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Indian red bean curry – rajmah

Installment 2 in the series – we can feed another… 

My very good friend Amit was born and raised in Delhi, India. He tells me  how much time he would spend outdoors as a boy, running long distances, playing hard with his friends and his brothers, from morning until the hot sun was nearly down. Here he is, on the left, with his mother Anjana and his middle brother Moni, resting in a field of nasturiums at the end of a long day of play.

But something else was happening while Amit was growing up a boy in India. He was paying close attention to what his mother was doing in the kitchen. I know, because to eat at Amit’s house today is a treat, a sumptuous, sensuous, exotic and deeply satisfying treat! Even the simplest of meals feels like a feast at Amit’s house. He moves around his kitchen with ease and a deep but relaxed concentration, spooning spices from their metal tin, peeling and finely slicing ginger, roasting seeds in a pan on the stove. It takes but a few minutes of watching him at work in the kitchen and smelling the aromas rising before you know that the meal you’re about to be served is well on its way towards being amazing.

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I told Amit that spree was doing a series on beans and rice dishes and the reasons why. (See rice & beans.) I asked if he’d share something his mother had cooked while he was growing up – something he’d loved then and brought with him when he moved to the States. He readily volunteered today’s recipe.

As often happens, we pick up the recipes of our parents and adapt them to our changing tastes and ideas about food and what we expect from it. Amit has made a couple changes to the recipe below, but we have first his mother Anjana to thank. This was a dish she was eating growing up a girl in India (seen here with her brother) –  long  before it came to be one of Amit’s very favorite dishes.

pressure cooker was used for this recipe. It makes very short work of cooking with dried beans, and cooking your own dried beans from scratch is always a more flavorful alternative to canned.

No Pressure Cooker?  – it can also be made using a simple soup pot,  though it will take somewhat longer…or, if you’re in need of getting dinner on the table a bit faster, canned beans (likely pinto) would be a good option. Keep in mind though that cooking the beans with these wonderful spices really is the secret behind a fabulous dish of beans!

See bottom of post for serving suggestions, which include rice and raita (an Indian yogurt sauce)

Red Bean Curry – Rajmah

  • 2 cups dried light red beans, preferably soaked overnight in water that covers by 3 inches (See NOTE on variety of beans to use) – if using canned beans, 3 cans should do
  • 3 to 4 large ripe tomatoes, diced
  • 1 Tablespoon peanut oil (or grapeseed oil – any oil with higher smoking point)
  • fresh ginger root    (3 thin slices 1-inch x 2-inch each, then cut into narrow strips)
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 Tablespoon garam masala (a wonderful Indian spice blend)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 jalapeño pepper coarsely chopped (if you prefer a spicier dish, finely dice it)
  • 6 – 8 whole cloves
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons tamarind paste – I like 2 (find in Asian section of the market – see photo at bottom – if you absolutely can’t find, add fresh lime juice to taste)
  • salt – to taste
  • cilantro ½ to 1 whole bunch, washed well and chopped, stems included
  • 6 to 8 green onions, sliced

NOTE:  You can use a variety of red beans for this recipe: pinto, Anasazi, Borlotti or any other of the “cranberry” beans. You could also use kidney, but they are a bit less “creamy” than others just named, and a bit gummier too.

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Soak beans overnight in enough water to cover by 3 inches. Discard the soaking water.

Cut long thin (longitudinal) strips from the ginger. Add peanut oil to the pressure cooker (or soup pot) on medium or medium-low heat. Add cumin seeds. Amit says to fry until they “chit-chit”  which is the sound they’ll make as they approach doneness and are dancing around the bottom of the pan. Turns out, that’s a pretty good guide!  Once the cumin has begun to chit-chit, add the julienned ginger and fry until it’s turned a light brown.

Add the diced tomatoes. (I’ve only had this recipe a very short time, and already I’m making my own little changes. I almost always like to add to a dish that has cooked tomatoes, some freshly-cut ones towards the end so that their beautiful color and brightness is present. Therefore, I reserved a 4th medium tomato for that purpose here, cooking for only 2 minutes or less when the dish was nearly ready to serve.) Add the spices – turmeric, garam masala and coriander. Saute for 3 to 5 minutes.

(You will not believe the aromas filling your kitchen! Exquisite I tell you!)

Add very coarsely chopped jalapeño. (If you want the dish more spicy, finely chop the pepper. Want it less spicy? Add it later in the cooking process.)

Add the beans along with 2½ cups of water. (This will create a stew-like consistency. If you’d prefer something a bit soupier, you can add 3 cups of water instead. Turns out that I needed 3.) Add also the whole cloves at this time. Bring the pressure cooker to full pressure and then cook for 15 minutes.

(OK, here’s where a bean dish can go terribly wrong. : ) I cooked for 15 minutes and sampled a couple beans at that time. Not exactly rock-like. Back to the stove. Cooked an additional 7 minutes, figuring they needed at least half again as much time as they were originally given. In the end, my beans required a full 25 – 27 minutes in the pressure cooker. I’ve included a note at the bottom of the post that helps explain. I’d advise that you not take it for granted that your beans will be finished in 15 minutes – though they COULD be!)

Cool down the pressure cooker – then put it back on the burner on medium heat. Add the tamarind paste and stir to mix thoroughly. Add salt to taste.  (Be sure NOT to add salt to un-cooked beans! Their tough little skins will never soften if you do!)  Heat thoroughly, then remove from the burner and allow it to sit with the lid on while you prepare the rice. (Or keep warm on the lowest possible setting on your stove.)

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This bean dish goes beautifully atop or alongside white or brown basmati rice or your favorite pilaf. Garnish with torn cilantro and sliced green onions.

Also very delicious served with Raita – in fact I consider it a must. It’s just the right amount of cool and fresh to balance the deep aromas and warmth.

Quick how-to: Thin yogurt with a tiny bit of water. Dry-roast cumin seeds in a pan. Grind coarsely. Add to yogurt along with salt. (Especially Himalayan Pink Salt, naturally.)

Amit also suggests a salad of kale, pomegranate seeds and apple slices, tossed in a dressing of olive oil, fresh lime juice and salt. Allow the kale to sit for a while in the dressing in order to soften and for the various flavors to marry.

A few notes on beans:

Why we soak dried beans – beans that are soaked for 6 to 8 hours partially rehydrate, cutting down on their cooking time. The soaking process also washes away some of the sugars that are indigestible to us humans (the sort that lead to the dreaded –  you know – wind.) Soaking longer than 12 hours can lead to beans that are a bit mushy. Even though directions, included those above, will say “soak overnight” you probably only want to do that if you plan to begin cooking them in the morning. If on the other hand you intend to cook them for dinner and won’t start until early evening, best to put them to soak in the morning the same day.

Cooking times – it’s almost pointless to specify cooking times. (You can count on a range somewhere between 45 minutes to 1½ or 2 hours cooked conventionally on the stovetop.)  It all depends on: what variety of bean you’re using, their size, their age, and how well-hydrated the beans are after soaking. Obviously it depends also on what cooking method you use, the pressure cooker being the surest fastest way to serve up a good bean dish in a hurry.

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Here’s the tamarind paste you were looking for:

$2.99 for the Tamicon

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Thank you to all who are helping ……it’s adding up!

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ali #

    This sounds so good to me!! Full of flavor!! Will definitely add this to our bean and rice rotation. Love the idea of the kale salad-thank you Amit, thank you Spree!

    November 9, 2011
  2. What a wonderful post. I agree with you on cooking times, so hard to peg down sometimes. Beautiful photos too! I know it sounds silly, but I love those spice boxes.

    November 9, 2011
    • Thanks so much Greg! I love the spice boxes too – I’m trying to decide if there’s something in my cupboard I can get rid of to make room for one. : )

      November 9, 2011
  3. Wonderful photos, wonderful recipe.

    November 9, 2011
  4. Thank you, Spree and Amit! I love the photos here — both family and food. And love the smells — I can just imagine. So looking forward to trying this . What a gorgeous post!

    November 9, 2011
  5. carolyn #

    There’s so much to love about this post! Amit’s rajmah is delicious. It fills the house with tantalizing aromas. It is a deeply comforting dish. Your lush photos, as always, Spree, convey the depth & heart to be found in the simplest of things. It is clear, from your description, that this is a family quite used to putting love on the table. From what I know of her, Anjana would love the beans & rice jar that helps feed the hungry.

    November 9, 2011
  6. Oh Ani this post was so touching! I feel loved completely. I can’t wait to share this with my mom and the rest of the family! There were some things I wanted to add as suggestions or changes but you already did those. Did you read my mind?!

    November 9, 2011
  7. I want to throw in a word about my dad too. He is also a grood cook and has influenced my cooking just as much as my mom. He has a different style. May be some day spree will do a dish that comes from my dad! One of my favorite memories is my parents sitting and plucking every single leaf out of a cilantro bunch. They insist on that as the stems don’t have as delicate a taste. They are the only ones in my family that have that ritual….

    November 9, 2011
  8. Don #

    I enjoyed reading this immensely. Right to the heart on several levels. Felt as though sitting in your kitchen, waiting for the soup to be served. Lovely.

    November 10, 2011
  9. YUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 15, 2011

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