Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Tastes Of India II

Baking bread in tandoor oven.

Now that we've covered some of the spices used in Indian Cuisine we can move on to cooking techniques and the actual dishes. Firstly, let's dispel some of those myths we mentioned at the start of this series. The first usually mentioned is that the food is too spicy. Indian food does use a lot of spice but the heat of the spice is no more than in any other cuisine. Just as with Asian or even Mexican cuisine the dishes can be prepared with any level of heat. Everything we tasted was mild. You can go medium or hot depending on your palate.

Next, let's address the "curry thing". A curry is nothing more than a spice combination used in a gravy or sauce. It can be flavored in many different ways. There are about fifteen basic sauces used in Indian cooking, all considered curries, just as in Italian cooking where pesto, garlic, tomatoes or cream are used to create different flavors for pasta sauce. The names of the dishes and ingredients we'll discuss more but, believe me, there is something on the menu for everybody at any Indian restaurant and the flavors will be remarkably familiar to some of your favorite dishes. All dishes and their ingredients, as at any restaurant, are explained in full on the menus.

Tandoor oven.

Now let's move on to technique. The common fixture in any Indian restaurant will always be the tandoor oven. The tandoor oven is a deep, cylindrical oven made of clay that reaches temperatures of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, quite hot indeed. Most are fueled with coal, providing the same smoky flavor you'd get from your own outdoor grill. Some local fire ordinances will not allow for coal tandoor ovens and there is a difference in flavor so you may want to check before dining. Typically, there are two ovens just like these at Diva Indian Bistro in Davis Square. One is used for meats and the other is used for bread. The ovens quickly sear meats producing the familiar crispy outside but flavorful, meaty inside. Tandoor ovens were often communal ovens in the villages in India, where the women would meet to cook food and bake bread, building a strong food culture.

Naan bread is made by throwing the dough against the side of the oven wall where it puffs and bubbles. Most people will be familiar with naan bread. It's sold in grocery stores regularly now but, like any bread, there is nothing like fresh from the oven. We sampled both plain and garlic varieties. You may not know there also sweet varieties such as those made with sugar and cinnamon. Nann is used to scoop up the sauces and foods served as it is perfectly acceptable table etiquette to eat Indian foods with one's hands.

Puffy, fresh, warm naan bread.

We began our feast with a vegetable platter, common in Indian cuisine. Indian food provides many vegetable dishes and is popular with vegetarians. Every table at the restaurant was full on the night we dined and we were told that many patrons are regulars. "How often?" I asked. Many regulars visit two to three times a week. Impressive!

Vegetable Platter.

The chutneys, or relishes, accompanying the vegetable platter are typically a mint chutney and a tamarind chutney. The tamarind was the spiciest heat of the meal but also one of the most interesting flavors. The sampler included a samosa, made with potato, peas cilantro and cumin and deep fried. Potatoes are, in fact, a very common ingredient in Indian cuisine. There was also a fried cottage cheese that was out of this world good. The pakora is a chickpea and vegetable beignet. Chickpeas are, again, a common ingredient. A pakora can also be made with meats. A potato tikki, a minced potato patty deeply fried, was included and fantastically crisp outside while creamy inside.

So you can see, many of these ingredients are foods you use every day prepared differently and some really not that differently at all.

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