New flavors of north India

As in other cuisines, Indian chefs use their imagination to come up with new dishes that taste “Indian.”

Creamy, sweet and savory Indian dishes with rice (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Creamy, sweet and savory Indian dishes with rice
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Certain dishes in Indian restaurants have become so popular that it’s easy to get the impression that they are time-honored Indian classics. Take chicken tikka masala, for example, a dish of barbecued chicken cubes in a luscious tomato sauce. It was one of our favorite dishes in the 1980s, when we began to dine regularly on Indian cuisine.
Yet chicken tikka masala is not an old-fashioned Indian dish. According to some stories, it was made up in Great Britain, where it is much loved. Actually, said New Delhi-born Anil Sharma of Mahan Indian Restaurant in Alhambra, California, this dish was created in Delhi by accident, when chicken tikka fell into a creamy tomato sauce. The sauce is traditionally served with fried Indian cheese and is also good with tofu, chickpeas, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. Raghavan Iyer, author of 660 Curries, makes a simple version of this sauce with sweet peppers, almonds and raisins blended with tomatoes and cream. (See recipe.) A delicious pumpkin curry at Mahan was made with a sweet orange squash cooked with onion, ginger and garlic and seasoned with white and black pepper. Amchoor (mango powder) contributed a tangy flavor; you can use lemon juice instead, as does Smita Chandra, author of From Bengal to Punjab. Her pumpkin stew is flavored with sautéed onions, garlic, fenugreek seeds and ground coriander. (See recipe.) Another staple on northern Indian restaurant menus is rogan josh, a dish of lamb in a savory sauce flavored with sweet and hot spices. Originating in Kashmir, this rich stew does not seem to have a classic formula like French boeuf bourguignon (which is made with red wine sauce, mushrooms and baby onions).
At Anar Indian Restaurant in Los Angeles the tasty lamb entrée includes tomatoes and green pepper strips. Rinku Bhattacharya, author of Spices & Seasons, stews the lamb with carrots. (See recipe.) As in other cuisines, Indian chefs use their imagination to come up with new dishes that taste “Indian.”
Sharma told us that the idea for his mango chicken came to him in a dream. When he woke up, he told his son, “We have to make mango chicken!” They made the sauce for the chicken with fresh mangoes, mango pulp and sweet mango achar (pickle) and flavored it with ginger, garlic, onions, green peppers, fresh green chilies, chili flakes and sugar. To the finished sauce they added chicken tikka and garnished the dish with ginger julienne.
Ginger-flavored mango sauce goes well with vegetables, too, wrote my friend Neelam Batra in The Indian Vegetarian. She serves her easy-to-make sauce with an assortment of vegetables that she sautés with cumin seeds, ginger, garlic and fresh coriander. The result is a multicolored dish that, she wrote, is “so decorative that it could be a party centerpiece.” (See recipe.)
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
This is the sauce that Raghavan Iyer serves with chicken tikka masala. You can serve the sauce with baked tofu cubes (see note below) or with roasted or cooked vegetables. If you want to serve it with grilled chicken in a kosher meal, substitute soy milk or nondairy cream for the heavy cream.
Makes enough sauce for 680 grams (1½ pounds) chicken, to serve 4
■ 2 Tbsp. ghee or canola oil
■ 1 small red onion, coarsely chopped
■ 1 small sweet red pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1.25-cm. (½-inch) pieces
■ ¼ cup slivered blanched almonds
■ ¼ cup golden raisins
■ 1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh or canned (no need to drain)
■ ¼ cup heavy cream or light cream
■ ½ tsp. coarse salt or sea salt
■ ¼ tsp. cayenne (ground red pepper)
■ ¼ tsp. garam masala (Indian spice blend)
■ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves and tender stems for garnishing
Heat ghee in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, sweet pepper, almonds and raisins, and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften and then acquire honey-brown patches, 10 to 12 minutes. The nuts and raisins will turn reddish brown, and a thin film of brown will coat bottom of pan.
Stir tomatoes into pan and scrape the bottom to deglaze it. Pour this chunky sauce into a blender jar and add the cream, salt, cayenne and garam masala. Puree, scraping inside of jar as needed, to make a thick, nutty-gritty, reddish- brown sauce.
Pour sauce into a medium-size saucepan and simmer it over low heat, stirring it occasionally, to heat it through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, pouring sauce over food and sprinkling it with cilantro.
Note: Baked tofu cubes: Cut about 450 grams (1 pound) tofu cubes in 2.5- cm. (1-inch) cubes and arrange in 1 layer on an oiled nonstick baking sheet. Brush with oil or spray with oil spray. Bake at 205°C (400°F) for 30 to 40 minutes or until light golden; turn once during baking.
Smita Chandra suggests serving this delicately spiced dish, which is cooked in the style of Uttar Pradesh (a state in northern India), with dal (lentils) and with parathe, shallow-fried wheat bread that resembles Yemenite melawah.
Serves 4 with other dishes
■ About 1.1 kg. (2½ lb.) pumpkin or butternut squash
■ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ Pinch crushed asafoetida (optional)
■ ½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
■ 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
■ 2 medium onions, halved and sliced
■ 1 tsp. ground coriander seeds
■ ½ tsp. ground turmeric
■ Salt to taste
■ ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
■ ½ tsp. sugar
■ 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Halve pumpkin and scrape away seeds and fiber. Slice and peel pumpkin and cut into 2.5-cm. (1-in.) pieces. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, warm oil over medium heat. Add asafoetida (if using) and fenugreek seeds.
After 1 or 2 seconds, when spices darken, add garlic. Cook for 1 minute, and then add onions and sauté until browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Add ground coriander, turmeric, salt, cayenne and sugar; cook for 1 minute. Add pumpkin pieces and toss to mix. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until pumpkin is tender, about 20 to 25 minutes; if pan becomes dry, add a little water. Uncover, increase heat to high and boil away any remaining liquid. Mix in lemon juice. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Rinku Bhattacharya begins this dish, which is inspired by traditional rogan josh, with tomato starter, a ginger-flavored, onion-rich tomato sauce. You can cook the lamb in a slow cooker or in a heavy pot.
Serves 4 to 6
■ 1½ cups tomato starter (see note 1 below)
■ 1 Tbsp. cumin-coriander powder (see note 2 below)
■ 1½ tsp. ground fennel seeds
■ 1 tsp. red cayenne pepper powder
■ 2 tsp. Kashmiri red chili powder or paprika
■ 2 or 3 green cardamom pods
■ A 5-cm. (2-in.) cinnamon stick, broken
■ 3 or 4 whole cloves
■ 2 or 3 bay leaves
■ 900 gr. (2 lb.) lamb chops, cut into small pieces of about 2.5 cm. (1-in.), or boneless tender lamb cubes
■ Salt to taste
■ 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 5-cm. (2-in.) pieces
■ 1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
In a bowl, mix together the tomato starter, cumin-coriander powder, ground fennel seeds, cayenne and Kashmiri chili powder or paprika. Place in a slow cooker or heavy-bottom pot. Add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cloves and bay leaves and mix well. Stir in the lamb and pour in 1 cup water. Cook in the slow cooker on high for 2½ hours or simmer on the stove top for 1 hour, or until lamb is fork tender. Adjust salt as needed. Add carrots and cook another 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning.
At this point stew can be stored in refrigerator for a few days. When ready to serve, reheat on stove top and stir in cilantro.
Note 1: Tomato starter: Heat ½ cup oil in a pot over medium heat about 2 minutes. Add 5 chopped onions and gently cook about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn light golden in spots. Stir in 1/3 cup freshly grated ginger and 20 minced garlic cloves and cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until mixture comes together and is turning pale golden. Stir in 20 medium (about 2.3 kg. or 5 lb.) ripe tomatoes, chopped in food processor.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until they start melting into onion mixture. Continue cooking slowly until oil begins to surface through the sides, about 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in 1½ teaspoons salt.
Add 1 teaspoon sugar if needed. Keep extra in refrigerator or freezer. Makes about 5 cups.
Note 2: Cumin-coriander powder: In a heavy-bottomed pan, dry-roast 4 tablespoons cumin seeds and 4 tablespoons coriander seeds over 1½ minutes; spices should smell toasty and darken a little. Grind to a powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Store in an airtight jar in cool, dry place up to 6 months.
The mango sauce adds a delicate sweet-and-sour touch to the vegetables, wrote Neelam Batra, and noted that the sauce is also good with barbecued meats, Indian pakoras (fritters), Chinese egg rolls and fried wontons. This vegetable dish is best when served fresh, wrote Batra, and can accompany any chicken or meat entrée.
Makes 8 servings
■ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ 2 tsp. cumin seeds
■ 1 Tbsp. peeled minced fresh ginger
■ 1 tsp. minced garlic
■ 1 tsp. salt, or to taste
■ 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
■ 1 cup loosely packed finely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander), soft stem included
■ 5 cups fresh mixed vegetables (baby yellow and green zucchini, cauli flower and broccoli florets, red, yellow and green peppers, green beans, mushrooms and carrots), cut into 2-cm. (¾-inch) pieces or left whole
■ 1 cup mango and ginger sauce, or more if desired (see note below)
Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over moderately high heat and cook cumin seeds until they sizzle, 10 seconds. Stir in ginger, garlic, salt, pepper and cilantro and then the vegetables. Cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook until vegetables are tender-crisp, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Remove to a serving platter, drizzle ½ to 1 cup of the mango sauce on top and serve. Additional sauce can be served on the side.
Note: Mango and ginger sauce: In a food processor fitted with metal S-Blade, process a 2.5-cm. (1-in.) piece of peeled fresh ginger until smooth.
Add 1 cup fresh or canned mango pulp, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste, and process again until smooth. Remove to a serving bowl, stir in cilantro and serve cold or at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup.