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Food coloring in Indian Dishes


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Lately i've been wondering about the use of food colouring in Indian food.

Is there a traditional aesthetic use of it, or is it maybe to reproduce the colour that chilli powder or saffron would have given to a dish?

How sad; a house full of condiments and no food.

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The colour of food is as important as the taste. The old saying that we eat with our eyes before our mouths is very true of Indian foods hence the covering of food with gold leaf the use of shimmering tarka on dhals, and the bright yellow of mustard baked chicken

Where this has been debased is in the use of artificial colouring which has led some of the "curry houses" in the UK to serve extraordinary looking food that people now take as the norm, expecting tandoori food to be bright red and korma to be bright yellow, er?

I love to present a meal with a wide range of colour, textures and tastes, but all of this can be done naturally. If you want reds or oranges, use saffron ( I like to soak this in milk to use in marinades as I think it adds a tenderness to the meat ) and if you need a mild yellow, use turmeric ( I find the fresh root almost as good as the powder for this purpose and it has a milder flavour )

Hope this helps

S

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The colour of food is as important as the taste.  The old saying that we eat with our eyes before our mouths is very true of Indian foods hence the covering of food with gold leaf the use of shimmering tarka on dhals, and the bright yellow of mustard baked chicken

Where this has been debased is in the use of artificial colouring which has led some of the "curry houses" in the UK to serve extraordinary looking food that people now take as the norm, expecting tandoori food to be bright red and korma to be bright yellow, er?

I love to present a meal with a wide range of colour, textures and tastes, but all of this can be done naturally.  If you want reds or oranges, use saffron ( I like to soak this in milk to use in marinades as I think it adds a tenderness to the meat ) and if you need a mild yellow, use turmeric ( I find the fresh root almost as good as the powder for this purpose and it has a milder flavour )

Hope this helps

S

Simon, after reading your great post, nothing has been left unsaid. You sum this issue perfectly.

But the UK is not alone, restaurants in NYC do the same. Actually most any I have gone to now do this.

Saddest part is that some of our most respected food authorities from India, thought nothing before adding food coloring to their recipes.:shock:

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Saddest part is that some of our most respected food authorities from India, thought nothing before adding food coloring to their recipes.:shock:

Well that is what I found bewildering; I suspected that the huge amount of colouring that you find in some Indian food wasn't the norm, but I have read many recipes from people who seem quite knowlegable that continue to include it.

Do you think it's the case that people have become used to the use of colouring and now it gets added without a thought for it's purpose? Just a habit?

I got thinkng about this rcently b/c I tried a new Indian place near my house, and there was so much colouring in all the food that drops of sauce stained the laminex on the kitchen bench! Even the mutter panir was pink!

How sad; a house full of condiments and no food.

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Syllabub

A drink made of sweetened milk or cream curdled with wine or spirits.

A dish made by mixing wine or cider with milk, and thus forming a soft curd; also, sweetened cream, flavored with wine and beaten to a stiff froth.

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Well that is what I found bewildering; I suspected that the huge amount of colouring that you find in some Indian food wasn't the norm, but I have read many recipes from people who seem quite knowlegable that continue to include it.

Do you think it's the case that people have become used to the use of colouring and now it gets added without a thought for it's purpose? Just a habit?

The food coloring addition comes from where? I wish I knew. It is not Indian and not traditional.

I think most cookbook writers and chefs have started adding these to their recipes without any thought. I am quite certain in their own homes they never add these colors or dyes. But they have begun to accept the addition without any questioning.

I think it is habitual for a food writer to simply accept what has been done in the past many books and use some basic "accepted" guidelines.

When I began testing certain recipes that I knew had artificial colors in their restaurant versions, I opened up a few books that I respect. Unfortunately, these books had added the coloring.

I chose to break the norm in my cookbook. And I hope it will set a precedent for going back to the old days.

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Syllabub

A drink made of sweetened milk or cream curdled with wine or spirits.

A dish made by mixing wine or cider with milk, and thus forming a soft curd; also, sweetened cream, flavored with wine and beaten to a stiff froth.

Never had it. Thanks for sharing its recipe.

:biggrin:

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I think this is again a legacy of Raj

When people returned to the UK after leaving India, they wanted to recreate the dishes they had been given in India. This and the immigration drive in the 40's and 50's to get people from the "colonies" to fill low paid jobs in the UK led to the growth in the asian population and the opening of the "Curry House"

The chefs could not get all the ingredients and used what was to hand, so colouring replaced the use of natural ingredients. In the end, an undiscerning public became used to bright reds and yellows and began to reject anything that looked different.

I know to my cost that I have spent hours on preparing meals for people who profess their love of Indian food but who rejected the food I had cooked as it "did not look right"

This is changing but it is a slow process. Only last night a friend took me for an "indian" meal which comprised of Onion Bhaji ( like a cricket ball ) Korma ( as yellow as the sun and a Biryani ( complete with sliced egg and cucumber )

I really did not have the heartor the bad manners to say anything, but my heart sank that such things pass as dishes from Mother.

S

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Saddest part is that some of our most respected food authorities from India, thought nothing before adding food coloring to their

I got thinkng about this rcently b/c I tried a new Indian place near my house, and there was so much colouring in all the food that drops of sauce stained the laminex on the kitchen bench! Even the mutter panir was pink!

Many Indian restaurants in NYC are using scallions for the most part to make mint or cilantro chutney. Scallions are much cheaper. The use of scallions makes for a lower food cost. But since scallions will not give the intense green color to the chutney, they now add green coloring. You can do an easy test for this by putting a drop of the chutney into yogurt, you will see that very quickly the dye will make the yogurt go green. With natural chutneys, one would have to mix before that change takes place.

The same is being done with Tamarind Chutney, for some reason, the restaurant chefs and owners have decided that a brown sauce is not as appealing as a cherry tinted brown sauce So, in the tamarind chutney, they are adding red coloring. Again, when you put it yogurt, it will make it pink.

Some chefs are adding coloring to sauces.

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Only last night a friend took me for an "indian" meal which comprised of Onion Bhaji ( like a cricket ball )  Korma ( as yellow as the sun and a Biryani ( complete with sliced egg and cucumber )

Onion Bhaji (especially the Bengali version called Piyazi) is one of my favorite snack dishes. One rarely finds a restaurant that makes it correctly. Those cricket ball sized bhajis are wrong. No idea where they came up with these. Sheer laziness I guess.

Kormas for the most part are meant to be pale white. When saffron is added they take a very pale yellow color. Golden Yellow Korma? I have never seen them in traditional and fine cooking.

Biryaani with egg is prepared in certain Moslem homes. But the eggs are layered into the rice and not served as a garnish.

And cucumbers would be added to a salad of onions, tomatoes, mint and cucumber. This salad would be served on the side.

Where did these silly ideas come from? They are wrong. I am puzzled by garnishes which have no relationship to a dish and add nothing to it.

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I know to my cost that I have spent hours on preparing meals for people who profess their love of Indian food but who rejected the food I had cooked as it "did not look right"

Wow! That happens to you as well? It happens all the time. I have friends bring friends of theirs that "LOVE Curry" and so, after they eat the meal, I can see from their faces that they are somewhat disappointed.

I usually make a point of asking them why they look so. Invariably they tell me how the food they have eaten that night is so different from the Curries they know. Their ignorance makes them associate restaurant cooking as being the more authentic and better version. I simply do not waste my time trying to argue. I smile inside me and learn more about what I should never do.

But I do feel change is happening. As more Americans and Brits and more people around the world are exposed to the more subtle, refined and light cooking from the homes, they will have a far greater respect and understanding of a cuisine that is as old as time and yet as contemporary as today (borrowing from Simon Majumdar, I could not have expressed it better). The magic of Indian home cooking for me is its ability to excite all of ones senses. And without ever compromising even one.

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I have to admit that the idea of coloring food is alien to me. My dad's restaurant has NEVER done it. In fact, the red tandoori chicken that I see around here puts me off to the point that I do not eat it anymore. I do not remember home cooked food to be colored in any way.

Maybe you can classify spice coloring as coloring of food. I think the natural coloring provided by spices is what people are used to looking at. Well there is the use of unground spices that hardly imparts any color (I think).

What do you use to color food?

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I have to admit that the idea of coloring food is alien to me. My dad's restaurant has NEVER done it. In fact, the red tandoori chicken that I see around here puts me off to the point that I do not eat it anymore. I do not remember home cooked food to be colored in any way.

Vivin,

Like you, that awful RED tandoori chicken puts me off. It is ghastly. And so many people, millions in the US and certainly around the western world think of Tandoori chicken as being that very color.

Recently a very famous American Cookbook Writer, who has written books worshipped as Bibles, showed me their version of Tandoori Chicken that they had also published in one of their many cookbooks. It was a bright red cooked chicken. They garnished the place with rose petals. It was hideous to me. The recipe was correct; the coloring was what got me all sad.

Your father’s restaurant has always been my benchmark for food at its very basic level. I hope I am not offending you or him or his genius by calling his restaurant and its fare basic. But at your father’s restaurant, they always served good food, in a decent setting and with decent service. They never were the highest end restaurant, but always counted as one of the few with consistently good food. It is that which has always stuck with me. And I miss his restaurants very often. I cannot help but see my mind compare the finer restaurants in NYC to the very basic one you father had in New Delhi. There is no comparison. The restaurants here that have even been rated with stars give far worse food.

And above all, if a restaurant serves me red tandoori chicken, which most do in the US, I find it quite offensive, and I know immediately that someone in the management or even in the kitchen, cares little about their art. It saddens me.

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Maybe you can classify spice coloring as coloring of food. I think the natural coloring provided by spices is what people are used to looking at. Well there is the use of unground spices that hardly imparts any color (I think).

What do you use to color food?

I hope no one has problems with foods getting a color with the brilliant use of spices and herbs. That is but one role of spices and it is the mastering of these ingredients for such subtle uses, that can differentiate a good chef from a great chef.

Many spices would not impart color unless treated for that property. Then in India we have even mastered the art of cooking with spices that would have color, but bleaching these spices in the sun till they become white, and then using them for sauces where one cannot afford using dark spices.

A highly reduced tomato sauce is often used when a rich red color is needed. Kashmiri Mirch, a chile powder that is close to paprika, and has little heat, is used in dishes where you need red coloring. A perfect spice to use for Tandoori Chicken.

Turmeric is a quick and easy way of getting a dish to be yellow. The other ways are to use tomtoes and yogurt together. Salmon color can be achieved by using a reduced tomato sauce with cream or milk.

An orange color can be afforded by the use of lots of saffron.

A yellow with the use of saffron and yogurt or cream.

Green with the use of spinach, mint, cilantro, mustard or dill.

In the chicken curry thread, I believe I shared my recipe for a basic Tandoori Chicken, in fact I used cornish hens, if anyone tries that recipe, you will find it brilliant in taste and color without any artificial ingredient whatsoever.

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TANDOORI ROAST CORNISH GAME HENS

Serves 4

For the best flavor, the hens should be marinated overnight, but in a pinch, marinate 4 hours. Line the roasting pan with aluminum foil for easy clean-up.

2 Cornish game hens

1 tablespoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Juice of 1 lemon

MARINADE

1 small onion

4 garlic cloves

2 inches peeled, fresh ginger

1 teaspoon ground, toasted cumin

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Pinch ground cloves

Pinch ground cinnamon

Pinch garam masala

1/3 cup yogurt

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon canola oil

2 tablespoons canola oil

Lemon wedges, for serving

1. Pull and cut the skin off the hens. Make several deep slashes in the breasts and thighs.

2. Mix the paprika, salt, turmeric and lemon juice together in a bowl. Rub the mixture over the hens and then massage the birds with the spices for about 1 minute to ensure that the spices are rubbed in nicely. Set aside, covered for half an hour.

3. Meanwhile, put all the marinade ingredients in a blender and process on low speed until smooth.

4. Toss the hens in the marinade until coated. Place in a zip loc bag and marinade in the refrigerator overnight or for up to 2 days.

5. Bring the hens to room temperature by placing outside the refrigerator for an hour before ready to cook.

6. Preheat the oven to 500?F. Add the 2 tablespoons oil to the bowl with the hens and stir with a rubber spatula to coat. Remove hens from marinade with whatever marinade sticks to them. Put them on a rack in a roasting pan and roast 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand 5 minutes. Cut in half and serve with lemon wedges.

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I share the recipe above to show you how easy it is to make something authentic and yet tasty and attractive.

If you test the recipe I have posted above, you will find it does not compromise at all in flavor or looks, and yet is easy, light in oil, and without artificial coloring.

It is one of many examples you can find in home cooking, where chefs would never use artificial additives of any kind in their cooking.

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Only last night a friend took me for an "indian" meal which comprised of Onion Bhaji ( like a cricket ball )  Korma ( as yellow as the sun and a Biryani ( complete with sliced egg and cucumber )

Onion Bhaji (especially the Bengali version called Piyazi) is one of my favorite snack dishes. One rarely finds a restaurant that makes it correctly. Those cricket ball sized bhajis are wrong. No idea where they came up with these. Sheer laziness I guess.

.......

I think Piyazhi -is not really onion bhaji. Just like Ghoogni is not Chole in Chole-bhature. Having said that, I'm unable to draw a distinction clearly :smile: It's like saying I have to taste it to say if it is a cigar. :raz:

anil

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I think Piyazhi -is not really onion bhaji. Just like Ghoogni is not Chole in Chole-bhature. Having said that, I'm unable to draw a distinction clearly  :smile:  It's like saying I have to taste it to say if it is a cigar.  :raz:

What is Onion Bhaji to you Anil?

In the north, all across the plains we make Pyaz Pakoras which are light, crisp and very think and almost like Piyazi. They are never shaped like the cricket balls one is served in the US.

In the South they make bhajia which again is very thin and light and crunchy and crisp. Yes they make masala vadai that some of the restaurants have adapted to be also close to Onion Bhajia. But again, in doing so, they serve a dish that is neither Bhajia nor Vadai nor Piyazi.

But yes you are right, one would have to do a taste test to find out the real difference. When and where should we do this? I am game. :biggrin:

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Thinking more about what spices, herbs or ingredients are used in Indian cooking to give certain colors, below is a list.. Please add to it.

Garam Masala Powder – when fried for a minute or two browns and can add a brownish tinge to certain sauces.

Onions – when browned to a nice dark color using very little water for the frying gives any dish a nice dark color. If you do not add tomatoes, this will certainly give a very nice dark brown color.

Cumin and Coriander powders – When toasted and fried for a few minutes over a low flame will help creating a brown color.

Ripe red tomatoes – Will give a nice red color when used by themselves, will give a nice pink-salmon color if used with yogurt.

Cilantro – When ground and added to dishes will give a nice bright green color. It is very important to not overcook cilantro-based sauces. Cilantro will brown very easily. Spinach and Dill and Mint are used for the same goal.

Red Chilies (Kashmiri Chilies) – These will add a nice reddish-brown color to a sauce. Adding the whole chiles will give flavor, but the powder is what adds the color. The trick to know is to add the powder to the hot oil, fry for a couple of seconds and then add a teaspoon of water. This keeps from the chile powder from burning and becoming brown and also makes the color bleed and become brighter.

Saffron – Saffron will not always make a sauce yellow, in fact it is closer to a pale orange color. More like that of the inside of a peach or even the skin of certain apricots. When used with the addition of milk or yogurt, it can become more yellow.

Turmeric – Is used in Indian cooking for the bright yellow color you would see in many dishes. It is important to understand that too much turmeric can kill most all other spice flavors. A little turmeric goes a long way.

Cockscomb flower petals are used also in some recipes to add red color to dishes.

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  • 13 years later...

Big Names on this forum! It makes me feel a little intimidated to post when I see restauranteurs and cookbook authors and many experienced people here. So with the caveat I know very little, and the request that you will forgive my mistakes, and accept the fact that I know all of you already know all that I am adding, I would like to add my say to this excellent discussion: 

 

The many colors of foods from India, mimic the multi hued produce that is sold fresh from the farm to the market in every nook and corner of India. And it always has been sold in this manner. From villages through cities. The best and freshest ingredients straight from the farm, set out on a mat, or on a simple wheeled cart, pooled with other small sellers at a local open-air market. And all the produce from that day's harvest must be sold by night time, else it will all perish without any refrigeration methods. Grain and Pulses are all sold in adjacent enclosed shops, but even there the produce, though less perishable than the fresh goods, is still relatively less shelf-stored than our generation of supermarkets has ever seen. The grains and pulses of THIS SEASON are stored for just this season. At the most, staples like wheat, rice and daal will be stored for a whole year, but they will be bought fresh from the latest harvest. So the goods that are bought from Indian markets in India, have almost no preservatives, additives for growing, pesticides, or methods added to increase shelf life. Everything is fresh. And therein is the main answer to the question we all have on this forum: Why and When did the coloring in Indian foods begin?
Undocumented as it is, there is some information on the internet and in our beloved books. Food coloring for Egyptian wine making and wine storage seems to be the oldest mention over the wiki and other searches on my first pass at the internet. "The addition of colorants to foods is thought to have occurred in Egyptian cities as early as 1500 BC, when candy makers added natural extracts and wine to improve the products' appearance.
Meggos, H. (1995). "Food colours: an international perspective". The Manufacturing Confectioner. pp. 59–65." 

Furthermore, the addition of natural substances like Beetroot, Carrot, Red pepper, Turmeric, Cockscomb Flower, Onion Skin, Cilantro and Spinach, and of course Saffron are all listed on responses on this forum. They are all ingredients that exist in their completeness as they are. To these I would add metals like Gold and Silver in their beaten thin-leaf form for the addition of color and pizzaz. As cuisines became more complicated, the addition of enhancements and additives from the naturally occuring food produces and edible products, was a natural progression. 

I would humbly like to submit the addition of FRAGRANCE and TASTE additives to this discussion. The world of spices, added as they were for their initial use to preserve, certainly continued their value and enhanced their desirability by their taste. Clove, Tellicherry Pepper, Sichuan Pepper, Red and Green Chillies, Cinnamon, Mace, Nutmeg, Star Anise, Cardamom, Fennel, Cumin, Mustard, Caraway, Carom, Dill, Nigella, Turmeric, Ginger, Garlic, Onion, Shallot, and the umami addition of Haritaki (chebulic myrobalan) and Awala (gooseberry) and Fenugreek were all flavoring enhancers of the fruit or seed or root variety. There were also resin compounds like Asafoetida that did the same two things. And Honey...oh the first taste enhancer of all...sweet and satisfying. 

And yet, there is more. From India as from Persia too, we have the "ITTAR" the essences that came with the understanding of distillation. Musk, Henna, Amber, Vetiver, Patchouli, Rose, Sandalwood, Jasmine, and many more fragrances define dishes. I know and love the flavor of the original Rose essence in Falooda/Faloodeh. What would Phirni be without the Vetiver essence? Why would I even have Sheera without Cardamom powder or Kesari without Saffron? And the list goes on...

To come to the point, I merely wanted to add that all throughout history, enhancers have been used to add to food: to flavor, to color, to add appeal and to preserve. And just as we used methods to increase shelf life and make products last longer, we used cheaper and more easily available methods to enhance the appeal of foods. This will always be there, always exist. Because there is a demand that exists for it. The more informed one gets, the more one gets selective. Both options will exist, unless one becomes known to be toxic. So aloo-bukhara chutney will still be colored with beetroot since plums lose their color upon cooking. And scallions will still be used in cilantro chutney because they are cheaper than cilantro and add bulk. But to agree with Suvir Saran and others here, the negative aspects of using a chemical dye in a food coloring agent should become known, and we would then prefer a vegetable dye unless we are going for the economy of scale. But we would still use some form of enhancement, because we eat with our eyes and noses first. 

I am just realising that I missed out on all the nuts and seeds as additions to taste, and the one and only vanilla bean. Oh well, my work is still in progress and I have much to learn. 

Thank you for letting me add here. I feel so good right now, just as if I'd had a big glass of 'badam-pista-kesar-elaichi milk' that was warmed on a small coal stove out among the fields under the stars......




 

 

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You are most welcome, @Bhukhhad!

 

You seem to have a strong background in Indian cuisine, which I do not. It is one of my many weak areas, and am looking very much forward to your contributions on this forum.

 

I would be delighted if you chose to provide any input on this thread on Indian Vegetables that I started in an attempt to move myself forward to being less ignorant about this ancient and lovely cuisine. :)

> ^ . . ^ <

 

 

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Dear Thanks for the Crepes, 

I am from India, but unlike some of the other folks on this forum, I am not a chef nor a well known book author. But I am a foodie heheheh! And I love cooking and eating and reading all about them too!!

I will certainly look into the thread you mention. But before I start posting stuff about, I need to learn properly about posting pictures. And I am finding that just like you are friendly, others on this group are also being kind to me and helping me to learn. So let me perfect the art of reference first......

Then I will plunge with my ladle into the thread!! 

:)

 

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      6 cloves garlic, minced
      1 large onion finely chopped
      3 lb eggplant, diced, 1/4 inch cubes
      1/2 lb chopped dates
      1 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
      2 cups rice vinegar (4.3 percent acidity or more)
      2 cups brown sugar
      2 Tbs salt
      2 tsp citric acid
      Spice Mix (Masala)

      1. Dry roast half the coriander seeds in a pan till they begin to brown slightly and become fragrant - do not burn. Cool.

      2. Put roasted and raw coriander seeds and all the other spices in a spice mill and grind till quite fine, or use a mortar and pestle. Put aside.

      Main Pickle

      1. Heat half the oil and fry ginger till slightly browned, slowly.

      2. Add garlic, onion, and half the salt and fry slowly till these begin to brown a bit too.

      3. Add eggplant, turmeric, and spice mix (Masala) and combine well. Fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

      4. Add rest of ingredients, including rest of the salt and olive oil and heat slowly to a boil.

      5. Boil for about 5 minutes. Add a little water if too thick - it should be nearly covered with liquid, but not quite - it will thin upon cooking so wait to add the water till heated through.

      6. Bottle in sterilized jars and seal according to your local pickling instructions. This recipe will be sufficiently acidic.
    • By rxrfrx
      South Indian Style Broccoli
      Serves 2 as Main Dish.
      Broccoli isn't a traditional Indian vegetable, but I designed this recipe to use up leftover boiled broccoli in the style of cauliflower.

      3 c broccoli, cut up and cooked
      3 T oil
      2 T cumin seeds
      2 tsp tumeric
      2 tsp corriander powder
      2 green chilis, sliced thinly
      1/2 c chopped cilantro
      salt, to taste

      Fry the spices in the oil until they smoke a little. Add the broccoli and chilis and fry for a couple minutes to get the flavors mixed. Add salt to taste and stir in the cilantro before serving with chapati.
      Bonus recipe: just before adding the cilantro, crack 2-4 eggs into the pan and stir them around.
      Keywords: Main Dish, Side, Easy, Vegan, Vegetables, Indian
      ( RG2107 )
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