Assignment 117: India

IND mapLocation: South Asia
Population: 1.38 billion
Capital: New Delhi
Geography: Immensely varied geography comprising desert, jungle, ocean coastline, and the Himalayan Mountains
Language: Hindi, English, and many others
Signature flavours: Spices (cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, mustard seed, and more), rice, chili peppers, garlic, onion, dairy, chicken, seafood, potato, breads, pulses, nuts, tomato

The Menu

If I’m being honest, I was overwhelmed to get India as my next assignment. Thrilled, excited, eager…but overwhelmed. Indian food is one of my favourite cuisines (and Eric’s absolute favourite). I’ve eaten a huge variety of fabulous Indian dishes that hail from all parts of the country. The resources available to me were numerous in the extreme, but I spent a few weeks in nervous paralysis, unable to really start researching. Finally, I ended up at my local library, taking home three cookbooks: Made in India and Fresh India (both by Meera Sodha), and Regional Indian Cooking. I also used cookbooks from my own shelf: A World of Cake and The Best Recipes in the World. I had a shortlist of thirty items that I gradually whittled down to eleven. It was still a huge menu.

IND books

We went shopping in a city two hours away to find everything I needed, but when it came to starting preparation (the day before the big meal, since some things needed to marinate and others just tasted better as a second-day dish — ever eaten leftover curry?) I was paralyzed again. There was just so much to do, and I didn’t know where to start. Actually, I’m sitting here writing this intro before I’ve even started. Procrastination is interesting. I promise to start at the end of this sentence…I’ll just get up and start…I’ll just get up and go into the kitchen and begin…probably best to take inventory of my ingredients and then make a plan…gosh, I’m tired…just got to stick a period at the end of this sentence and then I’ll go…gulp… .

IND paratha

Aloo Paratha: Aloo means potato, and this flatbread is stuffed with spiced potato and chili peppers.

Prep and cooking time: 40 min
Difficulty: 3/5

IND dal

Golden Chana Dal with Garlic Tarka: There are so many ways to make dal, and I love each and every one. This was a dry dal (rather than soupy or creamy as some varieties are) made from spilt chickpeas, topped with spiced oil.

Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Difficulty: 2/5

IND paneer

Chili Paneer: Chunks of dense, salty cheese pan fried with tomato paste, garlic, and chili pepper.

Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Difficulty: 2/5

IND methi

Methi Matar Malai: It’s all in the name — methi (fenugreek), matar (peas), malai (cream). A rich stew made with tomato, fenugreek leaves, peas, cashews, and cream.

Prep and cooking time: 25 min
Difficulty: 2/5

IND rice shrimp

Tandoori Shrimp: Shrimp marinated in yoghurt and spices, then baked until juicy and tender.

Prep and cooking time: 4 hours (including marinating time)
Difficulty: 2/5

Basmati Rice: Fluffy long-grain white rice. Ubiquitous to the Indian culinary scene.

Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Difficulty: 1/5

IND sauces

Garlic raita: A cooling yoghurt dip generously flavoured with lightly cooked garlic and chili pepper.

Prep and cooking time: 15 min
Difficulty: 1/5

Mango Chutney: Chutney is commonly served alongside meals as a condiment, and varieties abound. This chutney is made from green mangos stewed with clove, cinnamon, fenugreek, and –you guessed it — chilli pepper.

Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Difficulty: 2/5

Orange Cashew Kalakand: One of many Indian “milk cakes” made from thickened milk, paneer, and sugar. This kind was flavoured with orange rind, cardamom, and cashews.

Prep and cooking time: 4 hours (including setting time)
Difficulty: 3/5

IND lassi

Saffron Lassi: Lassi is a thick yoghurt drink that comes in a variety of flavours. I chose to make this bright yellow, saffron-infused version.

Prep and cooking time: 15 min
Difficulty: 1/5

IND chai

Chai: A spicy, milky, sweet tea beloved in India.

Prep and cooking time: 10 min
Difficulty: 1/5

The Shopping List

Eric and I headed to Indian grocery stores in Guelph, Ontario for chili peppers (three varieties), fenugreek leaves, amchur (dried mango) powder, paneer, garam masala, ajwain seed, and split chickpeas. Everything else I found at our local supermarket.

IND saffron

The Meal

I’m not going to lie — I didn’t enjoy cooking this assignment. I was so desperate to have the best (and biggest) menu, and it was just too much. I love Indian food — I think it’s akin to art — and I wanted to do it justice. I was exhausted and stressed to the point that I was actually getting heart palpitations by the end of it. In that moment, I realized that I had completely gotten away from the point of this project, which is enjoyment. I just didn’t enjoy the cooking, and I learned a valuable lesson that helped me reframe the experience and let some things go. When I finally sat down at a (beautifully laden) table with Eric and two of our friends, I was in a better mood, having recovered somewhat from the frenzy of the last 24 hours (during which I had cooked for about twelve hours).

I explained what we would be eating, and then we passed the dishes around, getting a bit of everything. Gradually a silence fell as we tried it all, and then the conversation resumed.

By the end of the meal, everyone had a different favourite dish — I loved the paneer, Eric loved the paratha, our friends liked the methi matar malai and the tandoori shrimp best, and everyone loved the mango chutney. Both the raita and lassi cooled our palates after each chili-filled bite of food. The kalakand was a delicious, citrusy finish to the meal, along with the sweet chai, and we all had seconds.

I felt that my menu was a decent showcase of Indian dishes, and was pleased at how the flavours went together. My biggest self-criticism was that the sheer number of dishes meant that some things were ready long before others, so some were definitely cooled to room temperature by the time we ate. It was a lesson in setting realistic expectations for future assignments.

None of the dishes was on its own overly difficult or time consuming, and there are several that I’d like to attempt again. I was also exposed to some new and valuable cooking methods (like topping a dish with spiced oil to add some flavour, heat, and richness).

I’m writing this section the morning after the assignment, and I am still a little traumatized. Very tired, with a burnt tongue (tasted boiling chai to see if it was ready), garlicky fingers, and overall, a sense of completion.  I loved it. I hated it. It’s over. I want to do it again.


Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.

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