Sunday, August 10, 2014

What's Cooking: A cultural adventure!

Warning:  Long post!
I rarely post recipes or pictures of things that I have cooked.  After taking many college courses in food prep, I tend to just wing it when I cook so I generally don't have a recipe to share to go with a picture of whatever it was that I cooked. 
There is a joke around our house:
 Love it, hate it, you will never have it to eat again.
The chances that I will make a dish exactly the same way twice is highly unlikely.
Baking is another whole subject: I love to bake but high altitude baking is a whole 'nother thing.
Routine baking recipes fail utterly some days, while other days they come out passably well.
Turns out high altitude baking requires tweaking of sugar, leavening, fats and fluid, and all are impacted by humidity or lack of humidity as well.
Big Sigh.
Well, one thing that I loved in college was my graduate level course in Cultural Aspects of Food.
(You had to take four courses in food prep, two chemistry classes and a food safety class before you could enroll in that course. Wheee!)
We sat through a lecture each week about each culture, learning about their religious and social customs, crops and animal husbandry, cooking tools and methods, traditions and celebrations.
Then we were sent to a lab where each of the students were handed two to three recipes from that week's culture.
We had three hours to prepare, serve and clean up.
There usually were twenty to thirty recipes to sample.
(One learned quickly to only take a teaspoon full of each recipe, and to brace oneself for anything flavor wise. We didn't get to see each other's recipes before sampling the food.)
I absolutely LOVED that class!
To this day I will fork or spoon into any thing presented to me as "food", and demand a chance to sample as many things on a menu as possible.
Just call me an adventurous eater.
The one culture that I never really understood, food wise, was Indian.
Growing up we never ate Indian food, and curry powder held no appeal to me.
I do not even remember any of the Indian dishes from class except a carrot dessert that was baked with a sheet of fine silver leaf atop, which shrunk to fit snugly on the dessert for serving on celebratory occasions.
The silver was consumed along with the carrot dessert.
Somewhere around the time we moved to Utah eight years ago, I began for the first time to eat Indian food at several local Indian restaurants around the area.
At first I could barely get through a meal as most of the dishes were just too spicy hot for me.
I did like the yogurt based Lassi drink though.
(see recipe later!)
And then I discovered Butter Chicken.
Little by little I began to discover other menu items that I liked.
At the same time I started watching Bollywood movies after seeing them being added to library collections and seeing Bollywood mentioned in pop culture articles.
Hmmm....what was going on in India that I had missed up to that point?
Soon I was caught up in buying cool cotton kurti tops and exploring Indian traditions and culture...a culture that I had dismissed as being too religiously at odds with my own faith.
So to re-cap:
I started eating at Indian restaurants.
I started to like the food.
Then I started by frozen Indian dinners.
That was pretty good too for when I was home alone and didn't want to go out to eat by myself.
(At this point I had noticed that I was beginning to crave Indian food...)
Then I came across the Cooking School India book and thought *maybe* I could start cooking Indian food myself.
Right away in the book I noticed something different:
The recipes all called for spices I had never heard of before!

(OK I had heard of chile and is used in Mexican food all the time.)

Our Swedish friend Janitha had had to have saffron to make her Swedish recipes.
She had warned me that saffron was expensive and one bought just a few threads of saffron at a time.
I thought that was interesting and figured it was something I would not be buying myself...

I decided I could make one recipe in the book with spices I already had on hand:

Mustard oil?
I faked it by using mustard powder and a bit of olive oil.
The recipe came out fantastic.

Photo from the book, but mine looked just like it.
At this point I thumbed through the rest of the recipes and decided if I was going to start cooking Indian food I would need to buy Indian spices.
Luckily I spotted an Indian grocery store a few minutes from my house.
With my cook book in hand and several pages marked, I walked in and immediately realized I had NO idea what I was doing.
The store owner came over and asked if he could help me.
Help me?
I had no idea what to say.
I  pointed out the page of all the spices; he waved toward several aisles in the store and retreated back to the cash register area.
What did I need?
How much of each did I need?
It seemed like most of the spices came in packages of about a cup or two.
Surely more than I would use in my life time.
Confused, I aimlessly tossed a few bottles of spices in my basket, wondering how I should decide between all that was offered on two long aisles.

The next aisle was like hitting a jack pot!
There were mixes of various food items that I had seen recipes for in my book!
And since I had NO idea if I would like the recipe it seemed wise to buy the package....

At a very reasonable price rather than invest in a five or ten dollar spice package to make the recipe.

Here's how the Rava Dosa (a crisp crepe like bread made from semolina that had cumin seeds and chili in the mix) came out.
Oh. my. goodness!
I had made enough from this one box that I used a couple as the bread for an egg salad sandwich.
Unbelievably delicious!

I had had Kulfi in an Indian restaurant before.
It tasted so good, like a rich slab of ice cream.

The mix at $1.49 was made with 12 oz of milk: how inexpensive!
The almonds, pistachios and saffron flavoring was amazing.
I whipped it up in under ten minutes, froze it in mini ramekins and ta-da portion controlled desserts.

Chaat is generic term for a finger food or side dish/snack.
Masala means a mixture.
This product was a spice mix to be used on cut up fruit, cooked veggies, or fried foods.

I have discovered my favorite spices:
Amchur Powder, made from dried green mangos is now my "gotta have" spice.
It adds a tart lemony zing to anything without adding fluid.
I find I am sprinkling it on all kinds of stuff.

And why not...especially compared to the cost of fresh lemons!

A bit more about Amchur...
(and isn't it fun to learn about a spice that one probably has never had before?)

Early on in my Indian food tasting journey I discovered Butter Chicken was usually a safe bet for dinner for me.
It typically does not have much spicy heat...and I have a very tender mouth that just doesn't do well with chili pepper heat.

It does have some chili listed in the ingredients.
Check the rest of the ingredients though.
Would you have ever thought to cook chicken in:
Star Anise?
I would not have, nor would I be able to sort out all those flavors just by tasting the dish.

Indian food delivers a complex assortment of flavors, with one flavor arriving after another as one consumes each bite.
But that is not enough:
Indian food is always served with several kinds of chutney.
This one has a dried ground up mint base.

But check the ingredient list!
And note the other serving suggestions.
I find I am regularly scooping out about a half cup of plain yogurt and mixing in a teaspoon or so of this mix.
The yogurt acts as a cooling element when added to any dish.
My fear of chili heat is addressed with this mix available on the table.

The mixes were SO fun to explore.
What the heck is Kadhai Paneer anyway???
(Paneer is cheese created using lemon juice, which has the texture of fresh mozzarella and a mild ricotta cheese flavor.  Kadhai means pot or vessel.)

The ingredients.
The recipe calls for browning cubes of paneer in butter then cooking in the sauce created using this mix and water.
I made it on our last camping trip.
I have also made it at home and had a visiting repair guy practically drooling as he worked.
He kept asking me what I was making.
It was kind of hard to explain.

Raita is as common in an Indian restaurant as catsup and mustard is at an American burger joint.
A scoop of plain yogurt, a spoonful of the spice mix, then add chopped up cucumbers, red onion, shredded carrots and cilantro.
Or any other veggie you happen to have on hand.
Sometimes it is eaten as a salad but mostly it is scooped atop bread or main courses that need cooling.

Ahhh Pani Puri!
Also know as Golgappa.
(India has many languages and so foods that are enjoyed by the entire continent may be called by several names.)
It is considered a "chaat".
It figures heavily into one of my favorite Bollywood movies and I had been eyeing recipes that call for making tiny dough ball from semolina, a bit of flour and a tiny, tiny bit of baking soda then deep fried until the dough puffs into to hollow balls.
The chances of me making the balls come out hollow seemed unlikely (just knowing how high altitude cooking messes with every delicate thing...)
I found a Pani Puri kit that includes two packages; of the fluid that is used to fill the ball through the hole one punches on the top (and filled with a chick pea or bit of potato) then another a sauce for dipping.
In the movie there is a Golgappa eating contest.
The balls are so thin and the fluid a tart savory water I can see how one could go through several plates at will.

I didn't leave the store without some of the most frequently mentioned spice mixes in the cook book.

Bishop's Weed?
Chili/Garlic/Mango/Cumin/Ginger?Cinnamon//Cardamon/Star Anise/Mace

Mustard seeds show up a lot in the recipes...with instructions to heat in oil until they "splutter". translation needed!

A few seeds will do for each recipe.
I think I do have a life time supply of mustard seeds now.

Garam Masala shows up in just about every single recipe, sweet, savory, whatever.
I. had. no. idea. what. it. was.

Now I do...and so do you.
Bet you would have never thought of putting that mix of spices together, right?

Some Indian restaurants around here have Biryani Tuesdays.
They make various kinds of rice mixtures called Biryani, some traditional and some modern takes on old recipes.
This is just one of many Biryani mix options.

Shahjira: Caraway.
I frequently consult google to find out what various Indian words mean.
It is fun to know that aloo means potato.

Some chutney comes ready made in jars.
We love this one, it is sweet and tangy.

Oh...another thing I remember from my Cultural Aspects of Foods Class:
Making Ghee.
Basically cooking butter until the oil separates from the milk solids.
The milk solids are tossed.
We were told it was used in Indian cooking because it would not burn as easily as butter and could be used in higher heat cooking.
Maybe something about not needing refrigeration.
I never gave the stuff another thought...
Now I rather like the flavor in cooking.

A lot of recipes call for garlic paste or ginger paste.
I did find these tubes in our local "regular" grocery store.

Along with fresh ginger that I seem to need on hand all the time now too.

Bernie has always liked rice and I generally do not care for it as it offers little in the way of nutrition and a bunch more in terms of calories.
Plus it sticks to pots and is a pain to clean up.
The fragrant Basmati Rice, sold in cute burlaps bags is a whole new take on rice for me.

I use a microwave rice cooker that cleans up in a jiffy, and the l-o-n-g rice grains have a wonderful texture and slight flagrance, a bit like jasmine tea to me.

I still have yet to use this it is tangy though.
I think it can be used to make a beverage too.

Always have to have this stuff on hand for mixing up chutney or making a sweet lassi.
Quick recipe:
Scoop of yogurt...say half a cup
Splash of milk...say a quarter of a cup
Splash of water instead of milk if you want or in addition if the yogurt is thick.
Tablespoon of sugar.
Add some crushed ice like maybe two cubes or so.
Tweak amounts to create the size drink you are interested in.
Blender it until smooth.
Switch it up by adding mango or peach juice instead of the sugar and milk.
Sprinkle a bit of cardamom before drinking.
Make it salty instead of sweet: skip sugar, add salt to taste.
Make it refreshing: Add cucumbers and cilantro and salt with water instead of milk and sugar.
Make it unusual: Add rose water to the basic milk/yogurt mix. And maybe a bit mint?

My new gotta have summer drink:
Ginger Lemonade.

Ginger, lemon rind and boiling water together.
Let cool.
Add lemon juice and sugar.

Another picture from the book.

This is what many Indians have for breakfast.
I still have not made it.
The directions call for adding green chili.
Guess that would wake me up!
Another mix...a cake mix.
With chili garnish.
I have made Besam Laddu, a cookie made from chickpea flour browned then cooked with ghee and powder sugar.
Surprisingly tasty.
Just about every day I am attempting to make a new Indian food recipe.
I've learned that Punjabi recipes that call for three chili peppers (such as the eggplant based Baingan Bharta) should  be made using about half of a single chili if I want to enjoy eating it.
Little by little I am learning how I like my spices, heavy or light.
I am learning that the flavorful Indian food actually fills me faster than traditional US foods.
Each mix or recipe general makes enough for four servings.
We eat dinner and the next day Bernie totes some to work and I have the rest for lunch.
This has been going on for a few months now.
There are still lots and lots of recipes I want to try and both of us are enjoying digging into "mystery" foods that smell intoxicating at they cook.
Now that you have plowed through this entire post...I have a give away!
Leave a comment, and the name of a mix you would like to try.
(Go for the Butter Chicken...just sayin'...)
I will draw a name out next Saturday and send you a package!


Lorrie said...

Indian food smells so appetizing. We have an Indian family in the neighbourhood and occasionally the scent of spices wafts through the air, making me quite hungry. I'm not all that fond of curry, though. Someone told me that Indian food is very layered in flavours and a base of spices is cooked before adding the meat or vegetables. Getting that right is what gives such depth of flavour.
I'd try the butter chicken!

Sara said...

I'm hungry! I think you might enjoy the new movie just out "the Hundred-Foot Journey", Indian with a French twist. We both loved it!

Thoughts on Life and Millinery. said...

We have been waiting to see this! It is here now, date night coming up!
Did you two go out for French or Indian food after seeing it?

ellen b. said...

You certainly are adventurous and thorough in your culinary pursuits! We have enjoyed basmati rice for a long time around here probably comes from my mom's middle eastern cooking she learned in Persia. Saffron has been a staple in this house, too, since we've been married because it's an ingredient in Dear's famous tomato rice soup. I won't be doing any indian cooking but I do enjoy going out for Indian. Their tandoori lamb is delicious and I'd probably need a lot of those spices to try making it at home. Now I'm really hungry...

Vee said...

Butter chicken. Send ginger lemonade, too. LOL! Well, I wasn't too sure about this post, but find I am in agreement with a few likes: ginger, basmati rice, ghee, and yogurt. We like the flavor of cardamon and some of the spices associated with Scandinavian baking. Sounds as if you learned to love an entirely new group of foods. Would you believe that I didn't use to eat Mexican food and considered learning to love it (and a bit of heat) my big achievenment. I'm still trying to get John (Mr. Meat and Potatoes) to learn to like it. Oh and I take turmeric capsules every day!

Kathy said...

Butter Chicken is as far as I've gone with Indian Food...I really need to branch out!

Lovella ♥ said...

What an interesting food post Jill. I am just beginning to enjoy the taste of curry and have enjoyed a few other indian dishes that we sampled at several weddings.
Basmati Rice... our favourite kind of rice.

Judy ~ My Front Porch said...

We have a fabulous Indian restaurant in town...and you just made me hungry. We just had a wonderful Thai meal tonight.

I'm planning to see 'The Hundred Foot Journey' soon.