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Chitra Agrawal of ABCDs of Cooking brings together her Indian heritage and her American upbringing in delicious recipes that use local produce.
Here, the blogs you should be reading right now with recipes and tips from their creators.
The Blog: Chitra Agrawal, of ABCDs of Cooking, is busy—she just launched a line of Indian condiments called Brooklyn Dehli, and she’s hard at work on her first book, From Bangalore to Brooklyn. On her blog she focuses on meatless recipes that use seasonal produce and Indian spices, like fresh lettuce dosa wraps filled with potato curry and coconut chutney, vangi baath (South Indian spice mixture) roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower or tomato achaar shakshuka.
You write often about your mother’s cooking. How is your food different from hers?
My mother grew up in Bangalore in South India and her cooking tends to be more traditional than mine. She also prefers using Indian vegetables and ingredients, whereas I take a lot of the recipes she has taught me and incorporate local vegetables like garlic scapes, kale, red currants and ingredients from different cultures, like tofu, quinoa, tahini and the like. Also, since my mother was brought up in a strict Brahmin household, she does not use any garlic in her cooking, but I love the stuff.
You teach a lot of cooking classes. What is the question you’re asked most often about South Indian cooking, and how do you respond?
I get this question most often from students: How does South Indian food differ from the North Indian dishes served in restaurants?
South Indian cooking is heavily focused on rice preparations and lentil stews, as opposed to the breads and curries of the north. Food from the Sorth is light and fresh, using lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains, and carries a good amount of heat. Many of the dishes are vegetarian, vegan-friendly and gluten-free. Although there is some crossover in spices, the use of coconut, black mustard seeds and curry leaves are unique to South India. There is also an emphasis on fermented and sour foods like the batter for dosa and idli and yogurt. Yogurt is a big deal in South India and is customarily served at most every meal.
The other thing to note, too, is that my father is from North India, so I find that the dishes we make at home from that region actually differ quite a lot from what you find in the restaurants, which are usually a lot heavier and richer.
What are some of your favorite places in the New York City area for shopping for ingredients or grabbing a bite to eat?
In Midtown at the corner of 28th and Lexington, there are a lot of Indian shops and I mostly frequent Little India Stores Inc., and Kalustyan’s. I also shop at Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, Queens, and at the Patel Brothers reseller in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For on-the-go food, I love Thiru’s dosa cart in Washington Square and Kati Roll Company on MacDougal Street. My favorite buffet is at Tiffin Wallah, and for more fancy affairs Amma on 51st Street. When I have time for the trek, the canteen in the basement of the Ganesh Temple is superb, especially on weekends when they have a lot of variety of dishes. Being a Jersey girl though, my most favorite haunts are on Oak Tree Road: Jassi Sweets, Moghul, Dosa Express.
There are so many wonderful sauces and condiments for Indian food. How did you choose the three you launched with?
Tomato, garlic and gooseberry were actually the varieties of achaar or Indian pickle that I was making from what I would get in my farm share, and serving at my cooking classes and pop-up dinners. Many times, this condiment is made from green mango, Indian gooseberries or thin-skinned lemons, but I wanted to launch with a product that incorporated produce found around me. I love the traditional varieties and bring them back from India, but I started making my own because the ones sold in the stores here were too salty and just didn’t have that homemade taste. I do also make a mean coconut chutney and a cilantro variety, but that condiment is best when made and eaten fresh, versus an achaar, which is pickled in the oil, salt and spices and gets better with time.
What food-related blogs are you loving right now?
This may sound provincial with so many blogs out there, but I most consistently read the ones written by my friends who live right near me like Not Eating Out in New York, by Cathy Erway; Appetite for China, by Diana Kuan; and Brooklyn Vegetarian, by Howard Walfish. They’re my buddies and it’s a way for me to keep up with what they’re cooking and eating when we don’t have the time to catch up in person. And my guilty pleasure is Thug Kitchen, so hilarious!
Kristin Donnelly is a former Food & Wine editor and cofounder of Stewart & Claire, an all-natural line of lip balms made in Brooklyn.