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Closer to home with ‘Rajma’

Nandita Godbole

THE WASHINGTONP POST – After a long shift of making pasta and pizzas at the University of Illinois dining hall, I was exhausted – and deserved a treat.

It was the 1990s, I was an international graduate student, and as I made my way back to my apartment in Champaign, I saw a small new Indian restaurant at the edge of campus and sceptically stepped inside. Familiar aromas greeted me. My latent homesickness from several months away from family in Mumbai finally registered, because it seemed to lift.

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

It was a quarter-pound of rajma and rice, some of its sauce trailing down the outside of the bowl. I sat down to eat. Every flavourful morsel hugged my insides, which had been starved for the comfort of all things familiar. I held back tears of relief. As I dug in, I knew: If I could find this in the Midwest on a cold winter day, home would never be too far away.

Rajma has been part of Indian cuisine only since the late 18th Century, but every Indian kitchen’s rajma is laden with family histories of migration. Red kidney beans simmered with onions and tomatoes and seasoned with the homemaker’s preferred blend of spices is quintessential comfort food, conjuring up memories of warm hugs, cozy family dinners, large gatherings and lazy Sunday afternoon siestas.

In my memory, rajma was about friendship and trust, about eating a hurried lunch with my grade-school bestie Pramita at her house when her mother, whom I knew as Auntie S, would invite me. At the convent, our lunch break was short. Pramita and I would bolt out the school gates, through the neighbourhood, barreling up three flights of stairs to her house. Auntie S would hand us stainless-steel plates filled with warm parathas and steaming rajma ladled out into little bowls from her tiny galley kitchen.

A jovial Bengali woman married to a man from Lucknow, Auntie S was a trained dietitian. She made a rajma that was a little bit of all the places she called home: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Lucknow and, finally, Bombay (now Mumbai). It was impossibly complex, and phenomenally comforting. Made with smaller, fragrant red beans from Uttarakhand, her rajma simmered in a sauce of onions and tomatoes, and was topped with homemade malai or cream. I learned later that she frowned upon store-bought garam masalas, instead adding a delicate homemade blend of roasted cumin, fenugreek, black pepper and cardamom, unlike the robust garam masala of Northern India. This sit-down meal was a school-day luxury. On those afternoons, my own untouched tiffin would return home on the back of the tiffinwala’s bicycle. Mom knew I had eaten lunch at Pramita’s home.

Although Mom stocked many pulses, for reasons unknown to me then, she never cooked rajma. As a teenager, rajma became my rebellion against my mothers’ aversion to it; it fuelled my sense of curiosity and adventure. So one summer when family commitments took all my adults away, and my parents decided that our trusted nanny and I would live at our farmhouse outside Mumbai, I tried making it.

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

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

Thirteen thousand miles away from everything I cared about, now responsible for my own meals, time, bills and emotional care, I sought Mom’s advice on monthly phone calls. And I started to appreciate her preference of ingredients, her time and kitchen budgets, and how her father had taught her to cook. She explained how his spice-layering techniques made the difference in the kitchen, and how their bond had shaped her and her trust in people.

Her life had not afforded her the luxury of time or resources to watch a pot boil, which she found too fussy and involved to make. Slowly, her kitchen began to make sense – as did the recipes I had scribbled down while listening to her. Although Auntie S’s rajma recipe eluded me, the memory of those flavors made me smile again. I tracked down the Reader’s Digest and its baked beans recipe in the library, and the reasons for my failed rajma experiment emerged: Indian ketchup was not tomato sauce; jaggery was not brown sugar; and not all canned beans were vegetarian. My campfire attempt at rajma had lacked Mom’s kitchen logic and Auntie S’s care, important ingredients from two women who had never met but shared an unspoken motherly pact of trust and caregiving. My beans also lacked my grandfather’s cooking techniques, and all the flavour nuances that had made Auntie S’s rajma special.

MAKHANI RAJMA (NORTH-INDIAN STYLE CREAMY RED BEANS)

Four to eight servings
Rajma, or red bean based dishes, are a staple in many Indian homes. Of 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 flavour, with onions, tomatoes and a spot of cream added just when each will shine best. The recipe can be adapted to meet dietary needs. If you like chili, you will like makhani rajma. This dish is typically served as a side dish at a larger meal, but can be eaten as an entree. The finished dish tastes even better after it has rested overnight in the refrigerator. Serve family-style with basmati or brown rice, naan and/or raita.

INGREDIENTS

Two tablespoons vegetable oil
One cup finely chopped red or white onion
One tablespoon finely grated or minced ginger
One tablespoon finely grated or minced garlic
One (two-inch) cinnamon stick
Two to three whole cloves
Two green cardamom pods
One Indian bay leaf
Two teaspoons cayenne pepper (may substitute with Kashmiri chili for milder heat)
One cup finely diced or crushed fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes
Three cups cooked kidney beans; or use two 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained
One cup water, plus more as needed
¼ teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
One teaspoon granulated sugar or honey (optional)
Fine sea salt or table salt
¼ cup fresh heavy cream to 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 often, until softened and light golden brown, six to eight minutes. Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring and taking care to not burn either, until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaf, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute.

If using the onions, sprinkle the cayenne on top and mix to evenly coat. (If not using the onions, remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool down for about one minute before adding the cayenne, as it burns instantly in very hot oil.)

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

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

As the sauce begins to thicken, add the fenugreek leaves. Stir in the sugar and season to taste with salt. Re-cover and continue to cook until the sauce thickens further and the flavours meld, an additional 10 minutes.

Taste one of the beans, and if it is not yet flavourful, add a quarter to a half cup of water, re-cover and simmer for another 10 minutes, then taste again. Cover and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt and sugar or honey, if needed.

When ready to serve, remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and discard them. Swirl the cream on top, remove from the heat and serve hot, family-style, as a side or main dish, with rice, naan and raita on the side, if desired.

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