PhirniA true testament to the richness and popularity of the cuisine of India’s Muslims is the fact that when anyone around the world thinks of the most delicious Indian foods, the first images that spring to mind are  a lavish, fragrant biryani or a puffy, flaky naan.

India is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population and over the centuries this community has contributed deeply to the country’s colorful diversity and its rich cultural traditions. One of the heftiest contributions, no doubt, has been in the area of food.

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PhirniMuslim cuisine is known for its use of rich spices, fragrant herbs and delicate stocks: exactly the stuff of a food lover’s dreams. Growing up in Bombay, I was lucky to have many Muslim friends. Luckier still, they had moms who liked to feed greedy little girls. In fact, some of my most delicious gastronomic memories from India are of the foods I ate at the home of my friend Shahnaz, whose mother was a fabulous cook and made the best biryani I have ever tasted, or the lunch box that my schoolmate Rashida would share with me.

But if Indian Muslim cuisine is in a class of its own, Indian Muslim sweets are out of this world. One such out-of-the-world dessert I want to share with you today is Phirni, or Firni.

Phirni is at once a rustic and sophisticated dish. It’s a creamy milk pudding thickened with a coarse powder of rice. Not unlike a rice pudding, but grinding up the rice gives this dish a completely different flavor. You have to try it to believe it.

PhirniI shall never forget the first time I had Phirni, sold by one of the many food vendors who feed hungry travelers on India’s trains. I had never tasted anything quite so delicious, I remember thinking. We were traveling in north India and the Phirni was served in an unglazed clay dish with a narrow base that tapered outward to a wide mouth– kinda like a big Diwali diya. The clay, I later learned, absorbs some of the fluid from the Phirni and helps it set, contributes a very special flavor of its own, and also helps keep the Phirni cool — important because this is one Indian dessert that should always be served chilled.

Traditionally Phirni is of course made with milk but my vegan, dairyfree version is made with almond milk that I made myself with blanched almonds. That’s because I wanted the flavor of the almond milk and its texture to be really delicate in order to retain the pure flavor of the original dish. You can try this with storebought almond milk if you’d rather, but I would advise putting in the extra work and doing it yourself. You can also just buy blanched almonds which would make things much easier. Or, for a variation, you could try using cashews which are also delicious in Indian sweets as a dairy substitute.

This is also a really healthy recipe, for a dessert. A serving has only 186 calories and it actually scored an A-minus on the Calorie Count recipe analyzer– how’s that for good eats?

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!


Prep time
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Total time
Recipe type: Desserts
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 10
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 4 cups water
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • 2 tbsp rose water
  • ¼ cup basmati rice
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 15 cashew nuts, chopped
  • Strawberries for garnish (optional)
  1. The day before you want to make the Phirni, place the almonds in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover the almonds. Set aside overnight.
  2. Next day, peel the almonds and discard the skins.
  3. Place the almonds in a blender with 4 cups of water and blend into a very smooth milk. Pour through a sieve to catch any large bits that might have remained, or any pieces of skin.
  4. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring all but ¼th of a cup of the almond milk to a boil.
  5. Add the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until the milk starts to thicken, about 15 minutes.
  6. Drain the rice that’s soaking and grind with with the reserved ¼th cup of almond milk.
  7. Add the rice paste to the almond milk and continue to cook, stirring, for another 15-20 minutes. You want to feel the pudding thickening as time goes by.
  8. Cover the phirni with a tight-fitting lid and let the mixture cook another five minutes.
  9. Remove the lid, add the cardamom, rose water and cashew nuts,and cook for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and pour it into individual serving dishes or bowls.
  10. Garnish with chopped strawberries or nuts. The slight tartness of the strawberries is a perfect flavor pairing with the sweet Phirni. You can also add saffron– soak a generous pinch in 1 tbsp almond milk and add along with the cardamom and cashew nuts.
  11. Refrigerate the Phirni until thoroughly chilled.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 186 Sugar: 25.5 grams Fiber: 1.2 grams Protein: 2.9 grams


Brown Rice Salad with Dill

Brown Rice SaladBrown bag lunches can be a charged issue in our home. I want them to be healthy and tasty, he wants them to be … well… a certain way. Desi is one of those guys who will eat at his desk every single day. So, according to him, the food has to be such that he can eat with a fork while he types with the other hand. It can’t be anything spillable because he’s not going to be looking at the food, see? He has eyes only for the computer screen.

So sandwiches are usually out. Too messy, according to Mr. Persnickety. And so is anything that, heaven forbid, might require a knife too. Which leaves me with a narrow range of foods I can cook, like pastas, biryanis, pilafs or risottos.

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Brown Rice SaladYesterday, I had no more than 30 minutes to cook up a brown bag lunch that met both of our needs and that’s when I came up with a delicious idea for a brown rice salad with dill. Dill and rice are a winning flavor combination, and the nutty brown rice is a perfect foil for the assertive dill. To bring these two delicious ingredients together, I made a dressing that would combine some typical salad dressing ingredients with warm Indian spices.

I put some brown rice in the rice cooker while I went out to walk Opie and by the time I got back it was ready and waiting for me.  After that all I had to do was chop up a couple of veggies, bloom some spices and blend them with the other dressing ingredients, and within minutes I had a delicious and extremely nutritious meal on my hands that no fussy eater could turn their nose up at.

It’s the weekend, friends, so I’m going to stop now so you can go on and enjoy yours. But here’s to healthy meals and fun weekends, and may this one last forever!

Brown Rice Salad

Brown Rice Salad with Dill
Prep time
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Recipe type: Main
Serves: 4
  • ¾ cup brown rice, cooked
  • 2 cups green beans or haricot vert, cut into one-inch pieces. You can use frozen.
  • 1 cup button or crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups frozen or canned lima beans (use any other bean as a substitute. Chickpeas or red kidney beans would be great in this)
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 cup fresh dill, thick stems removed, leaves chopped
  • Dressing Ingredients:
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 dry red chillies
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Juice of one large orange
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 10 cashew nuts
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • Salt to taste
  1. Make the dressing:
  2. Heat 1 tsp of the coconut oil and add the coriander seeds and cumin seeds. Saute for about two minutes over medium-high heat until they start to turn color. Remove to a blender.
  3. Add to the blender the red chillies, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, cashew nuts and salt and ground black pepper.
  4. Blend until the dressing is smooth and creamy.
  5. Make the rice:
  6. In a saucepan, heat the oil and add the onions with some salt and ground black pepper. Saute over medium-high heat for about five minutes or until the onions are translucent but not turning color. Add the mushrooms, green beans and lima beans and mix well.
  7. Let the vegetables cook about 5 minutes or until the beans are tender but not mushy.
  8. Add the cooked brown rice, dill, and the salad dressing. Mix everything well together. Turn off heat.
  9. Serve warm or cold.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 331 Fat: 6.5 grams Fiber: 11.4 grams Protein: 11.8 grams


Methi Matar Malai

Methi Matar Malai

“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” — John Steinbeck

It was Steinbeck’s birthday yesterday. When Desi and I were living in Bombay, we went through a Steinbeck phase when both of us were constantly reading, discussing, and living, or so it seemed, this great American writer. We breezed, like addicts, through Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. We questioned Dom Moraes’s sanity (anyone remember him?) when he called the ending of the Grapes of Wrath “the cheesiest ever” in English literature. We even named our rescue dogs after Steinbeck characters.

There was Sam, a handsome, slender mutt with the straightest tail you ever saw on a dog. We picked him off the streets in Thane. A stray dog has given birth to a litter behind a new shopping mall and when Desi squatted down to look at them, one walked right into his arms. We brought him home.

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Methi Matar MalaiSam, although named after the gentle Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden, had a rebellious streak and  a tendency to get into all kinds of trouble. He loved to escape from the apartment and roam the streets when he had a mind to, which often put him at odds with territorial stray dogs who dominated the neighborhood.  Not to mention neighbors, some of who would — literally —  stand atop a chair and squeal in fear if a dog happened to be within sight. Luckily for him and us, the only time he ever got into a real mess was when he stumbled into one of the shallow gutters that line the city’s streets and came home covered in grease. Desi must have spent five hours straight scrubbing him that night.

Not long after Sam came home, we became parents to another little puppy who we named Lee after the sage-like cook in East of Eden. We came across Lee one night on our way home from work — he was hiding away in a little nook inside the apartment building where we lived. He looked hungry so Desi took him a saucer of milk which he lapped up rightaway. We gave him a towel to cushion him from the concrete floor, but left him where he was — we lived in a tiny apartment, both of us worked odd hours at the newspaper, and we already had one dog who kept us on our toes, so we were definitely not looking to bring home another. But the next day, as we came home from work and were making our way up the stairs to our fifth floor apartment, we heard a tiny squeal behind us. We turned around and there was Lee, all two or three pounds of him, struggling to follow us. “Oh, look, he wants to come home,” said Desi, the biggest sucker on the planet when it comes to animals. And so Lee came home.

India’s streets are filled with beautiful puppies  like Sam and Lee who would make great pets, and a number of rescue organizations have sprung up in the city in the past decade — like World for All– that are working hard to spay, neuter, and adopt them to good homes. But the supply far outweighs demand. And paralleling this trend is another, insidious one where more and more people are buying purebred dogs from indiscriminate breeders. Many of these breeders steal dogs to get their business going and keep the animals in deplorable conditions where they are crammed into cages, hardly fed, and never walked or exercised. And things get worse. Even puppies that get sold to homes are often dumped on the streets once they grow up because the people who bought them are unwilling to put in the work  it takes to look after a dog.

Each year here, in the United States, millions of dogs — and cats– are put down because they can’t find homes, while breeders and puppy mills do brisk business, thanks to “dog lovers” who would rather buy than adopt. In India, the stray dog population continues to explode even as people who see dogs as symbols of affluence flock to buy designer pets from questionable breeders.

The dogs are right. We are nuts.


Methi Matar MalaiMethi Matar Malai is the beautifully alliterating name of a creamy, sumptuous dish often found on Indian restaurant menus. With the contrasting flavors of the two vegetables it features– wonderfully bitter methi or fenugreek leaves, and sweet, delicious green peas — this dish would delight the finickiest tastebuds. But better still, it’s incredibly healthy.

Okay, let me backtrack here. The Methi Matar Malai you’d find in a restaurant would not be healthy because it would contain malai, or cream, which is of course full of cholesterol. But the vegan  Methi Matar Malai I am serving up today is made creamy by a smooth paste of heart-healthy almonds. As you know, I often use nut creams to substitute for dairy creams in Indian recipes, and the result is always both delicious and nutritious.

If you are not familiar with methi, you should hunt it down at your local Indian grocery store. This super-veggie is great for diabetics, and it helps lower cholesterol and normalize blood pressure. And that’s just the beginning. Methi aids digestion, flushes out toxins in the body, is great for skin and hair, and helps stimulate weight loss.  Now how can anyone say no to all that?

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Methi Matar Malai

Methi Matar Malai
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A vegan version of a sumptuous Indian restaurant dish
Recipe type: Curry
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 8
  • 1 big bunch of methi (fenugreek) leaves, tough stems removed, washed, then finely chopped (substitute spinach or watercress if you can’t find methi).
  • 2 cups frozen green peas
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-inch knob of ginger, julienned
  • 2 green chillies, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • 1-inch piece of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  • ½ tsp cayenne or paprika, if you prefer less heat
  • ¼ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup almonds soaked in ½ cup hot water for 30 minutes
  1. Soak the chopped methi leaves in a big bowl of warm, salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside.
  2. Blend the almonds with the soaking water into a smooth paste. Set aside.
  3. Heat half the oil and add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, green chillies, onions, garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Saute everything until the onions turn translucent and just start to brown.
  4. Add the tomatoes along with the cayenne and turmeric. Saute until the tomatoes are quite broken down and pulpy.
  5. Remove the mixture to a blender and cool if necessary before blending into a smooth paste. Add water or vegetable stock if needed.
  6. Heat the remaining oil in a saucepan and add the drained methi leaves. Add a pinch of salt and saute until the methi starts to express water.
  7. Cover with a lid and let the methi cook on medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until tender. Add a tablespoon or two of water if necessary to prevent the methi from sticking to the pan.
  8. Add the tomato-onion paste, garam masala, and the green peas and continue cooking on an open flame, stirring frequently, for another 5 minutes.
  9. Add the almond cream and mix well. Turn off the heat once the curry begins to simmer. Check salt and add more if needed.
  10. Serve hot with chapatis, rotis, or pooris.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 168 Carbohydrates: 25.5 grams Fiber: 9.9 grams Protein: 9.6 grams




Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding

Pumpkin Brown Rice PuddingMy Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding is a super-fun way to sneak “healthy” into your Thanksgiving dessert.

But wait, let’s not start with healthy. Let’s start with delicious because that’s what this dish is– absolutely, mindblowingly delicious. So delicious in fact that you might have a hard time sharing it.

And as for the healthy part– besides the pumpkin and the brown rice, both stars on the health front, we have almond milk which is way healthier and way tastier than dairy milk. Then there is cinnamon and molasses lending their cozy warmth to this bowl of goodness. And yes, there’s sugar, but that’s because you really can’t make a dessert without it.

Pumpkin Brown Rice PuddingI must admit I was a little skeptical about adding brown rice but I couldn’t be happier I did. I used fragrant brown basmati, but you can go with arborio, a medium-grain rice often used in puddings. The brown rice takes a little longer to cook but it’s so perfect in here that you will wonder why you ever used white rice in your puddings. To make this dish just a little richer, I stirred in a small amount of cashew cream toward the end. You can completely skip it if you’re so inclined (although I don’t see why you would).

This recipe is pretty much fool-proof. If you can measure some rice into a cup and stir a pot with a ladle you are pretty much set. Even better, you can make this recipe a couple of days in advance and let it sit in the refrigerator until it’s all ready to serve. No warming, no fussing. And the standing and chilling makes it even more delicious, if possible.

Thanksgiving’s almost here. So what are you waiting for? Here’s the recipe.

Pumpkin and Brown Rice Pudding
A quick note about the nutrition labels I post on these recipes. The information is always per serving and you can find the number of servings right on top of each recipe. In case of our Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding we have 16 servings and the nutrition info below is for one serving of pudding.

Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Serves: 16
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1¼ cups of pumpkin puree (use canned or fresh– I used canned. If you plan to make your own, be sure to roast the pumpkin pieces before you puree them)
  • 5 cups almond milk
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¾ to 1 cup sugar (you can use brown sugar and skip the molasses)
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp molasses
  • ¼ cup cashew pieces soaked in ¼ cup almond milk for 30 minutes, then blended into a smooth cream
  1. Place the rice in a microwave-safe bowl and cover with an inch of water. Zap for 10 minutes and then let it stand in the hot water for at least 2 hours.
  2. Strain the rice and place it in a large pot with the almond milk. Heat on medium-high until the almond milk starts to boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and let the mixture cook, stirring every few minutes, for 15 minutes.
  3. Mix together the pumpkin puree, vanilla and molasses. Add a little almond milk if needed to make a homogeneous mixture.
  4. Add the pumpkin puree mixture to the rice and milk mixture along with the sugar and stir well to mix. Don’t add all the sugar at once– add about half a cup and then add a little at a time, adjusting to your taste.
  5. Continue to cook the pudding, stirring frequently, until most of the almond milk has evaporated. This should take about 30-45 minutes more. You want a slightly runny mixture at the end because puddings firm up as they stand. Stir in the cashew cream at the very end.
  6. Remove the pudding to a bowl, cover with a plastic wrap, and chill. To serve, ladle into bowls, sprinkle a little brown sugar on top and garnish with toasted almond slivers.


A quick note about the nutrition labels I post on these recipes. The information is always per serving and you can find the number of servings right on top of each recipe. In case of our Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding we have 16 servings and the nutrition info below is for one serving of pudding.

Pumpkin Brown Rice Pudding nutrition factsPumpkin and Brown Rice Pudding

Vegan Quinoa Biryani

Quinoa Biryani

A biryani may be the ultimate indulgence, food-wise, but truth is that it can also be transformed into a super-healthy– and decadently delicious– weeknight dish. All you need to work that magic is your imagination.

My Quinoa Biryani with Kala Chana has all the flavor of a traditional biryani because it has the same spices and flavor building blocks– with important modifications to the two main ingredients, the rice and the meat. The rice is replaced by nutty quinoa, a wonder food and one of the best sources of vegan protein, and the meat is replaced by kala chana, a smaller, darker version of a chickpea or garbanzo bean that you can find at any Indian store. Kala chana has more flavor and texture and it holds more firmly after cooking, compared to a chickpea. All of which makes it a wonderful meat substitute in this dish. And being a legume, it’s also packed with protein, of course.
You can substitute chickpeas in this recipe, but the flavor won’t be as hearty. Be sure to cook your chickpea to a slightly al dente texture instead of letting it get too mushy. And don’t forget to rinse your quinoa thoroughly before you cook it to get rid of the saponin, a bitter coating that covers and protects each grain until it’s ready for you to eat.
Vegan Biryani

You will notice that there is no cayenne in this recipe, nor green chillies. The reason is that I used storebought biryani masala which tends to already have chillies added and can be very, very spicy. If you like your biryani eye-watering hot, feel free to add some cayenne pepper along with the turmeric.

Spring is my favorite time to make biryanis because it’s still cool enough to stand over a stove, and the garden is already running amuck with leafy, verdant mint– an absolute must in any biryani. Don’t forget to pick handfuls to add to this one.

Now for the recipe– it’s gluten-free, by the way, in a healthy, non-starchy way. Enjoy, all!
Quinoa Biryani
Quinoa Biryani with Kala Chana
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Serves: 10
  • For the quinoa “rice”:
  • 1½ cups quinoa, rinsed thoroughly in a fine-mesh strainer
  • 3¼ cups water
  • 1 1-inch stick cinnamon
  • 2 green cardamom pods
  • 2 cloves
  • Salt to taste
  • For the kala chana sauce:
  • 1 cup kala chana. Soak overnight, rinse and cook in a pressure cooker or on the stovetop until cooked but still firm. For the stovetop method, place the rinsed chana in a pot with at least two inches of water covering the chana. Bring to a boil, cover, slap on a lid, and cook until tender. Check regularly and add water if the chana gets dry. It should cook in about an hour. Honestly, a pressure cooker’s much faster and you can also usually skip the soaking, so get one already.
  • 3 green cardamom pods
  • 3 cloves
  • 1-inch piece of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp shahjeera
  • 1 large onion, very finely chopped
  • 6 cloves of garlic, very finely grated or put through a garlic press
  • 1-inch knob of ginger, finely grated
  • ½ cup tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp coriander seed powder
  • 1 tbsp biryani masala (available online or at any Indian store)
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup fried onions (you can buy these in a packet at any Indian store. Fried onions might appear dispensable, especially to the health-conscious, but make the effort: they add a certain flavor to biryani that you cannot replicate with another ingredient. And since this biryani makes at least eight servings, they don’t add many calories in a single serving).
  • ¼ cup finely chopped coriander leaves
  • ¼ cup finely chopped mint
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  1. To make the quinoa rice, place all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium-low and let the quinoa cook until it has absorbed most of the water.
  2. Lower the heat to low, slap on a tight-fitting lid, and let it cook another 10 minutes. Let the quinoa stand while you prepare the rest of the biryani.
  3. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot.
  4. Add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and stir-fry for a few seconds. Add the shahjeera, stir, and then add the onions.
  5. Saute, stirring frequently, until the onions are browning at the edges.
  6. Add the ginger and garlic, stir-fry for 30 seconds, then add the turmeric powder, biryani masala, and coriander seed powder. Stir again to coat the spices with the oil, and then add the tomato puree.
  7. Cook for about five minutes, stirring often, and then half of the fried onions, coconut milk and lemon. Add the mint and coriander leaves. Stir.
  8. Add the drained, cooked kala chana. Stir together and let it all come to a boil. If the mixture is too dry, add some of the stock from boiling the kala chana. You want a thick gravy.
  9. Reduce the heat to low. Now fluff the cooked quinoa with a fork so the grains separate. Pour over the kala chana masala in an even layer, using a ladle to help spread it evenly.
  10. Sprinkle the quinoa with the remaining fried onions. Put on a tight-fitting lid and cook over a low flame for 15 minutes.
  11. Let the biryani stand at least 15 minutes before serving. While serving, make sure you dig all the way to the bottom of the pot with the ladle to get a good mix of the quinoa and the masala.


Quinoa Biryani

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