What a special treat it is to be invited to share a homecooked South Indian meal—lovingly prepared from heirloom recipes preserved over generations—while learning about the stories and traditions behind each dish.
That’s what reading Chitra Agrawal’s new cookbook, “Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn,” is like. Agrawal, owner of artisanal condiments company Brooklyn Delhi, painstakingly documented her family recipes for the book over the course of three years. She shares dishes prepared by her mother, grandmother, and many generations prior, then tweaked with her touch to reflect the variety of ingredients and cuisines found in New York.
South Indian Cuisine
From a young age, Agrawal fell in love with the foods of her mother’s heritage, which can be traced back to a ruling class in South India known as the Hoysala Karnataka Brahmins. They adhere to a strict vegetarian diet guided by ancient Hindu beliefs. The cooking style makes use of much more subdued flavors than those found in North Indian cuisine. Garlic and onions are avoided; they’re considered destructive because it’s believed they sedate the mind and body. Overly spicy or salty seasoning is also frowned upon because it is associated with passion, aggression, and irritability.
Instead, spices like asafetida, a dried resin derived from a plant similar to fennel, are used. When fried in oil, the spice gives off a pungency similar to garlic. The aroma wafted around Agrawal’s apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where she invited me to try her cooking on a cold March afternoon. She had sprinkled asafetida into a sizzling pot along with black mustard seeds. This technique of tempering (frying) spices, in oil, she explained, is critical in South Indian cooking, in order to release their full strength.
Just as the seeds started to pop, she quickly threw a lid on top. “You’ve got to have a lid handy,” she said, giggling. Her infectious laughter often filled the room.
She showed me her family’s custom rasam powder, used specifically for the rasam tomato and lentil soup she was cooking. The blend emanated a complex fragrance; it was made with cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, dried red chilies, curry leaves, and many more spices.
The soup, which Agrawal poured over the lemon-peanut rice that she had made, lit up my taste buds, with the sweetness of tomatoes melding with the tang of tamarind. Combined with the nuttiness of the rice, with its sprinkled bits of coconut and curry leaves that lent a delicate, piquant note, every bite unveiled a new layer of flavors.
Agrawal wanted to document the cooking traditions of her heritage not just for herself but for her family. “When a family goes to another country, a lot of culture is lost, unless you make an effort to keep it going,” she said.
In 1968, her mother and father immigrated to the United States from their hometown of Bangalore. It was up to Agrawal to ensure those culinary practices would be preserved in a new land.
Her father often told her that tradition is not just passed down. “It’s part of the responsibility of the next generation—if you are interested in taking initiative,” she said. Her cousins, for example, haven’t taken up her family’s style of cooking just yet. “It has to be that the next generation is interested and understands this is an important part of culture that they want to continue.”
Luckily for Agrawal, her mother wrote down the family recipes.
Agrawal’s culinary education began, somewhat unwittingly, after she left her family’s home in New Jersey for college in California. Agrawal’s mother, worried that her daughter couldn’t eat the dishes she loved, sent her email after email of recipes. Years ago, Agrawal’s aunt and grandmother in India had also sent many aerogram letters with recipes scribbled on them.
Over time, Agrawal amassed a huge binder full of recipes and felt a desire to pass on her knowledge to other Indian-Americans who craved the food of their roots but might not have such resources. In 2009, she started a blog called The ABCD’s of Cooking—a play on American-Born Confused Desi (a term for Indians born abroad)—and got down to working on recording the recipes.
Her biggest challenge was getting the exact measurements. “A spoonful,” “a ladle,” or “a dash” weren’t so helpful for novice cooks. Agrawal had to test out recipes based on her memories of the dishes. While on vacation to visit extended family in Bangalore, she followed her mother and her aunts around the kitchen, taking detailed notes.
She also sampled local specialties that fired up her imagination. In her cookbook, Agrawal’s bitter gourd chips—baked instead of deep-fried—are a riff on the spicy vegetable chips sold by street vendors all over Bangalore.
A Home Cook’s Touch
Agrawal’s centuries-old family recipes have been infused with each generation’s own flair. She surmises that when her grandparents moved to Bangalore from different parts of Karnataka, her grandmother introduced new ingredients. And the same thing happened when her mother emigrated.
Agrawal’s style is to incorporate seasonal American vegetables: a kale raita based on her mother’s original spinach raita; Brussels sprouts for palya, a stir-fry typically made with green beans. For her company Brooklyn Delhi, which she founded to feed her obsession with Indian-style pickles, she uses local produce from her farm share, like rhubarb and tomatoes.
Grains can also be interchanged. Uppittu, a savory breakfast dish traditionally made with semolina flour, can be substituted with polenta, quinoa, or even couscous (for the recipe, click here).
Sometimes Agrawal is inspired by the diverse cuisines around her. Her lettuce “dosa” wraps, for example, are a nod to the popular Asian dish, with the typical dosa crepe swapped out for butter lettuce. The filling, though, is the same spiced potatoes as in the original, topped with cilantro-coconut chutney. Her apple-ginger-and-coconut hand pies fuse her friend’s French-style tart dough recipe with that of kadabu, sweet dumplings commonly eaten during festivals.
Currently eight months pregnant, Agrawal hopes her child will one day learn her recipes. As the generations move further from their Indian origins, she’s not sure whether the traditions will survive. But at least her cookbook will be there, for “somebody down the line,” she said.