Off the Menu: Indian Comfort Food

Iconic chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey's take on holiday fare

Amber India Executive Chef Sandeep Basrur (L) with Madhur Jaffrey (R) at the Amber India restaurant in San Francisco on October 26, 2010. (Asia Society Northern California)

SAN FRANCISCO, October 26, 2010 - Asia Society Northern California began celebrating the holiday season early this year, by spending quality kitchen time with world-famous chef, author, and actress Madhur Jaffrey.

Sharing her love of cooking by means of several celebrated recipes from her new cookbook, At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, Jaffrey wooed an audience of Asia Society members here at the Amber India restaurant with age-old techniques for creating simple but delectable foods for everyday cooking.

Newcomers who think Indian cooking is too complicated will be pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of Jaffrey's recipes—three of which are reprinted below. Enjoy these well-spiced recipes for a unique spin on traditional Thanksgiving fare, or try them any time during the chilly holiday season. They're guaranteed crowd-pleasers! 

Reported by Amanda Huffman

All recipes from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)


Eggplants in a North-South Sauce

Serve this hot with meat or vegetable curries, rice, and dal, or serve it cold, as a salad, with cold meats, Indian or Western.

Serves 4–6

4 tablespoons olive or canola oil
⅛ teaspoon ground asafetida
½ teaspoon skinned urad dal or yellow split peas
½ teaspoon whole mustard seeds
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon whole nigella seeds (kalonji)
½ teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1.5 pounds slim Japanese eggplants, cut crossways into 1-inch segments, or “baby” Italian eggplants cut in half lengthways and then crossways, into 1-inch segments
2 medium tomatoes, grated (see page 289), about 1.25 cups
1 cup chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon salt
¼-½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pour the oil into a very large frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the asafetida and the urad dal. As soon as the dal turns a shade darker, add the mustard, cumin, nigella, and fennel seeds, in that order. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, a matter of seconds, add the onions. Stir and fry for a minute. Add the garlic and the eggplant. Stir and fry for 4–5 minutes or until the onions are a bit browned. Add the grated tomatoes, stock, salt, and cayenne. Stir to mix and bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and cook about 20 minutes or until the eggplants are tender, stirring now and then.


Spinach and Ginger Soup (Perfumed with Cloves)

Here is a soup that is perfect for cold winter days; the ginger in it provides lasting warmth. The ginger also helps if you have a cold and acts as a stabilizer for those who suffer from travel sickness. Apart from all its health-giving properties, this is a delicious soup that can be served at any meal. It was an audience favorite at the dinner.

Serves 4-6

4 cups chicken stock
10 oz. spinach, well washed and coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut crossways into thick slices
1 medium (4oz.) onion, coarsely chopped
1 large potato (8-9 oz.), peeled and coarsely chopped
½-1 fresh hot green chili, chopped (if using a jalapeno, use ¼)
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and very finely chopped
2 whole cloves
10 black peppercorns
½ cup heavy cream, plus a little more for dribbling
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Pour the stock into a good-sized pan, and stir in the spinach, carrots, onions, potatoes, green chili, ginger, cloves, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil. Cover, turn heat to low, and simmer 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Blend the soup in batches until smooth. Pour back into the pan through a coarse strainer, adding ¾ teaspoon salt (more if stock was unsalted), the ½ cup cream, and the lemon juice. Mix and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring and tasting for balance of seasonings. Dribble a little bit of cream on top of every serving, if desired.


Salmon in a Bengali Mustard Sauce

This very traditional dish is best served with plain basmati rice, along with moong dal (hulled and split mung beans), if you like, and a green vegetable.

Serves 2-3

To rub on the fish:

¾ pound skinless salmon fillet
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

You also need:

1 tablespoon ground mustard
¼-½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons mustard oil (use extra virgin olive oil as a substitute)
¼ teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon whole fennel seeds
2 fresh hot green and/or red chilies (bird’s-eye is best), slit slightly

Cut the fish into pieces that are about 2" x 1" and rub them evenly with the salt, turmeric, and cayenne. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator for 30 minutes–10 hours. Put the mustard powder, cayenne, turmeric, and salt in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon water and mix thoroughly. Add another 7 tablespoons water and mix. Set aside.

Pour the oil into a medium frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the mustard seeds. As soon as they start to pop, a matter of seconds, add the cumin and fennel seeds. Stir once and quickly pour in the mustard paste. Add the green chilies, stir, and bring to a gentle simmer. Place the fish pieces in the sauce in a single layer. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through, spooning the sauce over the fish all the time.


Slideshow: Dinner with Madhur Jaffrey