Chitra Agrawal calls herself an American Born Confused Desi, a term commonly used to describe a “desi” or South Asian born and brought up in the US. In Chitra’s case, she is of Indian descent, born in New Jersey, raised in California, and now settled in Brooklyn, New York. While labels can be hard to shake, for Chitra, this cultural disparity was her fuel. In 2009, she started her inspiring blog, The ABCDs of Cooking, a journal of vegetarian recipes rooted in traditional Indian cooking and reflective of Indian diaspora. She also channels her heritage into Brooklyn Delhi, her line of premium achaars, an Indian pantry staple.
Chitra’s food is what modern American cuisine should be—traditional with a nod to modernism, respectful of cultural customs and celebratory of time-honored rituals. Her first book, Vibrant India, is a beautiful, evocative ode to her mother and her hometown of Bangalore, an exploration of the spirited food traditions of South Indian cooking.
Growing up, Chitra savored the diverse cuisine of India.
“My mother is from South India so she makes more rice, lentils, fresh veg salads and dishes, flavored with black mustard seeds, curry leaves, yogurt, and coconut. My father is from North India and he would make the breads and curries, much of the food you find in the restaurants but not as heavy since he doesn’t cook with ghee or cream. He also is the yogurt maker in the family nowadays. Our meals were always a mix of their cuisines. We may have a chitranna, lemon rice flavored with fried peanuts, coconut, and fried spices; refreshing yogurt raita; saaru, a spicy and sour tomato-and-lentil soup; chapatti, thin flatbread made from durum wheat; and chana masala, or chickpea curry. It’s hard to pick my favorite dish growing up, as I loved the food both my parents made. I loved my father’s palak paneer and my mother’s majjige huli, which is a coconut yogurt curry made with a watery vegetable like chayote squash and flavored with green chile peppers and coriander.”
For this lifelong vegetarian, the markets of America and India provide beautiful produce for vegetablepacked dishes, along with a few special food memories with her family.
“My parents are meticulous about their vegetable and fruit shopping. I can remember shopping in both the US and in India with them as they would carefully pick out produce at the markets for the day’s cooking. When they come to visit in Brooklyn, I most enjoy our daily visits to the grocer—each morning my father will expertly peel and cut fresh fruits like melon or papaya into perfect squares. In the summers growing up, he would cut mango for the family each evening after dinner. So delicious!”
While her parents have fostered a deep love of food, Chitra also learns a lot about cooking from her great aunt, whom she visits regularly in Delhi. Chitra’s chana masala is inspired by a recipe from her great aunt. It’s not your standard chickpea curry, but one that is flavored with tea, cinnamon, bay leaves, and cloves. It has sour notes from the addition of amchoor powder (dried mango powder).
Chitra and her great aunt’s relationship is one of relishing nature and the simple rituals of home cooking.
“In the mornings, we go walking in Deer Park or the Rose Garden close by to her home. We walk very early so you can see the morning mist rising. The trees and greenery look just magical at that hour. On our way home, right outside of the park, we shop for vegetables for cooking that day. I look forward to this daily ritual when visiting India.”
1 1/4 pounds (500 g) cooked chickpeas (about 2 drained cans)
1 black tea bag
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cardamom pods
2 tablespoons ghee or oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
pinch of asafetida
1 red onion, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
1 Indian green chile or serrano chile, very finely chopped
3 tablespoons tomato passata or purée
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon amchoor (dried mango powder)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon garam masala, plus extra to serve
1/4 teaspoon Indian chile powder or cayenne pepper (or to taste)
handful of chopped cilantro, to serve cooked rice or flatbread, to serve
Strain the chickpeas and rinse with water.
In a large pot, add the chickpeas, tea bag, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cardamom pods, and 6 cups (1.5 liters) of water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 10–15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. (This is usually done with dried chickpeas, but after trying it with canned chickpeas, I liked how soft they got and how the liquid gently flavored the chickpeas). I like to keep the cooking water so I can add some to the curry for more flavor.
In a large frying pan, heat the ghee or oil over a medium–high heat. Once hot, add the cumin seeds and asafetida and give the pan a shake so they mingle. Once the cumin seeds start to brown, add most of the onion (reserve some to sprinkle on the finished curry) and fry until translucent. Stir in the ginger, garlic, and chile and fry for a few seconds, then add the tomato passata or purée and cook for 1–2 minutes, until the oil separates from the sauce. Add the ground coriander, amchoor, ground cumin, turmeric, garam masala and chile powder and mix well. Season with sea salt. Cook for 2–3 minutes, adding a few spoonfuls of the chickpea cooking water if it starts to get dry.
Ladle the chickpeas into the pan using a slotted spoon, adding as much of the chickpea cooking water as you like to reach your desired consistency for the curry. Mix everything together and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Serve topped with a sprinkling of garam masala and some raw chopped onion and cilantro, alongside rice or flatbread.
If you can’t find some of the spices, such as asafetida and amchoor, it is okay to omit. The result is just as delicious.
Recipe excerpted from Family: New Vegetarian Comfor Food to Nourish Every Day by Hetty McKinnon, published by Prestel 2019.
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