Intro to Indian Food, Part 1: Know your Spice

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

In my quest to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is not for the faint hearted and to help spread my knowledge on some simple and traditional Indian food recipes, I have started this series called Intro to Indian. To make it more interactive and as helpful as I can for my readers, I welcome you to email me any questions that you may have in the process. I will try and respond to the questions personally through email, or in the next part if it’s connected to what I have already planned to discuss. Before I start to talk about cooking Indian food, here are a few tips that I think would help make the process a tad bit simpler. While I already have a Quick-Start Guide on my homepage, this list is minimal for those who want to start slow.

SPICES: If you’ve never cooked Indian food before, and the only spice even remotely connected to Indian cooking ever to step into your spice collection is curry powder, then don’t fret. Start with the basics. Here is a list of the most standard spices that would help you cook many delicious Indian meals without making you go all out and splurge on many exotic flavours that you may be clueless about.

- Cumin Seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Turmeric powder
- Red Chili powder/Cayenne
- Coriander Powder
- Garam Masala

Once you have these staples and are confident about playing with them, then go a step further and try out a few more new to you. Slowly, but surely, you’ll have your own collection of spices that you’re fond of and those that you know would enable you to cook meals that you like.

UTENSILS: While certain dishes require certain traditionally designed equipment, a good start would be to invest in a few simple utensils that you already may or may not have.

- a non-stick wide pan
- a deep heavy-bottomed pot
- a kadhai, or wok, preferably non-stick or aluminum

When it comes to cooking simple Indian food, you would only need to be familiar with a few spices and the flavours that go with them. As a self-starter, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the wide selection of spices. True, they may seem intimidating at first, but then as you go along and acquaint yourself with the robust flavours they have to offer, you can’t help but get excited at the prospect of shopping and stocking your spice racks with some of your favourites.

As a first in this series, I thought I’d start with a recipe so simple, yet so flavourful, that would help you identify its distinct taste and aroma. Most Indian cooking would begin with a tempering, simply put, it’s just a process where spices like cumin or mustard seeds are added to hot oil and allowed to sizzle. Doing so adds plenty of flavour to the oil, which then helps in penetrating through the dish during the cooking process. Tempering, or tadka, is also a common way of adding a burst of flavour to a subtly spiced dal.

The one thing I like about this dish is how the cumin dominates in taste. Another reason for adding it to the menu today, is to allow you to experiment and play around with some of the flavours you already love, or some that you wish to try. Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable to use when you need to experiment with a certain spice. Since they lack in much flavour themselves and carry out others with ease, I’d suggest you use not more than a combination of 2-3 spices to begin with. This would help you identify the flavours and also enable you to decide whether or not you like the mingling of them together.

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Resolving Resolutions: Macaroni with Peas & Carrots

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

With December finally having dawned on us, one can’t help but reflect the year soon to pass us by. I automatically begin with the setting and tackling of my annual resolutions. The most daunting for me of course, is knowing that skipped out on a few of the resolutions I made with gusto at the stroke of midnight eleven months ago.

I frown ever so mildly at the slightly chubbier version of me since a year ago. Needless to say, managing and catering a food blog to ever-indulgent foodies did not play a good part in keeping word to “weight” issue. I twitch my nose and curl my lips at the thought of the next weeks finding me drowned in flour over my over-ambitious Christmas baking plan. The list is being made as we speak, a perfect blend of the sweet, savoury, melt-in-your-mouths, and of course, chocolate choices of the best cookies ever to grace the human palate.

For those who are familiar with my culinary skills, can vouch for my lack of interest to baking. I celebrated my last Christmas with a huge bill of delicous confectionaries, much to Hubby Dear’s dismay. This year, to begin the glorious month with a new resolution, I decided to finally tackle the baking fairy. This I’m guessing, will be no small feat, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Getting back to the topic of concern, I decided to tackle it as best as I could on short notice. With the weather Gods warning us of a cold wintry week ahead, I decided to bring in a little comfort to my very lazy Sunday evening. And I tried my absolute best to make this as healthy as per my earlier resolution demanded. I promise.
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Coming Full Circle

My Mom is a Malaysian. My Dad, an Indian. Theirs is ofcourse, a love marriage. My Dad, being a simple man when it comes to meals, refused to forsake his Dal-Roti routine when he married my Mom. She on the other hand, could never accept that cooking a traditional Indian meal was out of her reach. So she toiled, and she toiled, and today she makes the best curries and the meanest biryanis than any born-Indian I know.

Masala Alu Parathas

When they first got married, as my Mom once very fondly narrated this story to me, she was unaccustomed to the roti. Not knowing the perfect recipe himself, all she could get out of my Dad was that the dough was made from whole wheat and water, and rolled out into thin, soft and fluffy mouthfuls of delight. She tried her various combinations of water and flour for many days to come, until one fine day Dad had a smile on his face after the very first bite, and announced it PERFECT! Since then, she has rolled bagfuls of flour into the most delicate rotis and parathas.

One thing I learnt for Mom, was that making rotis is an art in it’s truest form. I agree. Who ever has tried to roll them into the perfect circle with only the aide of a rolling pin, will know exactly what I mean. I started out with no-so-soft-irregular-shaped ones myself. But as they say, practice makes perfect. Though mine are still not as round as the moon, they do taste good.

The other day when I decided to make one of Hubby Dear’s finest favourites, I had a slight inclination to tamper with things a little. Who ever said never to play with tradition, certainly never tasted my version of it!

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Meeting in the Middle…

We don’t bicker much, Hubby Dear and I, when it comes to food, except of course when the topic of concern is Dal. Dal, or lentils, is a common staple in Indian cuisine. Be it the North, South, West or East, this is one item you can find on the menu. True, it comes in its variations, but it’s a staple nonetheless. And there’s certainly no denying that on a cold rainy day like today, it is the ultimate comfort food.

Chana Dal Tadka

Hubby Dear and me love our dals, and most importantly, we have our favourites. He loves his Yellow Arhar/Toor dal, and I’m passionate about my Red Masoor. To give tem their due importance, I alternate between the two each week. One may think it might be hard to keep track of whose turn is up next, but since I’m the sole incharge when it comes to all things culinary, I demand the benefit of doubt.

There have been numerous days when Hubby Dear thinks, no, he actually believes, that I’ve been partial to my own needs infront of his wishes. Well, maybe i have. But then again, when you rule the kitchen, there’s not much that can be done about it! So, to avoid matters taking a toll for the worst, I turn to the only intermidiary I know. The Chana dal. Or more explicitly, the Split Pea. This lentil is one that we both happliy agree on. It may take it’s own sweet time to soften down, but the end result never fails to bring a smile to our faces that had been just recently wiped off due to the “episode”.

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When the Burger met the Babu: Potato Patties/Burger

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

The day I heard McDonald’s came to India, I wanted to instantly take a trip downtown. Not because I can’t live without the dreaded Mc Mac, but because I knew what happens to international food chains in India. They automatically take on the Desi avatar on landing! One look at the menu on the wall, and I knew why the place was filled not with just college-going-trying-to-ape-the-west-as-best-as-possible youngsters, but also the timid looking grandma prying open her sandwich.

Hubby Dear and me have made a Friday-night ritual of sorts that we try to follow as close as possible. It has to do with a lot of lounging on the couch in front of the big screen TV, gorging on the best of junk food. Before you go on to tell me how bad (read: comforting!!) a weekly intake of junk food can be for me, let me clarify.

Our menus certainly include the usual burgers, pizza and wings, as well as the much adored quesadillas, tacos, shawarma, and spanokopitas, to name a few. The only difference though, is that nothing is as it sounds. Our pizzas are loaded with the trendiest of toppings ranging from panner tikka, grilled veggies and the occasional tandoori chicken slices. Our quesadillas and tacos lack in cheesiness, but gear up in heat. And our burgers, well, let’s just say it would make that saree-clad grannie and her denim-donned teenage grandson, very happy campers!

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Back to the Basics…

Good food is nice. Delicious exotic food is even better. But when you’ve overfed yourself with a variety of scrumptiously rich delicacies, the mind begins to move to a more subtle and simple option. The past few weeks saw us gorging on the best of Indian festive delicacies, and what with Diwali Just around the corner, this trend is sure to continue for the next few days as well. But last night, as we came home after a long day of running errands, just in time for a quick hearty meal, our palates began to repulse at the slightest thought of anything even remotely extravagant.

Alu Fry (Sauteed Potatoes)

In most North Indian households, the availability of the three basics – onions, tomatoes and potatoes, along with the most basic of spices cannot be missed. Truly, just with these three, one can can create a pretty hearty meal to feed the whole family. And the choices are never limited. By altering and changing the flavourings and spices, a variety of dishes can be concocted from these basics.

So it’s no surprise that when I look for simplicity, I undoubtedly turn to the basics.

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Saying Goodbye: Vegetable Fried Noodles

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

We cramped the whole of summer into the past long weekend. After a cancellation of our camping plans, due to the bad weather that poured on us, we decided to make the most of whatever enthusiasm was left. We took to the city and visited the sights, slept in and went out for a lavish brunch, walked by the lake, read a book in a cafe and took pleasant afternoon naps. And as Tuesday sprung, trying hard to get back into the weekly groove, it suddenly dawned on me that the weekend marked the end of summer.

As a child, the first day of school always marked a drastic end to a wonderfully joyous summer. Suddenly, our trips to the park were cut short because of pending homework that was to be done. Barbeque parties came to an abrupt end since most parents had to shuffle their kids between weekend extra-curricular activities. And the first of all, we had to get yo bed early on Sunday nights and wake up at the break of dawn on Monday mornings.

But as the sun slowly hide behind heavy clouds and the rains became more frequent, I always looked forward to something even better. Rainy day food. Comfort food. Food I can come home to from the cold, wet outdoors, that would instantly bring out the warmth in me and perk me up. Tpday, lounging on my favourite chair with a great book and bowl of warm melt-in-your-mouth goodness, I look out the window and bid a sad farewell to summer. Only to follow it with a warm welcome to my most favourite season of all. The Fall.

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Beat the Heat

Spicy Pepper Mushrooms

Beat the Heat

Just when I was done sulking about the rains that swept my weekend picnic plans away, out comes the Sun and makes me run to the nearest shelter!

The sweltering heat and the unwelcome humidity has led us wanting to shed skin and drown in a cold pool somewhere. but horror of horrors, neither am I an amphibian, nor am I able to grow new epidermal layers! So the only choice we have is to fight it, fight it with that we have. And what is it I have, that you ask? I’m glad you did! It’s none other than the star of every show around here. Yes dears, it’s spicy, and it’s a definite killer of the heat waves!

I really have no idea why, but just as it gets real hot outside, I begin to crave more and more heat in my food as well. They say, heat kills heat, and I’m a firm believer of that!

Making something spicy enough was the easy task. Deciding what it was that was going to take on the avatar, was the test. I picked up a batch of lovely fresh mushrooms over the weekend, and was pondering on what I could do with t. I’ve always loved mushrooms. But getting Hubby Dear to enjoy it even half as much as I do, always challenged me. We are one of those couple who go out for pizza and say, ‘mushrooms on one half, NO mushrooms on the other’! So even though I somehow accepted that Hubby Dear might not be thrilled with the idea of coming home to a plate of mushrooms for dinner, I was determined to make him beg for more!

Long story short, we can now both enjoy mushrooms over glasses of chilled water! I guess sharing a mushroom pizza would have to wait a while!

SPICY PEPPER MUSHROOMS


Prep time: 10 min, Cooking time: 10 min | Serves: 2      

  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2-3 green chillies, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp green onion, chopped
  •  
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 tbsp light cooking oil
  • 1 tsp pur sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • HEAT oils in a non-stick pan and saute chopped green chillies, ginger and garlic till fragrant. Add chopped onions and fry till lightly brown.

    ADD mushrooms, and stir-fry till they begin to cook and lose moisture.

    ADD salt, pepper, and soya sauce and cook for a minute.

    GARNISH with chopped green onions and serve along-side fried rice or noodles.



    A Culinary Journey to West Bengal, India

    Baingan Fry (Fried Eggplant)

    A Culinary Journey to West Bengal, India

    During my college years, when I was in Bangalore, I spent sometime living with a very close friend of mine. She, being a Bengali, and being how Bengalis are about their culture, food and language, taught me a lot of what I know today about the state of West Bengal. Needless to say, one of the first few words I learnt from her in Bengali, could easily see me through any uninvited mishaps. Yes, like most of us, when asked to learn a language, I too wanted to know the big “bad” words.

    Besides its language, West Bengal is widely known for its league of extra-ordinary artists. From admirable writers like Rabindranath Tagore, to talented movie-makers like Satyajit Ray, Bengalis have dominated every field from music, dance, cinema, and not to mention, sports.

    With an abundance of culture in its offering, Bengal is not one to be left behind in its food. From their humbly delicious vegetables, to their mouth watering fish dishes, and their sweet tasting desserts, Bengal hosts a treat for any adventurous palate.

    As I continue on my Culinary Journey to the whole of the Indian sub-continent, let me take a break in this wonderfully diverse state, to bring to you one of my personal favourites. A melt-in-your-mouth dish of eggplant slices smeared with spicy tangy spices, to tantalize the taste buds.

    FRIED EGGPLANT


    Prep time: 10 min, Cooking time: 30 min | Serves: 4 

  • 2-3 medium-sized eggplants
  • 2-3 tbsp light cooking oil
  • 1/2 tsp red chilli powder
  •  
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp amchoor powder
  • salt, to taste
  • CUT eggplant into slices and let soak in cold water for 15-20 minutes. Pat dry and set aside.

    MIX all dry spices, including salt, to form a spice mix.

    HEAT oil in a pan and place eggplant slices without overlapping with each other.

    LET eggplant fry on one side for 3-4 minutes on medium-high heat. Flip once, sprinkle each slice with spice mix, and let it cook on the other side.

    FLIP slices once more, sprinkle spice mix and remove onto a plate.

    Serve with steamed rice over Dal, with a side of Tomato Chutney, to relish a simple, yet wholesome Bengali meal.



    Perfectly Simple…

    Sukhe Alu (Sauteed Potatoes)

    Perfectly Simple

    Most days, by the time I get home in the evenings, I am strved and craving for warm home-cooked meal. And most often than not, I am too tired to dish out something wholesome.

    Since hubby dear has been out of town since the past two weeks, I’ve found myself spending much less time in my kitchen. The reason being when I’m alone, I couldn’t care much about how, when and even if I eat. I can be just as happy opening up a pack of instant noodles or having a grilled cheese sandwich.

    But last night, after many days of eating left-over and processed foods, I was craving for a good home-cooked meal. Something wholesome, fulfilling and delicious. And not to mention, quick! Oh yes, it just had to be quick. I was tired and hungry. And no one messes with me when either the one. Not even Mr. Time!

    As I set a pot of my favourite Dal to cook alongside some steaming rice, I thought of making a real quick side. No guesses as to what it would be made of. I walked into my pantry and found them – a nice big bowl of red baby potatoes!

    Potatoes are one of the staples of the classic Indian meal. It is also the most versatile and beautiful vegetables I know. I let a batch of them boil just till tender and the stage was then set for a wonderfully delicious and fulfilling dinners!

    SUKHE ALU
    SAUTEED POTATOES


    Prep time: 20 min, Cooking time: 10 min | Serves: 2  

  • 8-10 red baby potatoes, boiled and peeled
  • 2-3 dried red chillies
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp aniseeds
  •  
  • 1/2 tsp red chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 tbsp light cooking oil
  • CUT boiled potatoes into quarters and set aside.

    HEAT oil in a pan and add dried red chillies, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and aniseeds, and fry till they start to sizzle.

    ADD in red chili powder and potatoes, and stri-fry till spices mix well with potatoes.

    ADD salt and cover cook for five minutes.

    SERVE warm as a side with Dal, and rice or Rotis.