Recipes from my Indian youth

was born and raised in Calcutta and I still remember how my brother and I looked forward to our Friday-night Sabbath dinners.

 IN INDIA they found a plethora of spices of which they had little knowledge (Illustrative). (photo credit: Laura Cortesi/Unsplash)
IN INDIA they found a plethora of spices of which they had little knowledge (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Laura Cortesi/Unsplash)

When the Baghdadi and Syrian Jews came to India – either running from persecution or to conduct business in a relaxed atmosphere, where antisemitism or any other kind of racial prejudice was never practiced – they brought with them their Middle Eastern dishes. 

In India, they found a plethora of spices of which they had little knowledge, like coriander, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, saffron and chillies, and they started using them in their own Iraqi-Jewish recipes and amending Indian recipes to their taste. The result was the creation of some of the most delightful dishes that you would be hard put to find anywhere else.

I was born and raised in Calcutta and I still remember how my brother and I looked forward to our Friday-night Sabbath dinners. The cook would prepare aloo makalla (jumping potatoes); spiced roast chicken; saffron-flavored fried rice (pilaf) sprinkled with almonds and raisins; khatta (sweet & sour chicken broth with either beet, okra or zucchini); and the spicy hulba (hilbe, fenugreek) relish.

Unfortunately, all potatoes in Israel come from cold storage so you can never get the crispiness that made aloo-ma-kalla famous as “jumping potatoes.” However, it is still the perennial favorite of my kids and grandkids at the Shabbat table.

 ALOO MAKALLA: Jumping potatoes. (credit: Edmund Jonah) ALOO MAKALLA: Jumping potatoes. (credit: Edmund Jonah)
Aloo makalla

Serve with roast chicken.

  • 20 peeled, round potatoes – the potatoes should be as uniform as possible. I usually prepare about 26 to 30 to be sure there are leftovers.
  • A full bottle of oil – perhaps more (you can rebottle the oil when it has cooled and then reuse it – it’s perfectly safe)
  • 1 tsp. haldi (turmeric)
  • 1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Put the potatoes into a large pan of cold water with the salt and turmeric and bring to a boil on the hottest burner, stirring until the spices have dissolved in the water. When the water starts to boil, lower the flame and simmer for five minutes.

Pour into a colander and let the potatoes dry. They should be slightly yellow. Every now and then, rotate the potatoes so all sides are exposed to the air. 

When dry, heat the oil in a large wok. When hot, put the now dry potatoes carefully, one by one, into the oil and lower the flame to medium. Do not stir for five minutes. Then stir slowly with a wooden ladle until you see them frizzled and creased, like old skin. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Turn off the heat. 

Fifteen minutes before serving, turn the burner on high and, as soon as the oil is hot, start stirring. When the outside of the potatoes harden and are mostly golden brown, place them on a flat plate lined with paper towels. They should be so crisp on the outside that when you try to cut it, it will jump off your plate.

Serve hot from the stove to the plate. It takes only 5 minutes to soften.

Roast chicken

This recipe goes just as well for beef or mutton, but cook them longer. 

  • 1 whole chicken, disjointed
  • 1 sliced, medium onion and 5 or 6 small onions, whole
  • Oil to cover base of pan and a smidgen more 
  • 5 rounded tsp. tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. vinegar  

Spices:

  • 2 heaping tsp. chicken soup powder
  • 1 rounded tsp. black pepper 
  • 1 level tsp. mustard powder or 1 tsp. prepared mustard
  • 4-6 bay leaves
  • 10 cloves
  • 4 or 5 sticks of cinnamon and 1 level tsp. cinnamon powder
  • 5 cardamom pods (use seeds only and discard pods) and 1 level tsp. cardamom powder
  • 1 level tsp. haldi (turmeric)
  • 1 heaping tsp. ginger
  • 1 heaping tsp. garlic

Heat oil. While keeping the burner on high, add the pieces of chicken. 

Add sliced and whole onions, then the tomato paste and 1 Tbsp. vinegar. Stir until the sliced onions have softened and the chicken is lightly browned.

Lower the flame. Add all spices and stir well.

Add the remaining 1 Tbsp. of vinegar and keep stirring until the chicken and spices are well mixed together. If at any time you feel the food sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a few drops of water and cover the pan. 

Now you have the choice of either putting it in the oven covered at 150˚ (in which case preheat the oven before starting), or to put it covered on a low flame on the smallest burner, stirring every 5 to 7 minutes, both for about an hour. Even in the oven, remove the pan every 10 minutes to check on the dish. 

It’s ready when the chicken can be pierced easily. 

Saffron-flavored fried rice

  • 3 teacups rice 
  • Oil to cover the base of the pan and then an additional 1 Tbsp.
  • Boiling water, enough to just above the level of the rice
  • A dash or two of vinegar

Spices – get them all ready in a cup:

  • 2 tsp. well-rounded parve chicken soup powder (instead of salt)
  • 8-10 cloves
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 2 or 3 bay leaves
  • 4 or 5 flat sticks of cinnamon and ½ tsp. ground cinnamon 
  • 6 cardamom pods, using only the seeds, and ½ tsp. ground cardamom
  • If using saffron, use only ¼ tsp. of haldi (turmeric); otherwise use 1 level tsp.
  • In a separate cup: 1 pinch of saffron, soaked and stirred in boiling water

Heat oil, but do not let it smoke. When hot, add rice and keep stirring until the rice becomes lighter – about 4 to 5 minutes.

Add boiling water and vinegar with all the spices. (Watch out for the steam.)

The water should be at just above the level of the rice. Bring to a boil again and lower the flame to a simmer and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the water has almost been completely absorbed. Add the saffron and the water in which it was soaking. Turn off the gas when the dish is almost dry. 

Push the rice to the side to make sure there’s no more water at the bottom of the pot. Then stir the rice 5 minutes later and taste. If it is soft, it is ready.

When cool, remove the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks.

You may garnish it with fried pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, raisins and fried onions.

 Khatta 

This sweet-and-sour chicken broth can be made with either 2 large beets, or with 1 kg. okra or 12 zucchinis. Serve with the saffron-flavored rice.

  • 1 whole chicken, disjointed
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 800 gr. can crushed tomatoes
  • One of the following vegetables: beet, okra, zucchini (see below for preparation)
  • Oil to cover the bottom of the pan
  • 1 large onion 
  • 1½ cup chopped coriander leaves
  • 1 heaping tsp. crushed ginger
  • 1 heaping tsp. crushed garlic 
  • ½ tsp. haldi (turmeric)
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 3 heaping tsp. chicken soup powder (instead of salt) or to taste
  • 1 level tsp. mustard powder (or 1 tsp. mustard paste)
  • 1 (generous) tsp. tamarind paste and 1 cup lemon juice (to be adjusted later)
  • 2 tsp. sugar + 2 sugar-substitute tablets (to be adjusted later)

If using fresh okra: clean, wash, dry and then fry it lightly – otherwise, use one large can or pack of frozen okra (the smaller the vegetable, the better). No need to fry the canned or frozen okra.

If using zucchini: peel it, cut down the middle lengthwise, then slice it thin so you have half-moons instead of large circles. 

If using beets: peel, cut in half, then cut it into thin slices (the thinner the better and quicker to cook). 

Blend a large onion with a drop of vinegar 

Heat oil. Throw in onion, ginger and garlic. Stir well for 20 seconds. 

Blend crushed tomatoes and leave in the blender until needed.

Add chicken and stir for a minute or two until it changes color; then add half the lemon juice and stir until the chicken and onions start softening. Don’t let it burn. Add a cup of chicken stock if necessary. 

Add turmeric, black pepper, chicken soup powder, the second cup of chicken stock, mustard powder/paste, tamarind paste and stir well until most of the onions have softened.

Add the rest of the lemon juice and whichever vegetable you are using and stir well. If using canned or frozen okra, you’ll add it at the end.

Add blended tomatoes and just enough water to cover the chicken and vegetables. Bring to a boil, put on the smallest burner and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour until it’s all cooked. Add chopped coriander leaves after 35 minutes of simmering (about 10 minutes before it’s ready), and the canned or frozen okra. 

Hulba – (hilbe) fenugreek relish 

Tastes delicious on bread, and is a good snack with drinks.

  • 8 tsp. fenugreek seeds
  • Boiling water to cover the seeds
  • 1 bunch of coriander leaves (dhania)
  • 2 or 3 chillies (essential for the flavor)
  • 1 cup bottled lemon juice
  • 1 generous tsp. ginger
  • 1 generous tsp. garlic
  • 1½ tsp. salt (or to taste)

In a small pan, cover the fenugreek seeds with plenty of boiling water (on Wednesday night so it will be ready for Shabbat dinner). The next morning (Thursday), carefully throw out the water and keep rinsing the seeds until the water runs clear. Then cover the seeds with fresh water to an inch above the seed level. Pour into a blender with everything but the coriander leaves. Blend. 

When blended, add the leaves (stems are okay) a little at a time so as not to clog the blades of the blender. 

When properly blended, the mixture should be a lovely grass color and rather thick. Pour into a serving bowl and taste. Add more lemon juice and salt if required and stir well. Cover with cling-film and refrigerate. It will be ready to eat the following day (Friday night dinner) when the hulba has reached the consistency of glue. 