Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Easing into Indian - Adrak Ka Shorba

This is not a restaurant review post, although you wouldn’t know it for the number of eating establishments I will be referencing. No, this is a chronicle of culinary expeditions that ultimately lands me into my own kitchen, far from gleaming stainless workstations and soup cauldrons deep enough to swim in.

The journey started innocently enough around ten years ago, while I was living in the vast suburban sprawl known as Pharmaceutical Alley in Central New Jersey. Though heavily populated with bedroom communities that hugged the perimeters of corporate parks and tangled with ribbons of highway that could take you from Point A to Point B with relative ease, the area was pretty much as bleak as those highways for anyone who wanted a night out at more than a diner but less than a cavernous catering hall. Yes, there were a handful of fine, old eateries with elegant dining rooms and revered chefs, and the occasional micro-brewery with excellent local suds and progressive menus. But for the most part, getting a decent meal wasn’t as much a difficult decision based on too many options, but an act of desperation and resignation.

After spending most of one Friday afternoon dickering with colleagues over where we would land that evening, sharing massive platters of greasy chicken fingers with mustard sauce or facing yet another round of pretty country club plates fussily arranged by the kitchen staff’s fussy fingers, someone piped up with the suggestion of Indian. My glazed eyes lit up like a Christmas tree out from under eleven months of mothballs. I didn’t even know there was an Indian restaurant in the area.

“Indian? Isn’t that spicy?” replied one of us, echoing the sentiments of many in our group.

“Yes, it’s spicy, but that’s the point…” said the woman who made the suggestion.

“But it’s not all spicy, not if you define spicy as hot," I weighed in. Back then, my knowledge of Indian cuisine was based on my ravenous appetite for reading cooking magazines and articles from the Wednesday food sections of the newspapers. I certainly knew that the curry powder the average American cook flavored their Country Captain Chicken with was certainly not the sort of curries commonly used by the average Indian cook.

“Some of it can be quite mild, yet complex,” I added. “ You can handle it. And the spicy’ isn’t like dousing a Buffalo wing in Tabasco Sauce, but much more nuanced and interesting. Again, spicy doesn’t have to mean ‘hot,’ although it could.” I hadn’t even eaten it, yet already I was campaigning for it.

It wound up that only two of us, Jennifer, the woman who suggested it, and I, went out for Indian that night to Neelam, a small brick storefront in a tiny strip mall in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

And there began the start of a standing Friday night “date” with Jennifer, where we would commiserate about the men in our lives, as we feasted on simple yet elegant oval dishes of vegetable jalfrezi and chicken vindaloo; plates of crusty samosas; stacks of pappadum and kulchas; and piles of green, tomato and coconut chutneys, all countered by soothing, creamy bowls of raita.

Alas, it would only be a matter of time before I began cheating on Jennifer, seeking out new frontiers of Indian dining, my dear and culinary-daring mother, Carol, in tow. Jennifer and I didn’t stop dining at Neelam, but given the packet of cash left behind from dining à la carte, my mother and I scoured many neighborhoods for the “cheap” thrill of lavish, insatiable buffet spreads at all-inclusive prices. Here is where I got to sample and savor a far wider range of Indian dishes from many regions, both swooning and sometimes sweating over the spice quotient. There was Pooja, Baadshah, Moghul, Udupi Village, and Chand Palace, an exquisitely inspired vegetarian array, where, to this day, we have lunch every month.

I was hooked; it was a habit I knew I would never break. Even when I was working all over Manhattan, the first spots I plotted on the neighborhood maps were the Indian restaurants. I don’t mean the places of silk and grandeur, but wonderful nook-and-cranny curry shops generous with their fragrant basmati and eager to splash an extra spoonful of dal on those long fingers of well-defined grains. So well drilled I was in restaurant locations, that when a dear blogger friend visited me in New York a few weeks ago, I marched her and her husband (and my husband, for that matter) forty blocks to Maharaja from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to where the vegetarian fare, even though it had changed hands, was as I remembered. Thick, cumin-cuddled chick pea stew and dense, paneer-studded spinach paste cluttered our happy plates. The naan was steamy and blistered. There was no better place on Earth to eat.

When I became a food blogger eight months ago, bliss took an ever higher road. It has been many years since my first eye-opening encounters with Indian eats, and though I pride myself on my kitchen confidence, I still felt a certain intimidation, not based on an inability to execute a meal, but one of lack of actual, tactical experience; a difficult time finding elusive, albeit enchanting ingredients; and the head-banging sorting out of dialectic, glossary terms that may be altogether different, depending on where an Indian cook hails from in the home country.

So I am starting easy and easing into it, knowing full well that what is offered in restaurants is not necessarily the best that any cuisine from any culture can offer. Home cooking is where it's at. First there was rasam from an Indian grocery guidebook; then paneer mahkmali; now adrak ka shorba, a beautifully creamy and warming ginger-charged soup. (I won't even count the no-brainer minute-microwaving of pappadum.) These are admittedly baby steps, but I believe confidence is born of the small successes interspersed with the resounding failures that slap you to the floor and challenge you further.

Is adrak ka shorba rocket science? I think not. But I have my eye set on a far away destination, and the only way for me to get there is to get those boosters blasting. To the moon, that’s where I want to go. To the moon.

Adrak Ka Shorba – (Tangy Ginger Soup) From The Everything Indian Cookbook by Monica Bhide


2-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds (I like to toast seeds and spices in a dry cast iron skillet)
½ teaspoon powdered turmeric
1 small chopped tomato or ½ cup chopped canned peeled tomato
2 dried red chili peppers, crushed but not finely broken
1 minced serrano chili, seeds and membranes removed
2 cups milk
1 cup plain whipped yoghurt (I used strained Greek yoghurt)
Salt to taste (optional)
Dried mint for garnish


In a large sauce pan, brown the gingerroot in the butter and oil over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and turmeric, cooking another 20 seconds. Add chopped tomato. If using fresh, cook them until soft; if using canned, crush them with a potato masher and heat through. Add the red and serrano chilies, then add the milk. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Add yoghurt and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, adding optional salt. Soup can be served strained or as is. Since the yoghurt separated while heating, I whipped the unstrained soup briefly in a blender to bring it back together. Garnish with dried mint. Serves 2 generously. [I served this with naan (store bought). Someday I will make my own.]

This post is being submitted to Sunita of Sunita's World, creator of the lovely monthly event "Think Spice." This month's featured spice is ginger.


Been There, Done That ~

Extreme Gingerbread Muffin Makeover


  1. Your pieces have a haunting quality about them, Susan, how much time do you take to write them? And you look different in every photo. Is this the latest?
    I've been to the Chola restaurant in NYC, not bad. Heard of it? I wouldn't know where it is, exactly. Oh, and thanks for the mention of paneer makhmali.

  2. Oh. My.

    It's true - there is a world of amazing styles, spices and foods available to the adventurous cook who is willing to dabble and learn from a culture as wise and old as this.

    And you know what? We are still talking about that meal - best we ate in NY, despite the walk. But then, all that walking only whets the appetite, right?

  3. Simple, complex, bright, and warm: perfect for a grey evening.

    You're already halfway there; to the moon, that is.

  4. What a great post...so much "quality" as Lucy said and information. I was actually married to an Indian before and my mother-in-law taught me to make something similar, a buttermilk curry. The Indian husband may be gone, but my love for Indian food remains.

  5. It's too funny, Susan, that we both posted Indian recipes the same day !! Next time I come to NY, you have to take me to that Indian restaurant, Maharaja, too !!

  6. Susan, I echo Sra about your profile pic...you know what,as soon as I clicked on the link through your mail, I thought I was in the wrong place...the title of the blog and the name of the blogger , were, of course, very familiar, but the picture, that is so very different...hmmmm, perhaps something to do with the angle :-)

    Coming back to the recipe, thanks for sending over this warm entry...and you're right about those nook and cranny eateries...always the best :D...and of course,rest assured, you'll be walking all over the moon in no time at all :-)

  7. Hi Susan,

    You have a nice food blog with beautiful picture.
    My husband like Indian food, I will try this one when he come for holiday.
    Keep on cooking great food.


  8. Thanks very much, Sra. Times vary regarding my writing; there are pieces that I can literally spit out and others that are like pulling teeth – one to four hours, perhaps (?) I probably spend the most time editing – that’s the real drain. My writer husband comforts me with the newsroom quote: “Deadlines are a form of mercy.”

    Yes, I know I look different in EVERY photo. This is the latest, taken some weeks ago. When you photograph yourself, it’s hard to maintain the same angles, light, shadows, etc. There are a few others on Flickr, all very different from each other. In any case, my mother STILL doesn’t think any of them look like me. Too funny.

    Chola’s on E 58th St. No, I haven’t been there yet. Reviews are mixed. I’d like to check it out for myself, but I’ll bet I won’t find anything close to your paneer makhmali.
    Lucy – You and The Artist were great sports. NYC is made for walking, especially the straightaway along Central Park at 5th Avenue, plenty of room. It was a fine day. I’m glad you enjoyed the meal as much as I did. I knew you would.
    Christina – Thank always. And getting there is half the fun!
    Thank you, Jeni. With an Indian mother-in-law, you had the inside track. No wonder you love the food to this day. (I am still planning to participate in your event; it will be my next post, just squeaking in under the deadline.)
    Anne – I would be very happy to dine with you on your next visit to NY!!!
    Sunita – Yes, it’s all angles. The prior photo was mostly profile. As I mentioned to Sra (above), every photo is different.: D Thanks for your culinary encouragement. Your “Think Spice” monthly event is the perfect incentive for further adventures.
    Hi, Sefa. Thank you and welcome! I am glad for your visit.

  9. This was a fantastic post! You made me feel like I was with you. The resturant sounds fabu but 40 blocks!!!!!! ;-)

  10. Susan, how lovely and comforting is that bowl of soup! Great color, too. And of course, your beautiful words compliment that perfectly.

  11. I love your story. You know, I used to work for the pharma industry, though not in NJ. I admire your courage and I also think you are taking the right approach. The soup looks and sounds delicious.

  12. Susan, lovie - I love reading your prosaic narratives. The description of the NJ area you described even sounds appealing, but it probably isn't...business parks being the functional, bureaucratic slaughterhouses they are. I love that you use so much ginger in this soup and that it really gets a chance to flavour the butter and oil before anything else.

    Would ghee be a substitute for both the oil and butter?

    A pleasure to read. Both my mind and tastebuds are satisfied.

  13. Hey, Ricki – Thanks! When you guys come to town in December, we’ll eat all over the city, but promise not to walk you all over it, too.
    Thank you, Ahn. The shorba had both warming comfort and tangy refreshment, a winning combination.
    Thanks, Simona. Pharma’s a tough business, though I’ve worked in tougher. I arrived at my approach through trial and error. It works for me. I’m never unhappy or frustrated when a dish turns into a disaster (although I don’t like to waste food, money, time and energy); I analyze it, write it off and then try again. Down but not out.
    Shaun – Thanks. It’s hard to wax poetic about No Man’s Land. NJ has many astonishingly beautiful areas, but corporate parks aren’t one of them. Slaughterhouses? You are spot-on but too kind.

    Ghee would work very well in this. The smell of the ginger frying up in the fats was intoxicating.

  14. Something tells me that Lucy wouldn't mind walking 40 blocks for great, spicy vegetarian food!

    I love the sound of this soup - I have never heard of anything quite like this.

  15. It's true Sue, and you know I've told you time and again about your writing. Honestly, I love reading you.

    I can't wait to see the other Indian dishes you plan to make.

  16. My first experience with Indian home cooking occurred in grad school when two Indian friends of mine came over the house with their own spices and herbs and utensils and whipped up a dazzling array of authentic dishes. Mine have never tasted as good as theirs, but I love the aromas and the slow cooking involved in Indian cuisine. Thanks for a most enjoyable post, Susan.

  17. What a lovely post Susan. Amazingly I have never tried the Chand palace. You say it is good ?
    I guess it was far from where I live.

    The Neelam, we had food from there at one of the hubby's colleague's house. Don't remember it though

    Your Adraki Shorba is fabulous. Have never had it before, looks delighful.

    BTW have you ever ventured into Indian-Chinese ? If you like Moghul, try Ming, just besides it.

  18. I love Indian food, and totally understand how long it takes to sort out ingredients and terms. But once started, it is a great journey.

    I love your posts, you write really well. Very enjoyable to read on a lazy Saturday morning (here in Australia).

  19. first time here, wow! what a lovely blog you have :)

    hearing the word shorba after a long time, brings back lovely memories!
    i was a regular at chand palace when i used to live up north, but have not been there recently, heard they opened up a new branch recently. gotta' try maharaja sometime!

    now onto ur other posts, can already see some beautiful recipe's like the one with one of my fav fruits - peach :)

  20. Oh myy....!!"Even when I was working all over Manhattan, the first spots I plotted on the neighborhood maps were the Indian restaurants. " Quite surprising and left me wondering how much you would enjoy India if you make a visit sometime. You should go once, if possible! I am embarrassed to admit that i have never tasted shorba but it looks just great.

    Well, this pic is also lot different from the other one...now I can atleast identify ur smile as thats the only thing constant in all ur pics :D


  21. Country Captain - that's a blast from the past!!

    Indian cookery is a wonderful thing, and your soup looks great, like your picture of the chilli, ginger and spices too.

  22. Rosa - Ah, I see you follow “Nourish Me” enough to know Lucy!

    “I have never heard of anything quite like this.” You sound just like me every time I indulge in an Indian buffet; there is always something new, mysterious and fascinating on the table.
    Thanks always, dear Cynthia. I can’t wait to see the other Indian dishes I have planned, either! : D
    Hi, Susan. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. My early Indian recipes never came out exactly right, but it’s my devotion to spices that keeps me engaged in learning and improvement.
    Thank you, Sandeepa. I love Chand Palace, but my confidence in their cooking is based as much on the predominantly Indian clientele as on my satisfied taste buds. Occasionally Chand Palace offers Indo-Chinese dishes, and I have enjoyed them. Next time I am in Morristown, I will have to look up Ming. Perhaps the next time you are in Morris Country, you will make a slightly farther trip to Parsippany so you can try Chand for yourself.
    Vegeyum – I’ve barely started the journey in the kitchen and am glad for your encouragement. Thank you for your kind words. It’s very sweet of you. I love the idea of reading on lazy mornings.
    Welcome, Richa! I’m so tickled you know Chand Palace. My mom and I were there just last week. We had the most amazing fried lotus root and potato dish, all sour and salty. I could kick myself for not checking out the sign, but it was especially crowded with a very long line. I’d like to replicate it at home, in greedy leisure.

    Good to see you. Thank you so much for all your kind comments.
    Shn – The things you just don’t know about people. ; ) India someday, yes. My husband and I have a list of places we want to visit. Thanks for your dear comments. You’ve made me smile yet again that you can identify that smile in all the photos. : )
    Hi, Kelly-Jane! Thanks! I love Country Captain. My mother used to make it all the time, a very Anglo-style curry, tame but tasty.

  23. Susan I came across this post of years.. almost 2 years in between. I have been to Neelam ;-) NJ and NY is sprawling with Indian restaurants; I really miss having good Indian food in Indian restaurants here in Dallas area. A few of our favorites in NJ area: Akbar and Moghul in Edison area, Mayuri - up north. And if you want some authentic "Indian Chinese: (LOL) the best place is Nankin in Piscataway & Ming in Oak Tree (had bad experience with service in Ming so never went back there).

    my favorite place in NJ used to be Seven Hills of Istanbul (Turkish) in Highland Park; still dream about that place.

    I have never seen a more flavorful soup than this!

  24. Thanks, Soma. Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you (at least, though, it hasn't taken years). I've been to the Moghul in Morristown (same management perhaps or just coincidence?), but I've not been down Edison/Piscataway area yet - big Indian communities, I know. I used to often go to Newark Avenue in Jersey City, one storefront restaurant and sweet shop after the next. Just *love* the food.

    I haven't even been to Seven Hills, but I'm longing for it now. : )