As a child growing up in Chandigarh, India, Chef Cheetie Kumar knew that Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, approached through the aromas emanating from the kitchen. Here’s how to make two of your favorites.
RALEIGH, North Carolina – As a child growing up in Chandigarh, India, Chef Cheetie Kumar knew Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, was coming thanks to the aromas emanating from the kitchen. She remembers smelling the smell of whole milk simmered with freshly crushed cardamom and carrots in the air as she ran outside to play.
“I can’t tell you what I was playing or who I was playing with,” Kumar said. “But these smells are still with me today.”
At Garland, the downtown Raleigh restaurant she opened with her husband, Paul Siler, in 2013, Kumar cooks up Indian and Pan-Asian fare with a vibrant North Carolina twist. Self-taught cook, she thrives by uniting the flavors of the world and erasing the geographical borders of ingredients and techniques.
Her food is nuanced and edgy, just like her: Kumar is in the moonlight as the lead guitarist of a rock band, Birds of Avalon. “It’s a creative outlet as well as a source of creativity,” she said.
Its path to professional kitchens has not been linear. In the early 1980s, when she was 8, she and her family immigrated to New York City and lived on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. There, his relationship with cooking developed more out of duty than out of pleasure. His parents – each have a doctorate. in biochemistry – worked full time in immunology research. Despite the busy schedule, Kumar’s mother prepared home-cooked Punjab-style meals almost every night of the week.
“We go out to dinner maybe four times a year,” Kumar said. Her mother’s dinners always featured at least one vegetable, like the fragrant cauliflower and potato dish aloo gobi, and some sort of dal finished with tomato tarka alongside basmati rice, chapati, yogurt. and mango pickle.
“Helping my mom cook dinner was the chore I loved to hate,” Kumar said.
Over time, she developed a passion for preparing family meals, but it was an anthology of cookbooks from the 1960s that guided her towards professional cooking.
“I bought this giant, dusty cookbook for a penny at a Bronx Library book sale,” she said. When she realized she could cook certain dishes, like Madhur Jaffrey’s Mango Chicken, inspiration struck: “I devoured these recipes. I was both intimidated and challenged. I wanted more.
Garland’s menu combines the dishes she prepares from childhood memory with ingredients that speak of the South. His shrimp and okra borrow from his mother a spice blend made from cumin, coriander, mango powder, black salt and turmeric. Accompanied by large fried shrimp from eastern North Carolina, the dish straddles its past and present.
“As a family, we’ve always done things differently,” Kumar said. “I was taught very early on that everything is to be interpreted, even how we celebrate Diwali.”
The holiday, which is celebrated on November 7 in the United States this year and commemorates the triumph of light over darkness, is both a sacred ritual observed at home and a lively community celebration with neighbors and friends. There is a lot of food, especially sweets.
Gajak, a sesame seed and peanut brittle, and gajar halwa, the carrot and cardamom infused pudding she remembered from her childhood, are Kumar’s favorites. There is one mystery to the making of gajak that still prevails, decades later: The flavors don’t really shine until the brittle has been left to sit for about 20 or 30 minutes.
“There is something magical happening that explains the transformation,” she said.
And the bright carrots of the gajar halwa “party shouting”, she said; the dessert gets richer as it slowly simmers in the spice infused milk.
Kumar exploits these nostalgic Indian dishes and reinvents them to adapt them to his region. At a recent dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, Kumar served up a halwa gajar riff with yogurt cream and carrot sorbet.
“It wasn’t just Indian,” Kumar said, “but it was genuine to me.”
Gajar Halwa (carrot and cardamom pudding)
Makes 3 to 4 servings
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of ghee or clarified butter
8-10 large peeled and grated carrots (about 4 cups / 455 grams), prepared in a food processor in long strands or grated over the large holes of a can grater
3 cups / 720 milliliters of good quality whole milk
½ teaspoon of green cardamom seeds, removed from several pods or purchased already peeled, crushed lightly with a mortar and pestle
¼ cup / 50 grams granulated sugar, and more to taste
¼ cup / 30 grams chopped toasted pistachios, almonds or a mixture
1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan (do not use nonstick) over medium heat, melt the ghee, then add the carrots. Stir until carrots are coated with ghee. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until carrots are a little dry and caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn.
2. Once the carrots are nice and dry, stir in the milk and cardamom and simmer, stirring every few minutes, until the milk has reduced and is almost completely absorbed, about 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with sugar, mix well to combine and cook an additional 5 to 8 minutes until mixture is almost dry and jammy. Serve hot or cold with toasted walnuts sprinkled on top.
Gajak (peanut and sesame crunch)
Makes about 24 coins
1 teaspoon of ghee, plus more to grease the pan and rolling pin
9 ounces / 255 grams jaggery, grated over larger holes of a can grater (see note)
1 ⅓ cup / 200 grams roasted unsalted peanuts, skinless, coarsely chopped
½ cup / 75 grams of toasted white sesame seeds
⅓ cup / 50 grams of unroasted white sesame seeds, powdered using a spice grinder, small food processor or mortar and pestle
Pinch of kosher salt
A pinch of powdered green cardamom (optional)
1. Grease the back of a baking sheet and rolling pin with ghee and set aside.
2. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ghee, jaggery and 1 tablespoon of water and mix well to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the caramel begins to brown and reaches 300 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer, about 8 to 10 minutes; you’re looking for the ‘hard crack’ stage or the point where a drop of caramel in cold water hardens into a crunchy caramel. Do not rush by turning up the heat too high: the caramel will burn in an instant.
3. As soon as you reach 300 degrees, remove the pot from the heat and quickly stir in the peanuts (and any fine hash powder), both types of sesame seeds, salt and cardamom, if using, and stir until that everything is well mixed. Immediately flip the mass onto the back of the baking sheet and roll to a uniform 1/4 inch thickness, keeping the sides as straight as possible.
4. Let stand until cool enough to handle but still pliable, about 3 to 4 minutes, and slide onto a cutting board. Cut into 2 by 2 inch pieces. (Alternatively, when completely cooled, the brittle can be broken into uneven rustic pieces.) Let stand completely until hard before serving. The flavors start to come together after 30 minutes of setting, but it’s best after 45 minutes or even 1 hour.
Note: Jaggery adds flavorful undertones that you can’t get with other sugars. Find it online, in Indian grocery stores, or some large Asian supermarkets (look for blocks or balls, rather than granulated jaggery).