By Monica Bhide and Chef Sudhir Seth
Interactive Map of India
When someone asks me if I know how to cook Indian food, all I can do is smile. Sure I can cook some of it, but can anyone truly cook food that represents a country of more than 1 billion people, with over a dozen languages, 800 recognized dialects, and several religions, India is as diverse as it gets!
The Aryans who occupied the North and the Dravidian’s who occupied the South were the first influencers in India. India’s cuisine has also been influenced greatly by the multitude of invaders throughout the country’s history; the Mughals, British, Turks, and Portuguese all left their mark. By adding their own cooking styles and ingredients, they provided a rich diversity, resulting in a unique cuisine. In the words of the legendary Madhur Jaffrey “Nothing was ever discarded. It was made Indian.”
India is also a country with a 3000 year old religious heritage. Home to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahai religions (to name a few) – all dictating what can and cannot be eaten. The Jains don’t eat garlic, the Muslims don’t eat pork, and the Hindus don’t eat beef. Other faiths have limitations on any vegetable grown under ground. Then there are days when people fast and on those days’ special meals need to be prepared according to the guidelines for that particular faith. There are specific norms for food that are followed for major life events like pregnancy, birth, baby’s first foods and death.
From the lap of the Himalayas in the North to the coast of southern Indian, from the Ghats of Western India to the eastern Bay of Bengal, from the deserts of Rajasthan, to the backwaters of Kerala, from the luscious fields of Punjab to the mountains of Kashmir -- the geography, climates and the landscape are as diverse as they get.
The different Indian states are so unique in their geography, culture, language and tradition that they are almost like individual nations. In addition to all the factors mentioned so far, another important factor that has influenced the cuisine is the focus on the medicinal values of the ingredients. The Vedas or ancient Indian texts explain how to combine food, exercise and meditation to obtain the right balance in ones physical, spiritual and mental forms. Religion has not only integrally affected what is cooked but how it is prepared as well. The Muslim tradition of preparing “halal meat” or the Hindu tradition of not tasting a meal as it is being cooked (since the first offering of the meal has to be for the Gods and for a cook to taste it while it is cooking is considered “unclean”) has certainly had its impact on how foods are prepared. The Hindu cook relies on the sight, texture, smell and color of the spice mixes to know exactly when they are ready as opposed to taste.
The history, climate, geography, religion and regional areas have all influenced the cuisine. Intrinsic culinary traditions are constantly being updated by the ever changing political and socio-economic landscape. I liken the country to a quilt with each part of the quilt (a state) being unique and yet an integral part of the whole.
What holds this diverse cuisine together is the aromatic and flavorful spices. The art of Indian cooking is in blending these spices so they are in perfect harmony in each dish.
The basics of an Indian meal, despite of all the contrasts and contradictions, are similar. There will generally be some lentil, regional vegetables, pickles, chutneys, rice or bread, possibly a meat or fish dish, served at every meal. Desserts are usually milk based. Food is eaten with fingers, using pieces of bread to mop up the vegetables and curries. I remember reading somewhere “trying to eat Indian food with cutlery is like trying to make love through an interpreter”. With due respects to the author of that line, I completely agree! The meal is completed with a digestive like “Paan ”, areca nuts, sugar coated fennel seeds and many others. (Paan is made of betel leaves, which are filled with all kinds of ingredients to create this legendary digestive)
I hope you will try the recipes in this class. By the time you get done you will have sampled a dozen regional cuisines that are distinctly different in terms of their taste cooking methods and presentation. I have only attempted a dozen or so regions, there are so many more.. Perhaps in a part II of this course!
I am attempting to give you a glimpse of what lies in each region. There is so much more. The information here is a mere starting point into the cuisine of a very diverse country.
It has been a very long time since last visited the state of Jammu & Kashmir, nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, but it left an impression. Shikaras (large houseboats) on Dal Lake, sumptuous meats, perfect apples, an aristocratic valley so picturesque it felt like paradise. In fact, if I remember my history correctly, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir first saw Kashmir he said “Agar firdaus bar ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto” (If there is a paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).
Kashmiris are primarily meat eaters. There are two main types of cuisines, that of the Kashmiri Muslims and that of the Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus). The Kashmiri Muslim “Wazawaan ” an elaborate ritualistic meal for special guests is nothing short of spectacular. It can have thirty or more courses of specially prepared Rogan Josh, Kormas (meats cooked in cream based sauces), Ristas (meatballs), and vegetables. Mouth watering desserts generally made of dairy products follow and the meal is then topped off with the “kawah ” a green tea transformed into a magical portion with just the right amount of saffron, cardamoms and almonds. The meals are prepared by the Wazas – the master chefs of Kashmir. They are the descendants of Mughal rulers who come here in the early 15th century. The Kashmiri Hindus eat meat and this sets them apart from the Brahmins of the rest of India.
Kashmiri dishes are very rich, reminiscent of their lavish history with the rich Mughal rulers. Nuts, fruits, saffron, meats are used a lot in the preparation of the food. One very unique ingredient in Kashmiri cooking is the use of Mawal - dry cockscomb flowers. Another unusual spice mixture, in the form of small flat discs, is Ver or Vari. It is prepared in a manner unique to each household and is used in small amounts to season dishes.
Kashmiri Lamb Chops or ribs (Kabargah)
¼ cup water
1 Cinnamon stick
4 black cardamoms, crushed
2 bay leaves
2 pounds lamb ribs
2 ½ cups milk
Salt to takes
½ cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon red chili powder
2 + 4 tablespoons gram flour (chickpea flour)
Oil to panfry
Heat ¼ cup of water in a pan. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Simmer for a minute.
Place the ribs/chops in a pot. Add the milk and salt.
Cook until the milk is absorbed.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the yogurt marinade. Mix together the yogurt, red chili and two tablespoons of gram flour and set aside.
Set the other four tablespoons of gram flour on a flat plate
Remove from heat and transfer the meat to a platter. Set aside
Heat the oil in a large skillet.
Dip each chop in the marinade,
then coat generously with the dried gram flour.
Pan fry it until golden brown on each side
Remove the meat from the ghee and drain on a paper towel
Host to the biggest film industry in the world (Bollywood), the financial powerhouse of India, a food lovers paradise, a bustling metropolis, and home of the famous Dubbawalas – and all this in just its capital city Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). I fell in love with Mumbai eleven years ago and my love grows stronger each time I visit. From the very ethnic and regional to the very eclectic and international, the restaurants cater to your every taste, whim and pocketbook.
I learnt the art of Maharastrian cooking from my mother in law. The right amount of buttermilk to make the perfect Upma (a semolina pudding), the right way to temper aSaar (a warm and soul warming tomato soup), how much practice it takes to make perfect Modaks ( rice flour dumplings), how to mold tapioca to create melt-in-your-mouth patties called Sabudana Wada and of course how to make the perfect pomfret.
A dessert specific to this area is called the Puranpoli (bread stuffed with channa dal and jaggery). My husband taught me to eat it crumbled with tablespoons of warm ghee and milk. I think it has got to be the ultimate comfort food.
Maharashtra also has the credit for producing India’s leading mango called Alphonso mangoes.
Home to the cities of Kolhapur and Ratnagiri, Maharashtra also has some of the spiciest food served in India. Kolhapur’s mirchi or chili is legendary. The Konkan coast also boasts a wide variety of seafood – fresh prawns, pomfret, squid, crabs, you name it and you can find it. During the research for my new book, I had the chance to meet and talk with some of the fisherwomen of the Koli group in this area. They show such ease in preparing such wonderful fish dishes teased with the right amount of masalas.
On my last trip to India, I was able to spend time with a dear friend of my mother in-law’s who is Jewish (Bene Israel Jew). Mumbai has a small Jewish community and she was telling me about a kosher Indian restaurant that she could take me to. But the highlight of the meeting was when she produced a half hand- written half –typed cookbook published many years ago. It was a present for me. It has some of the most interesting recipes from Egg Vindaloo to Jewish Puff puris (balloon breads) to Sabbath cake to a dish called Birda ( a bean dish). The recipe message for Birda reads “this dish is prepared by the Bene - Israel Jews of India, particularly on the 9th of Ab to be had after the fast.” Another message reads “ We Bene –Israel Jews according to tradition eat fish which have an eye on each side rather than two eyes in the front.” There is so much history in each recipe. I am forever thankful to this kind lady. India is also home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Eastern region. India forum has had some interesting conversations on Jewish Indian cuisine.
The city of Mumbai is also famous for its street food. You have to experience the walk on Chowpatty beach, the endless stalls of street vendors selling Bhel Puris, the Pav Bhaji ( bread served with a spicy vegetable dish) sprinkled with lemon juice, the sugarcane juice, and the Vada Pau (a vegetable burger for lack of a better description), the list and the tastes are endless.
Macchi Fry Koliwada
(This recipe was given to me courtesy of the Marriott Hotel in Mumbai).
2 fillets white fish, large cubes
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 green chili, minced
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons of chickpea flour (gram flour)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon red chili powder
Oil to pan fry
Marinate the fish cubes in a mix of the garlic, green chili and salt. Leave for 10 minutes.
Prepare the second marinade.
Mix the gram flour, turmeric, chili powder, lemon juice and a small amount of water to make a very thick batter.
Dip each fish piece into the marinade to ensure that it is well coated.
Pan fry until crisp on the outside and cooked on the inside.
Tamilian cooking comes to you from the south eastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Its capital city Madras (now known as Chennai) is home to the legendary Madras curry powder developed for the British. I first visited Madras (Chennai) in 1990 and what struck me was the sheer choice of foods prepared from rice. Rice in its many forms – Dosas ,(Rice and lentil crepes) Idlies (steamed rice and lentil cakes), Uttthappams (pan fried rice and lentil pancakes) to name a few. These are served along with a lentil curry called Sambhar . The real crowning glory of the food here, in my opinion, are the range of chutneys, papadums (lentil wafers), pickles and spice powders that are available. Many of the people here are vegetarian and rice is a large part of their diet. I am also a huge fan of the strong filtered Madras coffee.
In addition, Tamil Nadu is famous for the fiery cuisine of the Chettiyars from the area of Chettinand. Tamilian cooking uses a lot of black pepper, red chili powder and mustard seeds.
Hyderabad is located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. My family lived in the gorgeous area of Banjara Hills there for a while. I was too young and so have no recollection of the city, though my father tells stories of the Hyderabad “chowki ka khana ” that are quite remarkable. Chowkies are low tables that seat people on the floor and were used in Hyderabad for formal dining occasions. Multiple courses of meats, vegetables and rice dishes were served accompanied by live musicians singing. Dishes were prepared with aromatic spices, were plated in a beautiful manner and served by gracious hosts. One of my favorite Hyderabadi dishes is a pilaf made of layers of rice and goat meat cooked entirely in milk. The flavors are provided by spices in a “potli ” or a bouquet garni which may have up to 21 spices in it ranging from coriander seeds to dried rose petals to sandalwood powder to dried vetiver roots. The end result is a very fragrant dish that is pure white with aromas that will make you thank God for being alive!
My father tells me of a saying in Hyderabad that the best food comes when it is made with mohabbat or love. His favorite dish he tells me is the Batter Ka Achar or pickled quail. I take his word for it when he calls it heavenly, I have not been lucky enough to try it or even find a recipe for it.
Hyderabadi cuisine is the culmination of the local ingredients like curry leaves, tamarind and mustard seeds tying the knot with the kebabs, pilafs and meat dishes brought in by the Muslim invaders. From the minced lamb to prepare Shimkapuri Kebabs to the layered rice and meat Biryanis, Hyderabad is a gourmet’s paradise. And then there is the typically Hyderabadi “Irani Chai”. A large number of Iranians came to Hyderabad in the 1600’s. Their tea, different from other parts of India, was absorbed immediately and became an integral part of the local culture with Irani Chai houses springing up all around the city.
Mirchi Ka Salaan
8 - 10 large green chilies
Oil to deep fry
2 tablespoons peanuts
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 -3 red chilies, whole
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery.
1 small red onion, chopped
2 Serrano green chilies
½ teaspoon onion seeds
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 sprig of curry leaves
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
salt to taste
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
Fresh cilantro for garnish.
Slit and deep fry the green chilies in hot oil.
Remove and keep aside.
Roast all the ingredients for the paste on a dry skillet. Then grind them together along with the onions and the green chilies.
Heat oil and add the onions seeds, cumin and mustard seeds, when crackling add the cloves and the curry leaves.
Add the garlic and stir for a minute. Add the salan paste and continue stirring.
Add a few tablespoons of water at intervals to avoid paste sticking to the pan.
Add the tamarind pulp and ½ cup of water.
Stir for 5 minutes until the gravy resembles the consistency of a sauce and the oil begins to separate out.
Add the salt and the fried chilies to the hot gravy.
Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Remove and garnish with finely chopped coriander leaves.
When ever I write about Bengal, a state on the eastern shores of India, I am not sure where to begin. Why? Because this land offers so much and is so diverse, I always seem to fall short of words. It certainly is a state blessed – huge palms, flowing yellow mustard fields - giving the land a yellow hue and earning it the name – Sonar Bangal – Golden Bengal. I have a few close friends from the area and the best way to describe them would be refined and passionate – about their heritage, their language, their desserts and by God their fish. Even the Brahmins of Bengal (Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian) east fish, calling it Jal Toria or fruit of the ocean. No part of the fish is wasted – and each is prepared with such grace and perfect balance between the spices and the fish.
Bengal's many rulers over the years – the Mughals, the British, the Chinese, have brought great variation to the cuisine. The Mughals brought in the Qormas (cream based meat dishes), and Kebabs , the Hakka Chinese brought in the Calcutta style Chinese dishes like Manchurain (deep fried morsels of meat or vegetables served in a sauce of chilies and soya sauce). Trust me, once you try this style of Chinese it will have you hooked.
Bengali cuisine is known for its substantial use of mustard seeds. Mustard oil is the widely used cooking medium giving Bengali recipes a very distinct taste.
The crowning glory of Bengali cooking has to be the desserts. When I was in college in India, there was a Bengal sweet shop called KC Das close to where I lived. Shamelessly, each evening friends and I would stand in line to buy the Misti Doi a sweet yogurt prepared in an earthen pot. The kind shop keeper saved a few for us each night. For some reason he would chide us away from it during the winter months, saying it would cause us to catch a cold – old wives tales I think. On those nights we would get luckier for he would provide us with mouth watering Rasgollas (cheese balls sweetened with sugar syrup)
There are two ingredients that are unique to the cooking here. Mustard oil as the cooking medium and the very aromatic Panch Phoron five spice mix – fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and onion seeds – mixed in just the right proportions. I call this spice mix the way to instant “gourmet-dom”. Use it and you will see what I mean – it creates such perfect dishes people think you are an amazing chef when the spices are really doing all the work.
Shorshe bate Macch – Mustard Fish (with due credit to Bong from eGullet for his notes that are used here)
¼ cup black mustard seeds
¼ cup white mustard seeds
A touch of garlic (Not traditional but the Chef loves it so we added it!)
4 fillets white fish (small Tilapia fillets)
1 teaspoon turmeric
salt to taste
Mustard oil to panfry the fish
2 Serrano green chilies, slit
Soak mustard seeds (I use 50% black and 50% white) in water for 10-15 minutes.
In a blender, grind mustard seeds and garlic with enough water. Start with a relatively less water and slowly keep adding water as needed. The final consistency will be a bit more liquid than Dijon mustard. Make sure that there are no whole seeds left over. In my blender, this process takes about 10 minutes. This will be your gravy. Don't forget to add a bit of salt and mix some more. Set aside
Marinate fish fillets with the turmeric and the salt.
Heat a shallow pan with a little bit of mustard oil, over medium high heat. When oil starts to smoke, add in the fish pieces so they are in a single layer.
After a minute or so, turn them over, and cook until brown. Remove from heat
In the same oil add the mustard paste.
Add some slit green chilies for some heat. Cook the mustard paste until it starts boiling and then add the fish.
Simmer for another 3 – 5 minutes.
Punjabi and Delhi Cuisine:
Punjab is the Land of Five rivers is a highly agricultural state. The cuisine of this state is greatly influenced by the Mughal cuisine (see note on Mughal cuisine). The world famous Tandoori style of cooking has its roots here. Punjabi’s are bread eaters compared to a larger portion of India that prefers rice as it staple food. The heart of Punjabi cooking lies in the masalas (spice mixture) and gravies that are prepared with ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes. This thriving agricultural state boasts a cuisine that is rich in vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian choices. Other than the obvious Tandoori dishes that are famous here, of equally importance is the Punjabi preparation Sarson Ka saag (a velvety preparation of mustard greens seasoned in with ginger, garlic, green chilies) that is served along with a corn bread called Makki Ki Roti.
Tandoori cooking was introduced in Delhi by Kundan Lal of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Dariyaganj. Why do I tell you this, because eGullet’s very own Vivin’s family owned this restaurant.
India’s capital city, New Delhi, is a world all its own. There is so much history here in one city that even an entire book cannot do it justice. All the rulers ( the Mughals, the British and others) bought with them their own cuisine and left a mark, from which emerged a very singular cuisine – a delectable mix of various cultures that now defines “Delhi Cuisine.” The Mughalai Tandoor chicken, Seekh Kebabs, biryanis (rice and meat dishes), the appetizing Naans and other breads are a core part of the food in Delhi. Then there are the British introduced sandwiches, trifles and cakes which are found on many a menu. (A point to note here: When I added Custard and Jelly to one of my books as an Indian dessert, the editor thought I was kidding. Not really. A lot of the British desserts are still very popular in Delhi and really are “Indian” !) And of course the British left behind their love for scotch whiskey.
During the partition of India and Pakistan, a large number of Punjabi’s came and settled in Delhi. They brought in the hearty fare. Delhi is home for me. The Punjabi food of Delhi is close to my heart since I grew up eating it each day. Aloo Ka Parathas (Indian griddle breads stuffed with spiced potatoes) of course with fresh home made white butter served with a tall glass of Mango Lassi (yogurt based mango drink) are on top of my list for favorite Delhi foods. (For more on North Indian breads, see our North Indian breads class). Delhi’s food has also been greatly influenced by other communities like the Banias, the Khatris and the Kyasthas.
I do find it interesting that the “national drink” of India – where a large part of the country is quite warm – is hot tea! In Delhi even in the summer months with the terrible hot winds called loo blowing, we would still drink tea. Piping hot Chai ( tea) topped off with Malai (clotted cream).
Paneer ki Bhurjee: Fresh paneer cooked with tomatoes and cilantro.
2 tbsp oil
2 Serrano green chilies, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 small red onion, finely chopped
¼ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp chili powder
1 small tomato, diced
2 cups paneer *, grated
2 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
salt to taste
* You can buy paneer at your local Indian grocer or prepare it at home see this recipe
Heat oil in large pan. Add chilies. After 20 seconds stir in cumin and onions.
Cook onions until soft and begin to change color.
Add the turmeric and the red chili powder.
Cook for a few minutes. Don’t mash the tomatoes, just lightly sauté them. Add paneer.
Cook for another minute
Season with salt.
Garnish with cilantro and serve.
The princely state of Rajasthan is a desert, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the cuisine is lacking. Home to Indian royalty, Rajasthan is famous for its elaborate dishes. When I was a child we lived for a while in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s pink city named so for all its pink buildings. I don’t have memories from that time, yet when I visited a few years ago the welcoming city made me feel as though I had never left. Think vivid when you think of Rajasthan – brightly colored clothes, the pink walls of Jaipur, the music, the dancers, all larger than life. The Muslim influence is very strong here and so there are a wide variety of meat preparations. Lapsi a popular wheat porridge is a very delightful dish.
Maharani Gayatri Devi, wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur was listed by Vogue magazine as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her book on the cuisine of this state has done helped not only to bring in the traditional recipes but to document an era.
Jaipur is one of the few places, I have been served Papads (lentil wafers) in a curry. In most other parts of India they are eaten dried as wafers would be. Dry mango powder and garlic are used a lot in the cooking. One of the most famous dishes of Rajasthan is called Dal Bati Choorma: Bati, a round bread imbibed with clarified butter and traditionally cooked in the scorching desert sand, Dal, a lentil curry and Choorma a sweet bread laced with jaggery and butter. A bit heavy to digest, but a must try.
(For some good information on Jaipur visit http://www.jaipur.nic.in/tourist.htm)
For this class Chef Sudhir picked a very unique dish called Gatta curry . Chickpea flour dumplings cooked in a sauce.
Rajasthani Gatta curry
2 cups chick pea flour or gram flour
3 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp chilli powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
Pinch of asafetida
¼ teaspoon cloves, roughly pounded
Water to knead
2 -3 tablespoons of oil
2 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp Garam Masala
2 tsp powdered coriander seeds
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Sieve chickpea flour. Add salt, chili powder, turmeric, asafetida and cloves.
Add about 2 -3 tablespoons of oil. Add water and knead to a stiff, smooth, glossy dough. Leave to rest for 15 minutes.
Shape into cylindrical rods
Boil in 4 cups of water till they come up and are covered with tiny bubbles. Add a few drops of oil to the water. This will keep the water from boiling over. Lift out of the water, leave to cool.
Discard the water. Cut the cylinders into bite size pieces.
To prepare the curry:
Heat the oil
Add the cumin seeds and the asafetida.
Add turmeric, salt, coriander powder, 'Garam masala' and chilli powder.
Add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil
Lower the heat and add the yogurt
Simmer for about 2 -3 minutes
Add the yogurt and chickpea flour sausages or the gattas prepared earlier
Simmer for a few minutes and serve hot garnished with the cilantro
Cooking of UP and Bihar
The state of Uttar Pradesh is home to India’s holiest city of Benaras and the holy river Ganges. The primarily Hindu city of Benaras’s other claim to fame is its silk sarees, the typical attire for Indian women.
When I was child, I had visited the city of Nawabganj (close to Lucknow) from Delhi via a train. Lucknow is a largely Muslim city. My most vivid memory is of a couple from UP who were traveling with us opening their tiffin (a carrier for food) and offering to share with us the most delightful Pooris (fried Indian breads) and some kind of a yellow spiced potato dish. I distinctly remember the food was so good that my cousins and I shamelessly finished off the food belonging to this sweet old couple. They watched with kindness in their eyes and my father watched with embarrassment as we freely ate the food of strangers! Then they reached into their bag and produced the mango. Lucknowi mangoes, even my father could not resist!
Lucknow is also famous for its velvety Kakori Kebab (a kebab prepared with minced meat and many fragrant and wonderful spices), Raan (a whole leg of mutton, perfectly prepared) and the hospitality of their people.
To the outside world, UP is probably best known for its white marble treasure, The Taj Mahal, nestled in the city of Agra.
Bihar is the state where the Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is a state with a colorful past with various rulers leaving their legacy on the culture and cuisine. I have found Bihari food to be simple yet flavorful. The Bihari city of Patna is famous for it unparallel quality of rice produced here. Rice is served in many forms here, the sweet rice dishes being the most distinctive – powdered rice cooked with clarified butter, milk and sugar. Another dish unique to Bihar is the Makhahe Ki Kheer . Makhanas are puffed lotus seeds and are cooked in milk to prepare this very sweet pudding. Sattu, roasted chickpea flour is used as a basis for many of the dishes of Bihar.
Bihari Aloo Ka Bharta
3 medium potatoes, boiled and peeled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 inch ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 -2 teaspoon uncooked mustard oil or vegetable oil
2 -3 whole dried red chili
Salt to taste
In a bowl mash the potatoes and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a ladle or a small saucepan.
Add the cumin seeds, onion and cloves.
When cumin begins to splutter transfer the content of ladle to the mashed potatoes.
Roast the dried red chilly over slow fire – Hold the chili using a tong and then hold it over an open flame for just a second
Crush the roasted dry chilly onto the mashed potato.
Add salt, and the uncooked mustard oil to the potato mix
Garnish with cilantro leaves before serving
The state of Kerala, also called coconut country, is in the southern part of India. Geographically it is over 600 km. in length and only 75 km. wide. It is a state with over 90% literacy, emerald back waters, miles of coffee and tea plantations. Kerala is the heart of the Indian spice coast. Vegetarian choices abound and their preparation is very simple. I love the fish dishes of Kerala cooked with pungent curry leaves, mustard seeds and the ever present coconut milk. Kerala has a large Christian population and beef dishes are quite common here – as opposed to the rest of India where the cow is considered scared by the Hindus who will not eat beef.
My first trip to Kerala was for a wedding in 1989. We were served a lavish wedding dinner on traditional banana leaves (an important fact I learnt was that the narrow part of the leaf should be to the guests left hand side) adorned with pickles, chutneys, rice, papads, vegetables curries of many types, small bowls for sambhar and rasam (lentil based dishes). All of the dishes are served and placed on the leaf in a predetermined order. Dessert is the intensely sweet Payasam (vermicilli cooked in milk and lots of sugar) followed by a steaming hot cup of South Indian coffee.
Kerala is the natural home of black pepper, cardamom, coconut and tapioca and their presence is dominant in the cuisine. Keralite “irachi ” (meat) is generally cooked with strong spices and is a dry preparation. Of course no discussion of Kerala cooking can be complete without discussing the appam a bread that looks like a pregnant crepe really. Served with mutton or chicken stew this mouthwatering bread takes a bit of practice to prepare (For more on South Indian breads, please see A Sampling of South Indian Breads)
Kerala Prawn curry
2 pounds tiger prawns
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 Serrano green chilies, split
2 small red onions, finely chopped
1 sprig curry leaves
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
½ teaspoon Garam Masala
1 can coconut milk
Cilantro leaves to garnish
Remove the shell from the prawns
Marinate the prawns with salt ,turmeric pd and lemon juice and set aside.
Heat oil in a medium size pan. Add the fennel and green chilli.
Add chopped onions. Fry until transparent. Add the curry leaves
Now add the tomatoes and ginger garlic and keep continue to cook until the oil separates
Add prawns and the Garam masala powder.
Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add a can of the coconut milk and bring it to a simmer.
Garnish with chopped cilantro
I am at a distinct disadvantage here not having visited this tourist heaven. My experiences of Goan food have been at the home of Goan friends. Goa, a tiny state, sits on the western shores of India. While the rest of India was heavily under the influence of the British and or the Muslim invaders, Goa was under Portuguese rule for many years. The Portuguese came to Goa in the 1500’s, after the Muslim sultans of the Bahamani dynasty, and stayed for over 400 years. The food reflects a love of vinegar, meats and strong spices – all things necessary for the perfect Vindaloo . Goa is a largely Christian state.
Sandy beaches, rolling hills, lush fields, rivers, coconut groves, mango, cashew, areca and bananas trees form the landscape of Goa.
And the fish. Goa is famous for its fish preparation. How good are the dishes? Well --“..the Goan poet Bakibab Borkar address the God of Death Yama and says “ Please sir, Mr. God of Death, Don’t make it my turn, Not today. There is fish curry for dinner”
I do owe a thanks to my friends for introducing me to the very potent cashew nut and coconut palm alcoholic drink of Goa called Feni
Pork Vindaloo (Adapted from “Everything Indian, by Monica Bhide, Adams Media)
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, roughly pounded
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons red chili powder
1 ½ lb. boneless lean pork, cubed
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon ginger root. julienned
1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
6 whole dried red chilies, roughly pounded
1 1inch cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Table salt to taste
In a non-reactive bowl, combine the rice vinegar, water, black pepper, garlic, red chili, green chili and pork.
Refrigerate, covered, for an hour.
In a deep pan, heat the oil. Add the cinnamon, ginger root and sauté for about ten seconds. Add the onion and sauté for about 7-8 minutes or until golden brown.
Add the red chilies and turmeric powder and sauté for another 20 seconds.
Remove the pork pieces from the marinade and set the marinade aside. Add the pork and sauté on high heat for about 10 minutes or until the pork is browned and the oil starts to separate from the mixture.
Add the marinade and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer covered for about 30-45 minutes or until the pork is tender.
Add salt to taste. Serve hot.
“Sugar and Spice and everything vegetarian” – I think that sums up the cuisine for me!! It is simple and delightful and uses vegetables in a remarkable way.
Situated on the western coast of India, Gujarat is paradise for vegetarians. Leafy green vegetables, fruits, millet, rice and lentils dominate. Millet is said to be very high in protein. Butter and milk are used abundantly. The Gujaratis are known for their wide variety of pickles and chutneys. “Farsan ” or crispy fried snacks are a staple part of the cuisine. Gujaratis have a sweet tooth and many parts of the state use sugar liberally in cooking (including in dals, and rice). Food is traditionally served on large steel plates or Thalis.
The cuisine has been greatly influenced by the Jains and the Buddhists. A little known secret: a group of Muslims known as Bohras, who live here, prepare the most delicious meat dishes.
When I think of Gujarati food, I must admit I am partial to the dhokla , a salty steamed cake made from chickpea flour tempered with mustard seeds, fragrant curry leaves and green chilies. It is delicious particularly with a well made cilantro or green chili chutney
4 cups thick yogurt (yogurt with whey removed, see pictures below)
1/4 teaspoon saffron (soaked in a tablespoon of warm milk)
1/2 cup fine sugar
Pinch of cardamom powder
Garnish with crushed pistachios (optional)
Place all the ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. You can do this with a spatula or a hand held blender.
Adjust sugar to taste
Chill for about 30 minutes
How to prepare thick yogurt
Preparing to hang the thick yoghurt
Thick yoghurt set over a colander
Draining the whey
The finished product
Parsi cuisine is a critical part of the Gujarati cuisine and culture. "Dheekra" was the single word that started my love affair with Parsi food. I had heard that word many times in Indian movies, but growing up abroad I did not know what it meant. I asked my father. It means a "child" he said, it is Parsi. What was Parsi? Who were these people, always portrayed in Indian movies to be a fair skinned intellectual lot? Dad told me of the legendary meals he had had in Mumbai as a child at the homes of Parsi friends. The dishes that melded sweet and sour and spicy and salty. The elaborate preparations that made each guest feel like a king. I had to learn more. I started by reading Rohinton Mistry and so many others. I began to scratch the surface of a very complex culture. I fell in love with the characters they created, living together in a multi-storey building in Mumbai.
A community that is small in number, it has contributed to the worlds political, business and arts in amazing ways. Think Jrd Tata & Godrej (India’s leading business families), Vidal Sassoon and Zubin Mehta . . . when you think of Parsi’s. They are a very intellectual community, very talented. They came from what was Persia, now Iran, and landed in India in the state of Gujarat.
Unfortunately this wonderful people is fast decreasing in numbers. This is primarily due to the structure of Zoroastrainism - their religion. There are no converts allowed. One can only be born a Parsi. Marriages outside the community are not encouraged and anyone born of a non Parsi mother or father of such a marriage is not considered a Parsi and is not allowed into their Fire Temple or place of worship.
Their cuisine is a tantalizing marriage of Persian and Gujarati styles. Flavoring their curries with nuts and apricots, they brought the richness of Persia to the simple Gujarati food. Parsi food is not hot with chilies but has complex flavors and textures. They are primarily non-vegetarians and enjoy eating chicken, mutton and eggs.
As the Parsi’s say, Chalo jumva avoji . . . Come, let's eat.
Parsi Murgh Farcha
Pieces of chicken marinated in a gently flavored masala paste, dipped in crumbs and beaten eggs and fried.
6- 7 tender chicken breasts
1 teaspoon Garam Masala
1 tablespoon of minced fresh mint
1 tablespoon coriander powder
½ tablespoon cumin powder
2 Serrano green chilies, minced
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, minced
½ cups dried plain breadcrumbs
Oil to panfry
Make slits in the chicken breast. Marinate it with a mixture of the Garam masala, mint, coriander powder, cumin powder, green chilies, sugar, salt and vegetable oil.
Allow the chicken to marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.
In a bowl combine the eggs and cilantro leaves
Create an assembly line – marinated chicken, eggs, breadcrumbs (placed on a flat plate)
Now first dip the chicken in the breadcrumbs and then the egg wash
Panfry it till done.
(Chef Sudhir’s tip is to do it this way then the eggs seal the juices and the chicken is more tender this way)
The best way to tell if the chicken is cooked is to poke a knife through it. If no water seeps out from the chicken, it is cooked
Although this does not qualify as a regional cuisine, I had to mention the most popular style of Indian cooking that is so familiar in most of the Western world.
In the 1500’s the Persians came to India and brought with them their food, customs, literature, music and architecture. This is reflected strongly in most part of North and Central India.
The Persians loved the rich life and legend has it that the Emperor Akbar had over 400 cooks to serve his over 300 wives. The cuisine reflects the use of nuts, nutmeg, mace, poppy seeds, cream, yogurt, clarified butter, dry fruits, cinnamon, cloves, rice and meats. The Muslims also brought in the oven baked breads like “Naans ” that are so synonymous with Indian cuisine the world over.
Persian rice dishes are what legends are made of, the perfect rice and meat layers of the Shahjahani biryani or the colorful rice in the many pulaos. The Wazawaan of Kashmir , the Tandoori style of cooking in Punjab and the Chowki Khanna of Hyderabad to name just a few are reminders of the opulence of a time gone by. (The meat referred to here is goat meat, which is what is preferred in India even today, compared to the West where I think lamb is preferred).
One of the features that I love best about this style of cooking is adding a layer of fragile strips of edible beaten silver or gold foil to the final dish. It gives the dish a spectacular and royal look.
Secrets of the Indian Spice Cupboard
“Its not too spicy is it?” has got to be the most common phrase that I have ever heard in all my years of teaching and writing about Indian food. With that one simple question many people brush aside Indian cuisine. Spices are not about heat. They are about aroma and flavor. They add sweetness, bitterness, heat, sourness and even color. These multifaceted little powders, roots and seeds form the heart of Indian cuisine. Used in the right way they can add great depth and wonderfully complex flavors to your dishes.
Spices form the heart of the cuisine. There are many aromatic and flavorful seasonings that home cooks can choose from to create their masala (spice mixture) masterpieces. To learn to appreciate the art of Indian cooking, you need to understand the spices that are used. How to use them, when to use them, and in what order to use them, are all critical ingredients in becoming a good Indian cook.
In India spices are used in two forms, wet and dry. The wet spice mixtures are made by mixing spices with water, oil or vinegar. The dry mixes are generally made by dry roasting spices on a hot skillet and then grinding them.
Learning how to mix spices -- like an artist learning how to mix paints -- takes inspiration and practice. My advice is to let your taste buds be your guide; there is no wrong or right mixture. If it tastes good to you, it’s a good spice mixture. In Indian cooking a spice mixture is considered good if it provides a harmonizing taste to the dish – no spice is too overpowering or too weak. It’s just right!
Spices tend to burn easily so make sure that you have all the ingredients ready to go. Don’t start the recipe and then go looking for and measuring each spice. In many Indian recipes the spices need to be added in quick succession and you will not have time to go looking for them in the middle of the cooking process.
A few tips to remember when cooking your spices:
- If you are using oil to cook your spices, ensure that the oil is hot before you add the spice. Hot oil has the ability to retain the flavor of the spice.
- If you need to roast the spices on a dry skillet, again make sure the skillet is hot before you add the spice.
- Spices cook very quickly and can burn so make sure you are constantly stirring and be ready to remove them from the heat as soon as they brown.
- If you need to bruise or crush spices for a recipe, don’t do it to far in advance. The spice will loose its freshness, do it just when you need it.
Grinding and Storage Guidelines
Dump out every jar full of pre-ground spices that has been sitting in your cabinet for more than a year. Spice racks are not inanimate objects to be given as bridal-shower gifts and kept for life. They're living things, the soul of Indian cuisine. Buy spices in small quantities and replenish them at least annually. If you open a package of spices and it has little or no aroma, the spices have lost their potency and shouldn't be used. Even for the mixed masala or spice mixtures, prepare them fresh when you need them -- you will notice the difference.
If you don’t want your ground coffee tasting like ground cumin, keep your coffee grinder and spice grinder separate. (Labeling the grinders appropriately really helps). Coffee grinders really work best for powdering spices. For roughly pounded spices you can use a mortar and pestle or even place the spices in a plastic bag and use a rolling pin.
Most people store their spice right next to their stove. Bad idea. Store your spices in a airtight jar, away from direct heat or sunlight. Also never use a wet spoon for remove spices from a jar. This will keep them fresh longer. The best place to store the spices in a cupboard or a drawer. If you can use glass or clear plastic jars – this way you can see how much spice you have left!
My final advice -Teaspoons of spices are never too much, tablespoons of oil are just enough and a little imagination goes a long way.
My spice rack currently holds over a forty different spices and mixes. For a basic Indian spice pantry I would recommend the following (also check out this informative thread in the India forum).
Asafetida: (Hing): This is a digestive spice and is generally used in very small quantities (add a pinch of asafetida). It has a very strong smell and is also called "the stinking spice". This smell however completely disappears during the cooking process. The spices adds a very unique flavor to the dish.
Bay leaf: (Tej patta): These are used whole in sweet and savory dishes. They are leaves of the laurel tree and are very fragrant. These are removed from the dish before serving and are not eaten
Black cardamom pods: (Moti or Bari Elachi): As the name suggests these are large black cardamom seeds. They are used both in savory and sweet dishes primarily in North Indian cooking. They provide a woodsy flavor to the dish. Please remove from the dish before serving.
Black peppercorns: (Kali Mirch): These come from the Malabar coast of India and are berries of the pepper plant. As the name suggests they have a rather strong pepper taste. They can be used either whole or crushed.
Carom seeds: (Ajwain): These seeds are also called Bishop’s weed. The flavor is very strong and similar to the flavor of Thyme.
Chickpea flour (besan): This flour is made from chickpeas. It is used to prepare batter for fritters, as a thickener in curries, or to prepare desserts.
Cilantro (Hara Dhaniya): Fresh cilantro has a strong lemony flavor and is used liberally in North Indian cooking to provide the final garnish to dishes. In the west it is also called also known as Chinese parsley. Please note that dried coriander powder is not a substitute for fresh cilantro.
Cinnamon stick (Dalchini): In India cassia bark is often sold as cinnamon. True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree. It is used in most dishes in the whole stick form and impart a strong sweet flavor to the dish.
Clarified butter (ghee): Ghee is clarified butter from which all milk solids have been removed. It is often used in India as the cooking medium since it has the ability to be heated to very high temperatures. It also retains spice flavors better than other cooking mediums and provides a distinct nutty flavor to the dishes. There are two types of Ghee – one made from vegetables and the other made from butter. You can prepare Ghee at home or buy it at your local Indian grocer.
Cloves (laung): The best way to describe these dried flower buds is that they look like little brown nails. They come from an evergreen and have been used in India for centuries. Whole cloves and clove oil is thought to have legendary toothache healing properties. Cloves are bitter in taste and are added to sweet and savory dishes.
Coconut Milk (Nariel ka doodh): Coconut milk is prepared from the white meat of the coconut. You can buy coconut milk in cans at your local grocery. Please do not substitute coconut water for coconut milk.
Coconut, desiccated (Sukha nariel): Dried coconut flakes used in many sweet and savory dishes. You can buy these at your local grocer. In many Indian homes, there is a special grater that is kept on hand to grate fresh coconut. You can substitute fresh grated coconut for desiccated coconut.
Coriander seeds (dhaniya): These tiny seeds pack a real punch. Very strongly flavored they are used whole, crushed or ground. A tip here – grind these fresh, you will see the difference in the taste of the dish.
Cumin seeds (jeera): Cumin is one of the most widely used spices in the world. It can be used as it, fried, roasted, ground up, indeed it is very versatile and really adds a warm flavor to the dish. Buy the safeed jeera or the brown cumin seeds for the recipes here.
Curry leaves (kari patta) These small point leaves are very fragrant and add a unique lemony flavor to dishes. Bay leaves are not a substitute. (Identity Crisis: Will the real curry leaf please stand up)
Fennel: (Sauf) These small oval shaped seeds similar to aniseeds have a liquorice like flavor.
Fenugreek leaves, dried (Kasoori Methi): These dried leaves are highly aromatic and are used as a seasoning. They are extremely strong in their taste and aroma. Use them sparingly --a little goes a long way.
Fenugreek seeds (methi dana). These seeds look like flat brown disks. They have a bitter taste that disappears on cooking.
Garam Masala (Warm Spice mix): This is a mix of dark and strongly flavored spices. It is used whole or ground and is generally used in meat dishes. You can buy this from your Indian grocer or Garam Masala prepare it fresh at home.
Green cardamom pods (choti elaichi) Cardamom is a very aromatic spice. The pods, containing black seeds, are used whole or ground up. For most recipe you can grind the whole pod unless otherwise indicated. I would shy away from buying ground cardamom, it really is best to grind it fresh. You can buy cardamom seeds (removed from the pod).
Jaggery (gur): Jaggery is basically thickened sugar cane juice. Brown sugar can be used as a substitute.
Mint (Pudina): Used in preparation of many dishes, mint leaves are used whole or pureed. Rarely if ever is dried mint used in Indian cooking.
Mustard seeds (Rai) Yellow and black seeds add a toasty flavor to the dish. Usually the recipe will indicate which type of seed should be used. Mustard oil obtained from mustard seeds is a very popular cooking medium in Eastern Indian cuisines.
Red chilies, whole dried and powder (Sukhi lal mirch): Red chilies are used to give heat to a dish and used liberally in many Indian dishes. You can buy many varieties of these from the very mild to the very strong. You can either buy dried red chilies and grind them to make your own powder or buy the prepared chili powder. Cayenne pepper can be used as a substitute if you like. I would advise you to get the traditional red chili powder from your local Indian grocer.
Saffron (Kesar): The world’s best saffron comes from Spain and from India’s Kashmir valley. Saffron adds a unique flavor and a gorgeous yellow amber color to dishes. Turmeric is not a substitute. Saffron is a very expensive spice and a pinch is all you need for most recipes.
Tamarind (Imli): Tamarind pulp is used to add tanginess and sourness to dishes. You can buy prepared tamarind pulp from Indian grocery stores.
Turmeric (haldi): Turmeric comes from a rhizome similar in appearance to ginger root. It gives Indian dishes the characteristic yellow color associated with curries. It is used in a dried powdered form and is also cooked as a vegetable in its raw form.
A word on Yogurt and Paneer (Indian Cheese)
You can buy yogurt at your local grocer to use in the recipes here. Just be sure its unflavored plain yogurt. You should also drain any extra whey (either by placing the yogurt in a filter over a bowl or hung in a cloth over a sink) – this gives the right texture to the yogurt.
Paneer is now easily available at Indian grocery stores. You can buy it whole in a slab, cut up or cut up into cubes and deep-fried. It is also fairly easy to prepare at home. (To prepare paneer at home, see Paneer).
I leave you with this thought from UK’s famous Keith Floyd “ There are as many versions of masalas in Indian cooking as there are sexual positions in the Kama Sutra, if not more……”
Maps courtesy of www.theodora.com/maps used with permission.