Which is all leading up to say: Indian cooking can be tricky. Forget the ingredients; they're really not that unusual for the most part. We all know about cumin and ginger and mustard and cinnamon and even some of the less obvious things spices like turmeric, coriander, and even cardamom aren't anything all that special. In the end dal is just lentils and asafoetida isn't strictly necessary.
And yet it still ends up being somewhat tricky to figure out -- largely because of the process involved. But rest assured, tricky doesn't mean hard. Just... tricky. All the rules about what goes in when and why in French cooking get tossed out the window (note: same is true of most Asian cuisines; it's just that Indian food is also quite different than anything with Sino-Japanese influences). You end up building your spice profile from the beginning rather than the end, use odd thickening tricks, employ dairy in weird ways... etc, etc, etc. But once you get the hang of it it's actually pretty hard to screw it up. At least not too badly. After trying a few (good) recipes (that actually try to explain themselves) and maybe using some of those boxed spice mixes (and analyzing what's in them and what each ingredient adds) improving becomes relatively simple.
Case in point: new year's eve 2010. The wife (am I going to get used to saying that sometime?) calls on the way home and requests Indian. A quick inventory of the kitchen and a run to the store yields:
- Almost 2 lbs of tri tip (thank god for discount meat but note that there's absolutely no reason to use this if you want to be authentic or otherwise cost-conscious; just replace with boneless skinless chicken breasts if you prefer)
- 2 yellow onions
- 3 bell peppers
- 3 jalapenos
- 7 red potatoes
- Chicken broth
- 1 large can diced tomatoes
- 1 can tomato paste
- Olive oil
- Cumin (whole; this is important)
- Coriander (whole; this is important)
- Cardamom pods (always pods; the flavor difference is substantial)
- Ginger (powder is fine but raw grated is always good)
- Cinnamon (ground; sticks are fine)
Looks viable... right?
Of course. We'll start with the rice:
- Make rice
Then move on to bigger, better things. Like building a spice profile and braising a bit. In a skillet combine:
- Olive oil
- Cumin seeds
- Coriander seeds
In the meantime cube up your meat of choice. Since mine was beef I felt obligated to conservatively apply salt and pepper. Brown that in the superheated oil then transfer to a stock pot (along with some of the oil, naturally).
Take the heat down in the skillet, add a touch more oil along with the seeds from a half dozen cardamom pods. Bring the heat back up a bit until they become pungent and then quickly add onions chunked rather largely and toss until they're just slightly cooked. Then transfer everything to the stock pot, scraping for all the little bits of goodness left behind from the high heat.
Now you're just stewing. Add:
- Bell peppers, also chunked
- Jalapenos, I like them ring sliced, seeds and all
- Diced tomatoes with juice
- Chicken broth
- Potatoes, large chunks
- Cinnamon to taste -- but don't go overboard
- Tomato paste to thicken
And that's it. Walk away. When the potatoes are done you have dinner.
Serve in a bowl with layers of rice, stew, and yogurt. Garnish with cilantro if you're so inclined.
See? Simple. The spices toasted at the beginning are the primary flavor modifiers -- and they had to be whole in order to stand up to the high heat without burning. The secondary spices are more mellow, present primarily to round out the flavor. The onions are left nearly raw, imparting a very different flavor than the long sweats and browns you're used to. The jalapenos add just enough heat to notice without being overpowering. The potatoes take on the flavor of the broth, oil, and tomatoes. And it all works wonderfully.
But yes, it does take some getting used to.