Know your spices: Indian cooking for beginners
Indian food can intimidate even the most experienced home cooks. People often think Indian cooking requires complicated culinary techniques, saintly patience, and hard-to-find ingredients. But nothing is further from the truth.
Bal Arneson writes in “Everyday Indian” that Indian food is often prepared by women with many other household chores to complete and in areas where fuel is scarce; so, cooking times have to be quick. She also points out that, with the exception of legumes, most dishes took take no more than 20 minutes.
The Pomegranate Shrimp recipe in Monica Bhide’s “Modern Spice” uses three spices other than salt and cooks in a few minutes. And, Aviyal, a simple vegetable curry from South India, while requiring a medley of vegetables, achieves its flavors from a simple blend of yogurt with cumin, chilies, coconut and curry leaves.
“The perception of Indian food is that it’s spicy, greasy and incredibly foreign,” said Floyd Cardoz, chef at Tabla, whose book “One Spice, Two Spice” aims to demystify Indian cooking.
Ms. Bhide explained further: “I think people are overwhelmed by the list of spices and ingredients they see in many classical recipes along with the need for special equipment like tandoors. Not many Indian homes make Tandoori naan using a Tandoor, I can assure you.”
“For the longest time, the Indian food served in Indian restaurants was wealthy mogul cuisine,” said Mr. Cardoz. “The food eaten in Indian homes tends to be very regional and seasonal.”
From the bread based, buttery diet of Northern India to the spicier, rice and vegetable-heavy grub of the South, the basic spices and flavoring agents remain the same.
The home cook can make an enticing array of basic Indian dishes with cumin, turmeric, garam masala, and coriander seeds in the pantry, and onions, garlic, ginger and green chilies in the fridge.
Add some spice
Spices are either toasted to enhance the flavors or blended with yogurt, cream or coconut milk for sauces and soups.
A typical recipe may ask the cook to toast the cumin and turmeric and then stir in aromatics such as minced ginger and/or onions to create a unique flavor before adding main ingredients such as vegetables or greens. Once the basics are learned, the cook can begin to adjust the spices and experiment with different main ingredients.
Cardoz recommended that the beginner try a couple of different spices in daily cooking: “Purchase whole spices in small quantities and grind them with a new coffee grinder,” he said. “This will serve as an introduction to spice flavors, without radically changing the way you eat. Once you understand basic spice techniques, you can play with more adventurous combinations.”
Bhide agreed: “I would suggest picking one spice like cumin and trying it different ways — dry roasting, ground, or tempered in hot oil; then layering it with a different spice such as cayenne or turmeric. Once you learn how to cook with spices, you will master Indian cooking.”
Luckily for most New Yorkers, procuring these spices means one quick trip to Kalustyan in Manhattan or Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. For homebodies, both stores accept orders online.
Five Great Indian Cookbooks for Beginners
Mangoes and Curry Leaves (Artisan Books 2005)
by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Daguid
It’s not just a cookbook, it takes you on a journey of the whole subcontinent.
Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster 2009)
by Monica Bhide
A sassy updated take on Indian recipes for those who likes to entertain.
One Spice, Two Spice (William Marrow 2006)
by Floyd Cardoz
Indian recipes from the chef at Manhattan’s popular Tabla Restaurant.
Everyday Indian (Whitecap Books 2009)
by Bal Arneson
Easy to follow healthy Indian recipes from Canada’s favorite Indian cooking instructor.
Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts (iUniverse Books 2007)
by Ammini Ramachandran
A personal look at South Indian vegetarian cooking, with history and stories of dishes and recipes.
Q AND A: Ammini Ramachandran
The author of Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts — a collection of recipes an essays, Ammini Ramachandram is also a culinary educator and writer on South Indian Cooking. On Friday, she will be teaching a class on south Indian cooking geared to the home cook at the Institute of Culinary Education. We caught up with her.
AMNY: Why do you think Indian cooking is so intimidating to most American home cooks?
AR: Unfortunately it is a matter of perception. Some of the tastiest and simple dishes from India are never served in restaurants and remain unknown to the Western world. Words like spicy and hot are always associated with Indian food in America. People tend to think that Indian food requires a wide variety of spices as well as other ingredients and complicated cooking methods.
AMNY: How do you make Indian cooking more "user friendly" for beginner cooks?
AR: To make Indian dishes more approachable, in my cooking classes I try to include dishes that use only a few ingredients and one or two spices. Of course, not all Indian dishes are very simple. I always try to explain why a spice or ingredient is included, and what it does to the quality, aroma, and taste of a particular dish. And in the end I suggest short cuts, variations, and whenever possible, substitutions with ingredients readily available in American Supermarkets.
AMNY: What do you think is the key to Indian cooking?
AR: Understanding spices is the cornerstone of Indian cooking; spices provide endless possibilities for flavoring and they distinguish one dish from another, define the flavor, and heighten the taste. The characters of most spices are adaptable; it depends on when during the cooking process they are added, and how they are integrated in a dish. The more you learn, the more fluent you will be in the language of spices.
AMNY: What is a simple dish you start a beginner with?
AR: One such simple dish my students have always enjoyed is Puzukku, a traditional Kerala dish made with red beans and squash flavored with green chili peppers, fresh curry leaves, salt and fresh coconut. The only spice that goes in is turmeric.
AMNY: Any other advice for the beginner cook?
AR: Approach Indian cuisine with an open mind - not every Indian dish is spicy hot. An unmistakable feature of Indian cooking is the different methods available for flavoring with spices. Cooking is an expression of the cook's personal tastes and preferences. The delight in cooking Indian food is not necessarily derived from the end product alone, but from the endless possibilities available for flavoring a dish. Use recipes for ideas and suggestions. Improvise, but never let a cookbook order you around.