Food: The basics, Indian style

India has many regional styles so cooks in different areas prepare them differently.

Indian spices 370 (photo credit: MCT)
Indian spices 370
(photo credit: MCT)
Like many who studied classic cuisine in Europe, we were trained to think of culinary basics in French terms. In Paris we were taught the value of keeping certain basic preparations on hand in order to make a variety of foods delicious.
When you have tomate concassee (chopped tomatoes cooked with a little oil and herbs), chicken or meat stock, brown sauce, bechamel sauce (white sauce) and vinaigrette dressing, you can use them to enhance all sorts of meat, fish, vegetable and grain dishes.
Asian cuisines have very different basics.
Indian cooking, for example, has its own set of fundamental preparations, and we have been using them more and more in our own kitchen.
Ruta Kahate, author of Quick-Fix Indian – Easy, Exotic Dishes in 30 Minutes or Less, refers to Indian basic preparations as the “Shortcut Shelf.” In this group she includes ginger paste, garlic paste, brown onions (onions fried until deep brown) and masalas. Ginger paste is made by grinding coarsely chopped gingerroot in a food processor with just enough water to make a paste, and sometimes a bit of oil; garlic paste is made the same way, with coarsely chopped garlic.
When we stir a little of these pastes into our bowls of vegetable soup at the last minute, they instantly perk up the soup’s flavor.
It’s convenient to have these aromatic flavorings ready instead of making them each time you cook. Rinku Bhattacharya, author of The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles – Exploring the Cuisine of Eastern India, notes that most spice pastes can be kept for up to a week in the refrigerator or can be frozen.
COOKS AROUND India use dry masalas (spice blends) and wet masalas (seasoning pastes). Because India has many regional styles, cooks in different areas prepare them differently.
Kahate’s green masala begins like Yemenite s’hug – green chilies (hot peppers) are blended with garlic, cilantro and a bit of water; then more flavorings are added – ginger paste, cumin, turmeric, coriander seeds, cloves, lemon juice and a touch of sugar. One way that Kahate uses green masala is in a three-ingredient fish entree. She spreads a thick layer of masala on fish steaks, adds them to a skillet containing a little hot oil, and cooks the fish in the covered pan. For her potatoes in green masala sauce, she briefly heats ginger paste and turmeric in a little oil, adds whole cooked baby potatoes and green masala and browns them; she then adds a little water and cooks the mixture for a few minutes until a sauce forms.
This kind of green masala is less important in Bengal, where garlic, writes Bhattacharya, although essential in meat dishes, is otherwise used somewhat sparingly. A simpler green spice paste that is integral to most Bengali cooking is made of gingerroot, cumin and coriander seeds blended with green chilies and a little water. One way that Bhattacharya uses it is to flavor an Indian yellow lentil risotto-type dish. (See recipe.)
Garam masala, a widely used dry masala, is available in spice jars, but many prefer to make their own for a fresher flavor. Bengali garam masala is simpler than others, notes Bhattacharya, and consists of equal proportions of three sweet spices – cardamom seeds, cloves and cinnamon, which are lightly roasted in a dry pan and ground to a powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder. The spice blend is often added to dishes at the last minute the way we add freshly ground pepper.
Bhattacharya sprinkles it along with cilantro over a dish of whole dried peas cooked with tomatoes, tamarind, ginger, chilies and garlic.
Kahate makes her garam masala from both pungent and sweet spices, each of which is roasted separately: cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and black peppercorns, which she grinds with salt to a powder.
Next time you prepare a vegetable saute, omelet or shakshuka, try enlivening them with garlic paste, ginger paste or garam masala. We like ginger paste in sweet dishes too, such as our chunky applesauce, and even in our breakfast oatmeal.
Faye Levy wrote the column “The Basics: Complete Technique” for Bon Appetit magazine. She is the author of the award-winning book Classic Cooking Techniques.
This recipe is from The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. Author Rinku Bhattacharya writes, “This recipe is a traditional variation of the rice and lentil porridge called khichuri. The key to a good Bengali khichuri, much like a risotto, is to ensure that the consistency is creamy and that the grains are cooked through but not mushy. It is also important that the proportion of lentils is greater than the amount of rice by about onethird.”
Bhattacharya uses yellow split lentils and kala jeera rice; you can substitute red lentils and long-grain or basmati rice. Instead of the ghee, you can use equal amounts of oil and butter.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3⁄4 cup dried yellow split lentils (moong dal)1⁄2 cup long-grain rice or basmati rice3⁄4 tsp. salt1⁄2 tsp. turmeric1 Tbsp. ginger-cumin-coriander paste (see note below)1 small potato, peeled and cut into small pieces1⁄2 cup chopped cauliflower1 Tbsp. ghee (clarified butter)1 tsp. cumin seeds2 or 3 bay leaves1 5-cm. (2-inch) cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
Roast the lentils in a pot over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes until very fragrant and pale golden (or, if using red lentils, until they darken slightly). Add about 1 cup water and cook on medium heat until the water has evaporated. Add another 1 cup water, the rice, salt, turmeric, ginger-cumin-coriander paste, potato and cauliflower and cook, covered, on low heat for about 20 minutes. Gradually add another 2 cups of water as needed until the rice and lentils are soft but still intact. (In other words, it should not be too mushy or thick; the finished dish should have a creamy porridge or risotto consistency.)
In a small skillet, heat the ghee and add the cumin seeds, bay leaves and cinnamon stick and cook until the cumin seeds sizzle and the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks darken. Pour this over the “risotto” and enjoy!
Note: Ginger-Cumin-Coriander Paste: Place a peeled 5-cm. (2-inch) piece of fresh ginger, 2 Tbsp. cumin seeds, 2 Tbsp. coriander seeds, 1 or 2 green chilies (hot peppers) and 1⁄4 cup warm water in a blender and blend till smooth. To get the right consistency, pulse and blend at intervals. Save and store in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks; it also freezes well. Makes 1⁄2 cup.
This Indian flavored stew originated as a recipe for beans in savory tomato sauce that we learned to make from a Lebanese-born friend of ours from Jerusalem. To make it into a one-bowl meal, we add vegetables and, for extra flavor, garam masala and gingerroot.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 large onion, halved2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil1 large sweet red pepper, cut in strips1 tsp. finely chopped gingerroot or ginger paste1 cup broth from cooking beans or water, or more if needed2 medium carrots, sliced thinSalt and freshly ground pepper1 large or 2 small zucchini or white squash (Hebrew kishuim), diced1⁄2 cup tomato sauce, homemade or bottled.1 tsp. ground cumin1 1⁄2 to 2 cups cooked pinto beans or a 400-gr. (15-ounce) can, drained1 1⁄2 to 2 cups cooked white beans or a 400-gr. (15-ounce) can, drainedCayenne pepper or hot sauce to taste1⁄2 teaspoon garam masala (see recipe below, or from a spice jar), or to taste
Set onion halves on board with cut side down, cut each in half lengthwise and slice each quarter thin, to obtain quarter slices. Heat oil in a saute pan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add sweet pepper and ginger; saute for 5 minutes or until onion begins to turn golden.
Add broth or water, carrots, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add zucchini and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce and cumin. Add pinto and white beans and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes to blend flavors. Adjust seasoning, adding cayenne pepper to taste. Serve hot, sprinkled with garam masala.
This recipe is from Quick-Fix Indian. Author Ruta Kahate notes that roasting spices intensifies their flavor while drying out the seeds so they grind easily.
Makes about 1⁄4 cup
2 tsp. cumin seeds2 Tbsp. coriander seeds5 whole green cardamom pods1⁄2 tsp. black peppercorns8 whole cloves1⁄2 tsp. fennel seeds1 5-cm. (2-inch) stick cinnamonPinch of salt
Roast each spice separately in a heavy, dry skillet until lightly browned and fragrant.
Peel the cardamom; reserve the seeds for the masala and discard the pods. Using a clean spice grinder, powder all the ingredients together until fine. Store in an airtight glass bottle for up to 1 month.