Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: My Indian Kitchen by Hari Nayak


Growing up in the United States, the Indian food that Linda knew was what mom made with leftover Thanksgiving turkey. It was fast and easy: simply cut up the turkey legs, sauté with onions and raisins and a whole lot of curry powder and call it done. To this day, she still has an enormous aversion to the thought of curry. Even to leftover turkey. And don’t get her started on fruit with meat… Sorry mom. Dave on the other hand grew up in the United Kingdom, where good Indian food is a way of life. Much to his dismay, Linda would flinch every time he mentioned going out for Indian food (although inevitably she’d enjoy her dinner immensely.) Even so, Dave’s Indian home cooking experience was mostly restricted to Beef Curry Casserole, from a cookbook by the venerable British cook Katie Stewart. Although this is a tasty dish (which we still make from time to time), it only conveys a hint of what Indian cuisine has to offer.

We were therefore excited about the opportunity to review My Indian Kitchen: Preparing Delicious Indian Meals Without Fear or Fuss by Hari Nayak. We both were intrigued by the concept – could we actually make a decent Indian meal without fear or fuss? Perhaps Linda could overcome her aversion to the thought of curry. And perhaps we could find tasty, authentic Indian dishes to make that don’t require 45 obscure ingredients and 8 hours in the kitchen. It was certainly worth a try! Furthermore, this attractive, large format book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful pictures of both ingredients and finished dishes, inviting us to try out the recipes.
As the book illustrates, Indian food is more than just curry and there are numerous recipes here from throughout the Indian sub-continent, but with an emphasis on dishes from southern India where the author grew up. My Indian Kitchen provides a wealth of tasty recipes including vegetarian soups, grilled meats and even chai crème brulée. The introduction covers some basics of Indian cooking, including a review of some of the vegetables, herbs and spices that are frequently used and a useful section on some basic techniques. There is also a page on pairing wine with Indian food, although the complex spices and heat in many Indian dishes makes this a challenge and it seems that beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice for the author to enjoy with his cuisine. We were particularly happy to see that, although Chef Nayak provides many delicious recipes, he also encourages us to explore spice, herb and flavor combinations of our own. In a highly uncharacteristic move however, we actually stuck pretty close to the recipes, except when we noticed at the last minute that we were out of something.

The recipes are divided into 9 chapters: Indian Spice Mixes, Chutneys and Accompaniments, Appetizers, Soups and Dals, Vegetables and Cheese Dishes, Fish and Seafood, Poultry and Meat, Bread and Rice, and finally Desserts and Drinks. The first chapter, covering masalas (spice powders and pastes), is extensively cross-referenced throughout the book, as these aromatic concoctions form the heart of the flavor profile for many of the dishes.

As we read through the book, we quickly divined that the secret to making Indian food efficiently is having your masalas ready to go in advance. With that in mind, we designated our first cooking day simply for getting ready for the rest of the week.
For our advance preparation we chose to make homestyle garam masala, mint chutney, and vindaloo paste. We decided we’d test the timings suggested by the book and they were for the most part pretty accurate. The cilantro mint chutney came together in a little over 5 minutes. The garam masala took nearly 10 rather than the 5 minutes described in the book, but we pounded it by hand rather than using an electric spice grinder.
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  mint chutney                          garam masala
We did come a bit unstuck in making the vindaloo paste. The recipe calls for soaking dried red chiles for an hour or so, then blending them with additional spices in a food processor. The wet chiles plus their soaking liquid meant that the spices merely travelled round and round our processor for 5 minutes until we gave up and pounded them out slowly by hand. We’d make the recipe again, but either using fresh red chiles or grinding the dry chiles with the spices first and then adding the liquid to soak.

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right: after 5 minutes in the food processor, the spices are still whole

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left: after a good bashing with the mortar and pestle

Pork Vindaloo
We’ve often ordered lamb vindaloo in restaurants, but had never even thought of making it at home. According to the book, vindaloo is originally derived from a Portugese dish known as Carne de Vinha d’ Alhos (meat with vinegar and garlic), and is a characteristic dish from Goa. Our home-made version was a bit different than what we recall from restaurant versions, but not in a bad way: it was wonderfully complex and rich.
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Masala Lamb Chops
Buoyed by our success with the vindaloo, we tried the masala lamb chops a few days later. These are seasoned with the homestyle garam masala that we’d prepared in advance, as well as a few other herbs and spices. They’re optimally marinated overnight, but we’d overlooked that detail and marinated them for maybe 2 hours. Nonetheless, they were delicious and super quick to prepare. We served them with Basmati Rice with whole spices. This was delicately flavored and the method of cooking the rice was a great success - every grain came out fluffy and separate.
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Paneer and Spinach Samosas
We were getting quite cocky when we decide d to try our hand at making samosas with home-made paneer. Making the paneer was a blast. It came together as if by magic and took quite a lot less time and fuss than we’d expected. On the other happam_curry 033and, making the samosa dough was honestly a bit of a challenge – we had to add quite a bit more water than the recipe called for to get the dough to be even remotely pliable, then it still took significant brute strength (and our pasta roller + rolling pin) to roll it out. However, once it was all done, these were some of the best samosas we’ve ever had. The difficult dough turned perfectly crisp and almost sandy after shallow frying and the finished product wasn’t greasy at all. We’ll certainly make them again using this recipe. Not often, but occasionally, as they were a treat and we still have the lamb filling and the traditional potato and peas filling that we want to try.
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Northern Chickpea Curry (Chana Masala)
Chana masala is another favorite – this chickpea stew is the definition of comfort food on a cool day. Ours turned out quite fiery as we used fresh red chiles instead of dried and also our green chiles were quite spicy. It also used a bit of our homestyle garam masala. This dish could easily be made as hot or mild as you like and, like everything we tried from the book was quite delicious.
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Stir Fried Okra (Bhindi Subzi)
We’re huge fans of okra, but had never succeeded in cooking it on the stove without it getting slimy. Until now. According to this book, the trick is in making sure that you completely dry off the okra after washing. Whatever it took, this was delicious; the fried onions and delicate spices were a perfect foil to the earthy notes of the okra. Again, it went together quickly and we’ll definitely make this dish again and again – it’s much easier than firing up the barbeque which had, ‘til now, been our go-to method for making okra.
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Smoky Fire-Roasted Eggplant (Baingan Bharta)
We’ve saved the best for last. This eggplant was out of this world. We made quite a lot of it as an accompaniment to the Masala Lamb Chops, and are only a bit embarrassed to admit that we ate it all. Every single bite. It could have made a lovely lunch, but it tasted so good that we just couldn’t stop.
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So, does the book achieve its aim to create delicious meals without fear or fuss? It does. For the most part, the ingredients were easy to acquire, and in a few cases where something more unusual was included, Chef Nayak offered tips on the flavor profile so that we could work out an appropriate substitution. Nothing that we tried was technically daunting, and armed in advance with just a few spice mixes (masalas) we made a number of delicious Indian meals, even midweek. These masalas, toasted and ground from whole spices, are key to achieving the depth of flavor that defines good Indian food. It does pay to prepare in advance, however, and some of the recipes may take quite a long time if you have to stop to make each spice powder and paste along the way. But we honestly don’t think you could cut things much shorter and still make something that tastes quite as good.
Chef Nayak provided clear, simple directions and whenever we had a question, we always found the answer within his book. We really liked his style: he is informative about the background of each dish and offers suggestions on complementary dishes for each recipe. His voice is calming and confident, not loud or gimmicky as has lately become common with a lot of food writers. We scarcely dipped into the recipes that are offered in My Indian Kitchen and we’re looking forward to trying many more. That is, if we can tear ourselves away from that smoky eggplant…
This review was originally published on the Daring Kitchen Cookbook Review.

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