Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Indian Cooking 101, Part 2: Lessons Learned

Although I still consider myself a novice, I have learned enough in my travels to avoid the common pitfalls indicative to non-natives who cook ethnic cuisine. There’s always a small part of me that still thinks there is something missing from my dishes that the restaurants have in abundance, but since I don’t have access to their recipes, I’m stuck with what I learn. More often than not, my recipes are a mix of several different types, either due to lack of components or a simple dislike of a particular approach. I tend more towards the onion gravies rather than the yogurt ones, usually due to the fact that I tend to have more onions on hand than yogurt if I get an itch to cook. Below are some of my tips to make your experience in cooking Indian cuisine a good one:

  1. Plan ahead. Although some Indian dishes are designed for speed and efficiency, more often than not a rushed dish is a poor dish. Since I don’t make it on a regular basis, I usually have time to plan for it. On average considering that I make my own spice grinds/mixtures, it takes me about 2 hours to cook a standard chicken curry assuming very little planning ahead. So, if you can, ensure your recipe is set up ahead of time, since you don’t want to find out ¾ the way through cooking that you forgot the yogurt for the sauce. Some Indian dishes require soaking in a marinade, water or brine for either a few hours or overnight in order to season and tenderize the food.

  1. Ventilate. Indian cooking is a very aromatic process, which leaves a smell in the air that can linger for several days if not properly ventilated or circulated through the cooking area. Cumin especially can ensure a lingering smell, since it is often roasted beforehand and used extensively from beginning to end. Utilize the oven hood if you have one, preferably one that pipes the exhaust outside rather than through a filter. My wife particularly dislikes the aroma of Indian food, so to even cook it when she is around requires an outdoor approach. Many small portable burners are available that plug into a standard outlet. Put one of these on an outdoor table or bench and you have an instant cook top.

  1. Balance the spices and ingredients. Like many specialty foods, too much of one particular ingredient can mask or ruin the flavor of the final product. Tomato, as mentioned earlier, can kill the flavor of a chicken curry if added in excess. If your chicken curry calls for tomatoes, I recommend no more than one 14 oz. can per 2 quarts of curry sauce, or less if you’re only wanting the tomato for coloring purposes. Cumin, coriander and cinnamon are similarly strong, and too much cumin makes the entire dish taste like a giant cumin seed (as well as stinks up your home--see #2).

  1. Simmer, simmer, simmer. A good curry takes anywhere from 1-2 hours to simmer, or even longer if you are going for a very tender meal. Obviously the longer you cook, the more items 1 and 2 will come into play. Also consider that most curries are better the 2nd or 3rd day after cooking (if properly stored refrigerated). Some curries are good even after being frozen, but I tend to avoid doing this unless it's a basic rice dish.

  1. Be your own guinea pig for new dishes. My first mistake with Indian food was using a curry powder mix for a dish that I brought to a party. The resulting dish was so hot and spicy that only myself and one other person could tolerate the intensity. Unless you’re making a previously used recipe with minor modifications, do a test run before unleashing it on guests or potlucks. The tongue you save may be your own.

  1. When in doubt, ask an expert. I was fortunate in my initial dealings with this cuisine to consult colleagues and friends of Indian heritage on my experimentation. They provided me with a lot of valuable advice, and I am thankful to them for their assistance.


Below are some books and websites I highly recommend for anyone interested in cooking Indian food. I haven’t yet found one overall ‘bible’ for the cuisine, but the books and websites below are excellent reference points:

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