Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Take Your Indian Cooking to the Next Level

To my non-Indian friends, who enjoy cooking Indian food..It's a rather long post, but it's meant for those who dream of exotic food all day long and constantly obsess over their ingredients....

Most of you have heard of Turmeric and Garam Masala and Ghee...But here are some ingredients that I think can help step up your game. If you want to move beyond naan, and greasy curries, and understand the beauty and simplicity of simple, home made Indian food, you need to get to know these ingredients. Some of these are short-cuts, but hey, every good cook has some dark secrets. Some of these ingredients sound really scary, but be brave, and just venture into your nearest Indian grocery store to find them, and you will be rewarded with new flavor awakenings.

1. Chaat Masala: It's a mixture of spices, usually sold in small cardboard boxes. I usually buy "MDH" brand, but most brands are good. "Chaat" means  "to lick". This spice is literally lip smacking. It's crucial for making an entire genre of food called, well, Chaat, which includes a plethora of street side grub. It can also be added to cooked dishes like Chana, various curries and to your Samosa mix. It's also great on salads, yogurt, and even freshly cut fruit (try sprinkling it on Watermelon).

2. Frozen Coconut: It's definitely not as nice as freshly broken and grated coconut. But have you tried braking a coconut? It's tough! Before you reach for the desiccated stuff, try the frozen version. It's like the difference between dried peaches and frozen peaches. Completely different things. You'll find flat plastic pouches of shredded coconut in the freezer (flattened, so you can easily break off a small portion for easy thawing). I use "daily delight" brand by default. Haven't tried others, so don't know about the quality of others. Break off a small piece, and there's a ziploc to seal the rest. It's best to thaw it at room temp (especially if you're not going to cook with it, and using it for garnish), but a few seconds in the microwave is fine too.

Here are some things I use it for. Making easy chutneys to go with dosa, idlis, etc., Roast and grind with other spices as a base for Sambar and lots of other curries, add (unroasted) to simpler vegetable dishes like french beans or carrots, mix with cilantro and spices to stuff vegetables (think potatoes, eggplants, okra, even tomatoes, onions, and bananas can be stuffed), as a garnish on savory snacks, certainly a good addition to chopped salads (goes excellent with beets), and last but not the least, cook with milk and sugar (or condensed milk) to make a fudge (think almond joy center, but creamier). Of course, the possibilities in baking are endless, but it is on the wet side, so take that into account when using in cakes, etc.

3. Canned Mango Pulp: If you're tired of paying a premium on Mango Lassis at the restaurants, and your home-made version with fresh, store bought mangoes doesn't taste just right, try the canned pulp, made from, well, "real" mangoes. No offense, but the fruits you buy at the grocery store, as tasty as it can be, are nothing like the mangoes we grew up with. I can easily go on a mango rant here (many of you have heard it), but basically, it's all about the breed of mango used that makes all the difference. Most Indian stores have "Alphonso" (also considered to be the king of mangoes..but I don't want to get into a war here), or "Kesar". They're both good, but have different fragrance. Try both and see which you like.

Simply open the can, blend with yogurt, sugar, ice, and some cardamom powder to enjoy fantastic Mango Lassi. Sometimes I also add rose water, but that's another post. It also makes great milk shakes, ice creams and "kulfis" (denser icecream popsicles made from reduced milk). I've also taken in further and turned it into fudges, bread puddings, cheese cakes, and even added it to cake batter and frostings (along with cardamom and pistachios). However, by far, the best way to enjoy it is in the form of "Ras", which is basically the pulp poured into a small bowl (with just a smidge of milk) and served as a main course with hot Puris (fried puffed breads). It can be a complete meal, or part of a special celebratory feast. Yes, it's absolutely divine.

4. Cardamom: How many baked goods recipes in the western world call for vanilla? That's roughly the same number of Indian dessert recipes that call for cardamom. It's the default flavoring agent for most sweets. It's actually so ubiquitous that many families add it to the morning cup of milk.  You can buy the powdered stuff, and I do keep it on hand for when I'm super busy, but for the most part, it's really better to crush it fresh. It's used in small quantities, so it's easy to do it in a small brass mortar and pestle that I mostly use for cardamom. Buy green pods (I tend to by "Swad" brand..for most spices, but it's not a strong preference). They stay in the pantry for a long time. When ready to use, take a few pods in the mortar, gently pound with the pestle, and then peel the skin to remove the seeds. Save the skin and throw it in your tea leaves (or save to add when you're boiling chai). Coarsely crush the seeds and they're ready to use. I also do this in the coffee grinder sometimes. I use a quick pulse to break the skin, then remove it by hand, and then grind the seeds in the grinder, and save in a small container in the fridge. I try to keep a small batch handy to sprinkle on stuff at all times.

To get started, try adding it to a cup of milk, followed by smoothies and milkshakes. You can then start adding it to other sweet stuff you make. It works very well with all things milk (hmm..maybe I'll try it with whipped cream). It doesn't always play well with vanilla (as the flavors are competing), but you might need to keep vanilla to mask eggy flavor in baked goods. It also doesn't play well with chocolate, but there are certainly exceptions. Cardamom is an entry point to the world of Indian sweets. It's a good excuse to move beyond the over-sweet Gulab Jamuns at the Indian restaurants, and Kaju Katli that your work colleague brings back from India trip.

It's also used in savory cooking, often along with other whole spices as a starting point in building a fragrant curry, or as I discovered after marrying a Sindhi, as the star flavor in cooking meat, eggplant and even a very unique dal. Either ways, the little green pod packs a lot of punch and can mesmerize you with its enchanting fragrance.

5. Asafoetida:  If you've already mastered the basic Indian "tadka", and can control black mustard seeds from spluttering all over your kitchen counter after adding them to hot oil, then you're ready for Asafoetida. "I've seen it in many Indian recipes, but never wanted to buy it."..."What is it?" Well, it possibly is one ingredient that is most unique to Indian cooking. Also known as "Hing", it's the resin of a tree, and is sold in the form of a lump, or more conveniently, as a powder. I grew up with the "Vandevi" brand, but I'm guessing most are fine. Just make sure it's powdered, otherwise, it's trickier to use (I'm sure some people will swear that lump form is the only way to go). Typically, you will need to puncture the plastic bottle to make a small opening to keep it fresh for a long time (and also to accidentally avoid adding too much to your dish....because that can essentially ruin it). Most recipes will call for a pinch of hing. They really mean a pinch. Seriously. No No..Seriously!

If you're new, try sticking to the recipes to get a feel for when it's appropriate to use. But in general, it's a great addition to cooking simple home-style vegetables (especially those without the elaborate fuss of browning and grinding onions and garlic or greasy curries). It's also very often used in tadkas for daals and kadhis. Many people find the aroma of hing in tadka similar to using onion and garlic, and there are some deep ayurvedic theories about this, but it's definitely an instant flavor boost. Another place I love its use (and this is where you can actually go beyond a pinch) is in the coconut stuffing I talked about earlier. A case in point is that glamorous Gujarati dish, Undhiyu. But that's a graduate-level course to pursue another day. Apparently, there are lots of medicinal benefits that Asafoetida imparts to your food, but from a culinary standpoint, it provides an irresistible aroma that you can't put your finger on.

6. Fenugreek: You remember the "Windex" dad from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"? For my dad, "Methi", or fenugreek is the solution to every problem. Seriously, he buys abnormal amounts of the stuff, and keeps making up new ways of curing ailments. I don't necessarily endorse his methods, but Methi can just be a delicious addition to your Indian food repertoire. It's used in various forms: tiny brown seeds, split seeds, seed powder, sprouted seeds, tiny shoots (like the fancy pea shoots), greens, and the dried greens (called Kasuri Methi). Each one with a different application. The most common forms you'll find in an Indian store are the seeds (usually in the Spice isle, next to mustard and cumin), the fresh greens (in the refrigerator, next to cilantro and mint), and the packaged dried Kasuri Methi (usually with other spices. It's the odd one to classify, so sometimes hard to find, but might be kept with dried mint). You can also find the frozen greens (in blocks, like frozen spinach). Most brands are fine. It's inherently bitter in taste, so can be a bit scary at first, but once you get to know it, it will open up a wide variety of applications.

The whole seeds are often used in Tadka, much like mustard and cumin, but almost always use a much smaller amount of methi, because just a bit much, and it can make the whole dish bitter. You also want to avoid burning the tadka, cause that can make it bitter as well. Roasted seeds are ground along with other spices in many south Indian masalas. It's also part of the whole spice mix "Panch Phoran" used extensively in the cooking from the north and eastern part of India.  Follow recipes initially till you get comfortable.

Here's an absolute fun project for little kids: soak methi seeds for about half hour, sow them in some potting soil in a small, shallow container and cover with half an inch of soil. Water daily for a week, and viola, you have methi shoots that are an incredible delicacy. You can use them in salads (like you would alfalfa sprouts), or mix with different kinds of flours to prepare fried snacks. There are also some long lost recipes that combine it with bananas for an unusual experience. The more mature version (which I've never grown at home) is used much more frequently. It manages to find its way in every single course. It combines really well with potatoes to make simple home-style vegetables to eat with rotis. It shows up in appetizers and parathas and rices and pulaos and daals. You might have seen the rich, creamy "methi malai mutter" in restaurants, which combines methi, peas and (gasp) cream. You'll sometimes find sugar in the recipes with methi to balance out the bitterness.  The powdered seeds also find its way into sweets (especially in the ones made for new moms), but now we're starting to get into the medicinal territory. And I don't want to sound like my dad now.

The dried methi is used as a finishing herb. You rub it in your hands (like you would dried Oregano), and add it to a curry right at the end. It will elevate your paneer or chole dishes to a whole different level. The dried version is not too bitter, but just imparts fragrance. Try it on naan..or even pizza (I haven't verified this one). Get to know methi. It's actually friendly. And it might even cure an ailment or two.

7. Curry Leaves: These leaves have no connection to that British concoction, curry powder. They are just green leaves (you'll find them with the fresh veggies, next to, say green chillies and ginger). They are, however, as a matter of fact, used to make curries. And Dals. And Kadhis (yogurt soups). And Chutneys. And ground into spice mixes. It's another essential ingredient in many many tadkas. Feel free to pair them in a tadka of mustard seeds, cumin, chillies, etc. I prefer not to actually eat them (much like Bay leaves), unless they're tender and have been fried to a crisp stage. But some people do. Try making a simple potato dish (almost like a hash), with a tadka of black mustard seeds, curry leaves, slit green chillies, hing and turmeric (in that order), sliced onions and cubed boiled potatoes. You will start to appreciate the subtle flavors it brings to table (along with a host of health benefits).

8. Tamarind: Part of the nostalgia of growing up in India is stealing fresh tamarind (or Imli) from neighbor's trees (or simply buying them in school recess for us city dwellers). Nothing can quite recreate that magic, but so much Indian food (and I guess Thai food too) would be incomplete without it. It's a dried fruit (usually de-seeded), that's sweet and tart at the same time (those who have tried it, I challenge you to think about it, and not salivate). You can buy it in the form of blocks, which, I have to admit are hard to break to get the right amount. They also need to be soaked in hot water for about 15-20 mins, and then pressed to get the pulp out. Or, do as I do when I feel lazy, and buy it in the form of pulp in a jar (which does have some preservatives..hey, remember dark secrets?). Do not confuse the plain pulp with Tamarind chutney (which has lots of other stuff in it, is absolutely delicious, and can basically replace your ketchup). My mom-in-law also uses the flowers of the Tamarind tree, but those can't be found here, and I file it under ultra-gourmet category.

Tamarind is quite central to south Indian cuisine, especially Sambar. But it's also used with similar effect in many other parts of India to add tartness to daals and simple vegetables. It's tartness (or sourness) that's along a completely different dimension than, say, limes, or tamatoes, or Kokum (another mysterious tart fruit that I won't go into right now), or amchur (dried mango powder). My mom-in-law has recipes where she goes ahead and uses all of these in the same dish. It's also used in meat curries in the south to give it that depth of flavor. It's difficult to imagine chat without the Imli chutney (makes you pucker), where it's flavor is really bold. In contrast, Maharashtrian cuisine uses it in a much more subtle and delicate manner, by balancing out the tart and sweet and spicy all together.
9. Jaggary: Which brings us to Jaggary. Way before the evils of white sugar became well known, jaggary has been part of daily Indian cooking. Silently adding sweetness to balance all the other bold flavors. It's surprising how often it is used in savory cooking in many parts of India (and I'm not just talking about Gujarat, which is known for it's sweetish cuisine). Jaggary, or "Gud" is raw sugarcane juice boiled and cooled until it sets. It looks like the Thai palm sugar. It's not refined, and supposedly contains iron and other minerals. It's sold in the Indian grocery store in large blocks (buy the smallest one you can find to get started. You don't want to be stuck with a five pound block, although, you can use it any place you use sugar, except in baking). There are different varieties available in stores, ranging from very hard to very soft, and it's a preference thing. I prefer to buy something that's on the softer side (just so I don't have to struggle with the block to get a piece in the middle of cooking). Where it's made also has some effect on the taste (since the process of making Gud varies from region to region). I'm not too picky, but do feel that I don't get the same taste here that I used to get back home.

Jaggary is really good friends with Tamarind (although, I think it's best friend is Ghee). Often in the western and southern parts of the country, you will find recipes that call for chillies, tamarind and gud together, to bring spicy, sour and sweet together. In Gujarati food (certainly in our household, growing up), it was added to almost every vegetable, especially if tomatoes were involved. We take it a bit too far, and also add it to our every day daal, which manages to scare away our Indian friends from other parts of India (including my husband). Try adding it to vegetables (say cooked spinach and tomatoes) and see if you feel comfortable. I would avoid adding Gud to curries with Onion and Garlic, unless the recipe specifies it and you're sure they know what they're doing. If you're scared of too much sweetness in savory food, start with using it in sweet stuff (duh! It's sugar!). I haven't used it in baking much, but if you're into raw sugar kind of thing, try it in something forgiving like a banana bread. You can also try some simple sweets for healthier snacking. It's used extensively in making brittles (think peanut brittle), paired with a hint of cardamom. You can eventually get to more elaborate Choorma Laddoos (my absolute favorite). Another simple way to enjoy it? Just pair it with a tiny bit of ghee and serve as a condiment to any meal (especially millet rotis). It's peasant food, but hey, sugar and can you go wrong with that?

10. Besan: Gluten-free, high-protein, low glycemic index. Chickpea flour is starting to get popular, and even starting to become available at health food stores. But a lot of the applications of Besan in Indian food aren't exactly considered "healthy". Of course, there are lots of really healthy uses too...but let's start with the more yummy ones.  In many ways, I think of Besan as the all-purpose flour of Indian cooking. For example, it's the flour used for frying. Yes, you make a batter with Besan, and then start frying everything under the sun. That's what you do when it starts raining outside. Add a few basic spices, some water, and then start adding every vegetable (or fruit) you can find in your fridge or pantry and fry. I have this absolutely unverified theory, that batter fried food soaks much less oil than the breading method (I'm sticking to it until I'm proven wrong). On a particularly rainy evening, you may end up with Pakoras of potatoes, onions, bell peppers, spinach, methi, eggplants, zucchini, baby corn, green chillies, tomatoes (needs a bit more skill), paneer, cheese (like cubes of cheddar), bread (sandwiched with chutneys or ketchup, and then dipped in the batter), peanuts, bananas (ripe ones!), and believe it or not, fresh ripe mangoes.

Another generic recipe is "cheelas", or flat, savory pancakes. If you can think of putting it in an omelette or a savory crepe, or a fritter, you can put it in a Besan batter and make flat pancakes. You're allowed to use baking powder or soda with it, or use fruit salt for more dramatic effects. It's a great vehicle to sneak in more veggies and protein into your diet, but in a really tasty way. Too much Zucchini? Grate it, and turn it into a cheela. Or try the classic onion, tomato, chilli cilantro combination. Once you start feeling comfortable with it, you can think of lots of ways to replace your AP flour with it. As far as healthy snacking goes, there's a wide variety of dangerous sounding (\cite Bollywood movie, 3 Idiots), savory "farsaans" to try from Gujarati cuisine, Ganthia, Fafda, Dhokla, and that super-delicate (and really tricky to master) Khandvi. Also, not to forget Maharashtra's ode to cilantro, Kothimbir vadi (and we're off the healthy wagon again). Try buying these dishes pre-made at the super-market first (in the snacks or frozen sections), to see if you like them before making them at home.

To further my claim that Besan is the AP flour of Indian cuisine, it's also used extensively in making sweets. A huge number of Indian sweets fall in three categories, those made with milk, those made with wheat, and those made with besan. Yes, there are also lots of other sweets, with lots of other ingredients, but these three cover a good range. Many of the besan sweets (or mithais) begin with roasting it in ghee over a low flame (to many of my western friends' surprise, we didn't grow up baking too much). This slow roasting gives out an amazing aroma and makes your entire home smell divine (this is also true with roasting wheat flour in ghee). From here, you can go in many directions, but most of them involve sugar, cardamom and nuts. Then there are the more magical ones made from boondi. Serious foodies might have heard of spaetzle. Now think of spaetzle made with besan, but instead of boiling water, you fry them (sometimes in ghee), and then soak them in sugar syrup..isn't that insane?

11: Empanada wrappers: Yes, I know I said Empanada wrappers, and you won't find them in an Indian grocery store. You'll usually find them in a freezer in the Spanish cooking section of your regular super market (where Goya products are kept). But it's my secret to making lots and lots of samosas for a crowd (or keep them in the freezer for a random Samosa craving). I once discovered them by accident, and have stuck to them since then. They are oblong shaped disks. Just thaw according to instructions, cut each one in half to get two semicircles, prepare a cone, so that the straight edges line up (use a little water to stick it properly), fill with your potato mixture, and press the ends, so that the seam is in the middle of the Samosa. Deep fry. Enjoy.

Hope this list makes you feel just a little less intimidated of the Indian Grocery store. Go in. Check out stuff. Stare at some of the strange looking veggies. Cheat a little. Check out the freezer. Save money on nuts and spices. Try something new, and take a journey to that land of diversity.


Beena Kapadia said...

Good Pallika.. v useful information.

Beena Kapadia said...

Good Pallika.. v useful information.