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Here’s to the herbs, spices and flavorings that have become familiar to me over the years and which I love to use.  It’s easy in a city like Minneapolis to trek around and explore the street-party of international and specialty markets, which increases your odds of laying hands on some of these ingredients, some of which are not only exotic, but challenging to find (Minneapolis even has a stretch of Nicollet Ave, called Eat Street).

This is what God made the internet for.  Most of the below items that I found over the past 20 year period  are now often locally available.  I like shopping for them in person, because you don’t have to pay increasing mail/shipping costs, or tap your foot as you wait for delivery trucks.  Anyhow, combing your territory for these little treasure is always a much better adventure provided that you have the gift of time.

I’ll highlight more specialty ingredients sometime in the future (Africa, SE Asia, Central America), and if you think today’s list is exotic, just wait!

Asfoetida – a gum (tree) resin used in cuisines from India.  It is a penetrating flavor and aroma – only use  a small pinch and fling it into hot oil when frying pappadums.  It actually has an startlingly unpleasant scent before you cook with it, but it is also a key ingredient in authentic Indian-style cooking with an exciting taste.  For centuries, the non-physical and magical attributes of Asafetida have been- at the least -equal to to its health and aesthetic qualities.

Curry Leaf – another India item – I’ve used this herb both fresh and dried – just like the name says, it tastes like delicate curry spices.  Look for it in either form at your local Indian grocery, which is likely one of the only places you’ll find it.

Epazote is an Indigenous herb with a pronounced flavor, with many uses in Central American tribal cuisines, as well as Southwest US tribes.  It’s easy to grow (I’ve planted it in my garden many times) and I put it in various sauces and salsas, and it is a great addition to dry beans when you cook them, thought to have carminative properties.   Having the virtue of being an antidote or preventive to flatulence.  Easy to grow in your garden, which is good – I prefer using fresh over dried leaves when I have the choice.  It has an indefinable, almost chocolatley presence on the palate and in the nose.

Galanga Root – I have this fascinating spice in my kitchen in its fresh and dried state (both sliced root and in powdered form) as well.  It can be found in Asian markets in its fresh form, often labeled as Thai Ginger.  The taste is difficult to describe, but it really doesn’t taste like ginger at all.   Use it when you make Tom Ka, Thai Chicken Soup with Coconut Milk and Galangal.  Also known as Geing bot, and a couple of other perplexing names and spellings, it features regularly in Indonesian cuisine as well.

Grains of Paradise– A year or so ago I started searching for this peppery spice, and it took weeks to locate.  It is related to the African Alligator Pepper.  It has a spiky, pleasant flavor – unmistakably hotter than black pepper- and in the United States it found its way  into the brewing industry, for craft beer.  I later found out that this was one of the reasons it was scarce, as I began looking for it.  It has heat, powerful floral citrus and warm spice notes.

Gumbo File – This is not an exotic spice, since it is a unique Indigenous North American ingredient derived from finely ground leaf of sassafras.  This prominent ingredient in authentic Cajun and Creole cuisines around Louisiana has always been used by the Choctaw tribe (Five Nations) because of its thickening and flavoring virtues in cooking.  You can probably find it in the spice and baking aisle of your local supermarket.  It’s used as the name suggests in some preparations of Gumbo and is also sprinkled over a bowl of the stew at table to further enhance the flavor.

Juniper Berry – I love using this spice.  It does come fromf juniper and is generally fairly easy to obtain, because in addition to use in Native American cooking, it has been employed for centuries in traditional European kitchens as well, often to balance the strong tastes in game.  I always always always have this in my spice cabinet.  In cuisine francaise, it is a familiar companion to a strong burgundy:  A noble Rhône (Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge, a good 1981 if you can manage it).

Keffir Lime Leaves– Prominent in SE Asian cookery, Keffir leaves are becoming steadily more familiar in the US.  I have found the dried leaf in my local co-op/natural food store.  You can probably also find it- fresh or frozen- in larger Asian groceries and supermarkets.  It adds a bright citrus fragrance to curries and stir fries and has numerous applications.

Yuzu Juice– Never heard of this before?  Neither had I.  And this amazing flavoring agent was a beast to find.  I couldn’t even find it in the Japanese section of one of our major Asian super-marts.  It is the juice of an inedible Japanese citrus fruit, used only in the juice or grated rind incarnations.  Yuzu is one of the components for traditional sushi dipping sauce (Ponzu), mingled with soy sauce.  Bartenders also have come to rely on the addition of yuzu to high-end cocktails to add an intriguing and deliciously aha-moment to beverages at the bar.  The taste is often described as the love child of lemon and tangerine.

Res El-Hanout – Apparently like many curries, each family & household commands its own concoction for Res El-Hanout (الحانوت رأس), sometimes with up to a dozen or so individual spices.   It is used in the Moroccan kitchen and throughout North Africa in one form or another.  I love cooking chicken with this spice blend and it will transform any ingredient into a unique dish to place on your dinner table.  This was another spice that took some searching on my part, until I rejoiced when I stumbled upon it in a Middle Eastern grocery four blocks away from me.  I was whooping madly inside my head.

Szechuan Peppercorn – I was first introduced to this deliciously prickly spice when I was living in Taiwan.  My landlord at that time taught me how to make Ma Po Dofu (an iconic Szechuan tofu and pork main dish); and when I first tried to make this recipe back in Minnesota, I had to find this ingredient.  I don’t believe you can make Ma Po Dofu without it, it’s that essential.  Part of the reason is flavor, and another is texture.  This small peppercorn, which is small and reddish brown, has a woodsy, flowery personality, and a sensation on the tongue that is somewhere between heat and a tannic-bite.  The crunchy kernel also retains its almost dinty character, even after you grind it and cook it!  It is fairly easy to find in your Asian grocery.

Smoked Salt – Fortunately this aromatic item has moved out of boutique kitchen stores and is becoming easier to buy.  It is usually made from sea salt (as opposed to mined) salt, and there are a number of interesting incarnations and applications.  I first was introduced to Hickory Salt about 20 years ago, and more recently there are new smoked salts in a number of forms.  This is a wonderful ingredient, and I love using it in the absence of smoked meats when preparing rice and beans, for example, or other recipes that feature smoked cured meats.  It’s especially great to use when making vegetarian foods, adding a pleasant smokiness, but omitting the smoked ham, bacon or turkey leg.  Include it in a rub for fowl, meat or fish, and vegetables, to give it a grilled depth.  Team it up with smoked paprika (available in both sweet and hot powders) to develop complex flavors.

Sumac – another ingredient native to both North America and Africa, and historically used by peoples in both continents for many centuries.  It’s used everywhere from the Bosporus and Mediterranean cuisines, to tribes around North America.  It’s versatility can be grasped when you realize that it can be made into a refreshing cold beverage (like lemonade) or in soups, baked and grilled dishes, adding a puckery, fruity tone.  In North America there are varieties of sumac that are inedible, and in fact poisonous.  If you forage this wild food, you must know the difference.  I bought mine at the Middle Eastern market.

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photo courtesy C. Katt

An Indian menu for non-Indians:

Spicy, Pan-fried Fish Chettinad, from  Madame Jaffrey’s cookbook, ‘Flavors of India’ (Carol Southern Books, 1995)

Cauliflower/potato/cashew curry, adapted from *Joy

[* 1975, p 361-62, Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer, et al]

Fragrant rice (basmati) (cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper)

Tea

Fresh Raita (also Jaffrey)

Paratha bread, from the local market & heated in the oven

Three Pickles:  Tamarind, bitter lemon, green mango

We ate ocean perch in a spicy marinade, sauteed,  with fragrant saffron rice, and cauliflower & potato curry with cashews, cooked in Ghee.  Also, various pickles, from bitter lemon, and hot mango-, to sweet tamarind.  Everything was brought together with a fresh mint and cucumber Raita.

Indian cuisine has close connections with The Ayurveda tradition, which means that food is also medicine, hewing closely to  Chinese beliefs.  Turmeric in particular is a potent purifying agent, and key to many basic curry blends.  Here are the recipes we used:

Spicy, Pan-Fried Fish Steaks Chettinad

For 2 fillets:

1 Tbsp ground coriander

1 Tbsp cayenne pepper

¼ tsp ground dried turmeric powder (very purifying)

½ tsp ground cumin (preferably roasted whole & ground)

1 tsp salt (or less)

3-5 tsp lime/lemon juice

An equal amount of water (I ignore this)

2 nice fish fillets, or steaks

2-3 Tbsp any good vegetable oil

Make a paste with all these ingredients and let the fish marinade in the paste for at least 15 minutes, up to 3 hours.  Eventually saute them 4-5 min on a side, depending on the thickness of the cut, It will be spicy, sharp and pleasant.

Fragrant Rice

1 c dry Basmati Rice (essential that it  is Basmati)

A 2” stick of true Cassia cinnamon, broken

One whole pod of cardamom- black or green- depending on your preference

Several (4-9) grains of Black Pepper

½” piece of fresh ginger

2 generous pinches of dried saffron

½ tsp salt (I often reduce salt proportions)

Rinse the rice in several changes of water, taking out the starch.  Then add a small can of coconut milk into a measuring cup, and add sufficient water for a total of 1-1/4 cups, and bring everything together up to a boil.  You can also substitute plain water with an equal measure of stock, for added richness and flavor.  Allow to simmer for an additional 12-14 min, with a lid over everything.  It’s done.  Let it relax before you fluff it all with a fork, and cover it with a tight lid, or some foil until service.

Cauliflower & Potato Curry

This is an adaptation of a preparation from *Joy.  I have taken liberties with a traditional recipe, but it is still very recognizable.  We used to prepare something very close to this at The Riverside Cafe, many years ago.

½ head cauliflower, de-stemmed & broken into medium florets

A large red potato, cut into generous cubes (maybe 1”)

Steam each vegetable separately until al dente and shock in cold water.  Drain.  This is a short-cut, but useful.

Meanwhile, add to a wok over medium-high heat:

2 Tbsp Ghee (clarified Indian butter.  It has a higher than average smoking point)

2 tsp grated fresh ginger

2 tsp grated garlic

2 c minced onion

½ a jalapeno pepper, or one fresh red cayenne

(I spun the onions and fresh pepper in a food processor until it was a light pulp)

Add the cauliflower and potatoes to the mix and add:

1 big Tbsp good curry powder (I used a hot blend)

1 scant Tbsp all purpose flour

Stir-fry everything for 3-5 minutes, and then add:

1 small can of coconut milk

¼ cup chicken stock, or any good stock

½ tsp salt

½ cup broken roasted and salted cashews

Continue cooking until everything boils gently (important, because of the flour), stirring frequently.  Turn the heat down to a simmer and it will be ready to serve in about 4-5 minutes.

Raita

This is a cooling condiment, also improvised for our lunch:

½ peeled, de-seeded and coarsely grated fresh cucumber

2 Tbsp minced fresh mint

1-1/4 cups natural (plain) yogurt

½ tsp salt, to taste.

Whisk or stir all of the ingredients together.