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Indian Comfort Food: Rajma-Chaval (Red Bean Curry with Rice)

May 30, 2010

For the past few days, I have been suffering from an acute case of homesickness. When you’re living alone nearly 12,000 km (or 8000 miles) away from home, you have to get used to an occasional bout – but I’m usually able to shake it off, distracting myself with new places, new people and dessert. But this was a particularly mean one, refusing to yield even under the collective influence of 70% cocoa chocolate, four straight episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, buttered popcorn and Sex and the City 2.

So I did what I usually do under such circumstances (under any circumstance really) – I cooked. But this time it had to be a recipe from mom’s kitchen, something familiar and comforting. Soon I found myself flipping through my little telephone directory. Let me explain – the first time I was leaving home, I had my mom dictate to me the recipes of all my favorite foods. Having packed all my things and not finding anything suitable to write in, I spied a little telephone directory that my dad had given me (“for writing emergency telephone numbers”). I didn’t have the heart to tell him then that in this world of cell phones and laptops and email and Facebook, it would be unlikely that I’d use it. But it seemed fitting that I use dad’s little book to take away mom’s recipes in.

Anybody flipping through this book would have a hard time deciphering anything. Most of the ingredients, especially the spices, have no amounts associated with them, and the instructions could constitute of as little as three phrases. As a teen, when I used to hear mom sharing recipes with my aunts or her friends over the phone, it used to drive me crazy – her favorite phrases were “andaaz se” (by estimate) or “thoda sa” (little bit of). My plaintive cry of “But how do you know what is the correct amount?” would be met with an enigmatic reply of “You just do”. It was enough to drive any logical person up the wall, and I was sure my own mother was hiding an important secret from me. But I now know something of what she was saying. Baking requires precise measurements, but with cooking, even though I still require a basic recipe, after that, I mostly go by feel; tasting, sprinkling, adding as I go. (While cooking nowadays, I have to carefully note down the amounts as I cook so as to be able to give you a coherent recipe.)

Many people are afraid of Indian cooking. Please don’t be. I might be biased having grown up with it, but I find that simple everyday Indian food can sometimes be the easiest and quickest thing you can cook. Also, no other cuisine, in my humble opinion, makes vegetarian food taste so good. Stock up on a few basic spices – cumin, coriander powder, turmeric, red chilli powder, garam masala, cardamom, cinnamon – you can find them in any Indian store (I have even begun to see them stocked in general supermarkets), and you’ll be good to go.

After a quick skim through my little red book, I decided to make rajma-chaval or beans with rice. (Beans in summer? In my defense, the beginning of summer in Canada is like winter in Bombay. Also, this is lovely on a rainy day.) Rajma is a North Indian dish from Punjab, but now eaten with relish all over India and has many variations as far as recipes go. For this rajma, you first melt some butter and fry an onion till it turns golden brown. To that, you add a garlic and ginger paste, tomatoes, and spices, and cook until everything comes together, the masala turns into this lovely reddish brown color and the aromas start telling you to please hurry up. In go the red kidney beans (previously soaked overnight, or canned if you cheated like me because you had to have it now). These are then simmered until they turn meltingly soft and have absorbed all the flavors of the gravy. A squirt of lemon juice and a garnish of fresh coriander and you’re done.

This tastes best when eaten with steamed basmati rice. Each long grain of the rice soaks up the goodness of the curry, the beans yield under the gentle bite of your teeth and an explosion of tang and spice has you reaching for another spoonful and then another until your plate is licked clean.

If the cure tastes this good, I think I’m going to get homesick more often.

P.S. Update – I recently entered this post to a monthly roundup of legume recipes aptly called My Legume Love Affair. Head over if you would like to share your own beloved recipes or get introduced to new ones.

Recipe adapted from my mother’s kitchen
(Serves 2-3)

1 cup red kidney beans
2 tablespoon salted butter
1 medium onion finely chopped (or grated)
3/4 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste (you can get this in an Indian store or make your own by processing chopped ginger and garlic in a processor with a little water, or just use grated ginger and garlic)
1 medium tomato chopped
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon cumin (jeera)
1 teaspoon coriander powder (dhania)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder (haldi)
1/2 teaspoon (or as per taste) red chilli powder (lal mirch)
1 teaspoon garam masala
Salt, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
A few sprigs of fresh coriander or parsley (optional)

Soak the beans in 3 cups of water overnight. (I cheated this time because I wanted to eat this now, I used canned beans; if doing this, skip this step)
Rinse the beans and cook them in 4 cups of fresh water and salt until completely cooked and tender. Using a pressure cooker to do this, as is the traditional way, makes it a lot easier. The time will depend on the beans you use. In a pressure cooker, it takes about 20-30 mins. (If using canned beans, skip this step.)
Melt 1 ½ tablespoon butter over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the onions and fry until they turn golden brown.
Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 2-3 mins.
Add the chopped tomato, tomato paste and all the spices except the garam masala. Cook till everything comes together and turns into a dark reddish brown color.
Add the beans, ½ cup water (use the water in which you cooked the beans), garam masala, and salt and mix well (don’t stir too much). (The amount of water you use will determine the thickness of your curry. I like mine really thick; if you would like it to be thinner, use more water.)
Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer for 15-20 mins, stirring occasionally. The beans should become one with the curry but not turn to mush.
Add in the remaining butter (optional), sprinkle lemon juice over, garnish with coriander. Serve hot over steamed rice.

P.S. This curry, like almost all Indian curries, tastes even better the next day. I make it early in the day to serve for dinner.
P.P.S. I might sound ridiculous, but one trick I often use if my tomatoes are too tangy or acidic (especially if I’ve been lazy and used canned tomato paste) is to add a scant ¼ teaspoon of sugar. Yes, it sounds weird, but I’ve found it nicely balances the acidity of the tomatoes. Just don’t tell anyone there’s sugar in your curry.

Steamed Rice
(This rice turns out perfectly for me each time)
Recipe adapted from my mother’s kitchen
(Serves 2-3)

1 cup basmati rice
3/4 tablespoon oil
2 cups water

Soak the rice in hot water for an hour.
Add oil to a heavy bottomed pot or pan.
Add the rice and 2 cups of water (you can use the same water you soaked the rice in) and stir.
Cover and cook the rice over medium-low heat. After 10 mins, give it a gentle stir with a spoon. Cover and cook further for 5-7 mins. Uncover and cook to evaporate remaining liquid, if any.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jun 06, 2010 3:18 pm

    Thank you, Heena, for your heartfelt recipe for MLLA. My rajma is very similar, but I use canned, peeled tomatoes in juice rather than paste, and mash 20% of the beans at the end to thicken. (Oh, and I cheat, too. I have just as many shelves full of canned beans as I do bags of dried ones. ; ))

    I’ll have Part 2 of the MLLA Round-Up online (including your recipe) w/in 24 hours.

  2. Jun 08, 2010 12:15 am

    Staple at our house….my daughter loves it!!

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