Without any hesitation, when asked what cuisine I would choose if I could pick only one to subsist on for the rest of my life, I would plump for Indian. This is a bit of a cheat really, because India is huge; it would be like someone from Chennai suggesting they might like to stick to European food for the rest of their days. We look at European food and think how diverse it is: French food with its rich flavours, garlic, butter, herbs; colourful, fresh Italian dishes; smoky Spanish spices; fish ‘n’ chips and many-splendored* roast dinners; pork and boiled potatoes from anywhere east of the Maginot line. And yet look at it from the non-European’s point of view – sausages, breads, spuds, and big slabs of meat. Where’s the heat? The fragrance? European flavours must feel like so many shades of grey to every other continent on Earth, with the exception of the English-speaking New World. Every other part of the globe makes heavy use of spices, which makes us think of them as spicy, but in reality it is just our food which is (relatively) spiceless.
Of course the prevalence of spices in many cuisines has a fairly disturbing provenance: meat does not endure particularly well in hot climes and it is widely still necessary to use very powerful flavours to cloak the rancid taste of flesh somewhat past its use-by date. But that does not take away from the joy to be gained from exploring the extreme ends of the flavour spectrum, once you have a palette that can appreciate it anyway. I did not have such a palette until relatively recently: my upbringing did not provide me with opportunities to acquaint myself with anything spikier than a strong pickled onion, neither of my parents having been particularly adventurous in the kitchen (I will save stories of boiled beef burgers and plain pasta for another post). Once I was able to start investigating the pantheon of experiences that world cuisine has to offer, I quickly started working my way up the Scoville scale, and, although I cannot claim to be a particular fan of those mad “get your meal for free if you can finish it” super-hot meals in certain Indian restaurants, I have managed to establish a reasonable threshold now.
I went to India a couple of years ago with work, and was a little surprised at what I found. In retrospect it should not have been unexpected; I went to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) which is in Bengal, in the far east of the country, and most of the Indian food we are familiar with in the UK is from or inspired by the north and west of the country (and often in fact Pakistani in origin rather than Indian). Bengali food was mostly dry, spicy meats (chicken and mutton mostly, with some seafood which I carefully avoided), with a daal to add moisture to the dish, and bread. Rice was not common and only seemed to be made available to suit Western preferences. I really liked the food; it was simple but very tasty. However after being there for a week or so I must admit with a little shame that I was desperate for something dull, and I did make use a few times of the European restaurants within our hotel complex. I stand by my statement though that on balance I would prefer to do without European food than Indian.
What is particularly great about Indian food is that, despite often having a lot of ingredients, it is often pretty easy to prepare: I have already posted two curry dishes that involve putting a few spices in a pot and whizzing them up into a paste, and adding to various cooked vegetables. Both of these are regulars in our menu because of both their wonderful flavours and ease of compilation. The below is another of our favourites, which we usually combine with sag aloo, pilau rice and naan bread for a top-drawer curry night which is way cheaper but every bit as tasty as getting it from our favourite local Indian takeaway.
Paneer, pea and mushroom curry
• 200g paneer (Indian cheese), cut into small cubes
• 100g button mushrooms, chopped
• couple of handfuls of frozen peas
• 150g crème fraîche or natural yoghurt
• Splash of oil
For the paste:
• One onion
• Two green chillies
• Tsp chilli powder
• 2 tsps grd coriander
• ½ tsp turmeric
• 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
• Couple of garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
• Tsp garam masala
• Few leaves of mint
• Handful of fresh coriander
• Pinch of salt
Put all the paste ingredients into a jug and whizz to a coarse paste. Put to one side. Heat plenty of oil and fry the paneer cubes until golden brown on all sides (beware – this spits like crazy, a pan with a lid may be prudent), then remove to kitchen roll to lose the excess oil. Lose some of the oil, turn up the heat and fry off the paste until you stop crying. Add the cheese, mushrooms and peas (direct from frozen) to this, then turn the heat down low and add the crème fraîche, putting a lid on the pan and cooking for around 10 minutes. Depending on how liquid the sauce is at this point you can remove the lid and reduce the sauce a little if need before serving.
* I desperately wanted to spell this with an “-our” but the evidence suggests “-or” is right, much to my chagrin…