- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

“Spices are the soul of Indian food,” says Nur, a proprietor of the Spice Corner, a stocked-to-the-brim grocery store on Lexington Avenue at 29th Street in New York City, where I live.

“Maybe that’s the reason you like it so much,” he added, obviously taking delight in walking me through this varied cuisine.

“You are used to eating spices, right?”

You bet. The spice rubs that the chefs in my family slathered on chicken, pork and beef during outings, guarding their secret recipes as if precious jewels, came to mind.

So did the fiery, spicy jerk chicken that often brings me close to rhapsodic tears during visits to Jamaica, where the dish reigns supreme, made with hot, hot chilies and a melange of spices. Rubs are a creative and inexpensive way of transforming ho-hum foods into wonderful. I knew something about Caribbean rubs, but Indian seasonings were new to me.

Although I enjoy mixing cuisines from around the world, I often entertain with a theme, delving deeper into the foods of a specific region, learning as I move around the globe. The delicious food of India is now on my mind, as a warming fall menu scented with a rainbow of new seasoning rubs.

Thanks to Nur and several other merchants along the Curry Hill Indian neighborhood in New York, I no longer buy the little boxes of curry powder sold in supermarkets. Instead, I am making simple rubs of yellow-hued turmeric, chili powder or dried chilies and other spices, mixed and ground into fine magical powders.

Heeding their advice, on a cool fall afternoon I marinated chicken pieces in yogurt and rubbed them with chili powder and a mixture known as “garam masala,” a blend of cardamom and cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon stick or bark, plus the cook’s imagination, which can soar to as many as 30 different seeds and spices.

In India, the chicken is cooked in a clay oven (or tandoor, hence the name tandoori chicken), but I have had fine results with both a kettle grill and the oven.

I’ve learned that the food of India is as diverse as the rubs and spices that scent it, varying from region to region. For example, the south is known for its dosai, or oversized, thin crepes made from fermented batter.

Bengal is hailed for its fine fish. Lamb vindaloo, which is made with a fiery vinegar-flavored sauce, is a specialty of Goa, a region on the western edge of the country that reflects its Portuguese heritage.

Fish curry made with fresh coconut is popular in Malabar, in south India. And in the north in the Punjab, where tandoori is popular, wheat is favored over rice, and ghee, or melted butter, flavors many dishes.

India is also home to many vegetarians, which reminds me of the fare cooked at Vatan, an inviting vegetarian restaurant on Third Avenue, a block over from Lexington Avenue in the Curry Hill community.

The menu features an array of small plates filled with chickpeas, okra, green beans, mushrooms, red and green peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, lentils, potatoes and aromatic chutneys.

Any of these would be perfect as accompaniments for a dinner party featuring rubbed chicken or fish. Like most Indian restaurants, Vatan also serves an array of flatbreads, such as roti, chapati or paratha, as well as a puffy and delicious fried poori bread. These can be purchased from Indian groceries or restaurants.

Indian breads make me think globally again. To me, the chapatis resemble Mexican tortillas, roti bread reminds me of the Southern flapjack, and the poori is not so different from an American Indian specialty known as fry bread.

Maybe the world is getting smaller after all. You can tell by the tables being set.

Kafir lime leaf rubbed shrimp

Fresh and frozen kafir lime leaves, which resemble large bay leaves, are available at Indian specialty stores. Or substitute about 1½ tablespoons of grated lime peel for the 6 to 8 leaves called for in this recipe.

2 pounds large or jumbo shrimp

6 to 8 kafir lime leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger root or 2 generous teaspoons ground ginger

2 chilies, such as jalapeno or serrano

2 cloves garlic, or more to taste

1½ teaspoons salt

4 tablespoons canola or other mildly flavored oil

Lime or lemon wedges

Peel and devein shrimp. Rinse and pat dry with paper towel. Set aside.

To make the rub use a large knife to coarsely chop kafir lime leaves. Place leaves and peppercorns in a spice or coffee grinder and whirl until pulverized. Set aside.

Peel and chop ginger root. Core chilies and discard seeds to reduce the heat, if desired. Mince chilies. Crush garlic.

In a small bowl, combine kafir lime leaves and pepper, ginger root or ground ginger, chilies, garlic and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil and mix well, making a paste. If desired, you can whirl the mixture in a food processor for a smoother texture. Rub mixture all over shrimp. Lightly oil a shallow broiler pan, griddle or large cast iron skillet. Place shrimp in pan and marinate in refrigerator for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat broiler. Remove pan of shrimp from fridge and drizzle remaining oil over.

Place pan under the broiler, about 4 inches from heat. Broil 4 to 6 minutes or until pink and tender, depending on size, turning over with a metal spatula at least twice. Serve hot or at room temperature with lime or lemon wedges. Makes 6 servings.

Tandoori chicken

Chili powder imparts a reddish hue to the chicken. If you like a lot of heat, use half hot chili powder and half mild, or mix to your taste. Garam masala is sold in Indian specialty shops, or you can make your own using the recipe that follows.

3½ to 4 pounds chicken pieces with skin, include thighs, legs, wings

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chili powder or paprika

2 tablespoons coriander seeds, crushed

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons

Garam masala (recipe follows, or use commercially made blend)

11/4 cups plain low-fat yogurt or buttermilk

3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Lemon halves

Chopped coriander or parsley for garnish, optional

Rinse and dry chicken. Trim away all visible fat and excess skin and discard. Prick chicken pieces all over with a fork and rub all over with lemon juice. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper or less to taste, chili powder or paprika, crushed coriander seed, ginger, garlic and garam masala. Mix well. Sprinkle mixture all over chicken and rub into pieces, including under skin of chicken.

Place chicken in a large shallow glass bowl or casserole dish. Pour yogurt or buttermilk over. Cover bowl, refrigerate and marinate chicken 4 to 6 hours, or overnight if possible, turning over in the yogurt or buttermilk a couple of times.

When ready to bake, let chicken sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Lightly oil a large, shallow roasting or broiling pan or cast iron skillet. Using tongs, place chicken in pan or skillet, not touching. (Use 2 pans or skillets, if necessary.)

Drizzle enough oil over chicken to moisten. Place pan(s) of chicken on the lower oven rack and bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 20 minutes, turning pieces over at least once. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.

Bake chicken, turning over several times to cook evenly, 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until chicken is tender and juices run clear when skin is cut near the bone. Transfer chicken to a serving dish and serve with lemon halves and a sprinkling of coriander or parsley, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

GARAM MASALA:

Some Indian chefs use 30 different spices and seeds to make garam masala. Like jerk or barbecue sauce, the concoctions reflect the cook’s whims.

2 tablespoons dark cardamom seeds

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

1½ teaspoons whole cloves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 4-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

2 bay leaves, crumbled

Combine cardamom and cumin seed in a small skillet. Set pan on medium low heat and toast seeds, stirring, for 5 to 8 minutes, or until they are fragrant and a shade or two darker. Watch carefully and don’t burn. Cool seeds and combine in a spice or coffee bean grinder or mortar and pestle, with cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Whirl or mash until finely pulverized. Makes about 1/3 cup. Leftover spice mixture can be stored in a small jar.

Chopped vegetable salad with mint

3 large tomatoes

1 large cucumber

1 small red onion

½ cup mint leaves

1 clove garlic

4 tablespoons corn or olive oil

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice or cider vinegar

Dice tomatoes, peel and dice cucumber, and chop onion. Finely chop mint leaves, and crush or mince garlic. Combine vegetables in a glass or porcelain bowl.

Add oil, salt and pepper to taste, and lemon juice or vinegar. Cover bowl and marinate vegetables at least 30 minutes to allow flavor to meld, or up to several hours.

Add more salt, if needed. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Coconut ice cream

1 cup, or more, freshly shredded or sweetened flaked coconut

Sugar, optional

1 quart or more good-quality vanilla ice cream

Toasted pine nuts or coconut, for garnish

Scatter coconut on an ungreased baking sheet. If using fresh coconut, sprinkle with a generous tablespoon of sugar, mixing well.

Set pan on middle shelf of preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, stirring a couple times.

Watch carefully so that coconut does not burn. Remove from oven and cool.

Allow ice cream to thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes, or just long enough so that it is soft enough to stir. Add coconut to taste, mix to blend and return ice cream to freezer until hardened.

To serve, scoop ice cream into serving bowls and top each serving with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts or coconut.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Joyce White is the author of two cookbooks, “Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections From African-American Churches,” and “Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts From Family and Friends” (HarperCollins).

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