Closer to home with ‘Rajma’
THE WASHINGTONP POST — After a long shift making pasta and pizza at the University of Illinois dining hall, I was exhausted — and deserved a treat.
It was the 1990s, I was an international graduate student, and as I walked back to my apartment in Champaign, I saw a small new Indian restaurant at the edge of campus and entered it with skepticism. Familiar aromas greeted me. My latent homesickness of months away from my family in Mumbai finally registered, as it seemed to dissipate.
I felt like I was walking into an aunt’s kitchen. Behind the counter was a matron pouring generous helpings of steaming rajma over mounds of fragrant basmati rice in large white ceramic bowls. I don’t remember anything else on the menu, but I remember paying for my bowl by weight.
It was a quarter pound of rajma and rice, some of its sauce trailing outside the bowl. I sat down to eat. Each tasty morsel hugged my insides, which had been starved for the comfort of all things familiar. I held back tears of relief. As I dug, I knew: if I could find this in the Midwest on a cold winter’s day, home would never be too far.
Rajma has only been part of Indian cuisine since the late 18th century, but the rajma of every Indian cuisine is loaded with family histories of migration. Kidney beans simmered with onions and tomatoes and seasoned with the housewife’s favorite spice blend are the ultimate comfort food, evoking memories of warm hugs, cozy family dinners, large gatherings and naps. lazy Sunday afternoon.
In my memory, rajma was about friendship and trust, eating a rushed lunch with my best friend from elementary school Pramita at her house when her mother, who I knew as Aunt S, invited me over. At the convent, our lunch break was short. Pramita and I would kick down the school gates, walk through the neighborhood, up three flights of stairs to her house. Aunty S handed us stainless steel plates filled with hot parathas and steaming rajma ladled into small bowls from her small kitchen.
A jovial Bengali married to a man from Lucknow, Auntie S was a trained dietitian. She made a rajma which was a bit of all the places she called home: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Lucknow and, finally, Bombay (now Mumbai). It was incredibly complex and incredibly heartwarming. Made with smaller, fragrant red beans from Uttarakhand, his rajma was simmered in an onion and tomato sauce, and topped with homemade malai or cream. I later learned that she frowned on store-bought garam masalas, instead adding a delicate homemade blend of roasted cumin, fenugreek, black pepper and cardamom, unlike the robust North Indian garam masala. . This sit-down meal was a school luxury. On those afternoons, my own intact tiffin would ride home on the back of the tiffinwala’s bike. Mom knew that I had lunch at Pramita’s.
Although mom stored many legumes, for reasons I didn’t know then, she never cooked rajma. As a teenager, rajma became my rebellion against my mother’s aversion to him; it fueled my sense of curiosity and adventure. So one summer, when my family obligations took away all my adults and my parents decided that our trusted nanny and I would live on our farm outside of Mumbai, I tried to do it.
My mom had given me a crash course in cooking and my dad had given me Reader’s Digest craft books as summer companions. I found a backyard camping section with recipes – including one for baked beans that looked like rajma. I bought ingredients at a rural market, including a can of beans, and cooked enthusiastically on the outdoor wood stove. But the beans tasted weird and bad, and I couldn’t tell why. We ate it in silence.
A dozen years later, while a college student in Illinois, an unexpected sighting of canned beans in a Meijer supermarket sparked the desire for a home: family, relationship safety nets reliable and unconditional trust. Coming to America as a single graduate student had been my biggest leap of faith, and it came with a tough lesson in learning who to trust.
13,000 miles away from anything I cared about, now responsible for my own meals, time, bills and emotional care, I asked mom for advice on monthly phone calls. And I began to appreciate her preference of ingredients, her cooking time and budgets, and how her father had taught her to cook. She talked about how her spice layering techniques made a difference in the kitchen and how their bond had shaped her, as well as her trust in people.
Her life hadn’t afforded her the luxury of time or resources to watch a pot boil, which she found too difficult and complicated to make. Slowly his cooking started to make sense – just like the recipes I had scribbled down while listening to him. Although Aunt S’s rajma recipe escaped me, the memory of those flavors made me smile again. I found Reader’s Digest and its recipe for baked beans in the library, and the reasons for my failed rajma experiment came to light: Indian ketchup was not tomato sauce; the jaggery was not brown sugar; and not all canned beans were vegetarian. My campfire attempt at rajma had lacked the logic of mom’s cooking and aunt S’s care, important ingredients of two women who had never met but shared an unspoken maternal pact of trust and care. My beans also lacked my grandfather’s cooking techniques and all the nuances of flavor that made Aunt S’s rajma special.
MAKHANI RAJMA (NORTH INDIAN STYLE CREAMY RED BEANS)
Four to eight servings
Rajma, or red bean dishes, is a staple in many Indian homes. Among the many Indian preparations that use red beans, makhani rajma is a classic. This version by food writer Nandita Godbole demonstrates the spice layering techniques used to create flavor, with onions, tomatoes and a dash of cream added just when each will shine best. The recipe can be adapted to meet dietary needs. If you like chili, you’ll like makhani rajma. This dish is usually served as an accompaniment to a larger meal, but can be eaten as a starter. The finished dish tastes even better after sitting overnight in the fridge. Serve family style with basmati or brown rice, naan and/or raita.
Two tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped red or white onion
A tablespoon of finely grated or chopped ginger
One tablespoon finely grated or minced garlic
A cinnamon stick (two inches)
Two to three whole cloves
Two green cardamom pods
An Indian bay leaf
Two teaspoons of cayenne pepper (can be replaced with Kashmiri chili pepper for a milder heat)
1 cup finely diced or crushed fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes
Three cups of cooked kidney beans; or use two 15 ounce cans, rinsed and drained
A cup of water, plus more if needed
¼ teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
A teaspoon of granulated sugar or honey (optional)
Fine sea salt or table salt
¼ cup heavy cream for garnish, optional
Cooked basmati rice or brown rice, or naan
Raita, for serving, optional
In a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil until simmering.
If using onions, add them to the pan and cook, stirring often, until softened and lightly browned, six to eight minutes. Stir in ginger and garlic and cook, stirring and being careful not to burn either, until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bay leaf, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute.
If using the onions, sprinkle the cayenne pepper on top and toss to coat. (If you’re not using the onions, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for about a minute before adding the cayenne pepper, as it burns instantly in the very hot oil.)
Add the tomatoes, stirring to mix well with the spices. Cook, stirring, until the liquid begins to evaporate, about two minutes.
Add the beans and stir gently so they don’t break. Add the water, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan, until they have thickened slightly, about 20 minutes.
When the sauce begins to thicken, add the fenugreek leaves. Stir in the sugar and season to taste with salt. Cover and continue to cook until the sauce thickens further and the flavors meld, an additional 10 minutes.
Taste any of the beans, and if it’s still not tasty, add a quarter to half a cup of water, cover again and simmer another 10 minutes, then taste again. Cover and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt and sugar or honey, if needed.
When ready to serve, remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and discard. Swirl the cream on top, remove from the heat and serve hot, family style, as a side dish or as a main dish, with rice, naan and raita on the side, if desired.