Indian Food: Eating in Technicolor

Indian Spice Spiral

Indian food is a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors. Spices are of central importance in Indian cuisine. Scroll down for Indian recipes for tea, lentils, rice and cauliflower. IStockPhoto hide caption

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Indian Spices in Sacks

India has a very old and richly developed spice history. What order spices enter a dish is critical to the flavor. IStockPhoto hide caption

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About the Author

Both of Roseanne Pereira's parents hail from Goa, India, and Indian tea (recipe below) is a staple at their home. Now, the native of Sunrise, Fla., eats Indian food to comfort her as she finishes her year as a Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio.

Consider curry: the happy intersection of pungent chili powder and fragrant spices, a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Anyone who has seen Indian food being prepared has watched the blending of green and red chilies, black peppercorns and yellow turmeric into a particular curry.

Yet, Indian food is far more than curry.

India has five major religions, 15 languages, and more than 1,500 minor languages and dialects. Like individual European countries, each Indian state has its own history, culture, language — and food.

Religious Hindus eat no beef, Muslims, no pork, and Jains, no onions. Southern India's tropical climate invites use of coconut milk in recipes, while near the snow-topped Himalayas, you're not likely to find coconuts in the cuisine. And colonialism — British, Portuguese and French — left a distinct imprint on the kitchen.

This week marks Indian independence from British rule and the partition that created the nations of India and Pakistan. Like everything else in Indian society, food was affected.

Before the partition, traditional culture frowned on eating out, and members of certain religious groups and castes weren't allowed to be professional cooks. After the partition, taboos began breaking down and restaurants became popular. Food in Indian restaurants, however, remains more homogeneous than home cooking.

In part, that's because many Punjabis displaced by the partition came to New Delhi and became restaurateurs. They brought their tandoors (clay ovens traditionally found in Punjabi villages) and their breads, among them parathas, rotis and nans.

Red tandoori chicken and Punjabi breads have become regular staples in Indian restaurants in the West. As a result, many people equate Punjabi dishes with Indian food in general, when Punjabi cooking is really just one example of India's diverse cuisines.

Despite the differences, spice is fundamental to all Indian cooking. But how spices are used, how they're mixed and the order in which individual spices are added to a given dish makes all the difference. (If you're in an Indian restaurant that offers dishes "mild, medium or hot," beware. Such flexibility hints that the food might not actually be cooked with spices, but rather with flavored sauces that are added later.)

Some of the most essential Indian spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, pepper and nutmeg, have long been available in the United States. Others, such as fennel, cumin, coriander and turmeric, are also now on most supermarket shelves. More unusual ingredients, such as tamarind paste and aromatic curry leaves, can be found in Indian grocery stores or specialty shops.

Indian cooks approach spices in different ways. Some toast whole dry spices, such as cumin seed or mustard seed, in a pan for a minute until the seeds begin to pop. That's when their inner moisture will have vaporized. This cooking method mellows the spices' flavors while retaining their individual tastes.

Another preparation involves first heating powdered spices such as turmeric, cumin and coriander in oil so their different chemicals mix, then adding fresh ingredients, such as garlic, ginger and onions. The combination forms a sauce-like paste with a more integrated aroma and flavor.

Since the best Indian food is still found at home, here's one final tip: Make nice with your Indian friends.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from Kitchen Window.

Indian Fried Rice

Indian Rice

Savory dishes usually accompany rice or another central grain in most Indian cuisine. IStockPhoto hide caption

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Rice is a staple of Indian cuisine. By adding just a few spices to a pot of rice, you can create a whole new, delicious dish.

Makes 4 servings

1 cup rice (basmati is a good choice), washed and drained

1 onion, finely sliced

2 teaspoons salt

1 small cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

3 peppercorns

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 cups boiling water

Heat oil in large saucepan. Fry onion until golden brown. With a slotted spoon, remove onion from pan and set aside.

To the hot oil, add the rice and spices. Stir and fry for 4 minutes until the rice appears glazed. Add salt and 2 cups boiling water.

Bring mixture to a boil again, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer gently until the water is absorbed.

Serve garnished with fried onions.

Aloo Gobi

Turmeric powder

Turmeric turns this cauliflower-potato dish bright yellow. IStockPhoto hide caption

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This Indian cauliflower-potato dish is perfect to make and pack up for a summer picnic or trip to the beach.

Makes 4 servings

2 medium potatoes

1 medium cauliflower

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon ginger powder

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon chili powder

Salt to taste

Wash and drain the vegetables.

Peel and dice potatoes. Put them in the microwave with a little water and cook for 4 minutes on high or until tender but not mushy.

Divide cauliflower into florets of the same size. Sprinkle with water and cook in the microwave for 3-4 minutes on high, or until tender but not falling apart.

Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add potatoes, cumin seeds, ginger, turmeric, chili powder and salt, and fry for 1 minute. Add cauliflower and fry for 5 minutes.

Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes, or until cauliflower and potatoes are thoroughly coated in spices and cooked all the way through.

Masur Dal

Colorful Lentils and Spices

Turmeric, cumin and chili powder all make great additions to lentil dishes like this masur dal. IStockPhoto hide caption

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Dal refers to at least 60 kinds of dishes made from beans, peas or lentils. One of the most common dals in India is made from channa, the Indian chickpea. Another, made of lentils, is known as masur. It is quick and easy to make and in raw form has a beautiful, orange-pinkish color.

Ingredients marked with * are available at Indian grocery stores.

Makes 4 servings

1 cup masur dal (sometimes called red lentils)

4 cups water

1 small, sliced onion (optional)

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, divided

1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon ginger-and-garlic paste (mix equal parts fresh ginger and fresh garlic in a blender or food processor)*

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 diced tomatoes

3 slit green chilies

1 cup tamarind juice* (tamarind paste mixed with water or lemon juice work as substitutes; use 1 cup of either of these)

4 whole garlic cloves, sliced

3 dried red chilies

6 curry leaves*

1 tablespoon oil

Wash and drain dal. Boil dal in water with sliced onion, 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, turmeric, ginger-and-garlic paste until lentils are soft (usually less than 10 minutes).

Mash the mixture and add chili powder, salt, tomatoes, green chilies and tamarind (or lemon) juice. Boil until it is a thick soup (add water as necessary), about 1/2 hour.

Set the dal aside and let cool.

After it cools, blend the dal in the blender or food processor and pour into large saucepan.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil and brown the other 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds. Add sliced garlic, dried chilies and curry leaves. Brown and pour over dal, which you can serve with rice or bread.

Indian Tea

Cardamom pods

Spice up your spot of tea with cardamom pods. IStockPhoto hide caption

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A little spice goes a long way when making tea, Indian style.

Makes 4 servings

1/2 cup water

6 whole cardamom pods

2 cups milk

2 teabags

Combine water and cardamom pods in a pot and bring to a boil. When liquid is boiling, add milk and teabags. When the liquid reaches the boiling point again, turn the heat off and let sit for 5 minutes. Pour into teacups through a sieve to remove cardamom pods.

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