Ravi Shankar: Master Sitar Player

The sitar is by far the most well known Indian instrument in the west. And the reason for that is Ravi Shankar.

In 1966 American folk rock band, the Byrds, released the song “Eight Miles High” with the B-side of “Why”. Both were influenced by the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar. Some consider “Eight Miles High” the first “psychedelic rock song” although a few candidates appeared beforehand. The music press called the song “raga rock.” Put simply (too simply), a raga (raga ???) is a set of notes and how they are played that define a melody in Indian music.

“Eight Miles High” marked a transition for the Byrds from folk rock to psychedelic rock. It was a commercial failure and was the last time the Byrds would chart a song. It was soon banned across U.S. radio stations because it was interpreted as having drug connotations, even though the lyrics really just describe an airplane trip to London.

David Crosby (of the Byrds) introduced George Harrison to Ravi Shankar and his sitar work in 1965. George Harrison played sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in 1965 and a number of songs after that. He shows much better mastery on songs such as “Love You To” and “Within You Without You.” All of this brought great attention to Ravi Shankar who had already been recording in the United States for over a decade at that point. In 1966 Ken Hunt of Allmusic called him “the most famous Indian musician on the planet.” He performed at a number of pop music festivals, and in August 1969, he performed on the first day of the infamous Woodstock Festival.

Ravi Shankar performing on The Dick Cavett Show

After the sixties, he continued to record, working many times with George Harrison. He continued his involvement in music education which had begun in 1967 when he opened the Western branch of the Kinnara School of Music in Los Angeles. He taught at UCLA, City College (NY), chaired the department of Indian music at California Institute of the Arts. A great introduction to Shankar is his CD, “West Meets East.” Shankar begins the album by explaining raga music and contrasting it with American jazz, which it is sometimes compared to (for lack of a better comparison).

Shankar has three children, Shubhendra Shankar, a son born in 1942. Shubhendra played sitar and surbahar alongside his father, but died in 1992. His daughter, Norah Jones, is a popular jazz artist. Anoushka Shankar, his youngest daughter is a professional sitar player.  Shankar is 92 years old and currently lives in Escondido, California.

Love You To (The Beatles) – Heavily influenced by Ravi Shankar

Stuffed Okra, an Indian Take on a Versatile Vegetable (Bharela Bhinda)

There is no vegetable quite like Okra (Bhendi in Hindi, Bhinda in Gujarati, also known as Lady’s Finger in English). My very favorite okra dish is a bharela bhinda nu shaak.

Most people have strong opinions about the slimy vegetable – they either love it or hate it. If it isn’t obvious by the fact that I’m posting about it, I absolutely love Okra! Aside from being my favorite vegetable, this underused vegetable can be incredibly versatile.  It can be used as a thickener in soups and stews like gumbo, it can be pickled, fried and can be cooked into a variety of side dishes.  I love the chewy texture and the subtle flavor.  As a child, I insisted that my mom make me a simple dry okra shaak each week.  We had it so much that my parents would groan every time I asked for okra.  Luckily, they were nice enough to put up with my childhood okra obsession and we continued to eat it regularly.

Vegan Omelet (Puda) with Cilantro Mint Chutney

Puda with Chutney (Vegan Omelette)

Growing up, my mom would often make puda, savory gram flour pancakes, as a quick lunch or snack when we were in a rush. Puda are super quick because all you do is shred up pretty much any vegetable you have on hand like zucchini, carrots, beets, boiled potato, peas…trust me anything goes and mix in some gram flour, salt and water.  Then you just cook the batter like pancakes and
serve them with chutney.  Super simple!  Puda is something I rediscovered in my mid-twenties long after I’d moved away from home and had a craving for them.  I made some with carrots, the only vegetable I had on hand, and really enjoyed them.

Chickpea Stew (Chana Masala)

Chana Masala is the first Indian dish I learned to prepare all by myself. And if you’ve never cooked Indian food before, it’s not a bad place to start. Using the easiest method, you can make it in about fifteen minutes.

“Chana” is Hindi for garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), and “Masala” is Hindi for mixture. You will see both of these words often in Indian cooking.

When I have the time and patience, I make chana masala from dried garbanzo beans. If you are going to make this with dried beans, I highly recommend using a pressure cooker. I have never been able to get the texture how I like from dried beans without one. With a pressure cooker it is nearly as easy as making it from a can. I’ll give you the can recipe first.

** Recipe: As of April 4, 2014, I’ve rewritten and done a better post for chana masala you can find here.

Indian Food: An Easy Way to Lose Weight and Be Healthy

Our friend Anton always loved meat. So Puja and I were surprised recently when he told us he is mostly just eating a vegan diet these days. Vegan! No meat, no dairy!

He explained himself by recommending the book, The China Study, by Cornell nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell. The China Study summarizes a thirty year research study Campbell did in China that seems to pretty much prove the problem with the American diet is largely about animal protein, as in from meat and milk. According to his research, which a number of other studies have corroborated, cutting animal protein from your diet can save you from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other chronic diseases.

On the drive home from dinner I said I could never imagine going vegan, that is just too drastic. Puja agreed. How would two cheese-addicts like us suvive?

Fast forward two days, I’m halfway through the book and we are at the local produce market stocking up for our vegan experiment. We’re grabbing sweet potatoes, apples, bags of lentils, examining unfamiliar vegetables, trying to identify them. “What is this?” I say. “It looks like some sort of root,” she replies. “Should we get it?”

A surprising fact about dieting is if you enjoy food, dieting can be a very exciting challenge. You eat foods that bad habits had brushed aside for too long. Our first rule is that we do not eat foods we do not enjoy. Regardless of what diet we are on, you will never see us eating some no-fat phony brownie that tastes like the lab it was born in. Dieting forces us to think about food and to get creative.

I have always had a very hard time with vegetables. That is why Indian cuisine is so helpful. The U.S. was one of the first and most successful countries to industrialize meat. As a result, we have a meat based diet, which has proven to be very bad for our health. So if you want to find a better way to eat, it is very helpful to look to other countries where they have been doing it for thousands of years. By no means should you limit yourself to one country’s cuisine. But if you had to, Indian cuisine would not be a bad choice.

India has a long tradition of vegetarianism, yet it has produced some of the worlds most enjoyable dishes.

Like us, India has a special affinity to dairy, mainly butter and cheese (paneer). Traditionally, their main cooking oil, called “ghee”, is made by heating butter and allowing the milk solids to separate from the oil. The oil that you are left with is the ghee and is solid at room temperature. Since we have removed the milk solids (the animal protein), most likely the ghee contains very little of the cancer causing protein casein that is the subject of The China Study. But, as many households now do, you can usually use vegetable oil in place of ghee.

As for paneer, firm tofu is an almost perfect substitute for paneer. If you eat at an indian-chinese restaurant you shouldn’t be too surprised to see tofu where you may have expected paneer.

So, it is true you can’t enjoy some of the best indian dishes without making substitutions, but there are plenty of dishes you can enjoy without modifying. Lentils (dal and garbanzo beans) are a most useful ingredient in indian cooking. Lentils lend themselves to so many different dishes and you can make them your primary source of protein. The first, and possibly easiest Indian dish I learned to prepare was Channa Masala (recipe). “Channa” is the Hindi word for garbanzo beans, and “masala” means mixture. Chana Masala is really easy to make and is great for making in large batches for serving groups or keeping in the refrigerator for a week or so.

I haven’t explored the world of lentils enough, so I plan to do a lot of experimenting with them in the coming weeks (we just bought about 10 pounds of various dry lentils today, so expect some write-ups on the results to follow soon).