Closer to home with ‘Rajma’

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Nandita Gottbole

THE WASHINGTONP POST – After a long shift baking pasta and pizza in the dining room at the University of Illinois, I was exhausted – and deserved a treat.

It was the 1990s, I was an international graduate student, and as I was walking back to my apartment in Champaign, I saw a small new Indian restaurant on the edge of campus and skeptically walked in. Familiar aromas greeted me. My latent homesickness after being away from my family in Mumbai for several months finally made itself felt, because it seemed to dissipate.

I felt like stepping into an aunt’s kitchen. Behind the counter stood a matronly woman scooping generous helpings of steaming Rajma over mounds of fragrant basmati rice into large white ceramic bowls. I don’t remember anything else on the menu, but I do remember paying for my bowl by weight.

It was a quarter pound of Rajma with rice, some of the gravy running down the outside of the bowl. I sat down to eat. Each tasty bite hugged my insides, starved for the comfort of all things familiar. I held back tears of relief. As I dug in, I knew that if I could find this on a cold Midwestern winter day, home would never be too far away.

Rajma has only been a part of Indian cuisine since the late 18th century, but the Rajma of any Indian cuisine is rife with family stories of migration. Red kidney beans braised with onions and tomatoes and seasoned with the housewife’s favorite spice blend are the quintessence of home cooking, evoking memories of warm hugs, cozy family dinners, large gatherings and lazy Sunday afternoon siestas.

As I recall it, Rajma was about friendship and trust, a hasty lunch with my best friend Pramita from elementary school at her house when her mother, who I knew as Aunt S, invited me over. In the monastery, our lunch break was short. Pramita and I stormed through the school gates through the neighborhood and raced up three stories to her house. Aunt S handed us stainless steel plates filled with warm parathas and steaming rajma scooped into small bowls from her tiny galley kitchen.

Aunt S., a cheerful Bengali woman married to a man from Lucknow, was a trained nutritionist. She made a Rajma that was a bit of all the places she called home: Calcutta (now Calcutta), Lucknow and finally Bombay (now Mumbai). It was incredibly complex and phenomenally soothing. Their rajma was made from smaller, fragrant Uttarakhand red beans, simmered in an onion and tomato sauce and topped with homemade malai or cream. I later learned that she disapproved of store-bought garam masalas, instead adding a delicate homemade blend of roasted cumin, fenugreek, black pepper and cardamom, in contrast to the robust garam masala of northern India. This sit down meal was a luxury for the school day. On those afternoons, my own untouched Tiffin returned home on the Tiffinwala’s bike. Mom knew I had lunch at Pramita’s house.

Although Mama had plenty of legumes in stock, for reasons unknown to me at the time, she never cooked Rajma. As a teenager, Rajma became my rebellion against my mother’s dislike of it; it sparked my sense of curiosity and adventure. One summer when family commitments took all my adults away and my parents decided that our trusted nanny and I would live in our farmhouse outside of Mumbai, I tried to make it.

My mother had given me a crash course in cooking, and my father had given me the Reader’s Digest craft books as my summer companions. I found a section on backyard camping with recipes – including one for baked beans that looked like Rajma. I bought ingredients at a rural market, including a can of beans, and enthusiastically cooked on the outdoor wood-burning stove. But the beans tasted weird and bad, and I couldn’t tell why. We ate it in silence.

A dozen years later, while he was at grad school in Illinois, an unexpected sighting of canned beans at a Meijer supermarket triggered a longing for home: family, the safety nets of dependable relationships, and unconditional trust. Coming to America as a single graduate student had been my biggest leap of faith, and learning who to trust was a tough lesson.

Thirteen thousand miles from everything I cared about, now in charge of my own meals, time, bills, and emotional nurturing, I made monthly phone calls to Mom for advice. And I began to appreciate her love of ingredients, her time and kitchen budget, and how her father taught her to cook. She explained how his spice layering techniques made all the difference in the kitchen and how their bond had shaped her and her trust in people.

Her life hadn’t afforded her the luxury of time or resources to watch a pot cook, which she found too finicky and complicated to prepare. Her cooking was starting to make sense—as did the recipes I’d written down while listening. Although Aunt S.’s Rajma recipe eluded me, remembering those flavors made me smile again. I tracked down Reader’s Digest and its recipe for baked beans in the library, and the reasons for my failed Rajma experiment emerged: Indian ketchup wasn’t tomato sauce; Jaggery wasn’t brown sugar; and not all canned beans were vegetarian. My campfire attempt at Rajma lacked Mom’s kitchen logic and Aunt S’ caring, key ingredients of two women who had never met but shared an unspoken maternal pact of trust and caring. My beans also lacked my grandfather’s cooking techniques and all the flavor nuances that had made Aunt S.’s Rajma so special.

MAKHANI RAJMA (CREAMY NORTH INDIAN STYLE RED BEANS)

Four to eight servings
Rajma, or red bean-based dishes, are a staple in many Indian homes. Among the many Indian preparations that use red kidney beans, Makhani Rajma is a classic. This version from food writer Nandita Godbole demonstrates the spice layering techniques used to build flavor, with onions, tomatoes, and a dollop of heavy cream added just when they shine at their best. The recipe can be adjusted to suit dietary needs. If you like chilli, you will like Makhani Rajma. This dish is usually served as an accompaniment to a larger meal, but can also be eaten as a main course. The finished dish tastes even better after being left in the fridge overnight. Serve family style with basmati or brown rice, naan and/or raita.

INGREDIENTS

Two tablespoons of vegetable oil
A cup of finely chopped red or white onion
A tablespoon of finely grated or chopped ginger
A tablespoon of finely grated or chopped garlic
One (two inch) cinnamon stick
Two to three whole cloves
Two green cardamom pods
An Indian bay leaf
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (can be substituted with kashmiri chili for milder heat)
1 cup finely diced or mashed fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes
Three cups of cooked kidney beans; or use two 15 ounce cans, rinsed and drained
A cup of water, plus more as needed
¼ teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
A teaspoon of granulated sugar or honey (optional)
Fine sea salt or table salt
¼ cup fresh whipping cream for garnish, optional
Cooked basmati rice or brown rice or naan
Raita, for serving, optional

DIRECTIONS

In a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering.

If using onions, add them to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and lightly golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring to avoid burning, until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and bay leaf and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute.

If using the onions, sprinkle the cayenne pepper on top and toss to coat evenly. (If you’re not using the onions, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for about a minute before adding the cayenne pepper, as it burns immediately in very hot oil.)

Add the tomatoes and stir to evenly combine with the spices. Cook, stirring, until liquid begins to evaporate, about two minutes.

Add the beans, stirring gently so they don’t break. Add the water, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

When the sauce starts to thicken, add the fenugreek leaves. Stir in the sugar and season with salt. Cover again and continue cooking until sauce thickens further and flavors meld, another 10 minutes.

Taste one of the beans and if it’s still not flavorful, add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water, cover again and simmer for another 10 minutes, then taste again. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt and sugar or honey if needed.

To serve, remove and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Drizzle over the cream, remove from the heat and serve hot as a side or family-style main course, with rice, naan and raita if desired.

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