Sai Bhaji in New York

Clockwise from upper left: masoor dal, channa
dal, toor dal, moong dal. Click to enlarge.
I got into art history by total accident. When I was choosing a university to go to back at the end of high school -- there were far fewer choices in Canada than there are in the US, so it wasn't nearly as traumatic as what American kids go through -- I wanted to go away, to University of Toronto, maybe, or University of British Columbia, but my parents, convinced that I was not prepared to be that far away from them, made me go to the small university in our hometown so that they could keep an eye on me. And keep an eye they did: I started at the age of 17 -- drinking age in Alberta was 18 -- and so my curfew was 9.30 pm, which is sort of awful when you have to go home exactly at the moment when your friends are just heading out. I took one art history course in that first year, and the professor said I should think of majoring in art history -- I didn't pay much attention (I wanted to be an architect) until he said the magic words: "Too bad you can't do it here; we don't have an art history major." That was my ticket out. I suddenly became committed to -- nay, passionate about -- art history.

I transferred to a school 300 miles away and did my art history degree, enjoying it a lot but not really with any mind to the future; all I knew was that I didn't want to be a lawyer like many of my friends did. At the end of my degree, knowing that my family expected me to do post-grad work, I was a bit at loose ends until one of my professors told me to apply to grad school, and when I looked clueless she handed me a list of four graduate programs and their addresses to send away for applications. I dutifully applied, and got into two of them. One was in Chicago, and the other was in New York City. I'd been to Chicago a couple of times but had never been to New York, so I chose the school in New York. This was the sole criteria on which I based my decision.

I arrived in NYC at the end of August, stayed with my cousin and his wife in their lovely but small-ish apartment in the West Village for a few days while I found a place to live. Apartment hunting in New York is a thankless job, and I would arrive at tiny, airless, street-level apartments with bars on the windows to find thirty other people there waiting to sign the lease, or I would walk into apartments so old that the floors tilted to an alarming degree and they smelled of cat pee and there were cockroaches skittering around my feet, only to be told that the rent was significantly more than I could afford. One time, I showed up to be told by the creepy landlord that the apartment wasn't available; it had been leased before I had even phoned. "Why did you tell me I could see it, then?" I asked, annoyed. "You had such a sexy voice on the phone, I just wanted to meet you," he rumbled. I ran.

One day, frustrated and impatient, I saw a photocopied flyer on a lamppost. A man was looking for a roommate for his 2-bedroom apartment in the East Village. Now, I don't think I was completely naive at the time -- I'd been on my own for a few years, I'd lived in Bombay, I'd backpacked for 4 months through Europe, and yes, I was only twenty-two but I'd seen a bit of the world at least -- but I still look back with a measure of horror at the fact that I pulled down that flyer from a lamppost and went to see the apartment of a total stranger, a man no less.

He turned out to be respectable, a recent Harvard law grad who was clerking for a federal circuit court judge downtown, and he had the presence of mind to have his girlfriend over while I looked at the apartment, which was big and bright and airy. I took the apartment. (It was only after I moved in that I realized that the big windows, original to the pre-war building, meant that the traffic noise from the avenue was overwhelming; whenever I called anyone from my bedroom it sounded on the other end like I was at a pay phone on the sidewalk.)

I floated through those few weeks in a sort of haze in which I was fully prepared to accept the surreality of my move from a farm town on the Canadian prairies to one of the most crowded and bustling metropolises in the world. The first day I walked around my new neighborhood I was struck by how busy the streets were, how difficult it was to negotiate the sidewalks for the throngs of people in colorful clothes and garish makeup; I clearly was going to have to change my style, I realized. It was only later in the day that my new roommate asked me if I had noticed all the drag queens walking around for the annual Wigstock festival. No, as a matter of fact I hadn't, I said. It took me months to figure out that the reason cars would honk at me when I walked back to the apartment at night was because my block was one on which prostitutes congregated; I didn't know that the friendly men who kept an eye to make sure I got safely into my building were drug dealers, or that the little plastic tubes littered on the sidewalk were the crack vials they sold. I cluelessly walked into a holdup at the bodega across the street from my building, went straight over to the vegetables to buy some cilantro I needed for cooking, paid, and left, while the gunman (who I didn't notice had a gun) and the storekeeper looked on completely aghast but too shocked to do anything but let me buy my herbs. When I exited and saw the cops assembled outside, I did a double take and realized what had just happened.

I was Mr. Magoo. I negotiated the city blindly, but it always sort of worked out. Even if I stepped off the edge of a skyscraper, it was okay because a crane would be raising a beam just at that moment on which I could land safely, oblivious to how lucky I was.

The kitchen in my new apartment was extraordinarily large for New York City, although it was not in very respectable shape when I moved in; my roommate was not big on cleaning. I scrubbed and rearranged and disposed and restocked until it was a place that I could stand making meals, although I never entirely eradicated the mice or the roaches. (It was the East Village, after all.) I kept canisters of dals on the shelf; to my roommate, they were both beautiful and the sign that I was a "real cook." Whenever his friends came over he would usher them into the kitchen to show them my collection. He was less impressed when I left them on the stove to cook, forgot about them, and the acrid smell of burned lentils filled the flat.

Not long after I moved in, he asked me if I would cook a dinner for him and his girlfriend; he would bring wine and dessert. I happily agreed, glad for the company. I still hadn't really made any friends in the city, and I went for whole days totally mute, save for an evening conversation with a guy who ran a bookshop down the street and would set up a table on Second Avenue in the evenings to hawk some used volumes. For my roommate and his girlfriend, I made one of my favorite Sindhi dishes, sai bhaji, which is one of the healthiest foods you can eat and which responded to the homesickness I was experiencing, both for my parents' home and also for my relatives in India with whom I had lived the previous year. It turned out pretty good, happily, and except for a momentary panic when we discovered that neither of us owned a potato masher (and, in fact, my roommate didn't even know what a potato masher was), there were no major mishaps.

Sai Bhaji
Serves 4-6

It's not pretty, but it's creamy and delicious.

1. Soak 1/2 c chana dal in 2 c water for at least 2-4 hrs. Chana dal is peeled and halved Bengal gram (chick peas), and you can pretty much only get it at an Indian shop or a very well-stocked Indian section in your grocery store; if you can't find it, use yellow split peas instead. When you're ready to cook the sai bhaji, drain the dal and rinse briefly under cold water.

2. Prepare the vegetables: wash and chop 2 bunches of spinach, or 1 bunch of spinach and 1 bunch of another green (fenugreek leaves [methi], kale, Swiss chard), 1 handful chopped dill, a handful of green beans (8-10), 1 large carrot, a small eggplant, 1 large potato, 1 tsp minced garlic, 1 tsp grated ginger, 3 green chilies and 2 tomatoes.

3. The fastest way to cook this is in a pressure cooker, but it can easily be done in a regular heavy pot; I'll give timings for both. In your pot, heat 2 tsp canola oil with 1/2 tsp cumin seeds; when fragrant, sauté 1 chopped onion until golden brown. Add the dal, all the vegetables, 1/2 tsp tumeric, 2 tsp coriander powder, and 1 tsp kosher salt. When the spinach has a chance to wilt a little, add 1 c water if you're using a pressure cooker and cook for 20 minutes after coming up to pressure; bring down the pressure under cold running water. If you're using a regular pot, add 1 c water and cook for about 45 minutes, or until the dal is very soft and the vegetables are cooked to within an inch of their lives; add more water if necessary, though it should not be too soupy at the end.

4. With a potato masher or an immersion blender, blend the mixture into a rough purée. Serve hot with basamati rice (white, or the pullao rice below) or Indian flatbread (chapatis/rotis), with toasted pappadams, and plain yogurt on the side. It also goes very well with brown rice -- less traditional, but healthier.

Pullao Rice
Serves 6

1. Rinse 2 c basamati rice in a sieve under running cold water; toss it and flip it with your hand until the water runs clear. Drain well, and set aside.

2. In a heavy saucepan, heat 1 TB oil over medium heat with the following spices: 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, 1 small cinnamon stick, 2 bay leaves, 4 cloves, and 3 cardamoms. When fragrant, add 1 medium onion, sliced, and sauté until a rich brown color; be patient and lower heat if it threatens to scorch.

3. Add rice to pot and sauté until coated with oil and spices; it will turn slightly brown from the onions. Add 4 c water and 1/2 tsp salt, bring to a boil over high heat, stir, turn down the heat to low, and cover tightly. Check every so often but don't stir; by about the 20 minute mark you will likely see air vents in the top and the water will be completely absorbed. Once the rice is at this point, turn off the lid, cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel and the pot lid, and let sit for 10 minutes or so. Serve.


Proba said…
Sounds yummy.
I'm always surprised it turns out as yummy as it does, considering it mostly involves throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and just boiling it to death. :-)
Unknown said…
I think art history is a ticket out of somewhere for a LOT of us!
What did it let you get away from?
masala_mama said…
Ooh. I have everything but the eggplant. Running out to the store for some now...
Did you make it? How did it turn out?