If I had to pick one favorite spice, mustard seeds would win hands down. Black (or brown) mustard seeds, to be more precise. Not only are they the main ingredient in the best condiment on the planet, Dijon mustard (especially the version made in Beaune by Edmond Fallot), but they are indispensable to Indian cuisine.
Although there was a dusty old bottle of yellow mustard seeds that sat untouched for decades on my mother's spice shelf, I had never known the alluring power that lay within those tiny seeds until I met the woman who would become my wife.
After we were engaged, N and I traveled across the country from Washington, D.C., to California in an old station wagon. We saw the country from the slow lane at 45 mph, as we foolishly dragged the Ikea furniture accumulated in college behind us in a rented U-Haul trailer. Our car never fully recovered from that trip and I think we've since sold all the furniture.
A couple of days of driving brought us to Dayton, Ohio, to the home of some of my future relatives. N's aunt, the best cook in the family, offered to give us a crash course in Indian cooking, particularly the vegetarian specialties of Gujarat, the region of northwestern India where N's family comes from.
Masi (which means mother's sister in Gujarati) proved herself to be a masterful teacher. Our little blue notebook of carefully transcribed recipes is probably the most valued cookbook in my collection of over 200 cookbooks!
It was there in Masi's kitchen in small town Dayton (actually a suburb of Dayton) that I first encountered the incomparable aroma of toasting black mustard seeds, called rai in Gujarati and Hindi.
Many of Masi's recipes begin with frying rai in hot oil until the seeds turn gray and start to pop. When the seeds pop, they release this intoxicating scent that combines elements of toasted peanuts, brown butter and popcorn. I can never get enough of that smell!
This morning (for our thirteenth anniversary) I prepared a traditional savory Gujarati breakfast dish called batata poha (pictured left) from one of Masi's recipes that features the taste of rai. If you've never cooked with this spice before, this would be a good place to start.
The only unusual ingredient in the dish, aside from black mustard seeds themselves, is poha (sometimes spelled powa). Poha is flat pounded rice (see picture next page). There are two varieties of poha, thick and thin. You'll need the thick one for this recipe. It can be purchased at any Indian store or on line at Kalustyan's. It's also a flavorful and spicy alternative to the standard American breakfast options, like cold cereal or toast.
Yields two servings
2 small or 1 medium potato, such as yukon gold
1-1/2 c thick poha (pictured right)
1 t Kosher salt
2 t sugar
1/4 t turmeric
1/4 t cayenne pepper
2 t lemon juice
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 serrano chile
1 T vegetable oil
1-1/2 t black mustard seeds
2 T chopped cilantro
Place potatoes in a small pot of water and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, approximately 20 minutes. Remove potatoes from water and allow to cool slightly. Use a paring knife to pull off peel from potatoes. Dice potatoes into small cubes.
Place the poha in a wire strainer nestled within a bowl. Fill bowl with water and wash poha briefly in two changes of water. Handle gently so doesn't fall apart.
Place washed and drained poha in a dry bowl and sprinkle over 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, 1/8 teaspoon of the turmeric and all the cayenne. Add 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice and toss gently with a spoon to combine (pictured left).
Dice the onion into small pieces and mince the chile.
Pour the oil into a nonstick frying pan or wok over medium-high heat. When oil just begins to smoke, add the mustard seeds. Cook for a few seconds until the seeds turn gray, start popping and release nut-like fragrance. It's a good idea to cover pan with a spatter screen or lid at this point so that your kitchen isn't littered with tiny gray seeds. Do not allow seeds to burn. Reduce heat to medium and immediately add onions and chiles. Cook for few minutes until onions turn translucent.
Add diced potatoes, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/8 teaspoon turmeric and continue to cook few more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add remaining teaspoon of lemon juice.
Add seasoned poha and stir gently to combine, trying not to break up the pieces of poha. Sprinkle with cilantro, taste for balance of lemon, salt and sugar. Serve.