have about my grown up life in India revolves around making , drinking or watching people enjoy Chai right from the secret meeting with friends smoking Rothmans near Law College (pune)  or lonely breaks between classes standing next to the street side vendor. Chai is a conversation starter and a welcome sign for guests at home.

Old aluminium kettles at a tea stall vendor

Old aluminium kettles at a tea stall vendor

During my first international assignment, working as a chef on a cruise ships, the Indian staff was made fun of for eating with our hands and moving our heads the exact same way to say yes and no. J  The one thing that worked in our favor was that we made delicious, creamy spiced Chai in the morning for everyone, and no we never ran out!!!


The Chai I am talking about is different from the Chai- latte that has been gaining popularity here in the west none the less Chai–latte is its close derivative. I think it is a good metaphor for how East Indian cuisine has evolved in the eyes of the world. As a chef I am constantly trying to put my own signature on what I cook and honor my food-heritage when I can. So in my attempt to talk about the food I love the way I know it I had to talk about how India has influenced the world cuisine and in turn has been influenced by the world.

Sweet and savoury snacks to go with my chai

Sweet and savoury snacks to go with my chai

Indian cuisine as we know is not just one style but a variety of style that changes throughout the country with rich curries from the North West frontier provinces to coconut gravies of the south, Asian influences in the east and European influences in the west. The Study of Indian cuisine is really a study of the history of the region, the many military –conquests that happened and all cross cultural influences that Indian sub-continent has had in the past 5000 years. The Mughals in the North gave us knowledge of use of Spices such as Saffron and Black Cardamom, the Nizams in the south gave us the delectable Biryanis and the Tibetan Chinese immigrants gave us Momos in the east; the Afghans brought knowledge of Clay ovens and Tandoori cooking. The food scene is also influenced by the local geography of course. The people in costal areas eat a lot of seafood and coconuts are seen used in everything from appetizers to desserts.


One important chapter in the evolution of Indian cuisine has to be the Spice Trade. Spices were an important component of Medieval Business. Most traded spices were available only in the Middle East, Persia, North Africa and South East Asia for centuries. Spices were a desired commodity as a food additive as well as a basis for making perfume, dyes and medicine.

The European attraction to spices and grains from the old world began as early as the7th and 8th century with Medieval Europeans trading gold and silver , precious metals and knowledge of fire arms for Spices such as Peppercorn , Cinnamon , Turmeric, Cloves and Saffron . Without getting into too much history I will just say that this brought great riches to the sub-continent and around the 15th century helped in forming the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.

Traders became Rulers and the whole world saw colonization by the Europeans who took the love for use of Spices in cooking and medicine from India to all across the world. As the British, Portuguese and the Dutch created their strong hold in various parts of Bharat (land mass extending from Turkey to Burma and everything in between ) they learned the delicate use of spices and incorporated in their own cuisine and hence gave birth to Anglo Indian Cuisine  with recipes such as kedgeree , and Bubble and Squeak . Also leading to creation of Madras curry powder, and Worcestershire Sauce which was first made by a British army officer in memory of the Indian food he was use to eating when he was commissioned in India.

Use of vinegar, Pork blood, and meat Sausages started to appear in a primarily Vegetarian Society as the result of the 500 years of Portuguese rule in the western provinces. Today Bread or Double Roti is served at all meals in Goa and this rather unknown bread variety of the past is now a main stay in every Indian household.

Defines my passion for food.

Defines my passion for food.

After being the holy land of curry and spices steeped in tradition India’s food culture is changing even though the love for spices and excitement in savoring the best of the best in Indian cuisine is always on trend; Another wave of global influences are at play once again in Indian cuisine. Pizza Huts and McDonald have appeared on the scene and are perceived to be cool and hip. Fast food chains are making their presence felt in the Indian market and giving the traditional eateries new challenges. On the other hand with globalization and globe trotting Indians travelers there has been growing awareness of the international food trends and Indian chefs both in India and abroad are mixing techniques and ingredients and comforting their knowledge thirsty souls by learning new ways to cook our ancient cuisine and creating new cuisines of their own.

Britain today has the largest number of Indian restaurants outside of India and North America is not too far behind. Although The Indian cuisine you are most likely to find in some Indian restaurants is as far a cry from what I know and love about Indian cuisine as the Chai–latte is from the simple cutting–tea that I have at home yet it is a good reminder of the ever evolving food culture.

 Thanks Chef! I am hoping we will get to talk again sometime soon!

Phir Milenge!!

all images and text courtesy © Ashish Damle

Roadside regalment

This week’s  contributors to my month-long guest post series have chosen to remain anonymous. Their only information I can share: They love street food. Here is a sampling from one of their food outings.

Sadak-Chhaap [pronounced sa-duck ch-ap] means pedestrian or road side but if you are in an Indian city you would know that in the unknown street corners are hidden many culinary gems. One of our starter snack is the Batata Vada – Potato fritters. Served very hot with green chillies and chutneys of various types. Sandwich the vada in between bread (pav) and you get the famous vada paav.


The Indian pav is similar to the dinner rolls in the west, but the Indian version has a slightly more crunchier crust and is extremely soft on the inside.

Next stop is Misal-paav. You would know that you have arrived at the right place by the number of people lining up to be served. It is not unusual to see long line up outside a small stall on pleasant days.

tableMisal consists of spicy curry usually made of sprouts, mutter, chick peas and chilly powder gravy. The final dish is topped with  Sev (Indian noodles),or some kind of crunchy savoury treats. Add onions, lemon and coriander (cilantro) to your own liking. It is usually served with bread toasted with butter and curd and papad.


Personally I enjoy dipping the bread in  in the misal to eat. It is a messier way to eat but very enjoyable. Last but not the least, road side tea.You don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy the best tea in town  (in fact it’s the opposite – the fancier the place , the less likely you are to be served a real masala chai). Enjoy a road side tea with an equally pedestrian way to enjoy it. Take my word it is really worth trying.

how to drink tea- 1how to drink tea- 2how to drink tea- 2

Thank you so much for sharing!

If you have any roadside food adventures that you would like to share please leave a comment.

Related posts:

Mesmerising Maharashtra

An a-moo-zing day

Three Six Six

Phir Milenge!!

Sugar, spice and all things nice

I recently heard the phrase “as American as apple pie” used somewhere and I found this information in one of the discussion boards:

“As American as apple pie” implies the improvement of what was once British; it is the mark of prosperity, freedom, and status as the apple pie represented to our ancestors. It is not a mistaken saying or an ignorant remark. It’s about the thick, two-crusted pie we made; the pie our ancestors longed for and cherished in their free homeland. It’s about patriotism and struggle to be an American, to live the American dream.

I agree there are some foods that tell a lot about us as a culture and if I had to pick one dish that symbolizes all that is Indian, It would be the Halwa ( no , not Kheer – the rice pudding- most of my canadian friends are fond of!). This thought struck me last week when I was making Halwa last week for my family. The Halwa has something for everyone. For me it symbolizes all the good and not so good things about us as indian people – There are as many variations of the Halwa as there are regions in India, it is delicious and bold (unlike the kheer), a bit too sweet and sometimes to oily….. 😛 !!! I think it is an acquired taste!

If I were to wait on this post till the time I were to make all the variations I know, this post would not be published for a long time . Hence I thought of linking you up with some of my favourite recipes and variations of halwa. The basic premise is same – A fruit, grain or nut base cooked in Ghee with sugar, some spices and nuts thrown in.

Gajar Halwa  (sometimes known as Gajrela)

I would call this the king of all halwas- because it is my favourite and I think this is the most packaged halwa of any kind. It is mostly made in North of India.  The main ingredients are freshly grated carrots, milk, sugar and ghee. Here in the west , we mostly get the Orange carrot but the best of halwas are made from the red carrot from India or pakistan.

Gajar halwa

Here is a simple video explaining how it is made. Tarla dalal (Rachel Ray of Indian cooking) also has an easy microwave recipe on her website.

Sooji Halwa- sometimes called Sheera in some parts of the country

This version has the semolina as its base and I think this is among the most popular home cooked deserts. It’s simple and easy to make and probably that’s the reason It is not available in package or sold in sweet shops. There is a south indian and a north Indian version of this. While the ingredients are same, the key difference (at least what I know of ) is in the process. In the first version, roasted semolina is added to boiling water and in the latter warm water is added to roasted semolina. You’d think it would not make a lot of difference, but it does make a difference in the find texture of the dish and its experience.

You can find the North Indian version here and the south Indian version here.

Atta Halwa

This halwa has Wheat flour as its base and is another simple and easy desert to make at home.

The most popular version of this time of halwa is to be found in Sikh places of worship where it is served as prasad (sacred food ). I remember me and my friends would go to the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in Delhi and sit for langar (communal food service) only to have this delightful desert. The best version uses equal amount of Wheat flour, ghee and sugar. If my memory serves me right, it is a a bit less solid, bit more oily and hits a high sweet note , but I am almost certain you would go back for more.

Click on the picture to be led to the prasad recipe. You can also find another recipe here.

Kerala Halwa

The Kerala special black Halwa is something most of my north- Indian friends might not be familiar with but it was a must- bring from our annual visit to grandma’s house in Kerala. I am told that there are a few version of this halwa and you would find slight variation in flavour in different regions of Kerala. This is the Halwa I have the strongest emotional connection with. It bring the memories of my late grandmother with it. It uses lot more spicier than its northIndian counterparts and it takes looooooooong time to make(the easy version takes 2-3 hours to prepare- figure that !) a total labour of love. The base ingredient is rice powder and the only one that uses jaggery and in some versions molasses too.

Here is the easy version and the more traditional version

If you are already tired of reading about the halwa, wait there are some more version:

Badam Halwa- with Almonds as it base ingredient. For recipe click here

Dal Halwa- With yellow moong lentils as its base. For recipe click here 

These are the only one that I have seen prepared in my home in India and I am sure there are still many more I am yet to make. Like I said, Halwa is as Indian as can be- Such diversity, such flavour yet there is some common process that brings it all together under one umbrella.

Let me know about other dishes that reflect their culture. I would surely be interested in learning.

Phir Milenge!!

Post 24: Chutney

One thing I have realized since the time I have been blogging is that I would not make a good food blogger. The reason is simple. I forget to take pictures while cooking and whenever I go dining else where, I cannot resist the urge to jump on the food before taking pretty pictures of presentation. Most of the recipes that have been handed down from my mother do not come with standard measurements and have to be based on what you see and taste while cooking. so why another food post? – Blogging about food has been a good way to chronicle some of the recipes that I have learnt.

The word ‘Chutney’ or ‘chutnee’ (pronounced CHətnē ) refers to a condiment made of fruits or vegetables, usually savoury with some tangy flavours thrown in. The chutney is very often ground to a paste like consistency (a barring a few recipes that are chunky in texture). The chutney is usually tangier or spicier than the food itself since it is supposed to enhance the favours of plain dishes. Here are two of the chutney’s I have learnt from my mother-in-law as they happen to be my husband’s favourite condiments to go with idli’s or dosa. Whoever said ” the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach”, knew what she was talking about.

Tomato chutney

You’ll need:

Shallots- a handful

Green chillies- to taste

Tomatoes- 2 medium sized, diced

Garlic -6-7 cloves

Mustard seed- 1/2 tsp.

Curry leaves


salt to taste

Grind together the garlic cloves, green chillies, tomatoes and chopped shallots or mini onions (you can use onions if you want but choose the one that is not sweet) to a fine paste. Heat oil. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves. Add the tomato-garlic paste, salt and let it cook till the chutney thickens to a desired 1-1

You would know the taste is right when you can taste the tang from the tomatoes and a slight flavour of garlic. This chutney serves as a good marinade for chicken and will remain in the fridge for upto a week. I often use it as a base for curries when I am slightly pressed for time.

Ridge Gourd Chutney:

Ridge gourd or turai or beerakai is a common vegetable in India. You might know it as Luffa. yes , Luffa…the bathing loofah is made of this vegetable once dried. You may find different regional variations of the ridge-gourd chutney online but the recipe I have learnt only uses the outer skin of the vegetable.


Image via.
You’ll need:

One medium sized ridgegourd- peel the skin(or the first few millimetres with a paring knife)

Garlic cloves-5-6

green chillies,

salt to taste

mustard seeds and urad daal – 1/2 tsp.

tamarind- 2 marble sized (Soak in water and extract the pulp)

Curry leavesphoto 2-1Heat Oil. Add mustard seeds, urad daal and curry leaves followed by the ridge gourd skins, green chillies and garlic. Cook till the skins start to soften. Add salt and cook some more.

Let it cool and grind with the tamarind pulp. add the tamarind pulp in small portions , taste often to check that the sourness does not overpower the flavour. A good chutney would have a balance of spicy and tangy.

The remaining vegetable can be cut into chunks and used in sambhar or mixed vegetable preparations.

Phir Milenge!!

Post 18: sugar and spice

It has been a long time that I tried a new recipe. Especially an Indian recipe. There are as many  different cuisines in the country as there are languages (Wikipedia says , and I quote, “According to Census of India of 2001, 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers, 122 by more than 10,000”)  and chances are you can find some hidden gems in every local cuisine you try! I recently tried my hand  at a new mutton (goat meat) curry  from a recipe I got from my sister who got it from her husband’s uncle who lives in Ranchi, India and for some reason, not known to me, calls it “atte”

This recipe is slightly unconventional in two ways. One, It uses sugar as a flavor enhancer for the curry (some Gujarati and Bengali savory dishes use sugar too!) and secondly  it uses the ready-made,store bought meat masala (spice-mix). Most recipes from back home call for making the spice mix from scratch but this one takes the easy route!


You’d need:
1 kg mutton or beef(beef takes longer to cook)
500 gm onion, thinly sliced
500 gm tomatoes
1 tbsp ginger garlic paste
1/2 tsp sugar
1-2 Bay leaves
1-2 Basic ilaichi (black cardamom)
Red chili powder to taste.
3-4 tbsp Meat masala
Salt to taste
2-3 tbsp Ghee
Coriander for garnish

1. In a thick bottomed pan, heat some ghee and add the sliced onions. Saute till the onion starts to brown. Add ginger-garlic paste.

2. Separately steam the tomatoes and remove the skin. Mash up and add to the browned onions. Let it cook.

3. Add the sugar, red chili powder, meat masala and rest of the spices. Cook well till ghee separates and add the mutton. Let it cook well in spice mix in high heat.

4. Cover with a thick lid and cook on low heat till the meat is tender.

5. Garnish with chopped coriander.

If you use a pressure cooker, add a little bit of water and cook till 5 whistles on slow heat. This is best served with roti’s or naan but rice will do just fine too. I am looking forward to try some more recipes with the sugar and spice mix and will keep you posted on how it turns out.

Phir Milenge!