04 January 2008

Faking it

There are times when I'm stuck in less than ideal situations. There are times when I don't have the time to fully get into the from-scratch methods that I'd often prefer to. There are other times when a friend of mine is asking me for "Something Indian," and hasn't bought the book, but would like to know how to guesstimate the flavours. I'm going to hear Indians the world over groan loudly, because this isn't how one is supposed to do it. But, there are times when you just want the experience of something, and frankly don't care about authentic. This, my friends, is when you fake it.

With Indian food in general, you're talking two major regions. The North, where there tends to be a lot of emphasis on dairy, and fairly heavy, fried dishes, and the South, where the emphasis is on steamed legumes and rice (in all its different forms). I'm going to briefly get into how to fake both. If you're from India, this could get ugly, so put on a rain coat or something.

For South Indian food, you're looking to strike a balance between salty, hot and sour, with a hint of creamy. Your essential spices are mustard seed, turmeric, and red chilies. If you have asafetida and curry leaves, so much the better. If you can find fresh grated (not sweetened!) cocoanut, even better still. If you can't find all that fancy stuff, remember: you're faking it. Now, how you attack this will depend on what you have. Say you have a big, heavy vegetable, like a potato, squash, or wintermelon or something. Say you want the taste of the South, but can't be bothered to spend hours prepping.

In one pot, boil your whole vegetables. Just lob 'em in whole (carrots, potatoes, yams, wintermelon, and other long cooking veggies first, and squash, peppers, onions [if you're using onions, peel them first] and others at the end). You're shooting for a total of about 2 - 5 lbs of vegetables, including everything. If you have dark green leafies lying around, this is the time to use them! Throw on a pot of rice. When it's done boiling (about an hour or so total), drain off the liquid, and save it. This is your stock. Peel the vegetables if you feel like. If you don't chop them roughly. We're not looking for fancy, persnickety cuts here. Just get them loosely cut up so that they'll fit on a spoon somewhat. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter, because they're going to be soft anyway.

In a large stock pot, heat about a scant teaspoon or so of oil. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon mustard seeds. Cover the lid, and remove the pot from the heat as soon as you hear the first burst of explosion. They'll continue to pop and explode for a bit longer. Leave the lid on. Why make a mess? If you have asafetida, sneak in about 1/8 of a teaspoon while the mustard seeds still pop. When the popping subsides, add back in the cooking stock you made. If you threw it out, just use water. We all make mistakes. Add back in the veggies.

Sprinkle in just enough turmeric (about a scant 1/2 teaspoon to 3/4 of a teaspoon; wait for it to boil in before adding more; if you want more, add more, but remember that this is about light). If you have them, tear in some curry leaves. If not, it's OK. Add chopped red chilies. Remove the stems, of course. Yes, you can use chili flakes. If you want less heat, use cracked black pepper instead. It's still an Indian spice! Wait for everything to come into a full, rolling boil. If you're able to find freshly grated (not sweet!) cocoanut, add it in now. If you can't find it, throw in a tin of cocoanut milk (about 400 mL or 13.5 oz). Let it boil for about five minutes or so. Finish with a squeeze of lemon to taste, and salt to taste.

Serve it over your piping hot rice. In about an hour of cooking (and like 10 minutes of work!) you've got a very hearty, filling South Indian tasting meal. Do the same exact thing for split yellow peas. If you have green beans, skip the boiling step, and jump straight to the spices. The point is, that you're looking to go for very little fat, and fairly gentle flavour.

For North Indian food, you want a blend of salty, sour, sweet, and hot. I personally don't care for the sweet part of it, because that's how I was raised, but others may enjoy it. This one's going to be a bit easier, because we're seriously cheating for this one. At any major supermarket you go to, pita bread is cheap, and easy to find. Buy a pack. Don't even bother with rice.

In a large stock pot, heat just enough oil to completely cover the bottom of your pot and then some. Start with some cumin seeds. The seeds are absolutely imperative, and everything else is more or less negotiable. I'll let you know where you have wiggle room. Have some onions cut up finely. Have some garlic, sliced thin. Grate up some fresh (not sweetened; it's not the same) ginger. This is the North Indian holy trinity of flavour for aromatics. When the oil gets hot enough to get your cumin seeds to pop (they don't pop as high as mustard, but do make a mess, so please put the lid on), add your onions, and stir around until they brown. If you notice them drying out a bit, add a little bit of extra oil. When they get brown, add in your garlic and fresh grated ginger. Stir for a few seconds, and add your vegetables.

Dark leafy greens are fine. Spinach is even better. Cauliflower, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, or what have you, just get the vegetables in. Just make sure everything is chopped in roughly the same size before you add it. After combining the spices with the vegetables, drop down the heat to as low as it'll go, and sprinkle in some cinnamon and clove. If you don't have it (and I have yet to find a kitchen without them), go with allspice. If you don't have that, go with a TINY sprinkle of nutmeg and your favourite bottled chili powder (the kind with lots of other spices in it, not the ground chilies). Toss the spices and vegetables around to combine thoroughly. Leave the heat on low, and cover the lid. Let it sit that way for about ten minutes or so. If it's spinach, it'll be completely cooked in around five minutes.

Otherwise, come back in ten minutes, and give everything a stir. If you notice things getting dry, tip in a bit of water, and stir everything around to combine. Let it sit another 20 minutes or so (the Indians in general like their vegetables cooked through), and give it a final stir. Complete with a squeeze or three of lime, a healthy dose of salt and pepper, and serve. If you want something sweet, get one of those jarred mango chutney things, and go wild! Serve it stuffed into, or as an accompaniment to the pita. Have some hot pickles on the side to enhance the heat.

Of course, these recipes aren't exact. They're not supposed to be. You're not looking to capture an exact flavour, you're looking to approximate a taste experience. Let me know if it works, and I'll post the results.

OH RIGHT! If either of these turns out a bit bland to your liking (and I sincerely hope it does), feel free to add some extra ground, toasted spices of your choice (to either one, either cumin or coriander will work in copious doses), as well as to peak up the amount of sour with some more lemon, and amp up the salt and chilies. Both will also do well with lots of fresh grated garlic added at the end to give it a taste that punches back. And if you're like me, you'll also like to add in a bit of grated ginger, and let it cook for a few more minutes, so that the ginger gets infused. Stir through, and you're good.