indian flavors: 5 posts

The Art of a Perfect Flatbread : Chapati

Chapati, also known as roti, is the most popular bread in India (in addition to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia where Indians have set foot). Save for the southern states where rice is the main starch, flatbreads are the staple in other areas of India. Freshly off the pan, chapati is one of the most delicious things you can eat, and all of my Indian culinary highlights include it in one form or another. Although I don’t cook Indian food daily, chapati is a frequent presence on our dinner table. Made with whole wheat flour, water and a tiny bit of oil, it’s versatile enough for a variety of accompaniments, from prosciutto and mozzarella to avocado and shrimp salad. It’s also perfect on its own with a dab of salted butter.

chapati-stack

Watching my mother-in-law turning out chapatis with lightning speed, I decided to record the process for a masterclass. You’ll find two short videos below. My mother-in-law is quite modest about her talents, but she’s one of the most accomplished cooks I’ve met, with an innate feeling for flavors and interesting combinations. (I know that some of you have made the cc powder already–that’s another one of her lessons.) You need to turn out hundreds of chapatis before yours will look as perfect as hers, but it doesn’t matter. Even if your chapati is closer in shape to the outline of India than a circle, it will still taste just as good.

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Sweet Tomato Chutney with Pistachios and Raisins

That tomato is a fruit becomes obvious once you pair it with sugar or sweet ingredients. One of the main aromatic components of tomato, furaneol, is also called strawberry furanone by fragrance and flavor chemists, because it’s such an important note in the complex berry aroma. Incidentally, it’s one of the reasons behind difficulties with tomato accords in perfumery–they smell of red berries if there is even a modicum of sweetness in the formula. It’s therefore natural to treat tomato in much the same way as you would a fruit–cooking it into jams, combining it with sweet pastry or melting it down with vanilla and caramel for an ice cream sauce. Or you can make it into a sweet chutney to be served with grilled meat or rice dishes.

tomato chutney

Chutney is an Indian sauce that may be raw or cooked, and the ingredients run the gamut from fruits and vegetables to beans and nuts. I’m a chutney fiend. I firmly believe that a dollop of chutney makes anything better–a sandwich, a bowl of rice, a piece of grilled chicken. So do many Indians, because not only do they excel in coming up with the most unusual chutney combinations, they don’t hesitate in pairing them together. For instance, spicy green coriander chutney is often partnered with a sweet date one. As you dip crisp eggplant fritters first in one, then the other and experience the explosion of flavor, you understand how silly is the whole idea of “less is more.”

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Indian Flattened Rice Pilaf (Poha) : Layering Flavors

My first taste of India was completely different from what I anticipated. I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Delhi, my head still aching from jet lag and the kaleidoscopic array of new sensory impressions. “You must be hungry,” said Swati, as she went into the kitchen. It was close to midnight, but the air was still hot and humid, and my shirt stuck to my back. I wasn’t hungry at all, but I still politely ate a bit of the vegetable pilaf she put in front of me. I expected it to be spicy and hot, but instead it was tart and refreshing, reminiscent more of Mediterranean tastes than anything I’ve previously experienced with Indian food. Poha was the start of my love affair with Indian layered flavors.

poha

Poha is the name for flattened rice (sometimes also referred to as beaten rice) that has been parboiled, rolled, flattened, and dried to produce easy-to-cook, nutritious flakes. It’s a Western Indian version of muesli, and it’s a common breakfast dish. Since poha is already cooked, it only requires a brief soaking to turn the thin flakes into plump grains. It absorbs liquids and flavors easily, and poha works well in soups, pilafs, salads, and even desserts. You can use it in any dish in which you would have used couscous, adjusting the cooking times accordingly.

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Indian Sesame Cardamom Candy (Til Gul Ladoo) Recipe

Cardamom sesame candy

As the sesame seeds heat up, their delicate aroma dramatically changes into a dark, toasty fragrance that hovers above the pan. This simple transformation is delightful, but becomes even more special when, after mixed with ground cardamom and peanuts, sesame seeds hit a pan of melted sugar. At this point, it is a fragrance of such richness and opulence that I want to bottle it and wear it as perfume: dark caramel, spicy and nutty notes blend into a beautiful harmony. What I am making is til gul ladoo, a sesame cardamom candy popular in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

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Lentil Soup with Coriander, Cumin and Peanuts Recipe

Lentil soup and star fruit salad

The flavors of Gujarati cuisine made a strong impression on me during my first visit. Until I started exploring the Western region of India, which consists of the states of Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra, I had no idea what to expect. I suspected that the flavors would be very different from the Northern Indian fare one commonly finds in restaurants abroad, but I was unprepared for the diversity of tastes I was to encounter. It all started with a simple dish of dal, lentil soup, which is commonly served with rice towards the end of the meal. It looked unassuming—pale orange with green flecks of cilantro and black mustard seeds, but its sweet and tart flavors, with a delicate touch of toasted coriander and cumin, won me over immediately. It was simple, and yet elegant and memorable.

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