They woke us up early so we could be ready before sunrise. The neighborhood was quiet, a welcome break from the noisy hustle and bustle of modern India. Even the street dogs weren’t barking, perhaps out of respect because it was Independence Day.
For my grandparents, who had lived through the struggle for independence from British rule, life with a ration card for food staples was normal. They knew what it meant to do without and did not take freedom for granted.
My grandmother would bring the tricolor flag out, which had been carefully stored away, the night before. My grandfather would have a pole ready to go. We’d walk up the concrete stairs to the open terrace with my grandparents, my brother, my cousin and I. One of us would unfurl the flag and carefully insert the pole through its loops. My grandfather would then affix the pole to the balcony wall close to where the Purple Camel Foot tree had grown taller than the balcony depositing its bright pink flowers on the terrace.
We’d step back and on my grandfather’s count, would sing the Jana Gana Mana, India’s national anthem, just as the sun rose.
It was a short but solemn ceremony that taught us early on to value all the opportunities we were given. Now that I live in the US and my grandparents still live in India, there is no family flag ceremony anymore. But today, in honor of India’s 64th anniversary of Independence, I’ve made my own special tricolor flag. And as I take a bite of this fragrant and vibrant dish, I close my eyes and savor freedom.Happy Birthday India.
- 4.5 tablespoons Ghee (or vegetable oil), divided
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 5 pods green cardamom, slightly crushed
- 3 cloves
- 2 inch cinnamon stick (Ceylon cinnamon if you can get it)
- ½ teaspoon saffron
- 2 cups white basmati rice
- 1 green chili, sliced lengthwise into quarters
- ½ cup yellow onion –finely diced (a small onion or ½ a large one)
- ½ cup red bell pepper –finely diced
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 1/2 cup frozen peas, defrosted
- ½ cup cilantro – coarsely chopped
- 10 cashew nuts, whole
- 10 almonds, whole
- Salt – 1 teaspoon or to taste
This can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.
- Rinse the rice three times in warm water. Lay out the rice in a shallow dish and allow to dry.
- Heat 2 tablespoons ghee over medium heat in a thick bottomed pot for 2-3 minutes till a cumin seed thrown in starts to sizzle.
- Roast the whole spices for 10 seconds or till you smell their aroma.
- Gently crush the saffron and add it along with rice and a ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir gently till the rice starts clumping up, about 3 minutes.
- Add 2 cups of water and bring to a gentle boil before turning the heat to low and covering the pot.
- Remove from heat after 7 minutes or when the rice is just cooked, think al dente. Keep covered and allow the rice to cool down to room temperature.
- Roughly chop the nuts so they are all of a similar size.
- Heat 1/2 tablespoon ghee in a skillet over medium heat.
- Once the ghee starts to bubble, roast the nuts for 5 minutes or till you can smell the aroma of the cashews. They should be lightly browned. Remove from heat and leave uncovered.
- Wipe the skillet if necessary, and heat another 2 tablespoons of ghee for 2-3 minutes or till a cumin seed thrown in starts to sizzle.
- Roast the cumin for 10 seconds and then add the onion and chili. Stir occasionally or till the onion is evenly light brown. This should take 5-8 minutes.
- Fold in the vegetables and half the cilantro with the onions. Sauté till the bell pepper is cooked but still has a bit of crunch. Salt to taste.
- Remove from heat and mix in with the rice. Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with the nuts and the remaining cilantro.
- Serve with plain yogurt and pickle or raita.