Flavors of India

I knew from an early age that Indian food was great, because my Mom made an amazing chicken curry on a regular basis. When she served it, we had little bowls of chopped peanuts and raisins to sprinkle on top. That struck my five year old mind as the coolest possible topping for any dish, and I spooned crunchy peanuts on with abandon, my chubby fingers sticky with bottled mango chutney. I remember reveling in the creamy, lightly spiced sauce as it soaked into soft rice, with the crunchy and sweet accents of the garnishes.  It was a lesson that stuck with me.

Indian food really came alive for me when I got a copy of Yamuna Devi’s book, Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking in the late 1980’s, and made a trek to a real Indian grocery store. It was like opening a door to a new world, where delicate balances were created between spices and other flavors to make nuanced, satisfying fare.

I dove into cooking the recipes from the book, and learned that an Indian meal is usually an assemblage of dishes. A pile of rice or flatbreads anchors the plate, and a cup of dal (or another bean-based dish) is a must-have. Then the plate is filled with vegetables, salads, chutneys and raita (a yogurt based condiment), featuring hot, cooling, sour, sweet, and savory flavors. Meat and seafood dishes can be added, too. With so many flavors represented on one plate, I like to alternate bites, tasting each food anew with each round. Although this assemblage of flavors may sound a bit complicated, individual components can be quite simple to prepare.

While the components of the plate are pretty universal, India's diverse regions all have their own unique styles of cooking. Generally, south Indian food is more chili hot, while the food in the north is more aromatic. Both build meals around grain-based foods, with rice in the south and breads in the north (where wheat is grown). Beans and peas are the second essential at the meal, and together grains and legumes form the basis of the Indian diet. A combination of religious and economic factors make India a vegetarian’s paradise. Some regions are majority vegetarian, with Gujarat and Rajasthan over 60%, and the country as a whole estimated at 25%. Dairy products, like yogurt and clarified butter, are an important part of the diet throughout India, for their cooling qualities, their vegetarian protein, and their flavor.

India’s spice trade goes back to ancient times, and brought wave after wave of traders from all over the world to its shores. These international influences mark Indian cuisine like the rings on a tree, but the Indian aesthetic shines through. In authentic Indian cooking, spices are blended individually in each dish, and each region and household has its own preferences.  A common first step in Indian recipes is frying or toasting spices to bring out and deepen flavors. Classic spices include turmeric, cumin, coriander, brown mustard seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, and more.

Curry powder isn’t really a traditional Indian ingredient; it's a spice blend local cooks devised for the English palate during their colonial rule of India. They combined turmeric, cumin, coriander, and chili, and bottled it. Now there are interesting variations on curry powder available, based on regional spicing. Go ahead and use curry powder, and try customizing by adding a pinch of another Indian spice to the dish.

Dries herbs are important in Indian cuisine, but so are sprightly fresh herbs, including cilantro, parsley, mint, basil, ginger, garlic, and chiles--all readily available at your local co-op.

It's easy to incorporate some of the great Indian flavors into your home cooking. I like to improvise—and it's not hard if you follow some basic guidelines. I like to start with "anchor" dishes like one or both of the recipes below, and add some fun condiments and sides.  A cooling raita can be as simple as plain yogurt with chopped cucumber and a pinch of salt. Chutneys are usually balanced between sweet and sour, and may or may not be hot, you can keep it mild if the other dishes have chiles.  While chutneys can be made with just about anything, from fruit to vegetables and nuts, for an easy version, I'll toast some brown mustard seeds and cumin seeds, add them to apricot jam, then balance the sweetness with lemon and a pinch of cayenne. This keeps for at least a week in the fridge.  Indian spices add excitement to a quick saute of green beans, cauliflower or broccoli (or whatever vegetables are in season), and a squirt of lemon and a pinch of sugar will give them a little sweet and sour flavor.

With all these flavors and textures, non-vegetarians may not miss meat or seafood, but if you want to include them as well, try marinating chicken or fish in spices like cumin, chiles, turmeric and yogurt and roast them for a main dish or side.

The wonders of Indian spices will add exciting flavors to even the simplest foods; a great gift that's worth tasting and appreciating often.

Check out our tasty Indian recipes.

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