Authentic Indian Food (if you have a very expansive view of “authentic”)

The question of authentic food from different regions of the world is interesting to someone attempting a globe trotting menu with the supplies readily available in Montpelier and the time available within a 24 hour day. Obviously I’m not deeply studying each region the menu visits – I’d have to be several hundred years old to accommodate what’s appeared in the last few months alone. The idea is to get the gist of different cuisines (Morocco has preserved lemons! Ethiopia uses a lot of Berbere Spice! 16th century Spaniards ate peacocks with liver sauce!). Then, the next time any one of us is traveling to Macau, or comes to posses any samp and mielie-pap, or finds random New Mexican friends to send biscochito care packages, we’re ready to be excited. 

Into this context we have now added Indian food. Many people – dozens, at least – in Montpelier want a source of “real” Indian food. That dream will be difficult to pull off. For one thing, India is a really big place with lots of different culinary regions – so right away we have a challenge should anyone be on an authenticity kick. Did you know how many different theories there are on making naan? Some of the recipes are really like flat biscuits! Some are like pitas without the pocket! Some are between a bagel and a flatbread! Plus, according to both Wikipedia and Hot Bread Kitchen, “nan” is in fact a generic Iranian word for “bread.” So who the heck knows? (Here’s one article from the Guardian on navigating the naan-ian waters).

My solution was a long, slow rising bread made with whey and high-protein flour as first defense, and the flatter, crisper version for end of day restocking purposes. 

Another wrinkle is that there are a lot of “inspired by Indian food” dishes out there that happen to be delicious. Chicken Tikka Masala is a famous example of muddled, possibly Scottish, origin. My red lentil dal was a recipe shared with me by Mariella, a lovely homecook from Sweden. Running errands on Monday, I heard this interview with British cookbook author Nigella Lawson, discussing adding Indian spices to her pea soup. And I’ve been meaning for a while now to make Keralan Chicken-n-Waffles. 

On the other side of the equation, authentic, traditional foods can disappear if we all trip merrily off to the chicken waffle horizon. For example, here is a list of “endangered” Indian foods identified by Slow Food International as part of their Ark of Taste. They list 96 foods, including peanut chutney powder, jaramut flowers, and soh khwai fruits. 

All of these thoughts, plus more, went through my mind this week each time a conversation about Montpelier’s lack of “real Indian food” took place. I’m not promising anyone real Indian food. I am promising more India related menus in the future. Hopefully with food drawn from different regions, and some international re-interpretations, too. Real-ish Indian food.

In the meantime I’ll note a few recipes you might want to try. 

Paneer. Paneer cheese is easy to make, take it from someone who hates making cheese because it requires patience. Imagine my joy at discovering the book One-Hour Cheese by Claudia Lucero. I used her recipe; here is a similar one on The Kitchn. Toss chunks of paneer in pretty much anything. Finely chopped spinach cooked with grated ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, a generous pinch of turmeric, a spoonful of curry powder, a sprinkle of brown sugar, a splash of cream and a small handful of shredded coconut (unsweetened) is one recommendation. 

Chana Masala: It wasn’t on this week’s menu, but I do use it fairly often for catering or just when I need something in my kitchen to make lunches with. I use the recipe from Orangette because I like the title (“A Public Display of Chickpeas“) and I eat it with chapatis

Apricot Chicken: From the Saveur issue I mention below. 

Bhapa Doi or Steamed Yogurt: I realize I’m linking a Hare Krishna site, what can I say? They had a steamed yogurt recipe. And I’ve been listening to the Hair sound track. I recommend taking a cue from the Portuguese Serradura pudding and replacing the nuts and raisins listed here with crushed Marie tea biscuits (they’re in the International section at Shaw’s) added after the yogurt is chilled.  

And in closing, two general resources I’d recommend for Indian foods – beyond the popular Madhur Jaffrey, Raghavan Iyer, Sanjeev Kapoor cookbook collections:

Saveur Issue #167 – Conveniently enough, the recipes are collected online. I like how this issue organizes Indian recipes by region and also there’s this article by the daughter of Amartya Sen. 

The New Indian Slow Cooker – My Pork Vindaloo recipe this week came from this book. “Slow cooker” often means ‘easy to make’, such is not the case here – nonetheless, you get rich flavors and the time collecting, toasting, and grinding a bazillion spices is worth it. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can do what I do and also possess a copy of Molly Stevens’ “All About Braising” and look up similar recipes for a guide to temperatures, times, etc. in an oven or on a stovetop. That seems so much less logical when I type it here than it did when I was justifying a new cookbook purchase. Still. 

Next week’s theme: Turkey (the country). And a new schedule – Tuesday through Friday; 3:30 – 7:00 pm. Don’t show up on Monday. Do show up on Friday. 

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