I have always been proud (although not overtly so) of my Indian heritage. Nowhere is my pride more pronouned than in my love of India’s gastronomic pleasures… From the idli and coconut samandhi of the South to the chicken tandoori of the North – I appreciate the vast range of tastes, textures and flavors the Subcontinent has to offer.
Now, before I continue, repeat after me:
There is no such animal called “Indian Cuisine”.
Surprised? Don’t be. Indian cuisine is a misnomer that people usually apply to the food found in ‘Indian’ restaurants. Such food tends to be North Indian in origin and is biased towards heavier fare. How many of you have eaten a masala dosa or sambar? The truth is, cuisine is regional and each region’s cuisine can vary markedly from another’s. For example, Kerala (the state from which I hail) has a very different cuisine from say…Punjab. But, the handle is convenient, so I’ll be hypocritical and use it.
Oh – and another thing. Spicy does not mean ‘hot’. They are two, very, very (I cannot stress this enough) different concepts.
Anyways, the sad truth is…I can’t make Indian food. The truth is…until this term – I didn’t even try. Lack of time and motivation contributed heavily to that. <hangs head in shame> Ok. Ok. I’ve always had a ready supply of my mother’s cooking, so I’ve never had to try.
When I came here to San Diego, that all changed. No more Indian food. No more excellent Indian restaurants within easy reach. No more car. The horror! For the last 3 months I have subsisted on cereal, veggie burgers, deli meats, frozen dinners and bread. It’s been a brutal, often bland existence. Then, last week, something snapped. I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed Indian food. No, I craved it. When I went to meet Paul, my first act was to ask him to take me to an Indian buffet. I believe my exact words were “I’ve been craving this for 3 months.”. There, the floodgates were opened…
On my return, I immediately bought Indian cookbooks. Then, I searched… I was on a quest for ‘The Meal’.
The Meal in my family has almost always consisted of:
- Vegetable dish(es)
- Meat dish
I decided to set my sights high and go for the whole shebang. After perusing the cookbook, I had my list:
- Potato & pea curry
- Roast rice
- Chicken Murgh
My first act was to put together a list of ingredients and make a little ‘visit’ to the grocery store. Now, here’s where some advice will come in handy for budding, beginner Indian cooks:
Don’t skimp on the spices!.
Yes, spices are expensive. Yes, you’ll be surprised (shocked?) by how much they cost, and the variety you have to stock up on, but it’s well worth it. From my limited experience I can tell you this – try the recipe the way its intended and only then, modify it as needed.
I’ll spare you the entire tragicomedy of the first cooking round, but I’ll give you the quick summary. The rice was the worst of the lot. The pot we cooked it in was not non-stick (bad idea) and the rice came out sticky (no good). We forgot to put the garam masala in the potato curry and cut the potatoes too large. As a result, the flavor was not as full-bodied and the larger potato pieces weren’t well-done. The chicken was too sweet and I felt that the flavoring hadn’t come out. All in all, a valiant first attempt – but, no, not quite.
Today, I decided to try again. To do this, I had to prepare well (as in Tuesday morning) in advance. Why? Well…our freezer does a number on the chicken. Let’s just say that if I threw the bagged chicken at someone, I’d be in jail on Murder One charges… So, I started defrosting on Tuesday morning (put it in the fridge).
I started cooking today at around 9:30 and finished cooking & cleaning by 11:00. I’d already learned from my first experience and had made a few changes – namely increasing the oil and changing a few proportions around. I increased the size of the onion I cut (thus increasing the amount of char I’d get). I actually chopped up two tablespoons of coriander and was fairly liberal with the spices. Remembering my first experience (and what I’d done right) I kept the dimensions of the chicken pieces the same. Finally, I paid very close attention to the heat at which I cooked the chicken during the various stages. VERY close attention.
Now, a quick word of advice – when making this curry (at least my version) it’s ideal if you have a saucepan (or a wok-like pan) with a large, flat bottom. That ensures that when you put the chicken on, you keep it in as close to a single layer as possible. Oh, and when they say “add onions, spice #1, spice #2…” add the onions first. It’s much easier to see if the onions fry golden brown if they aren’t coated with spices. You can substitute tomato puree (pure only) instead of a finely chopped tomato – just be very careful of how much you use. Keep stirring. Burnt spices never taste good. Finally, when it says simmer – back OFF on the heat. I really, really mean it.
I’m extremely happy to say, that after 1.5 hours of work, this second iteration of the chicken curry is much better than the first.
Oh…much, much better by far.
From a quick tasting, it appears as if the flavoring is well balanced, the chicken tender, yet not undercooked and there’s a good amount of char. All in all, excellent progress for my second try :-) I felt like wolfing down the entire pot then and there…
Now, I want to cook more…