This past Spring and Summer, I ventured into something new for me: Indian, or South Asian, cooking.
[Note: I say "Indian", but perhaps I should say South Asian food. I realize the regions and countries are diverse in their cuisine, so forgive my laziness in using this blanket term. Madhur Jaffrey has a lot to say on this subject if you read her book.]
I love Indian food! I first tried it when I was 12, in the home of some doctor friends of my mother who served koftas, spicy chicken, and jack fruit. I remember lots of yellow color in the vegetables...probably turmeric. And I remember my eyeballs felt like they were bleeding from the spices, which were totally unfamiliar.
A few years later, a Pakistani colleague of my mother's often brought a sweet, milk-based dessert called "Ras malai', made by his wife, to parties. I was crazy about it.
Then one of my best friends in High School, Huma, had parents from Pakistan, and sometimes I would get to eat the South Asian cooking at her house when we hung out. They were Muslims, so the dishes had no pork. I slowly grew accustomed to the 'heat' of the food.
And in college my friend Anita, who was Rajasthani (North Indian) and vegetarian, would often bring the Daals and Roti's that her mother made at home, and share with us, her dorm friends.
So Subcontinent food grew on me, till I even convinced my parents to try a new Tandoori restaurant in Downtown Chicago called, The Klay Oven. They liked it. I loved it.
Over the years, as the United States has embraced more and more international food, many South Asian mixes and frozen variety foods have been available in grocery stores, I have taken advantage and bought frozen Naan or bottled Chicken Korma sauce. But these things still felt incomplete somehow, and I balked at eating the sauce when I saw the amount of fat and sodium in each prepared bottle. How hard can it be to make this from scratch? I wondered. I wanted to learn.
So early this year, I played with the idea. One of my previous supervisors had given me Madhur Jaffrey's famous cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. But upon opening the book and seeing the numerous, unfamiliar ingredients like fenugreek, asafetida and garam masala, I felt bewildered. What were these things? Plus, even the "easier" recipes required an average of five to seven ingredients, most of which were utterly unknown to me. So I put the book aside, feeling overwhelmed and confused.
But a few months later, I revisited this book and the notion of Indian cooking, because one day, after picking up something at the regional referral veterinary center for our dog, I noticed there was an Indian grocery across the street, called, "Krishna Grocery". Intrigued, I walked in and wandered the narrow aisles for awhile. The pungent, fragrant scents! I wanted to buy nearly everything, but I realized that without the specific recipes to guide me, I was flying blind. So back at home I once again picked up Madhur Jaffrey's book and scrutinized the recipes more carefully, calling my Rajasthani friend Anita for some guidance on selecting and buying ingredients.
"Deep and Laxshmi are among the best brands", she said.
"Hold the garam masala to your nose and buy the one that smells the most to your liking", was another piece of advice. (As someone new to Indian cooking, I really didn't know which would be the best, so I just picked up the only ground garam masala they had available. I was too scared to buy and grind up the whole spices, because I have heard that dry bay leaves can get stuck in the throat.)
On my next trip, I brought a list of the spices that appeared the most frequently in Jaffrey's book, and bought those. I also bought cauliflower, fresh ginger, and fresh cilantro, or "Chinese parsley", as she described it, because I wanted to make a cauliflower recipe from the book. And finally, I bought moong dal, or green lentils.
Slowly I got the hang of these Indian recipes, most of which are from Delhi, in the North, according to Jaffrey.
A Westerner's Findings
1. The cooking part itself was not so difficult; the most time-consuming part of the process was assembling and prepping the ingredients. Some chicken dishes, for example, only required broiling the chicken for 10 minutes, but the marinade included 10 ingredients that had to be gathered and blended, then poured over the chicken, and the entire dish would need to marinate for at least 4 hours. To make lentils, they had to be soaked in water overnight before being made into a stew. This food is not made on the fly, or "instant". I could really see that it requires someone who is home for long periods of time, who plans ahead, and who can tend to various stages of prep work. I imagine homes with grandmothers and mothers who spend much of their time preparing food for their families. I imagine maternal types, as is usually the case in traditional homes worldwide.
But interestingly, the more I cooked these dishes, the more it became second nature to prep everything. I developed systems. For vegetable dishes, I would first wash, peel and cut the vegetables themselves, then I would arrange the spices on a plate, side-by-side along the edges, in the order in which they were to be added to the pan or dish. "Mise en place", the French call it. (Everything in its place.) Then I would heat up the pans and add the prepped ingredients in order.
I discovered that I could cheat a little bit on the chicken dishes if necessary. This past Tuesday I started cooking at 6pm and I did not therefore have time to marinate the chicken for a minimum of 4 hours. So prepared the marinade in the blender, per the instructions, then poured it over the chicken for 30 minutes instead. It still tasted quite good, in my opinion.
2. Jaffrey's book is a great launching pad; then you can move to other South Asian recipes.
I got a little braver and branched out to some websites for more recipes. I made a South Asian version of brussels sprouts, Brussel Sprouts Subzi, from a recipe I found on the website, Show Me The Curry.
3. Have some Zantac or other heartburn preventive on hand.
If you are not used to the array of spices, South Asian food can be a bit heavy on your system. I can't eat it more than 1-2 times weekly because the spices tend to give me heartburn. So I take a Zantac or Pepcid about 1 hour before dinner.
4. Kids may take some convincing. Good luck.
Our kids refused to touch any of the food except the naan bread. But hey, slow steps. At least they like the naan! Our younger son even orders mango lassis (yogurt-based fruit "shakes") when we eat out. If your children are more adventurous, I am impressed.
5. My family and I gravitate toward Northern Indian food.
This is because the dishes are often meat- and bread-based, so they are more familiar to a "Westerner's" palate. Or so I think. But the southern dishes are delicious too.
6. When you are ready, try the instant spice mixes.
We did buy a packet of Channa Daal (spicy chick pea) mix, on the advice of my friend Anita. I'll probably make it one night when I have a "plain" meal that needs jazzing up and am too tired or hurried for a more laborious meal.
7. If you want to buy anything ready-made, buy the bread and sweets.
Frozen and fresh naan are sold in many Indian groceries, and both are delicious with a bit of butter or plain. Making and baking bread tends to be a long involved process, in my opinion, and that is one area to go for efficiency. Same with sweets -- unless I one day have tons of time to melt down sweetened milk, I prefer to buy my desserts.
So the Indian cooking I have done still requires more prep and planning than, say, dry pasta. But it is not quite so daunting as it seemed to be when I first tried to learn about it. Really, it is like travel to a foreign country. The unknown can scare you, but just step back and learn about it piece by piece. Allow friends in the know to guide you. Rely on a few basic known ingredients at first, and have patience and an open mind. You might end up experiencing something complex and delicious.