Lakshmi Sudhakar (L) and Sudha Venkataraman (R)
An ongoing column that explores the wide, wonderful world of home cooking.
Every cuisine has its version of “home food.” The term has inexplicably gained a shade of derision through constant misuse. The common implication is that the food that people cook at home is not quite special enough for public consumption.
There are too many Indian dishes that too easily get relegated to the realm of “home food.” As a result, awareness of them dims and what takes their place in the popular consciousness are the usually innocuous dishes that appear on restaurant menus—placeless, featureless hodgepodges with no real character.
Every part of India has a home cuisine steeped in tradition, made up of staples that rarely, if ever, make it onto restaurant menus. Many of these dishes usually require finding someone to cook them for you in their home kitchen.
I was lucky enough to be invited into the kitchen of Sudha Venkataraman and Lakshmi Sudhakar, two elderly sisters who live in the old Bangalore neighborhood of Basavanagudi. I was joined by their niece, Maneesha Kongovi, an old high school friend, who served as a translator when my rather idiosyncratic Kannada failed to get my meaning across.
Basavanagudi is one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. Named for the Bull Temple that also lends its name to the main thoroughfare in the area, the neighborhood has long been a stronghold of Bangalore’s Kannadiga Brahmin community. The streets are taut with a honking and straining traffic of cars, mopeds, pedestrians and bicyclists. The sidewalks are packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with vendors, shaded by hammock-slung tarps hanging over woven baskets of greens, mango leaves, and paan leaves, peeled avarekai (funky fava-like beans that are wildly popular in their season), and all manner of fruit. Pulpy heart-shaped ramphal pop up all over the place, supposedly the conjugal counterpart to the cherimoya-like sitaphal, though I’ve yet to find a single person who likes them. (The two are named for Rama and Sita, the famous hero and heroine at the center of the Hindu epic the Ramayana.) I ask Maneesha if she wants to buy one. She widens her eyes incredulously behind her glasses. “You like those?” When I tell her I’ve never tried one, she shoos me on—“they’re really gross, don’t buy it.”
Her aunts are busy preparing for our cooking session when we arrive. The sisters are a study in contrasts: Sudha is a born teacher, imperious, meticulous, and well-organized. Every dish is prepped and her mise en place is immaculate. Lakshmi is more circumspect, working judiciously at her own recipes the whole while. The two confer on ingredients, names, and preparations repeatedly. I studiously make notes, half in Kannada and half in English. As I’m halfway through listing the ingredients Lakshmi is chopping into a shallow pressure cooker, Maneesha interrupts to ask her aunt what she’s making. Tomato soup, she tells us triumphantly. “Ayyoh! Lakshmi Aunty!” Maneesha turns to me, laughing sweetly, “Do you want tomato soup?” I’m not sure what to say, so I merely shrug and smile. Maneesha gently stewards the pressure cooker away from her aunt, assuring her that she needn’t worry about making tomato soup on top of everything else that she’s working on. Sudha quips in Kannada, “She makes seven times as much as you can eat. You’ll be eating soup for the whole week!”
She relinquishes the pressure cooker and starts making us a plate of tomato chaat—slices of tomato topped with fried gram flour noodles, a piquant tamarind sauce, chopped onions, and minced cilantro. An unabashedly Kannadiga variation on North Indian street food.
As the afternoon passes we run through a parade of Kannadiga dishes, each more distinctive and special than the last. In between, children and cousins show up. Maneesha and her cousin start to reminisce about dishes they haven’t eaten in a long time. The two sisters’ ears are pricked for such mentions, and each time they offer to start another dish, we have to plead to convince them that they’ve done plenty already.
This dish, made by Lakshmi, one of the very many that we made that day, was one of my favorites. The ingredients and basic preparation are similar to masala vada, a fried croquette of ground lentils. Instead of frying the batter, though, you form it into quenelles and steam it. These dumplings, though they’re made from ground lentils, get their name from the Kannada word nuchchu, which refers to broken pieces of rice—because of the batter’s resemblance to the coarsely milled grain.
We eat the nuchchina unde standing up, hunched over little steel bowls. Maneesha complains that she doesn’t like them with ghee because the ghee overwhelms the taste of the lentils. I can’t say I mind the taste of the ghee, though I should add that they’re also delicious eaten with a cilantro and coconut chutney.
1 cup toor dhal
1 fistful moong dhal
Salt to taste
2–3 green chiles, chopped finely
2–3 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
¼ tsp ground turmeric
¼ cup fenugreek greens, finely chopped [optional]
Soak the dhals together for 2–3 hours.
Drain the dhals, reserving some of the water. Using a food processor or a wide-based blender, grind the dhals together to form a fairly loose mixture, adding a little water, as needed. There should still be discernible pieces of dhal, though the batter should also hold together easily when you squeeze it.
Scrape the lentils into a medium glass or stainless steel bowl and add the green chile, cilantro, salt, and turmeric. Add the finely chopped fenugreek greens now, if using.
Cut 3” squares of parchment paper, grease them lightly with vegetable oil and place them in a steamer.
Lower the steamer into a saucepan filled with ½ an inch of simmering water.
Keep a small bowl of water handy to coat your hands as you form the dumplings.
Using your wet hands, form the batter into quenelle-shaped dumplings. Make sure not to compact the batter too much. Place gently on the parchment squares.
Gently steam for 20 minutes or until done.
Eat with chutney and ghee. Or enjoy them with just a drizzle of warm ghee on top.