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- The tastes of India are delicious and varied -

Chitra Joag-Dev shares recipes and lore of her heritage


STAFF PHOTOS: BARB RANDALL  - Chitra Joag-Dev of Lake Oswego shares her Indian cuisine with Barb Randall. She is preparing shira, a tasty snack.

Make room on the dinner table for a thali — we’re exploring the foods of India today.

Through my friend, Mary Spence, I met Chitra Joag-Dev of Lake Oswego, who immigrated to the United States from the state of Maharashtra in India 51 years ago. She invited me to come and learn about Indian cuisine.

First let’s place India on the globe. It is located in the south of the Asian continent, bordered by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. The country is slightly more than one-third the size of the United States and measures nearly 1.3 million square miles. India shares more than 8,800 miles of borders with seven neighboring countries. To the northwest are Afghanistan and Pakistan; to the north are China, Bhutan and Nepal and to the east are Myanmar (also called Burma) and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is separated to the southeast by a narrow sea channel. The terrain runs the gamut of the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains in the north to tropical forests in the south.

Chitra came from Pune, which is near Mumbai, formerly called Bombay. It is the largest city in India. She and her husband settled first in Illinois, where Chitra worked in the university library. She and her husband take turns traveling to India to visit family each year.

‘It used to be glamorous to travel by air,” she said. “But not anymore.” They do, however, enjoy seeing family often.

Chitra explained that India is made up of 25 states and seven union territories, each with its own language and culture. Hindi is the official language, but those from her state speak Marathi.

India has three seasons; summer with extreme hot weather; the rainy season, when the temperatures are more cool and winter, when the temperature is mild. “You might have to wear a sweater or a shawl,” she said. The crops grown include rice, beans and a variety of vegetables. Generally, Indians are vegetarian, though some do eat small amounts of chicken and fish, if they live near the oceans. The cuisine differs from region to region. The foods of the Punjab region in northwestern India are heavily spiced — “not hot,” she said. “Just with lots of flavor.” The cuisine of southern states is milder. Curries are all different, and “not what you would expect,” she said.

Chitra said her favorite meal would include black eyed peas, cucumber and tomato salad, green vegetables, rice and poori, a fried bread, or chipati, similar to a tortilla, and something sweet. It would be served on a thali, a large metal rimmed platter which can hold many dishes. The traditional way to eat is with your hand — using all five fingers to gather the food.

“Using two fingers to pinch the food won’t work,” she said. “But if you use all five you won’t spill.”

Chitra explained that when she first came to the U.S., many of the spices she was accustomed to using were not available.

Traditional spices used in Indian cooking include at clockwise from bottom, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, peppercorns, fenugreek and more bay leaf. In the center are cardamom pods.

Traditional Indian spices include turmeric, coriander, cumin, cayenne, paprika and asafoetida resin, which aids digestion. She also used whole seeds of black mustard, cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek, which is good for fighting diabetes, bay leaf and pepper corns. To get the most from the spices, she heats a neutral tasting oil, such as canola, in a skillet and when the oil is hot adds the spices. The result is wonderful fragrance that permeates the food.

“I cook all my vegetables this way,” she said. “The flavor really comes out. If I forget to add a spice, I just forget it. It won’t taste as good if you try to add it later.” She especially likes greens, cauliflower, cabbage and zucchini prepared this way.

Ghee is a traditional India food. It is prepared by simmering butter until it takes on a light brown color and then removing the liquid residue.

“It lasts longer than butter,” she said. “Remember there were no way to keep dairy safe (before refrigeration).” Cheese is not part of the Indian cuisine, though milk and yogurt are popular.

Chitra prepared for me a popular snack, shira. It has different names in different regions, such as sooji halwa, suji halwa and keshari, and was delicious. She shares her recipe with us. It seemed easy to prepare so try it this weekend.

Another fun snack Chitra served was fresh garbanzo beans. These were delicious and delightful — we simply popped them out of the pod and into our mouths. You can find them at WinCo with other fresh vegetables.

The fragrance of the spices were very enticing. There are plenty of recipes on the Internet for delicious Indian dishes. Get busy and get experimenting.

Up next, a taste of old England. Could be the perfect Sunday night dinner before you watch “Downton Abbey.”

Bon Appetite! Make eating an adventure!

Tujh appetite! Éka sãhasì khãné karã

Chitra’s Shira

1 cup semolina

1/2 cup butter

2 cups milk

1 cup sugar

Pinch of saffron (optional)

Melt the butter into ghee; simmer butter until it changes color slightly. Add the semolina and fry in ghee awhile until the aroma becomes nutty. Add milk and cook until the consistency is paste-like. Add sugar and cook until the mixture is solid. Form into cakes by packing mixture into 1/4-cup measuring cup and release onto a thali or plate.

Recipe courtesy of Chitra Joag-Dev.

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-636-1281 ex. 100 or by email at brandall@lakeoswegoreview.com. Follow her on Twitter @barbrandallfood.

Joag-Dev introduced Randall to fresh garbanzo beans, which are crisp and tasty.

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