Masala Daba (Spice Box)
Curry. This word’s existed since newcomers hit the shores of India in the 1500s. First, the Dutch called the locals’ spicy gravies karee. Later, to the English colonizer’s ear, karee became curry. And, beyond the sauce-based dishes it was meant for, it became their word for describing ALL Indian food.
The greatest living authority on Indian cooking, Madhur Jaffrey, is baffled by how that one word kept calm and curried on. In her Master Class, she says, “India is a vast country. It’s the variety of food (and spices) we have that is what makes Indian food Indian, not curry. How can you take ALL that we have and call it curry?”
Curry being synonymous with all Indian cuisine is like calling all Canadian food poutine. Let’s explore instead of over-simplifying.
Geographic and Cultural Influences
Three oceans surround India’s feet, with the snow-capped Himalayas at the head. Desert sands sweep from the the West and rich estuaries fill in the East. The South is spicy tropical paradise.
With a population of 1.4 billion, cultures vary dramatically in the 29 states and 7 territories. There are 18 official languages and thousands of dialects.
Religious customs, the influence of newcomers and the ingredients that grow, explain how regional cuisines have evolved. And when you dine in India, one of the first questions asked is, “Veg or Non-Veg?”
Veg and Non-Veg
A third of people in India are vegetarian. This aligns with people’s adherence to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions and lifestyles.
The 84 percent who are Hindus do not eat beef but most do enjoy dairy products. Yogurt, ghee (clarified butter) and buttermilk are used extensively in cooking, especially in the North. Coconut milk predominates in the tropical south.
The 12 percent of India’s population who are Muslim do eat beef and other meats except pork. Syrian Christians of Kerala eat beef and pork, and the Goans, with their Portuguese Catholic history, are famous for their Pork Vindaloo (from the Portuguese carne de vinha d’alhos meaning meat in garlic).
People living in coastal regions enjoy fish. Mutton (usually goat, not lamb) and chicken are popular throughout the country. And, that brings us to other staples.
Many grains – millets, wheat, corn – grow in India. But, rice is the most beloved. Cultivated for over 5,000 years, rice originated here. At one point there were over 2,000 varieties and still a third of all arable land is devoted to it. Basmati – meaning Queen of Fragrance in Sanskrit – from the Dehra Dun, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is the most sought after.
In the backwaters of Kerala, a more affordable short grain red rice has three harvests per year because of the ample water there. While rice may be stored for long periods, cooks travel daily to local fresh air markets for vegetables and fruits.
Vegetables, fruits and pulses
A huge variety of eggplants are indigenous. Cauliflower is beloved. When onion prices soar, there are riots in the streets. The Portuguese brought potatoes, tomatoes and chilies. Squashes, pumpkins, gourds, and greens, are plentiful.
Kashmir grows apples and stone fruits. More tropical fruits like mangoes, papaya, pineapples, melons, and a great many varieties of bananas, are key fruits grown in the south. All savoury and sweet preparations of raw ingredients involve spices.
Perhaps the most common savoury preparation is simply referred to as dal. Dal can be made from any pulse (chickpeas, peas, beans or lentils) with regional variations in spicing.
Indian cooks are masters of the subtle art of spice blending. Spices are indigenous to the jungles in the south. They form the foundation for the cuisine throughout the country.
If black pepper from the Malabar Coast of Kerala is the King of Spices, cardamon is the Queen. South India is rich with true (Sri Lankan) cinnamon. Nutmeg (and mace that lies within the same fruit), allspice (it’s an actual spice not a mixture of all spices), and cloves grow as well. When cooks in South India want curry leaves, they literally find them growing in their backyard.
In the North, Kashmir grows high quality saffron. Kasur in Punjab is famous for its fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi) which are the signature taste of the great Butter Chicken. Turmeric grows throughout the country, as do cumin and coriander. Fennel is popular in South Indian dishes. Asafoetida, mango powder, and tamarind add sourness. Chai wallahs (tea stall workers) become famous for their ability to blend the signature spices they add to the chai (tea with milk) they peddle.
Tea and Coffee
Tea is the world’s most consumed beverage; India’s South Nilgiri hills and the Northeastern regions of Assam and Darjeeling produce vast quantities. Northern Kerala’s ever-twisting hill station roads are often dotted with the cherry berry bushes of coffee plantations. Locals enjoy an afternoon ritual of South Indian filtered coffee augmented with sweetened condensed milk. How do Indians pull this cornucopia of ingredients together on the plate?
Putting it all together
A typical Indian meal contains a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. These tastes mirror the five elements – water, earth, fire, air and space. It’s an Ayurvedic (5,000 year old Indian holistic health practice) principle that these tastes are taken in combinations to balance the elements within our own systems.
Combinations on the plate could include a meat curry or dry masala, dal, rice, a soup or salad, yogurt raita, chutneys, pickles, and/or bread. Truthfully, a bit of dal, a chapati and a green chilli are as elaborate a meal as most can hope for.
But almost everyone can afford chaat (street food snacks). And at festivals, sweet vendors sell every kind of burfi, pak and ladoo sweets.
Now how does one actually take the ingredients and cook them?
The Keys to Cooking Indian
The best Indian cooks know how to pace cooking to produce maximal flavour. And, the most important tool in their kitchen is a Masala Daba (spice box).
The spices in a Masala Daba vary depending on the region of India. A basic one for cooking North Indian food might contain black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, ground cumin, ground coriander, cloves, whole black pepper, cinnamon bark, Indian chilli powder, and turmeric. In the south, coriander might be replaced by fennel, and/or green cardamom pods, and star anise.
Fresh green chilli, garlic and ginger pastes are also used in most recipes. Tamarind, lemons and mango powder are used for adding a bit of sourness.
All cooks roast their own spices to pull the essential oils out. Cooking is then sequenced slowly for the tempering of spices and blooming of flavours. Still think Indian food is just curry?
By now, you can see there’s more to creating Indian dishes than adding a dash of that often stale yellow “curry powder” the Brits commercialized. Hopefully, you’re now curious to explore a wider range of foods here in Alberta.
Bringing it home
Because most of the early Indian immigrants to Canada were from Punjab, and that trend continued for the last 150 years, most of the food we see in Alberta is Northern Indian. The Moghuls brought Tandoor (cooking in a clay oven) to Punjab, and the Sikhs of Punjab spread this method to Pakistan and other parts of India. Clay Oven in Calgary is a great place to sample tandoor meats and breads.
Sohail Raja, of Mirchi Restaurant in Calgary’s Westwinds area, hails from Pakistan. He says he’d love for people to try more dishes on his menu and in particular, the Karahi (high sided cast iron cooking vessels) dishes his country is famous for. “Our people love their Chicken or Mutton Karahi, Sesame Seed Naan, Bhindi (okra) and dal.”
Across town, at Moti Mahal, Jesse Mann says, “The food at our restaurant is mostly North Indian but, we also wanted to showcase some of our favourite chaat from West India’s Mumbai and Goa, plus South India. So, we opened Saffron Street in First Street Market. Favourites include Chole Bhature (puffed bread with chickpeas), Vada Pav (sweet buns filled with vada donuts) and Puris (crispy filled shells).”
You can find Bengali Fish with its prominent yellow mustard flavour at Calcutta Cricket Club; the best of Tamil Nadu’s Chettinadu foods can be found at Raj Palace’s three locations. And, many of Calgary’s Indian restaurants feature delicous Indo-Chinese Hakka or East African Gujarat fusion dishes to delve into.
It’s definitely time to educate our palates beyond curry and butter chicken to the particularities of Indian cuisine. Eating India author, Chitrita Banerji, spent most of her life travelling India to try regional cuisines. She says, “I know that one lifetime, one memory, is not enough to eat, know and absorb India.”