The more I cook Indian food, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. Every time I think that I have it all down, I find out something new, or I try something different, or I get an inspiration, or a read a book, and the curiosity all begins again, and I am back in the kitchen, cooking up a new batch of unravelled secrets.
And so it goes.
But I think that over the years of experimentation, cooking from books, eating foods of the Indian subcontinent in restaurants and private homes, talking with cooks from India, and cooking with them, that I have learned a few things about Indian cookery. And these few things I would like to impart to my readers, because one of the questions that comes up over and over in classes, in emails and on cooking forums is, “Why doesn’t my Indian food taste right? How do you make yours so good?”
The true answer is a complex, and long one, but what it boils down to is time and practice.I have spent a long time working and studying Indian food, and have cooked a lot of it, quite a bit of it for very demanding native palates. So, I learned.
But immense pressure is not needed to learn to cook Indian food well. I think the most necessary qualities for someone to learn to cook Indan food well is patience, the willingness to learn, and a palate that can be trained.
And here is where we come to my simple answer for learning how to make good Indian food: you have to learn how to make spices become friendly with each other.
And in Indian cookery, there are many ways to do this. There is no one “right” answer to the question of how to make strong flavors meld together. Myriad techniques to accomplish this have been developed in India over centuries, and not every cook uses each technique, but I think that the more you learn, the more fluent you will be in the language of spices.
Think of yourself as a diplomat of the kitchen. Your duty, is to be able to speak the language of both the “wet” spices: onions, garlic, ginger, fresh chiles and herbs such as fenugreek greens, curry leaves, cilantro and mint, and language of the dry spices: peppercorns, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ajwan, nigella, asafoetida, and chiles.
You have to recognize that each wet and dry spice speaks a slightly different dialect of their mother tongue, but there are certain commonalities of speech that unites all members of each group.
How do you learn to speak these languages?
By getting aquainted with each spice. And by this, I mean, learn its taste and smell, on its own, with nothing else.
When I teach Indian food in my beginner’s class, I open by passing around containers of the dry spices we will be using, as well as raw bits of the wet spices. I tell the students to smell each spice, and if they will do it, taste it as well. I always provide water for swishing out the mouth in between in order to cleanse the palate. I have found that when directed to do this–students are hesitant, but eventually, one brave one tastes, and then they all try a cumin seed here, or a mustard seed there. A bit of ginger goes into the mouth of one, and a brave one takes a sliver of chile.
I tell them that when they stock their spice cabinets in order to cook Indian foods, for them to take a notebook, and do the smelling and tasting exercise over again–and this time to write down their impressions in a notebook. I want them to record what they taste. How they feel. What they smell.
I tell them to go back a day later, and taste the spices again, in combinations of two, and write their impressions down again. I tell them to keep tasting, over and over, combining and recombining spices in tiny amounts, so they can learn the scents and flavors of the ingredients in their nostrils and on their tongues.
Every student has told me that my method has helped them immensely. In tasting spices in isolation and then in combination, they learned how to actually begin to taste individual spices in curry dishes in restaurants, much to their surprise.
Knowing the taste of each spice is like putting the key into the lock that will open the door to Indian cookery. It is the first step.
But one still has to turn the key.
That is where the various techniques of cooking spices comes in.
There are very few Indian recipes that actually use raw spices. In fact, I have not run across one yet. In every recipe, the cook is told to cook the spices in some way, shape or form. Even the garam masala powder that is sprinkled on a dish just before serving is made from spices that were roasted whole, and then ground.
Not only does cooking improve the digestiblity of spices, but it opens up their aromas and tasts, like flowers blooming.
The simplest way in which spices are cooked are in the pan, in oil or ghee, as a first step toward making a curry. If there are onions in the dish, they go in first, with a little salt, in order to help them release their moisture. Then, they are stirred as they cook slowly to a deep golden brown color. Then, other spices are added as called for in the recipe. Perhaps some whole mustard seeds. Or some slivers of fresh ginger and sliced chiles. Or some whole cumin. At any rate, these are stirred together with the onions until the onions are a deep reddish brown. (Here is where the key in the lock turns a quarter turn–brown your onions deeply for many Indian foods, unless directed by the recipe otherwise. Most Americans are too timid about the onions. We tend to cook ours no more deeply colored than a golden brown. That will make a weakly flavored sauce. Keep going until those onions are a rich reddish brown. Just keep stirring and if they start to turn black, take the pan off the fire, and cool it immediately–dumping out the onions into a bowl to cool off if you have to.)
Once your onions are almost reddish brown, add any ground spices or spice paste and keep stirring until the onions are reddish brown and the whole room is fragrant with the delicious scent of spices mingling in a hot pan. The key has turned another little way.
Notice what we have done, in cooking the spices in hot oil. We do it in stages. We don’t dump all the spices in at once. There is a method to this–it is called “building flavor.” Gradually putting the spices into the dish in a certain order allows the maximum amount of flavor bloom to occur in the hot oil, without the spices burning. If we put the onionss in the pan, and then just threw in the garlic and the mustard seeds and the chiles and cooked them at the same time, the garlic and mustard seeds would burn before the onions were browned enough and the chiles would probably overextract and be very overpowering.
But putting them into an order, and layering the flavors in is a way of introducing these strong flavors so they can start building a beautiful friendship together.
Once the spices are cooked together in the pan, one can either take them out and grind it all into a paste, or leave them as they are. This depends on whether one is making a smooth curry sauce, or a more rustic sort of chunky curry. Pureeing the spices and cooked onions brings a body to the sauce, which improves the mouthfeel and the flavor of the finished curry.
In either case, the ingredients that will make the sauce are added, and the dish simmers.
The key is getting ready to turn again: the longer the flavor is simmered (or, conversely–the more pressure it is cooked under–if one owns and uses a pressure cooker for Indian cooking), the better the flavors will be. Indian sauces thicken by reduction–there is no use of roux or cornstarch to thicken them. Ground onions or nuts add thickness, but primarily, curries are thickened by allowing water to simmer away.
The longer that process takes the better.
Which is why I somtimes will make my sauce ahead of time–up to one whole day ahead and then cook the food in it the next day.
The key turns a half turn here: it takes time for friendships to develop.
When people ask me how I manage to cook big Indian feasts, I smile and say, “I cook large amounts of it the day before and then heat it up the night of the dinner.” When they are incredulous–I point out that every curry I have ever cooked has tasted better the next day, because the spices have all had a long night to mingle and get used to each other.
Another way to build flavors and get your spices to mingle is to make a tarka and pour it into the dish just before serving. A tarka involves the cooking of whole spices–my favorites are cumin and mustard seeds, in heated oil or ghee until they turn toasty brown, smell wonderful and the mustard seeds pop like wee popcorn kernels. (You can also add chiles, onions and garlic to tarkas.) Then the whole sizzling panful is poured over whatever dish is in need of it, just before serving. If you clap a lid on the pot right after pouring in a tarka, then carry the serving pot out to the table, when you unveil your creation, the diners are enwreathed with clouds of fragrant steam.
A dramatic presentation does much to stimulate hunger.
Finally, the sprinkling of garam masala at the end of cooking or just before serving. I think it is best if you make yours fresh, from spices you have toasted. Toasting them is simple: you put them in a heavy-bottomed skillet or pan and shake it over high heat until your spices turn brownish and take on a rich nut-like aroma. At that point, you pour them out into a small bowl, let them cool a bit and then grind them. That is it. It is simple. And if you store your garam masala in a good airtight little jar, it will stay fragrant and good for a couple of weeks–longer, if you leave it in the freezer.
That final sprinkle of toasted spices is like a kiss, a little fillip at the end, a grace note. A final wave before sending your creation out to be appreciated.
That is the final turn of the key, and the lock clicks, and the door swings open.
Of course there are finer points to be learned about Indian cookery. There are other techniques, other methods to use to get the maximum flavor from your spices. But these are the basics–these are all part of the key, which is to know what your spices taste like and learn to combine them together in a way that will make them meld together into a dish that is a perfect balance of flavors, such that no single spice dominates (unless that is the point of the dish) and every ingredient flows together into a seamless whole.
There, friends. I have given you my key–now, go and find the lock and fearlessly open that door.
Culinary wonders and gustatory joy await you on the other side.
Note: Good News!
Thanks to Maureen, who is an avid reader here, and her persistence, I can now tell you that Williams-Sonoma is carrying the Sumeet Multi-Grind in their mail order catalogs. I have seen it so with my own eyes–the new catalog came in today, and lo and behold, there it is on page 16: the exact model that I have. As I have said many times before, it is the best tool for grinding spices and making spice pastes for Indian food, Thai food and Mexican food, ever.
The Sumeet Multi-Grind is only available in the catalog and online; its product number is #75-7595119, and is going for $99.00, which is not a bad price. Zak spent a good deal more to buy mine and have it shipped from India, because I saw it in a magazine and fell in love with it and had to have it. (This was eight years ago, and he has never regretted that purchase. Neither have I.)
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