Chutney for Children

The day after Code Red, I co-presented with my daughter on the subject of “India.” I had hoped for one hour twice weekly until the end of the school year to address the country fully and properly. I know about .00018 percent of the total story behind India, and hours would be needed to extract all that info for the younger generation. The teacher gave me 45 minutes.

I prepped a special batch of chutney for the children, using 1.5 chilies instead of the usual 3-4. I brought some chips. I brought “Tinkle,” which my kids devoured when they were abroad. Many copies came home in their carry-on.

The presentation began immediately after lunch, so one can imagine things were a little crazy. I quickly realized my Powerpoint “India: A small report on a giant culture,” would have to be shelved in favor of a Q&A-style format. NO, I would not be comparing literacy rates of boys and girls in India and reminding my daughter’s class how lucky they were to be receiving a free, high-quality public education that is mandatory and does not discriminate.

Despite a major improvement in literacy rates in India over the past decade, the number of children who are not in school remains high.  Gender disparities in education persist with far more girls than boys failing to complete primary school.

The national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54% against 75% for boys.  In the Northern Hindi-speaking states of India, girls literacy rates are particularly low, ranging between 33 – 50%.

–UNICEF, Girl Star Project

Instead, my daughter and I began to share anecdotes about our time in India – sprinkled with a few random facts. The best question came in response to a story about monkey aggression on Elephanta Island. Within our first few moments there, just where you set off to mount the dozens of wide shallow steps to the caves, a monkey jumped down in my front of my astonished second son. She grazed his chest lightly with her paw as she landed in front of him. We all were stunned, him especially. He dropped his defenses. His muscles slackened. The monkey struck again, grabbing his lemonade and jumping back into her green canopy. She took greedy pulls of lemonade in the trees. She did not even look at us. This was strictly a business decision on her part.

After our classroom presentation was over, a little girl came up to me. She looked worried. “How did your son get his lemonade back?”

Since there’s no fooling smart young kids, especially the day after a Code Red, I took the honest approach: “When a monkey takes your lemonade, you don’t get it back. She drank it all.”

After that we began a taste test. Small steel dishes were places at every table. The teachers scooped out banana and pita chips onto sheets of paper towel. The kids looked wary of the pulpy emerald mixture. I heard some “what is that?” But they got down to business ASAP.

At a couple tables, the chutney went fast. Refills were requested. I was surprised. Then I wasn’t. “This is nasty!” pronounced one girl. I appreciated that she was able to tell me to my face, with a smile. No backstabbing about it.

“Mom-lecture mode” was activated.

“I can understand that you might not like how chutney tastes. It’s a very different taste, and some of my kids don’t like it, either. But a word like ‘nasty’ is not the nicest way to tell someone you don’t like their cooking. What’s another way to let me know what you think of the chutney?”

The student was unperturbed. This was a friendly conversation. We were all learners in that room.

“Um. I don’t like this?”

“Yes, that sounds a lot nicer than ‘nasty.'”

We parted as friends. She liked the pita chips and gave me a parting “thank you” hug.

I hoped to swipe a few calories of chutney myself, but by the end of our 45-minute whirlwind tour of India … the chips were gone. I vowed to make myself a grilled-cheese and chutney sandwich with Granny Smith apples just as soon as I could. I packed up the Tinkles and the chutney, stashed our roll-up map of India back in the brown paper bag. I walked out of the school, handing in my visitor’s badge on the way out. The door thudded shut behind me.

Code Red, she said

734554_10151441014672177_28942575_nNope, I don’t think it’s any coincidence whatsoever that the same week we learn the details of Adam Lanza’s bedroom arsenal, teachers organized a practice “Code Red” drill in my children’s K-5 school.

It’s a damned reminder – we needed more? – that even as the U.S. Congress backs away, quickly and quietly, from bans on assault-weapons and high-capacity magazines, we can’t let them.

My daughter talked about the Code Red casually, at first.

“Mom, we had one at school today.”

“One what?” I ask.

“One Code Red Drill.”

I know what this is, but I play it off like I don’t. I want to hear her most authentic description of what this means, how a Code Red unfolds.

“It’s where we practice being safe if a robber or another kind of bad person comes into our school.”

How sweet and age-appropriate that she thinks one of the worst things that could happen to her school is a “robber.” How very Brothers Grimm of her. How wrong.

I ask her what they do, how they do it. She says they hide in the classroom and lock the door. Teachers remind the kids – in two languages – to be quiet. Then they wait. I think, for my daughter, this is the hardest part.

“Mom, me and my teachers were scared because upstairs,” she pauses here for a moment; she is a verbal child: “We heard people moving.”

I don’t think her teachers were scared. They knew this was practice. But the need to identify must be strong in these situations, especially when you’re young and you’re not with your family and somewhere in the back of your mind you know, as my daughter does, that robbers are not a child’s worst nightmare. She continues to relay the events in her own words.

“Yeah, and somebody, they tried our doorknob. They were checking. But they shouldn’t have done that. Nobody should be walking around during a Code Red.”

“Probably,” I say, “they were just making sure everybody followed all the Code Red safety rules. In a practice Code Red, you have to walk around and make sure all those important safety rules are being followed.”

“But what if it was real, mom?”

I glance in the rear-view window. The boys are in their usual bookworm pose, bent over paperbacks. But her eyes are round and brown, focused on me, waiting for an answer.

“It wasn’t real, Child. These things barely happen. Once every 20 years, maybe. And people, like your teachers, work very hard to keep things as safe as possible.”

I tell her that we practiced fire drills and tornado drills every year of my K-12 life. I never saw either one of them. I do not tell her there have been 31 school shootings in America since 1999.

Things get quiet in the middle row of my minivan. I’m lost in my head. I’ve said too much, she knows too much, I’m terrified, I blew this, my heart’s beating faster, I’m confused. Mostly I’m sad. A second later, it’s clear that my daughter, at least, remains thoughtful and on topic.

“Well mom, I don’t think anyone would do that to our school, because I think people know public schools are very important.”

You know that I did not tell her Sandy Hook Elementary was a public school. That in our home state of Wisconsin, public schools have been defunded to the point of poverty. I would never tell her the nasty, racist, grossly ignorant and inaccurate things people write about me – or anyone in my town – when we write a pro-public school op-ed.

“Right,” and this time my smile is real. “Lots of people know how important all our schools are. But you know that public schools are my favorite.”

In Sandy Hook there was an art teacher, a music room, a gym teacher, classroom teachers and, we know, an incredibly brave, bold and brilliant, fast thinking principal in the building that day. I do not know know what the child to teacher ratio in their school was that day. But it’s clear to us that every adult in that school was an absolute hero, that they all came together to save every single life they could. That they paid with their own lives – six of them.

Sandy Hook sounds like a well-funded public school. Thank God. Every adult in the building was needed that day. Every day. But especially on Dec. 14, 2012.

My kids’ school is not a well-funded school. But it’s vibrant and multicultural and successful. My three kids have never received formal music instruction there. The full-time art teacher was budget-cutted out two years ago. Language, math and writing emphases, and a reputation for one of the strongest and most stable teacher corps in our area are enough to keep us there. Maybe we can find room for music elsewhere in their lives.

My kids’ public school is very important to me. So is gun control. So are the Second Amendment and all the other amendments – some more than others. But 1,000+ rounds in a boy’s bedroom, an arsenal in his Honda Civic, 20 children and six teachers dead, armed guards in every school when states like mine tell us we can’t afford to keep our teachers? That math is not fuzzy, it is devastating.

What we do in the 512: Reunion weekend winds down

Things I’ve learned in the last 48 hours:

  • I can still handle hill repeats.
  • I still need my girlfriends.
  • Eating chaat and Gujarati has changed how I eat all food, forever, everywhere.
  • Making ragda pattice once does not make me any kind of expert on Indian cooking.
  • I might be able to convince 3-4 of my vacation ladies to order up a tiny pre-brunch tattoo early-Sunday morning.
  • I wear my grandma’s clothes. I look incredible.

Ragda pattice panic!

We’ve enjoyed a whirlwind weekend in Austin. Freezing and sweating and slipping off mossy rocks in Barton Springs. Eating fried pickles at the Lodge on Lamar Ave., dancing at nite clubs on Sixth St. and pretending we’re only just old enough to have been the other dancers’ former nannies — not their current moms. It helps. So does dim lighting. And dancing in front of neon, wall-sized American flags.

We exchanged clothes and confidences. I made ragda pattice; they made huevos rancheros. I need these women in my life: strong relationships, strong minds, strong bodies. These sustain me.

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I did not just meet them, but this is crazy. These women saw me through three kids, marriage and undergrad. And they still want to hang out with me.

As for the ragda pattice that I made on Friday night, they were proof it takes a village to feed a village and that an “Indian cooking” blog does not a chaat chef make. After packing and prepping in painstaking fashion for a ragda pattice throwdown, I committed some major tactical errors.

1. Shopping for provisions at a store that carries eight kinds of chutney but not tamarind chutney. Trying to buy ginger-garlic paste at that same store. Central Market, I love you but I’m talking to you. “Thanks” to the Central Market clerks who directed us to Taj Grocer’s.

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Nervous about Friday’s cooking commitment, I spent the day in sweat pants and, briefly, in Taj Grocer’s on Lamar Blvd.

Even with the right groceries, errors persisted. These included too much wine during food prep; getting scared of the pressure cooker; not enough chilies; renting a vacation home with knives duller than “American Idol: Season 2013”; forgetting to add the tamarind paste that had been in my carry-on through two flights. Thank gawdness I made fresh mint-coriander chutney and raita. Nobody at the table knew the paste was missing but me. Right, Sharifah?

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Edit massages the kale. I compress the cucumber.

Chaat meets BBQ: A Night at Salt Lick

Night two we took things in a totally different direction. After considerable controversy and debate we made the 45-minute drive to Driftwood, Texas for dinner at Salt Lick Barbecue. Not even the hostess’ warning of a two-hour wait could keep us serious-minded carnivores in Austin for local BBQ. The two-hour wait was more like one, the entire UCLA track & field team filed out of the restaurant — laughing and clutching leftovers — as we approached the Driftwood Vineyards that neighbor Salt Lick BBQ. Good sign, non? We had a magical time talking about college, our next college reunion, sampling local wine. 

Sitting, finally, at the picnic-style tables, we were treated to brisket, chicken and ribs. Plates of pickles and onions, a simple and slightly orange potato salad — like mashed potatoes served lukewarm and prepped with a seasoning that’s too subtle to identify but too delicious to be denied — and mayonnaise-free cole slaw whose starring ingredient is sautéed sesame seeds, and fluffy, sesame studded loaves of white bread accented the meal.

We stopped talking, but it’s not like we were gross about it. Napkins were used. A couple gals tried forks and knives. Someone said “please” before I passed them the spicy BBQ sauce.

Me, I made open-faced sandwiches: smearing the bread with spicy BBQ sauce, layering a slice of charred chicken and snappy garlic pickle atop the bread, then completing my edible creation with a sprinkling of cole slaw. Sometimes I used the doughy bread to swipe a lump of potato salad or sop up BBQ sauce. It was like Texas-style poori, and the entire experience reminded me of how fourteen years of Indian food has changed the way I eat. Not just what I eat, but the ways in which I take perfectly American ingredients and layer, alternate, sauce and sprinkle them together in ways that replicate the rich, fresh bursts of garnish that make chaat cuisine so beautiful to look at and so memorable to eat.

Texas-style poori.

Texas-style poori.

I prefer my food richly textured, and I blame the crispy, salty, golden crunch of sev noodles for this. I marveled at how beautiful they looked on a salad Friday night, their delicate golden curls flecked atop green, citrus-rubbed kale leaves. Who knew sev and kale could be so good together? Who knew a food that I can barely make has nonetheless fundamentally changed how I eat? Christmas Eve 2012 was the first time I tried a jalapeno in my pho, and I hold our November sojourn to India mostly responsible, and I’m grateful.

 Tattoo time?

I can’t promise any group ink tomorrow. But I’m certain that if the Sola neighborhood tattoo parlor had been open at 1:30 Sunday morning, a few of the college-reunion ladies would be dabbing fresh <<414>> ink with antibiotic ointment right now. As things stand at 4:08 a.m. local time, not one of us has a calf tattoo and Mikey the guy with the Depeche Mode sleeve says we should try a place on First St. at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

I wear my grandma’s clothes; I look incredible.

“Incredible” might be overstating it. Plus my new dress originated at Dallas’ Orchid Shop so, really, it could not have belonged to my late, never-met-her grandmother. Still, the dress is a 1962 vintage, was cheap and tailored nicely for a short person with narrow shoulders and is an excellent green — not as seafoamy as a shamrock shake, nor as forest-hued as kale. I like it. Macklemore ain’t the only one poppin’ tags with swagger.

Thanks to Austin, Edit, Jennifer, Jessica, Nicole, Sharifah and Megan-from-England for making this a wonderful, not-quite-over weekend. Shout out to my MIL for watching kids and my husband for finishing the weekend with them and helping me through a flight snafu. To Connie, me and Edit say “thanks.” Couldn’t have done the 5-1-2 without you!

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America the beautiful & tasteless.

Chutney Challenged: on location, off topic

Well, I did make the channa masala on Sunday. Things went okay. Folks told me — I served it to six adults and three kids within 24 hours — “Your chickpeas are so firm. But tender.” I would agree. Maybe because I soaked them for 12 hours. Channa masala takes up a lot of time, many steps, squeezing and sautéing, boiling and scraping. Kids told me: “I’m not. HAVING. Anymore of this!” Ignore them, because they are not our target audience. 

General advice:

  • Read the entire recipe carefully and fully. Once or twice. If you just “skim” the recipe, a few steps might take you by surprise when it’s too late.
  • Use a non-stick pan, all the oil (maybe a bit more than the 1/3 cup grapeseed or peanut oil the recipe requires) and watch the temperature carefully. Channa masala has a long cooking time: 90-120+ minutes. First you make the spiced tomato & onion gravy. Then you add it to the chick peas. That combination simmers stovetop for quite some time. After a while, both the gravy alone and then gravy combo will do their best to adhere to the bottom of the pan. Avoid this, unless you want to make charred masala instead of channa masala. 
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Channa masala quartet.

Changing topics/locations

I wanted to write more about the masala earlier this week . And I couldn’t. I woke Monday morning to two awful stories: another gang rape in India and media sympathy for Steubenville (umm, the rapists, not the young woman at the center of this case). For a few days, I couldn’t be a food blogger. So I blogged nothing. 

Yesterday I boarded a plane to Austin, and from Atlanta to Austin I did write about what happened in India, what’s happening in Steubenville, what I observed in middle school — from the nightly news to home ec. class. How no one among us should be surprised that rape and sexual violence happens everywhere — could happen to anyone.

It’s personal and political and kind of … out there. So I might post it, or I might not. I guess you can take this paragraph as warning that a “very special” Chutney Challenged post might be coming soon. So maybe you’ll want to avoid it, or read it. Or fundamentally disagree.  

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

Another thing that’s next

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My clients: Edit, Jessica, Nicole, Sharifah. En route is Jennifer.
Photo credit: Jessica.

Ragda pattice. I was invited to Austin to play personal chef to a group of dynamic, successful, cultured and very Midwestern ladies with an appetite for adventure. I loaded my suitcase with hand-blender, pressure cooker, gym clothes, chilies, spices and some heels and glitter because, come on people, this is Texas. Terrified that a jar of tamarind chutney might wreak havoc in my luggage, I packed none of this ragda pattice essential. Soon we’re off to Central Market to stock up on mint, cilantro, onions, potatoes, tamarind chutney, ginger, etc. The white vatana is already creamy, golden and all soaked up. A cloudy, spicy, reflective day in Austin awaits us.

That’s vacation, baby.  

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My spices, my toiletries, my clothes = fifty pounds of baggage.

We’re Doing This Right: Channa Masala

Tonight I dropped the eldest at a homework playdate and sneaked off for a “me party.” First I went to Leon’s Frozen Custard and enjoyed a diet coke. More honest people would call this a chocolate-and-strawberry cone.

As I sat in my car licking my diet coke, I reviewed the latest installment in Slate.com’s “You’re Doing it Wrong” series. The latest edition was channa masala – how people try to whip up a batch of restaurant-quality chickpea stew. And fail. The dried chickpeas soak then stew over  hours, anywhere from two to eight. Eight roma tomatoes, two onions, myriad spices later there is a golden, steaming chickpea stew awaiting you. A classic dish, channa masala has its own spice blend (that’s the “masala”) and the textural versatility to go with the fried bread that’s called bhatura or with rice. It’s on every Indian menu I have seen from Mumbai to Milwaukee and the dish’s prominence is well deserved. In India, this was my first-grader’s go-to meal at every veg restaurant. In the non-veg restaurants it was chicken – on a stick, drowned in curry, in a pile of noodles, any way she could get it.

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According to “You’re Doing It Wrong” author L.V. Anderson, American at-home channa challenges fail because folks opt out of the Indian grocery store for their shopping, instead buying at a more traditional grocery store. One example of this phenomenon: swapping out amchoor powder for lemon juice. Amchoor is mango powder in a muted mauve color.

Initially, I scoffed at folks who think they can prepare authentic Indian food from the convenience of the “ethnic foods” aisle at Pick ‘N Save. But I didn’t get into this to be all judgy. In some ways, I got into this writing thing because one of my children’s teachers told me years ago: “You’re so real.” She told me this because I was always forgetting to sign permission slips, arriving late to school, packing the kids’ lousy lunches. I am proud of none of those things. Minute failures are the voices in my ear, whispering always: “You could do better. Be more. Try harder. Focus!” Hence this writing exercise is equal parts trying to learn and succeed at something different and difficult to me, and a TMI-style confession that in many ways, on many days, getting through it all is really a lot of work for me. So there’s a pop-psychological analysis of ChutneyChallenged for you. And now I’ve just shamed myself by using the word “chuckle.”

After I checked myself for being a supermarket snob I thought back to my first couple trips to the neighborhood Indian grocer. It was hard for me to walk in, ask for help, leave myself open to a suggestion that might lead me in the wrong direction. With six different bhel mixes to choose from, how could I possibly buy the right one? Should mustard seeds be purchased split or whole? Same question applies for dalia. Harder still was buying cooking equipment. My misadventures with pressure cooker nearly reduced me to tears on New Year’s Day and I had to ask my husband to get his Gujarati on and make phone calls on my behalf to procure one.

Even tonight, when I returned to that grocery store for staples and channa masala ingredients, I experienced a few blank moments. The recipe dictates one begin with dry chickpeas. However, there are about eight different kinds of dry chickpeas: whole or split; roasted or unroasted; salted or unsalted. I asked the owner for help, and was steered immediately to canned chickpeas. I held my ground, and they took me to the masala shelf. I grabbed the channa masala from my bag  to prove our latest misunderstanding, then repeated my interest in chickpeas – nothing else. On my third request, I got there.

I posted a photo of most of the channa masala ingredients, especially the ones you may not have heard of. This whole bundle of items cost  $17.25, which does not include the rice, bhatura ingredients or tomatoes. You will see that I bought garam masala from the Spice House, a small and successful business in Milwaukee. Most of my indi-gredients are from India, Illinois or Canada. I felt better buying the garam masala local. It definitely perked up my singed chivda earlier this week and the scent is more beguiling than any smelly marker you remember from grad school. It is good stuff.

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Note: Spellings vary widely in India and among Indian products here in America. Amchur powder could be amchoor. Getting used to this will demystify your every trip to the Indian grocer.

Happy shopping! Tomorrow I cook. Or maybe I’ll go bowling. What I lack in productivity and bowling I make up for in honesty, FYI.

Aside

Chivda cheap & charred

One of the best things about chivda is its versatility. When recipes are more oral tradition than Martha Stewart, you can throw anything into them, make them yours, compensate for a missed or mispriced ingredient. In December, I started making my own chivda because buying it for $5+ per pound felt like cheating and because the restaurant I buy it from closes at 9 p.m. That’s prime bed-time. I never made it, and then I had to bring Entemann’s to the office breakfast potluck.

Anyway, I love chivda. It’s great at parties. Salt-sugar-sour is a most-compelling taste sensation. It’s just fun to eat, to sift through, to talk about.

I began my chivda chronicles here: http://www.manjulaskitchen.com/2011/11/11/cereal-chivda-snack/ The how-to video is great and my six-year-old loved to follow along with Manjula. However, I quickly reversed course on the cereal base. The rice krispies were too sweet and didn’t blend well with the spices. I bought a 500-gram bag of murmura, amplified the spices by a bit, threw in my cherries and waited for the potluck invites to pour in.

Tonight I was missing the shoestring potatoes. I had no cumin seed. That box of cornflakes had been taunting me for weeks. I tried to find a murmura-based recipe that didn’t require either of the missing ingredients, but everything was coming up poha – the seemingly delicate white rice flakes. Finally I found one that called for an 8:2 powa to murmura recipe. I decided to consider the corn flakes poha and move on. http://chakali.blogspot.com/2007/12/chivda-marathi-snack-recipe.html

What follows is a cautionary tale and an offer of free, charred chivda.

Curry leaves are fun.

Curry leaves are fun.

*Roast the poha and corn flakes in a large, dry sauce pan. Consider crumbling the cornflakes first. Remember: they heat quickly and burn easily.

*Use split dalia in place of cashews if you don’t have any, but don’t overdo it. Some recipes call for peanuts, almonds, cashews and pine nuts and pipian. Ignore them and just throw in crunchy things that can withstand heat and spice if you want to keep this chivda budget-friendly.

*Add 1/4 cup of raisins.

*Garam masala can be substituted for cumin seed. Sort of.

*If the finished chivda tastes like it looks – slightly charred – add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of amchoor (mango) powder. It will help just a little by souring the charred the flavor.

*Go ahead and use all 12 chilies.

*Curry leaves are fun.

*No matter what the end product looks/tastes like, take it to your office. Someone will eat it.

Well, now I still have no cherries but lots of gently singed chivda. I suppose it would do well on hikes, at camp, with a cup of coffee after a rainy spring trail run. If you’ve read this far, dammit you deserve some of “Angie’s Smokey Blend Chivda.” Just ask.

Carrie Bradshaw on chex mix, cherries, chivda

Tonight at the food co-op it got real. In my attempts to curb a distracting and defeating late-night cookie habit I’ve been turning to dried fruit. Namely, the dried tart cherry. For several weeks now it has ca-chinged at the register @ $16.99/pound. I buy it in quarter-pound increments and drop the glossy, pruny treats into everything from oats to yogurt to my hand.
Tonight they were $18.99/pound. I grabbed a box of cookies — for support — collected myself, decided to keep the peanut-butter-sandwich cremes anyway and found myself a co-op employee.
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“Commodities,” he said. “All the prices are going up. We’ve tried to absorb costs as much as we could.”

One of his favorites, the roasted salted peanut, is inching skyward in cost as well.

“Will chex mix be the new caviar?” I tapped into my iPhone like some penny-pinching Carrie Bradshaw.

Reflectively, I drove home with my peanut butter cremes – munching and resigning myself to deleting dried tart cherries from one of my go-to Indian recipes: chivda.

Chivda is this spicy/sweet/sour Maharashtran snack mix. You can make it with rice krispies & corn flakes, jagged and flat rice flakes called poha, or mumra – a puffed rice. There are about as many different recipes for chivda (CHAVE-da) as there are for chex mix, but they’re all better than chex mix. Tempered spices, toasted nuts, dried fruits are the dominant additives. Garlic, coconut, chick peas and other items can play supporting roles. Nobody ever adds M&Ms, but I think pretzels would be okay. Actually, peanut M&Ms might work if the toasted powa/mumra doesn’t melt them first. Golden raisins are preferred, but once you add the turmeric the entire dish glows a toasty yellow-brown and you can’t see them. No fun. Plus golden raisins are a pushover in terms of texture, and they don’t hold up well compared to the dalia (roasted chick peas, I’d use them halved or split – not whole), peanuts and the crack of roasted cornflakes. Curry leaves and green chilies are non-negotiable ingredients. You need oil to heat and pop the mustard seeds, and to adhere the spices that come next to each other and the mumra or poha. Then you’re done.

Cherries have been my signature Wisconsin contribution to chivda since I began blogging for Chutney Challenged the New York Post. Tarter, tougher, redder than raisins they stood up so boldly to everything else chivda has to offer. Until tonight.

Once the kids were in bed, I put on my snoopy flannel pants from T.J. Maxx Manolo Blahnik slippers and Dolce jersey pajamas, busted out my laptop, a box of cornflakes and proceeded to make a budget batch of chivda. If Aidan liked it, I knew it wouldn’t mean much. That guy is a carpenter and he eats anything. But if Big likes my budget chivda…

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