An Indian meal with friends and readers

UPDATE:  Chak sent me a captioned photo that he took when I wasn’t around. In Indian homes, as in Japanese ones, you remove your shoes at the door. Indeed, I do this in my own crib to keep it clean.  I was wearing my usual boots (this is a spiffy new pair of black calf boots by J. B. Hill), and here they are by the door:

Boots 1



Last night reader Chak Dantuluri invited some readers and some of his science-friendly acquaintances to his house in Naperville (a Chicago suburb) to enjoy a home-cooked Indian meal and conversation about this and that (read: science, religion, atheism, free will, and so on).  Also on hand were Hemant Mehta (aka “The Friendly Atheist’).

Chak’s wife, Kavita, outdid herself with the cooking, spending hours and hours preparing a stupendous feast with about two dozen courses. If you’ve ever cooked Indian food, you’ll know how time-consuming that is. It was a magnificent feed, and she didn’t stint on the spices, which I love.

Since about half the attendees were theists (of the Hindu variety), we had some interesting chats. I learned a lot about Hindu theism, which seems far more philosophical than, say, Christian theism.  I don’t often get to have a back-and-forth with Hindu theists in this country!

The get-together was also a benefit for Doctors Without Borders, and those attending came up with $500 for that worthy organization.

But I mustn’t leave out the food. Below are the appetizers, including vada (the savory “donuts” to the left, pakhora (vegetable fritters, lower right), idli (lentil mini-pancakes, above the pakhoras), a wonderful spicy dish of peanuts whose name I don’t know, a chicken dish made by Chak (upper left), and one of my favorite Indian foods, a homemade coconut chutney to accompany the idlis and vadas (the bowl of yellowish stuff halfway up the right).

You’ll also recognize The Friendly Atheist at eleven o’clock. You may know that Hemant recently got married, and his new spouse is onhis right.  Kavita is to his left.


And here’s the main spread, with South Indian veggie dishes to the left, and nonveggie dishes (including lamb pulao) to the right. There are chappatis (indian bread) at lower right as well. (Click to enlarge.)

Main dishes

Early this morning Kavita made me one of the India’s classic foods: dosas (Indian “crepes” made from lentil and rice flour), cooked in a special pan and served with coconut chutney. They’re a ubiquitous snack, especially in southern India. I had three.  Here she is preparing my breakfast. Keeping the dosas mist and oiled is crucial:

image 269

And one of my dosas.  The chutney is essential: you break off pieces of the crispy and savory pancake and slather them with the chutney.

Thanks to Kavita and Chak for a splendid evening.  You can’t beat good conversation and good noms!


  1. John
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    So nice to have good fiends and good food, especially when those friends are in accord with one’s thinking. Thanks for sharing, looks yummy.

  2. Stephen Barnard
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Outstanding — makes me hungry.

  3. jamese
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    My mouth is watering. You are a lucky man.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Hemant recently got married, and his new spouse is onhis right.

    Heman has been mum. Are you at liberty to drop a few details? Does she have a name?

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Since about half the attendees were theists (of the Hindu variety), we had some interesting chats. I learned a lot about Hindu theism, which seems far more philosophical than, say, Christian theism.

    I once met a Hindu creationist. It was interesting and different from the run of the mill Christian creationism. The Young Earth stuff is totally missing, Hindus are fine with a long time line, even hundreds of billions of years.

    • potaman
      Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Serious Hindus are also very likely to claim that the theory of evolution is already in the Vedas.

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Yum! I work with a bunch of Indians so I hang around like a harpy looking to snatch goodies after Diwali! 😀

  7. Autotroph
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Wonder if you talked about “Cārvāka”, which is considered atheistic but also considered within orthodox Hindu philosophy?

    • potaman
      Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Carvaka is not exactly orthodox. it is considered a nastika philosophy, which denies the authority of the vedas. The other philosophies, such as nyaya, sankhya-yoga, vedanta, etc accept the authority of the vedas and are hence considered astika philosophies. The words astika and nastika are now used for theist and atheist.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    One of my favourite “desserts” is jalebi which a really good local indian restaurant always has at their lunch buffet.

    • Posted September 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      We had gulab jamun, served warm with vanilla ice cream (I forgot to mention that). It was fantastic.

      My all-time favorite Indian dessert, though, is rasmalai, which far outshines the jalebi. In fact, along with baklava, a good rasmalai is a contender for the World’s Greatest Dessert.

      • jwthomas
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Indian food and Indian philosophy – way above the norm in both areas. Did you mention Nirmukta ( to the theists?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Mmm, I think I’ve had that too. I don’t really consider Jalebi to be on par with those other tasty desserts but it is a nice treat. IIRC, Indians also like rice pudding & I love that as well. It’s familiar to me because as a kid, I used to pour milk on rice and put raisins in it with sugar. It was something my dad taught me that we think was some sort of poor person’s east coast dish. 🙂

      • Angela Squires
        Posted February 8, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Yes, rasmalai is to die for! The best dessert ever!

  9. ksmatharu
    Posted September 29, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m hungry now too!

    There are a couple of atheist/rationalist websites that I know which highlight the irrationality and injustice in Hinduism. And there are a lot of apologetics that defend the caste system or even deny that the caste system is a Hindu construct. However, the caste system is fully embedded in Hinduism, and even fully embraced by those in power, and has caused injustice to countless people over countless years. There is some merit in calling this the Indian apartheid system. Try this site on how the cast system is still affecting many:

    • Piyush
      Posted September 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      It may have been right to call it the Indian “apartheid” system a couple hundred or so years ago, but is certainly is not now, after the work of such greats as Ambedkar. Currently, practicing untouchability, or any kind of caste based (negative) discrimination, is a serious offence under Indian law, in addition to being unconstitutional (and has been since before, e.g., the Civil Rights Movement came to an head in the USA). For all practical purposes, caste untouchability is mostly non-existent in cities, and any reported cases these days are considered bizarre enough to make national news.

      That is not to say that India does not have discrimination based on other attributes. See this for a curious example.

      • potaman
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        While open discrimination is not that common in urban areas, try renting a house in certain areas of cities like Chennai. They wont rent to you unless you meet very exact specs that include caste. Nobody seems to have told them that it is no longer okay to do caste.

        • Piyush
          Posted September 29, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          I have never lived in Chennai, but my impression was that the typical way landlords take to enforce caste segregation was to use “codewords”: instead of saying they want someone from a particular caste/group (which would typically attract political/legal attention), they would say something like “we want vegetarians only” or “no bachelors”. As a vegetarian myself, it pains me to see the idea being used to enable such discrimination.

          • Subramanya
            Posted September 30, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

            You just need to know the name. Whether you are vegetarian or not comes later.

      • Tumara Baap
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        It’s apartheid in the real world, even if unlawful. Caste system is very well entrenched outside of the big cities and a continuing social menace in backward states like Bihar.

        • Piyush
          Posted September 29, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

          “Apartheid” is not a term to be loosely bandied about. Even in the most backward areas of rural Bihar, the days of caste wars involving Ranbir Sena are long gone.

    • Tumara Baap
      Posted September 29, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Many think of hinduism as dogma-lite. Not true. Revisionism, mendacity, and intolerance are rife. Even in the U.S. there are Hindu organizations that bully university scholars and school boards to teach their sanitized rubbish to students. (I’ve seen a number of these documented at the butterflies and wheels blog over the years). Some of the things these Hindu nuts cling to are beyond ridiculous — Hanuman was not a monkey-god. He was an accomplished and wise astronaut who sustained a face fracture during a flight mishap and the tail was really a specialized whip worn around the waist. He was also the first man on the moon. And so forth.
      The rise in Hindu nationalism is in part a cultural response to “standing up” to Islam. Some such Hindu bodies are extremist and a menace to modernity. Others such as Arya Samaj do a lot of social work like schools and hospitals. But the reason for their being is right wing nationalism, not philosophical enlightenment. As ksmatharu noted about caste, the Arya Samaj is one such sect that has sanitized the caste system out of hinduism. It’s been explained as a benign economic construct that got corrupted and afflicted with nepotism. Arya Samaj also overemphasizes Hinduism’s monotheism (qualified versions of which can be teased out in the Upanishads), probably because it immunizes it from powerful Abrahamic religion memes – never mind monotheism is a particularly lousy explanation for an unjust world in flux.
      Such revisionism is particularly easy given the nature of Hinduism. It’s a term loosely applied to a microcosm of disparate Indian philosophical works and epics over eons. Primitive works like the vedas to the more sophisticated upanishads and shastras to even secular leaning schools of thought like Charvaka get put under the Hindu umbrella. As with most religions the central role played by Hindu religion is a substrate for mindless group allegiance for its adherents. Arthur Schopenhauer and other Enlightenment figures probably had a superior philosophical appreciation for Hindu scriptures than most Hindus do. (Melvyn Bragg’s podcast on the Upanishads and its influence in the West is worth a hear)

      • Piyush
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

        One thing that has often surprised me is the kind of antics “Hindu” organizations pull off in the USA (like trying to pressurize California School Boards to have their favorite version of “Hindu” creationism in the science curriculum). Most of these would be rather hard to pull through in India. Somehow, despite all of the superstition prevalent in India, religious fanatics of all stripes tend to leave science syllabi alone, and instead concentrate their efforts on the history books.

      • Piyush
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        “The rise in Hindu nationalism is in part a cultural response to “standing up” to Islam.”

        This doesn’t make much historical sense to me. Much of India was under Islamic rule from about 12-13th Century CE to 18th Century CE. Why did this rise in Hindu nationalism have to wait until the 19th century?

        • MikeN
          Posted September 29, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

          Because Hindu nationalists rising up before that got their heads chopped off by the Islamic rulers?

          I would think this is more a response to Congress’s embrace of Muslims, and the resentment of some Hindus to what they see as ‘affirmative action’ for everybody – lower castes, minority religions, minority ethnic and language groups- everybody except the good, honest, hard-working mainstream Hindu.

          • Piyush
            Posted September 29, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            “Because Hindu nationalists rising up before that got their heads chopped off by the Islamic rulers?”

            I don’t think that is true, except possibly the aberrant case of Aurangzeb. Most of the Mughals, notably Akbar, followed a policy of religious tolerance. Several of the Hindu “saints” quoted today, including the author of the Ramcharitmanas, the most popular Hindu religious text in North India, lived during the Mughal era.

            As for the Congress, Arya Samaj predates the Indian National Congress, as far as I can recall. Also, curiously, it is not extreme right wing Hindu organizations like VHP that are usually at the forefront of “anti-reservation” activism: the political stakes are typically much too high for them.

        • Sameer
          Posted September 30, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

          The rise of Shivaji in Maharashtra in the 17th century and his founding of the “Hindavi Swarajya” (self-rule by Hindus) can be chalked up as one of the instances of rise of Hindu nationalism before the 19th century. It was aided by Hindu saints like Ramdaas who promoted worship of Hanuman (the monkey god symbolizing strength). Perhaps there were other regional examples like Chatrasaal in Bundelkhand which is now in Madhya Pradesh.

          There is a regional Hindu nationalist party in Maharashtra called the “Shivsena” (Shivaji’s Army) who has used Shivaji’s popularity in Maharashtra to their advantage by adopting all the imagery (the saffron flag etc.) and rhetoric.

      • Piyush
        Posted September 29, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        “probably because it immunizes it from powerful Abrahamic religion memes – never mind monotheism is a particularly lousy explanation for an unjust world in flux.”

        As far as I know, the monotheism of most of the “Hindu” sects is very different from Abrahamanic monotheism, in that the “supreme being” is supposed to be some kind of a property-less entity who cannot be prayed to; almost like a deist “set the clock up” god.

  10. Bonzodog
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    One of the, slightly surprising, minor irritants in the UK is the relative (not absolute) inability to get “proper” Indian cooking with most of the recipes having been westernised to a greater or lesser extent – the dreaded Chicken Tikka Masala being a case in point.

    • Posted September 30, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink

      The Brits have to have their gravy.

      First time I have heard of rasmalai which looks unbearably lovely, like a panne cotta that has reached nirvana, a dessert with so much substance there is no need for gelatin.

      It’s heartbreaking to meet some people who regard baklava as a plebeian sweet. I think the ancient Imperial Turkish Court would disagree with their opinion.

      For someone who was raised in a Christian culture, I find Christianity egregiously stupid, boring, and bland. Other religions, despite their ridiculous content, however appear interesting, but of course not to the point that I would believe in any of them.

      Hinduism has a fluidity, comprised of subtle gradations existing on a continuum between atheism and theism, with stops at pantheism and deism just to keep everybody on their toes.

  11. JBlilie
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Holy Hank, I love Indian food! Lucky people at that meal! And you even got SOUTHERN Indian food, which is rather hard to find in the US (seems to me) with the main fare here being Punjabi food (which I love too …)

  12. michieux
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t know why, but atheism and good food go well together, provided the company is convivial.

  13. Chak
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Prof. Ceiling Cat and Hemant for joining us for dinner.

    Dinner would have been even better with some more local readers (George – thanks for the beer), some couldn’t make it due to conflicts. If there is interest we can do more of these in the future. Good to connect with this gang periodically over some good food.

    Kudos to Kavita for all the hard work!

    • Patrick Webb
      Posted September 30, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Disappointed we couldn’t make it, but would like to try again in the future. Looks like a great event was had.

  14. RFW
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    A surprisingly good book on Indian cuisine is the relevant volume in the old Time-Life “Foods of the World” series. It covers both the northern and southern versions, and is well illustrated, being more or less a coffee table book. There’s a spiral bound booklet of recipes that goes with it, too; about half the recipes are also gone over in the main volume.

    Most second hand booksellers sneer at Time-Life books, so you’ll have to look for it in thrift stores or order it online. Don’t get ripped off!

    Two other cookbooks devoted to Indian cuisine that I also like:

    Premila Lal, “Indian Cooking for Pleasure”
    The murgh khorma is excellent.

    Jack Santa Maria, “Indian Vegetarian Cooking”
    Lots of nice spicy curries, many using various types of dhal.

    [Of course, these are just personal favorites. There is an infinity of books devoted to Indian cooking out there. Go. Explore.]

    Indian cooking is generally easy to make. In its native haunts, the simplest of equipment is often all that’s available. JAC mentions his hostess taking “hours and hours” to make about two dozen dishes: the large amount of work there is due more to the number of dishes than to the difficulty of making each one. You do need a well stocked spice cupboard to do it right, however. Never, ever substitute one spice for another: every dish has its own combination of spices, devised over Dog only knows how many decades or centuries, and when you bastardize the recipes via spice substitution, the results can easily be a disappointment.

    • Chak
      Posted September 30, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Some dishes do take a lot of effort and time, the lamb pulao for example which took more than 2 hrs, others like coconut chutney are relatively simple.

      • RFW
        Posted September 30, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        Chak, one question:

        In another of Premila Lal’s cookbooks, she gives a recipe for a vindaloo that calls for vinegar, but it doesn’t say just what kind of vinegar. The recipe calls for a rather large quantity and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean the usual 5% acetic acid vinegar commonly sold in the US and Canada.

        Can you enlighten me on the type of vinegar to use in such a dish?

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    In Indian homes, as in Japanese ones, you remove your shoes at the door.

    Also in Canadian homes as well. I’ve recently learned this is a Canadian thing. 🙂

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted September 30, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      It varies quite a bit, in my experience. You never quite know, when you first arrive at someone’s home. It seems most guests now will offer to take them off when you first meet.

      Of course, even when your host says, “No, no, leave them on”, you are never quite sure whether you should or not.

      Stereotypical Canadian politeness at work.

  16. Posted October 1, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Uesful to remember that in London, most ‘Indian’ cooking is done by Bangladeshis, and so be careful not to call them Indian. Bangladesh is old East Pakistan,to the right of India, and the people are, like their neighbours, friendly and close to laughter. Best places in East of London are around Brick Lane, and around East Ham High Street. London also has great takeaways, sometimes run by Somalis or Afghans! I’m told that Leicester is great for restaurants.
    The British in India were largely Civil Servants with the usual problems of formality, circumspection in conversation; all stiff upper lip, and a quiet sense of superiority, and many Indians still have that unfortunate impression of the Brits. Visiting Indian for a month or more should be seen as an essential life experience, rather like long stays in the USA. (But as you all know, America was never discovered; it was merely detected!)

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