A Kitchen Journey to India

Indian cuisine is my favorite – experiencing the endless variety of food is one of the best parts about traveling in India. As much as I would love to return to India, the country is in no position to accept tourists right now.

If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary ”Pandemic”, then you’re familiar with the low doctor-to-population ratio in India. The lockdown that they are slowly emerging from in places seems to have been aimed more at buying time than stopping the spread of the disease. The population is simply too dense, and often too poor, to make such a lockdown very effective. On top of that, India has recently been struck simultaneously by a cyclone and a heat wave, and tensions along the Himalayan borders are higher than they’ve been in decades.

My visa is valid through 2024 though, so I’ll wait and see how the situation plays out.

In the meantime, I’m traveling virtually to India via its cuisine. Even before covid-19 struck, I had experimented a little with making Indian dishes at home, inspired by the cooking class I took when I was in Kerala. When the outbreak started and I began doing more cooking at home, I decided it was time to take my interest to the next level. So instead of falling for the sourdough craze, I bought an additional Indian cookbook and have since been been satisfying my craving multiple times a week, without the hefty delivery fee.

Recipes for Indian dishes used to scare me because they typically involve a page-long list of mostly unfamiliar ingredients. They’re certainly not something to just ”throw together” after returning from the office, if you’re not prepared. Even when I did have time, I often ended up googling substitutions after unsuccessfully scouring the grocery store for some exotic ingredients.

But when I started more seriously to follow the recipes, I realized the obvious: Houston is full of Indian grocery stores, and that’s not where I’d been shopping! There’s a small Indian grocer in a sad-looking strip mall down the street from my regular supermarket, so I added it to my masked errand-runs. Naturally, I found everything I’d been missing – plus many more things I’d never heard of but wondered what they could be used for and bought just because they looked interesting. Of course, ambling through a small ethnic store and ”just looking” means I sometimes get mistaken for being lost and/or confused. But I’ve been enough times that I have a suspicion the owners recognize me.

The variety of some ingredients is eye-opening from an American perspective. There are the myriad types of flour – atta flour, chickpea flour, rice flour, and so on. Then there is the even larger variety of dals – chana, toor, masoor, urad, and moong being among the most common.

Indian Lentils (Dal / Dahl)

If you’ve never shopped in an Indian store, the biggest shock is that they tend to sell things in larger quantities. Spices, for example, come in bags several times larger than the little McCormick jars, but at a fraction of the price. And since the store’s ”spice aisle” is literally an entire aisle (or more), both the quantity and variety of spices quickly overwhelmed my small apartment kitchen. I’ve amassed a collection of ingredients like cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger, mustard seed, hing, tamarind, and Kashmiri chili. And those are just the individual spices. Indian cuisine uses many special spice mixtures called masalas. The idea of a masala is familiar in things like American chili powder (cayenne + cumin + garlic) and the infamous pumpkin spice. In India, popular masalas include garam, sambar, chaat, and chai, to name a few. The masala called curry powder is actually a British invention that is rarely if ever used in India.

All of this is to say that learning to make Indian food has turned out to be a self-reinforcing hobby. The more recipes I try, the more ingredients I accumulate, and so the easier it becomes to try a new recipe on the fly. And the more practice I get, the easier it becomes to make something that tastes somewhat authentic. And since eating out is still a risky proposition, I’m at least able to partially fill the void left by my favorite restaurants.

Indian Spices

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