When I was on tour for my cookbook Indian-ish last summer, I got asked the same question a lot: “What’s the dish that causes that Ratatouille moment for you?” You know the scene. When the snobby critic Anton Ego eats Remy the rat’s deconstructed, fancy ratatouille and the flavors flash him back to his childhood and his mother serving him ratatouille after he’s fallen off his bike.
For me, the answer is so obvious it requires zero consideration: kadhi.
Kadhi is the food equivalent to that colorful, well-fitting wool sweater in your perpetual winter rotation. It’s a creamy, cozy, tangy soup thickened with chickpea flour and yogurt, stained with turmeric, and seasoned with a lot of pungent spices (fenugreek, cloves, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaves, peppercorns) meant for blanketing over rice, a pairing also known as “kadhi chawal.” The base of this dish—chickpea flour, yogurt, and turmeric—is a trio of ingredients found readily in Indian cooking. Turmeric gives food its bright color and earthy depths; yogurt is the cooling accompaniment to spice-heavy meals; and chickpea flour is used as a thickener or a base for spicy fritters and in milky sweets.
The recipe for kadhi varies from region to region in India. In Gujarat, kadhi can be lightly sweetened with a little jaggery, and the Sindhi version has vegetables, usually okra. I have tried many versions of kadhi, made by various aunties and uncles. Some aren’t sour enough. Or they’re too thin. Or the flavor of the spices isn’t pronounced enough. My mom’s is, in my opinion, as close to perfect as it gets.
Kadhi is the dish my mom pulls out for birthdays, when I come home for the holidays, or when everyone in the house is feeling cold and stuffy. I have distinct memories of sitting on the kitchen counter doing my high school math homework, watching the cauldron-like pot of the bright yellow soup bubble away, the smell of smoky, earthy spices filling the room. My mom, clutching her requisite goblet of red wine, would stand next to the stove, intuitively turning the heat up and down to get it to that ideal thicker-than-soup-but-not-quite-sauce texture.
She makes it with my dad’s tart homemade yogurt and a bunch of whole spices that pop and crunch between your teeth. It has a thick, heavy cream-like texture, thanks to the abundance of yogurt. Think of your favorite Cream of ____ soup. Kadhi is that, but better. It’s also delightfully easy (just a few minutes of stirring!), requires no fresh produce to make, and comes together in one pot. You start by sautéing the spices until they get toasted and fragrant, then you add the chickpea flour, yogurt, turmeric, and water, and let it cook until it thickens. The last step is making a chhonk—tempered spices—with ghee, cumin seeds, dried red chiles, and red chile powder, and drizzling it over the top. That’s all.
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