Indian cooking - the why's and how's

The what

Indian food is incredibly diverse and regional. No two people will make chai the same way. No two people will make any Indian dish the same way. And I think this is the reason I have an inherent distrust of recipes for Indian cooking. If you have been cooking for many years, you already know a good majority of steps. What you need is that unique characteristic that makes a dish stand out. If you have been cooking Indian food for many, many years you will recognize that 90% of the content in most recipes is the same.

Key points

  • I will only talk about vegetarian food (though I love chicken)
  • This post is dedicated to the people who are NOT beginners but who want to move on to the next level

The Indian “curry”/sabzi/entree anti-recipe

What may be called as “curry” in the west is called by many different names in Indian cuisine. “Sabzi” means vegetables but is sometimes suffixed to dishes (e.g Paneer Sabzi).

Here is the anti-recipe

  1. Take your vegetables. If needed, peel them. Cut them to the required size.
  2. Heat oil in a pan. Toss in spices. The process is called “tadka” in Northern India and “tempering” in English
  3. Throw in the vegetables and stir fry
  4. Cook until done.

That is all you need to know. What matters is what spices you use, when you use them, and which vegetable you are cooking. Different vegetables have different cooking times. You will NOT understand how this works by watching a regular recipe video or reading a recipe. The only way to know how is by doing it again and again.

Look at the steps above again. There will be at least a million people who do not agree with what I said. Do you add all spices before the vegetables? What about turmeric? What about red chilli powder? Salt? My answer is that there is no one answer. Experiment and learn from your mistakes. Can the potatoes use more turmeric? If so, go for it.

Oil, Spices & Veggies

These are the three pillars of any Indian sabzi.

Oil

Every oil has its own flavor - though the mainstream generic ones have a very generic flavor. I am talking about oils like canola oil, mazola oil, sunflower oil, etc. Other oils like coconut oil, peanut oil, mustard oil and sesame oil are each unqiuely flavorful and have an acquired taste. Different oils are used in different parts of India and people can be highly opinionated about the use of a particular oil.

Spices

Just like oil, spices are also regionally specific to India. At a very high level, I use mustard seeds in South Indian dishes and cumin/jeera seeds in North Indian dishes. You can make Indian dishes with just a single spice - not all dishes require a multitude of spices.

Veggies

Veggies are incredibly diverse across the world. I recommend experimenting with whatever is available in your corner of the world and playing around with the spices. My favorite veggies are potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, okra and squash. Feel free to mix and match them as well.

Dry/Gravy

Are you making a dry sabzi? Or are you making a gravy? Maybe something in between?

If it is dry, do not add water. This can be either because the sabzi is in itself dry - or the sabzi has a lot of moisture. Cabbage is a vegetable that has an incredible amount of water. When you make Indian style cabbage you can cook it with a lot of heat and without adding any water.

If you are making a gravy, add water and a thickening agent - something like tomatoes, some corn flour, chickpea flour(besan), etc. Restaurants use a lot of cream but typically home cooks don’t.

Dals/Lentils/Beans

Pulses/lentils/beans can be a slightly different ball game. For beans, you may need to soak them in water for many hours before cooking them. For pulses, you may need to soak them for just a few minutes. But most of them require pressure cooking to speed up the process. I will talk about this in more detail in a subsequent post.

Other dishes

Of course, Indian cuisine is so vast that there is no way what I described can cover every type of dish. There are many dishes that cannot be made with my anti-recipe. Some of them are: rotis, biryani, idli, dosa, chutney, khichdi, pongal, rasam, sambar….the list goes on (none of them being curries)

The curry rant

Not every Indian dish is a curry. A dal is specifically not a curry. What constitutes a curry is hard to explain to people not from the subcontinent. You could say everything is a curry. You could say nothing is a curry. It is just not a word used that commonly.

The Instagram rant

I know that food presentation has become a big deal in this smartphone & instagram era that we live in. A word of caution - if your food looks good but doesn’t taste good, even you will not eat it. Make food to satisfy your soul, not your digital audience.