Intro to Indian Food, Part 2: A Lesson in Lentils

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

When I started out to try and impart what I know of Indian cooking, I had a few things in mind that I knew I just had to talk about. I did not want to make this series all about the simplicity in the recipes, but instead, I wanted to discuss the essence of Indian food right from the basics. When one thinks of Indian food, the first few things that come to mind definitely include spice, curries, and Butter Chicken. While these may somewhat play key roles when introducing someone to Indian cuisine, its hard to leave out the other factors that contribute to the rising popularity of Indian food.Picking up from where I last left off with an introduction to the most basic spices found in almost every Indian home, let me go a step further and bring you into the whole new wonderful world of lentils. Lentils, or Dal, as they are most often known in the Indian menu, are a staple at almost every Indian meal. Ranging from the most basic cooking method of simply boiling it with a dash of salt and adding a robust tempering right before serving, to a more tedious method of sautéing it various spices and vegetables, lentils have come a long from where we first knew it to be.

Lentils are basically legumes and have somewhat of a rich nutty flavour. They are usually sold pre-packaged in bags or boxes, but can also be bought in bulk. When shopping for lentils, it is most important to note how much of an effort you are actually willing to spend in their cooking process. When storing lentils, it is best to keep them in large air-tight containers in a cool spot. Right next to where you store your pasta, is probably also the best spot to display your lentil collection.

Lentils come in varied sizes, shapes and colours, each equipped with its own distinct flavour and commendable cooking times. Many of them cooked be cooked in similar ways, but don’t let the difference in tastes of each of them surprise you. That’s what’s so special about including Dals in your meal plans. Not much of an effort where the cooking is concerned, and yet you can have variety in your meals simply by alternating the kinds of lentils you use.

Some of the most common lentils are:

MASOOR (red lentils): The red split Masoor lentils are most commonly used in many homes. They take the shortest time to cook and require no pre-soaking whatsoever. This type of lentils is usually found in everyday meals and make a quick go-to dish when you’re running short of time.

TOOR/ARHAR (yellow lentils): The Toor Dal, is dull yellow in colour and is most often the base for many South Indian specialities like Sambhar. They need to soak for a few hours before cooking, and take longer to boil down to a soft edible center. A quick way to overcome the long cooking process would be to use a pressure cooker. On the contrary, they are perfect for a slow cooker if you’re in need to let a meal do its own thing while you go about your own.

CHANA (split-pea lentils): The Chana Dal, or split-pea lentils have a deep yellow colour and look like the halves of a chick-pea, only in a smaller size. They take the longest to cook and are extremely compatible with both, the pressure cooker as well as a slow cooker. They often take center stage in special dishes, and are a favourite to serve at dinner parties.

MOONG (green lentils): Being green in colour and taking the shape of tiny bean is probably what sets this Dal apart from its various counterparts. The Moong Dal is rarely used in preparing everyday meals, but gets its fame as the star of a widely loved dessert call Moong Dal Halwa.

An everyday Indian meal usually comprises of some rice, a few Rotis, a Dal and a vegetable, accompanied with some yogurt, pickle and a light salad. When you’re in no mood to go the whole mile, Dals are best enjoyed with simply rice and a dash of pickle. In many Indian households, a different Dal is cooked each day, accompanied with a complimenting vegetable. Dals are also used in many non-vegetarian preparations, the most popular known being the Dhansak. A gift from the Parsis, Dhansak is a slow cooked stew of meat, vegetables and lentils, all simmering in rich, robust spicy flavours.

With its chockfull of proteins, lentils are great addition to a vegetarian diet. Add a handful to your stews and soups for that extra burst of nutrition. Lentils can easily take on varied flavours and add richness to your daily meals. So go ahead, and give it a try.

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How NOT to cook Indian food: Methi Matar (Peas with Fenugreek Leaves)

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Since I’ve been buried in deadlines the past week, writing and researching for some of my upcoming freelance assignments, I had the priveledge of spending many long hours at the bookstore amidst some of the best collections of cookbooks. Don’t you just love it when you can grab your favourite cup of coffee, and comfortably settle yourself on a cozy plush leather chair in the cookbook section of a huge store? Yea, me too, and that’s just why I plan on spending many more days there. I figure even if I don’t actually get any work done, I could at least read about food to my heart’s content. While on the topic of simplifying Indian food, something I was working to write on, I decided to go on a little hunt and see what I could find. Shockingly, I wasn’t impressed at all!

I picked up a few books, most that looked very promising, and began skimming through some of the most popular recipes, that the authors, no doubt tried their best to recreate as quick and simple as possible. While many made good sense to me, I was horrified by what a few others instructed. So, as I sat myself and began taking notes, I decided to make my own list of do’s/dont’s, more on the dont’s actually, of what NOT to do when making an Indian dish.

Here is what I came up with:

  1. In no case, and I mean NO case, should you add ketchup while making curry. If you’re short of time for chopping tomatoes, run them through a food processor to puree. If that’s still not an option, then please, at least use canned tomato paste. But DO NOT use ketchup! That just won’t work. I can only begin to imagine the taste it would give to your so-called curry!
  2. Whatever people may like to think, curry powder is not really a solution to making a quick curry. Infact, until and unless it’s a blend from an actual Indian location, like say, Madras curry powder, or Malabar curry powder, then it probably won’t and can’t even taste anything close to the Chicken Curry you ravished for dinner at the nearby Indian restaurant. The pale yellow curry powder found on the shelves of many grocery stores hardly taste anything like the real deal. For a quick solution, make sure you have the 5 most basic spices at hand – red chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric, garam masala and cumin powder. When you have less time to spare, just add about half a teaspoon of each of them, adjusting the chilli powder to your taste of course, before stirring in the yogurt. I promise you, you won’t regret it.
  3. No matter what happens, DO NOT add flour to thicken your gravy. Stir in some yoghurt, or better still, a tablespoon or two of cashew/almond paste/powder. The results will be delicious, without being lumpy and looking a mess.

I really do hope this helps in bringing people a step closer to understanding the basic of Indian cooking. I will try and touch upon similar subjects through my Indian 101 series, and can only hope that Indian food will be percieved as something that one can easily whip up on a normal week night.

On that note, I leave you with this quick recipe, something I whipped up for dinner last night after the long ride home in the rain. For a pea lover like, it’s a wonderful treat. And even better is how simple it is to make.

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From Start to Finish: Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

When it comes to entertaining, I prefer to have my invitations sent out well in advance. While that buys me much time to plan a menu and work out the finer details of the evening, it also gives me enough of time to prepare for those expected to attend. And by that I don’t certainly mean that I spend a good chunk of the coming days rehearsing a jig for them. No, nothing like that, I prefer my guests to entertain themselves without having me burst into a spell of break dance. What I do mean, however, is that it gives me ample time to clear up the house.Since I’m someone who could easily let the pile of dirty laundry grow till we literally (literally, like Hubby Dear waking me up a few mornings ago at the shock of not having any clean shirts left to wear to work. Thank goodness for a semi-casual work environment where a golf t-shirt is seen as no reason to question!) run out of clean clothes, or let the vacuum cleaner sit snugly in the corner gathering dust, or let the endless magazines I subscribe to grow into an unbelieveable pile, much like the leaning tower of Piza, er I mean, paper.

Yea, so I guess you’re kinda getting where I’m hinting at. I hate to admit it, but as much as I would prefer otherwise, I hate to have last minute guests. Even worse are those who think it’s so much fun to drop me a surprise visit. I always wonder if they’re the ones surprised by how much clutter one can accumulate with just a weeks subricption of magazines and newspapers. But don’t get horrified. It’s not as bad are you imagine it. I DO NOT live amidst bits of paper scattered throughout the house (I swear Mom, I clean, there are really not that many papers lying around!), neither do I have to wade my way through the different rooms by tripping over things.

For the most part, my floors are carpetted and clear. The main problem lies in, or rather on, my table-tops. With all my writing assigments, I find myself constantly rummaging through books and magazines for both, research and inspiration. My coffee table, and part of my dining table are filled with my current favourites and articles that I want to keep close at hand. Then comes the endless cookbooks I love to collect, which get shoved from one room to another as I read them, due to lack of book shelf space. (Yes, I’ve actually added a book shelf to my birthday list for Hubby Dear. What? Don’t tell me you don’t have a list!) And finally, my notebooks. I can’t even begin to count to the number of notebooks, pads and pieces of paper I’ve scribbled on since I started this blog. It’s rare, if ever, I finish one notebook before I start a new one. The reason for me having so many of them is that part way through, I always seem to misplace one, start a new one, misplace that, start another one, only to find the first one in some remote corner of my study! So yea, it’s not that I dislike having people over, it’s just that I prefer to have the time to clean up a bit so as not to drive them away!

Anyways, coming back to why I started all this rambing in the first place. The first time I had Hubby Dear over at my place for dinner, I had to admit it, but he was one of those, “I’m in the neighbourhood and I think it’ll be awesome if I drop by for some dinner cooked by you!“. We had just started seeing each other a few months ago. He was in town on some work, and thought that instead of meeting up somewhere, it would be great if I could cook him up a meal. Now, mind you, this was a time where I didn’t feel much at home in the kitchen. I was used to cooking, yes, but had never cooked for anyone. Other than my Dad and best friends, and truth be told, I didn’t really care what they thought of my newly acquired talent. But Hubby Dear, now this was BIG! This guy actually wanted me to cook for him, and that meant he had no idea what he was getting into.

Due to the last minute bombshell that fell on me, I had no choice but to say yes, and curse myself later. There was no time to shop, whatever I was going to make had to come from what I already had in my kitchen. Being a student, with almost empty pockets at the time, didn’t allow me to have an overstocked pantry. All I found, that I actually thought I could use, was a can of chickpeas. Perfect! Chickpeas is one of the simplest and quickest things to cook. And seasoned with the perfect spice blend, they were undoubtedly delicious as well. With limited time left before he rang the door bell, I started to get to work. As I quickly chopped and stirred, much calm and collected than I was a few minutes ago, I went into my spice rack to pick out my most trusted ally, the Chana Masala powder. And lo and behold, like all tests of fate that take place around the same time, I was out of it! Today, that would not be any cause for panic, but a few years ago when I had not yet experienced much of my culinary capabilities, I was in for a disaster. But he was on his way, and I no choice but to improvise.

Three years later, we’ve just celebrated our second wedding anniversary a week ago. So you could say the dinner didn’t turn too bad. And wonder of wonders, he still loves my Chana Masala!

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