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Shri Balaji Bhavan - Houston


brucesw
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I’ve been visiting Shri Balaji Bhavan on Hillcroft lately. I’m familiar with similar Indian vegetarian places including Bombay Sweets, Udipi Café, and Bhojan there in Little India and Bansuri and Sweet n Namkin out near me but this place seems to be a foodie favorite and I wanted to check it out. The place gets packed at meal times and on weekends and the wait can be long and frustrating (it’s counter service). I’ve been having some good experiences and some not so impressive but it’s a pretty extensive menu and there’s lots to try. The Madras Thali, apparently their only 'sampler' plate was a lot of food for the price, which I've forgotten!, some elements very impressive others not but I missed not being able to select the components of the thali as at Udipi and Bhojan. The food here tends to be spicier than at the other two but there are exceptions. The Masala Dosa was better than any I've ever had, spicier and less over-cooked but the Dahi Puri was over-done - there were just too many ingredients vying for attention in the little mouthfuls, at least for my taste. Bissibilla Bath was a mystery; it came out like a porridge, nothing at all like I had read about online (I've never had the dish before but it sounded intriguing).

Shri Balaji Bhavan - Vada Pav 002.jpg

On my last visit I was going to try the lunch special of the day, Ragada Patties (their spelling), just $3.49. I’ve had Ragda Patties (their spelling) at Bansuri and it was really good; I expected this to be the same. I inquired about bread as the menu is not very helpful as to what the dishes are or what comes with them and the girl at the counter suggested I go for another dish and I thought she pointed at the Vada Paav. I’ve also had this at Bansuri where it was like vegetable sliders but what I got is pictured above. I understand vada is supposed to mean a fritter like thing but there was no apparent patty in the broth. It was excellent, however, the best thing I’ve had at SBB so far, with a couple of pulses, carrots, green beans, etc., some tamarind and probably date for sweetness and a lot of heat, garnished with some purple onion, tomato, cilantro and sev. I can take a lot of heat but I don’t seek it out and this was about at the limit of what I think is reasonable. Fortunately it tapered off quickly, lingered but didn't build or I would have found the dish inedible. The paav was lightly toasted, lighter than the buns used at Bansuri, and made an excellent accompaniment.

SBB is definitely on my list of regular places and I’ll be wanting to have this again if only I knew for sure what to ask for!

There's no website and no menu to go; the menu isn't very helpful about the dishes, either, but the counter person has been willing to answer questions. It's located on Hillcroft between Harwin and Westpark. The worst thing is the limited parking and I recommend avoiding the place right at noon and on weekends. They're closed on Tuesdays.

Edited by brucesw (log)
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Looks like you were served pav bhaji. This doesn't usually contain tamarind or dates, at least I have never eaten a pav bhaji that did. The dish is made up of pav (the bread) served with a mashed veg dish containing potatoes, tomatoes, and other veg. The bhaji can sometimes be quite sloppy, as your looks. It's usually served with raw chopped onions, fresh coriander and lemon slices. The bread is toasted with plenty of butter. The proper way to make the bhaji and toast the bread is on a large tawa. Lots of butter is used!

By the way bisi bele bath is quite a soft, moist dish so what you had sounds right. It is rice cooked with dal, veg, tamarind and a blend of spices. Made properly, it is excellent.

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Thanks for the ID; I'll go with that next time I want to have the dish. Yes, I thought the Pav had been buttered and toasted on a griddle. There was definitely something sweet in it which tasted like tamarind to me; the Ragda at Bansuri has tamarind/date chutney added and more on the side so I kind of jumped at that conclusion. As I recall I identified at least toor, channa, carrots and maybe cauliflower in the Pav Bhaji, all still retaining their form and texture, unlike the Bissibilla where the vegs were identifiable on sight but had been cooked to having no texture. It was served in a bowl like this was but without any garnishes - wasn't nearly as appealing visually. I may have misunderstood what I read about that and will have to go back and find it and look at it again.

Thanks again. I'll post some more pictures after more visits.

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Hmm, if you thought there was toor and channa dal in the dish, and tamarind too, then it is sounding less and less like pav bhaji! Also, the veg in the bhaji shouldn't really be identifiable, they are mashed down on the tawa. It does look soupier than pav bhaji too, I just thought that maybe they had made it quite sloppy. Pav bhaji has a tangy, spicy taste which you pep up with the raw onions, coriander and lemon, and I wouldn't say I have ever tasted a pav bhaji with sweetness or dal in it. And you would definitely be able to identify potato as a large part of the veggie bulk. The colour, the onion-corinader garnish and the pav made me so sure but now I am not! The mystery continues....

And I'm sad that you had a not-so-good bisi bele bath, but to be honest I think this is what happens when you have it in a place that isn't Karnataka! I've had some pretty naff versions of the dish in various restaurants even within South India. But as I said, a good version will change your opinion I am sure. A common way of serving it is with something crunchy and fried like khara boondi (little deep fried gram flour bits) or some kind of chips (cassava, plantain, sago, potato).

Edited by Jenni (log)
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No, these were full sized dal, and fork-sized pieces of carrot, too. The texture you're describing sounds more like the bisi bele bath, which was served with a papadum.

Bansuri Indian Ragda 002.jpg

When I first had the Ragda Patties a the Bansuri truck (pictured), they were virtually unknown and the owner had plenty of time to chat with me about the food and was eager to. He described the ingredients as including a date/tamarind chutney and a mint/coriander chutney and it was served with more of those on the side. That is why I thought that's what I was tasting in the dish at SBB; there certainly was something very sweet.

How about Usal Paav for what I had at Shri Balaji? I found some pictures online that look very much like what I had and at least one recipe mentioned the date/tamarind chutney, although others didn't (coconut or jaggery instead).

Edited by brucesw (log)
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Yes it was soupy, not a puree. I was thinking as I was eating it 'this is an Indian bean soup.'

I may have introduced some confusion here with my imprecise use of the terminology but these were whole, not split so I guess Usal pav is a good bet? My apologies; I still have a lot to learn.

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Shri Balaji Bhavan - Kachori 002.jpg

I visited again and had the Pyarelal Kachori. This is my first kachori and I was really pleased. I haven't been able to find out anything about this one online; some references to it are possessive (Pyarelal's kachori). There was potato, tomato, coriander leaf, a peanut or two, a small pea I'm not familiar with, and I guess that's puffed rice? (it was a little chewy). The filling was chilled and very spicy as well as sweet. I will be on the lookout for other kachoris now.

Also had an order of Masala Vada, very spicy and kind of greasy. I love Mehdu Vadas which I became addicted to at Udipi Cafe down the street but haven't tried here. Also have had the parippu vada which I came across at New India Supermarket down in Stafford; I liked both of them better than the Masala Vada. They have the Mehdu here so I'll have to try it.

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That is indeed puffed rice. In my experience there are kind of two kinds of kachori (there may be more, but I am just talking about the two kind that i have come across). One is basically a round or flattened deep-fried pastry with a filling - common fillings include urad dal, moong dal, peas or something sweet. The other is something like what you had here - it is a chaat item made up of a fried roti that puffs up like puri and is hard. A hole is broken in it and a filling is added - most commonly potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind chutney, yoghurt, etc. as with most chaat items. It's often called Raj Kachori. This one with puffed rice seems to be a variation on the idea. It looks good :)

I am now haunting this thread because the chaat items and snacks you can get in my area (Bristol) are not as varied or as good as what can be had in India, and I am interested to see the kinds of dishes offered in your area. Just out of interest, have you had the opportunity to try these dishes in India? Do you think your local restaurant compares favourably? There's a place near where I live that does some snacks, but as I mentioned, they don't quite get the taste as I remember it in India. I often feel let down by restaurant versions of such street foods actually, even sometimes within India itself. Maybe there's something about the leaf-plate-dubious-quality-water thing on the street...?! I don't know what it is, call it street masala, but the flavour is different! I make do though ;)

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Thank you for all your helpful observations. So you're saying that was not a puri that the kachori was served in? I assumed it was.

Now I have never been to India so I'm afraid I can't compare our places here; I'm not really sure how big the community of ex-pats is, either. I can't recall that I've ever seen much commentary on the local boards and review sites comparing what is here by the ex-pat community, either. I'm sure there are more than a dozen Indian eateries in Little India plus grocery stores, jewelery stores, and sari places. There are also several Pakistani places, several Persian, one Afghan and several other Middle Eastern (plus one Sonic and one taco truck!) but I don't think there is much residential community around there so I'm not sure why that concentration of businesses developed. There are more than a half-dozen Pakistani eateries out near me, further out, and even further out on the far west side another concentration of Indo-Pak businesses.

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I wanted to avoid the crowds at Shri Balaji on the weekends so I went down the street yesterday to Krishna Chaat House, next door to and co-owned with Udipi Cafe; it's a mostly unheralded place and I had never been. They have quite an extensive menu but I was mostly interested in the snack items as I am just getting into these things. I tried the Sambar Vada which turned out to be 2 mehdu vadas in sambar, turning into a sort of dumpling. It was a comfort food like dish for me although the sambar was not much to my liking (over-cooked veggies). But I saw they had a Khasta Kachori on the menu and went back today to try that. Yes, from what I had read online I gathered that many if not most kachori are these bite-sized snacks rather than the plate-sized version at SBB (I tried to pick that one up but didn't get very far off the plate). The snack size is what I expected but I got another one only slightly smaller than the Pyarelal, maybe 4" vs 4.5" but oh, it was good. Filled with a layer of potato on the bottom, then channa in a curry paste, dressed with chopped tomato and onion, drizzled with yogurt; the two curries were mixed in there, too and then there were chopped coriander leaves and sev. It was a festival for the eyes and the mouth and more substantial than the one at SBB. Now I have an obsession to find these kachoris wherever I can!

I went down to an Indian grocery in Stafford, near me, afterward to do some browsing and a little shopping. I need to familiarize myself with all these pulses so I can identify them when I encounter them. They had their snack table loaded down so, even though I didn't need anything else to eat (I have a very small appetite) I bought some more vadas - parippu, which I like better than the masala vada because it's crispy-crunchy and I like the nutty taste, Uzhunnu and one I'd never seen before, Sugian, a plum-sized fried treat. Now I can't find anything at all about that one on line. It was slightly sweet and had (bear with me on these names) moong (small green peas), urad (small black peas) and fenugreek plus potato that I could identify. I really have a thing now for these vadas and other snacks as they fit my appetite better than a typical restaurant whole meal and they are so tasty.

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Kachori-s: when preparing from raw flour as opposed to PRESENTATION for eating, there are 2 ways to make them [there is annoying animal named "bedmi" around Delhi & western UP, but here is will remain invisible!].

A kachori is made from a short flour dough and filling of soaked split legumes [dals], commonly urad [black gram, Vigna mungo], moong/mung [green gram, Vigna radiata], moth bean, prounced "mote" [Vigna acutifolius]and channa dal [split chickpea].

Khasta means heavily shortened, creating a crisp effect.

Terminology varies from region to region.

In Bengal or Gujarat, Khasta Kachori describes something shaped like a golf ball. The inner filling is crushed, soaked moong dal, a paste in Bengal and of looser texture in Gujarat. This has been pre-cooked with ginger, green or pounded red chillies, asafetida, cane jaggery, pounded cumin, carom seed [ajwain] and other spices to make an exciting sweet& hot flavorful mix.

This is stuffed in very short crust pastry that is rolled into balls and deep fried. The result is a most delicious, HEAVY DUTY MORSEL that keeps for weeks without refrigeration. Jamnagar in Gujarat is especially famous for this type of KHASTA KACHORI.

Now we come to the "Delhi" type of Khasta kachori made notorious by Nathu's Sweets RAJ KACHORI and now taken even deeper into the annals of infamy [lol] by having BHELPURI stuffed into its innards by Udipi folks!!

It's like a Neapolitan having to witness first ham & pineapple, then tandoori duck, finally corn & Kewpie mayo, all on the same pizza!! And being relished with delight & wonder by hapless innocents! I shall take revenge by concocting a Shrimp Bisi Bele or CapsicumRice, so be warned Udupi!!

Technically, this "khasta kachori" is basically a highly leavened form of the ORDINARY kachori described below, so that the puffed hollow remains crisp and can be made the repository of nameless horrors!!

That is NOT how ordinary Indians USED to enjoy ORDINARY kachoris!

Let us take Bengal: a simple urad dal ground on stone flavored with asafetida was stuffed into a mildly leavened dough, that was rolled out and fried like the puri. The puffed rounds were especially enjoyed with hot Jalebis. In common with most of North India & Pakistan, only a very, very lightly spiced, "wet" potato "curry" was ever served alongside. Even in Pakistan, this dish has no onion or garlic, just whole cumin seeds, maybe nigella, red chili, turmeric.

Moong & Chana dal were popular fillings. In Rajasthan, you have onions, and more exotic stuffings. In Bengal, you transition to special classes of kachori that are more filling than dough, e.g. fresh green pea & fish. They hark back to the ancient Indo-European roots of this dish: pur is cognate with portal, door, so we get the concept of filling something. Khacha-puri is a Georgian fried or baked dough filled with a curdled milk cheese. Filling dough with legume or whatever is at hand is a universal concept and we can trace the linguistic roots of the name, but that does not imply conceptual import, much like the samosa.

The ordinary kachori, though puffed, is soft enough to fold around stuff. In Rajasthan street food you begin to transition to thicker & more filled versions, just as with the "special class kochuri-s" of Bengal.

BTW, Bruce probably had an usal or Misal pav. Here is an allegedly Udipi cook interpreting a Maharashtrian dish within a restaurant BUDGET in the USA. Sometimes substitutions are made, and "good enough" results are attempted.

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I appreciate the input from both of you and I am re-reading v. gautam to make sure I understand (but I hope there isn't a test - lol).

So the Khasta kachori of Krishna Chaat and the Pyarelal of Shri Balaji are varieties of Raj kachoris?

New India - Sugian, p, u 002.jpg

These are the snacks from the supermarket (yes they were quite greasy) with the Sugian on the left. I'm guessing this would be a variety of the non-raj type kachori? If so, the only one I have encountered so far but I am hoping to find more.

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These are the snacks from the supermarket (yes they were quite greasy) with the Sugian on the left. I'm guessing this would be a variety of the non-raj type kachori? If so, the only one I have encountered so far but I am hoping to find more.

The three on the right look like vada to me, definitely not kachori! But perhaps I am getting your meaning confused...are you asking if they are a kind of kachori? They are not.

I am not sure what the thing on the left is, which you say is sugian. I know there is something called suhiyan, which is a jaggery-coconut filling dipped in a batter and fried. But you mentioned potato so obviously this is different. Just at a glance, had I looked at and not been told a name I might have assumed it was some variety of pakora, bhajji or even bonda.

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Whoops, sorry my reference was confusing. I meant the 'this' in the second sentence to refer only to the Sugian on the left. The others are labeled by the store as Parippu Vada (2 of them), I understand these are made with pigeon pea flour, and Uzhunnu Vada which appears to be another name for what I have encountered elsewhere as Mehdu Vada, translated by Udipi Cafe on their menu as 'lentil donut.'

The have had trays labeled bonda before but they were always sold out so I haven't had one but I guess that means the Sugian is not bonda. In my experience, pakora have always been rather flat, not globular like the sugian and had just one ingredient such as onion, chili pepper, eggplant whereas the sugian had a couple of pulses, onion, I tasted potato I think though it wasn't visually apparent. I should have taken a picture of the interior I guess!

Another thing I happened to think of is this store carries some goods I associate with the West Indies rather than India - tins of callaloo, breadfruit and Exeter corned beef, Mauby. Maybe I should be looking under West Indian snacks.

EDIT: but now another question - what is the difference between a pakora and a kachori?

Edited by brucesw (log)
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These may not be particularly great definitions, but just to give you some idea:

Kachori (let's ignore Raj Kachori for now, which as you have seen is a large-ish crispy poori stuffed with various ingredients) - variously described as small stuffed breads or pastries. The outer casing is made from flour and some kind of fat. Common fillings are urad dal, moong dal, peas and there are also dried fruit fillings. They can be roundish or quite flattened.

Vada - this is sometimes used to refer to a variety of snacks, but broadly speaking they are South Indian deep fried fritters. A large variety of them are made from dal soaked and then ground into a batter with spices and seasonings. A range of vada made from urad dal often have a whole in the middle, like a donut (but it is savoury). Another selection containing channa dal is often a flattened disk and is quite crunchy. Sabudana vada is a well known vada made with sago, famously associated with Maharashtra. There are many other varieties, and some people sometimes blur the line between bondas and vadas. There is a well known dish called dahi vada which is vada in yoghurt. There is a similar dish in North India, made with some slight differences, called dahi bada or dahi bara.

Pakora - Pieces of vegetables or other foods (such as meats, nuts, etc.) dipped in a gram flour and deep fried. Sometimes this is also called bhaji, but other people distinguish between the two by saying that bhaji is shredded vegetable mixed with batter and fried, whereas pakora is pieces of vegetable dipped in batter and deep fried. Other people reverse this distinction, and some people maintain it is a regional difference.

Bonda - Here is where things can get a bit confusing. Broadly its a South Indian fried snack. A dish labelled bonda alone may well be the variety made from urad dal. It is a round ball. Aloo bonda, also called batata vada in some areas (this is the vada in vada pav) is mashed potato in a gram flour batter. There are also vegetable bonda, and sweet bondas, rava bonda, etc. Some people blur the line between vada and bonda and even pakora/bhaji a bit.

Hope this helps in some way! There are a huge number of variations possible for each snack, and sometimes varieties can be similar and it can be confusing. People also sometimes mix terminology.

Edited by Jenni (log)
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Thanks for that. Easy to see how they can get confused and the lines blurred. I have had Vada Pav, the first one I had at Bansuri almost 2 years ago now, Mehdu Vada, Masala Vada, Sambar Vada and the ones at New India; I will be looking for other vadas.

I don't know how many snack shops there are like Krishna Chaat; I have assumed they specialized in those mixes with sev, nuts, papri, etc., which I try to avoid having around, so I haven't been to any others. I will have to see what else I can find.

I looked at the menu for Bhojan and I see they have Dried Fruit, Lilva, and Moong Dal kachoris so I will have to check them out.

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I think I've got it but won't know for sure until I experience one of these ORDINARY kachoris!

Went to another place today, Shiv Sagar, another vegetarian place in Little India; they had a raj kachori on the menu but I passed on that. My first visit, went for the lunch special thali - 6 items plus rice, paps and puris. The soup was incredibly sour, made me choke, didn't finish it. May have had in it what you have referred to on other threads as drumstick - not sure if I know what that is. A vegetable side which had broccoli (very overcooked) and peas (not overcooked). I don't think I've ever had broccoli at an Indian restaurant. Yogurt (soupy) had black seeds in it, not sure what but perhaps black cardamom, which I've never had before. The sweet was different, too, perhaps my first experience of kheer made with vermicelli instead of rice? Seemed to be some very thin, almost non-existent vermicelli, but not much. It was very sweet and thin enough to be consumed through a straw. There is no kheer on their a la carte menu but they could have made things for the thali not available a la carte. The only other dessert on their menu which I thought it might be was srikhand which I've also never had before but from what I learn online that is more of a solid than a liquid? Not bad food, spicier overall than Shri Balaji or Udipi but not as well-prepared, I thought. Still, some new items to try. I'm becoming quite the vegetarian.

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The "soup" you were served may have been rasam. This is a tart, spicy, soupy dish usually served with rice. Served with rice it forms the second course of a traditional southie meals (at least in the Tam-Bram style of meals), the first course being sambar and rice and the last (after rasam and rice) being curd (yoghurt) and rice. The sourness often comes from tamarind, but lemon, tomato and buttermilk are also used. I love rasam, but maybe you weren't expecting it because it was served like soup?

This is drumstick, uncooked. When cooked, the inside is tender but not the fibrous outer bit. It is easiest to take a bit of drumstick, pull out the tender bit with your teeth (like you would when eating the outer bits of artichoke) and then discard the fibrous bits (just leave them on the edge of your plate). I have a real soft spot for drumstick adn my favourite dish with it is drumstick and jackfruit seeds in a coconut paste sauce. You do sometimes get it in rasam, but more commonly (in restaurants at least) in sambar. Did you enjoy the drumstick?

Broccoli can be adapted for Indian cooking styles, and I think it can work quite well. Shame it was overcooked.

The seeds in the yoghurt wer most likely to have been black mustard seeds, but you probably would have recognised them. You can see a couple of them in the yoghurt in this picture. I would have thought it was very unlikely for the seeds to have been black cardamom.

The desert kheer (called payasam in South India) is indeed soupy, and makes a light, milky sweet ending to a meal, though actually in some traditional meal arrangements it is not eaten at the end but as a course somewhere in the middle of the meal. Although often translated on english language menus as "rice pudding", it is really very different from the Western idea of rice pudding. It can be made with rice, sago, vermicelli, dal, aval/poha, carrot...I could go on!

Shrikhand is a dish made from yoghurt that is strained until very thick and creamy and mixed with sugar, ground cardamom and saffron, and garnished with nuts. It's a very famous Gujarati/Maharashtrian dish, and is delicious. There is also a variety called amrakhand that has mango pulp in it. Nowadays there are all sorts of new flavours available but I don't think they are as good as the proper cardamom-saffron one. Eaten with puris, it is divine, but is also a nice snack on its own.

Edited by Jenni (log)
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Thanks for all the explication and the pictures. In my experience, rasam has been a thin, broth-like soup with very little solid particles while sambar has been thicker, almost gravy like, with large enough pieces to qualify as a stew in some cases. This was mid-way between the two in texture and amount of solids and waaaaaay more sour than any rasam I have ever had, hence I thought perhaps something different. But I will accept your explanation - just this place's recipe, I guess. Will take some getting used to if I return.

Aha! I have had drumstick, first there were some pieces across the vada in the sambar vada I had at Krishna Chaat. It wound up on the edge of my plate because I couldn't figure out what to do with it. And I believe there was a piece in the rasam at Shiv Sagar. Next time I'll know better. Great picture, better than any I came up with in my search.

Black mustard was one of my first guesses at the seeds in the yogurt but I don't have that spice (nor black cardamom) but did taste the brown mustard seeds I have at home and thought the taste was closer to the cardamom I have. Visually, yes, looks more like the black mustard. Thanks again.

I went back to Krishna today and had one of their combo meals and it included their version of payasam with vermicelli; there was so much vermicelli in it it could have been listed as a pasta dish, unlike the sample at SS which couldn't have had more than 8 or 10 strands of vermicelli in the cup (katori I believe). I was expecting something more like the Krishna version so just wondered for sure what I got at SS. Now I know. I have had kheer, mostly at Pakistani restaurants, which is so thick as to be forkable, never any as thin and fluid as these two samples, so just wondered about that too. It is listed as payasam on the menu at Shri Balaji Bhavan, not on the menu at either Shiv Sagar or Krishna Chaat so just something they include on a thali/combo plate.

At Krishna today I had the chaas, a first time experience, and loved it, a delightful, refreshing drink.

I do like to know the correct terminology of the new foods I encounter and I am very grateful for you taking the time to enlighten me.

Edited by brucesw (log)
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Hi Bruce, I am only an enthusiastic eater and cook, I do not promise to be an expert and always have the (right) answer!

For instance, it may not have been rasam. But there are a number of varieties so it is a possibility.

As for the black mustard seeds, remember that they are popped in oil first and this changes the taste enormously - they become nutty. You can try it very easily at home. Heat up a little oil in a very small pan. Then add 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds and cook until they pop and splutter. You will see that they change colour and size. Pour into some yoghurt and stir in. A little sprinkle of salt, perhaps a tablespoon chopped cucumber or tomato and you can just see how that tastes.

As for the payasam/kheer, there is a lot of variety in this area. Sometimes you will be served something that is basically a drink, other times it will be thicker. Bear in mind that there a couple of seviyan (vermicelli) puddings which are not specifically called kheer that are also similar.

I am glad you enjoyed the chaas. It's also called buttermilk. Traditionally it is the liquid leftover from when butter is churned, and it is very different from the cultured product called buttermilk in America and the UK. Also bear in mind that in India butter is made from the creamiest part of the yoghurt rather than sweet cream, so both the resulting butter and butterrmilk have a different taste. These days it is more likely that your chaas was yoghurt diluted with water and seasoned, as in salt lassi. Very easy to make at home!

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