Novel Food No. 39: Raita inspired by “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
There are myriad references to foods to prepare in The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. How could there not, with each chapter entitled with a spicename or mixture? Some familiar, some not: Tilo (sesame), Turmeric, Cinnamon, Fenugreek, Asafoetida, Fennel, Ginger, Peppercorn, Kalo Jire (black cumin), Neem, Red Chili, Makaradwaj, Lotus Root, etc. etc.
While some of the sections may have arguably gone too far into fantasy with wild tales of sorcery, pirates, talking sea serpents, violent storms, and spices that speak (or don’t speak), the compassionate lyricism keeps the book open and the pages turning. It really helps that behind the fantasy is an excellent social commentary that sometimes starkly displays our prejudices and fears.
In short, I was completely entranced by this beautifully written book that I finished reading way back in April. …April, when staying at home was still a bit of a novelty, and when lining up at the grocery store involved wearing hats, scarves and mittens, rather than how things are now: standing resignedly on our chalked lines 2 meters from the other chalked lines, sweltering in the blazing sun, with masks in hand – ready to put on the moment before we are allowed to enter the store.
Back in April, when I was thinking about what dishes from the book to feature for Novel Food, I imagined that we would make the rajma (kidney beans curry) or cauliflower from chapter 4 (I admit that I’m afraid to try Karela sabji (bitter gourd curry) even if it does include brinjal (aka eggplant, aubergine)….) Or perhaps we would make vegetable pulao from chapter 11.
[H]ere is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day. Has gentled the smudges under her eyes. Payday today, so she can begin the frying, mustard seeds sputtering in the pan, brinjal and bitter gourd turning yellow-red. Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to bring patience and hope. Is she one, is she many, is she not the woman in a hundred Indian homes who is sprinkling, over sweet kheer that has simmered all afternoon, cardamom seeds from my shop for the dreams that keep us from going mad? […] [I]t is dinnertime now. The mothers call out and the children come running from homework, chairs are pulled up, the steaming dishes brought in. Rice. Rajma. Karela sabji. Kheer.
I look up and they are there, three bougainvillea girls, the prettiest and youngest yet, all fizzy laughter and flutter lashes. In miniskirts their legs are long and tan, cocoabutter smooth. Their lips are dark and pouting. […]
One of them detaches herself from her friends and comes forward. She wears a thin silk blouse through which I catch the hint of a lacy bra. Beige eyeshadow that sparkles. Scent of roses. Tiny gold and diamond heart earrings, a matching pendant that rises and falls in the hollow of her throat. […]
“Excuse me, you understand English? Our office, they’re having a potluck, we’re each supposed to bring something ethnic, you know, from our culture, make it ourselves. We didn’t have a clue.” She smiles an ingenuous smile. “Maybe you can help us?”
That word help. I cannot steel myself against it. I put aside my annoyance to think. It’s a challenge, to find a party dish simple enough so they couldn’t ruin it in fixing.
“Maybe you can do vegetable pulao” I say at last. I tell her how it’s cooked, the water measured and boiled, the Basmati soaked just the right amount of time, the kesar sprinkled in, the peas, the roasted cashews and fried onions for garnish. I list the spices: clove, cardamom, cinnamon, a pinch of sugar. Ghee. Maybe a dusting of black pepper.
She looks a little doubtful but she is game. She takes copious notes in a little gold-edged pad with a matching pencil. Her friends smother giggles as they look over her shoulder.
– Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices, excerpts from Chapters 4 and 11
But April turned into May, then June, then these disgracefully hot and humid first days of July, with ever more depressing news of this pandemic, even though we are now very gradually and carefully opening up again here in Ontario.
Of course, we are still required to keep our distance, wear our masks in public buildings, work from home if we can (or simply stay at home if our work involves being with more than 10 people in a room), wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands, and wonder if the poor misguided souls who think mask-wearing is a violation of their rights will finally notice the overflow and terrible decisions that health workers are having to make when choosing which of the terribly ill will be admitted into the ICUs for care.
In spite of all, we are still trying to stay sane. And we are eating like rajas. And particularly enjoying the cooling miracle of raita made with mint from the garden. Mint that would threaten to take over the garden if we didn’t keep cutting it to make iced tea, or mint pesto, or mint chutney, or more raita.
There is something so comforting and strangely cooling about Indian food when it is hot hot hot. We have been baking naan on the barbecue and serving the bread with blistering hot curries, vegetables laced with blacked cayenne peppers: palak usually made with rapini if we can get it, or aloo posta with green beans, or green bean sabzi (rapini is a great addition). And raita. Raita made with homemade yoghurt. To put out the fire.
Cucumber Mint Raita
adapted from recipes in An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey and Entertaining Indian Style by Shehzad Husain
No measurements, but be generous with the cucumber, mint and yoghurt; be sparing with the other ingredients.
- plain yoghurt
- English cucumber, chopped into small cubes
- fresh coriander Leaf (aka cilantro), chopped finely (optional)
- onion, minced (optional)
- fresh mint leaves, chopped finely
- salt and pepper
- toasted cumin seeds, crushed (optional)
- cayenne pepper flakes (optional)
- Stir all the ingredients together in a bowl. Refrigerate for about 2 hours to meld the flavours together.
Serve cold, or cool, as a side with just about any dinner at all. It’s especially nice to have as an antidote to food laced with many hot chilies.
Other ingredients: T loves to add Kala namak (black salt) to his raita. I do not. I find its sulphurous quality to be too close to over-cooked hard boiled eggs. I am also not wild about its pink colour. How can something that is called black be pink??
One day last month, we ran out of cucumber (store-bought, so it’s no longer a simple matter these days to pop out to the store and get more) but we still wanted raita. So T made it with tinned pineapple. The raita was just as deliciously cooling. And it tasted wonderful too.
And so I bless them, my bougainvillea girls. Bless the round bones of their elbows, the glide of hips beneath their silky salwaars, their Calvin Klein jeans. With the fervor of repentance I bless the curve of their moist palms against the bottles of lime pickles they are holding up to the light, the cans of patra leaf they will fry tonight for bridegrooms or lovers, for they are always newly wed, the bougainvillea girls, or not at all. […]
They are serving their men biriyani fragrant with ghee, cool bowls of raita, patra seasoned with fenugreek. And for dessert, dripping with gold honey, gulab-jamuns the color of dark roses. […] I see it all. So beautiful, so brief, so therefore sad.
I let the envy drain out. They are only following their natures, the bougainvillea girls. As I against every advice followed mine.
Envy like green pus, gone now. All of it. Almost.
I breathe a good thought over each purchase as I ring it up. The bay leaves, a new packet, their brown edges crisp and whole, I put in for free.
For my bougainvillea girls, whose bodies glow saffron in bed, whose mouths smell of my fenugreek, my elach, my paan paraag. Whom I have made. Musky. Fecund. Irresistible.
– Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices, excerpt from Chapter 4
Inspired by Adam Gopnik’s 2007 article in the New Yorker in 2007, Simona (briciole) and Lisa (Champaign Taste) launched “Novel Food”, looking forward to “hearing interesting literary and culinary stories” from other food bloggers.
There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Adam Gopnik, “Cooked Books: Real Food from Fictional Recipes”, New Yorker, 2 April 2007
Spring is steadily moving towards summer in the Northern Hemisphere, which means it is time to launch a new edition of the culinary/literary event Novel Food, the 39th to be precise. Novel Food is a voyage of literary discovery and a delightful party featuring literary-inspired dishes contributed by event’s participants.
I hope you will join. I am looking forward to learning about a published literary work (a novel, novella, short story, memoir, bio, poem, etc.) that provided you with culinary inspiration.
– Simone, briciole
For more information on how to participate, please see Novel Food #39.
Let me tell you about chilies.
The dry chili, […], is the most potent of spices. In its blister-red skin, the most beautiful. Its other name is danger.
The chili sings in the voice of a hawk circling sun-bleached hills where nothing grows […], I think I am most in love with you. […] Chili, spice of red Thursday, which is the day of reckoning. Day which invites us to pick up the sack of our existence and shake it inside out. Day of suicide, day of murder.
Lanka, lanka. Sometimes I roll your name over my tongue. Taste the enticing sting of it. […]
In the inner room of the store, on the topmost shelf, sits a sealed jar filled with red fingers of light. One day I will open it and the chilies will flicker to the ground. And blaze.
– Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices, excerpts from Chapter 3
» Grilled Cheese Sandwiches inspired by “All Our Wrong Todays” (Novel Food No.38)
» homemade yoghurt – on the stovetop
» Vintage Wine and “A Gentleman in Moscow” (Novel Food No.37)
» Asparagus Gratin from “Rules of Civility” (Novel Food No.36)
» green bean sabzi (WFD 2014)
» palak paneer revisited (WHB#131: ginger) (red cabbage raita)
» aloo posta with green beans
» Too much mint? Impossible! (Mint/Coriander Chutney; WHB#34: mint)
» kalonji (aka nigella seed) in Onion Pilau (SiR I)
» aloo methi
» T’s rice pudding recipe
» T’s biriyani recipe