In addition to the rich complexity of dry Indian spices, Indian cooks use quite a variety of fresh spices as well. Luckily, most of these ingredients are widely available and don’t require special trips to the Indian grocery store in order to obtain them! Additionally, the ingredients are almost too familiar to the everyday cook, and in my opinion really demystify the flavors on Indian food. Sometimes that unfamiliar taste at the back of your palate is as simple as crushed garlic! Of course it’s also been enhanced by cinnamon and fenugreek and…that is the magic of Indian food. Who could ever conceive of garlic and cinnamon enhancing each other’s flavors, but miraculously they can and do.
The Holy Trinity
|The Holy Trinity: Chilis, Garlic, Ginger
The majority of the food in my father’s household uses these three ingredients as a great source of flavor, similar to the common base of the mirepoix used in French cooking, hence the borrowing of the term: the holy trinity. These ingredients are rarely used alone to flavor dishes, but rather serve as complements to the dry ingredients, playing off of each other to enrich and add complexity to their otherwise bold flavors. In my house, we grind large quantities of these ingredients and keep them in the fridge for ease of use. That way, all we have to do is spoon out the required amount! This may be a bit too much work for people who are not going to be cooking with these ingredients on a regular basis, however, I do recommend at the very least finely grating or mincing these ingredients before using them. Sometimes an unexpected large piece of chili can be quite jarring to the palate! When ground, they add their flavor to the entire dish without overpowering a single bite.
|The Holy Trinity, Ground (from top, clockwise): Garlic, Chili, Ginger
Garlic is an root native to Asia. It is, as we all know, used throughout the world to add its amazing flavor to all sorts of dishes. Interestingly, in certain religious denominations in Hinduism, garlic is a forbidden flavoring. It belongs to the realm of the “rajasic” foods. These are foods that are considered to stir the senses and incite passions that might be deemed inappropriate and unworthy of a person belonging to these religious groups who prefer to eat diets of “sattvic” foods. To overcome this restriction, food made in these households often has a generous amount of asoefetida, because it provides a hint of garlicky flavor without inciting the passions! Luckily for me, my father’s household (and to a lesser extent, my mother’s household) did not have this requirement and we have been blessed with food replete with breath-enhancing delicious garlic. Garlic pairs especially wonderfully with garam masala
Ginger (adrak): Ginger is a rhizome native to South Asia. It is well known for the distinct flavor it adds to Chinese cuisine. However, it is used widely in Indian households and is also in the realm of the “sattvic” foods and is thus a ubiquitous flavor across the country. It can be used sliced, chopped, grated, or ground. I prefer the latter two as it allows the ginger to become integrated in the food rather than standing out as a bright, astringent bite.
Chili (mirchi): Interestingly, the flavor that people most associate with Indian cuisine is that of heat–spice derived from chilis–however, chilis are the only ingredient of the holy trinity that are not native to Asia! Chilis are a new world spice and became incorporated into Indian cuisine as trade between India and Europe increased in the 1500s. When chilis were first introduced in India, they were known as the “savior of the poor” as they were relatively easy to cultivate in the Indian climate and allowed the poor to enhance their modest meals with a zap of spicy flavor. Chilis became ubiquitous afterwards and were readily incorporated into the Indian diet with gusto. The chilis that I most often use in Indian cooking are serrano chilis as they have more heat and less fruity-sourness compared with the more commonly available jalapeno. To kick up the spice a few notches, my mom will sometimes throw in a thai chili or two when making her ground chili mixture. If all you have is jalapenos, don’t fret! They still taste great. You may want to leave the ribs and seeds in place to make sure that your food gets heat without tasting predominantly of jalapeno!
My mom is the one who makes all of our ground spices, and her method is quite simple. Take a few pounds of the spice of choice, throw it in the food processor with a pinch of salt and a splash of lemon juice and grind to oblivion! Keep refrigerated or frozen in an airtight container.
The Flavor Enhancers
|Tamarind Paste and a Coconut
These ingredients are ones that add a delicious flavor to dishes already seasoned with dry ingredients and some of the wet spices listed above.
Tamarind (imli): The tamarind tree grows throughout India. One of my great pleasures when I’m in India is to walk along the road, pluck the dried tamarind pods from the tamarind tree, crack them open and eat the soft meat on the inside. Tamarind has a delicious sweet-sour flavor and is chewy with a texture akin to fruit snacks! It’s delicious. When used for cooking, it adds that same sweet and sour profile to a dish. Traditionally, tamarind was soaked in hot water and squeezed in order to extract the pulp from the fruit. This took a good amount of time and muscle strength. Luckily, tamarind paste is now available ready to use out of a jar at virtually any Indian market and some well stocked supermarkets. It has the consistency of thick syrup and can be added to Indian soups, rice dishes, vegetable dishes and more directly from the jar!
Coconut (nariyal): Coconut, another tropical plant, is actually the seed of the coconut fruit! As many know, it contains clear and refreshing coconut milk inside a shell of white flesh. (Interestingly, during the Second World War in the South Asian battlefronts, coconut water was sometimes used for intravenous hydration when IV fluids were not available as it is an isotonic solution) The flesh of the coconut seed is most often used in cooking and is used all over the country. Gujarati food has many dishes that are flavored with grated coconut flesh and South India is filled with dishes containing coconut in all varieties. Often, coconut oil is used as the primary cooking fat as well! When buying coconut, you may either buy it whole, crack it and grate the flesh or you can buy pregrated coconut. Some Indian grocery stores stock frozen grated coconut which has a much nicer taste than dried grated coconut, however the dried coconut certainly works in a pinch. Please beware that you do not buy sweetened grated coconut–something that is often used for desserts.
The Finishing Touches
|Cilantro and Lemon
One of the instructions that you’ll find at the end of many recipes for Indian food is to garnish with a flourish of cilantro or, less frequently, a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime. These flavors are ones that work so well and add a bright burst of citrus to foods that can often seem heavy due to all the spices.
Cilantro (hara dhania): Cilantro is the plant that produces the fruit that when seeded, turns into coriander! Thus in Indian cuisine, we use both flavors from the plant in much of our cooking. Most frequently, cilantro leaves are chopped finely and then added into the food at the end of the cooking process to wilt in the heat of the dish. Just before serving, an additional sprinkle is added on top. Another less common way to use cilantro is utilized in my dad’s household: the cilantro is ground into a paste and cooked alongside the holy trinity and a handful of dry ingredients. After that, you can add shrimp, tomatoes, or eggs to the dish. It’s amazingly delicious and one of my most favorite dishes. Keep your eyes peeled for it!
Lemon/lime (nimbu): Many Indian dishes benefit from a sour burst from a squirt of lemon, another plant native to Asia. It enhances the grilled tandoori dishes wonderfully, and many dishes made with garam masala and garlic are made even more flavorful with a bit of lemon. In fact, one of the quick condiments we make involves thinly chopping an onion, drizzling it with a pinch of salt, a shake of ground chili powder, and a good amount of lemon. It makes a quick pickled onion that pairs wonderfully with a variety of Indian dishes.
Chickpeas in Spiced Tomato Sauce
This recipe is my family’s quick version of the well known chana masala or chole masala. It’s a quick pantry dish that is a snap to whip up for dinner, and is made with ingredients that are easy to keep on hand. One thing that people familiar with Indian cuisine may notice is the distinct lack of chana masala powder. This is purely a personal preference, but I believe that the chana masala masks the careful development of flavors that occurs when making this dish by creating a blanket of spice that overpowers much everything. In the words of my cousin who I cooked this for today, “Tanvi! This is the first time that I’ve tasted the ginger and the garlic and the cinnamon in this dish! I can actually taste the tomatoes and onion and chickpeas as well. I didn’t realize that chole could taste like this!” We omit the chana masala and use our homemade garam masala
The other thing the astute Indian food eater will notice is the addition of yogurt. This is a family specific thing. We found that we really liked the creaminess of the dish with the added yogurt. It made it extra delicious!
I chose this dish because it highlights the use of the fresh spices, workhorse dry spices, aromatics, and garam masala quite nicely. When I’ve made it for friends in the past, they’ve been amazed at how wonderfully ingredients that we commonly think of using in dessert–cinnamon and cloves–go with ingredients that are most decidedly savory–garlic. Additionally, these ingredients, with the exception perhaps of turmeric, are relatively easy to obtain. Do make the dish, it’s a great Indian recipe to have on hand.
A super delicious pantry staple of chickpeas in spiced tomato sauce, or my family's version of chana masala.
- 1 15 oz. can of chickpeas, drained, rinsed, and drained again
- 1 medium-large tomato, chopped
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 3 Tbsp. tomato paste, preferably from a tube not a can
- 1 cup buttermilk, or yogurt/sour cream thinned with a few tsp. water, or heavy cream
- 1 tsp. minced green serrano chilis
- 2 tsp. ground or grated fresh ginger
- 2 tsp. ground or grated fresh garlic
- 1/4 tsp. turmeric
- 1/2 tsp. Kashmiri red chili powder
- 1 tsp. garam masala
- 2 inches cinnamon stick
- 1 large bay leaf
- 4 cloves
- 2 Tbsp. oil
- 1 small handful chopped cilantro
- Place a large saucepan on the stove over medium-high heat, and add the oil, cinnamon, bay leaf, and cloves to it. Swirl the oil and the spices occasionally as it heats.
- Once the spices become aromatic and sizzle slightly, add the chopped tomato and the chopped onion. Stir well to combine. Cook covered, uncovering occasionally and giving the mixture a good stir. Cook until the onion is nearly translucent and the tomatoes are disintegrated.
- Add salt, turmeric, red chili powder, tomato paste, serrano peppers, garlic, and ginger to the pan and stir well. Allow the wet spices to become well incorporated into the tomato and onion mixture. Continue to cook, until you notice that a small amount of oil seeps out of the mixture when it is stirred or until the dish is even more aromatic and the tomatoes have broken down into mush.
- Add the buttermilk or other dairy of your choice. Bring to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the garam masala powder. Stir well, and allow to simmer for 5 minutes.
- Turn of the heat. Garnish with a flourish of cilantro.
Goes beautifully with flat bread, rice, or just out of a bowl.