A long history of regional and cultural interactions has resulted in the Indian menu that we know today. Spice trade between this south Asian nation and Europe is often credited with the prompting of Europe’s Age of Discovery – a delicious discovery at that, given the vast assortment of regional Indian spices, vegetables and herbs.
Religious practices have also influenced the dishes presented from the Indian kitchen. Hinduism resulted in the prevalence of vegetarianism in India. While many households will consume poultry and seafood, the sacred standing of cattle among those adhering to strict Hindu culture renders beef taboo from their ingredient list. Even Indian restaurant menus around the world rarely list beef.
Frequently used spices in Indian cuisine include chili pepper, mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin, ginger, ground coriander and garlic. Garam masala is a mix of five or more spices that usually includes cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Every region in India boasts its own unique blend for garam masala.
Among herbs, coriander leaves, fenugreek and mint are all typically used in the Indian kitchen. Nutmeg, rose petal essences, saffron and coconut are used to infuse another dimension of flavor; and ingredients such as peanuts, cashews, raisins and toasted coconut are often used as garnishes.
Pulses, a group of legumes that includes lentils, chick peas, pigeon peas and mung beans, are another staple of Indian cooking, as well as basmati rice.
It is astounding how many individuals I know personally who have yet to sample Indian fare. The first statement of trepidation I hear from most of them is “Oh, isn’t Indian food really hot? I don’t like spicy food!” While some Indian dishes do indeed rank high on the heat index, not all of them result in profuse perspiration and frantic water consumption. Indian food is almost always spicy, as in flavored with spices. Not all Indian food is spicy as in hot, however. Which leads into the next excuse of “I wouldn’t even know what to order!” Dishes vary dramatically across India, influenced not only by culture, but also by economics, season and geographic locations set by proximity to sea, mountain or dessert. In other words, there is something on every Indian restaurant menu to satisfy every taste.
Among the popular entrees to be found on the menu in most Indian restaurants within the U.S. are curry, tika masla, korma, vindaloo and tandoori, all of which may be prepared with chicken or lamb. Korma is my personal favorite; defined as a rich and creamy curry embellished with nuts and raisins. Korma is a milder curry, one I would recommend for the faint-palated. If you feel adventurous and want to sample a little more heat, a vindaloo may be the way to go. Tika masala is tomato-based and contains various spices and fenugreek. Tandoori is a yogurt-based spice marinade for meats. Tandoori chicken is an easy grilling dish for home BBQ cooks. I have prepared most of these at home. Biriyani, another alternative that I would recommend to those who can’t take the heat, is a rice entrée containing basmati rice, chicken or lamb, mild spices, vegetables, raisins and nuts.
Side dishes and accompaniments that I would recommend to anyone new to the scene of sampling Indian foods include saag paneer, which is basically cooked spinach with cheese, naan, which is an unleavened bread that is baked in a tandoor oven, sometimes prepared with onion or garlic, and basmati rice with peas or any other rice pilaf whose menu description appeals to your senses.
Although I am a dedicated wine drinker, I personally prefer beer to imbibe with Indian fare. For those preferring a non-alcoholic option, the lassi is a traditional Indian beverage that is yogurt based, blended with milk, spices and additional flavors of fruit such as mango. Tea is a staple beverage in Indian, particularly Darjeeling tea.
Enjoy my version of chicken curry, in which I use ingredients that you can purchase in any supermarket. The result is creamy and not spicy hot.
8 chicken thighs
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 onion, chopped
1 package fresh sliced white button mushrooms
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons curry powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup chicken stock
1 large apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and diced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup peanuts
1 cup uncooked basmati rice
2 cups water
Place the basmati rice into a fine mesh sieve and rinse the rice under running water in the sink for about a minute. Allow to drain.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and cook until both sides have browned. Remove the browned chicken from the skillet and set aside.
Add the onion, peppers, mushrooms and garlic to the skillet and sautee until the onions are translucent. Stir in the curry powder, salt and cinnamon. Cook and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the chicken stock and the apple, then return the chicken to the skillet. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the skillet and simmer for about twenty minutes or until the juices from the chicken run clear when pierced with a sharp knife.
Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the rice, reduce heat, cover saucepan and simmer for twenty minutes or until the rice is tender and all water has been absorbed. Check the rice periodically. If the liquid gets absorbed before the rice is tender, add more water.
Once the chicken is cooked, remove the thighs and arrange them on a deep serving platter. Place the flour into a 2 or 4-cup glass measuring cup. Add one ladle full of the stock from the skillet. Whisk vigorously until the flour has been blended smoothly into the liquid. Add the cream to the measuring cup and continue to whisk until well incorporated. Gently stir the mixture into the skillet. Cook and stir until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Remove from heat. Stir in the raisins and peanuts and then pour the sauce over the chicken. Once the basmati rice is cooked, transfer to a serving bowl. Serves four.
For a quick and simple weekday dish with a touch of Indian flare, keep a jar of garam masala spice blend in your pantry. This cuts time because all of the spices have already been measured and combined. Then all you need to do is slice some zucchini, maybe some chopped red onion and minced garlic and sautee it all in a skillet with some peanut oil or butter and a couple of teaspoons of the garam masala. You could also add shrimp or cubed boneless chicken breast or thigh to the mix. Serve it over some basmati rice and there’s dinner in twenty minutes! If you make a super market stop on the way home to buy the shrimp, pick up a Naan bread from the bakery or bread aisle.