As much as I enjoy Indian cuisine, I’ve hesitated to attempt making it at home. The exotic spices, complex flavor combinations, and mysterious ingredients have always intimidated me! So when our local community college offered an Indian cooking class, I jumped at the opportunity to have this extraordinary cuisine demystified.
This is the first of a two-part series. Today’s post will cover the classes on legumes and bread. Next week’s blog will cover the classes on yogurt making, cheese, and eggplant dishes.
Our instructor was Raka Mehra, a home cook from northern India with many years of experience preparing her native dishes. Having garnered much acclaim by those lucky enough to be invited to her home for a meal, she decided to develop this class to teach others the secrets of her delicious north Indian dishes.
Raka emphasized that everyday dishes in India are generally much lighter and healthier than those served at most Indian restaurants. Importantly, she assured us that with basic cooking skills, one can prepare a truly authentic Indian meal.
In our first class, Raka gave us a brief overview of the numerous legumes used in Indian cooking. Economical and high in protein, legumes are extremely nutritious and contain a range of essential nutrients including vitamin B (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. They are also abundant in dietary fiber.
Of all the legume options available, we focused on lentils which are among the quickest to prepare. We made two lentil dishes but my favorite was coconut daal made from red (or washed) lentils. The dish contains coconut milk which makes it rich and creamy with a somewhat delicate flavor.
Raka’s Coconut Daal
1 cup washed red lentils (masoor)
1 can coconut milk (full fat)
1 ¼ cup water
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 -2 green chilies, sliced
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. turmeric
2 T. oil
2 tsp. black mustard seeds (or cumin seeds)
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
Place lentils, coconut milk, water, chopped onion, tomatoes, chilies, salt and turmeric in a pan. Simmer 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.
While lentils are cooking, heat oil in frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds and cover until popping stops. Add sliced onions and fry until crisp.
Mix sautéed onions and mustard seeds with cooked lentils and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice.
Bread Making: Roti and Paratha
In our second session we learned about the classic Indian bread commonly known as roti or chapati. This is an unleavened whole wheat tortilla-like bread that is hearty and versatile. While most of us think of naan as the quintessential Indian bread, we learned that roti is more typically consumed on a daily basis in India, while naan is usually reserved for special occasions.
Basic Recipe for Roti
1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt (optional)
Mix all ingredients until stiff dough forms. Knead until dough no longer sticks to your hands. Let rest for about 20 minutes.
Divide dough into 8 equal parts and roll into balls. Roll balls into 6 – 8″ discs. Lightly grease pan and heat to medium high. Cook until brown blisters begin to appear and flip. Roti will puff up when done.
While roti is delicious simply spread with a little butter, we also made paratha which is roti filled with vegetables, or cheese and spices. My favorite was paneer paratha, which is roti filled with cheese (paneer).
2 cups shredded paneer (Indian yogurt cheese)
1 T. finely chopped ginger
2 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 t. cumin powder
1/4 t. red chili flakes
Salt to taste
2 T. yogurt
Mix all ingredients except yogurt together. Then add yogurt until crumbly paste forms.
Place filling in the middle of the rolled out roti and then gently gather edges together, forming a purse-like packet. Roll flat again and fry in lightly oiled pan until brown on both sides.
With a little spiced yogurt, paratha make a delicious accompaniment to a meal or a filling snack. Both roti and paratha are well-suited to freezing, so a batch can be made ahead of time and taken out as needed.
Perhaps the most important tip I gleaned from this class was how important it is to purchase whole spices and dry roast them in a frying pan before grinding. Dry roasting changes the chemistry of proteins, releases the oils in spices, changes their flavor, and enhances the scent and taste of spices. If you want maximum flavor in your Indian dishes, don’t skip this step!
I did not find any of these dishes to be difficult to make and was delighted to learn how nutritious they are. I am excited about adding these dishes to my repertoire and hope you will give them a try as well.
Stay tuned next week for part two of my foray into Indian cooking!