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© 2018 by Kristin Teig

Some staples of the dosa kitchen: fenugreek seeds, dried red chiles, urad dal (a small, cream-colored lentil), curry leaves, short-grain rice, asafetida.

Food and Drink

The flavors of India

Several core spices contribute to Indian food’s characteristic complex flavor profile

Nash Patel and Leda Scheintaub operate their food truck, Dosa Kitchen, from the grounds of the Retreat Farm at 400 Linden St. (Route 30), Brattleboro. (Look for Grafton Village Cheese Company’s Specialty Cheese & Wine Shop.) This piece is excerpted from their new book, Dosa Kitchen: Recipes for India’s Favorite Street Food. A launch party for the book takes place on Saturday, June 9 (rain date June 16) from 3 to 5 p.m. at the food truck. Other events are scheduled for Manchester, Rutland, and Burlington. For more information about both book and business, visit Reprinted from Dosa Kitchen. Copyright 2018 by Nash Patel and Leda Scheintaub. Photographs copyright 2018 by Kristin Teig. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

BRATTLEBORO—India is a diverse, expansive country, broadly divided into north and south. But as there are many states, each with regional specialties and endless micro-specialties, making generalizations about the food is next to impossible. As Indian food authority Madhur Jaffrey put it, “Every time you go into a little crevice of India, you find a new cuisine.”

That said, there are a few key differences between North Indian and South Indian cooking. Many Americans consider Indian food North Indian food simply because that’s what most U.S. restaurants serve.

The climate in North India is cooler, and dairy is an important part of the region’s cuisine. Curries from the region are often cream-based and mild (think saag paneer and chicken tikka masala) and are served with naan, roti, and other wheat-based breads and sweet chutneys. Tandoori is another iconic North Indian dish.

Conversely, tropical South Indian food is known for its bold, fresh, spicy flavors and light, thinner sauces. South Indian chutneys skew savory. South Indians use tempering, or tadka: the technique of cooking spices — including mustard seeds, cumin seeds, red chiles, and curry leaves — quickly in hot oil. North Indians typically cook spices directly into their dishes.

Those tropical South Indian sauces are sopped up with rice, the staple starch, or dosas, South India’s iconic street food, whose popularity stretches to all parts of the country and beyond the border.

In fact, dosas are the soul of our food truck, which we launched in 2014 in Brattleboro. Dosa Kitchen is a marriage of passion and flavors, reflecting the recipes Nash grew up with in South India and Leda’s mission to eat both globally and close to her American home.

* * *

Several core spices contribute to Indian food’s characteristic complex flavor profile. Keeping these spices on hand and knowing when to add them is an essential part of Indian cooking.

You can find these ingredients in Indian grocery stores, some supermarkets, and online. Note that a spice mix is referred to as a masala.

ASAFETIDA. Also known as hing or devil’s dung (one whiff and you’ll understand), asafetida (or asafoetida) is a resin with an acrid, sulfury smell that mellows with cooking and imparts an onion-garlic flavor. It should be used sparingly, and if it’s unavailable, simply omit it and proceed with the recipe.

Be aware that powdered asafetida is typically blended with another ingredient, most often wheat flour, so read the ingredients carefully if you’re following a gluten-free diet.

BAY LEAVES. The camphor-like aroma and flavor of bay leaves break down during simmering to provide an herbal background and balance to the overall flavors of a dish. The bay leaves you’ll find in Indian grocery stores tend to be longer and wider than those in American supermarkets.

BLACK PEPPER rarely flies solo in Indian cuisine; rather, it is used in conjunction with other warming and hot spices, in particular red and green chiles, and both ground and whole peppercorns.

BLACK SALT. Also known as kala namak, this salt is unique in its distinct salty-sour, sulfury flavor. It’s a key component of chaat masala.

CARDAMOM is among the costliest spices around (after saffron and vanilla), but it is well worth the price for its assertive, intensely aromatic qualities. This spice enhances both savory and sweet dishes, from chicken curry to mango lassi to chai. And a little goes a long way. Grind whole pods to a powder, or buy preground powder from a store that has a high turnover.

Cardamom is found in green and black varieties; our recipes call exclusively for green cardamom. (Black cardamom cannot be substituted.) Look for bright dark green pods and pass on ones that are shriveled.

CHAAT MASALA. This spice blend is based on kala namak, or black salt, and is typically sprinkled over street food snacks known as chaat and on vegetable dishes to add a pop of flavor. For some, it’s an acquired taste, but for others, it’s quite addictive, making any food simply a vehicle to devour it. Try sprinkling chaat masala over sliced cucumbers or tomatoes for a twist of taste.

CHILES AND CHILE POWDER. Fresh green chiles — Indian green chiles are slender, about 1{1/2} inches long, and fairly hot — a little spicier than a typical serrano chile but milder than a Thai green chile. Either can be substituted if Indian green chiles are unavailable. You may remove the seeds to tone down the heat.

Whole dried red chiles — Whole dried Indian red chiles are added to sizzling oil for flavor. They can be broken in half or into pieces to give off more heat, or some or all of the seeds can be removed to reduce the heat.Try Kashmiri chiles, which are shorter, wider, and significantly milder, for warmth rather than heat, without sacrificing flavor or color. Instruct diners to eat around the chiles or remove them before serving. Mexican chiles de árbol can be substituted.

Red chile powder — Red chile powder is made from ground dried Indian red chiles. Cayenne, a type of red chile powder readily available in supermarkets, can be substituted. Some recipes specifically call for Kashmiri chile powder, which gives the dish a deep red color without overwhelming spice. Kashmiri chile powder can be swapped in for regular red chile powder in any recipe.

CINNAMON is the dried inner bark of a type of evergreen tree. Its sweet, earthy aroma and flavor make it welcome in both sweet and savory recipes. It is a common ingredient in curry dishes, either used whole or ground into spice blends. Crush whole cinnamon sticks with the bottom of a heavy skillet or a rolling pin.

CLOVES are the dried open flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree; they have a slightly medicinal, assertive, warming flavor. They are either added to dishes whole (and removed before eating) or ground into a spice blend. Buy them from the bulk section in small quantities, if possible, as they are used sparingly.

CORIANDER. In India, the word coriander is used for both the fresh herb that Americans call cilantro and the seed from which it grows. Both coriander and cilantro are used in Indian cooking. The flavor of the seeds is grassy, earthy, and slightly lemony. The seeds are typically toasted and ground before using. (Whole seeds are rarely called for.) For the freshest-tasting coriander, buy the seeds and grind them as needed.

CUMIN. Cumin seeds, resembling caraway, are a base spice for tempering, while ground cumin is typically added to curries at the start of cooking. The spice adds earthiness and warmth. We recommend buying whole seeds and grinding as needed.

CURRY, CURRY POWDER, AND CURRY LEAVES. When we use the word curry, we’re talking about a dish with a flavorful sauce or gravy. The word itself comes from the Tamil word kari, meaning “sauce, relish for rice.” Curry can also refer to the sauce remaining at the bottom of the curry dish, as in, “Would you spoon a little more curry onto my rice, sweetheart?”

A third use of the word refers to a food flavored with curry powder, a golden yellow spice blend of turmeric, coriander, cumin, and other ingredients.

Curry powder’s roots are actually more Western than Indian. South Indian food uses various spice blends, but for the most part does not use curry powder, despite the many Indian-style recipes you’ll find online that suggest otherwise.

Curry leaves come from the curry tree and bear no relation to curry powder. In the Tamil language, their name, kari ilia, translates to “leaf that is used to make curry,” because in a curry is where you will most likely find them. Their flavor is slightly bitter, pungent, and citrus-like. Look for them fresh in the produce section or in the frozen-food aisle of Indian grocery stores.

We don’t use dried curry leaves, as they retain little flavor — instead, we stock up on fresh curry leaves and freeze them when we get home. There’s no substitute for curry leaves, so if you can’t find them, omit them. A curry without curry leaves will still be tasty.

FENNEL SEEDS. Licorice-like in taste and green in color, fennel seeds are a digestive aid and breath freshener, which is why you’ll find them on your way out of Indian restaurants, often in candied form. Although fennel seeds look and taste a bit like anise seeds, anise seeds should not be used as a substitute.

FENUGREEK SEEDS. These small, hard, rectangular seeds are amber in color and bitter in flavor, which means they are used sparingly — we’ll put as few as three seeds into an entire dish!

When used in tempering, fenugreek seeds are typically the first spice added to the pan. We also add fenugreek seeds to our dosa batter to help with fermentation.

GARAM MASALA. This blend of sweet and warming spices varies from region to region and family to family but typically includes cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, star anise, bay leaves, and black pepper. A little garam masala goes a long way; too heavy a hand can overpower your dish. It is best added toward the end of cooking as a finishing spice, to heighten the flavors of the dish.

Our recipe follows, but feel free to use a store-bought blend for convenience.

Dosa Kitchen garam masala

¶1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick, crushed

¶12 whole cloves

¶1 (1-inch) piece of mace

¶1 tablespoon black peppercorns

¶1 star anise

¶1 bay leaf

¶1 teaspoon green cardamom pods

¶{1/2} teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

In a small skillet (preferably cast iron), toast the cinnamon, cloves, mace, peppercorns, star anise, bay leaf, and cardamom over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until aromatic. Transfer the spices to a spice grinder, let cool, then add the nutmeg and grind to a fine powder. Store in a spice jar in the pantry for up to 6 months. Makes {1/4} cup.

GINGER-GARLIC PASTE. Ginger-garlic paste is a staple ingredient in Indian cooking. It is readily available in jars at Indian grocery stores, but making your own is fresher and easy to do.

Combine equal amounts by weight or volume of roughly chopped ginger and whole peeled garlic cloves. (You can use a kitchen scale if you have one, or eyeball it — the amount doesn’t have to be exact.)

Process into a paste in a food processor or mini food processor, adding just a little water as needed to get things moving. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Or spoon tablespoons of the paste onto a baking sheet lined with wax paper or a silicone mat, freeze until solid, then pop into a freezer bag and store in the freezer. Remove from the freezer as needed; it defrosts very quickly.

MACE is the lacy outer covering of the nutmeg kernel; it’s similar in flavor to nutmeg but lighter, with slightly floral notes. It is often used in conjunction with cinnamon and cloves, and may be used in meat dishes.

MUSTARD SEEDS. Indian recipes call for black mustard seeds — more accurately, a dark reddish-brown color bordering on black — rather than yellow. Yellow mustard seeds should not be substituted. Mustard seeds are an indispensable spice in tempering and are typically among the first added to the pot, where they will sputter and pop as they release their nutty flavored oils.

ONIONS. Although certain groups in India avoid all onions for health or religious reasons, much of the country uses them daily. Most of our recipes call for pungent red onions. Cooking onions well — finding that sweet spot between really browned and burnt — is an important step in building the flavor of Indian recipes.

SAFFRON, the dried stamens of a crocus flower, is the costliest of spices. A little goes a long way toward imparting its golden color and bitter, sweet, uplifting flavor. To get the most out of saffron, bloom it in a little warm liquid before adding it and the liquid to your food.

SALT. We use unrefined sea salt in all of our recipes and avoid table salt in our dosa making and diet in general. Always taste your dish for salt before you declare it done.

STAR ANISE. This eight-point star-shaped spice is akin to licorice in flavor but with a warmth that pairs well with cinnamon and cloves. It is included in the spice blend garam masala.

TAMARIND is a pod-like tree fruit used in cuisines from India to Africa to Mexico. It is typically packaged in one of three ways: (1) as a firm, dried block of seeds and pulp that can be reconstituted, (2) processed into a concentrate (such as the Tamicon brand), or (3) boiled and strained to make a puree.

TURMERIC. You’ll find this golden-hued spice in most savory Indian recipes and even in some sweet ones. Its slightly earthy flavor becomes bitter when overdone, so use it in moderation.

As turmeric’s flavor is relatively mild, a pinch or two here and there will hardly be noticed — though a little transforms the color of a dosa to that of the sun — while your body reaps its potent anti-inflammatory benefits. India has among the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease, and there’s evidence that curry — or, more specifically, turmeric — plays a significant role.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #462 (Wednesday, June 6, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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