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Dassehra Special: Of Daals And Mithais

Vinita Shah

“Daal  - Again!!!  Whyyyyy?  Why do you cook daal every day?  Why can’t we have meatballs?”

In my defense I have to tell you that daal happens only three or four days of the week and I try to mix it up by cooking different kinds – red, yellow, black or green.  But I have to hear this question every time I cook it.  I have two answers ready and I wonder if I should use the short answer or the long one.

The short answer is – “My child, I wouldn’t know what to do with a meatball”.  The long answer is - “My child, I cook daal like my mother before me and her mother before her and possibly her mother before her.  Daal reminds me of home and when I cook daal I express my love for the family and strengthen connections to my culture.  And when I serve daal I protect you from ugly words that scare me like deculturation, alienation and acculturative stress”.  Hmm, perhaps the long answer really is too long.  

But the fear of loosing our way of life hovers over me constantly, especially when I am at the grocery store, whenever I drive past the Indian grocery store or pass up the chance to have something to eat sent to me from India or even from Jackson Heights.  By this time you must have guessed that food figures large in my life as I try and balance my need to cook daal with the convenience of opening packets of meatballs when I am in a hurry.  However, the questions stay with me: I think about choices we made about where we live; the choices we made for our children and ourselves.  If I don’t cook daal, I ask myself, am I letting go of our traditions, am I doing enough to keep my child connected to our roots and if I let him eat meatballs instead of daal now what choices will my child make in the long term?  With Dassera and Diwali just around the corner my food worries get bigger and bigger - am I doing enough to celebrate festivals and special occasions?

Food takes center stage now as the pantry and dabbas need to be filled with mithai and farsan.  I hunt up recipes and make phone calls to family and friends far and wide to ask for cooking tips.  Mithai and savories are not exactly my forte. Through it all, thoughts of festivities are mixed with twinges of nostalgia, homesickness and even a little guilt.  I remember celebrations with extended family, the dressing up and the lights, meeting aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and gathering around food and fireworks; lots of preparations at home and many trips to the mithai shop.  I try to recreate some of that buzz.

I invite all our friends and we plan a party with lots of special food.  We pick out clothes to wear and special outfits are put together.  I am up to my elbows in flour and there is a sticky mess in front of me when the question comes – “What is that?  It doesn’t look like anything at all”.  The child has a point.  I don’t really know how to make mithai.  I take a deep breath and decide that the time has come to make some changes.  I think that I have the confidence to do it now.  I will make cookies and a cake or two and we will make our own family traditions as we celebrate festivals in our own way.  My mother will probably not approve when she finds out about the lack of mithai.  My friends will be puzzled by the presence of spicy pumpkin cake at the Diwali party but the rabarhi I serve with it will have to be my offering to tradition this year.

Some of my favorite recipes are those for Gajjar Ka Halwa and Rabarhi from the book, “Prashad – Cooking With Indian Masters” by Inder Singh Kalra.  The recipe for Pumpkin Walnut Cake is from, “The Cake Book” by Tish Boyle.

Gajjar Ka Halwa

2 ¼ lb carrots
4 cups milk (whole milk or 2% – I like to use the latter)
1 cup sugar
7 tblsp ghee
1 tsp green cardamom powder
3 tblsp peeled and slivered almonds
4 tsp peeled and slivered pistachio
5 tsp raisins 

Peel, wash and grate the carrots and soak the raisins in water.
Boil milk, add the grated carrots, reduce to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the carrots are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add sugar and stir until dissolved and the liquid has evaporated once more.  Then add the ghee and bhunno for 4 to 5 minutes until the halwa becomes a darker orange/red color.  Turn the heat off.  Add the cardamom powder and stir to mix.
Garnish with the almonds, pistachio and drained raisins before serving.


I have modified this recipe to reduce the quantity so that it is easier to make at home.

6 cups milk
1 cup sugar
2 drops of rose water
1 ½  tblsp peeled and slivered pistachio

Use a heavy bottomed pan.  Bring the milk to a boil, reduce to low heat and stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan, for about 10 minutes.  Thereafter stir every few minutes, carefully scraping the bottom and sides of the pan.  Do this until the milk is reduced by two thirds and acquires a granular consistency.  Take the pan off the burner, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves.  Add the rose water and stir.  Cool the rabarhi and chill it.  Rabarhi is best served chilled.  Garnish with pistachio before serving.

Pumpkin Walnut Cake

1 ¾ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup safflower or vegetable oil
1 cup pumpkin puree (available canned)
1/3 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square-baking pan.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt.  Combine well and set aside.
Beat the eggs with both sugars until pale.  Add the oil, pumpkin puree, milk and vanilla extract and mix until blended.  Add the flour mixture slowly, in three additions, mixing until just blended.  Stir in the walnuts.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool the cake completely.
To serve, cut the cake into squares and top each piece with a large dollop of cream.

Vinita Shah has lived in the USA for over twelve years.  Currently she is working with school systems in the area on curriculum development for global studies.  She coordinates a study group for children about India that meets regularly.  It is called Indianroots.  She has two children of her own for whom she cooks daal every day.

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