‘An Indian kitchen is a fragrant kitchen’ ~ Ragini Dey
My favourite new Indian cookbook, ‘Spice Kitchen,’ by Indian-Australian restaurateur Ragini Dey, describes Indian food as ‘vibrant, colourful and richly flavoured… yet devilishly sly as its spices lie in wait for unsuspecting palates.’ Earlier this week we gathered in a garden in Forbes Park and learned the truth of that description.
We were a multi-cultural mixed bag of Indians and Bhutanese, Australians and New Zealanders, Swedes, Filipinas, Japanese and Korean, interested in learning more about Indian and Bhutanese cooking.
The garden had been set up like a TV show, with the audience sitting on garden chairs in front of an outdoor ‘kitchen’ complete with gas burners, waiting for the show to begin. The chefs were our friends, on a mission to raise money for the school children we support while concurrently teaching us about their cuisine .
I love Indian food, and I particularly love the attitude to cooking it. We were given recipes, but promptly advised that the specifics are flexible: Indians just tend ‘to bung in’ all the ingredients. Pakistanis, I gather, are far more particular about measurements. Coming from the chop-and-chuck school of cooking myself, “bunging” sounded more my style.
Having said that, these ladies were highly organized and obviously well versed in taking cooking classes. Spices had been carefully measured out into little bowls and arranged on a tray. All the other ingredients had been prepared earlier, too, as each member of the team took a turn at talking us through a recipe.
We began with a cheese and cucumber salad from the Kingdom of Bhutan, with ingredients reminiscent of a salsa: cucumber, tomato, raw onion and fresh coriander. The quantity of chili and the cheese added surprising heat and texture respectively to the salad.
The most distinctive and beloved characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. The Bhutanese eat a lot of chilli, fresh, dry, and powdered, but if you don’t want it so hot, cut down on quantities. The same goes for the Szechuan pepper: if it is too hot or unavailable, just replace with paprika.
In Bhutan this dish is made with datshi, a local curd cheese made from yak’s milk, but unless you have a yak hiding in your apartment and know how to make your own fresh cheese, you may need to improvise. Try the local carabao cheese Kesong puti as a good alternative.
Next up, was a North Indian paneer tikka. This is also traditionally made with cottage cheese, but again, this isn’t easy to find in the Philippines, so thinking outside the box, use feta cheese. Marinated in a yoghurt based sauce brimming with spices, the cheese is then arranged on satay sticks with red onion, bell peppers, and pineapple before cooking it under the grill or on hot skillet, charred till smoky. Serve them with a mint chutney and watch for the smiles. And for the more carnivorously inclined, the same recipe can be done with chicken pieces.
There was also a discussion about mustard oil with its very distinctive aroma (think of burying your nose in a jar of Dijon mustard and how that clears the sinuses). Apparently it’s a cheap and commonly used oil in eastern India. It is also a heavy oil, but apparently if you heat it to smoking point that will lighten it a little.
I had just arrived in Manila the first time I watched samosas being made, and a group of Pakistani women were raising funds for flood victims. It took almost three hours to make those little snacks that we devoured in three minutes flat. They were absolutely delicious, but as one Hungarian woman said in her sexy, heavy accent: “What a waste of good drinking time!”
Today’s efforts were much more efficient, and our sample samosas were done and dusted in half an hour – a much more acceptable time frame, especially as we had noticed platters of pre-made samosas waiting in the wings, and our mouths were watering already. When making the crust, we were advised, use any familiar shortening: Crisco, ghee, butter or canola oil, as long as you get the balance right so that the dough doesn’t crumble, but holds together when you pinch it. We practiced folding half circles of paper into the right shape while the ladies out front made the filling, and told us that we can bake the samosas instead of frying them and they will keep for a week in the fridge. Sure, but not in my house! They vanish is moments.
Our talented cooks whipped up four more dishes in rapid succession: okra with onion (bhindi do pyaza); aloo gobi; mustard fish and a chicken curry, which came with tips to pile in the finely diced onion for a thicker gravy, add oil to butter to prevent the butter burning, and toss salt into the grinder with the mustard seeds to remove the bitterness.
To complete our Indian luncheon, we were offered a cup of kulfi – that cardamom flavoured pistachio ice-cream perfect for Filipino taste buds, with its blend of richly sweet evaporated and condensed milks, and Nestlé cream.
I love the lyricism of spices: cardomom and coriander, kalonji and carom, almost onomatopoeic in the way they dance off the tongue. More practical than poetic were the household hints: coriander powder is good for bile and astoefetida is good for reducing gas – both common complaints for anyone with a tendency to guzzle curries like me.
So, apart from ‘bunging,’ the other message was simply to experiment and innovate if you can’t find exactly the right ingredients. Ragini Dey recommends this too:
Don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar spices to get to know their distinctive flavours…. experiment with different combinations – your imagination and taste buds will do the rest…
…and then enjoy the feast. I have to add though, I especially enjoyed the luxury of watching someone else do the cooking. Somehow that makes it all taste so much better!
*with thanks to Google images for the majority of these photos – well you all know I am a hopeless photographer.