Washington DC for a first timer – An itinerary for 3 days in the capital city

Visiting the capital city of the United States can be both exciting and overwhelming for a first timer. Washington Dc is a city full of memorials, monuments, government buildings, museums, amazing restaurants and it now boasts a really fun harbor point at the National Harbor. Further almost all of these memorials and museums are free and require little to no prior booking at all. Also all of these are situated really close to each other, with an exception of few, which makes it hard to decide what to visit and what to miss.

IMG_0664-01

For me, this was my first trip to the city. When I read up on what all is to be explored in 3 days in this city all I came across was “you cannot complete the entire city in just three days” and that is the truth. But for a first timer there are things which you simply can’t miss and here I am going to list them out for you with some helpful tips and insights. A blog on the food scene in DC is coming up soon too! So stay tuned 😀

 

Exploring the National Mall 

The National Mall is a stretch of park in DC full of consisting of all the major monuments, memorials and museums. It also consists of prominent government buildings such as the US Capitol building, the US Supreme Court, The National Congress Library, the White House, the National Archives and offices of most of the major government departments.

IMG_0609-01
the US Capitol Building

Most of the Smithsonian Museums are also located here including the prominent ones such as the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History etc.

IMG_0643-01

The third important feature in the National Mall are the monuments and memorials, the most prominent ones being the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, The Vietnam War memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and the World War 2 memorial.

IMG_0772-01

Exploring all these will not be possible in a single day. So I would really suggest that you break these explorations in two days. Also, the museums close early in the evening and these memorials are open till late n the night, so it would be great if you visit the museums in the day time and reserve the memorials for evenings.

Beyond the National Mall

Outside the National Mall area, if you drive by the Potomac river, you come across the National Harbor. This is a recent commercial development in DC which boasts some really amazing restaurants, open spaces where there are events and parties in the evenings, riverside views and kayaking / peddle-boating options, the National Harbor Ferris Wheel offering some amazing views of the city and the newly opened MGM Casino. Basically this place is a great option of spend an evening if you want to go beyond the National Mall Area.

IMG_0934-01

Another diversion from the National Mall would be to visit the National Zoo and the Washington National Church. The Zoo has one of the very few Panda enclosures in United States and this would be a great opportunity to watch them up close and personal in action. The Zoo is also home to a vast majority of animals and is free for all.

IMG_1010-01.jpeg

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, more commonly known as the Washington National Church is another location worth visiting while you are in DC. Constructed in Neo Gothic style, this is the second largest church building in the United States. The church has a number of chapels, prayer rooms, beautiful stained glass windows, life-like sculptures and also some quirky gargoyles 😛 (yes they do have a Darth Vader Gargoyle hidden somewhere 😉 ) The church environment is serene and peaceful choir music creates a tranquil ambience.

IMG_1097-01.jpeg

Also, don’t forget to visit the Arlington National Cemetery. This is a resting place for most of the servicemen of the country and is also the final resting place of John F Kennedy and his family. While there,you can also visit the Tomb of the Unknowns, a resting place made in memory of the unknowns who sacrificed their life for the country. They have a change of guard ceremony at the tomb and it is definitely worth a visit.

IMG_0967-01.jpeg

 

Neighborhoods in DC

If you love to explore some quaint neighborhoods and indulge in people watching do make a point to visit visit Georgetown and Dupont Circle neighborhoods for some quite quality time and walks through the quaint historic parts of the city.

IMG_0725-01.jpeg

How to explore the National Mall

Getting there – You can reach the National Mall by road or by taking a Metro till the Smithsonian Station which will drop you right in the middle of the National Mall next to the beautiful Smithsonian Castle. Alternatively, if you are driving till the Mall, you can park the car at one of the paid parkings available close to the Mall and walk around.

Getting Around –

Walking around the National Mall is really great and that is how we explored the area. However, it can be pretty tiring, especially on a sunny day. The next best option would be to take one of the Big Bus – Hop on Hop off tours which cover most of the prominent locations in DC or if you are exploring just the National Mall the best option would be to take their circulator buses. A trip on these buses cost just $1 and the route covers the entire National Mall. (This is not sponsored, they are really a great option) Check out the route for yourself!

circulator route.jpg

 

You can visit the Big Bus Tour website here to check their tickets and routes and the Circulator website here.

Dont forget to carry a bottle of water and some snacks with you while you are exploring the National Mall. There are very few and scattered food stalls and water fountains around. The Maps which you will find along the road will also provide you with information on where the next food stall or water fountain is located!

I hope will help you plan your next trip to Washington DC. Let me know if I have missed out on any spots and if you need more help with planning your holidays do let me know 😀

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Zaytinya – A beautiful Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Washington DC

Screenshot 2018-08-21 at 2.49.36 PM

Mediterranean food always has a very special place in my heart. I love the freshness and the warmth in every dish and the variety of flavors which pleases your palette. Last month I tried cooking some Mediterranean food and while in the process of finding the perfect recipe and spice blends, I read a lot about the Mediterranean cuisine. So obviously I was craving to try out some delicious authentic Mediterranean spread.

When we were visiting Washington DC earlier this month I asked around for suggestions of good restaurants and one name which stayed constant in all the suggestions was Zaytinya. Started by chef Jose Andres in 2002, Zaytinya is one of the most recommended dining spots in Washington DC. It specializes in mezze menu inspired by Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisines.

Mezze Platters or Mezze meals are inspired with the idea of a whole family or a group of friends eating together and sharing the meal. Hence here the meal is served in smaller plates and there are a lot of variations in the dishes.  In some Mediterranean cultures, Mezze meals are considered to be a part of the appetizers while in other, Mezze meals are considered to be an entire meal in itself.

Zaytinya has created a wide range of Mezze meals to satisfy almost all kinds of tastes. Their menu is truly vast and if you want to be avoid making any blunders while choosing what to eat they lined up these specials for you –  Lunch Mezze Meal,  Zaytinya Experience and Chefs Experience.

We opted for the Lunch Mezze Meal where we had to choose from this Menu –

Screenshot 2018-08-21 at 2.48.44 PMScreenshot 2018-08-21 at 2.49.00 PMScreenshot 2018-08-21 at 2.49.16 PMScreenshot 2018-08-21 at 2.49.26 PM

Also I must tell you’ll their every meal is accompanied by an endless supply of freshly baked perfectly fluffed delicious Pita breads!

IMG_0743-01.jpeg
The delicious and endless supply of Pita Bread

In the first section, we ordered their Hommous and Baba Ghanoush. Both the Hummus and the Baba Ghanoush were fresh, delicately flavored and were devoured by us within minutes.

IMG_0742-01.jpeg
Hommous and Baba Ghanoush

Next up were Skuna Bay Salmon – Salmon served with herbed tahini, roasted pine nuts, Persian cucumber, pickled radish, preserved lemon and Kotopoulo Youvetsi – chicken, orzo, tomato, kefalograviera cheese. The Salmon was cooked to perfection, plated on herbed tahini, radish and cucumber. It was by far the most beautiful plating I had seen :D. It was not heavy on the palette and the portion size was perfect for one person.

IMG_0745-01.jpeg
Skuna Bay Salmon

The Kotopoulo Youvetsi was my favorite from this menu and I seriously considered calling for seconds on this. The Orzo was cooked to perfection in cheesy tomato sauce and tiny chicken chunks and this was broiled till a crisp layer formed on the top. It was truly a soul-food for me.

IMG_20180801_132947-01.jpeg
Kotopoulo Youvetsi

For the third course we ordered Adana Kebab – skewered ground lamb, house-made harissa, grilled tomatoes, sumac, onions and Keftedes Kapama – beef and lamb meatballs, feta cheese, rustic tomato sauce, cinnamon, allspice.

The Adana Kebabs were juicy and not very spicy. They were served on a fresh flat bread with some pickled onions which reminded me of how kebabs are served back home in India 😛 another similarity in Indian and Mediterranean cuisine ;).

IMG_0747-01.jpeg
Adana Kebabs

The Keftedes Kapama is a wonderful dish made with juicy keftes/koftas served in luscious tomato sauce with was mildly spiced and the feta cheese crumbled on top of it added just the right amount of creamy tang to the whole dish. Definitely a must try if you are fan of tomato based dishes like me :D.

IMG_0748-01.jpeg
Keftedes Kapama

We ended our wonderful lunch with the dessert being Greek Yogurt with Apricots  – which was soaked apricots served with fresh vanilla yogurt cream, apricot sorbet and pistachio powder. The dessert was very visually appealing, the apricot sorbet layered with Greek yogurt was a fresh combination and the pistachio powder added a good nutty flavor to the whole dessert.

IMG_0749-01.jpeg
Greek Yogurt with Apricots
IMG_20180801_140049-01.jpeg

 

Overall, I would really suggest visiting Zaytinya on your visit to Washington DC. Here are some tips for your next visit to Zaytinya

  • Reserve a table – we decided to walk in but were told that the waiting time for a table was 30 mins. They were however swift enough to give us a table in less than 20 minutes that too on a crowded weekday lunch time.
  • Enjoy patio dining when the weather is pleasant, the food just calls for patio dining 😀
  • Go with a group so you can truly enjoy the Mezze dining experience

 

Hike through Starved Rock State Park

Summer has finally set in at Chicago which means its time to don that hiking gear and get exploring. When I moved here, I set out finding out some cool options where we could go a for a hike and the name which constantly popped up in all my searches along with some amazing photographs was STARVED ROCK STATE PARK. So as soon as the climate warmed up a bit we simply had to go hiking there. Located in Utica IL, Starved Rock State  park is a  stunning stretch of land complete with natural canyons and waterfalls and makes for a great Day out Destination.

IMG_20180526_112536-01.jpeg

A BIT OF HISTORY

Starved Rock State Park was home to the Native Americans in late 1600’s.The name of the park is based on an old legend where two Native American tribes were fighting and the losing side took refuge atop a butte where they eventually starved themselves. Gradually, as the Europeans explored the United States of America, this area was occupied by the French.

In the late 19th Century this park was converted into a vacation resort and it was later acquired by the State of Illinois for a state park. This park has been subject to several archaeological studies and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

THE PARK

Stretched over a massive 2630 acres, this State Park has 18 canyons and is divided into 10 different trails so hikers can explore one canyon at a time. During Spring and Summer, you can also find waterfalls in 14 of these 18 canyons.  The best time for waterfalls is after heavy rains and in early spring when the snow is melting. But even if you don’t get to view the waterfalls, the Park itself is gorgeous, the hikes are fun and its a wonderland for photographers. We visited it in Summer, but we are also looking forward to visit this place again in Fall for the Fall colors. Also if you love hiking in winters then a visit here to watch the frozen waterfalls is a must.

PLANNING THE HIKE

Hiking across the entire park will take seasoned hikers an entire day and if you want to leisurely explore it will take you at least 2 days. Entry to the park is free and they even welcome pets. I would suggest that you reach the park early and grab a map from their Visitors Center. The also have some great volunteers who would be happy to assist you with the best route to take and with any other suggestions which you may have.

What we did was, we reached the park at about 10:30 am, geared up with lots of water, sandwiches and trail-mix, grabbed a map and started with our hike.

Screenshot 2018-08-15 at 2.33.02 PM.png
A copy of the visitors guide plus their map can also be downloaded here.

 

THE HIKE

We started our hike from the highest point of the Park located near the visitors center i.e. the Lovers Leap Overlook. It is just 5 minutes from the visitors center, gives a good start to your hike. You also get a scenic view of the Illinois River, Plum Island and Leopold Island.

IMG_0214.jpg
View from the Lovers Leap Outlook

 

Descending from the Lovers Leap Overlook we proceeded to the French Canyon, one of the most photographed canyon in Starved rock. We visited after 2 days of rainfall so we were lucky to catch the waterfalls but that also meant a slightly slippery hike. The French Canyon is definitely worth the visit when you come here. If you are planning a one day hike in Starved Rock it is difficult to cover all the canyons. But French Canyon is something you shouldn’t miss.

IMG_0239.jpg

 

The trail map shows you routes to reach various canyons through the River-Trail and the Interconnecting Bluff Trail. We hiked from the French Canyon through the Pontiac Canyon and Wildcat Canyon on Bluff trail. The trail routes are marked throughout the park, and if you don’t want to get lost, you simply have to stick on the paved hiking routes. Places where it is unsafe to hike are also marked on the trail, so we have to keep a watch for them.

IMG_0283.jpg
Sights from the River-trail 

We checked out the Wildcat Canyon from the top and we wanted to hike down for another look at the waterfall but we lost our way and ended up on the River Trail instead 😛 So we decided to move towards LaSalle Canyon, which another long but enjoyable hike on the river trail.

IMG_0279.jpg
Top view of the Pontiac Canyon  

The La Salle Canyon is more fun during the waterfall. It was also the most crowded of the canyons we visited. This is a perfect spot to rest and grab a bite (provided you find a good spot to rest..when we visited we couldnt find an empty spot) . IMG_0337.jpg

You can walk under the waterfalls and also dip in the reflecting pool in which the water flows into.

IMG_20180526_121927.jpg
Under the LaSalle Waterfall

We turned back from this canyon and hiked our way out, because most of the day was over and we were famished 😛 Next time around we do intend to camp out at Starved Rock and complete hiking the entire path.

Till then, here are some tips for the first time hikers –

  • Always carry lots of water with you, it is essential to stay hydrated during the hikes.
  • pack a bag of hiking friendly foods like nuts, energy bars, small sandwiches. Don’t pack elaborate meals as you may have to eat on the go.
  • Wear comfortable hiking gear and sturdy shoes, the climbs and descends get challenging.
  • Carry an extra pair of clothes in your car just in case you want to freshen up after the hike
  • Apply loads of sunscreen
  • Use the map and signs posted along the trail
  • Finally, please do not litter the Parks, like they say at Starved Rock Leave no trace, take only memories and leave only footprints” 

 

 

The Indo-Mediterranean spice story & Kebabs

I was recently looking up some recipes for authentic Mediterranean food and I was surprised to learn that most of the Mediterranean food and Indian food is connected. The spice mixes used are similar, the ingredients used are similar, just the cooking techniques vary a bit to adapt geographically. For example, there is use of olive oil in Mediterranean food (since it amply available in those regions) and the use of ground-nut oil, coconut oil and Ghee is common in Indian food since those ingredients are available in India. 

Mediterranean region includes a variety of cultures each with its distinct cuisines. These include, the Maghrebi, the Egyptian, the Levantine, the Ottoman (Turkish), the Italian, the Provencial, and Spanish culture. Also the geographical impact of Mediterranean Sea and the regions climate makes an impact on the food habits in these region. Similarly Indian cuisine is as diversified as the country itself. Based on the geography of the country, the foods change. India also has a vast coastal stretch which has aided in development of a varied coastal food cuisine in India. Just like in the Mediterranean regions, in India too, it is common to consume salt cured dried fish. These are some of the common dishes between Mediterranean and Indian culture which I have come across –   

  1. The Baigan Bharta in India is similar to the Baba Ghanoush, the Indian version is slightly spicy and nutty with inclusion of green chillies and peanuts. Similarly the Daal in India is very similar to the Mediterranean lentil soup.
  2. The Indian Kebabs and Mediterranean Kebabs are related too. The spices used in marination of these kebabs are similar.
  3. The Lentil soup having its roots in the bible and a common delicacy in the French and Middle Eastern regions is commonly known as Dal in India. (You will find a wide range of Dals too in India) 
  4. The Halva (flour and nut based confectionery sweet) is common both in India and Egypt, Iran and Middle East. 

The spices used in cooking are common too. Indian cooking involves use of Chili powder, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, bay leaf and all spice, so does Mediterranean food. When you read the recipes for Mediterranean and Indian food you realize that although the spices and the ingredients are the same, the cooking method and the quantity in which the spices are used varies. I am still reading up on how this similarity came into existence and am experimenting between a fusion of Mediterranean and Indian tastes and I started with my favorite..Kebabs. 

barbecue-bbq-close-up-72160.jpg

Mediterranean kebabs are made using spices such as bay leaf, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and Indian kebabs are made using the same spices along with garam masala and they are usually marinated in yogurt. Yogurt or Lime works well for tenderizing the meat so I wanted to use one of these. Since I was planning on making a yogurt dip to go with the kebabs, I decided to marinate them with lime. 

I decided to make a mild spice mix of smoked paprika, red chili powder, cinnamon, cardamon (for the Indian blend) along with all spice, salt and pepper. Also Mediterranean spice mixes are blended with olive oil before being applied on the meat and set for marination for around 8-10 hours or even overnight. I also added a bit of lime juice to tenderize the meat and aid the marination and let it rest overnight. 

IMG_20180518_124750.jpg
The Indo-Mediterranean spice mix

The next day, I grilled the meat at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for around 15 minutes before broiling it for another 5-7 minutes till slightly charred. I served it with home-made whole-wheat flat bread, yogurt sauce, chopped bell peppers and onions. 

IMG_20180518_201845.jpg
My choice of serving style with flatbread, veggies and a dollop of the yogurt dip

The best part about these kebabs is that they are extremely versatile, require very little oil and you can make them beforehand and grill them in time for your meals. Here are a few variations for these kebabs – 

Kebabs & Rice –  

Serve these with some rice spiced with turmeric & nuts to make a delicious scrumptious meal for the family 

Wraps 

This is my favorite variant. I love to make wraps with these kebabs and stir fried veggies. You can add a bit of home made hummus or yogurt sauce for making it more delicious.

Appetizers – 

Just the grilled kebabs by themselves are delicious enough. Garnish them with onions and serve them with the yogurt dip 

Salad- 

Toss the kebabs with freshly chopped lettuce, spinach and any other greens of your choice, add some onions for the crunch and tomatoes for the tang, top it with lime juice salt and pepper for a great summer time salad!


Ingredients

  • 500 grams boneless chicken thighs (cut into small bite sized pieces) 
  • 1 tbsp red chili powder
  • 1 tbsp all spice mix
  • 1/2 tbsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tbsp cumin powder
  • pinch of cardamon powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • juice of one lime
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 

Instructions 

  • Mix together the spices in a bowl. (You can increase or decrease the quantities for chili powder as per your choice) 
  • Pour in the olive oil and lime juice and whisk till its well blended
  • Pour this marinade over the chicken  and mix to coat it well. Let this rest at least for an hour and preferably for more than 12 hours
  • Heat oven till 450 degree Fahrenheit / 220 degrees Celsius and cook for 15 minutes or cooked through. 
  • Make sure you stir the kebabs at least once while cooking. 
  • You can also fry them on a pan or skewer them and grill them over coals (grilling would make them taste much more better)
  • Serve them in any way you prefer with a dip, in a wrap or with rice 🙂

THE YOGURT DIP

This is a garlic based yogurt dip. Mince around 3 medium cloves of garlic and whisk them with a cup of Greek Yogurt. Add salt to taste and once well blended you can top it off with freshly chopped mint and cilantro

IMG_20180518_134626.jpg
Drizzle the yogurt dip over some grilled veggies and kebabs 

 

Travel Essentials for a great trip

This ones coming after a long long time. I’ve been away for a couple of months travelling to India and back. This one was a quickly planned trip which meant I had hardly any time to pack my backs and clean up my home so it would stay neat for the next two months ( PS – I hate coming home to messy apartment 😛 ). In spite of the sudden planning, I was really looking forward to this trip. But, as much as we love unplanned holidays, we don’t like packing up in a hurry and fear leaving something important behind. We also hate to leave our homes unkempt while travelling – no one likes to come home to a mess after a long trip. I have had my share of packing up wrong stuff/ less stuff / more stuff for a trip and also packing up in a rush leaving my room in a mess causing more frustration upon my return. But every trip teaches me something about managing my luggage and home and I am glad to share this with you all. There were some really helpful products and packing hacks which helped me pack-up, clean-up in time and even manage to squeeze in time for gym prior to my flight. Heres a small two step process 

achievement-art-camera-970203.jpg

STEP 1 : THE PACKING –

Pack up your essentials first. If this is an international trip, make sure you pack your passport and travel documents first along with the required cards and currency. Remember, you can make do with fewer clothes in your bag but not with your documents. So pack them up nicely in a compact case or a handy pouch.

Next come your clothes. Based on the number of days of your trip travel and your type of trip pack the essential clothes. For a trip mixing and matching various outfits always works well. I have created this Pinterest Board for some great outfit ideas which you can refer to and will help with the packing.

accessories-accessory-bag-322207.jpg
Check out more outfit ideas here

Remember Compact is always better, so roll your clothes instead of folding them and pack lighter fabrics instead of heavier ones. This is make your bag lighter and you may need a smaller bag too. Get a pack of air-travel compliant cosmetic case in which you can store all your cosmetics and beauty products. For a short trip you wont need larger quantities so keep this cosmetic case filled up and ready always to grab on to when you pack your bags.  

Shoes – a girl can never have enough shoes 😛 The general rule is to carry just 3 pairs of shoes with you, where you wear the heaviest pair which is usually the sneakers and stuff the other two in your bag. But I am guilty of travelling with more than three pairs always! 😉 But I make sure that apart from the sneakers, my other pairs of footwear are small and light which won’t occupy a lot of space.

Finally to ensure your luggage stays organized, pack everything in Packing Cubes available easily on Amazon. Trust me, these are life savers when it comes to managing your packing.  These are my favorite packing cubes which I have purchased more than a year ago and have stayed with me (enduring the super heavy luggage) since then.

packing cubes 1

They also have a very sturdy and handy toiletry bag which holds a lot of personal care items including a change of clothes if need be. This is my favorite grab-on bag when I travel since it can hold all the things I need and fits perfectly into a suitcase. It is also perfect for carrying makeup. I had a lot of makeup products to carry with me while moving to US and I was worried that the delicate packing may break or get spoiled during the travel. But I packed it all in this little bag, put it in my check-in luggage and all my stuff arrived unscathed.

 

 

STEP 2 : THE CLEAN-UP – 

Food Management – start with your perishables. Veggies and fruits tend to spoil soon, so best way to avoid wastage is to finish them off or if you don’t have time then freeze them. Cleaned washed veggies and fruits freeze up to 4-6 months if frozen in freezer friendly containers or Ziploc bags.

fridge.jpg

Meat products can be a bit tricky, if the meat is cooked, then I wouldn’t suggest freezing it as it may hamper the taste and health factor. Uncooked cleaned meat can be stored in Ziploc bags or Airtight containers and frozen again for 3-4 months.

Also, don’t forget to store your snacks, cereal etc  in airtight containers.

Wiping down the house 

After packing your bags, store them in one side and start your wipe down. Start with the kitchen by wiping down the your kitchen counters and cabinets. I love using Clorox tissues for a quick wipe down or if things are messy in the kitchen I give it a good spray-over with a Multipurpose Cleaner followed by a swift wipe-down with soft tissues or cloth.

PS it also leaves your kitchen smelling lovely!

Next is to start vacuuming the whole place. Doing this after your packing will ensure that all those isty bitsy dust bunnies left after the packing will be swept up and cleaned. And this will wind up your packing and you will have a clean home to come back to. 😀 

 

apartment-blinds-cabinets-349749.jpg

Food from Home – Chicken Malvani Curry

I am writing this post after a really long time and the reason for this is I am back in India for a few days. 😀  My first few weeks in India were spent visiting families, meeting relatives and enjoying the rains and now I’m visiting my parents and making an attempt to learn those traditional Maharashtrian food from my Mum. I hail from the coastal regions of Maharashtra where coconut is used in abundance while cooking. Ironically the one thing I found difficult while cooking was the use of coconut. I did not know how much of it is to be used, do we use the dried coconut (known as kopra / khobra here) or the fresh coconut etc etc. So today I decided to spend sometime learning the much famous coconut based masala which forms a base for most of the coastal Maharashtrian cooking and is extremely delicious. Although the ingredients seem a lot, they are not hard to source. Moreover, this masala can be prepped in advance and used as a base for a number of vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes. My favorite recipe with this masala blend is the Malvani Chicken curry.

IMG_20180628_135818.jpg

This chicken curry has been a staple in my house since my childhood. Often even requested by guests when we have them over for lunch or dinner. Since it can be prepped in advance, this recipe does not require a lot of efforts. The cooking technique is the key here, although it is not complex, we have to be careful while cooking the masala blend else we may risk burning it 😛 . Also the spice levels here can be easily controlled, so if you are not a fan of chilly or hot spices, you can give that a miss and still make a delicious gravy.

The base flavor for this recipe is roasted coconut and roasted onions. In earlier days, when food would be prepared on traditional hearths, onions and dried coconuts would be roasted whole in the fire before being ground on mortar into a fine paste. The smokiness of the hearth would add on to the flavor of this masala but we can try our best to replicate those flavors but roasting these ingredients. You can still roast the onions and coconuts whole on a barbecue grill to get similar results but I would suggest you start with roasting them in a pan to get the flavor right before experimenting with barbecue.

Here I finely chopped dried coconut and onions before roasting them individually in a pan till they developed a fine golden hue.

The other spices I used here were fennel seeds, coriander seeds, whole cardamon, star anise, peppercorns, cloves, a bit of cinnamon & cumin seeds. Which were roasted too on mild heat till they turned fragrant. A pro-tip here would be to add a touch of ghee to the pan before roasting these spices as this will add an additional kick to the flavor of these spices. If you love some heat in your food you can also roast a couple of whole dried red chilies with the spices.

IMG_20180628_122200.jpg

The Chicken used here does not require any special preparations. It can be marinated in yogurt, salt, ginger garlic paste and lime for just 30 minutes prior to cooking or even a day before for more juicier gravy.

I started off with marinating the chicken and roasting the spices, onions and dried coconut for the Malvani Masala. Once roasted, I ground the spices, onions and dried coconut together into a fine paste adding just a bit of water for better texture.

IMG_20180628_124603.jpg

I then tempered some hot oil with one bay leaf, one finely chopped onion and a teaspoon of ginger-garlic paste. Once the onions had softened, I added one chopped tomato, covered the mixture and let it cook till it was all tender. Once the onions and tomatoes were softened and cooked, I added in the marinated chicken, a tablespoon of chili powder, a teaspoon of turmeric powder and cooked till the spices coated the chicken well. I then covered and cooked the chicken for another 5 minutes before adding in the Malvani Masala Paste made earlier. At this stage I also added in around 100 ml of warm water to add some texture to my gravy. I then covered the gravy and let it cook for another 15 minutes before the chicken was cooked through and ready to serve.

Pro-tip – if you have some ground Garam Masala powder at home, sprinkle a teaspoon of it over the gravy once you switch off the heat on the gravy before topping it off with fresh coriander.

Serve warm with fresh rotis and steamed rice.

img_20180628_135736.jpg

RECIPE

INGREDIENTS 

Malvani Masala Blend 

For Gravy

    • 500 grams chicken
    • 2 tablespoons yogurt
    • 2 teaspoons Ginger Garlic Paste
    • 1 teaspoon lime juice
    • salt to taste
    • 1 finely chopped onion
    • 1 finely chopped tomato
    • 1 tablespoon chili powder
    • 1 teaspoon Turmeric Powder

 

  • 1 teaspoon garam masala powder (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chopped coriander for garnishing

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Marinate chicken with the yogurt, 1 teaspoon of ginger garlic paste, lime juice and salt and keep aside for at least 30 minutes (this can be done a day in advance too).
  • Roast the onions and dried coconut  from the Malvani Masala list, separately till  it turns golden
  • Add half a teaspoon of ghee to the pan and once heated add in the spices (coriander, fennel, cumin, star anise, cardamon, cloves, peppercorns and chilies) and saute till they are roasted and fragrant.
  • Grind the onions, coconut and spices together to form a paste.
  • In a pan, heat oil and add one bay leaf to it. Add in the chopped onion and 1 teaspoon of ginger garlic paste and saute till the onions have softened.
  • Add in the tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes have softened.
  • Add in the marinated chicken, chili powder and turmeric powder and mix well till the spices have coated the chicken well. Cover and cook for around 5 minutes on medium heat.
  • Add in the ground Malvani Masala blend, cover the chicken well with it and add 100 ml of warm water to blend the spices well.
  • Cover and cook for another 15-20 mins on medium heat till the chicken is well cooked through.
  • Sprinkle the gravy with a teaspoon of garam masala powder, freshly chopped coriander and serve warm with fresh rotis and steamed rice.

IMG_20180628_135757.jpg

PS – this article may include certain affiliate links. Clicking on such links will not incur any expenses to you but will help run this site. 

Mantra – an authentic Indian culinary experience in Chicago

One thing that I have always been skeptical about is how Indian food is represented outside India. There have been prejudices about Indian food being too oily, too spicy and too unhealthy when in reality it is quite the opposite. However, to my disappointment some restaurants outside India stand true to these prejudices. In reality, Indian food is not always oily, spicy and unhealthy. If made with the right ingredients and the perfect technique Indian food tends to be one of the most healthiest cuisine and for me one of the most delicious cuisine. With 29 states in India with innumerable regions in each state and each region having a different specialty food,  you are spoilt for choices when it comes to Indian food and no one can really categorize it as “oily” “spicy” and “unhealthy”.

So I was extremely glad when I realised that these prejudices are mightily smashed by one Indian restaurant in Chicago “ MANTRA – by Indian Garden”

IMG_0162.jpg

Mantra describes itself as an authentic yet innovative Indian restaurant with a menu that honors tradition while reinventing it.

Honestly, there is no better way of describing this restaurant. The restaurant is spot on with its decor and ambiance and their food is simply delightful. Right from the Appetizers we knew that the freshness of the food is something they never compromise with. The restaurant is located at 9438 W Irving Park Rd, Schiller Park, IL 60176.

We were graciously invited to the restaurant by its lovely owner Anu Sharma and her team for lunch. When we arrived there we were surprised by the decor of this restaurant, how well the place has been maintained and genuinely impressed by their attention to detail.

 

THE FOOD


Mantra specializes in providing an Indian  fine-dining experience. Their menu is curated to fit this experience. Mantra has a huge menu to offer and they specialize in preparing each item in the menu fresh for the patrons after it has been ordered. They do not promote the principle of “curry in a hurry” and they aim at serving the food which will transfer you in spirit to the region where it originated from.

IMG_0113.jpg

For drinks we tried their Mango Lassi – this being the mango season in India I was inclined to try the popular Indian drink in this season. The Lassi was rich, thick made with fresh mangoes. I was worried that it might stuff me up like most of the restaurant lassi’s do (since they have a large proportion of cream in it) but this one was very different. It refreshed me and I could taste the freshness of the ingredients here.

IMG_0117.jpg

From their Appetizers menu, we tried a wide array of dishes. We started off with Paneer ke Sholey – a dish I had never eaten before – it was spiced paneer cubes stir fried with bell peppers and onions. I must say here, the Paneer they serve at Mantra is exceptional. It is extremely fresh, has a lovely flavor and the way they make it melts in your mouth.

IMG_0121.jpg

We then tried the Papdi Chaat – an Indian street food speciality – which was served to us with freshly made Papdi / Crisps, whipped yogurt and garnished with the right amount of spices.

IMG_0122.jpg

We even sampled their Kebabs like the Adraki Chaamp – Grilled Lamb chops flavoured with Ginger, Prawn Angare – Carrom flavoured shrimps grilled in Clay Oven, Malai Kebab – Chicken Marinated with Cheese, Ginger- Garlic and White pepper and Pudina Paneer – grilled Paneer mildly spiced with mint.

IMG_0131.jpg

The Grilled Lamb chops were made to perfection, the meat tender with the right amount of spices. The Prawn Angare is my personal favorite – I have never tasted such fresh Shrimps in any restaurant before. The Malai Kebab were soft, tender and they literally melt in your mouth while the Pudina Paneer was extremely delightful. Their appetizers are a true delight and the team at Mantra takes special efforts to customize the food to your preference and liking.

We also tried a different assortments of breads – The Garlic Naan, Stuffed Paratha and Laccha Paratha. The Laccha Paratha is usually a tricky one, since the paratha has multiple layers usually the inner layers stay raw or the paratha gets burnt, but the paratha at Mantra was baked to perfection.

IMG_0146.jpg

The Garlic Naan was really fresh and extremely soft, it was so yum you can literally have it just by itself. Coming to the Stuffed Paratha  – this unique flatbread was stuffed and baked to perfection, the stuffed veggies and cheese added the perfect taste to the food when coupled with the gravies.

IMG_0155-1.jpg

In their Entrees we tried four different gravies – Mutton Curry, Chicken Bhuna, Shahi Paneer and Dal Bukhara. Each of this dish has a different technique used to prepare them and Mantra prepares them with the perfect technique.

IMG_0143.jpg

 

The Dal Bukhara requires slow and long cooking of Lentils till they are soft and creamy, we were informed that they take special efforts to ensure that the Lentils are cooked in the same slow cooker manner to perfection. The Mutton Curry was scrumptious, the meat well cooked and extremely tender and the gravy was spiced to perfection.  The Chicken Bhuna is an out of the world dish, the chicken is roasted yet tender and the spicies work perfect with the tomato based gravy. The Shahi Paneer is truly a dish for the royals. The dish has generous helpings of fresh paneer, mildly spiced gravy and has a lovely cardamom flavour. We paired the gravies with the different assortments of breads and their Saffron Flavoured rice – Kersariya Pulao which has a lovely mild saffron flavor, rich color and is topped with fried onions.

IMG_0158.jpg

To wrap up this lovely meal, we tried their Pistachio kulfi and Mango Kulfi – both we creamy and delicious and made with natural ingredients. We also tried their Kheer – Indian Rice pudding which was rich and creamy with a nice hint of spice.

IMG_0180.jpg

 

Finally as we were on our way out, Anu offered us to try their freshly made Jalebis which were – crispy , sweet soaked in sugar syrup which was the perfect end to our delicious meal.

IMG_0204.jpg

 

THE DECOR

The decor and interiors at Mantra are definitely worth mentioning. They have poured their heart and soul in every corner of the restaurant. Right from the entry to fresh flowers and the seating fit for royals. We were informed that the owner Anu Sharma has handpicked most of their decor over the years and they keep on developing it with many artistic pieces bought in specially from India. Mantra not only takes you on a culinary journey, the interiors of the restaurant give you a real feel of Indian Royal Dining.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The entire restaurant is designed and decorated in an elegant fashion with stunning pieces of decor in every corner of the restaurant. Right from the waiting area to the seating, it is very apparent that Mantra has a magnificent taste in decor and they are dedicated to provide a splendid experience to its patrons.

 

THE EXPERIENCE 

A few other things worth mentioning about Mantra is their dedication to quality and customer service. We noticed that the team at Mantra was dedicated to ensure that the patrons got their choice of meals. They patiently asked us if there was a specific way in which the meal could be prepared or any ingredient which was wanted to be included or excluded from the meal.

 

We were also told that Mantra abides by a great “freshly prepared meals” policy. Which means that they avoid pre-cooking as much as possible (unless of course the recipe calls for longer marination and slow-cooking process), every meal is prepared from scratch only once it is ordered in. This way you get the freshest of food on your table. They also avoid unnecessary use of excess butter and cream which is an artificial flavor enhancer and concentrate more on perfecting the spice mix for every meal. This is the reason why at Mantra they do not give you your curry in a hurry but rather concentrate on the flavor and freshness of the food.

I would definitely go in for a second time here, the food and service is such that it calls for repeated visits without question. Keep up with the great culinary service Mantra, you are heaven for foodies like me.