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How to Cook Indian

May 23, 2014

The things I learned after a year at the Institute for Advanced Study are not typical for an extended stay on these storied grounds. Sure, I took in a little bit about particle physics and string theory. I was exposed to a few math conversations that I couldn’t even begin to understand. But I learned some stuff about food that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The baba ghanoush came first, and as I became more proficient in this roasted eggplant spread, I built up the confidence to try hummus.

Hummus, as I came to learn, is deceptively complicated. It looks super simple, but with only a few ingredients, each element has to not only be delicious but also balanced in perfect harmony with the others. This is especially tricky because all lemons are different, not all tahini is created equal, and chickpeas can be fickle. And for my Israeli friends, a silky smooth texture is critical. Yes, you can make this without removing the skin from the beans, but it’s so much better when you put in the extra effort.

Most recently however, I’ve had the veil lifted from my eyes about Indian cooking. While chana masala is a staple of my family’s diet, I have always used a boxed spice blend. To be fair, I never confused this with actually cooking. But the class I took on dosa making revealed just how easy making a cilantro chutney could be, and how few ingredients one required to make spiced potatoes.

Still, it was one act of kindness that really pushed me over the edge.

Our downstairs neighbors are returning to India on Sunday. They were the ones who invited us over for Diwali earlier this year. And after the dosa class, I shared a batch of coconut chutney I made with them. Actually, we had a fun little food exchange going on for a while. I’d send Little Miss Fussy down with a plate of something I made. At some other point, we’d hear a knock on the door, and one of the neighbor kids would be making a delivery of some special treat.

One day, AD showed up with a brand new cookbook. She had been in town, saw it, and realized that I had to have it. The book was by one of her favorite Indian cookbook authors, and she had no idea that this fellow had written anything in English.

The author is Sanjeev Kapoor and his book is How to Cook Indian: More than 500 Classic Recipes for the Modern Kitchen.

Wow.

This thing is filled with a treasure trove of recipes, from the very simple to the incredibly complex. Beverages, sides, snacks, desserts, meats, lentils, breads, Indo-Chinese, and more. It’s all in there. And thus began my descent into madness.

When inspiration strikes, I sometimes go a little overboard. So even though we’re leaving New Jersey at the end of June, I went out to the good Indian market and picked up four more two pound bags of special lentils. Really, I was just there for curry leaves, but like I said I was bit by the bug. So when I saw a huge display of fresh green bunches of something called “methi” I figured it must be important, so I grabbed the nicest looking one I could find. And of course I had to get some sweetened mango puree for the boy.

Turning to my new trusted resource, I found out that methi was the fenugreek leaf. Of course Sanjeev had recipes, and I found an easy one in methi aloo. He jokes that in his house growing up it was sometimes aloo methi. His mom and dad came from different states where a different ingredient took center stage in this classic dish.

For the record, mine was more aloo methi, and it was delicious. But that was really just a side dish. Dinner was primarily going to be the leftover scraps of lamb that I took off the shank back around Passover. I had faked my way through a lamb curry before using onions, yogurt and a store-bought garam masala blend. But this time I wanted to do something legit. So I found Dahi Kheema.

Granted, this is traditionally a ground lamb dish that’s cooked with spices in a yogurt sauce. My lamb was more finely chopped, but I figured it would be fine, and it was. Here’s what I learned though. Even though this book is written in English, it isn’t dumbed down for American tastes. Thankfully I know just how hot Indian green peppers are, and when the recipe called for 6-7 green chiles I limited it to one. It also calls for 2 teaspoons of cayenne powder. I used a pinch. While I may be able to take the heat, I’m still cooking for kids.

As it was, the dish still had a slow smouldering heat. Not enough to make you reach for a glass of water, but hot enough to make you take notice. Which isn’t to say the kids liked it. No bother. More delicious lamb for me and Mrs. Fussy. Which isn’t to say everything in the book is fiery, I made a lentil dish Varan that has no chili peppers at all.

Anyhow, had I stopped there, all would have been well with the world. Really, what I wanted to do was to make some roti to go along with the meal, but I didn’t have any whole wheat flour. I did have all-purpose flour and I honestly thought at the time that it was effectively the same thing as maida (refined Indian flour).

No. No, it’s not. Some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

First I sifted, and weighed out all my dry goods down to the gram. Then I fastidiously measured out wet ingredients using liquid measuring cups, kneaded, oiled, rested, cut, rolled, stretched, formed, and baked.

In the end I was a sweaty mess and had on my hands seven inedible planks of hard, dense dough. Thankfully, there was enough leftover brown basmati rice to serve with the yogurt lamb, methi potatoes, cilantro chutney, dal and the old faithful chana masala. I still have a freezer full of the stuff, and while I’m learning other recipes, I suspect this family favorite will remain a staple in our lives.

Minor setbacks aside, I’m on my way. I promise to keep you posted when I hit on something so incredible that you’ll simply have to make it yourself.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 23, 2014 3:20 pm

    I love beans and rice from all different cultures, so I recommend trying cowpeas curry. I mix in some kidney beans because they are a little more creamy.

    I also recommend Dakhin, a South Indian cookbook that is fairly easy to use. (It’s out of print, though.)

    I also HIGHLY recommend upma. http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/upma-savoury-south-indian-breakfast-recipe-made-with-semolina/
    This is closest to my own recipe and it makes a truly wonderful breakfast. I use one green chili and all the suji tends to mellow it enough so that it’s not too spicy for breakfast.

    Also: PEECTURES!!!!

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