When she first saw her mother-in-law’s Shabbat table with the gefilte fish and then boiled chicken, Sarah Remer was slightly unnerved. The fare was as alien to her as the samosas and bhajis of her native Calcutta were to her husband’s family.
Recalling that long-ago time, Remer chuckles, not just at the memory, but because her Jewish-Indian cooking eventually won new fans from unexpected quarters. “My mother-in-law took my recipes,” she says.Little wonder. Those recipes, fragrant with cardamom, cumin and cinnamon, bright with turmeric and sizzling with mustard seeds and shards of fresh ginger, are delicious without intimidating tamer palates. Indeed, a heaping platter of crispy samosas that she made recently for her granddaughter’s Jewish school classmates was “demolished.”
Since arriving in Montreal as a young woman with her family in 1961, Remer has kept to the style of cooking that has nourished centuries of her ancestors in India (on her father’s side) dating back to around the time of the First Temple. When she married, she continued to cook the way her mother did: pilafs of rice and lentils, vegetable dishes known as bahjis and the one-pot triad of rice and vegetables with fish or chicken called baltis.
Exotic is in – even in kosher cooking – but 40 years ago, the spices and condiments integral to Indian recipes were not readily available here. How were authentic dishes replicated? Remer recalls that her mother would receive packets of spices from aunts in England or family still in India.
But the spice cupboard in Remer’s airy kitchen reveals a diverse group of seasonings that have long since joined “mainstream” spice racks in supermarkets: garam masala, cinnamon sticks, whole cumin (destined for a coffee grinder), chili powder, ground coriander, turmeric, cardamom pods, anise, mustard seeds. In addition to “dry” seasonings Remer also makes liberal use of fresh leaves of coriander and mint, knobs of ginger and pudgy cloves of garlic. Even kosher coconut milk is no longer a stretch.
Much of what she cooks is pareve, marrying well with meat or chicken. For Shabbat lunch, the Remer household might enjoy turmeric-rubbed chicken scented with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, cooked on a bed of basmati rice crisp with onions. It’s a chamim dish (a slow-cooked Shabbat stew) prepared in a most unusual but stunning beaten-aluminum pot from India once used in the clay oven of the Calcutta home of her youth.
On a recent spring afternoon, Remer, who likes to keep it simple, gives this visitor a cooking demonstration, and from the taste, it’s easy to see why Indian cuisine has such star power in vegetarian kitchens. (For those who want to get started, Martha Rose Shulman’s Spicy Vegetarian Feasts has several excellent recipes that tilt to the Indian table. There is also Mavis Hyman’s Indian-Jewish Cooking, published in England).
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For red lentils and basmati rice: toast one teaspoon of cumin seed in a little oil, add a sliced onion and saute until golden. Add four whole cloves, one two-inch stick of cinnamon, three minced cloves of garlic, half a teaspoon of turmeric and a little salt. Mix well and heat gently for a minute or two to release their flavours. Stir in 1 cup basmati rice, half a cup of red lentils and three cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick before serving.
For the vegetable: To a little oil heated in a deep skillet, add one teaspoon of mustard seeds and cover pan till they pop. (Keep the heat low to avoid burning.) When seeds are done, add a medium diced onion and three small potatoes cubed. Stir fry for 5-10 minutes, adding a little water if the mixture gets dry.
Now add half a teaspoon of turmeric, a diced large tomato, a small head of cut-up cauliflower, one teaspoon of cumin powder, one half to one teaspoon of freshly grated ginger and a little salt. Mix well, cover and simmer 15 minutes, adding water if necessary.
Serve this and the rice/lentils with fish.