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Beets Indian-style

Quick & Easy Indian Cooking
Click image to order Madhur Jaffrey's "Quick & Easy Indian Cooking" from ($16.95, paperback).
Today let us consider the humble beet.

I felt a strong aversion to this simple root vegetable for a long time, perhaps offended by youthful exposure to sickly sweet-sour "Harvard" beets and those tiny tasteless canned beet balls served on salad bars.

But fresh garden beets have brought me around, and now I preach their gospel with a convert's zeal. I enjoy them in the heat of summer, when you can pull them straight from the baking soil to the cooking pot, and love them just as much in autumn and winter, when their hearty goodness seems just the thing to warm the inner person on a chilly day.

All you really need to do with beets is simmer them until tender, whereupon they'll slip gently from their skins, ready to slice and serve with a little butter, salt and black pepper. Roasting them in the oven might just be even better, as this procedure holds the nutrients in, while boiling leaches a lot of the goodies out into that bright-red cooking water that goes splashing down the drain.

Beets go beautifully with beef, in Russian borscht or in Pennslyvania Dutch "Red Flannel Hash." And yes, you can slice them cold into your salad.

The recent arrival of a new paperback edition of "Quick & Easy Indian Cooking," a 1996 cookbook by one of my favorite Indian cooks, Madhur Jaffrey, inspired me to try an Indian variation, a simple procedure that features fresh beets, peeled and cubed, simmered with tomatoes and a heady blend of aromatic but not overly exotic spices. It's not a traditional curry, nor is it overly fiery, with just a dash of cayenne to give it a touch of heat. But it's an excellent example of the subtle and complex aromatic style that is the hallmark of Indian cuisine. It's called Taridar chukandar, which Jaffrey translates as "Gently Stewed Beets."

This recipe is modified only slightly from the original, mostly to cut the ingredient list down to dinner for two; but I've rewritten the instructions completely in order to convey the step-by-step process I followed to make the dish.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 pound (450g) fresh beets
1 1/2 tablespoons (20ml) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (5 ml) cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup (120g) chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt


1. Peel the raw beets and cut them into 3/4 inch (2cm) cubes. Peel and seed the tomatoes (if using fresh) and chop them coarsely. Measure out the spices.

2. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a saucepan or skillet until it sizzles. Put in the cumin seeds and bay leaf and stir for a few seconds until the seeds start to darken.

3. Add the tomatoes and the water, the cubed beets and all the spices and bring back to the boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the beets are tender. (Jaffrey suggests 30 to 40 minutes, but the time will vary depending on your beets, the size you cut them, and the exact heat setting you choose. Mine were still on the crisp side after 40 minutes, so I let them go about 10 minutes longer.)

Serve with white rice and a salad or green vegetable for a good meatless meal, or use as a hearty side dish.

ABOUT THE COOKBOOK: As its name implies, Madhur Jaffrey's "Quick & Easy Indian Cooking" makes it easy to enjoy Indian fare at home by streamlining some of the traditional procedures and simplifying (without "dumbing down") the enjoyable but finicky process of selecting, acquiring, toasting and grinding traditional spices.

I was a little disappointed by the book's "coffee-table" format and binding, which makes it difficult to hold it down flat for easy reference while you cook. It also contains only about 70 recipes in a slim 144-page package. Most of them look interesting, but this short ration left me hungry for more. Paperback production keeps the price in line, though ... it's available from for $16.95 plus shipping, and should you use the following link to buy, we'll get a few cents of that back as a commission to

MATCHING WINE: I like Pinot Noir with beets, and found that this dish improved a so-so generic Burgundy, the Joseph Drouhin 2001 "Laforet" Bourgogne Pinot Noir. It could be very interesting with a South African Pinotage, a variety that often shows an earthy "beetroot" character; or if you prefer a white, go with a versatile Riesling.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Beets Indian-style."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Shrimp and grits (Sept. 16)

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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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