Adventures in Indian Cooking

I have an insatiable curiosity to try as many different types of cuisine and variety of dishes during my lifetime as possible. Apart from simply how food tastes, I’m fascinated by the social, geographical and historical factors that influence the evolution of culinary traditions. Food can bridge understanding between people and I love anything that has the power to do that! It’s so much fun to explore a new ingredient and discover how to coax out and combine flavors to recreate the taste that explodes on my tongue when I have that first bite. But there are cuisines and dishes that are so seemingly complex that it can be daunting to jump in and experiment all alone, so I’m not ashamed to seek out guidance.

As a longtime lover of Indian cuisine (see my experiments with curry in an earlier post), I decided to tackle it in my kitchen. Like the real deal. Even though I’ve explored a bit on my own, I knew it was time to sign up for a class and I chose CulinAerie near Thomas Circle in DC. CulinAerie describes itself as a recreational culinary school. I’ve always described myself as an avid home cook but now I’m officially calling myself a recreational cook! CulinAerie offers hands-on cooking, not just demonstration. And my class focused on Royal Indian cuisine or recipes from the chefs hired to cook for the Indian emperors.

The food preferred by the emperors was as rich in flavor as one might imagine. The royal family would not have eaten tomatoes or cilantro as this was considered lower class food. But nuts and lots of milk and milk products were popular. Our instructor, Rupen Rao, has published two cookbooks on Indian cuisine, one of which features Ayurvedic cooking which is an ancient way of cooking that focuses on the dietary needs of each person depending on their body type. Fascinating stuff. Rupen was friendly, knowledgeable and very funny. And he learned to cook from his mom, so ya know, legit. I’ve very much enjoyed his cookbook. Yes, of course I bought it. I openly admit to having a cookbook problem.

Rupen Rao in action.

He even threw in that tandoori spice mix for free. Such a sucker for a deal.

When we entered the classroom, we found our ingredients laid out for us. We were going to be making Chicken Korma (cashew cream sauce), Kashmir Lamb Stew, Garlic Spinach, Caraway Perfumed Rice and Indian Rice Pudding with Mango Mousse. He actually made the rice pudding for us while we cooked but he showed us every step and offered important tips.

Some of our ingredients ready for cooking. Spice mixtures, ghee, garlic, ginger, yogurt and yes, jalapeño pepper!

The first step of the Korma is to let the chicken marinate. You mix the chicken with yogurt and a bunch of delicious flavors like garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric, sweet paprika and yes, jalapeño pepper. Huh! I knew that Indian food could be hot but I didn’t realize that the heat came from the jalapeño. Once those flavors start getting to know each other, the next step is to caramelize the onions. Ghee or clarified butter is often used in Indian cooking instead of oil. Making your own ghee isn’t hard at all. It’s really just a matter of removing the milk solids from melted butter. But you can also buy it at Asian markets and specialty markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. We threw the chopped onions in a hot saucepan with ghee and let them slowly caramelize, being careful to stir them regularly and keep the heat at medium.

Red onions just starting to caramelize.

Once the onions are nice and browned, remove them and in the remaining ghee, add all of the spices you’ve been marinating the chicken in and extras like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon stick. You will put the caramelized onions in a blender with cashews, chicken stock, garam masala and nutmeg. Then add this mixture to the chicken and cook. If only I could describe the amazing smells in the air.

This picture does no justice to the amazing aroma in the air.

Saucy Chicken Korma

With this delicious chicken dish, you can serve white basmati rice cooked with ghee, caraway seeds, cilantro and salt. You will be amazed by how much flavor the caraway seeds add to the rice. Absolutely delicious. Once we had some time to appreciate and enjoy all of the complex flavors of the chicken korma, we prepped for the lamb stew.

Before starting on the lamb, we easily whipped up the yummy spinach side dish. Pretty simple but so flavorful. Saute some jalapeño, garlic and onion and when softened and caramelized (that’s how you get the best flavor!), add the spinach to wilt and soften. Salt to taste and voila!

Can I just say how much I love lamb? I order it whenever I can. It’s not a blank canvas flavor of meat like chicken or fish can sometimes be, but it’s richness should be enhanced by carefully selected and time tested flavors. And the best part is that this particular dish is best with cheap cuts of lamb. The key is that you need to let it cook for a long time at a low heat. Low and slow! First step is to saute some of the seasonings like peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, onions and garlic. You will have created a separate mix of ground spices combined with yogurt for the lamb. Once the lamb is cooked with the spices, the yogurt mixture is added and the heat turned down way low.

The finished product!

After hours of cooking at a low heat, the flavors meld and the lamb turns soft and velvety. We didn’t have hours in class to let the lamb cook, so our lamb was a little tougher than the ideal, but the flavors were still amazing. Especially together with the rice and spinach.

Now, while we’ve all been cooking away over the chicken and lamb, Rupen has been working on the dessert of rice pudding with mango mousse. The key to rice pudding is to heat the milk first and then add rice. Once the rice has cooked, add the sugar and cardamom and nuts. Adding sugar will slow down the cooking process so it should come at the end. Thank Rupen for that important tip! I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

See how that rice pudding shines! The top layer of mango mousse was creamy with just the right amount of sweetness.

I was stuffed by the end of the night but Indian rice pudding is not as sweet as American rice pudding so I managed a few bites of that creamy goodness. And canned Alphonso mangoes from a good Indian market are amazing. As close to right off the tree as you’ll get.

I really enjoyed this class, but I didn’t want to stop there, so I also experimented with another dish in Rupen’s cookbook for a recent dinner party with some out-of-town friends. I made the fish and mango curry. This dish called for green mango which I am very familiar with thanks to my time in the Dominican Republic, but for the first time ever, all the mango I found in the grocery store were ripe! That never happens. I was also having trouble finding curry leaves which have a bright lemony and floral flavor. I went to a mostly Latino supermarket and struck out. I was running low on time and considered substituting the curry leaves with bay leaves but it would have seriously altered the dish so I made a second supermarket run. And so glad I did! When I hit the Asian supermarket, I found both green mangoes and curry leaves.

Awesome fish and mango curry.

None of these meals would have been the same without the proper ingredients. One day, I hope to make and eat them in India. A culinary adventure through this fascinating, complex and stimulating country is on my bucket list. But until then, I will take advantage of living in DC where I can access all kinds of international markets that allow me to experiment with authentic flavors from around the world. No cuisine should be too intimidating to try. Ask for help if you need it but never be afraid to explore, in or out of the kitchen! More than likely you’ll end up with some delicious new dishes to add to your repertoire.


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