Atlanta restaurant chefs share family recipes

Audria Easterly

As her daughter-in-law Silvia Hernandez crushes fiery chile de arbol, garlic and roasted tomatillos in the oversize mortar and pestle, Antonina mixes masa harina and water. These two ingredients form the batter for picaditas, the griddled masa cakes their mother made as a special treat, often on Sundays when she […]

As her daughter-in-law Silvia Hernandez crushes fiery chile de arbol, garlic and roasted tomatillos in the oversize mortar and pestle, Antonina mixes masa harina and water. These two ingredients form the batter for picaditas, the griddled masa cakes their mother made as a special treat, often on Sundays when she was able to be with her nine children.

“That’s how my mom used to wake us up in the morning,” says Stacey, remembering the throat-tingling sensation of toasting chiles.

“We miss that,” Antonina says.

Like many families who’ve lost loved ones, the siblings assign special significance to preserving their mother’s heirloom recipes. It’s a way of keeping her memories alive. At the same time, other families with elderly loved ones held them close during the pandemic, cooking at home and rarely venturing outside a closed circle.

Such was the case with chef Archna Becker (Bhojanic, Tandoori Pizza & Wing Co.), whose family parlayed their home cooking skills into a catering and restaurant business in the mid-’90s.

When I spoke to Becker at the end of the year, she told me her parents, both in their 70s, were hunkered down at their Decatur home with her 90-year-old nanima (grandmother). That conversation inspired this story.

Caption

Purnima Malhotra, the mother of Atlanta chef Archna Malhotra Becker, stirs together the batter for paneer pakoras. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Often, the elders are the keepers of the recipes. Indeed, the cuisine at La Mixteca and Bhojanic owes a great deal to the matriarchs: Hernandez Lopez; Becker’s mother, Purnima Malhotra, and her nanima, Nirmala Arneja.

I arrive at the home of Becker’s parents on a Thursday just past noon. Before I can get through the front door, Becker pulls up. She’s running late because she had to fetch measuring spoons and cups so we can make recipe notes. In the Malhotra home, there are no such utensils.

How much garlic and ginger? Purnima Malhotra winces nearly every time her daughter asks her to measure something.

Surender Malhotra spreads paneer with spice paste before deep-frying the cheese in his home kitchen in Decatur. He’s the father of Atlanta chef Archna Malhotra Becker, owner of Bhojanic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

Surender Malhotra spreads paneer with spice paste before deep-frying the cheese in his home kitchen in Decatur. He’s the father of Atlanta chef Archna Malhotra Becker, owner of Bhojanic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Becker’s father, Surender Malhotra, is preparing an appetizer of paneer pakoras. He spreads a spice paste onto slices of paneer and tops them with a second slice — as if he’s assembling tiny sandwiches. The cheese will be dipped in spicy batter and twice fried for extra crispiness.

While he does this, Mrs. Malhotra puts together tahiri, a rice and potato dish that her husband aptly describes as a vegetable biryani. During the pandemic, the family had plenty of basmati rice and potatoes, so tahiri became a staple.

Finally, it’s Nanima’s turn.

She whisks together milk and ghee for kheer, a milky sweet similar to rice pudding and flavored with saffron. Only instead of rice, she uses thin strands of toasted Indian vermicelli. When it comes time to add the saffron, she measures it out the way she’s always done, in the palm of her hand. She crushes a pinch of bright orange-red threads with her fingers and throws it in the pot.

Wisps of saffron are one thing. Other matters — such as love, the meaning of home and family, and memories of loved ones living and dead — cannot be measured.

Atlanta chef Archna Becker watches as her nonagenarian grandmother, Nirmala Arneja, stirs up vermicelli kheer, a milky pudding made with thin strands of Indian vermicelli, saffron and chopped nuts. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

Atlanta chef Archna Becker watches as her nonagenarian grandmother, Nirmala Arneja, stirs up vermicelli kheer, a milky pudding made with thin strands of Indian vermicelli, saffron and chopped nuts. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

RECIPES

Learn how to make Oaxacan picaditas and Indian paneer pakoras, rice pilaf and vermicelli pudding.

A fiery red salsa made from chile de arbor will be drizzled over freshly griddled Picaditas de Queso Fresco. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

A fiery red salsa made from chile de arbor will be drizzled over freshly griddled Picaditas de Queso Fresco. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Rosa Hernandez Lopez’s Picaditas de Queso Fresco

Picaditas are griddled masa cakes from Oaxaca that get their name from the pinched borders. For the family of the late Rosa Hernandez Lopez, these were a special weekend treat, topped with cheese and fresh salsa made in a molcajete. We’ve adapted the salsa recipe for a food processor.

Rosa Hernandez Lopez’s Picaditas de Queso Fresco

  • For the salsa:
  • 5 dried whole chiles de arbol
  • 4 large tomatillos, husks removed
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup tap water
  • For the picaditas:
  • 2 cups Maseca (or other brand of masa harina)
  • 2 cups hot water
  • Vegetable oil for greasing skillet
  • 3 tablespoons lard or bacon fat
  • Salt
  • 1 1/2 cups queso fresco
  • To make the salsa: In separate pans, roast the chiles de arbor in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes, the tomatillos for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Place chiles, tomatillos (you may need to trim the stems), garlic and salt in a food processor. Pulse into a smooth paste. With the blade running, slowly pour in water, and pulse until fully smooth. You may not need all the water. Taste and adjust for salt.
  • To make the picaditas: Place Maseca in a large mixing bowl and slowly add water, mixing dough until it comes together and is no longer sticky. Roll dough into 9 golf ball-size balls.
  • Cut two circles (about the size of a salad plate) from a plastic bag. Place one piece of plastic on countertop. Place one ball of dough in the center, top with the second piece of plastic and press firmly to make a circle of dough, about 5 inches in diameter by 1/2-inch thick. (For more uniform pressing, use a heavy skillet or piece of crockery.) If the circle breaks a bit around the edges, use your fingers to smooth over.
  • Heat a lightly greased flat griddle or large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cook each circle of dough until firm and light brown on the bottom, about 4 minutes. (You are only cooking one side; you’ll cook the flip side in the next step.) Remove and place on baking tray. While the picaditas are still warm, pinch the cooked side all around to form a border. If you wait until they cool, you won’t be able to crimp them neatly.
  • Spread the pinched side of each picadita with 1 teaspoon lard; sprinkle lightly all over with a generous pinch of salt. Top with queso fresco. Return to the griddle or skillet to cook the bottom of the picadita and soften the cheese, about 3 minutes. Garnish with salsa and serve.
    Serves 3-4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, based on 3: 641 calories (percent of calories from fat, 49), 17 grams protein, 66 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 35 grams total fat (14 grams saturated), 54 milligrams cholesterol, 784 milligrams sodium.

The Malhotra family’s paneer pakoras are a favorite appetizer. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

The Malhotra family’s paneer pakoras are a favorite appetizer. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Mr. Malhotra’s Paneer Pakoras

The Malhotra family’s spicy paneer pakoras (cheese fritters) make for a delicious snack or appetizer. Dip them in green chile sauce or the hot and sweet sauce considered the ketchup of India. Note: You can find the condiments, as well as pomegranate powder, at Indian grocery stores.

Mr. Malhotra’s Paneer Pakoras

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate powder
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon chickpea flour, divided
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons red chili powder, divided
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
  • 12-ounce block of firm paneer (the Malhotras like Nanak brand)
  • 3 tablespoons rice flour
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (save juice to mix in)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, grated
  • About 3/4 cup tap water
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Bottled Indian green chile sauce and hot and sweet sauce for dipping
  • Place pomegranate powder, 1 tablespoon chickpea flour, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder and 2 tablespoons lemon juice into a small bowl. Mix well to form a paste.
  • Slice the block of paneer into rectangles, about 1/4-inch thick. Spread a thin layer of paste onto half the sliced paneer. Top with another slice of paneer, as if you are making tiny sandwiches.
  • Place remaining 1 cup chickpea flour, rice flour, all-purpose flour, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, remaining 1 teaspoon red chili powder and turmeric powder into a medium mixing bowl. Stir well to combine. Add remaining tablespoon of lemon juice, ginger and garlic. Add tap water in 1/4 cup increments to dilute mixture into a thin, soupy batter. You may need a little less or a little more than 3/4 cup.
  • Fill a frying pan with about 1 inch of oil; heat pan over high heat until oil reaches 350 degrees. Dip each paneer sandwich in batter, drop in oil, and fry until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. About 5 minutes before serving, reheat oil to 350 degrees. Fry each pakora for about 30 seconds per side. The double fry technique makes the pakoras crispier. Serve with Indian green chile sauce and hot and sweet sauce.
    Makes about 30-36 pakoras.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per pakora: 82 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 3 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 6 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 157 milligrams sodium.

Purnima Malhotra made this vegan tahiri (rice pilaf with potatoes) often during the pandemic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

Purnima Malhotra made this vegan tahiri (rice pilaf with potatoes) often during the pandemic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Mrs. Malhotra’s Tahiri

This was a pandemic staple in the home of Surender and Purnima Malhotra. A dollop of yogurt or raita tempers the heat.

Mrs. Malhotra’s Tahiri

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 8 cardamom pods, crushed gently
  • 1 small cinnamon stick
  • 6 cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seed
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seed
  • 2-3 dried whole red chiles (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced thin
  • 2-3 finger hot chiles, sliced thin
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 3 small potatoes, chopped into medium chunks
  • 2 cups basmati rice, soaked and washed until the water is clear
  • 4 cups tap water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 medium or 2 small tomatoes, sliced thin
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • Pour oil into large flat pan with a lid, and heat over medium-high heat until the oil is glistening.
  • Toss in cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaves, black peppercorns, fenugreek seed, fennel seed, and whole red chiles if using. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes to toast spices. Next, stir in the ground spices: coriander, turmeric, and red chili powder (if using). Cook for about 2 minutes to toast. Stir in sliced onion and finger chiles. Cook until onion is translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in garlic and ginger; cook for about 1 minute. Add potatoes and rice, and cook for about 2-3 minutes, stirring from the bottom.
  • Add water and salt; stir vigorously. Turn heat up to high, and bring to a simmer. Once simmering, turn heat down to low, cover, and cook for about 20-25 minutes, or until the rice is tender and flaky and there is very little excess moisture in the pot.
  • Remove from heat. Place tomatoes and cilantro on top of rice. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes, covered. Toss rice gently before serving. Serve with yogurt on the side.
    Serves 4-6.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, based on 4: 780 calories (percent of calories from fat, 35), 17 grams protein, 112 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams fiber, 31 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 1,532 milligrams sodium.

Nirmala Arneja’s vermicelli kheer is a comforting pudding that she made often for her family during the pandemic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption

Nirmala Arneja’s vermicelli kheer is a comforting pudding that she made often for her family during the pandemic. (Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Nanima’s Vermicelli Kheer

This comforting sweet is similar to rice pudding but calls for Indian vermicelli instead. It is a favorite of chef Archna Malhotra Becker’s family and always made by her grandmother, Nirmala Arneja.

Nanima’s Vermicelli Kheer

  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee
  • 14 ounces condensed milk
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 generous pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1 package toasted Indian vermicelli, broken into pieces
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped walnuts, plus more for garnish if desired
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped almonds, plus more for garnish if desired
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped pistachios, plus more for garnish if desired
  • Place milk and butter in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring constantly from the bottom until the milk is thick and frothy, about 5 minutes. Add condensed milk and sugar, and bring back to a simmer. Add saffron and vermicelli, and cook for about 1 minute. Stir in walnuts, almonds and pistachios, and remove from heat. The pudding should still be quite soupy. Serve warm or chilled, garnishing with additional chopped walnuts, almonds and pistachios as desired.
    Serves 8-10.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, based on 8: 407 calories (percent of calories from fat, 32), 11 grams protein, 60 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 15 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 43 milligrams cholesterol, 143 milligrams sodium.

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