An Indian Food Primer

For those members who missed April’s International Dinner at Ganesha’s Indian Restaurant, host Anuradha Kipf has prepared this informative lesson on the different kinds of Indian cooking.

All About Indian Food

by Anuradha Kipf

There is a lot of mumbo jumbo about the Indian cuisine. We are led to believe that each dish is lovingly prepared to some secret recipe known only to chefs. There is one thing you can be sure of, most dishes don’t vary much at all, other than the most prominent ingredients, such as the type of meat, fish or vegetable and possibly whether the sauce is lentil or cream based. So, every Indian dish will have its basic ‘curry gravy’ and every dish served will be a derivative of that sauce. I have tried to demystify the Indian restaurant menu by explaining what individual items are and how they vary from each other. The spellings are not definitive as all the translations into the English language are based on phonetics.

BALTI: Balti describes the cooking pot. In a ‘traditional’ balti cooking, the dish is served in a large balti pot and eaten with Indian breads, such as Nans, Chappatis and Parathas.

KARAHI: The term Karahi or Korai refers to the serving dish, which is made of cast iron on a wooden base and pre-heated, so that the curry sizzles in the serving dish when it is brought to the table. Don’t touch the Karahi or you will get your fingers char grilled.

BHUNA, BHOONA: A Bhuna is a dry fried curry containing onions and spices. It tends to be medium hot.

BIRYANI: Biryani is a rice dish, cooked together with meat or vegetable. The meat and vegetables are pre-cooked and then mixed with the pilau rice. It is usually served with a separate bowl of curry sauce.

CHAPATTI: Chapattis are a simple circular unleavened bread. They are simply made from flour and water and then cooked on a griddle on both sides.

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DHANSAK, DANSAK: Dhansak is based on the addition of a lentil puree to cooking process. It is described as a sweet and sour curry with a lentil sauce. The serving varies often for added hot, sweet and sour flavours.

DOPIAZA, DUPIAZA: Do means “two” and Dopiaza means something like “double onions”. Typically this is a fairly basic Indian curry prepared as a Bhuna or Bhoona but with the addition of extra onions probably both in the cooking and as a garnish.

JALFREZI, JALFRAZI, JHALL FRYZY, ZALl FREZI: Jalfrezi is ‘hot’ dish given additional heat by being cooked with fresh green chillis. It usually also contains visible onion, tomato and capsicum.

KORMA, KURMA: Korma is the mild curry typically prepared with butter and thickened with single cream and coconut milk to give a mild creamy sauce. Spicing would be more subtle, and there would be more use of aromatic spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon rather than the more robust spices such as chilli, cumin, black pepper etc.

MADRAS: Madras is a city in Southern India. In an Indian restaurant, Madras means a ‘hot dish’. I doubt if the dish owes its origins to Madras at all, other than its name was chosen way back in the mists of time to signify a fiery hot dish, just as the city of Madras sizzles in the fiery hot Sun.

NAN, NAAN BREAD: Nan bread is leavened bread traditionally baked in the Tandoor Oven. It is baked from a dough containing flour (usually Chapatti flour or wholemeal), yogurt, milk, sugar, yeast and ghee (clarified butter). They obtain a distinctive teardrop shape from being stuck to the side of the Tandoor and baking whilst gravity is stretching them. They are served piping hot often spread lightly with melted butter or ghee and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

PURI: Puris are Indian fried breads. They are served as an accompaniment or sometimes as the base for a starter, such a Bhuna Prawn on Puri.

RICE: Rice is the staple diet on the Indian sub-continent and its influence has extended to it being the traditional accompaniment for Indian dishes. The very best rice is Basmati rice (from the foothills of the Himalaya’s). Never confuse the quality of Basmati for normal long grain (such as Patna) rice, as Basmati is far superior. Rice is served as either plain boiled or Pilau. Pilau rice is fried with cardamom, clove, cinnamon and flavoured with saffron. Then there are all of the variations of Pilau rice such as fried with pre-cooked vegetables or mushrooms or mince or eggs or peas. Rice lends itself better to curries.

ROGAN JOSH: Rogan Josh originates from Kashmiri cooked with tomatoes and onions and probably capsicum. It is generally presented as a medium strength curry, not as hot as a Madras.

SAMBER: Samber is prepared with a lentil base. I would personally, expect the Samber to be presented as a sour curry with the addition of tamarind juice.

SHAMI KEBAB: Shami Kebabs are small round patties of minced lamb and lentils cooked in a Tandoor oven. Sometimes they are exactly the same as the Sheek Kebab, but formed into a flat pattie rather than formed onto a skewer like a sausage. Usually served with a small side salad and Yoghurt and Mint Sauce.

SHEEK KEBAB, SHEIK KEBAB: Sheek Kebabs consists of minced lamb mixed with lemon juice, coriander, onion, garlic and green chilli. The meat is shaped onto a skewer, like a sausage, and cooked in the Tandoor Oven (or failing a Tandoor oven, sometimes on a charcoal barbeque). Usually served with a small side salad and Yoghurt and Mint Sauce.

TANDOORI: Tandoori dishes derive their name from the Tandoor oven that they are cooked in. Tandoor ovens are traditionally clay ovens fuelled by charcoal in the bottom, gas or electricity. It is probably the heat generated in the Tandoor that give Tandoori dishes their unique taste, rather than the particular fuel used to fire them. Meat, kebabs and breads are cooked in the Tandoor. Meats are lowered into the oven on skewers and bread is stuck to the side with fingers.

I suppose most things can be ‘Tandoorized’, but the preparation is to marinate the meat in a marinade of yoghurt and spices. In the Indian restaurant, red food dye is often added, giving a rather radioactive red to the colour of the dish. This is not traditional and is only done for presentation.

Tandoori dishes do not have a reputation for being too spicy and are often recommended as being subtle and especially good for anybody wanting a more gentle introduction to the Indian menu. They are usually served as starter with a small side Salad and a Yoghurt and Mint Sauce, or with a Salad and Naan bread as a main course.

TIKKA: Tikka is prepared in a similar way to a Tandoori dish. However it is usually a piece of fillet meat, chicken or fish that is cooked on a skewer, whereas Tandoori dishes are usually a whole portion of meat such as a Chicken quarter or half.

TIKKA MASSALA: Tikka Massala is most popular. The Tikka Massala curry is made with Tikka meat. That is, meat that has been marinated and cooked on skewers in a Tandoor before being used in the curry preparation. The Massala is the curry sauce that the Tikka is served in. It is a creamy mild and colourful dish. It is prepared in the same way as a basic curry dish but with the addition of possibly yoghurt and just before serving, single cream.

VINDALOO: Vindaloo is traditionally a Potato, Pork and Vinegar curry from Goa. It usually has diced potatoes in the sauce along with the chosen meat or chicken. However, I can’t ever remember seeing pork as an option. I wonder why? Vindaloo is ‘hotter’ than a Madras. Potatoes are added to alleviate the piquancy of the dish.

Tips for cooking Indian cuisine

  1. Most spices are potent, so a little goes a long way. You want the spices to enhance the flavours of foods, not overpower the whole dish.
  2. When blending several spices in a dish, experiment to find combinations you like. Be adventurous! A good cookbook can start you out with suggestions for spices.
  3. Many spices release their flavours and aromas best when sautéed in Ghee (clarified butter) or oil, some when they are dry-roasted. Be nimble when sautéing or roasting spices, they tend to burn quickly. Remove from heat when aromas are released and continue stirring to prevent burning.
  4. Many spices release their flavours and aromas best when sautéed in Ghee (clarified butter) or oil, some when they are dry-roasted. Be nimble when sautéing or roasting spices, they tend to burn quickly. Remove from heat when aromas are released and continue stirring to prevent burning.
  5. Look for organic, non-irradiated spices. Store spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.
  6. Put an Indian spin on everyday dishes. For example, try adding spices to dishes you already make. Sizzle some cumin, saffron or other Indian spices in hot oil and pour over mashed potatoes
  7. Warm up chili and stews. Spice things up with cumin, coriander and cinnamon.
  8. Add a bit of cayenne. Cayenne, just a touch, adds zing to bland soups.
  9. Give meatloaf new depth. Darker spices like cloves and cinnamon, freshly ground, add wonderful depth to meatloaf and other meat-based dishes.
  10. Make curry marinades. Mild curry powder is a very flavourful mix to add to marinades for chicken, beef and lamb. I advise adding it to yogurt, along with minced ginger and garlic. Mix well and then marinate your meats in it.
  11. Try Indian cheese. Paneer is made with cow’s milk and is sold in brick form in most Indian stores and even in local grocery stores now. I suggest grating it on a cheese grater and using it instead of eggs for a scramble! Heat some oil, and add cumin, bell peppers, paneer, salt, pepper and turmeric. Saute for a few moments or until bell peppers are soft.
  12. Make paneer croutons. Paneer is also wonderful in place of bread croutons, and it’s certainly more nutritious. Cut the cheese into small cubes and pan fry for a few moments.
  13. Be creative with chutney. Blend up some cilantro, mint, red onion, salt, pepper and lemon juice for a super-simple chutney that does triple duty as a salad dressing, simmering sauce for chicken and spread for buttered bread!
  14. Spice up your rice. Add a few cloves and a touch of cumin seeds to hot oil, add the rice, and cook as you would normally. This yields a very toasty flavour.
  15. Don’t forget the drinks. Add a touch of saffron to homemade lemonade or other beverages to make them exotic and delightful.

Ayurveda – A glimpse into the 5000-year-old ancient science of healing.

Turmeric – detoxifies liver and blood. It is anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, antiviral and anti fungal actions.

Cumin – kindles burning stomach, aids absorption of minerals, reduces gastric, helps stomach pain, nausea, menstrual cramps.

Coriander – supports kidney and bladder functions, diuretic, reduces fever, relieves pitta skin rashes, in conjunctivitis tea is used as eye wash.

Fennel – good for upper respiratory congestion, indigestion, diarrhea, hot flashes, helps to rid intestinal worms.

Cardamom – aids digestion of milk and dairy, cough and breathlessness, hemorrhoids, prevents cavities.

Black Mustard Seeds – heals bronchial system, asthma and cough, helps remove intestinal worms. Mustard oil used in heating massage.

Saffron – blood cleanser and thinner, liver detoxifier, brain/nerve tonic, heart tonic and aphrodisiac.