Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Mrs. Doshi; or, How I stopped worrying and learned to love the chhuta mung surti.

Greetings, G. from Daddyzine here. This marks my first entry in the annals of Knife-Wielding Feminists. I was asked to join this fine blog because ... because....

Well, OK. I'm not certain why I was asked.

But I’m happy to be here and maybe I should make the best of my first entry just in case the charter KWF’s realize my presence here is the consequence of some of zany misunderstanding. ("Wha?! You wanted me to find a Manjo for the site? I thought you asked for a Man, yo!”)

So should I be suddenly yanked, I want to leave you with my bedrock piece of culinary advice:

Buy a cookbook by Mrs. Doshi.

I tended a fitful flame for Malvi Doshi's daughter (MDD) for a couple of years during college. The daughter was amiable but wisely resistant to my blandishments. Looking back on it, I can't imagine how I thought I could make things work between us since she did all this weird stuff like study and complete her papers; I, on the other hand, was making the most of my education, undertaking activities that have since served me well, viz.: working in the dining halls (where cleaning up after sloppy eaters prepared me for my current position as a stay-home dad), getting waaay too into my work-study job at the library, and racking up consecutive quarters of championship beer bills at the co-op where I lived off and on during school.

And anyway, I was some punk Midwestern kid, while MDD was an urban sophisticate from San Francisco whose parents ran the vegetarian Indian restaurant The Ganges out on Frederick Street. And thus for a couple of years a strange cloud of romantic inaccessibility hung about the cuisine I associated with her.

I went to the restaurant only a few times, most often with a pack of our mutual college friends. The elder Doshis would haul boatloads of food to our table and toward the end of the meal a struggle would erupt, with the Doshis making tut-tutting noises over the idea of presenting us with a bill and with us slipping our wadded fives and tens under the dishes until we deemed accounts sufficiently squared to stagger out into the foggy night, gulab jaman syrup glistening on our faces.

In April of 1992 (I’m going by the presentation inscription from Mrs. Doshi), MDD passed along to me a copy of her mother’s cookbook, A Surti Touch: Adventures in Indian Cooking (1980). It's long out of print and I've seen secondhand booksellers asking $40-$50 for a copy of this $8 paperback.

It’s a great cookbook, an unassuming little orange thing that holds the new cook’s hand through the basics of stocking the kitchen and working with unfamiliar ingredients. The recipes do make the occasional elliptical or ambiguous statement, or credit you with too great a facility with languages. Many time I have been, say, elbow deep in my split pigeon peas when suddenly Mrs. Doshi mentions that I need to bring the khichadi to a boil and I will be all like: huhhzat?

But soon you realize that it’s more about process than a particular result and you learn to work with what’s at hand and perhaps drink a beer while preparing dinner in order to cultivate detachment, and anyway after about 12 years I have ended up with a small stable of workhorse recipes that are fairly easy to prepare and which we trot out weekly.

Last I had heard, MDD had settled down to a medical practice and a no doubt industrious husband somewhere out West. Mrs. Doshi has reworked her cookbook into Cooking Along the Ganges: The Vegetarian Heritage of India (2002), which retails for about $28. And I’m raising the next generation of young Midwestern punks, though I am happy to say that the rising generation goes nuts over masoor-ni dal.

Here’s a couple of basics to get started with:


1 lb. coriander seeds
1/4 lb. cumin seeds

1. Pick over and sift the seeds.
2. Roast the seeds together on low heat (a heavy cast-iron skillet works well for this). Stir frequently until you get a nice aroma in the next room and the seeds have changed color. About 20 minutes.
3. After the seeds have cooled, grind them in a blender or coffee grinder.
4. Sieve mixture, then grind the coarse portion again.
5. Store in a tightly covered jar.
6. Throw out your commercially prepared curry powder.


Two parts to this recipe, the lentils and the spiced onions (called the vaghar) that go into them.

Ingredients (lentils):

1 cup red lentils (small split orange lentils, generally available at specialty groceries like Whole Foods or bulk groceries)

4-5 cups water
1 tsp. salt
6 to 10 sprigs cilantro, finely cut, using stems

1. Pick over and wash the lentils.
2. Bring water to a boil and add dal.
3. Cover and simmer until soft, approx. 20-30 minutes.

Ingredients (vaghar):

3 tsp. oil
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 onion, white or yellow, medium size, finely sliced
1 hot green chili, cut into five or six pieces
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder

1. Heat oil in a pan and add cumin seeds.
2. When slightly pink, add onions.
3. When onions are very brown (20 minutes or so), add chili and turmeric.
4. Fry for 10-20 seconds, taking care not to scorch. Add the mixture to the lentils.
5. Add the cilantro, simmer for five minutes.
6. Serve hot with rice.

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