There is a secret that I realised. It’s about Indian cooking. In the approx 16 years of cooking Indian food, learning just a few of its many many intricate secrets, I discovered another and it has changed the way I approach Indian food just a little. And that time period for the secret to reveal itself is about right. Nothing happens fast in India. Learning is about mastery – no secrets reveal themselves to fly-by-night indulgers in any area. Secrets only come with personal commitment, discipline and persistence. Talk to any of the master craftsmen of South India or the incredible musicians or the rigorous dancers of the traditional genres of India, and they will tell you so.
So I was musing over Indian cooking the other night and how the wonderful play of spices caress the food, thinking in my small head that it is the spices that are lifting and highlighting the characteristics of the food.
But really it is not so. There is a very subtle difference.
Indian food is not so much about the “main ingredient” whether that is a vegetable or fruit, or lentil, or mix of these. Indian food is always all about the spices. Spices first and foremost. Spices in the middle, and spices at the end.
Everything else in the dish is just a carrier for the spices. Anything else in the dish is there to compliment, highlight and lift the spices, carrying them beyond their raw, lone flavour to exquisite culinary heights.
The carrier can be anything:
- Water. Think rasams, which are basically spiced water.
- Milk. The myriad of desserts based on milk which carry the sweeter spices so well.
- Yoghurt. Add spices to make a magnificent curry.
- Flour. Think Besan Curry, made from chickpea flour, spices and water.
- Lentils. Millions of recipes where lentils or dried beans carry a range of spices to give textural bases to spices.
- Vegetables and fruits, unripe and ripe, form solid platforms for great spice performances.
Spices can disappear into the liquids and not be seen. But they can also be stuffed into vegetables (e.g. okra, eggplant, lemons, limes), encased in pastries (samosas), squished into sauces (palak paneer) and chutneys, and baked into goodies (paneer tikka). The key to Indian cooking is firstly in the spices.