Illuminating Indian cuisine

Indian cooking incorporates Ayurvedic principles, which suggest that six basic flavor profiles – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent – be included in dishes.

Indian cooking spices (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Indian cooking spices
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Last week we went to a cooking demonstration by Nandita Godbole, the author of a new e-book, Crack the Code – Cook Any Indian Meal with Confidence.
In her presentation, Godbole showed us how a touch of spice can transform ordinary foods into tempting Indian treats. Her rice pulao with peas had a lovely flavor thanks to cumin seeds, fresh ginger, garlic and sautéed cashews. Her delicious baby potatoes were flavored with mustard seeds, ginger, turmeric and cayenne pepper. (See recipes.) Cumin and coriander seeds, which Godbole described as essential spices in Indian cuisine, flavored her rasam, a spicy soup made with tomatoes, garlic and chili peppers.
Godbole, who hosts supper clubs in Atlanta and Los Angeles, found that people are enthusiastic about learning to prepare Indian dishes but don’t understand the nature of Indian recipes and sometimes find the variety of spices overwhelming. Yet she insisted that curry powder, which is a blend of spices, should be avoided because it gives the same flavor to everything.
Indian cooking, explained Godbole, incorporates Ayurvedic principles, which suggest that six basic flavor profiles – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent – be included in dishes. Doing this leads cooks to use a variety of ingredients, making food tasty as well as nutritious. Other considerations are the warming or cooling properties of ingredients, and how specific spices aid digestion and improve health.
“It is no secret that Indian cuisine is filled with wondrous spices, flavors, ingredients and textures,” wrote Godbole, “it is made up of seemingly mysterious methods and techniques.... It all seems like magic...Indian cuisine is, in fact, not a game of smoke and mirrors, but a matter of method.... Understanding the basic structure of Indian cooking methods can make the process easy."
The key to cooking in the Indian style is to add each component of a dish at the right time. In order to clarify how to do this, Godbole came up with a code that depicts the pattern Indian cooks follow when preparing their dishes, and explained it in her new e-book.
To illustrate the structure of Indian cuisine, Godbole divided the steps in a typical Indian recipe into six tiers. She uses this method to cook nearly every Indian dish, although not all recipes use all six tiers. “By following these steps in the specified order, one can prepare any Indian dish with ease,” she said.
Tier One, which Godbole calls the “basic flavor triangle” – the fundamental building blocks of most Indian dishes, has three parts. The first part is a cooking medium, which is heated. This medium can be oil, ghee, butter or, for sweet dishes, milk. Oil preferences vary by region; in southern India, for example, coconut oil is popular.
Part two of Tier One is whole dry spices, which you add to the cooking medium. The spices flavor the cooking medium with essential aromatics and can withstand moderate heat without losing flavor. Some examples are cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, red pepper flakes and peppercorns, and in desserts, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cardamom.
Part three of Tier One is fresh flavorings, such as ginger, garlic, fresh hot peppers, onions, curry leaves and lemongrass, which are added to the spices in the pan and often are sautéed.
Tier Two is what Godbole calls “the second round of layering or tempering” and includes “special flavors that are distinct, strong and long lasting,” such Illuminating Indian cuisine as bay leaves, dill seeds, nutmeg, mace and skinless black gram or urad dal (a type of lentil). Other spices in this category are green and black cardamom, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cloves, mustard seeds, peppercorns and star anise. Although some might have been already used in the dish in Tier One, they are added again, “to highlight the essential oils of these ingredients.”
Tier Three includes basic powdered spices that Godbole calls “the flavor salt” because “without them, most Indian entrées will be incomplete.” They are not added at the beginning because they would burn. Some examples are ground turmeric, cayenne pepper powder, coriander powder and cumin powder.
Tier Four is called the “binding agents” and consists of ingredients such as milk, yogurt, paneer (homemade cheese), coconut milk, stock and tomato purée that tie all the flavors together to “make the dish cohesive”; it also includes thickening ingredients like wheat flour, chickpea flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour and powdered nuts.
Tier Five is the main ingredient – the vegetable, the rice or the protein food such as chicken, meat or legumes. It might be added before or after the ingredients of Tier Four. In the case of chicken, for example, unless one is making chicken soup, any liquids are best added after the chicken has started cooking in the spices.
Tier Six is what Godbole calls “Jewels of the Crown” – garnishes or finishing touches that contribute flavor or texture. They include fresh herbs such as cilantro, dill leaves, fenugreek leaves and mint; toasted spice blends such as garam masala; fresh pomegranate seeds, diced tomatoes, dried fruits and almonds, cashews and other nuts. The finishing touch might also come in the form of a preparation called baghar or tadka, in which certain ingredients such as cumin seeds, garlic, ginger and sesame seeds are briefly heated in oil or ghee and added to a dish at the end.
Godbole noted that people are often afraid that their Indian food will come out too hot. Heat in food can come from black pepper, cayenne and fresh hot peppers, but they all taste different. At her demonstration Godbole used a fairly mild chili powder and advised that when cooking, you should taste your chili powder so you know how much you would like to add to the food. The main point is that you should not add so much spice that it makes you suffer, just the right amount to make the food enjoyable.
Note on the Recipes: The first two recipes below, which are from Crack the Code, illustrate Godbole’s tiers of Indian cuisine, and the ingredients are organized according to her code. The third recipe, from Godbole’s menu e-book, A Dozen Ways to Celebrate, is written in conventional recipe style. ■
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Minty Peas Pulao
This rice dish, says Godbole, has a Mogul influence and is extremely easy to make. It is “ever so delicately fragrant.... It pairs beautifully with rich meaty dishes, with a side of a simple daal (a legume dish) or savored on its own.”
Godbole notes that the rice “must be coated in the spices before the liquids are added or else one will end up creating a rice mush versus a pulao.”
Makes 4 servings
Tier One:
■ 2 Tbsp. ghee
■ ¾ tsp. cumin seeds or black cumin seeds
■ ½ cup white onion, sliced
■ 1 tsp. fresh ginger, crushed to a paste
■ 1 tsp. fresh garlic, crushed to a paste
■ 1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
Tier Two:
■ 1 bay leaf (optional)
Tier Five:
■ 1 cup uncooked basmati rice
■ ½ cup blanched peas
■1¼ cups boiling water
Tier Six:
■ 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
■ ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
■ ¼ cup unsalted cashews, see Prep
Prep: Before beginning the recipe, heat the ghee in a heavy bottomed saucepan (the one in which you will cook the rice) and fry the cashews until they are golden. Remove them and set them aside. Rinse the basmati rice in a cup of cold water and set aside.
Cooking: Begin by using the same ghee and utensil in which the cashews were fried.
Heat the ghee, add the cumin seeds and allow them to sizzle but not burn. When the ghee is fragrant with the aroma of the cumin seeds, add the sliced onions and sauté until they are soft and golden in color. Add the ginger paste, garlic paste and the whole black peppercorns, sautéing for 1 minute. Add the bay leaf and continue to cook for about 30 seconds more on medium low heat.
Slowly add the rinsed rice and blanched peas to the pot and stir into the spiced ghee using a spatula. Take care that the grains do not break but are evenly coated with the flavors and are glossy. Very carefully, from the side of the pot, add the boiling water to the pan and stir once again. The pot will steam up, and the spices will sizzle and bubble. Season with salt and let it come to a boil over medium heat. When the water has almost evaporated, stir in the chopped mint leaves, cover and let the rice finish cooking on low heat for another 10 to 12 minutes, until the grains are fluffy, light and cooked. Do not be tempted to stir again. Garnish with the fried cashews and serve hot.
Effortless Baby Potatoes with Mustard Seeds
For this easy dish, in addition to mustard seeds, Godbole flavors the potatoes with fresh ginger, cayenne and lemon juice.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
Tier One:
■ 1 Tbsp. cooking oil
■ 2 Tbsp. black mustard seeds
■1 tsp. fresh ginger, julienned
Tier Three:
■ ¼ tsp. turmeric powder
■ 1 tsp. cayenne pepper powder
Tier Five:
■ 450 grams (1 pound) baby red potatoes, see Prep
Tier Six:
■ 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
■ ½ tsp. fresh lemon juice
■ ¼ cup fresh cilantro (optional)
Prep: Wash the potatoes in cold water; ensure the skins are clean. Place them in a pot of salted water and boil them to cook until just tender, 6 to 9 minutes. Take care they are not overcooked. Drain and set aside.
Cooking: Heat the cooking oil in a wok or sauté pan. Add the black mustard seeds and allow these to pop open. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the ginger and stir it in, allowing it to flavor the oil for one minute. Carefully add the turmeric powder and cayenne pepper powder, give it a quick stir and immediately add the cooked baby potatoes. The oil may sizzle a little.
Stir the potatoes to coat them evenly with spices. Season with salt and lemon juice. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking to let the potatoes crisp up slightly, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Garnish with fresh cilantro just before serving.
Cheesy Stuffed Peppers
“Stuffed peppers such as these make an elegant and colorful treat on a festive table and are particularly welcome at potlucks,” writes Godbole. She made this dish using dark-green, semi-hot poblano peppers but notes that you can also bake the stuffing in sweet peppers or in tomatoes. Garam masala powder is a popular Indian spice blend.
Makes 6 servings
■ 2 Tbsp. oil
■ 2 tsp. cumin seeds
■ 1 large onion, finely chopped
■ 1 tsp. ginger paste
■ 1 tsp. garlic paste
■ 1 jalapeño or other fresh hot pepper, seeds removed and finely chopped
■ 1 tsp. garam masala powder
■ 2 large baking potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed
■ Salt, to taste
■ ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
■ 1 tsp. lemon juice
■ 1 tsp. sugar
■ 3 dark green semi-hot or sweet peppers, rinsed
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. oil, for basting
■ Lemon wedges for garnish
Heat oil in a saucepan and add cumin seeds. When these sizzle, add onion and sauté until golden. Add ginger paste, garlic paste and jalapeño, and allow to cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in garam masala powder. Add mashed potatoes, salt, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and sugar, and mix well until combined. Cool completely.
Heat oven to 190°C (375°F). Halve peppers and remove seeds. Baste them with a little oil. Fill peppers with the stuffing, and bake for 15 minutes. Turn to a low broil for 5 minutes or until tops begin to crisp. Serve hot with lemon wedges.