Friday, February 19, 2010

660 Curries

One of my Yuletide gifts this year was 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer. I am woefully deficient in cookbooks, having gotten in the habit of getting most of my recipes online from sites like All Recipes and RecipeZaar and various food blogs. Online databases are convenient, but a good cookbook has a lot of value too, especially one like this, where it’s not only a collection of recipes, but practically a guide to India’s rich and varied culture seen through the lens of its rich and varied cuisine. Westerners have a woefully narrow view of Indian cuisine. The first thing they think of is probably some kind of yellow chicken curry with bottled pre-made curry powder. I know people who claim they can’t stand “curry”, but that’s really unfair since “curry” is not just one dish, but more like a style of cooking. Saying you don’t like curry is like saying you don’t like stir fry or you don’t like casserole.

With 660 recipes in this book, there’s got to be something here that anyone would like! Besides, Iyer seems to take liberty with the definition of “curry” (a vague term already), so really this book is full book on Indian cuisine, with chutneys, raitas, soups, breads, biryanis (something I had never heard before but seems to be the Indian version of “casserole”), appetizers, and fusion dishes. It’s got every Indian dish I’ve ever heard of plus a few hundred more. It’s quite a hefty book with few pictures, just some color plates here and there. The book has gotten some criticism for that, but more pictures would have made the tome even more massive. Besides, I don’t think curries are the most photogenic foods out there. The real beauty is in the aromas of all those spices.

I appreciate the authentic feel of the book. Each recipe has both an English and a Hindi name. The author grew up in India and then immigrated to the United States, so he turns out to be an excellent "interpreter". The recipes look like a nice balance, not too exotic as to be intimidating to a westerner, but not dumbed down either. This is stuff people actually eat in India! Most of the ingredients can be found in grocery stores here. Some things he suggests good substitutes for (like yellow squash instead of bottle gourd or brown sugar instead of jaggery), and there are a few he admits there really is no substitute for (I apparently need to hunt down some curry leaves, though I’m glad I finally found some tamarind). He even made up some recipes with ingredients they don't have in India, but are plentiful in America, like broccoli or salmon, and if Indians did have them, that's probably what they'd do with them.

This book will be very helpful with my goal of eating less meat, since it has a long chapter on legume curries, another on vegetable curries, and a short chapter on paneer curries (which is Indian cheese he says is similar to feta cheese or tofu, and is also easy to make yourself since vinegar is used to curdle the milk). This reflects the large population of vegetarians in India for either religious or financial reasons. I’m also impressed by how many different vegetables are represented. There’s at least one curry for pretty much every vegetable I’ve ever grown. This will come in very handy the next time I have a bumper crop of something from the garden, and is already helping with the tons of mustard greens I keep getting in my CSA delivery every week. However, this book is also an omnivore’s delight with a chapter on poultry curries, another on red meat, and another on seafood. The chicken curries are especially varied and yummy sounding, as chicken is the most popular meat in India. Pick an ingredient and there’s probably a curry for it in this book.

I would like to eventually try all the recipes in this book, though it may take years. I’ve been scribbling notes in the margins on the recipes I have tried so I can keep track. I’m sure if I didn’t do that it would be nearly impossible to remember which ones I’ve tried or not and which one’s I’ve liked or not. It seems like so far I’ve liked most of them. What’s more remarkable is my partner, Daniel, has also liked most of them, and he’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy who doesn’t like his food too fancy. Or so he claims.

Here are the ones I’ve tried so far.

Murghi Ni Curry (ginger chicken with peanuts and coconut): It says this is a Parsi recipe from Mumbai. The Parsis are descended from Zoroastrians who fled from Iran to India to escape religious persecution. See, this is the kind of stuff you learn from the recipes in this book! This curry had an interesting sauce made by blending tomatoes together with toasted unsweetened coconut and peanuts. I should have paid better attention to the warning, “The longer the ingredients sit in the hot skillet, the more they will burn, making them unpalatable,” because I think I burned my peanuts a little while I was toasting them in the skillet. I ended up with black flecks all over the curry. Daniel said it was fine, but I’d better be more careful next time. It was still tasty. It was very nutty and would probably be good with brown rice to accentuate the nuttiness.

Saag Murghi (stewed chicken in a mustard greens-spinach sauce): I figured out that saag means greens and murghi means chicken. He says that this dish is traditionally made with just spinach, but he likes mustard greens so he uses half of each. I’ve been getting big batches of mustard greens from my CSA, so I made it with all mustard greens and no spinach. The sauce for this chicken is mustard greens, spices, and yogurt pureed into a bright green sauce. It’s certainly nothing like what Americans would think of when they think of curry. He recommends eating this with naan to dip in the green sauce. Daniel and I both liked it.

Kadhai Tamatar Murghi (wok-seared chicken breasts with fennel-tomato sauce): The book informs me a kadhai is like an Indian wok. I used my beloved carbon steel Chinese wok instead, even though he says the kadhai is a slightly different shape and usually made of cast iron. In this curry, boneless chicken chunks are seared in a wok and then covered with a rich tomato sauce. It calls for fenugreek leaves and I substituted powdered fenugreek seeds. It was still tasty but that change may have significantly altered the intended flavor of the dish, I’m not sure. Several curries in this book call for fenugreek leaves. I just planted some fenugreek seeds, so maybe by summer I can see what the leaves taste like. The ground seeds are a component in many commercial curry powders, but given how coriander seeds taste a lot different from the leaves, it’s possible that may be the case with fenugreek. Anyway, even with the seeds instead of leaves, this curry was good. We ate it with naan and a potato curry on the side as he suggested.

Bittarai Kirihodi (Sri Lankan style hard-cooked eggs with coconut milk): This was the first curry I made that I didn’t like. I used some leftover hard-cooked eggs that were a little overcooked, which might have made things worse. I was hoping the spicy sauce would cover up the sulfur. The tumeric-yellow, thin coconut milk sauce the eggs floated in was very bland. It calls for mostly whole spices like cinnamon sticks, but you only simmer them in the sauce for a few minutes, so I’m not sure if that’s enough time to get the flavors out. There’s two more egg curries in here I’ll try before I give this one another chance.

Goan Gosht Curry (curried beef stew with potatoes, shallots, and malt vinegar): The description says this is a good gateway curry for people who don’t like curries because it’s basically a beef and potato stew with some Indian spices. He was right. I think this was Daniel’s favorite so far. The Goans are Christian Indians famous for vindaloo, and like vindaloo this curry has a bit of vinegar in it, which tenderizes the meat but keeps the potatoes from falling apart. I didn’t have shallots so I used onion. Whole cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and bay leaves simmer in the stew along with coconut milk and tomato. Yum! We ate it with naan and it’s a definite make-again.

Tamatar Jhinga (beginner almond shrimp with tomatoes): This was last night’s dinner and was a delicious dish of shrimp in a creamy tomato sauce served over rice. It reminded me of shrimp alfredo. True to the description, it was a cinch to make too. Not all curries have to simmer for hours. This one took 20 minutes, and that’s because that’s how long the rice took to cook.

Chana Masala (chickpeas with a spicy tomato sauce): Chana masala (chana is the word for chickpeas) is a pretty standard curry that most westerners have heard of (at least those who are into Indian food). The description says this is as pervasive as macaroni and cheese is in America. With already cooked chickpeas it’s super quick and easy to make. I thought it was good and filling (especially for a vegan dish), but kind of boring compared to the other curries in this book. But maybe good old chana masala isn’t supposed to be exciting, just something quick to throw together on a weeknight. I look forward to trying some of the other chana recipes in the book to see if they’re more interesting.

Gatte Saag Ki Subzi (chickpea flour dumplings with spinach): Gatte are chickpea flour dumplings, and saag are greens. Wow, I’m learning Hindi! I used Swiss chard from my garden instead of spinach. The chickpea flour was Bob’s Red Mill brand from the health food section of the grocery store. Now I’m not sure what to do with the rest of the little bag of chickpea flour since this curry was merely ok. There are a couple of other recipes in here that use the same dumplings in different sauces, and some that use the flour for other things, so I should try those. The dumplings were very filling for a vegetarian dish, but also very dense and kind of gummy. Maybe I made them wrong. The greens were good, but greens are always good.

Aloo Aur Sarson Ka Saag (potatoes and mustard greens with ginger and garlic): As suggested in the book, this was served as a side dish to Kadhai Tamatar Murghi, and was good with that, and would probably be good with any meat curries that need some vegetable accompaniment. Having both potatoes (aloo) and greens (saag) gives you both a green vegetable and a starch in one dish. This was another way to use up all the mustard greens I’m getting from my CSA. This might even go well alongside a legume curry for a vegetarian meal. The author admits he’s mad about potatoes and eats some of the potato curries by themselves, deficient in protein it may be. I think he and I would get along well, because potatoes, and potato curries, are yummy. The potatoes soak up the spicy sauce nicely.

Makkai Ki Roti (griddle cooked corn bread with chiles): This is in the last chapter of the book, “Curry Cohorts”, which has things like raitas, relishes, chutneys, rice dishes, and breads. These were good, but were indistinguishable to me from any other homemade corn tortilla. It’s made of masa harina, salt, ginger, and chiles with water to make the dough, then pressed flat and grilled on a cast-iron skillet. So yeah, besides the added spices in the dough, it’s a corn tortilla. Not that that’s bad or anything! Homemade corn tortillas are delicious and different than store bought corn tortillas. But I think in the future I’ll just make a batch of regular corn tortillas from the recipe on the masa harina bag. There’s also a recipe for regular rotis in here that seem to be the Indian version of whole wheat tortillas. He even says that you can use whole wheat tortillas instead. I’m surprised he doesn’t say the same thing about the corn rotis being just like corn tortillas. Anyway, tortillas are in abundance here in Texas, so I probably won’t make my own rotis and just use whole wheat tortillas, which I can get in large packages, freshly made from the grocery store bakery.

Naan (salt-crusted grilled flatbread with ghee): Now, here’s an Indian bread that I think would be worth making. The grocery store sells naan, but it comes only two to a package, one for me and one for Daniel, and is not freshly made in the store. I got the idea I should make myself a big batch and freeze it, since it’s become my favorite starch accompaniment to curries and I was tired of buying more of those little packages of naan all the time. However, I tried Iyer’s recipe, and it was a disaster! Part of it was my fault. I think I made the naan too thin, so when I grilled it, it actually got hard and crunchy in the thinner spots. That’s not supposed to happen. If rotis are Indian tortillas, then naan is Indian pita bread. It’s supposed to be thick and chewy. Except the other weird thing is that I always thought naan was supposed to be a yeast bread. Iyer’s recipe has no yeast, just baking powder and buttermilk to leaven it. I think next time I will try Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe that does use yeast, so the dough is kneaded until stretchy and will probably have some resistance when I roll it out so I won’t end up with crackers. I think it’s supposed to be more like a pizza crust when you roll it out.

Ok, so I’ve made nine curries so far (plus two breads). That means I only have 651 curries to go!

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