Tanuja Desai Hidier with her mother in their Yarmouth kitchen. Photo courtesy of Tanuja Desai Hidier

My mother – my first nourishment, nurturer – was born in a Vile Parle kitchen in 1938. Back when Mumbai was Bombay, and India was coming to a roiling boil under British rule. Aided by a midwife, and attested to only by affidavit, my grandmother-to-be earthed into the spice-redolent culinarily conjuring space this much-longed-for baby girl.

My future grandmother being a wonderful home chef, my baby mother was raised on hot chapatis smeared with ghee, polan puris (stuffed with channa, nutmeg, jaggery), savory sabudana (tapioca pearl) khichdi and sabudana sweet kheer pudding. Tindoor, okra. Chikoo, jackfruit. Pomfret netted by Koli fisherfolk. Mutton curry, on special occasions. Thali bowls of shrikhand (sour cream sweetened with sugar, cardamom, saffron) served alongside the savory, not after.

Indian cuisine, like life, includes the salty and sweet. And my mother’s – and my – lifelong favorite comfort food does too: Varan bhaat – dal and rice – which my mother’s mother made for her, when she was growing up, sugared. Later, my Maharashtrian mother and apartheid-South-Africa-born Gujarati village father fell in love in medical school, at a time their two states were at war. Add a dash of scandal. Salt: not to that time’s taste.

My pioneering parents were the first in their families to have an inter-caste love marriage (rather than within-caste/arranged). First to immigrate to the U.S. First, years on, to welcome into their lives mixed-race grandchildren.

From hello, kaisa ko, kem cho, they were winging it. Bridging rifts. Embracing the masala mix. And, for my mother, this inclusion – making room in the recipe – would be reflected in her food as well.

My mother taught herself to cook after arriving, as a new mother-bride, stateside. She often made two dinners a day: for my father, after long hospital hours, Varad childhood staples like khichdi kadhi, shrikhand, rotli. No easy feat at a time when the ingredients of their homeland were so hard to come by. For me – the first American-born in our family – Campbell’s soup-can recipes, burger bundles, franks and beans. My Bombay-born brother partook of either more readily.

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Over time, her style evolved into a kind of Indian-American Dream cuisine, her recipes rainbowing a culinary palette to satisfy every palate. Stirring our stories together, whisking up delicious – euphoric diasporic – from disparate. She showed us how to bring our whole selves to the table.

The way to relishing our ravenous hyphenated-identity hearts? Through our stomachs. It took guts.

Yet still, when comfort was needed, my bowl of choice? Varan bhaat, aka sweet dal and rice. Served with a generous jig of butter (no easy access then to ghee), from my mother, with love, to me. And, with love, received.

It was a two-for-one treat: With a few tweaks, my mother would turn our sweet childhood Maharashtrian favorite into next-day savory Gujarati fodder for my father. One faraway day – oceans and continents away – here on Wabanaki land, she showed me how to do it.

She taught me her recipes, from March 2020, when we realized the dream of reuniting three generations of our family under one roof in Maine, right up to the day in August, a month shy of her 84th birthday, when she transitioned in this home she helped make. Those last weeks, now no longer able to get to the kitchen so easily – but sitting up in bed, so regally, my mother gifted me page after page.

Love letters, these: Scripting how to feed my family and, I now know, how to comfort myself, when that dreaded time would come to be.

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This – varan bhaat – a simple dish, yet so evocative, is the first she showed me and the first I made, at long last able to offer her – my feast of a mother – a glowing bowl of comfort, as she’d given me my whole life long. One of the last times I did, she rose, breathless, all the way up to bed’s edge and told me with joyful teary eyes, “It’s so delicious, so satisfying … ”

Not a drop left.

Home is not a place: rather, a safe space, with love, you make. And a legacy, a recipe: Sustenance. A tale across time we trace. Taste. A kind of state of saying, aching, grace.

So, with love, and longing, I share this recipe with you. It’s been a rough few years the whole world round. I hope this offers you comfort and delight. A cozy bowl of golden light.

Varan Bhaat from the kitchen of Tanuja Desai Hidier. Her late mother taught her two ways to make the dish, sweet and savory. Photo by Leela Marie Hidier

VARAN BHAAT: TWO WAYS/TWO DAYS

Maharashtrian sweet/Gujarati savory dal and rice

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Varan bhaat. Varan for lentil stew, in this case toor dal: yellow split peas/pigeon peas. Bhaat: steamed rice. A multigenerational, multicultural comfort food for my family. One my mother’s mother made for her when she was a little girl in Bombay, and she, in turn for me. And one which I had the privilege of offering her, after we reunited just as the pandemic hit, under one roof in Maine.

Shout-out: I buy my ingredients, including curry leaves (freeze any extra), at Masala Mahal in South Portland: generous quantities, great taste, lovely family-run sole Indian grocer in Maine. Recently, we visited an Indo-American family in Yarmouth who had a lovely indoor curry leaf plant they’d purchased on Amazon.

Note on making the rice: I use white basmati or jasmine, and make it in our Instapot rice cooker. You can also cook the rice on the stovetop.

Note on cooking the toor dal: Either do so in Instapot/rice cooker, or make on the stovetop.

We eat both varan bhaat versions on their own, but you can serve either with naan, baguette or pita. A teaspoon of lime or mango pickle mixed in is delicious as well.

Sweet (Maharashtrian style)

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Make dal:

Rinse 2 cups toor dal in sieve once or twice. Place in Instapot/rice cooker (or on the stovetop).

Add:

5 cups water
¼ teaspoon (or a couple shakes) hing/asafoetida
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar (I like brown granulated)
¼ cup butter or ghee (I like 2 tablespoons of each)

Stir. Start cooker, set to Rice. (If you will be using it to make the rice, as well, transfer the toor dal when cooked to another container and rinse/reuse the one-pot.)

Make rice/bhaat:

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Rinse 1½ -2 cups rice in sieve a couple times to remove any extra starch. Pour into Instapot.

Add water in 2-to-1 ratio, water to grain. Cook.

Once the toor dal cools a bit, blend it with handheld mixer, or by stirring.

Scoop the rice in a bowl, ladle dal on top, and serve with generous slice of butter (I like salted).

Enjoy!

Savory (Gujarati style)

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Heat neutral vegetable oil in a saucepan (I use Mazola).

When the oil is hot (do mustard seed test to check: drop one seed in, see if it sputters) add the tadka/tempering ingredients:

1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon hing/asafoetida
8-10 curry leaves
Optional: Zing it up: split a red chili, shake out seeds according to how spicy you like it, and add to tadka.

Temper the spices.

Add the dry spices. Turn down the heat, if you like, to avoid too much sputter:

½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Optional: Add 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste (or ½ of each) and 1 tablespoon amli/tamarind-date chutney (or ½ tamarind paste/concentrate, ½ date or fig jam).

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Mix well.

Add sweet dal, stirring in a bit of water to loosen. Bring to a boil.

Turn the stove off. Salt to taste.

Ladle dal onto bowl of rice. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Enjoy … again!

If reheating/eating the sweet dal later/the next day, add a bit of water and warm it up slowly on stove or microwave; the dal firms up, to a flanlike consistency, when it cools. The savory version should be a bit thinner.

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MEET THE COOK: Tanuja Desai Hidier

I’m an author/singer-songwriter. My debut, “Born Confused,” is considered to be the first South Asian American YA novel (both it and the sequel “Bombay Blues” have quite a lot of Indian food content!). I also make albums of original songs to accompany my prose, and write short stories and nonfiction. I’m delighted to serve on the board of Portland-based youth literary nonprofit The Telling Room.

As of this writing, I am thrilled to have just learned my nonfiction piece “A Recipe for Love; Accompaniments for Grief” – which evolved from this very essay for the Portland Press Herald – is a finalist for the Maine Literary Awards. Thank you, Home Plates, for inspiring me to put pen to paper alongside dal to ladle!

During the pandemic, I learned from my mother to cook. From March 2020 to almost autumn 2022, our daughters stuck with remote learning to protect our vulnerable three-generation household. Many turmeric-gold linings emerged from this. Top of the list: countless meals together round the table, we six breaking bread (chapati, naan, baguette), sharing stories and concocting new tales.

Every meal, we lay out the cloth napkins: simple red squares, fraying at the edges but still crimson with the Christmases of my childhood. The lemon-buttery-rimmed dishes my husband’s grandmother brought out for special occasions in his little village on the West Coast of France, and their counterpart in my parents’ crockery. Paper place-settings our daughters make and wildflowers they gather and splay in yogurt jars.

Decades-old wine glasses (some filled with juice): on this table appear new. We toast every meal. My husband’s French “santé” melding with my father’s “om shanti” prayer, emulsifying into our family’s custom clink: Om santé!

To you and yours, too. And Happy Mother’s Day to all who mother, in all and any way: your family, born and found. Your kin. Your kindred spirits. Your communities.


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