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So, how do I know I am cooking Indian food?

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about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

When my son, Aniruddh, asked me casually,

“Dad, having read all your 54 blogs over the past year, I have a question. If I don’t have a recipe book on Indian food and I don’t have an Indian friend to call for help, and I can’t go through all your blogs to get a recipe, and I don’t want to cook what you have done in your blogs, how do I know what I am cooking is Indian and not any other cuisine?”

Honestly, I didn’t have an answer for him immediately, and I told him so, but I assured him I’d think about it for his questions raised other interesting issues, as these things tend to do.

And here are my thoughts.

My first response is that if my son has these sorts of questions there must be others out there who may also have similar thoughts, but don’t want to ask.

So, I continued thinking.

How can I make the seemingly straightforward question ‘how do I know I’m cooking Indian food?’ accessible for people out there?

Well, what I thought might be good would be to introduce people about the basics of Indian food. And when I say basics, I mean the real nitty-gritty stuff. Then I thought that the more adventurous and keen cooks could go on and refer to my cookbooks or my blogs if they felt inclined to try out some of the dishes. Obviously many of you know your onions (!) but tell me if you knew all the following (or took them so much for granted you didn’t even notice them!?) or if you have any of your own ideas that, for you, means you know you’re cooking Indian food.

So, my take on it is this. You know you are cooking Indian when you:

1. Heat the oil until it is hot and about to start smoking before crackling whole spices.

crackling spices

It’s not so much the using of whole spices that makes this process quintessentially Indian, though of course it helps, but it’s the heating of the poly-unsaturated oil that is intrinsic. Cooking the spices this way creates a spice flavoured infusion which will then permeate through the protein (whatever meat it is you are using and even paneer) to give that extra ‘oomph’. It also helps break the protein down in the body for easy digestion. The smoked oil also gets a chance to rise to the top. You can then either leave it to preserve the dish or skim the oil off before serving. We call this first step baghar!

2. Add sliced, or chopped, onions followed by iodised cooking salt. (The salt prevents the onions from sticking to the pan and ultimately stops them from burning; the iodine in the salt is ‘brain food’.)

3. Cook the onions until the sugar is released which is also known as caramelisation. You cook your onions until they are light golden for white meat and cook them until golden for red meat. (Cooking the onions for longer ensures a brighter coloured sauce and it also helps preserve the quality of the dish. We call this bhunao.)

caramelised onions

4. You add the ground ginger, or ground garlic, one at a time and wait until each has caramelised before adding the next – this helps in building the flavour of the dish. Remember, cooking Indian food is like creating a building – it’s layer upon layer. This layering of flavours gives the dish its own identity.

adding ginger

5. You sear the red meat before you add the (uncooked) ground spices. (This keeps the meat moist and adds to the bright colour of the dish.) We also call this also bhunao. You skip this step if you’re cooking white meat.

6. As with our garlic and ginger, when you add the dry ground spices  you do so one at a time.  My rule of thumb is you add first the dry ground chilli (as a general rule I add the chilli first as it takes a little longer to cook and it also brings out the bright red colour in the oil which we call rogan); this is followed by turmeric and then the ground coriander, or cumin. At every stage you cook the first spice and wait till the oil comes to the surface before adding the next spice. Turmeric is added to help bring out the colours and it also acts as an anti-oxidant.

7. Well, in my Indian cooking I now add an acidic substance to the dish. It could be tomatoes, or yoghurt, or a combination of both. You may also add tamarind water here along with the tomatoes, or yoghurt.

adding tomatoes for acidity

8. If you’re cooking with white meat you add it now and fold rather than stir. Your slow cooking starts now.

9. You now cover your pot and place it in a fan forced oven, or a hot plate, with a temperature of around 140-160 C – for about 30 minutes for white meat and 1 hour and 10 minutes for red meat.

10. You serve the dish sprinkled with lemon juice.

“That was the easy bit, son.” I say to Aniruddh when he comes to check on my progress.

My previous points are an established way to cook Indian food but let’s dig further.

Let’s now tackle the ‘not so easy’ part.

“Which is?” my son asks.

“Well,” I reply smiling, “which is, you know you are really cooking Indian when. . .”

1. You use your fingers as measures, and not spoons or measuring scales for a balanced meal. (Each finger represents one of the Five Senses. G-d gave us five fingers, and yes, the thumb is also a finger. Each finger represents a sense and each sense represents an element. The sense of smell is the element of earth (bhoomi), the sense of touch is the element of air (vayu), the sense of taste is the element of water (jal), the sense of sound is the element of ether (akash) and finally, the most important sense is the element of vision (agni).

Using all the senses gives a sense of satisfaction and that in turn gives a ‘balance’ to the meal. And as I pick up my ground ginger with my fingers I sniff it and say to Aniruddh, “If you can’t touch the food you cook how can you even think of eating it, son!!”

2. Well, let’s keep talking about the senses and elements as this is so integral to Indian cooking, our way of life, our philosophy. It’s all so intricately tied together. None of it is separated into neat little compartments. It all flows and meanders into one another. Anyway, remember that Indian food revolves around three fundamentals which are first, that every dish must have salt (we cook our food with salt and notice that you will never see a salt shaker on a dining room  table in an Indian restaurant or home). Cooking food with salt helps it pass through the fibres of the protein, or whatever vegetable it is you are cooking with, which in turn helps in preserving the dish, like a pickle. So, no salt, no pickle!! We call this uppu, or namak, or salt.

3. My second fundamental is that every Indian dish must have chilli. I know the chilli is not native to India but before the white man brought it to this land we only used pepper. We call it mirch. Now it is also known as kali mirch, lal mirch, sufaed mirch or hari mirch which represents a mix of the pepper and the chilli togetherYou may use either pepper, or chilli, or a combination of both, which is what we do in nilgiri’s. we call this kaaram or mirchi or chilli


4. My third fundamental point is please, don’t forget to add the souring agent which I mentioned above. We call the souring agent puli or khatas.

a souring agent ~ yoghurt

5. We add spices to complement a dish and not to dominate it. Yes!! And so many of you think you need to ‘sweat’ or ‘endure’ a hot meal or drink a jug of water to help you eat our food. No!! It’s not the case.

6. Ah ha. One of my favourites. You are talking to yourself as you cook, just like when you play that wonderful Indian game called shatranj [chess]. Indian food is about making a move with a definite purpose, just like it is in chess. Don’t add [move] if there is no purpose!!

7. You don’t call it a ‘mild’ or a ‘medium’ or a ‘hot’ dish as there are no ‘heat’ measuring scales when cooking! Just take it as it comes. It will not kill you, if anything, it might just help you live longer by increasing your metabolism and also help break down the carbs!!

8. And last, but by no means least, son, you are cooking Indian when you don’t cook with ‘curry’ powder. This just doesn’t exist!! It comes from. . . Well, I’ll leave you to find out where curry powder came from and who invented it whilst inhabiting our land!!

Anah daata sukhi bhaava!!

About Ajoy Joshi

i've been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i've owned nilgiri's indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i'm on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a 'curry in a hurry'! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i'm enjoying exploring the new social media and as well as having published cookery books i'm now moving into videos. simple and easy to follow that don't go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

13 responses »

  1. excellent post chef. wish i could explain these to so many folks out there the way you have written. simply fabulous.

  2. Horse:-)! That was brilliant!!

  3. This is a masterpiece, I like it the best till date. Reading it you ignite the taste buds of Patriotism !! For sure I learnt a little more regarding my roots of Önions” so to say…Way to go.

    Venu Rao

    • Hi Venu,
      Thanks mate for your kind words.
      I hope it does to the other young and up and coming chefs what it has done to you. I am sure young chefs in India will find a renewed passion for this beautiful cuisine that is as old as mankind and as intricate as the French food !!
      Insha- ah Allah!!
      I will be around and I am sure PGVV will also be around to see that happen!!
      Your book is now a ‘gift’ to my friends from IHMCTAN Madras who live in Australia.
      Hope you have received the feedback on your book from Sydney!

  4. I had the curry conversation with a chef hailing from Colombia (this was at a bar as I was watching soccer). And he was shocked to hear what I had to say about curry.

    I do use my hands for a lot of the ingredients but not for something like turmeric whic tends to get under your fingernails however well trimmed it is. Any tips on getting around this?

    • Hi K,
      Thanks for your comments.
      Have been a little busy at work.
      Will answer your query tomorrow, easy solution!

      • Hi K,
        As promised here is the trick in not getting turmeric in to the finger nails.
        1. Apply any vegetable oil on to your palm and gradually rub the nails on to your palm so that the oil actually penetrates the gap between the nail and the skin. Do not use your nails to do this as it will push the turmeric further into the skin.
        2. Remember never to use moist fingers to pick turmeric.
        3. The more you cook with turmeric the less you get stained!!
        Happy cooking!!

      • Thanks for the pointers. Will definitely give them a try.

  5. shrutisharma

    Great blog – you put into words what I have in my head! The only area I’d disagree with the the use of the fingers to measure and cook. I like the philosophy but not the staining and the smells … esp. when they spoil a perfect French manicure : ).


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