Ever since we came to live in Delhi in early 2002, we have always lived in Nizamuddin, not far from the wall around one of the most beautiful parks in the world; the World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb and its beautiful gardens. There is a special entrance to the tomb complex for residents of the neighborhood and we are allowed to go in from about an hour before sunrise till two hours after. Early birds can take a walk around or practice yoga on the huge lawns but if you are not one of the early morning walkers you could walk around one of the parks later in the afternoon when the children and their Aya (Nanny) go out to play.
Nizamuddin is a very small neighborhood with many little parks and not too many cars but the morning is the noisiest time of the day. The kabadi wala rides his bicycle and calls out loud for people to sell him their used newspapers; the kuri wala comes to your doorstep to collect yesterday’s garbage, and of course the subzi walas; the vegetable and fruit vendors bring their carts and call for people to come out and buy whatever fresh vegetable or fruit they need for the day’s cooking. Later in the morning other street vendors on bicycles will offer to fix your pressure cooker or sell you a new broom stick. One gets used to these noises and could even find them comforting in a time when Delhi is changing so fast and rapidly moving into the 21st century.
In the last few years the neighborhood has become very ‘posh’ and land owners have discovered the potential of renting to expats (foreigners who come to live and work in India and have their rent paid by the company that employs them) who are willing to pay a lot of money for a nice location. The old houses are slowly being demolished to make way for new three, or even four-story high buildings that provide a nice view of the tomb.
In the first few years we lived in one of the older houses where the landlord and his family occupied the ground floor, as in many of the houses in the neighborhood and in Delhi in general. We used to ask them for a small jar of their special mango achar (mango pickles) so often that at one point we felt a little uncomfortable asking for more and started making our own.
The house was a two story building where the elder son and his family lived in the first floor and we had the Barsati – the second floor apartment on the roof. If you took a ladder and climbed to the roof of our own home you could see the dome of the main tomb of the Emperor Humayun not very far away.
As in many barsatis in Delhi, the kitchen had a separate entrance and its door opened to the roof and not into the house itself. It was a simple kitchen but very cozy and well organized. In the hot days of summer it was not a big delight to be there and when the monsoon had finally arrived to bring some respite from the heat, we needed to wait for the rain to stop so that we could go to the kitchen without getting wet. In the winter it was the warmest place in the house and no extra heating was needed, so we often found ourselves crowded there over a cup of hot chai with lots of cardamom and cloves. It was in this small kitchen that Asha, our beloved cook, started working for us and made all the amazing food that helped us feel at home away from home.
On the first day that Asha came to work with us she wanted to know what food she should make so we told her to go to the market, find the nicest vegetables that are in season and make the best food she can make out of what she buys. It is already our ninth year in Delhi, and Asha is still with us and has become a real member of the family. About five years ago Shefi, my wife, started writing down the recipes and I started taking pictures of the dishes. The idea was to make a recipe book with all her food so that if one day we would have to leave Delhi we could still recreate the magic.
Styling the food and creating the images
We set up a studio in the living room and every day shot the picture of the dish before we sat down to eat it. For styling we collected old plates from various stores around Delhi, and the table cover are pieces of the cheapest plastic covers I got for seven rupees each (about $0.15) at Kotla market. I wanted to recreate the feeling of a home and not go to the new, already seen food styling. To light the set I used a couple of tungsten garden lamps along with a collection of small mirrors to reflect the light. Very basic, very simple and very quick.
The Recipe Book
You will not find long lists of ingredients in this book, or long and complicated methods of preparation. Using fresh products from the market and not more than a few selected spices, this is simple, good and tasty vegetarian home cooking that we have been eating daily for already more than seven years.
There might be other ways to cook any of these recipes and it is most probable that anyone who grew up in Delhi would know most of them. Asha does not pretend to have invented any of them, but there hasn’t been one person who came to our home and did not have something good to say about her food. There will always be the story of another woman and her recipes and the food that she makes at home for her family. This is one of them.
Cooking Indian food can be very simple if you relax into it
It is always good to prepare in advance and there are a few things that you can do before you start cooking that will make your life in the kitchen a lot easier. A good pressure cooker is one of them.
Most of the food is prepared in a Kadhai and you will also need a simple iron griddle called Tawa to make chapati (or Rotti as they are called by some). Other than that you have everything in every semi equipped kitchen.
Before you start cooking it is good to make sure you have a few special ingredients; Ghee (or a lot of butter), mustard oil, cardamom, ginger (fresh or dry), saffron, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, cumin seeds, red chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and aniseed. In some of the recipes you will use tamarind and jaggery which is whole, pure, unrefined sugar that has a specific taste and texture. Coconut milk is also not a bad idea to have. Curry leaves are available in special Indian stores and really make a difference in some of the recipes. Garam masala is one spice mix that varies from place to place but generally consists of cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaf.
Other than that there are no rules for cooking and you do everything by taste. The quantities for chili powder and garam masala are very flexible. If you like your food spicy add more chili, if you like it less spicy simply put less of it. The same goes for garam masala. The recipes in this book are not too spicy but to an untrained pallet it might be a bit too much.
A few years in India got us used to the tastes but if the food is spicy you simply take more Dahi (yogurt) with it.
Most of the recipes in this book take not more than 20 – 30 minutes to prepare and Asha makes about three or four dishes for lunch every day. A full meal will include either a rice dish or chapati (or another bread), two vegetable dishes, one kind Dal and a fresh salad or Raita in the summer. Paratha makes a mean breakfast and there are a few amazing sweet dishes that you can play with and discover.
Asha has been taking good care of us; it is her book as much as ours and we hope you will enjoy it as much as we do.
We are Looking for a publisher
We are now looking for an international publisher for this book so if you know anyone who might be of any assistance in this then please write us. We would be forever grateful.
Here are a couple of recipes to get you started, and a few pictures to open the appetite. Enjoy 🙂
Barwa Baingan – stuffed eggplant
Cooked in a small wok (kadai)
Serve 4-6 people:
12 egg-shaped eggplants
1 big onion – cut in half and sliced
3 garlic cloves – crushed
¼ glass sunflower oil
2 medium size tomatos
For the filling:
1 full tsp of coriander powder
½ tsp of garam masala
½ tsp of red chili powder
1 tsp of mango powder (optional)
½ tsp salt
Mix all the spices well in a small bowl.
Slit each eggplant lengthways, empty some of the inside and keep for the sauce.
Fill each eggplant with half to a full tsp of the spice mix.
Heat the oil in a small wok and fry the eggplants from all sides.
Add the onion and garlic and keep frying for another 2-3 minutes.
Cover and cook on medium flame for another 15 minutes till the onion is soft.
Add the tomatoes and the remaining spices.
Stir well, cover again and simmer until the eggplants are well cooked and water is gone
Garnish with freshly chopped coriander leaves
Kesar Chawal – Saffron rice
1 cup Basmati Rice
2 cup water + extra water for washing and soaking rice
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp Saffron strands
2 tbsp hot milk
1 bay leaf
2 Cinnamon sticks (about 5 cm each)
4 green cardamoms – broken
2 tbsp raisins 1 tbsp cashew nuts
1½ tbsp pistachio
2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter or oil for frying
Wash rice thoroughly, drain and keep aside.
Soak saffron in 2 tbsp hot milk for about 15 minutes, till milk is a deep orange-yellow color. Depending on the quality of the saffron you might have to use different quantities to get the same color effect. A little more might be needed if the saffron is not of very good quality.
Heat oil/ghee in a cooking pot and fry the cashewnuts and pistachio for about 1 minute – or less – until golden. Drain and set aside.
In the same pan, use the remaining oil/ghee to fry the bay leaf, cardamom and cinnamon for a minute while stirring. Add the rice and salt and stir till ghee coats every grain of rice so that it looks glossy. Add the water and bring to a boil. Add the raisins and stir. Reduce the heat to minimum and cover. Check occasionally and when holes appear on the surface and water has almost evaporated, use a fork to lightly make holes in the rice surface and sprinkle the saffron milk on top. Keep cooking for 2-3 minutes until all the water evaporates.
Add the fried cashewnuts and pistachio and mix gently into the rice. leave the lid on for another 5 minutes before serving.