My pantry boasts new subcontinent, a shelf groaning under the weight of the spices necessary for authentic Indian cooking. Some are familiar: coriander, cumin, cayenne, mustard seeds, sticks of cinnamon, and whole cloves. Some, more mysterious: asafetida, black cardamom, fenugreek, mango powder, tamarind, turmeric. The names alone are poetry, but their scent and taste—after they're toasted and ground and fried in hot oil—are the stuff of purest magic, conjuring up a version of India in my kitchen more evocative than a Bollywood movie binge.
I am a fan of spicy foods and ancient civilizations. No one who knows me well was surprised when I declared, early on the first day of 2011, that my New Year's resolution was to learn how to cook Indian food. A longtime student of Chinese history and Mandarin, I had already devoted more than a decade to mastering Sichuan food. I was ready for another project, and not just for my culinary edification. A cook in the San Francisco Bay Area learns quickly that meat-heavy Sichuanese cuisine doesn't always mesh well with the dining needs of the yoga-loving, vegetarian-leaning Northern California masses. Twice-cooked pork belly, to be blunt, often fails as date-night fare.
But Indian food abounds with fabulous meat-free options. The Hindus don't eat beef, and the Muslims don't eat pork, and the Jains eschew meat altogether. In India, necessity has been the mother of vegetarian invention. The Himalayan Mountains might separate China and India, but it didn't seem like such a big jump, conceptually, to imagine I could soon become as adept at concocting curries and pilafs as I was at producing kung pao chicken and scallion pancakes. And what could be better than learning a bunch of new recipes that simultaneously satisfied my yen for stimulating exotica and improved my dating life?
Except—India's dazzling vegetarian accomplishments are embedded in thousands of years of deeply meaningful religious and spiritual thinking. The sacred cow is not a flirtation device. Buddhist and Jain vegetarianism is motivated by the goal of reducing the suffering of all living things. Embracing a spiritually inflected cuisine just to improve my seduction odds seemed crass and manipulative. I imagined Buddha frowning. For my sins, I would be reincarnated as a cauliflower.
This internal contradiction stymied me until I came across this couplet in the second-century BCE Taoist classic The Way and Its Power: Therefore the Sage considers the belly not the eye.
My stomach growled when I read this passage. The enlightened person, Lao Tzu is suggesting, chooses a course of action based on what is within him rather than what is external. I love to eat Indian food, and I also thrill to discovery, exploration, and the challenge of negotiating alien complexity. I should learn to cook Indian food, I realized, not because of what might happen to me as the result of a successful quest, but because the journey would be pleasing.
A few minutes of Googling led me to an out-of-print used copy of Madhur Jaffrey's gorgeously illustrated A Taste of India and Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking. A quick trip to the nearest specialty Indian market, and I had everything I could possibly need, hence my pantry rearranging. Soon, I was roasting black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, cumin, and coriander and grinding them into my own garam masala, contemplating how many ways I could be amazed by potatoes and spending a surprising amount of time frying onions.
I experimented with the technical challenges of layered pilafs—rice dishes infused with spices and onions and lentils. I discovered a love of Bengali mustard sauce—a ravishingly stimulative mixture of freshly ground black and yellow mustard seeds, cayenne, turmeric, and salt that goes equally well with foods as different as okra and shrimp. I fried paper-thin papadums in hot oil, grated the meat of fresh coconut, and painstakingly pushed sour, sticky tamarind pulp through a sieve to make my own paste.
If I learned one thing, it's that Indian food is slow food. The alchemical wonder of all those spice combinations isn't instantaneous; it is not uncommon for Indian dishes to taste better after a day or two in the refrigerator than they did when first prepared. Cooking Indian means patiently marinating, stewing, and simmering. Among the steps necessary for one of the first dishes I attempted: frying six cups of thinly sliced onions until they turned light brown, a process that takes around 30 minutes.
Sahni's instruction to stir "constantly to prevent burning," I discovered, was not to be taken lightly. Even at medium heat, thinly slivered onions will burn if you turn your back on them. I have cooked entire Sichuan meals from start to finish in the amount of time it took me to fry some onions as a preliminary step in an Indian dish—stirring patiently, waiting for that perfect red-brown color, my mind ranging far and wide.
Layers of Flavor
After a few months of perfecting my onion technique, I was ready for a dinner party. I invited half a dozen guests for Punjabi pilaf, Bengali okra, and gobhi matar rasedar—a cauliflower dish that Sahni describes as a specialty of the Brahmins in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Conversation slowed as my guests savored each bite: the pilaf, with scents of cardamom, cinnamon, whole cloves, and bay leaves; the okra, succulent but not oily, exploding with mustard power. I had made those dishes previously and knew what to expect. But the cauliflower was a revelation. From simple, unassuming ingredients evolved a delicious and sensuous complexity.
One begins, as one so often does, by frying the spices: first, cumin seeds, then, cumin power, coriander, turmeric, and hot red pepper flakes. Next, the cauliflower, potatoes, and peas. Add some mashed tomatoes and a few cups of boiling water. Simmer. The result, a mixture of textures and colors evoking the intricacy of a painstakingly assembled sand mandala. And like a sand mandala, it disappeared soon after its completion, devoured by my appreciative guests.
In the past, I had regaled my friends and potential love interests with showy stir-fries, fiery dishes that jumped up and cried out for attention like two-year-olds on the edge of a tantrum. This meal, however, beckoned with a slower, more sensual, less impatient enticement. Guaranteed date-night fare? Only time will tell—though there have got to be easier ways to impress a date. But the real seduction that happened in my kitchen, as I studied and stirred and toasted and tasted, was my own.
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Andrew Leonard is a staff writer for Salon.com. In addition to his exotic-spice shelf, he has three woks hanging in his kitchen.