February 8, 2012

One of the coolest things about teaching is the way that the lessons I teach are often just as applicable to me as they are to my students. And in listening to and discussing with my kids, I’m made to think about and consider things more deeply, to decide what I think, and to figure out how to substantiate my claims—all of the very things I’m trying to teach them to do. Related side note: you know how dogs can smell fear? Teenagers can smell hypocrisy.

The unit we are wrapping up has grown out of a study of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, a visually beautiful but ambiguously messaged story about three intersecting characters who each examine issues of belonging, stereotypes, assimilation, and acceptance. Many of my students quickly caught on to some of the mixed messages in the book, and so I took it as an opportunity for us to examine the thoughts of other writers on the topic of identity: Amy Tan, Eric Liu, Claude Steele, Z.Z. Packer, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I’ve spent lots of time thinking and writing about what it was like to grow up as the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee, but it is another thing entirely to think about one’s identity in the context of a classroom full of students, many of whom were considering the topic for the first time.

How much “Indian” am I, and by virtue of what? I feel fully American, and am legally American, but what does that mean? Does our notion of what it means to BE American still need updating? What comes with having a hyphenated identity?

This quote from Jhumpa Lahiri, short-story writing goddess and fellow Indian-American, resonated with me: “As a child I sought perfection and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.”

In as much as our identities are created, fluid, and malleable, I am still figuring out what it means to be me, what I want it to mean, what that meaning looks like. In my further-hyphenated family (Jill is Caucasian American, mostly Irish if you go far back enough), food plays a big part in anchoring the “Indian” part of my identity into our life.


You’ll need to visit the Indian grocery store for this one: fresh curry leaves (which really give this dish its distinctive flavor) and poha (flattened, de-husked, and dried rice) are hard to find elsewhere. Luckily, both will keep very well in your fridge—the leaves, wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a Ziploc bag, and the poha in an airtight container or well-sealed in its original packaging.

This dish is typically served for breakfast, but it works just as well for lunch or dinner. Jill has become a big fan (thanks to my mom, who got us hooked on visits to our house before I started making it myself!), and I really love that.


3 cups thick poha
2 cups peeled, chopped, raw, firm-fleshed potatoes (red or Yukon Gold work well)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. turmeric
1 T sugar
1 T chopped, fresh curry leaves
½ cup finely-chopped yellow onion
¼ cup finely chopped ginger (less if you prefer)
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, more if you are feeling brave
half a bag of frozen peas
canola oil

optional: some minced Serrano or other hot green pepper

Make the vagar (base): heat a generous few tablespoons of canola oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once the heat is shimmery, add the cumin and mustard seeds; they should pop and crackle. Sprinkle the turmeric on top of them.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion and ginger, plus fresh chili if you’re using it, sautéing until they just soften. Add the sugar, ground spices, and salt, then toss in the potatoes and curry leaves.

Cover the pot with a lid and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes have begun to soften and brown. Toss in the frozen peas and cover again.

In the meantime, gently rinse the poha in a colander—don’t soak, or the poha will dissolve. Once the potatoes and peas have cooked to your liking, toss in the wet poha and stir thoroughly. Turn off the heat, but re-cover the pot and leave on the stove for an additional 5-10 minutes before checking for salt and serving.

Possible serving accompaniments: squeeze of lemon, Sriracha or other hot sauce, tamarind or cilantro chutney, or ketchup, a childhood favorite which I’m not ashamed to say I still use from time to time.



  1. This sounds so comforting and good. I’m sorry if this is an annoying question, but do you have any suggestions on what to do if we don’t have poha? I’ve tried to bring in rice flakes into Mexico before and they’ve been confiscated. (Oatmeal and quinoa are prohibited too, strangely.) And fresh curry leaves — MAN. What I wouldn’t give for some. I think I’m going to try to bring some back next time, confiscation be damned.

    Comment by Lesley — February 9, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  2. Lesley–that’s a great question, and only annoying in so far as what you’re not able to sneak into the country! I was going to suggest quinoa, but since that’s not an option, I would say any fully-cooked grain should work here, though depending on what you use it may alter the flavor a little. Puffed amaranth? Farro? Barley? Heck, you could even use leftover rice, but the texture would be different. Btw, I’m always happy to attempt a shipment and hide curry leaves inside the pages of a book 🙂

    Comment by Blue Jean Gourmet — February 9, 2012 @ 10:21 am

  3. I like the farro or barley idea, and LOVE the puffed amaranth suggestion. I have a whole quart of it that I have no idea what to do with. (Besides put it in granola, and possibly use it as a coating for chicken.) If you would like to send me a book, I have no problem with that. 🙂

    Comment by Lesley — February 9, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  4. This sounds delicious and I can’t wait to make it for my children. We are new to Houston. Could you recommend an Indian Grocery in Houston? Thanks for your blog. I’ve been enjoying it for the last few years.

    Comment by Kate — February 9, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  5. hi Kate, it’s lovely to hear from you! Welcome to Houston–I hope the city is treating you well so far. Regarding Indian grocery stores, the main concentration of them is down on Hillcroft & 59 South; I would always shop at Asia Grocers. However, a little neighborhood store opened up not far from me (I’m in Pearland) and I can get everything that I need there, thankfully.

    Truly, it depends on what part of town you’re in. Most of the suburbs will have their own small neighborhood place, but inside the city it’s a little trickier and “Little India” down on Hillcroft would be your best bet. Some international/Middle Eastern grocery stores, like Phoenicia in downtown, will overlap with some Indian goods: lentils, rice, chutneys, etc. But for poha you would most likely need to go to an exclusively Indian grocery. Hope that’s helpful!

    Comment by Blue Jean Gourmet — February 10, 2012 @ 6:39 am

  6. Nishta – This looks really yummy. I love food like this, even though my “people” looked more like Jill’s “people.” I even have a great grocery on Hillcroft where we will shop for the goodies this weekend, and enjoy the fruits of our labor on Sunday night with the Grammies and LL Cool J.

    Comment by carolyn truedell — February 10, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  7. I know it should be “Grammy’s,” but I guess I am not as cool as I
    think despite my passion for LL Cool J. Carolyn

    Comment by carolyn truedell — February 11, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  8. Hi Nishta, I am currently in Bangalore and love the food. I think I had Poja one morning. Biryani and pilau are fabulous here. Since I live in Los Angeles, I can get almost any ingredient so will make this when I return home. Give my love to Jill.

    Comment by Elaine Vaden — February 12, 2012 @ 6:11 am

  9. Nishta – Even if I can’t spell, I do make good poha. Dick and I cooked
    last Sunday. It was so good and even better the next day. Carolyn

    Comment by carolyn truedell — February 17, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

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