"To curry favor, favor curry," said Peter Schikele. He is a music expert, not a food expert; yet there is much good in his advice. Nothing feels quite so exotic as to sit down before a table of hot Indian food redolent of roasted coriander & cumin, of cardamom, cumin, ginger, fenugreek, cinnamon and a host of other heavenly things. Each cook has her own recipe for curry; and most cooks will have a number of recipes based on the food to be cooked.
Though it is first the heavenly aroma we think of first when contemplating Indian cuisine, the truth is that its strength lies in is breadth. There are few foods that are not cooked in India. And because vegetarian eating was established there many centuries ago, this is the best place to search for novel vegetarian prparations.
But meat lovers have a lot to learn, too. Indian cooking can take the most flavorful and toughest cuts of meat, simmer them in exotic sauces, and produce some of the most profoundly delicious meat dishes known to man. Beef is eaten here, but the best meat dishes are made with lamb and chicken. In fact, one of my fondest food memories is a lamb dish I ate in Windsor, Canada in 1985 cooked by a Brahmin whose father, he told us, cooked for Ghandi.
India is a physically big place. And it is home to over one billion people. It is made up of a number of regions including:
And its diet varies by region. In the northwest, wheat and meat are what they eat. Lentils figure prominently, but fresh produce is not quite so important as it is further south. Spice mixes tend to be not very peppery. As one moves south, the grain of choice is rice. Vegetables are a much more prominant part of the diet, and spice mixes get hotter. Kerala is on the western coast of the India's southern tip. It was here that the Portugese founded a spice trading colony four centuries ago. And Portugese influence is found in its major cities, especially Goa. That is one of the few places in India where pork is cooked.
Indian cooking has evolved a number of highly positive qualities:
This is the same list of merits as that of Chinese cooking. While they share many common characteristics, the spice mixtures of India are more fragrant and varied. And throughout India milk and dairy products are used in cooking.
Indian cooking is better suited as a basis for vegetarian and vegan cooking. One reason is that the highest caste in India is the Brahman caste. Vegetarianism is a tenet of that class. For thousands of years the most highly educated and most privileged of Indians ate vegetarian cooking. Nowhere else in the world have so many people with so many resources honed vegetarian cooking for so long.
All of us have a lot to learn about cooking from vegetarians. The going theory is that we would all be better off if we increased the amount of vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in our diets.
The central theme of Indian vegetarian cooking is rice and dal. Rice can be prepared simply or it can be flavored with saffron, cumin, mustard seed, and so on. Dal can be made from red or green(brown) lentils and may be flavored with cumin, corriander, cloves, cinnamon, saffron, black and red pepper, fenugreek, garlic, onion, and so on.One of Indian Cooking's secret weapons is ghee, clarified butter. When heated, butter separates into fats and curds. Separate out the curds and you have ghee. Even after being clarified, butter is one of the more flavorful cooking oils. And when it has been clarified it is stable at high temperatures. This makes it ideal for frying. In terms of flavor and high temperature stability, it is the best material for sauteing vegetables, making curry pastes, browning, and cooking in general.
Another of Indian Cooking's secrets is the tempering of spices. Spice mixtures for all sorts of dishes will contain ground corriander, cumin seeds or ground cumin, mustard seeds, ground fenugreek, ground turmeric, pepper, and many other things. One of the first steps in cooking is to roast the spices.
When mustard seeds and cumin seeds are in the mixture, you roast until they pop. When the mixture is all ground spices, you roast, stirring constantly until they start to smoke. Then, you pay close attention, mixing carefully. Suddenly they will subtly turn color, from mid brown to just a tiny bit darker. Simultaneously, they will start to smell toasted. At this point they are done. Remove them from the pan immediately.
One of the most important issues in cooking good food, whatever sort it may be, is to have in mind the result. So those who would seriously undertake to cook Indian food owe it to themselves to find places where they can try it out for themselves. Try a dish, then cook it from a cookbook. With a bit of trial and error, you will soon be able to capture the flavors and aromas of the world's most exotic cuisine.
Indian cooking is full of secrets, and half the joy of eating Indian food is the joy of discovery. I recommend that you find a good Indian restaurant and try a number of the dishes. Until you do this, the cookbooks will not make sense. But once you catch the sense of Indian cooking your appetite for it could be insatiable.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.