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 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 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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The Weight Issue: Paneer Pockets

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

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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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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Cooking for Mr. Okra

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

Growing up in a household where vegetables were always given high preference over it’s non-vegetarian counterparts, I wasn’t too happy. Like any rebellious 12 year old, I despised anything green and considered “healthy” in my Mom’s dictionary. As a spunky 17 year old starting fresh at college and living in a hostel miles away from the caring tender fingers that caressed Mom’s cooking, I had grudgingly succumbed myself to the meals catered at the campus. To my added disappointment, not only did the food lack in flavour and eye appeal, it also somehow failed in providing me with the limited array of greens that I actually thought were edible, to say the least.

Somehow, between the humdrum of a busy schedule and an even busier college life, one could easily manage chugging down meals without a moments notice. That is, until one gets the same dish – mind you, same tasteless flavour and all, for five consecutive meals. Yes, five! And that was where I decided to draw the line and gift myself with a pan or two, and some basic starters to a home cooked meal. The dreaded dish if you wish to know, was okra.

It’s not hard to believe that I graduated through cooking for myself for the next few years without so much as a slight glance at the okra. Never was there a shopping spree through the fresh produce section where I stopped and smelt the darned vegetable. And never had it, for as long as I can remember, ever taken a place in my cart. That is, of course, until I met the then would-be Hubby Dear. Like a sudden twist of fate in any classic crime story (the crime here was of course committed against the okra, damn you okra!), on one of our first food conversations, Hubby Dear had candidly confessed to having a secret love affair with the dreaded pod.

Now what was a poor little girl like me supposed to do! I’d heard endless tales of how a man’s heart could easily be won through the deeds done for his stomach. Seeing that I had promised to cook him his favourite meal didn’t make my case any easier. So there I was trudging through the fresh produce section, not only smelling, but also picking my first pound of okra, and giving it a place in my cart. And like anyone gifted with an unwanted pet that’s impossible to give away, you accept your kismet and just get used to it. And hopefully eventually, but surely, you’ll learn to love it.

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Looking back…

Chilli Paneer
Chilli Paneer

Christmas came and went, but not without filling us up to the brim with good food and great company. The cookie jars have been emptied, and the Christmas tree stands in all it’s glory waiting to be taken down by some lazy people (read: Hubby Dear!) who’d rather postpone the daunting task till the next Christmas.

While we’ve gorged on feasts of rich sinful food the past couple of days, it’s now time to loosen down a little before the biggest feast of the season – the New Year’s Dinner that I plan and carry out with much elegance. The menu has been tried and tested, the serving dishes have been laid out and friends and loved ones have been duly warned to come with ready and growing appetites.

The year end always brings me to a point where I can’t help but take a stroll down memory lane and acquaint myself once more with all the good, and some not-so-good memories that passed me by. This blog has been a wonderful outlet for me in times of joy and contemplation. My food speaks of my various moods and my write-ups brought me closer to my inner thoughts.

When I woke up this morning, I knew I just had to put in a final post for 2006, and it just had to be done today. Why? Well, because I’m a complusive hostess, and throwing a party means that I’m preparing for it well in advance. Hubby Dear can vouch for that! So, anyways, as I was saying, I wanted to write in a last post for this year, and what better than to follow it up with a recipe so dear and near to my palate. Being a sucker for spicy food, this dish brings together the best of the East and West. It’s a perfect blend of spice and all that’s nice, and quick run-to option on cold deary days when the heart wants some warmth!

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That time of year…

With the hustle-bustle of the holiday season all around you, one can’t help but feel the joy. There is, definitely, something good in the air. And of course, all the sugar being consumed does play a good part in keeping spirits high! While I haven’t even begun to wonder what my holiday baking would comprise of, I have started to however, work my way through to richly comforting meals. Yes, the cold winds do make me find comfort in my foods most times.

Alu (Potato) Korma

I remember a time not so long ago, when all I would eat on cold wintry nights were bowlfuls of hot chicken-noodle soup. Now, times have changed, and with it, so have my moods evolved. I do still enjoy the occasional soup, but I find myself on most days craving something else. These cravings almost always vary depending on what I envision myself eating that night.

When I went to my kitchen today to make a quick fix for dinner, little had I known what would come out of it. A look into the fridge told me that I was missing anaything and evrything that could create something festive. But as always, the culinary instincts refused to back down. A bag of cute red baby potatoes called out to me, and I found my myself picking out flavours to go with it. Had I known that these cute little guys could make me swing a few minutes later, I would’ve atleast played some holiday music!

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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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