Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

Chickpea and Potato Curry

When I first met Shulie Madnick, I was confused. With straight, black tresses skimming her shoulders, an olive-brown complexion, and pretty almond eyes that crinkled at the corners when she smiled, Shulie looked South Asian. Yet she had an indistinguishable (to me!) lilt to her voice that didn’t sound like she grew up in that part of the world.

That mystery was soon solved as we got to know each other better. Shulie’s parents were from Bombay (now Mumbai), India but Shulie grew up in Israel.

Shulie busy slicing a jalapeño in my kitchen

Shulie busy slicing a jalapeño in my kitchen

Shulie’s parents belong to a Jewish community in India known as the B’nai Israel (Sons of Israel). Their ancestors are believed to have traveled from Israel through western Asia 2,000 years ago before they finally settled in villages in and around Mumbai, India. They gradually assimilated into local communities by adapting local foods and customs to fit within their Jewish traditions. The B’nai Israel community in India was more or less isolated within themselves, and thankfully, were never persecuted.

In 1947, India gained independence from the British, and following Israel’s formation as a nation in 1948, many B’nai Israel members migrated to Israel.

Shulie’s parents were among the influx of immigrants, her dad in 1950 and her mom in 1962. Coincidentally, they met at the airport. Her dad worked for a Jewish agency welcoming new arrivals to Israel, and her mom was a new arrival. All the pieces were in place for a match made in heaven.

The rest as they say is history.

Shulie was born in Jerusalem, the oldest of six kids within eight years. They lived in a Moshav (similar to a Kibbutz) until they were evicted because her dad accidently burned down the chicken coop! He was an avid smoker.

After her two-year army stint (all Israeli youth are conscripted), Shulie met her Massachussetts-born husband, Jonathon, who was studying at Tel Aviv University through mutual friends. They eventually settled in the U.S.

A colorful and fragrant melange of onions, tomatoes, jalapeno, and curry powder

A colorful and fragrant melange of onions, tomatoes, jalapeño, and curry powder

Many of the dishes Shulie remembers eating as a child growing up in Israel are regional Indian dishes her mom tailored to fit Jewish traditions and dietary laws. For Shulie, the one dish that defines Indian Jewish cooking is the malida. Sweetened poha, parched, flattened thin rice flakes, is tossed with coconut, cardamom, and blanched, sliced almonds and pistachios, then piled on a thali with five fruits and vegetables (dates, bananas, oranges, apples or any other fruit in season). This offering was made to pray over God’s gifts from the ground and from the tree. (Go to Shulie’s blog Foodwanderings.com for a recipe and more details).

In a similar way, Shulie continues this practice by taking different foods and ingredients found locally in her Northern Virginia community and adapts them to her own customs.

One of Shulie's favortie dishes she learned from her mom: chana masala with aloo

One of Shulie’s favortie dishes she learned from her mom, chana masala with aloo, is quick to cook and very tasty

Shulie shares with us her mom’s chickpea (garbanzo beans) and potato curry. You’ve probably seen a variation: chickpea and tomato curry (chana masala). She still makes this quickie dish often and it transports her back to her mom’s kitchen every time.

Chickpea and Potato Curry (Chana Masala with Aloo)

chana masala w rice

Shulie swears by the curry powder she brings home from Israel where her uncle owns a spice shop. The ingredients are sourced from local farmers and the spices are dried, ground, and then blended using her uncle’s own formulas. Shulie declares that nothing else will do! If you’re not as lucky to have a family in the spice business, seek out a curry powder that has a yellower hue (more turmeric). And experiment with it to see how much will give you the best balance of flavor.

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion, diced
1/2 jalapeño (or more if you’d like), sliced
2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)
1 to 2 tablespoons curry powder
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
2 (15-1/2 ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 medium gold potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size chunks

In a large skillet, sauté the onions in the oil until they are fragrant and translucent. Add the jalapeño and continue cooking until the onions are golden.

Add the tomatoes and cook for few more minutes until the tomatoes are soft. Add the curry powder and salt. Stir quickly before adding the chickpeas and potatoes. Pour in about 2 cups water or until just barely covered and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer (medium-low) and cover. Cook until the potatoes are tender–i.e. if you poke a piece with a fork, it will fall apart–about 25 to 30 minutes, adding water if it gets too dry. Instead of stirring, shake the pot every 5 or 10 minutes.

Serve with Cumin-scented yellow rice and yogurt to cut the spice, and for the full experience, eat with your fingers!


Note: This dish is great for reheating. Freeze in batches and microwave or reheat on the stovetop.

Shulie’s tip: “Indians usually soak their rice but I don’t, I’m always short on time! Just rinse the raw rice in cold water (warm/hot water ruins the grain) until clear. Let the rice drain in a colander over the sink and start on the curry then.”


If you’d like to learn more about the diverse Indian American communities in the U.S., please visit “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” a groundbreaking exhibition showing at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) from February 27, 2014 to August 16, 2015. The exhibition explores the heritage, daily experience and numerous, diverse contributions that Indian immigrants and Indian Americans have made to shaping the United States.



  • Filed Under

    September 5, 2014
    Comfort food
    Food traditions
    Cooking method    Braising    
    Course-type    Entrees    Sides    
    Culture    Indian    
    Main ingredient    Vegetable    
    • Posted By

      Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens. Pat especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture and has been published in numerous international, national and regional publications. Her cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is a treasury of family recipes and stories spanning over a dozen Asian cultures.

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