Or five of the most common misconceptions about Indian food.
In the past couple of days, many of my friends have shared the widely read article about the scientific research on why Indian food is tasty. I even found the actual research paper and it was impressive, mind boggling.
Washington Post Article
Yet, as someone who cooks Indian food more often than other cuisines, much of it was not new information, just carefully tabulated and proof of what I already knew.
What WAS new to me was the number of misguided comments that featured as a response to the article, not just in one or two versions of the story!
Part of being in this industry is taking on the good with the ridiculous, in stride. Indian cuisine has its share of misconceptions. Here are the top five common misconceptions and my humble take on them.
I'm sure you have been told that curry is a descriptor for a kind of sauce, not the recipe or a type of food. Yet, what would you say if I stated that given the consistency of marinara, that it is a kind of Italian curry that is spread over noodles?!
Now that I’ve got your attention: if you don’t like any sauce-based spiced preparations, then using a generic word may suffice for you. The word 'Curry' is used as a descriptor in Pakistani, Burmese, Nepali, Fiji, Sri Lankan, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian as well as Indian cuisines. Each cuisine has a vast selection of curries, preparation methods and spice-combinations to make any specific kind of curry.
So, my question becomes – what kind of curry do you not like? If you hate curry, you must not be able to stand marinara sauce on your spaghetti.
First, I would ask that you distinguish the difference between hot (hot v/s cold) and spicy. Every person’s tolerance for spice and heat is different. Once you’ve figured out that you are not able to handle the spice, determine what source of spice bothers you most.
Did you know that spice-based heat can come from a range of ingredients: raw onions, radish, fresh ginger, dried ginger, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, jalapenos, a variety of green or red peppers, cloves and even cinnamon? By cooking away some of the spice-heat, some people are able to manage the spice better. That is why chewing a piece of raw ginger is far more pungent that biting into the same sized piece, if you find it in a cooked recipe. Work backwards to figure out whether you can’t stand the spice or the flavor – both are easy to fix in a recipe. Yogurt based drinks, water or lemonade counter balance the spices in some of the dishes and can help cool you off.
By the same qualifier, so does roast beef, oysters, stale fish, crab cakes, kimchi, morel mushrooms, sardines, certain kinds of cheeses, beer, Lutefisk, stinky tofu and so many other percieved delicacies – particularly if you don’t eat it often, have a particular dislike for a certain ingredient, if you are pregnant, have certain food-based intolerances or have food allergies.
Everyone has a different tolerance for food-based aromas’. It has to do with hormonal balance and composition, the health and sensitivities of your olfactory nerves and all that good biology that makes each one of us unique. That does not mean the fault lies in the cuisine – but it is dependent on a single person’s ability to decipher and process the aroma. Media so far has been really good about not developing ‘smell-i-vision’, so until then, you are safe.
Cooking fats such as vegetable oils and ghee are often the primary cooking mediums’ in Indian cooking. The fats carry the flavor, and in well prepared foods, a little goes a long way. Budget restaurants often use cheap fats as a way to preserve the dish in less than optimal conditions, hence, the longer an item sits (fridge, buffet, counter-top), the more the fats separate from the preparations. So, if you see a lot of fat floating over your entrée, with some exceptions, it is more likely that the food is older than it looks, and if you have a sensitive stomach, not your best bet on a buffet table. It is also necessary to understand that there are good fats and bad fats, and knowing how much to eat is just as important a part of a healthy diet as anything else. If you choose to eat 3 servings of a dish that includes 20% DV of fat per serving, you cant really blame the cuisine, can you?
Yes, so it does, no question about it. Indian food uses a combination of many spices to improve the palatability of raw materials, help digestion and increase health benefits of the foods they are part of. Think of them as private secretaries who manage everything from your morning coffee to that meeting you want to avoid. Why wouldn't you want one?!
The number of spices in one Indian dish can be as few as 3, to 20 or more, depending on the flavor complexity of the dish. There are simple Indian dishes and complex ones. Someone who is used to a light dash of salt-and-pepper will most definitely find Indian food overpowering. Yet, well made Indian food will have just the right balance of spice and flavor – that it will most certainly make you dive in for a second helping.
Now that we've squared some of these away, I am glad that you are able to laugh with me, at the absurdity of some of the misconceptions.
The Indian cuisine uses a very large selection of spices and flavors, they combine to create complex flavor profiles that play into our taste buds. We are able to adjust, modify, tweek, douse and skimp on practically every possible flavor imparting ingredient to create a dish that suits our palette.
So why are you so shy with your spices?
If you don’t know how to use spices in Indian cooking, or how to use Indian spices at all, look through the spices section on my site for some basic information.
If you want to find a great way to expand your vocabulary from salt, pepper, cinnamon or vanilla – to the glories of cumin, cayenne, saffron and more, check out my wonderfully simple book:
Crack The Code: Cook Any Indian Meal With Confidence (available on Amazon & iBooks).
Crack The Code is based on my grandfathers' cooking principles of composing recipes, and does two things - exposes the basic structure of all Indian dishes, AND also tells you how to best use your spices. Crack The Code is sure to save you a lot of experimenting, but will also make your pantry work the hardest for you to give you optimal results each time you cook.
Cooking and eating Indian food is a flavorfilled magical experience. If you most quickly past these initial hiccups and culinary detours, you will be rewarded many tasty treats.