Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spice at the Heart of Indian Cooking

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Spice at the Heart of Indian Cooking

Article excerpt

While growing up in India, I used to watch my mother prepare the daily meals. Of all the ingredients she assembled before her, it was the collection of spices that she reached for most eagerly. A pinch of this and a dash of that transformed common ingredients into fragrant, colorful dishes we couldn't wait to eat.

Even something as familiar as eggplant took on tasty and tempting guises in the magic of her herbal artistry. One day she might roast it over an open fire to give it a smoky flavor, then rub the flesh with ground cumin. Another day she would cube an eggplant and add it to a vegetable stew filled with minced ginger and hot chilies.

For yet another variation, she would dip eggplant strips in a batter of chickpea flour enlivened with ground red pepper, then fry them until crisp. Sweet, tart, hot, even pleasant touches of bitterness -- her meals abounded with flavors, and our palates were never bored.

To me, this excitement and variety are the essence of Indian cooking, and at the heart of that essence are spices -- and the combining techniques that give them such presence and power.

I've always loved to observe as Indian cooks sizzle whole mustard seeds in oil at the beginning of cooking to draw out the flavor; as they grind turmeric, mix it with water and use the resulting paste as a sauce base; as they dry-roast cinnamon, cloves and cardamom seeds and grind them together -- garam masala being the result sprinkling the powder over a cooked dish for a final finish.

I came to the United States as a young woman with memories of wonderful family meals and the role of the spices that illuminated them. But in India, there are so many -- from seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, or the barks of plants -- I was unsure if I could ever find what I needed in this land. But I was pleasantly surprised. Local supermarkets, specialty grocery stores, and mail-order catalogs gave me access to everything I needed. It wasn't long-though not without trial and error -- that I began preparing with gusto the meals of my youth in my American kitchen, meals that helped me adjust to my new environment.

But I made changes. I drastically reduced the amount of oil and virtually eliminated animal fat (mainly ghee, or clarified butter, which is widely used in Indian cooking) by incorporating a larger amount of aromatics such as onion, ginger and garlic than traditional recipes usually call for.

These days, because I love to travel abroad and collect new recipe ideas, I frequently whip up dishes drawing upon the cuisines and flavors of many other countries. But guess what my friends always insist I serve when they come to my home? "Nothing but Indian. Spicy as you can make it." They also want me to accompany them to Indian restaurants in town to satisfy "a craving for Indian food," as I so often hear.

Indeed, the last several years have seen a resurgence of Indian food in the United States as Americans rediscover the many potential applications of the vast cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. I think the popularity also has to do with the vegetarian emphasis in Indian cuisine, which has strong roots in the country's culture. It's also healthful, especially with some of the modifications I've made.

And always, Indian food retains that specialness: the earthy taste that lingers in the mouth, colors and textures that dazzle the senses, the balance of nutrition that takes away any desire to stop for a cookie afterward.

But there are more practical aspects. Indian cooking techniques are easy to master, the ingredients are a snap to purchase and most dishes can be made ahead of time.

I also think that American kitchens can adapt to Indian fare on their own terms. For example, you don't always need to prepare an elaborate, multi-course Indian meal. One spicy dish can serve as a complement to the kind of dinner you'd ordinarily prepare. Our Hearty Kidney Beans and Spinach, for example, go well with rice and an American-style green salad. …

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