I went home this weekend to see the fall colors, eat pumpkin chocolates, and rub my feet on our carpet. I also went to hang out with my dadi (paternal grandmother) who is here from India this month. Dadi has short white hair, nut-colored, spotless skin, and gifted hands. She sews clothes and crotchets scarves and quilts me bedspreads. She is the grandmother that makes ice creams and sells them to a lucky few. Above all, Dadi can cook. On Saturday, before we spent the afternoon leaf gazing, she taught me how to make four traditional Gujarati dishes. Then, on Sunday, she and my dad teamed up to teach me a couple more.
I am not an ardent Gujarati food lover by any means, but I think the cuisine has some uniquely tasty fare that draws the masses to the upscale Guju restaurants now sprinkled across Bombay and New York (like Soam, opposite the Babulnath temple, and Vatan on 3rd Avenue). These dishes can be difficult to recreate with a generic recipe since they never taste quite the same as when you eat them at your Gujarati friend’s home. But my grandma shared her special recipes- the recipes generations of her family have loved for years- so I thought I’d post them here for any hungry and adventurous cooks.
The first recipe dadi taught me was for Handvo, baked savory lentil cakes from a region in Gujarat called Kathiyavad. Don’t let the word “baked” fool you: this fragrant Indian style cornbread (sans the corn) is not low fat. But a slice of Handvo is stunningly savory and worth the time and effort it takes to make it. Handvo’s flour, made from coarsely ground lentils and rice, forms a rustic base, which when combined with the buttery shredded squash and milky coconut, brings a homey, country feeling to your belly. Green chilis and ginger work together to form a sharp, aromatic paste that, when mixed into the batter with the sugar, transforms into a calm, fresh flavor in the cooked slices. And sizzling white sesame seeds encrusted in the top and bottom add a nutty crispiness to the outer edges of this soft, savory cake.
Dadi’s Handvo Recipe
Prep time: 45 min
Oven time: 50 min
3 cups of shredded squash/gourd/cabbage. We used 1 medium “dhoodhi / loki” or Indian gourd, but we’ve used squash and cabbage before. Your vegetable of choice should yield about 3 cups of shredded material.
3 cups handvo flour (a coarse flour made of ground mixed lentils and rice). You can find prepackaged handvo flour (NOT Instant Handvo Mix) at your local Indian grocery store by asking for handvo loht (flour) or handvo daro (coarsely ground flour.)
A 32-ounce container of plain, preferably sour, yogurt
Salt to taste
8 tbsp. sugar
¾ tsp. asafetida
2 tbsp. ginger chili paste. We blended 2 inches of ginger and 8 small chilies into a paste; you can vary the number of chilies depending on how spicy you like your food. 6 chilies to two inches of ginger yields a mildly spicy paste.
½-1 tsp. turmeric
3 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 1/2 tbsp. crushed garlic
4 tsp. chili powder
2 handfuls + 1 tbsp. white sesame seeds
juice from 1 lime
1 cup shredded coconut (can buy frozen from an ethnic grocery store)
1 cup + 1 tsp. peanut oil (can substitute with safflower or vegetable oil)
2 heaped teaspoons black mustard seeds
handful of curry leaves
½ tsp. baking soda
1 level tsp. baking powder
Mix 3 cups handvo flour with the yogurt in a large steel bowl; leave out overnight to ferment.
The next morning, sprinkle batter liberally with salt to taste and add the sugar and asafetida. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Sprinkle shredded squash (or cabbage, or gourd) with salt and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Squeeze out excess water from vegetable and mix into the batter.
Add 2 tbsp. of the ginger-chili paste to batter and stir. Add ½ tsp. of turmeric. Batter should become a banana yellow color. Add the chopped cilantro and crushed garlic to batter, stir.
Set ½ cup of peanut oil in a small pot over low heat. When oil is slightly warm, add the red chili powder. Swirl pot to mix the oil and chili, about 10 seconds, and then stir into batter.
Liberally grease a 15 x 10 glass dish (or two smaller dishes) with oil, and sprinkle the bottom of the pan with a handful of white sesame seeds
Mix the shredded coconut into batter, and then add ¼ tsp. asafetida and juice from ½ a lime.
Taste the batter. Adjust it for salt/sugar levels to taste.
In a small pot, heat 1/2 cup oil. When hot, add 2 heaped tsp. mustard seeds, ½ tsp of asafetida, handful of curry leaves, and 1 tbsp of sesame. Wait until mustard seeds start to pop (so they release their flavors). Set aside.
In another small pot, add 1 tsp. of oil, baking soda, baking powder, and juice from ½ lime. As soon as the mixture starts bubbling, stir it into the batter and quickly pour batter into greased pan. Spoon the heated oil-spice mixture on top and put in the preheated oven.
Cook handvo on 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Handvo should rise and cracks should appear on surface. Handvo should be a toasty golden yellow in color. Serve with chutney.