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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Mushroom and Potato Pelmeni (Russian Dumplings)

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My obsession for dumplings is well-documented. Whether it’s chicken and dumplings, or potstickers, or Indian Chakolya (called Dal Dhokli or Varan Phal; these are mildly spiced whole wheat and gram flour dumplings cooked in a spicy lentil stew) or wontons, or Dhokle Papdi (bite-sized gram flour patties stewed in flat beans and spices) my love for all things doughy knows no bounds. It’s what I crave on Sunday nights, cold evenings, or after a long tiring day.

I first made pelmeni and pierogis couple years ago, after my husband visited Russia and simply could not shut up about them. He brought me back some cookbooks from Moscow and I got right to it, I was blown away by how simple and scrumptious they were! Pelmeni are a type of Russian/Ukrainian rustic, savory dumpling filled with meat or mushrooms or potatoes or cheese. I made the pelmeni with a potato and mushroom filling similar to what I’ve shown here, and a handful of pierogis with diced apples. As someone living in the United States for so many years, I felt like I needed to alert the authorities – the apples were NOT tossed in cinnamon, nor were they dusted with it. The serving recommendation was to just serve them piping hot with some butter. I resisted the urge to add cinnamon and was rewarded. Something happens to the apples inside the pierogis that we cannot explain.

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Garlic Whipped Parsnips

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As someone who routinely dreams of sleeping on a pillow made of mashed potatoes, the carbs add up. I think they add up even if I’m innocently thinking about potatoes; one doesn’t even need consume them.

So one must look for alternatives that are lower in carbohydrates, still good with respect to fiber, and yet don’t taste like pressed sawdust. Parsnips happen to live in just that precise neighborhood, and in the winter months, are just begging to be enlisted to be whipped into perfection. Lower in calories, higher in fiber, a slightly sweet taste – if I wasn’t a potato-head I would switch to them permanently. Just kidding!

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Russian Cabbage Soup (Shchi)

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This soup is essentially a warm hug.

Russian soups tend to be meat-heavy for all the good reasons so it’s difficult to find something vegetarian and light in the soup category; I do make a vegetarian Borscht from time to time but this time I wanted something light, bright and clear, and this Cabbage Soup, or Shchi, totally hit the spot.

This soup is basically a Russian mixed vegetable soup starring cabbage, carrots and potatoes, in a base made with onions sautéed in butter. Bay leaves and whole peppercorns are added, leaving the soup clear, bright and sharp (not muddled due to addition of ground pepper). Sometimes sauerkraut is added, as are greens, but I’ve added neither to keep it simple. I also used this soup as a vehicle to use up odds and ends in the fridge (I’m looking at you, diced celery and turnip from 2 weeks ago).

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Chickpea Stew with Coconut Milk, Spinach and Turmeric

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Ever since Alison Roman’s “The Stew” became all the rage on Instagram last year (have you made her cookies “The Cookies” yet?) I have been obsessed with this stew. I’ve made it several times with my own tweaks and updates, and verbally shared the recipe with many. I also typed up my version of the recipe for my mom few months ago, when I should have just written this post to make it easier to share.

Because, The Stew is absolutely worth sharing and making, and making again! It is so nourishing, indulgent, warm and satisfying, not to mention easy, quick enough for a weeknight and do you see how gorgeous? Over the past year, I’ve made it with canned vs home-cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans), with canned vs boxed (lite) coconut milk, in chicken broth vs vegetable broth vs water, with kale vs spinach vs chard, and inhaled it with grilled naan, or basmati rice, or just by itself. It is vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, lactose-free, gluten-free, and definitely one of the best things I’ve learnt to make from Instagram.

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Bhadang (savory rice snack)

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Please welcome Bhadang, the puffed up cousin of the Pohyacha Chivda! The process for both these “chivda” recipes is similar – toast the puffed or paper-thin flattened rice, fry up some salty goodies, make a tempering, toss everything together – but they have distinct flavor profiles. You might say that Pohyacha Chivda is the milder, well-behaved, buttoned-up cousin with a great balance of flavors, and Bhadang is wilder, spicier (uses red chili powder instead of chopped green chillies), bolder (fried garlic!) and more rustic.

The version shown here is mild, since I am making it for a crowd, but back in India I have seen Bhadang that is fiery red and irresistable!

Bhadang employs puffed rice, or murmura, or churmura, as opposed to the flattened rice flakes used in Pohyacha Chivda. Murmura is typically the base in Bhel Puri, a popular Indian street food item! This recipe also calls for Metkut, a very special, Maharashtrian roasted-lentil and spice mixture, which may be difficult to track down in the US, and in the worst case, can be skipped. Please do not substitute with Garam masala or Chaat masala, though!

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