Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Tastes Of India 101

Ranveer Brar, Corporate Chef of One World Cuisine and The Boston Foodie.

When it comes to the many, varied regional dishes of India commonly known in the U.S. as "Indian Food", there are two camps: those who absolutely love it and those who have never tried it. A recent, totally unscientific survey of friends confirmed this. Most, like me, had never taken a chance on tasting it. Some of the reasons given: It's too spicy. I don't get the whole curry thing. I don't understand the names. It's just too weird.

In an effort to educate myself, and all TBF readers, we are beginning a new series on The Tastes Of India. With much trepidation I had always tiptoed around the subject of Indian cuisine because I'd never really indulged in it. In addition to most of the reasons above I had also convinced myself that I had an aversion to mint used in cooking (maybe that childhood trauma of a thing called mint jelly did it). So, this is quite the leap for me, and for the TBF blog in general, as it may be for you. We did an enormous amount of research to help demystify Indian cuisine. After all is said and done I can say that that which we once feared is now embraced. Indian food is absolutely delicious, ingredients are often quite simple, it is extremely healthy and will add a refreshing new twist to the food in your life. In short, it's amazing. I was also quite surprised to find that it is remarkably close to Mediterranean cuisine. Over the course of the next month or so we'll be learning about the flavors of India in a new post every Wednesday. I am quite confident that many of you who have never tried the cuisine will be eager to do so.

I also must thank Diva Indian Bistro, Gurnham Singh, Executive Chef and Jas Winder, owner, and One World Cuisine Corporate Chef Ranveer Brar with their generous assistance and information in preparing this series. They gave me hands-on experience in their kitchen and much guidance on the culture and history of Indian cuisine. We further researched a number of books. We found FLAVORS OF INDIA by Meena Pathak and INDIA WITH PASSION by Manju Malhi to be the most helpful for the novice.

Diva Indian Bistro in Davis Square, Somerville.

So, let's begin this journey, shall we?

Firstly, India is a vast subcontinent with a population of one billion. Many predict it will be the world's next economic powerhouse, outdoing even China. India has a highly educated workforce, speaks English (the language of business) and does not suffer from the heavy pollution that plagues China. Due to its size and the vast variety of terrain most food has regional roots. Therefore, there are no real dishes that are prepared in all regions and, therefore no real "Indian Food" per se. Most of the Indian dishes prepared outside of India come from Punjab, a state in the northwest, perhaps the most fertile area. The classic dishes such as tandooris, tikkas, naan and lassi (don't worry, we will explain all of these dishes in detail) come from the Punjab.

The major spices used in most Indian cooking are:

Coriander Seed. These ridged, beige seeds are sweet and spicy. They are often a major part in many spice mixtures.

Coriander Seed.

Cumin Seed. These look very similar to caraway seeds but are larger and lighter in color. The flavor is also similar but gentler and distinctively sweeter.

Cumin Seed.

Cilantro Leaf. The leaf of the coriander, it's used as a herb and garnish and has a more citrus flavor than the seed.

Cilantro Leaf.

Fenugreek Seed. This was a new one on me. These are the angular, yellowish seeds that give many curry powders that earthy, musky "curryish" aroma. A curry, while we are on the subject, is a mix of spices, not just one recipe. Just as there are about fifteen gravies, or sauces, used in Indian cuisine there are many different curry blends.

Fenugreek Seed.

There are many other spices used, of course. Some common ingredients are coconut, yogurt, cheeses and lots of vegetables. Many dishes are vegetarian and the cuisine is exceptionally healthy with lots of the herbs used having medicinal benefits. Throughout this series we will dispel all of the myths that you and I may have had about Indian food so that even more people can enjoy what is now considered to be the fastest growing cuisine in the U.S. We'll take a look at cooking techniques and explore the flavors of a number of the most popular dishes.

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