If you had to describe Indian food, what words would you use? Flavorful? Bold? Spicy? All of the above? The thing I love about Indian food is the wealth of spices used in the cuisine. But what I learned is that in Los Angeles, as in most of the United States, Indian food is “dumbed down.” It tends to be more one-dimensional than what you’d get in its native country.
The quality of the spices is key when cooking Indian. According to Chef Carol, you could spend a lifetime learning about the seasonings of Indian cuisine. You can get some spices in the regular grocery store, but to get good quality spices and a bigger selection, try mail order, like Pensey’s. (and NOT the pre-mixed stuff!) Find out how they warehouse them, as they should be temperature controlled.
Carol is all about buying the whole spice and grinding it yourself. Today, when cooking, we took the whole spices, toasted them dry just until they became fragrant (a minute or two), and then ground them. Use a coffee grinder-it’s quick, easy and they don’t cost a lot. You can do this with a large amount, and then store them in airtight glass jars. Make sure that you place these jars in a dry, dark, cool place to conserve the flavors. They should last for 6-9 months that way. FYI, whole spices last even longer-you can push the dates on them for a few months.
Because there are so many different spices in Indian food, you need to experiment and try different dishes. This is a very user-friendly cuisine and you can be intuitive with your cooking here. Use whatever skills you have to manage the spices. Not everyone likes the same heat or flavor level.
Turmeric is one of the more popular spices. It’s sometimes used instead of the more expensive saffron, as well as being a large component of the “curry” spice mix. If you have turmeric in your pantry, smell it. If it doesn’t smell like anything, it won’t taste like anything. Actually, this is a good rule of thumb for ANY of your spices.
Since I mentioned curry, I need to mention that the Western spice “curry,” is not an authentic spice. This is primarily turmeric, as I said, with the addition of ginger, coriander, cumin, etc. Curry is a dish, not a spice in true Indian cooking. The closest thing they have is Garam Masala, one of the most common spice mixes used there. Masala actually means “mix of spices.”
Legumes are also big in Indian dishes. Daal is their version of split peas, lentils or other beans that are split in half and made into a stew.
The rice they favor is Basmati, a very long grain, very fragrant rice. To cook this, you want a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 1 ½ cups of water. Also, the longer the grain, the more you have to rinse it. Basmati dries out, so you need to put a wet paper towel right on top of it if you’re waiting to serve it.
In Northern India, they eat Naan, a wheat bread that barely rises. I got to make this and will share the recipe at the bottom. The loaves are made in Tandoori ovens set at a very high heat and thrown against the side. Since we didn’t have that, after shaping the bread and topping it with a yogurt and oil mixture, I put it on a pizza stone to cook. It’s very quick to bake and is ready within 5 minutes.
The Southern part of the country makes crepe-like flat bread called Dosa made with garbanzo or lentil flour. These are usually rolled or folded.
Carol made us a little treat while we worked on our assigned recipes. She made a ‘Lassi.’ This is a yogurt drink which can be sweet or salty. We sampled a mango lassi that was incredibly refreshing and delicious!
Their other dairy dishes include Paneer, which looks like feta, but isn’t as salty. The recipe is incredibly easy. It’s just a gallon of milk mixed with 4 cups of plain yogurt which is cooked until the milk curdles, separating into curds and whey. The mixture is then squeezed in a cheese cloth to get rid of the excess water. All of their dairy products are made and eaten with a short amount of time. There are no aged cheeses in this cuisine. If someone wants this recipe, let me know and I will send it in to be printed.
The other dish I prepared this day is a wonderful chicken dish. The official Indian name is Hare Masale Wali Murghi. Try saying THAT five times fast! It’s a lemony chicken with fresh coriander. The first time I made it, I used a whole chicken, but the next time I made it at home, I used boneless chicken breasts and increased the cook time BEFORE adding the chicken to about 8 minutes. Then after putting the browned chicken breasts in, I only let it cook another 5 minutes. It was wonderful and needs some naan to mop up the leftover sauce. Here are both recipes:
Lemony Chicken with Fresh Coriander
- 2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 4 tbsps plus 5 fl oz water
- 6 tbsps vegetable oil
- 1 whole chicken-4-5 lbs, cut up and skin removed
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 7 oz fresh coriander leaves and tender stems, very finely chopped
- ½ to 1 fresh, hot green chili, minced
- ¼ tsp cayenne
- 2 tsps ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp salt or to taste
- 2 tbsps lemon juice
- Makes 6-8 loaves
- 1 tbsp dry yeast
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsps warm water
- ¼ C milk
- 2 oz clarified butter
- ¼ C plain yogurt
- 3 C flour
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp baking powder
- Blend the ginger with 4 tbsps water in a blender until it makes a paste.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pan. Put in as many chicken pieces as the pan will hold in a single layer and brown on both sides. Remove the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl. Brown all the pieces this way.
- Sauté the garlic in the same pan. When light brown, pour in the ginger paste. Stir and fry for a minute.
- Add the fresh coriander, green chili, cayenne, cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt. Stir and cook for a minute. Put in all the chicken pieces as well as any liquid that accumulated in the bowl. Add 5 ounces water and lemon juice. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, turn heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes or until the chicken is tender. If sauce is too then, reduce it slightly.
- Combine yeast, water and sugar in a small bowl. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes to foam. Blend in milk, butter and yogurt. In a large bowl, mix flour, salt and baking powder. Add yeast mixture and, using your hands to combine, mix until smooth and elastic, until mixture comes away from the bowl. Add flour or water as needed to keep consistency. This should take 6 to 8 minutes. Place in a clean bowl. Cover and let rise 30 minutes to an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 450. Place pizza stone on the oven rack.
- Punch down the dough and knead briefly, adding flour if sticky. Divide into 6 or 8 balls. Roll, pull and shape balls into teardrop shapes and brush with olive oil or a combo of ½ cup plain yogurt with 3 tbsps olive oil. Place the bread on the pizza stone and bake until naan is puffed and brown, about 4 minutes. Other variations are made by adding fresh chopped garlic or onions to the dough after rolling. Serve with chicken or whatever you’re serving!