If you had to describe Indian food, what words would you use? Flavorful? Bold? Spicy? All of the above?
The thing I love about Indian food is the wealth of spices used in the cuisine. What I learned is that in Los Angeles, as in most of the United States, Indian food is “dumbed down.” It tends to be more one-dimensional than what you’d get in its native country.
The quality of the spices is key when cooking Indian. According to Chef Carol, you could spend a lifetime learning about the seasonings of Indian cuisine. You can get some spices in the regular grocery store, but to get good quality spices and a bigger selection, try mail order. Also find out how the spices are warehoused, as they should be temperature controlled.
Carol is all about buying the whole spice and grinding it yourself. Today, when cooking, we took the whole spices, toasted them dry just until they became fragrant (a minute or two), and then ground them. Use a coffee grinder, it’s quick, easy and doesn’t cost a lot. You can do this with a large amount and then store the ground spices in airtight glass jars. Make sure that you place these jars in a dry, dark, cool place to conserve the flavors. They should last for 6-9 months that way. FYI, whole spices last even longer, you can push the dates on them for a few months.
Because there are so many different spices in Indian food, you need to experiment and try different dishes. This is a very user-friendly cuisine and you can be intuitive with your cooking here. Use whatever skills you have to manage the spices. Not everyone likes the same heat or flavor level.
Turmeric is one of the more popular spices. It’s sometimes used instead of the more expensive saffron and it is a large component of the “curry” spice mix. If you have turmeric in your pantry, smell it. If it doesn’t smell like anything, it won’t taste like anything. Actually, this is a good rule of thumb for any of your spices.
Since I mentioned curry, I need to mention that the Western spice “curry” is not an authentic spice. This is primarily turmeric, as I said, with the addition of ginger, coriander, cumin, etc. Curry is a dish, not a spice, in true Indian cooking. The closest thing they have is Garam Masala, one of the most common spice mixes used there. Masala actually means “mix of spices.”
Legumes are also big in Indian dishes. Daal is an Indian version of split peas, lentils or other beans that are split in half and made into a stew. The rice favored is Basmati, a very long grain, very fragrant rice. To cook this, you want a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 1 ½ cups of water. Also, the longer the grain, the more you have to rinse it. Basmati dries out, so you need to put a wet paper towel right on top of it if you’re waiting to serve.