Modern Spice: Cooking Indian Cuisine At Home
A Conversation With Author and Food Writer Monica Bhide
Like many of you, I love Indian cuisine. I'm drawn to its fragrance and complexity and am always impressed by how in the hands of a skilled chef, flavors can be simultaneously both heated and delicate.
But also like many of you, I've never cooked it at home. Apart from a recent adventure in making my own curry for a Curried Butternut Squash Soup, whenever I crave Indian spices and flavors, I head to a restaurant. Living in New York City I have the choice of many Indian restaurants -- both inexpensive neighborhood spots plus "haute" restaurants like Tabla.
With my strong preference to eat at home instead of in restaurants, Indian cuisine has always presented a dilemma. And it's annoyed me. I like to think I have a global city kitchen because I can replicate French, Italian, Greek, Caribbean, Amish, Creole, German, Tex-Mex, Moroccan, and New Orleans kitchens but I can't get close to Indian cuisine. I know why: it's because my palate is under-schooled, I do not know the ingredients, and I haven't a clue how to have an Indian pantry. As a result, I have no idea how to bring either traditional or modern Indian dishes into my kitchen.
Still, ever since I had my success making my first curry I had been emboldened and was craving to do more. So when I read about Monica Bhide's new cookbook, Modern Spice, I saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to speak with someone who is a home cook, an authentic Indian cook, and able to explain Indian cuisine to the novice.
Before we begin our conversation with her, just a little background. Monica is a food writer, author, cooking teacher, and home cook. She lives in Washington, D.C. but she was born in India and raised in Bahrain. The full title of her new book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, hardcover with color photographs, $25.00). It is written for the home cook and is complete with tips about spices, buying ingredients (including on-line sources), stocking a pantry, buying pre-made store-bought products, cooking techniques, and her tested "13 kitchen rules." The 125-plus recipes start with chutneys and marinades and include drinks, appetizers, vegetables and lentils, meat, poultry seafood, rice and breads, and desserts.
I read Monica's entire book but still hadn't carried it with me into my kitchen. Before I began, I had questions, many of which I think you would have, too. But Monica was a patient teacher and agreed to help with answers.
The City Cook: How did you learn to cook?
Monica Bhide: I learned to cook from my parents, from watching my grandparents, uncles and aunts. I still continue to learn from friends, chefs, and even from my young son who has some really fun ideas when it comes to food.
TCC: Why did you write Modern Spice and what do you hope those of us who read and cook from it appreciate the most?
MB: I wrote Modern Spice to showcase how much fun it is to cook with spices and to showcase modern Indian recipes. People always think of Indian cooking as heavy, laden with oil, fattening, time-consuming and I really hope that this book will help bust those myths. It is such a flavorful cuisine – full of delicious dishes! I hope [your] readers will try the recipes and judge for themselves how a few spices, correctly used, can lend a lot of flavor and depth to a dish.
TCC: What defines Indian home cooking? Flavors? Ingredients? Cooking techniques?
MB: Simplicity, I think. Using fresh spices, fresh vegetables and produce. I think the main technique that may differentiate it from restaurants is that most Indian homes don’t have the tandoor ovens. The techniques tend to vary from area to area, as the cuisine of different parts of India is very different.
TCC: What are the most common misperceptions about Indian home cooking?
MB: I think people assume that all Indian recipes require a long list of very exotic ingredients. I also think -- and I hear this in my cooking classes all the time -- that people feel that it is very labor intensive. Both of these are not true. As with any cuisine there are simple recipes and then there are more involved recipes. There is such depth and breadth to this cuisine. I do hope that this book will help remove these common misperceptions.
TCC: For the novice, how should a home cook begin to cook Indian cuisine? What would you recommend as a first recipe?
MB: I think just playing with spices is the best way to begin. Learn how they smell, how they taste, what happens when they are sizzled in oil, what happens when they are dry-roasted. Once you make friends with spices, they will do all the work for you! The first recipe…. Hmm. I would have to say they should try the zucchini with cumin recipe from the book. It is simple and the taste of the vegetable will be familiar but it will give you a wonderful taste of the very versatile cumin seed.
TCC: Should we buy and grind our own spices?
MB: Yes! I think grinding your own spices makes them many times more flavorful. It takes under a minute to do in a spice-grinder. Definitely a must!
TCC: What if we only cook Indian food once in a while? What should we add to our spice pantries?
MB: [Start with] cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne.
TCC: What is your favorite recipe in your new book? (I know. This must be like asking which is your favorite child….)
MB: It truly is. I love them all!!
TCC: How did you develop and test your recipes so that they'd work in any home kitchen?
MB: I have tested them in my kitchen and have had friends and family test them in their kitchens so I hope that they will work in any American kitchen!
TCC: How big is your own home kitchen?
MB: It is very small. I wish I had a larger kitchen.
TCC: The City Cook is for home cooks who live in bigger cities and this means we usually have access to great ingredients but we also mostly live in apartments. This means small kitchens. Any particular advice for us?
MB: I think the best advice I can give is not to buy things in bulk. Buy small containers of fresh spices when you need them. They will taste better! I have had many people come in with loads of spices they have bought at large discount chains and end up throwing them away because what will they do with a pound of cumin seeds??
As if Monica's steady guidance wasn't enough to inspire us, she has shared a recipe from her new book for Pomegranate Shrimp. Thank you, Monica.
The next time you crave the flavors that only can be satisfied with Indian cuisine, instead of heading to a restaurant, head to your own kitchen and take Monica with you.