If ever a cuisine may be said to be misunderstood, it must be Indian. “Too spicy” some people will say, or “I don’t like curry.” In reality “the word ‘curry’ refers to any Indian sauce-based, spice-laden dish,” according to chef, master teacher and award-winning cookbook author Raghavan Iyer.
Maybe you didn’t care for that one curry you tasted. It’s not for nothing that one of Iyer’s most popular cookbooks is “660 Curries” (Workman, $25.95). “To Indians curries have nothing to do with curry powder and everything to do with sauces,” he explained, speaking to me by phone from his home in Minneapolis. “Every sauce we do we punctuate with flavor. There are many curries in parts of India that are flavored not with spices, but herbs. For heat we use peppercorns and chiles – that’s about it, so when I say ‘spicy,’ I mean well seasoned, not hot. That’s the beauty and complexity of curries.”
This is the education issue, and when it comes to teaching cooking, I think immediately of Iyer, author of six critically acclaimed cookbooks, winner of three James Beard Awards, one Emmy, and two IACP awards for Cooking Teacher of the Year and a cookbook award.
With “Indian Cooking Unfolded” (Workman, $19.95) in particular, Iyer’s skills as the consummate teacher shine through. Each chapter begins with a “lesson plan” and includes “extra credit” – tips and explanations so you understand the reasoning behind the instructions. Step-by-step illustrations and Iyer’s explicit instructions leave little room for guesswork. “My job as a teacher is to give you a visual cue,” he said, “not ‘heat the oil for five minutes,’ but ‘heat it until it begins to shimmer.’”
While “curry” may be controversial, love for naan, that addictive, chewy, tender-crispy bread, is universal. “Naan is usually baked on the inner walls of a high-temperature, clay-lined oven called a tandoor,” Iyer writes. No tandoor in your kitchen? No worries. What follows is his grilled version. He even provides an oven version under “Extra Credit.”
The baked naans are spread with ghee, an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine. While easy enough to make yourself, you can find prepared ghee in the many Indian grocery stores throughout Orange County and even in some supermarkets. “Ghee is butter that is clarified to such a high extent that all the milk solids are completely removed,” explained Iyer. “By removing the milk solids there is no need to refrigerate it. It can sit out for months on end. It’s the milk solids that make it go rancid. Also, ghee has a very nice, strong, nutty flavor, and by getting rid of the milk, you’re increasing the smoke point of butter. You cannot deep-fry in butter, but you can deep-fry in ghee.”
In addition to his work as a chef, teacher, consultant and cookbook writer, Iyer leads travelers on culinary adventures to India, where there are three distinct Jewish communities. “There is a section of Cochin in southwestern India called Jew Town,” he noted, “with an active Jewish synagogue built in the 1700’s and a cemetery dating from the 1300’s. The Cochini Jews go back to the year 370.”
Better known is the larger community of Bene Israel, Children of Israel, who settled on the west coast south of Bombay, now Mumbai, he said. “Then there is a third Jewish community of Baghdadis, Sephardic Jews from Iraq who settled on the east coast. In Kerala you still find just a handful of Cochini Jews left. Mumbai has a synagogue as well. It’s a dwindling community – most have left for Israel.”
Much of Indian cuisine lends itself nicely to kosher cooking because of its emphasis on fresh vegetables and use of coconut milk and coconut byproducts, a pareve and sadly underused ingredient in the kosher kitchen. “They use a ton of coconut oil and coconut milk in the Kerala region,” he observed. “It’s the perfect product for incorporating into kosher meat dishes where you don’t want to mix meat and dairy,” like the Chicken Curry below.
While the original recipe calls for half-and-half, coconut milk is a fine (and tasty) substitution.
Chicken Curry with Ginger and Tomatoes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
4 medium-size cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
4 pieces fresh ginger (each about size and thickness of a 25-cent piece; no need to peel skin)
2 teaspoons Raghavan’s Blend (recipe follows) or store-bought Madras curry powder
½ cup canned diced tomatoes, undrained
½ cup coconut milk
1½ pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Once oil appears to shimmer, add onion, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry until onion is light caramel brown around edges, 4-5 minutes.
2. Sprinkle spice blend into skillet; stir to mix. Let spices roast until aromas dramatically change, 10 seconds. Stir in tomatoes. Lower heat and simmer the chunky sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tomato pieces soften, excess moisture evaporates, and some of the oils in the spices start to dot edge of sauce, 5-7 minutes.
3. Pour coconut milk into skillet; scrape bottom to release bits of onion, garlic, and ginger. Transfer sauce to blender. Holding lid down, purée curry until slightly curdled but smooth.
4. Return sauce to skillet; stir in chicken and salt. Simmer, covered, over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until chicken when cut is no longer pinkish red and juices run clear, 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons black or yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole cloves
12 to 15 dried red cayenne chiles (stems discarded)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
Grind all ingredients except turmeric in spice or coffee grinder. Stir in turmeric. Will keep up to 3 months in tightly sealed container away from excess light, heat and humidity.
Naan is northern India’s classic flatbread. The dough requires no rising time because of the absence of yeast.
Yield: 4 naan (each about 8 inches in diameter)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling out dough
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1 large egg, slightly beaten
Canola oil, for brushing dough
Ghee, for finished naan
- Thoroughly combine flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt in large bowl.
- Pour beaten egg over flour mixture and quickly stir it in. Flour will still be very dry with a few wet spots.
- Pour 1 cup warm tap water into measuring cup. Drizzle a few tablespoons water over flour mixture, stirring (you can use your hand as long as it’s clean. I think it’s the best tool) it in as you drizzle. Repeat with a few more tablespoons of water until a soft, slightly sticky, but manageable dough ball is formed. Watch carefully; you don’t want it so sticky you have to add more flour to make it workable.
- If you used your hand to make the dough, it will be caked with floury clumps. Scrape clumps back into bowl. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly, then knead dough. (You’ll get a much better feel for the dough’s consistency with dry hands.) To knead the dough, dust your hands lightly with flour. Knead dough to form a smooth, soft ball, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Divide dough into 4 equal portions. Lightly grease a plate with oil. Shape 1 portion into a round resembling a hamburger bun and put it on the plate. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Brush tops of rounds with oil, cover with plastic wrap or slightly dampened cloth, and let sit at room temperature about 30 minutes. Allowing dough to rest softens the gluten that has formed as you knead dough. Gluten is what gives bread its structure, and when just formed, it has a tendency to spring back into a tightness, making it difficult to roll dough.
- Place a pizza stone or unglazed pottery tiles on grill rack. If using gas grill, preheat it to highest setting. If using charcoal grill, build an intensely hot fire so charcoal turns ash-white and red-hot. Temperature should hover between 600°F and 700°F.
- Tear off large piece aluminum foil, fold in half, and set aside. Lightly flour small work area near grill and place a dough ball on it. Press down to form a patty. Roll patty out to form a round roughly 3 to 5 inches in diameter, dusting it with flour as needed. Make sure round is evenly thin, with no tears on the surface. Sprinkle a little coarse salt over top, and gently press it into dough. Lift round and flip it, salt side down, onto hot pizza stone. Within seconds, dough will start to bubble in spots. Cover grill and cook until dough turns crispy brown on the underside and top acquires light brown patches, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove it from stone, liberally brush top with ghee, and slide it between layers of foil to keep warm. Repeat with remaining dough rounds, stacking them on top of previously grilled naans.
It is hard to generate that same intense heat in a kitchen oven because they are not designed to go above 550°F, but you can bake the flatbread in an oven if you don’t have a grill. If yours is a conventional oven, place the pizza stone on the lowest rack and preheat the oven to the highest temperature setting. A convection oven generates the same amount of heat but distributes it more evenly, so you can place the pizza stone on any of the racks. You will need to bake the bread a little longer than you would on an outdoor grill.
Source: “Indian Cooking Unfolded” by Raghavan Iyer
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.