Tiranga Dhokla (Tricolor Savory Sponge Cake)

Every year around January 26th and August 15th, depending on how many Indian people you know and follow, you may have noticed your Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds bursting with the Indian tricolor of Saffron, White and Green, or  the “Tiranga” (“Tir” = three, “Ranga” = color). If you are not sure why, it’s because January 26th is India’s Republic Day and August 15th, it’s Independence Day! Flags are hoisted in every institution all over the country, and the tricolor waves proudly throughout the country in the hope of a more secular, open and better tomorrow for my motherland!

And, if you are obsessed with food as I am, you might see elaborate tricolor preparations all over your feed too – tricolor rice, desserts, parathas (flatbreads) and the like. I myself try to make something new each year; this past year I made Tricolor Dosas (rice and lentil crepes), and for 2019, I am applying the “Tricolor” filter to one of the India’s favorite snack, the Dhokla (pronounced Dhow-klaah).

The traditional yellow Dhokla is a steamed sponge cake made with fermented chickpea batter and spiced with turmeric, green chilies and ginger. A different variant of it, called “Khata Dhokla” is made with semolina instead, and is sort of quick-fermented with yogurt and the Eno (a fruit salt easily available everywhere, or baking soda can be substituted too) does the rest of the rising work.

The Khata Dhokla, pale white in color, is much faster to make as it has a short resting/fermenting time. It’s something you can whip up in a few hours for a substantial and relatively healthy tea time snack. And the neutral color lends itself well to my coloring needs, as I’ve dyed this particular stack with carrot and spinach purées to represent the Saffron/Orange and Green of my country’s flag!

We start off by gathering our ingredients!

From the top, L-R: semolina, Eno fruit salt, sugar, chickpea flour, grated ginger and finely chopped green chilies, turmeric, vegetable oil, carrot purée, salt, yogurt, spinach and water.

We’ll first mix the base Dhokla batter (we’ll be coloring it later just before steaming it) by adding all the dry ingredients to a medium bowl (semolina, chickpea flour, salt, sugar, turmeric) and then adding the wet ingredients to it (oil, yogurt and water, little by little) to make a smooth, homogenous batter.

Add yogurt to the mixture of dry ingredients (except the Eno)
Add water and stir well to combine

We will let this rest for 2-3 hours.

Meanwhile, you can cook the 2-3 carrots in boiling, salted water and purée them in a food processor. Also blanch 3 cups of spinach leaves in boiling salted water, and purée them as well. You can add a tablespoon or so of water to help make the purée but limit it to 2 tablespoons, as it can make the batter too thin! You’ll need about 1/4-1/3 cup each (purée).

Once the batter has rested, give it a quick stir and add grated ginger and finely chopped green chilies. Adjust salt level if required.

Divide the batter (a total of about 3 1/2 cups) into 3 parts – 1 cup each for the orange and green layers, and 1 1/2 cup for the white batter (you can leave this in the medium bowl). To the first 1-cup part, add the carrot purée, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, and stir well. Added more purée (unto 1/3 cup) until you get the desired color. Repeat the same with the second 1-cup part and the spinach purée. Adjust salt level again, as adding the purées will bring down the saltiness.

Tricolor batter, still without the Eno

At this point, let me introduce you to my trusty steamer!

Steamer with a small shelf of 3 steamer pans

This is made especially for Dhokla but you can use any steamer tray as long as it is about 1-inch tall. I make Dhokla in this steamer but you can also make it in a pressure cooker (manual or electric) in steam-mode (that is, without the pressure whistle).

Get your pans ready by greasing them with oil or a nonstick cooking spray.

Greasing the pans makes for quick release and easy cleanup

Add 1-2 cups of water to the steamer and set it on medium-high heat, allowing it to come to a light simmer before proceeding to the next step.

It is now time to add the magic maker – Eno! – to the batters individually. As SOON as you mix in the Eno, you must pour the batter to the prepared pans and place them in the hot steamer for cooking. This is why it is important to line everything up before you add the Eno. You can also use the same amount of baking soda if you are unable to find Eno (readily available in Indian/Pakistani grocery stores).

Pour the batters into their respective pans and steam for 12-15 minutes.

Add Eno once the steamer pans are ready and the steamer is hot and ready to go, then transfer colored batters to the prepared pans

Sometimes the layers with the vegetable purées can take up to a minute or two longer. The Dhokla is ready when a knife inserted in the Dhokla comes out almost dry, or with a few wet bits. Another sign of doneness is that the Dhokla will slowly leave the sides of the pan when its ready (especially as its cooling).

Post a quick steam

While the Dhokla is cooling, make the tempering in a small saucepan by bringing a tablespoon of oil to a shimmer. Add mustard seeds, sesame seeds, asafetida and curry leaves and cook on medium heat for a minute or so, until the sesame seeds and curry leaves take on a bit of a color. Take off the heat and set aside.

Tempering ingredients: curry leaves, asafetida (hing), mustard seeds, sesame seeds and vegetable oil

Once the Dhokla cools slightly (about 5-7 minutes) loosen them (sides and bottoms) with a thin spatula or a knife. Gently flip them onto a serving platter, starting with the green layer at the bottom, the white layer at the center and the orange layer on top.

Stacked layers of Dhokla in the Tiranga order

Drizzle the tempering on top. Garnish the top of the stack with chopped cilantro and Sev (fried chickpea flour noodles).

Adding tempering and chopped cilantro
Cut into wedges

Serve, cut into wedges, with Cilantro+Mint Chutney or Tamarind-Date Chutney, according to your preference! Both these and many other Chutneys (dips) are readily available in Indian grocery stores and are great to keep on hand for quick snacking needs!

Warm and smelling delicious!

This is an unusual way of serving Dhokla (as a stacked cake). Traditionally Dhokla is served by cutting into into squares or diamonds while still in the pan and the tempering is drizzled on top. We intend to cut it like a cake, to see the Tirange (tricolor) like the Indian flag!

Standing tall, along side date-tamarind chutney
Perfect with some hot chai on a cold day

Tiranga Dhokla (Tricolor Savory Sponge Cake)
Serves 8-12 as a snack

For the Dhokla (sponge cake)
1 1/2 cup dry semolina
1 tablespoon chickpea or garbanzo bean flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoon, or to taste, table salt
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 cup thick yogurt
1 1/4 cup water
2-3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into big chunks
3 cups spinach leaves (tough stems removed)
1 inch block of ginger peeled, grated
3-4 green chilies, finely chopped
4 1/2 teaspoons Eno (fruit salt) or baking soda

For the tempering (Tadka or Fodni or Chhaunk)
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon white sesame seeds
7-8 whole curry leaves
1/4 teaspoon asafetida (“Hing”)

To garnish
1-2 tablespoons Chopped Cilantro

To serve
Cilantro and Mint (Green) Chutney (store-bought)
Tamarind Date Chutney (store-bought) (optional)
Sev (ultra-thin fried chickpea flour noodles, store-brought) (optional)

Make Dhokla Batter
In a medium bowl, combine all the dry ingredients (semolina, chickpea flour, sugar, turmeric and salt) and mix well.

Add the oil and yogurt to the dry ingredients, and mix the better while streaming in the water, 1/4 cup at a time, until batter is uniformly mixed and no lumps remain. Adjust salt level, if required.

Cover the bowl with a plate or lid and let the batter rest for 2-3 hours on the kitchen counter at room temperature.

Make coloring purées
While the batter is resting, cook the carrots until fork tender in boiling, salted water and drain immediately. Purée in a food processor to a smooth consistency, adding 1-2 tablespoons of water if required, to move things along. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Blanch the spinach leaves for about 1 minute in boiling, salted water and drain immediately. Purée in a food processor to a smooth consistency, adding 1-2 teaspoons of water, if required. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Make tricolor batters
Once the batter has rested, give it a quick stir, then add grated ginger and finely chopped chilies. Mix well. The base batter is now ready.

This batter in terms of volume is about 3 1/2 cups (give or take a few tablespoons depending on how thick your yogurt was). Divide the batter into roughly three parts: Part 1, for the orange layers should be 1 cup, Part 2, for the green layer, should be 1 cup, and the remaining 1 1/4-1 1/2 cup will remain the white base batter.

In Part 1 of the batter (1 cup), add carrot purée, couple tablespoons at a time and mix well, until you get the desired orange color.

In Part 2 of the batter (1 cup), add the spinach purée, couple tablespoons at a time and mix well, until you get the desired green color.

Steam Dhokla
Add 3/4 cup water to a steamer or pressure cooker and place on medium-high heat with the lid on to bring the water to a low simmer. Lightly grease the Dhokla steamer pans with oil or nonstick cooking spray.

Add 1 1/2 teaspoon of Eno or baking soda to each of the 3 batters (4 1/2 teaspoons total) and mix quickly.

Immediately, pour 3 batters into 3 lightly greased Dhokla trays and place in the stand. Set stand in the steamer or pressure cooker (without the pressure whistle) and steam, without pressure, for 13-15 minutes on medium-high heat, or until the cakes are cooked through and a thin knife inserted into the cake comes clean.

Take the stand out of the steamer or pressure cooker and let cool slightly.

Make tempering
In a small saucepan, heat the oil. Once oil is shimmering, at mustard seeds. Once they start to pop and sputter, add the sesame seeds, asafetida and curry leaves, and swirl contents around in the pan to cook evenly, for about a minute. Once the curry leaves and sesame seeds take on a color, take off the heat.

Using a thin spatula or knife, loosen the sides and bottoms of the steamed Dhokla from the pans and gently flip the cakes on to a serving platter in the following order: green at the bottom, white in the middle and orange on top. Arrange to align perfectly, like a stacked cake.

Pour the tempering carefully and evenly over the stacked Dhokla layers and sprinkle the top layer with chopped cilantro leaves and Sev, if desired.

To serve, cut into wedges (like you would cut a cake) and enjoy warm with a cup of tea, and green/tamarind-date chutneys.

Pasta with Pea-Mint Pesto

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When I first read about a pea pesto, it sounded (and still does) so perfect – why rely on temperamental herbs like basil which look perfect when you buy them at the store and are sure to wilt by the time you get around to making the pesto? Pea pesto is easy, substantial, and can be made from things you already in the kitchen – frozen peas, almonds or pine nuts, a bit of hard salty cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano (although I often times skip it to keep things dairy-free), garlic and good olive oil!

Hot pasta tossed in freshly made pesto with a splash of pasta water is all you need to have a great, perfectly light spring or summer meal, in less than an hour. The pesto can be made while the pasta water boils, and while the pasta cooks, maybe you can set the table, make a salad maybe (but you already got the green covered in the pesto so not necessary) and pour yourself a glass of something white and chilled!

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Got GoT?

Season 8 spoilers ahead! Beware!

There’s nothing I can say about Season 8 of Game of Thrones that a 1000 reviewers haven’t said already. While I didn’t think it was bad enough (as of the penultimate episode) to petition HBO for a “season 8 rewrite”, it does say a lot about the show where the memes are better than the episodes. Before I start grinding my teeth on why they royally messed up Jaime’s arc (turned into a circle) and Brienne’s arc (such a shame especially after the beautiful Knighting ceremony) and so many other arcs (Varys: sidelined then torched! Tyrion: got dumber and dumber! Bran: well, only the weird-wood trees know what he was up to!) let’s talk food! This post is fairly spoiler free.

So many times when I’m watching Game of Thrones, I feel, among other things, hungry! The big feasts, the beautiful tea cakes, the platters of cheeses, all the wine that Cersei drinks, the list goes on! Just as exciting as seeing food from another region, is seeing food from a different time period. You wonder how they measured ingredients, baked bread without any time table or weighing scales, and stuffed and roasted whichever animal they hunted down before being eaten by it.

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Leek and Tofu Potstickers

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Ever since I took the Wonders of Wonton class at San Francisco’s pop-up school The Civic Kitchen I’ve been on a bit of wonton bender. I had made two big batches of 2 types of wontons few weeks ago and I think I had them in the freezer but they seem to have disappeared, and they took some of the chili oil with them.

I had no option but to make more. Figured I would use leeks from my farm stand haul, with some tofu for bulk. I added some store bought lemongrass paste but it was quite intense, and a bit synthetic in flavor – the wontons tasted alright overall but not how I imagined they would. I guess I’ll need to try to a different brand or try to make my own – stay tuned! I’m not suggesting the paste in the recipe below but feel free to add 1-1 1/2 teaspoon of your favorite brand if you’d like to experiment (just adjust the salt and spice level accordingly)!

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Beckoning Spring + Rainbow Chard Crepes!

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A few weeks ago, we drove up couple hours north of San Francisco to check out some new places, early-Spring scenery and eat some oysters. We came back inspired, relaxed, and rejuvenated, already drawing up the schedule for a summer visit.

We went all the way north up to Cazadero and drove our way back south, visiting Tomales Bay, Inverness, Pierce Point (hello Elks!), Point Reyes, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, taking in the beautiful pastures, crisp air and grazing cows, as Northern California showed itself off preparing for an early Spring.

Pretties from the Inverness, Point Reyes Station and Bolinas areas

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Finding Pho!

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Did you know that all the good “Pho” puns are taken? What the pho!

Anyway, over a year ago, we traveled to Sri Lanka through the always-amazing Black Swan Journeys based out of Pune, India. Since then we visited 3 more countries with them and I’m still working off the pounds I gained from (cooking and) eating my heart’s content in those fantastic countries (Maldives, Georgia, and Azerbaijan)! Black Swan Journeys specializes in highly customized, curated tours (culinary tours being just one of the many types), and their famous culinary tour in Vietnam entitled “Finding Pho” is coming up next month. After seeing these videos, I want to jump on the next flight out to join them! But considering we came back from Hawaii not 2 months ago, and the fact that our wallets and waistlines don’t always allow last-minute escapades half way across the world, we’ll have to settle for finding our “Pho” bliss here.

Luckily, we recently acquired an Instant Pot that makes “Finding Pho” both cheaper and faster than getting to Vietnam from California! But if you are anywhere near Vietnam, you have no excuse! While the folks on the culinary tour will find things much bigger than Pho in Vietnam, we’ll temporarily make our peace with the Pho concocted here, with some Vietnamese Spring rolls for company (and crunch). This will do for now, although I hope we get to find ourselves (and Pho) in Vietnam soon enough!

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Confessions of a Wonton Addict

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In an effort to formally learn some kitchen skills (and if we are being very honest, in an effort to feed myself delicious wontons any time I want), I recently took the amazing “Wonders of Wonton” class with Chef Lorraine Witte at San Francisco’s newly minted pop-up cooking school: “The Civic Kitchen“. It was my first time in a cooking school and boy was I in wonderland – state of the art equipment, cleavers so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at them, wonderful atmosphere and very helpful instructors!

I’ve been known to hightail to San Francisco’s many amazing dumpling places, and also down to Din Tai Fung in San Jose (whenever they’ll let us in, that is – typically that  happens once a year) to get my Xiao Long Bao/Scallion Pancake/General Dumpling fix from time to time. Life has its way of getting in the way of my love for dumplings. Also, traffic on highway 101. So I figured a lesson on wontons would help bring them closer, and also give me an opportunity to fill them with the things I want to eat (less pork, more shrimp, some chicken), alongside other things I want to eat with them (1/4 cup chili oil, anyone?).

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