Adventures in Indian Cooking

I have an insatiable curiosity to try as many different types of cuisine and variety of dishes during my lifetime as possible. Apart from simply how food tastes, I’m fascinated by the social, geographical and historical factors that influence the evolution of culinary traditions. Food can bridge understanding between people and I love anything that has the power to do that! It’s so much fun to explore a new ingredient and discover how to coax out and combine flavors to recreate the taste that explodes on my tongue when I have that first bite. But there are cuisines and dishes that are so seemingly complex that it can be daunting to jump in and experiment all alone, so I’m not ashamed to seek out guidance.

As a longtime lover of Indian cuisine (see my experiments with curry in an earlier post), I decided to tackle it in my kitchen. Like the real deal. Even though I’ve explored a bit on my own, I knew it was time to sign up for a class and I chose CulinAerie near Thomas Circle in DC. CulinAerie describes itself as a recreational culinary school. I’ve always described myself as an avid home cook but now I’m officially calling myself a recreational cook! CulinAerie offers hands-on cooking, not just demonstration. And my class focused on Royal Indian cuisine or recipes from the chefs hired to cook for the Indian emperors.

The food preferred by the emperors was as rich in flavor as one might imagine. The royal family would not have eaten tomatoes or cilantro as this was considered lower class food. But nuts and lots of milk and milk products were popular. Our instructor, Rupen Rao, has published two cookbooks on Indian cuisine, one of which features Ayurvedic cooking which is an ancient way of cooking that focuses on the dietary needs of each person depending on their body type. Fascinating stuff. Rupen was friendly, knowledgeable and very funny. And he learned to cook from his mom, so ya know, legit. I’ve very much enjoyed his cookbook. Yes, of course I bought it. I openly admit to having a cookbook problem.

Rupen Rao in action.

He even threw in that tandoori spice mix for free. Such a sucker for a deal.

When we entered the classroom, we found our ingredients laid out for us. We were going to be making Chicken Korma (cashew cream sauce), Kashmir Lamb Stew, Garlic Spinach, Caraway Perfumed Rice and Indian Rice Pudding with Mango Mousse. He actually made the rice pudding for us while we cooked but he showed us every step and offered important tips.

Some of our ingredients ready for cooking. Spice mixtures, ghee, garlic, ginger, yogurt and yes, jalapeño pepper!

The first step of the Korma is to let the chicken marinate. You mix the chicken with yogurt and a bunch of delicious flavors like garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric, sweet paprika and yes, jalapeño pepper. Huh! I knew that Indian food could be hot but I didn’t realize that the heat came from the jalapeño. Once those flavors start getting to know each other, the next step is to caramelize the onions. Ghee or clarified butter is often used in Indian cooking instead of oil. Making your own ghee isn’t hard at all. It’s really just a matter of removing the milk solids from melted butter. But you can also buy it at Asian markets and specialty markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. We threw the chopped onions in a hot saucepan with ghee and let them slowly caramelize, being careful to stir them regularly and keep the heat at medium.

Red onions just starting to caramelize.

Once the onions are nice and browned, remove them and in the remaining ghee, add all of the spices you’ve been marinating the chicken in and extras like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon stick. You will put the caramelized onions in a blender with cashews, chicken stock, garam masala and nutmeg. Then add this mixture to the chicken and cook. If only I could describe the amazing smells in the air.

This picture does no justice to the amazing aroma in the air.

Saucy Chicken Korma

With this delicious chicken dish, you can serve white basmati rice cooked with ghee, caraway seeds, cilantro and salt. You will be amazed by how much flavor the caraway seeds add to the rice. Absolutely delicious. Once we had some time to appreciate and enjoy all of the complex flavors of the chicken korma, we prepped for the lamb stew.

Before starting on the lamb, we easily whipped up the yummy spinach side dish. Pretty simple but so flavorful. Saute some jalapeño, garlic and onion and when softened and caramelized (that’s how you get the best flavor!), add the spinach to wilt and soften. Salt to taste and voila!

Can I just say how much I love lamb? I order it whenever I can. It’s not a blank canvas flavor of meat like chicken or fish can sometimes be, but it’s richness should be enhanced by carefully selected and time tested flavors. And the best part is that this particular dish is best with cheap cuts of lamb. The key is that you need to let it cook for a long time at a low heat. Low and slow! First step is to saute some of the seasonings like peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, onions and garlic. You will have created a separate mix of ground spices combined with yogurt for the lamb. Once the lamb is cooked with the spices, the yogurt mixture is added and the heat turned down way low.

The finished product!

After hours of cooking at a low heat, the flavors meld and the lamb turns soft and velvety. We didn’t have hours in class to let the lamb cook, so our lamb was a little tougher than the ideal, but the flavors were still amazing. Especially together with the rice and spinach.

Now, while we’ve all been cooking away over the chicken and lamb, Rupen has been working on the dessert of rice pudding with mango mousse. The key to rice pudding is to heat the milk first and then add rice. Once the rice has cooked, add the sugar and cardamom and nuts. Adding sugar will slow down the cooking process so it should come at the end. Thank Rupen for that important tip! I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

See how that rice pudding shines! The top layer of mango mousse was creamy with just the right amount of sweetness.

I was stuffed by the end of the night but Indian rice pudding is not as sweet as American rice pudding so I managed a few bites of that creamy goodness. And canned Alphonso mangoes from a good Indian market are amazing. As close to right off the tree as you’ll get.

I really enjoyed this class, but I didn’t want to stop there, so I also experimented with another dish in Rupen’s cookbook for a recent dinner party with some out-of-town friends. I made the fish and mango curry. This dish called for green mango which I am very familiar with thanks to my time in the Dominican Republic, but for the first time ever, all the mango I found in the grocery store were ripe! That never happens. I was also having trouble finding curry leaves which have a bright lemony and floral flavor. I went to a mostly Latino supermarket and struck out. I was running low on time and considered substituting the curry leaves with bay leaves but it would have seriously altered the dish so I made a second supermarket run. And so glad I did! When I hit the Asian supermarket, I found both green mangoes and curry leaves.

Awesome fish and mango curry.

None of these meals would have been the same without the proper ingredients. One day, I hope to make and eat them in India. A culinary adventure through this fascinating, complex and stimulating country is on my bucket list. But until then, I will take advantage of living in DC where I can access all kinds of international markets that allow me to experiment with authentic flavors from around the world. No cuisine should be too intimidating to try. Ask for help if you need it but never be afraid to explore, in or out of the kitchen! More than likely you’ll end up with some delicious new dishes to add to your repertoire.



Celebrating the Best of DC

Every year, the Washington City Paper asks DC residents to vote for their favorites in just about every category imaginable from favorite Bloody Mary to favorite doctor (One Medical Group, oh yeah!) to favorite strip club. Yep, no service goes unnoticed. And they also throw a fun party to showcase the winners. This year it was held at the Carnegie Library Building in Mount Vernon Square.

Celebrating the best that DC has to offer.

As an avid foodie, I recognized many familiar and beloved faces at the Best of DC event. One of which was Thip Khao, winner of the best Asian Restaurant Category. Thip Khao serves up quality Laotian fare which is mostly unfamiliar to many DC residents. The name Thip Khao refers to the adorable baskets that hold individual servings of sticky rice.

Thip Khao is a favorite DC newcomer serving up traditional Laotian fare.

As an avid Instagrammer, I follow local artist Kelly Towles, so I instantly recognized his US Capitol figure. Previously, Towles featured the figure on t-shirts but this was a full blown up rendition which set the stage to showcase so many local businesses and entrepreneurs.

The US Capitol Man! Bowtie and all…

The Belgian Embassy offered up one of its iconic dishes – the Belgian Waffle. There was a sweet option but I opted for savory. The smoked salmon waffle sadly was already gone but they offered chicken pate on a waffle instead. The subtle sweetness of the waffle itself paired with the savory and creamy chicken pate was great, but it was a lot of pate!

Classic Belgium waffle with a savory chicken pate.

I was so happy to find Cotton and Reed at this event. I never used to consider myself much of a rum fan. I found rum drinks too sweet. Turns out I just wasn’t drinking the right rum. I moved to the Dominican Republic where I had my first taste of truly amazing rum. Brugal blew apart my idea of what rum should taste like. Then I tried Barbancourt from Haiti, and it was unlike anything else I’ve ever tried. It’s like thinking that all beer tastes like Coors Light and then discovering IPA. I first tasted Cotton and Reed at The Passenger, an awesome local DC bar and I was hooked. Then I heard about a Cotton and Reed pop up in Adams Morgan and my love for their rum was confirmed. So, I just had to stop by and give them some love. Stop by their tasting room at Union Market especially if you’ve never considered yourself a rum fan. You just might be a convert.

Such a delicious, spicy and complex rum. Made right here in the District of Columbia!

There was a lot of buzz when Buredo opened in DC. My friends and I made it a point to try them just after they opened. We had a sushi burrito picnic on a beautiful day in Franklin Square. And then I kinda forgot about them. It was good but there’s so much good food in this city. When I saw Buredo again at the Best of DC event and tried their shrimp tempura burrito, I was reminded that I need to get myself over there more often. So delicious!

Sushi + burrito = perfection!

And then there were the breweries! Of course, good old DC Brau made the list. I live near their brewery and tasting room and love taking advantage of the $2.50 pint special on Fridays. Best deal in town! And I was also thrilled to see 3 Stars Brewery. I’ve loved all of their beers and I need to try the Go Go Weiss, a collaboration with Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn. It’s a sour ale with cherries and cherry blossoms. It’s pink!

Happy to see relative newcomer 3 Stars Brewery getting the recognition it deserves.

Tried and true DC Brau.

I felt as if I had to choose my favorite among the favorites and while it was tough to do among so many great food and drink options, I was delighted by Daikaya’s cocktail the Hara Hara. Gin has always been my drink and this featured Joseph Magnus gin, Rinomato (an Italian bitter aperitivo), cherry blossom paste, grapefruit, lime and Thai basil. Just a touch of sweetness. It was delicious, unique and refreshing.

Daikaya’s Hara Hara was the winner of the night.

Exploring the Anacostia

I’ve always loved hiking and biking, but as the mom of two boys, finding spots where they can run free and spend some of their seemingly inexhaustible energy is a necessity. Thankfully, the DC region is filled with tons of beautiful parks and trails. One chilly, sunny morning, a friend and I decided to explore the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. As a frequent visitor to Yards Park, I had walked the trail past the Navy Yard many times but was curious what lay beyond the 11th Street Bridge.

View of the Navy Yard from the 11th Street Bridge.

We took a few moments to admire the spectacular view of the Anacostia River from the pedestrian lookouts on the bridge and remark on how the riverbank has changed over the last few years. And indeed, cranes still abound. I’ve always thought it was strange that most of DC’s waterfront areas seemed to be ignored. In other cities, the river or coastline is often the heart of the city and center of development and activity. But DC’s waterfronts had been mostly forgotten, particularly along the Anacostia River. No longer. We’re finally creating bustling, viable community and recreational spaces along the water. From the massive development of National Harbor in Prince George’s County to the complete overhaul of the SW Waterfront to the neighboring Navy Yard in SE whose development was spurred by the construction of the state of the art Nationals baseball stadium and soon to be built DC United soccer field.

The rustic beer garden at Bardo on the Anacostia.

We followed the trail along the banks of the river past the intersection of Good Hope Road and MLK Ave SE. We passed the National Guard at a brisk pace, then arrived at the base of the Frederick Douglass Bridge where we ascended the bridge via the pedestrian trail. More gorgeous water views. As we descended, I noticed a structure that looked like a brewery on the bank of the river between (and under) the bridge and Nationals Stadium. Upon closer inspection, it wasn’t only a brewery but a beer garden with funky reclaimed wood tables lined up along the water. Buildings were made out of shipping containers and any other pieces of furniture appeared to be used or handmade out of scrap wood lending a rough, base camp kind of feel to the place. It turns out that this is actually the new location of Bardo, the outdoor brew pub that used to be on Bladensburg Road. That location was shuttered since they scored this sweet, new location. I couldn’t contain my excitement to come back and enjoy a great brew by the water with the sun and a warm breeze on my face.

Go Nats!

Love going to games at this stadium.

After peering through the bars of an eerily empty Nats Park, we realized we had worked up quite an appetite and headed back to Yards Park, across the fantastic pedestrian bridge, and grabbed a seat at Bluejacket. I couldn’t try Bardo just yet, but Bluejacket more than satisfied my beer craving. We decided to explore a few of the many IPAs on the menu and agreed that the Lost Weekend was our favorite. Then my friend ordered the Big Train burger with bacon, onion rings and jalapeño relish and I decided on some grilled kielbasa with rye bread, pickled cabbage and spicy mustard that left just the right amount of burn in my nose.

That’s a big burger.

Kielbasa, spicy mustard and pickled cabbage.

After such a satisfying lunch, we swung by Philz for a pour over coffee for me and a chai for my tea drinking friend. Next time, we’ll have to check out lunch and goodies on the other side of the river. It’s clear that there’s more exploring to do along the banks of the mighty Anacostia.


Declaration and the Shaw Revolution

It was the first warm, sunny day in weeks when my good friend Haleh and I ventured on over to Shaw to try Declaration. There are so many fun, new eateries and bars popping up in the neighborhood that it’s hard to keep up. Declaration is quintessentially Washington with its Declaration of Independence theme and we’d heard good things about the food so we decided to give it a try. We were also seriously craving some great wood fired pizza so our expectations were high.


The Declaration of Independence themed eatery.


Declaration is just across the street from another one of my favorite new additions in Shaw, Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. The theater boasts a great selection of independent and critically acclaimed films, a beautiful bar and lounge and fun movie snacks. The Landmark theaters provide my favorite kind of movie experience. In fact, I’ve filed it away that dinner at Declaration and a movie at the Atlantic Plumbing Cinema would make for a great evening out.

We ordered our drinks promptly upon being seated. I was in a beer mood and knew that there would be many local brews on tap. DC Brau, Atlas Brew Works and Right Proper were all featured. I tried the Atlas Home Rule IPA for the first time and it was perfectly hoppy, not too bitter, with just the right amount of citrus. We ordered two starters, the Roasted Octopus with chorizo white beans, apricot preserves and salsa verde and a small plate of the Brisket Sausage Ragu made with house made lasagna pasta, basil ricotta and pomodoro sauce.

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Roasted Octopus appetizer


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Brisket Sausage Ragu

Both dishes were excellent. Octopus is one of my favorites, especially when roasted or grilled. This may have been a little too charred for some, but I love “almost” burned things. So much so that I buy special dark pretzels and prefer my pizza crusts blistery and brown. (I was excited that the menu here made a point of saying that their pizzas are cooked well done and may have a darker crust. Yay!) The octopus was incredibly tender and delicious with the smoky roasted flavor. I was worried about the apricot but it wasn’t overly sweet and blended wonderfully with the slight sweetness of both the octopus and the beans and was balanced by the saltiness of the chorizo. The combination of smoky and sweet was killer. The brisket ragu was as rich and velvety as it should be. The delicious flavor of the brisket really stood out and the sauce was so good that we ordered bread to sop up what was left on the plate.

Next up was the pizza. There are thirteen pizzas here inspired by the original thirteen colonies. Some feature pretty non-traditional pizza toppings like the lobster roll theme on the Massachusetts pie, the fried chicken and bread and butter pickles on the Georgia or the braised pork, dijon and smoked pears on the North Carolina. We went for the good old Virginian which featured ham, arugula, olive oil, lemon, roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

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The Virginia Thomas Jefferson Pie

I was obviously happy with the charred crust and I’m a huge fan of arugula on pizza. Overall, it was a great pizza, but the ham did have a strong briny taste. It was slightly overpowering the way that I feel prosciutto can sometimes be. And the crust at the center was really thin so the ingredients slid off when I picked up a piece, necessitating the use of a knife and fork. There’s a big wood fired pizza game in this city these days (Menomale in Brookland is still my number one) but this pie definitely held its own among the competition. I can’t wait to go back to try another less traditional pie and see if some unique ingredients help to make the pizza at Declaration stand out from its competitors even more.

With our bellies satisfied, we strolled around the neighborhood enjoying an absolutely perfect sunset. Shaw seems to be the land of the rooftop bars and my friend pointed out a new addition to the club, Takoda Restaurant and Beer Garden. From the street, the rooftop bar looked perfectly positioned for some prime views, so we headed up to see for ourselves.

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Enjoying a Dortmunder Gold Lager while taking in a perfect sunset along Florida Avenue.

The west facing roof top bar was full of removable windows and it was open and breezy and the perfect venue for worshiping the return of the sun. It was, not surprisingly, buzzing with people like us taking in the gorgeous weather. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end another memorable evening in Shaw.