Cooling Dishes for Hot August Nights

Cold dishes are an important part of the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. Not only are they served chilled or at room temperature to contrast with the dishes which are served warm or hot; they often contain herbs and vegetables that are considered to be cooling to the human constitution, and so are considered as a necessity to help relieve the extreme summer temperatures.

When it is ninety-something degrees outside and humid here in Ohio, I cannot help but agree with the traditional views of Indian cooks that a cold dish is a necessity to cool the body and soul.

As I mentioned yesterday, several types of cold dishes are typically served at most Indian meals. Salads, which can be as simple as some sliced melons with no dressing, or as complex as a composed salad of disparate ingredients arranged beautifully on a platter, are considered a necessity by most Indian families, and when I worked for a few Indian families as a personal chef, I found myself becoming very creative in my salad making endeavors. My favorite one is pictured on the left side of the photograph above; it is a tomato salad that is akin to a very chunky fresh chutney, but it is meant to be eaten separately as a salad. This version is cooled with ginger and, sweet peppers and lime juice, and heated with spices and thinly sliced chile peppers. I use ingredients of many different colors and textures–coontrast of all sorts is important in Indian cookery.

Raita, which is a dish based on yogurt, is particularly of importance to vegetarians in India. Many of them eat meals of dal, (a lentil or bean-based dish), grain in the form of wheat bread or rice, raita and pickles, as their every day fare, and the combination is both highly flavorful and nutritious. There are probably as many versions of raita as there are families in India; it is quite possible to eat a different type of it every day and not run out of variations or get bored with the flavors.

This particular version of raita is fairly commonly found in Indian restaurants in the USA; it contains a great combination of cooling ingredients: cucumber, mint and cilantro, contrasted with the warm muskiness of cumin. It is so simple to make I often make a quart of it at the beginning of the week and eat it as a snack during the day or as part of breakfast, particularly in the dog days of summer when it is hard to excite myself over eating anything.

Chutneys and pickles are the third group of cold dishes that are big necessities on the Indian table. A chutney can be one of two different types–a cooked, preserved sort of condiment, or a condiment that is freshly made and eaten quickly, often the very day that it was made. (Pickles are an entirely different thing and deserve their own post; I will describe them in the future when I get around to making my own lime pickles.)

I like the interesting flavors of preserved chutneys quite well, but I prefer the zingy flavors and crisp textures of freshly made chutneys that are eaten while “young.” My very favorite of them all is green chutney, which is primarily made from minced or ground up cilantro, though it is often paired with wildly cooling mint. In our house, Zak and I simply call it “Green.” As in, “Honey, can you pass the green?” I always make extra of it, because I can find any number of uses for it during the week or so it survives in the refrigerator.

In fact, I find that keeping some of these cold dishes around for a while helps me with the enduring dilimma of what is for lunch or breakfast when the mercury climbs into the stratosphere at the end of summer. Conviently enough, that time is also the peak for all of the various vegetables and fruits which are main ingredients in these dishes.

Here are some recipes to get you started on making a truly complete Indian meal.

Sari Silk Tomato Salad


2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes (I like to use heirlooms of various colors–here we have Mortgage Lifter and Cherokee Purple), cored and diced macedoine
1/2″ cube fresh ginger, minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 small red onion, diced finely
2 medium hot chile peppers, preferably yellow or red, sliced thinly
1/2 small sweet bell pepper, preferably purple or brown in color, diced finely
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 teaspoon mustard seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 handful fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
salt to taste
juice of 1/2 lime


Mix together all ingredients, making sure to save as much juice from the tomatoes as possible when cutting them. Scrape the cutting board down into the mixing bowl. Chill completely, and present in a bowl lined with either lettuce leaves or cilantro.


You can remove the seeds of the chiles, if you want to lesson the heat, but I find it is more sporting to leave them in. Food shouldn’t all be comfortable and safe, you know. There is always room for surprise.)

In order to toast the spices, put them in a small heavy bottomed frying pan (I use a tiny Le Creuset pan) and heat on medium, shaking all the while. They are ready when the cumin and coriander darken and release their scents and the mustard seeds turn from brown to grey and begin to pop.

I call it Sari Silk Tomato Salad because of the smooth texture of the very ripe tomatoes and the vibrant mixture of colors in the dish; they recall to me the particularly vivid colors of summer silk saris I have seen.
Cucumber Mint Chutney


1 quart whole milk or lowfat yogurt (don’t use nonfat, please–or, if you do, don’t tell me about it!)
3 medium cucumbers, peeled, halved and seeded
1 small tomato, cored and cut into a very fine dice (I used a Green Zebra for this version)
1 1/2 cups packed spearmint leaves, minced finely
1 cup cilantro leaves, minced finely
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
Salt to taste


Put yogurt in a medium bowl, and whisk until well smoothed.

Using the large holes on a box grater or in a food processor grating attachment, grate the cucumbers. Squeeze out excess water, and add flesh to yogurt.

Add all other ingredients, and stir until well combined.

Refrigerate for at least four hours before eating so that the flavors can blend, or up to a day or two before serving.

Fresh Green


2 cups cilantro leaves and stems, washed and dried
1 cup mint leaves, washed and dried
1/2 small white onion
seeds from one cardamom pod
1/4 teaspoon white or black peppercorns
salt to taste
juice from one lime
1 1/2 tablespoons finely diced red onion


Pack all ingredients except last three in a Sumeet grinder or blender, and grind into a fine paste.(If you use the blender, add the lime juice and/or some yogurt to help liquify the other ingredients.) Add last three ingredients, and allow to sit at room temperature for about two hours, then cover and refrigerate until quite cold before serving.


This is particularly good with Chappli Kebab or Seekh Kebab, but is also good to dip pappadum or vegetable samosas.


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  1. Just so the rest of the world knows about the Cucumber Mint Chutney.

    Don’t eat it. It is vile and poisonous and tastes nasty.*
    Just back away slowly from the bowl. I will selflessly throw myself on it and devour it to save everyone. I know it is a great sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, but I am willing to make it.

    *(Now, for those of you who do not know my sence of humor, let he tell you this stuff is wonderful. I do love all of Barb’s cooking when I get to be one of the test subjects, but the Cucumber Mint Chutney it my absolute favorite tied with the steam buns. I could most likely eat about 2 liters of it long as I had a little bread or the lamb patties. Aw heck with the bread and patties, mix me up a big bucket of it!)

    Comment by Bryian — August 17, 2005 #

  2. No, no, Bryian. You mustn’t be a martyr and eat all of the cucumber mint chutney. I will make a huge sacrifice* and help you get through it.

    *I too am a fan of mint chutney. I’ve never made it with cucumber though. What a great idea.

    When I make mint chutney, I use green mangoes: our greenmango/mint chutney recipe

    I know that green mangoes probably can’t be gotten locally but but but….


    Comment by ejm — August 17, 2005 #

  3. Yeah, I reckon Bry could take the hit for everyone and save them from the evil that is the cucumber mint raita. 😉

    I like potato raita, too, but I like it better in the winter.

    I used to make a salad of green mangoes, Elizabeth, for my clients. They loved it–and would have me make it every week when I could get the mangoes, along with the raita.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 17, 2005 #

  4. Yum. I don’t suppose you have any ideas for those of us cursed with the cilantro-as-soap gene. I can stomach tiny bits of cooked cilantro, but that’s about it. Generally, I just leave it out or avoid cilantro-heavy recipes entirely, but I’ve always wondered if there isn’t some sort of substitute I could use instead…

    Comment by etherbish — August 18, 2005 #

  5. Use all mint, instead, or a mixture of mint and flat leafed parsley, Ladi. Bry has the same genetic thing, so he never eats the green chutney, even as he slurps up huge amounts of the cucumber mint raita.

    You could also use some holy basil–in Hindi, it is known as tulsi. Thai basil or cinnamon basil is an acceptable substitute. Plain Genovese basil will make your green chutney taste too much like a weird pesto!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 18, 2005 #

  6. See, you got it wrong Barb. It is not we who have the weird genetic thing; it is all of you who do not have the more highly developed survival senses that tell us it is nasty to eat. But, we will keep trying to tell you all and perhaps someday you will listen. Cilantro is nothing more than another weird Illuminati plot from California brought to you by Jerry Brown and the Suede-Denim Secret Police. Remember, keep the weed wacker close and wear your tinfoil hats! Arm yourself with cheese-whiz and smear the couch with lime jello. If they start to close in, light it on fire. They will never come near smoking jello! Then spray them with the cheese-whiz, which will make it so they can’t force the cilantro on you.

    I think it is time for some more coffee…

    Comment by Bryian — August 19, 2005 #

  7. Mint, Thai basil…sounds much yummier!

    Mmm…cheese whiz. It’s amazing what I miss about Amerika.

    Comment by etherbish — August 20, 2005 #

  8. I was under the impression that holy basil is only used for temple offerings in India. Whenever I’ve seen holy basil, it always looks a little weedy and overly strong flavoured. Am I wrong, Barbara? Is it as wonderful as other basils?

    A little Thai basil might be okay instead of coriander leaf. I like the slightly more delicate flavour of Thai basil over the Italian Genovese. And cinnamon basil might be nice too. But I think I would be more inclined though to just leave the coriander leaf out entirely if we were entertaining people who can’t stand coriander leaf. (Have you noticed that people either love or loathe coriander leaf? Nobody seems to be indifferent to it.)

    This mint chutney from looks good too. It calls for tamarind and no coriander leaf at all. Heh, it also calls for hing (asafeotida) – not the most pleasant smelling of the herbs and spices. (cough)

    And this mint chutney from has no coriander leaf – and no hing either.

    (brrr, cheesewhiz. Funny, we haven’t had any in the house for years and I don’t miss it at all! :D)


    P.S. Bryian, were you aware that coriander leaf was lurking in the cucumber mint raita that you scarf up?

    Comment by ejm — August 21, 2005 #

  9. Bry–go have coffee!

    See, Ladi–I knew I could come up with an alternative for you.

    Cheez Whiz. You know, I used to be able to eat the Nucular Plastik Orange Cheez, but my guts have finally rejected it once and for all. I don’t even try–if I even smell it, I get nauseous these days.

    Elizabeth–you are absolutely right–tulsi is not generally cooked with in Indian food; it is only used for ritual purposes.

    But I don’t let it stop me–nor do the Thais let it stop them! I have seen it sold in Thai groceries as “Hot Thai Holy Basil” with regular Thai basil being sold as “Sweet Thai Basil.”

    I like to use a combination of the two in my Spicy Basil Chicken or in Nam Sod or Pad Thai. The two flavors are different enough to contrast, yet similar enough to not clash.

    Bry eats cilantro in a lot of my food. I just don’t go with a heavy hand with it when I know he will be at the table.

    As for mint chutney–there are as many recipes for it as there are families in India. That is the way of most of the classic Indian dishes–each family makes them differently. All of my Indian dishes are flavored very strongly in a Pakistani/Kashmiri/Punjabi way–because the people I learned from and cooked for were all from the North.

    Asafoetida–ahhh. I love that stuff! I have a funny asafoetida story I should tell sometime. Maybe I will do a post about the stuff–anything called “devil’s dung” has got to be good, right?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 22, 2005 #

  10. Most of our Indian cooking is northern style as well – for the same reason as yours. But my husband did a fair amount of travelling through India and every once in a while craves a southern style dish.

    Hing… ummm, I’m afraid it’s not my favourite thing. Our hing is double jarred and STILL it manages to escape just a little. (Much like a stinky French cheese – the perfume is inescapable!) Tamarind, on the other hand….

    Thanks for the tips on tulsi. I’ll watch for it at the Asian market and give it a try. Our garden Thai basil is looking very lush. It’s high time that we had a Thai-style curry.

    Comment by ejm — August 22, 2005 #

  11. Mmmm. Green curry. Maybe I should be making some of that soon.

    Although, this weekend, I believe I will be making nam sod–it is a minced salad that I think is traditionally made with pork, but which they made at Siam Square in Providence, RI with chicken. I fell in love with the dish and learned to replicate it, and then, changed it up a bit and made it my own version. It is one of my favorite dishes and I have been craving it something awful.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 25, 2005 #

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