A couple weeks ago we were eating at our favorite local Indian restaurant, Karavalli in Saratoga Springs, enjoying their buffet lunch and Masala Chai (spiced tea). Not only is the food outstanding, but the waitstaff greet us like old friends. After my second trip to the buffet, I found myself pleasantly full of dal, veggies in savory sauces, naan right out of the tandoor and the warmth of a family meal, if only my family had been Indian.
In this state I pulled out my iPhone to ask our server if he could translate the title of an Indian song. It had a captivating beat and I’d put it into my hula hooping playlist. As I whirled to the rhythms, I often wondered what the lyrics meant, if I was jamming to a love song, a silly pop anthem or possibly something obscene.
I can’t tell if it embarrassed Wayne when I ventured into the equivalent of, “So, you’re Indian; What do these words mean?” In any case, I’m pretty sure it’s not the kind of conversation he’d start. I like to presume that people from other cultures will be willing to talk about their foods, customs, and languages. Usually people seem happy to answer my sometimes embarrassingly ignorant queries.
I had assumed the song title was in Hindi but the waiter told me (kindly) it is actually in the Punjabi language. So he couldn’t tell me what it meant, but explained that the catchy beat I liked to hoop to is Bhangra music from the Punjab region of India. Bhangra music and dance is common at weddings and festive occasions throughout India, he told me.
As soon as we got home I Googled Bhangra and fell utterly in love, especially with the dance team Bhangra Empire from California. All joy, energy, color, wit. I couldn’t stop watching videos. Here’s a taste.
Right…but what does all this have to do with green beans, you ask? Okay, I’m almost to the beans. I shared the videos on my Facebook page and responded to my Indian friends who appreciated the post. I wrote that it made me want to jump out of my chair and do my “white girl version.” That was my way of saying I admired the dancers and was afraid I couldn’t participate because it wasn’t part of my own cultural heritage. It’s like how I often feel I have to apologize for recipes I’ve adapted from other cultures, as if being white means I don’t have a right to cook Asian food. Which is particularly funny when I think how unapologetic I am about making up an Italian-style dish.
Realizing how dumb that comment sounded, I wrote what I really meant, which was that I wanted to learn to do it. “There’s no wrong way to Bhangra, or any type of dance,”my friend assured me, or rather, reminded me. And I reflected there’s nothing wrong with my improvisations on Indian cooking, either. Especially when they come out as devastatingly good as these green beans.
I have often felt intimidated by methods and ingredients detailed in my Indian cookbooks. They called for ghee (clarified butter), herbs and spices that I couldn’t find in my supermarket, like fresh curry leaves and asafoetida. There were a lot of steps. My variation is simple. It calls for a few spices you might not currently have in your pantry, but should be available in your grocery store. The secret is warming the whole spices in the oil (I’ve substituted canola oil for ghee), which will fill your entire kitchen with an enticing aroma, and give the beans a taste you can’t get from ground spices.
Indian Style Spiced Green Beans
(Yields two side dish servings)
- 2 TBS canola oil
- 1/4 tsp whole mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 lb (or so) fresh, raw green beans, washed
- 1/4 tsp ground corriander
- 1/4 tsp curry powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- black pepper, to taste
- Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cumin and heat until they begin to pop. (Doesn’t that smell amazing?)
- Add the garlic and onion and cook until the garlic is also fragrant.
- Add the green beans and saute until the beans are a vivid green.
- Pour a tablespoon or so water into the pan and cover for a few minutes to let the green beans steam a bit.
- Uncover and allow any remaining water to evaporate.
- Add the corriander, curry powder, and salt. Continue to cook until beans are no longer hard, but still have a satisfying crunch.
- Sprinkle additional curry and grind black pepper over the beans before serving.