Dreaming of India: Geography, History and Food
Follow me to a far off land, with ladies fair and beasts quite grand.
India is place that defies easy descriptions. Like the United States it has a wide diversity of regions and cultures.
It has deserts.
Flood plains and wetlands.
Mountains. And not just any piss ant mole hill. They've got Himalayas.
Rivers. Steppes. Rain forest. Temperate forest. Beaches.
And people. Lots of people.
And all those people, they gots ta eat. And they do alright for themselves.
Whooooa. Slow down there bub. These cows, they ain't for eatin'.
Now you got the right idea.
This is a thread about India. We're in GWS, so clearly this thread will have a heavy food component, but its not all going to be just about that. Culinary traditions don't arise in a vacuum, especially not ones as rich as India's. So in addition to being a jumping point for an ongoing exploration of Indian cuisine, which I hope will include many of you, this thread will also elaborate the history, culture and regions that made this food truly a product of India.
This thread will have (at least) three parts.
- A primer of India, its 28 states, its history and the impact on India's food as well as some minutae about India that I find to just be interesting and worth sharing.
- A primer of the central ingredients, seasonings and techniques that characterize Indian cooking. Like any culinary tradition, Indian food is a collection of flavors and techniques employed on fresh local produce. With these in hand, even if you don't want to play with classic Indian dishes, you can utilize the flavors and style of Indian cooking in whatever food you like to eat.
- A collection of links to Indian recipes produced by the forum for others to peruse and hopefully try something themselves. This part will mostly be whatever comes of the thread and will end up being as big or small as we deign to make it.
I plan on making ongoing additions and changes to the content in the initial posts. I'm certainly not an expert and am continually learning about this subject, so I welcome your insights. This thread isn't going to be comprehensive, and I certainly don't mean it to be. You could fill books on the topics we'll touch on in this thread. I hope to hit some of the broader points to give you a general feel and better context. That way you'll be able to jump in and do your own digging with your own specific interests in mind.
I've broken the thread into the replies so that (once this thread is completely finished and full) you can bookmark just the techniques so you don't have to scroll and hunt.
- 1 Wrapping your head around India
- 2 What makes India so special?
- 3 The Big Cultural influences on the food
- 4 India State By State
- 5 Foooooooooooooooood
- 5.1 Credit where credit is due
- 5.2 Important Indian Spices
- 5.2.1 Pepper
- 5.2.2 Cumin (Jeera)
- 5.2.3 Black Cumin (Kala Jeera)
- 5.2.4 Asafoetida (Heeng)
- 5.2.5 Nigella Seeds/Onion Seeds (Kalaunji)
- 5.2.6 Green Cardamom (Elaichi, or small cardamom, Choti Elaichi)
- 5.2.7 Black Cardamom (Kali Elaichi, or big cardamom, Badi Elaichi)
- 5.2.8 Coriander Seed (Dhania, Sookha)
- 5.2.9 Amchoor
- 5.2.10 Tamarind (Imli)
- 5.2.11 Saffron (Kesar)
- 5.2.12 Turmeric (Haldi)
- 5.2.13 Mustard (Rai)
- 5.3 Other Quintessential Indian Ingredients
- 5.4 Important Tools for Indian cooking
- 5.5 Techniques and common preparations
Wrapping your head around India
Like I've said, India's big. When reading through the numbers and the names, its very easy for the unfamiliar to get lost, to lose their bearings and walk away with vague, unhelpful impressions. So to start off lets think about and visualize some comparisons. These will make things more familiar to our stateside audience. Apologies to goons abroad.
India covers an area of roughly 3.3 million km2. A little more than a third of the area of the United States.
Now, if you visualized the landmass of India as a puzzle of different US states, it'd look like this...
And be composed of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Florida, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Connecticut.
Now take three times the number of people living in the United States and cram them into that area. 1.148 Billion people, roughly one fifth of humanity teeming inside India's border. And they're not uniformly spread out, by any means. Large swathes of this land is either wilderness or cropland. Roughly 2/3's to 3/4's of the population live in rural areas engaged in agricultural lifestyles.
While poverty is widespread in some areas, India has urban centers on scale with major US metropolitan areas with high levels of development. India has an extensive national highway system connecting all areas of the country as well as railroad infrastructure.
The extent of state highways varies by state, but all of them are serviced to some extent. District roads are where the real disparity between rich and poor districts shows up. All and all, even with the national highway system, India has a fraction of the road length of the USA servicing three times the population. One of the results of this is that the rails are heavily used for travel, especially by the millions of hindus who make their pilgrimage to Varanasi every year.
All of these aspects have had an effect in some way or another on Indian cuisine. The infrastructure means that areas with access to the national highway system have a broad access to all of the goods available within India as well as products from abroad, for those who can afford these luxuries. What this means for the bulk of the population living in rural areas, many of them in poverty, is that people only have access to local produce and goods. This in turn means there is a regional variety even within the big tent of Indian cuisine. I'll elaborate on the particulars in some of the state by state sections, but the big point for now is this: For many of us being a "locavore" is trendy, and for many not that feasible, but in India its the mode out of necessity. Poverty certainly plays a role in this. One of the primary cooking oils and flavors in the cuisine of Bihar is frying in mustard seed oil. But one of the main reasons so many people use mustard seed oil in Bihar is because its one of the poorest (and largest population wise) states in India, so most of the residents can't afford ghee, the cooking oil of choice in many other regions.
What makes India so special?
Lots of things. India as we know it is a unique place in space and time that hit big wins in quite a few lotteries. It lays in a geological, geographical, biodiversity, historical and socio-cultural sweet spot. To get the whole picture you have to go back. Way back.
To Gondwana, roughly 250 million years ago.
Back then, India was just another face in the crowd. Just another piece of the contiguous landmass, part of one big, fierce ecosystem. But then something happened. India was tired of the ole Gondwanagang and decided to make a break for it.
India is in the upper right, you can see Madagascar shooting off about 75 mya.
India is barely on the screen in this one on the far right.
So India went from being a part of a large continent to being an island. But Yiggy, why the hell does this matter and what does it have to do with yummy Indian treats. Trust me, it does. When India split off from the main continent, it took a chunk of the greater ecosystems plant and animal species and marooned them on an island. And when species are stuck on an island for a couple million of years, they start to... chhaaaange.... For anyone who wants a really good treatment on the myriad ways that island biogeography influences evolution, David Quammen breaks it down in simple terms in his book The Song of the Dodo, one of my all time favorite reads.
Short and simple, species that survive better across continents tend to suffer on smaller land masses, and evolutionary strategies that wouldn't cut it on the mainland can thrive in island ecosystems. Now, even back then the Indian subcontinent wasn't that small, so evolutionary trends that you'd see in other places weren't as extreme. When you look at Madagascar, which splintered off from India on its flight North, you see island biogeography and evolution in concert to produce some of the coolest wildlife on the planet (most of it in threat of extinction now ). But there is still an effect on large islands. Just look at Australia to get an idea why; a unique cache of mammals, poisonous spiders and other great stuff you won't find anywhere else. India served as a raft for biological and evolutionary ferment much like this, stewing for over 50 million years. And then that raft found its way back to land.
And all that funky island wildlife got reintroduced with long lost cousins. The subduction zone created between the colliding plates also created a bunch of new ecosystems and niches including the Himalayas.
This created a perfect storm for the development of one of the richest sets of ecosystems and biodiversity on the planet. All of these species thrived and competed for ten million years. India's location meant that even during the last Ice Age, India was untouched with its vegetation and ecosystems mostly consisting of savannah, tropical grassland and rainforests.
What are some cool things you can find in India? Well besides elephants, tigers, saltwater crocodiles and asiatic lions (the last existing wild population anywhere) they have Mynah birds. [cooler than the mockingbird. Pack it up Texas].
Enter Homo sapiens sapiens, roughly 50,000 years ago. Earliest fossil evidence of modern humans was found in caves in Sri Lanka and date to ~40,000 years ago. Remains found in Uttar Pradesh, a central Indian state, date to ~19,000 years ago. Especially once the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, India was the perfect home for humanity. Its range of ecosystems from mountains, steppes, river plains, forest, desert and grassland formed a Vertical Economy, a collection of different ecosystems in close proximity from which humans could harvest, trade and thrive. In his book Oak: The Frame of Civilization, William Bryant Logan describes three such vertical economies that allowed human civilization to form and grow, one being the Indus river valley, the other two being the Tigris-Euphrates river valley in mesopotamia and the vertical economy formed in the steppes of the Andes in Peru (for a great read on the birth of civilization in the Peruvian vertical economy you should check out 1491 by Charles C. Mann).
Another important aspect to India's success and lushness is the abundance of rivers. Having rivers can make a big difference in how easily a civilization will succeed in any given area. In his book The End of Poverty Jeffrey Sachs explains how one of the reason Africa has always had problems is a poverty of inland rivers and waterways. India's abundance of rivers made it a land ripe for agriculture.
There is a reason over a billion people live in India, its one of the best places on Earth. And all of those weird twists that lead to the evolution of tons of different plants and animals, why did that matter? Because people eat that stuff. Some of the best spices come from this land, including pepper. Thats right, one of the two most important seasonings (in any tradition) is native to India and a product of its rich biological and geological history.
The Big Cultural influences on the food
India has always been characterized by syncretism, with the variety of cultural practices arising from the different corners of the continent blending and bleeding together. This means that even though there can be differences in views, sometimes strong, there is still a strong tendency to coexist, adopt parts from other cultures that are liked, and ignore the rest as best as possible. The two biggest developments in the last few millenia with regards to strong influences on the cuisine are the rise of three major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) and even more recently the control of the Mughal (or Moghul) empire from 1526 to 1707.
Hinduism as a religion dates back several thousand years, and in all of this time has adapted in several ways to encompass a broader Indian philosophy with several schools of thought. Now, I'm going to reserve comment on this area because I don't know a whole lot and don't want to make a total boob of myself, but theres a bunch of interesting info out there to read about for anyone that would like to digest it. With regards to food, a central tenet of the Hindu religion is Ahimsa, "do no harm", a driving influence behind the long tradition of vegetarian cuisine in India. Large portions of the population live with some variation of a vegetarian dietary restriction.
Meat eating is widespread as well, more so among muslim populations, but when meat is eaten it is normally restricted to seafood, lamb or chicken. In fact, fast food is wildly succesful in India right now. KFC has opened several locations, and Church's Chicken recently made a move into the market. McDonald's has adapted its menu to include lamb burgers and vegetable nuggets to cater to local tastes. No beef though. In most of the states cattle slaughter is banned. That said, there is still a small tradition of beef eating, which I'll mention in the Gujarat section.The ban on beef slaughter makes sense though, because cows provide a staple food for the people of India. From cows they get milk, yogurt, paneer cheese, cooking oils (ghee), and cow dung to fertilize crops. The cattle is also used for draft and farm labor. All of these factors make the cow a very important part of the Indian way of life.
Most of the traditions for preparing meat, and a great deal of other Indian dishes particularly in Northern India, originate from the Mughal empire's influence. The predominant culture for this muslim empire was Persian. Its presence in Indian cuisine comes with the style of most meat preparations as well as the methods of cooking Indian dishes in thick, fatty sauces infused with spices. They brought the method of cooking meat tandoori style, in pits on skewers. Meat dishes cooked this way were normally kabobs prepared in roasting pit ovens. Another popular way of preparing meat dishes was to make forcemeats/meatballs, fry and sear them and them cook them in some sort of curry. Still, Mughal rulers respected the locals' shock and horror at beef eating, and so meat consumption among muslims was still limited to lamb and poultry. The stretches of the empire around Kabul, once a major Mughal city and now capital of Afghanistan, embraced beef eating traditions, but they didn't catch on in India.
So in a nutshell, vegetable culinary tradition stretching back 6 millenia with the Hindu religion, and cooking techniques and meat eating heavily influenced by the muslim, Mughal empire.
India State By State
Now, originally I was gonna do this all by myself. And as it gets closer to the end while I'm filling in all the blanks, I'll write something about every state. But others in GWS (Particularly Two Headed Calf) have expressed interest in doing something like this but with more of a group effort. Well, no reason we can't start now. So, since this is going to be one of the parts of the thread I'm finishing last, I'm opening this up to other posters to take a role if you'd like. India has 28 states, ample ground for anyone to cover, so the more the merrier. Some of them, like the far eastern Indian states, are kind of small and can be grouped up, but still lots of stuff.
Initially I claim dibs on Gujarat and Assam, everything else though will be checked off the list as I get to it, but even then others are welcome to contribute. If you'd like to volunteer to do some research and try to put together a cultural report or a sample of dishes evocative of specific states in India, feel free to post or PM me and I'll put your name on the list of who is working on what. Or, feel completely free to just put something together and post it when you're done, and we'll edit it in somewhere in the thread. This goes for all of the sections, cultural input, spices, techniques. I've very much like to encourage GWS participation.
Here's the tentative working list.
- Andhra Pradesh
- Arunachal Pradesh
- Assam - being worked on by Yiggy
- Goa - Being worked on by Two Headed Calf
- Gujarat - being worked on by Yiggy
- Himachal Pradesh
- Jammu and Kashmir
- Karnataka - being worked on by Publicblast
- Madhya Pradesh
- Tamil Nadu
- Uttar Pradesh
- West Bengal
Now, I didn't snatch up the most interesting states or anything. There's lots of interesting stuff for other to explore. Take Goa for instance, a Portuguese port during the spice trade. Think about how the interplay between different cultures and cuisines enriched by seafood have created a unique tradition in New Orleans, LA. There's a similar atmosphere of ferment in places like Goa and other coastal cities. Or take a state like Uttar Pradesh, you could spend your whole time just learning about Varanasi, a major site of Hindu pilgrimage. They also put weed in their thandai drinks before going to bathe in the Ganges.
Credit where credit is due
I'm just some white guy from West Texas, and my family is full of awful of cooks. So very clearly I didn't get or learn all of this info from my studious Indian grandmother, though that'd have been better and probably pretty damn cool. So the info I'm laying out below is from independent research, experimentation and other reading where I could find it. For a reference on names and other info, I drew from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking. It is an excellent book, I'd easily consider it Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Indian food. It has lots of cultural background on classic recipes and makes an effort to explain the whys as opposed to just the how. I looked to it many times while studying and preparing my last Iron Chef entry and while composing this thread and would highly recommend it to any curious soul.
Now, on to the food.
Important Indian Spices
Pepper comes from India, and it's simply awesome, so it deserves mention despite how common it is. Some of the best peppercorns in the world are (allegedly) Tellicherry peppercorns, from the malabar coast in South India, around the city now known as Thalassery (formerly Tellicherry). Of course its an essential spice everywhere, but especially here. Not just a dash of pepper here and there, throw a small palm full in your mortar and pestle and crush it into your masala mix.
The cumin we're mostly familiar with is often times referred to as white cumin (Safaid Jeera). Its used throughout India as an important spice, often finding its way with pepper into masala mixes. Its use is especially prevalent in the Northwestern areas of the country, such as the states Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab etc. In the North, roasted cumin powder is a common finishing spice sprinkled on top of raita and other dishes.
Black Cumin (Kala Jeera)
A darker variety of cumin with (supposedly, haven't tried this one yet) a sweeter and mellower cumin aroma. Black cumin is also known as royal cumin (shahi jeera). This is likely because its rarer, more expensive, grows predominantly in Iran and the Kashmir valley and was popular among the Mughal rulers and other Muslim Indians. We'll see a reoccurring theme here with ingredients sourced from the Kashmir valley. Excellent varieties grow and thrive there that aren't available anywhere else, and because of war in the region, there is no easy access to these, and so what little does find its way out is very expensive (see the blurb on basmati rice). This spice is often confused with nigella seeds, which made finding a good picture a pain. Even though nigella seeds are often called black cumin, this is a different spice.
Haven't gotten a chance to use this spice yet, its on my pickup list though.
Shortly after I started playing around with Indian food and recipes I had to get some asafoetida. It was in a lot of the recipes and other reading I did on Indian cuisine really emphasized its importance (particularly in a lot of the vegetarian cuisine, which was of interest to me). Many people aren't familiar with this stuff, which is a shame because its really tasty. It has a powerful smell. The native plant its harvested from has lots of interesting local names like devil's dung and stink weed. Don't let this fool you though, the spice itself has a mellow, intoxicating aroma.
Whenever I walk into the nearby Indian grocery store, its the first thing you can smell. In my kitchen pantry I keep the two little jars I have of it (starting to disapear fast...) in a plastic bag. The reason this particular spice is important to alot of vegetarian diets is that many hindu brahmins and practicing jains cannot eat onions or garlic, and other ground vegetables. The act of harvesting is seen as destructive to life that is living in the ground and also that bulbs which can still sprout are too much living to be eaten. Many other vegetables are justified, but not a lot of shoots and tubers.
The spice itself is a powder made from grinding dried plant with gum resins and flour. Most brands of asafoetida have gluten in them, so beware coeliacs.
Nigella Seeds/Onion Seeds (Kalaunji)
Even though these are often called onion seeds, it's because they look like them. They're botanically Nigella seeds. In North India its popular in pickling brines, various vegetable curry dishes and breads cooked in tandoori ovens. A friend of mine's family was South Indian and used nigella seeds in lots of rice pilafs and bhiriyanis. They have a nutty flavor and would make a great topping on any sort of oven, loaf breads. When you crush them they have an oregano fragrance. I've been using this spice sparingly for a month or two now, and while I always noticed the nuttiness I never noticed the oregano. So I went real quick to crush some, and sure enough. I left a little bit of it out and walking by again several minutes later the kitchen smells very oreganoey. I'm definitely going to start crushing this in my masala mixes. In some parts of India this is called black cumin (seems from what little research I've done that it's called that a lot in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh).
Green Cardamom (Elaichi, or small cardamom, Choti Elaichi)
In the west, the crushed seeds are normally considered a dessert spice. But in India cardamom, seeds and paper pod shell, are used as a spice in all sorts of dishes, from yogurt salads to korma dishes to rice puddings. The seeds are very easy to powder in a mortar and pestle, the paper shell can be a pain in the but sometimes though. I don't remember who to give credit for this for, but another GWS poster recommended using a coffee grinder for good results. Its not uncommon for the spice to be used whole by blooming it in very hot cooking oil. It'll brown and puff up.
Cardamom is native to India and has been imported by western nations for millenia. It grows wild in the southern state of Kerala. A large section of the western ghats are named for this spice, the Cardamom Hills.
Black Cardamom (Kali Elaichi, or big cardamom, Badi Elaichi)
Black cardamom differs from green in that the pods are dried and roasted over open flames. This gives them a smokier flavor. This variety of cardamom is used in savory dishes and doesn't lend to desserts as well as green cardamom. I picked a big bag of it up at the Indian grocery nearby. You might have to order online.
Coriander Seed (Dhania, Sookha)
Coriander is used ground up to thicken curries and other dishes. Roasted and ground its used as a finishing spice on raitas and other yogurt salads. Its an essential ingredient in masala mixes. Coriander is native to North East Africa and the Middle East. Like many spices it probably sound its way into India on the spice trade routes, of which India was a crucially important hub. If you don't use this alot you probably need to use it alot more. Grind up a bunch in your mortar and pestle and take a big ole whiff. Mmmmmm.
Amchoor literally means mango (am) powder (choor). Mangos are native to India and we'll talk more specifically about the fresh fruit later, but unripe mangos are also sun dried and powdered as a spice. It adds a sour flavor to dishes, but without any sweet component, similar to lemon juice, mostly in vegetarian dishes. I add it in my yogurt sometimes, though it doesn't take much in normal yogurt before its really sour.
Tamarind is an ingredient popular in Thai cuisine and also in a lot of Southern Indian dishes. Like amchoor it is a souring agent, but its also a little sweet too. For the unfamiliar, the flavor is similar to a mix of lime and raisins. In the grocery store you find it sometimes in packaged bags near the mexican spices or in the produce isle in bulk. They're long pods with very dry, brittle shells breaking off.
Start breaking up some tamarind pods.
After you get the brittle shell and the fibers out, you want to get the seeds. I found that the best way is to take your thumbnail and try and rip through the skin right around it. If you just clipped your fingernails this may be a pain, a fork or knife will work though.
Get a golf ball sized hunk of tamarind.
Soak the tamarind in a cup of boiling water for about thirty minutes. After five to ten minutes, squeeze the pulp to speed the mixing with the water. Once its done soaking press all of the pulp through a strainer and discard leftover fibers.
The remaining tamarind juice will be used in a variety of recipes from chutneys to curries & sauces.
Saffron is the most expensive by weight. It's so expensive because it's those tiny little orange threads in those flowers. The flowers only grow in certain places and they're a huge pain to harvest. You can buy a lb of powdered saffron here for $1,475.00, and that's powdered. A lb of non crushed saffron is upwards of $2,000.00. The spice itself adds a sweet flavor and a trademark yellow color. Some of the best saffron in the world reputably comes from the Kashmir valley, where the women above are harvesting it. To use saffron you need to crush it and then soak it in lukewarm water to make a saffron tea before adding it to your dish. It's used in many Indian dessert dishes and rice pilafs.
Turmeric is an important spice for its coloring effect but also its flavor. You'll hear some say that turmeric is predominantly for coloring, but it does have a delicate flavor which can be easy to cover up or deteriorate if your turmeric is old. Any yellow curry powder you buy from the store is going to be mostly turmeric.
It is the most important and sacred spice of Hindus and is used in religious and social rituals. The sacred thread, the marriage symbol that is tied around the bride's neck by the bridegroom during the marriage ceremony, is dipped in turmeric paste.
Julie Sahnie posted: It is the most important and sacred spice of Hindus and is used in religious and social rituals. The sacred thread, the marriage symbol that is tied around the bride's neck by the bridegroom during the marriage ceremony, is dipped in turmeric paste.
Mustard is used differently depending on region, but its important to all Indian cooking to some extent. In South Indian cooking it's used roasted and ground in masala mixes and general seasoning. In the North it's oftentimes used in pickling brines. In many states, particularly poorer ones, mustard oil is used for frying and other cooking, lending its characteristic flavor to lots of regional cuisine in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. You can buy mustard seed oil from Indian grocers where it is normally stocked with other cooking oils. On the bottle it will say "For Massage Use Only" but you can cook with it. Massage with it. Either way. Vendaloo, a signature dish of Goa's portugese-indian fusion food, depends on mustard seed oil for frying.
Other Quintessential Indian Ingredients
The mango tree is native to India and has played an important role culturally outside of just food. Mangos as most of us know them and experience them aren't the same as Indian Mangos. The cultivar of Mango most of us buy from grocery stores are trucked or flown in from South America, and were bred to survive the trip. As a result, these mangos are more fibrous, firmer but no less delicious for it. Mangos from India don't have all of this extra fiber, are much softer and as a result don't weather long distance travel as easily.
Up until about two years ago you couldn't get Indian mangos in the United States due to international trade laws and the fact that Indian mango orchards have a species of parasite that hasn't made it over here, yet, which the government is trying to maintain. Changes in the laws made it legal to import them as long as they've been irradiated, so now you can occasionally find Indian mangos in the States, but only for a few months in the year. April is supposed to be the month to look, and there are some websites that start selling them then for shipping in the US.
Rice, basmati in particular, is one of the primary staple foods for the majority of Southern Indians and those living in monsoon regions with heavy rain, where it is a major crop. In Northern India rice is a staple as well, but wheat and bread forms is more often the staple food in meals, served with every dish. One of the best varieties of basmati rice comes from the Kashmiri valley (from the village of Ran Big Singh Pura in Jammu, a state bordering Pakistan), and the only supply available is harvested by soldiers returning home from tours of duty.
Preparing basmati rice Indian style
Indians hold their basmati rice to a high standard since they have to eat it so much, and so they prepare it in a particular way. It must be washed thoroughly first, then soaked for about thirty minutes before cooking the rice in its soaking water. As per Julie Sahnie:
In the soaking process, the rice grains absorb moisture and thereby "relax" prior to being cooked. As a result, they expand to long thin grains that will not crack or break when water is added during cooking.
I've found that two cups water for every one cup of rice is too much, and that 1 1/2 cups water per cup rice is a better ratio. After soaking, you drain the rice and reserve the water to boil separately. When the water is boiling, then you add the rice cook slightly covered. You can infuse the rice with flavors and seasonings by blooming the spices in oil and roasting the rice prior to adding the water. Recipe here: Saffron Rice
Ghee is essentially slightly browned, clarified butter and is the cooking oil of choice for most Indians that can afford it. The history and use of ghee was born out of necessity. Raw milk from cattle was an abundant and daily product on many Indian farms and there needed to be a way to preserve surplus. Nowadays its not uncommon for those dairy farms with access to roads to sell their raw milk, but traditionally this wasn't an option. Today with differential access to roads it still isn't an option for a lot of dairy farmers, and so making ghee is a way for farmers to preserve a product of their milk. It is then either kept for personal larders or sold since it can survive the travel.
Ghee is useful because it has a high smoke point and a nutty flavor. You can make it yourself, though I prefer to buy it from the local Indian grocery. Wholefoods sometimes has some with their butter, but its normally expensive compared to buying a big can of it from the Indian grocer (at least around here). To make it you simply cook down unsalted butter and scum off the milk solids. Once the water is cooked out the fat will brown a little, which gives the ghee its nutty flavor. Once it reaches this point the ghee is done, and cooking it too much further will burn the ghee. Since making ghee cooks it at such high temperatures, it is pasteurized and if stored carefully in a clean jar is shelf stable and solid at room temperature, good for up to six weeks. In the refrigerator it is good for several months.
Masala just means spice blend, and there are many different kinds with variations depending on regions. Most people are familiar with Garam Masala, which is normally a variant of the masala blend predominant in Northern Indian and muslim cuisine. In East India, particularly in Bengal, they use a spice blend called panch phoron, which just means five spice. In Southern India, their spice blend is sambaar podi, a blend that includes various powdered dals (lentils, or pulses). Though regions will usually have some core ingredients to their blends, there is often time lots of variation with some masalas having upwards of twenty-five ingredients. Masala blends should be experimented and tailored to one's own tastes.
- Traditional mughal garam masala
- Powdered mix of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and peppercorn in fairly equal amounts.
- Garam Masala, the one most people are familiar with
- Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, cumin and coriander. The big difference in this mix is that amount of pepper, cumin and coriander which tends to be more than double the amount of the other ingredients for a spicier mix.
- Panch Phoron, Bengali Masala
- Equal parts nigella seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds and cumin seeds.
- Sambaar podi, South Indian Masala
- Ratio: 12 parts coriander seed : 1 part tuvar dal : 1 part channa dal : 1 part fenugreek seeds : 1 part mustard seeds : 6 parts chili powder : 1 part turmeric
When preparing all of these mixes, the masala tends to benefit from roasting the ingredients before powdering them.
Important Tools for Indian cooking
Mortar and Pestle
One of the features of Indian cuisine that its most commonly noticed for is its use of spices. Spicey masala mixes, hot food and memorable flavors. Recreating this at home is very easy to do as long as you use fresh spices. Cardamom, cumin, pepper and all sorts of other spices retain their flavor longer when stored whole and then roasted & ground before using. So some sort of tool to grind spices fresh is essential to recreating the best Indian flavors. A coffe grinder is good too, as long as you're not getting lots of coffee flavor into your food.
A piece of tough, fine linen or canvas cloth
Many of the best Indian dishes both savory and sweet require paneer cheese to make. You could always buy cottage cheese or ricotta from the store and use that, but its an awful shame. You really ought to make your own. I've used old t-shirts with mixed results, but one day I saw some pastry cloths in some random isle at the grocery store and they work much better and rewash well. Any tightly knit fabric that isn't going to stretch out too much while you're squeezing out whey will work fine.
Techniques and common preparations
Preparing meat tandoori style
Tandoor ovens are pit ovens or clay ovens. Hot coals are placed at the bottom and the oven can be covered to build up heat. Most tandoori style preparations, like tandoori chicken (tandoori murghi), get their distinctive flavor first by the spiced yogurt marinade its normally steeped in, and then being cooked in a pit oven over coals while basted with ghee. Some of the essential flavor components come from this process because the marinade and ghee is supposed to drip over coals and smoke the meat giving it a sweet, smokey crust.
Rotis are often cooked in tandoor ovens by sticking it against the incredibly hot sides of the tandoor. Tandoor ovens were used primarily before this, using it for meat preparations caught on when the mughals took over.
Meats are always cooked on skewers, hanging vertically in the tandoor.
Reproducing this sort of cooking and all of the flavors that come with it isn't possible or feasible for many of us. Roasting in a hot oven is one option. Cooking over a charcoal grill is probably the best option short of a tandoor oven, so juices can still drip over coals and smoke the meat.
Kababs are one of the two main forms that most meat dishes in India take. Unlike the kababs many of us are familiar with, these dishes are not typically just pieces of meat and vegetables on a stick. Often times ingredients are ground and put together as a sort of sausage or meatball, shaped and then placed on skewers before cooking in tandoor ovens or frying. Not a meat eater so I haven't done a lot of experimenting with kababs, but Julie Sahnie lists seven classic types in her book.
- Seek Kabab
- ground lamb kabab mixed with herbs and spices and broiled in a tandoor.
- Shamme Kabab
- ground lamb mixed with yellow split peas, garama masala and then fried.
- Hussaini Kabab
- ground lamb stuffed with spices, dried fruit and nuts and then seared or cooked in a tandoor.
- Chapli Kabab
- a Shamme Kabab without the yellow split peas and more spice.
- Boti Kabab
- Lamb rib meat marinated in spiced yogurt and then cooked in a tandoor. This is common street food in North India during winter.
- Tikka Kaba
- A mixture of lamb, chicken, liver and shellfish in a ginger yogurt marinade. Broiled in a tandoor.
- Pasanda or Barra Kabab
- These are lamb fillets, sliced very thin, marinated in spiced yogurt and broiled in a tandoor.
The other form that meat dishes in India often take are Koftas. After meat kababs are prepared they're then cooked in a curry similar to swedish meatballs. There are several different regional varieties. Deferring again to Julie Sahnie:
...the following two are the most popular by far and are considered classic
Malai Kofta: In this dish the meatballs are usually flavored with mild spices and herbs. They are then simmered in butter and cream in an enriched aromatic tomato sauce.
Nargisi Kofta: This kofta preparation is somewhat elaborate. First, whole hard-boiled eggs are enclosed in a thin layer of spice-laced ground-lamb mixture and deep fried (they very closely resemble Scotch Eggs at this stage). The stuffed meatballs are neatly sliced to expose the egg, and then simmered in a fragrant onion gravy. The combination of meat and egg looks like a narcissus flower (which, in Indian, is called nargis), hence its name.