An Introduction to Indian Cooking

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Great have been India's gifts to the world including spices and the art of cookery, along with the game of chess, the decimal system, rice, cotton, and sugar cane.

For centuries, India's people have perfected their skill with spices to transform often tasteless materials to ambrosia. Indian cookery is not the cookery of a single nationality, however, it dates back countless centuries and is a combination of the cooking of many nationalities and cultures -  the Greece, Phoenicians, Chinese, Muslims, Portuguese and other Europeans. It has been influenced considerably by climatic conditions, customs, tastes, health, and religions, namely Hinduism and Islam.

During the greater part of the year it is very hot in India. In many areas the temperature sores to well over 100 degree (F) in the shade. With limited refrigeration facilities, meat, fish and other perishable food products would be impossible to use if they were not preserved in some way. Through the ages, it was discovered that if foods were cooked in certain combinations of spices, they would not spoil for some time. This is how spices came into use in India and why, ultimately, curries and other well-spiced foods evolved as a national cuisine. Every spice used in the various food preparations has either a preservative or an antiseptic quality. Some pungency in Indian food is considered very healthy, since perspiration is vital for cooling the body much of the year.

SPICES

The use of spices, however, does not mean their use in vast amounts, nor does it mean that all Indian food is extremely hot and spicy, as many Westerners believe. The dishes can be as hot or as mild as the individual family chooses, since this is a matter of personal taste. If an individual wishes a more piquant flavor , then Indian pickles can be taken. If a particular preparation seems too hot, yogurt can be added to "put out the fire."

Most people in the West refer to "curry" as if there were only one dish , instead of hundreds of them, all differing in flavor. Some are pungent while others are extremely bland, depending again on personal taste. the true art of Indian cooking lies in the subtle use and variation of spices which make each dish an exciting new experience. Indian food, however, is not just "curry". There are countless other marvelous preparations such as biryanis, pulaos (pilaf), kabobs and the tandoori meats and fish, to name just a few.

Spices Used in Indian Cooking

Indian SpicesIndian SpicesA number of people think that curry powder is a particular spice that is ground up, bottled and sold by the local grocery stores to add to a sauce, and that this sauce is then a "curry."

Actually, a curry powder is a combination of spices and herbs, blended together in varying proportions. The spices found most frequently in prepared curry powders are coriander, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, mace and cayenne pepper.

Commercial curry powder is not used in India; instead separate spices are used, either whole or ground to a paste, to impart an individual flavor to each particular dish. Usually Indian homemakers grind their spices daily on a rectangular grindstone with another stone in the shape of a rolling pin. Then each dish will have its own unique combination of spices, thus avoiding the monotony produced by using the same mixture over and over again. Once you have tried the process of combining your own spices, you will rarely, if ever, return to commercial curry powder.

There are some other problems associated with the use of commercial curry powders. First of all, the powder is often not made from the best quality spices or the best combinations of them; and second, even when it is, it contains a certain amount of filler, usually rice flour, which is apt to burn when it is fried and to taste burned. Thus it is advisable to make your own spices, or garam masalas, as Indians call them, or combination of spices which is easily done by mixing them together in an electric blender. Ground spices tend to lose their flavor more rapidly than those that are whole; however to grind or not to is an individual preference.

Commonly Used Spices in Indian Cooking
(Hindi words within parenthesis)

Aniseed (Saunf)  Asafetida (Heeng) Capsicum, Cayenne Pepper, Chilies (Mirch) 
Cardamoms (Elaichi) - green and black Cinnamon (Daalchini)  Cloves (Laung)
Coriander (Dhania) Cumin Seeds (Jeera)  Fenugreek (Methi) 
Ginger (Adrak) Mustard (Sarson or Raee) Nutmeg or Mace (Jaiphal or Javitri) 
Pepper (Kali Mirch) Saffron (Kesar) Turmeric (Haldi)

 

Other Commonly Used Ingredients:

Coconut and Coconut Milk
Green Chili Peppers
Fresh Coriander Leaves
Cooking Oil or Margarine
Lentil and Rice Flours
Papads