Monday, June 15, 2009

Indian Cooking 101, Part 1: The Basics

I wrote some of this a few years ago when I maintained a website, but am reproducing it here with some minor updates. There tends to be a lot of content, so I am going to do it in parts.

Indian food is one of those love it or hate it types of ethnic fares—rarely does one simply tolerate it. The pungent and often earthy aroma, combined with the general prejudice that Indian food and Indians are ‘dirty,’ tends to dissuade most people from trying it. As someone who ate an American “steak and potatoes” diet for most of his childhood and young adult life, I can tell you that my introduction to ethnic cuisine was something akin to an epiphany. You never realize how under-utilized your taste buds are until you’re assaulted by the wonderful mix of flavors in an authentic yogurt curry, plate of Korean bul-go-gi or Japanese hibachi vegetables. By ethnic I mean Indian, Korean, Thai, Mexican, Japanese and the like—the standard Chinese and Taco Bell foods you get are hardly authentic or flavorful, and for the most part are heavily augmented with fats and sugars for the rather immature American palate. Go to any authentic Mexican restaurant and you will find yourself tossing your Taco Bell chicken quesadilla out the window.

Indian food has many properties that go beyond simple flavors. The ingredients and spices are often medicinal, and most of them aid in digestion and proper processing of the nutrients. Turmeric, for example, is a natural antibiotic, while some of the more rarely-used components such as Asafoetida (a gum resin with a rather pungent aroma) aid in gas-relief and digestion. Some spices are known to have anti-cancer or chemopreventive actions against certain toxicants. Overall you can find that a simple change to spices, cooking time or storage (most curries are twice as tasty after overnight refrigeration) makes each dish unique and enjoyable. It’s also a cuisine where combining different aspects of several similar recipes can result in an excellent outcome rather than a disaster.

To properly make Indian food—as with any authentic cuisine—you need the proper ingredients. The standard curry powders in your local supermarket while workable pale in comparison to a genuine or custom-made curry mix, and are generally made for people who want an overall curry flavor to their food and not specifically an Indian dish. I recommend the following as essential components to building a group of reliable Indian spices for your kitchen. Most of these are available at any local world food market, and many larger cities have Indian/Pakistani grocery stores available.

One other common misconception is that Indian dishes, due to their spiciness, are by default hot. This is not the case, unless large amounts of chili seasoning (whole chilies or cayenne pepper) are added. Vindaloo curries are by default full of hot red pepper, while most other curries tend to range from mild to hot.

Ingredients you can purchase at a standard supermarket:

  • Cumin: Used as a base for most Indian sauces and spice mixes. Available in seed or powder form, and like coriander, much more pungent if ground fresh from the seed before cooking. Cumin seeds are roasted prior to cooking in a small pan or skillet, as this activates the pods and adds more flavor to the dish. Ensure accurate measurement and ventilation for your dishes, otherwise the entire kitchen will reek of it for several days.
  • Coriander leaves (Cilantro): These are a major garnish for most Indian recipes, so for true authenticity it is critical to fold in coriander leaves once the dish is nearly complete.
  • Cinnamon: Stick cinnamon is used as a base spice in many curries and rice dishes, and in powdered form is an ingredient in garam masala. As with any spice, too much cinnamon will taint the flavor, so use sparingly based on volume (usually one soup pot of curry or rice requires 1 average sized (1”) stick of cinnamon.
  • Salt: Most Indian dishes call for kosher salt, which is a stronger type and requires less to flavor a dish. Standard table salt is acceptable, but when a recipe calls for kosher salt, add 2X the amount of table salt for equivalency. Soy sauce can also be substituted as a salt source.
  • Peppercorns: Adding whole peppercorns to a dish adds a strong peppery flavor to any curry, and it won’t sour your mouth to bite down on them as with other Indian seed-based spices. I often add 1-4 corns to rice dishes to kill some of the sweetness from the cinnamon.
  • Cloves: Used whole as a base for most curries and rice dishes, but again add sparingly or else it will overwhelm the dish. These are often removed from the dish before serving, although some Indians chew on cloves as a breath freshener.
  • Paprika: Red powder used in many dishes for flavor and appearance. A critical ingredient that gives Tandoori chicken some of its distinctive color. Used also to counteract turmeric if the dish takes on too much of a green/yellow color (Some people may not find the idea of green chicken appealing).
  • Garlic: Minced whole cloves or pre-packaged minced in oil is acceptable. A staple in nearly every Indian dish.
  • Turmeric: Powdered spice responsible for the yellow/green color in curries. Turmeric should be balanced with a reddish spice (such as Paprika) or even red food coloring, since it tends to shift the color of the curry to a greenish/yellow. Turmeric should be as fresh as possible when used, and I've found the older the turmeric, the greener the overall color. Ideal balance should be yellow to orange when combined with paprika.
  • Ginger: Whole fresh root is best, and when grated or minced is a common component of curry gravies. This is also another spice where mincing and accurate measurement is essential or else you get chunks of sour ginger root and a very gingery smelling dish (see Tomatoes).
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes are a common component in curries, but must be used sparingly, as the acid will remove the flavors of some poultry and meat. I typically use canned, diced tomatoes, with or without additional garlic or onions added.
  • Chilies: Green chilies are often added (seeds removed) to some curries as a heat-enhancer, and are often added as a color enhancer. Use only if a hotter curry is desired.
  • Garbanzo beans (chick peas): These are usually found in the Mexican food section of the grocery store. Garbanzos are legumes with a nutty aroma, and are often used in many vegetarian Indian dishes. Canned varieties are acceptable. I recommend soaking or boiling beforehand with some vinegar to cut down on any 'explosive aftereffects.' :-)
  • Onions: Whole yellow or white onions are preferred. Minced or finely chopped, it is the staple for almost all Indian recipes or gravies.
  • Plain unsweetened yogurt: This is a common ingredient in most cream gravies and sauces, as well as a marinating agent for Tandoori chicken. Use the low-fat yogurt if you must, but it cannot be fat-free.
  • Ghee (Clarified butter): Although vegetable, soy, olive or sunflower oil is acceptable for cooking, most authentic Indian recipes use ghee as the oil base since it is 100% butterfat. Ghee is relatively easy to make using standard butter, as follows:
    • Place 1 pound of salt-free butter in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil (takes 2-3 minutes).
    • Once boiling, reduce heat to medium. Foam will soon form up, and will eventually disappear.
    • Once a second foam layer appears, the butter will turn a golden color over approximately 7-8 minutes. Brownish sediments of milk solids will form on the bottom of the saucepan.
    • Pour the mixture into a heatproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
    • Store in an airtight container. The mixture does not require refrigeration, and will keep for up to 1 month.

Ingredients you will likely need to purchase at an Indian grocery store:

  • Basmati Rice: A long-grain white rice with a unique flavor and nutty aroma. Only available in the larger-chain supermarkets in small bags, but can be purchased in larger sizes (10-20 pound sacks) at Indian groceries.
  • Cardamom Pods: Found in green and brown varieties. The green pods are the most often used, and will swell up and open upon cooking, allowing the seed core to release that distinctive flavor. Gives a very definitive aroma to Indian cooking, but are NOT meant to be eaten. Anywhere from 2-4 pods per pot of curry is common.
  • Coriander Seeds: Yellowish round seed with a very sharp aroma. Also available in ground form, but if ground directly from the seed at the time of cooking, use about ½ the recommended amount due to it’s strong impact—often used to give a sour, bitter, lemony taste to Indian curries and vegetable dishes.
  • Saffron: Essentially the stigma from the iris crocus flower, this reddish and aromatic spice is sometimes added to dishes, as it lends not only color but also flavor. Considered the most expensive spice in the world, as it takes 150 handpicked blooms to obtain just one gram of dried saffron.
  • Garam masala: Meaning “hot spice,” a critical ingredient in nearly every Indian dish. These are not the same as curry powders, but are instead intended as a garnish or to add more ‘zip’ to a dish, sort of like adding Mrs. Dash to a plate of stew. Penzey’s online spice store sells several different varieties, from spicy to mild, and Raja is a common brand in Indian grocery stores. Ambitious cooks can obtain garam masala recipes from the Internet, and if they have a good mortar/pestle or spice grinder, can make their own mixes.
  • Seeds: These include fenugreek, kalonji (black onion seed) and caraway seeds, which while not necessary, can often be used to add color, flavor or texture to dishes. These spices are often components of some garam masala mixes, so they are not critical to purchase separately unless specific recipes call for it.
  • Naan Bread: This flat bread is a common staple of Indian eating. Since the traditional Indian practice eschews utensils, dinner is eaten with the hands, often using Naan as a makeshift spoon to scoop up rice and other parts of the dish for eating. This bread is often available pre-made and refrigerated. I typically either toast the Naan for a few minutes on a high toaster setting, or else brush with butter, garlic powder and garam masala, followed by a minute or two in a broiler. Naan should have a slightly crisp outer crust when done, and should not be wet or doughy in texture. It is not uncommon for the edges or exterior of the bread to be blackened or cracked when done.

A word on pre-mixed curry powders: I have always found these to be hit-or-miss, as most Indian recipes you find online or in books do not use them. Their primary use is to cut down on preparation time and to make your curries consistent in flavor and spiciness. Another issue is that most of the packaging you get from Indian grocers is not in English, and it is critical to determine the proportion of curry powder to dish volume correctly, otherwise the recipe becomes almost overwhelming; I made a curry dish per the box one time and although flavorful, my friend and I cured a cold with the heat from this dish. The additional downside is, of course, that all your curries will taste the same. Penzey's online spice dealership makes a number of curry powders that I have found to be consistently good in my dishes.

Part one ends here. Next time we will pick up on basic preparation techniques and a guide to the more common dishes - rice and chicken curry.

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