Indian Food: Eating in TechnicolorFor most people, curry -- that happy intersection of pungent chili powder and fragrant spices -- epitomizes Indian food. But the vast country's kitchens offer so much more. Roseanne Pereira provides a primer to the kaleidoscope of Indian spices and recipes for some of her favorite dishes.
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.
India has a very old and richly developed spice history. What order spices enter a dish is critical to the flavor.
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.
Turmeric, cumin and chili powder all make great additions to lentil dishes like this masur dal.
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.
Spice up your spot of tea with cardamom pods.
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
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.