I fell in love with Indian food in London. As an American student (read: no money) in a city with the worst pizza on the planet, Indian "takeaway" became my only refuge from dorm cafeteria fare. Since one can only eat so many boiled potatoes in one month, Indian food became a daily ritual. I started off with novice dishes like chicken korma and kebabs, then graduated to lamb korma and vegetable curries. Most people aren't accustomed to the pungent taste of tamarind or the surprising taste of fenugreek, and I too had to cajole my taste buds into accepting these new flavors. Now I'm a convert, and I love cooking Indian food as much as eating it. Throw in some naan, and I'm in heaven.
With Indian cuisine, spices are key. They make the chicken pink and the potatoes bright yellow. Spices can be used in many ways: ground, left whole, made into paste, fried or marinated. And even though they have names that sound like small nations, take the time to understand them and balance their flavors... it's essential.
Buying and storing spices is also important. If you want to cook authentic Indian food, you must use a coffee grinder. (If you can't use a coffee grinder, your problems go way beyond not being able to cook.) Using pre-ground spices is not acceptable, because they lack the aroma and intensity of freshly ground spices. Though many people do go pre-ground to save time, the tastiest food comes from the fresh stuff. Don't be lazy: get grindin'.
Toasting your spices is key, too. You want to toast before grinding as this releases the flavors even more. And it's simple to do. Just stick a saucepan over high heat and toast the whole spices for one to two minutes, making sure not to burn 'em. Store spices in airtight containers and out of direct light, preferably in a cool place. This way you won't have to do this every time you're cooking Indian.
Besides spices, other basic Indian ingredients are coconut milk, vegetables, nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios) and Basmati rice. Meat-haters take note: the majority of Indians are vegetarians, and many people say it's the best vegetarian food in the world. Breaking Indian food into what's "typical" is extremely difficult for a country of a billion people. Religious and geographical factors greatly influence the regional cuisine, not to mention the fact that different regions of India were occupied over the years by different countries, with each leaving its mark on the food. In addition, religious texts give specifics about what and how to eat. Tea, however, is consumed in all regions, mostly because the Brits started the commercial cultivation of tea in India.
Indian food in the United States is typically a blend of two regional cuisines -- Punjabi and Mughal -- which offer a wide variety of meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes. For all those lactose-intolerants out there, dairy is big in parts of India, due to its role in the Hindu religion. A million variations on cheese, cream, and milk are used in many dishes. It isn't all vegan, that's for damn sure.
Summary: there are a lot of food rules in India. But the only rule here is to enjoy it! Shubhojhon!
WINE AND INDIAN FOOD
Pairing these two is tough. Although India is producing some wine, it's hard to match the wild and fiery flavors in the food with the delicate ones in wine. If you insist, try a gewurztraminer or sweet riesling. White merlot was our favorite, surprisingly; not too sweet, light and fruity (try the 1999 Forest Glen.) Otherwise, open a beer (Indian preferably).
Indian breads aren't complicated; they're all made from flour and water. It's the method that sets them apart. There are three basic types: stove-top, fry and oven-baked. Stove-top breads are similar to flatbreads and are eaten daily in India. Chapathi, paratha (and stuffed paratha) and roti are some typical stove-top breads. Fry breads are, surprise surprise, deep-fried in oil and are usually flat and crispy. Most people know naan, one of the few leavened breads that's traditionally baked in a tandoori oven.
The most interesting fact about Indian spices (take notes, Trivial Pursuit players) is that most of them were originally used for their medicinal qualities rather than for their flavor. For example, clove and cardamom are good antiseptics, and turmeric is good for skin diseases, bruises and leech bites. But for those of us who cook with spices rather than apply them to our wounds, here's a quick guide to the majors to get you started.
Asafetida: a strong smelling powder (the resin of a plant). Used sparingly in lentil and bean dishes. Tastes a bit like garlic. Available by mail order.
Aniseed: sold as seeds. Sweet smelling, tastes like licorice. Used roasted and eaten after meals to stimulate digestion.
Black Peppercorns: whole or ground. Very common in savory dishes. (Black peppercorns were used for heat in dishes before chilies were introduced to India.)
Cardamom: sold as pods. Used in savory and sweet dishes, and for making tea. Smells like strong black tea.
Chilies: Fresh, dried or powdered. Fresh green and dried red are most commonly used in savory dishes.
Cinnamon: whole or ground. Tastes like... cinnamon. Used in savory and sweet dishes.
Clove: the dried flower bud of the clove tree. Used whole or in powder form. Warning: they're strong, so use sparingly and remove before serving if used whole.
Coriander: pods or seeds. Tastes like lime peels. Used in savory dishes.
Cumin: whole or ground. Very common in savory dishes. Smells and tastes like a bowl of chili.
Fenugreek: sold as seeds. Used to flavor vegetables and curries. Smells (surprise) like walking into an Indian restaurant. Use sparingly; it's bitter.
Turmeric: powdered form in the United States. Used fresh or powdered in savory dishes.
Tamarind: fruit of the tamarind tree; pulp is used in cooking. Has a sour flavor. Very common in preparing sauces and chutneys.
SOURCES FOR SPICES
If your local grocery store doesn't know fenugreek from fennel, you can always order spices by mail or over the 'Net. The following sources are just a few of the hundreds around:
Bazaar of India, Berkeley, CA (510) 548/4110
Bombay Bazar, New York City (212) 529/1815
MGM Indian Foods, Austin, TX (512) 459/5353
India Gifts and Foods, Chicago, IL (773) 348/4392
Anything by Madhur Jaffrey (the Julia Child of Indian cuisine)
A Taste of Madras, by Rani Kingman
Indian Food & Folklore, by Jo Lethaby
The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, by Linda Bladholm
NORTH VS SOUTH
Northern Indians eat meat while southern Indians are almost all vegetarian; Northern Indian cuisine relies heavily on wheat and uses vegetable oil as a cooking fat, while Southern meals start and end with rice and use coconut, not vegetable, oil.
4 oz paneer, fried*
2 cups mixed boiled vegetables
(carrots, string beans, peas, potatoes)
1 t ginger
1/2 t turmeric powder
2 t coriander powder
1 1/2 t chili powder
1 t garam masala**
1 cup milk
3 T cream
3 T ghee (see Naan recipe)
Salt to taste
Ghee for frying
Grate the onions on a cheese grater or in a food processor. Remove tomato skins by placing them in boiling water 1-2 minutes. Chop and set aside. Cut paneer into small pieces and deep fry in ghee. Heat three tablespoons of ghee in a pot and fry onions two minutes. Add the ginger, frying 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, turmeric powder, coriander powder, chili powder, garam masala and salt. Fry 3-4 minutes. Add the boiled veggies, cream, milk and fried paneer and cook two minutes. (Cooked chicken can be added at the end if desired.)
*Paneer: Paneer is a homemade, unripened cheese with a texture similar to tofu. It's very common in vegetarian Indian dishes.
5 cups whole milk
2 t vinegar
Bring milk to a boil in a saucepan and add the vinegar. Wait for the milk to curdle completely and remove from heat. Let sit 10 minutes, pour onto a cotton/muslin cloth and tie with a tight knot. When all the water is drained from the paneer, shape into a large rectangular block, transfer to another piece of cheesecloth and refrigerate overnight. For the korma recipe, cut into cubes and fry in oil.
**Garam Masala: A very common spice mixture made by grinding together equal parts whole, toasted clove, cardamom, cinnamon and black peppercorns. (This is a basic version; garam masala varies widely depending on the cook and the region.)
Recipe note: do not use olive oil when cooking Indian! The flavors just don't match.
Recipes provided by Keval and Praveena Desai.
Paneer recipe provided by Sunita Mizar
CURRY & CHUTNEY
Curry isn't Indian. Upon returning home after colonizing India, the Brits missed the food so much they invented a mix of spices now known as curry powder. The term "curry" in Indian cuisine actually refers to a spice mixture. It varies from region to region, but can include cloves, cardamom, garlic, cumin and red chilies. The spice mixture is then rubbed on meat or vegetables.
1/2 cup finely chopped mixed
1/2 t sugar
1 T oil
Salt to taste
1 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
1 T poppyseeds
2 t aniseed
1 small piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 green chilies, finely diced
3 pieces cardamom
3 whole cloves
3 sticks cinnamon
Chop the tomatoes. Place in a saucepan, add one and a half cups water, and cook until soft. Pass through a sieve to make a puree. Heat the oil, add paste ingredients, and fry the paste two to three minutes. Add the tomato puree, vegetables, sugar and salt. Remove whole spice pieces before serving. Serve hot with plain paratha, an unleavened whole-wheat flatbread.
Chutney is an Indian relish, and there are three basic styles: sweet, spicy and piquant. They're prepared by grinding herbs, chilies or vegetables into a chunky mixture. You can buy chutneys in the supermarket, but you'll be blown away by the bold flavors if you taste chutney in a good Indian restaurant.
(makes approx. 2 cups)
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 T grated coconut
1 T nuts, roasted (peanuts or almonds)
1 T dalia*
4 mint leaves
3 green chilies
1 t lemon juice
Salt to taste
Stick 'em all in a blender and whir 1-2 minutes. If it's too thick, add a little water. You can freeze any leftover chutney.
*Dalia is a roasted gram flour, available at Indian grocery stores.
(makes 10-15 pieces)
3 cups flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 cup fresh curds*
4 t butter
4 t sugar
2-4 t ghee**
1 1/2 cups milk
1 t aniseed
1 t poppyseeds
1 t kalonji***
2 t liquid ghee
Sift the flour in a bowl, and add sugar and salt. Add the butter and make a well in the center. Put the baking powder in the center of the well and cover with the curds. Let sit one minute, and then form a dough by adding the milk and a few teaspoons of water. Knead the dough five minutes, add the ghee, and continue kneading one to two minutes. Place a wet towel over the bowl, letting the dough rest three hours. Meanwhile, prepare topping by combining all ingredients in a bowl.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out dough in triangle shape, place one or two tablespoons of topping on each naan, and bake 6-10 minutes on a baking sheet. Naan should be light brown and puffy.
*Fresh curds are easy to make: take 1 cup skim milk, warm it, and add 1 tablespoon curds made from the previous day. Stir and set aside 5-6 hours. Also available at Indian grocery stores.
**Ghee: Ghee is clarified butter (for non-cooks, butter where the milk solids have been separated from the liquid.) You can make ghee by heating unsalted butter (two sticks will make about 3/4 cup of ghee) on medium heat for 20-30 minutes, until butter is clear and smells like caramel. Skim off any solids. Ghee will last in the 'fridge up to two months. It's also available in a jar in Indian grocery stores.
***Kalonji: Black onion seeds that have an onion-pepper flavor.
Available at Indian grocery stores.
Photos provided by Ranjan Dey. Ranjan is Master Chef and owner of New Delhi Restaurant in San Francisco. His line of spice mixtures are available by mail order, on his web site (http://www.newworldspices.com) or by phone (1.800.347.7795.)