For the love of Indian food
It wasn’t love at first bite. It wasn’t even love at second bite. But, when I finally fell in love with Indian food, I fell hard. I’ve always been an adventurous eater, eager to try new things, so it’s strange that I didn’t initially appreciate Indian food, but it was really circumstantial.
My first experience with Indian food was at a now-long-defunct restaurant in St. Louis. I was less than impressed. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t a good restaurant, but back then had no basis for comparison.
My dreadful second encounter with Indian food was totally my own fault. Truthfully, I have no idea whether the food was good or awful: I was in no shape to judge. We’d gone to a blues club the night before. It was stiflingly hot and thick with smoke. The music was overpowering – so loud that the restroom toilet water rippled. The next day my ears were still ringing, and I had a headache and a queasy stomach from the smoke and the beers I’d drunk to combat the heat. It undoubtedly wasn’t the best time to try the (also now defunct) “Northern Indian Frontier restaurant” Bukhara for lunch. The raita, yogurt with shredded carrot and cucumber, which serves as a cooling counterpoint to spicier dishes, was fine, as were the flatbreads, but I should have been more cautious about trying the spicy chutneys and powerfully potent mustard pickles – as my abused stomach quickly let me know.
Since then, I’ve had countless wonderful Indian meals. I’ve explored the Little India neighborhood in Manhattan, with its quirky jewelry shops and Kalustyan’s, which has an astonishingly huge array of exotic foodstuffs in an impossibly small space. My most memorable meal in that neighborhood was at a southern Indian vegetarian restaurant less than three weeks after 9/11. It was close to ground zero, and my husband, daughter and I were the only customers. We were profusely and repeatedly thanked for coming and showered with a procession of delicious treats above and beyond what we’d ordered.
A sultry summer evening on Devon Avenue, on Chicago’s northwest side, can almost make me believe that I’m actually in India. The Midwest seems far away when sitting by restaurant windows watching the crowds stroll by, or browsing through food shops inspecting fresh turmeric roots, green chickpeas in the pod, and the endless varieties of chatt, crispy street snacks that usually contain some form of fried noodles, dough or puffed rice combined with crunchy nuts and spices.
The most important thing I’ve learned about Indian food, whether I’m cooking or eating it, is that it’s a mistake to lump it into one category. For many Westerners, curry is what comes to mind when they think of Indian food. True, curry is important, but to Indians the term denotes a widely varied mixture of spices custom-blended for individual dishes, not the premixed yellow powder adapted by British colonialists.
The Indian subcontinent has an almost bewildering diversity of cultures, religions and influences, all of which have played a part in the food traditions of its 17 states and seven territories. Then there are Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), created when India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. Those countries are primarily Muslim, and have Islamic food traditions unique in their usage of the vast array of Indian spices.
Modern-day India is more than 80 percent Hindu, but the cuisines of its multitudes of other faiths, and those of different Hindu sects, vary widely. Some are strict vegetarians; some eat meat (though usually not beef) and fish. Foods, seasonings and methods of preparation in lush tropical regions differ from those in desert or mountain districts. There are areas with a strong Christian/European background, such as the West Coast’s Goa province, with its Portuguese Catholic heritage. Churches, architecture, signs, parks and foods of India’s East Coast Pondicherry, were equally influenced by French settlers.
For several years now, Springfieldians have been able to explore some of India’s rich culinary diversity at Gateway to India, located at 3115 Chatham Road. Recently, another Indian option has arrived: Flavor of India, located at 3124 Montvale Drive. Some of both establishments’ menu items are the same, primarily Indian standards commonly found at Western Indian restaurants, albeit with different interpretations. Both have lunch buffets that are good introductions for beginners. But there are differences that make dining at both an adventure, from deliciously different flatbreads – an Indian staple – to tandoori specialties. Tandoori is essentially Indian barbecue: Meats strung on skewers are suspended in the intense heat of huge urn-shaped clay vessels. Indian flatbreads are slapped onto the tandoors’ insides, where they bake in minutes.
I’ve not even come close to working my way through eithers’ menus, but I’ve particularly enjoyed some of FOI Southern Indian offerings unique to Springfield: Vadas and dosas, lentil-flour savory doughnuts and crepes with various accompaniments, and the coconut sambar served with two other table sauces. There are unusual vegetarian options with egg as the primary protein, a particularly delectable saag paneer: freshly made cheese with spinach, and a wonderfully crunchy chatt.
This chicken curry has tons of flavor whether spicy hot or not. The list of ingredients is long, but the dish itself is easily prepared. Cashews are ground finely to thicken the sauce, as well as used whole for a garnish.
Chicken cashew curry
• 2 T. coriander seeds, heaping
• 1 T. cumin seeds
• 1 T. fennel seeds
• 1/2 tsp. cayenne or hot pepper flakes, or to taste, optional
• 1 T. kosher or sea salt
• 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken, preferably thigh meat, cut into large (approx. 2 inch) pieces
• 1 T. raw uncooked rice, heaping
• 1/2 c. flaked coconut, preferably unsweetened
• 3 cardamon pods
• 2 whole cloves
• 1/4 c. broken cashews, brushed free of excess salt if necessary
• 1/4 c. vegetable oil
• 1 cinnamon stick, about 3-inch long
• 1/2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
• 1/2 c. thinly sliced shallots, or red onion
• 4-5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
• 1 10 oz. can tomatoes with green chilies, such as Roitel
• 1 14 oz. can coconut milk
• 3/4 c. toasted, unsalted cashews (or wipe away excess salt from salted cashews)
In a medium skillet, toast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds until fragrant. Cool, then grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. (If using hot pepper flakes, grind them as well) and combine with the cayenne and half the salt. Put the chicken in a bowl or resealable plastic bag and rub all over with the spice mixture. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour and up to overnight.
Put the rice in the skillet over medium-high heat and stir just until it turns golden. Add the coconut and continue to stir until it also is lightly browned. Remove from the heat and cool. When cooled, put in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder along with the cardamon pods and cloves, and grind to a powder. Add the cashews and grind them finely as well. You may need to do this in a couple of batches, or stir the contents around to make sure they are evenly ground.
Place the mixture into a bowl and stir in 1/2 cup hot tap water. Set aside.
Put the oil in a large heavy pan or pot with a tightly fitted lid and heat over medium-high heat. Add the cinnamon stick, fenugreek, shallots and garlic. Cover the pan for a couple of minutes, then uncover and cook a few minutes more until the shallot and onion are translucent. Add the chicken and brown lightly, then add the remaining salt, tomatoes with chilies, coconut milk. Stir in the spice paste until completely incorporated. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
Remove the cinnamon stick and sprinkle the toasted cashews over the top. Serve over rice. This reheats very well; it’s even tastier the next day. Serves 4-8.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.