Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading about and experimenting with Indian curries. It’s been an enlightening and delicious endeavor. And naturally, I got a bit in over my head.
I’ve been reading Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham, a few Indian cooking blogs, and my new favorite cookbook, World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey
Collingham’s book is a fascinating, in-depth, if somewhat academic, look at the history of India and its cuisine. It even has recipes that accompany every chapter. I’m just a couple chapters in, and I know more about the Mughals and the Hindistanis than I ever thought I could.
What’s interesting is the contrast between the decadence of the rich, meat-heavy dishes of the Muslim Mughals and plain, simple vegetarian food of the Hindistani ascetics. The merger of the two cuisines, as far back as the 5th century, began to give an identity what we know as Indian food, combined with the European influences, shaken for a few hundred years, and poured out into delicious.
Since I planned for a culinary trip around the world, I figured it was time to invest in the Madhur Jaffrey book I’d been drooling over for months and months. We’ll visit World Vegetarian soon; it’s a lovely book with colorful anecdotes for every recipe. I enjoyed experimenting, trying several dishes, mucking up a couple of them, but I still felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.
I needed someone to hold my hand and say, “Leigh, you want to learn about Indian cooking? Start here.”
Someone like Meena at Hooked on Heat. Her Indian 101 and Intro to Indian series is the perfect entry-level cooking guide for the beginning Indian cook. Or Quick Indian Cooking, where Mallika has provided an extensive glossary that clears up a lot of my questions, like what is asafetida? There are also great how-tos at Salius Kitchen.
Here are some of the basics I picked up:
1) As we discussed last time, curry is made with vegetables (and meat if you must) and sauce cooked together and served with rice or bread (naan, roti). Curry should never be made with curry powder. Or ketchup. (I never would have thought of that. I hate ketchup almost as much as bananas.)
2) Curries frequently contain some or all following ingredients, so you might want to stock your pantry: cumin seeds, cumin powder, mustard seeds, coriander powder, garam masala powder, garlic, ginger, and green chilies the size of a pinky finger.
3) The flavors of curry vary by region, and are just too vast to name. I know, I really wanted a list too.
4) You can use just about anything as your curry base, vegetable-wise. I made a beet-mushroom curry from World Vegetarian a couple of weeks ago, and wow! It was something. Day one: awesome. Day two: beety.
All fired up and ready to cook, I started at the beginning with HoH’s Pindi Chana. Oh Maude, it did not disappoint. It’s fiery, sweet, tangy, and delicious. And it was so easy too, perfect for a weeknight meal. This time around I did not try to make the garlic-ginger paste. Instead, I used 4 cloves of garlic and 1 1/2-inch piece of grated ginger.
Even with something unfamiliar, I made a few changes. For one thing, I forgot to soak dried chickpeas overnight and used canned instead. My friend P has already scolded me. He is excited by my interest in his native cuisine, but he made me promise to always use dried beans from now on.
I also used canned tomatoes (which met P’s approval, since tomatoes aren’t in season), and I left out two ingredients that would have required a special trip to find: dried mango powder and dried pomegranate. Hey, what I don’t know won’t hurt me.
A recurring trick among the Indian recipes I’ve tried is to heat the whole spices in oil first thing to release their flavors. The whole house smells wonderful within seconds. When the onions and garlic go in, stand back. You may not be able to control yourself. But do. It’ll be worth the wait.
Pindi Chana (Spicy Chickpea Curry)
Adapted from Hooked on Heat
Serves 4 as main dish, 6 as side dish
2 15-oz cans chickpeas (see the original recipe for dried bean instructions)
1 tbsp canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large can diced tomatoes (use a large, fresh tomato when in season)
2 green chilies, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (or 4 cloves garlic, minced and 1 1/2 inch piece ginger, grated)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp garam masala
salt, to taste
cilantro, chopped for garnish (about 1/4 cup)
water, as needed
1) In a deep pan or wok, heat oil. Add cumin seeds. Cook 'til they begin to pop.
2) Reduce heat to medium-low, and add in onions, green chilies, garlic, and ginger. Cook a few minutes, until veggies are lightly browned.
3) Add salt and spices. Stir. Cook a few more seconds.
4) Add tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir. Cook a few more minutes, until well incorporated.
5) Add chickpeas and 1 cup of water. Drop heat to low. Cook 8 to 10 minutes.
6) Top with cilantro. Serve warm. Naan (bread) and rice make excellent accompaniments.
7) Breathe deep and try not to eat it all at once.
Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
263 calories, 7g fat, $1.11 (4 servings)
2 15-oz cans chickpeas: 700 calories, 14g fat, $1.58
1 tbsp canola oil: 120 calories, 14g fat, $0.08
1 medium onion: 40 calories, .2g fat, $.50
1 large can diced tomatoes: 150 calories, 0g fat, $1.79
2 green chilies: 4 calories, 0g fat, $.16
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste: 23 calories, 0g fat, $.08
1 tbsp tomato paste: 15 calories, 0g fat, $.10
1 tsp cumin seeds: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/2 tsp red chili powder: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp coriander powder: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp cumin powder: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp garam masala: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1 tsp salt: negligible calories and fat, $.02
1/4 cup cilantro: negligible calories and fat, $.02
Totals: 1052 calories, 28.2g fat, $4.43
Per serving: 263 calories, 7.05g fat, $1.11 (4 servings)