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.
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.
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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