SEATTLE’S SPICE WAALA started out as a cart at farmers markets, but the local love was so strong, it propelled husband-and-wife owners Uttam Mukherjee and Aakanksha Sinha to a brick-and-mortar space on Capitol Hill in little over a year. Spice Waala the restaurant is tiny but mighty, with a very short menu that nonetheless represents some of the city’s favorite Indian fare.
Mukherjee and Sinha call it “street food that is unapologetically authentic to us,” and it comes mainly in the form of kathi rolls — pliant, griddle-warmed roti wrappers encasing deliciously marinated chicken tikka or lamb kebab, crumbly-fresh housemade paneer or crispy-fried aloo tikki. A handful of snacks plus rich, unsweet masala chai (“not the Starbucks kind”) and a sunshiny mango lassi, and that’s that.
Food this good at these prices — everything’s less than $10 — is excellent on its own merits, but Spice Waala also does the right thing when it comes to workers, supporting them with a higher-than-minimum living wage, a flexible allowance for benefits and profit-sharing. And Spice Waala gives back to the community, too, donating both financially and food-wise to local nonprofits.
One thing Mukherjee and Sinha won’t give away is their superlative way with blending spices, as demonstrated in their super-tasty marinades and their life-improving cilantro-and-mint green chutney — and why would they? But they’re absolutely willing to share the gift of a recipe for something they don’t serve at Spice Waala — something spicy and warming, an ideal supper for a cold, dark Seattle night.
Sinha says that both she and Mukherjee grew up eating rajma and rice. “Every northern Indian household usually has it cooked at least twice a month, if not more,” she notes, adding that she was such a big fan, her grandmother and mom used to make it almost every week for her. “The dish is Punjabi,” she says, “but is eaten all over northern India.”
When she and Mukherjee make it now, they don’t really measure: “It’s mostly throwing all the ingredients in a pan and tasting it as we go.” This recipe for the super-flavorful, tomatoey kidney bean stew is her effort to codify the dish she remembers eating and adoring at home — she had her mom look it over and give her stamp of approval, too. When it comes to the accompanying rice, plain basmati is fine, but the slightly floral, refined-tasting cumin-scented version is special to her. “I grew up eating my aunt’s cumin rice with rajma and loved it,” Sinha says.
And when it comes to shopping, Mukherjee and Sinha kindly mention that they get lots of their goods from the wholesale arm of Apna Bazar, which happens to have open-to-the-public grocery stores in Bellevue, Bothell, Kent and Sammamish. Unless your spice cabinet is a lot more up-to-date than mine, spring for all new ones — the way your kitchen will smell and the way these dishes will turn out is so worth it.
I spent probably a weird amount of time communing with my fresh spices, reacquainting myself with their full glory until my nose and throat hurt a little bit. Past-their-prime cumin seeds smell pleasant but dusty, woodsy only in the way a long-disused carpenter’s workshop would; new ones sing with a piney brightness, plus an almost citrusy note. Some old cardamom powder gave the vague scent of miscellaneous shrubbery, again, dusty; new green cardamom pods are pretty little sage-green things that, if their scent is any indicator, might be readying themselves to take over the world — almost alarmingly herbal, intensely menthol. And I want to carry a fresh cinnamon stick everywhere; they’re so warm-smelling, edging toward sweet but also like a walk in the best possible woods — your wintertime hot beverages will thank you for them as swizzle sticks.
Your friends are going to thank you, too, because unless you’re doing a high volume of home cooking, the smallest size that Apna Bazar’s spices come in demands sharing, and the prices will make you happy to do so. At the Bellevue store, for example, I got 100 grams of cinnamon sticks — almost two dozen sizable ones — for $1.99, 14 ounces of red chili powder for $3.99 and 7 ounces of ground cumin for $2.49. For price-comparison purposes, a typical grocery-store spice bottle of those last two holds maybe 2 ounces and costs far more. (Having a couple-few friends over with their spice jars to dump in the compost, then replenish while eating rajma chawal, is my kind of party.)
Mukherjee and Sinha recommend you look for Devi brand spices, which is Apna Bazar’s house label and thus ought to be the freshest; after that, they say, Deep brand is also good. For wintertime cooking, go ahead and substitute canned tomatoes for the fresh ones that the rajma calls for — mine came out great. Unless you’re spicy-hot-averse — in which case you probably should be making something else — do use the green Thai chilies, as they create a lovely, layered, warming heat. And add salt haltingly here — these marvelous flavors want to stand on their own, together.
Where to go
Apna Bazar: Bellevue, Bothell, Kent and Sammamish; apnabazarstores.com.
Spice Waala’s Rajma Chawal (aka Kidney Beans and Rice)
“Rajma chawal is a staple in many north Indian households. A hot bowl of rajma with rice is perfect to warm you up on any cold winter night. Make a quick salad by slicing some cucumbers, carrots and red onions, squeezing some lemon on them and adding a sprinkling of salt — it’s the perfect companion to your meal,” says Spice Waala co-owner Aakanksha Sinha.
Serves 6-8 people
2 cups kidney beans, soaked overnight (see step 1)
4 tablespoons oil (vegetable, olive, grapeseed or other is fine)
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 green Thai chilies, finely chopped (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon ginger paste
1 tablespoon garlic paste
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
1 teaspoon red chili powder
4 tomatoes, grated (blanch and remove skin first), or one 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt to taste
1. To soak the kidney beans, put them in a large bowl or pot, then add water to cover plus several extra inches — they will expand. Let sit, unrefrigerated, overnight.
2. Drain the beans, and strain with fresh water. Put the beans in a pressure cooker with 5 cups of water and about a teaspoonful of salt; cook until you hear 4-5 whistles, then simmer for 10 minutes. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, put the beans in a large pot with 5 cups of water and about a teaspoonful of salt; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour or until they are soft.
3. Drain the beans, and save the cooking liquid.
4. Heat oil over medium heat in a large pot, and add onions, green chilies, cinnamon stick and bay leaf, then salt lightly. Sauté until the onions are soft and translucent.
5. Stir in the ginger paste and garlic paste, then cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
6. Add the remaining spices plus a spoonful or two of water; mix well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes. You will be able to smell the aroma of the spices cooking.
7. Add the grated tomatoes (or the canned tomatoes, with all their juice) and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-8 minutes; add a little water if it gets too thick. Make sure the tomatoes are cooked fully (they will become mushy and disintegrate).
8. Add the tomato paste and 3-4 tablespoons of water, stir thoroughly, then cook, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes.
9. Add the beans, and mix well. Add the water in which the beans were boiled, mix well and salt to taste.
10. Turn heat to high to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes.
11. Garnish with freshly chopped cilantro. Serve hot with basmati rice — or, for a special version, the cumin-scented basmati rice below.
Spice Waala’s Jeera Chawal (Cumin Rice)
Tip: For a vegan version, replace the ghee with grapeseed or vegetable oil.
2 cups white basmati rice
4 cups water
1 tablespoon ghee (or vegetable or grapeseed oil)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 green cardamom pods
½ teaspoon salt
1. Put basmati rice in a strainer, and rinse well under cold water to remove impurities and dust.
2. Heat ghee or oil in a small pan on medium-low heat. Make sure ghee does not boil! Add cumin seeds, and stir until brown, about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn them.
3. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan with a lid, then add rice, toasted cumin seeds (with their ghee), cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves and salt. Stir.
4. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cover the saucepan.
5. Let the rice cook for 20 minutes, resisting the temptation to lift the lid.
6. Remove the saucepan from heat, and let sit for 5 minutes.
7. Fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.