Spice It Up!
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Indian food, with its various influences, is a mixture of unique ingredients and just the right sequence of spices. Seasonings are the signature ingredient of many Indian dishes, but using them properly requires an understanding of the cuisine, its cooking techniques and proper timing.
By Mark Caskie
“Indian food is a jigsaw puzzle,” says Sanjiv Dhar, graduate of prestigious Johnson & Wales University and owner of Kabob and Curry restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. Dhar sees the amazing variety of Indian cooking as the product of India’s complicated political and social history. Every area, tribe, religious group and wave of invaders has helped to shape the cuisine’s many dishes and many regional varieties. But the element that unites Indian cuisine is its use of spices.
Although many of today’s leading chefs are working to simplify the spice combinations, traditional Indian recipes often call for the use of 10 or more spices in a single dish. “The balance of spices is important,” cautions Dhar. “Many spices and herbs pair well with each other, but there are rules you need to follow.”
Spice of Life
Indian chefs have a great number of spices to draw from in the preparation of Indian food. Some of the most commonly used are ginger, bay leaf, black and green cardamom, black peppercorn, cinnamon, cloves, chilies and coriander. “Green cardamom is my favorite because of its versatility,” says Dhar. “It’s an essential part of any good sauce or marinated meat, and even desserts.”
On the Menu
Northern and southern India offer two different cooking styles. In the north, kebabs and biryanis (basmati rice with meat or vegetable), breads—such as chapati (flat griddle bread) and nan (leavened bread cooked in a brick oven)—yogurt and ginger-and-garlic sauces are especially popular. Northern Indian sauces tend to be drier than southern ones; rice often replaces bread in southern India, which allows for soupier sauces.
Dhar says that many southern Indian dishes make use of coconut, coconut milk and curry leaves. Dosa (a crepe made from cream of rice) is a popular dish that often comes stuffed with seasoned potatoes, or with a spicy lentil sauce or coconut chutney.
The secret to the use of Indian spices is to understand how cooking techniques affect their flavor and when to add them. “When you’re cooking Indian food you need to pay attention to the sequence of adding spices,” says Dhar. “You shouldn’t just throw everything into a hot oil at the same time.”