Besan Cashew Halwa

Besan Halwa

In India, right now, ’tis the season to be holy. Everyone’s just winding down from a birthday bash for Ganesh the elephant-headed god, Dussehra’s already at the doorstep, and Diwali will be here before you know it. All of this festival fever is accompanied by, quite naturally, a whole lot of food. A lot of it sweet.

It’s more than a week now since I returned home to Washington but I am still in an India state of mind. All I want to do right now is go back and squabble with the rickshaw drivers in Chennai about the fares, stare upon a lush landscape in Savai Vere, Goa, and watch a movie with my arm tucked in Desi’s at Regal Cinema in Bombay.

Unfortunately life makes it hard to have fun when you want to, and therefore all those plans will just have to wait. So what I have been doing instead is cooking up some favorite Indian foods. And because it is festival season back in my favorite place, some of it is– you guessed it– sweet.Besan Halwa

I came up with this very easy Besan and Cashew Halwa because I was looking for a tastier alternative to a very popular Indian sweet that often pops up at Diwali but which Desi detests– Besan Laddoo. For those who are not familiar with laddoos, picture them as spherical cookies that, like cookies, are available in a variety of flavors and textures. Apart from Besan Laddoos, made with garbanzo bean or chickpea flour, you have Rava Ladoo which is made with sooji farina, Til ke Laddoo made with sesame seeds, Coconut Laddoo, laddoos made with puffed rice (kurmura) and so on. I had an uncle who ate a laddoo made with a powder of fenugreek seeds (methi) and jaggery every day of his life. Fenugreek seeds are infused with lifesaving nutrients that fight diabetes, cholesterol, and all that bad stuff and Bhau Mama –one of the fittest people I ever knew– firmly believed this laddoo, among other healthy habits, helped keep him fit. This year he celebrates his 100th birthday and seeing him again– still healthy and fit — was one of the highlights of my visit to India.

My Besan and Cashew Halwa is perhaps not as healthy as a methi laddoo, although one could argue with merit that chickpea flour is good for you. I added the cashews because I wanted to soften the flavor of the besan which, although lovely to some of us, is not something Desi loves. The cashew powder also helps give a great flavor boost, making the absence of the ghee quite unnoticeable. I have some lovely cashew nuts that I just brought from Goa where this nut grows abundantly.

I wanted to share a few more pictures of my India trip with you all, so I’ve pasted them after the recipe. Thanks to all of you who enjoyed my travel posts. I could not leave you without a few more glimpses into some of the amazing places I traveled to and the even more amazing people I encountered.

But first, here’s the recipe.

Kaju Halwa

 

Besan Cashew Halwa
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 16
Ingredients
  • 1 cup besan or chickpea flour, sifted if it is lumpy
  • 2 tbsp walnut oil
  • 8-10 green cardamom pods. Peel the pods, discard the skins and crush the black seeds in a mortar and pestle until you have a fairly fine powder
  • ½ cup cashew nuts ground into a fine powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
Instructions
  1. Add 1 tbsp of walnut oil to the chickpea flour and mix it in with your fingers until the besan assumes a slightly grainy texture. Set this aside for about 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the remaining walnut oil in a saucepan with sloping sides or a kadhai. Add the besan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the besan gets a couple of shades darker, around 8 minutes.
  3. Add the powdered cashews and again stir-fry for another 5 minutes or until the besan is cooked and a deeper yellow. You want to stir frequently so that the besan doesn’t burn.
  4. Remove the besan to a plate or a bowl and set aside while you prepare the sugar syrup. To make the syrup, mix the water and the sugar and the powdered cardamom in a saucepan and cook until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles.
  5. Remove from the heat and mix in the besan. Stir fast so the besan doesn’t lump up. When you have a smooth mixture, remove the halwa to a bowl.
  6. Garnish with cashew nuts. The halwa will firm up a little as it cools. Scoop it with an ice-cream scoop or a spoon to serve.

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And now for the pictures:

In Chennai, a Ganesh idol from a local temple is paraded through the neighborhood streets for Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant-headed god. A band of musicians accompanies the idol to announce its arrival. When they hear the music, women like the one pictured below, in the midst of cleaning up after dinner, drop their chores to rush out, oil lamps and flowers in hand, to worship the deity at their doorstep.
Girls wait to cross the road outside their school in a small town on the road from Madurai to Kodaikanal, a beautiful hill station in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Tamilians are big coffee drinkers — their coffee made in a special steel filter is one of the best you will ever taste–and here’s their version of a cup and a saucer: a davra tumbler.
A beautiful old church covered by early-morning clouds in Kodaikanal.
Giant eucalyptus trees march across the landscape in Kodaikanal. You can smell their fragrance everywhere.  And below, the gnarly roots of the trees create a natural stairway to help hikers navigate steep trails in the hill station.
An unusual home for a community Ganesh idol in Kodaikanal.
Visitors brave slippery stones to wade through a waterfall
A bhel vendor mixes up a snack for his customers.
At a pine forest in Kodaikanal, a monkey digs through a man’s pocket for candy. The monkeys are wild and free but they are used to food handouts from visitors and will approach people. Vendors sell crispy snacks and fresh carrots at the entrance to the forest and guess which food the monkeys prefer when they are given a choice? The junk food, of course.
In beautiful Kodaikanal, the clouds roll beneath you, often covering up the landscape right when you want to have a look. But who’s complaining?
Because of its elevation, Kodaikanal’s weather and vegetation is a world apart from the rest of sweltering Tamil Nadu. We encountered some rare and unusual fruits and vegetables here, including Chairfruit and Tree Tomatoes (below) which are eaten by making a slit at the top of the eggplant-like fruit and sucking out the flesh with your lips.
A snake pit (yes, really) outside a Madurai temple, covered with turmeric and vermilion and decorated with colorful pieces of fabric and tiny wood cradles — offerings from couples hoping for a child. Snakes, like many living creatures, are worshiped as holy in India and Vishnu, the god who sits atop Hinduism’s vast pantheon, can be found reclining on a huge cobra.
This cute boy outside the Meenakshi temple in Madurai begged Desi to take his picture and yelled “super!” after viewing it. He then walked away, happy as could be.
In Goa, vendors selling all sorts of foods make the rounds of neighborhoods all day. You  never have to go to the market if you don’t have a mind to because you can keep yourself well fed on fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and almost anything you would want. This vendor was selling fish  – the mainstay of every Goan diet– and although we are vegan here at Holy Cow!, this is such a lovely picture that I couldn’t help sharing.
In Raia, Goa, children go home after school, including this boy on a cell phone who’s getting a ride on a scooter driven by his mom.
At the bustling market in Madgaon a vendor displays piles of fiery red chillies, garlic, tamarind and dry fish– all staples for Goan curry.
Stray dogs roam the streets of Goa, and most are friendly. Dogs who are skittish around people keep to themselves and don’t bother anyone. India has made great progress with controlling stray animal populations and keeping them healthy without actually killing any animals. In Goa we  came upon volunteers trapping dogs one morning. The volunteers take the dogs to clinics where they are spayed or neutered, eartipped– meaning a corner of the ear is clipped to indicate the dog is neutered, a procedure used for feral cats here in the United States– and then vaccinated for rabies before being returned to where they were picked up.  Many people care for the dogs and feed them.
We saw this little boy sharing a meal with his family (below) on the sidewalks of south Bombay. You see the plastic sheet in the background– that is the only shelter this family has, and yet there are smiles on their faces. Each day hundreds of immigrants from around India pour into Bombay, India’s largest city and its commercial capital. They make their home on the city’s streets and have no clue about what the future holds, but there is the hope that the megalopolis will provide a livelihood.
Mumbaikars, tired of the city’s congested roads, make an appeal to a higher authority.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Mumbai: Life Along the Railway Tracks

 A man tends to spinach growing alongside the railway tracks in Mumbai. Railway authorities lease out the land to farmers and the veggies grown here find their way to local markets. The farms are not without controversy– as you can see they grow alongside sewers and trash, raising questions about health and safety.

The local trains of Mumbai are as legendary and chaotic as the city itself. Each day they chug across a vast network of tracks, ferrying millions of passengers from far-flung suburbs to work and college and school or– best of all– home. But the tracks also play what might seem to an outsider an unlikely role: they are home to hundreds of thousands of residents of this hardscrabble city who live along the tracks, cook and eat here, sleep here, and even play here.

Take a ride in a local train and you will find some unexpected and even heartwarming surprises both outside and inside the trains which despite the bustle and noise tend to be a place where friendships are often struck between fellow travelers. Mind you, it’s not an easy experience catching the local in Mumbai. I was born and raised in this city and I was a seasoned traveler for all the time I lived here, but this time the very idea of getting into a local made me nervous because I felt so rusty with my technique. And as any Mumbaikar will tell you, there is a very specific technique. You need to know exactly where to position yourself on the platform, and at which stage– even before the train comes to a stop — you need to jump in and rush to find a seat. There’s absolutely no time for indecision or hesitation or, indeed, dignity. A second’s delay and you could be standing, pressed up against the sweaty arm of a fellow traveler, for the hour it takes to get to your destination. Getting out at your stop, before you get pushed back in by more passengers getting in, is also an art (one that involves a lot of elbowing and, sometimes, shouting).
But the locals of Bombay are efficient– they will get you to your destination on time and usually much faster than a ride in a car, despite the city’s brand-new network of freeways and flyovers. So when we needed to take a ride to meet some family in a suburb during our stay in Mumbai, Desi suggested the local train. After some hesitation I agreed only because it was a Sunday and he promised we’d get first-class tickets (yes, the local trains have a first class and a second class and a separate ladies’ compartment for each class. There even used to be a ladies’ special train, meant as the name implies only for women, during rush hour although I don’t know if that exists anymore.)
So into the train we got, after passing a row of metal detectors at Churchgate station (a grim reminder of the terrorist attacks in the city in 2008 which, among other places, targeted a busy Mumbai railway station). We found ourselves a seat pretty easily– no elbowing required– and sat back to watch life go by. Here are a few memories I wanted to share with you. The grill in the window was unavoidable and I was in a moving train which made it hard to always capture exactly the picture I wanted, but I hope you enjoy them despite these limitations for the life they depict.

A child stands outside a makeshift home along the railway tracks, oblivious to the noise made by the locals that zip by every few seconds. And below, the tracks serve as a playground for children who live in the slums lining the railway tracks. A scary sight for safety-minded visitors, but a normal one for anyone who travels these trains every day.

Construction is everywhere in Mumbai, including near the railway tracks where glossy skyscrapers rub shoulders with slums and smaller buildings.

Clothes dry outside a shelter along the railway tracks. And below, a man finds an unlikely spot to relax and enjoy the evening air.

Piles of trash like this one are a common sight along the railway tracks.

A long-distance train rides alongside the local. Note the men sitting and standing in the doors– a common sight in Indian trains. During rush hour you will often find riders standing on the parallel bars of the windows and on top of local trains to get home sooner.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

South India: Life in Pictures

The Meenakshi temple in Madurai throngs with thousands of visitors who brave the intense heat and humidity for eternal salvation. The temple — a huge attraction for tourists from within and outside India — is itself a work of art, with gorgeous stone carvings of Indian dieties. All photography is banned inside the temple, except for photos taken on cell phones.

In Madurai, one of south India’s biggest cities, peddlers beg visitors to shell out a few rupees for their wares just outside the 350-year-old Meenakshi temple, home to a towering pillar covered in nearly 200 kilos of gold. When they sense a sympathetic ear, most will tell you of hardships at home, like a sick mother or starving children. In India’s temple city, as Madurai dubs itself, thousands of homeless cows — an animal revered as holy by Hindus– scavenge through piles of trash, looking for their next meal.

Indian life has always been beset with raw paradoxes, and in modern India the paradoxes are deeper and more divisive than ever before. Poverty is all around and so are glitzy shopping malls occupying multiple floors and chrome-and-glass dealerships for foreign cars. In their living rooms, the middle class are fixated on soaps and movies that couldn’t be farther removed from the reality of their lives.


In the past week since Desi and I touched down in Bombay, we have had a whirlwind visit with family in Madras or Chennai, relaxed just a little in Kodaikanal– a beautiful hill station in Tamil Nadu– and tomorrow we leave for Goa to visit with my father. We will follow that up with a visit to Poona and end up once again in Bombay before we return home. For those of you who enjoyed the pictures of Bombay I posted, I will have more soon.

As we do every time we visit, we have been reabsorbing India which has been metamorphosing by the moment since we left the country 17 years ago. This time, after nearly two decades, I visited the apartment complex where I grew up, in Andheri, a suburb of Bombay. When the cab dropped us off at one of the only landmarks in the neighborhood that still remained from my childhood– Apna Bazar, a local supermarket chain– I was lost. In front of the building where I grew up were wide streets and a huge playground where children played football in the evenings and learned how to bike. Today, the park has been replaced by a tall apartment building, cutting out the sunlight and, it seems, the air for the older, shorter buildings that surround it. There is barely room to walk, leave alone play. Even a shopping mall has been crammed into what was once a cozy neighborhood.

A group of college students in Madurai ask to pose for our camera.

But there are other things about India that don’t change. People still retain an innocent, hospitable charm. A reader asked me how people on the street react when we photograph them. In many countries we have traveled to, Desi has been waved away angrily by people reluctant to become subjects of his camera. But in India, no one minds– in fact, people will sometimes ask to be photographed, considering it an honor. If a stranger eats in your presence, he or she will never do so without offering you part of the food. And if you ask for directions, chances are they will walk all the way with you to your destination, not for reward but because that’s how you treat guests in India.

I will be back next with pictures of some rare fruits we encountered in Kodaikanal, along with other beautiful sights. Until then, I leave you with these pictures of life in Madurai.

Selling shallots at the vegetable market
At the Madurai vegetable market, a huge pile of curry leaves, a popular seasoning for south Indian curries, along with green chillies and coriander leaves.
We landed in Madurai on what turned out to be an auspicious weekend for getting hitched. Weddings were on all over the city, including one right in the hotel where we stayed. Look at the radiant bride, decked out head to toe in brilliant gold, including her hair (below).
Yet another just-married couple exit a temple after their wedding ceremony.
Posters announcing weddings, like this one, are posted all over Madurai. Everyone is invited. Really.
Teenagers cool off from the intense heat at a canal just outside Madurai. Many posed for the camera, showing off their expert diving moves. Below, one swimmer does the Bolt.
Monkeys can be found in green spots around Madurai, including this cute baby near a temple.
A skinny calf looks for food near the vegetable market.
(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Bombay: Life in Pictures

Children line up to catch a glimpse of one of the popular Ganesh idols in the city

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It’s hard to imagine a city as crowded, as frustrating, as vibrant, as ugly and as beautiful as Bombay.

Today, Desi and I visited the city better known as Mumbai, but always Bombay to us. It has been nearly five years since our last visit– a period inexcusably long to stay away from the land that sired you. But as always, within minutes the city grabbed me and shook me and left me breathless.
Each of your senses just seems to explode in Bombay. The smells and the sounds are amplified a thousand-fold. When I was growing up here it was a crowded city, but now the only way to describe the number of people here is overwhelming.

Homeless dogs like this one are everywhere you look in Bombay. They are peaceful souls, happy to coexist with the thronging crowds of people around them.

It is almost impossible to walk in Bombay. There is construction everywhere– flyovers, buildings, even the airport seems to be getting a makeover. Sidewalks are cluttered with hawkers, makeshift shelters set up by the poorest of the poor, even scooters snaking and braking their way through the traffic.
It is almost impossible to cross the roads in Bombay, because each time you set out to do that seems like it could be your last. There is no ebb to the relentless flow of traffic, traffic signals are considered mere suggestions, and pedestrians are not just frowned upon, they are honked out of the way by impatient motorists.
But despite the crowds and the noise and the inevitable pollution, Bombay is wonderful with the gritty reality of life. There are 20 million stories in this city and each one is as intriguing, shocking, innocent and gripping as the next. Just sit yourself in an autorickshaw and peek out of the open door at the life going by– you will come away with a refreshed perspective on life.
We landed in Bombay on one of its most special days—Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of Ganesha, the childlike, elephant-headed god so revered by this city. Each year, Bombay puts on a huge party for their beloved deity. As we took the taxi past midnight from the airport to our hotel, the city’s streets were clogged already with processions of devotees bringing in colorful idols of Ganesha to be installed in massive, ostentatiously decorated pandals.

A community Ganesh idol in Andheri, the suburb of Bombay where I grew up. After 10 days, the idol will be immersed in the sea.

Idols of Ganesha and other dieties wait to be picked up by families, at a workshop on the morning of Ganesh Chaturthi

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I wanted to share some of Desi’s pictures of some very special moments in a very special city. Over the next few days, as we travel in India, I hope to share with you– internet access permitting– more stories about the wonderful food we run into. Do come back for more!

At a community Ganesh pandal, organizers grab a simple lunch of puris and potato bhaji.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Pulao with Eggplant

Long ago, when I hadn’t yet learned how to boil water, I read an article in a Bombay newspaper about the great filmmaker Ismail Merchant and his passion for cooking. The reporter had spent a day with Merchant as he prepped dinner in a Bombay kitchen for friends and his film crew. I don’t remember the details of what he was cooking any more, but I remember that reading about all those sumptuous foods made me long to be there, in that kitchen, eating that food.

So when I came across a hardcover, used copy of the 1994 cookbook, Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters, while browsing through Powell’s Books in Portland (said to be the largest used and new bookstore in the world– the flagship store occupies a whole city block), I just had to buy it. Even if it meant lugging it back home in my bursting suitcase.

Merchant, who made visually sumptuous movies like Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, and Howard’s End with his partner, James Ivory, grew up in Bombay. His recipes drew (he passed away a few years ago) from his Indian upbringing, but the spices appeared to be mellowed down to adapt to Western tastebuds. While I am not one to shy away from a full-blown spice experience, Merchant’s recipes sound truly delicious and somewhat different than your traditional Indian offerings. Last night, I decided to try out his Eggplant Pulao, a luxurious-sounding rice dish made with just a handful of ingredients and quite different from the traditional Eggplant Rice (Vangi Bhat) I make.

It was a safe choice, in some respects: eggplant is the top veggie in our home, and anything made with it (and rice) is bound to go down fabulously, no questions asked. And I loved the peanut-eggplant combination too, because it’s such a classic.

I didn’t mean to change the recipe much except to replace the butter with a smidgen of oil, but I did tweak a few other things too: I replaced the sugar with jaggery, because this unrefined Indian sugar has a deep taste that is perfect with the eggplant-peanut pairing, and I reduced the ratio of rice to eggplant so I would have more eggplant in each bite.

I served the eggplant rice with my Tomato-Coconut Cream Curry, one of the first recipes I ever learned to make and one I got from another favorite Indian cookbook author, Vimla Patil. I already have that recipe on the blog and you can find it here.

The meal took less than an hour to put together, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. The nutty eggplant was amazing with the sweet-sour tang of the curry. This is a great weeknight recipe for those times you want something special.

Enjoy, all!

Pulao with Eggplant
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Eggplant Pulao
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 6
Ingredients
  • 1 tsp canola or other vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tbsp poppy seeds
  • 2 jalapenos or serranos, cut into rings or finely minced (I keep the seeds, but remove them if you want the dish to be less spicy)
  • 1 tbsp jaggery or regular sugar
  • ¼ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely powdered
  • 1 medium eggplant, cut into small pieces (Merchant recommends peeling it, but as you know, I never do. Why put in more work for less nutrition?)
  • 1½ cups basmati rice, soaked in water for about 30 minutes, then drained
  • Salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Heat the oil in a skillet.
  2. Add the cumin seeds and when they sputter, add the poppy seeds, peanuts, green chilies and jaggery.
  3. Saute until the mixture is toasted and begins to brown, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the eggplants and mix them well. Now add 3 cups of hot water.
  5. When the water comes to a boil, add the rice. Add salt to taste.
  6. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Then cover with a tight-fitting lid, turn the heat to low, and let the rice cook for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes turn off the heat and let the pulao stand at least another 10 minutes before serving.

To serve, fluff up the rice with a fork, then drizzle over it some Tomato-Coconut Cream Curry.

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I wanted to give a shout-out here to the very talented Mints of the blog Vadani Kaval Gheta who sent me the most beautiful table runner (the blue one you see in the Eggplant Pullao pictures) and doilies a few weeks back. I was really surprised to find them in the mail, and absolutely awed by how lovely they are. Best of all, she made them herself. Thanks, Mints– I will cherish these for a long, long time!

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Finally, some of you asked for pictures of our trip to the west, so here they are. Many thanks to my enthusiastic photographer, Desi.

Despite about a thousand noisy tourists, including some who found it really amusing to honk with the sea lions, this guy was determined to have his nap in San Francisco Bay. I watched him for a full 15 minutes to see if he would roll over into the bay, but he’d adjust himself ever so often without opening an eye.

Stunning California: We stopped many times along our drive to ooh and aah over the beautiful, picture-postcard landscapes.

Mount Shasta in California: Luminous, Gorgeous, Awe-Inspiring

The beautiful, colorful rotunda of the state capitol building in Sacramento, California

The imposing state capitol in Olympia, Washington.

And the rather unusual, art-deco state capitol building of Salem, Oregon
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 Oregon was one of the best parts of our trip, with its heady mix of natural beauty and weirdness.

Where it started: Tourists at the first Starbucks ever, in Pike Place, Seattle



Night over Seattle, from the Space Needle

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In Vancouver’s Capilano Rainforest, it’s easy to remember the ephemeral quality of time: Ancient Douglas Firs like this 1300-year-old tree shoot more than 200 feet into the sky. One of the rainforest’s chief attractions is a suspension bridge that hangs 230 feet above the Capilano River, swaying just a little with every footstep. And the glass Cliffwalk, a series of narrow, precarious-looking  but actually very safe walkways, offers yet another thrill as you explore the forest from way above the treetops.

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The Dogs we Met: From German Shepherds to Great Pyrenees, the people of the west coast sure love their dogs. These guys — just a handful of the many, many canines we met on our trip– were always ready and willing to offer a friendly wag and sometimes a kiss, making us miss our kids back home a little more. We even met a couple of intrepid dogs who were calmly walking on the swaying suspension bridge in the Capilano rainforest. Lucy, who hesitates to set foot on  the tiniest wooden bridges over shallow streams when we go out hiking, would have had a heart attack!

This last guy was walking off the leash with his mom in Portland (a scenario I can never imagine indulging in with my highly opinionated dogs) and he absolutely refused to be distracted by anything or anyone. Desi tried his best to get some attention by falling to his knees and holding out a hand, but the dog, frankly, didn’t give a damn.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.