Recreating Perfection: Dal Makhani (Creamy Black Lentils)

Written by Meena Agarwal on November 14th, 2007 | 83 Comments


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

You know how there is always this ONE recipe that no matter how hard you try to replicate, you never seem to be able to hit it just right? Somehow, the taste of when you first devoured the dish still lingers on your palate, and even after a dozen of your experimented versions later, you still know that it’s not quite as close to the original. Well for me, I have one too many of those!

There’s the PERFECT Mee Goreng served by the street hawker down the lane from my Grandma’s house in Malaysia, the spicy Chole garnished with fresh chopped onions and served with giant-sized crisp Bhaturas in Delhi and the most amazingly luscious melt-in-your-mouth Tiramisu served at a corner cafe by the Colosseum in Rome, to name just a few! But of all of them, the ONE recipe that has me searching non-stop for a close flavour duplicate would definitely have to be of Dal Makhani from a little nondescript restaurant in Kuwait.

Growing up, I remember eating off the restaurant’s classic menu once too often. They were especially known for their fantastic and lip-smacking combination of Chicken Tikka, Dal Makhani and Puris. But for me, a die-hard Chicken Tikka devotee, it was always their Dal Makhani that did the deed. It’s thick, warm and creamy texture was everything I craved for anytime of the year.

Ever since I moved away from home, I have always been on a search for a Dal Makhani that would come close to my childhood indulgence. But alas, none came even near an inch to tasting anything like it. I went high and low, to some of the most fabulous Indian restaurants as well as the local take-out favourites, but none of them could win me over. I had almost given up ordering the dreaded dish until one day my Mom decided to come to my rescue. She played and she toiled a few recipes, added this and subtracted that from the ingredients, and simplified the method to suit her needs, and Voila! What can I say? Now whenever I crave some lip-smacking comfort food, all I do is enter my kitchen. It’s a perfect go-to recipe this time of year, and I need I add, an absolute hit at my Diwali bash last weekend!

DAL MAKHANI (CREAMY BLACK LENTILS)
Prep time: 10 min | Cooking time: 30 min | Serves: 4
Special Cooking Equipment: Pressure Cooker

Ingredients:

1/2 cup whole black lentils and a handful of dried red kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 medium-sized tomato, finely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp cooking oil
fresh coriander leaves, chopped for garnish
water, as needed
salt, to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a pressure cooker and saute onions till lightly browned. Stir in salt, chilli powder, ginger-garlic paste, and tomato paste and fry for a few seconds.

Add in the chopped tomatoes and cook for a few minutes to combine well. Add lentils and beans, and enough water to cover them. Pressure cook for 15-20 minutes till lentils are soft and done. Stir in milk and let it come to a boil.

In a separate pan, make a tempering by heating butter and whole garlic cloves slit in the middle. Stir the tempering into the lentils and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Serve warm with soft, fluffy Naans.



Potato passion: Potato Parcels

Written by Meena Agarwal on September 25th, 2007 | 34 Comments


Potato Parcels

Me and Hubby Dear are what some might call munchers. You know, the kinds that could live on finger foods alone. Yes, now that I think back a little, we most certainly are one of those kinds.

The first time we went out, ever, we unsuccesfully tried to share a plate of french fries. I say we tried, because truly, I was was the one trying my best to get my fork into the plate while Hubby Dear conviniently walked at a much faster pace covering it with his arms. (Walking, since unlike the tradional way of going out to dinner for a first date, we chose to spend a day at the CNE.) Yes, the guy does like his fries, sometimes, I believe, even more than his pretty little wife. We spent the rest of the day bouncing between samosas, popcorn and fiery wings.

When we’re not having friends over, our Friday nights usually turn out the same each week – a bunch of movies enjoyed over a platter of assorted mini treats. As much as our choice of movies may differ, the only variable constant to our evening would be the finger food. Constant, because they mostly always find themselves to be potato-based. And variable, because they almost never taste the same.

I love experimenting with different flavours, and what better way to try a new flavour than to toss it over a bowl of plain boiled and mashed potatoes. From chat masala to chipotle-lime, the list of flavourings is endless, and the combinations one can come up with is overwhelming. We made this a couple of weeks ago. We, because while I fried, Hubby Dear ate, much to the dismay of his burning tongue. The things men do for food, or should I say, potatoes!

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Sometimes, you need a change: Bok Choy in Coconut Milk

Written by Meena Agarwal on August 23rd, 2007 | 22 Comments


Bok Choy in Coconut Milk

Every once in a while I like to take a vacation. Correction: I need a vacation. But a busy schedule make it an almost impossible desire. Instead, I take time to “zone out.” I take these mini-holidays on any particular day and when I think I most deserve it. I leave everything behind and pretend I’m on an adventure. Anything to spice up my routine lifestyle.I wear my favourite pair of comfortable pants, put on my comfy walking shoes, and armed with a camera and a few bare necessities, I set out on an exploration.

The streets by my home are lined with vintage stores filled with pretty little things. There’s a cafe on the corner of the street that serves the best chocolate éclair I’ve ever had. As I walk down that road, filled with the hustle and bustle of people walking their dogs and moms dragging their kids from the ice-cream shop, it gives me a sense of vacationing. You know, the feeling you get when you experience a place for the first time. It’s curious how enriching it can be just to take in all the sights and sounds and see things from a new perspective. It helps me. It helps me forget deadlines, and to-do lists. It helps to open up my mind to new avenues of thinking. Some I never even knew were embedded somewhere in my head.

I walk the extra mile to a nearby lake. I turn towards my favourite bench overlooking the horizon and I enjoy my éclair. My camera captures things that I see along the way and want to keep imprinted on my mind. These also become inspiration for the rest of the week; sometimes even the month! What is most exhilarating, is the feeling of being free. It gives me a chance to see things around me in a new light.

With food, I often feel the same way too. Sometimes, you just want something different. It doesn’t have to be exotic or even back-breakingly elegant. Just different enough to take your palate on a holiday. I try and keep atleast one day of the week where I try out something different. I create or recreate a recipe from my fancy. Sometimes, it’s the ingredients that are new to me, and most times, the flavours that follow along. This dish is one such feat. With an open mind to create vegetable dishes that I would enjoy and always come back to, I decided to play around with a bunch of fresh Bok Choy I picked up a few days ago. It resulted in what has now become one of my favourite comfort dishes. Yes, it really is that good that I promise you won’t even know that NO oil was use in its creation.

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Intro to Indian, Part 3 – Pickles and Chutneys: Green Chutney

Written by Meena Agarwal on June 29th, 2007 | 22 Comments


Hari Chutney

It’s often believed that no Indian meal is complete without a good helping of tangy chutney and a touch of spicy pickle on the side. Delicately spiced, these Indian condiments range in taste, texture and colour to suit every palate, be it hot, sour, salty or sweet. Since chutneys and pickles hold a very prominent place on every Indian thali, a large round steel tray traditional used to serve a selection of different dishes, including rice, lentils, vegetables, rotis and a sweet dish, I couldn’t help but dedicate a section to its own individuality.

Pickles

Unlike the classic dill pickle found in almost every refrigerator in every home in North America, Indian pickles are fiery hot condiments that are often eaten in minute quantities. They can be seen as preserves, with salt being the most common preservative and can be stored up to many months. While most Indian pickles tend to be sour, you can also find a good range in the sweet varieties. Earlier pickles were most commonly made from mangoes that are available in abundance throughout, but now one can easily find a jar of pickle of any vegetable desired, or even a combination of them.

Most pickles are made by sun drying the fruits and vegetables, and then storing them in a jar of salt over a period of time. Mixed in oil and spices and they are then flavoured, some even simmered for hours. Over the hot summer months, it’s very common to find a family gathered out on the patios or terraces, sitting in a circle preparing the ingredients for pickling, while at the same time sharing in idle gossip. Each family prides in its own secret recipe passed on from generations, making this a family event to look forward to.

Chutneys

Chutneys can be classified in two basic categories. The fresh chutneys, those that are blended with fresh ingredients and spices, and require no cooking whatsoever, and the cooked chutneys, that are simmered over a low heat till all the flavours are blended well. While chutneys are enjoyed and eaten in almost every home throughout the country, it is as diverse in its flavour as the number of hands that make it everyday.

Some of the most popular chutneys include:

Coconut Chutney: A favourite accompaniment to the spicy Masala Dosa, this fresh chutney is made by blending freshly grated coconut with generous amounts of green chillies, fresh ginger, curry leaves, Urad dal and mustard seeds.

Tomato Chutney: This refreshingly sweet chutney is made by slowing cooking fresh tomatoes with an added flavour of curry leaves, ginger and spices. Eaten hot or cold it brings a wonderful additional dose of flavour to any simple meal.

Tamarind Chutney:A slow simmering chutney of tamarind pulp, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and a mix of spices, this tangy chutney is always a welcome companion to many Indian snacks. It is a wonderful blend of sweet and sour flavours with a hint of spice and adds that much needed zing to many popular street foods.

Mango Chutney:This chutney is easily made by sautéing diced mangoes with an array of different spices and lemon juice. As much as it is enjoyed with a traditional Indian meal, it also serves as a great topping for any regular sandwich.

Onion Chutney:A personal favourite, onion chutney is a quick two-step process. First, sliced onions are sautéed in a skillet with red chillies. Then, once cooled, it is blended to a touch of tamarind and sugar to a smooth fine paste. A perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour, this delicious relish is good enough to enjoy on its own.

Previous installments of the Indian 101 series:

- Intro to Indian
- Part 1: Know your Spice
- Part 2: A Lesson in Lentils

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Intro to Indian, Part 2: A Lesson in Lentils

Written by Meena Agarwal on May 25th, 2007 | 26 Comments


Tadka Dal (Tempered Lentils)

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.

Previous installments of the Indian 101 series:

- Intro to Indian
- Part 1: Know your Spice

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

Written by Meena Agarwal on May 17th, 2007 | 27 Comments


Methi Matar (Peas with Fenugreek Leaves)

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 of 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, the results were appalling! 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 a given Indian locale, 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 yoghurt. 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 turns out.

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From Start to Finish: Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)

Written by Meena Agarwal on May 4th, 2007 | 41 Comments


Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)

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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The Weight Issue

Written by Meena Agarwal on March 9th, 2007 | 33 Comments


Paneer Pockets
Paneer Pockets

There comes a time in every one’s life when getting into shape takes the top most priority, and eating healthy seems the only thing you can thing of. For Hubby Dear and me, okay, just me, not surprisingly, these times always seem to prefix a big event – the annual vacation, that special dinner party, family coming for a visit, or the slowly creeping summer! This time, same as years past, my will to get into shape (read: lose some weight!!) is strenghtened by the fact that our 2nd wedding anniversary is coming really close.With just over 6 weeks to stick to my plan, things may not be too easy, considering that I haven’t made that plan as yet!As I walked through the fresh produce aisle during our weekly grocery trip a few days ago, taking in all the wonderful shapes and colours of some not-so-crazy-about vegetables, I caught Hubby Dear wincing as I picked up a perky looking cauliflower.

HD: What’s that for?

Me: Ummn, we need to start eating healthy. I need to lose some weight to fit into that new dress I want to buy for our anniversary.

HD: What new dress? Wait, our anniversary is coming? Do I need to buy you a gift?

Me: Of course you do! It’s our anniversary!

HD: Yes sweety, but I just got you that wonderful thing for Valentine’s remember? I thought it would cover both occasions.

Me: Pity, but yea, you still have to buy me a gift.

HD: Okay, but can we atleast not start eating cauliflower? You know you don’t like it either! Besides, I’ll only eat cauliflower if it’s in the form of Gobi Manchurian.

Me: Yes, but I saw some really fun recipes on many blogs that I’d like to try out. And besides, we need to get more veggies into our diet.

HD: But we already do! Look at the tons of tomatoes you just picked up! Now come on, could we just have Paneer Pockets for dinner tonight?

Me: Do you know how much butter goes into that dough? You might as well eat a whole slab of butter! No, I’m making us a healthier dinner.

HD: Okay, but then if we get into this healthy eating binge you’re dreaming of, then you do realize that we have to cut down on munchies, right? That means our Friday night ritual of movies and finger-food is gonna change. Which also means that World Cup party you’re planning to host can’t have those little treats you’ve planned. And that means you won’t be able to blog about them. I’m sure they’ll taste great, but your readers will just have to do without them. Well, I guess they can surely look forward to your boiled cauliflower recipe!

Me: Wait, I won’t be able to blog about them?

An hour later, I couldn’t help but notice the mile long smile on Hubby Dear’s face as he bit into his Panner Pocket. We were nestled on our couch in front of the big screen TV watching our favourite movie. The cauliflower, if you’re wondering, is happily sitting in my fridge waiting to be turned into a lip-smacking snack in coming days.

And the weight thingie? Eh! Who says I’m out of shape? Round is a shape!!

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Morning Blues

Written by Meena Agarwal on March 2nd, 2007 | 24 Comments


Coconut-Almond Banana Bread
Coconut-Almond Banana Bread

Early mornings are always a hazardous affair at my household. Both me and Hubby Dear love to hold on strongly to our last few minutes of sleep. The alarm goes off and the snooze button is banged on a few times in a row, until it’s the absolute final second. Weekends however, are a whole other story altogether. We wake up not with the shrill tone of the ringing bed-side clock, but with brightness breaking  into the room through the drapes. No one fights to be the last to remain in bed. We each take our time in dragging our sleepy bodies out if it. What we do fight over though, is the weekend paper. You know, the ones so thick with all those different sections that would take you almost all day, had you the slightest will to read it all. To be precise, the comics section is what gets our undivided, unforgiving attention.

Growing up in a family where my Dad didn’t know how to start his day without his cup of tea and the morning national headline news; a Mom who didn’t care too much about politics but try as she might, found it hard to resist a good gossip in the entertainment section; and siblings who couldn’t care less about what was happening around them except for things that involved them personally; I was all too happy to have the likes of Garfield and Peanuts discarded my way! Aah, good times.

As I grew up and moved away from home, my weekend morning ritual continued. No matter how much of a frugal college student I was, I always saved up enough to get the Sunday paper to devour over with my morning cup. But now, with Hubby Dear and his swift hand, I can only but enjoy my coffee while I wait for him to get done before I am able to get hold of my morning laughs. And if there’s banana bread to keep me company while I eye him scornfully, then even better. Aah, good times!

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Intro to Indian, Part 1: Know your Spice

Written by Meena Agarwal on February 19th, 2007 | 31 Comments


Jeera Alu
Jeera Alu

In my quest to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is not for the faint hearted and to help spread my knowledge on cooking some simple and traditional Indian food, 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 collecetion 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 aluminium

When it comes to cooking simple Indian food, one 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 oneself 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 distict 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.

Previous installments of the Indian 101 series:

- Intro to Indian

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