Just like the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern cuisine also shares similarities with North Indian cuisine. Common to both is the love of beans and lentils, and an abundance of spice that gives them life. Gastronomically, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon are the three countries that have had the most influence on this cuisine. Closely linked to these is also the food of North Africa.

I had been meaning to write about this wonderfully fragrant spice-blend from the Middle East-North Africa, ever since I made it as a house warming present last year. It is as much at home in my kitchen as is the garam masala. And just like for garam masala, there are hundreds of recipes for baharat too, likely changing from home to home.

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Punjabi Chhole (Chickpeas)

Punjabi Chhole/Chana masala with tandooru roti

Chhole bhature is an absolutely decadent treat that is a must-try if you visit Delhi. It is one of Delhi’s many Punjabi specialties. It is also something I cook less often. Only because of a personal preference for rajma (red kidney beans). I have been working on that for the last six months though.

Over the years I have tried many recipes for chhole, including one for the famous fat-free chhole served with Amritsari kulchas, crispy potato stuffed tandoori bread (not like a naan or roti). Now I have my very own recipe, and it is another family pleaser. And, I have to again admit, I don’t rely on the packaged chana masala, good though they are. And there is a reason for that.

A couple of years ago, we ate a delicious dish of chhole at a friend’s place and I, naturally, asked for the recipe. It was a simple recipe, one using all the usual suspects – ginger, onions, and tomatoes – but all cooked together (with chhole) instead of being bhuno-ed (frying in oil ‘till-the-oil-separates’ stage). She had used MDH chana masala. It was delicious, and I remember we all agreed emphatically as we went over the menu on our drive home. I wasn’t going to let a simple easier method pass me by. I got my pack of chana masala and proceeded to cook a few weeks later.

The verdict?

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Punjabi Garam Masala

Garam masala is among my oldest cherished spice blends, and I am proud to say that I have never bought it packaged. It is so easy to put together that you needn’t. The home made kind is more potent as it has none of the cheap spices that bulk-up commercial blends. A small amount goes a long way.

First things first. All Punjabi food does not use garam masala. If you don’t believe me, ask Punju Girl. Garam masala does not Punjabi cuisine make. Despite the fact that I love this spice blend and cook Punjabi food almost every other day, I use garam masala only occasionally, and sparingly.

garam masala

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My Continuing Discovery of Indian Cuisines

I mentioned earlier the likelihood of my having been a South Indian in previous life. I believe there are people who are offended by this title – South Indian. I know not why. I do understand though, the umbrage at everyone from Southern India being (once) called ‘Madrasi’ by self-centered North Indians. May I add that for my grandma’s generation all non-Kashmiris were Punjabi – likely the only other state they had heard of from their insular position. “So, you married a Punjabi,” she would say.

Southern India is not a homogeneous region; neither is Northern India nor, for that matter, the Eastern or the Western parts of our country. And, just as the cuisine and customs of the Northern plains have a lot in common, the people of Southern Peninsular India also share a long cultural heritage.

While I have established (some might say – followed my tummy to) the general region of my previous birth as Dravidian India, I have not yet been able to point to the exact spot. In my early teens I already knew that Andhra and Tamil food gave me as much comfort as did my mum’s cooking. I relished the everyday-kind dal-based vegetable preparations (which I may not know by their names) served with thick short grain rice; idli smeared with fiery milagai podi was as much ambrosia as was tayir saadam. I discovered Kerala cuisine a little later – in my twenties – though it was confined to the odd fish curry, thorans and pachadis, and the exotic (to me) appams with either avial or ishtu.



flower seller
If you are in southern India be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…strung flowers sold by arm-lengths!

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